Not that Kind of Baptist

in Prayer

Where do Prayers Go?

A friend gave me a book recently: Mary Oliver’s volume of poetry A Thousand Mornings.  I love Mary Oliver’s poetry.  I find her honesty and vulnerability so beautiful.  She writes in a poem called “I Happened to Be Standing” some honest words about prayer.   “I don’t know where prayers go, or what they do.”  She must have been reading my mind. Does that sound true to you?  When we pray, we are not pulling a lever which activates a God machine.  What prayers do is something other than human manipulation of the divine. So where do prayers go, and what do they do?  

I think Oliver is evoking the mystery of prayer.  We cannot sketch out a cause and effect line between where our prayers begin and where God answers them.  When we are in pain and suffering, we pray for God to make the pain stop.  When we receive a dreadful diagnosis, the family gathers around praying for a miracle.  When natural disaster strikes, we pray for God’s presence, we pray for relief, and we pray that the winds will cease, the earthquake stops its tremors, and the fires cease their raging.  Where do all those prayers go, and what do they do?

The Jewish theologian Joshua Abraham Heschel writes of prayer in his book I Asked for Wonder that “to pray is to dream in league with God, to envision His holy visions.”  Heschel conjures up the notion of dreams because he saw that prayer was more than the assertion of human desire and need.  It is that, to be sure.  But more fundamentally, prayer is an opening up of our very selves to God’s presence.  We begin with our human frailties, our narrow concerns, but we end up somewhere else.  Broader, imaginative, limitless.  To dream is to open our souls to the possibility that the tired narrative of "it will always be this way" must be set aside. The opposite of dreaming is our attempt to control and domesticate God.      

After a grueling day, we might begin a prayer by saying “God, I’m tired and I’m angry.  I just want peace.”  We just told God what was on our mind and heart.  That’s prayer.  But then, we might begin to stretch our imagination and enter the realm of dreams in our prayer.  God, I can’t see a way out of this pain I’m in, and I don’t have any hope.  But you are a God who breathes life into dry bones.  You are forever doing something new.  You are restless in your capacity to love and to renew and to care for this broken world.  Show me the way towards renewal for me.  Show me the way out of my pain.  Help me to see your vision for my life.  And the God who inspired the poetry of Isaiah might just say, "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert."

Where do prayers go, and what do they do?  Well, I don’t know exactly.  But, I do know this.  I can’t imagine what life would be like if I couldn’t pray.  And so I abandon the desire to have a perfect theory of prayer.  I get rid of the conceit that I can explain exactly how it works to you, and to you, and to you.  And I find that in the middle of talking to a friend, I am in the middle of a prayer.  I find that at the close of a conversation, I have been praying the whole time. I discover that when I say what is on my heart, and I get out all the truth I have to offer, then I am ready for newness. And that too, is prayer.

Of Poetry and Lament

It was T.S. Eliot who wrote that "April is the cruelest month." But what a cruel day October 2nd was. On Monday morning we awoke to the horrifying news that another mass shooting had occurred, the worst ever in American history. 59 dead. The unleashing of a nightmare on concert-goers in Las Vegas. Over 500 injured.

At the level of human meaning, loss, and trauma...we struggle to process what has happened. As I struggled to process the news on Monday, a piece of a poem popped into my head: "things fall apart; the center cannot hold." Who wrote that, I wondered? It was William Butler Yeats' The Second Coming.  Yeats, writing in the aftermath of the First World War, gave poetic voice to the madness of violence:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,   

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;   

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

It is a terrifying poem, one born out of the maelstrom of trench warfare and senseless violence. That is what it felt like for so many on Monday: "things fall apart; the center cannot hold." Out of the experience of trauma comes the language of lament. And for lament, we need not look far to find potent expression. The poetry of the Bible's hymnal, the Psalms is suffused with the language of lament.

How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? (Ps. 89:46). Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion? (Ps. 77: 7-9). Brutal, honest questions. That's the language of lament.

On the cross, Jesus cried out in the language of Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The Psalm doesn't end in lament, however. It ends with praise to God. The poetry of the Psalm echoes the poetry of our human emotions. We cannot enter into the language of resurrection until we give honest voice to the language of lament. May God heal the wounds of the many brokenhearted throughout our land.

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with

New Creation: Reflections on Antisemitism and Racism

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We could speak of all the difficult texts of the Bible, of the expulsion of the Canaanites from the land and the slaying of the Amalekites.  We could speak of “texts of terror” as the biblical scholar Phyllis Trible has written.  And perhaps you and I will speak of these, one day.  But these days my thoughts go to new creation.  It is perhaps Paul’s most powerful theological insight: that in Jesus Christ a new creation transpired.  One in which there is “no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).  In this new creation, there is no room for the ancient hatreds of racism and anti-Semitism.  We are all one

             Christians seeking to respond to hatred have rich resources in biblical theology.  To choose just a few among many, consider how the dramatic arc of Acts always pushes towards greater inclusion of the Gentiles.  The fiery tongues of Pentecost were nothing less than the outpouring of the Holy Spirit enabling all nations to hear the Gospel.  In Acts 10, Peter is led by a strange vision to the Gentile centurion Cornelius.  Peter’s vision revealed a sheet full of unclean animals.  A voice urged Peter to “kill and eat” the animals.  Peter protests: “By no means Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”   The voice responds: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” There was no more division between Jew and Gentile; God had settled that.  Peter remarks, incredibly, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”  And yet so many voices in our world cry out that their neighbor is “unclean”—unworthy of communion.    

            Paul, writing to the church at Ephesus, tells these Gentile believers that there used to be a time when their status as uncircumcised people made them “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).  But a new time has come.  Paul, the violent and vociferous opponent of this fledgling Jesus movement, this man who was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5)…this man Paul had himself experienced alienation from God.  He had a violent and earth-shattering experience in which he met the risen Christ.  And all of the old paradigms in which he lived were thrown out.  Of this Christ, Paul would write that “he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [Gentiles and Jews] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”  (Eph. 2: 13-14). 

What a metaphor.  A wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile which has been “broken down.”  You can’t read that seriously and be an anti-Semite.  But there is a deeper truth afoot in these texts, namely, that in Jesus, God broke down all idolatrous barriers between people groups.  At Ahavath Achim Synagogue last Saturday, I taught this lesson at a table of Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  A participant remarked that he had to admit that he associated Southern Baptists with the ugly hatred of Charlottesville.  I told him that we are in the South, and that we are Baptists, but that we aren’t that kind of Baptist.  Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 after Georgia Baptists unsuccessfully attempted to have a slaveholder approved as a missionary with the Home Mission Society of the Triennial Convention.  It makes a difference when Christians talk honestly about their faith with their neighbor.  When we can look each other in the eye and say “that’s not who I am, but I could see why you might suspect otherwise before you met me,” a relationship flourishes.  In those moments, we get a taste of new creation.     

              God was in Christ, Paul tells us in his second letter to the church at Corinth.  What do you think God was doing in Christ?  Dying for us so that we might proclaim enmity and hatred against our neighbor?  Suffering for us so that we might believe that only white nationalism is the answer to our economic and societal woes?  No.  God was in Christ “reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor. 5:19).  All of this comes about because God has made the world anew in some unfathomable way with what happened on the Cross. 

What’s that?  A message of reconciliation?  That sounds dangerous.  That sounds like it might cost us something.  That sounds…like Jesus. 

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