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Why do people pray?

Why do people pray?

by Paul Fromberg

I used to preside at a weekly healing prayer service – it was in a very traditional kind of church. The congregation would come up, one at a time, to pray while everyone looked on. After the first service I’d ask each one what they wanted me to pray for, which took some of the congregants completely by surprise. They’d name the need for prayer, some changing it weekly, others repeating the same request week after week.

Why do people pray? I’ve wondered over this question as long as I’ve been aware of prayer as a thing that people do – which has been my whole conscious life. I come from a long line of pray-ers. It’s pretty easy to understand a kind of magical prayer; say the right words at the right time and the right thing will happen to you. Like making a wish on the evening star, or buttering up your boss before you tell her you’ve totally screwed up the project she entrusted to you. But the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, the prayer that we say week by week is different. It is impolite and demanding; there is no “please” or “thank you” in the prayer, just give us, give us, forgive us.

And the way that we pray in this liturgy when we gather around the Eucharistic table to say our own prayers aloud is just as demanding. The deacon demands that we pray for the sick, for the homeless, for the dead and we make our demands known to God. Maybe demand is too strong a word, maybe it’s not. But we pray with a voice full of expectation.

The story in the Gospel of Luke of the centurion begging that Jesus heal his slave boy is a kind of demanding prayer, almost a desperate kind of prayer. The translation that we just heard says that the centurion “asked” Jesus to heal his slave. The word also has a more urgent meaning, “beseeched.” There is a kind of desperation to his request that doesn’t have time for etiquette. No time for please and thank you. This man seems to be at his wits end. And he’s also someone that might be considered Jesus’ enemy.

Centurions were the lowest level of commander among the occupying force in Galilee. They were the ones whose work was to enforce the mission of the terror state of Rome. Centurions were not the sharpest members of the military; they were generally the most ruthless. Even the assurance that he’d built the synagogue and was a big fan of YHWH might not have been enough to settle the typical Galilean wonder-worker. The surprise in this story is that Jesus not only grants the centurion’s request, he uses him as an exemplar of faith. The enemy of Israel is the one whose faith surpasses any that Jesus has ever seen among the people.

This means – at least – that when we approach God in prayer it is the very opposite of magic or a kind of nostalgic wish fulfillment. When we approach God in prayer it isn’t about our worthiness or unworthiness. It isn’t about our terms at all. When we approach God in prayer it is on God’s terms, which are always terms of blessing. This passage says that God is always with us, but not always in a way that makes us comfortable. God’s presence isn’t just a private, one-on-one kind of thing; it is also a relationship with those unlike us. God loves us, and that’s the good news. But the unbounded love of God, the love that goes just everywhere, means that our prayer has to be filled with that same kind of mercy. God is at work in our lives, and in the lives of people that we consider to be our enemies. Everyone stands in need of God’s mercy.

God is at work in the lives of our enemies making a new creation. Which at first is just stunningly unexpected, until you remember that God is just stunningly free. God is free to use all beings to make a new creation. The longing and power of God will go everywhere. Don’t be afraid when faith shows up in the life of your enemy.

Notice that the centurion and Jesus never actually meet each other. Jesus accomplishes the healing work solely on the basis of other intermediaries. First the Judean elders, and then his friends intercede for the centurion. They pray for him. Just like we will do in a moment when we gather around the Eucharistic table. When we pray for others we get to see God at work in their lives in the same way we hope that God is at work in our lives. Which means that God is always moving ahead of us in making the world new again, drawing all beings to herself in order to make a new creation. Which might give us a way of looking for the Spirit breathing through every one of our relationships and experiences, showing us the places where God can be found in our lives.

The Rev. Paul Fromberg is the rector of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco


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Donald Schell

Paul, I love this reflection and am grateful for the questions of what we’re actually doing when we pray and why we do it. They’re so much more interesting (and maybe more valuable) than the stuck question of what prayer accomplishes or whether it “works.” What’s fascinating about prayer is that one way or another we do it, maybe all of us. Something deeply human in us does this, so how and why? Many thanks.

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