Not long ago someone asked me why we pray for specific things. This is a really good question. I think some of these prayers are really a search for magic. Some of them are part of the process of focusing our energies and are really asking for strength, guidance, patience and wisdom, maybe even the ability to achieve what we are asking for. The idea of praying for someone who is sick, for example, is part of focusing the energy of life toward an individual person. God of course is the source of life giving energy.
More and more frequently I find myself saying that we are to become the prayer we offer. So, if we pray for peace then we are committing ourselves to be peaceable, to talking about peace and lobbying for peace and all the other things that create peace beyond the end of violence. If we pray for sobriety, we are committing ourselves to living sober and doing what is necessary to achieve that by using all possible resources.
Prayer is not magic. Prayer increases our responsibility for the outcome. Prayer is not manipulative. It doesn't make God do things. It doesn't make the weather change or our partner treat us with respect. Prayer does not control spirits or powers although it does direct our own emotional and spiritual energy. So be careful what you pray for.
People who pray believe they are connected to a power beyond humanity. Twelve Step programs call this a person's Higher Power. Religions call this higher power God. Christians get our beliefs about God from what we know about Jesus. What people believe about God shapes how they pray and what they expect prayer to do for them.
Speaking now from a Christian's point of view, I understand that prayer is the method of communicating with God. It is a two-way conversation that requires listening even more than talking. It requires emotion as well as thought. It requires action as well as stillness.
Years ago when my son was five we lived in a large city with a park that covered a square mile. It was between a major thoroughfare and a railway line in a rough part of town. My son got lost and I was beside myself. All my thought was "Oh God, Oh God, Help me find him." A young man offered to help. "Let us pray" he said. He rolled his eyes up and tilted his head back. He wanted to stand there and hold my hands. Last thing I wanted! I said "What prayer needs now is legs - go and look for him!" He gave me the saddest look as if he knew I'd end up in hell. Oh well. Legs worked. I found my son and my prayer was answered as I wanted it to be. The next prayer was one of profound thankfulness for finding my son, for my son himself, thankfulness for all the people who had looked, and confession that I needed to learn how to keep a closer eye on him.
There could easily have been another outcome. Every single one of us is free to choose how we will live, and what we will do. My prayer for my son's return to me would not have changed the mind of someone who had decided to hurt him. It would not have changed his mind if he had decided to climb onto the tracks in front of a train. Then my prayer would have become a wail of grief, a surge of rage, a well of despair, and the primal cry of "Why!" These are prayers. Profound prayers. All of us who utter them also have a choice. We can choose to cling to the pain until our lives drain away permanently. We can choose to cling to our God who is the God of life, until our lives are restored with an altered meaning. We know we will move back and forth between these two choices and all the places in between, for a very long time. All the time, we can choose to at the very least, desire to be connected to God in whom our loved one now dwells. God does not disappoint those who choose this desire.
Prayer is a way of remembering that we are not alone. It can open us to the unanticipated possibility we often call a miracle. Prayer changes our minds when we actively think about God's intention for us. We become more aware of what supports life and of what wears it away. Prayer is a way of inviting God to participate in our lives and discovering that God has always been with us but was simply waiting for us to notice. Then we experience life differently, find strength and hope. Then if the answer to a specific prayer is "No", our next prayer can be "What Lord is better? Lead me please."
Rev. Leslie-Elizabeth King is the pastor of St. John's United Church on Caribou Road in Thompson.