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Is There Any Pleasure in A Prayer?
If you can't find enjoyment in your prayer, there is probably something missing.

Is there any power in a prayer? That question, frequently asked, may preempt a more fascinating one. Is there any pleasure in a prayer? I suspect that for many people prayer is seen as a duty imposed, rather than a pleasure eagerly sought. I suspect that prayer is something that arises most often out of need, desperation, guilt, or perhaps merely habit. If these impressions of how many people relate to prayer are accurate, then it might be useful to clear the decks and take a fresh look at this widely misunderstood but critical element in the life of the soul. In my view, prayer is a natural and spontaneous response to the presence and beauty of God; prayer is not something necessarily imposed by religious professionals, led by experts, limited to the theologically educated. Prayer is what wells up from within when one stands in the presence of God. And to the extent that prayer flows from a relationship with a loving God, then it is clear: prayer is one of the supreme pleasures of life. After all, can you think of anything that gives greater satisfaction and pleasure than being in the presence of someone you love? If that "someone" happens to be God ... blow me away!

Prayer as one of the supreme pleasures of life

In order to see it this way, one may have to clear away some powerful misconceptions. Consider how it was that you were first introduced to prayer. Were you ever told that learning to pray was something that every good child ought to do? Did your father or mother insist that you say your prayers before going to bed at night? "Now Johnny, don't forget to say your prayers!" Do you remember having to wait at the dinner table before eating a sumptuous feast, so that a family grace could be hastily recited?

I remember being asked to pray for the starving Armenians long before I had the slightest inkling who the Armenians were. I remember being reminded to pray for poor Aunt Minnie, though Aunt Minnie frequently spoiled our Sunday afternoons with her long and uneventful visits. And I was made to feel guilty that feeding the Armenians or entertaining Aunt Minnie were not high on my list of priorities at the age of ten or eleven. I also have distinctly unpleasant memories of prayers foisted off upon me and my classmates during the morning assembly in my public school (before the Supreme Court rescued me from that pious captivity) and prayers intoned at great length on purely ceremonial occasions like the Inauguration of a new President.

Hence the unmistakable lesson was communicated that prayer was a duty and an obligation imposed by someone in authority regardless of whether I shared the pleasure in it or not.

And there's another thing. If you attend many of our Protestant churches around the country as I have, you are likely to come away from many of them with the impression that prayer is a matter of dour responsibility because so few people seem to be enjoying it very much. At worship, we Protestants seem to be mournful and grave, silent and sleepy-eyed, and by our very style of worship, we communicate the feeling that prayer is a matter of obligation rather than joy. If we are to shatter some of these negative images we need look no farther than two of the greatest prayers in the Bible; namely psalms #148 and #150. These two examples capture both the form and substance of prayer at its best. Look at the opening verses of psalm #148. In his enthusiasm the psalm writer makes prayer a cosmic celebration; turning the very stars of heaven into an intergalactic chorus:

Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
Praise God in the heights.
Praise the Lord all angels;
Praise God all ye hosts;
Praise God sun and moon;
Praise the Lord you shining stars!

Of course the psalmist does not expect that the stars will literally burst forth with human speech; this writer is affirming that the stars are in their very beauty an act of praise. These words express the joy and wonder one feels in the presence of the infinite. Aware of the terrible beauty of the universe, it is quite natural that one is moved to express a sense of wonder, joy and praise.

But back to the psalm. Having enlarged our vision and widened our horizons with his sweeping view of the heavens, the psalm writer calls our attention back down to earth:

Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling God's command.
Beasts and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds.

These words are quite extraordinary when you think about them. For clearly the call to worship is not addressed simply to the pious church goers and the devout adherents of organized religion.

The psalmist gives the impression that the whole of creation is involved in the act of praise.

How is it, then, that many people appear to be so concerned about proper form, ceremony and propriety in prayer when the psalmist makes it perfectly clear even sea monsters, cattle and creeping things are perfectly capable of prayer?

I know that many will dismiss this psalm as an overstatement, some will say that the writer is merely waxing poetic. Surely we are not joined in our prayers by the beasts and the cattle and other creeping things. Well, I wouldn't be so sure. True enough, we are the only creatures capable of building churches and expressing our prayers in human speech. But all creatures great and small are the work of God. The natural world is not just an assortment of physical matter spinning aimlessly through space. The whole creation is evolving under the rule of God. God stands beyond, but also behind and within the passing flux of all things. God is the real waiting to be realized; God is the future waiting to unfold; God is the one who ties the diversity and multiplicity of the cosmos together into one harmonious whole.

Like an ancient quilt maker, God takes the shredded fabrics of our lives and sews them together into a pattern of great beauty which is a pleasure to behold.

In the nineteenth century in America, women would in fact make quilts from the scraps of fabric left over from other projects. These shreds of calico, linen, cotton, silk, velvet and satin, seemed to be of little value in and of themselves, but when sewn together they became works of great beauty. They were called crazy quilts. And often the quilt maker's love or faith found expression in their design. Like a master quilt maker, God can take the discarded scraps of our lives and shape them into works of beauty. Noticing the handiwork of God in our own lives and in the world all around us, nothing seems more natural than to sing a song of praise and thanksgiving.

What does prayer look, sound and feel like? The second psalm, #150, captures the spirit of prayer. Here the psalmist is quite specific:

Praise God in the sanctuary.
Praise God in the mighty firmament. ...
Praise God for exceeding greatness.
Praise God with trumpet,
Praise God with lute and harp;
Praise God with tumbrel and dance;
Praise God with strings and pipe;
Praise God with sounding cymbals;
Praise God with loud clashing cymbals;
Let everything that breathes, praise the Lord.

I take this psalm as a guideline and a goal for all prayer. Here there is nothing held back; every medium of expression comes into play. It's all stops out for God. Music and the dance, the sights and the sounds, the color and the drama.

Clearly prayer is meant to be enjoyable.

John Calvin, one of the great leaders of the Protestant Reformation expressed it well when he said that the chief end and purpose of life is to "enjoy God forever." That is not only good theology; it's also a practical suggestion for the renewal of the soul. In the past people have often pondered the question, "Is there any power in a prayer?" Today there is a more pertinent question: "Is there any pleasure in a prayer?" I would submit that if God truly is the source of all things beautiful and good, then prayer is the supreme pleasure of life.


Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2015).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2017).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.
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