The Second of Three Presentations on Prayer
Much of what I have learned and practice about IP I attribute to Evelyn Underhill. Evelyn Underhill was born in England in 1875 and died in 1941. She lived a life of reading, writing, meditation and prayer. She wrote a series of books on contemplative prayer. Her biggest contribution was teaching that the life of contemplative prayer is not just for nuns and monks, but can be a part of the life of any Christian.
Intercessory Prayer is the kind of prayer that is perhaps most familiar to us in terms of what comes to mind when we think about prayer, but yet in many ways it is also the one we know the least about, or understand the least. By definition Intercessory Prayer is when we pray or intercede to God on behalf of another person or a situation.
One thing I must say at the top is that Intercessory Prayer is a mystery. I don’t know how it works. I cannot explain the mystery to you and I will not try. What I will do today is make some points about Intercessory Prayer – share with you some thoughts, convictions and feeble understandings that I have and I do it with all humility not claiming ay special knowledge on this subject at all.
I do not believe you can reduce IP down to a simple formula. Many of you know that I abhor any attempts to reduce the life of faith to a simplistic formula. I think it both diminishes God and diminishes ourselves. Martin Luther maintained that if we lose a sense of the mystery of God, we lose God. God cannot be crammed into neat formulas and easy answers. God is ultimately a mystery, whom we believe we can come to know in and through Jesus Christ. Amen. But even so, we cannot turn Jesus into a formula. All prayer and intercessory prayer is a mystery that we enter into, but just because we enter into it doesn’t mean we can put it in a box, package it and sell it.
So I will make share with you today some points and convictions I have about Intercessory Prayer, but I do it not for a moment pretending that I understand it or have unraveled its mystery.
Conviction #1 The first thing we can say about intercession is that we do it with the acute realization that we are each adding our caring and our loving to the cosmic love of a God who already cares and loves. Our praying does not make God care more. Our praying does not awake a slumbering God to action. We are not telling God something in prayer that God doesn’t already know.
High up in an arch of the Cathedral of Chartres in France there is a carved stone figure of God, the Father holding Adam ever so tenderly on his lap. Adam is asleep with his chin on his chest and his arms and legs drawn up to his body, almost like the fetal position. God is looking at him with deep caring and compassion, as though he longed for Adam to waken from his sleep and to become aware of the One whose arms uphold him; become aware of how much he is being loved.
Bernard of Clairvaux, a12th century French abbot once said, “God loves both more than you, and before you love at all.” (more than you & before you love at all)
Evelyn Underhill says that in Intercessory prayer, as in all prayer, the very ground of its efficacy is conditioned by our waking up to the fact that before we ever begin to care for and to pray for another person or a human situation, intercession has already been going on. We are back to the #1 building block of prayer that I talked about three weeks ago, God’s unconditional love. But God’s love is not passive, it is active. God holds me, and you, and every other son and daughter of Adam in a longing and loving gaze, seeking to wake each of us out of our sleep of preoccupation and self-absorption that we might come to realize who it is that loves us.
In fact, being a Christian means waking up to the truth of God’s unconditional love for you. You are in the lap of God, every human being on this planet is in the lap of God, but so many of us, and so much of the time we are asleep to that reality.
When I, in intercession, hold some person or situation up to God, I do so knowing full well that I did not begin this concern or begin this intercession. The intercession has been going on already – it is already operating somehow and some way within the Godhead himself; within the Trinity itself. The intercession is already actively operating. Blaise Pascal, 17th century mathematician and philosopher, especially known for his “wager” idea, a rational argument for believing in God, said, “Jesus shall be in agony until the end of the world.” He meant that God’s loving and caring is costly and it didn’t end when Jesus died on the cross, but it only began. He said that we must see God’s pathos for all humanity as being laid over the entire world and all of history, a caring and loving that ”besieges every soul” every moment of existence.
This is a very different picture of God. This is a picture that reveals the pathos of God vicariously suffering for and with all his creatures – you and me!
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century paleontologist, Jesuit priest and philosopher says that “God’s caring extends to every cell in the universe for its healing and fulfillment.”
Some scriptures come to mind at this point:
“He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” -Psalm 121:4
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation but we ourselves, while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies… the Spirit helps us in our weakness: for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” -Romans 8:22, 26
The first thing we can say about intercession is that we do it with the acute realization that we are each adding our caring to the cosmic love of a God who already cares and loves in and through Jesus Christ.
Conviction #2 Our prayers make a difference because we are all connected in the being of God.
Baron von Huegel a contemporary of Underhill and a writer of theology and mysticism wrote to his niece, “I wonder whether you realize a deep, great fact? Do you realize that souls, all human souls, are interconnected… that we not only pray for each other but suffer for each other. Nothing is more real than this interconnection—this precious power put by God into our infirmities.”
Evelyn Underhill also talks about our souls literally being connected to each other in the being of God. She used the analogy of the wick our individual lives each being dipped into the same cruse (flask) of oil, and its there that we are mingled in the being of God that our prayers are added to the caring siege of love that never ceases its operation.
In my mind it is almost like a web and when we intercede we tug on one of the strands of the web and the whole web vibrates ad reverberates.
This is something is hard for us westerners to accept or even comprehend. We are so high and mighty on the idea of individuality and self-reliance that the idea that we are interconnected, and interdependent in some way is almost repulsive to the western mind. But yet, Underhill and other contemplatives suggest and insist that God’s grace is channeled in some unfathomable way into the world and into each others lives through our interdependence and inter-connection that exists in the being of God. (in the being of God, that is the key)
Paul speaks profoundly of this interconnectedness in 1 Corinthians 12. He says “If one members of the body suffers all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
For this reason, she says, our prayers matter. They are of critical importance. She says we may be “gate openers” in some way, and without our prayers perhaps the gate would not open.
Now, one thing I must say right here is that God has given us and whole creation freedom - total freedom. In that sense God withdraws. God gives us the freedom to make good and bad choices and with each choice comes ramifications. God has created the universe in such a way that it is governed by certain laws and those laws are in force. If something broke on a human made machine we called Space Shuttle Columbia, and that broken thing exposed the wing in such a way as the laws of friction and heating caused the shuttle to tragically break apart taking the lives of astronauts, God doesn’t selectively withhold the laws of nature to prevent such a tragic thing from happening – even though I’m sure many prayers were offered beforehand for the safety of the astronauts.
If I choose this morning to drive my car 100 mph down Chambers Road and I have a crash and kill somebody at the corner of Chambers and Hampden Avenue, God is not going to withhold the laws of inertia so that it won’t happen.
You see, there are two things going on at once that we must understand in terms of IP. God gives us total freedom and even extends that freedom to the creation itself – every cell of creation as Chardin would say. And God respects our freedom. I remind you we insist on our freedom, even when we know we are only hurting ourselves and each other.
However, giving us freedom doesn’t mean God does not love us or does not act on our behalf. God gives us freedom because God does love us and because we insist on it. So, God must find a way to love us ad act that respects our freedom -- and that is what Jesus is all about my friends. God makes himself totally vulnerable in Jesus Christ – even when we choose to spit on him, deny him, betray him, scourge him, crucify him and stuff him in a tomb.
God enters creation in a vulnerable way, respecting the freedom He’s given his creatures in order to elicit a freely-chosen response to his caring love expressed on the cross, and to prevent us from being locked into some spiritual determinism. He dies and rises for all humanity and now he has bound us together in his loving and compassionate being ad interconnects us one with another in the mystical body of Christ. Whether we like it or not we are inseparably interconnected and that interconnectedness is a premise of IP.
Dougles Steere, professor of philosophy at Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania tells the story of watching a little three year old boy climb up the long concrete steps of a church in the Netherlands. It was like 100 steps. He literally climbed them one at a time until he reached the top where he stood in triumph at his accomplishment. Mom and Dad were sitting at the bottom on a bench watching him through his entire ascent. The beckoned to him to come on down, but the little boy chose not to. Rather, he hollered for them to come up and get him. But they simply sat quietly and continued to beckon him. The little boy threw a temper tantrum at the top of the steps. He was angry that they didn’t come to rescue him. Finally he quit crying and he took the first step back down, and then the next one, and the next one, etc. After a few minutes he had made it all the way and then he ran into his parent’s loving arms.
There’s a little clue buried in that story as to how God has withdrawn in order to respect our freedom, even at the risk of injuring ourselves and others. But, God is deeply involved in that freedom just as those wise parents were involved in the treatment of their child.
We are all inter-connected in the being of God , in the person of Jesus Christ. Our intercessions for others does not infringe on their freedom, but I believe our prayers can, shall we say, lower the threshold in the person prayed for to help them wake up to the besieging and never ceasing love of God – and make God slightly more visible.
This is important. Intercessory prayer is not an overcoming of God’s reluctance, but a laying hold of God’s highest willing.
When we love someone in the presence of God it makes a difference somehow and someway; ultimately a mystery, but I am convicted that it is the truth.
Our prayers make a difference because we are inter-connected in the being of God.
Conviction #3 Don’t be shy! Pray as you can. Stay the course in a season of extended prayer.
How may we be sure that we are praying for the right thing? Simply stated, we cannot!
There’s a story about a woman who by mistake had been omitted from the guest list of the Vicar’s garden party. Hearing on the morning of his party of his mistake, the Vicar called the woman and apologized and asked for her forgiveness and invited her to the party. The woman snapped back at him, “It’s too late, I’ve already prayed for rain.”
I hope you have had the experience of repeatedly making intercession for someone or thing over and over an over again, and somewhere in the process you discovered in this extended season of prayer that your prayer ended up being different from what you began praying for. I may have begun praying for a person’s health to be restored or that their martial estrangement might be restored only to discover that these kinds of so-called restorations might not be the most important of their needs.
I believe if we stay in the season of prayer long enough, the things we originally put forth in our prayers may have been searched and evaluated and eventually put aside, and a whole new layer of longing for the person or situation often emerges.
Don’t be shy. Pray as you can without reservation. It’s not where prayers begin that counts, but where they end.
Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane began with “Father, if you are willing remove this cup from me…” only to later yield to the course God desired for him to travel in the end.
Don’t be shy! Pray as you can. Stay the course in a season of extended prayer.
Conviction #4 All Intercessory prayer is offered in the name and spirit of Christ.
P. T. Forsythe wrote, “If intercessory prayer is caring for another or for a human situation in the presence of God, and if it is our communion with God and others, then the divine presence may be trusted to lift it from our well intentioned initial outbursts into a critically important thrust of love that may change the situation, even though the change may be widely different from the cry we entered with or from any of our expectations.”
The grace of IP is when we offer a prayer in the name of Christ our prayers are cleansed from our self-seeking and manipulative elements. I believe it is almost impossible for us to separate ourselves from our self-interests and self-indulgence. So the grace of it is that God does it for us. Grace because we don’t have to be anxious about messing the thing up with a misguided prayer.
All Intercessory prayer is offered in the name and spirit of Christ
Conviction #5 Costly Involvement
Whether we intend it or not praying for another person or situation is to be involved in the deepest place in the universe the being of God. We are back to the inter-connectedness in a different way. For the person who wishes to avoid being drawn in to costly involvement, intercessory prayer is to be avoided like the plague for two reasons.
A) You very well might become a part of the answer to the prayer in a physically way. How can I pray for the alleviation of famine in Ethiopia without sharing my resources?
B) Closely related: You may be called to change. You may find that if you ask for changes in the lives of others you may get into touch with parts of yourself that need the healing love of God as well.
You may prayer, “Thy kingdom come in George (and in me) “
Conviction #6 The Test for Intercessory Prayer – a question.
Do you believe that your intercession can touch another’s soul to whom you are connected in the being of God and can be used by God to affect the life of the other? Yes or no?
William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury answered it this way. He said, “All I can say is that when I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t!”
That is in the end all that need be said.
Conviction #7 Some how-to-dos of Intercessory Prayer
a) I sometimes sit in the pew that you sit in and pray for you – emphasize the inter-connectedness
b) Cannot be in a hurry – tough one for frantic people
c) Make lists of people and concerns – so you’ll remember
d) hold a hand and pray – physically manifest the interconnectedness
A Final Word:
There is no form of prayer that is more obviously an act of real love that the costly act of intercessory prayer. Let us not hold back. Let us join and meet one another in the being of God in Jesus Christ as we pray for one another, for others, and for our world. Amen.