Dial-a-prayer

by Richard on February 9, 2006

A church in South Wales has set up a dedicated ‘dial-a-prayer’ answering service. If you have a prayer request, you leave your message and someone prays for you. It would be easy to make fun of this - “Press 1 if you want a parayer for yourself, Press 2 if you have a concern for your family, Press 3 for any other prayer need” - but I can’t help thinking that his is not a bad idea. I have a theological question, though. Does leaving a message on the service constitute a prayer in itself? If not, why not?

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Kim 02.09.06 at 7:13 pm

Bonhoeffer tells of an incident in prison during a heavy Allied bombing raid:

“As we were lying on the floor, someone muttered ‘O God, O God’ - he is normally a frivolous sort of chap - but I couldn’t bring myself to offer him any Christian encouragement or comfort.”

Why not? Because Bonhoeffer correctly discerned that the cry was not, in fact, a religious response - i.e. a prayer - the man was simply breaking down. He might just as well have said “Woe is me!” or even “Holy shit!” as “O God!” So to comfort the man Bonhoeffer simply glanced at his watch and said, “It won’t last any more than ten minutes now.”

The point is that prayer makes “sense” only in the context of a religious “form of life” (to use Wittgenstein’s expression). A prayer cannot suddenly be conjured up out of nowhere if it is not embedded in, an expression of, a person’s practice of faith, her relationship with God. So the proverbial prayer of the atheist in a foxhole - it is not, in fact, a prayer but a cry of desperation, a plea for human help at best, the sheerest superstition at worst, God become a deus ex machina.

So whether the dial-a-prayer scheme is a good idea depends entirely on whether or not prayer is a part of the dialler’s life. If the person herself is a non-pray-er and dials with the idea that, well, it can’t hurt; or if, along with dialling, she touches wood or strokes a rabbit foot; or even if the person is a pray-er but behind the scheme lies the idea is that the more people praying, the better the chance of success, then Pastor John Davies’ bright idea is a bad idea. It certainly misconceives what constitutes Christian prayer.

2

Sue 02.09.06 at 8:27 pm

But God could choose to reply. It can be in times of trouble that people find God, so i am not sure that we can judge. The idea that the more people praying the more hope of being helped, is that really wrong? I find it helps when people pray for me. I have hope in that God will speak to people, even if there is the slightest chance that they will let Him into their lives. The idea of dial a prayer, doesn’t appeal to me but i don’t see the harm.

3

Sue 02.09.06 at 8:56 pm

-Does leaving a message on the service constitute a prayer in itself? If not, why not?

I keep changing my mind on this one! God can be the judge of that one.

4

Swan 02.09.06 at 10:31 pm

So what it comes down to is the attitude of the caller.

5

Kim 02.09.06 at 11:40 pm

Hi Swan,

Sorry if all I’ve done is to overcomplicate things!
But more than the “attitude” of the caller, I’m talking about a faith-shaped life. Prayer makes no sense apart from faith. Prayer also makes no sense apart from the church. Prayer is the language of faith and, like any language, it has to learned - which is what the church is - a school for the practice of prayer (which in fact is quite “simple” - as simple as peacemaking!).

What I’m trying to do is to probe beyond the dial-a-prayer scheme itself to the understanding of prayer which it looks to presuppose.

6

Beth 02.09.06 at 11:58 pm

John Donne argued that “God will scarce hearken to sudden, inconsidered, irreverent prayers”, which seems to sum up what you (and Bonhoeffer) were saying, Kim? But I’m glad you qualified this with ideas about the function of prayer in a more general scheme of prayerful living. I hope that, if I said “Oh God!” and meant it, he would answer nonetheless.

7

Kim 02.10.06 at 2:58 am

Thanks for your comments, Sue.

It’s good to know that lots of people might be praying for me - but not because I think it improves the chances of a divine hearing!

Does leaving a message on the service itself constitute a prayer? Does asking someone to pray for you itself constitute a prayer? Not, I think, in normal usage. In any case, it is not the answerphone element that is, as such, a problem; it is whether it’s part of an ongoing conversation with the Father - or are you just leaving a message and buggering off?

As for any harm the dial-a-prayer scheme may do, well, yes, a storm in a teacup and all that. I just think it does neither faith nor church - nor the people involved - any favours if the scheme misrepresents the nature of prayer. Is prayer sending God a shopping list - or being in a relationship that is both personal and corporate (ecclesial)? My fear is that the scheme sends the former message.

8

Richard 02.10.06 at 7:49 am

Kim wrote: “The point is that prayer makes “sense” only in the context of a religious “form of life” (to use Wittgenstein’s expression). A prayer cannot suddenly be conjured up out of nowhere if it is not embedded in, an expression of, a person’s practice of faith, her relationship with God”

I can see what you mean, Kim but I’m not sure I agree with you. It sounds a bit as if you’re suggesting that the ‘effectiveness’ (whatever *that* means!) of prayer depends on the one doing the praying, not the One doing the listening. I think Bonhoeffer was wrong (gulp!): the spontaneous cry of desperation is prayer of a kind.

9

Russell Bungay 02.10.06 at 8:55 am

I think that prayer by a standard dictionary definition requires some element of will from the person praying. Personally, it makes sense to me to think of that as a belief that the prayer can have some effect. That may or may not occur in the context of a faith based life.

However, I am sure that God doesn’t sit around quizzing Dr Johnson and what he regards as a prayer is much different in who and how he chooses to respond to.

10

Kim 02.10.06 at 10:29 am

Richard, of course a prayer’s “effectiveness” in no way depends on the pray-er (except, of course, in the deepest sense that the pray-er is God himself as Holy Spirit! - which is why all prayers are answered!). But that still leaves the question of whether prayer makes “sense”, and I’m suggesting that prayer makes no sense apart from its context of one’s life. I’m actually trying to get away from the whole idea of “effectiveness”, the idea of offering prayer hard enough, often enough, correctly enough, or widely enough.

And, yes, Russell, prayer certainly requires an element of will - but, again, prayer has nothing to do with will-power.

11

Sue 02.10.06 at 4:06 pm

Going back to Kim’s comment ‘Prayer also makes no sense apart from the church. Prayer is the language of faith and, like any language, it has to learned - which is what the church is - a school for the practice of prayer’
i began prayer from a children’s prayer book not from church. There will be people who don’t go to church, who may be searching for God and turn to Him in prayer. We learn from the church but i think it depends where we are on our spiritual journey as to the way we pray.

12

Kim 02.10.06 at 9:03 pm

Sue, where do you think the children’s prayer book came from? The church! And are you familiar with the image of the family as the “domestic church”?

13

Sue 02.10.06 at 9:39 pm

Yes thanks Kim, i realised this as soon as i summitted my comment! So people who pray but don’t go to church are following the example set by the church.

14

Kim 02.10.06 at 11:14 pm

Something like that. More deeply, the church at prayer is the primary pray-er. (Check that, of course Jesus himself is the primary pray-er!) Even when you pray alone you are never alone when you pray. And when you begin to pray, you are always entering a church alread at prayer - the communion of saints.

15

Beth 02.11.06 at 12:10 pm

Kim - correct me if I’m wrong (you’re good at that ;) ), but I think that maybe part of what you’re getting at is the question of the identity of a prayer as a prayer. So when Richard argues that a prayer’s “effectiveness” can’t depend on the one doing the praying, he’s right. However, if the prayer (viz. Bonhoeffer’s story) comes from one for whom this is out of the context of their life, it is perhaps not a prayer at all, but merely a form of words used because they are customary. Does that make any sense?

16

Kim 02.11.06 at 3:16 pm

Yup.

17

Sue 02.12.06 at 6:43 pm

But I still think that the cry of desperation, although not an intended prayer, could be answered. And that could be the start of a journey of faith.

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