In the wake of the preceding blogs, which have emphasised the importance of fact for faith, I will write of some important contemporary facts and how I deal with them in faith.
A virus which is of the Corona virus group, named Covid 19 has infected people in every part of the world, causing serious harm to its victims’ ability to breathe, leading to death in a significant proportion of cases. Treatment has been similar to that given for flu, with a number of drug interventions in the more serious cases. Vaccines are mow available to prevent or weaken infection, and may yet reduce its rate to permit society to resume normal life. Churches along with others, have been active in trying to ameliorate some of the consequences of the pandemic: extreme poverty, including inability to pay for food, isolation, bereavement, depression, fear. During periods of lockdown, Christian people, along with others have tried to keep in touch with family, neighbours and fellow church members, to provide mutual support. In addition to all other forms of support, Christian people have prayed, individually and together. Does prayer make any difference or is it merely a pious custom?
Perhaps I can start an answer by noting what prayer is not:
1. It is not bringing God news. Even if we imagine that God has universal responsibilities – there may be terrible famine on a planet of Alpha Centauri- we do not think that like a busy emperor he may need reminding about events in a small corner of the empire. “Your heavenly father knows what you need before you ask” Jesus said.
2. It is not an attempt to change God’s mind. We assume God’s love and desire to help people in trouble. When it seems, as it does in the pandemic that help has not been given, we should not jump to conclusions. God has already inspired the setting up and continued life of the NHS. Doubtless God’s blessing will have been upon all employed in the healing professions. Many of them have spoken of knowing this blessing in the course of exhausting and dangerous work. The scientists who have produced vaccines in record time may be seen as carrying out God’s work. What more help were we asking God to give?
3. It is not, at least in my case, a request for supernatural intervention. Some believers think that of course it is. My experience has been that God has not offered supernatural intervention in so many deserving cases, that if he were to offer it at all, I should turn from him in disgust, in the name of Marise who died of cancer a month after the birth of her first baby, and of David Haining, charity worker executed by ISIS, and many others. It is reasonable to ask, if I don’t expect supernatural intervention, what the hell I’m praying for, and I will try to answer that question in this blog.
4. In view of all the above, it is not a campaign. Sometimes churches set up prayer chains and other forms of mass petition as if God is the more likely to respond the greater the numbers are. Often this involves many public displays of fervent petition. It seems likely that this goes against Jesus’ criticism, ” They think they will be heard for their much speaking” and his instruction to pray “secretly to our father who hears in secret.”
So then, what is it?
1. It is in “The Spirit.” Paul says we don’t know how to pray but that the Spirit pleads for us in groans that words cannot express.” The Spirit according to Paul is shared life, the conviction that we are not closed in our egos but open to the lives of our fellow believers, out fellow human beings, our fellow creatures, and to God. We do not come to God without them, and in that shared life we are all children of God, swept up in that movement of God’s goodness in which we shall all be set free from “our slavery to decay.”
2. It is however also freedom of speech. Paul is especially impressed with the unexpected permission to speak frankly to God. He uses the word “paresia”, by which the Greeks meant a kind of democratic boldness. There may be particular issues that have to be raised with God, and we should not hold back. Our needs as people affected by pandemic are like this.
3. In the end it is not what we say, for our grasp of what is good is limited, it is our openness to God and our brothers and sisters. If we imagine this shared life as a place and time where God is present along with people from all the charities in the world, we may have some idea of its effect upon us. This is the “the secret place” of Jesus, where we meet his father.
4. It is not that we cannot speak; our words are precious to God; but that we must also listen intently. Prayer should not be separate from Bible reading, and the use of the meditations of others, through which our minds may be made ready to hear God’s words to us. God always listens to our concerns but she asks us to listen to hers.
5. The Jewish adage, that our individual prayer should always also be the prayer of Israel, reminds us of public prayer, especially in the worship of the church. There are many styles of this. I favour an honest formal style with space for contributions from the congregation, and with silences which permit inward prayer and meditation. However it is done, this prayer should be openly shared and inclusive.
6. Our private prayer however, should never be revealed to others. It is like intimacy between lovers. The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it the secret discipline which fuels our discipleship, and guards the holy place of faith.
7. The Lord’s Prayer in both its forms should be used, as Jesus suggested, both as a prayer and as a model for prayer. It is the prayer of God’s son given to God’s children and is infinitely precious and down-to- earth.
8. In prayer believers are expressing their sorrow at the suffering of the world, their hope that God’s goodness will be done in the world, through the natural world and through human beings, and they will not be “brought into hard testing but delivered from evil.”