Pray hard

Every memorial service I do includes these words from a prayer from the United Methodist Book of Worship.

Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Every time I say those words, I wonder: Are the people who hear those words living as those who are prepared to die? Am I?

What does it mean to live as one who is prepared to die? In the Broadway musical Zorba, Zorba the Greek recounts the time he encountered a very old man planting an almond tree, and the man explained, “I live every minute as if I would never die.” In wonder, Zorba exclaims, “I live as if I would die any minute!”

I’m not sure I know how to live that way, but I am sure that Jesus did, and part of learning to follow Jesus may be learning to live that way. It’s not a matter of living for the moment but of living in the moment – being fully present, fully committed to acting faithfully and bravely in the situation and being as loving as possible to all the people around you.

None of our anxiety can add a single moment to our lives, Jesus says. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:27, 34).

I have been musing about living in the moment and related things for the last week or so, ever since I heard that Junius Dotson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Junius is head of Discipleship Ministries for the United Methodist Church. He is one of the people who crafted the plan for a peaceable separation of the church over sexuality issues. He is one of the leaders our church sorely needs to guide us to a better future.

As well as esteemed colleague, I consider him a friend. Not that we know each other well. He was going to write a jacket blurb for my Christmas book, until the publishing deadline got moved, and the last time I saw him, he signed my copy of his book, Soul Reset.

A year living under the cloud of pandemic has not led me to think about dying any more than I did before. But his diagnosis surely has. Pancreatic cancer is especially deadly because it’s sneaky as well as nasty. By the time it’s diagnosed, it’s usually too late to do much about it.

I hate this disease. A beloved aunt and two friends of mine have died from it. Chuck Davis’ friend Marc Jacobs has it; he’s been on and off our prayer list for months. You also may know someone who had it, or someone with a loved one who had it. I encourage you to include them in your prayers every day. While I’m at it, I encourage you keep your Weekly Update handy so you can pray for each of those persons on our prayer list by name at least once every day.

What good does prayer do? Understand that we are not trying to change God’s mind. God did not say, “Today I’m going to give so-and-so cancer,” so that it becomes our job to change God’s mind about that. God does not run around “giving” people cancer, OK?

I know that some people believe that God micromanages our lives, so that everything that happens is God’s will. Let me state this clearly. That is an obscene and blasphemous view of God. I really like Twila Paris’ song “God Is in Control.” But you cannot take it literally in many circumstances.

God is in charge, certainly, but God is not in control. You are not a robot or a marionette, and God is not a puppeteer twitching your strings to control your movements. Many forces – good and bad – influence you, but no force – the power of God included – determines your every move. If God’s will actually were done on earth as it is in heaven, why would we pray for that to happen whenever we recite Jesus’ model prayer?

We pray for the welfare of others because God tells us to do that. Sometimes when we pray, we are roused to action that makes the prayer come true – and that may be one of the highest forms of prayer there is. But when someone’s health is concerned, or we are separated by distance, prayer may be the most we can do because we are not in control any more than God is. Still, God has assured us that our prayers mean something. They’re not a waste of breath. In ways we can’t understand, our prayers help God act.

It’s not that we have to encourage God to act. Rather, as John Wesley once said, “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.” I am not sure of the full implications of that statement. But at least one of the implications is that we ought to be continually praying, “pray without ceasing,” as the Apostle Paul says. (1 Thessalonians 5:17, Romans 12:12)

We are never encouraged to pray for halfway measures. A teen-ager in one of my churches once suffered a serious eye injury. His mother asked me if I thought she should pray for a full recovery. “Go for it,” I said. He eventually lost sight in that eye, but his mother and others who prayed with her knew that they did all they could for him at the time.

In the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, we find a story that begins this way:

“As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

And Jesus heals the man. (John 9:1-3)

The first time I preached from this text, there sat in the very front row of the church, not 10 feet from where I stood, a married couple and their son who was born blind. They were faithful Christians, and they had probably heard the story before, but they had no fear that I would use the text against them. They knew they were in a church where the gospel of Jesus Christ was respected, not used as a launching pad for culture-pleasing nonsense.

Not even the words of Jesus have been able to eradicate many thousands of years of superstition that masquerades as religion. In Jesus’ day, as in our own, people tend to assume that if something bad happens, God is behind it somehow; God must be punishing someone for something. This is terrible, destructive thinking.

Some behaviors do have terrible consequences, but in general bad things don’t happen to you because you’re a worse sinner than your neighbor. Jesus says this most clearly in the opening story of Luke 13. There’s a political context here. Jews have been killed in conflicts with Roman soldiers. They were no worse sinners than any of you, Jesus says, but if you do what they did, you could die just as they did. Forty years later, hundreds of thousands of Jews would die in a disastrous revolt against Rome.

As I said earlier, you might as well go whole hog in your prayer requests. When in doubt, go for the miracle! We know almost nothing about how God processes such requests, or acts on them.

There are some obvious limits imposed by logic and propriety. Here’s a classic, listed by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his notable book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. If you’re out driving and you see a fire truck roaring into your neighborhood, you should not pray, “Please God, don’t let it be my house.” Think about what you’re asking. The fire is already burning. God can’t change whose house it is. Do you really wish this calamity on a neighbor?

A more appropriate prayer might be, “God, support the firefighters and the homeowners, whoever they are.”

Kushner concludes that there are situations where God’s hands are tied by circumstances. God can’t change some things no matter how much God might want to change them. That doesn’t mean you don’t wish that God could, or would.

About two and a half years ago, our granddaughter Rosie suffered an unavoidable brain trauma during birth. Doctors could not determine the extent of the damage for several days. For a week, we stroked her little arms and smoothed her hair and prayed for a miracle. On the seventh day of her life, she died.

I do not believe that our prayers were in vain. I do not believe that God in some way engineered the tragedy, or that God wanted Rosie to die, or refused to hear our prayers because we were worse sinners than others, or because we lacked enough faith. All of those explanations are superstitious claptrap, and any religious leader who mouths them is not speaking for God but for another spiritual force altogether.

I do not know why God could not or did not heal Rosie, or why God could not or did not heal many others I have prayed for over the years, or why so many people today are dying from COVID-19. January was the deadliest month yet in America, more than 95,000 deaths. The last time I checked, the total was more than 460,000, and it has probably jumped since then.

This, too, is not God’s doing, no matter what the obnoxious flakes on TV and radio say. It’s not God’s punishment for this or for that, whatever the political persuasion of the false prophet who claims to know God’s mind – and isn’t it surprising that God’s mind so exactly mirrors the false prophet’s mind?

The coronavirus is not God’s punishment for sin. God simply does not work that way. Still, we may be reaping the consequences of our sinful lack of preparation for such events, which scientists have been warning about for decades. God is not mocked, Paul says. You reap what you sow. (Galatians 6:7). As a society, we can act stupidly only so long before it catches up to us.

Our task today is to live wisely and to live fully and to pray. Pray for the health and welfare of others, as well as your own health and welfare. Pray for the leaders of this and other countries as well, because we’re all making this up as we go along. As has been wisely said, we make the road by walking it.

So, as the song says, walk on. Walk on, and pray every step of the way. Pray boldly. Don’t hold back. Pray hard. Give it your all. Above all, trust God. Not that you will necessarily get what you want, but trust that God hears you and that God stands with you, whatever the result.

While you’re praying, include this thought:

God, help me to live as one who is prepared to die. And when my days here are accomplished, enable me to die as one who goes forth to live, so that living or dying, my life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate me from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-9)

Amen.

This message was delivered February 7, 2021, for Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Romans 8:38-39 and other scriptures.

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