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?