Processes of Prayer


In 1981, the wife of John Shelby Spong, noted Progressive Theologian and Episcopal priest, was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and given a prognosis of two years.  Immediately people all over New Jersey where he served began prayer groups for his wife, and there was an outpouring of concern and good thoughts for her.  She lived another four and a half years.  He posed the question if intercessory prayer had anything to do with his wife’s two-and-a-half-year extension on her life, and he concluded that he doubted it because he couldn’t see where God would be so unfair as to grant his wife two more years and not the garbage man with the same prognosis. 

John Shelby Spong thought that if there were a God in the sky who granted wishes to those who pray and not to those who didn’t, that God would be manipulative and not worth following.  However, does that mean that John Shelby Spong does not believe in intercessory prayer?  No, but he did not believe in intercessory prayer in the way that we have come to know it.  He challenged us to look differently at prayer, as something that is to be done every day of our lives, and describes it as follows: “I think,” he says, “that prayer time is sitting self-consciously in the reality of the transcendent dimension we call God, getting in touch with it, letting it fill your life so that you can become an extension of it and begin to operate out of it. But,” he said, “that God energy is real and effective, but we can’t make it real and effective.  All we can do is channel it.  It seems to me,” he continued, “that you are in touch with it and you live out of it, you become an agent for life and love and for the enhancement of being.  Thoughts and love that flow out of someone toward another might still be effective.  I don’t know how it would work. But I’m impressed that when people talk the plants, their plants grow better…It seems spooky and weird, but there is something about energy flowing through a human being to human being, or even to an inanimate creature like a plant — that there is something we don’t yet understand about how love connects us, how lives are bound together, and how we are far more interdependent than we think…God then is the relationship between us.”

John Shelby Spong, September 23, 2008, “Living the Question” interview.



Matthew 26:36-47

36 Then Jesus went with them [the disciples] to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch[a] with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on.[b] See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

47 While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 


Many times, I wonder if we are not all asleep with our inner Christ waiting for us to pray with it, just like Jesus and his followers in the garden of Gethsemane..  But I do know that we all pray. Jesus was asking the disciples to pray with him, but they instead stayed asleep. I believe, intentionally or not, we pray only knowing when we are doing it intentionally. Sometimes it’s a way of focusing our energy but for the most part, it takes place internally, sometimes so deeply that we don’t even know we are praying.

We each pray differently even if we were brought up with the same teachings or in the same church as someone else.  Prayer is a very personal and individualized process. It’s interesting to me to get insight into how someone else comes up with their definition and practice of prayer. 

When I was a kid I went to bed each night praying desperately for a monkey to be under my bed.  Every morning I woke up and looked under the bed thinking that “today would be the day God gave me that monkey.”  Of course there were times I was disappointed, but I prayed for that monkey for years.  Then in fifth grade we lived next door to someone who had a monkey, and the first time I held his monkey, it wet on my head, and from then on I was so glad God didn’t answer my childish prayer.  Many of our prayers are immature, but they are still our prayers and having a prayer-life is important.

We don’t have to be alone to pray.  Jesus wanted prayer partners, and sometimes praying with someone can be almost like their strength is strengthening you.  You don’t have to be a sinless being because you are never going to be a sinless being – none of us are.  Right as you are and where you are is a good place to pray. Your way of praying is unique to you. It is like the skin of your soul is the skin of your body.  Everybody’s skin is unique with its own cell arrangement, it’s own pigment, its own amount of moisture, fat, or lack of these.  So your prayer life will be unique and your journey to strengthen or reinvigorate your prayer life will only be your own. It can be influenced by others but it is not theirs to tell you what do with it or even what prayer is for you. 

Anne Lamott in Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers  writes about her prayer processes and in one chapter she says, “Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. (In fact, these are probably the best possible conditions under which to pray.) Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. The opposite may be true: We may not be able to get it together until after we show up in such miserable shape.”  

But that is prayer for Anne Lamott.  It can be different for you.  Prayer might be as simple as letting the wind blow over your skin physically and feeling it so truly that spiritually you are doing the same thing at the same time, allowing the wind to invigorate your life, as you breathe it in deeply.  Prayer could be like some of my friends, lighting sage or burning cedar or tobacco, and letting the smell of the healing smoke remind you of your own sacredness.  Prayer is personal, very, very personal.

I like reading books about other people’s prayer processes, such as Anne Lamott in Help, Thanks, Wow.   In another three-word book titled Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes a memoir about her journey to understand what prayer was and is for her.  Her prayer life in some ways evolved and in some ways it stayed exactly the same.  (Think about your prayer life.  How has it evolved?  How does it nourish your soul? Or not?)

What do you look like when you pray?

Elizabeth Gilbert’s book in the second chapter describes for the reader a scene in which she is on the bathroom floor in hopelessness.  She is sobbing because she is not sure she wants to be married to her husband any longer.  She begins praying, she says, by introducing herself to God like she would at a cocktail party – “Hello God. How are you?  Nice to meet you.”  She says she stops short of the line, “I’ve always been a fan of your work.”  But then she begins to get real and to sob while she finds the strength to plead to God, saying repeatedly, “Please tell me what to do.”  Desperation can many times open the door to a deeper prayer life, but it doesn’t have to. Elizabeth Gillbert repeats and repeats and repeats this request, begging while crying for God to tell her what to do, and then the tears suddenly stop.  She feels perfectly still inside and out. In her words it was “as if the misery had been vacuumed out of me.”  Then she heard a voice, not a loud voice from heaven but a wiser and calmer one telling her to go back to bed.  She was surprised because it was her own voice, not a man’s voice, and she was surprised by how calm and compassionate the voice was for and to her.   She said it was a voice that she would have had if she only experienced love and certainty in her life. “The Omniscient interior voice.”

            She takes this voice, and she goes to Italy, India and Bali finding over and over the same thing about what prayer is for her.  In the bathroom floor, in the ashram, learning at the feet of an elder she kept stumbling over the truth for her – for her prayer was that “God dwells within you as you.” “That prayer is always the honoring of the divine that lives within.”  To her prayer is any act that honors your own sacredness or that of others.  She realized through life lessons chronicled in the book that she wasn’t going to find internal peace by grasping the love of a partner or even by learning from the gurus or elders.  She learns in all of her travels and experiences that the meditation room where she sought to find prayer is inside of her all along.  It is the same place she heard her own voice when she was on the bathroom floor.  Within her she says is a pocket of silence, and in the silence she can pray.

  • What is your experience of prayer?
  • What is your process? 
  • What is prayer like for you?


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