Monday, October 16, 2017

Is Prayer Bogus?


            Here is the thing. Prayer—at least as imagined or practiced by most people—is bogus. And when they stop to think about it, people get this. In a roundabout way, even Christians understand this. When asked about unanswered prayer they shuffle their feet, scratch their heads, and wring their hands. And eventually they come up with explanations for unanswered prayer that feature mystery, inscrutability, or their own lack of faith—answers designed more to justify prayer while getting God off the hook than they are designed to make sense.

            Non-Christians, on the other hand, laugh. Facebook is full of their memes. A mouse praying, “And please don’t let the cat hurt me.”
Or Morpheus (looking inscrutable himself) saying, “What if I told you prayer doesn’t help disaster victims?” And, of course, there is the Jean-Luc Picard's famous meme, with apologies for the language, "Why the fuck are you praying to the same God who let this shit happen in the first place?"

             Of course, some people believe their prayers have been answered, at least occasionally. So, they keep at it. It looks to me, however, that what is really happening here is intermittent reinforcement. You will remember all about this from your Psych 101 class. A desired behaviour can be cultivated in someone even if that behaviour is only infrequently rewarded. So, for example, a door-to-door salesperson may learn to put up with many disinterested potential clients, and even the occasional slammed door, so long as the salesperson makes at least the occasional sale. Or again, someone may play the slot machines—and even lose a lot over time—in the hope of a big win, especially if that person is rewarded in the meantime with occasional small wins.

            Add in a few Bible texts that seem to suggest that if you pray long enough, with enough energy, and with great faith you will get what you want, and bingo, offering others your “thoughts and prayers,” becomes popular, low-risk pastime.

            I will not argue that there is no place for prayer. When I was in seminary, I was taught that the model congregational prayer, for example, should include adoration, confession and thanksgiving along with supplication and intercession. The Psalmists’ most common type of prayer was actually lament—sad dirges about everything that goes wrong.

            But people usually fast when it comes to confession or lamentation and choose for a steady diet of supplication and intercession instead. When it comes to prayer, if we’re not praying like soldiers in foxholes, we are usually praying like kids in a candy store. Most Christian prayer is mostly about getting what Christians want.

            In a further defense of prayer, though, my wife reminded me this evening that prayer is more than just getting in a word in with God. Prayer can be emotionally satisfying. For example, prayer with another person can be a very, very intimate way of opening your hearts not only to God, but to each other. Prayer alone in your closet can be very cleansing or centering or promote self-examination. And any prayer can make one feel as if he or she is coming into the presence of God—a holy moment, possibly—even if we have no idea what God really thinks of our prayers.

            I agree with her. Though praying for these reasons is not what most people aim for when they pray, and though these motivations for prayer are not often discussed in theologies of prayer, that does not mean they are not good reasons. They are.

            Ultimately, though, the issue for me is that people only intermittently get what they want out of prayer, and then fool themselves into believing that next time they may be more fortunate, all the while rationalizing that such beliefs are somehow consistent with (their favorite) Biblical texts. For me, it looks like prayer is a beautiful idea, like a perpetual motion machine, that just can’t do what Christians usually ask of it.

            And then, leaving prayer aside, I begin to ask the same questions about God in general. As a child, I memorized these words from the catechism. “Providence is the almighty and ever-present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and so rules them that . . . all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.”

            Really? What good father does not heal his children when he can, does not bless them with plenty, or pluck them from tsunamis, or encourage them with success when he can? Even Jesus said, “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11).

            Really? Where is this Father?

            I don’t know, for sure. That is why I’ve turned to John Caputo’s ideas about “the weakness of God,” for answers, of late. You see, maybe the problem with prayer is not that we want good stuff, but that God just can’t deliver, regardless of what Jesus seems to suggest in Matthew 7.


            But more on that Father in the next post.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Fear and Dread of You: A Modern Flood Story


            Post-apocalyptic, dystopian novels are all the rage right now. One of the best-known ones is Margaret Atwood’s early book The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu’s television series based on the novel won five Emmy’s this year, including Best Dramatic Series. But there is also Atwood’s more recent Maddaddam trilogy, Stephen King’s The Stand, Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games, and the Silo series of books by Hugh Howey. Even The Game of Thrones is in its own way dystopian and alt-apocalyptic. These books are all about the end of the world and how people do—or don’t—survive it.

What a Pleasant Story!
            The best-selling post-apocalyptic story of all time is found in the Bible. It is the story of Noah’s Ark. In the Flood story, nearly all the world’s population is killed in a global flood that makes Hurricane Harvey or Irma or Maria seem like spring showers by comparison. Only a dozen or so people, Noah’s family, survive Noah’s flood. The Flood Story is told with a minimum of detail, but it is easy to imagine what it suggests: doomed humans crying for mercy at the shut door of the Ark. Drowned bodies floating everywhere. As in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, not a bird or butterfly nor even a windswept leaf flitters across the sky. In the Bible’s post-apocalyptic Flood Story, everyone and everything dies, except for Noah and his family and a few animals.

            So, it’s interesting, don’t you think, that we rarely think of the Noah’s Flood story as a post-apocalyptic, dystopian story. In fact, we mostly remember it in the exact opposite way. The story of how animals, two by two, enter or exit the ark is found in every children’s Bible story book. And the pictures are pretty, aren’t they! So many happy bumble bees and monkeys, parrots and chameleons!

            There is no hint, in these pictures of the Flood Story, that it was a cataclysm. Given the actual story in the Bible, these pictures make about as much sense as putting party dresses and tuxes on Hurricane Irma survivors holed up in some stadium. In doing so, these pretty pictures also deny the hard practical and theological issues at the core of the Flood Story.

            At first glance, the hard issue at the core of the Flood Story might seem to be the question, “How can a loving God do such an evil thing?” Theologians call answers to this sort of question, “theodicy.” But actually, that is not the hard question the flood story tackles—at least for whoever wrote it.

            That’s because the Biblical Flood Story, and its earlier Babylonian and Akkadian versions, were written in an era, more than four thousand years ago, when people just presumed that the gods were responsible for everything that happened. Religious scholars call this stage of religious development the “Age of Enchantment.” The gods made babies and decided when old men and women would die; the gods sent plagues and droughts and rain and harvests. They might be persuaded but they were also unaccountable. In that prescientific tradition, the only way to tell the Noah’s Ark story was to make God the one who sent the flood. And while we might find that portrait of God objectionable today (I certainly do), the writers and audience of that time could not even have imagined a different scenario.

            What did surprise the first audience for this story, I think, was its emphasis on human morality and responsibility. In chapter six, before the flood, we are told that humans did evil things. They did so much evil that it stunk all the way to heaven. The earth was, quote, “filled with violence.” The world’s population was corrupted to the core and needed to be cleansed, says the writer of Genesis.

            This is a new thing in the Hebrew version of the Flood story. In the more ancient Babylonian and Akkadian versions of the same story, God destroys the world with a flood not because humans are doing evil, but because there are too many of them, and because their partying and noise making were keeping the gods awake.

            In Noah’s story, however, not only does God want more humans—we twice read that Noah’s family should be fruitful and multiply—but God wants humans to be good. This concern with morality, with human righteousness, is a near first in human literature. And in the Flood Story, it is the main, surprising point of the whole narrative. God sees that “the wickedness of humankind was great, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their heart was only evil.” So, for that reason, God decides to destroy the world. Except that, “Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” Noah was, quote, “a righteous man, blameless in his generation.” He did, quote, “all that God commanded him.” In Noah’s story, both the evil that most humans do, and the good that a few humans do, are the story’s central concerns. And so, along the way, we learn that doing good is what God wants from humans.

            Now, according to this myth, after the flood, and after Noah pleases God with aromatic burnt-offerings, God promises never to destroy the world’s population and flora and fauna with a flood again. God gives humans the rainbow, too, as a sign of his promise to make sure the earth is never destroyed again. But then, in chapter nine, there follow some very strange words. God says to Noah, “The fear and dread of you [humans] shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered . . .”

            As the story of the flood ends, with its focus on human responsibility to do good, God warns humans that because they are powerful, because they are moral agents who can bless or curse the world they live in, the dread of humans lies over creation. Or, to put it in plainer English, because humans are powerful, all of creation is going to be afraid of humanity. God promises that he will never destroy the earth again, but the story doesn’t say—just warns--what people might do. And creation’s plants and animals know it, and so they are afraid. The Flood Story ends with a reminder that it is up to humans to do good—or bad, for better or for worse, for all of the earth.

            Hurricanes like Harvey, Irma, and Maria are in the news. For weeks, now, headlines have been all about people on rooftops, people drowning, levees breaking, record rainfalls, islands evacuated, and more on the way. We’ve also heard President Trump say he would do a better job of rescuing people than any president ever before . . . though he said nothing about what humans have probably done to influence this run of bad weather in the first place. So floods are on our minds.

            And the central concern of the Biblical Flood Story—human agency and responsibility, human power to do good or ill to the earth—ought still be our central concern. Because, figuratively, anyway, the dread of humanity continues to rest on every animal of the earth, on every biome, on every forest and sea. And for good reason.

            We have given creation lots of reasons to dread us. We have ravaged this planet. From the collapse of the cod stock in Atlantic Canada to the poisoning of Pacific salmon stocks through the inadvertent release of farmed Atlantic Salmon on the West Coast last month; from global warming due to human greenhouse gasses that are likely a factor in the increasing number and severity of hurricanes, to the die off of tens of thousands of square miles of Western forests due to the fact that winters are no longer severe enough to kill borer beetles; from the lack of building regulations that make Houston a trap for flood damage to the excess of plastic garbage in the seas, killing all sorts of flying and swimming and creeping wildlife—no wonder the dread of us humans lies heavy on creation because we have shown, again and again, that, overall, taking care of creation is not a human priority.

            And matters will improve only if we understand one of the key themes at the heart of the story of the flood: the plight of this planet is our responsibility, and not God’s. We are this planet’s moral agents. We are the ones who can pass laws and change habits and create infrastructure, and only we can pay the price—in personal habits and taxes—to make things right, or not. We are the parents and aunts and uncles of the children and great grandchildren who will live with what we do fifty and a hundred years from now. Our lifestyles and choices about whether foreign aid should be measured in tanks and guns or schools and agricultural technology make all the difference in Sub-Saharan Africa, and make the difference for how many refugees from Africa will trek to Europe or here to escape hunger, poverty, and violence caused, in no small measure, by our economic choices, our global warming, our power politics and consumerism. 

            The Flood Story, in its historical context, wasn't concerned with theodicy. But the Flood Story,  in our era, does invite us to reflect on anthrodicy--on explanations or justifications or condemnations for the evil set loose in the world by we humans.


            I wish I could write, “don’t worry, God will never destroy the world again. All dystopian post-apocalyptic novels and movies are just fiction.” But I cannot, because the point of the Flood Story is that even if God isn’t going to destroy it all, it is actually now up to us to decide whether we will usher in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future for our planet—or bless it and our descendants after us.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

How Scripture Sounds to Me--It Whispers


            Imagine, for a moment, a school library. This isn’t just any library, though. It is, rather, a majestic Harry Potter, Hogwarts sort of library—a cavernous room in an old building with shining dark wooden tables and leaded stained-glass windows. Golden brass door knobs and chandeliers hang from the ceilings. And, here in this library, all is silent, except that . . .

. . . two teens, Malik and Jenna, are whispering to each other. Looking at them, I notice that Malik is looking at Jenna with great intensity, and that Jenna is blushing. I notice that as they whisper, back and forth, the students at the table behind them are trying to listen in. I also notice that the librarian is looking at them, and that he is on the cusp of shushing them.

Whispers Matter
In spite of how everything about the library screams, “quiet!” Malik and Jenna are whispering. Why?

Well . . .whispers matter, don’t they? Malik and Jenna whisper back and forth because what they have to say to each other is worth taking the risk to say—we whisper about important stuff that has to be heard, even if it is risky to do so. Alex and Jenna whisper to each other even though the Librarian might snap at them or even send them out. They whisper to each other because what they have to say is something they just have to get off of their chests, even if others are trying to listen in, and might gossip or laugh at them. We whisper when it really matters, when the situation is urgent and we can’t wait.

            And, whispers are intimate. Jenna’s blush suggests that Alex might be saying something very personal. Maybe he is asking her on a date. Maybe he is telling her that he doesn’t want to go a dance with her because he is, after all, gay. Maybe he is telling Jenna that her best friend is angry with her. Who knows? But whispers, almost by definition, are intimate. Even in an empty bedroom, with windows closed, and when no one but our lover is within miles of us, we whisper when we say, “I love you.” Whispers are intimate.

Whispers also demand attention. Malik and Jenna are not actually making a lot of noise as they whisper to each other. They don’t want others to hear, after all. But still, the librarian is irritated and wants to shush them. Malik and Jenna, just because they are whispering, demand attention. The kids at the next table want to overhear what they’re saying and so the strain to listen, too. A good teacher or preacher or politician knows how to shift gears from loud to conversational to just a whisper, so that everyone in the audience is sitting on the edge of their seats, trying to hear every word. There is an old African proverb that says the whisper of a pretty girl can be heard further than the roar of a lion—whispers, though quiet, demand attention.

Many whispers—not always, but not uncommonly—many whispers are subversive. In fact, what Malik really wants Jenna to do is cut their next class—Biology—so that they can go to Starbucks and study for their upcoming History test together. Now, Malik’s plan to skip class is against the rules. If the librarian hears of it, he will probably pass this information on to the Biology teacher. Jenna and Malik will get detentions. So, they whisper their plans to each other just because they are subversive. President Obama reminded us of how whispers can be  subversive in a campaign speech. “Yes we can. [These words were] whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights. Yes we can.”

Whispers also tend to give voice to hard truths we do not want to hear, but should. I don’t know if this was the case with Malik and Jenna, mind you, unless the hard truth was Jenna’s objection to Malik’s plan, when Jenna said, “Malik we can’t, we’ll be caught, we’ll get a detention.” But Shel Silverstein has a good poem about how hard truths are often whispered. The poem, titled, “The Little Boy and the Old Man,” goes like this:

Said the little boy, Sometimes I drop my spoon.
Said the little old man, I do that too.
The little boy whispered, I wet my pants.
I do too, laughed the old man.
Said the little boy, I often cry.
The old man nodded. So do I.
But worst of all, said the boy, it seems
Grown-ups don't pay attention to me.
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
I know what you mean, said the little old man.

Hard truths are often whispered.

And finally, whispers are the best way to speak great truths. Malik insists, in his whisper to Jenna, that if they study together, they will pass. Not the greatest truth perhaps, but true enough. An old Rabbinic saying says that “Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow.’” It is a lovely image. I would amend that saying, however, so that it reads: “In scripture God bends over each of us, and whispers, ‘you are beloved.’”

            I began this message by describing a vast and beautiful library that nevertheless somehow, mysteriously, called attention to even the faintest whispers. The Bible is like that too. The Bible is a library of spiritual books in which, if we pay careful attention, we can hear the divine whisper of God.

            Scripture itself suggests as much. In 2 Peter 1, for example, the Apostle Peter (or whoever wrote this book) says, “You will do well to be attentive to [scripture] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

            These ancient lamps were mere sputtering wicks floating in a bowl of olive oil. That’s why you had to be attentive to them. Unlike our modern electric flashlights or chqndeliers, these ancient lamps were dim, smoky affairs, just a whisper of struggling light, barely enough to see your feet and prevent you from stumbling in the dark. No much light at all.

            If there is a God, he or she has certainly not rearranged the stars in such a way as to leave no doubt about his or her existence or program. And in scripture, we have, at best, a dim light, Elijah’s “gentle whisper.” We might wish for more, but it’s all we have.

            But for all the reasons given above, the scriptural whisper is compelling. Because, you see . . .  from the Sermon on the Mount to the story of a mysterious resurrection, what God whispers matters most for life and hope. God’s whispers are meant for me, intimately, even as other people try to listen in. And yet, this whispering God demands my attention, my life, my all. This divine whisper is subversive too, calling me to act justly and to love mercy and to live humbly—no matter what our culture shouts about how it is really all about me, myself, and I. The divine whisper in scripture suggest that there are harder truths we need to understand about weaknesses and shortcomings if we are going to be all that we can be.

            But always, on nearly every page, in each of its many books (almost, at least), what the Bible whispers that matters most, the Bible’s greatest truth, is that since we are beloved, we can also love others.

            And when scripture’s whispering is done, that is enough for me.