This interview was from the November-December 2006 Issue of Homiletics
Jane Vennard is a spiritual director, retreat and workshop leader and lecturer. She lives in Denver, Colorado, where for many years we was a Senior Adjunct Faculty member at Iliff School of Theology, teaching numerous courses on prayer, spirituality and discernment.
Vennard is the author of many books and articles, including Embracing the World: Praying for Justice, Peace and The Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice, Intercessory Prayer, Praying with Body and Soul, and others. Jane is a gifted retreat and workshop leader and speaker and is ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC) to a special ministry of teaching and spiritual direction. She is a graduate of Wellesley College, Stanford University and the San Francisco Theological Seminary.
Jane maintains an active schedule, and that’s why we felt fortunate to catch up with her during the summer. We met in the dining room of her home in Denver on a summer afternoon in June and began the conversation with how people commonly look at prayer.
HOMILETICS: What’s the popular perception of prayer?
VENNARD: Most people, although they might deny it, still see prayer as “asking for.” That’s what it’s about. You talk to God, and then sometimes people move to, “Well, prayer is thanksgiving.” But often it’s about asking God for something, telling God what you want.
HOMILETICS: I think you’re right. I don’t often hear people talk about prayer except when Aunt Mabel’s in the hospital.
VENNARD: Exactly! And when they’re in need of prayer. Prayer comes as a last resort in people’s lives. It doesn’t occur to us that we could put prayer in the foreground of our lives, prayer in a much broader sense than “asking for,” but simply honoring our relationship with God. When I do workshops, I’ll ask people, “How many of you were taught formal prayers?” These are basically church people — they’ve learned at some point a memorized prayer.
HOMILETICS: A prayer to say when you’re having dinner or when you go to bed.
VENNARD: Or the Lord’s Prayer, the Rosary or something from their tradition. And then I ask them, “How many of you were taught that you could just have a conversation with God?” And only half the people said “Yes.” And then I ask them, “How many of you were taught that you could simply listen to God?” And unless there were some Quakers in the group, most of them were not taught that. This is something that would come out of their more mature prayer life. But I think, in general, people still think about prayer as asking God about their needs — and giving thanks.
HOMILETICS: When you’re at a conference, what is one of the most common questions you get about prayer?
VENNARD: The most common comment directed to me after we’ve been doing quite a bit of work on prayer is: “I’m so glad that you’ve broadened the definition of prayer, because I never thought I was praying right.” It’s a comment of gratitude for helping people see that they’re praying more than they thought they were. There’s a sense of freedom. One person told me that he’d been feeling guilty because he didn’t pray the way his mother taught him to pray, but he realized he’d been praying in another way, and it was his way.
I do get a lot of questions about the theological issue of God’s power. Does prayer really work?
HOMILETICS: When I read the Bible and then read the witness of great people of faith, they all place great value on prayer. The problem with prayer is that it’s so boring. What’s so great about prayer?
VENNARD: [laughs] Well, I think you’re defining prayer in a narrow way if you find prayer boring. What we read in Scripture is that prayer is in the foreground of our life or as the bedrock of our life. When I talk about prayer, I’m talking about acknowledging our ongoing relationship with God.
HOMILETICS: But you use a word that just doesn’t seem to go with prayer. You call it “fun.” It’s in your book. I read it. You said that prayer could be “fun.”
VENNARD: Yes, I believe that, because I understand dancing as prayer, I understand gardening as prayer (that’s not always fun — gardening!), but I understand a lot of activities that are prayer-ful as enjoyable, as fun, as honoring God’s presence. And part of my own prayer life is regular walking and hiking in God’s environment. That’s fun.
HOMILETICS: It is fun. But is it the gardening and the walking that is the prayer component, or is prayer something you do while you’re walking and gardening?
VENNARD: No, it’s not that I pray while I’m gardening, but with the intention of my gardening becoming my prayer, that my gardening honors my relationship with God, my dance honors my relationship with God. I would call the act itself prayer. It’s not like I’m gardening and I’m praying all the time.
HOMILETICS: So you could have two gardeners and one of them is praying and one of them is not.
VENNARD: Yes, and it has to do with one’s intention. So what is the intention of doing the kitchen work, or the writing, or the walking, or whatever it is we’re doing in our lives? Is there an intention to serve God and to honor our relationship with God? There are a lot of different ways we can say that.
HOMILETICS: So that dovetails with Paul’s comment in Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
VENNARD: And it has to do with his call to “pray without ceasing.”
HOMILETICS: So in answer to the question, “Why pray?” there would be a number of answers.
VENNARD: The Ulanovs call it our “primary language,” our early language with which we’re born in this world before we speak any other language; that the cries of an infant are, in fact, prayer. It’s not that we have to learn how to pray but that we have to remember how to pray. It’s so engrained in our humanness to be in prayer, to be in relationship with the holy, that it’s foundational.
HOMILETICS: Sounds like those studies that say we’re hard-wired to worship God or to know God.
VENNARD: I’m not sure that that’s my language, but yes, that’s the sense of it. It’s almost a question of “Why not?” Why pray? Why not? It feels to me that what the true prayers — beyond the rote prayers and the boring prayers and all those things that I think have a place in our traditions, we shouldn’t get rid of any of that — but beyond that is the possibility of being in constant relationship with God.
HOMILETICS: But as for the “Why not?” part of that is because a) I don’t have any time to pray, and b) it’s not any fun and I find it boring, so maybe when it becomes fun and I have time I will get around to praying. Now you’ve answered those objections by saying that we’ve misconceptualized prayer and it’s not as though I need to block out — necessarily — a period of time during the day to “go pray.”
VENNARD: Yes, but there’s a catch to that. If we’re thinking of prayer as a relationship — and I believe strongly that it’s a loving relationship, based on God’s love for us created in God’s image — that if we just say, “Well, I’m in relationship with God and everything I do is prayer,” we know what happens in a marriage. “Well, we’re married!” And you don’t set aside some intentional time to be together.
That’s when we need to be in worship, we need to set aside time for prayer, we need retreat time, so we make it intentional.
But that’s not all it is. It needs to be both. There are times in our lives we simply aren’t able. If you’re raising three children, working full time, and doing volunteer work, there’s clearly a question of time. But the question is, “Can you turn your parenting and your work into honoring God?”
HOMILETICS: There are obviously many kinds of prayer.
VENNARD: I don’t worry too much about different types of prayers. Prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of confession, prayers of intercession. There are times in which we need to pray in different ways. Sometimes we are called to pray for help, or pray for thanksgiving.
HOMILETICS: But the prayers you’ve just mentioned are prayers that are usually articulated in a verbal way. What would you call the type of prayer you’ve been discussing in which you step into the flower bed conscious you’re in the presence of the Creator God?
VENNARD: I call that embodied prayer. Or praying “by hand.” It comes traditionally out of praying with rosary beads, using your hands. But prayer beads are only one small way of praying by hand. It’s service. Reaching out.
HOMILETICS: Could you talk about that some more? In your book, Praying with Body and Soul, you talk about praying with our bodies. What do you mean?
VENNARD: me it means that my whole body is an expression of my love for God, my service to God, my obedience to God. We are embodied persons. Jesus came in human form. So to think that prayer is simply verbal and not embodied doesn’t make any sense to me.
When I’m teaching people, they get very nervous. “Oh, she’s going to make us dance!” And yet, when we look at our traditional worship services, notice that we stand, we sit, we sing, we hold out our hands for communion. There are so many different ways we use our bodies in prayer. So for me, it’s simply a matter of being more intentional — to use that word again — about that. As I step into my garden, or I dance my prayers, it is my body expressing my anguish, my sinfulness, my gratitude. Sometimes, there are no words.
HOMILETICS: They used sackcloth and ashes in the Old Testament.
VENNARD: I know! After my mother died, and I was in a dance group, I had the wonderful experience of dancing my grief prayers. I understand the sackcloth, the tearing of the hair, the wailing, stuff that we as good Protestants don’t do anymore. It wasn’t just dancing my grief, it was dancing my prayer of grief.
HOMILETICS: So you are very aware of possible postures for prayer.
VENNARD: Yes, very much. I like to work with people as to what kinds of prayers they feel emerging from their bodies, souls and hearts if they pray with their hands open, palms up, or with their hands clasped and their heads bowed. People say it’s very different. And that’s my experience, too. It’s very hard for me to pray prayers of deep exaltation and gratitude in certain positions.
The other thing I do when I ask people to take different positions for prayers, just very simple ones, is “What happens to your prayer when you reach out and take the prayer of someone next to you?” Wow! It’s like, “It’s not just about me and God; it’s about my relationship with my sisters and brothers in creation as well.”
So the body not only expresses our prayers, but the body teaches us about prayer.
HOMILETICS: How can I get my prayers answered by God?
VENNARD: What you’re really asking is a theological question. Some people ask me, “Do you ever talk about theology when you talk about prayer?” Well, how could you not? If I believe prayer is my relationship with God, then who is this God with whom I’m in relationship?
So we have to start with our image of God. Your question has a theological statement in it, and the theological statement I hear in that question is, “How can I make God do what I want?”
HOMILETICS: Precisely! [laughter all round]
VENNARD: But! Is this the God you want to worship? A God who is subject to people’s will? Not the God I want to worship. The struggle for people in their prayer life is that to really come to peace concerning unanswered prayers, you have to change your theology. The theology I’ve moved toward is a theology of both a transcendent and immanent God, a God who is not open to manipulation. But a God who hears.
That’s where I go. I have to trust that God is hearing my prayers. I don’t know how God is going to answer them. I know in my own life that if I looked for God’s answers to keep me faithful in prayer, I would have stopped praying a long time ago. But my faith is that God is hearing my prayers, and your prayers, and the prayers of my enemies, and the mystery is how God is going to sort this all out. But I think it’s important that we pray, not to get what we want, but to honor the relationship.
HOMILETICS: But, the Scriptures do invite us to ask, “and you will receive. Knock and it shall be opened unto you. Seek and you shall find.” There are verses in Scripture that speak of prayers of intercession. So why be involved in an exercise like this if there is no answer to prayer in any meaningful sense of that word, when one seems to be promised to us?
VENNARD: But I think we do receive answers. When I say that it’s my faith that God is hearing our prayers, not answering our prayers, I’m talking about my motivation for prayer. I think our prayers are answered, but so often in ways that we didn’t expect, or were looking for and in ways that we didn’t want. If I want this right now in this time, I might miss the fact that God is answering prayers in different ways.
I also think that some answers come to humanity after my prayers and my life are gone. I don’t discount the fact that my prayers may be answered after my lifetime. So it kind of stretches time in that way.
HOMILETICS: Our theology has traditionally perceived God as all-powerful and immutable. And yet our conception of prayer defies that description because we expect God to change. We expect God to intervene. We’re in conflict with ourselves theologically.
VENNARD: It’s also rampant in our culture, particularly in times of tragedy when people are interviewed and they say, “I prayed, and that’s why I was saved.” But what about the people who prayed and weren’t saved? It brings in that question, “What kind of a God is that? Were her prayers better than mine? Were there more people praying there than here?”
HOMILETICS: Sometimes it does seem to be a question of whether I have enough faith. In James 5 there’s the verse about the “effective, fervent prayers of a righteous person, avails much.” We read this as saying that the prayers of an unrighteous person don’t amount to much.
VENNARD: That is what people think and that’s one of the reasons people stop praying — not only because their prayers weren’t answered the way they wanted, but because they feel so guilty. They didn’t pray right, or they didn’t pray well enough. So — talking about fun — that’s no fun!
So we quit praying. Looking at prayer in a much broader way and opening up our images of God are a great relief to people. Many times people feel that when our prayers aren’t answered they’re not praying well enough, or they’re not faithful enough. I don’t think that’s true. I think we pray as well as we can and it’s our desire to pray that’s important to God, not how well we do it. But if we depend on answers then we’re going to quit praying, or we’re going to feel guilty about how we’re praying or we’re going to think that God doesn’t love us. All of which is unsound theology.
HOMILETICS: So is it okay to pray for dad or mom when he or she goes into surgery?
VENNARD: Absolutely! The guideline on intercessory prayer is: Start where your heart is. Even if theologically you know you ought to be praying for the person’s higher good, if you want what you want when you want it, then start there.
If I try to figure out how I’m going to pray before I start praying, I leave God out of the picture. I’m trying to figure it out myself. But if I enter into prayer right where my heart is, which is “Fix this person, or take care of this, or I don’t know how to pray!” then —
HOMILETICS: The psalmist does this all the time.
VENNARD: Oh yes, and then the psalmist prays opposite things, too. This is comforting because if I start where my heart is, I’m often starting very confused. So I pray my confusion. Then I’ve entered into a relationship with God and I find, and people tell me this, too, that my prayers are changed. I might start out telling God what I want when I want it, telling God how to do it, but in prayer and in relationship our prayers begin to soften, they begin to change, and our hearts begin to change.
HOMILETICS: In your book, Friends and Enemies, you cite this study in which the effectiveness of prayer seems to be empirically verified. But you’ve got to be aware of this recent study that was financed by the Templeton Foundation and reported by the AP. It said that prayer doesn’t seem to have an effect, or if it does have an effect it has an adverse effect. They based this assertion on data that said that 59 percent of the 1,800 people who were part of this study at six different medical centers who knew they were being prayed for actually developed complications compared to 52 percent of those who only knew it was possible they were being prayed for. The Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke Medical Center is reported to have said that “there are no scientific grounds to expect a result and there are no real theological grounds to expect a result.”
VENNARD: One thing to remember is that all of those studies were based on individuals praying for individuals. What’s left out of that is the power of community.
When we look at effectiveness of prayer, we can’t look only at what happened to the person being prayed for, but we must look also at the person doing the praying.
One of our faithful members in my church had hip surgery on Monday. She goes in knowing that the community is praying for her. It’s not my responsibility to make her well, but I’m part of a community. And I get a call saying that the surgery went well, and I feel empowered by community.
So one of the issues about the effectiveness of prayer is not only what happens in the person being prayed for but what happens in the pray-er.
What often happens is that connections are made. When I know that the community is all praying for the same person, it builds more community and community is empowering.
HOMILETICS: My impression about the Templeton study is that the people praying did not know the patients for whom they were praying.
VENNARD: One of the problems is that in the scientific community so much has to be controlled, that what you can’t then study are things like whether the patients were touched when they were being prayed for, was the entire community gathered together to pray for these people or this person —
HOMILETICS: And were the pray-ers kneeling or standing up?
VENNARD: And were they praying for their healing or for their highest good? What were they asking for?
HOMILETICS: And were they Methodists or Presbyterians? [laughter all round]
VENNARD: The scientific studies are useful in a lot of ways, but there is so much that’s mysterious about prayer that there’s no way it can be scientifically studied. One of the things I end up saying and writing about all the time is that prayer is a mystery. That’s some of the excitement about prayer. Talk about fun. If you could figure it out and just do it — that’s no fun. It has to do with the creative process, the mystery.
Another thing that comes to mind is that God is mystery. Created in God’s image, we’re mystery. Therefore the relationship between us must be mysterious, which keeps it alive.
HOMILETICS: To go back to the letter of James and the use of the word “effective” to describe prayer. You talk about the relationship between prayer and practice or action. For example, you argue that if you’re going to pray for peace, you’re going to be working for peace.
VENNARD: The power of prayer leads us into the action for peace. Or that in praying for the hungry, we must act for the hungry. The more that we act for the hungry, the more we know that we need God’s help. So it’s a prayer-and-action sort of thing.
HOMILETICS: So it’s not enough to pray for the homeless man who’s cold in the winter if we’re not willing to go into our closet and pull out a coat.
VENNARD: Right. Again, it’s a theological question. If I pray to God and trust that God will take care of everything, it relieves me of my responsibility.
Marcus Borg argues that prayer is answered not by intervention but by interaction. That’s where the action is — in the interaction. As I pray for something I am empowered to act and to interact with others and with God to make that happen.
It’s not an intervention from the transcendent God — although this sometimes does occur, too. (We pray for miracles and then don’t believe them when we get them.) The more active we are in the world, the more we realize that we need God’s presence and support in that. One feeds into the other. It’s not a division: I’m either going to be a contemplative or an activist.
HOMILETICS: Do you think churches are becoming more interested in prayer? When I grew up, the Wednesday night prayer meeting was part of the typical, weekly religious experience. Today, while that Wednesday night prayer meeting may still exist in some traditions, a revived interest in prayer is showing up in different ways.
VENNARD: I think so. My latest book, The Praying Congregation, addresses that issue exactly. It’s based on the statement by Richard Roehr which is, “If the church is not teaching its people how to pray, it doesn’t have any reason for existence.”
What I’m finding is that people are saying that this is what they want. They want to talk more about prayer. They don’t want just prayer meetings. They want to wrestle with the questions you’re asking me here. They’re the questions of, “Am I praying wrong? Am I praying right? How should I pray? And what if I’m not praying 15 minutes faithfully? Does that mean I’m not a faithful Christian?”
People don’t talk much about prayer in church, and there’s a real hunger. The response to this book really points to this.
HOMILETICS: Are you saying that most people would like to pray more, or have their prayer life deepened, but they don’t know how?
VENNARD: I think so, and I think that people are very relieved to find out that other people experience the same hindrances, or the same confusions. So it’s a matter of making our churches (a safe places) where people can talk about this.
One of the things I also like to do is to ask people to witness to prayers that they’ve offered and are still offering that haven’t been answered. So often in prayer meetings, everyone is expected to witness to their “answers to prayer.” And 90 percent of the people then fade away, because that doesn’t happen to them.
HOMILETICS: The testimony meeting.
VENNARD: Exactly! And when I get people to testify to their faithfulness in prayer, even when their prayers haven’t been answered, it’s a whole different testimony. So many of us don’t get clear answers. As one friend of mine said, “God doesn’t talk in burning bushes anymore!”
But along with the people who are longing to pray more, we forget that we have some very, very, profoundly deep pray-ers in our churches — who don’t talk about it, who aren’t willing to share, or haven’t been drawn forth as people who can help other people pray and as people who have wrestled with some of these questions. A lot of the gifts of our pray-ers in our churches are not being utilized.
HOMILETICS: So it might be a good idea to get leaders away on a prayer retreat in order to start talking about prayer.
VENNARD: One of the important things to remember about retreats is to understand that retreats can happen without going away. There are a lot of people who can’t go away. There can be retreat times at churches and there can be opportunities for people to explore prayer.
But in many cases, the leaders — clergy and lay — need to be willing to look at their own prayer lives.
HOMILETICS: My sense is that a lot of pastors don’t talk about prayer because they’ve lost faith in prayer themselves.
VENNARD: I think that’s right. Or, they feel like they’re not praying right and so on. But I also think that there are pastors and leaders who are willing to say, “I’m struggling with my prayer life. Who wants to get together and talk about this?” And when they do, it opens things up.
It’s not like the pastor needs to get his or her prayer life together in order to provide teaching about prayer. If I had to get my prayer life together in order to write these books, I never would have written them! I write to see if I can figure out what I’m doing, and how I’m praying and what I’m missing.
HOMILETICS: What puzzles you most about prayer?
VENNARD: That’s the wonder of it! It’s the inner dynamic that most of us have, in that we’re all longing to pray. We’re praying a lot more than we realize. People stay so bound up in older, traditional ways of praying. They can’t think outside the box. This has been my goal: to help people find liberation in their prayer life.
Yet, people can be liberated who don’t want to be. “That’s not the right way to pray!”
HOMILETICS: Why would they care?
VENNARD: Well, if there’s one right way to pray, and that’s the way I’ve been praying for 47 years, and someone says there are other ways to pray, that’s quite threatening! What’s more, if there are other ways to pray, there may be other images of God. Our image of God determines how we pray; how we pray may dictate our image of God.
HOMILETICS: Do most people actually visualize God in some way?
VENNARD: No. When I say “image” I mean the way we imagine God to be. It’s more a question of: “Who do I trust God to be in my life?” Prayer can be very personal.
A seminary student said to me: “I had a very active prayer life till I came to seminary. Then I took theology and God became an abstraction. And how do you pray to an abstraction?” So that sense of how to stay with your personal relationship with God even as we expand our understanding of God.
HOMILETICS: What do people say about prayer that irritates you?
VENNARD: It’s the really bad theology about prayer that comes out in football games. “I prayed and God answered me.” People don’t understand by making those types of statements what they’re saying about God and about God’s love for all humanity. They don’t understand it, and I kind of want to shake ’em!
HOMILETICS: But I got to tell you, one thing that the people in our churches want us to do as pastors is to pray that their cancer will be healed, even if someone else’s wasn’t!
VENNARD: They do. And we’re called to faithfully pray for the person who is ill and to pray for his or her family.
But, speaking of intercessory prayer, you’ve got to remember that intercessory prayer is the only type of prayer that’s being studied, because the prayer is either answered or it isn’t.
HOMILETICS: There is either a result or there isn’t a result.
VENNARD: Right. But how do you measure the effectiveness of contemplative prayer? If I say that my prayer is effective because I’ve been praying regularly and I love God more, love humanity more and I feel healed in a lot of ways — you can’t study that!
So all the studies are based on intercessory prayer, because you’ve got cause and effect. But we can’t study the effects of other forms prayer.
HOMILETICS: But for pastors, prayer becomes an issue of integrity. They don’t want to pray for the patient in the hospital bed because they don’t believe the prayer they’re praying.
VENNARD: Pastors say that to me. They say, “What do I do at a bedside when the family is praying for this person to get well, and you know he or she is ready to die?”
HOMILETICS: That’s a problem, but let’s assume a recovery is medically feasible. For some, it’s still hard to pray because you simply don’t believe that God’s going to step in. That’s not what God’s doing or what God is about. There are children in Kabul for whom God’s working right now.
VENNARD: But you’ve got to consider the relationship with the family. Do we stop at the bedside to have a theological argument? I don’t think so. So that’s why we have to start where our hearts are and if my heart is aching for this family who wants their child back, then I can pray that because it has integrity with my love for the family. And then I can move my prayer in other ways as well.
One passage of Scripture I like to think about is “Go into your closet and pray.” I think in our churches we’ve taken that too literally. That’s the thesis of The Praying Congregation: We’ve got to come out of our closets.
We’ve got a lot of closet pray-ers in our churches who aren’t sharing what they need to be sharing.