Clay Nelson, a colleague in New Zealand, tells the story about a journalist who was stationed in Jerusalem. The journalist’s apartment overlooks the Western Wall which is the holiest site in Judaism. Every day when the journal looks out towards the Wall, she sees an old Jewish man praying vigorously. One day the journalist goes down and introduces herself to the old man. As a journalist she cannot resist interviewing the old man. “You come every day to the wall. How long have you done this and what are you praying for?” The old man replies, “I have come here to pray every day for 25 years. In the morning, I pray for world peace and then for the wellbeing of humanity. I go home and have a cup of tea and I come back, and I pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth.” The journalist is intrigued, and she asks, “How does it make you feel to come here every day for 25 years and pray for these things?” The old man looks at the journalist with great sadness and replies, “It feels like I’m talking to a damn wall!”
The old man’s frustration is one that I think we can all relate to when it comes to prayer. Sometimes it feels like we’re talking to a damn wall. And yet, we pray. Marcus Borg insisted that there are two things that most humans have in common. Borg wrote that, “Most humans have a deep longing for connection; a deeper connection to the DIVINE, to the sacred, to one another, to creation.” and “Most humans have a deep longing to make the world a better place.” Perhaps it is our longing for connection together with our longing to make the world a better place that provide our impetus to pray. So, is it any wonder that our desire to connect to the DIVINE MYSTERY that lies at the very heart of all that IS, should leave us frustrated?
Today’s gospel text has frustrated me for years. Over and over again, in my prayers I have asked and felt no connection. I have looked and not found. I have knocked and the door hasn’t been opened. It is as if I am up against the wall penned in by a multitude of snakes and scorpions, and there is no door anywhere in sight.
Author Anne Lamott insists that the two best prayers that she knows are: The first: “help me, help me, help me” and the second “thank-you, thank-you, thank-you”. Prayers of gratitude, most of us can handle. I suspect that for many of us the source of our greatest frustration comes from the “help me, help me, help me” kinds of prayer. For who amongst us has not prayed fervently and persistently only to experience the frustration of what seems like a vast, unresponsive, emptiness?
So many of us learned to pray to an image of the DIVINE MYSTERY that fails to capture the magnitude of the CREATOR of all that IS. We were trained to look up to the heavens as we beseeched a God whom we cast in the role of a cosmic superhero, ready, willing, and able to intervene on our behalf. Our prayers were crafted with a transactional mindset that perceived life from a dualistic perspective: either or, yes or no, all or nothing, agree or disagree, answered or unanswered prayer. You either believe in God or you don’t. Slowly, as we have learned more and more about the nature of reality, our longing to connect with the Source of All reality has caused us to expand our images of the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being. As the CREATOR OF UNIVERSES shakes off our way too small superhero costume, we are left standing among the snakes and scorpions wondering: to whom shall we go? how shall we pray? whatever shall we pray?
As I wrestled with today’s gospel text, I despaired of ever finding answers to my own questions about prayer. I mean when you give up the notion of worshipping what is but a poor image of the DIVINE and yet still long for a connection to the ONE who IS the GROUND of ALL BEING, then how, what, or why do we pray? I found myself wishing that my vacation started this week instead of next week, then I wouldn’t have to deal with this text. It wasn’t until I realized that my questions were blinding me to the words of the text. As I read the text over and over again, some might say as a kind of prayer, seeking to find, longing for connection, there it was in the words on the page.
Jesus said, “That is why I tell you, keep asking and you will receive, keep looking and you will find; keep knocking and the door will be opened to you. For whoever asks, receives; whoever seeks, finds; whoever knocks, is admitted. What parents among you will give a snake to their child when the child askes for a fish, or a scorpion when the child asks for an egg?”
My dualistic mind was forming questions that were transactional. Ask/receive, seek/find, knock/open. My questions about prayer were born out of a view of prayer that I thought I’d long since moved away from. I was trapped in an either or, yes or no, all or nothing, agree or disagree, believe or not believe, God or no-God, dualistic mindset and so my questions about prayer served only to build the kind of wall that caused my prayers to fail to provide even the remotest possibility of connection. My questions had become the very snakes and scorpions that I had hoped to avoid.
Fearing the poisonous bite of my own hubris, I resorted to Anne Lamott’s simple prayer, “help me, help me, help me,” and I read the text one more time. This time trying to see beyond the wall, beyond my images, beyond the beyond and beyond that also. Slowly, ever so slowly, I saw and finally heard the words that were written on the page. “If you, with all you short-comings, know how to give your children good things, how much more will our heavenly Abba give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?” Suddenly new questions began to emerge. Questions that did not force me up against a wall. But questions that knocked and opened a doorway.
What if prayer is not transactional but transformative? If prayer is transformative and not transactional, then we don’t need the super-hero God to reward our prayers by giving us whatever we ask for.
“If you, with all your short-comings, know how to give your children good things, how much more will the MYSTERY give. How much more, well how about the transformative power of the HOLY SPIRIT? “All these years of studying this text and I never noticed before that the text doesn’t promise a successful transaction as our reward for persistent prayer, but rather the HOLY SPIRIT herself. The transforming power of the SPIRIT is ours. For the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being, breathes, the very breath of the DIVINE, the SPIRIT, the RUAUCH breathes, in, with, through, and beyond us. I can see the opening in the wall and through that doorway, I find all sorts of new questions about prayer.
What if the transformative power of prayer opens us to the presence of the ONE in whom we have our BEING?
What if prayer is a way for us to open to the persisting presence of the DIVINE in everything in the universe; a way to be open to a universe that is saturated with the sacred? What if prayer is a doorway to consciousness; a practice to strengthen our intention to work toward that for which we pray?
What if prayer doesn’t change a thing?
What if the power of prayer is its potential to change us?
What if prayer opens us, breaks down our walls, opens doorways, points us toward the connections we long for?
What if prayer helps us to see clearly, to pay attention, to connect, to care about our neighbours, to welcome the stranger, to seek justice, to be merciful, to love extravagantly?
What if prayer is the way to recognize the ONE who lives, in, with, through, and beyond us?
What if our intentional, traditional, formal prayers are not the main event but rather a spiritual practice designed to prepare us by reminding us who we are and what is important about life, so that we can live more deeply and compassionately connected to the DIVINE, to Creation and to one another? In other words what if what we have always thought of as prayer is just the beginning, an opening up, into being the LOVE that IS the MYSTERY we call God?
What if prayer is transformative? Well if prayer transforms us, then from deep within another prayer is born: “thank-you, thank-you, thank-you”. To the ONE who IS, WAS, and EVERMORE SHALL BE, thank-you, thank-you, thank-you. Let us pray without ceasing, that is to say let our prayer be our striving to live a life in loving relationship to the HOLY ONE, in loving relationship to Creation, in loving relationship to our neighbours, all our sisters and brothers, even our enemies, and in loving relationship to ourselves. Transformative prayer is our living, loving, and being in which, we relate to one another giving and receiving the LOVE that is the MYSTERY that we call God.
Jesus we are told was fond of telling one story to shed light on another story. So, in the SPIRIT of Jesus, let me tell you a story that sheds light on our Gospel story.
Once upon a time there was a wise old woman who lived in a small village. The children of the village were puzzled by the woman’s great wisdom, her gentleness, and her strength. One day a few of the children decided to test the old woman. The just couldn’t believe that anyone could be as wise as everyone claimed this old woman was. They were determined to prove that the old woman wasn’t very wise at all.
One day the children found a baby bird and one of the boys cupped the bird in his hands and said to the other children, “All we need to do is ask the old woman whether the bird I have in my hands is dead or alive. If she says the bird is dead. I will open my hands and let the bird fly away. If she says the bird is alive, I’ll crush it in my hands, and she’ll see that the bird is dead.”
So, the children, went to the old woman and presented her with this challenge. “Old woman,” the boy demanded, “Is this bird in my hands dead or alive?”
The woman became very still, studied the boy’s hands, then she looked carefully into his eyes. “It is in your hands whether the bird will stay alive or will die.” The wise old woman smiled, and repeated the wisdom from within, “It is in your hands.”
Each one of us holds within our hands the transformative power of the SPIRIT. It’s in your hands! Pray without ceasing. Strive to live your life in loving relationship to the HOLY ONE, in loving relationship to Creation, in loving relationship to your neighbours, your sisters and brothers and your enemies, and live in your life in loving relationship to yourself. Pray without ceasing so that you might be opened up to a way of being in the world, a way of being that opens you up to into being the LOVE that IS the MYSTERY we call God! Let us pray so that we might become LOVE in the world. Let it be so. Amen.
Clay Nelson, Auckland Unitarian Church July 23, 2017
My questions are adapted from and inspired by John Shelby Spong’s exploration of prayer in A New Christianity For a New World (chapter 11)
Versions of this story appear in “NON_THEISTIC LITURGY RESOURCES”St. Stephen’s College – follow the link for the full PDF – an excellent resource for progressive liturgists.