Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What Praying Isn't...and How I pray

I unfriended someone on Facebook either Saturday or Sunday night. I suppose I could have hidden this person from my newsfeed, but we really weren't friends. This person and I did a two-week program together in high school and haven't seen each other since. The only real interaction this person and I have had since then was a discussion/debate on the difference between sex and gender, and how one is biologically structed and the other is socially constructed. That wasn't his perspective of course.

That aside, we haven't really talked, so neither of us (to my knowledge) had much investment in the other's Facebook friendship. However, he posted something the other day and I clicked on his page and I saw the following status updates that had imported from Twitter.

"Pray for Andrew, freshman at AU, who described himself as a 'relativistic Catholic.'
"Pray for Bart, Ph.D. student at AU, who is agnostic; knows the Bible but doesn't believe it.
"Pray for Zach, freshman at AU, who is tired of being enslaved to sin and wants to trust Christ and repent but is scared to do so.
"Pray for Evan, freshman at AU, who chose a chicken sandwich over trusting Christ and surrendering his life to him today.
" Pray for Nick who has the choice of continuing to live w/ his girlfriend or surrendering to the gospel and finding somewhere else to sleep."

I was incensed when I read it, and I decided that if there's potential for that to come up in my newsfeed, it's better (as Bishop Robinson said concerning protestors outside General Convention) for me to not have that kind of input in my life. As far as I'm concerned that twitterfeed is very far from prayer. When your requests or petitions are "Pray for ____________ because I don't like that they're doing ____________ or they disagree with me about __________________," I think that has fallen from prayer into something between gossiping and passing judgment, maybe both at the same time. I grew up in an environment (and am exposed to it some still) where this was part of prayer, but by no means the only part of praying for others!

I think that's what praying and prayer aren't. But if I'm going to say that, what is prayer?

"Q. What is prayer?
A. Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.
Q. What is Christian Prayer?
A. Christian prayer is response of God the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit...
Q. What are intercession and petition?
A. Intercession brings before God the needs of others; in petition, we present our own needs, that God's will may be done." -BCP, 856-857

Prayer is responding to God. Intercession is bringing others' needs to God on their behalf. The tweets were, I suppose in themselves legitimate. Pray for these people. Okay. What're we praying though? I think the implication with some and the explicit statement of others is "pray that they will be like me" (i.e. "...who has the choice of continuing to live w/ his girlfriend or surrendering to the gospel and finding somewhere else to sleep."). I think that when we pray these kinds of things we are putting ourselves in a place higher than we should think of ourselves.

When I was in the seventh grade, I used to go through this kind of litany at night before bed for people who made decisions that I wouldn't agree with. "God, be with x and y, that they not be lustful and control their hands when they're alone and with other people. Be with z, that he will not listen to (name of band I don't remember that HomeLife had said was bad), and that he'll really love you." In the course of a conversation with a very wise young woman (now a beautiful married adult woman) quoted Mt. 7.1 to me. It was a slap in the face the weight of a ton of bricks that I needed.

And now I pray for a list of people, which certainly isn't the "right" way to pray, nor is it the only way. I keep my list personal and don't generally broadcast it on Twitter or Facebook, although I do sometimes share concerns or joys via those media or the OSL CyberChapter. Most of the time it's just names of people that I think about, many of whom I don't know all their situations or specific needs to be prayed for. But I pray for them. If they've asked me about something special or I know something going on I'll remember it specifically in prayer. I pray for Bishop Robinson then Archbishop Peter Akinola. This method of praying was lately heavily influenced by Bonhoeffer. Praying for people just by name most of the time puts me in a place of humility that "God, please make Peter Akinola accept me, and Bishop Robinshon and Presiding Bishop Jefferts-Schori" doesn't. Praying for people by name as people I care about and want God to guide puts God, not me, in the place of determining what guidance they need.

That doesn't even mean not praying for people to become Christians or preclude evangelistic praying. Examples: "For those who do not yet believe, and for those who have lost their faith, we that they may receive the light of the Gospel, we pray to you, O Lord" or "I ask your prayers for all who seek God, or a deeper knowledge of him.Pray that they may find and be found by him." What these do is still pray for people who have not come to Christianity. What they don't do is call people out by name as a way of intimidating, making fun, or casting stones or criticize people for having a different understanding of Christianity than you do (critique of personal label, critique of non-submission to the Gospel).

Show us your mercy, O Lord;
And grant us your salvation.
Clothe your ministers with righteousness;
Let your people sing with joy.
Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
For only in you can we live in safety.
Lord, keep this nation under your care;
And guide us in the way of justice and truth.
Let your way be known upon earth;
Your saving health among all nations.
Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
Create in us clean hearts, O God;
And sustain us by your Holy Spirit.


  1. This is a beautifully thought out piece about prayer. I don't think I have ever heard it described quite so well. Well done.

  2. A variation on your former fb friends method is one of my all time favorite: "well, I'll pray for you" with the pray emphasized. I heard this one thrown around quite a bit growing up and it always frustrated me. I agree with you that we should be praying for God's will to be done rather than our own, and sadly I think many folks who throw phrases like that around tend to think Their will IS God's will. It's a shame you wrote this article after you unfriendes him, it's sounds as if he could have used this gentle and well written reminder that prayer is a form of service.