PRAYER AS LISTENING
Prayer meetings is one of the most unpopular meetings in the Church. People will gather for food. They readily sign up for social and fun events. Many do not mind coming for Bible studies. However, prayer meetings occupy the lowest concern of any typical Church member.
I remember a pastor cheekily give tips on how best to disperse a Christian gathering: “Let’s have a prayer meeting.” Believers will then give all kinds of excuses to leave, like bees that scatter at the smell of smoke. Soon, the group will be reduced to a paltry few, as the rest carry on with their respective businesses. Amid the humor, there is a cloaked sense of sarcasm in the way this pastor has said about the attitude of Christians toward prayer meetings. It is common knowledge that in many churches, prayer meetings are unpopular. In a way, why should anybody bother with a ‘passive’ activity, when one can be engaged in something more active, like planning to make things happen? Why depend on something that works sometimes, and not other times? Why spend time doing something not proven by technology or science? Perhaps, prayer meetings are for sissies and those who approach Christianity like a crutch. People with such a perspective are those who tend to ask: “Why pray when I can simply pay for the solution?”
The pastor above may have been right about the unattractiveness of coming together merely to pray. However, if he thinks that coming to prayer meeting makes one more ‘spiritual,’ he is on the wrong track. People do come for prayer meetings, albeit under special circumstances. An emergency medical operation, a serious illness, a tragic accident, a major retrenchment or loss of income, frantic students seeking some comfort in the middle of exams all creates urgency for people to come. People need a reason to come for a prayer meeting, not simply because someone says so. When one realizes the limits of one’s ability and the world’s poor handling of the deepest human needs, one will come crawling back to the Heavenly Father, just like the prodigal Son, of the famed parable of Jesus, seeking Divine Intervention. When all else fails, the slender thread of hope lies in Jesus. These people tend to assert: “Pray only when all else fails, or when I sense a need.”
The first reason I talked about is a practical one that seeks to free God from mundane requests. The second reason I mentioned above is a tactical one that seeks God to intervene when nothing else helps. Let me propose a third reason for why people find prayer meetings unattractive. This third raison d'être why people find prayer meetings undesirable or boring is not the prayer meeting itself, but an incomplete picture of what prayer is. The reason why we find prayer meetings unappealing is because prayer is in many ways, an ‘empathetical’ one. We need to incorporate empathy in our praying. It is because we do not comprehend the magnitude of listening to God, to others and to ourselves, that we fail to pray well.
Three Reasons for Praying
In practical praying, we look for excitement and to some extent, entertainment. We are more interested with what works, what inspires or what makes things happen. At that place, some people say a few words, sing a few songs, complain a little frustration, share a little needy request, and hear a little prayer lesson. Nothing seems to happen, at least during the prayer meeting. In tactical praying, we wait for emergencies to occur before committing ourselves to that dreaded meeting. We are more interested only when the need arises. When there is no need, or no emergencies, why bother to come?
In empathetical praying, the reason why we come to pray is chiefly to listen. How well we listen to others reflects how well we listen to God. We listen because we want to know. We want to know because we desire to care. We desire to care because our friends matter. Our friends matter because we love. We love because we are first loved.
In empathetical praying, our listening goes far beyond the ear’s audible range. In other words, our listening device is not restricted only to our ears. We train our eyes, our hands and our hearts to listen.
- Listen for the pain when one shares about hurts.
- Listen for the joy when one shares about happiness.
- Listen what was spoken, according to what is audible;
- Listen out for what that was unspoken, according to what we know of the person;
- Listen with our eyes, to see the facial and timing of the person doing the talking,
- Listen with our hands, by holding the person gently with care and grace.
- Listen with our hearts, to challenge the highly motivated, to comfort the discouraged, to stimulate the bored, to soothe the agitated, to be the brother or sister we were meant to be.
We loved because he first loved us. A simple prayer exercise is an opportunity to love, to show our gratitude to God because He first loved us. We come to prayer meetings to listen to God, to know over and over again, why does He bother to come down to earth to die for us. We listen to God to ponder his great initiative. We listen to God to wonder how the new heaven and new earth will look like. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic treatise, “Life Together” has a beautiful description about the office of listening to one another. Let me share two segments, the first one a rebuke, and the second an exhortation to listen to one another. It is necessary for us to take note of both.
A REBUKE (-ve)
“There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and so get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here to our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God. ” (D Bonhoeffer, Life together, London: SCM Press, 1954, 75-6)
I remember times when people are sharing their prayer requests in a circular manner. As individuals are sharing, I will be thinking of what things I should be sharing, instead of noting the details of each person’s prayer needs. As a result, when it comes to my turn, I would have half-forgotten what others have previously shared. When that happens, I am forced to depend on my presumptions of my fellow brothers and sisters, and to pray very generally. Things like, “God bless Alex for all his needs. Amen,” hardly brings justice to Alex’s eloquent sharing about his life.
AN EXHORTATION (+ve)
This leads us to the next. The simple act of loving our brother or sister through genuine care and concern via listening, is an act of worship to God.
“Secular education today is aware that often a person can be helped merely by having someone who will listen to him seriously, and upon this insight it has constructed its own soul therapy, which has attracted great numbers of people, including Christians. But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.” (D Bonhoeffer, Life together, London: SCM Press, 1954, 76)
This act of listening, in empathetical praying not only connects us to our brother/sister in Christ, we participate with the Holy Spirit prompting to pray for others, even about needs that our loved ones do not even know.
In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; (Rom 8:26)
Let us not be caged up with practical praying, using pragmatic approaches to prayer so much so, that God is reduced to a nice-to-have but not always necessary spiritual mechanic. Let us also be careful not to indulge in tactical praying that sees God as a spiritual surgeon. Instead, see our whole praying discipline as empathetical praying that tries to see what others see, to look from God’s camera lens and in the process, recognize that we are made not for ourselves. We are made for God, for one another, and in that process, we find our deepest calling:
We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. (2 Thess 1:3)
May we practice empathetical calling more and more.Perhaps, when we wear this attitude, it helps us see prayer meetings in a totally new way. Blessings and enjoy your praying, empathetical ones that is.