Episcopalians on prayer: ‘just pray’

‘God is not a gumball machine’

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Jan 8, 2014
People pray Aug. 3, 2008, in Canterbury Cathedral’s Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time after the names of seven Melanesian Brothers had been installed in the chapel. After working in the Solomon Islands to get supplies to innocents trapped by ethnic conflict, negotiating the release of hostages and search for the missing, injured and dead, the men were killed in 2003 by a militant group. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

People pray Aug. 3, 2008, in Canterbury Cathedral’s Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time after the names of seven Melanesian Brothers had been installed in the chapel. After working in the Solomon Islands to get supplies to innocents trapped by ethnic conflict, negotiating the release of hostages and search for the missing, injured and dead, the men were killed in 2003 by a militant group. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] When drought conditions worried Oklahoma City environmental groups, Ferrella March and Bishop Steven Charleston organized a gathering to pray for rain.

There was a downpour.

In Detroit, St. John’s Episcopal Church held a worship service to pray for a winning season for the local baseball team, the Tigers.

The team came within reach of the playoffs.

In Los Angeles, an emotional Bishop Jon Bruno told a Dec. 7 diocesan convention gathering that, while battling leukemia, “doctors gave me a one percent chance of living and I was perfectly happy to go.”

Then came an outpouring of prayers for healing from family, friends and the diocesan and church-wide community. Now, a year later, doctors have declared him “metabolically clear” of cancer and he says he “felt all the prayers.”

All of which raises questions about how prayer works, or does it? How do we understand our relationship with God if it appears our prayers aren’t answered? How, when and why to pray, and whether any prayer too small or too large? To begin to start to answer some of these questions, a range of Episcopalians across the church shared their experiences and understanding of prayer with the Episcopal News Service.

Ultimately, they said, just pray, pray and trust God.

Oklahoma: ‘pray, teach, act’

March, a parishioner at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City, works for the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, a membership organization for statewide natural resource managers, and helped organize a series of days of prayer for rain when widespread drought caused water rationing, killed fish because of low reservoirs, affected crops, livestock and quality of life.

“At our May event, it thundered during the middle of the service, rained and then we had a beautiful sunset,” she recalled. “After that, at least in central Oklahoma, we had rainstorm after rainstorm, pretty severe weather, and at that point, people were saying, ‘you have to quit praying for rain now,’” she laughed.

Charleston, who along with March founded the Whole Creation Community, a Facebook environmental ministry of about 700 people living a rule of life, joked that even “our friends in north Texas wrote to me and said ‘thank you, your prayers are working here, too.’”

While grateful for the rain, neither is convinced it had anything to do with their prayers.

And that’s okay, according to March. “If it rained, great,” she said. “But, if it didn’t, it [the event] still promoted awareness. It was a win-win. That’s really Episcopalian.”

But she added that, prayer is what you do first, always. Next, you act.

“That’s the whole concept of Whole Creation Community. First we pray, then we teach and then action will come from our prayers and education. Prayer shouldn’t be the last resort; so often you hear people say, ‘all I could do was pray.’ It should be the first thing you do.”

Charleston agreed: “The prayers for rain had a statewide impact; we are partnered now with the state through conservation organizations to work annually now, to bring community building and awareness and to try to spiritually focus people on the environment. And we have a growing interreligious network now. Our plan is, water this year, next year, land, and then air.”

The retired dean and president of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Charleston teaches Native American religions at St. Paul’s School of Theology in Oklahoma City and is founder of Red Moon Publications. Prayer that doesn’t work is often the best answer “and we don’t always need to jump to the assessment that every prayer thought must be answered or that we failed, or our God has failed,” he said.

“God is not a gumball machine that we put in a quarter and out comes what we want,” he added. “The way we judge how prayer is being responded to requires a deep participation on our part of listening carefully.”

Playing ball, being neighborly and persistently praying in Detroit

The Rev. Steven Kelly’s deep love of baseball and extravagant sense of humor translated into organizing a public prayer service to pray for the hometown team, the Detroit Tigers, to have a winning season.

“We started this in 2001 and were laughed at roundly when in 2002 the Tigers were one game short of the worst record in major league baseball,” Kelly said in a telephone interview with ENS.

“People said, ‘well, gee, your prayers aren’t working’ and we’d respond that it took the Israelites 40 years to get through the wilderness; it may take the Tigers that long, too.”

Members of the 150-year-old St. John’s Church held their annual ‘Pray for the Tigers’ service at the start of 2013 baseball season and, when the team entered the playoffs, they held another one with special intention for a World Series win.

Ultimately, the Tigers lost to the Boston Red Sox, but Kelly took the defeat in stride, noting that the prayers were less about winning and more about love of neighbor since the team plays at Comerica Park, located about 200 yards from the church.

“Yes, we pray that, if it’s God’s will they will get lots of victories but primarily we also pray for the owner, the players, for health, for the fans, for the workers, the vendors” some of whom are parishioners at the church, he said.

“The importance about prayer is persistence,” he added. It’s also important to keep a prayer journal. “Sometimes, you can go back later and see how God answered those prayers,” he said. “Or, you realize that, ‘I can’t believe something was so important to worry about.”

‘Our approaches to prayer are legion’

For the Rev. Canon Malcolm Boyd, 90, a Huffington Post columnist and author of the 1961 book of prayers, Are You Running with Me, Jesus? “our approaches to prayer are legion. I feel virtually everybody prays at one time or another.”

He prayed all night in 1961 “the night before I had to make a decision about whether or not to participate in a Freedom Ride. I was scared. I didn’t have any idea what a ‘freedom ride’ was. Yet, I must answer the next morning.”

While the celebrated civil rights activist said: “I don’t think our prayers are ‘answered’ as if by a slot machine” he went on to become a Freedom Rider and to herald other causes, including full inclusion for the LGBT community.

Prayers, he said, “can be ‘answered’ mysteriously and in the future and seemingly out of sequence. How do we know if our prayers don’t get answered? You mean you didn’t get that job you wanted? Prayer isn’t like a prescription counter at a drugstore.”

He added that, “my prayer was at times difficult when I was arguing with God or simply felt unworthy to be praying at all. Birthdays have sometimes been hard, maybe especially my recent 90th one. Would it be my last? If so, what should I be praying about?”

The Rev. Martin Smith, recently retired from St. Columba’s, Washington, D.C., and the author of numerous books about prayer, said we pray “to expand our experience of communion with God, who is love, to be open to mercy and transformation by God’s grace, and to take part in his work of healing by offering to him our longing for his reign of love to be made real in the lives of all human beings.”

We are to understand our relationship with God when it appears our prayers are not answered, he said, because “the bond with God that grows in prayer deepens our sense of sheer mystery.

“We don’t know and can’t know more than a fraction of how our active loving plays a part in the coming of the reign of God on earth,” he added. “We learn to love without dependence on many immediate tangible results … I pray as a member of Christ’s Body, I am acting within the web of interconnecting lives called the communion of the Holy Spirit.

“I learn to live without being able to control much of anything, just making my capacity to love and desire a continual offering to God whose mystery lies beyond the grasp of my understanding.”

Why Pray; prayer how-to, does it matter?

Claire Littlefield, 17, a senior at Pittman High School and a parishioner at St. Francis Church in Turlock, California, in the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, said she prays throughout her days, trying “to remember to always give thanks for all the blessings that I receive each and every day” and during stressful situations as well as before track meets.

“We always come together and pray before our races to ask that God will give us the strength to do our very best, and to remind ourselves that God is with us. Praying calms me and gives me focus. I am reassured of God’s presence with me always when I pray.”

Prayer comes as a response to God, for Ryan Macias, 17, a parishioner at St. George’s Church in Laguna Hills, California. “God is constantly making himself known to us in so many different ways, the sacraments, the beauty of the creation around us, his word and so many more.

“It is so important to consider the diverse forms of responding to God,” added Macias, who said he fell in love with the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer when he encountered it.

“Many times I need structure, I need help focusing. I find myself at a loss for words. I pray about the little things as well as the big things, the blessings and the burdens. Nothing is too big, and nothing too small to lay before God. He hears our petitions. He hears out thanksgivings and praises, this I am convinced of.”

Noted writer and lecturer Phyllis Tickle uses a writing metaphor to help describe non-petitionary prayer.

“What I really do is push through some kind of keyhole or door somewhere inside my non-objective world and come out on the other side into some kind of marketplace [for lack of a better word] where there is activity and where ideas and phrases and insights are on display as if in a grand mall,” Tickle wrote in a Dec. 12 e-mail to ENS. “And I go shopping, taking what I need or want or am drawn to, but the ‘shopper’ is not me, for ‘me’ is still on the other side of the keyhole, waiting.

“The shopper, rather, is a guided being of whom I am only a part … or of whom my self-consciousness is only a part. I/we gather what I am nudged toward [for inevitably, I shall need it on the other side], or what delights me, though I don’t know why, or what simply charms and is sufficient unto itself for that reason. Then, the I who carries it all back through the keyhole or door and makes from it the stuff of art and life, for that is the end result for which it is intended.”

She added that “fixed-hour prayer, like ritual prayer, is the soul’s home … the places [for prayer is a place always] where we are tutored and schooled and sculpted by an agenda other than our own.”

‘Prayer itself is a miracle’

A car accident several years ago raised questions about prayers for the Rev. Ernesto Medina, rector of St. Martha’s Church in Papillion, Nebraska.

He recovered from serious injuries and “people were saying things like, God must have a purpose for you on earth. Like someone who dies doesn’t have a purpose on earth?”

The whole idea of God answering prayer “bothers me,” Medina added. “It’s like, if the prayers are answered, you’re in; if they’re not, you’re out.

“On the other hand, there’s the assumption that you do something so your prayers can be answered. If you don’t study the day before a test, and pray that God gives you the wisdom to put the right answers down anyway, you’re probably not going to do very well on the test.”

But prayer itself is a miracle, he said. “The miracle contained within prayer is that prayer is helpful when it helps you understand that you’re turning it over to God, that you let go, that you understand that you yourself don’t have power over it. So that action, whether you know it or not, that you’re turning it over to God, a higher power, is the miracle.”

Even more so, “there’s something about when you’re praying for someone else you somehow are linked in an incarnational way with the communion of saints, so if I’m praying with you I’m linked to you and that’s the miracle.

“It’s about whether we trust God or not. If we’re trying to manipulate the prayer we’re not trusting. But if we’re really living into thy will be done, it probably is really the only prayer.’

Dolores Conyer of Pomona, California, knows something about miracles. Her son Timothy Gaines was born severely mentally and physically disabled, with bilateral club feet, requiring numerous corrective surgeries. “I didn’t realize how much I relied on prayer until later,” Conyer recalled during a telephone interview with ENS.

“He was having all these surgeries and during them, he suffered cardiac arrest, the cause unknown. I felt that prayer and faith were the reason he survived. He used to say  ‘the lady in white’ came to him. I think the lady in white was prayer, was faith, and all that was good.”

But Timothy was murdered at age 35 in 2001; his murder remains unsolved and Conyer, 72, recently was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. But her faith remains unshaken and although she will always have questions about the whys of her son’s murder and her own health challenges, “there’s no need to do anything other than to maintain my faith, and just keep on praying,” she said.

“I think about all the pain and suffering Tim went through and why he had to die the way he did, alone, and a voice said to me, ‘No, he wasn’t. He was not alone’. So, here comes that lady in white.”

For the mean time, “I’m thinking in terms of when Tim was little,” Conyer said. “They told me he wouldn’t live past five years old. So, if he woke up, I made a plan for the day. We lived each day at a time.

“I’ve always been an adventurous person,” she added. “I’ve never been afraid to venture and try new things. This is another journey that I’m on and, hopefully, however it ends, it will have been a good ride. Faith and prayer play a role in that. If I didn’t have faith and prayer I wouldn’t be able to do anything, I would be lost.”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.

Comments (3)

  1. The Rev. Daniel Prechtel says:

    What a beautifully nuanced article. Thank you! I happen to be starting a short teaching series on prayer at my parish this Sunday and will be happy to use, or refer to, this.

  2. Paul Briggs says:

    “We pray when it is easy so that when life is hard we may easily pray.” Probably not an exact quote but close enough–from a sermon by Jesse Zink at Acadia University.

    1. Paula Wicker Hamby says:

      When our miracle grandson James was born at 4.5 months premature, weighing one pound, three ounces…I was so “addled” I could not pray, move or do anything for about two days…then gradually the strength came from others praying for us to get on the plane and travel to the hospital. James survived with 24 surgeries and multiple handicaps…but oh what a happy beautiful child now at seven years old…he was given about a 1 percent chance of survival at first… I learned to just thank God and pray for “God’ best” for him and his dear parents and to let God do the rest. We are at peace!

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