Saturday, June 2, 2007

A few words on prayer

If you've ever been on an atheism forum/message board odds are that you have seen the Robert Ingersoll quote "Hands that help are better than lips that pray." On the surface it presents a dichotomy - asking for a Higher Power (presumably through some form of supernatural intervention) or doing the work yourself. It assumes that prayer is either a form of magical incantation or a request list for a Cosmic Vending Machine. It shouldn't be surprising since many of those who pray give that very impression of the purpose of prayer. "Oh Lord, grant me this, let that happen, and bless us with the other thing." And when it doesn't seem to work, well, that is just the Higher Power saying "no". The wrangling over whether "prayer studies" are valid, that is, whether or not praying for people increases the odds of their recovery, reinforces the view of prayer as a way to manipulate the world through tapping into a loophole in the laws of nature.

Given such a view, in the above dichotomy, it may well seem logical to many to choose "hands that help" over "lips that pray".

But does prayer come from the lips? Is that where a prayer lies?

I have always though that prayer is the matter of the heart. What one hears on the lips or from the voice in our heads is a reflection of what is in our heart. It's like a mirror showing us what really matters to us. That is why trivial prayers sound so shallow. Not only does prayer reflect what is in our hearts, but it can also reflect things into our hearts. That is, sometimes by deeply considering certain things (for example certain principles or virtues or people) we can become more open to them.

But prayer, or silent reflection, or meditation, does not always need to be spoken. While spoken prayer can give voice to the heart as well as inspire the heart, silent prayer can also be very powerful. It can grant a perspective that is beyond our traditional words and categories and concepts. It can help to fundamentally change how we view and relate to the world.

So, then, this week there were many posts with the theme of prayer and peace. I hope that they touched something in your heart. But what about that dichotomy we started with? Well, it isn't likely to go away any time soon, but we don't have to be limited by it. I would say that given the kind the way that I tend to see prayer, that quote we started with just doesn't work at all. After all, hearts that pray can inspire and sustain the drive behind the hands that help. Let us keep that in mind - we are the answers to each others prayers.

Note: I wrote most of this last Saturday and saved it but I didn't get a chance to do the final edit and post until Thursday, in case you are wondering where this suddenly popped up from. I may have to go back to only a couple posts a week for a while. We'll see.


  1. "Hands that help are better than lips that pray."

    Its a false dichotomy though perhaps a cautionary warning.

    I am reading a book on Christian Spirituality by David Runcorn in which the question is asked - What is intercession?

    "To 'intercede' literally means to go between ('inter' - between, 'cede' -go), "Standing in the breach" is the way the bible often pictures the ministry of an intercessor. The greaterthe nee the more God seeks people willing to go there. One of the starkest examples is during the time of Ezekiel: "I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but i found no one". (Ezek. 22.30)

    So the word says more about where we pray than what we pray for. Intercession is expressed as a living relationship rather than a way of saying prayers. It involves the whole of us, not just our lips or thoughts. To truly intercede means being willing to enter into a costly relationship with the world around us. Michael Ramsey defined intercession as "standing before God with the people on your heart". This also means our praying is inseparable from the way we live.

    Intercession involves seeking to be where Christ already is. It is his ceaseless intercession that sustains all our living, holding us before the father for our healing and transforming. Far from persuading God to get involved where he is not, intercession is a participation in Christ's costly and life-giving presence in the world. It is such a comforting thought that there is somewhere we are held in a continuous stream of prayer, perfectly understood, in infinite love. Intercession is not speaking or pleading or making requests. It is going to meet someone and to abide with him where he abides, on behalf of others."

    I can easily relate to that within Pureland spirituality too.

    Namo Amida Bu

  2. Thank you - the quote did indeed compliment what I was saying. You know, I got this little gem in my INBOX (or maybe I saw it on someone's blog, can't quite find the source at present) a little after I started writing this bit about prayer. I almost added it to the end like I did with the next post I wrote, and based on the text you have added which expand and clarify the topic of prayer, it is even more appropriate:

    Isaiah 6:8

    Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"

    And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"


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