Am preparing a talk for a group this evening on prayer, and have chosen the theme at the head of this post. After twenty six years of active Christian living (or at least trying) this is still something I struggle with. What are we doing when we pray?
On the very basic level I believe we are changing ourselves, or being changed by our encounter with God and that prayer is at least about that transformation that occurs as we place ourselves at God's disposal and pray with honesty and humility 'your will be done'. From this I beleive comes a network of those who are seeking God's way and are transformed into being the answers to prayer. In this way prayer is world changing.
But what about praying for those things upon which we, and possibly no other person of faith, can have an impact? Does God change the world when we pray? I remember a wonderful, rather quirky, Jesuit lecturer on my undergrad course who said that if God answered prayers in the way that people wanted him(her) to then South West London would be full of number 74 buses from all the people asking to get in to town faster. This coupled with a firm belief that God doesn't move people and events around like pieces on a giant chess board means that I have some scepticism about supernatural intervention through prayer.
Yet, that part of me which is alive in faith says 'but this must be possible'. It's not a logical, reasoned argument, but a belief in a God who can make a difference in the world over and above the actions of human beings. OK, so God may not make London Buses move to suit the needs and desires of prayerful postulants (if there is any thing which is infernal in this world it is probably the UK's public transport system - constantly raising hopes only to dash them on the cold tarmac and rails of our nation) but my understanding of God is of one who is active in the affairs of this world and from whom there is no place or situation that is distant.
So what happens when we pray?
Still don't know, don't think I will until some other time when I get to see God face to face, but I still hold on to the belief that prayer changes more than just ourselves. Perhaps, in the end, that's all faith can do, keep holding on.