Praying Toward Yes

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I pray.  Regularly.

That probably won’t surprise anyone.  I’m a minister, after all.  Praying is kind of in my job description.

I’ve observed that there are a lot of misconceptions out about what prayer is and how it “works” (for lack of a better term).  When I mention the fact that I pray, I sometimes get funny looks from my skeptical friends who immediately imagine me writing letters to Santa and being good all year so that the new bike I wanted will be under the tree on Christmas morning.  They imagine me constructing an argument at least somewhat similar to the following formula: “I follow Religion X and prayed to Deity Y for Event Z to happen.  Event Z happened, therefore Deity Y must exist and Religion X must be the one true religion.”

But none of that bears any resemblance to how or why I pray.  For me, prayer is not an exercise in crossing items off my wish-list, justifying the exclusive validity of my religious tradition, or proving the existence of a supernatural God.  I could have none of those things and still maintain a robust prayer life.

I’m going to borrow a few ideas from others and then add a few of my own in order to express what it is that prayer means to me and why I still do it.  My sources will be listed at the end of the post.  I hoping to present prayer in terms that are relatable, even to those who do not believe in my concept of God (or any god whatsoever).  In order to keep it simple, I will summarize each of the five types of prayer with a single-syllable word.  Each new word builds progressively off the last one.  The five words are:

Wow, Thanks, Oops, Help, Yes and they correspond roughly to the five traditional types of prayer: Adoration, Thanksgiving, Confession, Petition, and Oblation.

Wow.  The prayer of Adoration.  This is where prayer begins: with the felt sense of awestruck wonder at life, the universe, and everything.  I mean, have you seen this place?  It’s amazing.  We’ve got protons, nebulae, the Big Bang, quantum mechanics, evolution, trees, mountains, sunsets, sex, Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Mother Teresa, single malt scotch, and the Beatles.  If you’re not saying “Wow” to life at some level, then you’re not really paying attention.  All of this stuff is really here and it’s connected.  The atoms of my body were forged in the furnaces of stars: I am stardust.  My DNA shares the same basic structure as the DNA of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, even after 67 million years.  I am part of everything that exists within and around me.  I wouldn’t be who, what, or where I am today if it hadn’t been for others.  Others could say the same about me.  We are real, we are here, we are connected, and we are part of each other.  We are caught up in the great mystery of existence.  We don’t understand how that works or why, but we experience it nonetheless.  In the Christian tradition, we personify this all-encompassing, interconnecting mystery and name it “God.”  Prayer begins when we step back and take the time to consciously place our little lives in this larger context.

Thanks.  The prayer of Thanksgiving (obviously).  Reflecting on the experience of awestruck wonder, I feel glad, even privileged, to bear witness and take part in reality.  I am here and I am alive.  More than that, I am healthy, I have enough food and a place to stay, I have known love.  It could have been otherwise.  The universe didn’t owe me that much; it is a gift, and for that gift I feel grateful.

Oops.  The prayer of Confession.  This is where things start to get dicey.  I mean, wonder and gratitude are understandable, but sin?  Confession?  C’mon, are you serious?  You might be wondering if we’re back to the image of Santa Claus at the North Pole, making his list and checking it twice, putting coal into the stockings of the naughty kids who masturbate and/or eat shellfish.  The answer is no, we’re not going back to that.  However, I still think there’s a place for sin and confession in one’s prayer practice.

The experience of wonder tends to elicit, not only gratitude, but also an awareness that we are not as we should be.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in those times when we are awestruck by those “great souls” whose courage, wisdom, and compassion have inspired the world.  Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta, Galileo at his telescope, Jesus forgiving his executioners, and Rosa Parks refusing to get off the bus.  My life, by comparison, seems awfully shallow and self-absorbed.  My awe at these heroes and heroines reminds me of what is lacking in myself.  Confession is simply the practice of honestly facing and naming this lack while also experiencing the desire to change, grow, and actualize the potential within us.

Help.  The prayer of Petition.  This is probably the most well-known type of prayer.  This is the part where we pray for stuff or people.  It’s not a cosmic vending machine or Christmas list, although lots of folks seem to treat it that way.  I think you can tell a lot about people based on what they pray for.  People whose prayers are primarily concerned with their own ego-centric needs and wants tend to be somewhat less enlightened than those who turn their attention toward the needs of others.  In our prayers of Petition, we continue to hold our lives in the context of the whole, just as we do in the prayer of Adoration.  From that place of awareness and perspective, we speak what is on our minds.  Standing before the infinite expanse of the Big Picture, do you still think it is critically important that your next car is a Lexus?  Does it really matter whether Attractive Person X agrees to go out with you?  It’s good to name these things because naming them brings our issues out into the open, where we can hopefully realize how silly our worries are in the grand scheme of things.

However, there are some things that certainly do matter in that context.  Some things really are that important.  For example, I cannot begrudge a person who prays for strength to overcome an addiction or endure chemotherapy.  That stuff is hard and, if it were me, I would take any help I could get, placebo or otherwise.  Sometimes we pray that we would be more patient, loving, courageous, or compassionate.  This is where we let prayer change us as well as our circumstances.  We take the lack we experienced in those “Oops” moments and focus our intentionality on growing as human beings.  The desire to be a better person is often the first and most critical step on the journey to being a better person.

Finally, there are those prayers of Petition that we make on behalf of the world at large.  When you see the news reports about missile strikes and suicide bombers, do you ever stop and pray for peace?  In a world where 30,000 people die daily from malnutrition, do you ever pray that the hungry would be fed?  Do you pray for sick people to get well?  Do you pray for justice and goodwill among our leaders?  Saying these prayers may not actually bring an immediate end to these problems, but they do sometimes lead us to make a beginning within ourselves.  The intention we express in prayer toward the issues that disturb us often lead us to “become the answer to our prayers.”  Sometimes, we eventually find ourselves in a position to take action and make a meaningful difference in the world.  Which leads me to our last type of prayer:

Yes.  The prayer of Oblation.  This is the prayer where we offer ourselves to the service of something beyond our own little ego-centric lives.  We say “Yes” to service, justice, compassion, and making a difference.  This is where we embody in our lives that which we have admired in our heroes and heroines and lacked in our own lives.  The same capacity for goodness that was in Jesus, Buddha, and Rosa Parks exists also in us.  Christians call it the Spirit of God, living in our hearts; others might just call it human potential.  Call it whatever you like, I don’t care.  Whenever you step outside yourself and into the service of others, when you volunteer at the shelter, when you bring that casserole to a grieving friend, when you call your senator’s office, when you pick up a sign and march on the picket line, you are praying the prayer of self-offering.  Whenever you come to the “Yes” in the process of inner transformation that begins with awe and moves through gratitude, confession, and petition, you begin to do in your life what Jesus and others did in theirs.  In your own small way, you become Jesus.  And that, in the end, is what prayer is really about: getting to “Yes”, following the path of awestruck wonder that leads to the transformation of yourself and your world.  That’s why I pray and that’s how I do it.

Bibliography

Anne Lamott.  Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.

Shane Claiborne & Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove.  Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals

http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/11/20/thanks-gimme-oops-wow-a-guide-for-prayer/

The Book of Common Prayer, Catechism.

Call to Prayer for the Philippines

Reblogged from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) deeply grieves the devastation and loss in the Republic of the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Typhoon Yolanda). The denomination is actively responding through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and its partners, and also is calling for prayer.

 

The Creator of the world, the stiller of storms, our shelter and our strength:
We turn to You in this dire hour, of massive devastation and death.
Interceding for your people in the Philippines and in other parts of Southeast Asia,
Joining our hearts, our prayers, and our cries with theirs.
Hear us, dear God! We plead to You. See the suffering. Feel the tears. Come to Your
     people in a way that only You can, God of mercy and grace.
Be the shelter for the thousands whose homes have now become debris or washed with
     the waters;
Be the healer for the wounded;
Be the comforter for many who weep, for the many who sift through the trees, who
     wonder, “Where is my loved one? Why us?”
Feel the pain, dear Lord, because You know our inward parts, the heart and soul of Your
     people beat with anguish that You alone can bear, that You alone can hold in the
     shadow of your wings.

Click here to read the full prayer

Click here to donate to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

Inheritance and Invention: Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

Reblogged from the New Yorker:

The journal is chiefly an interior one, a record of a Christian who hoped the rightful orientation of her own life would contribute to righting the orientation of the world. O’Connor yearns for prayer to come effortlessly, even while exerting great intellectual effort to understand and induce it. “Prayer should be composed I understand of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication and I would like to see what I can do with each without an exegesis.” Confessing that her mind “is a prey to all sorts of intellectual quackery,” she asks for a faith motivated by love, not fear: “Give me the grace, dear God, to adore You, for even this I cannot do for myself.”

Click here to read the full article

Monica A. Coleman Prays with her Feet for Mental Illness

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Photo by quinn.anya. Retireved from Wikimedia Commons

Reblogged from the Rev. Dr. Monica A. Coleman:

Today is the National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding. People often ask me how they can pray for people who live with mental health challenges.  I like prayer.  I pray.  I’m a minister who often prays for other people.  I believe that God can change our hearts and our lives through our attention and focus on God and others.  My colleague Susan Greg-Schroeder has some excellent resources for prayers and liturgies at Mental Health Ministries.  Check them out here.  But I keep thinking about how Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, AL.  He said, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” So I was thinking about ways people can pray with their feet for mental illness.  Here are ten ways.

Click here to read her article

The Chaplain’s Voice

ImageRev. Dr. Barry Black, Chaplain to the United States Senate, is following in the prophetic traditions of Daniel and Joseph: speaking truth to power from within.  Knowing that these prayers are being offered by him from the Senate floor each morning gives me tremendous hope.  I say “well done” to this, my professional colleague and spiritual brother.

These are his words, most of which were spoken in the context of prayer:

  • “Save us from the madness,”
  • “We acknowledge our transgressions, our shortcomings, our smugness, our selfishness and our pride,” he went on, his baritone voice filling the room. “Deliver us from the hypocrisy of attempting to sound reasonable while being unreasonable.”
  • “Remove from them that stubborn pride which imagines itself to be above and beyond criticism,” he said. “Forgive them the blunders they have committed.”
  • “I use a biblical perspective to decide my beliefs about various issues,” Mr. Black said in an interview in his office suite on the third floor of the Capitol. “Let’s just say I’m liberal on some and conservative on others.”
  • “I remember once talking about self-inflicted wounds — that captured the imagination of some of our lawmakers,” he said. “Remember, my prayer is the first thing they hear every day. I have the opportunity, really, to frame the day in a special way.”
  • “May they remember that all that is necessary for unintended catastrophic consequences is for good people to do nothing,” he said the day of the shutdown deadline.
  • “Unless you empower our lawmakers,” he prayed another day, “they can comprehend their duty but not perform it.”
  • “I see us playing a very dangerous game,” Mr. Black said as he sat in his office the other day. “It’s like the showdown at the O.K. Corral. Who’s going to blink first? So I can’t help but have some of this spill over into my prayer. Because you’re hoping that something will get through and that cooler heads will prevail.”

Click here to read the full article from the New York Times

 

A Prayer by Howard Thurman

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Image by Jessie Eastland

 

Lord, open unto me

Open unto me — light for my darkness.
Open unto me — courage for my fear.
Open unto me — hope for my despair.
Open unto me — peace for my turmoil.
Open unto me — joy for my sorrow.
Open unto me — strength for my weakness.
Open unto me — wisdom for my confession.
Open unto me — forgiveness for my sins.
Open unto me — love for my hates.
Open unto me — thy Self for my self.

Lord, Lord, open unto me!

Amen.

Prayer of Thanks

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Creeping Thistle. Image by Ivar Leidus

 

By Walter Rauschenbusch

Reblogged from NPR’s On Being

For the wide sky and the blessed sun,
For the salt sea and the running water,
For the everlasting hills
And the never-resting winds,
For trees and the common grass underfoot.
We thank you for our senses
By which we hear the songs of birds,
And see the splendor of the summer fields,
And taste of the autumn fruits,
And rejoice in the feel of the snow,
And smell the breath of the spring.
Grant us a heart wide open to all this beauty;
And save our souls from being so blind
That we pass unseeing
When even the common thornbush
Is aflame with your glory,
O God our creator,
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.

Jesus is the Problem

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I chuckle to myself sometimes when I drive around and I see bumper stickers and billboards with hokey slogans like “Jesus is the Answer” because that phrase makes me want to say something snarky like, “Could you repeat the question?”

I find that folks who resort to one-liners like that are too quick to boil down the deep, rich complexity of two thousand years of Christian tradition to a cheap, one-sided formula and I just don’t think you can honestly do that if you actually read the Bible and wrestle with the things it says.  When I think about the person Jesus of Nazareth and the kinds of things he said and did, I’m frankly puzzled and disturbed more often than not.  One of the things that keeps me engaged with Jesus as my Lord and Savior is the way that he challenges me time and time again to grow as person and to break out of old, destructive ways of thinking and living.  Most often, he does this by telling stories and asking questions of his audience.  So yeah, I laugh when I see signs that say “Jesus is the answer” because, frankly, the one I want to slap on the back of my car would have to say, “Jesus is the problem.”

Jesus is a problem.  If you actually read the gospels, you’ll see he’s that perpetual, prophetic pebble in the shoe to those who think they hold all power and know all the answers to every question ever asked.  It’s literally impossible to hang around Jesus for any length of time and not get your worldview seriously knocked off-balance in some kind of significant way.

And in today’s gospel reading, Jesus is once again doing just that: knocking things off-balance as usual.

Today’s reading is all about Jesus’ teaching on the subject of prayer.  What he has to say about it challenged people in his time and continues to challenge us in our own time, although in a slightly different way.

In the ancient world, the story Jesus tells about one friend begging bread from another friend in the middle of the night would have been heard, not as a story about prayer, but as a story about public protest.

In this story, a friend shows up at his friend’s house in the middle of the night, asking for bread, “Friend,” he says, “lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”  And the other friend says, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.”

But, according to Jesus, this conflict is preordained to end in the first friend’s favor because “even though [the second friend] will not get up and give [the first one] anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”

Now, the key word in that last sentence is persistence.  In some older translations, the word they used was importunity.  But the original Greek word here is anaideian, which literally means “shamelessness”.  By behaving so shamelessly in public, in the middle of the night, the first friend is demonstrating the abject desperation of his situation and appealing directly to his friend’s moral character.  The second friend, on the other hand, is now honor-bound to respond because refusing to do so would cost him respect in the eyes of the village, and remember that respect in the ancient world was at least as valuable as money.  So, in the end, Jesus’ parable is really all about the character of the one being asked for bread.  Taken as a metaphor for prayer, this parable is about God’s character as the one being prayed to by believers.  The question ultimately being asked here is not, “How do I get my prayers answered?” but rather “Who is God?”

Among the religious authorities in that part of the ancient world, they believed that God answered prayer based on a kind of merit system in relation to the Jewish Torah.  Only decent, established leaders with proper pedigrees and credentials would dare to approach the almighty God with a request.  Jesus, on the other hand, is turning that cultural expectation on its head.  He’s saying that it’s not the character of the person that determines God’s willingness to hear prayer, but the character of God.  God, according to Jesus, is not a bean-counting judge who’s “making a list and checking it twice” before deciding whether someone’s prayers are worth hearing.  Rather, the God that Jesus believes in is a generous, loving presence whose office door is perpetually open to any and every broken heart that comes knocking in the middle of the night, looking for some sign that they matter and they are loved.  God doesn’t care whether you have the right beliefs or the right morals.  It doesn’t matter whether or not you deserve love, you get it anyway because that’s just who God is.  God is love.  Full stop.  End of sentence.  Nothing else matters.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  Deal with it.

So that’s what the parable means in the ancient world: prayer is about shameless audacity.  Prayer is not about the worthiness of the one who is asking, but the character the one who is asked.

Here in the modern world, Jesus’ parable on prayer has just as many challenging things to say to us, although in a different way.  Unlike the world of the ancient Middle East, our culture has been shaped by two centuries of industrial capitalism.  Our main question when it comes to prayer is, “Does it work?”

We’re obsessed with things working in the modern world.  We define reality by what we can observe and measure.  If you can’t see it or attach a number to it in some way, then it must not be real.  We are the only culture in the history of the human race to think this way.  Shouldn’t that strike us as odd?  Every other human civilization has left room open in their worldview for some kind of transcendent mystery.  Some parts of reality just can’t be measured.  Everybody else seems to get that but us.  So, statistically speaking, I think we enlightened, evolved westerners should at least ask ourselves the question: Could it be possible that we are actually the ones with the problem?

There can be no doubt that our means-ends rationality has taken us far.  We have made unparalleled leaps in the fields of science, technology, medicine, communication, travel, and exploration.  The modern mind has obviously been a blessing.  But we’ve also caused more death, extinction, pollution, annihilation, and oppression than any other culture in history, so we can’t stay high up on our pedestal for very long.  Without an overarching sense of meaning and mystery, we’ve managed to do a lot without knowing what it’s all for.  So I ask again: maybe ours is the culture with the problem.

When it comes to prayer, modern westerners have repeatedly come back to that rational question: Does it work?  And they’ve typically presented one of two possible answers.

On the one hand, you have some believers arguing that it absolutely does.  They say that prayer is like magic.  If you pray to the right person in the right way, you will get what you want.  If you don’t get the result you want, then you forgot to pray, or you didn’t do it right, or you didn’t have enough faith.  This is the ultimate form of “blaming the victim” when it comes to spirituality and suffering.  Needless to say, I think this “prayer is magic” philosophy is a pile of baloney.

On the other hand, there are lots of other modern folks who say that prayer is just a placebo: a psychological self-help exercise that just comforts people and brings communities together without making a real difference in the world.  I have to say that this perspective makes me just as uncomfortable as the “prayer is magic” approach because it too neatly divides reality into the material and the spiritual, with the material being regarded as the only part that’s really real.  In the five years that I’ve been a pastor, I’ve walked with people and families through some really hard times.  I’ve seen some amazing things for which I have no logical explanation.  One might even call them miraculous.  On the other hand, I’ve seen good, devout people face unimaginable tragedy with seemingly unanswered prayers.  I’ve seen innocent children suffer and die under the deafening silence of heaven.  So, when it comes to the observable, measurable effectiveness of prayer, I don’t have a one-size-fits-all direct answer.  It’s ambiguous.

The place I come to when I hear Jesus’ teaching on prayer is that getting things done is not the point.  If we’re stuck in that place where we’re asking, “Does prayer work?” then we’re asking the wrong question.

Just like the friend in Jesus’ parable, the question comes down to this: Who is God?  Prayer draws our attention to that same loving, open presence that envelopes us all, whether we deserve it or not, whether we believe in it or not.  Prayer is not about you and it’s not about getting things done.  Prayer changes us, regardless of whether or not it changes our circumstances.  Prayer gets us out of our narrow-minded, modern rationality and helps us to grow in our awareness of the great mystery within around us.  Prayer opens our hearts and minds to hear and to trust in that silent, inner voice that continually calls out to us, saying, “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Be blessed and be a blessing.

A Song of Peace

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Kolob Canyons, Zion National Park, Utah. Image by Michael Gäbler. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

 Happy In(ter)dependence Day!

Lyrics by Lloyd Stone

May be sung to the tune ‘Finlandia’.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.