Monday, July 25, 2016

Bargaining with God.

Two of the lectionary readings today have caused me to think deeply about the subjects they raise. Or maybe, I should say subject as they are somewhat related.

The first tale is the Old Testament reading (Genesis 18:20-32). The story depicts a conversation between God and Abraham. God is intending to destroy a city, but Abraham challenges God to have a change of mind if fifty righteous people are found. God agrees. Abraham continues to bargain, and through a series of incremental drops, it is finally agreed that if ten righteous people are found the city will not be destroyed.

The second story is the gospel reading where an unexpected guest has arrived at midnight. The host has no bread to offer so goes to a friend. At first the friend will not open the door as the household is settled for the night, but in the end persistence wins the day. The picture then changes asking the listeners if a child asks for an egg or a fish, would they be given a scorpion or a snake (unclean foods).

So in both the stories there is the idea of bargaining with God. Abraham is persistent to get a mind change from God. The host is persistent to get bread from a friend.

My concern is what life do these stories have for us today.

The stories in themselves have elements that are concerning. The first one is about destruction of a city and judgement about who is righteous. It all sounds a bit too like modern warfare to sit comfortably. The second one causes one to consider friendship. If someone banged on the door at midnight and was first told to go away, would a good friend continue to knock? In our times we would probably consider it harassment.

Of course, in the minds of the lectionary compilers these two stories are about prayer. In the second one the parable is told as a response to the disciples. It follows their request to be taught to pray.

Is that how we understand prayer, as a bargaining tool to get what we want. I suspect for all of us that is the case on occasion. A crisis happens, we want a good resolution, we persist in prayer hoping for a good outcome. That would be answered prayer. Yet, if the prayer is unanswered could it be considered a snake or a scorpion has been given?

Of course, it is good to pray for our friends in times of crisis or need. Please don’t hear me say anything different. I would always want to do that. But prayer has to be more than just a response to needs.

Often prayers are accompanied by an element of bargaining. “God if you do this, I’ll serve you more or I’ll love you more.” Often the bargain offered is the perceived lack in the person’s life. Something they feel needs to change to improve themselves.

In our modern context, this sounds a lot like the third of the five stages of grief . . . denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance as identified by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. First published in 1969, these stages of grief were initially observed in people who had lost or were losing a loved one. However, they were later applied to a lot of other situations.

So this need to petition God or a higher being in time of trouble is a very natural and a very human response. It is a good response on a journey towards healing.  For Christians it is called prayer.

Yet, prayer has to be so much more than the portrayal in the stories in these verses where it is used as a technique to get what the people who are praying want.

I want to add two insights, both are taken from The Celtic Way of Prayer by Esther de Waal. In the book de Waal talks about her journey of discovery into prayer. I take one insight right from the beginning of the book and one from the end of her journey into prayer. In many ways these reflect her journey.

“To pray the Celtic way means above all to be aware of this rhythm of dark and light, The dark and the light are themselves symbols of the Celtic refusal to deny darkness, pain, suffering and yet to exult in rejoicing, celebration in the fullness and goodness of life.” (x)

“As I learn not to take for granted, to wonder anew, I find that a constant attitude of gratitude is life-giving. In the face of such amazing grace and generosity, the only possible response must become that of continuing and ever deepening praise.” (211)

Prayer is linked with our spirituality. I’m going to say little more today. I leave questions as a challenge, something to consider deeply over the week.

What does prayer mean to you?
What does prayer mean to you in times of personal need?
What does prayer mean to you in times of friend’s needs?
What does prayer mean to you in times of national, and international, tragedy?
What does prayer mean to you in the current political situation?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Whose Life Matters?

Today’s gospel reading, from the lectionary, is the story often entitled “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-17). It is one of those stories which I think of as a Sunday School story. One of those as a child I heard many times. The details slipped into my sub-conscious. I know the story well. Jesus responding to a question about who is one’s neighbour replies with a tale about an injured traveller who was left at the side of the road. Three people pass by him, but only one stops to tend him.

At this point the story is subverted. It is not those who one would expect to exercise a duty of care who responded. They crossed the road. Sadly, that is a common response, both literally and figuratively. I remember when my children were very small I had a friend whose second baby died at birth. It was a hard time for the young family. Talking with the young mother some time later, she said that as she had tried to make things normal for her toddler son one of the hardest things was to watch people cross the road when they saw her approaching. She realized it was because they did not know what to say to her. For them, it had just been easier to cross the road than face the situation.

In the story the person who responded was the person least expected. It was a Samaritan. Samaritans were looked on with disdain by those to whom Jesus was speaking. Yet, this was the person who was truly a neighbour. Not only did the Samaritan respond to the immediate needs of the injured person but took care of future needs for him to ensure he was fully restored. As with many of the gospel stories this would have had a huge impact on the contemporary listeners. Even the fact that the Samaritan touched the injured person would have caused a ripple of shock. For those who took it seriously it would have been deeply challenging. It would have exposed their biases. They would have had to look at their own prejudices and change. To look at oneself and change deeply ingrained, cultural views is always a courageous thing to have to do, especially when it runs counter-culturally.

This story, which will be read in churches around the world today, seemed especially fitting after yet another week of violence. Violence that took place simply because people look different. It was the sort of violence that left one stunned, in the moment it felt incomprehensible.

Two young Black men, in different States, had been shot and killed by police officers. In response a young Black man had killed five police officers and injured several more. He, in turn, was killed.  Violence always begets more violence.

Slogans have filled social media #Blacklivesmatter, #copslivesmatter, #alllivesmatter

All of the above are true. Indeed, the life of all humanity is important. Yet, at this point in time, at this point in our history, it is the Black lives that need our attention. My thoughts today are how can we help those in the Black community feel safe?  

Please don’t read this as thinking that the lives of those police officers are of secondary importance. I deplore what happened in Dallas. My heart and prayers go out to the families of those killed. I was very moved to see the short video clip of people, Black and White, lining up to hug police officers in Dallas.

I would not want to say that individually all police officers are racist. I think that the police force, by large, do a good job of exercising their duty of care. Yet, the systemic racism is undeniably, many events over the last year have shown that it exists. Statistics of the numbers of Black people in prison show it exists. My personal PhD studies show it exists, Black children receive corporal punishment in schools at a much higher rate than White kids. This is all unacceptable.

In his “I have a Dream” speech Martin Luther King wrote,

“Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning . . . We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

Yet, fifty-tree years later I know the Black community still feel unsafe. And, unsafe even in the presence of police officers who should be offering protection. A few posts from Facebook friends made this abundantly clear. One said, “I feel like these days black and brown people are waking up in the morning asking themselves, "Will I be next?" I know I do.” Others talked about their fears, their isolation and their tears.

Because of our experience as foster parents Andy and I have experienced the difference in the way Black and White teens are treated. We have even seen racism here in Ithaca in our local stores. One Black teen was challenged that he had adjusted the price on a sale garment. He had not, I’d been with him when he found it and he was overjoyed at the reduction. As soon as Andy stepped forward and asked was there a problem the assistant immediately backed down. “Oh no, sir.” We know other foster and adoptive parents who have faced similar challenges raising Black children. It is simply not right, change needs to happen.

At present our Black friends are like the injured man in the Lukan passage, figuratively lying on the side of the road, “stripped, beaten and half-dead (v. 30) So, do Black lives matter? We have a choice. Do we cross the road and walk by? Or do we “pour oil and wine on the wounds, bandage them, take the injured to an inn and pay for care (34).”

King again,

“. . . many of our white brothers . . . have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.”

(I have a Dream.