Part 2 of the series “9 Lies You Hear in Church”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
September 16, 2012
Psalm 55:1-7; Luke 18:1-8
Psalm 55:1-7 • God, listen to my prayer; don’t avoid my request! Pay attention! Answer me! I can’t sit still while complaining. I’m beside myself over the enemy’s noise, at the wicked person’s racket, because they bring disaster on me and harass me furiously. My heart pounds in my chest because death’s terrors have reached me. Fear and trembling have come upon me; I’m shaking all over. I say to myself, I wish I had wings like a dove! I’d fly away and rest. I’d run so far away! I’d live in the desert. Selah
Luke 18:1-8 • Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.” The Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?”
There is a scene in an old Simpsons episode in which Bart and Lisa make a reasoned request of their father Homer. Lisa begins: “Dad, as you know, we’ve been swimming, and we’ve developed a taste for it. We both agree that getting our own pool is the only way to go. Now before you respond, you must understand that your refusal would result in months and months of…” Whereupon she and Bart begin repeating: “Can we have a pool Dad? Can we have a pool Dad? Can we have a pool Dad? Can we have a pool Dad? Can we have a pool Dad?” After just a little while of this, Homer says simply, “I understand” and relents.
The Simpson children were employing a time tested children’s strategy: just keep asking your parents over and over and over again and eventually they’ll give in just to shut you up. Everyone knows the virtues of the Pestering Strategy.
II. THE TEXTS
Jesus even talks about it in the parable of the Unjust Judge. A woman in a certain town is in need of justice, but the judge is neither just nor God-fearing. But she comes to him every day and bothers him to the point that he gives her justice just to go away. It’s also known as the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” strategy.
Jesus notes that if an unjust judge will relent and give justice, how much more will a just and loving God do so for his chosen ones? He notes, “He will give them justice quickly.”
Jesus’ main point is that God is not disinterested and aloof, but caring and responsive. But does God’s timely response to justice apply to all kinds of petitions? Does this hold true for every instance of prayer?
It doesn’t appear that this has been the experience of the author of the 55th Psalm:
God, listen to my prayer; don’t avoid my request! Pay attention! Answer me! I can’t sit still while complaining. I’m beside myself over the enemy’s noise, at the wicked person’s racket, because they bring disaster on me and harass me furiously.
The great thing about the Psalms is their honesty. They cover the entire range of human emotion and particularly the range of emotions in our relationships to God. There are psalms of praise, psalms of joy, psalms of lament, psalms of anger. And there are psalms of desperation like the one we just heard read. A psalm crying out to God to hear the psalmist’s prayer. A prayer that has been oft repeated but goes seemingly unheard.
The psalmist’s experience is not unique, is it? We have all of us had those times where we keep praying for something—fervently, repeatedly, insistently, then pleadingly—and hear nothing at all. We continue to pray and our prayers become ever more plaintive. We begin to bargain with God: “Dear God, if you will simply grant my request, I’ll…” And we promise anything.
All of us here know this experience. All of us, including me, know the fervor with which we can pray for something we desparately want to be and have felt that our prayers are falling on deaf ears. And we don’t understand why that should be. Why won’t God answer? Does God not care? Am I doing something wrong? Have I not been faithful enough?
Because somewhere we have heard that all we have to do is be patient enough and keep asking and God will give us what we want. Like the woman in Jesus’ parable, our persistence will pay off eventually.
III. THE PETTY DESPOT
Our former campus rabbi, Rabbi Ken Cohen, once shared with me an interesting observation about the portrait of God often encountered in the Bible. He noted that there are passages about God that alternate between sycophantic praise and groveling that make God appear to be a petty Near Eastern tyrant. “In certain passages, he comes off like he’s Saddam Hussein”, he once noted.
Of course, he is not alone in this observation. Many have noted that there is much in the prayers of Judaism and Christianity that are basically forms of groveling. Now, it may have been natural for an Ancient Near Eastern people to have imagined their sovereign as your typical Ancient Near Eastern monarch. That’s hardly surprising. It is a reflection of that ancient culture. And in the final analysis, it’s not an indictment against God, but, as Rabbi Cohen notes, “a reflection of our limited ability, given time and place conditioning, to view God outside our own culture.”
But we continue to use this image, don’t we? It’s thousands of years old, produced by a culture we no longer identify with, and yet this image of God as a petty tyrant whom we have to beg or get facetime with persists.
We do act as if we pester God enough, God will relent. God will become convinced of our seriousness of faith and relent. In some Christian traditions, intercessors are asked to pray on our behalf, to get God’s attention, if you will, so that our prayer will be heard. It’s fascinating how often this model of God persists in our unconsciousness. We pray for something, and then, if we don’t get it right away, we pray for it again.
But it should be pointed out that our home-grown cultural interpretations of God aren’t much more helpful. Rabbi Cohen also notes that if we were to reflect on the way God is understood in our culture it would be as a God of “instant self-gratification”, a celestial “buddy” who demands little of us and provides what we need. You know: Santa Claus.
The Santa Claus model of God is found everywhere. Where prayer is seen as a method to obtain what we want. Rachel’s illustration on our bulletin covers tonight demonstrates the kinds of things we are accustomed to asking for from God. Good grades, better teeth, requited love, money, success, the Red Sox to win (that prayer certainly isn’t being answered this year), and so on. A Christmas list of things we want and God is the way we get them. And so we pray. And pray. And pray.
When we don’t get what we want, we sometimes console ourselves with the platitude that while God answers all prayers, God sometimes answers “no”. That’s an interesting solution to the problem but is indistinguishable from God failing to answer at all. What if God doesn’t always answer prayer? Or…what if prayer is about something else altogether?
IV. CREATING A GOD-SPACE
Indeed, let’s ask ourselves, ultimately: what is prayer for? Can we really imagine that God is unaware of the things we need? Doesn’t Jesus comment on exactly this absurdity?
“When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask.” (Matthew 6:7-8)
If God knows what we need before we ask, either we have to come to the conclusion that God simply wants to hear us grovel or that prayer is about something altogether different than requesting things from the Almighty.
In the mystical traditions of Christianity, prayer has a very different purpose. In fact, prayer has a very different methodology. Prayer is often seen as operating on three different levels. The first is called “discursive” prayer and usually involves speaking words aloud, either words particular to our situation (“Dear God, help me in this time of need…” or words of a mantra over and over (“Hail Mary, full of grace…”). There is non-discursive prayer in which the prayor imagines a situation or sits with a feeling and prays through that.
But then, the mystics talk about a highest level of prayer, in which God prays through you. It involves the total emptying of self and the allowing of the spirit of God to work within an individual. This kind of prayer is seen as the highest kind of prayer in the mystical traditions. Interestingly, it is the kind of prayers least connected with getting something we want.
What if the mystics are right? What if prayer isn’t about getting what we want?
To be quite honest, the popular idea that prayers are petitions to God, who like a king (or Santa Claus) simply has to pay attention to our request and be properly disposed to granting it, is somewhat bizarre when you think about the other things we say about God. We claim that God is omniscient—so why do we have to pray unless God likes to make us beg? We claim that God is gracious—so why do we have to ask rather than for a gracious God to act out of God’s own freedom and generosity? We claim that God is wise and generous—so why do we think that we have to “game” the system by praying a lot or stronger or with more people in order to get God to do what we want? How does a system of petitions and requests match up with everything we know about God elsewhere?
Quite frankly, it doesn’t. And it seems that perhaps the greater truth is going unexpressed.
What if we were to imagine that God already knows what we want. And that God already seeks to provide for us the things we need. And that God already loves us and seeks to be in relationship with us. And that God does not need to be bribed or bullied or cajoled to want to provide for us. God is already at work, before our pleading, before our repetitions, before our attempts to get God’s attention.
So, am I saying that prayer has no use? By no means. Prayer is incredibly useful, but perhaps not in the ways we’re accustomed to thinking.
What if prayer is about the prayor more than the prayee? What if it’s about transforming ourselves rather than prevailing upon God for something? Wesley himself spent two hours a day in prayer and said,
One great office of prayer is… to exercise our dependence on God; to increase our desire of the things we ask for, to make us so sensible of our wants, that we may never cease wrestling till we have prevailed for the blessing.”
That is, prayer makes us more aware of what we need. And prayer helps us to know what is worthy of our desires: “nothing being fit to have a place in our desires which is not fit to have a place in our prayers.” That is, if you feel uncomfortable praying for something, then perhaps the desire itself is something to look into.
In both instances, Wesley is pointing out that prayer works some change within the life of the person praying. It makes us more aware of our need, it places our thoughts before us, it gives us courage to strive after the blessings we seek. It is not about prevailing upon a reluctant God who will only give us what we ask for if we beg.
I believe that prayer creates a “God-space”in us. Prayer opens up our spirits to God’s presence, allowing God to some room in our souls. And that’s where the change begins.
In our Thursday night healing service, we are fond of pointing out that healing does not mean “curing”—that we don’t mean that everyone who comes to services with the sniffles will walk away afterwards cold-free. But, we emphasize spiritual healing, coming to peace with the things life gives us and opening ourselves up to the possibilities. In so doing, however, we affirm the possibility of the miraculous. We do not deny God the power to make a difference through curing. And in fact, when we open ourselves up to God’s healing power and accept that we may have to face our afflictions, paradoxically, is when real healing can take place. When curing can take place.
In the same way, when we open ourselves up to God through prayer—not in an effort to cajole God into doing what we want—but in an effort to open up a God-space in our souls, we may find ourselves empowerd and blessed in ways we hadn’t realized possible, such that the very thing we seek flows out of this letting go of the thing we seek. It was a Scottish devotion-writer named Oswald Chambers who wrote: “Our ordinary views of prayer are not found in the New Testament. We look upon prayer as a means for getting something for ourselves; the Bible idea of prayer is that we may get to know God Himself.” Prayer first changes us and allows us to come into fuller communion with God. By that communion, God works God’s purposes in the world. In our praying, we seek not to get God to do what we want, but seek to be the people God wants us to be.
We have developed some bad habits about prayer. We have imagined that prayer is some kind of system for getting the things we want or need. In so doing we convince ourselves that the one we petition is a despot, or a Santa figure, or like ourselves: unjust, inattentive, in need of cajoling, bargaining, promising, and pestering.
But God is not like an emperor of old, with whom we must gain audience and before whom we must lay our petitions. God is not like a unrighteous judge who responds only because we convince him we will not go away quietly.
God knows our needs. God knows our desires. God seeks our well-being. And when we pray, we open our souls up to encounter this God. When we pray, we create a God-space within us, that helps us to see ourselves more clearly. That helps us to be more aware of our own need, our own dependence. That helps us to face the road ahead with faith, because we have opened ourselves to that divine presence.
And when we do that, we find that we are transformed. The prayers we pray to get what we want do not change our lives as much as opening ourselves up to the God who can transform those very lives. And being transformed ourselves, we become agents of a transformation of the world itself, changing it into the very thing we would have prayed for.