… fill your bank account, provide more touchdowns, win the heart of the hottie you have your eye on, keep your tire from going flat on that dark and rainy night, stop hurricanes or holocausts, prevent homicides or sex trafficking.
So where does this bee in my bonnet come from today?
Well, while perusing (ok, obsessively checking) weather websites and news outlets the past 24 hours, I happened to glance at (read way too many) comments pertaining to hurricane Sandy. Neither the comments before the storm – “just pray, pray heard an trust that God will spare you” nor the nasty comments trickling in now that (heretically) claim that God used Sandy to punish – are related what-so-ever to the theology of God revealed in Jesus. So much bad/sad theology swirling around that I just had to say a word or three about the notion of God as a transactional tyrant.
See, I have a very hard time with the theology of folk who claim that God gives away touchdowns and Bentleys as rewards for the pious but allows/causes millions of people to suffer from hunger, disease and disasters. This is not a God I find worthy of worship, nor is the God that Jesus reveals to us. Y’all have heard me say it before but it bears saying again that God is not a cosmic vending machine squirting out holy snicker bars for the Tebows (who think they can trademark prayer) of the world and rancid sandwiches for the rest.
The God that Jesus offers us is not some being who is “out there” or “up there” to whom we appeal to fulfill our greatest desires and smite our enemies (though I do love a chance to use the word smite). Neither righteous Job on his sick bed nor Jesus in the garden could persuade God to come down to intervene. Even Paul (with whom I am often at odds) recognizes: “For we do not know how we ought to pray; the Spirit “itself” pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express. And God, who sees in to our hearts, knows what the thought of the Spirit is; because the Spirit pleads with God on behalf of God’s people and in accordance with God’s will.”
Jesus did come to begin a paradigm shift regarding living, being and dying but it is easy to misunderstand this new way that eschews legalistic, death dealing religion for a faith of abundant grace and life. So what does the Christian testament about the life of Jesus, the embodiment of God’s will, teach us about grief and suffering, about the presence of death? One thing we know for certain is that a life of piety, a life lived as near to perfection as possible will not stave off suffering or death. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that “Jesus, so far as we know, is the only perfect human life, lived wholly oriented toward the will of God and his life, suffering and death are hard evidence that: goodness is no protection from pain, Jesus knew every level of pain, emotional, spiritual, and physical unto death.”
A better way to understand the power of prayer (because even in my unbelief I believe) is to enter into the shift offered by Jesus and open our perception of God to One who is already in the heart of our existence suffering with, creating alongside, nurturing amidst, and midwifing love and compassion.
My theology (and how I understand at the theology of Jesus) is not of a God that is omnipotent, coercive or punitive – God as revealed by Jesus is omnipresent, persuasive, and all loving.
So prayer is (in the words of Brother Lawrence) practicing the presence of God. It is an act of acknowledging our connectedness to God and one another. Prayer is inviting God’s creative presence and offering back to God the radical hosptitaly of our best selves. Prayer is cooperating with God and living into our interdependence with The Spirit, our neighbors, the environment and even our enemies.
In Bruce Epperly’s book, “Process Theology, A Guide for the Perplexed” he writes, “Prayer changes things. Prayer does not change God’s love for us or God’s quest for beauty and intensity of experience for us and all creation, our prayers open us and others to greater movements, possibilities and energies of transformation in the God-world relationship, specifically involving those situations for whom we pray.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu offers that with this vision of God, a God who does not mysteriously eliminate suffering but “bears it with us and strengthens us to bear it” exists a God who shares in our suffering. And just as God shares in our suffering so too do we share in the suffering of one another and are called to care for one another as the agents of transformation that God uses to transfigure God’s world.
I wonder if you might construct and share here a prayer that embodies this vision of God…