May I say a discouraging word
Prayer as the Scream of Our Humanity
May I say a discouraging word?
About prayer. As it is commonly perceived.
I know, I know. My time would be better spent claiming apple pie is an Iranian recipe. Or suggesting motherhood isn't all it's cracked up to be. But prayer? Everyone knows that that religious practice is praised even more than it's avoided, which is a lot. A pastor's time, including a used-up pastor's time, is better spent promoting prayer. Do I have that right? I mean, do I correctly gauge your initial reaction to my announced theme?
Stay with me nonetheless, if only to see how wrong I can be.
I begin with quotes. From poet Alfred Lord Tennyson who penned the famous line that "more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of"; Samuel Butler in the closing pages of The Way of All Flesh, notes that Tennyson neglected to say whether the things wrought were good or bad?
Which takes me back to my days in the pastorate when a congregant, usually a pious one disagreeing with me on an issue of faith (like the historical actuality of Adam; or providing holy communion to the unsaved) ends the discussion with the declaration, "I'm praying for you, pastor." In such situations with such a declaration, I wished I wasn't being prayed for, because I suspect the prayer was that I should change my mind and agree with him..
In those moments I take heart from Jesus and the implication resident in his statement near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, that "not everyone who says to me [prayer?], 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, only the one who does the will of my father in heaven." That is, God more highly regards what you pray for than that you are praying.
Prayer of Gospel proportions is like the scream when you miss the nail and hit the thumb with a hammer. Direct, unfiltered, from the heart and brain. That kind of prayer (Jesus') doesn't worry about grammar or eloquence. It's not meditative. It's impulsive. It simply can't be kept in, must be said. In this vein we may understand a quote I am fond of, one attributed to Martin Luther (but for which I couldn't Google a confirmation) that "the oath of a common man is sweeter to the ears of God than all the prayers of the saints."
Which somehow leads me to the reason for this theme and its borrowed phrase from "Home on the Range": namely, the conviction voiced in church circles in my hearing recently in so many words, if not in exactly this way, that Jesus' purpose in the world is to make us more spiritual. For which purpose, spiritual, one can substitute the synonyms religious, prayerful, and holy (in its common usage). As if a folding of the hands, a bowing of the head, and a bending of the knee should be among the primary consequences of the cross.
Wrong! Jesus comes to make us human, as in God's original intent, the gift of God that Adam and Eve squandered for the bite of an apple; namely, life abundant, loving, faithful, and joyful. "What the world needs now is love, sweet love, that's the only thing there's just too little of." Always been that way east of Eden. The song of the cabaret belongs in the company of the carol we soon shall sing, from the land of my ancestors, "Love Came Down at Christmas." It's love like Jesus' for us. It's the love about which Paul sings in I Corinthians 13. That's what Jesus comes to bequeath us, providing us with ample instruction in its application. Just reread the red letter words in Matthew 5, 6, and 7, about forgiveness, making peace, being generous with self and substance, turning the other cheek... ah, well, you know what I mean, what your pastor and rabbi (!) surely taught you about loving others with all the intensity you love yourself.
That's what Jesus comes for. That's what the church exists to convince the world of: to show us how to become truly human (and provide us with the grace to do it)... not, dear friends, to make us more spiritual.