What I remember from my experience of the Reformed Church was not prayer, but being talked at from the front of the church by the minister. My earliest Girl Scout Sundays in the Episcopal Church were memorable because we were ‘talked at’ a lot less in the same amount of time, but there was prayer. Most of it from that book you can follow, so it wasn’t just the minister or someone with some kind of secret access to God. The people had words, and took part in public prayer.
Supposedly, prayer is one of those activities central to the Christian life, and really to the life of most religions. I can’t speak much about prayer in the other religions. But I can say that from my current perspective Christians seem to say a lot of nonsense about prayer.
Young Christians–whether actual children, adults new to Christianity, or those who have not progressed past a fairly conventional practice of this spiritual tradition–are told all kinds of things about prayer. Children are given the lovely “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know, For the Bible Tells Me So”. However, I’ve been hard pressed to find where the Bible tells anyone that Jesus loves them. We are meant to love Jesus, but there is very little indication that the relationship is reciprocal.
Of course, you get the stuff related to John 3:16, that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ But that is hardly an individually-directed love. Loving the world, and loving everything–or everyone–in it, is a problematic concept. Jesus (accepting, if you do, that Jesus is God) loves me, but he equally loves everybody I don’t love, everyone I’m told is criminal, evil, different, or just not like me and those I know well. That concept should make us all a little itchy when we individualize the concept of God’s ‘love’.
We did get the Lord’s Prayer from the New Testament. It’s a bit of a mashup between Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4, but it’s probably the most authoritative prayer for Christians, and in both the Episcopal Church and the Church of England, the Eucharistic liturgy says it’s the prayer Our Lord Jesus Christ Taught Us. That counts for something, although I had to convince some ordinands I had taught in the Historically Important Diocese that the ‘good prayers that have come since’ should not displace the Lord’s Prayer in Christian worship. If time was the constraint, those ‘good prayers that have come since’ are the ones that don’t belong. Go figure.
But the Lord’s Prayer is interesting. It doesn’t tell us to pray to go to heaven, it tells us to ask that earth become more like heaven. It doesn’t say we should ask for our enemies to be defeated and for us to succeed. It puts a limitation on how much forgiveness we can expect. We have to ask that God does not lead us into temptation, and that God might deliver us from evil–because God might lead us into temptation, and might not deliver us from evil. Without asking specifically that these things not/be done, it’s hard to tell whether it’s from God or not. And even with asking, how do we know God isn’t leading us into what we see as temptation or evil, because God (as we are told) has a wisdom and a purpose greater for us than we can know? (That’s another pet peeve of sappy Christian discourse, which I might address at another time, but not now.)
It’s not really the warm and cuddly ‘Jesus Loves Me’ stuff. To paraphrase a saying from The Fault in Our Stars, God is not a wish-granting machine.
There are a couple of more grown-up ways Christians talk about prayer. Both of the ones I have in mind have been annoying me for a long time.
The first is that prayer cultivates a ‘personal relationship’ with God/Christ. There is no place in the New Testament where this is commanded. It’s perhaps nice, but definitely not a requirement. And we never talk for a moment that ‘relationship’ is a very ambiguous term. Not all personal relationships are positive ones–and even some that begin as positive can go sour over time. Who, past the age of about 15 (if you’re a late bloomer) hasn’t fallen in love and then realized the beloved was less than cracked up to be? And yes, you can fall out of love with God.
Part of how you can fall out of love with God is related to the second annoying way people talk about prayer. Conversation with God. Conversation, the last time I checked, does require more than one participant. Yes, there are times when companionable silence is a good thing, and being able to be silent together is the hallmark (for me, anyway) of a mature relationship, whether platonic or romantic. But sometimes, you need clear answers to your questions, some kind of give-and-take, and some indication that the other person is still there. Even to say, ‘I’m making tea, would you like a cup?’
God, in my experience, too often lapses out of companionable silence, and into the nosepickingly stupid kind of silence. I’m tired of talking to air and pretending I’m in a ‘relationship’ with God where God is not holding up God’s end of the deal.
I’ve heard enough of the trite, ‘God always answers prayer. Sometimes it is yes, sometimes it is no, sometimes it is wait, and sometimes it is silence. But there is always an answer.’ Any primary school teacher can tell you that silence is no answer, and any primary school student will tell you the teacher won’t accept silence as an answer.
Silence–sustained silence, over months and years–is not an answer. It is an evasion. If you’re in a ‘relationship’, especially one where it is supposed to be a loving relationship, and one partner responds with nothing but silence, is a poor relationship. It is neglectful, and the silent partner should not be surprised to find that the one who has spoken has left.