11 November 2010

Experimenting with prayer

Madrid graffiti:
Granada graffiti:
There's no subject I'm more fond of thinking about--or more reluctant to write about--than prayer. Everything that is important to say about prayer has already been said, except for one thing: how do YOU pray? What is YOUR experience, and what can I learn from you? And if I want to learn from you, I have to get over my shyness, my worries about pious exhibitionism, and demonstrate some reciprocal willingness to think about prayer out loud, and share my own experiments.

This isn't exactly the first time I've written about prayer, but I don't think I've ever been praying for so many people at once, so the stakes seem higher. It's not that I feel any need to resolve the paradoxes of prayer (why should anyone's welfare depend on my diligence in prayer?--yet I'm convinced of the need to be diligent!), but more than ever I feel a need to hear what others do when they get to this point.

(Concerning how I remember the people on my list, I still use my old method of dividing them into little villages in my head.)

I remember when I first began to pray seriously for someone with cancer. It was Joe Taylor of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting who had cancer, and when I began praying for him, what I vividly remembered was visiting in his home in New Jersey, and hearing him praying for one of my children who, back home in Indiana, was ill with bronchitis. His love, simplicity, and directness reached deeply into me and modeled how I in turn wanted to pray for him. The hospitality of his home became part of the way I prayed for him--I imagined his home being a place of healing and blessing, as it had been for me and no doubt for hundreds of others, and I prayed that this same light and grace would surround him and heal his own body.

This was my daily prayer for months, until I heard that he died. Emotionally, I wasn't sure what to make of his death. Intellectually, I knew that we all come to our ends before our loved ones want us to, so that there's no contradiction between being prayed for and ultimately dying, but still....

Anyhow, that is the way I've continued to pray for people with cancer, including the people I currently pray for. Extending Douglas Steere's metaphor of "mutual irradiation," probably in a much less sophisticated way than he originally intended, I envision a radiation therapy of God's love. But an experience I had about fifteen years ago came back to me recently and affected my practice.

Here's what happened. First Friends Meeting, Richmond, Indiana, had Bob Carter as guest speaker that Sunday morning. During our time of prayer concerns, we heard that a former pastor in Indiana Yearly Meeting and a dear friend to many of us, was suddenly and seriously ill. Bob abandoned his sermon and suggested we go into prayer for her. I was asked to sit in front of the group in her place, as a sort of focus for our prayer. She later told us that the relief she experienced could be timed to that moment, although she was most of a continent away.

Since recently recalling this event, I've sometimes put my own body in place of the person whose healing I've been praying for, imagining the place in myself where that healing was needed. We have a friend with ALS, and as I've been praying for his nerve cells to resist deterioration, I've been praying for specific chains of nerve cells--flexing my left fingers, one finger per day, for example, and praying for the specific nerves that enable me to feel and flex those exact muscles, and by extension, praying for those same nerves in my friend. Day after day, I'm trying to hold on to that discipline of praying with love and focus. If you're smiling at my naivete, don't worry--I smile, too, but I still do it, and I'll do it tomorrow and every day forward until I have a very good reason not to. Laughing at my plodding literalness isn't a good enough reason to stop.

I know that I can't crowbar God into specific mechanical responses to prayer. Prayer isn't a divine remote control; it's an expression of relationship, a form of grateful, humble participation in God's economy. Yet, I agree with Douglas Steere, who remains one of my favorite writers on prayer--he says, "When I pray, coincidences happen."

Do they happen for you? How do you understand what happens when you pray?

That's it for now. Time for dinner and early bedtime; tomorrow we leave Granada at dawn to return to Madrid and to the Russian consulate.

"Have Democrats lost faith in faith-based outreach?"

"A life in free fall": A Russian drug addict's story.

A politician not to be forgotten.

"U.S. defends rights record at first ever U.N. review."

A request/recommendation from Jeremy Mott: Eric Clapton, "If I had possession over judgment day."


Micah Bales said...

Thanks for this, Johan. I am feeling challenged to be more intentional in my prayer - both for myself and for others. I appreciate the extra nudge that your post provided.


Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Micah!

Jeremy Mott said...

It's very hard to figure out why so many people---including some Quakers---are afraid of people of faith. Some call us "enemies."
It's been a long time, I think, since many people of faith had a lot of power in the world and could rightfullly be called enemies. The Roman Catholic Church
is a bit of an example, but their
power seems to be slipping fast.
On the other hand, science
and technology have been the greatest enemies of humankind for
at least the last 60 or 70 years.
The most remarkable examples of the
evil powers of science were the
atomic and hydrogen bombs, and
some other remarkable examples
are Zyklon-B, the German holocaust
gas, and the continual accidents
that are inherent in drilling for oil, as well as military "drones"
and depleted uranium weapons. Some
of these wonders may poison the
earth for thousands of years.
Whether religion or science is our greatest enemy, we, the human race, seem to fit that description.
We are our own worst enemy.
Thank you Johan, for posting the Eric Clapton video clip. He is
uneven, but on this piece he trans-
formed himself into a powerful
blues shouter. His sideman Nathan
East (in the red shirt) realized
what a good performance the group was giving---and you can see him
start to smile on the clip. Those
who wish can also find the original Bob Johnson recordings of
this song on Youtube.
I spent a good while yesterday
listening on the internet with my
daughter to Joan Baez, Buffy Ste.
Marie, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, and Peter Paul & Mary----
all Sixties folk music singers.
I listened as well to some of the
blues singers who were popular then, like Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. This was the music of my
high school and college years; and this is how I pray nowadays. Where
is the hope that was common then?
Jeremy Mott

Jeremy Mott said...

I just read Irina Tiplinskaya's horrifying story. I am not surprised, to say the least---except that this publication does
show that Russia now has genuine
freedom of the press.
In September of 1965, my first cousin, Newcomb Mott, not a Friend, 27 years old and a graduate of Antioch college, was on vacation in Norway. In the
extreme northeast corner of Norway there is a Russian enclave with an old Orthodox church, called Boris Gleb. Russia (the Soviet Union in those days) had just agreed to allow Scandinavians to visit there without visas. Newcomb thought
that this privilege appplied to
all foreigners; so he entered the
enclave, not even at the regular
border-crossing point. He was
arrested, taken to Murmansk prison,
and put on trial almost two months later. He was sentenced to 18
months' imprisonment for this almost technical violation. Many others who entered the Soviet Union in similar fashion were just thrown out of the country.
I'll continue later.
Jeremy Mott

Jeremy Mott said...

After the trial and sentencing, my cousin Newcomb was supposed to be
sent to a prison camp somewhere in
the Gulag archipelago. Of course we (the family) knew nothing more. In January I was listening to the radio news, and I heard that Newcomb had "committed suicide" on
a prison train. I did believe that he was dead, but I could not
believe that he had killed himself.
That would have been completely
unlike him.
It took my late aunt and uncle
several months to get the Soviet
authorities to release the body.
When the remains were returned, they were barely recognizable, but did have more than 60 stab wounds.
Of course, we don't know what happened, but we think that he was
executed by other prisoners, probably with the connivance of
the guards and maybe higher authorities. This sort of thing
is just a horrible reality in prisons. Maybe some other prisoners simply wanted his beautiful new American shoes.
Earlier, my Polish uncle, in the
Polish army when World War II began with Stalin and Hitler splitting up the country, ended up as a POW in the Soviet gulag.
There was hard labor as Irina des-
cribes; there was not much of any-thing to eat; many prisoners starved to death. Eventually my
uncle had his Polish nationality
recognized and was able to leave
Russia via Persia and join the
Polish armed forces in Britain.
His memoir of that experience makes
Irina's look gentle.
In ths U.S.A., we are no longer
in much if any better shape. Our
country is the only one in the
world with more prisoners per capita than Russia. Prisons are
so overcrowded in the U.S.A. that
prison conditions are terrible.
In the U.S.A., the death penalty still exists, and it is used not
infrequently. How about Russia?
Now since I can do nothing
else, I must pray for all prisoners, especially in the U.S.A. and Russia. And I will
pray for all Americans in Russia, whose safety depends on unstable
politics. All the media concluded, as we did, that Newcomb was a victim of the Vietnam war,
which caused a great chill in relations between the U.S. and
Please take good care of yourselves, Johan and Judy Maurer.
Russian prisons obviously are no
better than they used to be. And
American prisons are much worse
than in the "old days," 30 or 40
years ago.
Jeremy Mott

'Mela said...

Thanks for this great post, Johan!

Along with the pics of Spanish graffiti, to Eric Clapton...

These are all a form of prayer, no?

Hope you are enjoying Spain!

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, 'Mela--Thank you! Speaking of prayer and graffiti, I was impressed by the elaborate art I saw in some of the tunnels of the Madrid metro. (1) What dedication! (2) I would not want anyone to risk their lives this way!!

About a year ago I reviewed a book on the theology of the blues--Getting the Blues.

Jeremy--Thank you for recalling the story of your cousin Newcomb. I had heard of this case--maybe from you--but I am grateful you told it here. Yes, more fuel for prayer...and for the struggle against totalitarian impunity wherever it appears.

Jay T. said...

Prayer is spending time with God. It's developing our relationship. If I'm just thanking Him, just praising Him, just confessing to Him or only asking for stuff--blessings or guidance, that would say imply lots about our relationship-any one of those. If I can do all of those and just hang with Him, that says something else about the relationship.

So prayer results in more familiarity--perhaps for both of us. (God getting to know me.... Is God changeable in that way?)

Not only do I get more attuned to what God's about, but I think the world somehow gets attuned to what I know and care about. Coincidences happen--and I start taking notice of them in a grateful way.

Anonymous said...

I really agree with your saying on prayer being a relationship not just something you do because you have to.

I also like how there are other subjects like blues festivals, blues music, etc. incorporated into each blog post.

Merry Stanford said...

Thank you for being faithful to your leading, Johan. I would like to offer that Friends also have a tradition of praying together for the healing of another - Meeting for Healing. And it works very much as your example at First Friends. It supports the daily prayer of individuals who have committed to holding others, and augments it. With the support of regular communal prayer, coincidences can often become obvious miracles.