Not For the Wise

I AM AFRAID THAT prayer is really not for the wise. The wise avoid it on two bases, at least two. In the first place, if there really is a God who has this power to heal, to make whole, then it is wise to be very cautious indeed because if you go to him for healing, healing may be exactly what you will receive, and are you entirely sure that you want to be healed? By all accounts, after all, the process is not necessarily either quick or easy. And in the meanwhile, things could be a great deal worse. "Lord, take my sin from me—but not yet," Saint Augustine is said to have prayed. It is a wise man who bewares of God bearing gifts. In the second place, the wise look at twentieth-century man—civilized, rational, and at great cost emancipated from the dark superstitions of the past—and suggest that to petition some unseen power for special favors is a very childish procedure indeed. 

In a way, "childish" is the very word to describe it. A child has not made up his mind yet about what is and what is not possible. He has no fixed preconceptions about what reality is; and if someone tells him that the mossy place under the lilac bush is a magic place, he may wait until he thinks that no one is watching him, but then he will very probably crawl in under the lilac bush to see for himself. A child also knows how to accept a gift. He does not worry about losing his dignity or becoming indebted if he accepts it. His conscience does not bother him because the gift is free and he has not earned it and therefore really has no right to it. He just takes it, with joy. In fact, if it is something that he wants very much, he may even ask for it. And lastly, a child knows how to trust. It is late at night and very dark and there is the sound of sirens as his father wakes him. He does not explain anything but just takes him by the hand and gets him up, and the child is scared out of his wits and has no idea what is going on, but he takes his father's hand anyway and lets his father lead him wherever he chooses into the darkness. 

In honesty you have to admit to a wise man that prayer is not for the wise, not for the prudent, not for the sophisticated. Instead it is for those who recognize that in face of their deepest needs, all their wisdom is quite helpless. It is for those who are willing to persist in doing something that is both childish and crucial. 

-Originally published in The Magnificent Defeat

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Tourist Preaching

ENGLISH-SPEAKING TOURISTS abroad are inclined to believe that if only they speak English loudly and distinctly and slowly enough, the natives will know what's being said even though they don't understand a single word of the language. 

Preachers often make the same mistake. They believe that if only they speak the ancient verities loudly and distinctly and slowly enough, their congregations will understand them. 

Unfortunately, the only language people really understand is their own language, and unless preachers are prepared to translate the ancient verities into it, they might as well save their breath. 

-Originally published in The Hungering Dark

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Bigger Than Both of Us

HERE IS A PLACE to remember that for Christianity, the final affirmation about the nature of God is contained in the verse from the First Epistle of John: God is love. So another way of saying what I have just said is that man's deepest longing is for this love of God of which every conceivable form of human love is a reflection, however distorted a reflection it may be—"the smallest glass of love mixed with a pint pot of ditch-water," as Graham Greene says somewhere. And it is just for this reason that part of man's longing for the love of God can be satisfied simply by the love of man—the love of friend for friend, parent for child, sexual love—and thank God for that, literally thank him, because for many people human love is all there is, if that, because that is all they can believe in. 

But notice this: that love is not really one of man's powers. Man cannot achieve love, generate love, wield love, as he does his powers of destruction and creation. When I love someone, it is not something that I have achieved, but something that is happening through me, something that is happening to me as well as to him. To use the old soap-opera cliché seriously, it is something bigger than both of us, infinitely bigger, because wherever love enters this world, God enters.  

-Originally published in The Magnificent Defeat

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To Become a Human Being

IN 1963 I WENT on that famous March on Washington, and the clearest memory that I have of it is standing near the Lincoln Memorial hearing the song "We Shall Overcome" sung by the quarter of a million or so people who were there. And while I listened, my eye fell on one very old black man, with a face like shoe leather and a sleazy suit and an expression that was more befuddled than anything else; and I wondered to myself if, quite apart from the whole civil-rights question, that poor old bird could ever conceivably overcome anything. He was there to become a human being. Well, and so were the rest of us. And so are we all, no less befuddled than he when you come right down to it. Poor old bird, poor young birds, every one of us. And deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome some day, as he will, by God's grace, by helping the seed of the kingdom grow in ourselves and in each other until finally in all of us it becomes a tree where the birds of the air can come and make their nests in our branches. That is all that matters really. 

-Originally published in The Magnificent Defeat 

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Greater Freedom

I KNOW SEVERAL thoughtful and highly principled young couples living together without benefit of clergy or of anybody else who argue eloquently against the institution of marriage. "As long as ye both shall live" is transformed into "As long as you both shall love," and their view seems to be that to institutionalize such a relationship as theirs is to rob it of much that is most authentic and spontaneous and human about it. They point out that for a man and woman to commit themselves legally to honor and cherish each other for the rest of their lives is unrealistic at best and hypocritical at worst. Their love for each other should be bond enough to hold them together, and when the love ends, then the bond should end with it, and they should go their separate ways. 

As for me, I find much in this that is persuasive. Who can deny that many a man and woman have married for no motive more edifying than that it was the only respectable way to enter into a full sexual relationship and that, as things turned out, they would have done better in every sense that one can imagine mattering much either to themselves or to God simply to have had the relationship and forgotten about the respectability which, once the first, careless rapture was passed, became a cheerless if respectable prison to them both? Who would argue that the vows exchanged at weddings are anything other than wild and improbable? Who can look at the apparent devotion and well-being of many an unmarried pair who live together, even have children together, and call them simply wrong in either religious terms or any other? 

All I can say in response is that it was within the bonds of marriage that I, for one, found a greater freedom to be and to become and to share myself than I can imagine ever having found in any other kind of relationship, and that—absurdly hopeful and poorly understood and profoundly unrealistic as the commitment was that the girl in the white dress and I made to each other in the presence, we hoped, not only of most of the people we loved best in the world, but of God as well, in whose name Dr. Muilenburg somewhat shakily blessed us—my life would have been incalculably diminished without it. 

-Originally published in Now and Then

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