This week at Trinity, we will consider Matthew 7:7, the verse that tells us to ask, to knock, to seek. Some of us may say, "I already tried that, and my prayers weren't answered."
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat has an interesting perspective on prayer, which I first discovered a few years ago in this article: http://zeek.forward.com/articles/117998/. She says, ""Jewish tradition forbids asking God for the impossible. For this reason, we don’t pray for rain during the dry season; the laws of nature are what they are, and our prayers can’t change that, so our liturgy guides us to pray then for dew instead. We can’t 'wish away' climate change. That isn’t how prayer works."
I wish more Christians had this view of prayer. I see far too many people viewing prayer as a version of Santa Claus for grown ups: I will pray fervently, and the cancer will go away. I will pray enough, and a job will come, and it will be a good job that pays lots of money, and I will finally be happy.
But what does that mean if the outcome is negative? Do I need to improve my prayer techniques? Does God not hear me? Does God not like me? If I prayed harder, could I have affected the outcome?
It's crummy theology, and that's one reason why I don't like it. But that leads us to a different question: why bother to pray at all?
Why pray? Different theologians have different answers. One of my favorite theologians, Marcus Borg, admits that he's not sure of how prayer works, or if it works, but he does it the way that he practices other good manners. And he does it because he's willing to admit that he doesn't know everything: "I myself have no clue what the explanatory mechanism is, and I am content not to. And this leads to my final reason for continuing to do prayers of petition and intercession. To refuse to do them because I can't imagine how prayer works would be an act of intellectual pride: if I can't imagine how something words, then it can't work. To think thus involves more than a bit of hubris" (The Heart of Christianity: Discovering a Life of Faith, page 197).
I like the views of my all-time favorite theologian, Walter Wink, who reminds us again and again that God will not intervene in this universe that gives us free will unless we ask God to intervene: "This is a God who works with us and for us, to make and keep human life humane. And what God does depends on the intercessions of those who care enough to try to shape a future more humane than the present" (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, page 301).
Rachel Barenblatt's article shows me a similar strain of thought in Judaism: "The kabbalistic tradition teaches that God withdrew God’s-self in order to make space for us and for our free will. Free will means that we can choose to harm, or we can choose to bring healing. And when we act here 'below,' our actions are mirrored 'on high.' When we act to bring healing to our world, we arouse the flow of healing within transcendent divinity too. This is one of the deep kabbalistic messages of the Tu B’Shvat seder."
I've always believed that my actions can change me. I have an atheist friend who says she envies me my belief. I argue that my beliefs come because of my practice, and that she could enter into spiritual practices, and she would be a different person in a year. She proclaims not to believe me, but she also refuses to try my experiment. Marcus Borg, in The Heart of Christianity, says "We become what we do" (192).
But Barenblatt's idea says that my actions not only change me, but they change the planet, which I desperately want to believe. And yet, my actions seem so piddly. Can my recycling really help heal the deep poisoning that we've been seeing? I'll plant a tree, as there is room in my yard, but I know that the planet needs so many forests of trees, and I am one small person.
Barenblatt's idea gives me hope. God wants our buy-in, our participation, and then God will meet us more than halfway. God has many more resources than I do. I'm willing to partner with the Divine. I like the idea that my actions not only change me and the planet, but they also change God. Suddenly, every action has a weight that I don't always see.
Maybe that's my problem with the prayer that I watch so many practice. For example, we smoke and then pray for the lung cancer to be healed. It's rare that the body works that way.
Yet, if someone I loved had lung cancer, I'd pray those prayers anyway. Much as I'm committed to a universe based on the principles of free will, I want to allow room for miracles. I want a world where God and my fellow humans can bring about healing of all sorts--the kinds of miracles we need today.
So, I will do as Jesus tells us. I will ask, I will seek, and I will knock.