Cleaning Out the Prayer Closet

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by James Vanden Bosch

1. “Thoughts and Prayers”

I’ve been thinking about the dropping value of thoughts and prayers this morning, and not for the first time. You’ve noticed it, too. This morning’s news (August 11, 2016) carries the story of desperate Syrian doctors pleading for help for the hospitals and the people they serve in Aleppo. Their letter is addressed to President Obama, and, after describing what the doctors and their patients have endured in the months-long siege of Aleppo, the authors conclude with these words: “We do not need tears or sympathy or even prayers, we need your action. Prove that you are the friend of Syrians.”

Something like the same impatience has also been articulated over the last few months by Americans who’ve lived through too many mass shootings on US soil and are tired of hearing from government officials and other concerned Americans that communities and individuals scarred by gun violence are “in our thoughts and prayers.” “Thoughts and prayers” can provide mainly cold comfort when what’s needed is action, and action that can actually be carried out if there is the will to do so.

George Herbert’s brilliant 17th-century sonnet describing prayer proceeds by listing more than a dozen appositive phrases for the many faces of prayer:

Prayer (I)

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

But not one of these appositives comes close to the meaning we’ve been learning this summer, that formulaic assurances—“you’re in our thoughts and prayers”—can ring false, false because the unstated assertion is that thoughts and prayers are all we can offer or are willing to offer, causing that act of reassurance to be heard as a refusal to acknowledge at least some measure of human responsibility and to outsource that work to God, whose only assistance, apparently, is to provide comfort and slow healing, but without addressing the core issues. Prayer the denial or refusal of human agency.

2. The Imprecatory Impulse

Over the last twelve months, advice from John Stuart Mill keeps coming back to me as being particularly applicable to the current political situation in the USA. This advice comes from Mill’s brilliant essay on Coleridge (1840), and the relevant passage is as follows:

‘Lord, enlighten thou our enemies’ should be the prayer of every true Reformer; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers: we are in danger from their folly, not their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.

Of course, I wish that Mill had written “adversaries” or “opponents” rather than “enemies,” because so much of our political discourse over the last year has been based on the premise that our political adversaries or opponents must be our enemies, and we find ourselves tempted to shift to the spirit and content of the imprecatory psalms, which seem to give us license to pray for the judgment of our foes, to mock them and to work for their destruction: “Praise God my rock, who trains my hands for war.” But to chant those psalms should require first of all a high level of certainty that our adversaries are truly God’s enemies.

In Luke 11, Jesus gave his disciples advice on how to pray, and we all know how it goes. Pray like this: “Our father in heaven . . . .” The moment that we remember that God is our father, it should be harder to consider our political adversaries to be truly enemies who need to be destroyed. “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors” and “Love your enemies” should come to mind much more quickly than the impulse to degrade or destroy.

3. A Precarious Moment

“Imprecate” and “precarious” share the Latin root that means “to pray,” but “precarious” has the more peculiar history. It is based on a Latin verb meaning “to pray” or “to entreat,” and the negative import of its original English adjective form borrows the negative meaning of the Latin source—the word denotes the strategically unsafe or tenuous position of a person who is forced to depend on the whim or the temporary alliance of a powerful force, and it’s a tenuous position because the appellant has no firm footing, no real foundation, except for the whim of the more powerful party. If security depends on something that fickle, it’s no real security at all.

Crucial parts of our current prayer practices are toxic. When we find ourselves offering “our thoughts and prayers” to evade our responsibility to work for change, or when we find ourselves in the imprecatory mode of hating our political adversaries, we have come a very long way from Herbert’s depiction of prayer, and even further from the direct instruction of Jesus.

It’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.

We welcome today’s guest blogger, James Vanden Bosch, who teaches English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thanks, Jim!

Comments 5

  1. Can you imagine a world where Christians had reputation for being peacemakers in the political arena instead of partisans? What if the Christian voice in politics was encouraging each side to see the other’s point of view, to show honor and respect for opponents; instead of only insisting that “God is on OUR side”? It would not preclude an person from vigorously championing a particular side as a citizen with a point of view, but when speaking as a Christian the message would be one of respect, common ground, working together, and reconciliation.

    What a dream.

  2. Of course, cold comfort may be better than no comfort at all?

    Instead of “Prayer the denial or refusal of human agency”,
    we might term it “Prayer the recognition of the limits of human agency”.

    I’m certain that President Obama would like to help the people of Aleppo,
    but most of us understand that “taking action” involves sending in American
    soldiers to fight and die. We also understand that Russian interests are supporting
    the Assad regime while our current administration opposes Assad. There is a
    real possibility that escalation could spread the conflict to other regions. If we
    were honest with ourselves, we might agree with President Obama’s decision
    to let a few hundred thousand people in Aleppo suffer and die in order to avoid
    the risk of millions dying in World War III. It’s easy to write letters deploring
    the situation, but in moments of honesty we might admit that we would
    make the same decision?

    Of course, James 2:16 and 1 John 3:17 are all the time in the back of our
    minds, perhaps reminding us of what hypocrites we have become? We like
    to believe that there is nothing we can do, but the fact is that we don’t have
    to wait for our government. Any of us could volunteer and be fighting in Syria
    within a month. Anyone who would send others should be willing to go themselves.
    We are not without agency, but the choices are hard. Would our sacrifice
    make any real difference to the situation? What about the families we leave behind?

    Decisions are always easier when someone else’s life is on the line.
    The thought of putting our own life at risk brings the limitations of our
    human agency into focus. (Or perhaps, we are just cowards?)

    Let us think and pray?

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