For some Christians prayer is simple. They ask God for that which their heart desires, trust God to answer with a “yes”, “no” or “not yet”, and then celebrate the yes’s. They pray for parking spots, for jobs, for good weather for church events, for the leadership of our nation, and for the success of God’s mission. I admire the trust that God is good and is at work in our lives and our world, but am far less confident that the universe is as simple as this approach suggests.
When Jesus taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” he recognised that there are occasions in which God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven. God wills humankind to be generous and kind to one another, yet violence and neglect are two constants of the human experience. God wills the earth to be a place that is conducive to human flourishing, yet mudslides, earthquakes and storms destroy homes and take lives.
It is this clash between our lived experience and our hope that causes many Christians to end up at the opposite pole to the “yes,no,wait” Christians. They give up on prayer. They pray for justice for those who are oppressed and exploited, only to see the oppression continue. They pray for the healing of a friend’s sick child, only to watch life cruelly slip from the child’s body. The thought that God would answer a prayer for a parking space becomes not only trivial but offensive. What kind of God would be concerned enough about the distance I have to walk to get to the shops, yet be indifferent to the suffering of the oppressed or the loss of a child? For these Christians prayer becomes an exercise in futility and a cause for doubt.
I have spent parts of my life in both camps. I suspect that both suffer from a common problem: the assumption that God operates, or could choose to operate, as the sole form of agency in the universe. Agency refers to the freedom to act in ways that impact what happens inside us and around us. The world in which we live is one filled with a myriad of agencies. Not only God but every human being, every living creature, every spiritual entity, and the forces of nature, all exercise agency of some kind. Sometimes agency has very localised and limited impacts, and at other times the impacts cascade around the universe. Sometimes the agency is exercised in a blind fashion. The forces of nature that produce earthquakes and mudslides do not consciously choose the direction in which they head. Sentient creatures like human beings often exercise choice without any awareness of the profound consequences that their actions may have. Other times agencies exercised with deliberate intent. We launch missiles in order to destroy targets; we speak harsh words in order to put people down an positive words in order to build them up.
In such a world, God is a very large and influential force of agency, but not the sole source of agency. Which means that until we live in a world in which every act of agency is exercised in the direction of God’s good purposes we will see good, bad, and indifferent experiences of life.
The obvious objection to this is that God’s agency could override all others if God so willed. It seems however that God chooses to respect the agency of others. I can’t pretend to understand the reasons behind this, but I’ve had enough experience of holding responsibility and authority to know that how I chose to exercise it was often very different to how those who didn’t have the responsibility and authority thought it should be exercised.
This does not mean God doesn’t exercise agency. On one hand it seems to me that God has built a drive towards the good into the very structures of reality. Billions of years of evolution point to a drive to life in increasingly complex forms. Wars come to an end. Communities band together to confront threats to their well-being. Dictatorships fall. On the other hand, the Christian gospel asserts that God is acting redemptively, bringing life and the universe to a place of shalom, well-being, peace and goodness.
I take it then that God is exercising agency, drawing people and the world towards the good, and because God is God I have confidence the world will reach the goal of all things being united under Christ.
It is with this in mind that I approach the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer is organised around the idea that God is “our Father in heaven”, a compassionate, generous, and loving head of the global community who is working toward the flourishing of all members of that community.
It is this vision of the coming reign of God that informs the way I pray. I petition God to bring his reign into my life at those very points I experience brokenness; into our communities at the points they experience brokenness; and to creation at the point it experiences brokenness. My prayers therefore will range from very personal life issues through to social, political and economic systems and the state of the environment and everything inbetween. No issue will be considered too small for God’s attention nor too large for mine. In each and every instance my prayer will be for God to reign.
My cry will be for God’s kingdom to arrive in fullness, while recognising that this side of the return of Jesus we experience God’s reign in ways that only anticipate that fullness. Alongside the work of God in our lives and world we will still struggle with the presence of evil, suffering, and the frustration of God’s purposes. Prayer then takes on the character of protest at the brokenness that exists in our lives and world and of hope that the time is coming when all brokenness will be healed. It will align me with the ways of God and take me out of talk about God to engagement with God. Nonetheless, because God has begun to reign we will expect to see the partial fulfilment of our prayers in often surprising and life-giving ways.
I have written a short book on the Lord’s Prayer to accompany a preaching series we are currently undertaking in my church. You can download it for free in Kindle, EPub or PDF format by clicking the link below.
Civil war broke out in Syria in 2011 after the Assad regime resisted the regional movement towards democracy known as “the Arab Spring”. Initially a war between the government and a rebel movement, the rise of ISIS has added a third major party to the conflict. The situation is made more complex by the presence of outside interests, with Russia supporting the Syrian government, the United States supporting the rebellion movement, and the US and Russia coming together, often uneasily, to combat ISIS.
12 million Syrians, which equals 65% of the population, have been forcibly displaced, including 5.5 million who have become refugees. They have found refuge mainly in neighbouring countries. 2.8 million Syrian refugees are now hosted by Turkey, 1 million by Lebanon, 650,000 by Jordan, 230,000 by Iraq and 116,000 by Egypt. These countries are understandably struggling to cope with the large and rapid increase in their population. Imagine having to suddenly find housing, provide schooling medical services for hundreds of thousands of people.
We are a swirling sea of emotion
as we contemplate the tragedy that has befallen Syria.
We feel anger at the ways violence is employed
to serve the interests of the powerful, yet does so at great cost to people;
We feel despair at the complex history, political interests, and
entanglements that make an end to the war seem so far off;
We feel compassion for the children, women and men
whose lives been turned upside down,
who have lost people they love,
and wonder what their future will be.
We pray for peace,
We pray for peacemakers to break the cycle of violence and retribution,
We ask that you raise up peacemakers in each of the warring groups and the
international alliances that back them.
We pray for those whose lives have been turned upside down by the war.
Give those who have lost family members the space to grieve and the capacity to grieve well;
Give those who have fled the violence places of safety and protection,
communities in which they can thrive and begin to hope again.
We pray particularly for the 12,000 Syrian refugees being resettled in Australia.
May the communities in which they settle be open to them, gracious and welcoming.
Finally we pray for ourselves, that you may open our hearts and the hearts of all
Australians to their fellow human beings who are suffering around the world.
Grant us an ever-increasing compassion, ever-increasing wisdom, and everincreasing
willingness to be their neighbour.
You can download this prayer as part of a prayer exercise at ajustcause.com.au
photo credit: Corey Oakley <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/57496734@N07/21044027148″>Light the Dark – vigil for refugees in Melbourne</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a></div..
A few years back I was asked to visit a critically ill man to pray for him. When I arrived at the hospital it was clear that the man, in his late 70’s, was near death. He was unconscious and hospital staff had suggested family members come quickly to say their goodbyes. A number of them were present. In the room was also the pastor from a church of another denomination that one of the family attended. We were both invited to pray. I gave thanks for the gentleman’s life, for the love that was shared, and for the opportunity to say good farewells. Then the other pastor prayed. He laid his hands on the dying man and called on God to heal him, raise him up to full health and restore him to his family. I thought the prayer was incredibly cruel, that rather than helping the man and his family through the dying, farewelling and grieving process, it kept them stuck in denial and false hope. I am sure the other pastor thought my prayer lacked faith in the miraculous power of God. Maybe he even thought it was my lack of faith that resulted in the elderly gentleman soon passing away.
For me this rather extreme example raises an important issue. At what point do we accept suffering, pain and the process of dying and cease asking for God to miraculously heal them? Here is what I’ve come up with.
First, I don’t ever want to stop praying that God’s kingdom may come and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. I always want the carry the spirit captured in Dylan Thomas’ remarkable poem – “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Suffering, pain and death are intrusions into God’s universe that are the enemy of humankind and creation, and which Christ will eventually do away with.
Second, while I long for God’s kingdom to come, it has not come yet, at least not in its fullness. Suffering, pain and death are part and parcel of life and it’s no use pretending otherwise. When Jesus rose it was to an existence where he would no longer experience physical decay, suffering and death. Whatever healing or transformative work God might do in our lives now, it is not to raise us to the resurrection state – that is yet to come. It will be at best a temporary reprieve from the process of decay and dying.
Third, while suffering, pain and death are intrusions into God’s universe, they can also become tools by which we grow, experience the grace, love and support of others, and prove God’s strength for us. This has not only been my experience, but as I have touched on these issues in my blog posts I have received a number of emails from people who have experienced incredible difficulties but who say the same thing.
Fourth, I want my prayers to be an exercise in dealing with reality and not in denying it. In his letter to the Corinthian Christians the apostle Paul speaks of a “thorn in the flesh”, a painful physical condition, that he experienced. He mentions that three times he asked God to remove it, but that God’s answer was “no”. The way the text is written suggests that after the third knockback Paul stopped praying for the thorn to be removed and prayed rather that God’s strength might be exhibited in the way he dealt with his condition. Did he lack faith? No. He knew that the resurrection awaited him, and in the meantime he accepted that the thorn would be part and parcel of his existence. When we have prayed for healing or some other miraculous “breakthrough” and it hasn’t come surely we must reach a place where we accept that God’s intention does not appear to perform a miracle and start to pray differently. To do otherwise can leave people stuck, to fill them with hope that will not be met and that prevent them from finding the opportunity to deal with their pain and to grow through it.
So what does all this boil down to? My prayers will always include the possibility of a miraculous act of God, but the much stronger focus will be on experiencing and extending to others God’s love, grace, support and wisdom for dealing with the difficulties of life.
“Can I pray for you?” It’s a question I am often asked. Just once I’d like to say “no”.
I preach and teach at a lot of different churches and there is always someone moved by the sight of my Parkinsons driven tremors to seek me out to pray with me. Some are very confident, others are very nervous. They have often just completed a course on healing prayer and their approach is an act of stepping out in faith. They always have the best intentions. We find a quiet place and they pray. Man, do they pray. Always for healing. Always with great conviction.
It’s quite touching and a lovely expression of faith. So I always try to receive it with the goodwill with which it is intended.
But I do wonder if people consider that it may be quite discouraging to have a continual stream of people praying fervently for your healing and to remain unhealed. I am pretty comfortable with the knowledge that God may heal me and that he may not, and that if probabilities are anything to go by it’s likely “not”. I am content with the knowledge that whether healed or not my condition will be an opportunity for growth I would otherwise have missed out on. So I am not distressed by those who claim the authority to cast out my disease in the name of Jesus, but what about those who are?
So here’s my request. Pray for me. By all means pray for me. Approach me and ask if you can pray with me. I mean that. It’s a wonderful expression of care. But pray carefully. Please don’t command the disease to leave my body (it’s a cellular dysfunction – it can’t hear you or obey you). Please don’t claim God’s healing power over me (be honest about the fact that God rarely heals major diseases, although he does seem to be good with sore backs and necks). Rather pray for God’s grace to be manifest in my life, to make me more like Jesus. Acknowledge that you don’t know whether God will heal me this side of eternity, that it’d be great if he did, but that whether healed now or in the kingdom that I might know his goodness and strength to live the life he has called me to. And be aware that one day when you ask if you can pray with me I just might say no. It won’t be anything personal. Indeed I hope you will pray for me when you get home. It will just be that I may grow weary of being prayed for all the time. Not very spiritual I know, but I am only human.
May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
So that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
And turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.