“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!



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