On Responding Prayers
Every religion has prayers as its expression of faithful devotion. A Tibetan monk turns his clanking prayer wheel. An orthodox Jew faces the Wailing Wall in earnest prayer. A shoeless Muslim prostrates on a small rug and bows his head towards Mecca in recital prayer. A Buddhist sits in a garden, deep in meditative prayer. I think every religion prays because every person has an innate urge to seek a higher power beyond us. Even the not so religious pray. Jodie Foster, the actress, who is not religious, confessed that one time when her plane dropped suddenly a few thousand feet, her instinct was to pray. Isaac Singer, the Polish writer, said that he prayed only when he was in trouble. Since he was trouble all the time, he prayed all the time.
Christians also pray. When we pray, we believe that our prayers are to the Listening God. We want God to listen attentively when we supplicate our needs and concerns. But the church teaches that God, above all else, is the Speaking God. Genesis begins with this notion of the speaking God: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth . . . . And God said, let there be light, and there was light. Psalm 18 says that The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the most high resounded. The psalmist imagines that the voice of the Speaking God is like thunder. The poet George Herbert concludes that if the voice of God is thunder, then our voices in prayers are like reversed thunder.
Most often, our prayers suspect that this Listening God is clueless. So we pray to inform God. We rehearse what on earth is going on; we tell God how to manage what on earth is going on. In a couples meeting some time ago, I tested this crazy hypothesis. The couples were asked to pray but with one qualifier. They could not tell God what was going on nor tell God what to do. Afterwards, many confessed that their prayers were painfully short for they had little to say. So I wondered out loud: what if prayer is primarily answering God rather than asking God. Here is the thing, I said, the Christian traditions have always embraced the doctrine that the Bible as the Word of God is about, spoken and given by God. When we open its covers, we experience the Speaking God. Through its pages, God speaks to us.
When they asked for an example, I gave them this: In Revelation the Lord God says, I am “who is, who was, and who is to come.” This three-tense name of God speaks to us about the eternal presence of God in our lives. There is no time when or place where God is not. Psalm 139 affirms: Yahweh, you are with me and know everything about me. You are behind, in front, above, below, to the left, and to the right of me. You notice everything I do, every place I go. Even before I speak, you already know what I am going to say. Even if I climb the highest point in the heavens, you are there. Even if I dig the lowest pit in the earth, you are there. If the darkest of night covers me, you are there as light. Your eternal presence is always in my presence.
Some time ago, my wife and I drove our daughter to college. It was an anxious time for her parents. What would become of her while she was away from home. The night before, we gathered as family to pray over her: Our Father, you are the God who is, who was and who is to come. There is no time, no place in Johna’s life where you are not. We can’t always be with her. But God is with her; your eternal presence is with her. We take comfort in the assurance that you are always present in her presence. The Word of God informs our prayers that evening. When the voice of God speaks, it is like thunder. When we respond to the Word of God, our prayers are like reversed thunder.