Showing posts with label #Pray. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Pray. Show all posts

16 May 2024

Praying exact prayers.

I haven’t heard this teaching in a mighty long time, but I heard it again recently: The preacher was informing her audience (and reminding her regular listeners) that whenever we pray for stuff, we gotta get really, precisely specific. We gotta tell God exactly what we want from him. Otherwise we might not get it. God might give us something which generally resembles what we want, but not exactly what we want. We weren’t clear.

Fr’instance let’s say you’re looking for a job. What you’d love to do is work at a bank, approving loans. But you ask God, “Please Lord, I’d like to work at a bank; any job will do.” And God answers that prayer! But your job at the bank is looking at the dark and blurry photos people send of checks through the bank’s app, and confirming they’re something the bank can actually cash. Hardly your dream job. But hey, God answered your prayer!—you just didn’t specify you didn’t wanna look at bad phone-camera photography eight hours a day.

Ergo we have to specify what we want. You know, kinda like you’re programming ChatGPT. You want the bot to output exactly what you want, without any surprises or errors? You gotta spell it out for it. It’s not that intelligent.

Now. If you’re in any way familiar with the Almighty, you know he’s not a moron like these “artificially intelligent” programs. If you know your bible, you can probably quote this verse from memory, or close enough:

Matthew 6.8 NRSVue
“Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

That’s Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, explaining to his listeners, and to us Christians centuries later, that we don’t need to use many words and empty phrases with God. Mt 6.7 In context he was really talking about pagans who feel they need to call upon their gods with big, complicated incantations—and if they get the incantations wrong, maybe their gods won’t listen!

And y’know, it’s kinda what this preacher is suggesting God is like. That if we get our prayer wording wrong, maybe the LORD won’t listen, and we won’t get exactly what we ask for.

If you’ve heard this teaching before, I’m betting you heard it from the “name it and claim it” crowd. Every time I’ve heard it taught, it came from someone who’s been listening to their preachers, reading their books, and dabbling in their teachings. A number of ’em believe our words are so powerful, we can actually call things into existence. Same as God! Supposedly he’s granted us Christians the same power he has to create stuff. So we gotta be careful with those words, lest we create things we don’t actually want.

Because when we don’t get precise with our prayer requests, we might ask for the right thing, wrongly. And when we do this, God might grin, say, “Well you did ask for it,” and prankishly give us literally what we requested. And now we’re stuck with it.

Like the man in the joke who asked a genie for a million clams. By which he meant dollars—and somehow expected a genie, who shouldn’t even know English, to know American slang. But nope; the genie bestowed him with a million literal clams.

I don’t know what’s worse: Claiming God is as dumb as a chatbot, or God is some kind of prankster god like Cupid, Loki, or Coyote. I should hope you know he’s wiser, and has a far better character, than that. I should hope you know he’s generous, and is eager to bless us far more than we ask or think. Ep 3.20 I mean, they very idea God’s interested in playing dumb games with prayer, oughta offend us a little. It is blasphemy after all.

But if you're way more interested in getting your wishes granted, stands to reason you'll fall for this foolish advice.

20 November 2023

Thanksgiving. The prayer, not the day.

In the United States, on November’s fourth Thursday, we celebrate a national day of thanksgiving. Today I’m not talking about the day itself though. I’m talking about the act.

Americans don’t always remember there’s such a thing as an act of thanksgiving. Our fixation is usually on the food, football, maybe the parade, maybe the dog show. If you’re pagan, you seldom even think to thank God… or anyone. Instead you conjure up some feeling of gratitude. You have a nice life, a decent job, good health, some loved ones, and got some stuff you’ve always wanted. Or you don’t have these things, but you’re grateful for the few things you do have. Or you’re not grateful at all, and bitter… and in a few minutes, drunk.

But this feeling of gratitude isn’t directed anywhere. Shouldn’t you be grateful to someone or something? Shouldn’t there be some being to thank?

And that’s a question many a pagan never asks themselves. I know of one family who thanks one other. Civic idolaters might be grateful to America or the president, as if they consciously gave ’em anythng. Those who love their jobs might be grateful to their bosses and customers. But pagans generally suppress the question by drowning it with food and drink. (And maybe thanking the person who prepared the food. But just as often, not.)

Even among the Christians who remember, “Oh yeah—we’re thanking God,” a lot of the thanking is limited to saying grace before the meal: “Good bread, good meat, good God let’s eat.” Although every once in a while somebody in the family might say, “And now let’s go round the table, and everybody say one thing you’re thankful for.” A game nobody enjoys but them… although I myself have come up with a lot of outrageous answers to that question, which amuse me at least.

But enough about Thanksgiving Day and its not-so-religious customs and behavior. The practice of thanksgiving isn’t limited to just this one day. If you wanna practice more actual, authentic thanksgiving in your relationship with God, great! I’m all for that. So’s God. But it means way more than thanking God only once a year, on the government-approved day set aside for it.

24 October 2023

Thoughts and prayers… and hypocrites.

Whenever disaster strikes—whether natural or manmade; usually manmade—one of the most common platitudes we hear thereafter is, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.”

Over the past 20 years, this expression has seen a backlash. Mainly because the people who regularly say it, tend to be politicians. Particularly politicians who are in a position to do something about the disaster: Send rescuers. Provide disaster relief. Provide shelter and food and water. Provide healthcare. Ban the sort of lax workplace practices which result in disaster, and jail the owners and executives of those workplaces for their oversight, especially if they knew disaster might be coming, but looked the other way. Ban the sort of dangerous weapons which, in the hands of a dangerous person, would cause calamity, and prohibit such people from ever touching such a weapon. In short, stop enabling evildoers.

But they don’t. They do nothing, or do something empty and meaningless. And by their actions, they demonstrate they’re not really thinking of disaster victims… and more than likely, not praying either. If they are praying, it’s something more like, “Lord, why should I be on the hook for this? Could you please confound my enemies?”

To be fair, some of the backlash comes from nontheists who are pretty sure prayer is bunk. It might make the petitioner feel good, ’cause now the buck’s been passed to God, so they need do nothing more. Or ’cause the petitioner thinks the prayer is the work, which is why they pray so fervently, and imagine themselves prayer warriors. But, figure the nontheists, they’re praying to no one; the invisible man in the sky isn’t real; it’s wasted time and effort.

Give you an example. Thanks to climate change, the United States is getting more and more extreme weather. Hotter days. Longer heat waves. Tornadoes and hurricanes in places where they previously didn’t happen; we had a hurricane pass over California, of all places, this summer. Crazy rainfall and floods where they previously didn’t happen. Rising oceans. Dying species.

But for various stupid reasons, many conservative Christians don’t believe in science, and refuse to believe the data about climate change. They have various harebrained theories about why extreme weather really happens, but in general, they think it’s a passing fluke; it’s nothing politicians intend to make longterm plans about. And nothing they can mitigate, or stop, or reverse, by fighting pollution; plus polluters are their biggest donors. But for the most part they deny it’s happening at all. And certainly won’t pass laws to help those who are suffering from it; namely the poor, who can’t afford to recover from it.

So what good are those politicians’ thoughts and prayers? Functionally they’re the very same as when the apostle James objected to “faith” which lacked works:

James 2.14-17 NRSVue
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Surely that faith cannot save, can it? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Regularly, our “thoughts and prayers” are no different from wishing the needy well, but doing absolutely nothing to make ’em less needy. Sometimes it’s out of our own laziness and apathy; sometimes our own ill will.

And the needy aren’t dense. They see the godlessness of it. They’re calling us on it. Rightly so. If our thoughts and prayers do nothing, our faith is dead, our religion is hypocrisy, and our God is a joke.

You do realize making our God out to be a joke is blasphemy, right? So don’t do that!

15 August 2023

The passive-aggressive prayer.

Years ago in a small group, it came time for people to take turns praying, so we did. I prayed for… something. Don’t recall what. It’s not relevant to this article.

What is relevant is I had prayed, regarding my request, that regardless of what I wanted, God’s will be done. Because, I stated in the prayer, sometimes it’s not, and I don’t want that. I want God to answer my prayers however he sees fit.

Well, this little statement of mine triggered one of the other guys in the group. Let’s call him Prakash. He believed God’s will is always done, because he believed God determines everything in the universe. (Evil too.) And he was still in the “cage-stage,” meaning he was ready, willing, and eager to argue theology with you. Especially since he was entirely sure he was right. I’m using past-tense verbs because I hope Prakash is better now. But sometimes cage-stagers never grow out of it, and turn into angry Fundamentalists whose list of mandatory fundamentals gets shorter, tighter, stricter, and less gracious with every passing year.

Anywho, Prakash had already taken a turn at praying, but he couldn’t help himself: He helped himself to another turn. And this prayer wasn’t about anything our prayer leader had asked us to pray about. Wasn’t about any personal requests he had for God. Wasn’t about any other people Prakash was interceding for.

Nope. He just wanted to remind God that he’s sovereign and therefore always gets his way. To appreciate the fact God’s will is always done, even though the rest of us human simpletons may not recognize this, and might imagine otherwise. To worship God for this particular trait of his.

To, y’know, passive-aggressively correct me by slipping a little theology lesson into prayer time.

Gotta admit, I was a little tempted to take another turn myself, and slip my own passive-aggressive prayer into the mix: “And God, we thank you for Prakash and his wisdom and humility, and pray that you water that mustard seed and make it grow into a mighty tree under which birds can perch. He’s got more than enough fertilizer; he’s ready; just make him grow, Lord. In Jesus’s name.

But not seriously tempted. I know better than to be a dick during prayer.

Thing is, if we’ve been to enough prayer groups—or simply if we grew up Christian and had to deal with annoying Christian siblings who pulled this kind of stunt (or, admittedly, pulled it ourselves) —we’ve all encountered the passive-aggressive prayer. The prayer which isn’t really a prayer; we’re talking to someone else instead of God, but for one reason or another we’ve chosen to disguise it as a prayer. Not that it’s fooling anyone.

It’s pure hypocrisy, and the proper way to deal with it is to call it out. But more often we Christians avoid our duty to rebuke bad behavior, and simply ignore it as if someone ripped a wet fart in the elevator: We all know it happened, but we’re not gonna say anything, and we’re gonna hope it dissipates as fast as possible.

Only problem is, when this behavior isn’t rebuked, the passive-aggressive petitioner is gonna think they cleverly got away with it. It wasn’t all that clever… but since nobody rebuked them, yeah they did get away with it.

So they’re totally gonna do this again.

01 August 2023

Praying for the sick.

Praying for the sick is ridiculously easy.

It consists of asking God—exactly the same as we ask God for every other thing—“Father, would you please cure this sick person?” Or, if I’m the sickie, “Father, would you please cure me? I’m asking for this in Jesus’s name. Thank you. Amen.

What, you thought it was more complicated than that?

Well I get that. We humans overcomplicate everything. Especially religious stuff.

Especially because we’re asking God to show us favor, and cure people for free. Yet our karma-plagued mindset, found everywhere in our culture including Christianity, nudges us to think, “But shouldn’t we earn or merit God’s favor?—at least to some degree?” And next thing you know, we’re trying to earn it.

  • We try to get into the prayer mood, and pray as fervently as possible. As if God’s gonna see us stressing ourselves out and think, “By Me, it looks like they really mean it,” and acts faster.
  • We try to play on God’s emotions. With lots of crying, a few sad stories—“God, I’ve suffered so much”—and all the stuff which usually works on other people. Hey, sad people moved Jesus; maybe it still works.
  • We try to rope other saints into praying for our request. Which isn’t in itself a bad thing! But we do it thinking, “I’m not righteous enough for God to answer me, so I’m gonna borrow their righteousness, and if one saint is all I really need, a buttload of saints oughta do the trick.” So we start a little prayer campaign—as if God is swayed by numbers.
  • We try bargaining. “What do you need, God? I’ll give you this…”
  • Didn’t James say something about gathering the elders and anointing the sick with oil? Jm 5.14 Let’s cram the church’s board members into the hospital room and start lubing the victim up! Let’s get oily.

And people who teach on prayer, and people who lead prayer groups, will totally recommend these practices. No doubt you’ve thought of other strategies.

But are they valid techniques for getting God to cure people? Nah. If you read Jesus’s healing stories in the gospels, you know he didn’t need ’em; he simply cured people.

What Jesus did teach is that God prefers faith. By which he means faith in God. Not faith in our techniques. Not faith in getting our incantations right. Not faith in ourselves, nor our merit. Nor some “storehouse of merit,” consisting of all the faith-filled people of our church, which we can call up for prayer. He wants us to trust God.

And this includes trusting God if his answer is no. ’Cause it might be! It has been for me. I’ve prayed for other people, and myself, to be made well. Sometimes God answers yes, and that’s awesome! And sometimes he answers no; we’re gonna have to ride this illness out, and let the immune system beat it, or let the doctors remove it, or let time pass, or learn to treat it… or learn to suffer. And trust God while we’re suffering. Which sucks. But we gotta.

18 July 2023

Prayer in the Abraham and Abimelech story.

The first time we ever read the word “pray” in the bible—the first time holy scriptures were even written which use the word פָּלַל/palál, “praying”—it’s in Genesis 20, in the middle of an odd little story which goes like so.

Genesis 20.1-18 NLT
1 Abraham moved south to the Negev and lived for a while between Kadesh and Shur, and then he moved on to Gerar. While living there as a foreigner, 2 Abraham introduced his wife, Sarah, by saying, “She is my sister.” So King Abimelech of Gerar sent for Sarah and had her brought to him at his palace.
3 But that night God came to Abimelech in a dream and told him, “You are a dead man, for that woman you have taken is already married!”
4 But Abimelech had not slept with her yet, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? 5 Didn’t Abraham tell me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘Yes, he is my brother.’ I acted in complete innocence! My hands are clean.”
6 In the dream God responded, “Yes, I know you are innocent. That’s why I kept you from sinning against me, and why I did not let you touch her. 7 Now return the woman to her husband, and he will pray for you, for he is a prophet. Then you will live. But if you don’t return her to him, you can be sure that you and all your people will die.”
8 Abimelech got up early the next morning and quickly called all his servants together. When he told them what had happened, his men were terrified. 9 Then Abimelech called for Abraham. “What have you done to us?” he demanded. “What crime have I committed that deserves treatment like this, making me and my kingdom guilty of this great sin? No one should ever do what you have done! 10 Whatever possessed you to do such a thing?”
11 Abraham replied, “I thought, ‘This is a godless place. They will want my wife and will kill me to get her.’ 12 And she really is my sister, for we both have the same father, but different mothers. And I married her. 13 When God called me to leave my father’s home and to travel from place to place, I told her, ‘Do me a favor. Wherever we go, tell the people that I am your brother.’ ”
14 Then Abimelech took some of his sheep and goats, cattle, and male and female servants, and he presented them to Abraham. He also returned his wife, Sarah, to him. 15 Then Abimelech said, “Look over my land and choose any place where you would like to live.” 16 And he said to Sarah, “Look, I am giving your ‘brother’ 1,000 pieces of silver in the presence of all these witnesses. This is to compensate you for any wrong I may have done to you. This will settle any claim against me, and your reputation is cleared.”
17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female servants, so they could have children. 18 For the LORD had caused all the women to be infertile because of what happened with Abraham’s wife, Sarah.

Some weird cultural things I gotta unpack for you now.

03 January 2023

Getting hungry for God. Literally.

FAST fast verb. Go without food [for God].
2. noun. A period of going without food [for God].

Whenever I talk to people about fasting, their knee-jerk reaction is “No food? No food? No FOOD? You’re outa your [profane adjective] mind.” After all, this is the United States, where a 20-ounce soda is called a “small.” In this nation, the stomach rules.

This is why so many Christians are quick to redefine the word “fast.” My church, fr’instance, frequently does this 21-day “Daniel fast.” I’ll explain what that is elsewhere; for now I’ll just point out it’s not an actual fast. Nobody’s going without food. They’re going without certain kinds of food. No meat, no sweets. But no hunger pains either.

Fasting, actual fasting, is a hardcore Christian practice. The only things which go into our mouths are air and water. In an “absolute fast” you even skip the water. Now, we need food and water. If we don’t eat, we die. And that’s the point: Push this practice too far and we die. But God is more important than our lives. That’s the declaration we make when we fast: Our lives aren’t as important as God.

Why do we do such a thing? For the same reason Jesus did it, when he went to the desert for the devil to tempt him. Mt 4.1-2, Lk 4.1-2 Fasting makes people spiritually tough. It amplifies our prayer and meditation by a significant factor, which is why it’s a common prayer practice. When we deprive our physical parts, and shift our focus to the spiritual parts, those parts get exercised; they get stronger.

We reject our culture, which teaches us we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of anything. We recognize God, not food, is our source of life. Our minds get better attuned to God’s will. We hear him better, because our bodies physically feel our need for him. We detect spiritual things faster. We discern the difference between good and evil better.

Yeah, fasting does all that. That is, when we’re praying as well as fasting. If you’re fasting but not praying, it’s time wasted.

Don’t get me wrong. Other forms of self-deprivation do it too. Dieting for God, or going without certain beloved things and hobbies, because God’s more important than our desires, will also achieve the same things fasting can. Just not as quickly; not as intensely. The stakes just aren’t as high. Fasting is hardcore, remember? Going without bacon, as hard as that might be for you personally, isn’t life-threatening. (In fact it’s better for your health.) But though a small thing, it’s still a sacrifice, and part of the proper mindset: “God is more important than my palate.”

18 October 2022

So you feel unclean. Pray anyway.

Probably the most common reason Christians don’t pray… is because we don’t feel clean enough.

I’m not talking about ritual cleanliness. (Most Christians don’t even know what that is anyway: It’s the idea of ritually washing yourself before worship. Since the Holy Spirit now dwells in us Christians, we don’t need to ritually wash before temple; we are his temple.) But it’s not that; it’s feeling clean, because we feel dirty, because we sinned. Maybe we sinned recently; maybe we didn’t, but we’re aware we sinned a lot over the past few weeks, so we figure we’re not worthy to approach God. He’s too holy, and we’re too gross.

Some Christians even claim God is repelled by our sins. If there’s any sin in our lives, there’s no point in approaching God ’cause he’ll just turn away from us and ignore our prayers. Or even leave, in offense and outrage, like a heavenly snowflake.

It’s because these Christians either don’t understand, or don’t truly believe, Jesus covers everything. They don’t recognize when God accepted us as his kids, he was entirely aware of every sin we were gonna commit in the future. Even sins we’re committing this very instant. (Cut that out, by the way.) But Jesus paid for everything. God doesn’t dole out grace on a sin-by-sin basis: You and he are good. You’re his kid. He’s happy to talk with you!

Now I can say this, and you might understand it and sorta believe it… but Christians still find this a really difficult hangup to get past. For three reasons.

  1. Partly it’s because other people don’t act this way at all, so it’s a wholly foreign mindset, and we’re not familiar with it.
  2. Mostly it’s because it’s our mindset. We’re so used to karma! We can’t fathom the idea of preemptive total forgiveness. We’d certainly never do it, so of course it’s hard to imagine God doing it.
  3. And, y’know, the devil. It’d prefer we never pray, and the longer it can keep us acting upon our unhealthy beliefs, the better.

11 October 2022

The weepy person in the prayer group.

Decades ago, in my previous church, I led the prayer group for a few months. At that time we got a new regular attendee, who’d come pray with us every Wednesday. And every time she prayed, sang, or otherwise interacted with God, she cried.

A lot.

We’re not talking misty eyes, or a few tears rolling down her face. Lots of Christians pray with our eyes closed, and you’ll naturally get tears when you squeeze ’em tight, but nope, this wasn’t that either. We’re talking full-on snotty blubbering. Like her child just died or something.

That first prayer meeting she attended, the women of our prayer meeting gathered round her, hugged her, prayed for God to comfort her, asked God to help whatever had her so sorrowful, asked whether there was anything they could do. Took ’em the rest of the prayer meeting—and then some. (I had to stick around afterward as they tried to minister to her, ’cause I had to lock the building. I didn’t get home till 10PM.)

The next week: Same deal. We came to pray, and so did she… and the next thing you know, she’s bawling and moaning, and the women tried to comfort her again, and we again went overtime doing so.

The third week: One woman went over to pray with and comfort her. The rest were telling me, “Oh, she has some serious emotional issues. She needs therapy, not prayer.”

Fourth week, all the women just let her go off in a corner of the chapel to wail.

Some of you are reading this, and think this sounds just awful of us. Hey, if I were a newbie Christian, I’d think the very same thing: She’s coming to us for help, and we’re pushing her aside?

Except we didn’t. The women who realized she needed therapy, tried to get her therapy. Found her a therapist who’d see her. Tried to line up an appointment. The weepy person was having none of that. So the women were done—like exhausted parents who give up on trying to get their infant to sleep in her own bed, and just leave the baby in the room to cry it out. Soothing her wasn’t working. So they quit.

A psychologist friend explained it best: You know how some people feel much better after having a good cry? That’s largely what this woman was doing.

Here’s what’s wrong with her behavior. What also made her feel much better, was having a crowd of Christians try to make her feel better. And they totally succeeded. But it’s not our job to make her feel better! It’s God’s. It’s just neither she nor we realized that. We thought she needed our comfort, and she was so pleased to get it, and wanted more. Even if it meant sucking the life out of all her comforters.

I’ve seen this phenomenon a number of times since. No, such people don’t necessarily need therapy and medication. But what they’re doing is wholly inappropriate. We’re supposed to take our lamentation to God, and the Holy Spirit is supposed to do the comforting. Instead they take their emotions to us, have us comfort them, and parasitically drain our ministers of their emotions. Humans aren’t equipped to do this! We either cry along, and get just as ruined, or we clamp up and step away in self-defense… and get accused of being cold, unsympathetic, and compassionless.

13 September 2022

Lamentation: Sad prayers.

When Christians believe we gotta evoke some form of prayer mood before we can talk with God, y’might notice Christians try to pick a mindset which reflects how they think they gotta approach him. Not boldness, like the writer of Hebrews suggests; He 4.16 more like awe at how amazing God is, or self-loathing at how amazing we’re not. Sometimes sadness because of just how much we suck; we’re rotten sinners, and how dare we approach the holy Almighty in our unclean state.

If we had to manufacture any mood before we could pray, it’s artificial; it’s hypocrisy. Don’t do that. Don’t make yourself sad just so you can approach God repentantly.

But if you’re legitimately sad, that’s fine! There’s nothing wrong with sad prayers. God’s totally cool with them. It’s called lamentation—and yeah, there’s a book Jeremiah wrote called Lamentations in your bible, which consists entirely of his sad prayers. You wanna learn how to pray sad prayers?—you got Jeremiah’s example right there in your bible.

You also have King David ben Jesse, who was an emotional guy, and didn’t hide it at all from the LORD when he got low. Didn’t hide it from anyone, which is why his lament psalms are included in the books of Psalms. He had no qualms about writing the Bronze Age equivalent of the blues.

Psalm 38.0-9 NET
0 A psalm of David, written to get God’s attention.
1 O LORD, do not continue to rebuke me in your anger.
Do not continue to punish me in your raging fury.
2 For your arrows pierce me,
and your hand presses me down.
3 My whole body is sick because of your judgment;
I am deprived of health because of my sin.
4 For my sins overwhelm me;
like a heavy load, they are too much for me to bear.
5 My wounds are infected and starting to smell,
because of my foolish sins.
6 I am dazed and completely humiliated;
all day long I walk around mourning.
7 For I am overcome with shame,
and my whole body is sick.
8 I am numb with pain and severely battered;
I groan loudly because of the anxiety I feel.
9 O Lord, you understand my heart’s desire;
my groaning is not hidden from you.

David goes on and on like this. Y’notice he even blames God for some of it. Yeah, various Christians will leap to the conclusion that because this is infallible scripture, God literally did do this stuff to David, and literally does stuff like this to sinners nowadays. But a more accurate interpretation is that David felt like God was behind some of his misery, and said so; not that God actually was or is. As Job reveals, sometimes he’s not. Since Jesus tells us not to worry, clearly David’s stress and anxiety is generated by David himself. Not God.

Notice as well: Even though David suspected the LORD was behind some of his suffering, he still turned to God for help and relief. Because he knew—and this part is entirely true—God is our comfort. 2Co 1.3 He comforts us so we can turn round and comfort others. 2Co 1.4 So because that’s who he is, that’s why we need to turn to him when we’re sad with our sad prayers. Lament to God. He’ll comfort the sorrowing.

06 September 2022

Prayer, and the law of attraction.

The “law of attraction” is a popular pagan belief. Basically it’s that when you put positivity out into the universe, it attracts positivity. Whereas if you put negativity out into the universe, it attracts negativity. You know—the exact opposite of how magnets work.

It’s karmic thinking. It’s exactly how people imagine a fair and just universe should work. I put out all these good vibes, so I deserve to get some goodness back, right? Whereas that barista earlier today was such a dick to me, safes and pianos and anvils and air conditioners oughta fall on him. My goodness should be rewarded; his evil should be punished.

And one of the interesting things about this “law”—the part we read about in Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and dozens of other self-help books jumping on this bandwagon—is that we can use it to get whatever we want. All you gotta do is be a positive person, then declare your intentions and plans to the universe. And the universe will grant you these wishes.

This idea is so common and popular, Christians have regularly attempted to Christianize it, and claim they can actually find it in bible. No they can’t. Not without pulling various verses out of context, and really stretching their meaning. But they don’t mind bending the bible to fit the idea, then naming and claiming all the stuff they covet, in the hopes the universe (although Christians usually say “God”) will give ’em what they desire. ’Cause didn’t he say he’ll give us whatever we desire?

Mark 11.23-24 KJV
23 For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. 24 Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.

Like Jesus said: Believe! Don’t doubt. What things soever ye desire. Verily!

Hence you’ll find a lot of Christians who insist the “law of attraction” is a perfectly legitimate practice. They claim God built it into the universe; it’s a “law” just like Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, or John Locke’s laws of nature, or Adam Smith’s laws of economics. That’s why they do it: They’re just tapping a perfectly legitimate power of the universe. Why should only pagans get to do so?

30 August 2022

The prayer mood.

As we know, prayer is talking with God. You have something to tell him? Start talking. You want him to talk to you? Ask him stuff. It’s not complicated; it is just that simple.

It’s just we overcomplicate things. We learned a bunch of prayer rituals, which we figure gotta happen every time we pray. Gotta get in the prayer closet. Gotta assume the right posture: Head to the ground, facing Jerusalem; or eyes closed and hands folded; or facing the sky, arms lifted high. Whatever your tradition dictates.

And just as we put our bodies in a posture, we put our mindset in a posture too. We figure the best way to get ready to receive God, the best way to submit to his will, is to assume a prayer mood, an emotional state which we imagine is best for prayer.

You might not even be aware you’re psyching yourself into that state. It’s just you always have. It’s what you’ve always seen other Christians do, and that’s how you picked it up. You feel you oughta be humble when you approach God, so you mentally lower, or even degrade yourself. You feel you oughta be open to stuff he wants to teach you, so you imagine your mind wide open, ready to accept anything. You feel if God’s gonna be present, it’s time to put on a display of loving him with all our mind, so you conjure up that feeling as best you can. And so on.

I was just reading something by E.M. Bounds, who’s full of bad advice when it comes to prayer… but unfortunately his books on prayer are really popular. He believed we should ask God for “a fervent spirit” when we pray, so we can be all intense and passionate and emotional and anxious. Wait, didn’t Jesus teach us not to be anxious?

Most of us know this prayer mood thingy isn’t mandatory. After all if we had to attain this mood before we could pray, the devil could easily keep us in any other mood but the prayerful one. So, thankfully, we never think of it as, “God’ll be displeased if I don’t feel this way when I pray.” But we wanna feel this way. It helps prayer feel good.

So, positive attitude. Clear mind. Loving, humble, focused thoughts. Emotions on the surface… yet more or less under control. Any stray thoughts, any unpleasant emotions—any pessimism, pride, or evil—has gotta be shoved aside. If we can’t do these things, it still totally counts as prayer; we just won’t consider it a good prayer. It’ll feel ineffective.

Yeah of course all this thinking is crap.

Prayer’s not about how we feel when we pray. As the psalms demonstrate, we can feel any which way. Sometimes the psalmists were psyched about talking to God… but sometimes they were distracted, agitated, irritated by all their enemies whom they wished God would curb-stomp. Sometimes their emotions were in check; sometimes they most definitely weren’t.

It’d be nice if prayer felt good. But it isn’t necessary that it has to. And since we can’t trust our emotions, who says it always has to?

23 August 2022

Nondirectional prayer.

I’ve written about unidirectional prayer—those prayers where people figure they’re talking to God, but he never responds, because he doesn’t do that sort of thing. Either he’s holding off till the End, and we have to learn to live with silence; or he only speaks through the bible, signs, and omens; or, as nontheists suspect, he’s been a figment of our imagination all along.

Regular readers of TXAB are fully aware I believe the whole God-doesn’t-speak-anymore idea is a steaming pile of crap. God responds, and if you’ve never heard him respond, you gotta learn to hear him. Stop doing all the talking, sit down, and listen. Concentrate on a passage of scripture for a few minutes, and see whether the Holy Spirit drops some thoughts into your head. Meditate. Make the time to do this frequently, and keep doing it till hearing him becomes natural.

But back to the people who believe God won’t talk back, won’t respond, isn’t interactive, and isn’t gonna make special exceptions during this dispensation. Who think prayer isn’t about speaking with God; it’s really about other things. Like learning how to pray for his will. Or learning to have empathy for the folks we pray for. Or continuing in religious exercises for their own sake. Or doing it to feel spiritual. Or whatever other excuses they use to keep up the practice, even though they’re not so sure God’s on the other end of the line.

They may be unaware of this, but really what they’re teaching people prayer is about, is learning to live without God.

Seriously. Because if prayer doesn’t work—if God is never gonna answer—then functionally he’s not here. Despite the scripture saying he’ll never leave nor forsake us, He 13.5 he has. He’s removed himself; he’s elsewhere; he’s not here. We live in a God-forsaken universe. May as well become Buddhist.

So technically these folks aren’t even practicing unidirectional prayer. If God’s not here anymore, they’re practicing nondirectional prayer: Their prayers go nowhere. Not up nor down; nowhere. They take the form of being addressed to God; they may even include “in Jesus’s name.” But they’re wasted breath. Dead religion.

09 August 2022

“Why pray?”—a common question of those who don’t listen to God.

When you’re dealing with children or newbies, at some point they’re gonna have this question. (If they never do… well I’ll get to that in a moment.)

CHILD. “Got a question.”
ADULT. “Fire away.”
CHILD. “God can read my mind, right?”
ADULT. “Yep.”
CHILD. “Like everything in my mind? Everything I want? Everything I think I want, and everything I really, deep down, won’t even admit to myself I really want?”
ADULT. “Wow, that’s really astute of you to recognize you have secret inner desires.”
CHILD. “I’m young, not stupid. So he knows all that?”
ADULT. “Yep.”
CHILD. “So why do I need to tell him that?”

There’s also the related question of, “Why should I ask God for things to happen when he’s already set the future?” In general, the question is, “Why pray at all?”

Christians have come up with a number of answers to these questions. I’ve heard ’em all my life. We actually think they’re good answers. But all of them utterly miss something: Why is this child or newbie asking this question?

Does a child ever ask, “What’s the point in asking Mom for things?” Rarely. They might, if Mom is mentally ill and her only responses to requests are toxic and terrifying. If they gotta defend themselves every time they make the mistake of reaching out to their mother, they’re quickly gonna learn this is a bad idea. But clearly that’s not what’s happening with God! He doesn’t respond to our prayers by smiting us.

So… how is he responding to their prayers, if they’re now coming to us with the question, “Why pray at all?”

To me, the only reasonable explanation is they don’t think he is responding. That’s why they have questions about the purpose of prayer: They can’t hear God.

02 August 2022

Let the church 𝘯𝘰𝘵 say amen.

Ever been in this situation? You’re at some Christian function, somebody’s leading the group in prayer, and whatever they’re praying is something you don’t agree with. Might be something you’re not all that sure about; might be something you really can’t abide.

No I don’t just mean they’re committing one of those annoying prayer practices, like praying too long, or preaching a big ol’ sermon disguised as a prayer, or saying “like” way too many times, or getting repetitive. You disagree with the content of the prayer. They’re praying for what they shouldn’t.

Sometimes it’s stuff which’ll rub our politics the wrong way. “Oh Lord, re-elect our mayor! She’s a good woman, and that other guy is an idiot.” Heck, it might even rub our politics the right way—that other guy is an idiot—but we know better than to turn our group prayers into political endorsements, because God’s church must promote God’s kingdom, not earthly kingdoms. So we gotta reject the political stuff, whether it’s candidates, party platforms, political pundits’ talking points, and anything which might unnecessarily alienate the opposition party. (If you’re not sure about the difference between an issue we really should pray about, or something intentionally divisive, talk with the Holy Spirit and other Christians about it beforehand.)

Sometimes it’s bad theology. Or ideas based on misinterpreted, out-of-context scriptures. “Lord, I know you’ll give us what we ask because your word won’t return void,” even though none of what they prayed was his word (and it doesn’t even mean that). Or assumptions about how some evil we’re praying against was part of God’s plan all along, or name-it-and-claim-it demands, or statements about God’s character which actually go against his character.

Or it’s bad fruit. Anger, hatred, separatism, envy, justification for evil behavior, self-righteousness. Sometimes they think an authentic God-experience needs to be an emotional one, so they’re unnecessarily whipping up people’s emotions into a lather. Sometimes they’re babbling like pagans. Stuff the prayer leader should clamp down on… except sometimes this is the prayer leader.

So at the end of this rant prayer, they’ll say “Amen.” Custom in most churches for everybody else to repeat the amen, ’cause their prayer is our prayer. Or we agree with what they prayed for. Amen, you might recall, means “true; we agree; let it be so; so say we all; let their prayer be ours.” We’re at least okay with them praying that.

But you’re not okay with it.

And y’know, that’s fine. If you object to the prayer, you don’t have to say amen. Say nothing.

26 July 2022

The prayer journal: Keeping track of our conversations with God.

PRAYER JOURNAL 'pr(eɪ.)ər 'dʒər.nəl noun. A regular record of our interactions with God.
[Prayer journaling - 'dʒər.nəl.ɪŋ verb tense.]

Gotta admit: There’s a lot of old emails and texts I’ve never deleted. I have text chains going back decades now. I delete stuff from businesses and employers; I especially delete ads. But I wanna keep the family and friends stuff.

A prayer journal is as close as we can get to the same thing with God.

It’s sort of a diary. But rather than listing all the main things we did each day (or listing all of them, plus our innermost secret feelings about them, which’ll be a lot of embarrassing fun someday when someone finds and reads it, especially in a courtroom) it’s about what we prayed. We’re keeping track. God’s memory of our interactions is absolutely perfect; ours, not always so much.

Yeah, I realize not everyone keeps a diary. Sometimes because someone found and read it, and we realized such a thing is a great big embarrassment time bomb. Other times because we lack the self-discipline. Mostly because we never saw the point. Well this is the point: You kinda should keep track.

See, your average Christian doesn’t journal their prayers. Don’t see the point. They ask God a question and get an answer, then move on. They ask for stuff, get it, and move on. Or they don’t get what they want, give up, and move on. Or they ask God on behalf of others, but they don’t bother to follow up because they don’t entirely care; or they got some news about whether the prayer worked, then promptly forgot it and again moved on.

Lots of moving on. But no record of anything God’s done for them. No record other than their own personal, and often faulty, memories. And whenever people go through any kind of crisis, sometimes those memories immediately become irrelevant: Our panicking minds don’t recall, or even care, how God’s constantly come through for us in the past.

God answers our prayers all the time. And not just with “no”! But when we never keep track, we can’t always tell you when, how, and how often. When we’re feeling low, we too often forget every good thing God has done for us. You know, like the Hebrews did in the wilderness, every single time they hit a rough patch: “Aw man, we’re gonna die. Y’know, despite all the whippings and work and how they used to murder our babies, I remember Egypt was way better. Why’d we ever leave?” Ex 16.3, 17.3, Nu 11.18, etc. God forbid, but this kind of thing still happens with humans. All the time.

That’s why the prophets and apostles put together a written record of what God did do for ’em. And you oughta have one too. Your prayer journal is what God’s done for you. Keep track!

Especially if you’re involved (or getting involved) with your church’s prayer ministry. Or if you regularly pray for others. Or if you’re not entirely sure prayer works: Keep a journal for three months and see for yourself.

There are dozens of different prayer journal techniques. Today I’ll just start you off with a really simple method, which works for me.

19 July 2022

When you gotta pray in public.

You might have an amazing, consistent prayer life. You might have regular deep, meaningful conversations with God.

Nah, who are we kidding? You might suck at it. All your prayers are short little “God, can I have [IMMEDIATE DESIRE]?” whenever your wallet can’t immediately answer your requests. And maybe you remember to say grace. And yeah, when someone else at church is praying, you agree with them. That’s about it.

Then, terror of terrors, it comes time to speak to God in front of other people. The small group leader tells you, “Hey, could you lead us in prayer?” and you quickly look behind yourself to confirm the leader was totally speaking to someone else… and when it turns out nope, it’s you, you outwardly say, “Yeah no problem,” and inwardly freak out a little.

Totally normal.

No, it doesn’t mean you suck as a Christian. (Being irreligious does.) You’re praying in front of others. That’s a form of public speaking—the number one fear of all Americans, in survey after survey. People are more afraid of public speaking than death. Than death. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that at a funeral, more people would rather be in the casket than give the eulogy.

So if you’re anxious about public speaking—you don’t know what to say, or you did but as soon as you stood up you blanked out, or you’re anxious about what people might think when you mess up, or you feel you might have an utter meltdown and collapse in tears and even your own pee: This is normal. Yeah, maybe we Christians in particular oughta have more courage than this, but it’s normal to not want to speak or pray to a crowd. You’re not a freak. Relax.

Okay, so how do we deal with this? Glad you asked.

12 July 2022

Prayers of self-examination.

Likely you already know the “Rich Young Ruler Story”: It’s not a parable, ’cause it actually happened. Somebody—Matthew calls him a young man, Mt 19.20 Luke calls him a ruler, Lk 18.18 and all the synoptic gospels call him wealthy—came to Jesus, wanting to know how to receive eternal life. He was astute enough to realize following all of the LORD’s commands wasn’t gonna cut it. It took more than the very best karma, and maybe the rabbi knew what it was.

He didn’t like Jesus’s answer.

Mark 10.17-23 KJV
17 And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? 18 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. 19 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother. 20 And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. 21 Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. 22 And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions. 23 And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!

The teenager did have a deficiency. A few of them: A shortage of generosity. Too much dependence on his earthly possessions. True, at the end of this story he went away, and we don’t know what happened to him thereafter. I hope he repented, but the gospels don’t say.

His sad story aside, he reveals a form of prayer which we Christians oughta make from time to time. It’s a prayer of self-examination: We wanna know if there’s anything more God wants us to do. Are we missing something? Have we left anything undone? Any sins of omission? Do we have a blindspot? Maybe a bunch of blindspots. God, what are they?

In my experience it’s often basic stuff which we densely never realized we should also be doing. The rich young ruler didn’t realize he should’ve been giving to the poor. Which is weird, ’cause he claimed he totally followed the Law… but I guess he forgot this passage is in there:

Deuteronomy 15.11 KJV
For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.

Greedy people have invented all sorts of justifications for not helping the needy. Christians may not necessarily be greedy (though yeah, some of us are) but some of us have heard these justifications all our lives… and learned to agree with them, and likewise do nothing to help the needy. We don’t even think about all the teachings of Jesus, all the commands in the scriptures, in which God expects us to help the needy. It’s become this massive blindspot for plenty of Christians: “Jesus himself said ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ so what’s the point in trying to solve the problem of poverty?” The rich young ruler is hardly the only person who never noticed his blindspot till Jesus pointed it out.

But deep down, he knew it was there. The Holy Spirit was poking him in the conscience. Same as he’s poking us in the conscience: “Hey, you’re overlooking something.” So let’s ask him: What’d we forget? What more must we do?

Unless, like the rich young ruler, we don’t really wanna know.

05 July 2022

When the heavens are brass?

Deuteronomy 28.23.

Depending on whether a Christian grew up with the King James Version or the New International Version, we’re sometimes gonna talk about how sometimes “the heavens are brass,” or “the heavens are bronze.” No we don’t mean the sky’s looking kinda gold or yellowish, like a nice sunset or a looming dust cloud. We’re talking about when we talk to God… and we feel like we’re getting back nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Deuteronomy 28.23 KJV
And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron.

But the actual context of this verse isn’t even about prayer. It’s part of a curse Moses spelled out for the Hebrews who were about to enter their promised land: If you dismiss what the LORD tells you, and do evil instead, he’s gonna withdraw his blessings and things are gonna suck. Hard.

Deuteronomy 28.20-24 NLT
20 “The LORD himself will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in everything you do, until at last you are completely destroyed for doing evil and abandoning me. 21 The LORD will afflict you with diseases until none of you are left in the land you are about to enter and occupy. 22 The LORD will strike you with wasting diseases, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, and with blight and mildew. These disasters will pursue you until you die. 23 The skies above will be as unyielding as bronze, and the earth beneath will be as hard as iron. 24 The LORD will change the rain that falls on your land into powder, and dust will pour down from the sky until you are destroyed.”

Sound familiar? Pandemics, climate change and freaky weather, massive drought? No? Well, this was a warning to Hebrews not Americans. But it wouldn’t hurt to shape up a little.

Anyway when Moses spoke of the “skies above will be as unyielding as bronze,” he meant a sky which produces no rain. In his day, the ancients believed the sky, or firmament, was a solid wall holding back the waters of heaven—but it was porous, so occasionally rain would get through. Well, a bronze shield isn’t porous… unless your opponents have iron arrowheads. But if you were hoping to dig wells in the ground, and get water thataway, guess what that’s gonna be like. Yep, iron.

So yeah, whenever you talk about not hearing back from God, do not make the mistake of saying, “Like when the bible says about heavens like brass.” The bible does refer to that, but it’s about literal drought, not a spiritual one.

Now if you wanna talk about unanswered prayer, the bible does actually have passages on the topic. Quote them. Not the “heavens are brass” part; this ain’t one of them. Capice?

28 June 2022

Those who no longer think prayer works.

There’s a blog I follow. A few years ago, its author wrote a post about how he no longer believes prayer works—at least not the way we imagine it does.

He no longer believes prayer involves asking God for stuff. Nor asking questions of him, and getting answers. Nor calling on him for help. Forget about God meeting our needs and granting our wishes. Forget about asking this mountain to move over there, and it will.

Prayer, he states, is only about empathy. We pray for others because we love and care about them. It brings us closer to them. It expresses our love for them. It expresses our love for God too. It’s kind.

But otherwise prayer doesn’t do jack. And y’know, he says he’s okay with that.

I’ll take his word for it that he’s okay with that. But man alive, I sure wouldn’t be.

Back in my early twenties, I told God he needed to either do something, or I was gonna quit being Christian. Because I was tired of following a God who, according to my bible, does stuff… yet going to a church where, according to them, he doesn’t do stuff. They were cessationist, and believed God no longer answers prayer. Not for miracles, anyway.

Now, fortunate coincidences: He’d do those, from time to time. If a friend of yours had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy and you prayed real hard and the tumor shrank, they felt it was wholly legitimate to give God the credit… for permitting the chemo to work, I suppose. Or say a different friend got into a road accident, and a dozen friends coincidentally happened to be on the scene, and helped rescue her, call an ambulance, call the auto insurance company, call a tow truck—why, such coincidences have to be a “God-incidence,” as Christians I know tend to call it. Such things don’t just happen.

But that’s as far as they’d permit God to act. Anything more than that—like actually getting cured of cancer only minutes before the chemotherapy—and they’d doubt the person even had cancer to begin with. Any incident where God told a person in advance, “Hey, be at this intersection; I need to you help somebody; you’ll see it when you get there,” and they’d claim, “Well that can’t be God, ’cause he doesn’t do such things. But Satan does.” According to their worldview, God’s powerless—and Satan’s not. Seriously.

I’m not claiming this blogger is this kind of cessationist. I’m pretty sure he’s not; I suspect if you asked him about Satan, he’d say the devil’s more of a malevolent human attitude than a literal being. But he has determined God doesn’t answer prayer, doesn’t cure the sick, doesn’t act. So, same as the cessationists I grew up with, he thinks prayer’s only about training us to pursue God’s will. Not teaching us to depend on him. We can’t. He’s sitting things out. He’s abandoned us to our fates. Bye kids; see you in heaven!

You can probably tell I disagree with him. A lot.

And no, not because I’d like to imagine God as caring and interactive. It’s because he answered my twentysomething prayer: He did something. Still does. He answers my prayers. Therefore I see no reason he can’t answer yours.