Rev. Bob Johnson

What Does It Mean To Pray?

Today’s blog about prayer was written by The Rev. Bob Johnson at Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston. It spoke to me, so I asked him if I could share it with you.

What Does It Mean To Pray?
by The Rev. Bob Johnson

I believe in prayer. But I have to admit that I have often been disappointed by it.

Back around 1980, when I was still a chemical engineer working for DuPont and living in New Jersey, Susan and I attended Mantua United Methodist Church. This was before my call to ordained ministry, but was a time when I was rapidly developing in my faith. There was a guy, Joe Jones, who was a member of our church – he volunteered with our youth — and he was also an instrument mechanic at the DuPont plant where I worked. Joe bridged both of my worlds — church and work — which I usually kept pretty separate.

One Friday afternoon, Joe was supposed to accompany our youth on a weekend retreat, but he was forced to work overtime at the plant. (The union had elaborate rules for how forced overtime worked, and who got selected. Joe simply had no choice.) During that forced overtime shift, one of our PMDA reactors, which was being cleaned with boiling water, blew a rupture disk and Joe was doused with boiling water. He suffered severe burns and was transferred to the Crozier-Chester Burn Hospital. I came upon the scene a little while after it happened. I can still vividly remember seeing Joe’s white hard hat, upside down, and filled with now-cold water.

Why Did This Happen To A Man Trying To Serve God?

I couldn’t understand why a man who was trying to serve the Lord would, first, be forced to work overtime causing him to miss the trip which affected about a dozen youth, and second, why God would let him suffer such a horrible accident.

In my newly deepening faith, I began to pray fervently for Joe’s recovery. But it was to no avail. Infection set in. After about a month of excruciatingly painful treatments, Joe Jones died.

I was angry. At God. And disappointed that my fervent prayer — which at that time was pretty new to me — was so ineffective.

Over the years, I would have similar experiences with prayer. Other people I prayed for died.

But I also experienced the flip side, where prayer seemingly did amazing things. At Chapelwood, I met a man from England – Dennis Neal. He was a new believer. I had the privilege of serving Holy Communion to Dennis for his very first time. He was later diagnosed with liver cancer. I began to pray. Later, at M.D. Anderson, one of the best cancer hospitals in the world, Dennis had a scan after which the doctor said, “Dennis, I find no evidence of cancer now or of you ever having had cancer!” Wow.

I Don’t Know How Prayer Works

So I have to admit, I don’t know how prayer works. There is great mystery in it. I’ve just had to learn to trust God.

But lest I feel tempted to give up on prayer altogether, especially intercessory prayer, there are passages like this one from Revelation chapter 8. Continuing his vision of the heavenly throne room, with six of the seven seals surrounding the scroll holding God’s plan for the world having already been opened, the seventh seal now gets opened.

John then sees an angel offering incense on the heavenly altar. The angel offered it “with the prayers of all the saints.” Then we’re told, “And the smoke of the incense, WITH THE PRAYERS OF THE SAINTS, rose before God from the hand of the angel.” (Rev. 8:4, NRSV). The 7th seal has now been opened, the 7 trumpets are about to blow, and God’s judgment of the evil on the earth is about to begin.

Commenting on this, N. T. Wright says: The sequence of divine judgments, necessary for evil to be conquered and God’s glorious new world to emerge, is not a mechanical plan which will grind forward irrespective of human agency. God, as we have seen, is committed to working in the world through human beings. Prayer, even the anguished prayer of those who do not understand what is going on, is a vital element in this mysterious co-operation (see Romans 8.26-27).

God Is Committed to Working Through Humans

God is committed to working in the world through human beings, even the anguished prayer of people like me who do not understand what is going on. Prayer is a vital element of this co-operation.

If I stop and let that soak in for a bit, it impacts the way I think about prayer. And about how God works.

What about you?

 

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