I find prayer as much of a problem as a solution, and I find praying raises at least as many questions as answers.
It isn’t that I don’t believe in prayer – of course I do. I believe in prayer because I believe in a God whose way of being is relational, personal and communicative.
Those ubiquitous words, inclusive and accessible, have significant purchasing power when used theologically. I think together they convey essential truth about the God I have come to know through Jesus Christ.
The God to whom I pray is a God who is revealed as an eternal Triune communion of mutually self-giving love and of outward reaching creativity.
The Creator is not dependent either on the creation or on all the creatures brought into being through that purposive creative gift that calls all that is into being.
At the same time, human beings, created by God in the image of God, have that within them that answers to the transcendent and condescending grace that seeks fellowship, communion, shared purpose and covenanted obedience.
“Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” The fact that those words of Augustine have near clichÃ© status doesn’t entitle us to assume we have no more need of the reminder.
God seeks to include all God has made within the life of the Triune God. In Jesus Christ, God has created a new and deeper access to the heart of God.
No one has put that better than the intellectually brilliant author of Hebrews, who, mid-argument about the call to faithful obedience, urges his (or her?) readers, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
Three words in this verse are themselves a triune promise of inclusion and accessibility: grace, mercy and help.
Whatever else we pray for, and for whatever other reasons we pray, these three touches of divine blessing into our lives are reason enough to pray.
Grace, that unlooked for gratuitous gift from the heart of God, reaching out to hold in being that which God created.
Mercy, which is forgiveness but so much more because mercy looks not only to forgive past wrong, but also to enable and renew rightness, obedience and hopefulness toward a new future.
Help, which is that sense of being held, supported, sustained, carried through waters too deep for us and up hills too steep for us.
And the theological genius who wrote Hebrews energizes and ignites those words – grace, mercy and help – with the advice to “come boldly before the throne of grace.”
Permission is given to be outspoken, to speak our mind and pour out the heart; forget the niceties, the protocols, the usual hesitations and deferences of being before the throne of power.
This isn’t mere power; this is the throne of grace, and permission is granted to speak plainly and with confidence.
So I pray, in the name of Jesus who reveals the heart of God; and in the communion and power of the Holy Spirit, God’s creative presence suffused throughout all reality.
In prayer, I give thanks and praise; I intercede in love and concern for the world in its brokenness; I confess my sin, seek forgiveness and pray for grace to forgive as I have been forgiven.
At times words are necessary, at other times they get in the way. Other times, silence, contemplative waiting, deep reading of Scripture place me in the attitude of listening for that still small voice that announces the presence of God.
But however I pray, I hold on to those three words: grace, mercy and help. And whenever I pray for grace, mercy and help, I am encouraged to do so with confidence, openness and trust.
So, here’s where the problems arise when it comes to praying: What am I to pray for in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world in which some of the most destructive ways of seeing the world and speaking of the world are well down the road to normalization?
What would grace, mercy and help look like if I were to pray for each of these to be given to all the followers of Jesus trying faithfully and obediently to live the good news right here, right now?
As I think deeply, and seek wisdom to understand what is happening in the world these days, I don’t doubt for a second we need mercy. But how is that to be lived, demonstrated, made real?
So, perhaps I need to pray for grace and help to live that radical word of Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
We live in a world impatient with mercy and given to anger – so how to model mercy, to answer anger with understanding, to make respect and compassion more persuasive than grievance and resentment?
I have no doubt that prayer is now an urgent calling on the Christian church seeking to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the sign of God’s justice and righteousness in a world dangerously overfueled with forms of anger that are destructive of our humanity and of the social safeguards of respectful discourse.
How we work that out personally, and together as church and churches, is now a required research project into the deep wells of Christian spirituality, political theology and biblical wisdom.
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.