Prayer

WE ALL PRAY whether we think of it as praying or not. The odd silence we fall into when something very beautiful is happening, or something very good or very bad. The "Ah-h-h-h!" that sometimes floats up out of us as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the skyrocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else's pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else's joy. Whatever words or sounds we use for sighing with over our own lives. These are all prayers in their way. These are all spoken not just to ourselves, but to something even more familiar than ourselves and even more strange than the world.

According to Jesus, by far the most important thing about praying is to keep at it. The images he uses to explain this are all rather comic, as though he thought it was rather comic to have to explain it at all. He says God is like a friend you go to borrow bread from at midnight. The friend tells you in effect to drop dead, but you go on knocking anyway until finally he gives you what you want so he can go back to bed again (Luke 11:5-8). Or God is like a crooked judge who refuses to hear the case of a certain poor widow, presumably because he knows there's nothing much in it for him. But she keeps on hounding him until finally he hears her case just to get her out of his hair (Luke 18:1-8). Even a stinker, Jesus says, won't give his own child a black eye when the child asks for peanut butter and jelly, so how all the more will God when his children... (Matthew 7:9-11)?

Be importunate, Jesus says—not, one assumes, because you have to beat a path to God's door before God will open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there's no way of getting to your door. "Ravish my heart," John Donne wrote. But God will not usually ravish. He will only court.

Whatever else it may or may not be, prayer is at least talking to yourself, and that's in itself not always a bad idea.

Talk to yourself about your own life, about what you've done and what you've failed to do, and about who you are and who you wish you were and who the people you love are and the people you don't love too. Talk to yourself about what matters most to you, because if you don't, you may forget what matters most to you.

Even if you don't believe anybody's listening, at least you'll be listening.

Believe Somebody is listening. Believe in miracles. That's what Jesus told the father who asked him to heal his epileptic son. Jesus said, "All things are possible to him who believes." And the father spoke for all of us when he answered, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:14-29).

What about when the boy is not healed? When, listened to or not listened to, the prayer goes unanswered? Who knows? Just keep praying, Jesus says. Remember the sleepy friend, the crooked judge. Even if the boy dies, keep on beating the path to God's door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that, down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer, the God you call upon will finally come.

-Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words


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Praise

YOU PRAISE THE HEARTBREAKING beauty of Jessye Norman singing the Vier Letzte Lieder of Richard Strauss. You praise the new puppy for making its offering on the lawn for once instead of on the living-room rug. Maybe you yourself are praised for some generous thing you have done. In each case, the praise that is handed out is a measured response. It is a matter of saying something to one degree or another complimentary, with the implication that if Jessye Norman's voice had sprung a leak or the puppy hadn't made it outside in time or your generous deed turned out to be secretly self-serving, a different sort of response altogether would have been called for.

The way Psalm 148 describes it, praising God is another kettle of fish altogether. It is about as measured as a volcanic eruption, and there is no implication that under any conceivable circumstances it could be anything other than what it is. The whole of creation is in on the act—the sun and moon, the sea, fire and snow, Holstein cows and white-throated sparrows, old men in walkers and children who still haven't taken their first step. Their praise is not chiefly a matter of saying anything, because most of creation doesn't deal in words. Instead, the snow whirls, the fire roars, the Holstein bellows, the old man watches the moon rise. Their praise is not something that at their most complimentary they say, but something that at their truest they are.

We learn to praise God not by paying compliments, but by paying attention. Watch how the trees exult when the wind is in them. Mark the utter stillness of the great blue heron in the swamp. Listen to the sound of the rain. Learn how to say "Hallelujah" from the ones who say it right.

-Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words


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Poverty

IN A SENSE WE ARE ALL HUNGRY and in need, but most of us don't recognize it. With plenty to eat in the deep freeze, with a roof over our heads and a car in the garage, we assume that the empty feeling inside must be just a case of the blues that can be cured by a Florida vacation, a new TV, an extra drink before supper.

The poor, on the other hand, are under no such delusion. When Jesus says, "Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28), the poor stand a better chance than most of knowing what he's talking about and knowing that he's talking to them. In desperation they may even be willing to consider the possibility of accepting his offer. This is perhaps why Jesus on several occasions called them peculiarly blessed.

-Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words


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Politics

YOU CAN'T HELP WONDERING what would happen if a person running for the presidency decided to set politics in the flag-waving, tub-thumping, ax-grinding sense aside and to speak, instead, candidly, thoughtfully, truthfully out of his or her own heart.

Suppose a candidate were to stand up before the reporters and the TV cameras and the usual bank of microphones and say something like this:

"The responsibilities of this office are so staggering that anybody who doesn't approach them with knees knocking is either a fool or a lunatic. The literal survival of civilization may depend on the decisions that either I or one of the other candidates make during the next four years. The general welfare and peace of mind of millions of people will certainly depend on them. I am only a human being. If I have my strengths, I also have my weaknesses. I can't promise that I'll always do the right thing for this country. I can only promise that it will always be this country rather than my own political fortunes that I'll try to do the right thing for. I believe in this country at its best, but I also believe that we have made many tragic mistakes. I am willing to entertain the possibility that our assumptions about Arabs, for example, may be as wrong as their assumptions about us, and my major objective, if elected, will be to explore that possibility with them at the highest levels of government and in the most radical, searching, and unrelenting ways I can devise. I believe that the survival and well-being of the human race as a whole is more important than the partisan interests of any group, including both theirs and our own."

There are many who would undoubtedly say that such a statement is naive, dangerous, unrealistic, and un-American, and that anybody making it couldn't get elected dogcatcher. I can't help believing, however, that there are others who would find it such a note of sanity, honesty, and hope in the political quagmire that they would follow the person who made it to the ends of the earth.

-Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words


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Play

WHEN KING DAVID'S WIFE berates him for making a fool of himself by leaping and dancing before the ark of the Lord, he protests by saying that it seemed exactly the right thing to do, considering all the Lord had done for him. "Therefore will I play before the Lord," he tells her (2 Samuel 6:14-21).

When God describes how he will rescue Jerusalem from his wrath and make it new again, "a city of truth" (Zechariah 8:3), he conveys the glory of it by saying, "And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets" (8:5).

When the Psalmist praises God for creating "this great and wide sea, wherein are creeping things innumerable," he makes special mention of Leviathan, "whom," as he says, "thou hast made to play therein" (104:25-26).

The king, the boys and girls, the whale—they are none of them accomplishing anything. They are none of them providing anything. There's nothing edifying or educational or particularly helpful in what they are doing, nothing that you'd be likely to think of as religious. They haven't a thought in their heads. They are just playing, that's all. They are letting themselves go and having a marvelous time at it.

David has sweat pouring down his face and his eyes are aflame. The boys and girls are spinning like tops. The whale has just shot a thirty-foot spout into the air and is getting ready to heave its entire one hundred and fifty tons into the air after it.

What is the wind doing in the hayfield? What is Victoria Falls up to, or the surf along the coast of Maine? What about the fire going wild in the belly of the stove, or the rain pounding on the roof like the "Hallelujah Chorus," or the violet on the windowsill leaning toward the sun?

What, for that matter, is God up to, getting the whole thing started in the first place? Hurling the stars around like confetti at a parade, gathering the waters together into the seas like a woman gathering shells, calling forth all the creatures of earth and air like a man calling "Swing your partner!" at a hoedown.

"Be fruitful and multiply!" God calls, and creator and creature both all but lose track of which is which in the wonder of their playing.

-Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words


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