When I was in seminary the office of student life hosted a weekly Thursday night event at a pub a few blocks down the street called “Theology on Tap.” It was a funny gathering for a United Methodist seminary, since the Methodist discipline has strong warnings against drinking alcohol, but for a Lutheran like me – who remembers that there is an entire volume in Luther’s Works called “Table Talk” consisting of things he said mainly while sitting at the bar with his students – it was perfect.
I remember a conversation I shared with a classmate at the first Thursday night gathering of my first year in seminary. His name was Tom. He was an older man, and he hadn’t enrolled in the M.Div. program to become a pastor. Instead, he was working on a two year Master of Theological Studies, an academic degree, during which time he wanted to study the Christian concept of prayer.
I remember that, as new friends returned from the bar with their first rounds of beer, Tom and I sat in a booth and I watched as he sketched out diagrams for different theologies of prayer on flimsy unfolded napkins.
“The problem with how we’ve been taught to think about prayer,” he instructed, “is that is either makes God a puppet or a tyrant. Are we really supposed to believe that God heals only the sick whom others pray for? That God intervenes only in situations that others pray for? That is a puppet god. That god is like the waiter at a bad restaurant, taking orders from everyone but only returning with half of what was requested.”
“Or is God partial? Does God tally up the votes cast by prayer and use those totals to decide who will benefit from God’s omnipotence? Is prayer just celestial democracy? Or is God a tyrant, who hears the prayers of the people, but acts only in accordance with some hidden plan or design, in which case – why pray at all?”
These were heavy questions for a first year seminarian, and mostly I just wanted a drink, but they stuck with me. These were the sorts of questions that challenge the faith so often imparted to young people. Fold your hands and repeat after me, “Dear God…” – and so we begin to think that God is like a pen pal, far away, receiving our requests like Santa receives Christmas wishes. And we wait for a response. And we wait.
The former Episcopal bishop of the Newark diocese, John Shelby Spong, addresses the problems created by this way of thinking about prayer in his book, “A New Christianity for a New World.” He writes,
Prayer is a direct descendent of the behavior of those first self-conscious ancestors of our humanity. Traumatized at the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, those ancestors met their anxiety by postulating the existence of a protector more powerful than the forces that threatened them. Prayer has thus traditionally been an attempt to seek the aid of that protector or to form an alliance with that supernatural being. The assumption has been that this supernatural being is able to do more for us than we can do for ourselves. Prayer consequently perpetuates the primary illusion of theism – namely, that we are not alone, that there is a personal power somewhere, which is greater than the limited power of humanity; and that this personal power can effectively deal with all of those issues that lie beyond human competence to solve. Prayer began as, and continues to be, a primary attempt to exercise control in those arenas of life where we sense ourselves to be out of control, ineffective, weak, victimized.
Take a moment to let that sink in. A bishop of the Episcopal church (granted, a somewhat controversial bishop of the Episcopal church) writes that the way most of us have been taught to understand prayer is actually a psychological defense mechanism against the inevitable powerlessness that all human beings experience at some point in their lives. That’s provocative. That leads to all sorts of second round questions.
I should stop here and point out that Bishop Spong is one of the main contributors to the “Living the Questions” curriculum that some of us spent last year studying. And, by way of plugging the next class in that series, I have recently received the curriculum for “First Light: Jesus and the Kingdom of God” – a twelve week series that will begin early next year focusing on the historical context for the life of Jesus and the early church. Stay tuned.
Poets have tackled the question of prayer in ways that feel less like a full-frontal assault on religious dogma, but which still have the power to make us think about what we are doing when we pray. Members of our Adult Education Hour spent last Sunday morning discussing a favorite poem by Mary Oliver titled “The Summer Day” that includes these lines:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll though the fields,
which is what I’ve been doing all day long.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
Here the poet imagines prayer to be a form of paying attention that requires some time set apart from ordinary rhythms, time to be idle and blessed, like these hours we spend together on Sunday mornings pondering questions like “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Bishop Spong also includes a poet’s reflection on prayer in his book. R.S. Thomas, a twentieth century Welsh poet, writes
Not as in the old days I pray,
God. My life is not what it was…
Once I would have asked for healing
I go now to be doctored,
I would have knelt long, wrestling with you
Wearing you down. Hear my prayer; Lord hear
my prayer. As though you were deaf, myriads
of mortals have kept up their shrill
cry, explaining your stillness by
It begins to appear this is not what prayer is about.
It is the annihilation of differences,
the consciousness of myself in you,
of you in me; the emerging
from the adolescence of nature
into the adult geometry
of the mind…
Circular as our way
is, it leads not back to that snake haunted
garden, but onward to the tall city
of glass that is the laboratory of the spirit.
Thomas’ poem stands in front of us like a challenge to a duel. Who are you people who keep praying, week after week, “O Lord, hear my prayer, come and listen to me? Who do you imagine is listening to your words?”
And he recalls another sort of duel, “I would have knelt long, wrestling with you / Wearing you down…” that we heard remembered in fuller detail in this morning’s reading from Genesis as Jacob wrestled with the mysterious figure by the river Jabbok, struggling through the long, dark night and refusing to surrender until he had received a blessing.
But, I wonder if our Welsh poet remembered the bible’s own ambivalence about prayer when he discarded the effect of struggling with God. Jacob’s prayer is hardly passive. He is not waiting for God to bless him, he is wrangling a blessing out of God. He is struggling with everything in him. He battles so fiercely with God that he is injured for life, and his name is changed. He is no longer Jacob, but now he is Israel – an entire nation – whose name literally means, “to prevail over the divine” or, as scripture more poetically puts it, “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Similarly, when Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer, he highlights the aspect of prayer that is filled with struggle in terms that are not at all passive. He tells the story of a widow who had been denied justice. Every day she would go before the judge demanding that her complaint not only be heard, but that action be taken. Finally, not out of any respect for justice, but because of her persistence, the judge relents and the woman prevails.
Jesus’ story is just as shocking as Bishop Spong’s book. He compares God to an unjust judge, which tells the truth about how it often feels to lift our prayers to heaven day after day. But even more than focusing on the inaction of the judge, he tells a story about a widow, one of the most powerless people in her community, who gains justice through patient, repetitive, courageous daily action. The widow does not sit in her home waiting for justice to be delivered. She, in her powerlessness, confronts the powers of this world. That is how Jesus describes prayer.
We have many modern day examples to illustrate the point. Nelson Mandela, working from his prison cell and waiting with patience for the day when apartheid would finally fall. Erin Brokovich, the woman – not the movie, a self-educated law clerk and environmental activist from Lawrence, Kansas who ended up working in Thousand Oaks, California – home to California Lutheran University, and soon-to-be home to our own Kyle Johnson, and who tackled big business interests who were polluting the environment with chemical by-products that were causing cancer in the community.
She reminds me of our own Kay Deacon, whose epic struggle with her landlord over criminal rent practices has finally resulted in justice for Kay and new case law that is already being cited by other tenant rights attorneys. Her stubborn insistence over these many years has been a form of prayer like the kind Jesus described.
Or, take as a final example, Kyle Johnson, who we will say goodbye to this morning. Gifted by God with huge musical talents, Kyle came to Chicago hoping to find work in a college or university teaching organ. Life did not hand Kyle his wishes on a silver platter. He ended up taking a part-time job at a tiny Lutheran congregation that was just about the furthest thing from the hallowed halls of academia that he’d been hoping for. But he kept showing up, day after day, building a program for St. Luke’s and a reputation for himself and three years later there is finally justice for this faithful servant of the church. He will remain a musician of the church… even as he begins his work in Thousand Oaks teaching music and organ.
This is what prayer looks like. Never giving up. Insisting on justice, even when your voice seems so much smaller than the voices that hold the power. Bishop Spong says it this way,
My actions, my engagement with people, the facing of concrete issues – all these became for me the real time of prayer. My prayer came to be identified with my living, my loving, my being, my meeting, my confronting, my struggles for justice, my desire to be an agent of the world’s transformation. That was where I met and communed with God. God was no longer found for me in the quiet places of retreat; now God was in the hurly-burly of a busy and sometimes troubling life.
But I think there is still room in this new Christianity for our new world for the kind of prayer that happens on Sunday morning, as we sing, “O Lord, hear our prayer.” Perhaps we could think of those stanzas as the soundtrack to those moments of idle blessing that Mary Oliver calls “paying attention” – falling down on our knees in prayer, as prayer, asking to become agents of that for which we pray.