Prayer is a central tenet to the Christian faith. In this episode we explore the intersection of science and faith when it comes to prayer. Can the effectiveness be prayer be tested with scientific studies? How does prayer affect us physically and what happens in our brain when we pray? And what is the role of prayer during a worldwide pandemic?
The first part of this episode is from episode 8 which aired on May 2nd, 2019.
Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump.
Prayer is a central tenet to the Christian faith. And during hard times and in the face of sickness, death and oppression, Christians often turn to prayer. These days the world can feel particularly harsh and some people might be turning toward prayer more fervently than ever. Others may be having trouble with prayer and feeling like God is silent.
Today we explore prayer, first by going back to an episode from last year where we look at how science has attempted to understand prayer. In that episode we hear some stories of some of the scientific studies that have been conducted and think about whether science is really the right tool to understand prayer. We’ve added a new second part for this episode, in which we seek out some pastoral perspectives of the place of prayer in the time of COVID.
My producer Colin will take it from here.
Not long ago I was at a small worship gathering with friends and neighbors. Some of us had many decades worth of experience with prayer and we had learned the cadence and the rhythm of prayer that had become shared language over our many years attending church services and hearing prayers of many kinds. There is a sound to prayer, common words and sentence structure that we all knew and we could easily distinguish from other forms of communication. At the end of the gathering our leader began to pray and then opened it to the group.
Several of us took turns speaking up, sharing our desires, fears, and needs. Then from one of the silences between prayers a new member spoke up, a neighbor who was new to our gatherings and probably new to church and to prayer. He prayed with his eyes open and he spoke conversationally, as if speaking to his mother on the phone or just to the rest of us in the group. There was something refreshing about his prayer and the complete lack of institutional routine. There was a genuineness and a vulnerability that I envied.
Unlike this neighbor of ours who jumped right into prayer in his own way, prayer can look pretty strange to non-christians or those new to Christianity. Here are people who close their eyes and bear their souls to someone invisible in the room, and who ask for their greatest desires, for changes to weather and world peace and the healing for themselves and others. And so it’s not surprising that for many centuries people have been asking questions about whether these prayers actually work.
It turns out that scientists have been exploring prayer for quite a while. In this episode we’ll take a look to see what science can tell us about prayer and in doing so we might also find out the limits of what science can teach us about prayer and about spiritual experiences.
Prayer comes in many forms. Quiet meditation, communal prayer, song, dance, poetry. It can be simple, like Mary Oliver describes in her poem called prayer.
“It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
Prayer can transportive. It can be desperate. Or it can be short memorized sentence or two spoken before a meal. Prayers for other people are called intercessory prayers and these prayers have been a focus of several scientific studies.
This dates back to 1872 in Britain—
This is David Myers, a social psychologist and a Christian, who has written extensively about the intersection of faith and psychological sciences.
—when Francis Galton challenged Christians. Hey you think prayer really changes things? Why don’t Christians all agree to focus their prayers on a particular hospital or on the longevity of particular political figures?
And this threw the church into a kind of chaotic discussion of what really authentic prayer is, Whether this was merely putting God to the test and we shouldn’t do this, whether it’s magic rather than authentic prayer and so forth. And so the experiment was never done. But the challenge—the great prayer test challenge—lay out there for a while.
And then in 1988 a researcher named Randolph Byrd did an experiment in which he took 393 patients, coronary patients, about to undergo heart surgery, assigned half of them randomly to a prayer condition where born-again believers, as he called them, multiple ones, were praying for a particular patient and their recovery after the surgery, and half were randomly assigned to a no prayer condition. And he had 26 different outcome measures, and found that on six of them the people who were prayed for seemed to have done a little better. Although not on the other 20, not in terms of how long they were in the hospital, whether they died or other measures like that. And there was some critique of his methodology. So there it lay.
Until 1997 when a Harvard professor, Herbert Benson, proposed a new study, which David calls the Harvard Experiment.
And what he wanted to do is to take a very large sample of people about to undergo coronary bypass surgery and assign them to either be prayed for or not, randomly, with half of the prayed for people knowing they were being prayed for and half not knowing which of the two conditions they were in. So that created three different conditions.
Well it took a long time for this experiment to be done, and it was done, with something like, as I recall, twelve hundred patients who were assigned to these three conditions. It was a $1.4 million study, the biggest prayer experiment ever done. In the meantime, while the experiment was being done, and then it took some time for its results to get published, there were five other prayer experiments of this sort. And they all found no effects of intercessory prayer. And finally the Harvard prayer experiment came out and it too found absolutely no effect of intercessory prayer.
From the start, David was skeptical of these experiments attempting to prove whether intercessory prayer works by using double blind studies. In fact, when he learned about the Benson experiment, and before it took place, he wrote and published a letter predicting, as a person of faith, that the study would find no effects. You can find a link to that letter in our show notes. And he’s not the only one that shares these concerns.
Let me tell you my problem with these studies, and it’s true for especially the Benson study, but it’s true for a number of them, and that is that they generally have a stranger praying for a stranger from a script.
This is Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
I wrote a book about the science of spirituality called Fingerprints of God, I was NPR’s religion correspondent for a decade, and now I write for The Atlantic.
Barbara came across a number of interesting stories during her research for Fingerprints of God and shared some of those stories with us along with the wisdom that came out of her experiences.
Now, I don’t think that’s how prayer works. Like you got to have a dog in the fight. You know, when you pray for someone, you pray because you care. You care about that person, you care about their prognosis, you care about their getting better. Right? And so this kind of antiseptic praying for a stranger from a script doesn’t really cut it, I think. I don’t think it really accurately shows what prayer is all about.
Phillip Yancey, who we interviewed in Episode 5, shared a similar view.
This is a complete misunderstanding of prayer because it has to be a double blind test, so you have Prayer A praying for Patient B, but Prayer A can’t know who the patient is, Patient B can’t know whether or not they’re being prayed for. You know, well, prayer is about relationship and love. It’s not about that.
These studies seem more appropriate for testing the effectiveness of charm spells for first year students at Hogwarts. Our prayers are not incantations by which we attempt to manipulate or coerce a higher power to do our bidding. But of course we continue to pray fervently for the health and well being of our loved ones. Maybe we can step back a bit and see where the problems are with understanding prayer to be like a form of magic.
If you do have this kind of magical conception or prayer, that God is a celestial genie whom you can rub and something good will drop out of it, and it doesn’t work out that way, then what does that do to your faith? So I mean your faith is kind of a vulnerable one if that’s what it’s based on. Secondly if that were true, the world would be different. People of faith would have a noticeably longer life expectancy than people who were not of faith, they would win more lotteries, they would—I mean all kinds of things would need to happen that observably don’t happen.
God is not a genie. God is not a celestial Santa Claus that we can stroke and—or a celestial vending machine, to use another image. And that’s both, it seems to me, biblically, a more appropriate view of God, to kind of deny that magical view of God, and it certainly accords with the data as we have them because of the repeated failure of intercessory prayer experiments to find that distant intercessory prayer has significant discernible effects.
Barbara grew up in the Christian Science religious community and so this idea has been one she has dealt with personally.
Those are the folks that don’t go to doctors, right? And they really put their money where their mouth is. They believe in the power of prayer and they don’t go to doctors and so they really believe in the power of prayer to heal you, to, you know, fix your life.
The up-side of this kind of religious background is I believed that prayer worked. But the downside is—and I don’t think I’m unique in this—is I kind of thought of God as a vending machine, right? Like you pray the proper, the right prayer, and if you get it just right, and the wording just right, and your motives just right, and “not my will but thine” just right, then you put in that prayer and “Bingo!” your prayers will be answered, you’ll get over the flu or you’ll get the right job or meet the right partner or perform adequately in a podcast interview or whatever it might be. And so I had this kind of sense of God as a vending machine. As I grew in my Christian faith, but also, as I looked at the kind of research in some of the experiences of these deep prayer warriors, these people who were really, really good at prayer, what I realized is that prayer is not so much about getting God to do you a favor, as a connection to God. It’s not about the physical result, it’s about the relationship
Philip Yancey echoes this evolving understanding of prayer.
I used to see prayer as my way of getting God to do the things I couldn’t do on my own. So most of my life is kind of under control, I can manage it, but then there are these four or five things that I really need some supernatural help with. So that’s what prayer is all about. And now I understand prayer very differently, and that is, not those things that I need God’s help with, but those things that God has chosen for me to be a part of helping God, as it were. We know what God wants done on this planet: let righteousness flow down, let justice, like a never ending stream— We know that God is in favor of healing and justice and mercy and all of these things. It is like a stream. It’s like a river flowing and we’re to be in that stream. And for me, the question of prayer now is more at what point do I jump in that stream?
So where does that leave us? For David and the others, it of course doesn’t mean that we don’t pray.
Now mind you I’m speaking as a person who began today, as every day, in reading scripture and in prayer. So there is a place for prayer in my own life. So let none of what follows, indicate otherwise.
And let’s not forget, Jesus has some very clear advice when it comes to prayer and he even gives us a prayer in the form of the Lord’s Prayer.
Well let’s think about the Lord’s Prayer.
Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive them who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver from evil,
for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” I mean, it’s not a prayer that is seeking to manipulate God for our purposes. But “my daily bread,” when I say that, I pause, and I think about people that I care about, you know, who are ill or in difficult circumstances right now and I lift them up.
Do you see prayer changing for people or how has prayer changed for you with that understanding that it may not be about asking for something and then waiting for it to happen?
Sort of like this Colin, sort of like approaching God the way a little pre-school child might a parent. It’s not that the pre-school child needs to inform the parent of its needs that the parent doesn’t already know, because the parent is benevolent and deeply loves and cares about the child. But the parent still wants the child to communicate and to share whatever is on its heart. And that’s what I’m doing when I’m praying. But I view God as sort of like, to me, like a parent is to a toddler.
What matters is the connection, the connection to God. And secondarily, it would be great if I could get over this flu pretty quickly, but that’s actually not the important thing. The important thing is this connection to God.
To sum up—at least when it comes to intercessory prayer, the prayers for other people, science is probably not the right tool to help us understand this core tenant of our faith. Many of the studies seemed to have missed the point of prayer, looking instead to find some sort of proof that our prayers affect the physical world or maybe proof that they don’t. But the very questions may be misguided. When we look to theology and scripture, which are probably much better tools to use, we realize that our prayer is about finding a connection to God.
But if science isn’t the right tool to understand how our prayers affect each other, is it still useful in helping us to understand how it affects ourselves? In the next part of our show we’ll take a look at what science has found about what happens in our brains when we pray and what this means about our prayer lives.
There is a field of science called neurotheology which attempts to better understand what happens in the brain of a person who is having a spiritual experience, including what happens in a person’s brain while praying.
For example, when we pray or when we meditate, scientists have found that there is increased activity in the frontal lobe of the brain. This is the part of the brain that helps you make decisions and study for tests. Meanwhile, the parietal lobe, which helps us understand time and space goes dark. And so, while praying, we lose our sense of where we are, maybe even who we are.
What happens is you have this experience of timelessness, spacelessness, that where you end and the universe begins is blurred, that you have a unity with the universe, or if you’re a Christian, unity with God.
The field of neurotheology has lead to some interesting studies, including one by a researcher named Michael Persinger who created what has been called the God Helmet.
So Michael Persinger believes that if you activate the right temporal lobe, you will feel something, he calls it a sense presence, the sense that there is someone else in the room, that there is a god in the room. And so what I did is I went up there to put on this God helmet, which is, get this, a yellow motorcycle helmet with some electrodes. You know, they attach electrodes to your hair and then to your scalp and then they put this yellow motorcycle helmet on you. And then they, to kind of make sure that you can’t see anything, they put a pair of goggles on you with Kleenex in them so you can’t see out the goggles. And this is supposed to create this sense of absolute darkness and soundlessness and all that.
I’ve got to tell you, when he tried to activate my temporal lobes, the only thing I felt was sleepy. I was sitting in this comfortable chair and in an overheated room and I basically fell asleep. So I didn’t actually feel the sense presence, but he swears that his research shows that if you activate the right temporal lobe, you will experience God. And God is nothing more than brain activity.
And what he would say, and what many, kind of, materialist scientists would say, is that, “you know what? It’s just brain activity. You know, just face facts, folks. It’s just brain activity.
I’m guessing a lot of you might not like this idea that any spiritual experience you have had, any time you have felt transported or comforted by prayer, that it was merely neurons firing in your brain, nothing more.
The very idea that once science is able to explain a spiritual experience such as prayer that that experience somehow becomes no longer real or no longer important, is an idea that has been at the heart of the tensions between science and Christianity. But the knowledge that we get about what happens in the brain doesn’t have to explain away the reality of the experience.
Other scientists I talked to have a really different take on it. I remember speaking to Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins and he said, look, when you eat a piece of apple pie, there will be certain predictable brain activity, right? So as you lift the fork to your mouth, the parts of the brain that mediates smell will light up, the parts of the brain that mediate taste will light up, the parts of the brain that mediate memory, that remember the last time you had a piece of apple pie that was this good, that part of the brain lights up too. But the fact that there is predictable brain activity, does that mean that there is no apple pie? That the apple pie is a figment of your imagination? Of course not. And so what he and many others would say is—it is entirely possible that this is how the brain is wired to connect with the divine, that we have predictable brain activity, but it isn’t an enclosed case, you know? It connects with the divine.
Or how about one more example, in another story Barbara told us.
I asked this question to one man. He was a Hollywood comedian and he had this kind of spiritual—he began to notice that he was having all these kinds of spiritual experiences. And he was Jewish. And he said that one night he was lying in bed and he saw this swirl of colors kind of appear above him and he was trying to figure out what it was, and he’s peering up at the ceiling trying to figure out what this vision was. And then it kind of materialized into the Virgin Mary, right? And he goes, “why would the Virgin Mary appear to me, I’m Jewish? She could do so much better.” But what he realized is that he had had an operation, he had had something removed from his brain and that had left scarring. And he went back to his surgeon and said, “you know, I’ve been having these visions and kind of having this different—hearing things, smelling things, all of that. Can you just tell me if everything’s A-okay with my brain?”
And what happened is it turned out that he had developed temporal lobe epilepsy. And so he knew that the source of his, kind of, newfound generosity toward mankind, his sense of spirituality, that he kind of looked at life differently—that was all kind of residing in his brain. He knew it was about his temporal lobe, but he said, “I don’t care. You know, this is how, perhaps, I’m connected to the universe, is through the temporal lobe, you know, through the scarring on the temporal lobe. I don’t care how it—what the explanation is. All I know is that I’m a better, happier person.” And that, I think that is a really interesting and, I think, profound way to look at it.
Science is a great tool for helping us understand the world we live in. And so it makes sense that when we encounter questions about our world, we turn to science. And we can learn some really interesting things from it, things that help us to better understand ourselves, and sometimes things that give us a comfort or bolster our previously held beliefs. But we also run into the limitations of science in trying to understand a God who is the creator of all things, including the laws of the universe, and not able to be measured by the tools of science.
When we find that science can no longer help us in answering our questions, questions like why is there something and not nothing? Then we might instead turn to prayer, where we can bring our questions to God.
As Paul tells us in Phillipians:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
And sometimes we find that science and prayer work best together. We recently talked to Jimmy Lin, a doctor and geneticist who is the CEO and Founder of the Rare Genomics Institute.
I think it’s important that God gave us, not only interventions by prayer, but also gave us an intellect, right? And asked us to be stewards of our world. So God gave us the ability to think his thoughts after him and to have scientific creation. I think, like I said, science is an act of worship and we can only do it because of God’s calling on our lives. So I think, in terms of thinking about illness and disease, we don’t approach it just thinking about, you know, miraculous ways or prayer, but using methods that God also providentially controls, and has given us these gifts to work as well. So if you look through scripture, there are many, many times where prayer is often sort of paired together sort of within an action. So I think there’s an important role for both prayer as well as intervention through human ingenuity that God has sort of given us. So it’s a combination of both.
And finally as Philip Yancey reminds us we pray because Jesus prayed.
To me, that’s the most powerful reason for prayer. If you ask me, “why would you do it?” Well, Jesus understood the universe, he participated in its creation, and yet every time something important came up, he would spend sometimes all night at prayer. Jesus knew that the time he spent in prayer was as important as anything else he could be doing on the planet.
Hi Language of God listeners. We wanted to take a quick break from the episode to tell you about the BioLogos resource centers found at our website, biologos.org. You’ll find articles, videos, and other resources curated for pastors, educators, youth ministry, campus ministry and small groups. Help bring the science and faith conversation to the places that are important to you. Just click the resources tab at the top of the page. Now back to the conversation.
It’s a little hard to remember my perspective of the world when we put the first half of this episode together back in May of 2019. I didn’t know a lot of the things I know now, about myself, about my family, about the people around me, about the basic science of viruses. And so I wanted to revisit this exploration of prayer and see if anything new came to light.
At BioLogos we see the scientific work to understand COVID-19 and the attempts to create treatments and vaccinations for COVID-19 as a gift from God.
There’s the story I’ve heard several times. I couldn’t quite track down it’s origins but it goes something like this: There’s a man who is trapped on the roof of his house as flood waters rise around him. Several rescuers come to help him but he sends them all off, telling them God will save him. Eventually he is swept away by the flood and when he reaches heaven, he asks God why he wasn’t saved. God, I imagine somewhat exasperated at this point, tells the man that several people had been sent to save him.
Having heard this story, and wary of being like that man, I try to be attentive to the rescuers who might be sent by God in this time of COVID: the doctors and scientists and many others. But in doing so, I also wonder if I also am forgetting about the importance of prayer at times. Forgetting that we still must connect with God, still must confess our fears and our desires, even if we are on the lookout for something more earthly to help us out.
I called up several people, pastors and theologians, who were willing to share their thoughts and wisdom on prayer in these last few months.
My name is Mario Russo and I’m a pastor and I’m also the Director of the Dortmund Center for Science and Faith in Dortmund, Germany.
I’m Jill Forton, Pastor at Cascade Christian Church.
My name is Kent Busman. I’m an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America and my call has been to serve as director of Fowler Camp and Retreat Center up in the Adirondack Mountains for the last 34 years.
I’m Grace Claus. I am a Writer and Editor who is currently staying home with our two children.
And so I’ll let them do most of the speaking here, first talking about the role of prayer and the place of prayer in this time. Here’s Mario to start us off.
I think about the purpose of prayer and why pray when we don’t have a pandemic, or we or things aren’t going particularly bad, when things are going well? What is the purpose of prayer? And the purpose of prayer is communion and fellowship with God. It’s at the heart and soul of our relationship with God. So as we think about where does prayer fit into our response to COVID, I think it fits in to our response pretty much how it would fit into any situation. I think about when Jesus taught his disciples how to pray. He said, “pray the Lord’s Prayer,” and I just think about a couple of parts of it, where he talks about “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
And what does that mean? It means that God’s Kingdom is the place where everything is in subjection to him, everything is in harmony with him. And COVID and this pandemic is a painful reminder that the world is not in harmony with God. It is broken. And so prayer is not only a reminder that the world is broken, but that God is actively working to bring it into harmony with him. When we go to God in prayer. We acknowledge who he is, and who we are. Prayer is a vehicle by which we can realign our hearts, our thoughts, our values, with God’s.
In another part of the prayer, Jesus says, he teaches us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” In other words, prayer is the means by which we acknowledge our dependence on God. And COVID has taught us in some acutely painful ways how dependent we are on God. And so prayer brings our thoughts, and our motives and our values in line with God’s. And I think it’s tempting, especially in this time, to worry about what is going to happen. You know what will happen with the economy? What will happen with my job? What’s going to happen to our house? Can we can we pay our mortgage? Can we pay our rent? What’s going to happen with the presidential election coming up? What’s going to happen with our health? Are we going to get sick? Are we going to lose a family member? But Jesus tells us to pray for our daily bread, not our monthly bread, not our weekly bread, our daily bread. And so prayer is a means by which we can let go of our anxiety about the future and trust God, one day at a time, to provide all of our needs according to his riches and glory in Christ Jesus.
Prayer is, I think, a place where our faith and science can intersect. You know, prayer and meditation are ancient. They’ve been around for such a long time and I think are definitely a means to address our present reality. And, in particular, in response to COVID or I would say in response to any crisis, you know, think about what prayer does. In prayer we are supplicants. We’re asking God for guidance, for healing, for restoration. You know that’s a—as the supplicant we are on our knees, hands extended saying, “we need your help.” And I think another part of prayer is that we’re a family. That we intercede for the needs of other people, and something in us changes as we bring up the plights and illnesses and sufferings of another person before God. So where science and prayer meet, you know, the big question is does prayer change things? Does prayer change God’s trajectory? Does prayer change God’s mind? Well, I think God would have to answer that one for us. But I do know from my own personal walk, and in particular during COVID, prayer changes how I look at things. Prayer changes how I view the plight of the world and wh other people are. I think about how it has impacted the life of pretty much if not all, every human being on this beautiful planet God’s given us. When I pray about COVID, I’m not just praying for the nurses and doctors and my congregation. I’m not just praying for the people I know who are ill, or the family members I know who are ill, I’m praying for our human family, and lifting our whole human family before God.
For some people it is natural to turn to God in hard times. For others it can feel like there’s no one listening.
It’s been hard.
Here’s Kent Busman
It’s been hard because this has uprooted all of the rituals that we’re used to. And it’s hard when God stays silent in the midst of things like this. What’s the line from the Cockburn song? “Sometimes you can hear the spirit whispering to you. But when God stays silent, what else can you do, but to listen to the silence? If you did you truly see that God won’t be reduced to an ideology.” That sense of, we’re in this silent time when it comes to God. And part of that is real discomforting because we can’t gather together in our sanctuaries, we can’t gather kids together in our camp, we can’t do the one thing that we know how to do. And then I ponder how many times this has happened in the world, where these major disruptions have happened and we’ve gotten through them.
Grace Claus has been a preacher and a liturgist and lives in Washington State near the first outbreak of COVID in the United States. I asked her how she has approached prayer in this time.
We have to take advantage of the difficulty of this time. And I don’t know that I’ve thought a lot specifically about praying for COVID to be over and the effectiveness of that kind of prayer. I think, as I’ve reflected on other, kind of, big prayers in my life that are like prayers that God would change the course of something that’s following the laws of nature, and work supernaturally, I don’t really believe—I have a really hard time believing that in my heart. But I do think that God can change us. And so, my longing—and I haven’t actively been praying it in sort of the traditional framework for prayer, where you sit down and you write speak some words—but I have been longing for this time to draw me closer to God and to bring about an intimacy with God that I have lacked because all the other things that I usually turn to have largely fallen away. And I thought this could be a really great opportunity for me to truly offer things to God in a way that I haven’t needed to before.
I have always had the notion that prayer takes some practice in developing a routine, whether it is setting aside time, like before meals or in the mornings or evenings, or having a certain set of scriptures repeated throughout the day. Connecting with God requires us to shift our minds away from the busyness of the world around us and maybe even from the things going on within us. COVID-19 has drastically changed many of our routines. And even if our lives are quieter in quarantine, they are louder in other ways. Our stresses and our griefs scream loudly. The news and social media are as loud as ever. But our changed routines are also an opportunity to learn something new about prayer.
I think there’s at least three main ways to respond to COVID that are biblical responses and prayerful responses. And I think the three of them are: an individual response, a family response and a community response. And of course, I’m a pastor so I have to have three points, right, but I promise I’ll save the poem for later. [laughs]
I think our individual response to it is asking “how is God using this at work in my life?” I don’t think God just wants to use COVID to teach a lesson. I think it’s more important for a Christian to just focus on what do you want me to know about me in all of this and how I can be more like you? And I think secondly, as part of that individual response we can we can ask God what do you want me to learn about you during this time? And then and then I think the last thing you can ask is how can I be serving others? Yes, I can intercede for them, I can pray for them. And absolutely, we should be doing that. But is there something I can be doing that to someone that I know personally, that I could be serving them in some way, making a difference in their life in some way?
And then I think from a family response standpoint, we can ask kind of similar same questions. How is God at work in us as a family? What are we noticing about each other? How can we love and serve each other? And that could mean simple things, like if we’re going to serve other people, should we wear a mask or not? I know there’s kind of a big debate in the United States right now about whether or not we should wear masks or shouldn’t, or are they effective or not effective? And there’s lots of posts on social media about opinions and research and so-and-so said this, but so-and-so said that three months ago. I wonder if we as Christians, should we not stop and pray about this? Let’s take a moment to pray. What is God’s expectation of us when it comes to using masks? There’s a prayerful aspect to that and I think it might change a lot of people’s opinions, attitudes, perspective on serving one another, loving one another from that perspective. And so prayer I think is a means to even changing our own hearts and our own motivations as we serve each other.
And of course, that extends on to the community-corporate response as well. What is God up to? What does he want us to do? What does he want us to learn? How does he want us to love others? How can we be serving our communities? So all of those questions need to begin with prayer. They need to continue with prayer. They need to end with prayer. They need to be kind of saturated in that mindset of “not my will, Lord, but your will be done.” And I think prayer changes our perspective. It makes us willing to say, “we’ll lay down our rights for the sake of others.” That’s the heart of the gospel, is laying down—I mean, that’s what Jesus did in Philippians 2 when we read that he emptied himself of His glory. Jesus laid down everything that he had a right to, for the sake of loving us. And what better picture of the gospel do we give to the world than when we lay down what we have a right to for the sake of loving others. But I think people with strong opinions on both sides of the issue will only come together and agree and move forward through prayer.
On one hand, this has changed my understanding of the idea of jubilee, the year of jubilee. You know that in Leviticus? I used to think it was like a whole year to party. You don’t have to sow your crop, you can just hang out and everybody could have a good time. And then I realized, well, that’s not what it was about. It was about this whole reorientation of society again, of really reassessing the value of things and putting things back in order. So that everyone was taken care of and so that everything—so we could all start again. And I think this has happened in Black Lives Matter, and the loss of healthcare, and all of these things, and I it feels like this major reorientation of value. Even things like that I value so much, like I think going to camp is a huge value. We weren’t able to do that this summer. And so we reassess, why is this a value? Why is it important to get out or to get kids together for this so that when we do get back together we can be a little more intentional, perhaps, a little more conscious of the real gift of gathering.
During this time when we have been forced to be apart from each other, one of the new things we’ve been learning is what it means to pray and worship together digitally. Like other pastors around the country and around the world, Jill has adapted worship services and has found that while it may not be ideal to have church only online, in some ways, technology can allow prayer and worship to thrive.
It’s very interesting preaching to my smartphone and yet knowing there are people in other countries, there are people in 31 states, who connect to Cascade Christian because of past associations or maybe they were an exchange student here—knowing that we are not just in this little village of Cascade, but our prayers are for our much larger family. There’s something very beautiful in that, that I should have realized before. But somehow that is one of the blessings of COVID: the unity we have in our hopes, the unity we have in our suffering, the unity we have in our feelings of frustration and helplessness, that unity that brings us together. I mean, where else can we go right now, except before God? So our corporate prayers have become maybe a little more raw, a lot more honest. And I just got to kind of laugh at myself as a pastor and at churches in general. You know, it’s as if we’re telling God something God doesn’t already know. But that honesty before the Lord in both preaching, in prayer, in the sacraments—that strangely has been a real blessing in this pandemic, everything’s a lot more real, and a lot more relevant.
I’m hopeful that out of this we will kind of sift out the good and the bad technological applications of things and realize where it’s a flop and we need each other, we need to be in person, and just set those things aside and thank the technology for helping us during this time and then drop it. And then other ways where it’s clear that that was really beneficial and allowed maybe new people to be connected or, yeah, I mean children to participate—like, Greta is in the nursery, and this is her first time where she’s like praying along with the family even though she’s mostly running around crazy, but a little bit, a little bit.
In many ways, COVID19 has changed the ways many of us look at the world. I think it’s fair to say that prayer itself has not changed. We have been through hard times before and we will go through them again. God is God and prayer is our way of connecting to God whether the seas are smooth are stormy. But in these times, maybe we can take an opportunity to bolster some of our spiritual practices and maybe hear God in a new way through our prayers.
I like to be in control. I like to be organized and have all my ducks in a row. And when COVID hit back in March it removed all ducks. There weren’t even any rows. There was just nothing and it reinstilled in me that sense of what I was talking about earlier—that dependence on God, the need to really be dependent on him and so that caused me to kind of take a step back and ask some basic fundamental questions. And so the first thing it did was, it drove me into a deeper sense of reflection: Who is God? What is going on in the world? How is it affecting me?
And I came to realize that it was having—I didn’t even realize it until kind of going through that process, but it was really stressing me out. I thought I was doing great. I thought I was handling it. But as it turns out, no, I was actually pretty stressed about a lot of things, a lot of the uncertainty about the future and I had a lot of anxiety about that. So once I understood, okay, well, this is what’s going on, this is how it’s affecting me, well, God, who are you in all of this? And so just taking that time to reflect, to having a deeper sense of reflection, led to then the second thing, which is a deeper sense of admiration, a deeper sense of admiration for what is actually going on in the world. This is a serious time. It’s affecting a lot of people in some very serious ways. But all of that then can lead me to a deeper appreciation for who God is. God is the king, the creator, the sovereign ruler of the whole world. There’s this— praying through the seriousness of the situation has led me to a deeper admiration for God is a deeper trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God.
And so Thirdly, then, because of that, deepening admiration for God. It can lead to a more focused sense of petitioning for God. So you know, I don’t want my neighbors or my friends to get sick. Sure, I can intercede on their behalf. But I want God to reveal that himself. I want God to make himself known through this time. I want people to come to faith because of what is happening. I want my neighbors to see Jesus. I want them to be keenly aware of how broken the world is, but I want them more so to be keenly aware of how great God is. And it’s really hard to bring that message, and to embody that message, if I’m not praying.
Nothing in my lifetime has united the people of the earth quite like this pandemic. Everybody’s frustrated, angry, uncertain. I think everybody thought we’d be done with this by now. So praying for healing, praying for restoration in our land, praying for hope. You know, praying for the people who are developing vaccines and treatments, you know, not just “I’m tired of this,” but “God, I need you to hear my heart’s desire and to help those who are helping the rest of us.” Praying for understanding and cooperation among people, because we’re a very divided country and divided world, praying that we listen to each other. And I mean, really listen, not just hear each other, but deeply listen. Praying for the brokenness that’s around us because I’m sure every person has seen others who are struggling financially or with depression or maybe with storm damage or lack of necessities. Certainly praying for the people who are currently ill or who have lost a loved one due to COVID or who are grieving, maybe it’s not a COVID death. Praying for our funeral home directors and our cemetery workers because it’s a different world for them too. And I think praying for teachers, educators, leaders, decision makers—you know really getting out of the more perhaps traditional church prayers of you know, “God bless our congregation and be with this person who’s sick, and this person and that person,” but a much more broad the whole family of humanity kind of praying. And those to me are the kind of prayers that align our hearts to God’s heart, not telling God what to do. I wouldn’t be that haughty or presumptive. But just asking God to help, just help for this day and thank you for this day.
I no longer assume—this’ll maybe sound a little weird—I no longer assume life is just going to go on. We’ve lost too many people to make that assumption. The preciousness of life, thanking God for the small but wonderful things.
I ran into a neighbor I’d never met, like first week of the stay-at-home orders, out walking. And it turns out, she’s involved in the periphery of our church and offered me this book called The Tenderness of God. It’s written by a former French pastor. He’s kind of a contemplative theologian. And he offers this story of the Abba monk in the monastery, or whatever this collective of monastic folks is, telling this story to the other monks gathered around. So the younger monks say, “if somebody fell asleep during our prayer time, what would you do?” And he said, “Oh, I would just lay his head down in my lap and let him sleep.” And so, the person who’s writing this book says, that’s what God does for us. If we’re tired, he invites us to rest our heads in his lap. And he doesn’t make a big deal about it. We’re asleep for goodness sakes, we don’t even know. And that image has also been really powerful to me during this season, when I so often perceive God’s silence to be anger and disappointment, to think of God’s silence as actually like incredibly deep love and grace and tenderness toward me.
I don’t have to be alert at prayer time. And yet God is inviting me to rest and be in his presence and have a comfortable place to nap. And that has just felt so applicable in these six months or whatever. We are all exhausted. We all need a place to rest. There’s been a lot of silence, although that’s also not true in other ways. I mean, I’m home with children and other people have children or are still working in really, you know, lively environments. But, yeah, there might not be answers or there might not be conversation even with God, but there is connection, there is rest and intimacy, and touch, and being together.
Well the one thing this has given us is the gift of time, hasn’t it, for a lot of us? Like we’re not traveling. We’re not going anywhere. We’re not—it’s Blursday again, right? Every day it’s kind of the same. And so to be more present in ways that we’ve never been able to be. So I’ve gone out every week, a couple times a week, to a certain spot on the lake and I’ve taken a picture of the sunset, because I’ve always wanted to follow the sun from middle of May when it came up, as it went north to the solstice and then it started to go south. And now it’s just really hauling south fast. To take pictures of the sunset and really watch how the sun moves and changes. I’ve been able to walk the trails around here in ways that I’ve seen plants I haven’t seen in years. I saw, I found the sun dew again, which is another carnivorous plant that we have up here to match the pitcher plants. They’re little Venus flytraps that we have in the Adirondacks and I found them again. And I found out when the bunch berries turn orange and when the blue bead lilies turn blue out of their flowers.
And there was a report, I think it was a Times thing, that people were saying how much louder the birds were, when in fact, apparently, the birds were a lot quieter. They didn’t have to shout over the noise of the traffic as much. And to be able to listen to the birds and how this sounds have to have the time or the energy to listen to the birds and how their sounds change in the morning from when they were really building a nest and defending their territory, to now, late August where it’s getting real quiet in the morning. So, to me, those are prayer-like, to be present in God’s creation, to be aware of the creatures around me feels prayer-like.
I have a hard time talking to God. You know? [laughs] I just, I don’t know what to talk about anymore. And so I’m just grateful to be in such an incredible world. So if we don’t get obsessed with news cycles—and I can get dragged under by, you know, fear of everything that’s happening in our world—if I can step out of that, make sure I don’t totally submerge myself in that, that there’s a lot more gratitude going on. A lot more to be grateful for than I give the world credit for. Like these warblers that are around me right now. [birds chirping] I see a yellow warbler there and there was a black and white one. I don’t remember what it is. But I just saw the tree out here. I don’t get to see those when the camp is full of kids.
[birds chirping as music fades up]
Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a New York Times best-selling author and journalist. Her most recent book, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife was published by Riverhead/Penguin in March 2016.Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, was published by Riverhead/Penguin in May 2009. Barbara was a correspondent for NPR for 18 years, most recently covering religion. She received the American Women in Radio and Television Award (twice) for her religion reporting, as well as the National Headliners Award, and the Religion Newswriters Association Award. Before the religion beat, she was NPR’s Justice Department correspondent, where she, along with her colleagues, won the George Foster Peabody and Overseas Press Club awards for their coverage of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Barbara has a master’s degree in legal studies from Yale Law School, and a bachelors degree from Williams College.
Dr. Jimmy Lin is Chief Scientific Officer of Freenome. In this role, Jimmy is responsible for scientific strategy, research operations, and growing the company’s world-class scientific team. He brings a proven record of translating cutting-edge research into commercial success, with a focus on the development and launch of blood-based assays for cancer monitoring and detection of molecular residual disease.Prior to joining the private sector, as CSO for Oncology at Natera, the global genomic diagnostics company, Dr. Lin led the intramural clinical genomics program at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. At Johns Hopkins and Washington University in St Louis, he spearheaded the computational analyses of the first-ever exome sequencing studies in multiple cancer types. Dr. Lin holds an MD and a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Medicine from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, as well as a Master of Health Sciences in Bioinformatics from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. As an undergraduate at Yale, he majored in Cognitive Science and Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry. Dr. Lin was a 2016 Senior TED Fellow and is the Founder and President of the Rare Genomics Institute.
Philip Yancey, author of books like Disappointment with God, The Jesus I Never Knew, and What’s So Amazing About Grace, is one of the best selling Christian authors alive today. His interactions with Christians from around the world and his early church experiences inform his writing on faith, the problem of pain, and unexpected grace. He holds graduate degrees in Communications and English from Wheaton College and the University of Chicago. Yancey lives in Colorado as a freelance writer and avid hiker.
David Myers is Professor of Psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He is author of several widely used psychology textbooks and seventeen additional books. His advocacy for American adoption of better assistive listening systems for people with hearing loss has been recognized by several esteemed awards. Dr. Myers earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of Iowa.
Mario A. Russo is the Director of the Dortmund Center for Science and Faith. He earned a Doctor of Ministry from Erskine College and Seminary, a Master of Arts Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary, and an Interdisciplinary Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and Psychology from the University of South Carolina. He has written and spoken on various platforms about issues related to science and faith for over 15 years. He lives in Dortmund, Germany along with his wife and 2 children.
Jill Forton is the pastor at Cascade Christian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Kent Busman is the Executive Director at Fowler Camp and Retreat Center in the Adirondack Mountains in New York.
Grace Claus is a freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, Washington.