i'm thinking about prayer this week, since my sermon on sunday is going to be dealing with it. i'm looking at 1 Timothy 2 when we are asked to pray for kings and leaders of nations, that we might live peaceable lives. i'm all for prayer as an important spiritual discipline, but i'm not necessarily such a big fan certain approaches to try and convince people of this truth. it seems to me that much of what has passed for 'teaching' about prayer in our churches is really a harmful oversimplification of something that is much richer and more profound than we often realize.
let me say this: i believe prayer is powerful. in my experience it is without question a vital element of a rich and growing faith. i have found it to be transformational, and i do not shy away from saying so. but perhaps it hasn't been transformational in the way that we often think. let me explain.
i have often struggled with the way we pray, as i find it to be incredibly selfish. when i was a child playing pee-wee football, i used to pray that God would help us win. i used to pray that God would make the Steelers win. those are cute prayers, in a way, and to be frank i don't think there is anything "wrong" with them as the prayer of a child. but if we think about it, we realize that there may be people on both sides praying for a win, and only one side gets to win. is it to God's credit that one side wins, and God's fault that the other loses? or might it have more to do with poor play by one team and better play by the winning team?
or consider the prayer of the one who wants a convenient parking space at the mall. this kind of prayer strikes me as quite selfish, in the context of a world where bombs are being made, and children are dying of hunger and underprivileged people are being forced to toil their lives away for a meager meal and young girls are traded like objects on the black market for some twisted sexual satisfaction. you get my point. in such a world, is it okay to pray for a parking space so we don't have to walk the extra 75 feet (when we could clearly use the exercise)? for me, anyway, it seems to border on sinful. at the very least it betrays a sadly misinformed understanding of prayer as a kind of "magic wand of convenience" that we can wave when we need it. when we need a better parking space. or a victory. or a safe trip. or a promotion. or whatever it is we think we want.
the way i look at it, prayer is totally different than this. it isn't a direct line to our Butler-in-the-Sky. instead, prayer, at least the way i see it, is the hallmark of an intimate relationship with God. if i want to have a good relationship with my wife, for example, i have to talk to her. and she will be quick to point out that this involves a healthy dose of listening. what will help us to grow in our relationship is an intentional and sometimes sacrificial kind of give and take, back and forth, sharing and listening, giving and receiving. this is what works in my relationship with my wife, and it is also what works in a relationship with God. only with God, we call it prayer. and when we learn to pray like that - like a conversation - then prayer becomes incredibly powerful. more powerful than any Holy-Spirit-inducing, loud-mouthed sweaty evangelist promising to heal your afflictions with one push of the forehead. God does indeed work miracles, and the greatest miracle of all is that God will walk in each moment with me - with me! - in an intimate relationship. and that, that changes everything. so prayer really is powerful. powerful beyond our wildest imagination.