Prayer in a Non Theistic World View
April 7, 2002
Easter 2 John 20:19-31
There were four Rabbis who were constantly in theological debates, where three would always agree against the fourth. One day the odd Rabbi out became sick of this situation and decided to appeal to a higher authority. "Oh God," he cried, "I know that I am right and that they are wrong. Please give me a sign to prove it to them." As soon as the Rabbi finished his prayer, a storm cloud rolled over the perfect blue sky and rested above the group. "You see," he said. "A sign from God." The others wouldn't accept it, arguing that storm clouds can form on hot days.
So the Rabbi prayed again, "God, this time I need a bigger sign to show that I am right and they are wrong." This time four storm clouds formed, and a bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree. "I told you," he said. His friends still refused to accept his case. A third time the Rabbi began to pray. "Oh God… Yet before he got the words out, the sky turned pitch black, the earth shook and a deep booming voice intoned, 'HEEE'S RIIIIIGHT!" The Rabbi put his hands on his hips, turned to the others and said, "Well?" "So," shrugged one of the other Rabbis. "Now it's 3 to 2."
Sounds like any number of church meetings I have been to! Prayer often becomes a safety blanket for us, not so much because we believe in the results, rather because it shows that we have God on our side. So what is prayer? And what are some of the different ways of making sense of prayer even if God is no longer seen to be in the clouds pulling the strings of history?
Of course in Hebrew religion there was every reason to believe that God was pulling the strings of history, or at least a certain nation's history. Even if only as mythology, God had a habit of speaking to Israel's leaders and hearing their pleas for mercy. They prayed for the kingdom, which for them was a political and social victory; it was God led therefore invincible.
It was no wonder then that first century followers of Jesus would have expected that prayer meant something similar, and that the content of their prayers would likewise have been nationalistic and zealously political. When Jesus said to pray for God's kingdom, they would have certainly imagined he meant a victorious raid on the Jerusalem temple. And maybe he did intend that for the prayer. Jesus, too, was influenced by a Hebraic view of God and prayer. Yet he built on it. I will come back to that point.
First, let me tell you of a story which horrified me no end. I received an email, an international chain message, which was in response to a school shooting in America. The email was an encouragement to prayer and trust in God. It recorded the survival of a teenager who was very pious, and always resisted peer pressure because of her faith. This young girl was in the firing line during the shooting and had a miraculous experience while she prayed. Bullets passed above and around her, bullets which hit and killed other teenagers. The message - we were supposed to praise God for delivering this girl.
What sort of a God would save one person and not another in a tragic situation like that?
What sort of a God would favour the pious over the ordinary human struggler?
What sort of a God would answer the prayers of some and not others?
What sort of a God would bring devastation on some nations more severely than others? Quite simply, a racist God, a prejudiced God, a God worthy only of being abandoned.
For some people prayer is all about asking God to fix situations. At its best this type of prayer has compassion on others' situations and channels positive energy in their direction. At its worst it is an avoidance of personal responsibility and practical care. If you pray in this way, my plea is that you see it is a channelling of positive energy and not as a list from which God can pick and chose compassionate intervention. Jesus, I believe, still had some notions of shopping list prayer. He too was affected by the piety of his day. Yet he had also a radical approach which moved on from a theistic view of prayer. He offered a distinctive teaching on the presence of God.
Jesus, in praying for God's kingdom, fulfilled his own prayer. For Jesus claimed to be the kingdom of God, and Jesus claimed that the kingdom of God was within ordinary people. God was no longer only in the clouds. God was now present in the daily struggles and joys, and in the connections between people. So prayer is about encountering God and sometimes in surprising places. Prayer becomes a deeply personal journey to wholeness and a connected spirit. Prayer becomes an expression of our deepest desires for a humanity which is kind and equitable and peace loving. Prayer is not the opposite of action. It is our motive for action. Prayer is not asking an external deity to fix a problem. It is our personal call to live with integrity and be a God presence to others and to our world.
Similarly our corporate prayer will also alter. We might consider no longer praying 'The Lord be with you', and instead consider praying 'The Lord is with you'. We need not pray 'the kingdom come' and instead might pray 'the kingdom has come'. In fact the revised prayer books get this right at many points. You will notice in today's service that we affirm 'the Lord is here'. Our intercessions will not be sick lists, but a gathering of our compassionate thoughts and energy in concern for others. Our liturgy will be a collection of positive statements about God qualities such as love and life.
I heard a wonderful story of prayer in action. It came from a Rabbi who walked the freedom march in the United States from Selma to Montgomery. He described his experience in terms of prayer. This was his explanation: 'For many of us in the march it was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.'
The kingdom of God is within. The God presence and power is within. Prayer is unlocking that presence and power, through silence and in shouting, in contemplation and in action, alone and in church. Prayer is central for us. It enriches our life, and our spirit. Some might even suggest that through prayer people live longer, and I wouldn't be arguing. If it was argued that prayer improves health, and efficiency, that prayer adds depth to our relationships and offers much to our social cohesion, I would not argue. Prayer is a wonderful opportunity, not so much for divine intervention. That will come if it comes. Far more for its power to calm, inspire and direct our thoughts outward.
I finish with Jim Nuttall's Native American version of the LORD'S PRAYER. Notice that it is more a statement of reality and ideals than a plea for divine intervention.
O Great Spirit, the source of Our Life,
You created us all.
You live in the Heavens, in the Earth and in our hearts.
Your name is very sacred to us; we see It everyday in the skies, in the rivers and in the forests.
You are a friend to the four-legged ones, the winged ones, the ones who live in the waters and to the two-legged ones.
Your eternal Ways bring harmony and strength, so the hoop of your people is unbroken as we gather around the council fires for wisdom.
You are the Source of our life.
So, we rejoice each day for the food we eat, the shelter we live in and the companions we share.
Help us to remember that as we love all that is around us, Your love grows within us.
Lead our steps away from the trails of confusion and hurtfulness; place our feet on the trails of harmony and sharing.
For Your Ways direct our lives, Your Power ignites the campfires of our hearts.
Let us sing songs of joy to each other as we gather our logs.
Thank you, Great Spirit.