Listen To Article
Once in a while my writing for this blog hits a nerve. I’m not entirely sure why. I experience blogging a bit like preaching in that sense. In any case, that happened last month when I posted, “Please, don’t pray for me.” It went viral or as viral as anything I’ve ever written. The Washington Post picked up an adapted version of it, and the comments kept pouring in while I was away on vacation last week.
Responses to that blog appeared in three venues: my Facebook feed, this site, and the Washington Post Acts of Faith site. The first set was by far the most appreciative, coming from people who know me best; the third set was by far the most critical (and that’s a generous way to characterize those comments); and the second set the most mixed. Here on this blog questions were raised respectfully and disagreement expressed clearly. For that I’m grateful.
All this has led to two currents in my own reflections in recent weeks: one having to do with the nature of blogging; one having to do with prayer.
In terms of the former, it’s an interesting thing, to blog. I’ve been doing it for about three years now and somehow manage to squeeze it in between myriad other demands on my time. I’m not even sure I know how to blog, to be honest. It’s unlike what I was trained to do as a pastor (for example, sermon writing) and often feels contrary to academic writing. There’s a reason it took Karl Barth over 9,000 words to write his Church Dogmatics, and even then, he wasn’t finished! Much nuance is left out when writing 800 words. I’m aware of this each time I blog. I’ve chosen, quite intentionally, to risk inadequacy as well as misunderstanding for the sake of a hoped-for greater good, the sharing of some nugget of wisdom that holds truth and meaning for others.
As for the latter, I admittedly ruminate on the critical responses more so than the overwhelming expressions of gratitude and digital shouts of AMEN. While such is the nature of the mind, it’s a habit I’d like to change. So I’ll begin with the resonance. Faithful Christians, including church leaders and ordained ministers, have experienced something akin to what I wrote about, a use of prayer that turned prayer into something else, or least something that veered from the origin and telos of prayer, that is, union and communion with God and one another through Christ. All of us need support and solidarity and care. Prayer ought to be imbued with this. At times, however, it isn’t. Many good and faithful Christians do not want to be on the receiving end of such prayer. Why wouldn’t we all listen to this longing and take it to heart?
In a recent Leadership Journal article, “Praying for Someone with Incurable Cancer,” my colleague Todd Billings discusses the pain of being on the receiving end of prayer that did not take him or the fullness of his situation into consideration. Prayers for a complete cure rather than for deep remission of his cancer, he poignantly writes, “seemed less like an act of faith than a denial of the losses that I was undergoing.”
One of the concerns raised about my claims about prayer can be summarized as this: are you saying that we ought not pray for strangers or that we can only pray rightly for someone if we know them well? The simple answer is this: no, that’s not what I was saying. We don’t have to be acquainted with another person for any set amount of time before we actually have fellowship with them, before we commune with God with them. A stranger can take to heart another’s deepest needs and the closest of friends can fail to do so. As I discussed in the follow-up blog, prayer for those halfway across the globe, whose names we will never know, can emerge from vulnerability and compassion. It can spring from and move us toward more genuine solidarity with others in their suffering.
At the end of the day, God will be God. Just as God takes the fallible speech of a preacher and enables it to bear God’s own word, so the Spirit takes our prayers, feeble as they are, and lifts them to God’s ear. No prayer of ours escapes sin and finitude; no prayer reflects fully the mystery of our belonging to one another; no prayer is guaranteed to move God to act in a particular way in the here-and-now. Nevertheless, prayer is a discipline to be undertaken with great care and attention to the humanity of those seeking it. We have a responsibility in this regard, and we can examine our motives and be open to receiving honest feedback from one another. In this way, too, we honor and commune with each other with humility and hope.