Meditations on Good Friday

Meditation on Good Friday

Today is Good Friday. It has been my custom, on this extraordinary day, to post an old meditation on the meaning of the cross, called Three Men on a Friday. Today, however, I feel led to meditate on something rather different, though not unrelated.

Good Friday, of course, is the Church’s remembrance of its most central truths: that God became man, was crucified to pay the price which we could not pay, and was raised victorious on the third day. Good Friday is a somber day, a day to remember that we individually are responsible for the torture and agony which befell Christ — that he hangs on the Cross in our stead.

Yet, in the deep sorrow and humility which we bring to mind on this profound day, there is also an extraordinary hope: that in our greatest disasters, in our biggest failures, in our most agonizing and painful moments, there is a purpose, a plan, a hope which is both utterly irrational, yet absolute and sure.

Good Friday teaches me that failure is not to be avoided at all costs, but instead embraced as a great opportunity. Good Friday teaches me that my lifelong struggle for perfection is doomed to failure, and is chasing after the wind. Good Friday teaches me that I have no idea what is best for me, that pain and suffering have a purpose which I need not, and often should not, understand. Good Friday teaches me that God can make sparkling diamonds out of filthy coal, that my worst attributes, my most painful failures, the most disastrous events which have befallen me beyond my control, are but the building blocks of a new and far better life in hands of God.

I have recently shared some of the struggles in my life, especially my professional trials, and these have indeed taken no small toll on my spirit. Beyond that, like many, I have watched as a country which I love, whose institutions and traditions have blessed and prospered millions, is undermined and corroded by greedy men lusting for power who serve only themselves. Like many, this has been most painful to watch, engendering much anger, frustration, dismay, and discouragement.

Yet I must not forget that I too am greedy, that I too seek to control others and manipulate my world for my own benefit and betterment. We hate most in others what we see in ourselves, and our instincts scream to return evil for evil. Yet by so doing, I enslave myself to those who would enslave and destroy me.

The Cross teaches me another way. It teaches me, quite simply, that God is in control of all things, and that His ways are not my ways. It teaches me that the darkest hour comes before dawn, that God can use evil for good, and that only by bending my will and my knee before Him, no matter what the cost, can my own victory and deliverance, and that of others, be purchased.

We are at war. This is a war, not merely of bombs and guns, nor of words and arguments, nor of politics and power. It is an ancient war, from the very beginning of time: a war between the will of man and the will of God. One way is the way of hatred, anger, revenge, and destruction, whose outcome, no matter how fleeting its seeming victories, will inevitably and invariably lead to defeat and destruction. The other way is that of submission, of self-crucifixion, of “not my will but Thine.” Every fiber of my being strains against this way; every inclination of my will and spirit runs contrary to such surrender. Yet on the Cross, surrender, humiliation, agony, and defeat became the very instruments used of God to reconcile man — stubborn, rebellious, hateful man — to Himself, and to bring new life, and new power, and new hope to those who would follow in the irrational ways of God. And this war must be fought and won, first and foremost, within me.

Yet in this way of submission, brokenness, and humility, we are not called to passivity nor defeat. We are called — each in our own way, using our own gifts — to do battle. For some this will be a way of persuasive words, or prophetic proclamation of the evil which surrounds us. For some it will be writing letters, contributing money, volunteering time and effort, running for office, becoming involved.

But for all, first and foremost, it must begin with prayer, with self-examination, with the submission of every aspect of our lives to the will and wisdom of God, for judgment begins with the house of God. It is time, quite literally, to be on our knees; it is time to fast, to repent, to make amends, and take hold of that joy and purpose which can only come by aligning our wills with that of Him who paid the ultimate price to make us whole.

We do not know — we cannot know — what the outcome will be; the ways of God are vastly higher than our capacity to understanding, and our efforts will come to naught if we try to bend the plans of God to the will of man. We must submit to crucifixion if we are to see the Resurrection.

There are many paths, the broad leading to destruction, the narrow to life. May God give us the will and the wisdom to follow that narrow path.

God of Loss and Grace

God of Loss & Grace

ocean with lavaThe Anchoress tells of receiving heartbreaking news: the prospect of losing her hearing:

Yesterday morning, though, came a straw I have dreaded my whole life, and I finally drew it: the “you are losing your hearing” straw…

The loss was discovered, of course, due to that dismal ear infection of the past two weeks, but the hearing in that afflicted ear is only slightly worse than the other. Upon reading my test results the doctor asked if I had worked around airplanes for the past 20 years, or if I had fronted a rock band. “Severe degeneration! hearing aids!”
The pain of such a loss is real, and it is deep — it can neither be trivialized nor ignored. Some will deaden the pain by drink, others by denial or depression, or one of a host of other means whereby we mitigate the pain while refusing to embrace it.

We live with sense of entitlement: we should be free of pain and suffering. For most, such dire news—particularly about health and well-being—is a devastating blow, devoid of meaning and justice, a cruel trick of fate, perhaps, or some sort of karmic retribution for evil done in this life or one prior. It is at best random misfortune, at worst a cruel robbery, a brutal injustice. There is no making sense of it —it is without reason or purpose.

Yet for the Christian, things are supposed to be different. We serve&as an article of faith—a God of love, and when one has committed their life to such service, the reward of such a severe trial raises a host of uncomfortable questions: Is God unfair? Is this punishment for sin? Is He capricious, toying with me, playing me for the fool, demanding my obedience then rewarding me with pain and loss?

The Anchoress responds as many would — with rage:
“I drove home pounding the steering wheel and telling God I thought He was pretty damned unfair, after all. I demanded that He listen to me and make me a sensible answer about why things were going as they were, why at only 46 years of age I was increasingly debilitated, increasingly arthritic, increasingly feeling like a 65 year old.

It’s not enough that I must sometimes use a cane, or that I wear glasses, not enough that I am constantly bruised, often fatigued into stupidity and inarticulate, stammering aphasia, not enough that my body is scarred all over and that my skin is under siege simply because I am Irish! now I am going to need hearing aids? Now I am going to be deaf? What has my husband ever done to you, that you need to inflict this sort of wife upon him?

Oh, I howled. I ranted.

And it was so out of character for me to do so – this has not been my way, to shake an angry fist at God and make demands. I didn’t like doing it – it felt so wrong. So wrong, not to simply be thankful for my blessings – for all the good things, and all the “not too bad” things.

But I was so angry.
Anger at God — a frightening, even terrifying thought. At worst it presents images of lightning strikes, fire and brimstone, judgment, destruction. Better to pretend you’re not angry, hide it from God lest He send another, more awful plague in retribution.

Yet anger is the entirely correct response — it is so real, so honest. This is what happens in relationships — hurt, misunderstanding, confusion, mistrust. If your God is a remote concept, an idea of immaterial power, lording it over your life from a detached place far above in the heavens, then fear of angering the unknown deity is perhaps worthy of some caution. But the Christian professes, lives, experiences relationship with God — a two-way street, not between equals, but intimate and personal, and decidedly real. Not that we know God — I have always viewed those who talk of knowing God with some suspicion, judging (perhaps unjustly) that their God is entirely too small. God knows me intimately; I know Him hardly at all, and undoubtedly far less well than I think I do. And it is this unequal relational knowledge which breeds anger and mistrust. But God has broad shoulders: He can take a punch, and has taken many. And in some illogical way, to be angry with God is to know Him — if only in small measure — better.

But we are sentient beings, and our minds demand to know why — why the pain, why the loss, why the senselessness of it all? Whatever purpose could God have in such a wrong? And, yes, Christians — the folks with the fast track to God, supposedly — get the answers wrong all the time. Is it punishment for sin? Not if the cross has any purpose, or the gospel of God’s grace any truth. Is it a discipline of God, to correct errant behavior? Perhaps slightly closer, but still far off base, as our deduction of the error being corrected is almost invariably wrong, and our knowledge of the correct path even poorer. Is God angry, vengeful, petulant, capricious, inattentive? If He is, then there is no truth to His purported revelation, no meaning to a crucified prophet, no hope of forgiveness, no future worth living for. Or that most vile and repugnant of answers, heard so often from too-rich shysters on TV church: you will be healed — if only your faith is strong enough.

The real answer is simple but not satisfying: God is good; pain and loss, evil and meaningless — and grace bridges and heals that hopeless incongruity which demands explanation and finds none.

Many years ago, as a very young Christian, filled with intellectual arrogance, baseless self-confidence, and the fading embers of a newfound faith, I discovered God on a most terrifying and unplanned journey. I was a legend in my own mind: hot-shot intern, selected above my peers for a prized specialty residency, smart, handsome, talented, affable — and of course, immensely humble. I knew all the Bible answers, memorized Scripture, had God figured out. I was passionate about medicine, and perhaps even more so about music, having written and arranged for a fusion band with whom I played guitar. Creativity was my gig, but since time for music was short, I turned my interest to woodworking, having long admired furniture craftsmen who graced hardwood trees into elegant expressions of functional beauty.

Though my experience was woefully lacking, I charged into a wood shop full of power tools, my native intelligence rapidly absorbing their workings and their potential to transform wood into beauty. Soon I was cutting and shaping like the old pros — even occasionally asking their advice on hopelessly advanced cuts and techniques — like the blind dado cut.

A dado blade is a whirling chisel, a specialized blade for a table saw designed to cut precision grooves for furniture joints. A blind dado is a cut where the resulting groove does not run to the end of the board — a difficult and dangerous cut for even the best of woodworkers. After cursory attention to the shop instructor’s advice and caution — “hold onto that board, it tends to buck” — I charged ahead, dropping a gorgeous piece of 2 inch square mahogany onto the whining scream of the blindingly-fast steel saw. The sound, smell and feel of a table saw on hardwood is like little else — almost intoxicating, the glorious union of power and precision.

In an instant, my euphoria turned to stunned surprise, as the hardwood board became a missile, soaring across the room to an enormously loud and ungraceful landing. How embarrassing — everyone would be looking at me, wondering who that idiot was. The pain was annoying — not much more than hitting your thumb with a hammer. I shook my left hand, as one would a bruise, reflexively muttered “Shit!” — then glanced down at it: it was no longer recognizable as a human appendage. White, red, mangled, grotesque — a horror beyond imagining.

The next few minutes were a blur: people shouting, talk of a “bad injury”, a hurried ambulance call, and evidently some assistance as I was guided to the floor in a near-faint. No pain — that would come later. Fear — a growing, gnawing fear without form or source — began to rise. I was a surgical resident — what would this mean for my future? What comes next? Then the moment of true terror: my music! My guitar! I knew — then and there, with a clarity hard to describe — that this passion of my life was lost, forever lost.

The pain of this realization was almost unimaginable, far exceeding anything physical. But then, a most peculiar thing happened — from nowhere, a prayer arose: “Lord, thank you for what just happened.”

Totally illogical, fully irrational, unexpected, unplanned, unwanted, even — to this day I do not know from where this thought arose. But I know it was not from some deep well of spiritual waters: my cistern was broken physically and empty spiritually. Yet there was sudden peace: the fear had vanished. Somehow I knew it would be alright. Had I truly known what the future held, I would not have been so sanguine.

The following months were hell — the hand has more sensory nerves than any other body part, and each one screamed as antiseptic cleaned the wounds, fingers stretched for x-rays, steel pins were placed and removed, stitches dug out, painful rehab initiated. Several surgeries awaited me, each more awful than the last, as bones were broken and realigned, tendons stretched, limited movement regained at extraordinary cost. Whatever fantasy I entertained of regaining function sufficient to play guitar faded with each passing week.

But this was only the start: the rigors of surgical residency were compounded by the widely-held perception that I was no longer up to the task; by surgical missteps and poor decisions, engendered by a still-shocked mind unable to focus; by a father near death with a post-surgical stroke and a career in dire jeopardy. Healing fractures caused agony for months after the injury, whether assisting at surgery or storing the groceries. Depression compounded the pain, as I grasped desperately to the slender thread my once-hopeful life had become. Whipsawing between pink-cloud optimism and deep blue despondency made sane living all but impossible.

I’d love to tell you how my faith grew strong with a song in my heart, like those saccharine storybook endings in Christian magazines, but it was not so. My faith grew, to be sure: your muscles grow hard whether pumping iron in an uptown gym or stroking an oar in chains to the cadence of a galley master’s hammer. It sustained me through difficult times in my marriage, through the loss of a house to fire, through illness personal and family. I held onto God because I had nothing else; He held onto me like a fragile and broken treasure as he caressed and gently restored. But faith failed me often — or more accurately, I failed faith. Like a weight lifter’s training, the goal is failure — and I met that goal repeatedly — gloriously, even — in ways small and spectacular. I would recoil in terror at the journey again, were it offered in some instant replay, knowing what I now know — but I would not trade the outcome for all the treasure on earth.

There is no answer to the question why? in the walk of faith. It is a foolish question — we could not understand the answer were it given, and to know why would destroy the how, and the when, and the for which purpose. The answer is unfathomable. To know why? is to be God — and despite my aspirations, I don’t have the resume for the job.

Life is more than eyesight, or hearing, or senses, or health, or functioning hands. We treasure those things, but we are more than our bodies, more than our senses, more even than our minds and spirits. We are exquisite blocks of wood, formless with sharp edges and splinters, until God — in His wisdom, gentleness, and perfect timing — gouges deep furroughs and light shavings, chisels and sands, as we begin to form in His vision — not ours — the perfect work of art, a reflection in some small way of the Craftsman’s mind, His Spirit, His beauty, His greatness.

I will pray for the Anchoress — that her trial may be light, and hopefully fleeting, that her spirit be strong and her faith sufficient. I would not wish her trials on another, but each life’s sojourn is unique, a custom job not meant for others. But her God is faithful, and His greatness reflected in the brokenness of her life. May it be as well for me.

Surveying the Abyss

Those who know me best have little doubt: I am irrepressibly optimistic. Not naive, mind you — at least from my perspective — but whether by personality, disposition, or faith, I am wont to believe the best about people, and circumstances, and the future. I drive my wife nuts, she being of a decidedly more pessimistic bent.

But I must confess of late to a recurring sense of foreboding, about a great many things. Now, prognosticating about the future is a fool’s game, to be sure; a review of most any futurist’s predictions invariable shows a predictive rate substantially less than could be had by tossing a coin.

But I do have eyes, and ears, and over half a century of something one less circumspect might call “wisdom” — and a sense of the spiritual sharpened mostly by ignoring its promptings, with the invariable consequences. Wisdom, as they say, is gained by experience — and experience is gained by lack of wisdom.

In a world which incessantly rips its cultural chords at rock-concert levels, it is no small feat to listen to the still, small voice — and harder yet to distinguish it from the countless seductive whispers and wishes of life long lived in self-gratification and indulgence. Yet that voice ever quiet is nevertheless persistent — and it seems to be speaking with an urgency and clarity which is hard to dispel.

We are standing, I sense, at the edge of an abyss — and the earth beneath our feet is shifting and unstable.

We live in a society saturated with information. The paradox of this spectacle is that we no longer possess the ability to integrate and evaluate the information which assaults us from every direction. One moment the news ticker at the bottom of the screen shows some mind-numbing drop in the stock market; the next moment, we are enthralled with some bitch queen trying to kick the shins of his lesbian competitor on Project Runway. The news media jumps from the crisis of the second to the latest Hollywood dalliance, and from there to some hopeless hyped hysteria about global warming or the health scare of the week, providing no sense of perspective about which of these might be the more important.

So it behooves us to stand back; to turn off the TV, shut down the browser, put down the paper, turn off talk radio, and truly listen — not to the screeching banshees with their banal hysteria, but rather to that inner source, be it spirit, or soul, or mind, or the wisdom acquired by life’s experiences.

Take a moment, if you will, for a brief look around, surveying our 21st-century world. Let yourself absorb the panoramic view, all 360 degrees, not averting your eyes at things which are unsettling or fear-provoking.

Glance first dead ahead: we are in the midst of a financial meltdown. Of course, there have been many financial crises in the past, many “Black Fridays”, where years of accumulated wealth have disappeared almost in the twinkling of an eye. Yet our current crisis seems different. The past 50 years in the West, particularly in America, have brought about an extraordinary increase in wealth. This increase has only accelerated, although with periodic painful retractions, as the speed and complexity of our financial systems has increased exponentially. Derivatives, globalization, computer-driven investing, complex financial instruments and securities, have greatly increased both the profitability and the instability of financial systems. Even those who should understand these complex financial instruments and systems can be blindsided — as they were in our current credit crisis.

Much like a complex computer software program, its programmers understand how it should work, and make assumptions about the parameters — which, when when fed unexpected values, leads to catastrophic failure. Our financial wizards lost the ability — or more likely never had it — to control for every eventuality, including those which could cause catastrophic economic failure. We stare in amazement that seemingly no one anticipated our meltdown in mortgage equities; but our hope in and expectations of “experts” will invariably be dashed as system complexity and instability increases.

So now, glancing around, we look to government to save this from the “greed” of Wall Street — although we have long celebrated Wall Street’s greed as long as our profits and portfolio values were rising. It’s Wall Street’s job to be greedy — we have demanded it of them. So we look to government institutions never designed to moderate or correct such lightspeed instability — and are angry when we find them unable to intelligently address this implosion. Even in a perfect world, our elected leaders would have no more wisdom or ability to correct a highly complex and increasingly unstable economic system, where events half a world away can send your nation’s economy reeling in ways you could never have anticipated.

And this is no perfect world, by any measure.

For years we have tolerated incompetence, corruption, dishonesty — and yes, greed — in government while looking the other way. On those rare occasions when politicians have made principled stands, we have rewarded them with a firestorm of political assault, full-throated media ridicule and criticism, and enormous financial pressure from lobbyists pouring money into the pockets of those who purport to represent the people. We have elected a government of the people, in the most literal and disgraceful sense: we have elected, and kept in office, those who share our desire for self-gratification and materialistic acquisition at the expense of character, moral integrity, honesty, and prudence. The cesspool which is our current Congress is what we have reaped by our own actions — or perhaps more accurately, by our inaction. We have elected those politicians who are like us in every way — and we hate them for it. They are, after all, created in our own image.

Glance a bit in another direction and you will find a host of unsolvable problems of a magnitude as great or greater than our current credit crisis. Social Security and Medicare roar down the tracks toward a washed-out bridge, with no engineer at the throttle; massive budget deficits balloon as we pour trillions into a war that no one seems interested in fighting; trillions more pour forth in political favors and pork designed to maintain our corrupt politicians in their unchallengeable congressional seats. $700 billion in bailouts will seem chump change when our bills for this fecklessness come due.

Glance yet again, and watch a presidential election wherein we seem poised to elect a candidate without portfolio, with a long history of association with corrupt political machine pols and leftist bomb throwers, including those both rhetorical and literal. This is the Messiah to whom we look for the solutions to our increasingly intractable problems, setting aside all rational thought for the opiate optimism which sees salvation in smooth words and sage assurances. Indeed, we seem eager and ready to bring to fruition the revolution of the 60’s: with clenched fists thrust skyward, the age of peace, free love, drugs, irresponsibility, and emotional feel-good policies is upon us, based not on experience nor any understanding of human frailty and corruption, but rather on a blind idealistic utopianism.

Then glance around the world, where the Russian bear roars menacingly; where Iran races to nuclear capability while diplomats twiddle and dither, driven by a religious fascism which glorifies death as they bow down to the false prophet; where an increasingly impotent Israel is surrounded and threatened by massing forces zealous for its destruction; where China pursues a massive military buildup as it eyes Taiwan and Southeast Asia; where Korea cranks out nukes and missiles, selling them to the world’s most wicked regimes; where Europe is ludicrous in its impotence, ever seeking our protection when desperate while hating us ever the more; where the sun has finally set on the British Empire, leaving only a pathetic pandering jester where a mighty force for civilization and law once stood; where a thousand failed states are seething cauldrons of violence, and poverty, and hatred, engendering transnational terrorists now empowered by the same technology we hope will save us. The world, like its financial systems, is extraordinarily unstable, with powerful centrifugal forces breaking apart even once proud and powerful nation-states. The parched, cracked grasses await but a spark to start an inferno.

Then glance at culture (if you can stomach it), where the decadent is celebrated, where the good is ridiculed, where the satyr is worshiped, where no pillar of tradition may stand nor bulwark of morality may endure. Our media promulgate not truth but narrative, not fact but fabrication, a fully empowered propaganda machine entirely co-opted by postmodern secular culture and messianic politics.

And yet, here we sit, watching on our flat screens in full HD the celebration of androgynous eunuchs in staged competitions about who can create the prettiest dress or redesign the penthouse of some satyrical single, who long ago decided that life was about getting laid, leaving the emotional, physical, and social tab for someone else to pay. These are the individuals we celebrate and elevate with our eyes, our time, our adulation, our admiration, our money.

The extraordinary instability in the world cannot long endure — and I fear we are ill-prepared in the extreme for the abyss which will follow. We have raised generations to believe they are entitled to ease, wealth, and prosperity; we have taught them through our easy divorces and casual shack-ups that commitment only lasts as long as it feels good, and that love is all about sex; we have failed to provide any framework of character, morality, integrity, and perseverance upon which to rest when all we have taken for granted — the wealth, the comfort, the false security, the easy irresponsibility — crumbles to the ground.

It is long past time to get back to basics — to faith, to church, to principles, to relationships, to integrity. We are, I believe, about to be tested in a most difficult and frightening way — a darkness the likes of which we have not seen before, and may never see again. The provocation may be known, or unknown, be it nuclear terrorism, or some yet-unseen financial collapse; a cataclysmic natural disaster; or a butterfly in some unknown location flapping its wings and setting off a chain reaction which ignites the world in conflagration.

Of course, such prognostications may well be wrong; perhaps naive optimism would be the better course and certainly more pleasant to entertain. But as for me, it is time to focus: to look hard at my spiritual, financial, and relational assumptions, to tune out far more of a chaotic and decaying culture, to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best, while asking God to shine his light of conviction on my life to purify and strengthen it, and hopefully grow in some measure of wisdom. It is time to simplify, to prepare, to fast, to pray, to repent. It is time to stop spending on the frivolous and start giving more generously.

If you are a person of faith, it is time to dig in, hard, and quit playing games — your life may depend on it. If you are skeptical of such matters, consider: upon what will you lean when your world collapses? Will your considered indifference and intellectual smugness about us fools of faith save you? What will you do when all that matters to you is taken, and you are left, finally, profoundly alone with naught but that frightened face in the mirror?

I have slept for too long, as have all of us. It is time to fill the lamps with oil lest they be found empty when the bridegroom arrives.

The Prayer of Java

Been quite busy of late, so I’ve resurrected an OBG (Oldie But Goodie) in lieu of actually writing something new and intelligible. Back soon, God bless.

 
Recently, in an e-mail exchange, Gerard Van der Leun brought up the issue of prayer, and how it was a difficult learning experience for him. Like so much in the world of web logs, a seed gets planted which starts you thinking. Well, Gerard’s been thinking — and writing — while I’ve had this post sitting in my drafts box for a month. Seems like one of those pokes in the ribs that awakens you when you’re in the blessed arms of Morpheus — and snoring…

The subject of prayer is a fascinating one for me in many ways, not only because of its effect on my life, but because — as a logical-sequential scientist by profession and disposition, I want to understand how it works — and I don’t, and I can’t. But it does. And that cognitive dissonance drives me a little nuts.

Billions of words have been written on prayer, by foolish and wise, scholarly and simple. For the secular skeptic, baptized into the random meaninglessness of a life accidental, it must seem odd — if they stop to think of it, which I suspect they rarely do — that mankind throughout eons and cultures has devoted so much time and energy to a pointless litany of words directed to the non-existent. Even among we who confess to the existence and significance of a Being higher than ourselves, prayer confounds and frustrates us, as we search for some formula, some talisman to garner the attention and blessing of the invisible, inscrutable deity.

But this does not keep us from trying. The drunk asks God to help him out of this jam, promising not to drink again. The agnostic pleads with God that the biopsy not show cancer. The unhappy spouse prays that her husband change to her liking. We pray for money, for success, for jobs, for relief from emotional agony and physical pain. We pray ritualistically, hoping that by repetition an indifferent or annoyed God will throw some crumb our way to get us off His case.

Prayer, perhaps more than anything else, reveals what we think about God and about ourselves in relationship to such deity. If our God is remote, abstract, indifferent, then our prayers will have the character of whistling through the graveyard — hoping against hope that the very act of addressing this unknown force will ward off fear of some greater evil closer at hand. If we serve an angry, judgmental power — vengeful and quick to accuse — then we will pray from fear, pleading nervously for mercy while recommitting ourselves to the required perfection we have no hope of achieving. If we worship Santa Claus, then endless lists of self-gratifying demands will appear, as we hope we have been less naughty than nice.
Continue reading “The Prayer of Java”

The Prayer of Java

The Prayer of Java

Recently, an e-mail exchange with a friend brought up the issue of prayer, and how it was a difficult learning experience for him. Like so much in the world of the web, a seed gets planted which starts you thinking. It has taken some time to sprout, but here it is…

The subject of prayer is a fascinating one for me in many ways, not only because of its effect on my life, but because — as a logical-sequential scientist by profession and disposition, I want to understand how it works — and I don’t, and I can’t. But it does. And that cognitive dissonance drives me a little nuts.

Billions of words have been written on prayer, by foolish and wise, scholarly and simple. For the secular skeptic, baptized into the random meaninglessness of a life accidental, it must seem odd — if they stop to think of it, which I suspect they rarely do — that mankind throughout eons and cultures has devoted so much time and energy to a pointless litany of words directed to the non-existent. Even among we who confess to the existence and significance of a Being higher than ourselves, prayer confounds and frustrates us, as we search for some formula, some talisman to garner the attention and blessing of the invisible, inscrutable deity.

But this does not keep us from trying. The drunk asks God to help him out of this jam, promising not to drink again. The agnostic pleads with God that the biopsy not show cancer. The unhappy spouse prays that her husband change to her liking. We pray for money, for success, for jobs, for relief from emotional agony and physical pain. We pray ritualistically, hoping that by repetition an indifferent or annoyed God will throw some crumb our way to get us off His case.

Prayer, perhaps more than anything else, reveals what we think about God and about ourselves in relationship to such deity. If our God is remote, abstract, indifferent, then our prayers will have the character of whistling through the graveyard — hoping against hope that the very act of addressing this unknown force will ward off fear of some greater evil closer at hand. If we serve an angry, judgmental power — vengeful and quick to accuse — then we will pray from fear, pleading nervously for mercy while recommitting ourselves to the required perfection we have no hope of achieving. If we worship Santa Claus, then endless lists of self-gratifying demands will appear, as we hope we have been less naughty than nice.

Like nothing else, prayer reveals the smallness of our god and the poverty of our souls. It lays forth the preconceptions which rule our lives and the limits which bind us — if we will but take the time to examine them. My friend, in his thoughtful meditation, says the following:

In fact, whole elements of religion are centered around having you find and keep a personal relationship with God. But just because you have a personal relationship with God (and you should), doesn’t mean God has to have a personal relationship with you. He is, after all, God and He’s got a whole universe to run. It’s a big place and He’s just one God and He’s busy.
Far be it from me to disparage a friend’s worldview or theology (and this is most certainly not my intent) — my own will likely be the standing joke at the Pearly Gates. But his depiction — intended to be humorous, if I read correctly (in risio, veritas?) — nevertheless strikes me as a nearly-universal presumption, a governor principle on the engine of God. This understanding of God — called theism by those who put names to God-ideas — has just never made a lot of sense to me.

God — whose presumed job is to handle very big enterprises — sets out to create a spectacular universe of unspeakable complexity and beauty. At the high point of His craftsmanship, He creates a being a lot like Himself — capable of thought, reason, passion, beauty, love, creativity — and gives this creature a spark of the spiritual, of that which is beyond time, place, and limits, beyond the physical, in a universe without dimensions. He endows this being with a relational spirit, made whole through interaction both with Himself and with others of like kind. Having crafted such an extraordinary masterpiece, the blind watchmaker then supposedly just walks away — too busy polishing the instruments and arranging the sheet music to listen to the symphony He has created.

I for one find this concept of God implausible, unfulfilling and even cruel — to say the least. A God who can craft a universe of unspeakable vastness and beauty with but a word, who designs galaxies and gamma particles, black holes and hummingbirds, is not stressed out by its administration. We have no grasp of the infinite — after endless accomplishments, there are endless more yet to come: there is no exhausting the infinite. There is only one limit on His limitlessness: the limits I place by believing He can’t, or won’t, or is too busy, or not interested.

So what then of prayer? Is it the missing nucleotide in the DNA of evolution, as my friend postulates? A cosmic post-it note? Perhaps, although I prefer to think of it rather differently — it is, to my mind, the coffee house of another, non-dimensional world, the spiritual world. A world not bounded by time or space, limits or liabilities. It is friends — not equals, mind you, but close, trusted friends — sitting together over too-strong brew, sharing odd thoughts, mulling questions, venting frustrations, angry, remorseful, laughing, weeping — melding hearts, two into one.

It is in many ways an odd but satisfying conversation: I speak, He listens — yet somehow I know what He is thinking, and He most surely knows my thoughts. It is decidedly non-linear. The questions I ask, the problems I present, are answered — always. But not in words, almost never at the time I speak or ask. But I know they have been answered — although the fruition, the language, the form of the answer may be hours, months, years away. It may arrive as circumstances, or in a conversation with a complete stranger in another time and place, or in an entirely unexpected — even unwanted — change of heart or inner peace about some deeply troubling or puzzling dilemma. Yet I know it is God’s answer — the answer He gave me back at that table, shootin’ the breeze and guzzling joe. It is a conversation freed from time and space — bizarre, but strangely more real than that which we unwisely and hastily call “reality.”

Now the skeptic will ask — including the skeptic in my own head — how do you know? What proof do you have that these occurrences, these thoughts, these conversations and situations, have anything to do with God? Are they not mere chance, wishful thinking, psychological crutches, neuro-endocrine surges that my highly-evolved cerebrum maps into culturally-molded thought patterns?

Of course, the skeptic’s challenge contains a presumption — one rarely recognized, in fact: that everything which exists, all that is real, can be measured, tested, analyzed, proven, and recorded. But much which is human — perhaps all which makes us uniquely human — is beyond such simple means of measurement and proof. How much does love weigh? What are the dimensions of courage? What is the deceleration velocity of a failing marriage? What color is hope? What formula predicts despair? Why does a rose smell exquisite, but a rotten egg horrendous? Sure, we can speak of neurotransmitters and aromatic organic compounds, but such things touch on the spirit, and the tools of the physical realm are wholly inadequate as inquisitors. The disciplines which come closest to addressing these matters — psychology and social science — are at best mediocre observers — and miserable failures at repairing the damaged spirit. Don’t believe this? Ask your friendly secular psychologist to explain the phenomenon of evil — then sit back and enjoy the blubbering blather of psychobabble which results. Evil will be alive and well — and wholly uncomprehended — when he finishes.

I do not point this out to dodge the question of proof, or disparage a profession, but simply to illustrate the inadequacy of physical science — or reason handcuffed by concrete presumptions — to measure the real yet intangible realm of the spirit: you cannot measure your shoe size with a Geiger counter. But the evidence is there, in abundance, if you know where to look. Medicine is near-miraculous at healing the body — and miserable at healing the spirit. We can cure cancer, but not save marriages; give you new kidneys, but not flush the impurities from your mind or the hatred from your heart. But prayer can — and does — do just that, a work far more miraculous than a wonder drug or robotic surgery. When a hopeless drunk, an avowed atheist, starts to pray out of desperation to a god he doesn’t believe in, and loses the compulsion to drink, it is an aberration; when it happens to two drunks, a coincidence; when it happens to tens of thousands, it begins to look a lot like evidence. What cure will you seek for unhappiness? (Hint: it’s not a new car, a younger, trade-in wife, or a diamond-shaped blue pill). Medicine can kill the pain, but not cure the spirit; prayer can do both.

Of course, it is not the prayer itself, but the power it unleashes, which accomplishes such things. Gravity worked the same for Cro-Magnon man as it does for a modern physicist; understanding the force changes it not one wit. But you say: I prayed for this or that — many times, even — and it did not happen: prayer does not work. And here’s the rub: the power behind prayer is not an inert physical force, but an infinitely wise and caring God. Whether you believe in Him or not, He exists, He listens — and amazingly (given our reprobate nature), always has our best interest at heart. As I look back at my own life, were I to have received a tenth of the things I asked for in prayer, my life would be an unmitigated disaster. God knows when to say “no”, where to say “wait”; He knows how to listen to what I ask for and give me instead what I really need, and truly want.

There is one secret ingredient to make prayer work: trust. Gotta have it. Can God work without your trust? Sure — the rain falls on the just and the unjust, as the proverb says. Our problem is we want to understand God before we trust Him. We want Him to strut His stuff, lightning bolts and miracles and the like, before we’ll acquiesce and maybe give Him a break. Sorry, that’s not trust — just the opposite. But God cannot be understood — even in a limited way with our most enfeebled minds — until we first trust Him. Sounds like a bum deal, a Catch-22, but that’s just the way it works. Get over it — you won’t regret it.

And one last thought in this long-winded essay: If you’re new to this prayer thing (or even not so new), start small. Praying for world peace or a cure for your cancer is fine, but a bit grandiose for starters. Pray about your misplaced car keys, finding a parking spot, the wisdom to deal with that difficult patient, or co-worker, or child, or situation. Then open your eyes, your ears, your heart for the response. You won’t hear it every time — but I bet you’ll be surprised how often you do, and you’ll learn something about God, about yourself, and in some small way about how this spiritual world works.

And set aside a little time for a cup o’ joe with God — good news is, He’s already picked up the tab.