Thursday, May 10, 2007

From the Audience

A recent comment:

Thanks, I just found this blog and like it. I like your approach a lot and am hoping you could shed some light. Prayer...here's what I don't get. Are we supposed to believe that God directly intervenes (interferes) with daily events? If so, is that why you pray? If not, then why do you pray? I see problems either way.
-I dont understand, but I'd like to.


As many of you know, prayer is a favorite topic of mine...probably because I myself struggle with it. So any opportunity to address questions in regard to this matter often afford an opportunity to reflect on issues that I have struggled or continue to grapple with.

It is natural to pray as though God were a cosmic Spiderman, who needs only to be called upon to save the day. Many of our prayers take this form, "Oh God, let me get this answer right." "Dear Lord, please don't let me mess this recipe up." "Holy God, please let the Indians/Cavs/Browns win something important this season" (If this prayer worked, it would be definitive proof - even for Richard Dawkins - of an all-powerful God).

Jesus, it would seem, had a similar prayer: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me" (Matthew 26:39). For many of us, this is the prayer that leaps from our heart with a genuine hope that the hand of God will mysteriously begin to manipulate space and time in order to bring about our desired outcome. The instruction manuals for such "Deity Manipulation" read: if you pray long enough and hard enough, God will eventually do what you want. If you don't get what you pray for, it's because you prayed poorly or you are guilty of some sin that God is punishing you for.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus fights against this type of prayer. Read carefully:

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want. (Matthew 26:39)


The prayer of Jesus is wholly realistic: he has a pretty good sense that the end of his life is imminent and that the act of betrayal perpetrated by Judas is going to bring about a painful and shameful death. Here Jesus expresses fear - Luke's account of this scene has him sweat blood - and anguish over what lies ahead of him. His request is so like our own - "Let this pass!" - and yet his prayer marks his openness to hearing and responding to God's will.

"So," one might think, "if Jesus couldn't get his prayer answered, then why should we bother praying?"

We pray because to do so is what makes us human. Prayer is the event recognizing that we are not God, that we are not all-powerful, and that we cannot control the future. Rather than calling God down from on high, prayer helps us to sift through our days and our lives in order to uncover God's abiding presence within our day-to-day goings on.

The Prayer of Gethsemane - "Not what I want, but what you want" - is a far cry from Spiderman. It does not demand that we strain our eyes to the roofs and to the skies in order to glimpse the arrival of the hero; rather, it demands that we close our eyes and allow the presence of God to be felt here and now. Such a prayer recognizes a God who is present in the world, straining and working to bring about God's Kingdom. Prayer helps to make us attentive to this presence, bringing us into alignment with it, helping us to respond to it even when it is difficult to do so.

So for the young parents whose son has leukemia, what does prayer do? Will it necessarily destroy the cancerous cells that ravage the child's fragile body? Will a boy's prayer for his grandmother rescue her from the oblivion of Alzheimer's? Will a family's novenas cure a daughter's cancer? Will prayer rescue the gunshot victim? Will it hold aloft the thrown ball as it sails toward the end-zone?

If only it were so.

Prayer is our entrance into a dialogue between God and creation. It centers us, enabling us to see how God is and continues to work to bring about God's Kingdom. This does not posit a God who afflicts babies with AIDS or cancer, but it does recognize that God is present with those children, with all children and all persons. We pray in order to see the trace of God in our lives, to have our eyes directed toward the promise of the Kingdom where "God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away" (Revelation 21:4). We pray because it is what makes us human, recognizing with Augustine that "Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you." We pray because we trust that God is at work in our world, in our lives, and even if we cannot yet understand the movement of God's work, even if we can't see the totality of what God has promised, we pray in order to discern and to accept God's will.


I fear hitting the "publish" button without one further statement. I don't want to make it sound as though cancer/AIDS/drugs/etc. were all a necessary part of God's plan. But they are part of our human reality, and I reckon that God has to work with what is available. So for the parents of an ailing child, a person with a terminal or serious illness, or a city with a doomed sports team I do not wish to sound callous or blithely nonchalant saying, "Accept your lot!" Prayer affords us that opportunity to rage, to scream, to cry to a God who can accept and can hear what we have to say. I do not believe that God afflicts people or strikes them down - so the idea that AIDS is a punishment is wholly deranged. Instead, I believe these happen in our world but that God is still present to the persons, with the persons. Prayer might not take the cancer away, but it can remind us that we are not alone as the war against the cancer is waged. Prayer probably won't expunge HIV from one's body, but it can draw us closer as one Body of Christ.

I offer this for now, but I hope people will have comments and we continue the discussion as needed. I hope this gets us started.
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