Take a Breath

Psalm 42:1-8
August 21, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

There is a story told of a small town that had traditionally been a dry town until one year a local businessman decided to build a tavern.  As you can imagine, this caused quite a bit of controversy but eventually, the businessman garnered enough support that he was able to get zoning clearance and he began building the new bar.  In protest, one of the local churches held an all-night prayer vigil and dozens of church members called upon God in prayer to intervene.  A few nights later during a torrential storm, a bolt of lightening hit the tavern and the new building burned to the ground.  The owner of the tavern sued the church.  The calamity he said, was a direct result of the prayer vigil and the church should reimburse him for his losses.  The church hired a lawyer to counter-argue that they were not responsible and should not have to pay to rebuild the tavern.  The presiding judge, after his initial review of the case, stated, “No matter how this case comes out, one thing is clear. The tavern owner believes in prayer and the Christians do not.”1

What does it mean to believe in prayer?  When the members of that church prayed for God’s intervention, what were they hoping might happen?

What do you hope will happen when you pray?

In the next two weeks, I will be preaching on the Lord’s Prayer but before I do, I’d like us to think first about what prayer is: why do we pray and what is it that we expect out of prayer?

Let me go back to that tavern and the protesting church for a moment.  Let me ask:  If you had been a member of that church, adamantly opposed to the opening of a tavern in your community — imagine that you feel it is a moral danger to your town and if you have problems imagining yourself morally opposed to a bar, think of something else that you might consider a serious danger to the fabric of your community —  would you pray to God asking God to prevent the establishment of the proposed business in your town?  Would that be an appropriate subject for your prayers?  And if you decide it is, what kind of response would you be looking for to that sort of prayer?  Would you looking for lightening bolts? If not a lightening bolt, what about something more subtle such as a failed health inspection that keeps the business from opening?  Would you see an event like that as within the scope of God’s power and methodology?  Or in praying for God’s intervention, would you really be looking for God not to intervene in the physical laws of the universe — not to send rats into the bar’s kitchen or lightening bolts from heaven —  but rather to affect the psychological workings of humankind?

“God, intervene in this situation and change the businessman’s heart,” you might be thinking.  Is this the kind of thing you look for from prayer?

Maybe you have no specific expectations: you simply place the situation in God’s hands and pray that God resolves the conflict.  What if God resolved the conflict by changing the hearts of all of the church members including yours so that instead of being against the tavern, you are moved to support it?  Would that be something that you might expect and accept as a legitimate response to your prayer?

Why do we pray?  What do we hope will happen as a result of prayer?  As we consider that question, what becomes obvious is that the answer depends on the answer to an underlying question, which is, “What do you believe about the nature of the God to whom you are praying?”  The reasons we engage in prayer and what we expect to happen after we engage in prayer depend wholly on what we believe about God and what we believe about the way God works in the world.

The tavern owner believed — or at least argued in court — that the church was praying to a sort of Sky King, a God like Thor or Zeus who commands the forces of the heavens and hurls lightening bolts upon the heads of his enemies.  We say that we don’t believe in that sort of ancient nature God anymore, and yet there is probably not a person here who has not invoked that God, praying for rain because our gardens are wilting, or praying for an end to rain because our houses are underwater (as they must be praying in Louisiana right now).  When a baseball player crosses himself before swinging a bat, or looks up to the sky and points in acknowledgment after hitting the home run, he is invoking the powers of the Sky King, sovereign of the universe who controls the physical forces of our world and shifts them ever so slightly to favor the sovereign’s faithful subjects or torment the sovereign’s enemies.

Though we associate this image of God with pagan mythology, it is certainly present in the Bible.  God burned up Sodom and Gomorrah, sent plagues upon Egypt, and parted the waters for Moses.  God rained hailstones down on the Amorites to give the battle to Joshua and for good measure even stopped the sun in its course so that the Israelites would have time to thoroughly smash their enemy.  The image of God as the great Sky King is an image that came to dominant church theology during the medieval period when fealty to one’s sovereign was a part of a person’s daily life and it has continued to appeal even to non-monarchal 21st century Americans because let’s face it, who among us hasn’t wanted to hurl a few lightening bolts at our enemies?  When we feel powerless in the face of forces beyond our control, sometimes we want a God who can and will move heaven and earth to save us.

Nevertheless, that image of God has numerous problems associated with it.  We no longer live in a society where authoritarian figures determine the course of their subjects’ lives, and we have come to recognize the dehumanizing nature of such a system.  Our scientific knowledge has increased and a God who willy nilly messes with the laws of physics frankly messes with our minds.  Our reason cannot make sense of it and we get all twisted up trying to explain why God chooses to save some homes from the earthquake while allowing others to shatter and fall in spite of people’s prayers.

Fortunately in the Bible, the picture we see of God is much more complex and while God is indeed sometimes described as the sovereign King, God is also the mother bird under whose wings we are sheltered.  God is intimate lover, husband, wife.  God is wind and breath, sun and rain that drenches the land and flows across the barren deserts of our hearts to bring new life.  God is the one who listens to God’s chosen, whose mind can be changed by the persuasive arguments of Abraham or Moses.  God is the creative Creator, the potter, the tinkerer who tries new things when old methods fail, and who admits that sometimes things don’t turn out the way God had hoped.

“I promise I won’t flood the world again,” God says hanging a rainbow in the sky after God’s watery re-set of creation, “From now on, I’ll just work with what I’ve got.”

As Christians, we see God as even more involved in our immediate experience through the person of Jesus.  In Jesus, God is no longer the distant thundering Sky King but is the friend who eats at our table and washes our dusty feet.  In Jesus, God experiences the pain of betrayal, desertion, and death, shares in our griefs, and is present in our suffering.  God heals by sitting quietly at our side as we weep.  This God is even in the foxhole with us laying down his life for us that we might live.  Though the image of God as Sky King predominated during the feudal period, the multitude of biblical images that characterize God as intimate friend sharing our grief  remained as an alternative voice, especially in the poetry and music of the church which was better able to capture the tenderness of a God whose power was manifested not in law but in love.

“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God,” the Psalmist says.  “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.”  The depths of God call out to the deep places within us; God is not out there but is flowing around us and through us: like a whale diving to the depths of the ocean’s darkness and then breaching into the light, swimming, spouting, and delighting in the waters, we too are immersed wholly in God.  The eastern writings of the Dao De Ching describe the divine in a similar way saying:  “The supreme goodness is like water,” it says, “nourishing all of creation without trying to compete with it.”

Harry Emerson Fosdick, in a book on prayer, wrote: “During a dry season in the New Hebrides, John G. Paton, the missionary, awakened the derision of the native people by digging for water. They said that water always came down from heaven, not up through the earth.  But Paton revealed to them a larger truth than they had seen before by discovering to them that Heaven could give them water through their own land.  So [people] insist on waiting for God to send them blessing in some super normal way,” Fosdick says, “when all the while God is giving them abundant supply if they would only learn to retreat into the fertile places of their own spirit where, as Jesus said, the wells of living Waters seek to rise.”

Why do we pray and what do we expect to happen when we pray?  If God is a great Sky King, then we pray hoping only for a little attention from our distant God and perhaps a divine favor or two but if God is all around us, within us, and flowing through us, then to pray is to open up the boundaries of our lives to experience a life larger than our own.  It is to allow the depths of our own souls to touch the depths of God and conversely, it is to allow the depths of God to draw us forth out of the smallness of our concerns into new experiences, new understandings, and new ways of being.

In prayer, we breathe God into our lives, and then exhale our lives back into God, spirit into spirit, breath into breath, deep calling to deep.

We breathe in the lives and the sorrows and the pains of those who suffer, and then breathe them back into God, spirit into spirit, breath into breath, deep calling to deep.

We breathe in the injustices, the hurts, the wrongs, the cruelties of our world holding them in our very bodies, and then breathe them back into God, spirit into spirit, breath into breath, deep calling to deep.

We breathe in all of the words of the people — the shouts of protest of the oppressed, the shouts of anger and blame, the reasoned words, the illogical words, the children’s babble and the mumbles of the old — all of the words of humankind, we breath them in and listen to what they have to tell us…. and we exhale them in a great shout of lament or a glorious cry of thanksgiving or a whisper of love and wonder, into the breath of God, spirit into spirit, breath into breath, deep calling to deep.

This is prayer: spirit into spirit, breath into breath, deep calling to deep.

Next week, we will see the shape of this prayer when we consider together the words of Jesus who tells the disciples, “Pray then like this.…”

Footnotes:

1. J.K. Johnston, Why Christians Sin, Discovery House, 1992, p. 129.