I feel, I hear, I know, I think, God that you are real and I am small, standing here in my bare feet, I feel my heart, Beat Beat Beat the rhythm of life pulsing through my simple veins, with each pump your grace rains, through the corners of my body and soul, Life God, Life, I need more of you, Take me to where you are! the rhythmic corners of your beating heart, on the Street, where People meet, the Divine is seeking, to find and gather, those who are Scattered, Up Down Around and All about.
This is the third in a series of posts on prayer. In the previous two articles, I’ve explored my challenges with traditional models of prayer (in light of my father’s cancer diagnosis, the rising tide of global violence and war, and illnesses within my community and congregation) and my search for a “better way to pray.” Here, I want to explore the transactional nature of prayer practiced in most congregations and how addressing this long-ingrained perspective might be a first step toward a more authentic prayer life. These thoughts are intensely personal and do not reflect the views of the United Methodist Church or any congregation of the United Methodist Church. This is me, Richard, reflecting on God, prayer, and our need to be heard when we’re hurting, seen when we’re celebrating, comforted when we’re crying, and companionship when we’re alone.
When we pray, are we talking to a person? I’m not thinking about Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. Instead, I’m thinking about God. We use the language of “divine personhood” when we delve deep into the weeds of Trinitarian theology. Yet, should we refer to God as a person in the same way you and I are people? Let’s take the word “person” off the table. It’s become more challenging for me to envision God as a person. It’s much easier for me to talk about God as a concept, idea, or something more extensive than the universe itself, the idea of God as a person no longer rings true. I also see a difference between “personal Gods” and the notion of “God as a person.”
Humanity, Homo sapiens, has always wanted something to worship. However, this doesn’t mean God is a person. We do not have to borrow the language of psychology or philosophy to explain Trinitarian theology. Here we proceed cautiously; as Wittgenstein taught us, words matter.
Persons are limited beings, physically and intellectually speaking. God must be more than the total of our idea of all the traits of personhood. God must be more than we can imagine. To call God a person is to identify God as something less than God, an imitation deity, the “I can’t believe it’s Not God, God.” I do not believe in this traditional notion of a personal God any longer. Why? A personal God is not a real God. A personal God is a toy. A personal God is a reflection of us, our personhood, our self-interests, our limitations, our priorities, and our fears. A personal God is an idol. A personal God is a wholly owned subsidiary of the person you see staring back at you in the mirror. God is not a person. God is God. God belongs to no one. God may lay claim to our lives but we do not own God.
If God is not a person (in the traditional sense), then to whom are we praying? If God is not a person, how do we have a personal relationship (not my phrase, one I inherited from generations of church-going evangelicals who came before me) with an entity that is not a person but something that exists outside the idea of personhood? How do I ask something of, request, and insinuate that I need a favor from a non-personal cosmic entity operating on a scale grander than the number of stars visible to the naked eye? Maybe I don’t.
Is prayer just another transaction, albeit a spiritual one? Am I placing a call, sending an email, hoping that the person on the other end of the line receives the call or reads my message and decides to respond to my request? Yes, and yes. That’s how we approach prayer. In most of our congregations, this is how we do it. Think about the questions I asked last week concerning the Holocaust. Did the “person” on the other end of the line take the phone off the hook or refuse to answer their email for over ten years while 6 million people died? Persons said thousands of prayers in the gas chambers. Who was listening? What happened to those transactions? How can we even talk about the transactional nature of prayer when the answers (to those in particular) seem so haphazard and random? If God is a person choosing whom to listen to and whom to ignore, prayer certainly appears to be a gamble. How much time do we spend gambling, each week, in worship? If God is a person, we must either pray for everything or nothing. Suppose you intensely subscribe to the “God is personal” model. In that case, God appears to pick and choose who to listen to, and frankly, that’s depressing as hell. I’m starting to take that on-again-off-again approach to being a divinity, personally. I didn’t ask to be created but I sure would like to be listened to. I think the transactions I seek are worthy of God’s attention. What must I do to transact God’s blessings for my father’s health? I’d like more than word salad about free will, God’s plans, and how we don’t understand God’s mysterious ways.
What if prayer is not a transaction, a quid pro quo? What if prayer is not a “you say a name, hope God is listening, is in a good mood, and you’re in the spiritual black, so something positive might go your way kind of operation? What if prayer is a spiritual discipline, a holy habit, and a sacred conversation between persons on the faith journey? Now that might be a new way to pray. What if, instead of waiting on answers from God, we became the answers to our own prayers?
What if, in a spirit of vulnerability, we gathered to share our deepest concerns and our greatest joys with each other? What if we became comfortable with sitting in silence with one another? What if, in humility, we could express our fears and hear other members of the body of Christ? Would this not be a new way to pray? What if we read the words of those walked the journey before us, poets and mystics, the psalmist, and wisdom teachers? In listening to each other, are we not creating sacred personhood for those who dare to come to a holy place to know that their prayers are heard with a vital, emphatic, and loud AMEN?
We are all dying. Some of us are just going about it faster than others. Here’s the thing, though; you don’t know how quickly you’ve been dying until it occurs. Death happens to you; you don’t happen to it. The 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne said this: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately.” The Roman orator and statesman Cicero put it another way. To philosophize (or, in my case, to theologize) is to learn how to die. ” I’m in school every day. My dad has cancer, people I went to high school with are dying, colleagues are going into cardiac arrest, my denomination is on life support, and who knows how long I’ve got. If I do the math with the meds I take and the average life expectancy of someone in my shoes, I should move from the parsonage to a tent in the cemetery. Believe me; I’m not being morbid; I’m only considering ways to save my family money.
If you read through anything I’ve written, you know it’s been a brutal fall and winter for my family and congregation. COVID, cancer, and related misery have taken their toll. When combined with the suffering we want to remember worldwide, our hundred-plus-person prayer list is more than many of us can continue to bear. We are, as Psalm 40 says, in the mire, the mud. But, as I said a few weeks ago, we keep searching for a better way to pray.
My office phone rang at about 1:30 this afternoon. Someone had died. We would need to open their plot in the church cemetery to prepare for a funeral on Saturday. That’s how death works. I’m not talking about the biological mechanics of death. This person’s life and quality thereof ended long before his widow called. Most of the dying process (biologically and spiritually) happens before the person dies. Grief comes at the graveside. Grief is the empty room. Grief is calling a name and hearing no response. Death is now. Death is a front-row seat to life shutting down, emotional walls being built, fears being conquered, and life being lived despite, well, despite.
To paraphrase the Baghavad-Gita, we are both life and death, coexisting simultaneously. Despite death, there is life. Despite life, death remains. When we pull back the simplistic Cartesian veil of existence, we find ourselves somewhere in the middle with each other. Scoot over and make some room. Each of us needs to find a place, a community, and a home in the community of learners. Why? Because no one will make it out alive, and it is from that community of those who remain that we will learn to carry our grief together.
This winter has been hard on my congregation. So many people are sick with COVID, respiratory viruses, and other diseases that it’s becoming difficult to keep up with everyone. When I combine my congregational concerns with my father’s recent lymphoma diagnosis, I start dropping the balls I’m supposed to juggle daily. I went so far as to create a spreadsheet of prayer concerns (versus a list). It didn’t help. Once I got them down on paper, isolated in illnesses, homebound and hospitalized, church members, family, and friends, adults and children, life-threatening and chronic conditions, humans and pets, Ukraine, and America, I was even more overwhelmed. Where do I start? At the top? With the sickest? With my dad? The sheer human misery before me is too difficult to describe. I’m at the point I don’t know what to say to God about these concerns because I don’t know what to say. I am literally out of words.
I gather with a small group of church members to pray through our concerns and celebrations each Thursday at 10 am. After a few moments of Lection Divina, we read through each name and concern on our church’s prayer list. There are nearly 100 names. I wonder why we are reminding an omniscient and omnipotent God of realities of this God is already fully aware of. The exercise feels pointless. If God requires the constant repetition of my father’s name and the fact that he has Leukemia to bring him daily healing and comfort, are we praying to a God? Or are we just talking to ourselves? Is prayer, in the means we’ve constructed it, little more than a supernatural protection racket? We keep giving God our best words in the hope of blessings and eternal security, so bad things don’t happen to us. There must be a better way to pray.
Is there a means of prayer that does more than make us feel better by acknowledging our helplessness in the face of illness and tragedy? Are there prayers where we partner with God to help those who pray create and become the answers to their prayers? It’s gotten to where I don’t look forward to asking for prayer concerns and celebrations in our worship services. These are the most soul-crushing minutes of our worship hour. I do not want to deny anyone the opportunity to share their concerns. Yet once we share our pain, the joy leaves our sanctuary like air from a punctured tire. Persons with blessings feel too ashamed to speak up because they feel their prayers aren’t worth mentioning considering the “serious” concerns previously shared. That’s wrong as well. We must rethink how we pray, for whose benefit we pray, and if we’re praying to be heard by God or each other.
The most honest and genuine prayer I’ve been able to offer recently is this: “Look!” “Help” hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I’ve settled on the model of the minor prophets. If I’m asking God anything, I’m asking God to do what I know God is already doing: see the mess we’re in and, if possible, relieve some of this interminable suffering. I’ll be glad to do anything. I’m just tired of repeating names and recounting suffering. Point me toward one person who needs something tangible. That’s a doable place to start. We can answer prayers together.
We are waiting to see if the medicine is working. These things take time. I hate watching, listening, and trying to detect the slightest changes in his voice, eating habits, or outlook. The interplay between life today and the unknown realities of death trying to emerge tomorrow lurks behind every conversation I have with my father, mother, wife, and children. Unspoken yet spoken, their reality is ours. Will the copay be reapproved on January 1st? Despite all this weirdness, did they enjoy our attempt to have a “normal” Christmas? Is this the right medicine, and will it work?
At this moment, all indications are that he feels better; for some reason, it feels awkward and unreal. Things seem to move at either a snail’s pace or at a rate that doesn’t seem reasonable to believe. Do I only have the perception that he feels better? Does he feel better because he’s started the medicine, or is the medication really doing what it should? He’s only been on the treatment for over a week, experienced little or no side effects (that he’s told me about), and admits his latest blood work slows the slightest of changes in the right direction. Since he’s been on the medicine, nothing has gotten worse, and a few of the numbers have improved by a tenth of a decimal point. That’s where we’re finding hope. If a number moves one way at the level of a tenth or hundredth of a decimal place, it’s answered prayer, a reason for hope. If the red blood cells go in the other direction, what is it, despair and apprehension at the impending immediacy of death’s inevitability?
Perspective is everything. If your prayers are being answered and your father’s healing doesn’t seem like a false start but the real deal, you will have a good perspective. So for the moment, I’m holding back on my perspective. I’m grateful for what I’ve got, but I need more results before I need to say anything more than that.
The medicine finally arrived. Duly marked with labels indicating the radioactivity and biohazard contained within, with warnings proclaiming, “Chemotherapy Drug.” It’s a jarring image, a far cry from the friendly paper bag that our neighborhood pharmacy places my statin drug in once a month. Once you open the box and encounter that label, even before you get to the bottle with the medicine, it’s as if the universe is giving you one last warning: do you want to live or die? Do you want to ingest this distilled form of chemical or radioactive poison into your body to kill cancer cells or boost your red blood count? You have one more opportunity, and this is it. You can’t say we didn’t warn you. That’s what a label like this is trying to tell you. If you go down this road, this dance you’re doing with death is about to become more intimate. The label asks, “are you ready for that degree of mortal intimacy?” If you are and you trust your doctor, it’s time to move past the label and live life on a delicately balanced, biologically hazardous chemical edge.
He may have the medicine in hand, but I’m still scared. When will the side effects start to kick in? Will he tell me? I doubt it. I offered to come and sit with him for the first 48 hours. He wouldn’t hear of it. His support network there would look after him. Now, I will have to look on from a distance, at scary drug labels, and listen for subtle, desperate changes in his mood, voice, and tone. Or I can roll the dice and show up at this front door bearing groceries and love. I can say, “I’m staying for a few days, and I don’t give a damn what you think.” I do have options. I can be the answer to my prayers.
There are practicalities. We may have won the battle, but the war is not over. The medicine took too long to arrive, and it’s only approved until the end of the calendar year. We’ll have to go through this same struggle with the insurance company, the doctors, and maybe the VA once again in a matter of days.
The insurance company said they wouldn’t pay. In forty-eight hours, they gave an outright denial. How do you like them apples? A man is dying of cancer. A series of oncologists and hematologists at two hospitals decided on the proper medical treatment for this specific cancer and prescribed the appropriate medicine. It is an expensive medicine by any reasonable standard for those with and without insurance. The specialized pharmacy receives the request to prepare and ship the drug upon authorization from the insurance company that they’ll pay for the medicine. The insurance company says no. Who are these nameless people who’ve decided my father should die or receive a drug less effective than his doctors deem necessary? I want to meet them. Will you look me in the eye? Did you go to Sloane-Kettering for your residency? What do you know that his doctors, those who gave him a first and second opinion, do not know? Or is it solely a question of money? Paying out of pocket isn’t an option. Death, however, is always out there just beyond the horizon. There’s no copay for death. It may be easier on the pocketbook, but I’m told it’s emotionally draining and spiritually painful for the dying and those who love the dying. I guess this is my life now.
We appeal their decision. I say “yes” to life. Scripture asks, “death, where is your sting?” Paul, I can tell you. It’s in a rejection letter from Aetna.
To grieve with any level of authenticity, we must not be selective in who (or how) we mourn. To name a loss worthy of memory, sorrow, and joy (in a life well lived) is an act of supreme defiance in a world where we store our wealth in a currency named for the Greek word “hidden” or “secret.” We live hidden and transient lives. Everything we value about life, even its inevitable ending, is obscured with each new mass shooting, virus, disease, and missile attack. Those who die remain unseen, off-camera, and hidden beyond well-word catchphrases and slick camera angles. Even before the pandemic, the affluent west invested heavily in crypto-mourning. This is the process of continually moving our thoughts, prayers, and concerns from one tragedy to another (as one would move money to offshore accounts) but never asking, “Do these prayers have any real value unless we transfer them as hard spiritual currency into our lives and act upon them?”
While all death is death, the world values the memories of some deceased differently. Thus, we grieve some victims longer and more viscerally than others. We invest in acts of community and corporate sorrow. Candlelight vigils and community gatherings have done what I once thought impossible: made grief cliché, predictable, and ephemeral. Our grief becomes public, or so we claim, and then we move on. We wait for the next tragedy, and the cycle repeats. The problem isn’t too many people sending meaningless thoughts and prayers. Instead, we’ve made grieving a public media-driven production. Persons whose trauma and grief are too immense to step into this spotlight are largely forgotten. For so many, the vast majority of those in hospitals and homes worldwide, there are no witnesses to the realities of grief preparing to be confronted at this time we force each other to call “joyful.” Their grief isn’t sensational, but it is real.
The cold slows me down. I’m not used to my bones aching, and it is difficult to move in the mornings. Since my shoulder surgery last summer, there have been pains in my arms that keep coming back despite the physical therapy regimen I’ve done for 18 months. Yes, when you step outside, the wind hits your face and reminds us that you are alive; the temperature tells our bodies to tell us we are mortal, and we reach for the hot chocolate, soup recipes, and warm blankets as we turn up the Christmas music. We’ll do just about anything to stay warm.
As it becomes cold outside, we physically slow down, and all we can do is layer up. You can wear gloves, a hat, a scarf, and a heavy coat. All those items will keep you warm on the outside. However, don’t let yourself and your spirit grow cold on the inside. There is a spark of divinity within each of us, and I always worry in the winter that we’ll let that holy fire, the spark of creation that rests in our souls, grow cold.
We can’t allow cold weather, illness, distance, travel, and holiday obligations to turn us into cold, unfeeling people. It’s easy to fall into the holiday rat race; we put on our blinders, block out the world, and focus on the superficialities of warmth. We too easily neglect our inner spiritual fire. Just as I sit down with a hot bowl of soup to keep my body functioning, I need to do the same with my soul. A cold soul leads to a cold heart. If I have a cold heart, my feet may be warm and my stomach full, but my soul also needs to be fed. If I go spiritually hungry, the grief and fear will gnaw away at my spirit until the sun never rises again.