Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Playing Praying

I participated in some group prayer tonight. That is, in a group of about 15 people, I kept my head down while three others took turns speaking out loud. Had I interrupted at any point, the prayer would have ceased to be, suddenly demoted to mere conversation. But I think prayer is a good practice. It's still one of those things we have a lot of reverence for. We take it seriously, as a major part of the spiritual life.

During the prayer tonight, some of the topics included: emotional healing, sickness in the family, moving to a new place and spiritual discontent. And as an arc, a prayer for greater faith in God's will..

Before praying, we read a few Bible passages, and discussed them. We were reading about healing. Jesus healed, Peter healed and we read in James to pray for those who are sick. A lot of people disagreed about just what the passages meant, but nobody got out of hand. We had very civilized theological discussions.

Some believe that physical healing can come when we have faith. Others believe that healing only comes if it's a part of God's will. And still others believe that healing doesn't really happen at all. It was great to be able to have so many people disagree, and completely respect one another's differences. By the end, our host suggested that we go out next week and try to pray in a way we hadn't before, maybe even go to a charismatic church or tent revival. She encouraged spiritual open-mindedness. I really appreciated the suggestion.

But I still have my opinion. I was glad to ask questions and be asked, but in the end, I don't believe in faith healing.

First of all, everybody dies. Everybody. So if somebody is healed by the faith of themselves or another, it won't last long. Laying down some hands and saying a few words to make a quadriplegic walk sounds great, but it just doesn't happen. I have faith in God, but I trust the laws of the universe have been set up so we could learn how to live better within them, not defy them. The ultimate law, of course, being death. Things grow for a while, and then start to break down, then die.

There are always exceptions to rules. But death is final. You cannot "heal" death. And we're all going to die. It's natural, it's a good thing. We're not designed to last forever. Nothing is.

I'm not sure if the church fathers thought of healing this way, but a lot of folks in America and in the Christian Church believe in healing as a way of extending life. This bothers me. It is a completely counter-intuitive way for a human to think. Sure, nobody wants to live in pain, but we have no choice. Life is about pain. Suffering is inevitable. And I think we have to respect death because of this. After 70 years of pain and suffering, death is our great relief. "I shall be released," Bob Dylan sings. All of the great gospel songs try to dig some hope out of the grief of life. Our art is born out of pain. Our hope is only possible amidst suffering.

So why should we pray for those who are sick? And why should we pray specifically for their healing? Here's what I think. I think suffering reminds us of our mortality. Death and sickness bring our mortality front and center. So when we pray for the sick, we are suddenly making light of their mortality. In doing so, we have no choice but to consider the flip side; immortality. We are troubled by our dreadful mortality, so we find peace and hope in the immortal God. Praying immediately brings our attention to God. And it is good to ponder God's omnipotence. We cannot do it with any sort of success, but contrasted against suffering, we can feel its peace.

But why do we pray for healing? Well, first of all, this prayer isn't as simple as it sounds. A prayer for healing doesn't say "Please make my aunt feel better. Amen." it says, "God, you are omnipotent and omniscient. You could take this sickness away, you can do anything. I want this suffering to leave. I want things to be better. But I have no control of this situation. I hope you hear my prayer, God."

This latter prayer focuses on a spiritual nature. The former prayer focuses on internal, selfish desire. It's a shout in the wind. There is no enlightenment in saying "I want this to happen because I think it would be nice." Enlightenment comes when individuals give up their control and embrace the mystery of God's love. When we abandon our freedom to be gods, we allow the highest authority to take the reins. This is liberating, and humbling. As much as we want to get our way, coming to a place of complete denial through sincere prayer keeps us in check spiritually. 

Prayer reassures us of our mortality. It gives us time to quietly and humbly reflect on how precious our short time here is. So to anyone who thought, "well what's the point if everybody's just gonna die anyway?" there you have it. We shouldn't live our lives like racehorses. Awareness is ours, but only if we'll have it. Prayer is not a way of magically getting things we want, but rather a time to slow down and forget about our consumerism for a while. We can focus on hope, peace and love when we're in prayer. We can meditate on the God of the universe and beyond. It's not a physical thing. It's spiritual. Even within groups. Maybe we can all try it together sometime?

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