11 03 2015

I wasn’t angry with God when she died.  I didn’t suddenly begin to question the existence of the Holy, nor was I tempted to give up on the discipline of prayer that had been part of my life for so many years.  When Paula Cromer, one of our congregation’s worship leaders and a dear friend was suddenly killed by a drunk driver back in 2002, I didn’t have what many would call a crisis of faith.  However in the words of pastor and author Doug Pagitt, something in me ‘Flipped.’  

In his 2015 book, Doug writes, “in situations where so many people are committed to the religion industry, most conversations stay well inside the boundaries of what we already think.  No pastor wants to risk his or her job by crossing too many lines.”  But Paula’s death took my right up to a line, and then flipped me over it, launching me into a world where lines and boundaries aren’t always straight, let alone clearly defined or determined.  

I had grown up believing, and spent years teaching, that ours was a God who heard our prayers: prayers for protection when we traveled, prayers for success when there was some kind of test in our future, prayers for prosperity when we were considering our careers.  I thanked God for the food on my table at mealtime; for a loving wife, three great kids, and an awesome extended family; and for my ministry, my home, and if I’m honest with you, even the car that I drove.  (My first new car was a 1986 gray metallic, Chevy Cavalier, with a dashboard that lit up at night like a space ship!  Sadly, in spite of my prayers, when I loaned the car to a friend’s wife several years later, she totaled it.  And not until 2005, when I purchased a 1999 Black Saab convertible, did I feel God blessed me again with a car!)

But with Paula’s death, everything I had been taught about prayer was suddenly called into question.  Sure, my misconceptions had been percolating for a couple of years – perhaps longer; but after lingering on life support for more than a day, with our church’s and others’ prayer chains activated, I became suddenly willing to accept the possibility that perhaps prayer was about much more than our pleas and petitions.  My morphing understanding of God, and Scripture’s charge to “pray without ceasing,” had already challenged much of the teaching on prayer that I had been subject to most of my life.  Surely, neither God nor Paul wanted me kneeling on the floor of my office, or my bedroom, or even my church, 24/7, rambling off a list of all the things in my life that needed some divine attention.  And even if one was to add the A (adoration), C (confession), and  T (thanksgiving) to my S (supplications), surely one’s prayer life had to be more than that.  Walking with God had to involve more than that!  

Paula’s death transformed my understanding of prayer.  It reminded me of something I had heard years ago – a teaching I’d not forgotten then, and one that continues to push me today, one that calls me to see prayer as less about changing my circumstances, and more about changing ME in my circumstances.  For in spite of my prayers, Paula would eventually die.  And NOT because God had some kind of greater plan that I could not comprehend, but because that is not what prayer is about.  God is not some kind of heavenly puppet master, pulling strings of marionettes marquarading as human beings.  Rather, God is Spirit, in whom we live and move and have our being.  And prayer is about reminding ourselves of that.  Holy mindfulness, practicing the divine presence, spiritual communion – such disciplines tune our hearts and harmonize our thoughts with all that is God.  They create what Marcus Borg calls ‘thin spaces’ in our lives, times and places where we feel as though we can almost touch the face of God; and that, changes us!

Prayer is powerful indeed!  It sustains us when life gets hard. It supports us when fear and anxiety overwhelm us.  And it strengthens us when sadness grips our lives and won’t let go.  Prayer is all we have when the reality of death comes knocking on our doors.  And it works!  Always!  For even when life is lost, new life can be found, thru prayer.