Prayer will not…

… 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…

About Kimberly Knight

Kimberly has a long history of back-pew sitting, Wednesday night supper eatin' and generally trying God’s patience since 1969. She's lucky enough to have made her technology addiction a career and serves as both the Director of Digital Strategy as a southern liberal arts college and Minister of Digital community with Extravagance UCC.

  • melissia

    “(who think they can trademark prayer)”

    I… what … what the… what…

    I think I need to go play a violent video game for a while… before I say something mean…

  • pagansister

    What a great post! Have often wondered how anyone who says they are a Christian, can claim to believe in a “loving God” and then say in the next breath that that Loving God has caused a hurricane, or tornado or any natural disaster as punishment for “our misdeeds”. Right—Of course the OT did have an angry God mentioned a few times—- :o)

  • Karen Hundrieser

    Thank you! Beautifully said! I always engage in such conversations – to understand the concept itself is a paradigm shift – and a tough one for us. And I also have been blessed by the prayer posted by lynn – thank you.

  • Todd Frederick

    Thank you…I’ve been dealing with the issue of God, prayer, and suffering as I write (even issues with the existence of God and/or Go’s nature. It’s time to re-think the nature of theism IMO. Again, thank you…I made a hard copy of your essay.

    • Kimberly Knight

      Todd, thank you for taking a moment to share your own stuggles with God and prayer. I am glad my own ruminations have touched you.

  • Trischa

    Thank you so much for this post. I’ve been engaged in quite a few of these discussions lately and it makes my head hurt to try to explain these concepts to other “Christians” who think that people whose lives are good must be holy and that it is acceptable to respond to those enduring real suffering with clichés like “Let go and let God.” I think now I will refer them to this post, as you have done a wonderful job of explaining it.

    PS. Do you happen to remember which of Barbara Brown Taylor’s works that passage about Jesus and suffering is excerpted from? I was just recently introduced to her writing and I’d like to make that one next on my list to read. Thank you!

    • Kimberly Knight

      Thank you – it is a hard conversation to have with folks who believe in and worship a God who is arbitrarily good to creation. That really does not square with a God who is ALL good and loving. I don’t recall which BBT text – it was left over in some of my seminary notes when we were exploring theodicy and I did not cite it in my notes. I will look around and see what text I pulled it from.


      • Trischa

        Thank you very much. If you don’t find it, that’s okay. I’m sure I will find it eventually. Have a wonderful weekend.

  • lynn hopkins

    Thank you for this, Kimberly.
    While at Candler, a dear friend asked me how it is possible to pray as a panentheist. If ‘God’ is seen as unity of which we we are all part, and not as a person or personality, not a separate being with separate mind, how do we ‘talk’ to that? I pulled out a prayer that I had written for my own devotional use. Here is that prayer:
    We cry out to the spirit that lives in all,
    to the passion that gives life meaning,
    to the peace that makes life bearable.
    We may choose to say “God” for lack of better name,
    or to choose another word,
    or use no words at all.
    But we cry out, one by one and all as one.
    We invoke the passion.
    May it energize us and nourish us and sustain us through the longest day.
    We invoke the peace.
    May it warm us and comfort us and renew us in moments of elation and in days of strife.
    We invoke the spirit.
    May it enliven us and enlighten us and guide us through the dark and bitter cold nights.
    We invoke these aspects of divine,
    and call out to all that we do not know and cannot comprehend. Come!
    We do this, that we may find the strength and fortitude
    to face the music of the wounded universe, but more.
    We do this, that we may know the courage and integrity to carry the music forward,
    to sing it ourselves in our own voices, our own melody, our own words.
    That we may speak what we believe to be true,
    that we may do what we find to be genuine,
    that we may stand for, labor for, struggle for what we know to be right.
    That we not only face the music but embody it,
    not only affirm but promote,
    not only believe but live our principles.
    We seek freedom, but not freedom from responsibility,
    for nothing could be more empty or deadly to the soul.
    We seek the freedom born in courage and faith,
    to take on responsibility, to share each other’s load and to move ourselves,
    our congregation, and our world forward
    one step, and another, and another, until all can see
    that the power of community and mutuality is as overwhelming and awesome
    as we believe in our minds and know in our hearts that it is.
    Freedom, yes.
    To be strong when we feel weak,
    to be bold when we feel timid,
    to be courageous when we feel afraid.
    Freedom, responsibility, mutuality, justice, compassion – full humanity,
    The power to love actively and to live fully.
    For all of these things, and for healing, and for hope,
    and for consciousness of ourselves, of each other,
    and of that which transcends all, we pray.

    • Kimberly Knight

      Thank YOU Lynn, this is a wonderful prayer! I hope many hearts will be opened in the reading.

  • Travis Mamone

    This is an area I struggle with a lot. While I’m glad I didn’t lose power last night, I’m being careful not to say God kept me from losing power because it kinda sorta suggests that my friends who did lose power didn’t do something right.

    Also, you can never go wrong with process theology!