Tuesday, May 04, 2010

What Difference Does Prayer Make? A Progressive Vision (Bruce Epperly)

Bruce Epperly continues his discussion of a Spirit-centered Progressive theology by taking up the question of prayer.  How does a Progressive/liberal Christian understand prayer if supernaturalism is removed?   Bruce, who is rooted in Process Theology, takes up first the issue of intercessory prayer (this week) and then in a follow up piece will take a look at the impact of prayers of thanksgiving on our well-being (next Tuesday).  If you've not read it yet, take a look at Bruce's take on evangelism from a progressive perspective, which was published here last week.  I invite you to read Bruce's essay, reflect upon it, comment and then share the news with others.

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What Difference Does Prayer Make?
A Progressive Vision
Bruce G. Epperly


When I was a child, my mother posted a magnet on the refrigerator that proclaimed that “prayer changes things.” Regularly on Sundays, we listened to the bombastic intercessions of Oral Roberts and the gentle whisperings of Kathryn Kuhlman, both of whom believed that our ardent prayers could produce supernatural interventions to lengthen legs, restore eyesight, and cure cancer. To this day, I take prayer seriously; and although I no longer believe in divine supernatural intervention, suspending the laws of nature to prevent an earthquake or cure end stage cancer, I believe that prayer makes a difference in our spiritual, emotional, relational, physical, and planetary well-being.

As a progressive Christian, I believe that God is present in every moment of experience, not as a coercive external force, determining everything that happens without our input, but as gentle moment within the events of our lives, luring us toward healing, wholeness, and beauty. I believe that each moment of experience is the result of multiple causes, including the influence of DNA, family of origin, recent past decisions, unconscious factors, physical and emotional condition, spiritual life, relationships, economic factors, and environmental factors. Within this multitude of constantly changing factors, God is moving, shaping, guiding, energizing, and providing the best possibilities for health and wholeness, given the current situation.

While there are many understandings or practice of prayer, I see prayer as our creative and affirmative desire to be in alignment with and embody God’s vision for our lives and the world around us. If God is constantly inspiring us with, to use the words Romans 8, “sighs too deep for words,” then prayer awakens us to God’s deep presence and enables us to live out God’s vision, to a greater or lesser degree, in our lives. Prayer is a matter of call and response – God calls and we respond; and we call and God responds.

Now many liberal Christians see prayer as extending no further than our noses. It is purely a personal experience, bringing calm and acceptance, and spiritually joining us with those for whom we pray. Still, this liberal understanding actually suggests something more than a purely spiritual or existential experience. If mind, body, and spirit are interconnected, feelings of peace and calm arising from the practice of prayer will, to some degree, shape our physical condition in positive ways even if they don’t invoke God’s presence. Still, I want to suggest something more. This week, I will focus on intercessory prayer; next week, I will consider the impact of prayers of thanksgiving on our overall well-being. I believe prayer changes things, not absolutely, but relatively in the lively call and response of God and humankind, appropriate to our particular context and condition.

In a dynamic and interdependent universe, our thoughts and feelings radiate beyond ourselves into the ambient universe. Each moment of experience arises from the universe and contributes to the ongoing universe. I believe that our prayers create a positive field of force or healing around those for whom we pray. Accordingly, our prayers become one factor in shaping the experience of those for whom we pray. Our prayers are not all-determining, but provide a creative influence on others, along with the physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual factors shaping their lives.

But, there is more to prayer than merely our impact on others. I believe that prayer makes a difference to God. In creating a positive force of healing around others, we open the door for God to be more present in their lives and more able to provide more energetic and life-transforming possibilities. While we can – and should – never quantify the power of prayer, in an interdependent universe, prayer is a factor in healing and wholeness of persons, communities, institutions, and the planet. Prayer matters to God.

In contrast to the televangelists of my childhood and contemporary faith healers such as Benny Hinn and Richard Roberts, I see prayer operating in accordance with the principles of causation, characteristic of the universe. Neither our prayers nor divine activity suspend the causal relationships of the world; rather, they work within them, activating healing energies and, occasional quantum leaps of physical, emotional, and spiritual transformation. In the dynamic divine-human call and response, healings can occur and lives can be changed.

I believe liberal Christians have often failed to take prayer seriously precisely because their only understanding of divine causation was supernatural in nature. Today, quantum physics, mind-body medicine, complementary and global health, and medical research allow us to understand the power of prayer in new and creative ways, including the appropriation of Jesus’ healings in the ministry of the church. Progressives can reclaim the power of prayer and divine healing; we can be liberated from conservative and supernatural understandings of prayer and divine activity. Progressives need to be imaginative in our prayers: expecting more of ourselves and more of God, and opening to God in new ways of partnership with God through prayer, healing touch, meditation, affirmations, and social concern.

Our prayers are neither omnipotent nor impotent; but still they can transform our lives and the world. Prayer truly can make a difference for us, for those for whom we pray, and for God.



Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. (http://www.bruceepperly.com/)

19 comments:

Glenn said...

Thank you for this post. I have had a similar conversion in my understanding of prayer. Many years ago I left a conservative "Bible believing" church because I felt that it had little to offer to anyone unwilling to deny reality. I have since returned to my Christian roots, thanks to an understanding of meditation and Buddhist teachings. I now view prayer as meditation, a vehicle that delivers peace and an understanding of things as they really are. Prayer brings enlightenment and sanity. Prayer brings healing and tranquility. I know that I am not the first prodigal son to feel that thanks to Buddhism, I now consider myself a Christian.

Steve said...

If Bruce's explanation of prayer from a Progressive Christian perspective seemed a little vague for you, yet you felt connected to the ideas he expressed, RUN to get Marjorie Suchocki's In God's Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer, Chalice Press, 1996, ISBN 0-8272-1615-7. It is a down to earth explanation that addresses many aspects of prayer including intercessory prayer and the Lord's Prayer. I wrote her that it rescued my prayer life and her response was that she received many such letters.

Gary said...

Glenn,

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you are not a Christian. You don't even understand what being a Christian means. I'm not trying to be mean, but someone needs to tell you that you are mistaken, just in case you might have the opportunity to do something about it.

David Mc said...

I'm sorry to break it to you Gary. You're not being mean, you're just being a knucklehead. Glenn makes perfect sense. The Buddha obviously was enlightened somehow.

There is speculation concerning a possible connection between both the Buddha and the Christ, and between Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhism originated in India about 500 years before the Apostolic Age and the origins of Christianity. Scholars have explored connections between Buddhism and Christianity. Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University, analyzes similarities between some Early Christian texts and Buddhism. Describing teachings in the non-canonical Gnostic[1] Gospel of Thomas, Pagels says, "Some of it looks like Buddhism, and may have in fact been influenced by a well-established Buddhist tradition at the time that these texts were first written.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_and_Christianity

Gary said...

David Mc,

If Buddhism is true, then there is no need for Christianity. People who practice Buddhism are Buddhists, not Christians.

David Mc said...

Most who follow Buddhism don't consider it a religion. The Bible doesn't have a monopoly on wisdom.

I know wisdom when I see it, and I see plenty in these ancient truths.

Besides, many misguided Nazis were considered Christians (an absurd example, I know). Why are you so hard on Glenn?

Gary said...

Glenn is confused, as are you. If both of you don't wake up to the reality of your beliefs, you are going to die in your sins and go to Hell. Is that what you want?

John said...

Gary,

Let me get this straight, are you saying that Glennis not really Christian because of his prior exploration of Buddhism and his past and present meditative practices? Or are you saying tis because f other posts?

John

John said...

One way I view prayer is to have a conversation with God. In order to have a genuine and meaningful relationship with anyone I think I must share important things about myself, my fears, my joys and my anger. It is important that I verbalize each of these things as part of the relationship building process. Something happens when I say out loud my own truths, especially the harsh truths - I become vulnerable and I manifest trust, which strengthens the relationship.

I think prayer is like that - being open and trusting with God about your fears and your troubles, as well as your joys and your blessings.

I am especially moved by the honesty and vulnerability of prayers like the 88th Psalm, where the Psalmist acknowledges God, while going into great detail about his pain and despair - darkness is his only companion. I know in my heart that God loves the one who wrote this and each one who prays this from the heart - because it is so genuine and so trusting.

John

Glenn said...

Imagine my shock when I awoke this morning to see that my Christianity had been denounced by our resident troll. LOL. Oh well, it's my own fault for posting a thought that didn't align with Gary's theology. In response to David Mc, although Buddhism may be considered a religion, I would say that most practitioners do not practice it as such. I know that I don't. I found it to be more of a practical science, much like the scientific method, that helps me to understand the universe, my place in it, and the God that we humans are drawn towards. Buddhism helped me experience the message of Jesus in a different, more meaningful way than how I had been taught to understand it in the churches of my youth. There was a time when I thought that my time spent in church with the Gary's of our world was wasted, but I eventually came to view it as an important part of the journey to a deeper understanding of God's central message of Love, compassion and justice. Strangely enough, I am thankful to the Gary's of my life that pushed me out of "Christianity" and helped me to find Christ.

Gary said...

Glenn,

The "Christ" that you think you have found is not the Christ of the Bible, and of history. It is a false "Christ". An idol of your mind that is what you want it to be, not what the real Christ is.

Glenn said...

I know Gary, I know. :)

Gary said...

John,

My comments about Glenn's claim of Christian faith are because of his comments here and on other subjects.

Try to imagine Jesus Christ, or any of the Apostles, practicing Buddhism..... impossible. It would never happen.

John said...

Gary,

Do you think that the meditative practices of cloistered monks and nuns under vows of silence is so very different than the meditative practices of Buddhism?

Following on another line of thought, you mentioned "the Christ of the Bible, and of history". Would you agree that this Christ cannot be confined or reduced to a comprehensive human definition?

With this in mind, how do you respond to this:

We can know OF Christ and maybe some things ABOUT Christ but we will not know Christ in any comprehensive sense until we are united with him in eternity. In the meantime, in addition to the bible and tradition, we each have our own personal relationship with Christ in which Christ discloses of himself according to Christ's discretion.

John

Gary said...

John,

Any relationship between persons has a subjective element to it involving thoughts and feelings. Nothing wrong with "meditation"; I sometimes meditate about God. But it has nothing to do with Buddhism. There is no reason for a Christian to have anything to do with Buddhism, or any other religion that claims truth is other than what God has revealed in the Bible. And Buddhism does just that.

If you are taking a little from this religion and a little from that religion, you can't legitimately claim to be a Christian.

David Mc said...

Glenn,

I went through a very similar process as yours, although I didn't study any Eastern religion in any depth. I agreed, most who practice Buddhism or Yogi don't do it in a religious sense.

I figure God knows my thoughts. To be mindful of him and knowing that makes peaceful meditation or reading scripture, thinking of others etc. prayer in my book.

I'll admit, I'm not a total Christian. I'm a disciple and I now support His vision and memory on Earth. I feel I'm doing his, and our God's will.

I appreciate your last statement John. Jesus wanted us to learn to believe His truths, not to practice truth, not fear or intimidation. He did seem to get PO'd sometimes, which leads to some confusion.

David Mc said...

learn to believe His truths, (delete NOT of course) to practice truth

Glenn said...

Prayer is the method by which people voice their desires to God. Meditation is the method by which God voices His desires to people.

David Mc said...

At 54, I'm bored with my desires. I want to know what God desires..