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Pathways to prayer

There are as many prayer styles as there are people who pray. Here is one approach to connecting with God.

By Gretta Vosper

A church that sets for itself the goal of becoming dramatically inclusive quickly finds that a major barrier is the way it prays and has taught its participants to pray.

Throughout Christian history, we’ve prayed to a theistic God — one who exists apart and distinct from humanity and has the power to intervene. People who wouldn’t dare confess to praying for a new cabin cruiser don’t flinch when admitting they pray for God’s intervention in gentler, more liberally acceptable ways — to grant them strength or courage, to help them find meaning in their lives.

The implication, even in this softer form of interventionism, is that we are unable to be strong or courageous or find meaning in our lives without God’s added effort. Lives of deep meaning led by the many strong, courageous individuals who have had no belief in Christianity’s interventionist God at all, however, have proven that implication is simply not universally applicable.

Were we to look for some common factor shared among those who have been strong and  courageous and who have led lives of deep meaning, what might we find? We would have to eliminate religious beliefs as motivating criteria because they are not universal. We would have to eliminate other mutually exclusive characteristics as well, such as levels of education or wealth, skin colour, conditions of health, gender, geographical location, sexuality, upbringing and political alliance.

One by one, differences would preclude our ability to identify almost every characteristic
as the defining one until we were left with a basic reverence for life and a love of those things that hallow it. The definitions of those things has changed over the millennia, but individuals who have held them sacred and have been unwilling to sacrifice them for some other personal benefit are those who have lived lives of strength, courage, deep meaning and purpose.

Recognizing that conflicting definitions for “life” and “the things that hallow it” compete for our allegiance, some mainline denominations have been shifting their mission focus. It has quietly inched from building up credits that ensure an eternally blissful afterlife to developing impassioned communities and individuals who define life as broadly as possible and recognize that it is living in radically ethical ways — in right relationship with ourselves, others and the planet — that best hallows life.

Prayer is one of the many spiritual tools that can draw people into that state of reverence out of which flows such radically ethical living. If communities of faith are to be about the work of challenging the world’s life-denying values with the many (rather than the few), then we must use spiritual tools in dramatically inclusive ways — to make comfortable in our pews all those who wish to be strengthened in their commitment to live radically ethical lives, whether they do so because of their belief in a benevolent God or their belief in life-enhancing humanistic values. The point is not to reinforce particular religious beliefs or to create a common understanding of how prayer works. It is to create a common benefit — that of a meaningful life unfolding and supported in its pursuit of justice, compassion, love and all the other challenges that lead to living in right relationship.

Whatever the impetus to act in a particular way, doing so is the result of individual will. Whether we believe we are challenged by God to extend our hand in goodwill or compelled because our mothers taught us to do so, our hand remains at our side until we command our bodies to go through the musculoskeletal wizardry required to move an arm out and up in what will ultimately be understood as a gesture of goodwill. The action is our responsibility.

If we focus our prayer on the action, allowing participants to find their own way to it, we create dramatically inclusive communities. While a personal prayer might yet be to God, to mother or to nothing at all, our communal prayer might look something like this: “Our desire for new life compels us to search for that which can heal us and bring us into right relationship with one another. May we find in the ashes of what was, in the dust of pain and broken trust, the courage to move forward, extend the hand of goodwill, and find our way to that fragile love we must learn to share.”
May it be so.

• Read from other contributors in the October print edition of The Observer.

Rev. Gretta Vosper is minister at West Hill United in Toronto.
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