Sunday, August 23, 2015

Prayer In A New Key (8/23/15)

Prayer In A New Key
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
August 23, 2015

•          How to understand prayer; does God intervene in human affairs?  Are we to praise God?  Thank him?    
•          I saw an electronic church notice board today with "help is just a prayer away". What would Jesus say about that? Would he agree or disagree? Would he tell a parable? One he used before or a new one? What would Kushner say? How does the gift of free will constrain prayer? Why pray? How do modern people sort that out? Be sure to mention "apocalyptic" and "sapiential".

Intercessory prayer is spiritual defiance of what is in the way of what God has promised. Intercession visualizes an alternative future to the one apparently fated by the momentum of current forces.  Prayer infuses the air of a time yet to be into the suffocating atmosphere of the present. History belongs to the intercessors who believe the future into being. This is not simply a religious statement. It is also true of Communists or capitalists or anarchists. The future belongs to whoever can envision a new and desirable possibility, which faith then fixes upon as inevitable. This is the politics of hope. Hope envisages its future and then acts as if that future is now irresistible, thus helping to create the reality for which it longs. The future is not closed. There are fields of forces whose actions are somewhat predictable. But how they will interact is not. Even a small number of people, firmly committed to the new inevitablity on which they have fixed their imaginations, can decisively affect the shape the future takes.

These shapers of the future are the intercessors, who call out of the future the longed-for new present. In the New Testament, the name and texture and aura of that future is God’s domination-free order, the reign of God.

No doubt our intercessions sometimes change us as we open ourselves to new possibilities we had not guessed. No doubt our prayers to God reflect back upon us as a divine command to become the answer to our prayer.  But if we are to take the biblical understanding seriously, intercession is more than that. It changes the world and it changes what is possible to God. It creates an island of relative freedom in a world gripped by unholy necessity. A new force field appears that hitherto was only potential. The entire configuration changes as the result of the change of a single part. A space opens in the praying person, permitting God to act without violating human freedom. The change in one person thus changes what God can thereby do in that world.

All of Jesus’ teachings on prayer feature imperatives. (See for example, Luke 11:9 “Ask……..knock.”) In prayer we are ordering God to bring the Kingdom near. It will not do to implore. We have been commanded to command. We are required by God to haggle with God for the sake of the sick, the obsessed, the weak, and to conform our lives to our intercessions. This is a God who invents history in interaction with those “who hunger and thirst to see right prevail” (Matt. 5:6, REB). How different this is from the static god of Greek philosophy that all these years has lulled so many into adoration without intercession !

Praying is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet and washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes and then watching God swell with life and vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes. 

When we pray we are not sending a letter to a celestial White House, where it is sorted among piles of others. We are engaged, rather, in an act of co-creation, in which one little sector of the universe rises up and becomes translucent, incandescent, a vibratory center of power that radiates the power of the universe.

History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being. If this is so, then intercession, far from being an escape from action, is a means of focusing for action and of creating action. By means of our intercessions we veritably cast fire upon the earth and trumpet the future into being.”    
--Walter Wink, The Powers That Be 

                                                                                                                        Romans 8:26
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.            

My mother is a person of prayer.  She would pray before every meal.  Even though she was the one who prepared it, she would thank God for it and include intercessions on her mind.  We could tell what she was thinking or feeling by her mealtime prayers.

My mother prayed in her garden.   She prayed before I went to school.  She prayed with me before I went to bed until I got too old for that.  As I got older she started to really pray for me, I think.  She prayed when there was trouble, for my brother in his motor cycle accident, for her friends, for church members, for relatives near and far, for her family, for children in Africa.    And she prays still I think now for the Lord to take her in his time.  

I got my religion from my mother.  I learned to pray from her.  From my infancy I was, as evangelicals say, bathed in prayer.   My mother’s prayers live within my being.  

My father, on the other hand, is a bit of a skeptic.  He tolerated her mealtime prayers.  You could tell when they were in a bit of a snit because he would clank his spoon and start serving himself while she prayed.   Now and then he would offer an experiment.  “We should test prayer.   It shouldn’t be hard to do.  Set up a two groups of sick people.  Pray for one group and not the other, and see how effective prayer really is. “  My mother shook her head at his blasphemy.  “You can’t test God,” she would say.  

Actually there have been experiments on prayer.  The results seem to show that prayer is about as effective as chance in terms of changing outcomes.  I got my skepticism from my father.    I learned to question beliefs and be suspicious of various claims.   Skepticism is also in my being.  

I start with that because prayer is a central practice in Christianity.   We do pray.  We pray in worship.  We pray alone or think we should.     Regardless of what the skeptics say, people who pray will pray. For them it works.  Regardless of what the faithful say, people who are skeptical are not convinced by claims of answered prayers.

I read a joke a couple of weeks ago.  I am recalling it from memory.    It was God’s prayer scorecard.   

Murders stopped.  Wars prevented.  Zero.

Keys found and touchdowns scored.  7,326,832.

It is the triviality and shallowness of prayer that irks many of us.   The sillier the claims made for prayer and for God’s supposed intervention to solve our first world problems, such as touchdowns and lost keys, the more fuel that is added to the fire for those who criticize all religion and all religious people as deluded at best and harmful at worst.  

Yet there is something to this practice that takes many forms and has been around since humans were able to conceive of giving agency to the outside world. As we gave agency to things that moved, whether it be the sun or a strange sound in the forest, we began to believe that we could influence those agents.    We still do it, without being aware.   We talk to our car.   “Come on, you can make it.”   

Prayer possibly had its origins in the attempt to manipulate what were believed to be agents influencing things that mattered to us.   Scoring touchdowns and looking for lost keys are for those involved important things at that moment.    The funny thing about humans and the power of belief is that if it works once, that is worth a hundred times when it doesn’t work. 

Even in ancient, pre-historic societies there was more to it than trying to cur favor.  Religion and the various practices of prayer were attempts to find our place.   There is more to human spiritual yearning and meaning-making and community building than trying to get a divine agent to work in our favor.   Prayer has also served as a way to open our lives to larger Life.  

This is the direction that prayer is taking as our conceptions of God necessarily change.    Even though we don’t literally think of God as the man in the sky receiving prayers and responding by dispatching angels, the language of prayer is still from that era.   From our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, here is one of the prayers of the day for the eighth Sunday in ordinary time:

Almighty God,
Renew us through the gift of your Spirit,
That we may always do and think
What is just in your sight,
That we, who can do nothing good without you,
May live according to your holy will;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and forever.  Amen. 

Examine the words.  God has sight.  God reigns. God is almighty.  God gives gifts.  We can do nothing good without God, and so forth.   God is conceived of as a being doing things.   Prayer is directed to this being.   

Our Father who art in heaven.

Who is he?  A father.  Where?  Heaven.   

You can say, well, she is a mother.   Yes.  But she is still in heaven.

And yet, the prayer can have a familiarity that comforts us and centers us.   I am the Presbyterian minister who doesn’t believe in God, right?  Yet I pray the Lord’s Prayer and was quite moved when I heard it sung yesterday in the memorial service for Bryce Adkins.  

The challenge has been for us to understand and practice prayer as the ancient world view with heaven above has given way to a modern understanding of the universe.  How does our spirituality catch up?    

What might prayer mean for those who no longer can affirm the existence of a supernatural interventionist god?   I am not saying everyone is there or needs to be, but for those who are, what is prayer?  

The question was quite direct.  

How to understand prayer; does God intervene in human affairs?  Are we to praise God? Thank him?

Since the question was asked of me, I will speak for myself.  I can longer conceive of a divine being, of a god called God.   Anymore than I can conceive of a god called Thor.   I don’t think any being exists or intervenes.   I don’t need to go into all of that now, I have done that elsewhere.  The skeptic in me can’t go there.   

Yet my mother’s prayers are still in my bones.   I do want to praise.  I do want to thank.  I do want to imagine a brighter future for humanity.  I do want to cry out in lamentation and I do want to share-feeling-with, that is, have compassion-for my friend in her distress.    Prayer is a vehicle for that.    

When we pray in the ancient language of prayer it serves beyond the meaning of the words.  It acts beyond the literalness of the symbols to a larger awareness.  It can pull me out of my ego to a larger sense of presence.   I want to be bigger than my smallness.  I want to be connected not isolated.   I want to be challenged by our higher aspirations.  Prayer and corporate worship can do that.

It doesn’t always.  At times the language is just too dated.   It is like singing a children’s song that we have long outgrown.   That spiritual yearning needs new language, a new song in a new key.    

So I stumble about searching for meaningful poetry, writing my own prayers.  They are uneven shall we say.   I am no William Blake, but you have to start somewhere.   

The future of prayer, as the future of God, is going to be an eclectic mix of ancient and modern and it is going to require a lot of experimentation and even more patience with ourselves and others.     

I included that long reading by Walter Wink, from his book, The Powers That Be, because I really like him even though I am never quite sure what he is getting at.   I mentioned last week that when at a conference with him we yelled the Lord’s Prayer at the top of our lungs.    He blends the ancient and the modern in an interesting way.   For Wink, God is a part of ourselves and yet beyond ourselves and God needs waking.   God is in a sense emerging, and our intercessions for justice, for peace, can be realized as we dream it, imagine it, name it, and thus live it.   As Wink writes:

History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being. If this is so, then intercession, far from being an escape from action, is a means of focusing for action and of creating action. By means of our intercessions we veritably cast fire upon the earth and trumpet the future into being.

He sounds a bit like Nancy Ellen Abrams.  We contribute to God, for good or ill, as we act, she says.  She writes:

Collectively we are influencing God. The worse we behave, measured against our deepest aspirations, the weaker God becomes, not only for us but also for future generations. The better we act, the richer God becomes and the more useful to future generations. We have the power to strengthen the very God we turn to. …

[Prayer is] putting myself imaginatively into the reality I know to exist, feeling what it is really like to be part of the earth, part of the astonishing universe.

Is God thus real in some way?   I hold that open as possibility.   Prayer, worship, and religion are real practice.  That is for certain.  They are all a part of human expression that go way back to the cave dwellers.   Prayer is in our bones.    

If that is the case, let us be attentive to it.   Let us use prayer well.  Let us treat prayer with care and not trivialize it.  If God is real, then let God care about something more than lost keys and touchdowns.    If God is a reality that we can influence with prayer then let’s wake this collective God up and do something about the minimum wage and income inequality and racism and climate change.  

If prayer can put us to work, then by all means, let’s pray.    

Let us not turn prayer into a magical superstition or an excuse not to act.    I put on my Facebook page a quote from comedian, Hannibal Buress.       He said:

"I don't like when people say, 'I'll pray for you. I'm going to pray for you. Praying for you.' You're going to pray for me? So you're going to sit at home and do nothing? 'Cause that's what your prayers are; you doing nothing while I struggle with a situation. Don't pray for me -- make me a sandwich or something."

The man has a point.    

Let’s go make some sandwiches.


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