Monday, January 11, 2010

When things don't turn out the way they should...

I pray often. But as I've posted somewhat recently, understanding prayer and how much God intervenes in the world has been a real struggle for me. When hundreds of people prayed and my sister's cyst still appeared to have returned after her surgery, I got frustrated. And when literally thousands of people prayed for days, and my friend Anthony still did not come down from Mt. Hood (alive or otherwise) this fall, I was devastated. My questions get bigger, it seems, and not smaller, as I've begun a journey through seminary.

In the bathroom, I've been keeping Joan Chittester's book "The Breath of the Soul" on hand (borrowed from a classmate), which is a tiny book with two-page chapters on prayer (much more than this on prayer at a given time, and I have trouble making any of it stick). Just the other day, I read a chapter that really soothed my spirit. Below, I've quoted from the chapter (called "Humility" - something I can always use more of), because not only do I think it may help someone reading this one day, but because I want to come back to this (after I return the book) when my questions grow bigger yet again:

"We spend so much of our lives pretending to be God it is often difficult to remember that we aren't. We proclaim it to the office staff, we remind the family of it by the day, we ply friends with stories of our supernatural victories over small children and store clerks and neighbors. Even early in the process when we go to prayer, we take with us the same attitude of the imperious and the agitated. We order people and things to do our bidding and make our worlds perfect. We secretly expect God to do the same. As Aldous Huxley put it, "the Third Petition of the Lord's Prayer is repeated daily by millions who have not the slightest intention of letting anyone's will be done but their own.

"But then, somewhere in life, we find ourselves facing walls that will not move. We have a child who needs special care now - and will need special care all their lives. We lose the savings of a lifetime and all the retirement plans go with them. We develop a chronic disease that will not end our life but will certainly limit it severely. We watch the business fail through no fault of our own but so far beyond us there's not a thing we can do to save it.

"Now, we find ourselves new people. We have become the spiritual beggars we never before understood. Except that even begging is useless now. And we know it.

"So for what do we pray at a time like this? In fact, why bother?

"The questions are important ones. It is possible that there is nothing that teaches prayer more quickly, more effectively than having nothing to pray for that can possibly happen. We are lost in the land of nowhere to go but God, not to change the circumstances of our lives but to change our whole attitude about what life is really about.

"We learn now in the throes of a heavy heart that the grace simply to be may be one of the greatest graces of life. We discover in the silent arms of God that it is enough to be loved, to be understood, rather than "saved," from the things that are their own kind of salvation.

"Sickness saves us from glorifying the cosmetics of life.

"Need saves us from isolating ourselves from the rest of the world.

"The limitations of others save us from self-centeredness.

"Powerlessness saves us from the sickness of arrogance.

"Then, when we go to prayer we go, not to be given something but to be quiet, to develop a heartbeat of acceptance, to become the calm that is calming. Humility makes listeners of us. And in listening to everything that happens to us, we find God's word for us."

I certainly believe that it is not wrong to pray for our heart's desires (to make the sick well, to mend a broken business, etc), and the Bible is full of examples of this in people of great faith. Sometimes God answers the way they ask, and sometimes God does not. But it is in the "not," that we must find a way to pull through, to return to prayer without returning jaded or cynical. Only in a good measure of humility, of admitting we are not God nor do we know better than God, does this seem possible.

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