Tag Archives: prayer

…Or Your Money Back!

Prayer Drop Box, Guaranteed ResultsHere’s a picture that has been making the rounds recently.  I think it started as an “iReport” on CNN.com.  It’s from a church in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

I assume the fine print is on the back.

Results include the following:

What you pray for happens: God said “Yes!”

What you prayer for doesn’t happen: “God said “No!”

What you pray for doesn’t happen, and your house burns down, your girlfriend breaks up with you, and you are paralyzed in a freak diving accident: “God wants you to learn patience, faith and endurance!  He said said No to your request but said Yes to something even better!”

Results are guaranteed.

On a very related note:

A bit of random surfing last night brought me to the blog of Sam Isaacson, who I don’t know at all, but who seems like a nice, thoughtful person.  He writes about Christian living and faith-related topics, including prayer and suffering.

In a post from a couple of weeks ago called, “How God Helps When We’re Suffering,” he writes:

An analogy may help. Imagine that I promised that I would buy you a brand new car in one week’s time. Now, imagine that in one week’s time, instead of buying you a brand new car, I bought you a brand new house. Only a fool would refuse to take the house, saying, ‘but you promised to buy me a car!’ What I gave to you was worth far more, was better, than what I originally promised.

The same is true of God’s promise to answer our prayer. If, for example, I’m really sick and pray to God to heal me, and He does, then that’s a great example of how He has been faithful to His promise to answer my prayer. So…what if He doesn’t? Simples! In His infinite wisdom He has determined that the best thing for me is not to be well right now, He wants to use my sickness for a greater goal, whether or not I understand it.

God will either deliver me from suffering, or give me the strength to bear it – whichever is better. The judgment of which one is better, we have to leave to Him.


How exactly this differs from the old Pagan concept of Fate is difficult to see.  But I think this has become the dominant Christian understanding of prayer, especially among American evangelicals.


Filed under Bad Examples, Bad Theology, Church Culture, This Is Bad

Saint Jack on Irksome Prayer

I knew that I was echoing something C.S. Lewis wrote when I mentioned the “irksomeness of prayer.”  I looked up the original passage, from Letters to Malcolm. He was dealing with a different kind of frustration, but I still appreciate it when the dear don acknowledges that prayer, for him, isn’t a stream of endless delight.

Well, let’s now at any rate come clean.  Prayer is irksome.  An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome.  When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day.  We are reluctant to begin.  We are delighted to finish.  While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a crossword puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us.  And we know that we are not alone in this.  The fact that prayers are constantly set as penances tells its own tale.

It should also be noted that “irksome” is a delightful word and needs to be employed more frequently, whether in reference to prayer or anything else.  Like “the irksomeness of Yo Gabba Gabba.”

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Tsunamis and the Irksomeness of Prayer

This is the continuation of a conversation that began with my frustrated (and none-too-gently worded) outburst on Facebook that I’m not going to pray for Japan because the best thing that God could have done is prevent the tragedy to begin with, and if he’s not interested in doing that, I don’t see the point in trying to talk him into helping with the clean-up.  Yes–shocking, I know.  Please feel free to assign me whatever label seems fitting.

One of my friends wrote something in response which prompted me to write a string of sentences too long for Facebook, so I’m posting it here, with everyone’s names omitted or obscured so I don’t implicate innocents in my own heresy.

Your comparison of the church’s explanations for God’s lack of visible activity to the explanations that allow children to maintain belief in a non-existent Santa Claus—which I denounce as heretical and well beyond the bounds of civil discourse, and for which I label you a heathen and miscreant—gets close to what is troubling me.  Everyone’s belief system is internally consistent.  It might have huge gaps, it might be based on error, it might pointedly fail to notice certain phenomena and it might consign a great deal of important questions to the category of unknowable mystery, but it’s internally consistent.  This is true of Republicans and Democrats, Anarchists and Fascists, Hindus and Buddhists and Christians whether fundamentalist, evangelical or liberal.  I once preached for a church that had two members who were diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  Their beliefs were irrational, but completely consistent.  One dropped by my office on a pleasant Monday, complaining of having been shot by a spy who had taken over the body of one of our elders.  I was willing to go along with the idea that the elder in question was an enemy agent bent on destroying the church—it explained a lot of what I had experienced, too—but it was obvious that my troubled friend had not actually been shot.  When I asked him to show me the wound so I could help him bandage it (because I’m sneaky that way) he told me that it was a new kind of bullet whose wounds closed immediately, leaving no trace.  Completely internally consistent.  There weren’t in cracks in his worldview; or if there were, they didn’t last long before an explanation was devised.  The human mind is remarkably good at resolving inconsistency.  That’s even true for very troubled minds.  Actually, it’s probably especially true for very troubled minds.  Healthy people can temporarily carry inconsistent conclusions around before they find a way to resolve them, but they will resolve them, eventually.

I’m open to persuasion (maybe too open, some would say) and I’d be happy to reassess this conclusion, but it looks to me like what most Christians say about the work of God in the world is exactly what they would say if there were no God at all.  Well, no, he doesn’t intervene to prevent tragedy because (1) he honors our free will, (2) he wants us to learn from our suffering, (3) he works through the church to love and comfort people, (4) the age of miracles has passed.…etc.  Well, no, there’s no obvious sign of his existence because (1) you have to have the eyes of faith to see it, (2) he doesn’t want to coerce anyone’s faith, (3) faith does mean believing in the unseen, after all….etc.  You ask me how I know he lives?  He lives within my heart.  Several times I’ve been in a situation where a young (under 45) person was dealing with a potentially fatal illness or accident, and, inevitably, every possible sign of good news was taken as evidence that God was healing the beloved person.  Most of the time, the patient eventually died, and when he or she did, the new story was that “God has answered our prayers by healing our friend completely, and taking them into the presence of Jesus.”  No one ever seems to notice that just yesterday, death would have been seen as a complete failure on the part of God to give us what we were asking for, which was full, physical, right-here-on-earth healing.  Once death comes, it’s like we all agree to forget what we really wanted, and act like that’s what we had in mind all along.  No one says (even me, although I’m thinking it) “just two days ago, the consensus was that the new test results meant that God was healing our beloved!  Either God was just toying with us, (in which case, he’s a sadist more deserving of rebellion than worship) or we were interpreting ordinary, natural fluctuations as divine intervention without sufficient cause to do so.  We were prayerfully, honorably, reverently wrong.”

Well, it’s a new kind of bullet, you see.  Not one that you’ve heard of before.  This is the kind of bullet that leaves no wound.  This is the kind of healing that looks just like death.  This is the kind of love that looks just like apathy.  This is the kind of intervention that looks just like stillness.

Once you decide to accept the truth of Christianity, you learn to make these little adjustments.  Nothing can disprove the faith, because either we’ve already got an orthodox reason why it looks (to people who don’t have the eyes of faith!)  like God isn’t doing anything or we announce that we don’t need to try to defend or explain God anyway, and it’s ultimately a mystery.

But if you step outside of the internally consistent Christian worldview (of whichever variety) and ask: what about other ways of viewing the world?  If I adopt the mindset of an atheist—just to try it on for a second and see how things look—it turns out that’s it’s internally consistent, too!  It also accounts for everything I see.  It also explains the world.

And, as everyone now knows, I get a little frustrated on occasion (just a teensy bit, mind you) with pious pronouncements in the wake of horrific tragedy.  This week, I’m even frustrated with prayer.  Not yours or D—’s or anyone else’s, but certainly with mine.  I look at the images coming in from Japan and start to try to form some petition to a God that, if he exists, certainly could have stopped it all from happening, and I don’t even know what to say.  His kind of caring is so different and alien from anything that I know as caring that communication seems impossible.  (Yes, I know, we have an answer for that one too–the Holy Spirit will intercede on my behalf, with groanings I can’t hear.)  What I want to pray is for him to undo the whole mess, and maybe give us that unshakeable Earth that the psalmists are always singing about.  But we all know that that isn’t going to happen, so we’re left praying for things that we can’t see either fulfilled or unfulfilled, or things that are sufficiently vague that we can interpret the evidence to fit our desired outcomes—comfort, peace, healing.  If you’re the kind of person who is calmed and made peaceful by prayer anyway (i.e. the polar opposite of me), then your outcome is sure from the start.

I’m more like the pastor that Annie Dillard describes in Holy the Firm except not so obviously full of Jesus.  She writes:

There is one church here, so I go to it. On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia. The members are of mixed denominations; the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world–for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all–in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much.

I’m having my own outburst at the moment, “Lord we bring you these same petitions every week!”  And yet this week looks like last week, and like the one before that, and the one before that, and on and on and on for as far into the past as we can see.


Filed under Church Culture, Personal, Rants, Reflections

Jesus versus the National Day of Prayer

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  –Matthew 6:5-6

Sometimes I really am just confused.  How do we go from this to prayer tents at city hall?

(No, I’m not commenting on this too late.  I’m really early for next year’s event.)

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A Testament of Devotion: The Light Within, Part III

As Kelly explains what a life guided by the inner light of Christ is like, he writes that such guidance does not consist wholly “in special leadings toward particular tasks.  It begins first of all with a mass revision of our total reaction to the world.”  This is another area where the classic teachers of contemplation surprised me.  The majority of my acquaintances who “listen for the voice of God” or seek to obey the “inner promptings of the Spirit” seem to have a particular focus on discovering what exciting tasks the Lord has in mind for them.  But the great mystics of the church are primarily focused on cultivating a deep love of God that leads to inner moral formation.  It isn’t so much about what they do specifically, as it is about the kind of person they are becoming.  Again, I’m reminded of St. Teresa.  She remarked in The Interior Castle that the first time a person hears the voice of God, he won’t like it.  That’s because God says the same thing to everybody at first: “put away your sins!”

If you go down the mystic path looking to discover the “wonderful plan God has for your life,” you may be disappointed when he instead tells you to stop sinning and love people more.  Which is where Kelly turns next.

Paradoxically, this total Instruction proceeds in two opposite directions at once.  We are torn loose from earthly attachments and ambitions–contemptus mundi.  And we are quickened to a divine but painful attachment to the world–amor mundi.  He plucks the world out of our hearts, loosening the chains of attachment.  And He hurls the world into our hearts, where we and He together carry it in infinitely tender love. [p. 19-20]

Gone is my selfish ambition; in its place is selfless love.  We are called to follow the pattern of the One who left all glory and authority to become a mortal man, a servant, an executed criminal.  In the light of Christ, all wrangling for prominence is exposed for the great foolishness that it is.

But this is joy–not sorrow.  Kelly calls it “the new freedom of utter poverty.”  His last words in this section are worth quoting in full:

Double-mindedness in this matter is wholly destructive of the spiritual life. Totalitarian are the claims of Christ. No vestige of reservation of “our” rights can remain. Straddle arrangements and compromises between our allegiences to the surface level and the divine Center cannot endure. Unless the willingness is present to be stripped of our last earthly dignity and hope, and yet still praise Him, we have no message in this our day of refugees, bodily and spiritual. Nor have we yielded to the monitions of the Inner Instructor.

But actually completed detachment is much harder than intended detachment.  Fugitive islands of secret reservations elude us.  Rationalizations hide them.  Intending absolute honesty, we can only bring ourselves steadfastly into His presence and pray “Cleanse thou me from secret faults.” And in the X-ray light of Eternity we may be given to see the dark spots of life, and divine grace may be given to reinforce our will to complete abandonment in Him.  For the guidance of the Light is critical, acid, sharper than a two-edged sword.  He asks all, but gives all. [p. 21-22]


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A Testament of Devotion: The Light Within, Part II

From the book:

There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once.  On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs.  But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.

The secular world of today values and cultivates only the first level, assured that there is where the real business of mankind is done, and scorns, or smiles in tolerant amusement, at the cultivation of the second level–a luxury enterprise, a vestige of superstition, an occupation for special temperaments.  But in a deeply religious culture men know that this deep level of prayer and of divine attendance is the most important thing in the world.  It is at this deep level that the real business of life is determined. [p. 9]

His comments on the values of “the secular world of today” are striking–so often we look back at the 1930’s as a time of devoted faithfulness to which we need to return.  Kelly didn’t find those years particularly spiritual.

Later on, he explains that the “first level” matters of the external world are brought into the inner “second level” and viewed in the light of Christ:

Facts remain facts, when brought into the Presence in the deeper level, but their value, their significance, is wholly realigned.  Much apparent wheat becomes utter chaff, and some chaff becomes wheat.  Imposing powers?  They are out of the Life and must crumble.  Lost causes?  If God be for them, who can be against them?  Rationally plausible futures?  They are weakened or certified in the dynamic Life and Light.  Tragic suffering?  Already He is there, and we actively move, in His tenderness, toward the sufferers.  Hopeless debauchees?  These are children of God, his concern and ours….For faith and hope and love for all things are engendered in the soul, as we practice their submission and our own to the Light Within, as we humbly see all things, even darkly and as through a glass, yet through the eye of God. [p. 10]

As they say in my line of work, “That’ll preach!”  Our attitude is not determined by outward circumstance.  If Jesus is Lord, there is no hopeless situation, no lost cause, nothing so broken that it cannot be repaired.  To say this is not to deny the reality of our situation, it is to begin to believe what reality truly is.  Those fearsome powers will crumble.  Babylon has already been judged, and the dirge for her fall is being sung.  The most lost person is deeply loved by God, and we are called to love them as well.

A word on tragic suffering:  Often the presence of enormous pain in the Earth is used as evidence for the prosecution when God is put on trial.  We want a life with no suffering, and we think that a God who really loved us would give that to us.  The apologists have made a good case that suffering is a necessary consequence of free will.  (If God won’t overturn my free will in order to keep me from getting drunk and driving, then some suffering must come.)  But I think it may be that if we were looking from God’s perspective, we would consider trials and thorns a feature, not a flaw.  Imagine what prayer would sound like if we got the painless life we think we want:

God, we are grateful for another year with no tears, for another year with no challenges and no pain.  There was no need for us to comfort one another, because no one was sorrowful.  There was no need for us to bear one another’s burdens, because they all slipped away on their own accord.  There was no need for us to sacrifice our things, because none among us were poor.  It was another year when we needed no wisdom because there were no problems to answer.  For another twelve months we have not grown, because nothing has stretched us.  We could live out our lives weak in faith and dim in sight, because you shielded us from all harm.

God seems to want something different from us.  Kelly’s response to suffering is spot on: “Already he is there, and we actively move, in His tenderness, toward the sufferers.”  The light of God shines through not when pain is absent, but when his people are present.

When we first begin to cultivate the inner life, Kelly says, we will find ourselves moving back and forth between attention to our external and internal realities.  But over time we begin to move toward the simultaneous attention to both realms.

The first signs of simultaneity are given when at the moment of recovery from a period of forgetting there is a certain sense that we have not completely forgotten Him.  It is as though we are only coming back into a state of vividness which had endured in dim and tenuous form throughout….The currents of His love have been flowing, but whereas we had been drifting in him, now we swim. [p. 11-12]

Kelly makes it clear that while we must choose to move toward the inner life, our progress in this life is wholly dependent on the initiative of God.  He may leave us in the alternating state for his own reasons, or give us the gift of simultaneity.  This reminds me, as Kelly often does, of Teresa of Avila.  It is a common theme among the mystics that we are called to the contemplative life, but progress into the steadfast peace of God is a divine gift that we cannot earn or merit, only graciously receive.  Teresa herself spoke of a long period (eighteen months, I think), during which she had an intense awareness of the presence of Christ, as though he were visibly beside her.  That time ended, never to return, but it was an act of divine grace she remembered with gratitude.

Kelly’s description of the deepest levels of inner life:

We are with Him, held in His Tenderness, quickened into quietness and peace, children in Paradise before the Fall, walking with Him in the garden in the heat as well as the cool of the day.  Here is not ecstasy but serenity, unshakableness, firmness of life-orientation.  We are become what [George] Fox calls “established men.” [p. 15]

This is exactly the sort of thing that most surprised me when I started reading mystics, although it wouldn’t have if I had known anything at all about mystical orientation.  I had a shallow notion that mysticism was about turning off your mind so you could go about in some kind of detached ecstatic state–prayer as marijuana for the soul.  Instead, the whole point of the inner life is to be intimately connected to the life of God so that you think more clearly (and faithfully), live in the deepest reality, and maintain a serene firmness.  “Established” is a great word for it.  It’s not a head-in-the-clouds drifting at all, rather the cultivation of deep roots in the firm soil of God’s love.  The inner light heightens your experience of reality; it never diminishes it.

This brings to mind a minor pet peeve of mine.  I understand why people who lead communion meditations sometimes say something like “leave all your worldly cares and concerns outside as we focus on the cross and gather around the table of God.”  But if the cross and table don’t help me to see my cares more clearly for what they are, give me wisdom to know what to do and the strength to do it, then they aren’t doing what they are supposed to do.  People who speak this way apparently believe that the realm of faith doesn’t converge with the realm of this world, but every page of scripture seems to me to declare that they do.  The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof–and he still cares about what we are doing within it.

Who, by the way, are the “established men?”

They are housewives and hand workers, plumbers and teachers, learned and unlettered, black and white, poor and perchance even rich.  They exist, and happy is the church that contains them.

You know some of these folks, and so do I.  They may be rare, but there are always some around.  That is a hopeful thought!

How do we get started on this inner life?

In the early weeks, we begin with simple, whispered words.  Formulate them spontaneously, “Thine only. Thine only.”  Or seize upon a fragment of the Psalms: “so panteth my soul after Thee, O God.”  Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.  For the conscious cooperation of the surface level is needed at first, before prayer sinks into the second level as habitual divine orientation. [p. 16]

I’m still getting a lot of mileage out of  the Jesus PrayerLord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. There aren’t many situations where that one doesn’t apply.  I once fell asleep while reciting that prayer and when I woke up it was the first thing I said.  It was a remarkable experience to literally wake up praying.

Another short prayer possibility comes from Anne Lamott.  She writes that most prayers come down to either “Help me! Help me!” or “Thank you!  Thank you!”  Those both sound good to me.

Kelly writes that over time we may discover that the words are no longer necessary, because we have “entered the attitude of the soul which you meant the words to express.”  But if that attitude starts to slip, we can always go back to reciting the words that took us there.

A final word of encouragement:

And we have our firsthand assurance that He who began a good work in us, as in Timothy, can establish us in Him, can transform intermittancy and alternation into simultaneity and continuity. [p. 19]


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A Testament of Devotion: The Light Within, Part I

Our Christian book reading group is discussing Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion this month.  Kelly (1893-1941) was a Quaker, and is writing out of the strong mystical emphasis of that tradition.  Here are my highlights from part I.

What is here urged are internal practices and habits of the mind.  What is here urged are secret habits of unceasing orientation of the deeps of our being about the Inward Light, ways of conducting our inward life so that we are perpetually bowed in worship, while we are also very busy in the world of daily affairs. [p.5]

Such practice of inward orientation, of inward worship and listening, is no mere counsel for special religious groups, for small religious orders, for special “interior souls,” for monks retired in cloisters.  This practice is the heart of religion. [p. 6]

Dogmas and creed and the closed revelation of a completed canon have replaced the emphasis upon keeping close to the fresh upspringings of the Inward Life.  The dearth of rich Protestant literature on the interior aspects of Christian living, except as it bears on the opening experience of conversion, bears testimony to its emphasis being elsewhere. [p.7]

Practice comes first in religion, not theory or dogma.  And Christian practice is not exhausted in outward deeds.  These are the fruits, not the roots.  A practicing Christian must above all be one who practices the perpetual return of the soul into the inner sanctuary, who brings the world into its Light and rejudges it, who brings the Light into the world with all its turmoil and its fitfullness and recreates it (after the pattern seen on the Mount.) [p. 8]

Kelly is one of those authors that I appreciate not because he is a kindred spirit but because his inclinations are so different than my own.  I am not a mystic–not even close!–and yet I find his call compelling.  The richness of deep contemplation, of perpetual inward worship, is a gift he calls all believers to open.  A life energized by communion with the indwelling Christ is not just for the robed ascetics in their silent isolation, but is God’s hope for all of us–parents of chatty toddlers included, presumably!  I love the image of my inner soul contentedly and peacefully bowed in worship, while outwardly I am pushing through my to-do list, coordinating committee meetings, making household repairs, roaring like lions with my daughter.  We abide in the perpetual Sabbath rest even on manic Monday mornings.

Protestant literature about the practices of the inner life is much more prevalent than when Kelly wrote.  People like Richard Foster, Dallas Willard and Phyllis Tickle have become mentors of thousands of Christians exploring spiritual formation.  Our own congregation, which is definitely Protestant and rooted in a highly rationalistic tradition, even hosts an occasional prayer labyrinth.  Things are changing.  But I think there is still a tendency to grope toward the inward life out of a sense of dutiful guilt.  We can add “inner practices” to our already full to-do lists, making them one more thing to check off each day; necessities performed from the limited energies of our human efforts.  We must instead learn to allow our inner life to become a basic orientation toward God that energizes us for the tasks we must do (and that gives us the discernment to see God at work in our own work).

I can picture what that life is like, and I sometimes feel like I’m getting there, but I keep falling back into old, broken habits.  I must remember something else Kelly wrote:

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder.  But the Living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders….And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to his secret presence and working within us.

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