Prayer in a Postmodern World

November 25th, 2013

Talking to “Houston in the Blind”

In the recently released Hollywood movie Gravity, some of the most poignant moments are of people floating in space talking into the void in the hope they will be heard. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock portray astronauts who are set adrift when the space shuttle on which they are working is disabled by flying debris. Having lost communication with ground control but unsure if they might still be heard, they begin to narrate their every move. With each transmission they report to “Houston in the blind.”

Later, Bullock’s character intercepts a radio signal from Earth, and though she can’t understand all that is being said, she pleads with the staticky voice to pray for her. “I’d pray for myself, but I’ve never prayed,” she says. “Nobody ever taught me how.” The viewer can hear her feeling of despair and disconnection from God in those words.

Although the movie has its fair share of action and suspense, it might also be seen as a meditation on prayer in the postmodern world. While more and more people in the United States report they have no religious affiliation, many still turn instinctively to prayer at times of crisis. (According to a 2008 Pew Forum report, only about 30 percent of the unaffiliated said they believed there was no God.) How does the practice of prayer speak to the deep longings of our age, and how can faith communities support and encourage prayer?

Prayer Doesn’t Make Sense

One of the problems of prayer in the age after the Enlightenment is that it doesn’t make sense—at least according to the standards of rational investigation. Any number of studies have been conducted to try to give prayer a scientific grounding, to prove that it is indeed clinically effective in bringing healing or producing measurable effects in mental health. The results have been mixed. A major 2006 study by the John Templeton Foundation determined that intercessory prayer had no beneficial impact on outcomes for patients undergoing heart bypass operations. This was inconsistent with some previous studies that suggested prayer was effective. The researchers concluded that “private or family prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, and the results of this study do not challenge this belief.” They just couldn’t prove it.

The requirement for proof of prayer’s efficacy has troubled many people in the contemporary world, where we are used to justifying our actions by some metric of effectiveness. Writing in the early 20th century, English author and poet Thomas Hardy lamented the loss of a comfortable relationship with God that was built on prayer. In the poem God’s Funeral, Hardy notes, “How sweet it was in years far hied / To start the wheels of day with trustful prayer, / To lie down liegely at the eventide / And feel a blest assurance he was there!”

In a recent blog post on the website Purple Clover, Jess Tardy relates a similar sort of wistfulness about the comfort she wants to experience in prayer. Stopping by a makeshift church in a shopping mall, she realized that she had no words for what she wanted to say: “I don’t know the Lord’s Prayer by heart and my only practical knowledge of the rosary comes from Madonna videos, so for a moment I ad-libbed my way through a prayer:

Heavenly Father, thank you for the blessings you have bestowed upon me. For my health, the roof over my head and the love in my life. Thanks for the steady job and for the safe car. Thanks for Aretha’s greatest hits and crisp fall nights and premium cable. 

For Tardy, gratitude was a start, even if she was struggling to have it “make sense.”

Cultivating Silence

Prayer has many moods. Beyond intercession and thanksgiving, there are confession, praise, and contemplation. Contemplative prayer practices can help people who live very busy lives put themselves in perspective and reconnect to God, according to Presbyterian pastor and author Daniel Wolpert, who was quoted in an Interpreter magazine article. “They give us an opportunity to experience this Being that is very close to us, but that is, at the same time, separate from the individual workings of our mind,” Wolpert says.

Cultivating silence for prayer is difficult for many people. Coming together in community for silent prayer can be a powerful aid in overcoming that obstacle. “I think the group thing really can’t be overestimated,” Wolpert goes on to say. “I would really encourage people, if they’re interested in this, to find groups that are already going or talk to people at their church and say they want to get something going. Ideally, this is really what the church should be doing.”

“Rediscovering Our Praying Knees”

One person who has been urging churches to prayer is Young Jin Cho, the new United Methodist bishop of the Virginia Conference. Bishop Cho began his tenure with a call to prayer, inviting clergy and laity to join him in dedicating an hour each day to prayer and spiritual disciplines for the first 100 days of his episcopacy. That prayer challenge has gone beyond the initial period, and now Cho is inviting churches to become “Prayer Covenant Congregations.”

Cho was born in Korea and was formed by The Methodist Church there in a tradition that emphasizes vibrant, fervent prayer. He served the Korean United Methodist Church of Greater Washington for many years and felt his own prayer life rekindled when one of his congregants asked him, “Pastor, how long and earnestly do you pray?” Convicted by the question, Cho not only dedicated himself to more disciplined prayer, but he also instituted daily early morning prayer times for his church.

“I strongly believe that [United Methodists] will have a new future if we humbly open ourselves to God and seek God’s wisdom and guidance,” Cho wrote in one of his initial columns for the Virginia Advocate. He often cites the denomination’s new Vital Congregations initiative and says that programs like this will only succeed if there is a renewed commitment to spiritual disciplines. “If there is no spiritual vitality,” he says, “there can be no vital congregations.”

Prayer Covenant Congregations are asked to commit to a series of measures to increase the teaching and practice of prayer in their ministries. Among the commitments are holding “at least one weekly prayer group that will include weekly prayers for the renewal and revival” of the church, offering classes on prayer, and “moving toward at least 10% of the laity practicing a ‘one hour daily’ spiritual discipline.” Under our own power and wisdom, “we cannot save our churches,” Cho says. But we can start by “rediscovering our praying knees.”

An Uprising Against the Disorder of the World

German theologian Karl Barth once said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” It may signal rebellion against all that is wrong, but it is also a kind of cooperation with the work of God in the world. As Paul states in the Book of Romans, “We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans” (8:26). So when we give ourselves to prayer, however inarticulate and feeble our attempts, we are yielding to this work of the Spirit moving through us toward God. We are also given the opportunity to participate in God’s ongoing work of confronting and conquering the disorder of the world.

Sandra Bullock’s astronaut is a stand-in for a generation that does not know how to pray and for whom clasping hands in prayer really is a beginning. Even many people who have grown up in churches, which are often more fascinated with the latest program rather than ancient spiritual practices, may feel that prayer is unexplored territory. But John Wesley, the early Methodist leader, once said, “All who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the way of prayer.” When churches reclaim and teach prayer as a central, essential act, they will help long-term members and postmodern seekers alike recognize the importance of the disciples’ request to Jesus, “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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