Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Problem with Prayer

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Romans 8:26-27

A few weeks ago a friend posted a link to an article titled “Why I Hate Prayer,” by Jim Mulholland, a former pastor who now maintains a web site called “Leaving Your Religion,” which offers “guidance for becoming non-religious.”

I was not surprised that someone hated prayer. The idea is common in both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. The prophet Amos proclaimed God’s hatred of prayer and worship without justice. And Jesus had harsh words for those who made a show of their prayers.

But I was surprised by the idea that anyone needed help in “leaving your religion.” In my experience, folks seem to make that transition without any help at all. As witness the joke told in one variation or another in every denomination. It begins with the question of how to rid the church of mice and ends with the punchline: “We just confirm (or baptize) them and they never come back again.”

Mulholland hates prayer first because he grieves for those who pray desperately in horrific circumstances and face the pain of unanswered prayers. But his second reason is that the celebration of “answered” prayers can inflict even more pain on those whose prayers have not been answered.

He writes, “Perhaps the more graphic examples of this cruelty happened in one of my last years of ministry. One Sunday, a woman stood to announce that – after several months – her prayers had been answered and she was pregnant. Everyone was excited and happy for her, except for me and one other. As I looked out on the congregation I saw the crestfallen face of a woman who had recently shared with me her long depression over her infertility. It wasn’t enough that she would never have children. Now she had to struggle with why her prayers went unanswered.”

When Christians celebrate “answered prayers” as a sign of faithfulness, they imply that the reason why the prayers of their sisters and brothers have not yielded similar results is because they lacked faith. If we add in the folks who, often innocently, celebrate answers to trivial prayers, for a parking space, or a trip without traffic, or sunshine on a picnic, or the victory of their favorite sports team, it becomes even worse.

So Mulholland declares emphatically, “If there is a god who answers the prayers of some men, women and children, but ignores the prayers of others, I have no interest in such a god. That god would be source of inequity and not a god of justice. I would hate a god who answered trivial requests while ignoring the pleas of the parents of starving children.”

In a radio sermon preached in 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr said that for many people, believing in God means “that that we have found a way to the ultimate source and end of life that gives us, against all the chances and changes of life, some special security and some special favor.” As an example, he speaks of the prayers “that many a mother with a boy in Korea must pray, ‘A thousand at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, let no evil come to my boy.’”

For the mother or father with a child in danger, that is the most natural prayer in the world and it is the deepest desire of our hearts. Yet in the end it is impossible. As Niebuhr explains, “The Christian faith believes that beyond, within and beyond, the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, and the proof of whose love, on the one hand, is the impartiality toward all of his children and, secondly, a mercy which transcends good and evil.”

In a FaithLink article called “Prayer in a Postmodern World,” Alex Joyner begins with a reference to the movie “Gravity.” He describes poignant scenes of the astronauts “floating in space talking into the void in the hope that they will be heard.” The lead characters, played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are set adrift when flying debris strikes the space shuttle on which they are working. They do not know whether or not anyone can hear them, but hoping that ground control might somehow pick up their transmissions, they tell their story in great detail.

“Later,” writes Joyner, “Bullock’s character intercepts a radio signal from Earth, and though she can’t understand all that is being said, she pleads with the staticky voice to pray for her.” She feels compelled to explain, “I’d pray for myself, but I’ve never prayed. Nobody ever taught me how.”

In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he tells us that the astronaut is not alone. No one knows how to pray. We don’t know what to say and we don’t know how to say it. Prayer would be impossible if it were not for the intervention of the Spirit of God within us, which prays through us.

In a sermon on this passage, Paul Tillich writes, “This may help us also to understand the most mysterious part of Paul’s description of prayer, namely, that the Spirit "intercedes with sighs too deep for words." Just because every prayer is humanly impossible, just because it brings deeper levels of our being before God than the level of consciousness, something happens in it that cannot be expressed in words. Words, created by and used in our conscious life, are not the essence of prayer. The essence of prayer is the act of God who is working in us and raises our whole being to Himself. The way in which this happens is called by Paul "sighing." Sighing is an expression of the weakness of our creaturely existence. Only in terms of wordless sighs can we approach God, and even these sighs are His work in us.”

Karl Barth said that “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the the disorder of the world.” It is a rebellion against the chaos and an affirmation of the Spirit. The promise of Christian faith is not that God will grant us a special exemption from life’s hardships, or give us a special reward for our virtue, but that at the center of life there is a loving heart, which will be with us now and forever. The gift of prayer is that we open ourselves to that loving heart.

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