That We May Pray Aright

Words matter.

Words form sentences, which give shape to ideas, which constitute philosophies, ideologies and world-views, which ultimately inspire and shape ways of living, priorities, understandings, values, and faith.

But we can be rather cavalier with how we use words, which can result in shoddy thinking and poorly formed lives.  That can be particularly true with theological language and thought, and the consequent understanding of who God is, our relationship with God, and our practices of discipleship.

This is a problem I often ponder, as a theologian and member of Christ’s Body, the church (specifically that portion of the Body which exists in the USA), and as someone committed to language well used.  Here in the US we are often motivated by what works, and not necessarily by what is faithful, true, or consistent with the teachings of scripture, or the rich tradition of the church through the ages.   That utilitarian spirit is also sometimes reflected in our God language and church practices.

For many years, The Interpreter was published as a resource for clergy and lay leadership of The United Methodist Church.  Each issue included a section called, “It Worked for Us,” in which subscribers would report on activities and programs that “had worked” in attracting people, capturing the interest of children, involving youth, etc.  Certainly some of the stories were inspiring and helpful in sharing news of imaginative or creative ways to deepen faith and form disciples.  Others were, quite honestly, inane or frivolous.  The most memorable of these for me was the story of a church that put goldfish in the baptismal font, not because there was any expressed symbolic meaning or theological significance to having fish there, but because “the children loved it.”

When German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) spent a year studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, his initial impressions of the curriculum and the student body left him rather unimpressed.  Charles Marsh writes in Strange Glory: A Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), “He was decidedly underwhelmed by a religious culture in which people fashioned their beliefs the same way a man ordered a car from the factory – according to taste and preference,” and surmised that “pragmatism explained much about Protestantism in the New World” (Marsh, 103).  Bonhoeffer studied the writings of William James extensively while a student at Union, which to his mind “was the intellectual source of the local compulsion ‘to hasten past difficult problems and to linger inordinately on things that are either self-evident or that without additional preparation cannot possibly be adequately addressed.'” He also described his classmates initially as completely “clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about.  They are not familiar with even the most basic questions…. [T]hey talk a ‘blue streak,’ but often without the ‘slightest substantive foundation,’ blithely indifferent to the two thousand years of Christian thought” (Marsh, 104).

Which, finally, brings me to the topic of prayer: how we pray, the focus of our prayers, and what I humbly consider to be right and faithful prayer.  I begin by confessing that I have not always prayed aright, or in conformity with the thoughts that follow, and gratefully claim the grace that covers a multitude of sins, including talking out of my head, or praying with ignorant foolishness.

Today, as is often my practice, I went to Bruton Parish Episcopal Church to participate in the mid-week service of Eucharist.  While waiting for the time of worship to arrive, I paged through The Book of Common Prayer, looking to find a prayer appropriate for preparing myself for worship, when I encountered this Call to Confession in the liturgy for Morning Prayer:

Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.  And so that we may prepare ourselves in heart and mind to worship him, let us kneel in silence, and with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins, that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy.

What a wonderful template for forming prayers and disciples, reminiscent of the ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) prayer form I learned as a child.  What particularly caught my eye and heart was this statement: to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.

To ask: when we address and petition the Sovereign of the universe, it is unseemly to make demands, to assume that the Holy One is our servant required to be at our beck and call and to provide for our every want.  It is an act of hubristic arrogance to presume that our personal needs are most important in the universe, or that we know what is best for its maintenance and operation, or that we are so important that nature’s laws should fall before us simply because that is our wish and desire.  We humans are treasured and cherished by God, along with the whole creation, and God is always at work for our good; so says Paul in his letter to the Romans in the New Testament.  But sometimes what is best for us is not what we want; sometimes our personal desires cannot be met without harming others; there are some things that must happen simply because we are creatures, and not God.  We will all die; we age and suffer injuries of all stripes; we experience failure and disappointment; we are nowhere guaranteed that in all times and all places we can have our way or whatever we want; sometimes the wisest and best answer to our prayers is not yes, but no or not yet.  Prayer rooted in trust and humility knows the wisdom of asking in prayer, and not making demands, or threatening to walk away from God if God doesn’t deliver in the way we want.

For ourselves and on behalf of others: We thrive best in the world and most faithfully, when we acknowledge that we live in community, not in isolation.  It is certainly appropriate to pray for ourselves, and to make known our needs and desires, to the God and Parent of all.  Most attentive and loving human parents know what is happening in their children’s lives; they may not know exactly or fully what is transpiring, but they likely have the sense that something delightful or dreadful is occupying their children’s lives, hearts and minds.  To paraphrase some words of Jesus, if we who are evil know such things, certainly we can trust our Creator Parent to know us more fully and deeply.  But there is something powerful and transformative about speaking our desires, failures, regrets, sorrows and shortcomings, our need for guidance and help.  Sometimes it is in praying and speaking that truth is revealed to us that otherwise would not have come.  And all of aspects of our prayer life are richer and more full when offered in light of the needs of others with fresh awareness of the possible repercussions my prayer requests may have on the lives of others.  If what I ask will diminish the life of another, or is not rooted in mercy and love, it seems I should not offer that prayer.  If my quest for abundance of resources and riches causes harm to others, it seems I should pray differently.  If what I want damages and puts at risk others or the creation today or in the future, that is not a prayer I should offer, and I trust it will not be favorably heard by the God who loves and cherishes all.

Those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation: In my life I have prayed for many thing not necessary for life and my salvation, and have heard countless others do the same: for my team to win, for a good grade, not to be caught in my sin or to escape punishment for lesser deeds, to be chosen for some select group, to be popular or wealthy or successful by the world’s standards, to win the lottery.  These are things we may want, but they are not essential; they are not necessary for true life and salvation.  Indeed, we may sometimes be so bold as to pray for things that are not good for us, or for an abundance beyond our need.

For people of faith there are few things necessary for life and salvation: faith, hope, love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, commitment to justice and right living, insight and discernment leading to true wisdom, peace, deep awareness of divine presence, daily sustenance, shelter, warmth, security, a  sense of belonging and communion, meaning and purpose, goodness (for the Christian, Christlikeness).   When we pray for what we need rather than what we want, our prayers become more lean, more focused, simpler, more humble and expressive of our acknowledged dependence on God.  Life is less focused on my will or the things of this world that pass away, and on what is eternally significant and valuable.  Indeed, our words paradoxically may become fewer because we pray for fewer things, and more expansive as they probe more deeply and extend to the needs of others I may previously have failed to notice because I was so preoccupied with my own wants.  And through God’s grace, the words I offer in prayer become a way for the Word made flesh to transform me to know what truly matters; for words do matter.

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

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Trans God? Queer God?

“God is Spirit, and those who worship God worship in spirit and in truth.” – John 4:24

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”                 –1 John 4:7-8

There are many things I love about being a WOMP (Worn-Out Methodist Preacher), but the nerdiest thing I am delighted to do is to read theological texts of many descriptions, some of which have been on my shelves for decades. These days I am more than half-way through Raymond Brown’s two volume (!) The Death of the Messiah, two-thirds into Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and in preparation for preaching on Trinity Sunday I’m plowing through Jurgen Moltmann’s The Trinity and the Kingdom. Which leads to how this particular blog was birthed.

Moltmann’s reflection on the mystery of the Trinity, published in 1979, is not some new, avant-garde, radical, contemporary rant.  Indeed, what stopped me dead in my tracks was inspired by his reference to a 1300 year old statement of faith affirmed in the Council of Toledo in 675.  Moltmann is pondering the interrelationships between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the tri-unity of God, when he writes:

“[I]f the Son proceeded from the Father alone, then this has to be conceived of both as a begetting and as a birth.  And this means a radical transformation of the Father image; a father who both begets and bears his son is not merely a father in the male sense.  He is a motherly father too.  He is no longer defined in unisexual, patriarchal terms but – if we allow for the metaphor of language – bisexually or transexually.  He has to be understood as the motherly Father of the only Son he has brought forth, and at the same time as the fatherly Mother of his only begotten Son….According to the Council of Toledo in 675, ‘it must be held that the Son was created, neither out of nothingness nor yet out of any substance, but that He was begotten or born out of the Father’s womb (de utero Patris), that is, out of his very essence.'” The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 164 f. (my italics)

Be still, my heart.  Doesn’t that simply inspire with its thrilling, easy to follow verbiage?Yes, I am that nerd who thinks it’s awesome – difficult, dense, seemingly arcane and irrelevant to 21st century folks, not ready for prime time preaching, but an enriching blessing to me to be afforded the time to ponder.  But what I saw did seem to have deep relevance for us, at least worthy of a thought experiment.

Scripture clearly affirms that the Triune God is encountered as spirit and as love.  As Spirit, God is not exclusively male or female; indeed God is neither; whatever language we use for God is symbolic, metaphorical and poetic, not literalistic.  And because God is love, the Triune God has to be essentially relational and in relationship, because at the very least love requires lover and beloved.

Clearly Moltmann is both struggling, and playing with language as he delves into the interplay and relationship of Father and Son within the Trinity, when he puts forth the metaphorical language of God’s bisexuality or transsexuality.  At the very least, it seems to me that he is arguing that gender specific language is woefully inadequate to the Godhead, metaphors and images drawn from both traditionally male and female characteristics are appropriate (and necessary?), and that the mystery of God transcends all such images.

If that is so, then perhaps the following are true – or definitely worth pondering:

  1.  Both males and females are made in the image of God as we reflect something, but not all, of who God is.
  2. We each bear within ourselves both maleness and femaleness, since attributes or characteristics of both are exhibited within the Godhead.
  3. While maleness and femaleness are important and valued dimensions of being human and individual identities, if characteristics, images, roles, and metaphors assigned to each are transcended within the mystery of God, they do not have to have undue significance for us as humans who, regardless of gender identity, are all made in the image of God.
  4. Transgender and/or queer persons are valued, vital reminders to us of the utter mystery and wonder of God, who is at the heart of the universe and is not limited to, or bounded by our understandings, categorizations or endeavors to manipulate, control, legislate and reduce reality to our narrow expectations and comprehension.  The God we meet in scripture truly embodies a Reality that transcends gender and is queer (e.g., “My ways are not your ways; my thoughts not your thoughts;” “God’s wisdom is foolishness in the eyes of the world; God’s power is weakness”); crosses boundaries; will not be limited, nailed down, or confined to specific spaces (tombs or toilets?); and is encountered in the demeaned, mocked, ridiculed, condemned, outcast, marginalized, rejected and scorned.  How odd it would be of God, to be seen particularly clearly  these days in these, the least of our sisters and brothers (Matthew 25:31 ff.).
  5. Galatians 3:26-28 is even more radically revolutionary and relevant than Paul (or we) might have imagined: “[I]n Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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.”

This WOMP was reading Moltmann at the same time as the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church was ruling on a case involving Rev. Karen Oliveto, a married and openly lesbian who was elected a bishop last year and currently serves the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences.  This is the most recent significant action in the denomination’s long wrestle with sexuality, done in the context of the ongoing endeavor of the church’s Commission on a Way Forward discerning whether we can find a better way to live together with our diverse understandings of sexuality.  Following the Judicial Council’s ruling, the WCA (Wesleyan Covenant Association, a newly formed unofficial United Methodist group that holds church prohibitions against the practice of homosexuality to be part of Christian orthodoxy) responded, “We…call upon those who feel they cannot, in good conscience, abide by the doctrines and discipline of our church, to seek an honorable exit from our denomination.”

I confess I didn’t know the Church belonged to the WCA – or to the General Conference of The UMC, for that matter; my understanding from scripture is that none of us owns the Church but all submit to the Lordship of Christ who is the Head of the Church, which is his body.  Once again, I am thinking that we continue to make sexuality a false idol to which we give undue priority and turn our stance of homosexuality into a heresy by overstating and overemphasizing something, and thereby creating a false imbalance.  If God is surprisingly queer and/or transgender, perhaps we ought to lighten up, calm down and carry on, and revel in the mystery of God who continues to surprise us, lead us down unexpected paths, and reveal Godself in ways we could never have imagined.

There’s More To a Hero Than a Sandwich

Hero: a person admired for braverygreat achievements, or good qualities.                                               –Cambridge American Dictionary

He’s a…hero ’cause he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”                                                       –Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump

“It depends on your definition of a…hero.”                                                                                                          -Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson

There’s been a lot of chatter in recent days about whether Senator John McCain is a hero. Based on the definition presented by Cambridge American Dictionary, John McCain definitely qualifies. On all counts McCain meets the criteria of bravery (despite torture and solitary confinement he never shared vital information with his captors), achievements (in addition to being a graduate of the US Naval Academy and decorated veteran, he is a respected US Senator and former Presidential candidate), and good qualities (no one can seriously doubt his honesty, patriotism and love of country).

All this parsing of what constitutes being a hero has led me to think about how easily we use that term as a descriptor.  After all by definition not only is John McCain a hero; so is a type of sandwich.

When we glibly use the term to describe anyone who puts on a uniform and simply does their job, we run the risk of trivializing and diminishing what constitutes being a hero. There is no doubt in my mind that our military personnel, for example, should be respected. After all, the 1% who serve in our armed forces today are doing what the rest of us don’t want to do. The women and men in uniform more resemble a mercenary force hired to do our dirty work than a military drawn from the breadth and depth of our whole society.   Not surprisingly they do not reflect the rich racial or economic diversity of our nation but are drawn largely from the ranks of the poor and ethnic minorities.

The same respect should be provided to our first responders; as has often been cited, when others flee from a crisis they move toward it.

But they simply cannot all be heroes, lest the term become meaningless through its diluting overuse.  Often our political leadership, from the President down to local officials, describe our first responders or military as heroes. But we also know that some military have been guilty of egregious acts (think Abu Ghraib or the selfies of gloating American soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq holding up dismembered enemy remains); and this year seemingly has at least a monthly news story about yet another unarmed Black person shot, killed or humiliated by police. The actions of a few miscreants do not define the whole, but neither do the brave actions, good qualities, and achievements of a few.

There may be times when we act heroically; but that does not make us heroes in essence or at heart. Abusers or sexual predators can sometimes behave kindly, but at core they do not exemplify kindness for us but something different.

In the same way in the world of sports I may show respect for someone’s athletic prowess and achievements as they perform in uniform.   But can someone truly and fully be a hero worthy of our children’s emulation if their athletic skill is not matched by their personal integrity and character, in uniform or out?

I am simply suggesting that we be more circumspect in our naming of heroes. Words actually matter.  In a community where everyone can easily be called a hero, heroes may still exist.   But what is truly laudatory, commendable and worthy seems cheapened by our facile definitions.