Category Archives: Christianity

Pesky Questions: More on Prayer

When someone utters something about praying hard, there are several possible responses. One is, “praying hard, or hardly praying?” A follow up of “zing!” is optional. Hardy har har.

I recently said this (sans the zing) half under my breath to Ricktopher in response to yet another comment about praying hard. He humors me. I’m less sure about how well it was received by others. Maybe they didn’t hear it.

Truth is, I’ve been swimming with all these comments and the questions they spawn and the dad joke humor was the best I could muster at that point.

My (MLE’s) extended family has been gearing up for my grandma’s heart valve replacement in a few days. Admonitions and supplications to “pray hard” have risen from various corners. I appreciate that others in my family (my grandma included) find comfort in knowing that there are lots of people praying hard for her. (This, of course, was followed up with an acknowledgement that it’s still up to God, which I always find interesting–pray, pray, pray, pray, but it’s still up to God.) I want to be a part of this web of comfort and support. But I’ve got questions.

I’m not really sure what praying really hard means. I thought I knew, but now I wonder. Is it the amount of time spent praying? The sincerity of the prayer? Does thinking about that person or situation or being thankful in general count?

At what point does a prayer become mighty or the label “praying hard” become appropriate for one’s efforts? This all seems a little too subjective to me.

Does my inaction of not praying a prayer of supplication actually negatively effect an outcome? I’ve heard this described by some as blood on our hands. That’s a little much for me, but I find it interesting. (I wish people who believe that had as strong a conviction that our inactions often make us culpable in other ways, for example in perpetuating social injustices.)

I’ve felt guilty at times. Like when I’ve said I’d pray for someone, then forgotten. To avoid this, I’ve sometimes said a quickie prayer right away, so that I don’t forget, and don’t have to try to remember it later. Though sincere (of course I want ______’s ______ to get better), these probably aren’t what most of the pray harders have in mind.

And here’s a question for those who favor the hard prayer line: It seems like praying hard, mighty prayer, etc. is almost exclusively reserved for prayers of supplication. Why is this? How would one’s prayer life be different if one injected the same level of zeal and effort in praying hard (and admonishing others to do so) into other kinds of prayer, like thanksgiving?

If it is true that prayers really can alter an outcome, can do more than send good vibes, then it seems to me we are horribly selfish and narrow-hearted in our choices about what and for whom we pray. What if everyone with even the smallest inclination to pray did so every day and prayed for world peace? Every day (good thoughts and vibes welcomed too, of course). If prayers really do change things, then why is it that when time is made during church services to pray for the afflicted, it’s almost always so and so’s physical ailment? Where are our prayers for relationships? For the poor and the starving? For those with no hope? Prayers of contrition acknowledging our inaction to seek justice and pursue peace?

I used to think I was quite good at praying. Maybe had a gift for it. People sometimes said things indicating as much. I was comfortable in the knowledge that I “knew how to pray.” Now I’m not so sure. Pesky, pesky questions.

Meandering Thoughts During a Good Friday Service

Unending sources
Mysteries overwhelming
The  particulars perhaps do not matter
so much.

Who knows me? God knows me. And I
am loved. I know not why.

23 souls in a room gathered together.
Why?

Jesus as political figure.

Intimate and close-knit doesn’t have
to be insular.

Radical love, relational ups and downs,
peace and justice actions, self-knowing,
so little are these encouraged or facilitated
in church services.

“God is with us in the abandonment
of that cross,” the speaker said.

But are we with God?

Truly?

Do not be quick to answer.

Be willing to examine your life.

We use such words.
We’re quick to judge and think
poorly of others; only to smile
to their faces and laugh with
them.

Toward More Useful Responses to Suffering

“God is in control.”
These words are often used as an attempt to comfort people going through hard times. More often than not, to that person, it seems like they’re trying to comfort themselves.

The last few years have been tough on us. We’ve teetered on the edge of poverty for sometime now and it’s extremely difficult. I once heard the experience of poverty described as being like that moment where you see someone suffering and you’re desperate to find some sort of solution. It’s like that moment, but all the time. Now, I willingly admit that, while we’re having a rough time right now, it is harder for many of the billions of people around the world living in poverty. But saying “God is in control”, just says to me that you think God wants it this way. That might be ok if poverty were only a short-term experience, but understanding the nature of poverty in this country, and around the world, we know that many will live in poverty for the rest of their lives. Does God want that?

In my view, this is why the concept of human agency is so important. God allows humans to make their own decisions, and out of those decisions comes the cruel injustice of the rich having their ‘beds of ivory’ or luxury cars, while the poor are trampled. It also means that the solutions are not as simple as “God will fix it.”

The key question for those of us who believe in free agency is, “Where is the comfort in that?” (In fact, as Christians, how to comfort the afflicted should be a central question anyway). How do we find hope and comfort in the midst of suffering? Simply saying “it will get better” or “your prayers will be answered” is not satisfying. God hears the cries of the afflicted all of the time.

Perhaps some of the answer comes from what God is doing. We can find some solace in God’s creation, and the small moments of joy amidst the desperation.  We can find hope in the message of the resurrection: justice and peace will win, in the end. But those things can only help so much in the here and now.

For me, when I consider my own sense of desperation and fear for the future, I feel the most helpful thing is to allow myself to allow myself to feel loved and cared for – by my Creator and by those around me. Being loved helps you feel worthwhile, and feeling worthwhile means when the world treats you like shit, you’re going to start taking action to stop it. Being truly loved also means you’re not alone in confronting the cause of your suffering.

As friends and disciples we can minister by simply offering our care and love without suggestions and self-serving attempts to instill hope that their suffering is going to end soon. Offering your solutions is actually a really bad way to show someone you care. Listening and accepting a person’s feelings is far more important. You can’t be part of the person’s solution until you have stood in solidarity with them. At that point we can collaborate with them (and God) to end their suffering (whatever may be the cause).

A compassionate response must always be focused on how the other person is affected and empowering them. Often, our response to suffering in the world is to make ourselves feel better. We see children suffering in poverty, our response is to throw money at it – to offer our solutions so we can start feeling better. Poverty is best overcome by the poor organizing in solidarity with each other to overcome their challenges.

It is the same with our relationships. When our friends or members of our families are going through hard times, our first response is often to offer our solutions or to say something that helps us feel better. What we should know is that we don’t do any good without first fully accepting that person and their experiences, helping them know that they’re loved, and then being prepared to stand in solidarity with them. If you do this, they will truly know you stand with them. Without this, it is harder for that person to be reminded that they are loved, and that God too is standing in solidarity with them.

Fringecicles

There are two kinds of fringe:

1. The fringe who get welcomed because they make those in the in-group look and feel good.

2. The fringe who are not welcomed because they make in-group people uncomfortable.
Those of the latter category are left out in the cold.

Who are you excluding?

*I’ve never drawn icicles before. Don’t judge.

Pesky Questions: Prayer, Personal Responsibility, and Pat Answers

A few weeks ago, Ricktopher and MLE were in a discussion group with a bunch of church people and the discussion topic was prayer. Everyone was asked to read a quote they were given on prayer and then say something about it if they so chose. Part of the evening went something like this:

Everyone else was saying how comforting prayer is, etc. and only citing positive examples of how prayer “works.” “You know, sometimes it seems like God’s not answering a prayer, but then one day, you’ll look back on it, and realize, ‘yeah, that was answered.’”

When it came to MLE’s turn, she said, “I struggle with prayer sometimes. What about the parent of a child who has a totally curable illness, but because they can’t afford to get them treatment, all they can do is pray? They pray, but the child dies anyway. Are they going to look back someday and say, “Woah, I totally get why my child died of that completely curable illness.”

Someone in the group responded, “Well, we often don’t know God’s ways; why he does what he does.”

MLE replied, “Is it really ‘God’s way’ for this to happen? Is this God’s justice and love? Or it is us humans, flagrantly misusing our agency? (This denomination’s big on personal agency.) (Okay, she may not have said, “flagrantly.”) Perhaps we are the ones not answering this parent’s prayer.”

Often, we don’t want to ask these questions. We’re comfortable in our complacency. But perhaps we’re called to more. Dodging self-examination and the tough questions don’t make them disappear, nor does it help those non-hypothetic people in the world who suffer like those in MLE’s hypothetical situation.

We do ourselves a disservice by trying to be, or at least appear, overly confident in our certainty. Sometimes, we don’t question because we don’t want to appear “weak in the faith.” How sad! Could it be that we cheat ourselves (and others) out of opportunities to explore our struggles with others?

Much can be gained from a rich prayer life, but what is a rich prayer life? Is prayer more than personal pep talks and/or complaints? Is it only for me and mine, with the vague cover all prayer for “peace on earth” or to “be with” or “bless everyone?” Are we ‘doing our part’ by praying; in a sense, releasing ourselves of our responsibilities? The “Well, I’ve done my part” approach.

Are our prayers for peace or for God to be with others any more effectual than those of the parent of that child?

Maybe instead of noncommittally praying for “the poor,” maybe we should ask to be made more mindful of how we can work to end poverty, then square our shoulders and roll up our sleeves.

Note: This post was prompted by a post from the nakedpastor about prayer. It includes a great cartoon featuring a person asking for showers from Heaven and getting so much water that they’re completely immersed. It’s a great post and blog. Check it out! (And, of course, that’s all his content, so please, don’t misuse the image or anything, guys. That’s just not cool.)

Why I Stopped Eating Meat

I love meat. Most of my favourite food experiences have included meat of some variety, whether it be the chicken, mutton and other meats used in the curries I ate in India, the delicious barbecue pork I’ve had amongst Americans or the amazing flavours of the Brazillian churascos. I see meat eaten every day, and I want it.

The thing about vegetarianism is that it doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t enjoy meat, and that you don’t want it – you just choose not to give into that temptation.

I’m learning to recognize my cravings for what they are: my stomach saying “feed me” and my thoughts turning to foods I have become used to craving at such times. 90+% of the time, I find that a delicious vegetarian dish will be every bit as satisfying by the time that I’m done eating, even if I had been craving meat before that.

My journey to vegetarianism has seemed somewhat abrupt, but has been coming for a while. For over a year now I’ve become more and more interested in what industrial farming has done to our food. There was a big part of me that did not want to know, because it might lead to a seemingly large sacrifice.
MLE read all of the books we had purchased on the subject. I shared her enthusiasm for the subject hesitantly – enough to know a lot of bad stuff was going on, but not really prepared to delve into it. I has horrified at the things she described, but guiltily wanted her to stop telling me.
To reassure myself, I began to take the position that we should avoid factory farmed meats and buy from local food sources. We’re poor, and the idea of spending an extra few dollars per pound of meat seemed daunting at first, but when you consider that the average Australian/American eats much more meat than they need to, we figured we’d eat better and eat less.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a good approach. It recognizes the cruelty and injustice inherent in the industrial farming system where big corporations are willing to sacrifice animal and human well-being for profit (a great introduction to this is the movie Food Inc). I know a lot of people who take this approach and their diets are undoubtedly better for doing it.

What helped me to make the decision to stop eating meat altogether was a conversation with MLE (who urged me to consider the matter further) which led to me reading the book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. Not only was this my first step into learning the grotesque details of factory farming, but it asked the question: What goes on in the human mind to make one animal a pet and another animal food?
It describes the dominant philosophical approach to the question as “Carnism” and compares it to patriarchy in that it is a position so ubiquitous within society we don’t readily recognize it. As science leads us to understand that there are few nutrients that we can get from meat alone, the slaughter of billions of lives every year has become unnecessary.

I began discussing the questions I was dealing with on facebook and received some useful feedback. It was helpful to understand that plants can also suffer, and to see it from the perspective that all life relies on the destruction of other life for its survival. In the end though, I came to the conclusion that while plant life can suffer, animals can think and build relationships and experience emotion (including the terror of impending death).

I have taken this step as an act of faith. Consistency of action with belief has been something I have admired greatly in others, and I have decided to pursue it myself. As my beliefs cause me to grieve over the suffering that exists in the world, I need to live a life that reduces that suffering and promotes the most good.

On top of this, I have learned more about what it is to sacrifice. I have sacrificed most of my favourite foods for a greater good. I have recognized that the life within a cow, a chicken, a pig or a fish carries more worth to me than eating those foods. I also now take more time to recognize that whatever I eat causes the end of something’s life. In doing that, in preparation for eating I prayerfully recognize that a sacrifice of life has been made, that I might have strength and life to do some good in the world. I figure that if my life is going to be extended by the killing of other life, I had better not live wastefully.

This is also the most counter-cultural thing I’ve ever done in my life. It has really brought to me a sense of being ‘in the world, but not of it’. There is a certain awkwardness that comes with eating vegetarian. Most restaurants do not cater to you with more than a couple of dishes. There is also a noticeable difference between how people respond to your food choices. When you eat a non-meat dish without identifying as vegetarian it’s no big deal. For some, it seems like my choice to eat that same dish becomes more threatening when I identify myself as vegetarian.
I have greatly appreciated the support where we have received it, but have been somewhat surprised as some people just seem to wish we would be “normal” again.

Overall, I’ve found it to be one of the most worthwhile and meaningful decisions I have made. I understand the impact of my daily life with increased clarity, and it has felt like a major step toward becoming the more consistent Christian I have long intended to be.

Most of the people I have talked to about where meat comes from recognize that there are some terrible things that go on in meat production, as I have. Many don’t want to know the details because it would cost them the enjoyment of treasured foods, as I did.
I encourage you to learn the facts. Ignoring problems don’t make them go away. For those who choose to eat meat, I encourage you to find local sources of meat and animal products (in America Local Harvest is a great source). Most of us could eat less and eat better.

When you come across vegetarians, be supportive – chances are they are taking a difficult action based upon deeply held beliefs.

Grace:
Creator of all,
We give thanks for the miracle of life and honour the life sacrificed in the preparation of our meal.
May we eat giving thanks, committing to use the energy and life we draw from this sacrifice for the good of the world, that we might create with you a world in which your gifts to us are honoured always.

Amen.

Trip to the Local Christian Bookstore

About two months ago, when we lived in Ohio, Ricktopher and I went into the local Christian Bookstore to poke around. They’re closing and having a sale, so we thought, “ok, let’s have a peek.” I said to Ricktopher, “I don’t remember the last time I was in a Christian bookstore.”

As I continued to look around, I thought, “this is the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in a Christian bookstore.” I pondered this lurking sense of being an outsider. Then, I realized why I hadn’t been in one in years. I was struggling to find something I could identify with. Their merchandise, like so many other Christian bookstores, represented only a thin slice of Christian experience and belief. I was tempted to ask, “Excuse me. Could you show me where your materials on liberation theology are? I’m having a hard time finding them.” Also your Jim Wallis, Richard Foster, conscientious objection for dummies, etc.

I searched; hoping to find a title like, Ethical Eating: A Christian Dialogue.

As I looked at the merchandise, I tried to strike up conversations with some of the books, dvds, etc.

I got these messages (among others):

1. A good Christian knows that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, (and others) hate Christians and God and there is nothing I can learn from them or their religion. (I’m sorry, but I don’t look at my non-Christian friends, and even my atheist friends *gasp* and think I’m somehow better than them.)

2. While Christianity is best, Judaism is also acceptable as Jews are God’s chosen people and they just haven’t noticed what they’re missing out on. (This was particularly noticeable as they had a whole section–it was small, but still–devoted to items related to Jewish practice. While I know some Christians practice these as part of their beliefs, isn’t it also the case that some Christians practice elements of other religions?)

3. George Bush is a good Christian, and therefore, we should sell his book.

4. This also applies to Laura Bush and Sarah Palin.
(I guess selling a book that contains something like Dr. King’s sermon, “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” isn’t a popular idea.)

5. If you believe that evolution is even remotely possible, even that species change over time, you need to pray. NOW.

6. Yay prosperity gospel! (a.k.a., if you’re poor, God doesn’t favor you.)

7. Owning a gray totebag with Jesus is my Savior! in bold hot pink letters is a great way to witness.

8. The U.S. is a Christian nation and the founding fathers were good Christians. Also, America is somehow extra special and Columbus was a demi-god.

9. Veggie Tales is the best programming for your kids. (or at least, they’ll have serious guilt when it’s time to eat dinner. :D)

10. American flags are Christian, so are Israeli flags. (They sold both. There was so much U.S. nationalism paraphernalia, I wondered what Ricktopher was thinking, and what other non-Americans might have thought.)

Overall message: A real Christian believes these things (and consumes this merchandise). We don’t sell the stuff that relates to your kind of Christian because you’re wrong.

“Ah,” I spied some smallish wooden crosses with naturey designs on them. “This is kind of nice, but oh…” I put the cross back. “Made in China.” For some reason, I cringe extra heartily at the prospect of buying something that’s supposed to be representative of someone like Jesus that’s likely made in poor working conditions for a less than living wage, only so some rich person can make more money. But it’s ok, because it’s helping me to be a better Christian.

I left thinking, “gosh, this must be at least partly why some people find Christians so unappealing. If I thought that what was in that store was representative of Christians or Jesus, I’d say, ‘no thank you.'” Sadly, it is representative of a large number of Christians; some of whom are very loud.

I’ve realized I’m not like a lot of Christians, but then again, that’s probably true of a lot of Christians. Still, dialogue, respect and relationship are good, necessary and healthy among different Christians and different people. All kinds of people.

But, I found no dialogue there. Only orders.