A Prayer Worth Praying

“Prayer is often thought of as begging God for gifts or confessing to God that which we ourselves have already decided upon to be sin. These concepts of prayer, however valid they may be, tend to seal off its function as a means of insight or inner revelation.  … However, when we evaluate clearly the movements of the spirit in the prayers of the Bible, we see that the persons who prayed them expressed their truest and frankest feelings to God in prayer. … With the modern loss of this kind of frankness in prayer illustrated in the Bible, people have tended to look upon their prayers as a means of communication between God and their ideal selves, and not their real selves.   … Particularly meaningful to parishioners is the privilege of honest expression in prayer when they are involved in acute frustration, incessant pain, and approaching death.”

                            -Wayne Oates, “The Bible in Pastoral Care” (1953), pp. 113-117

The Bible is full of pastoral or practical theology. The Bible is is not a work of systematic theology, biblical theology, philosophical theology, or historical theology. But many parts of it involve Practical Theology… including whole books of the Bible (Ecclesiastes, and Habakkuk).

The Psalmist is taking God’s revelation, history, and personal experience and reflecting on them and integrating them to gain personal theological insight. While we may call this a Psalm or a Song, it is more like a corporate prayer.

Psalm 44

Reflection on History

1 We have heard it with our ears, O God;
our ancestors have told us
what you did in their days,
in days long ago.
2 With your hand you drove out the nations
and planted our ancestors;
you crushed the peoples
and made our ancestors flourish.
3 It was not by their sword that they won the land,
nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
and the light of your face, for you loved them.

This is very God centered. By God’s hand, they drove out nations, crushed people… made the Israelites to flourish. This is because of God’s love.

PERSONAL RESPONSE

4 You are my King and my God,
who decrees victories for Jacob.
5 Through you we push back our enemies;
through your name we trample our foes.

6 I put no trust in my bow,
my sword does not bring me victory;
7 but you give us victory over our enemies,
you put our adversaries to shame.
8 In God we make our boast all day long,
and we will praise your name forever.

As a response, the Israelites claim God’s past care, and they push back enemies, trample foes. And like the past, they recognize it is God’s work, not their own. Because of this, they boast in the Lord and praise His name forever.

NEW PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

9 But now you have rejected and humbled us;
you no longer go out with our armies.
10 You made us retreat before the enemy,
and our adversaries have plundered us.
11 You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
and have scattered us among the nations.
12 You sold your people for a pittance,
gaining nothing from their sale.

13 You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations;
the peoples shake their heads at us.
15 I live in disgrace all day long,
and my face is covered with shame
16 at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.

Something has changed. Before, it was victory after victory. Success after success. In verse 8, the people praise God and boast in the Lord. It is easy to do so, when things are going well. But it is not so easy when comes defeat after defeat. Failure after failure.

PERSONAL REFLECTION

17 All this came upon us,
though we had not forgotten you;
we had not been false to your covenant.
18 Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.
19 But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
you covered us over with deep darkness.

20 If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21 would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?
22 Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.

This is a part that the Psalmist struggles with. The Psalmist says… the defeat after defeat is NOT due to sin, idolatry, or rejection of God. Israel has been faithful… but God has turned His back on us. Theological reflection is so important when things are going bad… often more so than when things are going well. Because when things are going well… going as expected we think it is because we do the right things and we think the right things. But when things start going wrong… it is a time for reflection and prayer… a time to learn and to grow.

The Psalmist, after reflecting, comes to action. The action is to call out to God.

RESPONSE

23  Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
24 Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?

25 We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
26 Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love.

You may notice something here… the mystery remains unsolved. God appears to have rejected us. We have done nothing wrong. Why? No answer answer is give… Now you and I might easily come up with an answer.

  • We could be like Job’s friends and pull some Prosperity Theology. We could say… “Oh sure, you THINK that you have not sinned… but obviously you have. That is why God has turned His back on you.”
  • Or one could pull some from an Existential Theology. Life and growth comes from enduring suffering. “God is teaching humility. Victory and success can lead to pride. You need humility.” Of course it is easy to tell someone else that they need humility. It is not so easy to be the one who is humbled.
  • Or one could draw from a more Missional Theology. “According to the Abrahamic Covenant, You called to be a blessing to all nations… not a conquerer of all nations.”

The Psalmist does not give an answer… He cries out to God for help. He believes that God will ultimately vindicate and rescue… because God is a God of unfailing love.

But as far as reasons go, He leaves the reader or the singer to ponder the question. That is not such a bad idea. When Typhoon Yolanda came along, there were so-called prophets around the world who were stating that it was God’s punishment for sins… for not being an effective witness to the world… or for government corruption… or for homosexuality… or whatever. But these so-called prophets don’t know anything more than we do. I believe they just like to talk more.

The Psalmist, I believe, took the sound theological response. He left the WHY for each to ponder… but then responded as in a real way.  The song/prayer was an honest cry out to God from a position of frustration, desperation, and pain— emotional honest built on a foundation of faith and hope.

Quoting Morgan Freeman (portraying God) in Bruce Almighty– “Now THAT’S a prayer!”

Institutional Conversion

Wayne Oates in Psychology of Religion follows a somewhat similar line of thinking as William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience in the context of “Conversion” as a religious concept. Oates notes that conversion can be used in several ways (both inside the Christian realm, and outside).

He notes that there are many different models for what entails conversion. Some see it as an integration of self. Others see it as a transcendental experience. Still others see it as a change of direction. There are more, but that is enough for here. Ultimately, the key point is that it is a 2nd order change. This is using the terminology of Watzlawick. A first order change involves a change of direction within a system. One is using the same worldview, beliefs, and life tools, when doing the change. A second order change involves a change of direction tied to a change of the system. There is a paradigm shift involved… changing worldview, beliefs, attitudes, allegiances, and life tools.

Consider a trivial example. Suppose you were driving in your car from your home to the beach (assuming you live close enough to a beach to drive to it). Then suppose that the normal routes to the beach were destroyed by a landslide, or an earthquake, or volcanic eruption (living in the Philippines, these are reasonable possibilities). A first order change would be to look into alternative roads that one could take to get to the beach. There is change but the goal and method are ultimately unchanged. A second order change may involve a change of destination… like visiting a hot spring instead. Of course, sometimes it is unclear whether changes are first order or second order. If one decides still to go to the beach, but to float there in a hot air balloon, is that a first order change (because the destination is unchanged) or a second order change (because there was a radical change in process)?

Seeing religious conversion as a 2nd order change leads to two categories: genuine Faith Conversion versus Institutional Conversion.

Institutional Conversion is an act that is identified as involving conversion within a religious community. As such, it is a rite of some sort… whether it be highly formalized or not.

Different groups, and I am using Christian groups here, may have a different rites that they identify as conversion. Some may include:

  • Baptism
  • Saying the “Sinner’s Prayer”
  • Public confession of faith
  • “Walking the aisle”
  • Church membership
  • An ecstatic experience, such as “speaking in tongues”

There are problems with linking Institutional Conversion with Faith Conversion.

  1. There is commonly a poor apparent correlation between Faith and Institutional Conversions. A sizable percentage of people that go through one of the above rites never show demonstration of a change of heart, life, action.
  2. It leads to doubts of genuine conversion built off of  denominational differences. One group doubts another is saved because he did not do baptism, or did not do it “right,” or did not formally say the sinner’s prayer, or didn’t have an ecstatic experience.
  3. Putting points 1 and 2 together, there is a tendency to be judgmental, based on poor standards. As such people are identified as having a faith conversion who did not, and other people are identified as not having such a conversion, who actually had.
  4. Ultimately, an over-reliance on Institutional Conversion to identify Faith Conversion leads to, at least on a practical level, a “Works-based” conversion or salvation.

In the Bible, conversion is tied to terms like believe, confess, turning away, and following. For some people, this is a problem because it suggests a works-based salvation/conversion. However, identifying faith conversion as a 2nd order change, the issue clears up, I believe. Faith conversion is a genuine change of life that starts from the inside. Institutional conversion (that does not involve Faith Conversion) is an outward “work” without an inner 2nd order change. We convert (are saved) genuinely from the inside out, not the outside in, or outside alone. But one should, be concerned, when a person says they have had a faith conversion, but there is no clear 2nd order change in their life. Of course, ultimately, God is the only truly reliable judge in this.

This is not to say that institutional conversion is bad. It has a function… within the institution. But one should be cautious about confusing it with a genuine faith conversion.

<Perhaps I should have given warning before, but I am describing conversion in terms that does not identify God as the initiator, guide, and empower-er of real faith conversion. I am not seeking to take God out of it, but to look at it from the human perspective. For a more God/Christ-focused view, that is a different post.>

The Bible as a “Sacred” Text and as Symbol. Part 2

I spent the first post noting that the Christian understanding of the sacredness of the Bible is quite different from some other faiths’ understanding of sacredness. For example, sacredness of the Quran within the Muslim community sees it often terms of physical sacredness. Within Christianity, sacredness is functional. That is, it is the message of God that is sacred not the physical medium upon which the message is imprinted.

English: Christian Bible, rosary, and crucifix.
English: Christian Bible, rosary, and crucifix. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are of course Christians that hold to a sort of a “Quranic” understanding of sacredness with regards to the Bible. For them, the Bible is something to be placed on the family altar, or carefully placed high in a bookshelf. Writing for them in the Bible would be a form of desecration except for a name in the front and perhaps genealogical information. But that is not a hugely common view especially among Protestants. For Christians, desecration occurs when the message of the Bible is ignored, misinterpreted, and misused. Frankly, that is far too common.

HOWEVER, a concern does exist when it comes to the Bible as a symbol. Consider the following roles of the Bible as a symbol.

1.  Christianity. In the Muslim understanding, Christians (along with Jews) are often interpreted as “People of the Book.” So the Bible is symbolically seen as connecting one with being a Christian. In Protestant (especially Evangelical and Fundamental) circles, the Bible is given such a high place (sola scriptora) that one’s identity as a Christian is seen in terms of one’s position with regard to the Bible rather than to the Church.  A cross may be used as a symbol for Christianity. A fish (ichthus) may also symbolize Christianity. However, an image of a Bible is also nearly universally recognized as a symbol of Christianity. It is assumed by most that if one is a Christian, one has at least one copy of the Holy Bible. Many churches strongly recommend that their members bring Bibles with them to the church service, even if Bibles already exist in the pews.

What are the implications of this? Since the symbol of the Bible as representing Christianity is recognized beyond Christian circles, how one treats the symbol can be seen as indicative of how one values what it represents. Therefore, although I reject a physical sacredness of the Bible (as understood by some other religions), from a symbolic standpoint, it is important to demonstrate a certain protective care of the Bible (physically) since it suggests to many (because of the symbolic role of the Bible) the value one places in one’s Christian faith.

2.  Authority. As Wayne Oates noted in “The Bible in Pastoral Care” a common symbol of the Bible is one of authority. This understanding is not limited to message. The word of God may be “a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” But the symbol extends to the physical as well. Many preachers are strongly encouraged to have a Bible with them in the pulpit. Is it necessary from a functional standpoint? No. If the preacher is doing a manuscript sermon, the Biblical text is PROBABLY already on paper. Or else the passage is on the screen. But reading from the Bible directly, or holding a Bible in one’s hand when speaking symbolically suggests that the person is speaking on behalf of God… that is, with authority. In pastoral care situations, carrying a Bible with one, implies that one is acting on behalf of God as a caregiver. Reading from the Bible is often seen as more authoritative by the listener than quoting from memory.

Implications here are a little different. The Bible, as a symbol of authority, should be somewhat worn rather than pristine. Carrying a beautiful unused Bible reduces the symbolic authority, since it suggests that the pastor/preacher does not receive his authority from God’s Word. If God’s word is at hand but not showing evidence of use, then the authority of the religious leader is questioned.

3.  Power. We know that the Bible is considered powerful in its message “sharper than any double-edged sword” and whose message “will not return void.” However, this is the symbol that to me is most open to abuse. The Bible can be used as a symbol of power to such an extent that it can become a talisman. Again, Wayne Oates notes concerns of misuse as a talisman where one is instructed to read a certain number of passages or put the Bible under one’s pillow at night to limit temptation. Or place on one’s body for “physical healing.” Also, there is the concern that the symbol of the Bible as power, is also used as a a form of ecclesiological control. Medieval Catholicism (especially in Spain) placed the Bible in a position where it could only be read, understood, and used by religious leaders. The symbolic power of the Bible became a form of control… much like limiting the understanding of navigation to a ship’s captain was used in centuries past to maintain control… preventing mutiny.

To me, as I suggested above, the symbolic understanding of the Bible in terms of power is the most problematic. Power ultimately comes from God and is described to us in the message of the Word. The symbol of the Bible can become an amulet or talisman, supposedly warding off evil, used as a lucky charm, or as a method to achieve personal ends. The symbol can also be shifted from power to selfish control. I would recommend the shift of the Bible as a symbol of power to a symbol of hope.

There are more ways the Bible can and does function symbolically. Symbolic roles simply can’t be ignored regardless of whether one agrees with that role. In a missions setting, one cannot ignore the complex web of symbolic understandings that are placed on the Bible. It is useful to correct misunderstandings… but one does not correct by ignoring.