Never stop a mentally ill person from buying a gun,
Thoughts and prayers…
Never stop a broken soul from pulling a trigger,
Thoughts and prayers…
Never pass legislation,
Thoughts and prayers…
Never stop the next school shooting,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are an easy cliché,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are sometimes hard to say,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are difficult for survivors to hear,
Thoughts and prayers…
Are like all prayers: words.
May our prayers be more than words. May they be words brought to life by the Holy Spirit.
Forgive us of the sins of indifference. Let us not be overwhelmed by the pain. Instead, empower us to act to bind the broken, heal the hurting, preach peace, vanquish violence, and embody the Good News of Jesus Christ. May we move beyond comforting thoughts and our comfort zones to confront the principalities and powers of this world so that the deaths we see will not be the permanent reality we are currently forced to embrace.
I feel, I hear, I know, I think, God that you are real and I am small, standing here in my bare feet, I feel my heart, Beat Beat Beat the rhythm of life pulsing through my simple veins, with each pump your grace rains, through the corners of my body and soul, Life God, Life, I need more of you, Take me to where you are! the rhythmic corners of your beating heart, on the Street, where People meet, the Divine is seeking, to find and gather, those who are Scattered, Up Down Around and All about.
May you speak the language of silence today, May you hear the sounds between words, May you embrace the quiet hours of the night, May you seek empty stillness before sunsets, May your faith in listening be stronger than your desire to speak, May the rhythm of our breathing reflect the hopeful phrasing of our words. May the silence nourish your soul and feed forgiveness.
“In a mad world only the mad are sane.” – Akira Kurosawa
Russia was my first love. I have lost count of the times she has broken my heart and even left me at the altar. Yet, for one stupid reason or another, I keep coming back. We always seem to get back together. The country and the people have a hold on me. Mother Russia has always been the other woman in my life.
I am a child of the Cold War. I wondered who were these mysterious people on the other side of the world that we were supposed to hate because of their economic system, traditions, history, and language. I wanted to know more about them. In middle school, I participated in a piano competition at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In a break between performances, I ducked into a student bookstore on Tate Street and used my lunch money to buy a pack of Russian phrase cards. My social studies teacher encouraged this obsession. I carried them in my shirt pocket and tried to memorize a few phrases each day. She even invited one of her professors from college, who taught Russian history, to speak to the class. After his talk, he taught me how to write my name in the Cyrillic alphabet. I carried that piece of paper with me until it wore out. I practiced writing my name in Russian hundreds of times.
From then on, I wanted to learn to speak, read, and write Russian. I tried to learn everything I could about the country, its history, and its people. It was all going great until our teacher was sick one day, and we had a substitute who noticed the cards in my pocket and asked if I was a communist. Adults are bullies.
Despite that minor setback, I didn’t know that a few years later, I would be studying the Russian language in a formal, academic setting at the very same university where I first purchased those phrase cards. What started on Tate Street in Greensboro in the sixth grade eventually took me to Moscow, where I lived for two years. I haven’t looked back. Russian language books line my office shelves today.
I watch the news from Ukraine, Russia, and around the former Soviet Union (especially the Caucasus region of Georgia and Armenia). My heart aches for the people and places I know and love. Vladimir Putin isn’t a nice man. He is a Russian dictator. If you know anything about Russian dictators, they are a predictable lot. Russia has always wanted buffer zones to protect the greater Slavic homeland. In this way, Putin is no different from Czar Nicholas I or Lenin. To expect an autocratic Russian leader not to be an imperialist expansionist is like expecting a rooster not to crow. It won’t happen. No high-minded speeches or soaring rhetoric will change his mind. On the contrary, it will probably harden his resolve. There is little mystery to his behavior, language, rhetoric, or motivations. Vladimir Putin is not a strategic genius. He is a predictable Russian, a former KGB officer, and a product of late Brezhnev-era stagnation that marked his coming of age in the Soviet Union.
It didn’t surprise me that the Russians didn’t take Kyiv in three days. There are few working elevators in the city of Moscow. If you can’t fix the elevators in one of the world’s most important cities, that says something about your military-industrial complex. The average life expectancy of a Russian male is somewhere between 68 and 71. That’s nearly ten years less than most developed western nations. Thanks to chain smoking and cheap vodka, Russian men are dying at a rate outpacing the birthrate. With the mass exodus of men caused by Putin’s mobilizations, Russia is a shell of a country. You don’t win wars with wheezing drunks and no spare parts.
How will this war end? It will not end in victory. There will not be a victory for either Russia or Ukraine. Victory is an anachronism in warfare such as this. Both sides have already lost. The devastating loss of life and property in Ukraine is horrendous and evil. The human lives wasted in pursuit of a greater pan-Slavic ideology are also damnable and insane. We are past the point where “victory” is something that either nation can claim with any degree of moral integrity. No one wins in the face of so much death and suffering. No one wins wars like this. Didn’t we learn this lesson in the former Yugoslavia? Didn’t we learn this in Northern Ireland?
No one has an endgame, especially the Russians and the Ukrainians. The Soviets haven’t had an endgame since 1972. The west has known this since game 13 of the World Chess Championships in Reykjavik in 1972. Game 13, move 50, rook takes bishop B5. Bobby Fischer sacrificed his bishop. That’s when Russia lost the Cold War, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Ukraine. Boris Spassky had no answer because he had no endgame like those who led and still lead his former country. This will end in the same bloody stalemate we see today. Neither side has an endgame. If the fighting is going to stop, someone needs an endgame. More money and more bodies aren’t an endgame.
Today, I want to take the unpopular step of praying for Russia. Scripture teaches us to pray for our enemies. Russia, however, is not my enemy. I can no more walk away from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky than I can Faulkner or Hemingway. I learned so much about myself on the streets of Moscow. I have many friends living behind this new Iron Curtain. I do not hate them. I do not want them to suffer. I want the fighting to stop. If they can safely leave the country, do so. If they can avoid conscription, do so. If they can listen to other sources of information, by any means, listen to those voices. I know you. I know you are not your leaders. I pray that you will one day be able to live as freely as you wish. I pray the killing will stop. I pray this nightmare will end.
This is the third in a series of posts on prayer. In the previous two articles, I’ve explored my challenges with traditional models of prayer (in light of my father’s cancer diagnosis, the rising tide of global violence and war, and illnesses within my community and congregation) and my search for a “better way to pray.” Here, I want to explore the transactional nature of prayer practiced in most congregations and how addressing this long-ingrained perspective might be a first step toward a more authentic prayer life. These thoughts are intensely personal and do not reflect the views of the United Methodist Church or any congregation of the United Methodist Church. This is me, Richard, reflecting on God, prayer, and our need to be heard when we’re hurting, seen when we’re celebrating, comforted when we’re crying, and companionship when we’re alone.
When we pray, are we talking to a person? I’m not thinking about Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. Instead, I’m thinking about God. We use the language of “divine personhood” when we delve deep into the weeds of Trinitarian theology. Yet, should we refer to God as a person in the same way you and I are people? Let’s take the word “person” off the table. It’s become more challenging for me to envision God as a person. It’s much easier for me to talk about God as a concept, idea, or something more extensive than the universe itself, the idea of God as a person no longer rings true. I also see a difference between “personal Gods” and the notion of “God as a person.”
Humanity, Homo sapiens, has always wanted something to worship. However, this doesn’t mean God is a person. We do not have to borrow the language of psychology or philosophy to explain Trinitarian theology. Here we proceed cautiously; as Wittgenstein taught us, words matter.
Persons are limited beings, physically and intellectually speaking. God must be more than the total of our idea of all the traits of personhood. God must be more than we can imagine. To call God a person is to identify God as something less than God, an imitation deity, the “I can’t believe it’s Not God, God.” I do not believe in this traditional notion of a personal God any longer. Why? A personal God is not a real God. A personal God is a toy. A personal God is a reflection of us, our personhood, our self-interests, our limitations, our priorities, and our fears. A personal God is an idol. A personal God is a wholly owned subsidiary of the person you see staring back at you in the mirror. God is not a person. God is God. God belongs to no one. God may lay claim to our lives but we do not own God.
If God is not a person (in the traditional sense), then to whom are we praying? If God is not a person, how do we have a personal relationship (not my phrase, one I inherited from generations of church-going evangelicals who came before me) with an entity that is not a person but something that exists outside the idea of personhood? How do I ask something of, request, and insinuate that I need a favor from a non-personal cosmic entity operating on a scale grander than the number of stars visible to the naked eye? Maybe I don’t.
Is prayer just another transaction, albeit a spiritual one? Am I placing a call, sending an email, hoping that the person on the other end of the line receives the call or reads my message and decides to respond to my request? Yes, and yes. That’s how we approach prayer. In most of our congregations, this is how we do it. Think about the questions I asked last week concerning the Holocaust. Did the “person” on the other end of the line take the phone off the hook or refuse to answer their email for over ten years while 6 million people died? Persons said thousands of prayers in the gas chambers. Who was listening? What happened to those transactions? How can we even talk about the transactional nature of prayer when the answers (to those in particular) seem so haphazard and random? If God is a person choosing whom to listen to and whom to ignore, prayer certainly appears to be a gamble. How much time do we spend gambling, each week, in worship? If God is a person, we must either pray for everything or nothing. Suppose you intensely subscribe to the “God is personal” model. In that case, God appears to pick and choose who to listen to, and frankly, that’s depressing as hell. I’m starting to take that on-again-off-again approach to being a divinity, personally. I didn’t ask to be created but I sure would like to be listened to. I think the transactions I seek are worthy of God’s attention. What must I do to transact God’s blessings for my father’s health? I’d like more than word salad about free will, God’s plans, and how we don’t understand God’s mysterious ways.
What if prayer is not a transaction, a quid pro quo? What if prayer is not a “you say a name, hope God is listening, is in a good mood, and you’re in the spiritual black, so something positive might go your way kind of operation? What if prayer is a spiritual discipline, a holy habit, and a sacred conversation between persons on the faith journey? Now that might be a new way to pray. What if, instead of waiting on answers from God, we became the answers to our own prayers?
What if, in a spirit of vulnerability, we gathered to share our deepest concerns and our greatest joys with each other? What if we became comfortable with sitting in silence with one another? What if, in humility, we could express our fears and hear other members of the body of Christ? Would this not be a new way to pray? What if we read the words of those walked the journey before us, poets and mystics, the psalmist, and wisdom teachers? In listening to each other, are we not creating sacred personhood for those who dare to come to a holy place to know that their prayers are heard with a vital, emphatic, and loud AMEN?
This winter has been hard on my congregation. So many people are sick with COVID, respiratory viruses, and other diseases that it’s becoming difficult to keep up with everyone. When I combine my congregational concerns with my father’s recent lymphoma diagnosis, I start dropping the balls I’m supposed to juggle daily. I went so far as to create a spreadsheet of prayer concerns (versus a list). It didn’t help. Once I got them down on paper, isolated in illnesses, homebound and hospitalized, church members, family, and friends, adults and children, life-threatening and chronic conditions, humans and pets, Ukraine, and America, I was even more overwhelmed. Where do I start? At the top? With the sickest? With my dad? The sheer human misery before me is too difficult to describe. I’m at the point I don’t know what to say to God about these concerns because I don’t know what to say. I am literally out of words.
I gather with a small group of church members to pray through our concerns and celebrations each Thursday at 10 am. After a few moments of Lection Divina, we read through each name and concern on our church’s prayer list. There are nearly 100 names. I wonder why we are reminding an omniscient and omnipotent God of realities of this God is already fully aware of. The exercise feels pointless. If God requires the constant repetition of my father’s name and the fact that he has Leukemia to bring him daily healing and comfort, are we praying to a God? Or are we just talking to ourselves? Is prayer, in the means we’ve constructed it, little more than a supernatural protection racket? We keep giving God our best words in the hope of blessings and eternal security, so bad things don’t happen to us. There must be a better way to pray.
Is there a means of prayer that does more than make us feel better by acknowledging our helplessness in the face of illness and tragedy? Are there prayers where we partner with God to help those who pray create and become the answers to their prayers? It’s gotten to where I don’t look forward to asking for prayer concerns and celebrations in our worship services. These are the most soul-crushing minutes of our worship hour. I do not want to deny anyone the opportunity to share their concerns. Yet once we share our pain, the joy leaves our sanctuary like air from a punctured tire. Persons with blessings feel too ashamed to speak up because they feel their prayers aren’t worth mentioning considering the “serious” concerns previously shared. That’s wrong as well. We must rethink how we pray, for whose benefit we pray, and if we’re praying to be heard by God or each other.
The most honest and genuine prayer I’ve been able to offer recently is this: “Look!” “Help” hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I’ve settled on the model of the minor prophets. If I’m asking God anything, I’m asking God to do what I know God is already doing: see the mess we’re in and, if possible, relieve some of this interminable suffering. I’ll be glad to do anything. I am burned out. I can’t keep repeating names and recounting suffering. Something has to give. Point me toward one person who needs something tangible. That’s a doable place to start. We can answer prayers together.
It’s hard to go through life feeling like your hands are tied. You see global problems and significant issues and want to act. But you can’t do anything. Your hands and feet are bound. If you could, you’d run to aid those who are suffering. You’d shout at the top of your lungs to draw attention to the cause of those you’re trying to help. That doesn’t work, either. When you open your mouth, you have no voice. The voice you do have is shouted down. No one can hear you or pays attention to your words. This is what I experience and feel when I watch the news. I see reports from Ukraine or the US/Mexico border and want to do something tangible to end the war and alleviate the rampant human suffering on display.
My first inclination is to pray. I have to admit I don’t know what to pray for, so I pray for an open-ended end to suffering, pain, and violence. Almost a year into Europe’s most significant land war since 1945 and after watching thousands of impoverished migrants who’ve walked for months across jungles to come to the United States, this seems like a paltry response, given the gravity of the respective situations. Here I sit, in my warm and comfortable home (office, church, etc.), muttering a few words after observing the misery of others and expecting the God of the cosmos to do something, anything, to alleviate the suffering strangers half a world away. I’m so tired of watching nothing happen, the evidence of war crimes becoming more apparent, and refugees not being welcomed into the United States of America. Recently, I’ve thought about my need to involve God in praying for the Ukrainian war or the migrants. I want the war to end and migrants to be welcomed not simply because I am a Christian or pastor but because it is the right and moral thing to do. People deserve to be treated well because of our shared humanity, not solely because a religious text instructs us to do so.
I guess, in some way, through my prayers, I’m trying to make myself feel better. At least I’ve done something, I’ll say to myself. I’m aware, I care, and I’m informed. I know God’s not unaware of the needs of the Ukrainians or the migrants, but somewhere deep down inside, I think my “seconding the motion” helps. Then again, who am I to tell God what God obviously already knows? Shouldn’t I be doing something rather than just talking about the problem?
Once I’ve said it, I feel like I’ve done something; I can check it off my list and then move on to the next item on my agenda. The thing is, here recently, I don’t feel better. I feel worse. I feel like I should be doing more. I feel like the more I pray, the worse the situation becomes. I see how overwhelmed the people trying to aid the migrants are with each passing day. I want to do something besides close my eyes and talk to God. I ask myself, “Where’s the middle ground between going to the Polish border or El Paso and sitting in Hillsborough and waiting for God to move on Vladimir Putin’s non-existent heart?” I don’t have an answer to that question. We’ve sent money to UMCOR. I’ve raised money and tried to help people on the border. If there is a blank, I’ve filled it in. All I know is this: our words aren’t cutting it.
What happens when Christmas is over and the willingness to be charitable fades? To borrow a phrase that’s popular at the moment, none of our altruism seems effective. The good we (collectively as Christians and as a denomination) do is all short-term, motivated by the emotions brought up by the Christmas holiday. We’ll keep praying and waiting on Vladimir Putin to do what Dr. Seuss allowed the Grinch to do-experience a change of heart. That’s the only way this stupid, vicious war will ever end.
Sitting down to pray;
with nothing else to say,
at the end of the day,
pushing back the world,
keeping the traffic at bay,
hearing what’s around you,
the b flat harmony
on life’s first page.
God told Jacob to take a nap,
find holy rocks where your head can lay,
to see the angels walk,
and know God’s about,
climbing a tree,
no special pose,
presence is the key.
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