Friday, April 28, 2006

to pray or not to pray

This afternoon I had two welcome items in my mailbox - my new passport (which means I can stop worrying about being able to head off to Ethiopia in June) and the latest The Christian Century. If you haven't had a chance to pick up an issue of this magazine, you're missing out. Good articles that make you think about theological issues are not a dime a dozen.

One of the articles in this particular issue of the mag that made me think is about intercessory prayer. In a recent edition of the New York Times, there was an article about another test on the effects of prayer on heart patients. And the news is apparently not all that good. According to this article, "prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found. And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of postoperative complications."

The Christian Century offers a fantastic tongue-in-cheek memo to a congregation where Martin Copenhaver pleads with his church to stop praying for others (check it out if you can). It also offers this thought in another article about the same study: "the basic theological confusion here is to think that prayer puts God at our disposal, that prayers is a lever we use to nudge God in a specific direction. A God who is at our disposal in that way would not be God."

I've thought about prayer a lot over the years. Why do we pray, what "good" does prayer do. It always made me uncomfortable to think that my prayers are what could and would change God's mind about something. While that can be a powerful thought, it can also be unbearably burdening. If something bad happens to someone I love, it's because I didn't pray hard enough. And, as the writer of the previously mentioned article says, God who would so be at my disposal wouldn't be God. So, if my prayers, our prayers, are not about producing the results we want, if it's not a matter of praying just hard enough so that what we want comes to pass, then why do we pray? Should we pray?

We all have to decide that for ourselves. Me, I lean towards keeping up my prayers. Why? Because pray for me isn't so much about healing people or ridding the world of poverty or violence because I wish it hard enough - though certainly God knows I do pray hard for such things. Prayer is more about putting my trust in God and in what God does with me. When I pray for peace in the Middle East, I don't know if those prayers will sway God to intervene in new ways. But I do believe that those prayers sway me. My prayer changes me, gives me a passion and compassion that make me a stronger person, a better follower of Christ. Through prayer, I draw closer to God and in doing so, I believe I am empowered to be the change I wish to seek. This is not to say I don't believe prayers for other people can heal them in some way, but it is not why I pray. If study after study could show that intercessory prayers don't effect change on the person or places prayed for, I would still pray for others - in part because I know prayer changes and heals me.

To pray or not to pray - I choose to pray.

Monday, April 24, 2006

reflections from atlanta

What a week, what a week! It's amazing to me how you can be gone from a place for so long (for Atlanta and I, it was an 11 month seperation) and yet the moment you step foot on those familiar sidewalks, it feels like home. And then, even more amazing, was how much it felt like home when I drove up Beverley to my apartment. It's rather nice that I feel as though I have several homes, several places I feel completely comfortable.

While in Atlanta, along with seeing those dear friends and sights, I really enjoyed myself at the lectures, being intellectually stimulated is always nice. I enjoyed AmyPlantigua Pauw's dry wit (in referring to the Trinity, she had some particularly clever bits - the Holy Spirit is not the "His Girl Friday" to the Father or the Son, and we cannot just randomly pick things that go in threes to describe our triune God - no "rock, paper, scissors").

I also loved listening to George Stroup, the man who co-taught my theology courses with Shirley Guthrie. He is an excellent speaker and has that making you think thing down. He spoke about God's freedom from and for the world, something Shirley spoke of, and made me think about religion and political causes. He said that while Christ had a preferential option for the poor (something good liberation theologians are want to tell you) he did not defend or champion any program or institution. Speaking of Christ's "royal freedom" (Barth), he insisted that Christ did not align himself to any particular movement, any organization. Instead, "Jesus is the partisan of the poor who laid the axe at the root of all the trees." He challenged that the church's (difficult) task was to witness to Christ's partisanship of the poor without identifying it with a particular party or program.

I enjoyed this discussion because it's where I have been leaning and yet did not have the speech to claim what I have been thinking. I firmly believe in Christ's partisanship of the poor and yet am not comfortable with affiliating that with a particular political party or movement. It can be tempting to blend the two together - your faith and your politics - but I want to resist that urge. I want my faith to inform my politics but not the other way around. I don't want to claim that Jesus would vote for X - though I certainly want my relationship with Jesus to help me figure out who I should vote for. It was nice to finally be given theological reasoning for why I feel this way.

Monday, April 10, 2006

After Easter

The Monday following Easter will find me on a plane headed toward Atlanta. For a week, I will be spending time at Columbia with friends and colleagues as we celebrate through worship and seminars the life of the late Shirley Guthrie. I’m looking forward to gathering with my peers, listening to lectures (without having to worry about taking notes!), and enjoying the culinary delights of my old hometown. I’m also looking forward to continuing my celebration of Easter.

I am excited that this gathering of my colleagues where in which will we celebrate the life of a beloved professor is following immediately after Easter. I fear that once Easter Day has come and gone, the celebration of the resurrection and the hope we have in it is no longer on the forefront of my mind. I get distracted, move on to the next Sunday, the next season in our church calendar. But this year, I will be spending my first “after Easter” days celebrating the life of Dr. Guthrie. When we celebrate the life of one who has died, we celebrate the promise we have for life everlasting, a promise we have because of what we celebrate this Easter Sunday. I am thankful that this year I will have an immediate reminder that the Good News of Easter is not just to be celebrated on Easter.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

You Say You Want A Revolution

Texts: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
John 12:12-19

Expectations. We all have them – a lot of them if you think about it. We have our day to day expectations – the car is going to start in the morning when you head off to work, we’re going to make it through the school day without seriously embarrassing ourselves, the dinner we’re making is going to be appreciated by our family. Beyond the day to day, we all have more complicated expectations about how our life is going to be, how the people in our lives are going to act and react to what comes our way. We have serious expectations for ourselves, for our family, for our work, our friends, our God.

Our story this morning is about those serious expectations. We all know that Jesus’ entry is the beginning of the end, a brief moment of triumph before ultimate humiliation. We know this, but almost two thousand years ago when Jesus entered the city, the people who came out to meet him didn’t. No, they had an entirely different expectation for what was going to happen.

The great crowd that went out to meet Jesus was a mixed one. There were those that had been with him when he had raised Lazarus, those who had seen him perform a miracle beyond belief, those who had gone and testified to what they had seen. There were also those who had heard this testimony, heard that Christ had performed this amazing sign and were inspired to meet him. There were also probably those who didn’t really know what was going on – those who joined in the crowd because it was another thing to do amid the exciting chaos of the festival.

The one thing all those in this crowd had in common was that they were in Jerusalem as part of the celebration of the Passover. As you may have heard over the years on various Palm Sundays, this celebration is a wild time. It’s bound to be when you have as many as one hundred thousand people in a city that normal holds only eighty. There’s an energy that permeates the air. This energy is due in part because of the sheer numbers there to celebrate – but it is also due to what they are all there to celebrate. The Passover isn’t just any feast – it is a feast that celebrates perhaps the most important act of God in Jewish history. It is a feast that remembers when God delivered the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage under the leadership of a man named Moses. When times got rough, when another army invaded and another country occupied their land, this was the story the people told themselves over and over again. As our resident storytellers could tell you, stories powerfully affect people, can do more than entertain or education. They tell us who we are, who God is. They can inspire, heal. This story of deliverance is the one that gave hope to those who were not free.

The people who have gathered to celebrate this Passover are a people who know what it means to not be free. While Rome may not be the strictest or most vile of occupiers – they did bring things like sewer systems and running water after all – they were still occupiers. As long as Rome ruled, the people of Israel could not be what they had been and what they longed to be – a strong and independent nation. They longed for liberation, longed for another Moses to come and free them. These were the people who came out to meet Jesus. And so whether they had followed Jesus’ ministry for some time, whether they had just heard about what this man could do, or whether they weren’t even sure who it was they were greeting, they all had liberation on the mind.

They came rushing out to meet him as though he were a ruler, a king. They came out shouting, “Hosanna, hosanna” – a word that may be a greeting of praise, but one that also can be understood as a prayer meaning “save now” or “save us, please.” In their initial greeting, the crowd lets Jesus know, lets us know, what they expect from him – they expect this great man, the one who raised Lazarus from the dead, to save them too.

The salvation they are thinking of, they are expecting, is not the one that Jesus has come to bring. It becomes very clear that the crowd is thinking in earthly terms. They are not searching for some ethereal salvation, they are not thinking about how they are being occupied by sin, they are thinking about the real, physical forces that they see each day occupying their land.

Along with shouting their Hosannas, the crowd shouts a selection from Psalm 118, the psalm we read this morning and one they would have been reading as part of their festival celebrations. If you recall our psalm read: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.” Yet the crowd shouted something a little different: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!”

The crowd changes a familiar psalm about God’s role as creator and savior to include something new, The King of Israel. And there we have it. That is what the crowd is shouting for – the restoration of the Davidic line. That is who they see Jesus has – a revolutionary who has come to bring them their freedom. They shout “King of Israel” because that is what they want. It is not just through their words we know what they are expecting Jesus to free them from Roman rule.

We call today Palm Sunday because according to John’s Gospel the crowd ran out to greet Jesus with palms. Palms aren’t just pretty plants that someone thought would look good when waved. Palms were a symbol of revolution. About one hundred and fifty years earlier, a hero by the name of Simon Maccabaeus, delivered Jerusalem from a Hellenistic ruler who tried to ban the Jewish religion and defiled the temple. When Simon freed Jerusalem, the people celebrated by praise and palm branches. Since this time – which was the last period of independence the Jewish people knew – palms had become a symbol of Jewish desire for deliverance. This is the symbol the crowd is waving at Jesus.

There can’t be any doubt - this crowd is saying it wants a revolution. And they see Jesus as the one who can bring it to them. That is their expectation as they rush out to meet Christ on his entry into Jerusalem; as they follow him throughout the week, listening to him teach; as they watch stunned as their revolutionary leader is arrested, beaten, brought down low by the government he was suppose to free them from. No one understood – not even the disciples – when Christ told them throughout this week that it would be all right. All they could understand was that the man they had welcomed as a savior, as the King of Israel, was not coming through as they expected.

The crowd expected a revolution and when they didn’t get it, they turned on Jesus. They turned from shouts of Hosanna to shouts of hate. Even the disciples proved less than faithful when the one they followed was arrested and sentenced to death. Those who had followed Christ for some time, believed in him passionately, when their expectations were not met they felt angry, heartbroken, betrayed.

While we might be tempted to sit back and judge those who turned on Christ, we should resist such a temptation. For when our own expectations are not met, do we not feel the same? When people let us down, when we let ourselves down, are we not hurt, do we not feel anger? How much more would we feel the pain and betrayal of unmet expectations if the one to disappoint us was the same one who had shown us what wondrous signs he could perform? When the one who disappoints us is God?

The crowd that ran out to meet Christ expected something from him and they are not alone in that. Whether or not we are fully aware of them, each of us has expectations for our Christ, our God. Some of us may expect that God will not let serious harm befall us – that tragedy may visit others, but it will not us. Some of us may expect that God will always be clear in is expected of us – that the path God desires for us will be clearly marked. Some of us may expect that if we really would take the time to seek out God, we would easily feel God’s presence and quickly find peace. When the expectations that we have, consciously or unconsciously, are not met, when we are dealt a hand we never imagined God would allow, it is perfectly understandable that we would be angry, that we would be hurt, that we would want answers from God. In that pain and confusion, we might find ourselves like the crowd in Jerusalem so many years ago. We might turn on the one we had looked to for so much.

When we are disappointed by God, it will be a challenge to not let ourselves turn on God, to not abandon our God or our faith. We may struggle with finding a way to be anger, hurt, heartbroken and still be able to say, even in the quietest of voices, “Hosanna.”

This is quite a challenge. The crowd that met Christ with such joy and exuberance couldn’t do it. Even the disciples couldn’t all find watch as their expectations were dashed and still offer Christ “Hosanna.” But we have an advantage over the disciples and the others who followed Christ. Unlike this great crowd – and in fact, thanks to this crowd – we know that when expectations are not met, all is not lost, rather, something greater may be on the horizon. The people who rushed out to meet Christ expected deliverance from Rome and instead they got something so much better, something not even those closest to Christ could even conceive until it had come to pass. Instead of an earthy, temporary salvation, Christ offers eternal salvation.

The crowd didn’t understand, couldn’t see beyond their expectations, and so they did lash out, their Hosannas did turn to hate. But their story can inspire us to look beyond our own expectations. When we are disappointed in our journey of faith, this story can bring us hope that Christ again will offer us something greater than we could imagine or even fully comprehend. The people of Israel had the story of the Passover, recited it throughout the years, celebrated it with such hope for the future. This was the story that reminded them of what God would do. We have the story of Holy Week, a story of expectations celebrated, dashed and replaced by something so much better. This is the story that reminds us what God can do. This is the story that will not let us give up hope even when all seems lost. This is the story that can help us think beyond what we know and what we understand. This is the story we celebrate not just this week, but every week, day, minute of our lives. This is the story that keeps Hosannas in our hearts.

All praise, honor, and glory to the one who offers us such possibilities, who reaches beyond our expectations, who gives us more than we even know to want, who blesses us with such a story. Amen.