God, Vending Machines and Prayer


At Richmond Uniting as we journey to Christmas, we are inviting people to to write their prayers in chalk on our stairs: the Prayer Stairs.

All kinds of people have been responding to this invitation and now our stairs are covered in prayers. There are prayers for the planet, for loved ones, for peace, for happiness, for no wars, for a new kidney, to be more patient…

As humans we have a longing to pray, or at least to make wishes, but there are all kinds of questions about prayer that deserve exploration.

I suspect that many people in the church, and many people outside the church, think that prayer is about trying to get God’s attention, or convince God, or impress God, so that God will do what we want.

The shadow side of this kind of view, is that when prayers appear unanswered, people can blame themselves: ‘I didn’t pray hard enough’, or blame others: ‘your faith mustn’t have been strong enough’, or blame God: ‘if God was real or powerful, than this terrible thing would not have happened’.

This kind of approach to prayer seems to me like turning God into a Divine vending machine: ‘put the prayer in and get the answer out’.

While this kind of view often predominates popular imagination, I don’t believe that God operates in such a reductionist way.

In contrast, in my experience, prayer is about being brave enough to be real with the Divine about what is actually going on. And being able to learn to shut up enough to listen for the Divine’s response within this, within the messiness of real life.

This experience of prayer is not about simply praying for a particular outcome, and blaming God, or others, or ourselves when the answer doesn’t materialise.  In contrast it is about seeking to be open to the Divine life force in the midst of the agony (and ecstasy) of our living.

I often imagine this kind of way of praying as our spirit opening up and connecting with Divine Spirit.

This understanding of prayer promises no easy answers.  Jesus’ way is not about easy answers as the way of the cross reveals.  But this is not to say that the Divine does not respond to our prayers though.

And there is something else about prayer – when we actually allow ourselves to be real and to be open to the Divine often this means that we will be called to change, and as we are changed our living might even become part of the answer to prayer that we have been longing for.

At the heart of the Jesus way- Christianity – is the scandalous claim that Jesus embodies the Divine. Jesus who is described as not being impressed by pious praying or ‘do gooders’ but who makes friends with all kinds of ‘wrong’ people.  Jesus who dares to proclaim that the Divine knows the hairs on our head and cares for us (Luke 12.7) even before we try and prove our ‘worthiness’.

This is the energy that we are invited to connect with in prayer. We don’t have to convince this God or appease this God we just need to show up.

This God – whom Jesus embodies – is already on our side, and (challengingly) on the side of people we don’t like, journeying with us and seeking to birth new, nourishing and unexpected life amidst the difficult realities of our living – if we let her close.

Every blessing as we journey to Christmas and the celebration of this God one being born among us.


Rev Dr Sally Douglas