Does prayer change God, or us, or both?
“Prayer is not a lever we use to nudge God in a specific direction.” These words from John Buchanan in “The Christian Century” stirred a response from Walter Brueggemann: “Prayer,” he wrote, is a “primitive engagement that violates our best reasonableness . . . It is a genuine engagement between two lively partners.” Such lively engagement might just nudge one of those partners – God -- in a different direction.
Does prayer have the power to affect God? What is prayer?
These questions took on particular meaning when we discovered that our second daughter would be born with Down Syndrome. While my prayers ranged from discordant “Whys” to heavy sighs, there were many times I simply had not one word for prayer. One night, I found myself sitting on the bathroom floor in tears. Trying to turn to God I began praying the Lord’s Prayer, but couldn’t get past “thy will be done” without sobbing. I wasn’t considering theological issues, I simply longed for God.
But the question of whether prayer was a lever we use to nudge God was raised for me one Sunday morning at church. Rose wheeled up to me one Sunday morning and stretched out her arms to my protruding belly. “Let me pray for those X and Y chromosomes” she told me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that X and Y chromosomes do not cause Down Syndrome. Even though I felt awkward, her request was so fervent and her manner so earnest, I couldn’t bear to say no.
Would prayer like Rose’s have the power to change God’s creation?
Where debates stalemate, poetry can offer new perception. I was grateful to discover this line from Czeslaw Milosz, “All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge.” Prayer constructs a bridge -- a connection, a place of transportation -- between two places. As sturdy and hopeful as that sounds, Milosz adds a paradoxical twist. Prayer constructs a velvet bridge. Why take the sturdiest of structures and make it unsteady by the smooth pliancy and svelte luxury of fabric?
We can be cradled in velvet. Any blow in life would be softened. On a bridge, we are in process, so that even as life is unfolding too fast before us, we are able to be active participants with God. That process has at its end the possibility of a new shore. Milosz calls this place “the shore of reversal.” He continues, “That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal/Where everything is just the opposite and the word 'is'/ Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.”
What is reversed in prayer? That question is the one at the heart of the conversation between Buchanan and Brueggemann. That question was at the heart of my struggle with Rose and her prayer. That question echoed through the emptiness of my late night bathroom floor prayer. Is prayer a lever? A lively engagement? Or the length of a velvet bridge?
Milosz knew exile, world wars, and revolution in his life. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to him as a man “who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts.” Pope John Paul II once noted to him, “In your poetry, you take two steps forward and one step back.” Milosz replied, “Holy Father, how in this century can I do otherwise?”
We collapse into prayer knowing that in this place of transformation, grief is halved and joy is doubled. For those moments when prayer is a falling backward, we rest assured that it is God’s velvety nature that catches us. For those moments when prayer is stepping forward in faith, we give thanks there is a bridge that spans the chasm of doubt. If Brueggemann’s lively conversation is two steps forward and Buchanan’s lack of leverage is one step back, the Milosz offers both a bridge to move forward and velvet to catch us when we fall back.
Seven years into my prayers for Caitlyn, I know that her life is a miracle. And I know that through prayer, ‘is’ unveiled a meaning we never would have envisioned. God gave a velvet bridge that halved the grief and doubled the joy.
Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.