Praying

I was witness to what I believe was a true miracle more than two decades ago; it was undeniably the most formative event in my understanding of the nature of God. While providing all the details of the event requires more time and space than this forum provides (and wouldn’t necessarily convince the reader of the authenticity of my experience), I will suffice it to say that it involved the disappearance of a cardiac tumor in the hour between an echocardiogram (where the tumor was identified and confirmed) and the open heart procedure to remove it where it was determined that it was no longer present. My role in this event was little more than adjectival. I had urged the congregation I was serving at the time to hold the individual in question in prayer at the hour designated for surgery and was present with the family when the surgeon emerged from the operating theater shaken, incredulous and incapable of explaining what had happened.

The following Sunday, when my congregation gathered for worship, I reported the results as I understood them, providing the only commentary I could, given my mental state of stupefaction. I said something like, “This was as much for you as for [the individual]. I believe that this is confirmation that God attends to your praying. If that is the case, then we have not just the opportunity to pray, but the obligation to pray.” The corporate result of these events was the establishment of a weekly early morning prayer group where intercession was offered for the sick and suffering. I moved on from that congregation more than a decade ago, and do not know if the prayer group continues. What I do know is that my own praying does and has grown in character and constancy since.

I must confess, though, that it has not been enough to simply pray. I find that I need a way to think about that praying – my mind has to share some coherence with my heart and my behavior. I suppose that this is the most Anglican part of me; requiring all the components of our famous three legged stool which asserts that our believing must satisfy the tenets of Scripture, tradition and reason.

What language can frame my thinking of an unanticipated but longed for interruption of the natural order? What does it mean to pray and to expect that God responds to human spiritual aspiration?

There is no part of me that can accept the notion that God has the capacity to alter reality but, capriciously, accedes to some requests and denies others. This “vending machine” approach to praying (put in the correct or most earnest or worthiest request and get the desired result) offends every authentic assertion about the nature of God I know (What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg will give him a scorpion? Luke 11:11-12). No, praying must be more than asking and getting.

The greatest obstacle to finding ways to speak of the true character of prayer is our understanding of the nature of God. The limitations of the human mind demand that we vest God with particularity – that is, that we reduce God to a boundaried entity in order that we might have congress with that God. Here, Gospel accounts can confuse: Matthew’s version of Jesus’ instruction in prayer binds us in a way that Luke’s does not. Matthew has: Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9), confining God to a particular place, either physical or spiritual, while Luke has simply, When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be thy name (Luke 11:2), defining God by relationship rather than locality. Of course, both authors were temporally distant from Jesus’ actual teaching but nonetheless transmit the likely praying tradition of the fledgling Christian community in their reportage.

I find Luke’s version more helpful, resonating as it does with Jesus’ assertion that God is to us like Abba, the Aramaic word a child would cry out in the night after a bad dream; literally, “Daddy.” Despite emotional baggage the word may carry due to the frequent failing of human fathers, the word suggests a directional relationship characterized by benevolent care.

But what can we say about this God that cares? Is the word “caring” too human, too confined to our experience, to ascribe to the Divine? If God is, like the title of theologian Nels F.S. Ferre’s book, The Living God of Nowhere and Nothing, if Tillich is correct in saying that the only non-symbolic thing we can say about God is that God is being-itself (or that God is the ground of all being), how can we think of this God in a way that is not static and unavailable by its very nature but rather allows us, indeed, urges us to pray? Dare we attempt to put language or idea around God?

Certainly we can assert, as have many before us, that the person of Jesus of Nazareth is the normative expression of God – everything that can be known about God in human terms. But Jesus, the expression of God in a particular time, is available to me only through kerygmatic narrative. I believe, however, that the continuing Spirit of Jesus is ubiquitous, coherent with and identical to the Divine life: it is precisely that Spirit in which and to which and with which I pray, and I need a way to think of that Spirit. Previous ages have characterized that Spirit as being a Ghost-like (which certainly captures the insubstantial character of the immanent Divine) but again, seduces into the idea of localization. By the same token, I find the word “Spirit” itself misleading, equated, as it often is in our time, with the experience of emotion shared among humans.

The early Church, struggling with the same questions in an attempt to formulate a sufficient statement of faith, brought to the Nicene debates the concept consubstantial persons (hypostases) sharing the same substance (homoousios), an idea something akin to three adjoining rooms that all open into each other. We have since attempted to find ways, both visual and verbal, to express this, all of them simply approximating a reality that we confess is beyond our capacity to contain or express (or understand) fully.

But while I am content to accept the unfathomable mystery of the character and nature of God’s continuing presence, I nonetheless need a conceptual direction for my praying. It may simply be a personal flaw, one rooted in my inability to settle for wait and see (a confession: I always searched my home’s nooks and crannies for presents in the days before Christmas, too).

As ridiculous as it might seem to some, I find a satisfying corollary in my experience of having tuned bagpipes. An eternally persnickety instrument, the Great Highland Bagpipe requires tuning every time it is played. Changes in temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure wreak havoc on the cane reeds used in piping. As a result, the three drones (two tenor and one bass) and the chanter are always out of sync with one another after the pipe has been sitting for a time.

When drones are out of tune with one another, they produce a dissonant sound: WaWaWaWaWa, two notes close to one another fighting for dominance. When they are tuned by lengthening or shortening the sections of the drones, they hum in unison: Mmmmmmmmmm. Admittedly, it is a sound that not every one finds appealing, but for the piper, it is glorious. And I think that’s like good praying.

The only way I can think of the continuing Spirit of Jesus (and the character of God) is that it is a universal and benevolent intention that undergirds the fabric of reality; literally allows reality to be. It is more than consciousness, at least as I understand consciousness. The earliest thinking about God may carry an affirmation of this idea, the four letter name of God in the Hebrew Scriptures (YHWH) likely from the Hebrew hawah, to be or become.

I hear authentic echoes of this before and above everything intentionality struggling to be grasped in Paul’s assertion to the Romans that the whole creation waits with eager longing for the birthing of the children of God (Romans 8:19, my translation, emphasis added). It is persistent in its hunger to achieve resonance with all things living and finds the most resistance in achieving coherence with humans, who like the dissonance of bagpipe drones, fight for dominance over the true and underlying note. When, however, those moments of resonance are achieved, praying is not primarily a matter of human initiative informing the Divine of individual wants and needs, but rather is an experience of the glorious voicing of something both outside of self and a part of self; a yielding to the invitation to consummate intimacy wherein we become vox Dei. Again in Paul’s words, the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs and moans too deep for words (Romans 8:26).

And in that experience energy and power are amassed: true power, realized as our self-fullness yields to undying benevolent intention for death-conquering life.

So we say that praying is offering up and praying is longing for and praying is listening to and praying is nourishment for the soul, but most of all praying is seeking unity of voice with that which is in all and through all and with all and which all reality longs to express.

And I think that’s what happened in that operating theater more than two decades ago; not that one might be spared, but that others who were there in place and in body and in spirit might be drawn closer to that perfect note which hungers for our hearts to strike with it a perfect chord.

And it’s a chord that longs to be heard again. And again. And again.