After a couple of weeks away from St. Louis, I am realizing that this is a much less structured summer than I have had in a long time. I have been spending a few days at a time here and there: Mississippi, Alabama, New Orleans, Baton Rouge. I’m off to Arizona in a couple of days, and I’ll be there for about 3 weeks, but even there I don’t have a lot of stuff planned, and once I get back, there is nothing on the agenda for almost three weeks. I like that a lot, it’s just unfamiliar to me. There are about 2 dozen books that I had assigned myself to read this summer, and I have gotten through about 6 of them so far, so that will be a big part of my task in the next couple of months. I just finished Kite Runner this afternoon, after having it on my shelf for months, and when I finished it I went right to Walter Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms. I mention that because it was an interesting connection to read Brueggemann’s comments on psalms of lament and see the line, “grievance addressed to an authorized partner does free us…we do not move beyond the repressed memory unless we speak it out loud to one with authority who hears.” (58) Given the tenor of Kite Runner, a fitting juxtaposition.
Elsewhere Brueggemann is talking about the Biblical presupposition that praying prompts God to do things that God would not do without the prayer. In one of his conferences online, he discusses how the faculty of a theological school, upon hearing him address them on this issue, got all worked up, with the Biblical folks on his side and the systematics folks unable to handle the idea that God was prompted by the act of praying to do other than God would have done had the prayer not happened. I’m interested in that, because most Christians seem to believe that God doesn’t change, but they act as if God does change (e.g. via intercessory prayer). I am well aware that the Biblical God-image is quite malleable, so prayer in the Biblical tradition can naturally operate this way, but most Christians I know seem to have a much more Platonic than Biblical God-image, so they don’t see God as mutable like Judaism would. Of course, in many of the lament psalms, the implication of why the person is suffering is “because of Yahweh’s irresponsible absence, which is regarded as not only unfortunate, but unfaithful to covenant.” (59) Jon Levenson’s book Creation and the Persistence of Evil pursues that idea, that life is good when God is attentive, but when God turns God’s attention away from us, chaos rushes in, so the task of the sufferer is to call God back to attentiveness. Again, something that I suspect most Christians would not necessarily know what to do with.
So, I ask, not rhetorically, how do you understand what you are doing when you pray? I don’t mean that in a dismissive way, but to pursue how people understand their own actions, since presumably people could do the same act (prayer) within very different theological frameworks. Do you expect that what you pray for will actually happen? We know how often we pray for people who are sick, for example, yet how often they still die, so are people numbed against the expectation that their prayers could actually be efficacious? Yet we keep on praying…Is prayer simply the acknowledgement that we have done all we can, an acknowledgement of our creatureliness, an act of humility against the self-importance of our managing minds? Is it some sort of psychological trick we play on ourselves? Mere social convention, done without thought or theological expectation? For the three or four people who actually ever read this pitiful attempt at a blog, please let me know what prayer, particularly prayer that seems oriented to "asking for stuff," means to you.