Sunday, October 9, 2011

Again and again, let us pray to the Lord, saying "Lord, have mercy."

The summer when I was nine years old, I had a very definite belief in the power of prayer.
Every Sunday, I approached the altar and received communion. And in the silence after communion each week, I knelt and prayed. Having just received the Body of Christ, I *knew* that at that moment, I was particularly close to God. So what did I do? I placed my order for next week. I told God what blessing God should give me when I next received communion. That's how it works, right? We pray, and God gives us what we want.
I can picture the stained glass windows that surrounded me that summer when I prayed, with pictures of the miracles Jesus performed. And I remember my fervent prayer, week after week, that the baby my mother was about to have would be a little sister. God, give me a little sister. A simple, fervent prayer, repeated over and over, week after week.
And then, that October, I was in French class. A note came from to the principal's office. I needed to leave class for an important phone call. It was my dad, calling from the hospital. I had a healthy… new… little… brother.
My belief in the power of prayer was shattered.
I don't even remember why I wanted a sister and not another brother. I just remember that I asked God for it, and God didn't come through. It was an arbitrary, almost whimsical request. I don't know why I focused on it, why I prayed for it all summer long. But perhaps it was a blessing to be disappointed in prayer for the first time about something not-so-earth-shattering, rather than one of the big ones. Please, God, let me get the job. Please, let the doctor say the test came back negative. Please, let her be ok. Because again and again we pray to the Lord, saying Lord, have mercy. And sometimes the Lord's mercy takes the form we're asking for. But sometimes it doesn't. And then… what?
My non-sister who was born 25 years ago last week has been an amazing blessing in my life. He's a wonderful human being, and I can't imagine my life without him. At the moment I heard about him, I was sure God had let me down, but I didn't know yet the blessings God had given.
We pray, and we believe that God is good, and that God is all powerful, and yet evil persists.
So what good is prayer?
So what good is prayer?
We are not the first people to wonder about this. The ancient Israelites wrestled with this. So did the people of Philippi.
There's a lot of prayer-related content in that first lesson from Exodus, so let's start where it ends.
The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Moses implored the Lord his God, and the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Isn't that what we're hoping for so often when we pray? That's the jackpot. That's the big payout. We pray, and God changes God's mind about The Plan. We pray, and God intervenes and the course of history is altered: either big-H History of the World, or the little histories of each of our lives that are giant in our personal worlds. We pray, we alter the mind of God, and life unfolds differently.
And the Exodus story tells us that this happens. The mind of God is not set in stone, like the tablets of the commandments. God has a plan, but it can be al tered by prayer. Powerful stuff.
But that's not the only lesson from today's Exodus lesson about prayer, because this same story cautions us against counting too much on changing the Mind of God.
The Israelites asked Aaron to "come make gods for us." This cloudy, nebulous, unpredictable, uncontrollable conversation between God and Moses up on Mount Sinai -- who knows what will happen there. It's been going on for a long, long time. Will Moses ever come back? Will this lead to anything? We want a way to interact with the divine that we can understand and predict. That we can control.
We often think of this story as the Israelites rejecting the Lord (And when "the Lord" appears in all caps in Hebrew scripture, that means the Hebrew text actually contains the letters Yod Het Vav Het, the unspeakably holy personal Name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush). But the story of the Golden Calf isn't about the Israelites praying to a different divine power. In building the calf, Aaron says that the festival they will hold is a festival to "the Lord" -- that is, to Yahweh. And when building the golden sculptures for worship, Aaron attributed to the golden statues the great act of the Lord -- bringing the people out of slavery in Egypt. Aaron and the Israelites weren't rejecting Yahweh. They were rejecting the unpredictable, uncontrollable *interface* they had with Yahweh. They wanted golden statues that they could control -- mold in to shape, have them present right when they wanted them, and use as they saw fit.
They didn't reject the Lord. They rejected way of interacting with the divine that they did not control. They wanted a God they could carry around, a God they could manipulate, a God that was always where they wanted it.
And the Lord didn't take so well to that idea. The Lord got violently upset about performing on command. Our God is not a domesticated God. Our God is a wild force beyond our controlling. And if our prayer and worship assume that God is in our control, the story tells us that God is most displeased.
When we pray, again and again, Lord have mercy, we pray, confident that there is room in the divine plan for some of God's mercy to be released by our prayers. The great theologian Thomas Aquinas, in his master work Summa Theologicae wrote something that can be translated as “We do not pray to change divine decree, but only to obtain what God has decided will be obtained through prayer.” Now Moses gives us hope that perhaps, despite Aquinas's view, we *can* change the divine decree, but Aaron's experience warns us not to *expect* gods we can mold and manipulate. We pray in the hope, but not with the arrogant expectation, that the world will change as a result of our prayer.
To the Philippians, St. Paul writes:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
So what's Paul saying? Let your requests be known to God, and the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds.
St. Paul does not reassure us that whatever we ask for will be granted as we ask it. Moses implored the Lord his God, and the Lord changed his mind. Sometimes it happens. But Paul writes to the Philippians that if we turn our worries over to the Lord, and let our requests be known to God, God will not necessarily grant them, but will keep our hearts and minds in peace -- in the peace of God which passes all understanding. Turning our troubles over to God just might make them go away, but it might not. It will, however, give us an incomprehensible peace as we face them.
A god we can manipulate, a god that always takes the form we want and mechanically grants our requests is the golden calf so desired by the people in the Exodus story, and yet so offensive to the Lord. The dynamic, incomprehensible God of Mount Sinai is messier than that. We might want mechanical solutions: you pray for something, you get it as ordered. It's so appealing. But Paul tells us that if we pray, we will have not solutions to our problems, but peace.
An Paul continues: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
We turn our concerns over to God in prayer, and then we keep on doing the things we have learned. We persist in feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner. But in place of worry, in place of despair, in place of hopelessness, God gives us peace.
Sometimes we pray, and the world changes. Moses implored the Lord his God, and the Lord changed his mind. Often, we pray, and we don't get the things we asked for. Prayer transforms us internally, and we have peace while we persist in doing the things we have learned, but the bad stuff goes on in the world.
And yet, again and again, let us pray to the Lord, saying "Lord, have mercy."