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Sunday, July 28, 2013

I Say a Little Prayer for You (C17O)

For everyone who asks, receives;

and the one who seeks, finds;

and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 

How was your Sunday this week? Hear any good homilies? 

A few years ago, on this Sunday, I heard a homilist say that, in the first reading, Abraham was a bad example of an intercessor because he gave up at 10 (good people) in his bargaining that God forego the destruction of the inhospitable and oppressive cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because there were indeed four. He explicitly said that if he had kept going “Sodom and Gomorrah would still be there today.” I don’t even know on which level to begin to rebut that. Maybe he was kidding, but he gave no indication of irony.

It seems like a really good question, on the other hand, to ask this: if everyone who asks, receives; if the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door is opened,” then how does one account for the fact that the fervent, good-hearted prayers of Christians are not answered? Forget about all the petty and selfish prayers there might be, and just concentrate on the parents praying for a child dying painfully of cancer; the head of household begging for a job to feed her family; the prayer of churches throughout the Mideast that the violence be ended; the prayer of the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church, Sunday after Sunday, for peace and justice in the world. If “everyone who asks, receives,” then what gives?

I sure as heck don’t know the answer, but it’s not as glib as “we don’t know what to ask for.” I’d be happy if Jesus had just said, “Sometimes God answers your prayers. Sometimes you ask for the wrong things. Sometimes your prayers go unanswered. Sometimes if you ask, you receive. Sometimes when you knock, the door will open.” But what the gospel says is, “Everyone who asks, receives.” Do you think maybe the action of God in those verbs of receiving, finding, and having the door opened all refer forward to the giving of the Holy Spirit? I’m perfectly willing not to be God, but that seems like a bait-and-switch advertiser - “believe in me, ask for whatever you want, and I’ll give you whatever I want.” I’d also be willing to listen to a homilist say, “You know what? I think Jesus was just wrong, and the Rolling Stones were right, ‘You can’t always get what you want,’ even if you want something good, right, and noble.” Is praying like roulette? Do you sometimes hit the jackpot with your prayer, but most of the time you crap out? That sounds flip, but it seems to be the empirical truth.

We say all kinds of junk in God’s name when prayer fails and people suffer. Horrible stuff that’s meant to help, like, “there’s another angel in heaven; God wanted her more than you did.” “God always hurts those he loves.” “(Insert horrible event here) was God’s will; we don’t know everything.” I’m pretty sure I don’t know everything, but I do know that I don’t want to believe in a God who wills horrible things to happen just to “test” us. I am willing to believe in the consequences of human acts of evil and selfishness building up until we’re sort of corporate victims of our own inertia, blindness, and laziness, and I believe that there are strategies of grace that can and will counteract those consequences if we have solidarity and courage.

But it really bothers me, the assertion that “everyone who asks receives,” unless we add the word “something” onto the end, and the something can be anything, including all the things you didn’t ask for, which renders the original statement at least meaningless.

The rest of yesterday’s gospel makes sense to me: I can believe, want to believe more strongly, in a God who loves me more than the loving fathers and mothers that I have known in my life, because I’ve known some really heroic ones. I can pray the Lord’s prayer with hope. I need to be forgiven, so I struggle to forgive, releasing those debts, real and imagined, that other people owe me. That part, it seems to me, is learning how to “love my neighbor as myself,” without all the prejudices and other judgments I make about the motivations of others, cutting everyone the same slack I cut myself (this is a massive amount of slack, which may explain the trouble I have cutting it.) But I’d like to know why Jesus said what he said, and made such an offer that is so clearly not part of our observable reality. I’m not saying we should stop praying, for all the obvious reasons. Praying changes us, if only by slowing us down a little in our need for acquisition or gratification of need. Did Jesus ever experience a prayer not being answered? He said (in John) as he was about to raise a dead man to life, “Thank you, Father, for hearing me, I know that you always hear me.” Did he just know when to ask, and when not to ask? That seems cruel, too, and forces on us a God whose will is that some be cured and some suffer and die. If the reign of God is for this world, then why isn’t it the same for all? If it’s not for this world, then why do we bother? Let the bad guys win, let’s all go to heaven and let God sort it out. That seems like a major cop-out to me, too.

If you have a clue, let me know. Share the wisdom. I’ll say a little prayer that the liturgy afford us some insight, in case it might save the next Sodom and Gomorrah.