To speak of “power of prayer” is in many ways a paradox and a contradiction in terms. In my tradition the body language of prayer is to bow our heads, close our eyes and fold our hands. But folded hands are not capable of action. Neither is praying on our knees or in prostration. Prayer is an expression of powerlessness. At the same time our hearts in prayer are directed towards God, the Almighty.
But this adds another paradox in our Christian tradition. What is the power of God, and how does he act and intervene in our world? With the apostles we confess that Christ, Son of God, came into our world in powerlessness and “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant… humbled himself and became obedient to death” (Phil 2, 7f). It is strange in this context to speak of power.
And yet, biblical witness and Christian experience testify to the power of prayer. But it is different from the power we usually read about in history book. It is a power where prayer is more than petitions to God. At night, before going to sleep, we pray: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit – my life.”
Prayer is communication with our Father in heaven. We listen to Him and His word, we speak and respond, and we commend ourselves to His redeeming love that is stronger than death. In prayer God leads us into new ways of being and our hands into new ways of action.
Let me give you an illustration, how the power of prayer contributed to changing Norwegian society two hundred years ago.At that time Norway was the poorest country in Europe. Then a peasant stood up, Hans Nielsen Hauge. One day in the field, singing a hymn, he felt a strong communion with Jesus. In prayer he felt a call to break up from his farm and gather people for Bible reading and prayer.
Hauge walked through the valleys of our country, and a broad movement of lay people grew in his footsteps. More than once he was imprisoned, since his activity was a breach of State-church regulations at the time. He used to gather people in their homes. But the farmhouses became too small, and prayer-houses were built all over the country. But this was not the only effect:
- Hauge taught people industrial and farming skills, initiating an industrial and farming revolution in Norway.
- A diaconal ministry among the sick and the poor grew up, shaping later developments of social service in our country.
- Many of our current missionary societies were established, for our own country as well as in foreign countries.
- Finally, the empowering of women and men for leadership provided a fertile ground for the development of democracy.
This movement was dubbed “the prayer-house movement”. Prayer was its beating heart. On the one hand the personal and intimate communion with Christ and the response to his word and calling. On the other hand, its surprising effect – an industrial and farming revolution, missionary and voluntary ministry among the poor and the sick, empowering lay people and providing the ground for democracy. I am in no doubt that God was present in this process over decades – acting in individuals and communities and leading them into new ways of living and acting.
In our context I am reminded that this story is similar to other movements on our contemporary and global scene – from “Base-communities” in Latin America to communities of Sant’ Egidio in Europe and other continents. And in this panel, I am eager to listen and learn from testimonies and reflections from other religious traditions.
With such stories I am not forgetting the people in Syria, the Middle East and areas where they suffer from war, famine and poverty. We are not able to solve the problem of evil with out intellect. But God has called us to overcome evil by good and to confront “the dark powers of this world … and the spiritual forces of evil” with truth and righteousness, with the gospel of peace and prayer in the Spirit, as Pauls says (Ephes. 6, 12). To me this has a double significance related to prayer as hope – as courage to hope.
1. In 1944 during the Second World War young people in Jamaica – on the other side of the globe – were praying for a Norwegian bishop who was under arrest for his fight against the Nazi regime. Eventually the war came to an end, and he was set free. The Body of Christ is a universal community, united in prayer, and together we carry each others’ burdens. This is also what the Lord’s prayer is about.
We know something about the strength and hope that these prayers give to fellow believers suffering under oppression. Several examples teach us that intercession for them has led to improvement and new freedom. We should never underestimate the power of prayer, confronting the dark powers of this world. In personal and communal prayer we find hope.
2. But the forces of evil continue to inflict injustice, poverty and suffering upon us and our fellow human beings. The story of martyrs in Christian history and of people being persecuted because of their faith, adds a deeper dimension to the power of prayer. When Jesus was on his way to the cross, he admonished his disciples: “Remain in my love!” and the evangelist comments: “He loved them to the end.” This is also the testimony of the martyrs. Some of their names we know, most of them remain in the dark shadows of history. But in their lives I discover the most surprising power of prayer and its challenge to us.
In our powerlessness we pray to Him who keeps us in His hands in life and death. In watching and waiting we pray with the poor and the suffering that God may keep them in his love that is stronger than death. This is also our supplication for ourselves and others under less dramatic circumstances. In this prayer hope is born anew.
Before concluding, let me go back to my country Norway.The number of prayer-houses has shrinked significantly in the last decades. Today we live in an affluent society, but we are part of a European continent in crisis - financial and social, cultural and environmental. And we belong to a global family that knows war and conflict too well.
In times of crisis people turn to God, cry to God. In Europe today it has been commented that our crisis is of a deeper kind, that we have forgotten God and are without faith, hope and future. Have we made ourselves immune and stopped listening to Him, letting him shape our living and open us to our surroundings and His future, even on the road of the cross? Have we made ourselves immune to the suffering and poverty of our neighbours – in our immediate surroundings and in our global village?
In conclusion, therefore, I also have to ask if we have lost sight of the significance of prayer and its power? Not just as intercession, but as a personal relationship with Christ, listening to the voice of God and letting Him shape our living as individuals and communities? Prayer with the poor and the suffering always implies opening our hearts, minds and hands to them. It is in this prayerful encounter with God that hope is born anew – by redeeming us into new ways of living and new ways of action.