Prayer: The Way Home

Don: Humankind was created to be one with God and with each other. This was God’s original plan. But the Fall resulted in the breakup of that oneness. We became estranged from God and from one another. All religions are essentially trying to help us journey back to oneness with God, whether in the Christian heaven or the Muslim Paradise, the Nordic Valhalla or the Hindu Nirvana—whatever we happen to call the dwelling place of God.

Christians look for a coming day of reconciliation with God. Prayer is what will get us there. It is the antidote to our fallen condition, the link that will bind us back to oneness with God.

The story of the Fall is told in Genesis 3 and 4 of the Bible. The beginning of our breakup from one another is described in Genesis 4 with Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. It seems ironic that the dispute that led to the murder was essentially about worship and prayer. The use of prayer as a divisive tool separating us one from another and from God has continued to this day. Prayer and its meaning, form, and content continues to divide us.

I believe this was not God’s plan. I believe His plan was for prayer to bring us all back together. The longest prayer of the six prayers of Jesus recorded in the Bible reflects this plan. Indeed, it summarizes the core of the ministry and the message of Jesus described at greater length in Scripture (for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Lord’s Prayer, and elsewhere in the Gospels).

“Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.

“I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.

“But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.

“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.
The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.

“O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17)

Jesus prayed that we be one with Him and with one another. If we are, then we are one with God. It is a radical notion. More often, we look upon prayer as something magical that we can use to harness God’s power for ourselves. We want the ten thousand angels that Jesus rejected in favor of God’s will. No wonder the Bible says we don’t know how to pray.

The prayer of Jesus recognizes the human condition. It answers the questions we’ve been asking and asks that we align ourselves with God’s will and restore our broken relationships with our fellow Wo/Man. It is always answered in the affirmative. It is the mountain that can be moved (it is more difficult to love one’s enemies and pray for one’s persecutors than it is to move a mountain (Matthew 5:34)).

This point was illustrated in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)

The tax collector recognizes the human condition of sin and highlights our need for God’s grace. The Pharisee prays for exclusiveness and division (“I thank you that I am not like other people”)—the very opposite of the inclusive oneness prayed for by Jesus.

True prayer is humble, inclusive, uniting and the antidote to the sinful human condition and the loss of oneness with God and each other. It is a call to mirror the message and the mission of Jesus. It is not magic or manipulation. True prayer should allow God to be glorified in us, and lead us back to oneness with Him and one another.

David: It seems we are able easily to thwart God’s plan. That “God’s will be done” is by no means a sure thing. Omnipotence means He is indeed all-powerful but it does not mean that He imposes His power on us.

Jay: It is not clear to me who Jesus was praying for in his long prayer. He said He was praying not just “for these” but also for those who believed in Him through “their” word. The prayer is in two parts, each for a different group of people.

Aishwarya: What does “divisive prayer” really mean?

Don: The God to whom we pray and even the way in which we pray divides cultures. We claim exclusivity in our prayer—that our prayer and our God are valid while those of other cultures are not. Jesus is telling us this is wrong.

Kiran: The most striking thing about the parable was the contrast between the publican’s confession of his sinfulness and admission of his need of help, versus the Pharisee’s self-proclaimed piety and exclusivity. When people of any and all religions or even no religion submit themselves to humble self-introspection then they are, in effect, praying for help. Any human claim to piety must be laughable to God. To admit that we are nothing compared to Him puts us in the same boat with everyone else—it unites us rather than divides us.

Aishwarya: When religionists claim superiority for their religion, they are being exclusive. The fact there there are so many religions shows that the idea of unity has failed to gain traction. But at the individual level, we are all human beings. We don’t need a God or a religion or Scriptures or priests to tell us that we are not exclusive at the human level—we know it.

Jay: The individual personal connection to God is important, yet it can lead to my comparing and contrasting my relationship with God with your relationship with God and with your co-religionists’ relationship with God. This is indeed divisive. There is a delicate balance between wanting to strengthen our individual relationship with God while holding back our arrogant human judgment of the relationship other people have with Him. Prayer can lead in either direction. The Bible can be seen both as inclusive and as exclusive.

Chris: The beauty of prayer is that it levels the playing field. It does not matter what my status is in life, what I own. It’s what I do when I come to God in prayer that matters. In the end, I am no better than the person praying next to me. The pitfall is that as humans we want to elevate ourselves, and we think (like the Pharisee) that prayer can help us in that. How much we pay in tithes, how much service we perform in church, makes no difference to our fundamental equality before God and our equal need of His grace.

Robin: Scripture tells us to pray in one accord. After Jesus had ascended to heaven, the disciples met to discuss a replacement for Judas:

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers. (Acts 1: 12-14)

And we are to do so with humility:

Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4)

David: “[D]o not merely look out for your own personal interests” seems to me antithetical to the very next statement: “[look out] for the interests of others.” The latter seems to me to be the only truly equalizing prayer. Many Christian sects allow for differential treatment of different classes within their congregations—pews reserved for the rich aristocracy, for example. Contrast this with the Muslims who go on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required once of all Muslims in their lifetime. They all wear the same rough, plain white robes. You cannot tell that one pilgrim is wealthier or poorer, or more or less powerful than anyone else. It is a level playing field. It would be wonderful if they could keep the playing field level outside of the Hajj, but of course they can’t. At least they appear to try harder for equality, or to recognize it as important, than Christian and other religions.

Aishwarya: In India, some Hindu temples do not allow certain kinds of people (non-Hindus and women, for example) in. Whether prayer is divisive or unifying depends on its goal. If the goal of a prayer is victory for the Indian cricket team over Pakistan, it will unify the entire nation of India—people of all religions and walks of life—for that brief moment. Once the game is over, they are back to their differences. Prayer may have been originally intended to unify, but we have forgotten or ignored or are simply ignorant of that intention. Today, it takes some sort of fight or crisis to bring people together.

Jay: Humans tend to be unified in crisis and through our common tendency to selfishness. We all want our team to win. Selfishness and evil seem to unify at least as much as unselfishness, goodness, and love. The ministry of Jesus was aimed at correcting this misalignment of the human spirit. He said, in effect, “Root for the enemy—the opposition—not for yourself and your own team!” Prayer is about all of “us”, not about a narrowly defined group of “us”.

David: Prothero’s book God is Not One compares religion with sport. Different sports have different aims and outcomes: Runs in baseball, baskets in basketball, distance in the shot put, speed in the luge, height in the high jump. Similarly, different religions have different aims and outcomes including different forms of heaven as mentioned by Don earlier.

Michael: I think the unity of India before a Pakistan–India game is false unity, and the common prayer is just a prayer for magic. True unity is between the individual and God, and depends on genuine humility based upon recognition of our fallen nature. People who can achieve this unity with God are united with all people. There is no magic.

David: But as a Daoist, I am not looking for forgiveness. I don’t have a concept of a “Fall of Man”. I just have a concept of a Power, a Force that is guiding us along the Way to Enlightenment. I am not expected to cover myself in sackcloth and ashes. If I find myself in crisis, in trouble, that is the Way for me, and I must accept it.

Michael: “True acceptance” is what I am trying to say, in Christian terms (but I reach the same conclusion in the existential philosophical term of “existential guilt.”) It’s a continual struggle for humans, and the only resolution is through grace, which comes only in a moment of true humility.

Don: Humility is as common to the human condition as arrogance. It transcends religion, creed, and culture. The contrast between arrogance and humility can be seen throughout the ages and in all cultures and religions. True prayer is said in humility. It recognized that one is not better than anyone else, that one has no claim to any exclusivity. The prayer that says “I am a sinner in need of God’s grace” will always be heard and answered, I believe. It is the knock that will always open the door. And since the door will be opened for anyone and everyone, it is a prayer that draws humankind together in oneness.

David: Arrogance does seem to be an attribute of much Christian prayer. Human arrogance bleeds into religion, in part through Scriptures written by arrogant human beings. Islam seems to me to score better at least in attempting to practice humility through the rituals of the Hajj. There are some Christian, Hindu, and other religious people and sects who have abasement rituals. But is this too not simply the human intellectual idea of humility bleeding into religious practice? How genuine is this humility and abasement? Is it the ostentatious public prayer Jesus warned against? I don’t know. At least, common coarse clothing tends to make everyone anonymous.

Michael: The mystic sects and individuals of our religions tend, it seems to me, to value oneness more than their mainstreams do. Sufi philosophy is especially beautiful in this regard.

Don: Next week, we will turn the discussion toward authority and authenticity.

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