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Prayer as Relationship


This is a reconstruction of the talk I gave, last night, at the 3 in 1 group at St Michael's Church, Anderson's Bay, Dunedin. 

We have all had unhelpful experiences of prayer . I remember the clergy colleague who would sometimes correct the theology of my sermons 5 minutes later, when he led the intercessions; or the prayer groups when you dreaded THAT person speaking, because you knew they would speak for a quarter of an hour and list everything they knew to be wrong with the world. I've heard prayer used to share gossip, or to preach sermons, or to make announcements. I've seen prayer used to shame, or to control or to boast. In all these instances I have to ask "who, exactly is being addressed here?" and find myself asking again what, exactly, is prayer anyway? 

I know what it's not. Prayer is not telling God what God should do with the universe. Neither is it barking into a silence in which nothing is ever heard. Prayer is not exercising some position of privilege in order to get the Lord of all things to temporarily suspend the laws of physics on our behalf. Neither is it foolishly seeking help where no help is to be found. Prayer is not earning brownie points with God or trying to get God to like us a bit more (as if such a thing was even remotely possible). Neither is it a course in self improvement. Prayer is acknowledged as important, at least it is in some of the circles in which I move, but hardly anybody does it, and all who try find it not as easy at you might think. That difficulty is because prayer is about relationship; a relationship with God, which, even as a concept, is a tricky phenomenon.  In the great prologue to John's Gospel, the writer says:

No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, himself God, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18)

So how is it possible to have a relationship with someone it is impossible to see? It must obviously  be a very odd type of relationship, but it is one that, in my experience anyway, is a real one even if it has its own particular joys and difficulties. I want to talk about those particularities  over the next few weeks, but tonight I want to think about some of the dynamics of relationships in general, because those dynamics apply in a relationship with God as much as they do in the relationships we are more familiar with - those with our partners or workmates or children or neighbours or friends. . 

I think all relationships, including the relationship fostered by and expressed in prayer have 3 dimensions. 

1. Knowledge. Knowledge and connection are so closely tied that I sometimes wonder if they are synonyms. When we know something it becomes part of our consciousness - part of our inner mental landscape. Or in other words, it becomes part of who we are - part of us. So, when we know another person they similarly, become part of our inner life, regardless of whether that knowing brings us joy or not. The process of bonding with another person is largely a process of getting to know them, and the more we know them, the closer we are bonded. This is why we ask so many questions in the early stages of a relationship. This is why connection is difficult between people who are lying to each other. When we lie, the other's inner world contains not us, but a fiction we have created: something unreal, and the connection is correspondingly unreal. 

When I speak of knowledge in this context I am not meaning information or facts about the other person (although that is certainly part of it) but something much deeper, wider and more subtle.  Eugene Genden says


"We think more than we can say, We feel more than we can think, We live more than we can feel and there is so much else besides – " and then he goes on to say, with specific reference to a relationship with God, "Perceiving Gods presence is a far cry from knowing what God is". 

those of us in long term relationships of any kind know the lived, instinctive knowledge he is talking about. We experience it  when we communicate complex ideas with a brief touch, or with just one glance: "I'm sick of this party. Let's go home," or "Hey, I thought your pun was funny even if these bozos didn't get it," or "you're fabulous. " it's the knowledge which lets a father know, the instant his son comes through the door, that something happened today. It is the knowledge which enables a wife to distinguish her husband's steps from the hundreds of others in the corridor outside her ward. 

We gain knowledge of the other and we are bound to them, but it is a dynamic, two way process. We are bound when we share ourselves and know that that sharing has been received and welcomed. In the deep parts of ourselves, is there anything more healing, reassuring and constructive that the sure knowledge that we have been heard, understood and accepted? And this knowledge is foundational to the relationship to which prayer is integral. 

2. Intent. When we seek relationship with another we are doing it for some purpose or other. In other words, we have intentions for this relationship, and of course the other party to the relationship also has intentions. In the early negotiations around the start of a relationship, and as it develops, finding out the intentions of the other, and refining our own intentions is very important. And it's not as easy as you might expect because some of our intentions might be unconscious, and some of the other's intentions might be either unconscious or deliberately hidden. We sift and refine and discover the intentions of both parties in the relationship as we get to know them. "I need someone to do a task I can't do myself" or "I want to share my great wisdom", or "you look like a fun person to add to my wide collection of acquaintances," or "I want you to fill the yawning void of my own aloneness," or "I want someone decorative to exhibit to my friends," or "I want security," or "I want a warm and disposable body to borrow for a few hours," or "I want to share myself with the deep companion of my soul for many decades to come," or "amuse me" might all be present as intentions in the psyches of two people who meet. None of these intentions leads to relationship, however, without the third dimension:

3. Consent. Consent is giving assent to the intentions of the other party in the relationship. It is saying yes. Of course, as some intentions might be hidden, or unconscious, this permission giving is not usually straightforward, and will need to develop and be renegotiated as intentions are revealed and clarified. Consent can be open  as in an unambiguously worded statement or implied, as in a smile or nod or wink. it can be formalised, as in a written contract or informal as in a quiet agreement over a few beers, or the handshake between trusted friends. Obviously, where consent is implied and where it is informal, there is boundless room for people to get it wrong, and a massive majority of problems in relationships originate with mistakes about what has been consented to and who has consented to it.  Sharing in relationship is a huge part of what makes us human, and is life's principal joy, but  damage can be done - indeed lives can be wrecked, where we make mistakes about intentions and consent. 

So integral to the health of any relationship is communication - as honest, and as accurate and as frequent as is needed to keep this particular relationship on track. So how much is needed? well, the general answer in most relationships is more honest, more accurate and more frequent than it is now. So it is with our marriages and our romances and our parental and sibling relationships, our professional and sporting relationships and our friendships. So it is with prayer. 

Prayer is communication - 2 way communication - which fosters our growth in knowledge. Real knowledge, I mean, not just the acquisition of facts and theories. It is about intention and it is about consent. 

Which brings me back to that quote from John's Gospel. how is it possible to have communication with someone you can't see? What does intention and consent even mean in this context? Well, that's what I want to talk about in the coming weeks. But in brief, the only way I have found for developing these dimensions of  a prayer relationship is the prayer of silence. So I sit for 20 minutes at a time, and observe how, as a habit of silence grows in my life, the relationship with the one who is on the other side of the silence also grows. On the part of The Other, the one who IS, the consent given is for my existence. The intention of The Other towards me is laid out in the long history of the church and in the pages of scripture. Those intentions are summed up in that overly used but little understood word, Love. On my part the intention is simple. I intend to be whatever it is that God wants me to be And my consent is for The Other, the one who IS, to do whatever is necessary to get me there. I know that this is a dangerous prayer (it's a fearsome thing to fall into the hands of the Living God - Hebrews 10:31) but, in prayer, it seems, increasingly, to be the only thing to say which makes any sense at all. 

So next week I want to talk a little about this Other, the one we pray to. But in the meantime you might like to think about the question of what it means to be in relationship with someone who can't be seen. You might like to think what God's intentions might be for you, and what you might intend for God. You might like to think about the consent you give to God and the consent you withhold. And, in each case, why. 


Peter Carrell said…
Thanks Kelvin.
(Where "thanks" is minimum to be said and there is lots to think, feel and live about your post!)

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