A Cosmic Vending Machine

In this episode of Christian Mythbusters, Father Jared debunks the myth that God is some sort of cosmic vending machine, and also offers a fuller understanding of how prayer is much more than asking God for things. You can hear Christian Mythbusters in the Grand Haven area on 92.1 WGHN, on Wednesdays at 10:30am and Sundays at 8:50am.

The transcript of the episode is below, or you can listen to the audio at the bottom of the post.

This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith. 

Growing up in the church, I was taught to pray from a very young age. For some reason, however, I primarily only ever thought of prayer usually in two ways: giving thanks for something (usually a meal we were going to eat) and asking God for something I really wanted. In theological lingo, these are prayers of thanksgiving and of petition. 

But as I studied Christian spirituality in seminary, I was amazed to discover the actual depth and breadth of the practice of prayer in the Christian tradition. So, this week, I’d like to break the myth that God is primarily a cosmic vending machine.

I use the image of cosmic vending machine, not because I actually think many Christians explicitly think of God that way, but because I don’t think we often don’t realize that our prayers can become so full of petitions—and we can get so frustrated and disheartened with some petitions aren’t granted—that we can turn God into a cosmic vending machine in practice.

Petition, however, is only one type of prayer—and it’s not even the most important! But before getting to the types of prayer, it’s important to be clear about what prayer actually is (and why it’s not a cosmic make-a-wish system).

In The Episcopal Church our beliefs and practices are primarily articulated in our Book of Common Prayer. During the Reformation, when other Christians were drawing up creeds and confessions, statements of faith that distinguished them from “those other people who were clearly wrong,” that is not what was happening with English Christianity. Instead, we were creating a prayer book, the seventeenth-century version of which was used a mechanism to get Catholics and protestants to stop killing other and instead to find ways to pray together. We may disagree on all sorts of things a Christians, but in Anglicanism and in the Episcopal Church, we find ourselves united, not by our exact belifs, by our prayer and worship of  the Holy Trinity, of God.

Our prayerbook also contains a catechism, a summary of the Christian faith that probably Christians from almost any denomination would read and find consonant with their own beliefs. I love the definition of prayer in the catechism of the prayer book, where it says, “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” 

There is so much to unpack in that sentence. First, prayer is response to God. That is, prayer presupposes that God is already active. You are not inviting God into a situation; you are acknowledging that God is already present and you are responding to that presence. 

In fact, I often describe prayer as, at its most basic, as practicing the presence of God, learning how to perceive the presence of God and then respond to the grace of God which enfolds you.

Second, prayer can be a response through our thoughts and through our deeds, it can be with or without words. In the Christian traditions of monasticism there is the saying that goes, laborare orare est, “to work is to pray.” You can learn how to turn your work into prayer if you remember that prayer is not asking God for things… but is responding to God. Sometimes prayer is with words… but sometimes it is without words. St. Paul says that the Holy Spirit interprets our groanings when we don’t have words to express how we feel. 

And once you understand prayer as practicing your ability to perceive God’s presence, once you understand prayer as a faithful response to that presence, then the various types of prayer begin to make sense. In our catechism, we identify seven principal kinds of prayer. 

We’ve already talked about petition (asking God things for yourself) and thanksgiving (expressing gratitude to God for our blessings, redemption, and whatever draws us closer to God). Related to petition are prayers of intercession (that’s bringing before God the needs of others). 

Most people are also familiar with prayers of penitence, when you confess your sins to God—but true penitence, remember, is never just confession, it also involves being willing to make restitution when you can and intending to amend your life. 

Those four most of you have heard of, but there are three other types of prayer though, types of prayer that are essential to a robust and rich spiritual life.

Adoration is lifting our heart and mind to God, asking nothing but to enjoy the presence of God. If you find yourself always having things to say to God, this sort of prayer can be difficult but it can also be a deep experience of grace.

Praise is articulating the truths of God’s attributes. We don’t praise God to get something, but because God’s very being draws praise from us.

Finally, oblation is offering yourself, your life and your labor, to the work and purposes of God in this world. 

Yes, prayer is much more about a cosmic vending machine. Prayer is about learning how to be attentive and respond to the cosmic—and personal—realities of God’s grace and love for you. 

Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to sjegh.com. Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today. 

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