Thursday, September 20, 2012

Prayer, Part 1: "Yes, No, Later."

Through the years I have seen and heard spiritual leaders talk about how God answers our prayers.
God's answer is either;

If you're human, prayer is confusing and difficult. Theology like yes-no-later often makes it even harder for me.

My issue isn't intent. I used to say this same thing when people asked about God's response to our prayers and believed I was understanding things accurately and was being helpful. So understand, I'm not saying people who offer the yes-no-later solution are trying to do any harm. I am simply saying I don't think they are thinking about it very deeply. I also think this is yet another way we try and make God do our will.

My hang up with this trifecta is that it uses the same rationale as the Magic 8 Ball. The answers are vague enough to demand interpretation and, in my estimate, depend almost entirely on the one shaking the ball or saying the prayer. You can apply this to anyone or anything.

Pray to your wrist watch and ask it for a much-needed raise at work. Should you get a raise, you can posit your watch has given you a yes. Praise Timex. If it doesn't happen, you can say the watch has answered no. But you could also surmise that it had said "not yet" and hold out hope for the next day. All no's can be not yets. Which means everything is a yes, no matter the request, given time and enough positive disposition. A year later, you get the raise, and the not yet has become a yes. Or the first day you didn't get the raise, but instead are fired. You could say that was a no in its concreteness. But the next job gives a penny more an hour. AHA! You can now retrospectively call what was a no a yes or a not yet. Clever watch.

Whether we're talking about owning something, our health, a relationship...the yes-no-later theology is quite often really a matter of imagination, and certainly isn't the exclusive rights of faithful Christ-followers.

I've come to see this as a misunderstanding.

Prayer is certainly inclusive of asking for things. Jesus says multiple times that asking for things is part of our relationship with him. As such, I ask for things all the time. I don't know why I get or don't get what I ask for, and the formulas don't hold up. So, as I ask, I've begun asking why I think I want what I'm requesting. So every ask is two requests for me now, I guess.
Over all, I am struck with the fact that in passages found in John 14, 15 and 16, Jesus says "whatever you ask in my name will be given you." Asking in Jesus' name means requesting in accordance with his reputation. "God, I want and ask like Jesus wants and asks..." is how I think of it as I pray. I try and keep in mind while asking for things the Name in which I am praying has a reputation for having no known address, for having no possessions listed anywhere, for having friends that were hard to trust when it most mattered, for having family that thought he was nuts, for being unattractive, for serving people while they plotted to ruin him, and for being judged guilty for things he wasn't involved with. Frankly, I'd rather pray in Brad Pitt's name most days. My default, uninspired prayer is that my family and I would remain in a bubble of unthreatened, undemanding luxury. That's not evil. It just isn't asking for things in accordance with Messiah.

The misunderstanding goes deeper than this. Requesting, or petitioning, is not just a part, but a minority part of prayer as I've come to think of it. And it's shrinking with time. This, I concede, probably has in part to do with living in material abundance and not feeling a survivor's desperation. But then again my friends and mentors in developing countries also seem to let petitioning drop off as they mature. Prayer has become mostly a setting of my mind on the things of God, rather than the things of my anxious list.

Paul writes to his brothers in sisters in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to "pray ceaselessly". On one hand this may have been a colorful exaggeration to drive home prayer's importance. But understanding our faith through a mystical, meditative tradition that lauds seeing over blindness, Paul was probably talking about staying in a constant state of awareness to reality. In this, Paul is saying "stay tuned-in beyond your normal way of bumbling through life on mere instinct." Praying ceaselessly doesn't make much sense in a faith that teaches peace and contentment if it's mainly asking for things. Every ask is a complaint about current circumstances. This same Paul said he'd learned to be content in all circumstances, so telling others to be in a constant state of requesting different circumstances is not just paradoxical for me. It's schizophrenic.

This is why I think that prayer and meditation and awareness and renewed thinking are all different ways of saying the same thing. It's also why I seldom think of prayer as a list of things I am trying to get from God, where I must be careful to use proper wording, technique and demeanor so God will feel more apt to give a solid "yes". Oh, and I have to tag on the "In Jesus' Name" so as to compel God to do say yes even if he didn't want to. This is a huge shift for many people, I know. It was and is huge for me. What is prayer if we're not clicking off things we think we'd better off having than not having.
Interestingly, when Paul said pray ceaselessly, he said it this way:

"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (ESV)

Be constantly aware, thanking God for things as they are. 
Feel free to express your wants and what you believe to be your needs. 
But God's will is that regardless of what does or doesn't happen, become a man or woman that isn't subject to things going any certain way. 
This is God's will, presented to you though the template of Christ's life!

I find myself asking God to help me become even one molecule more like Christ, regardless of the state of things and people around me. This is me asking God to keep me awake, and, frankly, less requesting. Less needy. More grateful for things as they are, and mindful of the role I play in bringing about that which I only passively prayed for in the past.
I ask that my kids would have their needs met, and that my wife and I would become ever clearer about what that means in this culture.
I ask that things outside my control would be covered divinely, and that God would remind me to be brave enough to handle everything else.
I ask to be reminded in real time that if I got everything I thought I wanted, I'd become far worse a wretch than I already am.

Consider praying the Lord's prayer  as a template today. As you do, note it doesn't open with our agenda, but our place in His. Then embrace that children do ask of their Parents. But to do so in accordance with the family Name means asking for ways to become more like the Parent and less like the kid. No matter the circumstances. It's a hard prayer. But finding out we're in control when we shake the 8 Ball and wind our watch is far harder.

"Unfortunately, in the West prayer became something functional; something you did to achieve a desired effect—which puts you back in charge. As soon as you make prayer a way to get something, you’re not moving into a new state of consciousness. It's the same old consciousness. “How can I get God to do what I want God to do?” It's the egocentric self still deciding what it needs, but now often trying to manipulate God too.... It pulls God inside of my agenda instead of letting God pull me inside of his. This is still the small old self at work." 
-Richard Rohr

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