Saturday, June 29, 2013

Coercing God


Just in case you were wondering, you need at least one hand free to take a webcam selfie.

I have always had a difficult relationship with prayer.

As a child, I had two prayers, at bedtime and at mealtime. They were short and sweet, so I'm putting them up here. You'll recognize the first one, though it was adjusted in a significant way by my parents. The second is a family blessing that came either from Germany or Sweden 150 years ago.

Now I lay me down to sleep
I prayer the Lord my soul to keep
And in the morning when I wake,
Make me good, for Jesus' sake.

Dear Lord, come and be our guest.
Bless this food which you have set before us.
In Jesus' name, Amen.

The original version of that first prayer should be familiar to many: the second two stanzas should read, "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." My parents probably altered it because 1) death is too scary, and definitely not something you want on children's minds at bedtime, when it's likely to keep them awake (as it did with my daughter, even without this prayer); and 2) it wasn't Jesus so much as my parents who really wanted me to be good, for their sake.

The second blessing has delighted me for many years because of the notion of God being an invited guest at the dinner table. Of course, it still contains the classic notion, offensive to many a beleaguered and unthanked cook, that it is God who set the table, too, but we'll give that a pass, because that's not the point of this post.

I grew up with those two prayers, said them automatically with whoever was tucking me in at bedtime or holding my hand at dinnertime, and never gave it another thought--until the summer I broke my arm.

I was nine. I had just played in my first little league game of the season. It was late June, a hot summer night in Filer, Idaho, and I was in the back yard, waiting for my father to come out and play badminton with me. I was warming up for our game, hitting shuttlecocks into the air, and one of them went up on the roof. Not having a lot of sense (did I mention I was nine?), I climbed up on the slide attached to our swing set to get a better look at where it had gone. I should mention that my brother Stephen, also not at this time possessed of a great deal of wisdom (he was seven), was running water from a hose down the slide.

You can probably guess what happened next. My mother tells me she heard a horrible scream from the back yard and ran out to find me lying on the ground, presumably with my arm at a strange angle. I just remember being on the slide one minute, and the next being on the living room couch, my arm in a sling my father had jury-rigged from a Cub Scout neckerchief. Our pediatrician was called, and then I was helped into the car and driven to the Twin Falls hospital's emergency room. I have a vivid memory of sitting on the examination table, hearing my doctor make small talk about football with an orderly outside the room, thinking angrily to myself, I'm in here, with a broken arm, and all you care about is FOOTBALL? Eventually they came in, took me to the x-ray room, then back to the ER where my arm was set with a heavy plaster cast. It was a bad break, and included a dislocation of my right shoulder, so gravity was to be part of the therapy. A sling went around my neck.

For two months my arm hung from that sling, encased in plaster. I had to learn to do everything with my left hand, and I was forbidden from engaging in any activity that might get the cast wet--though it was getting plenty moist on the inside during those hot months. If all went well, the cast would come off in August, just before school started up again, so I'd have my right hand back in time for that.

Meanwhile, I suffered. There was no bicycling that summer, no playing pool in the church's youth room, no splashing around in our kiddy pool, and because of the logistical difficulty of keeping that cast dry, only an occasional bath. The arm itched horribly, and I could only reach a few inches inside to scratch the ever increasing layer of dead skin. Worst of all, I had to sleep on my back, with my upper body elevated.

I'm a light sleeper, and I prefer being on my stomach or side, neither of which was possible. Add to that an entire season of hot nights, and it's a recipe for insomnia. I would lie in bed, utterly unable to sleep, imagining terrible things. At some point I noticed my neck popped lightly when I turned my head, and I began worrying that I had broken my neck somehow; we eventually had to drive to the pediatrician's house and have him feel my neck to verify that it was not, in fact, broken. Clued into my sleep problems, my father would come in, sit on my bed, and recite Psalms with me, then tell me to keep doing that after he'd left. We started with Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...), then added Psalm (I lift up my eyes to the hills; from whence comes my help?). By the end of the summer, I had them memorized. And then the cast came off, and a few weeks later, I was allowed to sleep on my stomach again, and things got better.

Until junior high, when I had even more struggles with insomnia, more time with the Psalms, as well as with lessons in extemporaneous prayer. From all of this, I gathered that prayer was supposed to comfort me, to help me transcend the scary moments in my life, stop dwelling on frightening or frustrating thoughts, calm my mind so that I could sleep.

High school brought with it my first flirtation with doubt, wondering if I was really a Christian. In college, I took the popular C.S. Lewis seminar (a near-must for sophomores, whether or not they were religion majors--and as you should know by now, I was not), and took comfort in his many writings about agnostics having a part in God's plan for the world. My senior year, reading a picture book about galaxies, I had an epiphany about how vast the universe is, and how miniscule or human beings. Connecting that with a rather basic understanding of the atonement, I had a kind of conversion. But it didn't really translate into a prayer life.

Graduate school was no better. Coming back from Illinois, looking for work, settling down in LaGrande, then losing that first job so quickly, I finally found myself on my knees, prefacing every night's sleep with a prayer session. I prayed hard, for specific things: to keep my job and then, when that didn't happen, for the strength to survive whatever came next. That appeared to work, and kept me going through a relocation to my parents' home, then to Salem, and into my exploration of becoming a candidate for ministry.

Seminary, where one would think there'd be plenty of instruction into spirituality, actually offered little practical advice. I was in a formation group, and we did spend time in meditation together, punctuated by spontaneous vocalized prayers, but most of my fellow students were from the South, and they prayed like evangelicals, something that really turned me off. I did have a dark night of the soul that first semester, a feeling of intense loneliness that had me on the floor, sobbing, begging God to let me know I was not alone. At one point, I had a sensation of hands on my shoulder, comforting me; I emerged from that state of despair and began dating. Yes, that was the real emptiness in my life: I was 24, and had never had a girlfriend. Within a few months of that night, I'd had two; the second became my fiancée, and then my first wife.

One could gather from this that my prayers were being answered, but it's also very possible that I had just engaged in some intense self-therapy. I was also seeing a counselor (my first) and participating in group therapy, not to mention that formation group, so I had plenty of avenues for coaxing myself out of my solitary insecurity and into relationship and community.

Being a student pastor, first in Illinois, then in England, I learned some things about praying with others. Specifically, I learned to improvise a prayer that drew on the fears and hopes of the person I was with, and to carefully phrase things so that I was putting the entire situation in God's hands, but not getting too specific about any expected result. I was channeling a moment in one of the most famous MASH episodes (the one without a laugh track) in which a soldier who thinks he's Jesus is asked, "Does God really answer prayers?" His reply is, "Yes; but sometimes the answer is 'no.'"

That was the God I was preaching and practicing, the one who says answers prayers, but sometimes says "no." And it was good enough for me until May 5, 2002, the day my son was born.

Sean suffered a massive birth trauma. He was rushed directly to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and none of his doctors was optimistic about his future. Gathered around his cot several hours after his birth, seeing him for the first time since he was rushed away from the delivery room, on a respirator, IVs going into every limb, as well as his head and navel, we had him baptized by the pastoral counselor I was seeing, Fred Strassbourg. With nurses gathered around us, Fred put some sterile water in a Styrofoam bowl, lightly touched it to Sean's head, and we all put his tiny life in God's hands.

And he lived. It defied the expectations of every doctor in the hospital. Every meeting with a doctor included the reminder that we might have to make a decision at some point to let go, to stop the heroic measures being taken, because the insult to his systems was just too great; but he lived. He stubbornly held on, and finally, after two weeks, we took him home. He was a miracle baby.

I prayed hard during that time, as did many people, and with the hospital calling him a miracle baby, the outcome felt like an answered prayer. I had my touchstone now, my proof that God was real and answered prayers if they were only fervent enough.

Two and a half years later, I was on my knees again, praying for God to save my marriage. I prayer fervently, passionately, in sobs too deep for words. But this time the answer was "no."

That's when my theologizing about the limitations of God began. I'd had the language for a long time--I studied process theology in seminary, the idea that God is affected by Creation, and, like the universe God created, is constantly becoming; and trapped within the laws by which the universe operates, may not intervene in ways that violate those laws. This doctrine of God's limits became my new touchstone. I put these words in God's mouth: "I could save your son; I can't save your marriage."

The problem with such a doctrine, though, is that after awhile, prayer seems irrelevant, even insulting. Asking God to alter reality is asking for an exception to the laws of the Cosmos. If God is all-powerful and in charge, it's a kind of coercion, insisting that God change God's mind just this one time, even as most people in this situation will have to suffer the usual outcome. In the NICU, it was asking God to save my baby, while so many other babies were dying. Of course, God had help in this case: a modern hospital, networking with other hospitals to come up with new therapies for a rare condition, using the best technology available. But what about babies born in more rural settings, in places of extreme poverty? Was God's power limited by available technology? And with respect to my divorce, was God incapable of softening the hardened heart of a fed-up spouse who knows she needs freedom from a lifeless marriage if she is to survive?

It became clear to me that if, in fact, God was answering prayers, that the fervor of the supplicant had no direct relation to the outcome, that the rules governing those answers were so complex as to be impossible for any human to discern, and that if God really was all-loving, then something was holding God back from answering prayers--and at some point, I gave up on praying.

Until one night in August, 2008, when I was just a few hours away from being in court, arguing for custody of my son, and I was again sobbing before God, pleading for what I believed to my very core was the right outcome, the just outcome--the outcome I didn't get.

It's been five years since that night, and I haven't prayed once in that time.

Part of it is skeptical: I no longer believe there's any point to making requests--correction, demands--of a God who, if he/she does exist, is either incapable of or unwilling to answer them, or if she/he does so, does it capriciously, arbitrarily, even cruelly. Part of it is logical: often there are two diametrically opposed prayers being offered with equal fervor by people on opposite sides of an issue, both of which can be argued to have merit; "yes" to one means "no" to the other, and God saying "I'm sorry" just doesn't take care of the fact that "no" can be psychically maiming when it involves the custody or life of a child. And then there's the ethical issue: should I really be coercing God to change the laws of nature in my behalf? And finally, the simple theological question of why God would answer one prayer while ignoring another. I just don't think God--if there even is a God--can operate in that way. It gets back to that question of the caprice of God, and whether such a god is even worth believing in.

I do think there's a place for prayer, but it's a different place than the petitions so many people make. Prayer, I've come to believe, is most useful, most effective, as an exercise in community, a form of group meditation that brings about change in the petitioners, empowering them to go out and be the change they've been praying for in the world around them. Thus a peace vigil binds together and empowers communities of activists to resist the forces of violence in their community. It centers their focus on their vocation of peace-making.

Such an understanding of prayer helps overcome the pettiness of petitions for parking spaces, the unfairness of praying for victory, the injustice of yes/no coercion of the Almighty. It also transcends denomination and creed: Buddhists meditating together, Muslims bowing to Mecca, Jews reciting Kaddish, Christians saying the Lord's Prayer, are all engaged in an act that charges their community with spiritual power, whether or not there's Someone listening.

It's not as comforting as thinking that God will answer that petition, but it's something. And it works for me.

The terminology of prayer being coercion of God is borrowed from the science fiction of Julian May. I can't remember exactly where I read it, probably in the Galactic Milieu trilogy, which, along with the related Saga of Pleistocene Exile, I highly recommend.

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