Monday, 23 December 2013

Try Praying

Where: on the buses, in little booklets and online 
Led by: a very nice man called David Hill

I’d seen the bus adverts, stuck behind one in traffic, most likely, but I wasn’t sure who was behind trypraying until I met David, parishoner of Liberton Kirk, who commented on my blog and who turns out to be the campaign co-ordinator.

David gave me the booklet (also downloadable) and asked me to try the seven-day prayer challenge. And I did. And I promised that I’d write about it. That was more than seven weeks ago now. Soul Searcher has had a lot on her plate, but finally she’s getting round to it.

So how to review trypraying? The short version is simple: tried it, didn’t work!

But there’s a difference between, “I tried it and it didn’t work for me,” and “I tried it and it didn’t work and therefore it doesn’t work for anyone.” Clearly there are many who believe that it does work, that prayer is effective, that God listens and responds, that it isn’t just some kind of pointless lunatic activity akin to having an imaginary friend.

So there has to be a longer and, I hope, more carefully considered version too.

Regular readers will know by now that the Soul Searcher is a grumpy, grudging grouch who finds plenty to complain about almost everywhere. So if you asked me what I honestly thought about prayer, about its purpose and efficacy, you could expect a fairly sceptical answer.

But it’s also worth checking sources, so let’s start with the Westminster Catechism’s definition of prayer (q98):

“Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”

And now let’s pick it apart and think about what that really means. It means that a petition for anything not agreeable to God’s will doesn’t count as prayer, so if your prayer goes unanswered it might be because you’ve prayed for the wrong thing. But how do you know if what you desire is acceptable or not? Well, perhaps because acceptable desires are fulfilled and unacceptable ones aren’t … which leads us right back round in a circle. 

This definition would also seem to suggest that unless you confess your sins it doesn’t count either. Ditto for acknowledgement of his mercies. So if any one element is lacking, you’re unlikely to get what you’re praying for.

More detailed definitions of prayer expand on the basic premise, explaining that it’s about more than mechanical lip service, not what you say but what’s in your heart, etc. So here’s another question? If God knows what’s in my heart, why do I have to tell him? Okay, so there’s always some value in trying to set out your thoughts in proper order, like writing a list of all the things you need to do rather than just worrying about the general mess your life is in … or like writing a blog about churchgoing for a whole year instead of just letting all the spiritual mayhem swirl around in your brain.

Back in October, at Craigrownie Parish Church, the sermon covered some of this, but not in any great depth, although the minister did have quite a tidy argument to account for unanswered prayers.

But maybe not every prayer expects an answer. There are prayers of acknowledgement and of thanks, as well as prayers of petition. There are prayers whose purpose is to cement one’s membership of a congregation/sect/faith, everyone reciting the same prayer together. This is prayer as fan mail; the fans don’t really expect the admired celebrity to write back to them in person, but the act of sending the letter makes them feel like part of something bigger … maybe?

I don’t know really. I’ve never idolised a pop star or actor, so I’m guessing here. Maybe it’s my lack of idol-worshipping instinct that makes prayer not work for me. It’s just hard to see how the petty little god prayed to at Holyrood Abbey, Elim and St Stephen’s, who is unable to do any of the things that a truly almighty god would do, could be worth praying to.

There could be another purpose to prayer, of course. Prayer as meditation, to get your mind into some kind of receptive state, to calm yourself, to focus your thoughts, etc, etc. But to commune with a supernatural being? Hmmm … not sure I can really go for that.

One of the themes that I’ve brought up during my Soul Search mission is the theological difficulty I have in equating Jesus with God. While I could just about believe in God the Father, there’s too much messy Christology around the person and purpose of Jesus, around the trinity and so on, for me to believe in the divinity of Jesus. However I leave my year of Soul Searching, it’s going to be without Jesus.

… and trypraying is all about Jesus. For trypraying, Jesus equals God, and they don’t want to muddy the waters with too much theology. The campaign is aimed, after all, at people who wouldn’t darken the doors of a church. Soul Searcher quite likes churches; she just isn’t too keen on what she tends to find in them.

So what can I say about trypraying? I don’t want to condemn it as pointless. There are some genuinely well-intentioned people involved in promoting it, and good luck to them. If their forthcoming Pray, Say, Display campaign to widen the scope of the project succeeds, they might get a few more people talking regularly to God, feeling better about themselves, finding a purpose in life, and that’s got to be good. But there’s a step somewhere beyond that, when all those brought to prayer by trypraying start to get a bit more inquisitive … and then they’ll find themselves where I am, fifty churches down and still no answers.

Sorry, David. 

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