Prayer and Desperation
America’s Four Gods is the name of a book I am reading. It is an intriguing investigation into what we as a people say about God and what that says about us. The authors, sociologists, in their research discovered that there are five types of people in this country when you divvy them up according to what they think about God. There are those that perceive God as authoritative, those who believe in a God who is benevolent, a third group who thinks of God as critical, another bunch for whom God is distant, and the fifth group who are atheists and don’t believe in God at all.
I suspect that, like many typologies, this one breaks down at several points. I simply say so based on the fact that I am not so sure I have only one basic view of God, but rather an image of God that shifts and changes depending on the day of the week. I doubt that I am alone. Still, the authors make a persuasive case that these four notions or images of God are swimming around in the minds of people in our culture, and that they have a great deal to do with the arguments we have in this country generally called “culture wars.”
It is not so much on culture wars that I’d like for us to focus today as it is the question of what idea we have of God and how that affects the way we pray. I should pause to point out to a great many of you who have joined us in the last several months that my year-long project in preaching is to look at each Sunday’s scriptures with a view to what light they can shed on the practice of prayer, a quintessential religious activity that we sometimes don’t understand very well.
There probably is no story in the New Testament that better illustrates the crisis of prayer than the gospel lesson we have today. The Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel (15:21-28) has a serious problem. In fact she is desperate. Her little daughter is demon possessed. But on top of that, the woman is an outsider, not in her own territory—that was Gentile and so is she—but because she stands outside Israel, and thus separated from the source of healing that Jesus brings. He is, as her address indicates, “Son of David.” If the woman were American, and were studied by the sociologists Froese and Bader to find out where she landed on the God question, it is quite likely that she would fall in the group that sees God as benevolent, engaged in the affairs of humans, but not a punitive, judging God.
How could we make that guess? Well, if her notion of God were that God is authoritative and thus judgmental, she would more than likely believe that he daughter was demon possessed as repayment for something the daughter or mother or somebody had done to anger God. If she believed in a critical God, likewise she would see that God was judgmental, but she would hardly believe that God had time to intervene on her behalf. If her view of God were that God is distant, God would be neither interested in her plight nor judgmental, but utterly unconnected with what was happening in her life. As it is in Matthew’s version of the story, the woman cries after Jesus and pesters the disciples with her cries and pleas. The disciples want her gone. Jesus does not answer her. Yet the woman keeps it up. Finally she gets a word from Jesus. It is not clear in the story whether it is to the disciples or to her that he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel,” but either way that does not stop her. She comes and kneels in front of him, in the posture of worship and implores him, “Lord, help me.”
There are only three prayers—“help,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry.” So the Canaanite woman’s is pretty direct. “Lord, help me.” We could make up all kinds of things about the woman that might or might not reflect who she was. We don’t in fact know if she was rich or poor or somewhere in between; whether she was a single parent or not; whether she had other problems and issues or not; whether she had done anything else or seen anybody else to secure help for her daughter. But the point of this story is not to report a historical incident, nor to inspire speculation about the woman. The point is that this outsider, this Gentile woman, this mother, in her desperation takes Jesus on and stands toe to toe with him. So when for reasons best known to himself Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” she is undeterred. She comes back at him giving him as good as she gets from him: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Much else can be said about this woman and her role in Jesus’ life and ministry. But skip all that and simply look at her tussle with Jesus, for that is what prayer is, isn’t it? Is the woman not you in some hour of your own desperation? Is she not one of us, determined not to give up fighting for one utterly dependent on her and whose cause is a matter of life or death? Although Jesus is for us a divinity unseen, our prayers to him—to God—the two are interchangeable for the purposes of our discussion—our problem is that the concealed God is hard to get ahold of, hard to get an answer from, hard to move into action. That is of no great importance perhaps until the situation gets desperate, and then we’ll take whatever crumb we can get. Our Canaanite friend reminds us to beat God’s door down, to pester the living daylights out of disciples and saints and onlookers that stand in the way, or who look at us askance, or who try to shoo us in another direction. She exhorts us to stop at nothing until we get satisfaction from this unresponsive God who seems to mistake human beings for dogs!
OK. That is putting it a bit harshly, I admit, and maybe taking it all a little too far. But I think there is some warrant for believing that the story actually addresses the issue of desperation in prayer. From Luke’s gospel we can take a lesson from the little parable sometimes called “the importunate widow,” who pestered the unjust judge until he granted her request just so she would shut up. How much more, asked Jesus, will God grant justice to the ones who cry to God day and night? That message seems consistent with the Canaanite woman’s experience: keep on and don’t lose heart.
When we are desperate, someone hardly has to convince us to pull all the stops out. And more and more people are getting desperate as they approach the drowning point amid the tumultuous waves of this economy. People are losing jobs right and left. They are short of cash. They are out of food. They have no money for essential medicine. They are maybe a paycheck or two away from being unable to pay their mortgages or their rent or their electric bills. What has all that to do with prayer? Those who believe that God is engaged in the world, who believe God actually takes note of what is going on, whose eye is on the sparrow, have no trouble understanding that this is not a theoretical problem. And those who believe in a benevolent God—whose love is enduring and whose mercy is endless—do not get snagged by the notion that problems accrue because we have somehow angered a wrathful deity, much as one might foolheartedly arouse the anger of a mother bear by threatening one of her cubs. But what if you believe in a distant, impersonal, detached God? Do we need to convince you that prayer works? Do you need me to demonstrate how in your own desperate circumstances God is available and engaged?
The deeper I get into this, the more I realize that the way we pray—especially when we are between a rock and a hard place—is directly related to who and what we believe we are praying to. If you believe that God is actively involved in the world and in our lives; if you can even allow for the possibility that God cares about what is happening to you and me; then it does not matter much which of the four God-camps you belong to, God invites you to grapple with God and pour your heart out doing so. No room for niceties here, the careful phrasing of a collect or the beauty of liturgy. Just go to it. Pray, “Help, Lord, help!” If your God is distant and you have trouble seeing what sense it makes to pray, well, pray in whatever way you can, not in whatever way you can’t.
Maggie Ross, who is an Anglican solitary, wrote a book some years ago that I cannot part with, called The Fire of Your Life. In it she says that when she was living in Manhattan she had trouble praying and asked a friend what she should do. “Oh,” he said, “pray for things like taxicabs when you need them. If it makes you feel safer, don’t ask God for them, but pray to something inanimate like a fire hydrant.” So Maggie says that she spent several weeks experimenting with that and, when she was late for an appointment, she would pray to the nearest fire hydrant for a cab. Taxis would appear from nowhere. If ten people were along the block signaling for a cab, the one taxi that appeared would pull right in front her. She could get taxis at rush hour, in the rain, on the Friday of a three-day weekend. Then there ensued the dark night of the taxicab, and the joke was over.
That may seem bizarre to you, but I think I understand it. The reality of God has little to do with what we think of God—and that is true no matter what one of the groups, including atheist, that you might fall into. Prayer is giving ourselves over, heart and soul, to the great Mystery of the universe, crying out our need, doing what the Canaanite woman did when she interceded for her daughter, clamoring in the darkness for the Bread of Life or for healing. That God would turn and listen, respond, get with us in our weakness, hear our panic and soothe our fears is as improbable as praying to a fire hydrant would produce a taxi. But time after time, person after person, reports that it is true. For those who doggedly stick to their notion of God—whether that God is a strict judge or a critical impersonal deity or a remote force not interested in us—it takes perhaps more of a leap than they are willing to take. In the end, it does not matter what you think or what I think. Reality is reality. And until we throw ourselves on the mercy of the universe tossing ourselves upon the breast of the universe’s God, we’ll never know what works or what does not.
But you and I both know that it is not so simple as all that. At the end of the day we cannot just pray in desperation expecting God to appear out of the sky to rescue us from all our ills. A friend of mine once said that it is easier for the Holy Spirit to get you somewhere if you are already in motion, not inert. If you are hungry, either for bread or for spiritual sustenance, do something about it. Probe, investigate, ask, seek. Keep moving, talking, looking. If you are looking for work, network, talk, do all that you can to keep moving. If the Canaanite woman had sat at home and said her prayers and done nothing else, chances are her daughter would never have been healed. When she got herself up and out and on the street, determined to find the healer who could help her, she found Jesus and eventually got the assistance she sought.
And perhaps that is what prayer mostly is anyway. It is not technique or formula or theology or philosophy. It is simply moving into the Presence with audacity and courage. It is wrestling and struggling with whatever is tormenting us and giving voice to the deepest desires and yearnings of our hearts. It is taking God to task without fear and without groveling. It is letting fly with gusto and doing everything we can with the energy we have. It is when she did that that our Canaanite friend heard his word, “O woman, great is your faith. Be it done to you as you desire.”
Who knows? Will you push on and out of desperation until you hear that too?
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011