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Clay Nelson, a colleague in New Zealand, tells a 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 journalist 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 I have a cup of tea, and I come back and I pray for the eradication of illness and disease from all the earth.”
The journalist is intrigued and 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!”
For many of us, social distancing, has created a wall between us and separated us from our lives. Bumping up against this wall over and over again, our noses can almost smell the fear filled mortar which oozes from the newly laid brickwork.
This week people have asked me to pray for them. But many more people have asked me, “to whom shall we pray? Most of us learned to pray to a faraway-sky-god and we were taught that faith meant believing that the faraway-sky-god was waiting around to answer our prayers.
As the news gets bleaker and bleaker and the danger draws closer and closer, our loved ones, our livelihoods, and our lives are threatened. So, is it any wonder that we find ourselves longing for a personified-parent-god to be the super-hero who come to our rescue? And so, we pray and sometimes it feels like we’re talking to a damn wall.
Earlier this week, a well-intentioned priest sent some of my colleagues and I an urgent message urging us to combat COVID-19 by praying without ceasing and then he quoted the words of Jesus: “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.”
If asking and knocking could save even one person from this virus, I would not get off my knees. And, I suspect that I would have a great deal of company down there on my knees. The problem with telling people to pray, or promising people that you will pray for them is that 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 who 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 which 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, and yes, the virus, wondering: to whom shall we go? how shall we pray? whatever shall we pray? I mean when you give up the notion of worshipping what is but a poor image of the DIVINE, to whom, or how do you pray in a crisis such as this?
We were trained in the art of transactional prayer, I believe, so do this, help me, save me, help them, save them. But 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, who is the DIVINE, give. How much more, well how about the transformative power of the HOLY SPIRIT?
Jesus does not 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 RUACH breathes, in, with, through, and beyond us.
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 ourselves to the persisting presence of the DIVINE which permeates 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 the answers to our prayers? 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 so 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, and 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, an educational tool designed to prepare us by reminding us who we are and what is important about each moment. 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? Our lives have changed so very much in the past week. We can only imagine what is going to happen next week or next month. We can respond to these changes with fear and try to find a super-hero to save us. Or we can let our prayers open us to transformation.
Let us pray without ceasing. That is to say, let our prayer be our striving to live these moments in loving relationship to the HOLY ONE, in loving relationship to our neighbours, all our sisters and brothers, 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. They 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 live 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 our hands! So, as you wash or sanitize those powerful hands of yours, pray without ceasing. As you practice physical distancing, pray without ceasing. For with every act of compassion, you are praying. Pray without ceasing so that we might be opened up to a way of being in these challenging days, a way of being that opens us up to the LOVE that IS the MYSTERY we call God! Today, and in the coming weeks and months may all our fears be transformed into compassion so that we may be LOVE in these ever-changing moments. 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.