What prayer can (and can’t?) do

In an earlier post, I wrote about praying for a woman whose family wants her to get better while she herself wants to be at peace:

And here I sit with a theology that says I can’t really request that God make anything happen.

A commenter asked if I could say more about that, or if I’ve written about it in the past. I’m sure I’ve touched on it here and there (most notably, here), but I’m going to try again to put it all in one place.

First, a confession. My theology of prayer is, like all of my theology, a work in progress. This is not a water-tight argument or a series of perfect apologetics. But, as you’ll see, I feel that I’m in good company being a work in progress.

What we believe, what any of us believe about prayer, says at least two things: who we believe God is and what we believe the purpose of prayer is.

To begin at the beginning, then, God. I don’t think God is all-powerful.

This is the first place that I tend to get a couple of raised eyebrows.

I could walk through a couple of nifty theological arguments about the threefold problem of evil (1. God is Good; 2. God is All-Powerful; 3. Evil/Bad things are very real and happen to people. One of the preceding statement must be untrue), but that doesn’t really do it justice. My shortest answer to the cries of ‘how can you say that’ is, look around. Look at the horrible things we do to one another. Look at the evils we ourselves, created somehow in a divine image, unleash on the world. Consider Hitler. And ask yourself, if there’s a God who was all-powerful and could stop such evil, could change people’s hearts, and chooses not to for any reason, what does that say about God? Either that God is limited by itself (rather silly distinctions– I *could* change the course of the earthquake about to rip China in half, but that interferes with my principles), that God is not all-powerful, of that God is, simply, not good. Or, as I said in that previous post, a bit more vehemently:

Plainly put, I can’t buy any argument by which god is all powerful but for some noble reason self-limits or defends free will and chooses not to act in the face of disaster. When it comes to things like mass genocide or murder suicide or pandemic illnesses, screw self limitation and free will. Any god who had the power to stop the holocaust and for whatever reason didn’t is a monster; I can’t worship that god.

Closer to home, one of the formative experiences of this past year for me in my ministry was being with a family in the midst of a very painful crisis. What do I believe in the face of a family that prayed for healing and reconciliation and hope and never found it? What do I tell people whose loved ones have inflicted such horrible violence? How do I answer questions about God’s love and forgiveness and why they prayed if God never answered them? That experience is deep in my theology now, part of my reflection always (same as that first link). What I tell people who are hurting is this: God hurts with you. God weeps with you. As much as your heart breaks, as much as you wish you could fix it, God’s heart breaks too; God wants to fix it too. For whatever reason, that’s not happening right now, but God is with you in this. Maybe God can’t fix it, but God can give you the strength to get through it.

So that’s who I believe God is, a Process God, a God still creating around us and through us and in us. A God who weeps with us when the hurricane strikes, because it’s a hurricane and there was nothing to be done to stop it. A God who is All Love and All Salvation and All Grace.

Now, what is prayer to such a God?

Given that God cannot necessarily intercede in a given circumstance, what are we doing when we pray?

First, we’re acting on faith, and on the principle that it never hurts to ask. Jesus himself asked God for stuff all the time, and told us to (Give us this day our daily bread). Jesus himself quite literally threw himself down and begged God to change the course of events– If there is another way, take this cup from me!  Of course, he added a second part to that, a part we’d often like to forget: Yet not my will, but yours be done.  And in this, one of his most fervent prayers (and in another– may they [my followers] be one, as you and I are one we haven’t quite achieved that yet!), Jesus did not get the answer he was seeking from God. This teaches us that it’s okay to ask for things, for healing for oneness, for safety, for comfort, and sometimes we’re not going to get what we ask for. It doesn’t mean we don’t deserve it. It doesn’t mean we’re bad people. Jesus didn’t get what he was asking for either.

And we recognize that in his case, that wasn’t the point. In praying take this cup from me, but not my will, but yours, be done, Jesus wasn’t so much looking for a way out as he was seeking the strength to face what was before him. He was seeking to align himself with God, not to make God align with him. He was trying to change his own heart, not the situation. That’s what prayer is about.

It needs to be said that this doesn’t always happen either. I have prayed for strength or patience or courage in the past, and sometimes not ‘gotten’ it. I know of many many suicide victims who prayed for the strength to persevere and keep living and still didn’t find it in themselves. This, too, happens.

But for the most part, that’s what prayer is. It’s changing us to be God’s own response, unfolding. It’s drawing us closer to God. It’s preparing ourselves to face the crisis ahead, knowing that God is with us. Again, as I wrote in that earlier reflection:

 I don’t think that we pray to try to get God to do something that God hitherto has been unable or unwilling to do. I think we pray to get ourselves closer to the heart of God, and in so doing to either come to a place where we are the answer to the prayer that we seek, or we are strong enough to bear the outcome of whatever crisis we were trying to avert. I don’t think that we can pray, for example, for God to create world peace, because it’s not like God’s just sitting around waiting for us to pray enough and then ‘he’ will swoop down and fix everything. We can’t pray for peace because we are the ones who stand in the way of it and we are the only ones through whom it can come. Instead, we’re really praying for the courage to be peacemakers, and the strength to deal with the absence of peace, in our selves and in our world. That said, there are instances of people who were prayed for being healed of a particular disease, or in my own (very recent) experience, people who know that they are being prayed for feeling buoyed and strengthened by the support and love of others– a truly sacred feeling.

And that last bit is important, too. Sometimes, despite my theology, which is not-so-watertight, miracles happen. I’d rather have a theology that can comfort in grief and is surprised by miracles than the other way  ’round.

So, coming back to my sweet little lady in the nursing home, who has been doing very well (an answer to her daughter’s prayers and a refutation of her own), I’m not really praying that she be healed and feel better, nor am I really praying that she pass away swiftly and peacefully. I’m praying that she have the strength of body and spirit for the days ahead, which will be difficult ones. I’m praying that her family have the courage and grace to make their peace with her passing. I’m praying that she knows God is with her here and now, even if she hasn’t yet been ‘taken home’ to God. I’m praying that *I* can be part of that strength and courage and grace and peace and presence, because we must never ever pray for something unless we are willing to be part of the ever-Creating God’s answer to that prayer, unfolding in and through and around us.

And that’s the last time you ask me to say more on a subject, right? 😉

Caught in the Act

As I predicted, my sweet old lady in the nursing home is still living, and more miserable than ever, although she’s wonderfully lucid and frank and quite funny (Well, I don’t care what the nurse’s name is, I’m just telling you he was good-looking. And he’s the one who did my bath today).

I went to visit her yesterday morning, fresh off my vacation. I found her alone and asleep (or nearly so) in her room, hooked to her oxygen and looking weaker than she did five days ago. I sat with her quietly, thinking and praying vaguely in my head, and then, because I thought it might be comforting to her, I started singing some hymns softly. She played the organ for a long time, both in church (not as the official organist, but as the substitute), and even after she came to the nursing home she played in the recreation room for the other residents until she became too ill to do so. So I thought hymns might make her happier than my talking at her, and might seep into her consciousness a bit better. So I sang. I got most of the way through Amazing Grace— there’s a verse in there I don’t know, “The Lord has promised good to me…” so I hummed a lot on that one, before my favorite, the following verse, which always reminds me of Harry Potter‘s Sirius:

And when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil a life of joy and peace.

I was into the Alleluias when the daughter found me. Caught in the act of visiting my congregant without even having to be asked. You score mega good-pastor points for that. Of course I was singing, which might not have been considered a blessing, depending on how good the daughter’s hearing is.

The daughter (who is even more insistent that her mom “hang on” until her 91st birthday two weeks from now, when the daughter can return [don’t say that, honey, you only make it harder for her to let go, and she so desperately wants to]) goes home today, so I don’t know if I’ll see her when I head down. I hope I can catch my congregant awake and alone so I can talk to her (not sing to her!) and let her tell me what her children don’t want to hear: how much she’s looking forward to being taken home, what she wants to tell her husband when she sees him, and how much she wants her pain to go away– all things she needs to say, tears she needs to shed, but which her children keep gently shushing.

Woking Vacation

This weekend, I got out of town and back to my roots in Vermont, as I gathered with my extended family to scrape, power-wash, stain, and trim my mom’s house (and garage!).

My family normally gathers for Memorial Day weekend, which used to be the weekend of the dance recital for my sister and I. we have long since stopped having dance recitals, but the cousins and aunts and uncles still come out of the city (mostly New York Metro area) to spend the weekend in Vermont. Past years we have gone on hikes or to the movies, but this year we painted.

My increidibly talented younger sister was our official photographer for the weekend (and these shots are courtesy of her), and was also able to lend a hand in her soon-to-be professional area of expertise. Ru is halfway through her medical studies to become a doctor of chiropractic, and about a dozen people painting a house are in great need of adjustments and massages. It was wonderful to have her be able to give the gift of her particular skill, and I didn’t even really have to be jealous.

Sure, as I’ve said before, halfway through *my* master’s degree, I could write my own prayers and she can relieve people of long-held physical pain, but everyone’s gift is special. Plus, I’m really good at detail work like painting trim.

But it seems there was another gift I was to offer.

My extended family, in which we now include both my husband and my brother in law, runs the religious spectrum from devout Catholic to former Catholic, from former would-be-nun to spiritual agnostic, to atheist, with some Lutherans and a wacky United Methodist pastor thrown in the middle. Church Sunday morning is always a bit of a challenge, as people pick their sides (there’s a Catholic carpool and a Methodist one), children waffle about whether or not to attend their parents’ choice of church or assert their independent religious views, and we all try to meet up for brunch. 

Add to that particular drama the fact that I had specifically left my own church for the weekend so I wouldn’t have to subject myself to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and the minor detail that a bunch of people didn’t want to give up the cool morning hours of painting to rush into town for church.

So I was asked to hold church at the house. And I did.

After a campfire-side consultation with my youngest cousin, I selected a passage from John 14 as my text, because it contains one of my least favorite passages from the gospels: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to God but by me.” I shared some of my struggles with John 14:6 and the way it seems to be so condemning of other faiths or paths. I also shared some context for the statement (some of which I gleaned from Borg, and discuss toward the end of an earlier post), which, read against the absolute claim of the first century Temple priests to be the One Way to God, may in fact be a liberating message: I am the way, says Christ, not those priests and their expensive, exclusive rituals. You don’t need their rites and their permission to approach God. You just need me.

I then invited my family to join in a favorite ritual of mine, the Organic Altar. This is something we did a lot in the women’s center in seminary at our retreats and things, but I didn’t name it the Organic Altar until my third year when I was in charge of a huge worship service for a conference and nothing went according to plan and nothing got done when it was supposed to, so we started calling it organic, as in still living, as in not at all planned ahead of time. Not surprisingly, those organic moments are when the Spirit seems to break through most powerfully.

Anyway, for the Organic Altar, each person is invited to place an object of significance on the altar. It might be a piece of jewelry or a picture or something they carry with them; it might be something they find in the space around them (in this case we were outside), but it has to be something that communicates God or Sacred or Importance to them. Then, of course, we share what these objects represent for us, how they are part of finding and living the Way.

We closed with a meal of remembrance, because I couldn’t actually call it communion, and then we sang the first verse of Amazing Grace, because we all knew it.

So I did lead worship on Sunday, and I did give of my particular gift. I was proud and blessed at the same time.

Prayers with the dying

I’ve only watched a few people pass away, but it’s always hard and not in the ways I expected.

It takes a long time. Much longer, usually, than we expect. It’s like childbirth in that way, and there’s something amazing in the fact that for a lot of people we leave this life as slowly as we enter it.

So when I get an email from the daughter of a congregant saying that she and her brother are rushing to their mother’s side to spend her last days with her, I don’t panic. In fact, by the time I arrive at the nursing home, my congregant looks pretty good to me. I’m no doctor, but she doesn’t look like she is dying. She’s hooked up to the oxygen tank, propped up on her pillow, and breathing shallowly. But her color is pretty good for 91, and she is speaking in full sentences, and knows who she is and who I am and where we are and that her husband, of whom she speaks with wistful tears, is neither alive nor in the room with us.

Her son, looking worried as he clutches her hand, tells her not to ‘go’ yet– not before his sister can arrive. I don’t have the heart to tell him my prediction: that it will be a while yet before she goes anywhere, that this will get longer and worse before it ever gets better. But I’ve sat with my congregant through increasingly frequent visits, and I know how tired she is, how frustrated and unhappy, how trapped she feels in her body. I know what she’s rasping, trying to tell him now: that she wants–has wanted to for a long time–to die. She tells him not to be sad but to let her go when it’s time, and he nods, and she relaxes a bit, but my stomach clenches because I’m no doctor, but I’ve seen this part and her wish isn’t about to be granted. Not yet.

And then, after conversations about the weather and the news and the great-grandkids, it’s time for me to go, and before I do, I face the hardest part. The prayer. As I take each of their hands, I’m weighed down again by the frightening responsibility of this moment, this line-straddling ministry to two people with deep and different needs. The one wants me to offer a prayer of healing, physical healing, to help his mother be strong and vibrant and see her great-grandbaby take his first steps. The other wants a prayer of release, a sending forth, a request for God’s angels to gather her up before she suffers further, to take her home now, to her husband and her Jesus and her blessed rest. I tend to side with my congregant, but the distance of being her pastor and not her child affords me this.

And here I sit with a theology that says I can’t really request that God make anything happen. Still I pray:

Loving God, thank you for R and for the wonderful gift of her time with us. Thank you for the joy she brings to our lives and the lives of everyone who loves her. Thank you also for the people who give her joy, those who love her, past and present. We pray today for strength for R in her body and in her spirit. Strength to find whatever healing there is in this time and place, strength as she waits to come home to you when she’s ready. We pray for courage for her family as they support her and love her and surround her in care. Mostly, God, we pray for peace. Peace for R in her body as the pain fades away, peace for her family in their hearts as they wait with her, and peace for R in her spirit as she finds her true peace in you. As in all places, help us know that you are here with us, granting your peace. Your peace. Amen.

I left my cell number with the family and the nursing home and the funeral home, telling them that I will be back in town early next week. But truthfully, I expect the vigil will still be going on Tuesday when I return. I expect there will be many more times to offer a prayer like that. I expect her children may even come to a place where they too can openly and honestly pray for their mom’s release, and I know what that means. Tremendous pain. Tremendous peace. Never one without the other. Until then, rest easy, grandma. You’ll see your beloved soon.

The importance of self (and family)- care

As of the conclusion of yesterday’s church service, (and its sermon, “God’s Team“), I am on vacation for one week. So far, I’ve had to resist 1. getting involved in the church’s desperate efforts to put together a Memorial Day float, 2. overseeing the construction of the church memorial garden, the design of which has been changed a bit last minute and will probably upset those not involved in that, if my answering machine is to be believed and 3. calling a congregant who I know is in crisis. That last one I think I’m going to cave on tonight.

Don’t hear this as fishing for compliments (no, your sermon was soo great!), but I can *tell* when I need a break from preaching and I’m actually a little surprised that my congregants don’t pick up on it or if they do, don’t mention it to me. Um, pastor, that was pretty much the same sermon as last week. We get it, we’re all God’s people, yada yada. I really feel like I had the same root sermon for about three weeks now. Different scripture. Different hook/story/gimmick. Same underlying message.

So I need this break. I need it for myself. I need it to spend time with my family (nuclear and extended). I need it to be a better pastor when I come back.

I need it to clean my house.

My usband asked me what I had planned for the week. Why does he think I’m the sort of person who plans her week off? Oh, right, because he’s known me for a decade and lived with me for seven years.

So, my plans are:
1. Go to the gym each day (I’m off to a good start!)
2. Blog (lookit me, meeting my goals!)
3. Write creatively– poetry or essay or fiction
4. Clean up a bit, including doing laundry. 
5. Read. Finish the book I’m on so I can start my Shadows Return countdown by reading The Complete Works of Lynn Flewelling.
6. Sit outside in the sun, should it decide to shine.
7. Cook yummy dinners that do not involve calling the local pizza place.

Also, I do have to finish a worship service for Annual Conference, call the aforementioned congregant-in-crisis, have a staff parish meeting, and schedule a few meetings/appointments for next week. But that’s vacation for you. Then I get to work in my mom’s garden and paint her house and play with my aunts/uncles/cousins/husband/kid for a glorious weekend. It’s a fair trade.

Birthdays all Around

The church and I shared a birthday this Sunday, and what a celebration it was. The sermon, “Variety Show” is uploaded in my sermon archive.

I struggled quite a bit with this service, because I really like to make Pentecost special. Unlike Christmas and Easter, there are no traditions, no expectations, and in many ways no limitations. It’s just me and my congregation and one of the best stories in the Bible. Honestly, there’s so much to preach about and talk about and reflect on in Acts 2. This year I was particularly struck by the diversity of the church, and the thought that the strength of our body is in that variety, that uniqueness. Sure it’s a real pain in the butt sometimes to have to acknowledge that the person spouting what sounds to me like the most unChristian, unMethodist, unhelpful theological or social perspective is a brother or sister in good faith, but it’s the truth (most times– I reserve the right to say that some people are, as one congregant offered mid-illustration, ‘crazies’). It’s the reason that we can be a global church, a worldwide body, relevant in many places to many people. The broadness of our reach is only limited by the broadness of our inclusivity. What that means for a denomination that consistently refuses to acknowledge that we do in fact disagree and this year has decided (by a decisive and rousing 12 vote margin out of a thousand delegates) that our inclusivity can be limited at the pastor’s discretion, remains to be seen. But the fact remains, in my opinion, that we are only relevant when we are relevant everywhere, able to trust that the Gospel of inclusivity and grace and transformation is conveyed in every language and every worship style (and every theological expression?).

Obviously, I’m following the old mandate of never preaching a sermon you don’t yourself need to hear.

And for a gimmick an experiential element of the worship service, we made a mosaic, having people come up and glue a unique, rough-edged, broken, somewhat dangerous piece of glass to a heart-shaped piece of plaster (which reminds me I have some grouting to do– didn’t know pastors were also, er, grouters, did you?). Hey, I thought it was fun, and beat my other idea, which was making a soup from many ingredients. Fun, but it would have required open flame in the sanctuary, and that’s taking the Pentecost theme a little too far even for me.

The mission field

I evangelized in Starbucks today.


First, I had a funeral this morning, under very difficult circumstances. As in the family was estranged from one another and rather than sharing bittersweet memories of the deceased took the opportunity to air some grievances that probably really needed to be aired. I hope I brought a little opportunity for healing to the situation, but boy was it awkward and painful, and more about God’s grace being able to intercede in broken family systems as people work through life transitions than about God’s grace bringing departed loved ones home.

Then I had two hours before Spanish class and no desire to drive in circles. Attired in my funeral suit, which either makes it very clear that I’m a pastor or makes one assume I’m auditioning for a role in The Matrix, I went to a Starbucks. As I’ve said earlier, I wear my clerical out and about because it is a form of evangelizing, but this time it actually did a little more than make people look at me funny.

I was sitting in a comfy chair by the fireplace when a middle-aged woman approached and asked if the seat next to me was taken. I told her she was free to sit down, noting at the same time that a. there were lots of empty seats around the cafe, and b. she was carrying a book on Centering Prayer. My acute pastoral skills tell me she’s recognized The Collar.

“I see you’re reading about centering prayer,” I say, turning my attention from my laptop to my companion. “You’ve picked a great chair.”

“Oh, yes, I didn’t want to interrupt you, but can I ask you a couple questions?”

And just like that, we’re off, and I’m describing my church and my denomination and she’s telling me that she’s a Catholic laywoman but feels called to ministry (boy is that familiar territory!), and we’re exchanging names and business cards and laughter. Look at that.

Off to the Community College, where the students who didn’t recognize my dorky tab collar can’t miss the power of the Funeral Suit, and ask me all kinds of questions (wait, you can have a kid? you can be married? is it fun? you had to go to *school* for that?).

So, today I utterly failed to complete any of the worship services for my annual conference and I didn’t come up with any ideas of something creative I could do for Pentecost (despite a Facebook chat with an old friend that covered salad, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Clue, children’s board books, and Greek frescoes, in no particular order). I did a pretty poor job at officiating at a funeral (or I did a good job but the situation was so difficult it was hard to see that), and I made no progress on a bulletin. But I was clearly where I needed to be. The rest, well that’s detail work.

The Revolution Will Not Be Webcast

The official word on the sensored streaming video is that it was unintentional– although it was exactly as long as the protest and kicked back in after the protest. “We thought they were going to take a recess.” Right. During recesses, they put up the logo slide, not the standby slide. That’s only shown before and after the day’s broadcast, in short, when there is no streaming signal.

So they uploaded the coverage of the protest here. You have to click the MPEG below “Homosexuality Witness.” For those who don’t watch the video, it shows maybe 200 people, dressed in black, lining the aisles of the convention space. They sing, “Were You There?” and drape the communion table in black fabric to signify the brokenness of the Body. A young woman speaks at the mic for a few minutes, declaring the the glbt community are the church and they are not going away. A Bishop speaks as well, comparing sexuality and gender identity-based exclusion to the racial exclusion not so long ago. Several other Bishops stand in prayer. Now what was so threatening about that? Except that the protesters were threatened with up to a year jail time if they didn’t leave the floor after their (literal) fifteen minutes.

My seminary colleague Will Green posted about his experience on the floor yesterday and being a brave, brave man (he came out to a thousand delegates and an untold number of internet viewers) over on the Cambridge Welcoming Ministries Blog. More conservative voices immediately jumped all over him. For shame.

Here’s Will, on his birthday, outing himself to the UM world, and taking the mic to implore that the United Methodist Church not use the glbt community as lambs sacrificed on the altar of false unity. Which of course we did. Bless you, my brother.