Reflections by Jerry Webber

Friday, February 17, 2012

Stumbling through the Psalms, Setting Aside Conditionality

I love the Hebrew Psalms. I've cut my praying teeth on them. They were my early teachers in prayer, and I still sit with them daily.

These days, though, I frequently have the experience of praying the psalms and then finding myself listening more deeply to the words I'm praying . . . listening to the assumptions about God and the world that are implicit in the psalms . . .and noticing the assumptions about who and where I am that are suggested in the prayers.

While I love the psalms and continue to learn language for raw and honest prayer from them, I also concede that they present stereotypes for prayer that can be very misleading.

Today I spent a lot of time with Psalm 86. In the Book of Common Prayer, it's the lead psalm for the 17th day of the month. So I prayed things like this:

"Save the servant who puts trust in you." (86:2)

"Be merciful to me, O God, for you are my God." (86:3)

"Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul." (86:4)

"Great is your love toward all who call upon you." (86:5)

"In the time of my trouble I will call upon you,
for you will answer me." (86:7)

I prayed those few verses, then mentally stepped back to notice what I had prayed. I saw that God was depicted as the One who responds conditionally to those who trust, to those who make God their God, to those who lift up their soul to God, to those who call out to God. In this pray-er's mind, God's response toward humans is conditioned upon these kinds of things. God only responds to those who are faithful. God only intervenes in the lives of those who call upon God. (Notice the use of the word "for" in the verses above.)

Not only that, but the pray-er -- bless his or her little heart! -- only prays because he/she believes that God will answer (v. 7). We are left to assume that if the person praying were not convinced God would respond to the prayer, he/she would never offer the prayer.

So not only is God depicted as a God of conditional care and response, but the devotion of the psalmist is conditioned on believing that God would respond to whatever he/she asked for. God responds to a certain kind of person, this prayer believes, or to a certain form of prayer.

In all, the entire God-human relationship is one of conditionality, from pray-er to God . . . and from God to pray-er. Following this method for prayer, if we are the "right" kind of person or pray the right kind of prayer, we can count on God to give us good things, to rescue us from difficulties, and to love us. All this if only we call on God the right way.

This is not, however, my experience of God . . . or of prayer. I don't have a magic formula that can make God do whatever I want God to do.

There are times when I cry out, but then experience God's silence.

There are times God does not respond to my prayers.

There are times when God leaves me in my tears.

There are times God leaves my in my pain.

There are times God leaves me standing in all the shattered pieces of my life.

God does not always come to me bringing relief or freedom. God does not always rescue me from difficulty or hardship. God does not always respond to my darkness with light. God does not always deliver me as I would like. I don't get simple and quick answers to complex life-questions. I've had no success manipulating God with my prayers, nor have I had success manipulating God with my life-situation -- by being either good enough or bad enough to get God to respond as I'd like.

I'm grateful that the psalms express the human heart honestly. The person who prayed Psalm 86 had an understanding of prayer very consistent with a contemporary understanding of God and prayer. Simply stated, it believes that God is here for our comfort and well-being, and that we can access that comfort and well-being from God by living certain kinds of lives and praying certain kinds of prayers.

But God is not the God of our comfort, not the God of our wishes and desires. God's primary aim is not to make you and me successful, happy, or at-ease. God's goal is not to shield you from the difficulties of life. God's goal is not your comfort and success in life.

As best I can understand and articulate it, God seems to be most highly given to wholeness, union, and the coming-together of persons, communities, the entire human family, and the whole created world. God spends God's Self on healing the world, that is, making the world whole and holy.

So in my prayer today, there were two questions that came to me by the end of my time. The first was a question for me: "Can I still come to You, trust in You, give myself wholly to You, even if I get none of the things I want from You? In other words, can I be faithful to You even if I get nothing in return?"

The second question was for God: "Can You still claim me as Your son, give Yourself for me, spend what it means to be 'You' on me, even if I have no faith, no trust, no goodness to commend myself to You? In other words, will You be faithful to me even if I give You nothing in return?"

So much hinges on those two questions.

No comments: