This afternoon I had two welcome items in my mailbox - my new passport (which means I can stop worrying about being able to head off to Ethiopia in June) and the latest The Christian Century. If you haven't had a chance to pick up an issue of this magazine, you're missing out. Good articles that make you think about theological issues are not a dime a dozen.
One of the articles in this particular issue of the mag that made me think is about intercessory prayer. In a recent edition of the New York Times, there was an article about another test on the effects of prayer on heart patients. And the news is apparently not all that good. According to this article, "prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found. And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of postoperative complications."
The Christian Century offers a fantastic tongue-in-cheek memo to a congregation where Martin Copenhaver pleads with his church to stop praying for others (check it out if you can). It also offers this thought in another article about the same study: "the basic theological confusion here is to think that prayer puts God at our disposal, that prayers is a lever we use to nudge God in a specific direction. A God who is at our disposal in that way would not be God."
I've thought about prayer a lot over the years. Why do we pray, what "good" does prayer do. It always made me uncomfortable to think that my prayers are what could and would change God's mind about something. While that can be a powerful thought, it can also be unbearably burdening. If something bad happens to someone I love, it's because I didn't pray hard enough. And, as the writer of the previously mentioned article says, God who would so be at my disposal wouldn't be God. So, if my prayers, our prayers, are not about producing the results we want, if it's not a matter of praying just hard enough so that what we want comes to pass, then why do we pray? Should we pray?
We all have to decide that for ourselves. Me, I lean towards keeping up my prayers. Why? Because pray for me isn't so much about healing people or ridding the world of poverty or violence because I wish it hard enough - though certainly God knows I do pray hard for such things. Prayer is more about putting my trust in God and in what God does with me. When I pray for peace in the Middle East, I don't know if those prayers will sway God to intervene in new ways. But I do believe that those prayers sway me. My prayer changes me, gives me a passion and compassion that make me a stronger person, a better follower of Christ. Through prayer, I draw closer to God and in doing so, I believe I am empowered to be the change I wish to seek. This is not to say I don't believe prayers for other people can heal them in some way, but it is not why I pray. If study after study could show that intercessory prayers don't effect change on the person or places prayed for, I would still pray for others - in part because I know prayer changes and heals me.
To pray or not to pray - I choose to pray.