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Essay

On blogging, prayer, and blogging about prayer

By June 4, 2015 4 Comments
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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.

4 Comments

  • gary says:

    Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. —Jesus

    “Wow! Anything, Jesus? If I ask for anything in your name and do not doubt in my heart, it will happen?!!” How many Christians really believe that? The typical Christian prayer is asking Jesus to give us a good day, bless our food, thanking him for blessings, and asking him to keep our families safe. Amen.

    Why don’t we ask Jesus to place a package with a million bucks inside on our doorstep? Why didn’t we ask Jesus to put a new Porsche in the driveway? Why didn’t we ask Jesus to change our looks to that of a supermodel?

    Clergyman: You silly man. Jesus isn’t going to answer those prayers because none of those things are God’s will! Jesus will only answer your prayer if you ask for it in his name, if you do not doubt in your heart, and, if it is his will! Sheesh!

    But the Bible passage above doesn’t say anything about it having to be God’s will!

    Clergyman: Well, if you read the rest of the Bible, that is what it says.

    Ok, well how about if I pray for the following things. They are surely God’s will: Heal all the sick in the world today. Stop all the violence in the world today. End world starvation today.

    If I pray for these things they will be done, right?

    Clergyman: Silly, silly man. Humans have brought the pain and suffering of sickness, violence, and starvation upon themselves by their willful, sinful acts against God. God allows these things out of his righteous justice. It pains him greatly to watch this suffering day after day, year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia, but his righteousness demands mankind’s punishment. God will not answer those prayers.

    Ok, so adults are all wicked and sinful and deserve to suffer sickness, violence, and starvation because they have willfully sinned against God, but what about the little children? Surely God will answer these prayers for children: No child will die of starvation today. No child will die of sickness today.

    Clergyman: Silly, silly, silly man. God grieves to see children suffer from starvation and disease but this suffering is the consequence of their ancient ancestors’ wicked sin of eating God’s forbidden fruit.

    That doesn’t really seem fair, but…what about this: If children must die by disease and starvation, that is one thing, but surely it isn’t God’s will for little children to be brutally tortured, raped, and murdered. Surely God would answer my prayer for all torture, rape, and murder of little children to stop today so that they can die by natural causes, like disease, war, and starvation, don’t you think? Jesus wouldn’t want a little child to suffer so horribly in such a vile, horrific act when he has the power to stop it, would he?

    Clergyman: God’s ways are not our ways, my son.

    Dear Reader: So you see friends, Jesus only answers the easy stuff. That is why Christians don’t ask Jesus anything tough. We thank him for healing Aunt Hilda of her sinus infection, but don’t dare ask Jesus to heal the amputees. That would be really rude of us to be so demanding! Jesus only answers the fluff; the kind of stuff that would probably happen anyway… Hmm. They probably would happen anyway… Wait a minute. Maybe… Maybe…Jesus isn’t listening.

    Maybe Jesus isn’t there. Ever consider that, dear Christian?

    • seeker says:

      God created us to help each other, that’s why we have different talents and abilities. We are expected to use them for the greater good. He is listening, are you?

  • mstair says:

    “The fall of our species into this sinful reality has obstructed our ready access to God. Jesus, taking on human form, became acutely aware of this impediment and provided the method we are to use to restore connection – prayer. The gospels record for us numerous times when Jesus “departed to a lonely place” (Mark chapter 1), “slipped away to the wilderness” (Luke, chapter 4) “went off to the mountain” (Luke, chapter 5) where “He spent the whole night in prayer to God.” (Luke, chapter 6). Our Lord did not see inactive time devoted to prayer as wasted. He was modeling for us that prayer is the time in which the entire awareness of our existence is revealed. In prayer, we gain a glimpse into the eternal, we learn from God an ardent love for Him, for his Church and the ways we can love our brothers and sisters in faith.
     ”

    Excerpt From: Mike Stair. “On Earth As It Is In Heaven.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/DZeA8.l

  • Prayer is an act of asking for a favor with earnestness. The solemn addressing of the Supreme Being, consisting of adoration, confession of sins, supplication for mercy and forgiveness, intercession for blessings on others, and thanksgiving, or an expression of gratitude to God for His mercies and benefits.

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