When my oldest son was about three, we went to Staples to buy a few things, and when we got into the store, I grabbed a basket because we were only there for one or two items. Well, he wanted a cart because he wanted to sit in the big part, and I told him no. His response was to drop to the ground and start crying. So here I am in the front of Staples, customers and employees are watching us, likely wondering what I did to my kid to make him scream and probably hoping that I would make it stop as soon as possible. I had a choice to make, do I give in and grab a cart, or do I stick to my guns. Well, in a calm voice and in a normal tone I said, “when you are done, I will be over there” and I walked away. I noticed a smirk on one of the employees faces as I began to walk away and within two seconds my son stopped screaming, got up, and followed me down the aisle.
Sometimes, possibly most of the time, we put a great deal of energy into the things that we think are the most important, but truly it is only about our ego. Religious Scholar Huston Smith once wrote that “when the consequences of belief are worldly goods, such as health, fixing on these turns religion into a service station for self-gratification and churches into health clubs. This is the opposite of religion’s role, which is to decenter the ego, not pander to its desires.” What Smith is saying is that the purpose of religion, the purpose of having a relationship with God, is to center our attention on the kingdom, on God’s plans and not on the things that we desire.
The purpose of prayer, as hinted at by Jesus’ parable, is to assist us in the reorientation process. The woman in the parable consistently asks for justice and she eventually receives it, but let’s be careful here, the message is not that we will get what we want if we ask for it on a regular basis, it is not that if we annoy God enough he will give in. The message is that justice, God’s justice, the kingdom of God will come about when we decentralize our ego and replace it with a God driven life. When we openly, regularly, and sincerely pray we are entering a conversation with God and with ourselves that can help us decenter our ego and reorient our focus onto more important things. The purpose of the parable is to teach us the importance of praying with regularity with the expectation that justice will come, in time, not to teach us that we will get what we want through prayer.
There is a very important concept, that relates to prayer, in the passage from Jeremiah for today. Jeremiah, speaking for God, says “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Jeremiah is speaking of the new covenant between God and the people which is based on an internal relationship as opposed to an external set of laws, meaning it is a covenant that we live into, instead of a set of rules that we need to live up to. In order to live into the covenant, we need to place God at the center of our lives instead of placing ourselves there. We do that by reading scripture to help us understand what a God centered life looks like, praying to God for guidance when we are not sure what to do; for strength when we are overwhelmed; for forgiveness when we focus on our own ego; and for comfort when we feel alone.
So far I have talked about how we tend to pay a great deal of attention to ourselves, the importance of making prayer a central part of our lives, and the idea that God has made a covenant with us by placing the law in our hearts, but what I haven’t talked about is what this all means.
As I indicated with my opening story, we tend to focus on the things that we want beginning at a very young age. Our entire culture is centered around the idea of individual desire, which means that our children learn from a very early age that the world revolves around them. There was a time when the church taught that the earth was at the center of the universe because humans are the most important part of creation, but that idea has not only been disproven by science, it has been rejected by theologians. In addition to stressing the importance of individual control, our culture has morphed into a society that expects things to happen immediately. Immediacy and control have nothing to do with the kingdom of God, they are human creations and distractions. The new covenant, written within our hearts, is simple; but in order to understand it and live into it we need to cultivate it and we do that by studying scripture and praying. Prayer is a conversation with God, it is not a laundry list of wants and desires. When we pray for God to intervene in the world we are, as Huston Smith said, turning the church into a service station, we are passing off all responsibility for the current state of the world to others, other people or even God; we are assuming that we have played no role in either creating or sustaining the injustices that are preventing our realization of the kingdom of God. When we pray or as I like to say Talk to God, we need to put aside our ego and instead offer thanksgivings for the blessings that exist in the world, so that we can learn to recognize those blessings as they arrive and not only after they have passed; we should ask God for forgiveness for assuming that they are going to fix the messes that we have made; we should offer the things we know to be injustices, but not with the idea that God will snap their fingers and fix it, but as a part of our understanding that in naming those injustices we are beginning to walk down the path of ending them; and once we have done that we must take the time to listen for a response, knowing that we may not like the answer. It is through our conversations with God that the Holy Spirit is able to awaken the law that has been placed in our hearts which are the seeds that can grow into a desire to love God and to love of each other as much as we love ourselves.
I will end by giving one example. Eighty percent of the world’s population survives on $2 per day, which they use to pay for food, housing, schooling and other necessities of life. Clearly this is an injustice, but is it an injustice because there are not enough resources to go around or is it an injustice because too many people are not willing to share the resources they have? Let’s assume we want to be like the woman in the parable and we want this injustice to be corrected, how should we pray about it? Should we say, Dear God, your people are suffering, please be merciful and help them? Or should we maybe say Dear God, we thank you and praise you for creating the earth to sustain life, so that we would never need to feel hunger, yet so many of your people are forced to go without the food you have provided, help us to understand why this injustice exists and lend us your strength, through the Holy Spirit, to proclaim our love for you and for one another as we work to ensure that all of your people are cared for, as you intended? The answer is hopefully obvious, but the reality of the injustices that exist in the world are not. Prayer is only one aspect of a Christian life, but it is a vital one. If we truly want to restore God’s kingdom, which simply put means a world without injustice, then we have to change our behaviors; we have to let go of our self-centered desires; we have to stop believing that just because we ask, God is going to make it all better, and instead accept that the world is filled with injustice because we continually reject God’s call to love both God and others as much as we love ourselves. Praying and doing so often, is the first step towards repairing the damage we have done to creation because it is through prayer that we can gain the assistance of the Holy Spirit in setting aside our ego. So, pray, pray for forgiveness, pray for assistance, pray that the Holy Spirit will help you understand God’s call for you.