Times Like These, or Why I Pray

(written by Rev Susie Webster-Toleno, preached more or less as is at CCWW 11/15/15)

It may well be that I spend too much energy and care on interactions with people ~ some actual friends, some who are nearly strangers to me ~ whom I encounter on social media (mostly Facebook). My “friends” run the gamut politically and culturally, and in terms of their spiritual lives, too. Most of the time, I’m grateful for, or at least tolerant of, those differences. Diversity really is a source of richness, of course. But it’s events like those that happened in Beirut and Paris this week that make me need to step away before I blow a gasket.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my personal downfalls is my seeming inability to just keep moving on when I come across a statement about religion that horrifies me. Yes, I know, I’m not the spiritual police force for the internet world, but when people speak about my faith in ways that I don’t agree with, I tend to feel responsible for … fixing it for them. You know — helping them to see the light. (You can well imagine how helpful they find that to be…). And in moments of exhaustion or despair at the state of the world, there are two groups, broadly speaking, that push every button I have.

The first and most obvious, perhaps, are those self-professed conservative Christians whose beliefs are nearly polar opposites to mine. You know, the same ones who go on about the “war on Christmas” and how the “gay agenda” is causing God to feel wrathful and send hurricanes to afflict us all. Those who seem to think the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is, “You’re all going to hell unless you clean up your acts on a few very specific sins. God sees you, and you should be afraid … be very afraid!” As one who believes God’s nature and name is Love, and who feels the church has a lot to atone for in the areas of excluding the vulnerable rather than welcoming them, I have a really hard time just seeing those statements and walking away without at least saying, “Well, actually … I see it differently.” I just can’t believe that a well-reasoned statement of open faith (hopefully communicated directly but politely) won’t change things for them. I know it’s naive, but there you have it. And this week, in the wake of the attacks in Beirut and Paris, I did cut out one source of such aggravation by making it so that I can no longer see posts from the friend who touts her great faith in Jesus but used the attacks to blame President Obama and all Muslims for the devastation. Yeah, that was more than I could take in the midst of grief.

The other category of internet interactions I struggle with, though, are with people on the opposite end of the spectrum in many ways. They are the ones who see all religion as some combination of evil and buffoonery ~ I’m not talking about the ‘spiritual but not religious’ people who are simply anti-establishment in their approach to religion and don’t get why a smart person might find solace at church, but rather those who call God “the Invisible Man” and otherwise mock people of faith for having any traditional beliefs at all. While we can all agree that a misguided use of religion has been at the root of evil ever since there has been religion, these are the people who cannot acknowledge any good that has come out of faith … ever … and who have fun making and sharing internet memes that lampoon the very idea of prayer in the wake of tragedy. Yes, those are conversations I have a hard time walking away from, too.

In the hours after news of the attack on Paris spread, when people from all walks of life were posting images calling on the world to “#prayforParis,” these “smugtheists,” as a not-particularly-religious friend calls this kind of atheist, were out in force, using a combination of anger and mockery to say things like “Don’t ‘pray’ for Paris; religion caused this tragedy in the first place. Offer real help (donate food, money, blood, shelter).” Yeah, I get that. But nonetheless, I am a pray-er. I try not to respond to such things, because there’s very little point, but sometimes I just have to speak up. So when one of these friends posted a meme with a photo of Star Trek’s Captain Picard with his head in his hands saying, “Why would you pray after a tragedy to a God who did nothing to prevent the tragedy,” I finally had to respond.

Here’s what I wrote … and what I’ll continue to meditate on as the news from the world continues to sink in but also to multiply:

“I don’t know if you’re looking for an actual answer, but I’m going to give one. I guess the answer I’d give is that it depends on what you believe about how God works in the world. It’s an immature faith that thinks that God goes around giving good things to people God likes and bad things to people God doesn’t like. I’d also say it’s an immature atheism that assumes all religious people hold that kind of belief.
For me, prayer ‘does’ a number of things. I don’t believe that prayer stops tragedies (or provides a clear day for a parade or makes a test easier or otherwise ‘works’ as if God were a vending machine). I think prayer, for those who practice it, tends to give courage and encouragement and a sense of peace and strength that then allows that person to step forth and DO something about bad situations. So why do *I* pray? Not for no tragedies, as there will always be natural disaster and human-created crises. I pray so that when I am overwhelmed with grief and anger, I don’t get stuck there but rather have the strength to persevere in working and loving and adding light to a dark world.”

That’s what I wrote. I received no answer to that statement (at least not yet), which is probably fine, and I should just move on.

And I will … but I want to add this, which would get no traction in silly internet arguments, but which means the world to me: I believe our God is brokenhearted just as we are brokenhearted. In prayer I believe that we can find the comfort and hope that allows us to keep working for peace and to not give in to despair … and whether this is orthodox or not, I believe our brokenhearted God is healed through our prayers, too. And this is important, because people of compassionate and open faith are needed in our world ~ people who have a source of comfort in the midst of tragedy.

I pray because I need to live in hope, and into hope. In a world where there is too much sorrow to bear, when the darkness sometimes seems more powerful than the light, I need to remember that I am a person of hope. Prayer helps me remember that who I am … who we are … is enough… that it’s the ordinariness of goodness that eats away at the bombastic and explosive nature of evil … and that we have work to do. Prayer is what reminds me that we have great work to do, but also what reassures me that the work is do-able, and that we don’t do it alone. We mustn’t give in to feeling overwhelmed and powerless. We have love and light to spread. Prayer helps me remember that.

I’m reminded of the lovely and sweet poem by Mary Oliver that I’ve shared here before:

“I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.”
(Mary Oliver, from her book “A Thousand Mornings”)

And so … let us pray.