Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Prayer II

This was the third meditation I gave several weeks ago at the Oregon Associates Retreat, continuing the subject of prayer. I began with a story that I've blogged about here, and went on to explain that any time you ask someone else to pray for you, there's going to be a filter. It seems easier to farm out prayer sometimes... whether due to our doubts that prayer even works... whether it's really just wishful thinking, magical thinking, or that in our own ignorance we may not know the right things to pray for, or even the right way to pray. Any or all of those reasons can give logical credence to farming it out to the experts: the clergy, the religious, or to established "prayer warriors". But, as in the story I related, what she wanted and what I prayed for were not the same thing.
  • So point #1: Do it yourself. There's really no right way to pray anyway, there's really no right thing to pray for. For me, prayer is a conversation with God. Sometimes in conversations we argue... so argue your case. There's certainly enough Biblical evidence that arguing works.
Here's another story: I was at another retreat recently, and attended a workshop on "Prayers of the People". The leader was a deacon on the priesthood track; most of the attendees were middle-age to older ladies. The main points were: prayers of the people should be direct, concise, specific. And since they are "of the people" the language should be contemporary. Now that's a lot of shoulds to deal with, but everyone seemed interested in getting right down to the task at hand: constructing a set of prayers for the weekend's upcoming Eucharist.

Using our prayer book as a guide, our leader started with the bidding prayer, and then moved (or tried to move) through each section... for the church, the world, people in positions of authority, the ill, the dying, the bereaved. It was a noble attempt—but, as with any committee decision, it got bogged down with too many ways to articulate the exact same thing. As a result, the prayers ended up being indirect, verbose, non-specific, and the language was flowery and stilted. Here's an example: "Gracious all-merciful God, wrap your loving arms around those who mourn and weep." Now let me be the first to say there's absolutely nothing wrong with that image. It's beautiful. Just picture warm loving arms enfolding you when you need to cry your heart out.

But it certainly didn't fit the description of what the group was supposed to be working toward, and I could see the facilitator was a little frustrated. Of course I immediately went into my "They aren't doing it right" number... and went off to explore in my own judgmental mind the usual suspects for why that might be. I started thumbing through the prayer book looking at all the samples, (and we have a number of wonderful samples) and it occurred to me that this liturgy, this very beautiful language, while it unites us, in many ways keeps us distant from the whole point of praying.

If we ask God to wrap his loving arms around those who mourn, then we don't have to. God is going to do it for us and we are off the hook. At that point our prayer is not really to comfort someone else, but to make us comfortable with their grief.

Another thing I noticed about these prayers... we don't mean them. Certainly not all of them. The little group came up with this one for people in positions of authority: "Imbue our leaders with a sense of integrity and compassion." Do we really want that? Because if we get what we pray for we may not recognize it. Compassion will be seen as weakness, integrity will be seen as inexperience, naivety. Maybe what we really mean is: Make leaders tough and able to mete out judgment with an iron hand, wiley and devious when it comes to negotiating our interests as a nation.

Of all the forms in our prayer book, I like Form I best. The prayers themselves are short, maybe a bit too generalized, but certainly inclusive. in my community we seldom use Form I. Why? They take too long. (We're on a schedule.) Form II, on the other hand, is very generalized and short; we use Form II a lot. Form III is the one we can say in our sleep, the call and response... yet if we listen to what we're actually asking for, I wonder... "that your holy catholic church may all be one."

One what? One institution? The reason our Anglican church and the other Protestant denominations exist is because Holy Mother Church was corrupt and abusive. We splintered out of discord... do we really want to all be one again?

"Give us a reverence for the Earth as your own creation." Okay, that first part is nice. It goes on: "that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others, and to your honor and glory." I don't think so. I think what we may really mean is: we want all the fossil fuels that are left on the planet under our control, so we can continue to drive our comfortable SUVs wherever we want and still maintain low prices at the pumps.

Form V: "For the poor, the sick and all who suffer, for refugees, prisoners and all who are in danger, that they may be relieved and protected." Right. No wonder so many priests use the concluding collect: "O Lord, accept the fervent prayers of your people..." Perhaps it's a disclaimer, a code to God that He can just disregard the unfervent prayers?

The confession, at least, is honest: "We have sinned against you by what we have done and not done, in thought, word and deed." In the supplemental liturgy the confession goes even further: "We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf." That confession will not let anyone off the hook. We are confessing that we are responsible for what others do to preserve our interests. "He's not my president." won't work with this all-to-painfully honest admission of guilt. In her book The Practice of Prayer, Margaret Guenther explains the purpose of prayer: "It's not to make you feel better. It's to give us an awareness of our own complicity of/in the power to hurt."

In our conversations with God, this awareness is perhaps the most difficult piece of the dialog. We want to be comforted. Life is tough, life is scary and overwhelming and painful. If God is on our side, we want to feel it, no matter what words we use or how imperfect our requests may be. But to stay honest in the conversation we have to attempt the words ourselves and we have to mean what we say. Be careful what you pray for... you just might get it.

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