Sunday, July 1, 2012

Prickly Prayer Problems (Part One)

I have wondered about what prayers God is or should be interested in. Having grown up as an American in an evangelical/charismatic environment, I learned to pray for a variety of issues that in retrospect were generally self-serving and certainly non-transferable to other parts of the less-privileged world. I truly appreciated when a song would come on the radio that I could attach to God blessing me in that moment. I valued as a sign of God's favor when car troubles occurred in ways that didn't inconvenience me as much as they could have. I'm sure there are countless other events that occurred in my life that without batting an eye I attributed to being a Christian. The result of such an interpretation undoubtedly inspired gratitude and solidified my commitment to the God of the (my) universe.

Was this bad? Should my theology embrace a God who would encourage my narcissism if in fact it cultivated deeper worship and discipleship on my part? And did I mention that my evangelistic fervor was heightened as I sought to share my "testimonies" in hopes that other favored Americans could likewise discover joy unspeakable and full of glory.

As I continue on my chaotic journey of faith, I find myself challenged with an Americanized theology from which my spiritual system is being purged. This process has included musings on what believers should bother God about with their prayers. A few years ago our community was experiencing a severe drought. Naturally, it was a topic of conversation and concern in almost every setting and interaction. It was an inevitability for the Christians to look to God for relief.

The church I attended was no different and prayer for rain was a part of our weekly liturgy. A local Christian "celebrity" decided to invite concerned people of faith to a community prayer event at the local town square to beseech God to break the drought. This event attracted a goodly amount of attention. The local newspaper was quick to make it front page material. It was especially noteworthy when ten minutes before the scheduled prayer meeting we received a brief cloud burst that was over before the prayers of those congregated at the plaza were able to ascend.

Needless to say, people fell over themselves in the rush to glorify God and their prayers for the rain. It would appear that this apparent answer to the desperate prayers of a community whose grass was drying out had the effect of strengthening faith, discipleship and congregational morale. I had issues with this, however, and I was pretty quick to voice them to my fellow Christians, starting with the motives of this prayer event.

There appeared to me that the driving force behind why anyone really wanted rain was the fact that indeed our yards were looking horrible and we were only allowed to water once a week. Otherwise, nothing else was affected. We could still drink as much water as we wanted, we could shower as much as necessary, and toilets still flushed. It didnt seem to me that God should give attention to prayers for greener and fuller grass in our suburban sprawl.

But then I was told by a fellow Christian that she knew of a family that could lose their farm and livelihood if it the drought continued. On the surface, that sounded like a very worthy reason to pray for rain since we would all aggree that God wouldn't want a family to starve or suffer. But I challenged the statement with what appeared to me to be a more God-worthy reply. Since we cannot be sure that rain will or won't come, and since we have no ability to control meteorological events (and quite possibly at the risk of sounding Deistic, perhaps the weather is something that simply happens as a part of God's initial and natural design), what does God expect from those who claim to be a part of the Kingdom that transcends earthly events and parameters?

In the case of a family about to lose everything because the weather won't cooperate or worse, because our prayers have failed to motivate God to intervene, it seems biblically appropriate to suggest that the community of faith would surround and support a family in crisis. Did not the first century church operate in this manner when they naturally cared for anyone who had a need?

It seems to me that we hope that God will rescue us from what is clearly our responsibility. If we can pray and ask God to manipulate barometric pressure so that we can have an abundance of rain, then we are off the hook to have to intervene ourselves. We want and expect God to rescue us from what it appears is ours to do. Perhaps our tangible involvement is a better direct representation of God than any drop of rain could be.

This "push back" to my believing friend further entrenched me in a way of thinking about prayer and what God cares that we pray about. I boldly asked why if a scheduled prayer meeting by a local celebrity that by all estimation produced the desired result (albeit small and relatively insignificant in light of the larger need) was there not a daily prayer meeting at the town square until the drought was over? In fact not only were there no more scheduled town prayer events for rain, there was no more rain the entire summer! You'd think that if the initial event had the effect for which the entire community was spiritually aroused, and that it appeared to be clear and convincing evidence that those who gathered had the ear of God, why wasn't there rabid follow up?

Perhaps more disturbing was the fact that since God apparently was listening and eager to intervene into areas of our life such as lawncare, why had the same celebrity (or anyone for that matter) not suggested a prayer event to seek God's intervention on behalf of human trafficking around the globe?  Since they had God's attention, why not go ahead and ask for something that might really matter? I wonder if anyone would have cared enough to show up.

When I offered this scenario to my fellow believers, I was told that the difference would be because human trafficking isn't on the front page of our paper like the drought is. To which I say, why isn't it? Is it because alleged citizens of God's Kingdom fail to share God's transcendent perspective? Somehow we have concluded that what is important to us is what is important to God and our myopia has reduced our amazingly transcendent and globally involved God to the dispenser of narcissistic answers to prayers that most of the inhabited world would consider insulting to waste as prayer.

On the other hand, perhaps God is about such mundane and Americanized concerns and my theology needs to accept this as the way God is.

I'm not done with probing prickly problem with prayer. Part 2 will delve into another testimony of God answering a prayer that raises more practical and theological issues.

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