“Born again, again” by Bob Melone – Chapter 1, part 2 of 2

21 01 2016

At one time or another there has been a Prayer Chain in all four of the churches I have served. Faithful women, and every now and then a man, sincerely interested in the well-being of others, who received phone calls and/or regularly gathered, to plead with God for the health and safety of those they loved. Their devotion to and for this ancient discipline was admirable, and yet I continue to wonder about the real purpose of their activities.

I know full well that we pray because Jesus told us to! So I’m not in any way questioning the activity. Rather, I’m more interested reevaluating HOW we pray, and what we believe happens as a result of those prayers.

It has been said that prayer doesn’t so much change our circumstances, as it changes us in our circumstances. I like that, and I think we need to hear more of it. For the notion that we just need to get as many people as possible, pleading with God for safety when we go on our family vacations or asking for health as we prepare for our annual physical, does little more than make God into a heavenly Santa Clause. If we’re not naughty, but nice, and if we’re not disobedient, but faithful, God will grant our wishes and bless us with all the good things life has to offer. And while there may indeed be times when we encounter trouble, but pay no mind to that! The ‘man behind the curtain’ operates in ways we will never understand, and his plan for us is always bigger than we can comprehend.

Right? Wrong! Let me just say it! Such a take on the discipline of prayer is nonsense!

Gene was an elderly man in my second church, and several years prior to my arrival he had been diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease. I took communion to him regularly, and during each visit we would talk and laugh, and I continually marveled as his positive spirit. I remember him as bright, witty, always upbeat and positive, and with a deep and abiding faith. I don’t know what he was like when he was all alone with his thoughts, but when I was there, and when others from our church were around, Gene was saint.

Now because he had been part of his congregation for so long, he had many friends; and a countless number of them, thoughtful sisters and brothers sisters, were continually praying for a miracle. They were pleading with God to heal their friend, believing that if God wanted him to be healed, then he would, in fact, be healed!

But here’s my question! Why wouldn’t God want him to be healed? What kind of a God would allow the body of a vibrant man to wither away the way Gene’s did, and all the while leave his mind to remain as sharp as ever?

For the longest time, I knew the answers to those kinds of questions. And I can even offer the Scripture verses to boot! God’s plans are not our plans, and neither are his ways, our ways! We can’t see the bigger picture, and we are not to question the will of the Lord. Who knows what God is trying to teach us, or even Gene, for that matter! And we all know that we grow through suffering. Just imagine how Gene is learning to depend and rely upon God’s incredible grace and mercy.

I used these responses, and countless others, for years! I explained away the pain and struggle that often came from what others believed to be unanswered prayers, with dismissive rebukes and condescending platitudes. “God doesn’t cause such pain,” I would say; “but we can rejoice that in withholding healing, God will use the pain to deepen in our faith and to mature our walks.”

Today I must again boldly proclaim . . . nonsense!

To begin, if God is capable of healing and chooses not to, he may as well be the cause! There is absolutely no good reason for God to choose NOT to save a young mother from being killed in a drunk driving accident. And if there was something he wanted to teach her children, and could not find a less painful way for them to learn whatever lesson he had for them – well, that is simply not a God worthy of my worship! Any God who can’t find a better way to teach, than through tragedy – ALS, rape, murder, war, and on and on and on . . . such a capricious God neither warrants honor nor deserves glory.

Further, as Jack Spong points out in his book “A New Christianity for a New World,” such concepts “have the effect of defining prayer inside traditional concepts . . . (and) the assumptions that underlie such (thoughts) are that prayers consist of petitions and intercessions addressed to the diety, that the diety is external to this world, and that the diety can intervene to assist the one praying in a person crisis in a crisis in the life of his or her society.” (p. 191) But as we seek to expand upon these traditional ways of thinking and believing, and if we have the courage to open ourselves up to new ways of understanding and embracing this ancient spiritual practice, our prayers lives might begin to grow.

When we allow our understanding of prayer to be born again, again, our prayers lives can become much richer, and deeper, than we ever hoped, dreamed, or even dared to imagine! Ours is NOT a God who changes the circumstances of our lives. God changes us, IN those circumstances. Like every other spiritual discipline, prayer is designed to change US! It allows us to bask in the presence of the holy, so that our hearts might be softened, so that our minds might be transformed, and so that our bodies might find rest and peace. Prayer is about learning live in tune with all that the Spirit of God is doing and saying in our lives, discovering the harmony of our song, and making beautiful music with the world around us. It’s about becoming mindful of those in need, and responding accordingly. It’s about tending to the divine call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, parent the orphan and befriend the widow! It’s about practicing the presence of God, wherever we are and in whatever we are doing. It’s about slowing down enough to attend to the still small voice within; listening more than speaking, waiting more than wanting!

When Scripture calls us to ‘pray without ceasing,’ it is less about being called to DO something and more about being called to a certain mindfulness – a way of moving through our days while being conscious of the Spirit’s presence in and around us – and allowing that mindfulness to alter the way in which we live, and move, and have our being! Using a good Celtic term, expanded upon by Marcus Borg in “The Heart of Christianity,” prayer is about cultivating thin spaces in our days, where we discover that God is not so much ‘out there’ but rather right here. (p.155)

At this point in my life, my ‘thin space’ is along the Potomac River, every Saturday morning. I have other ‘thin’ moments, but I treasure the thinness that has become part of my weekend routine along the waters of Washington, DC. Being a morning person, I’m usually up before the crack of dawn . . . even on a Saturday. I throw on a pair of sweatpants, hop in my car, and head down to Old Town Alexandria where I take a three mile walk along the Potomac. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. And I am able to enjoy the beauty of both water (God’s creation) and the beauty of city (human being’s creation). I look forward to my Saturday morning’s all week, for they are times that excite my soul and enliven my spirit. In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book “An Alter in the World,” I become fully alert! She writes, “When I am electrically aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer. Prayer is happening, and it’s not necessarily something I am doing. God is happening, and I am lucky enough to know that I am in “the Midst.’”

That is what I experience each and every Saturday morning that I give myself the gift of . . . prayer! It is my thin-space, and a time that changes me . . . for the better, and for the glory of God. It’s not about asking God for anything: pleading that my bunions might be healed or that I find a parking space on the crowded streets of Georgetown. Again, in the words of Taylor, it’s about finding that ‘portal’ that keeps me open to God’s presence, all the time, and everywhere!

“Born again, again” by Bob Melone – Chapter 1, part 1 of 2

1 01 2016

It was a warm, humid summer evening, typical for Lewiston, NY during the months of July and August, and I stood in center field at Academy Park. The black and orange jersey I wore was soaked with perspiration. Pride prompts me to want to say it was the result of my enthusiastic playing, but honesty forces me to admit it was simply a nervous sweat.

I hated Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the summer of 1971 – those were the nights of our Little League games. It’s when all the town’s parent would gather in the local park to cheer on their children as they prepared for the Big League. On this particular Tuesday, the old green bleachers were filled a half hour before the game was scheduled to begin – dads sipping on their beer, listening to all the moms chat about how many hits their sons had (or in my case DIDN’T have) in the last game!

Yes, for two months in the summer, I hated Tuesdays and Thursdays, because I hated baseball; I was a terrible player and so twice a week, I would wake up hoping for rain. And when it didn’t come, the pit in my stomach would grow with each passing hour. Surely, God did not want me to feel this way. Surely he did not want me to endure such pain and embarrassment.

On this particular night, we were up against one of the best teams in the division – black and white – and my best friend was their star player. I had met Tom in third grade math class, and beside being a whiz at multiplication, he was also a slugger on the diamond. He played first base and hit the ball every time he was up. Homeruns were not uncommon either.

Slowly, I made my way to the outfield, and it was there, trudging through the dandelions, sticky from the heat, and sick to my stomach because of what I had to do, that I remember uttering one of my very first prayers. “God, please, do NOT let that ball come near me!”

Such prayers were common that summer, and they were the first ones I remembering uttering as a young boy. They were pleas to the God above, who I learned was listening and ready to respond to all the heartfelt requests of this young, desperate, ball player.

I have mixed feelings about how that particular game ended. I was up to bat somewhere in the middle few innings, and before I knew it I had a full-house – three balls, two strikes. In the background I could hear all the black and orange dads yelling, “Don’t swing! Don’t swing!”

But I was no dummy! I knew that on a full-house the pitcher didn’t expect me to swing; so he’d give me a slow pitch right over the plate, and because I wouldn’t swing, I’d be struck out. Everyone knew this, and so I remember being somewhat offended for a split second, realizing that they were telling me not to swing because they knew that even a full-house pitch would be too much for someone like me.

Casually, the pitcher tossed the ball into his mit, eyeing me, pondering, and perhaps even laughing to himself. Then he lowered the ball and mit to his waist, wound up, and let that leather orb loose in my direction.

The next thing I remember, I was doubled over in pain, gasping for air. The ball had nailed me just below my left rib and had knocked the wind out of me. But as angry as I was, there was also a hint of joy within – for now, for the first time in a real game, I would get to see what first base looked like up close. Actually, I got to see all three bases, eventually making it to third before one of my teammates struck out and the inning was over.

Did I ever catch a pop fly? Never! Did I ever have a hit? Not once! Scoring a run was not even an option for me. But . . . I learned to pray. Eventually I would learn to play, as well. But this particular summer, I learned to pray! Or should I say, I learned to do what far too many people have come to call prayer?

Now don’t misunderstand me. It wasn’t that I had never prayed before those nights in Academy Park. Growing up in a Roman Catholic family, prayer began at an early age. But the prayers were rote and routine, and praying was something we did all the time – like breathing – without really thinking about it. Before dinner, we’d bow our heads and say together: “Bless us O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive, form Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” Interestingly, we only prayed before dinner, not before breakfast or lunch; and we NEVER prayed when we were in a restaurant. I often wondered why. Were we not thankful for our breakfast bowls of Coco Puffs, or our lunch box’s crunchy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Did God only provide our spaghetti and meatball, or tuna noodle casserole dinners? And I loved eating out; but we certainly wouldn’t pray in a restaurant! Was God not responsible for the burgers we enjoyed at the Red Barn, or the pizza and chicken wings at Village Pizza?

We also prayed before bed as well . . . every night: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Do I even need to even comment on the appropriateness of those words, uttered by all the Melone children, for years? “If I should die before I wake”? . . . really? I went to bed every night wondering if I was going to wake up in the morning, and if not, where was my “soul” – whatever that was! – going to be taken? And by whom? The questions still abound!

So growing up, prayer was routine, and each and every word was carefully scripted . . . that is, until 1971, when I started playing baseball. That’s when I remember my first real conversation with God, expressing my deepest desires and my most sincere plea. More importantly, it was the first time I began wrestling with the idea that either God did not hear my prayers, or that my whole understanding of the ‘efficacy of prayer’ was something different than I had been taught! Obviously, at the age of 10, I would not have explained things in that exact way; but deep down inside I was already learning that it was not God’s job to keep fly balls out of right field!