Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Power of Prayer?

            When Irene and I were first married, we decided to pray for three items each night until those prayers were answered. We prayed that an older man who had left the church would return. We prayed that a distant relative who lost his faith would rediscover Jesus. We prayed for peace in the Middle East.

            We prayed in this manner, every night, for over twenty years. We did it earnestly and hopefully. In the end, though, the elder gentleman died without returning to church. The distant relative hasn’t changed his mind. And if you’ve been following the news about the Middle East this week, you will know that there is no peace in Israel or Gaza, Iraq or Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan. Our prayers came up short.

            Still, many Christians insist that prayer has power. They talk as if prayer has the power to heal people, the power to convert people, the power to find you a husband or new job. For example, popular blogger Lorna Byrne wrote, just last week, "Prayer is such a powerful force. We underestimate it so much. Prayer can move mountains if we only would let it. If only you would realize just how powerful prayer can be, you would never feel hopeless." Unfortunately, the only mountains that I've noticed that have ever moved left landslides, death, and pain in their wake--all too commonly in places like The Philippines, where I used to live. 

            The power of prayer is also an Internet meme. A picture of a medical staff praying together showed up on my Facebook page this week, along with the words, "Type, 'Amen' if you believe in the power of prayer." More than 3,000,000 people "liked" this page, and hundreds of thousands had typed "Amen," as instructed. The picture showed medical staff praying together, intending, I think, to subtly undermine our perception of the power of medical science to heal. Or maybe it's suggesting that if even medical people feel the need to pray, so should you!

            Personally, I don’t think that the notion that prayer has power is actually scriptural. In the Bible, only God has power. Of course, in some stories, God responds to the prayers of the oppressed and acts. But sometimes not. Sometimes God extends the life of ill people, sometimes not. The thing is, in the Bible it is God who decides, and prayer is, of itself, powerless to make God act one way or another. Prayer isn’t a magical wand that can be used to manipulate God.

            And God is not a divine magician in the sky responsible for all the good or the bad that happens to people. In fact, humans are mostly responsible for their own problems—especially big ones, like climate change, war, or racism.

            Moreover—a little known fact—in the Bible, most prayers have nothing to do with asking for stuff. In the Psalms, for example—150 public and private prayers—the majority are prayers of lament—that is, these Psalms are public or private mourning before the face of God about how everything is going wrong. They may also ask for God’s embrace and comfort or aid along the way. But judging from Old Testament Israel’s history, they rarely got it as the nation stumbled from military sack to exile, to fumbling restart, to being conquered not once but two or three times again—all before Jesus’ birth.

            Still, the popularity of the idea that prayer has power—although it isn’t emphasized in the Bible—that idea has been around for as long as priests sacrificed children in order to ensure the growth of crops. And in recent times, the idea that prayer has power has received new life. In the late nineteenth century, the American Philosopher William James said that good religion should have cash value, that is, it should be good for something. James argued that there was no sense in believing if it didn’t get you valuable stuff. He said good religion is like a hallway that gets us to where we want to go.

            And so the idea developed, especially over the past 100 years, that religion is a pragmatic means to an end. Churches are thought of as smorgasbords meant to fill us with good things. For example, religion is how you get your morals—the morals you need to succeed. Religion is how you get healing. Religion is how you turn out good kids. It is a means to an end—an end that usually involves our happiness, our wealth, our health, or maybe even some good for the people I love—like aunt Minnie, who needs a kidney stone removed. The bottom line here, however, is that the notion that prayer has power is part of a bigger movement in North American religion—a movement that experiences religion as a pragmatic means to an end.

            But the truth about both religion and prayer is a lot more complex. For starters, even in the Bible, religion that is true always involves the wants and needs of our neighbours before our own, with an emphasis on mercy, piety, and justice for others rather than religion’s cash value for us. And prayer? Well, it is never portrayed in the Bible as something that protects Christians from the common lot they share with all other humans. In spite of all their prayers, Christians are not richer, do not live longer, and do not have healthier extended families or even fewer divorces than non-Christians.

            So, E. Griffith Jones, a contemporary of William James, once wrote, Christians should only pray "for the power to overcome the world in a spirit that is courageous as well as meek, militant against all forms of evil while profoundly thankful for what seems good in life."

The truth, of course, is that the Bible never promises us that our journey through this life is going to be a trouble free smorgasbord. Actually, the Bible speaks the opposite; of hurting people stumbling under the weight of a sin‑broken, groaning world. Jesus actually warned us that there would be persecutions and crosses to bear—and many Christians through the ages, and now Christians in places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, and Pakistan--many Christians know what he was talking about. Choosing, when the chips are down and we’re at the end of our rope—choosing for the other—for people we love, for neighbours, for principles of justice, for people on the margins—this is what the Christian life is about, even when such choices are costly, and even when such choices don’t have much cash value for us personally.

So what do we make of the Bible, when it says things like, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” On one level this does sound like if we pray for it, we’ll get it. It is dangerous, however, to take such texts too literally—especially when, in all of human experience, the literal sense of the text obviously isn’t true. Perhaps, in the context of Jesus’ whole life, what he means is that when we ask, what is given is divine guidance in scripture. When we search, what we will find—if not a personal experience of God—is the difficult path that Jesus walked and described in Sermon on the Mount—a sermon most Christians have no problem not taking literally! And if we knock, the door that is opened is the door to our own hearts, so that the Word lodged there will inspire us to compassionately enter into the suffering of others with enough mindfulness and energy so that we actually carry some of their pain and suffering away on our own shoulders. 

Søren Kierkegaard said, "prayer does not change God, but changes him who prays." That makes prayer a risky proposition, of course. Will you dare? 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Being Both Pro-Choice and Pro-Life

I was editor of the weekly magazine for the Christian Reformed Church, The Banner, for ten years. Every January, on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States, I was pretty much required to write a Pro-life editorial meant to rally our readers against abortion.

I hated having to write that editorial. Why? Well, just for starters, I am a man, not a woman. So, as I set pen to paper, I was always deeply aware that from the perspective of many women, whatever I wrote against choice would be deeply coloured by centuries of phallocentric obsession, male domination, and even oppression of women. Given that history, I doubted that any woman who was truly struggling with whether or not to have an abortion would or could believe that I empathized with them.

But that was just the beginning of my problems. You see, before I became editor of The Banner, I informed the council of a church I served that I could no longer publicly support the official pro-life position of my denomination. The church board dealt with that—to them very surprising—admission by asking me if I would publicly support the pro-choice side instead. When I said, “no,” they suggested I carry on—though they were not happy.

But writing editorials—opinion pieces—makes that sort of equivocation much more difficult. So what was I supposed to publish on the Roe vs. Wade anniversaries?

Don’t get me wrong, by the way. It wasn’t as if I thought abortion was great, back then. Let’s be honest. No one thinks abortions are, well, “just great.”

Abortion will often be a difficult choice because on an emotional level people intuitively believe—or at least hope—that the womb can be a safe place for that spark of life that it carries for nine months. Whether we believe that that spark of life in the womb is human from the point of conception on, or whether we think of it as something that is just potentially human, few of us would choose to treat it as if the fetus did not matter and was totally disposable. We don’t even think of our appendixes or molar teeth in that way.

Why? Well, interfering with the natural course of a pregnancy has the potential—as with all medical procedures—of going medically wrong. And—let’s face it—there can be very tough psychological issues for women who have had abortions, too. It may be trauma surrounding how they became pregnant. It may be the isolating shame that women who want to keep their abortion secret often suffer. Or it might be guilt—even if it is inappropriate guilt—for having chosen to have an abortion. Whether that guilt is appropriate or not, people often feel it. Or choosing abortion might result in anger and bitterness at a world that makes such painful choices necessary.

So, abortion is difficult. Almost always. But it gets worse. Abortion is also difficult because of the incredibly harsh and ugly condemnation that many people in our society heap upon those who choose to have an abortion, or who support the pro-choice option. From protestors at the door of clinics, to the thoughtless comments of friends and family, to finger waving from thousands of Fundamentalist and Evangelical pulpits, to the intense political conflict that surrounds the issue—nothing about abortion escapes the usually harsh condemnation of those who are against it. Abortion is difficult.

So, as the editor of an evangelical magazine that was officially pro-life I was very, very wary of writing about the abortion issue. I was not, after all, pro-life in the hardened sense that most of my colleagues were. I didn’t have strong convictions about when life truly begins. I can’t accept the notion that a fertilized egg is a human being—even if, somewhere along the line, it passes a threshold that does make it human. I didn’t know what it was like to be pregnant, alone, perhaps poverty stricken or abused or raped. And I certainly wasn’t convinced that the Bible condemned abortion. To me, that was mostly reading a current political position back into the pages of scripture.

My solution, as an editor, on every Rove v. Wade anniversary, was mostly to obfuscate. My condemnation of abortion tended to be lukewarm. I usually skirted the whole issue—not always consciously—by urging my fellow Evangelicals to focus not on making abortion illegal, which was a losing strategy; but to focus instead on creating the conditions where women could always welcome babies. I argued for more and better health care, a social safety net for single moms, better sex education, easier access to birth control—even for teens, and so on. I wrote that since making all abortions illegal was impossible—Evangelicals had lost that war—perhaps they should work to restrict third-trimester abortions. Many readers were unhappy with my advice, feeling that I was less than fully committed to the pro-life camp. In hindsight, I recognize that those critics of mine were right about my ambivalence. I didn’t see it as a black and white issue. I wasn’t narrowly pro-life.

But now I’m liberated, correct? As a United Church pastor I belong to a pro-choice denomination. No more need to obfuscate, right?

Well not exactly. That is, from my perspective, it is unwise to be 100% pro-choice or 100% pro-life, especially when we let the extremists in both camps define what it means to be pro-choice or pro-life. I’d rather say that I am pro-choice and pro-life—both and, not either or.

I’m pro-choice. That is, I recognize that women ought to be masters of their own bodies, even when that requires making difficult, often spirit-numbing choices where neither option seems totally good. Women making their own decisions will, as a rule, make wiser decisions about their bodies than a mostly male political establishment in Ottawa. I’d go further, and say that when women decide to have an abortion, especially after struggling with the moral dimensions of such a decision, and even when such women continue to struggle with guilt—as some undoubtedly do—they can nevertheless count on the understanding of the divine—and hopefully, their friends within the church community. In that regard, the words of the Apostle John ought to be a great comfort to them. "By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Whatever we think of who God is, or what God does with his or her spare time, the message of scripture is that God loves us. Always. Even when we are forced to make tough moral decisions that not everyone can agree with.

But I’m pro-life, too. Consistently pro-life, that is. I’m for getting rid of nuclear weapons whose use would surely lead to tens of thousands—if not millions or more—deaths. I’m pro-life—I’m for reducing the risk of gun violence by having laws that control who can carry guns. It makes no sense to let such weapons decide domestic disputes or fall into the hands of mentally unbalanced—or just plain nasty—people. I’m pro-life. I want to see action on climate change so that our children and grandchildren’s lives are not defined by our climate disasters. I’m pro-life—I want to lower the incidence of abortion by providing more and better sex education, and by creating a world where even the poorest single woman can confidently believe that she will have the support she needs to raise a child, if that is her choice. I’m pro-life—I want to see our forests grow, our lakes and rivers run clean, and wildlife thrive. I’m pro-life. Consistently, I hope. Unlike Rev. Mike Huckaby, that perennial Republican candidate for presidency in the United States, I don’t want to send any of the 57,000 thousand child refuges who have come to the US since last October sent home to die as pawns in drug-war violence—a drug war whose roots, by the way, lie in American consumption of those drugs. I’d like to ask Huckaby the Apostle John’s question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” A good question, by the way, for Canadians too, as we consider our national refugee policies, our treatment of First Nations people, our treatment of the poor, and our own social safety net.

So, actually, I’m both pro-life and pro-choice. And when people tell me I have to be one or the other, and hate the other side, I keep coming back to this passage in 1 John. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” 

I’m not an editor anymore. I’m freer than I ever to express the pro-choice side of my convictions. Sometimes, looking back, I wonder whether I was courageous enough about my pro-choice convictions back then. But life is a process. My convictions back then were ambiguous even to me. Meanwhile, we change our minds, we struggle with how to live our convictions out. That’s just life.

But as a pastor, I want to say that we can do better for women who have made their choices. The church can be a safe place, a sanctuary where the message is that even if our hearts are unsure, or even if our hearts actually condemn us—God will nevertheless embrace us. Always.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Is the Bible the Word of God? What Could that Mean?

I wish I had known my grandfather—my Opa—better.

He was a taciturn man, not given to much speech. My favorite memory of him is from Sunday mornings, after church. The whole clan—six kids, their spouses, and me, the oldest grandson, sitting on the floor—all of us would gather in Opa and Oma’s front room. It was only opened on Sundays. Opa would sit in the corner throne, his Morris Chair, and listen to his family talk religion and politics. Everyone played to him—everyone was looking for his nod and cryptic, “Ja, zo ist it.” But he never said much himself.

Still, Opa was a wise man. For example, a few years after World War II, when fear of the USSR was high, he decided to leave the Netherlands and move overseas. His employer, Atlanta Paper, offered him a job as manager of their new factory in Johannesburg, South Africa. He thought long and hard about it, but in the end—on the advice of a wise friend—he decided to move to Canada instead, where he (eventually) found work as a hospital janitor. Opa believed something was wrong in South Africa, and he backed that up by choosing entry-wage poverty in Canada over status and power in South Africa.

Opa also didn’t write. I half-remembered getting a letter from him while I was in college. My aunts and uncles didn’t believe me. So a few years ago I went through all the mail I received in college, looking for that Holy Grail of a letter. I couldn’t find it. Maybe I lost the letter. But I think I just remembered what I wanted to believe. He never wrote me. I really wish I knew more about him than I do.

Which gets us to the theme of this blog post. Some Christians say, “The Bible is the Word of God.” But, as with my Opa, the written record is actually pretty sparse. Just 66 short books—some only-page-long letters—that we call the Bible.

As a result, just as my memories of Opa are fleeting and fragile, so is our knowledge of God. We wish we knew more. So we turn to the Bible. Christians say it is, “God’s Word.” We hope it will be chock full of good stuff about God. But there is less of that than you might think, even according to the Bible’s own account.

The Bible does suggest that a tiny bit of what is inside comes straight from God’s hand or spoken words. God, according to the story in Exodus, personally carved the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone. The Bible says the laws in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were dictated by God to Moses. And if Jesus was God—or even just very close to God—then his words—if they have been correctly recalled by New Testament writers many years later, are at the very least, very Godly words.

But most of the Bible does not claim to be God’s actual speech. Most of it is the musings, experiences, wisdom, mysterious encounters, and the stories of people who were pretty sure that God was mysteriously in touch with them. In other words, the Bible is full of second-hand reporting by ancient people who, after Moses, were in touch with God mostly through dreams and visions. In fact, the Jewish scholar Richard Eliot Friedman argues, in his excellent book The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery, that God purposely ended his personal encounters—they’re called theophanies—God ended his personal encounters with Jews to force them to grow up, spiritually and morally.

Of course, when Evangelicals and others say that the Bible is the Word of God, what they really mean is that everything in the Bible is inspired by God, and has God’s stamp of approval. But does it, really? And what would that mean? Just for example (and there are many), the stories of God sending plagues upon innocent children, and upon Israelites for having a disobedient king—is that really believable as the sort of stuff a loving God would do? Is the story of Genesis—written to look like a true story about the past—really what we call history? What about all the New Testament promises—even by Jesus himself—that he is coming back “soon,” to judge the living and the dead. Is 2000 years later still “soon?”

And this is the crux, really. How much of God is really in the Bible? Enough to call it the Word of God, instead of “words about God?” Is every word in the Bible really divinely inspired? And what would that mean, anyway, if they were? That every word was dictated to the writer by God? That seems unlikely, given that the Greek, for example, in some of the New Testament, is laughably bad compared to the Greek of classical Greece, or even compared to other parts of the New Testament.

Maybe rather than arguing about how much of the Bible is actually from God, it would be better to pay attention to how seriously the Bible itself expects us to take it. And probably the favorite image used in the Bible to describe itself is the image of lamp light.

How seriously should we take the Bible? Well, in Psalm 119:105 we read, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” And perhaps with this very text in the back of his (or, less likely, her) mind, the author of 2 Peter 1:19-20 wrote, “so we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

The standard Evangelical reading of such texts suggests that as light, scripture is glorious. As light, scripture banishes the dark. As light, it leaves humans without excuse when it comes to getting God right. There is, however, another and better way to read such texts.

Consider the Psalmist’s lamp. This is a lamp from the days when ancient Hebrew lights couldn’t match even our puny candles when it came to giving light. The lamp the Psalmist speaks of was dim, smoky, sputtering and fuelled by olive oil. Such lamps were a stopgap measure until daytime, and not a very good one at that. Enough light, perhaps, to put one foot before another on a path without breaking your neck, but not a light to see the scenery or wild animals or survive a strong wind. The Peter passage further suggests that the words of the prophets, by which is meant the Old Testament, are a stopgap sufficient—barely—but only until the “morning star,” rises—that is, until Jesus returns.

In sum, these two “light” texts, the first with its reference to an imperfect emergency light, and the second with reference to its weakness compared to the light of the Christ who will soon return (although he didn’t)—this juxtaposition certainly suggests that it is easy to claim far too much for the light of scripture, whether or not it is inspired by God in whole or part. The Bible is certainly not the sun in the daytime. It isn’t even a forty-watt bulb, or even a cellphone flashlight. The Bible describes its light as a flickering, as a barely-enough stopgap measure for knowing God.

Which gets me back to my grandfather. I wish I knew more about him. I wish I had taken the time when I was in college and seminary to visit him more often. I wish I had more personal letters from him.

But in the end, what really matters is the core that my Opa passed onto his kids, and also to me. His love for family. His moral core that led him, at great personal cost, to turn his back on a privileged life in South Africa. His love of learning and wisdom. His heart for justice and fairness. His courage as a participant in the anti-Nazi labour-union underground.

And so with the Bible. We could all wish for more God in it, more clarity, more assurance that this is actually all from God and all we need—wherever or however God is now. We might even assume, as I did about that non-existent letter from my grandfather, that there is a lot more of God in the collection of letters from the ancient past we call the Bible than there actually is.

But that’s not what the Bible says about itself. It is a flickering lamp. Enough to assure us we are beloved. Enough to inspire us to live for the same values that Jesus did. Enough for us to wonder and dream about a hopeful future on account of the stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Enough to remind us that the marginalized, the week, the poor, and the oppressed are God’s favorites. Not a lot to go on.

But a great core, and enough to absolutely transform our lives.