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.

Ode to Dog

Every line quivers and jerks with “I can’t,” and “it’s not good enough,” and “it’s not right.”

She come up to me and rests her head contentedly on my leg; brown eyes searching.

A few moments petting her tawny/black fur and it’s right.

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.

The Great Pretenders

We’re terrified of being equals because it means we’ll have less. The world won’t be at our feet and we’ll have to confront the waste of our fathers. It’s easier to look away. It’s easier to pretend like we’re helping people; working to eliminate poverty, hunger, disease, war. But if we were serious, it would’ve been done before.

Thoughts on Material Culture and Some Self-Examining

Ownership, or possession, changes relationship and meaning. With ownership, appreciation wanes, or at least is diminished, and it is easier for it to wane. Perhaps further: Ownership or possession, without experience otherwise, precludes true appreciation.

Feel free to read this as if Alan Alda were reading it to you. It’s just better that way.

When I was a little girl growing up in small town Maine, I loved going to the library. The library was tiny, and only open for a few hours on Tuesdays, Thursday, and Saturdays. It was tiny, and they didn’t get new books very often, but I loved the little nooks, and the smells. I loved how the afternoon sun tinted the cloth bindings and woodwork of the shelves, tables and floor and turned the spotlight on the shoals of dust parading through the air. I remember the librarian–kind, gray hair, thick ’80s style metal glasses, open faced. I later learned her name, but I only ever remember thinking of her as “the librarian.”

When I was seven and a half (halves are important when you’re seven), my family moved to this little town and I didn’t like it. Well, I liked somethings about it, but I missed the myriad places you could go, the bigness of where we’d lived (though my world in it was admittedly small). Still, I knew the place we’d left behind had museums and movie theaters and libraries that were open everyday. And Arby’s. And Taco Time. And black people. Rumors that the occasional non-white people who moved into town (often with the coast guard) were usually run off infuriated me. As an eight-year-old, I was pretty sure I’d coined the term, “uni-cultural,” and I applied it to our new town with an air of disdain. I was jealous of my siblings, all about a decade my senior. They had had the option of going to concerts, the mall that was five minutes away, and of having school friends from Hawaii. I was going to miss out.

This little library was a haven for me. It was books and old things and order. It represented knowledge and power and experience–of which I had even less than the little I do now. It fit my desire for public solitude. There was this certain pleasure in being largely undisturbed yet occasionally noticed in this place. Painfully shy, I wanted to become like the people I read about; intelligent, reserved and perhaps somewhat enigmatic–like Phineas Fogg, among others. I didn’t fit into the frenzy that is high school sports in this region (specifically basketball, softball, and baseball, in that order). I recoiled (smugly, yes) at the myriad errors inherent in the spoken dialect that daily accosted my ears.

My favorite book in the entire library was Marvels and Mysteries of Our Animal World, a collection of writings by different authors about animals like passenger pigeons, sea horses and horseshoe crabs. It had a faded green cover, the cloth of which had worn through in some places, and golden text. Scuff marks here and there, and a wonderful old smell. It was a large book, probably a good 14″ in height. A ring on the front left by a cup completed it. The inside cover revealed a simplified, color-coded tree of the animal kingdom. I loved this kind of stuff. I marveled at how horses were related to pigs and how pandas are more related to raccoons than bears.

I (or one of my parents on my behalf) checked that book out many times. I liked the articles so much I reread some of them. (I’m normally not big on rereading.) I liked how the different authors had different styles of writing. Some were funnier than others, some wrote from the perspective of the animal. Aside from the Bible, this may very well be the first book I read in which the different authorship was really noticeable.

As I passed from teenager to young adult, and especially as I moved away to the Midwest for college, I wondered about my beloved book. Had it been thrown out or perhaps sold at one of the libraries frequent sales? I asked my parents to please, please look for it anytime they went to a sale.

In more recent years, I’ve pondered my attachment to this old, smelly, unspectacular volume. It wasn’t just a book anymore. It was my childhood. It helped me connect with my previous self. Full on material culture; sort of, at least the memory of the book. This memory had taken on a life of it’s own. My memory isn’t good and I have very few from my pre-teen and teen years. I also wonder why this book and not others? The Count of Monte Cristo, for example, was an early love. Why this one?

In the summer of 2009, I was back in Maine with Ricktopher for our second wedding ceremony. I was showing him around the town and, naturally, we went to the library. The library had changed since I’d last visited. For one thing, they had expanded their hours of operation to include four hours on Wednesdays. An addition on the back with a ramped entrance was new since my last visit, too.

Most of the addition is set aside as a meeting room, which is peculiar since the town has ample meeting space in other locations. This is not true of space for publicly accessible library materials.

The circulation desk was in a new place and more modern. The librarian had been replaced by some younger local woman whom I didn’t know, nor she I. It wasn’t my library anymore. I was merely visiting. I was leading a tour of a building and sharing some stories from its history–what I’d done at historic sites in summers past.

I found my book and showed it to Ricktopher. Yes! It was still there! I showed him the card in the back with the patrons names and due dates. I was way too elated, but I didn’t care. And there I was, again, in the same building, with the same book. Even in the midst of the change, there was the appeal of the sense of grounding and continuity it offered.

Then, there it was, the putting it back and leaving it part. Of course, it was something I could and had every intention of doing. Still there was a part of me that wanted to have the book; to own it. I talked it over with Ricktopher. Should I leave it? Should I offer to pay for it? What if they said, “No”? Would I then just take it anyway? Should I just take it? (By the way, I’m not typically prone to thoughts of theft, but this was what I was thinking.)

We ended up asking if it could be purchased. I tried to sound convincing, I guess afraid that the librarian wouldn’t get the whole material culture aspect of it. For her part, I think she just found it curious that this “away” person would be so interested in a smelly, out dated, stained book on animals. She gave it to me for free.

For a second I was thrilled. It’s mine! I’ll have it forever. I’ll show it to my kids and grandkids (if I have any). I was happy to have it, and yet, there was something different. The game had changed. My relationship with and how I thought about the book had changed. I owned it now. The not knowing, the “what if I don’t ever get to see it again”s were gone. But so were the cherished chance opportunities to connect. The setting was gone, too. The book wasn’t in a library, out of my control, where I may or may not see it again, but if I did see it, would be in a setting fraught with memories, not all reliant on the book. Now it’s in a box in a neglected corner of a house I don’t even inhabit. (We’re semi-transient.)

The magic, the thrill is gone. I appreciate that I have access to it, that it isn’t lost forever (and possibly, my related memories with it), but something did change.

Ownership, or possession, changes relationship and meaning. With ownership, appreciation wanes, or at least is diminished, and it is easier for it to wane. Perhaps further: Ownership or possession, without experience otherwise, precludes true appreciation.