Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Does Mature Prayer get Better Results?

Jehovah's Witnesses get their prayers answered more often than members of any other religion, according to a Pew study that Lynne Feldman called to my attention to via the Facebook page for Integral Spirituality Nexus. This intriguing fact made me smile because of my adventure with a family of Witnesses recounted in my book. And it provided grist for an all-too-brief exchange about prayer among some Integral buddies of mine.
New Thought Practitioner:  Affirmative prayer gets results by raising our level of consciousness around circumstance.

Interfaith Celebrant:  That may be possible for people who have achieved the level of "Christ consciousness," but not everyone should expect those results.

Me:  Ah, but a Pew study says the people in  religions that are least focused on consciousness report getting the most frequent answers to prayer--with Jehovah's Witnesses at the top reporting one answered prayer a week.

Senior Integral Guy:  Of course we know from postmodernism that our experience (of the results of our prayers) is shaped by our conditioned beliefs about it.

This rich exchange could be mined for weeks. But only a few hours later I found a transcendent response in  Brian McLaren's latest book, "Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words." In it he lays out four seasons of spiritual growth with spiritual practices appropriate to each one:
  • Springtime of Simplicity (when answers about God are black and white, and  worship is the best prayer)
  • Summer of Complexity (time for confession, petition, and intercession)
  • Autumn of Perplexity
  • Winter of Harmony

McLaren provides spacious definitions of confession, petition, and intercession, casting them in a mature and radiant light (with confession sounding a lot like shadow work). But then in his Complexity chapter he asks the big question:
Will our prayers do the trick, get the job done, flip the switch, close the deal, guarantee results, be effective? Will prayer change things? You may have already noticed that until now I've largely left these questions unasked, much less answered...

Here's why. I'm writing about the summer season of complexity in the spiritual life as someone who has already passed through it a time or two; I've gone on to survive some autumn and winter seasons as well. These experiences have changed me...Back then I would have had a lot more to say than I do now about "praying effectively," "claiming your miracle." and so on.

But from where I am now, with some autumns and winters under my belt, I actually think a better way to deal with these questions is to say, "Yes, think about these questions... But don't pretend you have solved them once and for all. Because later on you'll be seeing things from a different perspective, and from that perspective much will change. What seems like a problem now won't be so much of a problem then. The important thing both now and then is to keep praying, whatever answers come or don't come... Because however much or little prayer changes THINGS, prayer certainly changes YOU, and you need to be changed. Remember that you still have a long way to grow, and the best way to grow is to keep praying, to keep strengthening the sacred connection."

McLaren continues:
In life's summerlike season of Complexity, if we do not practice confession, petition, and intercession, we will not keep growing in the sacred connection.
  • If we do wrong, then denial, pride, or shame will cause us to disconnect. [hence, confession]
  • if we're in need or pain, then exhaustion, anxiety or disappointment will cause us to disconnect. [hence, petition]
  • and if we're faced with the suffering of others, then we'll succumb to the temptations to disconnect through apathy, despair, self-distancing. [hence, intercession]
As a result our hearts will contract, not expand. And as a further result, the world, deprived of stronger compassion in people like us, will inevitably grow worse and suffering will increase.

But if through confession, petition,and intercession, you and I strengthen the sacred connection in the midst of life's complexities, what will happen then? Won't we become--habitually, radically, truly--more aligned with God's compassion, more empowered by it, more resonant with its holy frequency? And won't more of us who are more filled with God's compassion help make a better world?

I absolutely love his perspective. There's still a few loose ends I'd like to tie up in that discussion among my friends. But for me, McLaren's answer transcends the questions. And McLaren's prayers for the seasons of Perplexity and Harmony are simply stunning as well. I am more and more intrigued about the possibilities for a practice group built around "Naked Spirituality."

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