I got asked a question at church. What is appropriate to pray when someone has died?
Good question. Here’s part of the answer I gave.
A couple of thoughts …
Firstly, we want to keep on honouring Jesus. Obviously! In this case, we know that the gospel of Jesus saves, and we are called to respond in repentance and faith. Beyond death that is no longer possible (it is appointed for man to die once and then the judgement, Hebrews 9:27). So we can’t pray in a way that suggests there’s ‘another chance’ beyond the grave. And certainly not that anyone else can effect a difference (Mary, the Saints, the prayers of a minister, …).
So when someone has died, I like to give thanks for them – their character and gifts, achievements, the love they showed and experienced, etc. All these good things were from God, so thanksgiving fits. With regard to the asking side of prayer, I ask for God to intercede in the lives of us. That’s family, friends, mourners. It’s good to ask God to comfort, especially to comfort by granting us faith in Jesus who has conquered death.
Secondly, it’s essential to be aware of the pastoral situation. What if a distraught parent weeping at the sudden death of a child says, ‘Please pray for her’? It’s not the time to have subtle theological discussion. Just say yes, and pray. In my case, I’d still pray along the lines sketched out above.
I did not realise this until now, but I guess the two parts of this answer are: love God, love your neighbour.
Any further ideas and reflections?
I’ve heard folk critical of sportsmen and women for mentioning God or prayer in connection to their sport. Notable among them, in my mind, is Peter Fitzsimons. And there’s a good point to be made – sometimes (‘God wants him to score more goals than the other guy? Why?’)
The criticism doesn’t apply universally, though. (Incidentally, isn’t this one of the odd features of current atheist tirades? Pick the weirdest practice or thought, then write off all practice or thought about God.)
I came across a good prayer example here. The pro cyclist is João Correia. I’ve never heard of him! His team is Cervélo TestTeam. I’ve certainly heard of them – and anyone with a spare Cervélo to give away can store it at my place.
This is what João wrote:
I’m one of those riders who, before a race, says a little prayer. I don’t ask for a victory, since it seems to me not only a little trivial, but as if I imagine God for some reason likes me more than the other competitors and wants me to win. Usually I just say, “Please let me finish this race safely and not crash.” My prayer wasn’t answered.
Humble in prayer, remembering what is important, and not thinking prayer is a magical incantation to guarantee an outcome. Good stuff.
By which I means to ask, ‘For how long should we pray?’
With the title of this post, I’ve taken a powerful biblical question (see the powerful prayer for justice and comfort in Psalm 13) and twisted it to be about something different. Because that’s what I feel we do with Jesus’ words on prayer.
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Matthew 6 (esv)
I confess: I know he speaks the truth, but I am forever tempted not to believe him.
I have a tendency – shared with all Christians, I think – to judge that more must be better. More impressive. More effective. This turns prayer away from relationship and into pragmatics. Here are some things I have heard:
~ ‘You should be praying for at least half an hour a day’
~ ‘You really find out what prayer is when you spend all night in prayer’
~ ‘What a great hero of faith was NN. S/he spent three hours every morning in prayer’
What’s wrong here? They forget Jesus’ warning. They measure godliness by word count. It’s not that using words in prayer is bad – words are essential. It’s just that this is not the way to make an assessment of faithfulness.
So, for me, when I seek to improve in prayerfulness I always seek to avoid simply judging how I’m going by how many phrases I manage to pile up.