I signed up last week to be a “prayer partner” with Lakeshore United Methodist Assembly, a Methodist summer camp I frequented as a kid and worked at for four summers, and in the next few days I’ll be assigned someone on staff to pray for this summer. I haven’t always been the most prayerful person, if by “prayer” you mean kneeling or bowing your head and beginning a sentence with, “Dear God” or something similar. But then again, I don’t think we have a very healthy understanding of what prayer is, either.
It seems to me, too often, we think prayer is about outcome. I pray for someone sick or hurting, and God will heal them, or I pray for a job, and God will “open a door,” or I pray for someone’s summer, and they’re going to have a great summer, and the outcome will be good and that’ll be because God intervened to make it so. And that’s a bunch of hooey. What of those for whom no cure or relief will come or for those who remain jobless or for those whose summers isn’t going to be the greatest they could have asked for? I don’t believe in a God who works on behalf of some and not all. I know far too many people (and have been one myself) whose prayers, if prayer is solely about outcome, have gone unanswered.
The typical Christian response to this critique is to say that God doesn’t always give us the answer we want, just the answer we need. Or sometimes God’s ‘no’ is God’s ‘yes.’ And that’s poetic and pulls at the heartstrings, and I even sort of like the metaphor that runs against the whole health-and-wealth gospel where God gives you everything you want if you ask for it and live a good life. But it still revolves around the idea that prayer should have a goal, and the goal is either God’s yes or God’s no.
To me, the goal is process, not outcome. I think of prayer as being more meditative. It’s about awareness which breeds empathy and leads to connection within community. I’ll spend my summer praying for someone not because I think God will intervene like some booming voice from the sky that shouts, “Thou shalt have good summer!” but because in the process of praying for somebody else, I make the effort to stop being so absorbed in my own little world, and then, as a result of prayer, I’ll hopefully be moved to intervene to do what I can to make their summer a tiny bit better. It’s the notion that God moves through us, not because of us or without us.
In that sense, prayer is technically still about outcome, I guess. But in a world where too many Christians say, “I’ll pray for you,” while my atheist and agnostic friends are the ones who actually step up and do something, it’s time we had a healthy conversation about what prayer is supposed to be. It’s not, “God, be with this person so I don’t have to be.” It’s, “How can I help? I’m here; just tell me what to do.” If prayer doesn’t move people to act in that manner, it’s fruitless; it isn’t even really prayer. But that’s also a scary thought, because if we’re honest in our efforts to consider others outside of ourselves in our prayer lives (and I’m preachin’ to myself here), we’d be doing a hell of a lot more to make people’s lives better. It asks of us our time, energy, and money: and those are three things we don’t necessarily want to give. Prayer, though, can and should alter our mindset toward that end, and when it does, it’s communal, because when prayer moves us to act for others, we’re acting for ourselves at the same time.
So, I’m hoping my prayers this summer will be more than just prayers. At the very least, somebody is getting a really awesome mix tape (or two) and several encouraging letters. And if I can do more, I will. In the meantime, I’ll see where else prayer leads me.