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Visible prayer

April 9, 2011
By Robert McCutcheon - Chaplain at Davis & Elkins College

Over the past few years, I have come to look at prayer differently. I have come to look at prayer.

Recently, I paused during my evening channel-surfing to watch a memorial service in progress on C-SPAN. Paused respectfully, I felt a little as though I had walked into church late. And uninvited, since I did not know who was being eulogized. Still, I kept watching, partly because I sensed something strange in the scene. Someone stood on the apron of the stage, signing, while a man spoke from a lectern. Nothing unusual in that - except that the man at the lectern, I realized, was praying, head down, naturally, and eyes closed. Then I put my finger on it: The people who needed the signer had to be watching. They could either close their eyes in prayer or follow the prayer, but not both. And I was among them. My eyes were open, too.

A couple of years ago I attended a series of lectures at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary marking the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth in 1509. For Presbyterians, Calvin has come to seem a scholarly and ascetic spiritual ancestor - an unapproachable paterfamilias. So I was surprised to learn the posture that Calvin recommended for prayer: Kneeling (sounds a little Catholic), arms outstretched (sounds a little charismatic), head back and eyes open, gazing upward. He intended an attitude of submissiveness, openness and alertness: A readiness to recognize and embrace God's blessings.

Martin Luther, an older Reformer, got it backwards, too. The busier he was, the longer he prayed - a minimum of three hours a day when he was really stressed.

Even Luther's schedule only approximated the ideal Paul states in Thessalonians 5:17, to "pray without ceasing." Some years back, from the pulpit of Davis Memorial Presbyterian Church, my friend Doug Van Gundy told the story of a Russian pilgrim who resolved to take Paul at his word by praying the Jesus Prayer with every heartbeat - and Doug did the math: 60 squared times 24 equals 86,400.

With that regimen, you would be entitled to expect results. But the skeptic in me registers an odd benefit to incessant prayer: If I don't stop asking, I won't give my prayers time to be answered - or not. My faith can never be tested.

I think it's more the opposite: God notices even if the prayers are never actually prayed. Paul assures the Romans church that a groan will suffice.

Luckily, my qualms about prayer were addressed by a theologian in my family - my mother. Her's was a faith in action, a lifetime of near-selfless love, but once in a while she articulated her beliefs. One normal, anonymous day in my late youth, standing in the kitchen, my mother explained the nature of intercessory prayer to me - though only when I pressed her. She was just back from one of her twice-weekly rounds of Meals on Wheels. Maybe she was about to make a call to her prayer chain when, in all idleness and innocence, I asked her whether she thought we could attribute any positive outcome to God's intervention.

"Do you know what I think?" she said, almost fiercely, wheeling on me in the middle of the linoleum floor.

I guess I hadn't really thought she would hold a view on the subject. She had admitted to me in the past that she found her own prayer, which she saved for bedtime, a powerful soporific.

"I think God has nothing to do with it, and I think God has everything to do with it."

With a faith like that, I can pray open-eyed.

(The opinions of this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Inter-Mountain, the Randolph County Ministerial Association or the author's church affiliation.)



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