Let me begin with a quote from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In our Nordic and Lutheran tradition we often refer to his statement: “Prayer does not change God, but it changes those praying.”
As a Norwegian I belong to a European culture where soldiers had “God with us” inscribed on their belts and prayer was used to bless weaponry and soldiers going to war. It is not a history of which we are proud. But when our country was occupied during the Second World War, Christians from different confessions were united in prayer, not only for an end to occupation, but for peace among nations and people. In prayer they also experienced a different peace in the midst of war.
I have a friend who sometimes says: “I believe every genuine religion has a fundamental message of peace.” This friend is a military chaplain, and every time our military chaplains lead in worship, they pray the church´s prayer for peace. The mission of our military chaplains is not to inflame hatred, but a spirit of peace and compassion, also through prayer.
Thus Prayer as a Source of Peace is a complex theme when we consider the circumstances in which we live. It certainly makes a difference if we live in Iraq, the Palestinian territories or in tranquil Nordic countries. But we all long for peace in our lives. How can we meaningfully pray together and be united in prayer, how can prayer be a source of peace for us?
The Orientation Point of Prayer
In Jewish, Muslim and Christian tradition God is the orientation point of prayer. Praying is coming before God. We also have in common that Peace is a name of God. God is Peace. But the peace of God is not tranquillity with a distance to a troubled world and our chaotic lives. The God of Peace is involved in our lives, in the matters of our world.
The New Testament twice quotes a fundamental statement about God in the Hebrew Scriptures: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Prov.3,34 – James 4,6; 1.Pet. 5,6). Our lives are not accidental when we come before God in prayer.
In our Holy Scriptures Moses is called “a very humble man”. In an interview with Time Magazine in 2006, the Jewish author Elie Wiesel was asked: “What can modern leaders learn from Moses?” He answered: “Humility. Everyone needs it, but mainly leaders. Because they have power.” Wiesel contrasted humility and power, aspects of human attitudes and behaviour.
Today we are accustomed to think that peace demands strong action by powerful leaders. But how often have we not seen that strong action by the powerful has caused further conflict? Peace certainly demands courageous action, not only in ethnic or religious conflicts, but in our everyday lives. We must confess and lament that we have not always followed the path of courageous humility for the sake of peace.
But humility is not the same as humiliation. Where there is humility, other are not humiliated. Moses was humble before God, but he also lived among people that were humiliated by the powerful. When he encountered the holy God in the burning bush, God told him: “I have indeed seen the misery of my people, I have heard their crying out, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Exod 3,7).
Before we pray, God sees our misery, hears the cries and is concerned about those suffering. God opposes the proud and unjust, he is concerned with justice and wants to share his grace with the humble and those humiliated. One of the prayers in the Bible speaks of the day when “justice and peace join hands” (Ps. 85,10). And Jesus is constantly concerned with the poor, the oppressed and the suffering. God wants to raise up those who are humiliated, and in prayer he draws us into his peace, into his desires for our lives.
Prayer – Cry for Help and Thanksgiving
The beginning of prayer is often simple: “Help me!” Often the end of prayer is equally simple: “Thank you!” It is not accidental that the two basic types of prayers in the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew Scriptures are similar. There are several categories of Psalms, but these two types are basic: prayers of lament and prayers of thanksgiving.
The Book of Psalms is also the oldest prayer-book of the Church. It was the prayer-book of Jesus and is rightly called “a school of prayer”, a place where we learn to pray. I am often stunned by the dramatic cries for help in the Book of Psalms, but also by its joyful thanksgiving, and I wonder sometimes if we are as daring in our prayer-life, in our lament as well in thanksgiving and praise?
My point is the following: Prayers that begin with a dramatic cry for help in situations of suffering, often end in thanksgiving and praise. One example is Psalm 22, which begins with the cry that Jesus voiced on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But suddenly the tone changes: “I will declare your name to my brothers, in the congregation I will praise you.” Something happened to David as he was praying. Something happens to us when we come before God in prayer. This brings me to my third point.
The God of Peace – of Suffering and Sacrifice
One of the oldest prayers of the Church, which we still sing every week in our worship, is the song of the angels on Christmas night: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, among men of his favour!” This is the prayer of heaven for people on earth. It has three elements: 1: The angels give glory to God in the highest. 2: They announce God´s peace on earth. And 3: This peace is a God´s favour or his grace being present among men.
This link between the grace of God among men, peace on earth and the his glory is not accidental. Let me go strait to my point: In our Christian faith and in our Lutheran tradition the birth of Christ, his cross and resurrection is the gift of God´s grace to us. It is also the revelation of God´s glory. His glory is different than the world´s glory. It is revealed in sacrifice. Without the cross, there is no resurrection. Without sacrifice, there is no peace and new life.
It is into this mystery we are invited as we come before God in Christian prayer. There is a longing among us for a merciful God. God is also longing and comes with a desire to share with us his mercy. He longs for peace on earth and wants to draw us into the mystery of the cross, the mystery of sacrifice. In prayer we join in the song of the angels and are drawn into the grace, the peace and the glory of God. With the sacrifice of Christ we become peace-receivers. He also wants to change us into peace-makers through sacrifice.
A Final Word
When Jesus taught us to pray, his first exclamation was: “Our Father in Heaven!” Not “my father”, but “Our Father” – the Father of all. Our circumstances may differ, but we pray together and bring before God our lives and our different circumstances. In prayer, therefore, listening to God and what is in his heart for us is the more important.
If God is the orientation point of prayer, and God is Peace, how can we then come before Him without being changed and transformed by Him – into peace-receivers and peace-makers? As the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard used to say: “Prayer does not change God, but it changes those praying.” Or as St. Francis of Assisi taught us to pray:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon:
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.”