On prayer. Kirwan Uniting Church pew sheet 25 November 2018

Every time a prayer needs mail lands in my inbox, it occurs to me that it’s easier to pray for someone else than it is to pray for myself. Perhaps you’re the same.
What difference does it make? Does it really change God? Surely God does not change. Besides which, does not prayer contradict the most fundamental principle of faith, which is that we are called on to do God’s will rather than ask God to do ours? What really happens when we pray?
Prayer has two dimensions, one mysterious, the other not. There are simply too many cases of prayers being answered for us to deny that it makes a difference to our fate. It does. In times of crisis we cry out from the depths of our soul, and something happens. Sometimes we only realise it later, looking back. Prayer makes a difference to the world – but how it does so is mysterious.
There is, however, a second dimension which is non-mysterious. Less than prayer changes the world, it changes us. The Hebrew verb lehitpalel, meaning “to pray,” is reflexive, implying an action done to one- self. Literally, it means “to judge oneself.” It means, to escape from the prison of the self and see the world, including ourselves, from the outside. Prayer is where the relentless first person singular, the “I,” falls silent for a moment and we become aware that we are not the centre of the universe. There is a reality outside.
If we could only stop asking the question, “How does this affect me?” we would see that we are surrounded by miracles revealed in our knowledge of God: creation (God in nature), revelation (God in holy words) and redemption (God in Christ in history).
Sometimes it takes a great crisis to make us realise how self- centred we have been. The only question strong enough to endow existence with meaning is not, “What do I need from life?” but “What does life need from me?” That is the question we hear when we truly pray. More than an act of speaking, prayer is an act of listening – to what God wants from us, here, now. What we discover – if we are able to create that silence in the soul – is that we are not alone. We are here because someone, the One, wanted us to be, and He has set us a task only we can do.

(With thanks for material and ideas from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

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