Monday, July 29, 2013

Prayer as Communion with Almighty Love

proper 12

I was one of forty people who signed up for an introduction to Sociology class my freshman year in college. The first week the professor passed around a sheet of paper that listed twenty social issues – things like nuclear proliferation, legalizing marijuana, and prayer is school. Each student signed up to research and then argue a particular issue either pro or con. Over the course of the semester we made our presentations going up against the person who had signed up for the opposite position.

I remember vividly the day an intelligent, well-spoken young lady stood up to make the case for legal rights for battered women. She articulated her ideas thoughtfully and persuasively and backed them up with a myriad of statistics and citations. She sat down when finished and to the front of the room walked the stereotypical big, dumb jock. He stood before us and said, “I am here to argue against legal rights for battered women. The reason I took this position is that I sit in the back row in a seat next to the window. By the time the sign-up sheet got to me this was the only slot still open. I have thought and thought about it, but have not been able to come up with a single reason not to provide legal protection for battered women.” With that he sat down and, in my mind at least, earned an A on the assignment.

There is nothing acceptable, nothing redeemable, and certainly nothing funny about the abuse of women, and yet today’s reading from the Old Testament builds an entire theology around it. The bible employs many metaphors to describe the relationship between God and God’s people. A metaphor is a way of comparing a better known thing next to a lesser known thing in attempt to help people gain insight into what is lesser known. Some of the bible’s metaphors describing God as a parent and God’s people as children, God as a king and God’s people as subjects, and God as being a potter and God’s people as being clay.

In this morning’s reading Hosea builds on another common biblical metaphor – God as a husband and God’s people as being the bride. The prophet says that God’s covenantal love for God’s people is like a husband’s marital love for his wife. So far so good. But in his comparison Hosea says God’s people have strayed from God; committing the sin of idolatry by worshipping other gods. This, Hosea says, is analogous to a wife who commits sexual infidelity. God will punish Israel, Hosea states, just as a husband would punish his wife for being unfaithful. And it that culture in that day a husband’s punishment of an unfaithful wife had a definite physical component.

God the wife beater. Pardon the pun, but how does that strike you? If it does not sit well then you can understand why recent scholarship has turned a critical eye to Hosea’s theology. These scholars reject the notion that God tolerates sinful human behavior until God can no longer tolerate it and then blows up.

Hosea knew that the northern kingdom of Israel was about to be attacked by an infinitely superior Assyrian army. The handwriting was on the wall. The outcome was not in doubt. There was going to be massive devastation, horrific loss of life, and terrible suffering for those who survived. Hosea made the leap to declare the imminent defeat as a sign of God’s judgment. It was for him God the husband trying to smack some sense in a wayward wife.

And even though it does not sound like a very sound theological perspective, there are still plenty of people around who embrace it in one form or another. They are the “America-got-what-was coming-to-it” crowd that emerged after 9/11 and Katrina and every other major disaster.Is there another way – is there a better way – to understand who God is and how God is present in the midst of a catastrophe?

During my devotional time this past week I happened upon a reading from Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage in North Africa in the 3rd century. It is a letter he wrote to his flock during an outbreak of the plague in his city:

"There are certain people who are disturbed because this disease has attacked equally pagans and Christians. They talk as if being a Christian somehow guaranteed the enjoyment of happiness in this world and immunity from contact with illness… It disturbs some of our number that death seems to have no favorites. And yet what is there in this world that is not common to all? As long as we are subject to the same laws of generation we have a common flesh. As long as we are in this world we share an identical physicality with the rest of humankind, even if our spiritual identity singles us out. Until this corrupt form is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal frame receives immortality, and the Spirit leads us to God the Father, we share with the rest of humanity the burden of the flesh."

"When the soil is exhausted and the harvest poor, famine makes no distinction of persons. When an army invades and a city is taken, everyone suffers a common desolation. When the skies are cloudless and the rains fail, all alike suffer from the drought. When the ship goes around on treacherous rocks, the shipwreck affects all who sail without exception. Diseases of the eye, attacks of fever, weakness in limbs, are all as common to Christians as to anyone else because this is the lot of all who bear human flesh in this world."

Notice how Cyprian does not try to blame the person who suffers for the suffering they experience. He goes on:

"The righteous have always displayed the capacity for endurance… Such things [as I have described] should not undermine or break the faith of Christians but reveal their courage in the struggle…"

"To summarize: the difference between us and those who do not know God is that when misfortune occurs, others complain and murmur, but we are not distracted by adversity from the true path of virtue and faith; indeed, in the midst of suffering we are made strong."

Well this is a different theology, isn’t it. When misfortune strikes all it is not a sign of God’s wrath or judgment, rather it is merely a facet of living in this world; a world often marked by hardship, struggle, and unexpected turmoil. None of this is from God, it simply is. Christians distinguish themselves not by getting a free pass through this life, but by having a source of strength that will help them to endure with faith and virtue.

In this morning’s Gospel reading we find the disciples approaching Jesus with a request: Teach us how to pray. It is perhaps the single best thing this group ever did during our Lord’s earthly ministry. They were attracted to Jesus and they were attracted to the way he was attracted to God through prayer. It is easy to understand their interest, but imagine if they had not asked. Image how much poorer we would be if we did not have The Lord’s Prayer.

Many times I have taken communion to a hospital bedside where a person was near death and to nursing home where a person suffered from deep dementia. Gone was the ability to respond, “and also with you.” Gone were the words of the Creed and the Confession. But when it came time to say The Lord’s Prayer, I have never known a person not to be able to join in.

Whatever it takes to endure in this life, whatever it takes to maintain faith and virtue in the midst of challenge, prayer is certainly right up there at the top of the list. I am not taking about the panic-prayer of desperation, but the kind of daily prayer that establishes a deep, strong, authentic relationship with God.

Percy Ainsworth, a spiritual writer who died a little over a hundred years ago, wrote that “the end of prayer is not to win concessions from Almighty God, but to have communion with Almighty Love.” If we view prayer as an attempt to get God to do something we want done – make a co-worker treat us nicer, take away grandma’s arthritis, keep all the traffic lights green because we are running late – than we misunderstand the nature of prayer itself. More often than not these kinds of prayers do not work; especially if we define “work” as getting the outcome we ask for and get it in a timely manner.

Surely Cyprian would have understood prayer very differently. I think he would agree with Ainsworth that goal of prayer is communion with God, not gaining concessions from God. This kind of prayer may not change the world around us, but it definitely will change us and how we live and move and have our being in it. There is an old saying that the goes the hammer has a way of shaping the hand that holds it. Likewise prayer has a way of shaping the person who prays. We are to be people of prayer not in order to get what we want but in order to be shaped into God’s people; people who have the capacity to live in this world touched by every grace and challenge of this world and able to engage it all from a position of holiness and strength.