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?
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.
How do I tell this story? It’s not about money, doctors, pharmacists, and insurance companies. Yes, they have their role to play. Even if you have decent health insurance and money in the bank, being diagnosed with cancer at the end of the calendar year is frightening. You know how some criminals are sentenced to two life sentences without the possibility of parole? Getting a cancer diagnosis in December is akin to receiving two death sentences at this same time.
This is because everything you’re required to pay out of pocket to begin your life-saving treatment in December, you’ll have to pay the exact amount again four weeks later in January. Although you’re only being treated in one month of 2022, you’re paying a copay (several thousand dollars) that is set for 12 months of treatment. You’ll pay that same exorbitant amount for the next 12 months in January. It’s the double whammy of double whammies. The following 11 months should be less of a financial burden. However, you’re starting with one heck of a hit. You and I know that poor people without financial means die every day when they shouldn’t. They could have accessed a life-saving treatment if they’d only had a few thousand dollars in the bank. What’s money when it comes to human life? Everything.
People will make hard moral and ethical choices to decide whether to buy food, find shelter, provide for their children, or pay for the medicine that might prolong their lives. We’ve created a world where these polarities exist and are far too comfortable living within them.
My dad can pay his copay for this year and next. Some people would use the word blessed. I prefer to say lucky. I like the old expression, “there but for the grace of God go I.” When I look around and see hardworking people struggling to make ends meet, struggling with life-threatening illnesses, and still getting knocked down each day, life seems random. Bad things shouldn’t be happening to these good people. They’re doing life right. They’re paying their taxes. They’ve raised kids who aren’t a drain on society. They’re in church, praying and helping their neighbors. Yet one wrong blood test, MRI, or CAT scan and their world can unwind in the blink of an eye. It’s not fair. Life ought to be fairer, but it’s not.
Yesterday, my father cried. In 48 years, I’ve never seen or heard the man choke up or cry. Someone from his church, simply out of brotherly love and God’s grace, came to him and gave him the money to pay the entirety of his copay for 2022, so he could immediately begin his treatment. His friend knows he could afford it, but he also knows that it’s not a gift my father (a man who would give anyone the shirt off his back) would give himself. My father had never received such a tangible display of God’s grace and love.
Grace makes you uncomfortable and overwhelmed. It will throw you for a loop. Words like “how” and “why” are the only thing you can say. You will believe that you are not worthy to receive it. Grace looks like a gardener, not a risen Savior. A man walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus appears to be a random well-informed traveler, not the risen Lord. Your first reaction to Grace is disorientation and disbelief. Grace is a big deal. It is unmerited, and it just shows up. Thank you for sending it. It’s my job, your job, to pass it on. Spread the awkward, uncomfortable, overwhelming Good News of the Gospel of God’s Grace. Life may not be fair but grace, by God, is.
It becomes harder to pray as I look around at near-daily mass shootings, the war in Ukraine, my family’s illness, and the deterioration of my denomination. I feel like I’m talking to myself. Prayer seems like the only thing I can do, my only option, and it doesn’t appear to have any impact on the carnage unfolding in Walmart breakrooms, at the Raleigh Christmas parade, in a Colorado Springs LGBTQI club, in my dad’s lymph nodes, or missile attacks on Kyiv’s elementary schools. People keep dying at the worst possible time of the year for people to die.
Tragic, unexpected death is never welcome, but it always seems worse when it happens at Christmas. For some reason, we want to be together at this time of year. Despite our petty differences, we feel drawn to the Thanksgiving and Christmas table. When a seat is made vacant, whether through cancer, murder, or war, it hurts in indescribable ways, that’s a pain you can’t put into words, let alone prayer that has any emotional or spiritual coherence. Our prayers are more like self-soothing babble because that’s all we know how to do. If you can find eloquent words to match this societal hurt, you’ve not felt the punch in the gut brought by the cumulative pain of recent days.
When we pray on Sunday morning, the only people we know who are listening are those in the pews. It is a supreme act of faith to assume that God is listening, especially when our words appear to have little impact on reality. We pray for peace and see more war. We pray for love to see hate grow stronger. Something isn’t working. We’ll focus on a single miracle at the expense of hundreds of unanswered prayers. We sit, wait, speak, and hope God will act. Our prayers, while heartfelt, are inherently passive. Have we considered acting upon our prayers? What if we matched our words and our actions equally? We become both prayer and an answer in-progress. Imagine prayer as a cooperative endeavor. We would call this liturgy “the work of the people.”
The immediate reality our prayers change is the reality we change ourselves. If we want to answer a prayer, we must become the answer. We prayerfully and actively invest in the kingdom of God, which is at hand. If we convince ourselves to wait for God (or others, like Congress, a President, public opinion, etc.) to act, more people will die. I believe God wants to hear our prayers and see them become tangible actions.
It is hard to pray. The world is in a difficult place. We shouldn’t shy away from naming our challenges. Are we content with being desperate observers, or do we want to be active participants in God’s ongoing kingdom? The answer to that question depends on how comfortable you are with being more than a passive prayer.
It is impossible to separate the cancers in our souls from those in our vital organs and bloodstreams. Toxic physical environments lead to cancer. Toxic churches lead to toxic theology and spiritual cancer. We have treatments for the former. I’ve met no one serious about undergoing spiritual chemotherapy. It’s too hard on our cherished assumptions, theological preconceptions, and well-defined notions of God.