In a sermon he preached at Riverside Church in 1945, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick said: “Without prayer there are some things God cannot say to us, for prayer is the listening ear. Without prayer there are some things God cannot give to us, for prayer is the hospitable heart. Without prayer there are some things God cannot do through us, for prayer is the cooperative will.” (The Kind Of Prayer These Times Call For, November 8, 1945)
Whereas God is omnipotent, God does ask us to cooperate in accomplishing the Divine will for our lives. And few things are so vital to that spirit of cooperation as is prayer – especially as Fosdick defined it.
Prayer is listening. The Bible encourages us to, “Be still and know....” In a busy and noisy world, too often we don’t make time to do that. And the prices we pay are witnessed in fatigue, discouragement, frustration, or a sense of general uncertainty about life. When I was in seminary, I was fortunate one night to be able to hear the late, great Dr. Harry Denman speak. I’ll never forget his message. He kept reiterating it over and over, appealing to both scripture and personal anecdotes. “The most meaningful form of prayer,” he said, “is not to talk, but rather to sit in silence and listen to God.” As Fosdick said, “Prayer is the listening ear.” That’s why I encourage people to develop a discipline of daily meditation, silence, focusing on a Spirit word or image, saying nothing, but waiting for the movement of God that brings insight, purpose, and peace. A monologue is not a conversation. To converse with God means not only to express our desires and needs, but also to allow God to express God’s will and love.
Prayer is accompaniment. In Revelation we read a verse that is too often merely quoted without being seriously considered: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” God seeks entry into our lives in order to provide us with things we cannot provide to ourselves. But scripture makes it clear that God will not batter down a locked door. One of the most arresting and important symbols of Communion is that when we invite Christ in, miracles happen. When we ingest the bread and juice, we are literally acting out the desire to take Jesus into our lives. We are asking that His life become part of our lives and that His blood flow through our veins. And when that happens, we discover a kind of life we had never experienced before – a life without fear and with purpose, a life without guilt and with joy, a life without despair and with hope. “Prayer is the hospitable heart,” said Fosdick. It is the deep wisdom that recognizes: “There’s a life I desire, and I can find it with God and in no other way. I will open the door and ask God to dwell more fully in me.”
Finally, Prayer is power. In the closing verses of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus commissioned the disciples to, “Go ye into all the world” doing ministry. But then He added a promise, “And lo, I will be with you always.” When we invite Christ in more fully, we experience a sense of sacred power to do that which we had never dreamt of doing. There is never a Sunday when I step to the pulpit without first having prayed, “God, I can’t do this. So please, You be the preacher. Let mine be the voice, but let Yours be the words.” And with the word “Amen,” there comes a sense of opportunity I could never have sensed or seized alone. Apply that illustration to almost any arena of life you choose: relationships, business, emotions, family, church, etc. When we ask God to work through us, we work more effectively. When we ask God to witness through us, we stand up and speak out more clearly and more boldly. When we ask God to love through us, we develop deeper and more meaningful relationships. “For,” as Fosdick wrote, “prayer is the cooperative will.” Or, as Paul put it, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me the strength.”
Transforming prayer is more than trotting out a Wish List to a cosmic Santa. Indeed, authentic prayer is far more than that. It is dialogue, conversation, moments of speaking and moments of listening, opening doors and extending invitations, welcoming a Presence that brings unlimited power. Prayer is what happens when God and you get together. Answered prayers are what happen when you then step back into the world.