[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]
When I was a child, my family regularly attended a large Southern Baptist church. In that church, every Sunday morning service had a special section when the Senior Pastor (there were about a dozen ‘pastors’ on staff) would invite all the children present to come to the front and sit on the steps. He would sit among us and give a child-level talk. The only one I remember was the yearly Easter story about the caterpillar becoming a butterfly complete with clever soft toy to illustrate the change.
Somewhere in a scrapbook from my childhood is a newspaper clipping sent to me by someone from that church of the pastor on the steps with all the children praying at the end of his kids talk on a Sunday morning. I am there, among the other children, perhaps about 10 or 12 years old. I have put my hands together as I was taught to pray, but it seems I was bored because my hands are bent to one side, supporting my cheek, almost in a sleeping posture. I don’t remember why this picture ended up in the local paper. I do remember being acutely embarrassed that the camera had caught me looking so un-holy during a prayer.
In our front garden growing up there were two apple trees and two round flower beds which roughly marked out the corners of a square. I remember many an hour spent walking in figures of eight around these four objects in front of our house, thinking, reflecting, praying. It was during just such activity that I decided to offer for baptism when I was 7 years old. At that time in my life prayer was just an extension of my thought processes; God was always a part of the conversations in my head. When I was a child, that was enough.
In church we are taught “how to pray” with clever acrostics such as ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication). More appropriately, we are taught the Lord’s Prayer in whatever form prevails in our local congregation or denomination – sins, trespasses, debts, etc.
We are also exposed to numerous styles of and purposes for praying. There are the pray-ers who use “Father” or “Father God” or “Lord” as commas or in place of “um” while praying. There are those who constantly repeat a mantra like “Jesus, Jesus” under their breath during communal prayer times, distracting their fellows. There are those who use prayers to share information: “Lord, we pray for Mildred, in the Memorial hospital, Ward 31, bed 10, who has just been diagnosed with. . .” There are those who seem to think that no prayer is acceptable without a large helping of buttering God up and thanking God for things God may or may not have actually done – or be. There are liturgical prayers that act as a centring, communal devotion or serve to dull the brains of the masses with repetition. There are prayer requests as an excuse for gossip: “They’re having problems, you know. We should pray.” There are the silent prayer requests – “please pray for me but I can’t or won’t tell you why.” The list goes on.
Then there are the people who flood social media for calls to prayer after the latest tragedy, sharing digital “candles” and comforting themselves with the belief that prayer is powerful so they don’t need to do anything practical or engage with the problems in the world that cause such tragedies. Too often prayer becomes our excuse – reminding me of James 2 – saying “go be warm and well fed” or, dare I suggest, “I’ll pray for you,” but doing nothing practical to help is not a demonstration of true faith. Too often, it’s an excuse, something to soothe worry and guilt – I prayed, so I did something.
There are, of course, many tales about miracles happening when people have been praying. I believe there have even been scientific double blind studies done on the ‘effectiveness’ of prayer on hospital patients. All I can say is, if God sometimes responds to such prayers and sometimes does not do so, it is totally insufficient to explain it away with some lame reference to God’s plan or God’s higher ways. Such a god is arbitrary, untrustworthy, and cruel.
In worship we pray week after week for the peace of the world, for the peace of our hearts, for help, for healing, for so many things, yet week after week we see death and destruction, wars and murders, despair and depression. It is hard not to conclude that prayer makes very little difference to what happens in the world. Equally, it is seriously disturbing to imagine a God that waits for enough people to ask before intervening to save a life, stop a tsunami, or quell a terror attack.
Some say that prayer is about connection to God – that each person who is turned towards God in prayer helps to align the world more closely to divine purposes. If this is true, it is because that person, with his or her thoughts turned towards God, is more likely to act in keeping with divine purposes. If prayer changes anything, it changes us, but that kind of prayer is down and dirty, honest, wrestling prayer. Such prayers can be found in the Psalms.
Apart from that type of prayer, I am forced to say that I simply can’t believe that prayer changes anything. Especially the popular “prayer makes me feel good” type prayers mentioned above. In closing I offer an original poem by Rob Atkins recently published here:
God must be a stupid god:
He busied himself about the parking space for Charlene,
He kindly alleviated the pain of Archie’s sprained wrist
And got Dan a job.
In the meantime
Two teens lost a mother to cancer,
And a suicide man swaggered down the boulevard
With eighty-four staggering companions,
And a nation burned.
Glory to god
For the job, the wrist and the space.