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Gerhard Ulrich

Luthers bisschop, voorzitter van de VELKD, Duitsland

 “Be persistent in prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving!” – with this words Paul exhorted the church in Colossae.

Some time ago a scientific study was published in the US about the effectiveness of prayer. The result was: Patients who were being prayed for before, during and after a bypass operation had as many complications as those who were not prayed for. What's more, patients who knew that somebody was praying for them were the ones who felt the worst in the end. According to the doctors, the prayers might have added stress to the cardiac patients. The pressure of expectations increases. Above all, a negative autosuggestion is kicking in: Is it really so bad that only prayer helps? So, you could conclude from this study: Yes, prayer changes the world, but for the worse! Better not to pray so persistently – who knows who we are harming when we try to make ourselves useful?
The German theologian Fulbert Steffensky says about prayer that it is “the most delightful uselessness that our faith knows”. – Prayer: a difficult subject, furthermore very intimate one. Surely, all have already experienced that prayer is not working out as hoped for. But I would rather talk about what is delightful about it. This most delightful uselessness can be understood as the special gift, the gift that allows us to open up and let go; that shows us that we are heard; that helps us to free ourselves from the bustle, from all pressure and demands. It is delightful and refreshing to know that we are not alone in what burdens or inspires us. Rather, we are connected and bound together among ourselves and with God. This delightfulness of faith is rooted in the certainty that God is the father of all things, that his power and glory are forever; that his will be done.
Prayer is a very specific attitude of faith – an attitude of humility yet at the same time claiming God’s promises. An attitude of faith, which trusts in God, acknowledging him as a reality for our life and for the world. Prayer is a delightfulness of faith because it defies predictability; because it does not work according to input-output rules; because it is opposed to thinking only in categories of performance and cost effectiveness. The one who prays, folds his or her hands, does nothing, becomes passive, comes to rest and seeks a centre around which his or her life can revolve.
Yet, the one who prays does not seclude himself away but opens up. We open ourselves up to a power that is more than any human power. Prayer is no means of gaining something. Prayer is handing oneself over to the mystery of life. In prayer, I know that I cannot create or justify myself.
When I pray, my gaze expands beyond what touches and captures me at this particular moment. When I utter – quietly or loudly – what weighs down on me, then I gain a liberating distance to myself and the things that burden me. I feel like I am connected to a source of good strength.
In prayer, I do not have to hide or protect myself. I am allowed to be completely myself – with everything that is part of me: my strengths and my weaknesses; my success and my failure; my longings and my disappointments. A praying person knows: I am already respected by God. It is part of the delightful freedom of the children of God that they listen more to the power of God than to the people. And they take into prayer the world with its powers and injustices. A praying person does not accept ears closed, love refused, or basic human rights denied. He or she does not accept misery and destruction. When we join in prayer, we share in each other, we learn to look with open eyes on this world, we intercede for one another, and we are strengthened in prayer to do what is right.
Of course, we also know the other side, the not at all delightful experience, that God does not hear as we would like him to do. We know the uncertainty of whether there is really someone who helps and strengthens us. We all know the sense of abandonment and fear. The bible is full of prayers that are not delightful thanksgiving. We can read about people quarrelling with God: Job fights, even repels God; Jesus laments on the cross: Why have you forsaken me? And how often do people desperately ask God for help or deliverance from sickness and suffering – and how often do they seem to do so in vain! This helplessness, this experience of being lost belongs to the reality that we have to bring before God. But he can endure our doubts, they are in good hands with him, as well as our longing for grace, for salvation, for deliverance.
“Be persistent in prayer!” – It is in an act of faith that God will in some way answer as we pray, ask for him, search for him. Yet, he already speaks before we start our prayers. We cannot pin down God. But he will hear what we have to say, and he will hear what we are not saying. He will open us the door to his word, which strengthens us, which uplifts what is broken and which inflames anew what threatens to be extinguished: a delightfulness of faith – and not useless at all.
I fear that my considerations sounded maybe too reserved. They do not seem to confirm the theme of this panel: prayer changes the world. But I believe that exactly this seemingly powerless double movement is the source for the world-changing power of prayer. Just when prayer is a uselessness, just when we experience our powerlessness in prayer, just when we are allowed to be completely unprotected in prayer as we are, just when prayer allows us to let go and we are thus refreshed, just when we do not trust in ourselves, but trust that God will do everything needed, just when we open ourselves in prayer and intercede for others, exactly then prayer releases unsuspected powers. 
“Thy will be done,” so we pray in the Lord's Prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” “Thine is the power and the glory”: prayer, especially this prayer, shifts the realms of power away from self-glorification to the one who creates and sustains all life; against the godforsakenness of the world.
In one of the great songs of the Rolling Stones from the year 1969 one can find the line “You can’t always get what you want”. That seems to contradict the biblical tradition: “Knock, and the door will be opened for you,” says Jesus and: “ask, it will be given to you ... for everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds”. That seems to be totally the opposite message? We are full of longings, full of dissatisfaction: There must be more?! We have our dreams and our images of a succeeding and fulfilled life. Love, peace and justice should be part of it. We want to be loved. We want to be understood, rescued, salvaged. Yet, the song does not end on this frustrating note. Rather, it is famous because it takes an unexpected positive turn. The reality of this world provides also an alternative: not only pessimistic despair, but optimistic outlook. You are not helplessly exposed to reality, not even to the powers of this world: if you try to pursue your longings and understand them, if you really try, then eventually you will find what you really need!
And with that, we're back to the biblical promise: knock, and the door will be opened; ask, it will be given to you. God alone knows what you need for your life. If you try, if you do not withdraw, then you can discover that there is more than your momentary hunches. You can discover that your yearnings are given a destination, unimagined, long unrecognized.
But if you try: Christians can experience this in prayer. Becoming aware of my hunches and longings, my suffering and quarreling. Bringing my state of mind before God. Prayer opens the space to calm down and to surrender into the hands of the one who creates all life. God gives us what we need. The one who prays, turns to God and knocks at his door, will find out what really is needed in regard to love, suffering, hope and disappointment.
This give us the hope that the world is more than we see, understand, do or not do. And this hope does not make us sluggish, but restless and active: Praying and doing of the righteous belong together, says Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Yes, Prayer will unfold a strength that can change the world. Prayer will enpower a faith longing for more justice and righteousness, longing for more cooperation between the churches and the religions, longing for more sympathy for others, longing for more charity in this world. Therefore: "Be persistent in prayer keeping alert in it with thanksgiving!"