UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

The Big Question

What is the real power of prayer?

By Nancy Steeves

I am a passionate believer in the practice of prayer, although I no longer believe in a God who can answer. I pray for the sake of my heart. My understanding of prayer is shaped, in part, by the parable of the wronged widow who became a chronic litigant (Luke 18:1-8).

She keeps clogging up the docket of a heartless judge. As luck would have it, he’s as resistant as she is persistent. He has a patronage appointment from the emperor, and he isn’t about to jeopardize this plum job by allowing himself to be moved by the plight of poor peasants. He doesn’t give a damn about these people or their god. He couldn’t care less about doing the right thing. But somehow, the widow gets to him.

According to author Barbara Brown Taylor, our English translation misses the humour in this story. The judge uses a boxing term to describe the widow’s persistence. “I will grant her justice so that she will not wear me out with continued blows under the eye.” Although he isn’t motivated by mercy or moved with compassion, he will vindicate her cause on the basis of his vanity. He just doesn’t want to have to explain why he has a black eye! In the end, he does the right thing for the wrong reason, granting her petition literally to save face.

Luke’s Gospel tells this story in order to encourage a community of disheartened first-century Jewish Christians “to pray always and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Unfortunately, Luke’s inability to live with the inherent ambiguity of parables leads him to turn this story into an illustration. And his logic tells him, if the persistent widow can get justice from the crooked judge, how much more likely are we to get it from a just and merciful God? But surely the divine isn’t represented in this story by a heartless judge.

Are we really to believe that the divine is a stingy Grinch with a fragile ego, needing to be cajoled, praised, manipulated, thanked or persuaded into doing the right thing?

Isn’t the sacred the persisting and pervading presence of justice, mercy and compassion in which we live and move and have our being?

Doesn’t our experience and the revelation of all our senses suggest to us that the divine is, in fact, more like the poor widow, persisting with creation and its creatures as the relentless energy that nudges us to act toward what is just, merciful and compassionate?

If we locate the sacred in the story, in our lives and in our world, then prayer is not about moving something or someone to give what is needed, right what is wrong, fix what is broken or heal what is hurt. Prayer is a spiritual practice that opens us to the persisting presence of the sacred in every leaf, every cloud, every being, every breath, every moment. We pray not to petition some supernatural, person-like being to act. We pray because we are spiritual beings seeking to live more nearly as we pray.

The power of prayer lies in its potential to change us. We pray in order to not lose heart. We pray for the sake of our hearts. We pray as the mystics of every enduring religious tradition have taught us: to pray is to pay attention. This attention deepens our intention to live in ways that have the potential to answer the prayers we pray.

Imagine what could happen if we were to pray for the sake of our hearts. Imagine if we were to pray as naturally as we breathe. Imagine if we began to live in awe and intimacy with the natural world, with each other, with ourselves, with our enemies and within the sacred. How could our hearts not be in the right place? How could we ever lose heart?

Rev. Nancy Steeves is in ministry with Southminster-Steinhauer United in Edmonton.


Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

Society

Sandy and Allan Wilson.

“Thank you for being my dopted parents”

by Allan Wilson

Eighteen years after his teen son died of cancer, this writer celebrates a new type of fatherhood when he becomes legal guardian of a man with disabilities.

Promotional Image

Editorials

The United Church Observer's editor and publisher, Jocelyn Bell. Photo: Lindsay Palmer

Observations: #MeToo

by Jocelyn Bell

Our hope is that by giving voice to these #MeToo stories, a new conversation about sexual misconduct can begin.

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Playing by Heart

by Observer Staff

United Church music director Kara Shaw was born prematurely, became almost totally blind and was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Today, the 28-year-old showcases her unique musical ability, performing piano on local and national stages.

Promotional Image

Society

June 2018

Why some women of colour are hesitant to say #MeToo

by Jacky Habib

Three women share their stories in the hope of creating safe spaces they never had.

Environment

May 2018

A Kinder Morgan protest in photos and song

by Kimiko Karpoff

On April 28, 2018, faith leaders from many traditions, including the United Church, stood in solidarity with Water Protectors from the Tsleil-Waututh nation to protest the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion in Burnaby, B.C.. Kimiko Karpoff captured the day in pictures.

Faith

June 2018

After 93 years, this will be the United Church's last General Council meeting

by Mike Milne

When the United Church meets in July, top priorities will be a streamlined governance structure and Indigenous ministries.

Justice

June 2018

#MeToo in the United Church

by Trisha Elliott

9 women share their stories of harassment and sexual assault in the United Church.

Columns

May 2018

On grief and the healing power of gardening

by Paul Fraumeni

A writer reflects on how growing tomatoes is helping him find peace while dealing with the loss of loved ones, including his son.

Editorials

June 2018

Observations: #MeToo

by Jocelyn Bell

Our hope is that by giving voice to these #MeToo stories, a new conversation about sexual misconduct can begin.

Promotional Image