...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Jesus is not your fairy godmother.

Studying scripture yesterday morning, we got into a disagreement about the nature of prayer. The text was Luke 18:1-8, the parable of the persistant widow who continues bringing her claim before the unjust judge. Sick of her constant petitions, the judge finally grants her justice just to shut her up. If even the unjust judge can be swayed, Jesus seems to be saying, how much more happy and swift will the just and loving God be to grant his people justice?

I've always felt uncomfortable with the praying for specific things. I've done it, obviously, but even as I prayed while studying for my Game Theory final, I knew that God didn't really care what grade I got, nor do I think it's realistic to expect God to make the test easier for me. I don't think God cares who wins a reality TV show, and even my prayers for Kerry to win the election were selfish. I've heard people sincerely pray for a parking space, and I find that so shallow that it verges on ridiculous. What, the rest of the people are circling the block because God doesn't really love them? Please. God is in the tub. Y'all know what I'm talking about.

I object to what I see as the overfunctionalization of prayer: praying for specific things, as though Jesus or God were some sort of cosmic Santa Claus jumping down chimneys with a giant bag o' blessings. I think prayer should be based on substantive faith, not functional faith: faith in who God is, not what God does for us. As a result, I think prayer should be focused on entering in to the Divine Mystery. When I pray, my goal is to come closer to unity with God and to approach the Divine Mind, not to ask for specific things, although I do that too sometimes. If God is omnipotent, than he would already know what we need and want; I don't think we need to point things out to God, as though he's in the dark or something. When I prayed for a decent grade in Game Theory, I didn't honestly think that God would give me an A: I prayed because it made me feel better.

In Exodus, Moses went up to the mountain to wait and meet God; so too do I think that we, in prayer, should prepare ourselves to come face to face with the Divine Mystery. In other words, prayer, to me, is more about preparing my own heart for God and carving out a place for the Spirit in my own life than it is about trying to convince God to do something for me.

How does this relate to Luke 18:1-8? My objections were kind of shot down, as the leaders of our group argued that the widow is petitioning the judge for something specific: justice. Still, though, it feels different to pray for an intangible fruit of the Spirit, like justice, wisdom, strength, patience (all things that I pray for often, both for myself and others), than to ask God to do something specific like find a parking space or help someone throw the javelin farther or make a carrot grow bigger.

The author of Luke says that Jesus told the disciples the parable to encourage them to "pray always and not lose heart." I don't think that "pray always" means to keep up a running commentary on every single thing that goes on--I think it means to be, as much as we can, in a spirit of prayer: a spirit of compassion, openness to God and to humanity, and the peace that passes all understanding.

This trip is raising a lot of interesting theological questions. It would be a lot esier if I were an evangelical Christian instead of a liberal mainline Protestant, but then, as Rilke wrote, the things most worth doing are the difficult ones.