How Andrew W.K. messed with my prayer life

How Andrew W.K. messed with my prayer life September 6, 2014

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The Village Voice in New York City has a weekly advice column by a guy named Andrew W.K. He gives unexpected answers to advice questions that typically come from a secular progressive angle. For example, he went off on the guy who said, “My dad’s a right-wing asshole” for the way that he was disrespecting and dehumanizing his father. In this week’s column, “Prayer is stupid, right?” Andrew responds to a reader whose brother has cancer and takes offense as an agnostic when his grandmother says they should pray for him. Andrew’s column is an eloquent, thoughtful, beautiful, and clearly agnostic defense of prayer. And it totally messed with me.

Here’s an excerpt of what he says:

Prayer is a type of thought. It’s a lot like meditation — a type of very concentrated mental focus with passionate emotion directed towards a concept or situation, or the lack thereof. But there’s a special X-factor ingredient that makes “prayer” different than meditation or other types of thought. That X-factor is humility. This is the most seemingly contradictory aspect of prayer and what many people dislike about the feeling of praying. “Getting down on your knees” is not about lowering your power or being a weakling, it’s about showing respect for the size and grandeur of what we call existence. Being humble is very hard for many people because it makes them feel unimportant and helpless. To embrace our own smallness is not to say we’re dumb or that we don’t matter, but to realize how amazing it is that we exist at all in the midst of so much more.

There’s so much disdain among my fellow clergy folk for “spiritual but not religious” people. The stereotype we have in our heads is the clueless hippie who thinks that s/he can attain spiritual groundedness by shopping organic and doing yoga. Andrew W.K. makes it hard to write him off as a goofy hippie. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I know that in my own head, my rage against spiritual but not religious people is largely an expression of my deep anxiety about spending the rest of my ministry career on a ship that’s rapidly sinking. What if I’m actually obsolete because people can become a loving, humble, mature community without the grape-juice-soaked chunk of communion bread that I have to offer?

Now that I’m working in a secular university, I’m meeting so many students who seem more compassionate, humble, and disciplined than I am, but they don’t seem to have any inclination or need to be anything other than secular. A response that clergy like me often make to atheists is to say, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in either.” And then we talk about how the silly god-caricatures of popular Christianity are not the same thing as the true God, who is the “source of being” and “a complete mystery.” But how is the mysterious God that sophisticated Christians believe in different than what Andrew W.K. calls “the size and grandeur of what we call existence.”

How much do I know that what I’m doing when I pray is more than what Andrew describes as “gaining strength by admitting weakness” or “turning [myself] over to [my] own bewilderment”? To use seminary terminology, how far is Andrew’s account of prayer from the apophatic theology that I’m attracted to? This is why the post-Christian hipsters obnoxiously refer to themselves as a/theists. Is the God to whom we’re connecting so “mysterious” that there’s no longer a hard line between someone who uses the word “God” and someone who just calls it  “the grandeur of existence”?

Here’s how Andrew tells his letter-writer to pray for his brother:

I want you to think of your love for him. Your fear of him dying. Your feeling of powerlessness. Your feelings of anger and frustration. Your feelings of confusion. You don’t need to ask to get anything. You don’t need to try and fix anything. You don’t need to get any answers. Just focus on every moment you’ve ever had with your brother. Reflect on every memory, from years ago, and even from just earlier today. Let the feelings wash over you. Let the feelings take you away from yourself. Let them bring you closer to him. Let yourself be overwhelmed by the unyielding and uncompromising emotion of him until you lose yourself in it.

I’ve been praying a lot over the past several weeks. To be honest, I’ve been pretty terrified to be starting out as a campus minister. Because my ability to do anything at all is completely contingent upon students deciding to show up. Once we have traction, I’ll be good. Until then, I’m going to be a cussing basket-case frenzy. A lot of my prayers have involved shouting not very nice things at God at the top of my lungs on my way home from worship when we didn’t have as many students as I wanted to be there. I’m haunted by the terrifying thought that maybe all I’m doing is what Andrew W.K. says that prayer is: facing the obscure great mystery of the universe with all of my longing and insecurity in order to receive some sort of psychological catharsis from doing that.

One of the things I’ve been saying to God over and over again is “You have to make this happen because I can’t!” And what I’ve realized is that I desperately need the full-blown deus ex machina God of my evangelical youth who has my destiny entirely in his hands. The phrase deus ex machina (or “God from the machine”) originally referred to the ancient Greek practice of resolving awkward plot transitions in their plays by using a rope and pulley to lower a “god” onto the stage from “heaven” to solve whatever problem had come up.

Many Christians in my circles ridicule the deus ex machina God promoted in pop evangelical Christianity, which tells its believers to understand all of their life events as deliberate interventions from a meticulously involved God whose “plan” includes every minute detail in the universe. It does seem pretty absurd when you think about it. If ten people apply for a job and one of them gets it because it’s God’s “plan,” what do you say to the other nine? Is God really orchestrating every detail of reality like that or is he just this sort of “love glow” that undergirds existence and makes people compassionate when they tap into it whether or not they call that God? I’m worried that the truth is the latter; I really don’t want it to be. According to the post-Christian hipsters like Peter Rollins, I’m supposed to let go of the God who has my destiny in his hands in order to have a mature adult faith where I just focus on practicing love.

Well, what I’ve concluded is that I don’t stand a chance as a campus minister if God isn’t somehow intervening and connecting the dots and pulling things together behind the scenes. I want to believe that God sent me here because there’s a freshman named Johnny from Albuquerque who’s disillusioned about his faith and for some reason, I’m the one campus minister with whom he will be able to connect because of the unique set of experiences I’ve been through. If I’m merely competing with all the other possible student life outlets at Tulane University in offering a form of community shaped by traditional Christian spiritual coping mechanisms, there’s no reason for students to join my group. Other campus ministries are way bigger and more successful. Nobody wants to go to a party where there isn’t already a crowd.

I think similarly about my prospects as an author. Unless God is going to pick the lock for me when he has decided the time is right, I’m never going to get my foot inside the door of a Christian publisher. That’s why I’ve interpreted the latest rejection of my manuscript as God saying not now. I’m too exhausted and uninspired. Six months ago, I was bursting with a sense of urgency about my book. The chapters were flowing out of me, so I interpreted that to mean that God was somehow giving it to me. And I assumed that because everything was flowing, God was going to open the doors and everything would happen like clockwork. But it didn’t happen and now I’m just wiped out. Partly because my ulcerative colitis has flared up really bad in the past few months so that I’m spending most of my waking hours in the bathroom.

If publishing and campus ministry and everything else are just a random game of chance and all I’m doing when I pray is syncing myself up with the love in the universe or something like that, then I’m completely screwed. Because I’m not one of those extroverted, popular, good-looking, successful people who walk on water through every phase of their lives. I’m a funny-looking bald guy with gingivitis and too much back hair who doesn’t know how to tell jokes. Unless Jesus has the cheat codes to this video game called life and he’s plugging them in to make things happen for me, it’s completely unreasonable to think that I’ll ever succeed.

I’m grateful for the respect that Andrew W.K. has for the practice of prayer. But I really hope that there’s more to it than just owning your vulnerability and facing the mystery of the universe. Honestly, I don’t think I could be a Christian without the part where God has my destiny in his hands. So I’ll have to beg the pardon of my wiser, more mature friends who have figured out how to pray without the deus ex machina God-doll that I will never stop clinging to. I’m going to keep on asking God to plant seeds and bear fruit and carry me through this and I’m going to call every breakthrough and positive turn of events a gift that he reached down out of heaven to give me personally. I don’t care if that’s not the way it really works. That’s the story that I’ve chosen to live inside of and I’m sticking to it.

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