Let us pray: Prayer in a pandemic
Questionnaires from both Australia and the US seem to indicate that people are praying more than they were before COVID-19. With some additional time around the house, anxieties about what looks to be a long-term situation outside most people’s control, and access to online church resources, prayer is something more people are taking up, whether they classify themselves as people of faith or not.
With this in mind, it’s perhaps worth exploring: what is prayer? With more people apparently expressing their thoughts and trying to communicate with God, what changes, if any, will we see in people’s lives? And what do people’s prayer lives look like, exactly?
To explore some of the questions surrounding the theology and practice of prayer, Insights spoke to a number of ministry agents and theologians, asking them for their views on what prayer is, and how they go about it.
Rev. Jon Humphries is the chaplain at Ravenswood School for Girls and, in what he calls a tongue in cheek way, a self-titled “prayerwright”, a term he coined to mean someone who writes lots of prayers. Rev. Humphries told Insights that the concept of prayer is one that “Needs to be challenged a litte.”
“We are so familiar with it, but we have domesticated something that should be more raw,” Rev. Humphries said.
“I was once asked to do a seminar on prayer and I went back to the prayers of Jesus, particularly in Gesthemane, and the Psalms, and found something about prayer in the honest expression of thought and feelings which challenged me to rethink how I prayed.”
“The heart of any relationship is communication, and if faith is founded on our relationship with God, then prayer is the communication pathway which deepens that relationship. However, this means that we might need to approach prayer differently at times to what we have inherited from our religious traditions, as valuable as what they might be. Prayer, needs to be organic, and is as much, if not more about tuning into God, than speaking to God. The other important aspect of prayer, which we learn from the Psalms, is its power to allow us to be real with God, to vent our feelings, be they joyous or otherwise, and be led into transformation. Transformation is the key aspect of prayer. Our prayers should tune us into God, and if we become tuned to God and God’s will, especially God whom we know as Christ and the Spirit, then our prayer should have an edge which convicts us of our flaws and failings, but holds us in God’s grace and then calls us into love and the ministry of service of others. So, even praying for others should be important, not only for them, but for us being moved to get up off our knees at least in some way, to join God in the work of change in the world.”
Rev. Liam Miller is the Sydney Central Coast Presbytery’s New Growth Minister. He said prayer is important because, while “an activity we undertake, it is as much, if not more so, something God does in us.”
“When teaching the disciples to pray, Jesus invites them to pray to “our Father”- our meaning his and our; so we are invited to pray within the relationship of the Son and the Father, within the life of the Triune God,” Rev. Miller said.
“Elsewhere, Paul reminds the church in Rome that when we do not know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes with sighs to deep for words – God speaks to God (or deep calls to deep – to use Sarah Coakley’s expression) within us – once again we find that our prayer occurs within the relationship of the Triune God. Prayer then, is important in that it draws us into an increasing awareness that our lives are lived within the life of the Triune God.”
Rev. Karen Mitchell Lambert is the Pulse Leader for NSW and ACT Synod. She told Insights that she thought prayer could be defined as, “Our connection and conversation with God.”
“It is about me sharing my life with God but is also about me allowing myself to be shaped and moulded by God as well,” she said.
“Prayer is not about moving God, or changing things but being open to God moving us. We can ask God anything, be honest and real in any situation, God is gracious and loving in this. It is like having an amazing friend who accepts me exactly as I am whether it is a good day or a bad day offers guidance wisdom and deep calm that I cannot find any other way.”
Rev. Dr Christine Gapes is the Uniting Church Chaplain at Western Sydney University.
“Prayer is not about demanding that God changes situations but that we might learn to change ourselves so we might act with more justice and compassion,” Rev. Dr Gapes said.
“God is always wanting the best for us.”
“Alan Walker, the creator of Lifeline, once spoke of flash or three second prayers. When he was in a difficult situation or was listening to someone who was struggling with life, Alan would send a quick prayer to God for strength. I try to remember that prayer is about reconnecting with God, to remember you are not alone and all the world’s problems don’t have to be solved by you.”
Seeking communion with God
Each of the ministers Insights spoke to had a different approach to their own prayer lives.
Rev. Dr Gapes told Insights that prayer is something that has taken a long time to learn, having never been taught. Instead, she recalls learning from observing how others prayed.
“As a teenager I never thought I could pray “properly” because I couldn’t use the language I heard in church with “thees” and “thous,” and long winded sentences addressing God,” she said.
“John Mallison teaching conversational prayer helped me see there were many different ways of praying.”
Rev. Humphries has developed an online Facebook ministry that has included sharing his prayers.
“So, I do have a pattern of prayer, which is that I pray usually once a day, but that is rarely at the same time, nor is it often in the same way. My prayer life also evolves from my role as school chaplain, where I am often asked to write prayer, or need to write prayer for services.”
“This has shaped the way I that pray. So, rather than the traditional notion of quiet time or a time which is dedicated to devotional prayer and intercession for myself and others, I try to allow God as Spirit, or situations of life, to lead me into prayer. Thus I try to be prayerfully engaged in life each day and try to take the prayerful moments which I feel inspired to. It might be some lyrics from a song which I am listening to, or a situation that confronts me on the news, or someone or something in my ministry, but these I then try to pray about. I also often wake up with the bones of a prayer calling to me in my thoughts, and then I sit down and try to pray it into something that makes sense. When I listen to sermons, I try to pray them, just as I often try to turn what I read in Scripture into prayer. So, whilst my pattern of prayer can seem random, there tends to be a rhythm of discipline and inspiration, which results in me being engaged in prayer each day.”
“Whilst I am more organic and creative in the way I approach prayer, for others a more ritualised or structured habit can work well. The key thing is that we learn more about the types of prayer, the different forms of prayer, the different ways of praying, and then build into our spiritual prayer life patterns and habits which lead us into prayer, as well as ways of stretching us beyond our comfort zones and which help us grow because of the challenge. Prayer also needs to be theological.”
“If theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’ (St Anselm) or words and thinking about God, then our prayer which is words to God, needs to be an expression of our theology, informed by our doctrine, but also something that opens us to the revelation of God. Prayer not only changes us and changes the world, but it should also change our understanding of God over time, maybe not is radical ways, but in the sense that we grow in knowledge, understanding and faith.”
Rev. Karen Mitchell Lambert said that she had a structured and repeated pattern of prayer.
“Every morning when I wake up I open the blind and take time to give thanks to God, I be really intentional about trying to be grateful for all parts of life and my life. I have found it has helped start my day in a really good way. I still have bad days but this helps my vision tune in to what is good.”
“I see prayer a bit like Paul, without ceasing, so will pray, in and around meetings, travelling in the car, while cooking, while having coffee with a friend.. It is a constant conversation between God and I.
“Finally I pray for other people when I make things for them.. I think the prayer of making is rarely recognised. When I am making something for someone it is usually for a reason, during that time I will be thinking of them and their situation and praying for them.. Every stitch is made in prayer with love.”
A busy father of two, Rev. Miller said that he is “terrible when it comes to a pattern of prayer.”
“I’ve tried and failed many a time,” Rev. Miller admitted.
“It’s particularly tough with a three-year-old and three-month-old in the house, so I tend to just shoot up quick prayers when something comes across my mind, line of vision, or Twitter timeline.”
Despite this, he said it was important to not feel guilty about prayer.
“There’s nothing to be gained in guilting yourself over your prayer life (or lack thereof),” Rev. Miller added.
“God loves you and loves you and loves you – let that me the motivator to seek communion with God.”
Effects of prayer
So, with more people apparently praying than before, will this change anything? Each minister suggested to Insights that more people praying could potentially have profound implications, as people re-oriented themselves.
“Prayer has an effect,” Rev. Humphries said.
“The primary effect, as I have suggested is transformation of us. Whether it is like in the lamenting Psalms, our venting of our pain or frustration or doubt, leads us into faith or reminds us of the need for faith, that is important. Praying for miracles has some power, but they are, in my experience, few and far between. However, prayer not only establishes a connection with God, but connects us with those whom we pray for. More connectedness is a good thing and can lead to a change in the better, especially if more people become tuned into the will of God and the way of Christ.
“I have also read some research which suggest that people who are in hospital who are prayed for have better outcomes, and this is regardless of whether or not they know that they are being prayed for. This takes the effect of prayer beyond a placebo effect. I am not big on the approach to prayer which seems to imply that if we pray enough then we change God’s mind and then God changes the world, but I am open enough in faith to acknowledge that prayer has a power which goes beyond our understanding because it rests in God.”
Rev. Mitchell Lambert said that she could see more people praying having an effect on the way that people perceive themselves and their world.
“I was having a really bad mad day the other day,” she recalled.
“I was so frustrated and angry and I was ranting at God and in a moment it was like God said, “OK that is the reality so what are you going to do about it now?” In that moment the steam was taken out of it and I was flipped in my thinking.”
“As a culture we have become so individualised and self-centred. We think we can control it all and make everything go our way. That is not our reality.”
“I hope and I think it has flipped a lot of people’s heads and made them realise that maybe there is more to this life and that we are not in control, so who do we want to be now? This is a beautiful thing because this brings an openness to the possibility of the movement of the Spirit and Spirit is always about love, this is what changes the world.
“For me this can change how we see each other, both the people we know and the stranger and the way we see the planet. For me this is where we will really see those prayers make a difference.”
“Obviously we have to be careful in thinking that more people praying means more of God’s work will be done – our prayers don’t make God more powerful,” Rev. Miller said.
“But more people praying – and praying more – during this time does mean more people are seeking to attune and open themselves to the love of the Triune God for them and for their neighbours – and that has the potential to have a powerful effect.”
Rev. Dr Gapes said that there was another opportunity in the disaster of COVID-19.
“In some ways I think the disaster of COVID is an opportunity for us to see 2020 as a Sabbath year where we aren’t as productive as we expected and we rely on what we have already planted in our lives,” she said.
“Of course this is easier for those who have a regular income but the Sabbath was also about leaving enough for the poor to glean from the harvest leftovers. In a Sabbath year we are reminded that all is God’s and we are blessed by what is given us to tend.”
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