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To Pray or Not to Pray: Chapter 4

I have experienced and witnessed many miracles. Some that even the most atheistic among us would have to wonder about. However, I don’t believe they are technically miracles. We are just so conceited that we think we understand the limits of nature, of our body and minds, of all the science of the universes. What hubris and tragedy it is to limit life, never-the-less God, to our own understanding.

Jesus got it. Over and over, he stressed praying and trusting.  He actually said he had to leave, so we would find and trust the Spirit within ourselves.  I am still seeking to understand better how and when Jesus prayed and everything he said about prayer.  And I’m really curious if his experience and understanding of prayer changed like his understanding of his call and ministry did.

I have had miracles and I’ve had suffering and my mother had a tragic dying by inches for fourteen years with Alzheimer’s. I do not understand it. But I do not limit God/life/prayer to my human understanding.  I have experienced the presence of Jesus in suffering. I’ve found grace and glimpses of joy in suffering.  I’ve also suffered until I simply could not have survived it without the grace of concrete answers to my prayers for relief.

I call myself a devout coward. I am not joking or being modest or bragging. I am a wus. Lots of times my suffering is just from fear of suffering because of imagined future disasters. An imagination that does not limit us to what we have experienced can help us not only have empathy for others, but to even find new solutions to problems.  But the downside is that we suffer needlessly through imagining bad possibilities also.

My whole point in this is that somehow, we are “God’s” junior partners through prayer. Through various stages of my spiritual journey, prayer has been a large, but changing part of my life.

Once while praying with a group for a young father who had been suffering and getting better and then suffering again for many months fighting cancer, I heard in my mind, “Trust me and let him go.” Several others in the prayer group had received the same message, so we prayed to trust him to God and let him go. Later that day, we heard that he had died at that time.

I pray for family, I pray for friends, I pray for myself, I pray for people who ask for prayer that I don’t know, I pray for the people whose cars are abandoned along the interstate and for all involved when I hear sirens.  When I am waiting for someone in public, I pray for the people around me. Sometimes people I have known come to mind at odd times and I pray for them. I pray in great detail when setting out to drive on the interstate. I find it harder, but I add my prayers to those of others for world peace. But when the chips are down, I tell God if there’s a better way to achieve good, then His will, not mine.

Sometimes I have a strong sense of how to pray, but if I don’t, often now I pray this way: “God, be with this person and those they love. Meet their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs in ways that will help them become the person you created them to be. I ask this in Jesus’ name, because he told us to love others as You love us. Amen.” More than anything else, prayer keeps me aware of and connected both to God and people. At the age of eighty-four living on limited income, I can not do as much as I once was able to do for people. Many of my friends are limited physically and financially. I wonder if the limits of old age might be our call to pray. Who did you pray for today?

Centuries of Christianity playing out in changing cultures have led to eras of stressing different parts of the Gospels and ignoring others.  The culture of Jesus’ times influenced his followers from the beginning.  It is very difficult both to get free of the limits of our inborn personalities and to sort through the wheat and chaff of our particular times and culture.  My prayer experiences show how slow I often have been in hearing God because of my personal and cultural assumptions.  When we recognize the personality differences and the cultural challenges that Thomas, Peter, and Paul had, we begin to realize how much our individual humanity influences and even limits us.  And it makes us aware of how important it is for us to hear the Spirit of God both within us and in others and in our circumstances.  The tenth chapter of Acts’ Scriptural accounts of Peter’s difficulty in letting go of Jewish laws and his obvious conflict with Paul’s vision of their new religion, show Paul challenging Peter, the Spirit speaking to Peter in a dream, and then the Spirit falling upon Cornelius and his family as Peter was speaking, literally giving them gifts of confirmation to show Peter to Baptize them. That is why we need each other to help us keep our minds open. We also have to ask and listen for guidance, even being open to recognizing the Spirit where we least expect it, in those different from us.

 My husband of sixty years and I were very different.  As a new Christian I loved the Scriptures, but had some problems with Paul’s challenge, “Wives obey your husbands,” since though Baptized and Confirmed, my kind and honest husband had little involvement with organized religion, wasn’t familiar with the Scriptures, and didn’t pray.  At one point in our marriage, we had to make a major decision that not only would drastically change our whole family’s life style, but would involve a large financial risk.  He decided we should make the change. I had cold feet about it. I had read something that advised praying and then watching for the answer and expect it in three days. Over a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I prayed, read the scriptures, listened to the sermon, and read a chapter of a new book.  On Monday morning, I was sure that I had not received an answer. But as I reviewed the things I had heard and read, I recognized that all weekend there had been a theme, “Wives obey your husbands.”   As an automatic no arguing rule, I still rejected this, but had to admit that as far as this particular decision, the answer had been very clear.  And in retrospect, I believe it was definitely the right choice, because even though there were many new challenges in our lives as a result, they were learning experiences that made a positive spiritual difference.

At that point in time, I was not a feminist.  Our problems mostly were differences in our upbringing, personalities, and spirituality.  Over time, what I found was that arguing is different from discussion.  Discussion is a dialogue where both consider each others reasons, while recognizing that there are no perfect answers. It is not just two closed minds butting heads.  I also discovered that as an extravert introducing an issue to an introvert, I needed to bring it up and then walk away to give him whatever time he needed to consider it even before we began a discussion.  (An introvert pushed into a fast decision will self protect and just say “NO!”) I found that when I would seriously consider his opinion and let him know that I understood his logic, often he would then be open to my opinion and even decide it was the best choice.

A couple is a team with different areas of expertise and experiences and values.  Sometimes logic and values conflict.  There is no logical reason for getting a kitten unless you have mice. While allergies do trump a longing for something cute and furry, love can free us to sacrifice our own convenience or preference.   

Tradition has been influenced by culture.  Even Christian tradition.  In the first several years after my conversion, I was part of an women’s ecumenical prayer group.  Once through having a “Christian” coffee, our group grew too large so we chose to divide into smaller groups. But between eight and twelve of us, we ended up with at least a Presbyterian, Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Charismatic, and once Miriam, a Jewish Christian who still worshipped at her Synagogue.  We didn’t clash over theology, because we focused on how to become more loving in our own lives.  But one Holy Thursday, which is also the Jewish Passover, our Jewish Christian brought unleavened bread and wine. She suggested we read the words of Jesus at the Last Supper and pass the bread and wine to one another. This was a whole new ball game.  The Presbyterian missionary next to me said, “I think we need an ordained minister to do that.”  I immediately thought, “No, we need a priest.” And we all pretty much presumed we needed a man to do that. We decided to go ahead with our usual scripture reading and prayer and be open to what God wanted us to do.  After our usual hour everyone agreed that they felt that it was a good thing to do.  Miriam read the Holy Thursday Scripture and we each passed the bread to the woman next to us and then the wine and sat in quiet reflection afterward.  Finally, someone asked, “Did anyone experience something unusual when passing the bread and wine to their sister in Christ. And one by one we all admitted that we had had a strong sense of Jesus standing with his hand on our shoulder as we did that. 

This and other experiences have convinced me that whenever we gather together in God’s name, God is with us. God’s presence, our sharing God’s presence, is never limited to one person, one group, one place, any religion’s ceremony or any human rules that limit God. Our celebrations on Sundays should call us, remind us, and give us the grace to do this in memory of God and God’s love fleshed out in Jesus, whenever and wherever we can. This was how Christianity began and flourished even under the threat of death. It is not about power or politics or theological limits. God is not small or limited to our traditions or protocols. Mankind’s need to be in control has made God a prisoner through rules and traditions that attempt to cut God down to our size. It isn’t that God is not in our temples and tabernacles and attempts to worship, know, and serve. It is simply that God cannot be limited to them. And we are poorer for imagining we can.