Prayer: The Changer and the Changed

Not coming from a prayer-oriented family or community, I found the idea of praying for someone vaguely embarrassing. "What’s the point of lobbying God? Doesn’t God already know our every need and desire?" Praying for help had a taint by association with manipulative "faith healers" and their simpleminded flocks. Armies on both sides of nearly every war have prayed for, and presumed, divine aid. This sounded like the sort of nonsense to keep out of my life.

Still, enough convincing books and trusted friends recommended prayer that I could not write it off. In 1983, the brain cancer of my then-wife’s mother gave me the impetus to pray. I settled alone in silence and, without a plan, pictured my mother-in-law’s head surrounded by light. In a little while particular spots, which I envisioned as the tumors, appeared deep red. I focused on the red spots and "pushed" them gradually through the spectrum to blue, and then to white. I felt healing energy flowing, clearly from the divine source. At the end of this unexpectedly visual prayer, I felt reassured in a completely new way. A few days later, we received word that the tumors had inexplicably shrunk. The news did not surprise me. I became aware, though, that my mother-in-law and her immediate family were waiting for her death. I did not have the strength or sureness to pray, alone, for her miraculous recovery. The remainder of my prayers focused on her comfort rather than her healing. She died a couple of weeks later. Oddly, I do not remember asking anyone for help with my prayer conundrum. Despite my confusion, this experience made the power of prayer undeniably real to me.

Doubts still nagged me:

  • When should I pray? Should I reserve prayer for singular occasions such as terminal illness? Somehow it seemed disrespectful to invoke this power for my comfort or convenience. Where should I draw the line?
  • How should I pray? As a highly verbal person, rather unskilled at visualization, I considered my first prayer experience anomalous. While it showed that effective prayer need not conform to a familiar formula, I suspected that there were more and less beneficial ways to pray.
  • For what should I pray? Though I never entertained the notion that my prayers controlled my mother-in-law’s destiny, I knew that they unleashed power. How could I know whether I was praying for the right thing, particularly in situations when another concerned person was hoping for something else? Even if everyone united in the same wish, would it necessarily be right in the grand scheme of things?
  • How does prayer work? Does intercessory prayer mean trying to change God’s mind? Are certain outcomes good only by virtue of people caring enough to pray for them? This seems to imply very mushy boundaries between good and bad. If "good" really means something, why wouldn’t God choose it every time, irrespective of our petitions?

Not surprisingly, these questions paralyzed my prayer life for some time.

My discovery a year later of Friends and waiting worship did not quickly result in prayer taking a central role in my life. Friends asked me to pray for various people facing various challenges. I might agree to "hold them in the Light," but more as a vague statement of goodwill than as a commitment to some concrete action. Friends spoke glowingly of the value of prayer in their own times of trial. Somehow, expectantly awaiting the blessed Voice during meeting for worship came more easily to me than attempting to enlist divine assistance in a specific situation.

The next several years brought a gradual easing of my reluctance to pray. Usually, I played it safe and prayed for big, distant causes that seemed unquestionably good and worthy of God’s attention. In about 1990, a Friend shared in vocal ministry her efforts to pray that the Light would find its way into the hearts of evildoers. This message challenged me to love the despots and murderers and recognize that the Holy One could reach and redeem even them. What seemed impossible to me rested easily within the grasp of the Divine. Although I no longer remember who shared that message or what words she used, the message opened a new era in my prayer life and faith.

Timidly and tentatively, I began to pray for help in personal challenges facing me and my friends and relatives. It felt like something I ought to do. I suspended my questioning and decided I did not need to know how prayer worked. By and by, I became convinced that it did work.

Eventually it dawned on me that prayer has nothing to do with influencing God. Rather, prayer proclaims my conscious decision to unite my will with the divine will. In other words, by praying I assert my desire to align my actions and thoughts with right order. I lay a concern at the feet of the Holy One and ask for the clarity to discern and the strength to follow divine guidance. I open myself to God’s incomprehensible, unlimited love, power, and grace to heal, transform, and transcend. I offer myself to serve in any way divinely directed. Instead of telling God what to do, I ask what God would have me do. This frees me to pray in any circumstance, because at heart is the prayer of Jesus, "not my will but thine be done." (Luke 22:42)

Yet my practice rarely approaches the ideal of prayer without ceasing. Many times, laziness or stubbornly-held hopelessness shackles my prayer life. When I have a hard time imagining a good outcome to a painful situation, I resist praying. My fitful prayer has less in common with that of Jesus than with the plea of the father of the demon-possessed boy: "I believe; help thou my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24) Despite my contrariness, grace has a way of finding me and gently reminding me to return to prayer.

Praying for other people has become one of the most reliable ways for me to experience the quickening presence of the Holy Spirit. As I imagine in prayer a healed person, relationship, or society, I feel a thrill of awe and gratitude at the capacity and willingness of the Holy One to transform anyone or anything to a whole and blessed state. I do not know what this wholeness might entail. A glance around me confirms that the Creator can solve any problem in ways more beautiful and profound than I could ever envision.

As I immerse myself more frequently and deeply in prayer, a web of interconnected benefits manifests
itself. Focusing on the struggles and sufferings of others decreases my self-absorption. Laying their troubles at the feet of God reminds me of my powerlessness to heal others. Conversely, it reminds me that I can serve as an instrument of divine love and healing if I make myself available for that service.

Prayer increases my hopefulness and turns back the tide of fatalism. This in turn eases my anxiety and makes me better company and a steadier worker. Prayer reassures me that the works of the Divine, including those in which I play a part, face no constraints of time and resources. Through prayer I become less frustrated and more patient.

As a spiritual companion to a traveling Friend invited to help a meeting through a painful situation, I participated in a very intense threshing session. As I intently held that meeting in the Light, a prayer overtook me: "Oh, that I could pray so fervently for my own meeting!" Upon returning home, I sought to hold my meeting in prayer during worship, during business, and throughout the week. This has deepened my appreciation for the vocal ministry shared in worship and reduced my tendency to judge messages and their speakers. Meetings for business especially bring out my spiritual weaknesses; here, prayer (when I practice it) has made the greatest difference. Another member of my meeting has joined me in this discipline. In a recent meeting for business, I began to feel agitated as an unscheduled item of business appeared ready to derail the agenda into a long and inconclusive discussion. Seeing my friend across the room silently praying, I followed his example. Remembering that God alone held the key to the way forward, I calmed. The meeting respectfully referred the concern to the appropriate committee and moved on to the next agenda item.

I pray that all of us who gather for worship encounter the Holy Spirit there. In so doing, I begin my own expectant waiting. I pray for everyone who offers or receives vocal ministry. During a visit to a friend, I worshiped at the small meeting that he had stopped attending because "nobody ever speaks during worship." Throughout the hour of worship, I prayed that the Spirit would manifest itself. I struggled with my desire to bring forth a message, but became clear that I was to stay silently focused in prayer. During that hour, three Friends gave voice to the Spirit’s stirrings in them. Afterwards, my friend commented, "It was like a miracle that three people spoke." He said "miracle" offhandedly, but I experienced it literally. He has attended meeting much more frequently since then.

Prayer reminds me that I cannot rely solely on myself. As I demand less of myself, I demand less of others. Asking for and accepting divine forgiveness, I learn forbearance toward myself and other flawed people. Resorting to prayer when I feel annoyed with someone tempers my self-righteousness and makes it possible again for me to "answer to that of God" in him or her. This improves my relationships, especially with those for whom I pray. Several of my dearest friendships have grown from the transforming power of prayer in relationships that I would otherwise have seen as troublesome.

The more I pray, the more willing I am to pray for miracles. Seeing some of these miracles occur has led me to pray all the more shamelessly! The repeated experience of God’s gracious help in the here-and-now continues to transform my life.

Barry Zalph

Barry Zalph is a member of Louisville (Ky.) Meeting. He served from 1998 to 2000 on the Traveling Ministries Oversight Committee and the Advancement and Outreach Committee of Friends General Conference.