One is unlikely to understand this without first reading “From my diary: Learning to pray.”
I consulted several Wikipedia articles in preparation for this post. All turned out to have been written by people who are hostile toward reports of anything that might involve a spiritual world.
As much as I try to give credit to all points of view, I cannot adopt the same position. My earliest memories are of the conviction that there is more to the world than we perceive with the five senses. Since I began practicing silence, I have seen auras. I have had precognitive visions and telepathic dreams. I was compelled on one occasion to pray for my worst enemy, only to learn later she’d just been through an event I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. In the fall of 1990 I was compelled to pray day after day for a woman I’d not met and had never heard of; only to find, when I moved to another state in January ’91 to attend grad school, she was one of my classmates and had an intense interest in healing prayer, as I also did. To deny these facts, I’d have to lie to myself more than I’m willing to.
There’s still the puzzle of unanswered prayer.
Most unanswered prayer, it seems to me, comes from efforts that either don’t really constitute prayer, or are based on misconceptions about what prayer is and how it works. Some folk will react with alarm to some of the things I’m about to say, that run counter to deeply held, long-cherished assumptions. Many misconceptions seem to me to come from the New Testament itself, which includes many teachings that are either misleading, easily misunderstood, or just plain wrong. The parable of the widow and the judge, Luke 18:1-8, is a prime example: prayer is not about trying to change God’s mind.
I seek to pray in ways that are likely to bring observable results. This is the only way I can think of, to learn to pray with effectiveness.
1. Don’t come uninvited. This is a hard teaching. In general, it says, unless someone has specifically asked you to pray for him or her, don’t. I will discuss ways you can pray for someone without being asked. But to take it upon yourself to pray for someone without being asked, and think you’ll accomplish much, is mistaken.
This has been hard for me. I have studied healing prayer since 1983, but not until 2011 have people routinely asked me to pray.
Jesus did not go around laying hands on every sick person he met. They came to him. In all the healings recorded in the New Testament, only once did Jesus take the initiative, in John 5. Even then, he asked the man, “Do you want to be healed?”
When blind Bartimaeus cried out to Jesus for help, he said, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) One would think it was obvious — he was blind! Jesus still asked.
In “the rooms of” A.A. and Al-Anon, it is well known that uninvited prayer for an alcoholic will normally backfire. The crux is free will. Prayer for someone else is normally like putting your foot on the gas pedal of that person’s car. His or her life will progress faster — but in what direction? If the person’s a drunk who wants to keep drinking, prayer for the person will only move him or her to drink more. If the person chooses to seek sobriety, prayer will help move him or her in that direction also. But prayer in an effort to change his or her direction will only set up a struggle for control of the steering wheel, which finally only that person can win. For better or worse, God will not interfere with free will.
By the same token, prayers for nameless categories of people are unlikely to bring observable results. As of March 2014, I myself have been homeless for three years, and I can tell you: the vast majority of homeless people are perfectly content with their lot. Hard as this may be to accept, prayer for “the homeless” is unlikely to bring change.
If a sick person asks for my prayer, that’s one thing. IMO, prayer for “the sick” is a waste of time.
2. You don’t need an invitation to love people. Despite the just-said, there are ways you can pray for anyone, anywhere, any time, without being asked. Imagine the person as being surrounded by brilliant white light, and simply wish him or her the best of health, wealth and happiness. Alternatively, seek to recognize God’s image, the child of God, in that person, and see that image or child as shining.
Do this especially with people you don’t like.
Do not exert yourself. In general, prayer should never involve exertion. Exertion actually hinders the Spirit.
If you do this consistently, it will change your whole outlook on life.
3. Name names. Prayer for “my neighbor’s aunt” will accomplish nothing. The person to pray for is the person who’s asked for prayer. If you’re the person asking, I’ll pray for you. If your neighbor has asked for prayer, I’ll pray for your neighbor — but I need that person’s name. If the aunt has asked for prayer, I’ll pray for her — but I need her name.
The world of concrete objects, the world of ideas (such as names) and the world of emotions (or spirit) are inter-connected, and each person’s name is, in effect, his or her address. (See “Choose Your Name.”) Prayer without it will go nowhere.
In the cases of the two people I said I was “compelled” to pray for, the only information I was given was the person’s name. Sometimes the Spirit will provide you with more information than that. In these two cases, however, that’s all I got.
My church’s prayer list correctly consists only of names.
4. Word for word. As long as this piece has become, I considered omitting this section, but then at chapel last night Michael Joyner tortured us for some time. It was cruel and unusual punishment. So I’m including this after all.
I avoid praying in thoughts or words. Most of the time I use visual images, or simply my feelings; those constitute the prayer. Here are guidelines for use when prayer in words cannot be avoided.
a. Listen to guidance. One thing we know about God: what God says, happens. It happens word for word, exactly as God says it. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Ideally, one’s prayer in words should be the same way. It should correspond, word for word, to exactly what one wishes to happen. And it should correspond, word for word, to exactly what will happen.
These outcomes aren’t likely to be met if I choose the words on my own, from the wishes of my own, limited mind and my own, possibly impure, motivations. It is best to stay in silence to start with, and listen for those words that the Spirit provides; and then pray them.
Those words will probably not be ornate; the Spirit has no need to impress anybody. The expressions will be pithy. The Spirit does not speak in clichés. The words will not preach or teach, nor remind God of things God already knows (such as what the Bible says). The whole thing will be rather brief.
b. What to believe. It’s essential that your words ask for things you can believe actually can happen. You don’t need to believe that they will; if you’re convinced something will happen, why pray for it? But you need to believe they can — word for word, exactly as you say them. Related: “God’s will.”
That may sound like strange doctrine, and I don’t recall how I came to it. But for example, recalling what I said about prayer for anonymous categories of people: can I believe God will heal all “the sick?” No. So I don’t pray that.
5. What you “see” is what you’ll get. I don’t know that it’s so, but it’s possible that the obstacles to my prosperity, the rungs I must overcome on Jacob’s ladder, include others’ well-meant but misguided prayers.
The last thing on earth I need is someone sitting with head bowed, rocking anxiously back and forth, wringing his or her hands, envisioning me as destitute, and saying, “Oh, poor Bill. Oh, poor Bill.”
That is, in fact, what the person’s sending me: anxiety and destitution. If “Oh, poor Bill” is what you pray, “Oh, poor Bill” is what you’ll get.
It would be far better for me if the person were to take a position of hope, and envision the same sorts of outcomes I myself dream of: seeing me writing checks (Bank account!), buying groceries (No more homeless shelter!) with cash (Not food stamps!), putting a fat envelope in the offering plate every Sunday, and so on.
Hope may be hard to come by in the face of a dire situation. One achieves it by act of will.
Related: Choosing v. wanting
At church, from time to time I serve as assisting minister. This role includes reading a number of prayers at different points in the service. We subscribe to an online resource that provides these prayers from week to week. On January 26, I was unable to find the printout, and so had to “wing it.” I was able to incorporate images and ideas from the sermon and the children’s sermon. On February 2, we found the page; I just looked at it and said, “Whew!” But regarding myself as not having time to compose alternative prayers, I used those.
The language is often lofty, and just does not correspond to the way people talk around here. The concerns expressed often seem to me not to be our concerns, and the prayers reflect less an understanding of how prayer works, than an interest in political correctness.
So, during the time for sharing, I announced a plan to recruit a team of folk who might write those prayers for ourselves. So they would be more likely to be our prayers. And use the language we use.
After worship, one and only one person came up to me wanting to be part of that team. My spirit dropped. Based on the testimonies and prayers this person has offered in the past, I don’t think he’s likely to take us the way I want us to go, and I also don’t think he’ll listen to my guidelines.
(Composed 2014-02-21. Originally posted 2014-03-29.)