Tag Archives: Relationships

Your prayers worked. Are you sure?


“Your prayers worked,” Jen said to me last week, the day after I had prayed for her to be free from pain.

I thought long and hard about that.  Do prayers “work”?  And when there is no answer (or not the one we were hoping for), do we say, “Your prayers didn’t work”?

Does prayer “work” and “not work”?

Let us begin by recognising that we are not going to get to a definitive answer in this brief comment, at least not one that will satisfy everyone.  Prayer is too vast a subject for definitive answers at the best of times.  Our answers would also depend on what we meant by “prayer” and by “work”. 

When we define prayer narrowly in terms of specific prayer requests, we have to admit that prayer often doesn’t “work”.  The specific thing we ask for often does not happen the way we ask for it to happen.  Even Jesus experienced prayer like that.  Mark tells us that he could not perform any miracles in Nazareth, because the people lacked faith (Mark 6:5-6).  Matthew (13:58) prefers not be quite as absolute, and says that Jesus was not able to perform many miracles there.  Mind you, Mark does grudgingly admit that Jesus did manage to heal “a few sick people”. Either way, specific prayers were not answered.  Had the people concerned been asked, they would have said, “No, your prayers didn’t work.”

Of course, we tend to say that prayers are always answered, but that sometimes the answer is, “No,” or “Not now.”  And that is also true, although such a catch-all answer drives the sceptic mad.  And one can sympathise.  Such an answer relies on faith, and our trust in a loving and active God.  What the sceptic wants is definitive proof, or at least statistically acceptable proof: out of 100 prayers, so many were answered as desired, and so many weren’t, which will prove things one way or another.

God, however, isn’t interested in statistics; he is concerned only with relationships.  And to understand prayer we have to understand it in the context of our relationship with God (and with each other).  The story of the Bible from beginning to end, Old and New Testaments, is the story of God’s relationship with his creation, and his pursuit of that relationship.  God is not portrayed in scripture as a careless creator, throwing stars into space and sitting back to enjoy the show.  He is Creator, but he has a specific goal in mind, and that goal is relationship, however you want to define it. 

More than anything else prayer is about relationship.  What does it mean when we pray fervently for a friend’s healing?  First of all, we are acknowledging our relation-ship with God, and we are approaching him as Father.  Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father….”  He is not a shopkeeper we go to with a list in order to buy things we need; he is Father. He is our father, and our friend’s father, and it is in acknowledging both those relationships that we approach him in prayer. 

When we pray for our friend’s healing we are praying for something that God also holds dear, and in our praying we are drawing closer to our friend and closer to God.  We are taking time from our busy day and focusing for a moment or two on our friend and on the father of us both.  In perhaps a very small way, we are growing those relationships that are both God’s gift and God’s desire.  At that level, does prayer “work”?  Absolutely, even when the “answer” is not what we had hoped for or expected.

When we pray for healing and wholeness, for reconciliation, for peace, we are praying for those things that God himself wants for his creation.  And we can pray deeply, and fervently, and often, because as we pray we are drawing closer to our Father.  As we draw closer, we develop a greater understanding of what God wants to do, and (be warned) what he wants us to do.

See also:

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Why the West Rules—For Now


I am reading Ian Morris’s book, Why the West Rules—for Now.  It’s a fascinating look at the patterns of history and what they reveal about the future.  One reviewer called it, “The nearest thing to a unified field theory of history we are ever likely to get.”

I enjoyed Jared Diamond’s Gun’s, Germs and Steel which also looks at why the West has its nose in front or, as he puts it, why we have more “stuff”.  Morris runs through innumerable other such studies that fall very roughly into what he calls “long-term lock-in” or “short-term accident” theories, including the succinctly put summary of British poet and politician, Hilaire Belloc in 1898:

Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.

Morris is an archaeologist and ancient historian (I presume the “ancient” part refers to his work rather than himself) and his broad sweep (he calls it “chainsaw art”) takes one on an archaeological, geographical, sociological and biological journey from 2.5 million years ago to 2010.  His ability to keep a vast range of material together and keep the reader interested is impressive as is his wide reading.  Morris writes (as one critic put it) “with wit and clarity that will delight the lay reader.” I agree.

His arguments, conclusions and theories do not concern us here.  I was simply challenged by his comments on Christianity.  If he is a man of faith, it doesn’t show; he writes impartially, but sympathetically, about all the major religions, from emperor worship to the “modern” great faiths.

I am also not particularly interested here in how accurate his understanding of the growth of Christianity may be, but in how others view Christians (and our squabbles) from the outside.  Let me quote a rather lengthy passage (slightly edited) from a section dealing with the dramatic growth of Christianity in the West and Buddhism in the East, each from a handful of followers to 100 million or so in about three or four centuries.

Jesus wrote no sacred texts, and as early as the 50s (AD) the apostle Paul was struggling to get Christians to agree on a few core points about what Christianity actually was.  Most followers accepted that they should be baptised, pray to God, renounce other gods, eat together on Sundays, and perform good works, but beyond these basic premises, almost anything was possible.  Some held that the God of the Hebrew Bible was merely the last (and lowest) in a series of prior gods.  Others thought the world was evil and so God the Creator must be wicked too.  Or maybe there were two gods, a malevolent Jewish one and Jesus’ wholly good (but unknowable) father.  Or two Jesuses, a spiritual one who escaped crucifixion and a bodily one who died on the cross.  Maybe Jesus was a woman, some suggested, and maybe women were equal to men.  Maybe new revelations could overrule the old ones.  Maybe Jesus’ Second Coming was imminent, in which case no Christian should have sex; maybe its imminence meant Christians should practice free love; or maybe only people who were martyred in horrible ways would go to heaven.

For Buddhists, multiple paths to nirvana were not a problem.  For Christians, however, getting into heaven depended on knowing who God and Jesus were and doing what they wanted, and so the chaos of interpretations forced believers into a frenzy of self-definition.  In the late second century most came to agree that there should be bishops who would be treated as descendants of the original apostles with the authority to judge what Jesus meant.  Preachers with wilder ideas were damned into oblivion, the New Testament crystalized, and the window on revelations closed.  No one could tinker with the Good Book and no one could hear from the Holy Spirit unless the bishops said so; and no one had to renounce marital sex or be martyred, unless they wanted to.

Morris is writing about Christianity’s first couple of centuries.  Once again, one can argue about the detail, but for “chainsaw art” he is not far off.  What about today?  What would an alien from outer space, or more to the point, what would someone outside of Christianity have to say about our internal squabbles, denominationalist standoffs, conservative-liberal warmongering, and a whole host of divisions fervently defended on all sides.

So much of our faith becomes a hearty defence, even open warfare, against what we do not and will not believe.  What we do believe, what we have to offer the world, is lost in the melee.  The great gift we have, what Jesus called his disciples to on the night before his crucifixion, was not just God’s love, mercy and healing, but God’s love, mercy and healing lived and practiced in a broken and divided world.  Jesus didn’t simply talk about these things; he modelled them for his followers in his daily decisions and interactions.  He cared enough to stop and listen and touch; he depended on God enough to get up early and pray; he balanced his prayer and reflection with moving forward into new opportunities for ministry.  Ultimately he demonstrated that God’s love for us and our love for others are more precious than life itself.

You and I are not likely to reduce or even contain the bitter theological turf wars that deny our faith (although I should only speak for myself; you perhaps have more influence than I).  The real question for every Christian is whether we will allow ourselves to be conduits for peace or for war?  Am I willing to let go of my “turf”, turn from arguments and the building of theological and liturgical castles, and put the practicing of God’s love, mercy and healing first; building others up rather than putting them down? 

I am convinced that relationship is more important than rightness; intimacy more fruitful than rules.

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Personal Shopper: Outcomes-Based Prayer


Have you ever thought about how cool it would be to have a Personal Shopper?  You send off your shopping list and it all just happens.  Of course in this digital age it would all be on your cell phone.  You update the list from last week, press the button, and wait.  Soon, very soon, your Personal Shopper arrives with a Colgate smile and your goodies, just as you ordered.

Well I’m all in favour, but I have to let you into a secret, although I’m pretty sure you’ve already worked it out: God is not our Personal Shopper, and prayer is not a shopping list.  Prayer is about engaging with God on the issues we are concerned about.  Of course as we grow in prayer, we begin to engage with God on the issues he is concerned about, but we start with those things that we can become passionate about; we engage with God and we offer ourselves as part of the solution.

The problem in this day and age is that the world focuses almost exclusively on outcomes.  Outcomes-Based Education is a little discredited as a policy, but the principle is still very much intact.  No one wants to know how many books you’ve read.  All they want to know is, Did you pass the exam?  How hard you worked is not important; did you graduate?  And, in the world of work, no one is interested in the time and effort you put in.  Did you make the sale?  You might be working harder and longer hours than anyone else in the office, but who cares?  Did you get the report in on time?  That’s what matters.

So our shopping-list prayers are well suited to the modern world.  “Here’s a list, God.  Please give us the results we want.”

But God says, “No!  That’s not how I made you; that’s not how I wired the universe.  The journey is much more important than the destination; the relationship is much more precious than results.”

Prayer is not about results, it’s about relationships.  Results, such as healing, may emerge from our prayers, and sometimes the relationship emerges from the healing.  That’s what happened to Bartimaeus.  He received his sight and he had a choice.  Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.”  He was free to go, but he chose to follow Jesus; he chose the relationship.  But ten lepers were healed by Jesus; nine of them took their healing and ran.  Only one returned to say thank you; only one allowed his healing to grow into a relationship.  For the others the relationship was lost.

When our prayers are shopping lists, and we only look for results, we lose the greatest gift of all, a relationship with the one who made us, with the one who loves us.

These thoughts emerged when I was writing the story of Bartimaeus.  If you haven’t come across it yet, you can read it here.

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A Prayer about Prayer


Lord you listen to our ramblings,
You listen to our cries for help,
You listen to our angry ranting
And our tear-filled grief.

We bring you our troubles and disasters,
And the tragedies that play out in the world around us.
We tell you about the inconsequential, the mundane and the insignificant.
Sometimes we react with the greatest intensity to less important things
And appear indifferent to the catastrophes around us.

You listen to it all, our chattering and our silence,
Our passion and our calmness.
As a father listens to his children
So you love to share in our stories
And enter into our lives.

But how you long to speak a word of love;
How you long for a quiet moment,
When the babble and the tears and the anger subside;
A quiet space for your still small voice to penetrate;
For the Father to touch his children’s lives.

We are alert to the world’s nuances and rhythms,
Quick to react in every way imaginable.
Teach us to know the rhythms of your heart, Lord,
Your still small voice, and your passion for justice and healing.
Teach us to temper our chattering with stillness,
And to listen for the breathing of your Spirit.

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What is prayer?


Dutch Reformed Church, Somerset East

Image by Kleinz1 via Flickr



Crystal Rodli asked the title question on her blog recently.  

Let’s be clear from the outset.  I do not presume here to add one iota to the vast body of literature on prayer, but simply to put into words something of my very limited understanding.

Prayer is, I believe primarily about relationship.  It is conversation with one who loves us enough to share deeply with us; one who cares enough to listen intensely to our ramblings, our love songs, our breathing, and our ranting.  I don’t think any of this is in dispute.

What tends to be under the spotlight is prayer as intercession.   That is what we have difficulty with.  The Witness this week reported on a local Dutch Reformed Church minister who stated that “Praying in terms of requests to God doesn’t work.”  God doesn’t interfere in his creation so there is no point in praying for the weather or for protection on the roads.  He says that, “If you go on the road you have to be alert.  That is why you must pray that the Lord will make you more careful.”

Sounds good, but it fails to acknowledge God’s deep love for his people, foolish and simplistic as that may sound.   I agree with the good Dominee in that intercession is not a simplistic shopping list for God to ‘sort out’ while I get on with my life.  But there is a mystery about intercession that is beyond our understanding—God does interfere in his creation.  It is also beyond any manipulation.  When we try to fit prayer into our logic patterns and make sense of it, we can’t, and we tend to reject it as this minister has done.

David, of course has much to teach us about prayer, largely through the Psalms.  It is there that we learn to rant, if we need to.  But rant to God, not to those around us (even our enemies).  God can handle it and we can learn from it.  Our enemies can’t and we will learn nothing in the process.  But I was thinking about another prayer of David’s.  David’s plunge into disgrace through his infatuation with Bathsheba is well known.  After the murder of Bathsheba’s husband and David’s marriage to her, David was told by Nathan the Prophet that the child of the union would die.  When the child became gravely ill David refused to eat or to sleep.  He wrestled with God, pleading for the child’s life (2 Samuel 12:15-23).

When the child died David’s staff were fearful to tell him but, to their surprise, when they did break the news, David got up, bathed, dressed and ate.  “Yes,” David answered, “I did fast and weep while he was still alive.  I thought the Lord might be merciful to me and not let the child die.  But now that he is dead, why should I fast?  Could I bring the child back to life?”  David’s prayer was an intense grappling with God but, in the end, he found peace. 

Abraham challenged God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33).  He begged forgiveness for presuming to change God’s mind about the matter, but he continued anyway.  And indeed God changed his mind: “I will not destroy the cities if there are ten righteous people there.”

These two stories by no means tell us all there is to know about prayer but in both of these we find intense engagement with God.  I’m not suggesting that my prayers come even close, but this is what intercession could be.  Engaging with God; not letting go “until you bless me” (Genesis 32:22-32).

I don’t know how, or why, or what the mechanics are, or the logic.  It is, I believe, the deepest mystery about prayer, that God welcomes and invites our participation in creation and in salvation, not only through our actions but also through our prayers.  And sometimes, because we pray, God acts.  I would go so far as to say that, in some mysterious way well beyond understanding (and certainly beyond our manipulation), because of our prayers sometimes God is able to act.  Our prayers in some mysterious way, open doors for the Spirit to do his work.

After the flood (“Never again”), beginning with Abraham, God entered into a covenant relationship with his creation.  He said to Abraham, in effect, “From now on, I will not intervene in creation without your participation, and you will not find your purpose and fulfilment outside of a relationship with me.”  Our prayer relationship with God is part of that participation.  Not intercession alone, of course but intercession is an important part of it.

Some pray for parking bays (some pray for their sports teams).  Trivial?  Yes, of course.  Serious  intercession?  Of course not.  But don’t trash such prayers too quickly.  There are those for whom these are the only expressions of prayer they engage in.  Perhaps, just perhaps, God will open their eyes to greater things because of this small chink in their armour.

There are others whose relationship with God is so close and so dear that they share everything with God, including their drive to the shops and their search for a parking bay.  They don’t for a moment think that God has deserted them if the bays are all taken.  Well, OK, there are some who do need help here.  But for the rest, full bays will just be something else to engage their Friend and their Lord about.  Because, for them, prayer is an ongoing conversation.

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Heavenly property vs. Consumer Protection Act


South Africa has entered the Consumer Protection age with the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) due for implementation on 1 April 2011. Whether one provides a service, sells goods, or buys what is on offer, every South African should become familiar with his or her rights and obligations under the Act.

All parties in the supply chain are brought into the equation, which means that the consumer can ‘follow the money’ as they say. If the immediate supplier is a small, one-person operation, unable to recompense one for ‘pain and suffering’ endured, one can go after the wholesaler or the manufacturer.

Among the requirements of the Act is that consumers be given full and unambiguous information about products and services they are to receive, and that they should have access to redress. Estate Agents and the Holiday Club industry, for example, may have to re-word their more cryptic descriptions.

We are looking at it for our business of course, but during a recent seminar on the CPA my mind began to wonder to the Church whose task is to encourage the purchase of property in heaven (“setting up treasure in heaven” is how the guide-book puts it).

The problem is that the property is not clearly defined. The book of Revelation describes a city whereas in John 14:2 we read, “In My Father’s house are many mansions…. I go to prepare a place for you.” But there is ambiguity about what the consumer is actually getting. Some translate the word as “mansions”, others as “rooms” while others just call them “dwelling places”. Eugene Peterson (The Message) throws it wide open in his translation: “There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home.” I mean, what sort of room? Standing room? A place to sit?

It’s important to know these things because, being part of the supply chain, we are the ones who are likely to be targeted. The Owner of the property is beyond the reach of the courts.

The CPA also requires us to be clear about whether we are offering a product or a service. Some churches are clearly into products, with promises of wealth, new cars, and happiness here on earth but I haven’t heard of these offers being made in the poverty-stricken townships around South Africa. Perhaps that’s just the type of sales pitch from which the CPA is trying to protect us. Others focus very heavily on the riches and property in heaven part. But, as already stated, we simply don’t have the brochures or detailed descriptions.

I would suggest that our real offering is neither a product nor a service; it’s a relationship. A service is something one provides to a customer and, when that customer has what he or she paid for, one moves on to the next. A service in other words, like a product, has its limits. We can always explain those limits to the Ombudsman or the Commissioner and point out the relevant paragraph (fine print is no longer allowed) in our brochures. If we stick to the Ten Commandments we can clearly and unambiguously say, “I did not murder him, your Honour, or steal or covet his new Lamborghini.” But a relationship, unconditional love? There are no protective limits there. What if our neighbour wants more than we are ready or willing to give? What if the poor and the sick and the needy come knocking on our door because we advertised love and care and compassion? “Well, you see, that’s not quite what I meant” doesn’t work under the CPA.

The Ten Commandments and other such lists give us security. We know what is expected of us and, when we’re done, we can go home. But Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” and, “Love one another as I have loved you.” What? Without limits?

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