Sunday, March 05, 2006

intercession and mystery

Intercession is a mystery. Yes, there are scientific studies that link meditation with wellness, prayer with health, spiritual practice with physical functioning. Yet intercession remains a mystery. Some who intercede have great clarity about what they are doing; others are not so sure. Some who intercede discover a source of serenity; others are troubled. Some sense that they are fulfilling God's purpose in interceding for others; others wonder about any divine reality associated with their concern.

We live in a culture that values definition, which is also a way of being in control. The idea that "prayer doesn't change God, but prayer changes us" is a form of this, because, of course, God is the mysterious agent in intercession. Prayer can never be reduced to the behavior modification of people. Human transformation is the work of God, but God's work is not limited to the changes that occur in us.

Intercession is a mystery, the transcendent God is called forth, to intervene in human nature and destiny. For this reason we cannot control the outcome of transcendence: it is storm, fire, wind, flood, life out of and beyond death. At times we can only make the promise that we will be in prayer for others. Across years of ministry, I have sometimes found myself saying that almost as a default command. But what do I mean when I promise to pray for others?

A part of the mystery has to do with unexplained suffering. Another aspect of the mystery is related to the anticipated outcomes and results for which we pray. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has defined intercession as "thinking of something or someone in the presence of God" (A Ray of Darkness, 117), and the practice of intercession is not to allow God and person, God and world to fall apart from each other. We belong together. This is a good way into thinking about the intentions of our prayers. We often pray for specific outcomes, and we do this for a variety of reasons: we are asked to pray for health, or that a program may be successful, or that a home may be sold, or that a person may find work. We often have our own ideas about happiness and success, about difficulty and pain, and we want others to know the former and to avoid the latter!

All of this can lead intercessory prayer to become very outcome-oriented and results driven, and such a posture shapes much of the conversation about answered and unanswered prayer. Rowan Williams invites us to consider the simple bringing together of a person and God. In intercession, I might think not of my friend and his search for work, but I might simply think of him in the presence of God: the light of God in all of its brilliance, the life of God in all of its abundance, the love of God in all of its mystery.

Such a prayer challenges us in a couple of respects. We can lose perspective, and focus on one of the realities (God, the person) to the exclusion of the other. We can focus on the glory and majesty of God, but this is more appropriately praise and adoration, or we can see only the person in need, and hear the request, but this is human relationship. Intercession holds both together, the person and God.

When our prayers have, as their primary focus, the thinking about a person in the presence of God, questions about outcomes are seen in a different light. We trust the outcomes to God. We relinquish control. We pay attention, but it is an attention that is not so worried about results. God is in control. We remember that God loves us. We know that God has a purpose. When life seems chaotic and broken, God is in the midst of it---nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8). And so our most profound prayer is that God will stay close to his people, even in the midst of the storms that rage and the wilderness that stretches as far as our eyes can see.

The scriptures tell the story again and again of individuals who sought to be faithful, even without knowing what the outcomes might be: Moses sees the promised land but does not enter it; Jesus says, "not my will, but thy will be done". Abraham and Sarah go into a land that is unknown to them with only a promise. Esther risks her life to do what she knows is right. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews gives a panaromic glimpse of this reality: we seek to be faithful, we pray, but we cannot be sure about the outcome.

And yet, while we do not know the future, we know the One who holds the future. He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, (Revelation 21. 6).

In our praying for others, we can let go of the outcomes that we desire. We can see the person, and think of her, in the presence of God. This prayer will be sufficient, and God will be with us. We are able to pray in this way for a simple reason: Christian prayer assumes the miraculous, that God speaks, listens and responds through human beings, but also that God works in ways that are beyond our powers. Christian prayer also assumes that God is not bound by space or time. We are connected to our brothers and sisters in Christ across the planet (we celebrate this reality on World Communion Sunday) and with our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers in the faith across the centuries (as we engage in the observance of All Saints).

This conviction is important for the one who intercedes on behalf of others, for the scriptures insist that in our devotion we join in a prayer that has already begun. The writer of Hebrews insists, "He always lives to make intercession for others"(Hebrews 7. 25). Jesus is the high priest, the chief exemplar of intercession, and in our prayers for others we somehow participate, mysteriously, in his ongoing ministry.

Paul, writing to the Romans, reminds them that Jesus sits at the right hand of God, and intercedes for us (Romans 8). Thus our intercessions are not our own inventions, nor are they our burden to be carried alone. We lift them up to the Lord, and as we do they are shaped, improved, revised and gathered into the intercessions of all of God's people for one another and the world.

In intercessory prayer, we do not change the will of God. Or do we? There is a tradition in Old Testament prophecy in which the intercessor speaks to God and helps to restrain the divine anger at the people's unfaithfulness. But most of us wonder about this question because it implies that we know more about the human condition and destiny than God does. Even in our spiritual arrogance, most of us would like to avoid such a posture.

A positive meaning of changing the mind or will of God would be that we are partners with God in helping to shape the outcome. Maxie Dunnam's provocative question expresses this well: "what if God cannot, or will not answer prayer unless we pray?" Such a question calls forth our faithful persistence in prayer in positive ways, and most of us are indeed motivated to pray because we have a desire for a particular outcome or result: a healing, a reconciliation, a response to grace.

But there is a negative connotation in that we may sense that we know best, or claim a privileged knowledge, or worse, believe that God is at our disposal. We run through our list of requests, asking God for what we need. I am being blunt, of course, but here we are sending God on an errand to meet our needs and our perception of the needs of others. This is a very egocentric form of spiritual practice, and it is among the reasons that many people do not engage in intercession. Deep within, they know that a God worthy of worship is not moved by this expression of spiritual pride. Here our intercessions are no more than wish fulfillment.

The correction to this negative practice is humility---God's ways are not our ways---and a sense that God's will is sometimes revealed through providence and in God's own time. And yet the necessity of our active participation in intercession should not be lost. We are invited to cooperate in the work of God's grace. We are called into alignment in the unfolding will of God. At times we cannot be sure of the outcome, or of our effectiveness in prayer. We pray, entering into the mystery of the spiritual realm, seeing through a mirror dimly, yearning to see God face to face (1 Corinthians 13).

I was leaving a hospital, having made a call to an individual in our congregation, and on the way to the parking lot I encountered a retired minister. He shared with me that the wife of a mutual friend, also a retired minister, was in the hospital and was near death. He gave me her room number and I entered the hospital again. When I stepped into the room I greeted my friend, his wife, and their pastor. We talked for a few minutes, and then the woman's pastor asked if we could pray together. He then invited a woman, a custodian who was an employee of the hospital, to join us in the circle of prayer. She gladly said yes and became a part of the prayer. As the five of us prayed, I sensed a release of God's energy in the room, a movement of the spirit, a synergy of grace. Like the best experiences of prayer, it was mysterious. And yet surely the presence of the Lord was in that place, on that afternoon.

Well-meaning persons will sometimes argue that prayer does not change God, but that it does at times change the one who prays. There is truth in this statement---compassion replaces anger; empathy overcomes resentment. Our spiritual pride gives way to humility--- but it is not the whole truth. As we pray, we are changed. But to leave it there would be to reduce prayer to a human experience, even a psychological phenomena.

I am convinced that God is a full partner, an active agent in the prayers of Christians. Something human and divine is at stake. In prayer we have access to the transforming power of God, which changes us and others, in ways we cannot always anticipate. Prayer is more than the total effect upon the one who engages in the practice. Prayer is the release of an energy that is simply not present otherwise. What this means precisely is difficult to describe, but it is worth considering, if for no other reason than the recurring requests many of us receive to pray for others.


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