A couple weeks ago, I invited the congregation to try praying in a way that was way out at the edge of their understanding of God and asked them, if they were comfortable, to let me know how it went. They say that “the best teacher of prayer is praying.” Here’s what the great teacher of prayer taught me.

I tried praying out loud, in familiar terms, in a way that had been very close to my heart before but not lately. It was probably very good to have that form as kind of a reminder to take my prayer seriously. Much of my personal prayer life now is either silent or reciting written liturgical prayers; both of those can be deep and serious, but like anything they can become ruts. So it was powerful to shake myself up and give God a fresh kind of honesty.

I also tried to share with God my desire for things to change, a hope that God would affect the world in a more or less tangible way. Given my theological self-assessment in the sermon a couple weeks ago, that seemed like just the kind of request that would be far out at the edge of my understanding. Well, it turns out that the request is way out at the edge of my ability to present genuinely, so there you go.

Here’s why I think I had trouble doing that. I think the praying taught me that asking God to change reality is something of an easy way out. Earnest and truthful as such a prayer can be – and thanks be to God that I didn’t need reality changed all that urgently during these weeks – prayer isn’t there to make our lives easier. It’s not exactly that God has bigger priorities than our needs, but even if God changed the world to suit us, we would still be the same as we were. The harder work is to be changed in a way that changes the world through my own life.

It’s not that I necessarily couldn’t ask God to change material reality – that’s a more complicated bit of metaphysics than I signed up for with this little experiment – but maybe the better prayer, the more devout prayer, is not that the world should change but that I should be able to change the world. That I might be a better husband, father, pastor, and neighbor, because that’s where God’s reality enters the world. This borders on a kind of pietism that I’m not quite comfortable with, but I think the point is more profound than making us into morally better people. On the other hand, if my transformation can be part of transforming the world, then that’s exactly what we need.

Perhaps what I learned from this little moment of reflecting on my own prayers is that I don’t see God as primarily a wonder-worker who plays tricks with reality for no real purpose. Instead, perhaps I have a real sense of God as incarnate, deeply concerned for the reality in which God’s people live and truly committed to working through that reality. Perhaps when I pray for my own heart to be changed, I’m not seeking to therapeutically reconcile myself with a reality that isn’t going to get better; rather, I may be asking to embody God’s new reality in my own flesh.

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