book review: in god’s presence: theological reflections on prayer

I suspect that I am not the only one who doesn’t know how to pray. When I was young it baffled me as to why we would ask God for things when God was all-powerful and didn’t need our help anyway. As I grew older, I began to ask (as most of us do) why bad things happen to good people, and I grew indignant at a God who would answer the prayers of some and not others. In college I let myself begin to ask seriously ask the questions that followed and that began to change my whole understanding of the concept of God.

As she unfolds her theological reflections on prayer, this is where Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki begins: with the question of God. As a process theologian, she gently and logically pulls out the implications of subjective knowledge and the way traditional understandings of prayer posit God as a genie, an egoist, or a tyrannical king (16-17).

Then she moves us beyond these images of “a self-sufficient God who acts unilaterally” (18) to an image of an intersubjective, relational God, a God who affects the world and who is affected by the world. The relational theology of prayer follows:

Prayer is not only for our sakes, but also for God’s sake… God works with the world as it is in order to bring it to where it can be. Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be. Prayer opens the world to its own transformation. (18-19)

Again and again Suchocki repeats this notion that God is with the world in its radical particularities. God is not “out there” projecting an ideal vision onto a broken world but immanently here via a relational connectivity that is intrinsic to the very nature of God.

Through the energy of prayer, the circumstances of life with all their attendant possibilities are woven together. God is the persuasive power toward wholeness and goodness, and our prayers meet that power (albeit within the limits of our own knowledge) to contribute to forces of well-being that transcend space. It is in this sense, Suchocki writes, that “our prayers change what is possible. For God is never at a distance” (50).

Again and again, Suchocki repeats the idea that God works with the world as it is in order to bring it to where it can be. From this foundation, she offers chapters on ways to think about and engage in intercessory prayer, prayers for healing, prayers for personal confession, prayers for corporate confession, liturgical prayers, and the Lord’s Prayer. This book is well worth the read simply for these chapters, but for the thoughtful reader there are some questions that remain.

In chapter three, Suchocki outlines the conditions of prayer, including interdependence with God, honesty both with God and with ourselves, and language – the actual words we speak.

On this final point she writes, “I suspect that all language and no language is appropriate,” and a critical reader must keep this in mind as Suchocki’s descriptive words around prayer continue to carry forward personified language that has she has moved beyond theologically.

Here is my only true disappointment with this book, a disappointment that is perhaps inevitable. The language that we currently use to talk about the divine and to talk to the divine doesn’t move us into this hopeful, subjective, radically interconnected construct.

I’m left with this question: how do we create new liturgies, prayers, and hymns without falling too far into the abstract on one hand or subtly retaining the notions of God that we want to move beyond on the other?  Perhaps Suchocki gives us a hint as she begins and ends the book with water as a metaphor for God (4, 25).

Now we need more people to translate this kind of theological innovation into terms that will work in a local congregation with thinking and growing people of faith.

expecting the unexpected

The other week I preached at Red Top Christian Church just up the road in Hallsville. Yes, it literally does have a red top (roof).

I’m still not quite sure how to tell the story of what happened that morning…

The lectionary text was from Luke 12, a cobbled together series of Jesus’ cryptic sayings about treasures in heaven and keeping your lamps burning and unpredictable thieves. The punchline in verse 40 says in essence, be ready, so for this Sunday I spun it into a message about expecting the unexpected… because you just never know when God could show up.

I’ve heard before that most preachers have one sermon – one message that shows up over and over. At our Columbia young pastor trio talk the other week, we learned that Jamie’s is that you are loved. Molly’s is it’s hard, but you can do it. And if there’s one sermon I preach over and over it’s this one: pay attention – the divine is everywhere

At Red Top in mid-August the message took the form of encouragement: expect the unexpected, because God’s kingdom appears in many ways.

My closing words, before I even knew what would happen were these: I’m 100% sure that Holy Spirit will show up somewhere in Hallsville this week. In some way, Jesus will cross paths with us. The divine will break into our world, mine and yours. The kingdom of God will be given to us for at least a moment or two. It just may not be in the ways that we would expect.  

Those who aren’t familiar with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) should know that there are two things that happen in every worship. One is communion. At Red Top we pass around trays with crackers and juice. The other is an invitation, which is often after the sermon.

I usually say something like this: On this journey of faith and life we cannot do it alone. We need a community, and so if you would like to join this church on your journey, please come forward during the hymn of invitation.

Usually if someone plans to join, they talk to the minister ahead of time, and most Sundays no one comes forward, so we play the hymn and carry on with worship – except at Red Top that day. The hymn began and from the back left pew, a young man started walking up the aisle.

Me on the inside: Panic. What to do. This isn’t my church. I can’t welcome him here.

Me on the outside: Warm smile. Motion to the elder to come up. Whisper to the elder to extend the welcome on behalf of the congregation.

Congregation on the inside: Suddenly alert and paying attention. Didn’t she just say something about how we never know when God will show up?

Congregation on the outside: Half standing up for the benediction. Half sitting down to wait for some instruction about what should happen in this unexpected circumstance.

The elder and I pulled it together. He asked the requisite questions and welcomed the new member (a Hallsville native) upon profession of faith. I invited the rest of the congregation to stand for the benediction, and then we processed down the aisle.

As people joyfully greeted the three of us on their way out of church, the sanctuary was filled with a new bit of life. Not one person missed the significance of how we had witnessed that day exactly what had been preached: the spirit of the divine breaking into our world in ways far beyond what we could have imagined.

Unexpected indeed.

the menno fellowship group

The other day I wrote a little bit to share on our sweet, simple Mennonite Fellowship Group of Columbia site. It’s worth sharing again, I think. 

Sarah here, and I want to share about the recent opportunity I had to attend the Western District Conference annual assembly in North Newton, Kansas. It’s an easy trip for me since my parents live near there and I grew in a congregation that was (and still is) active in the conference.

I wanted to go in part because I love all things church – even the messy ones. You could say I’m a bit of a church nerd. But I also wanted to go because I wanted to tell people about our fellowship group here.

On my name tag at the assembly I said my “church” was the Mennonite Fellowship Group of Columbia. It sparked a lots of interest and many a conversation, but when I told the story of the Mennonite Fellowship Group of Columbia, at first I wasn’t sure what to say.

When it comes to us, when it comes to our identity as a group, I think sometimes it’s easier to define what we are not than it is to define who we are. We are not a congregation, but we’re not just a group of friends. We’re not a church plant, at least not in the ways you’d think of a church plant. We have not ever talked about finances or passed an offering plate or thought about a building.

What we have done is eat together and sing together and make infant care kits together and laugh together and share our lives together. We have welcomed new friends and said goodbye to others, and at times we’ve even talked about our history and our faith and our skepticism. This is the story I told, and to my surprise, people were eager to listen.

I was extraordinarily touched when one woman reached out her hand to me and asked, “How can I pray for you?” The question was a bit surprising, but after thinking for a minute, I said, “Pray that the people who are looking for us will find us.”

Whether you pray or not, send us that good hope, that those looking for food and singing and community and Mennonite fellowship in Columbia, Missouri will somehow land here.

Peace to you,

Sarah

small thoughts

Yesterday morning I saw three things of awe:

a beaver scooted across the road near the Hominy Creek trailhead

my first neighborhood hummingbird whirred circles around the pink bushy blooming Rose of Sharon

a bright yellow finch (was it the same one that came through last August?) perched first on the purple coneflower and then danced across Ripley Street to the neighbor’s sunflowers

I’ve long thought that the kingdom of God is nearer than we think –
that most of the time we miss it because it comes in pieces, and we are not paying attention.

“Lost and Found”

again, upon request…

“Lost and Found”
First Mennonite Christian (Moundridge, KS)
August 4, 2013

There are at least two ways to get anywhere. There’s the direct, efficient, know where you’re going way, and there’s, well, let’s just call it the roundabout way.

And I must confess that especially at times when I’m going somewhere new, I have a tendency toward the roundabout way. Here’s how it happens.

I will go online and look up the address on Google Maps and then decide we’re ready to go. My partner Jamie will say, should we print out a map? I will say confidently no, no – I’ve got it in my head. I know where I’m going. We’ll head out, usually with me driving.

Inevitably, after a short while I will say, well I think this is where we turn. It’s either this street or the next one or the one we just passed. Jamie will twist uncomfortably in the passenger seat and say, do you want me to look it up on my phone? Of course not, I say, a little bit defensively. I know the general direction we need to go. We’ll find it eventually.

Usually the journey continues as we wander up and down a few extra blocks, Jamie checking her watch, me vehemently resisting her encouragement to rely on 21st century technology to get us anywhere. We arrive. We’re fashionably late. Everything works out, and then a few weeks later, it happens again.

Our scripture for this morning begins with the people of God headed out of Egypt. After years of forced labor and recent plagues and pestilence, Pharaoh had finally let them go, and leaving was their first big step toward the promised land. The immediate next question for them was this: how do we get there?

Well there are at least two ways to get anywhere, and at first glance, it seems obvious. Of course they should take the most direct, efficient route; that they should flee as quickly as possible, cover as much ground as they could before Pharaoh could change his mind. If point A was Egypt, they should make a beeline for point B, the promised land.

The quickest route would have been straight up the coast along the sea, along the southeast side of today’s Mediterranean. This route would take them directly into the lands of the Philistines. The Philistines were known at the very least to be well armed and protective of their territory. They were ready for a fight, and though the fleeing people of Yahweh were themselves physically prepared for battle, the story tells us that the Lord had other ideas. So instead of heading efficiently for the land of milk and honey, God led the people the roundabout way and camped at Etham on the edge of the wilderness.

And if we know anything about the wilderness, we know it is far, far from the promised land.

I recently learned about disorder called topographical agnosia. It’s a real thing and seems to have to do with how the brain functions. People with this disorder are not able to identify landmarks that help them understand where they are spatially from moment to moment. They cannot connect common markers to where they are in the world, so a person who goes to work the exact same way every single day would still need to consult his or her directions every single day. It’s hard to believe, and I’d be skeptical myself except that I know someone who suffers from this affliction. She is lost all the time. And I share this today because that’s what it’s like to be in the wilderness.

In our scripture here in Exodus, but also throughout the biblical narrative, the wilderness is a prominent theme. It is a physical place, stark, barren, uncivilized with none of the comforts of life and few spatial markers that would keep the people from getting lost.

But the wilderness is also a theological place. It’s a place that strips the ancient people of their existential security, and their spiritual comfort. It’s a place for wrestling with self and with God, for getting lost and getting caught up in our doubts and insecurities and fears. The wilderness is a place for looking deep inside of ourselves and for looking carefully out at a world that is filled with brokenness and injustice and uncertainty.

I suspect we’ve all been in the wilderness. I suspect even that some of us are in the wilderness today.

Hindsight tells us that the people of God made it to the promised land eventually. Eventually they came up out of the wilderness. But when we meet them today, they don’t know where they are going. They are lost. They are lost physically on a roundabout route that doesn’t look like the directions on any map.

And they are lost theologically, because they are living in a space between being an enslaved people in Egypt and being a free people of God with a mission and a purpose. They were lost in the space between their bondage and their liberation.

Their weariness from the walking was no doubt piled on top of their weariness from centuries of oppression, enslavement dating nearly all the way back to their ancestor Joseph, whose bones they now carried with them. This is what it’s like to be in the wilderness.

Without something to guide them, the lost soon-to-be Israelites would never have made it.

And then, the story tells us, there before them was the Lord, not appearing this time as a king or commander or warrior, not appearing in human metaphors or manifestations but through immediate, immanent, natural phenomena. In front of them and prepared to lead was the divine presence, a pillar of fire by night to give them light, and a pillar of cloud by day.

To understand the full meaning of these spectacular pillars, we need to take a side trip into the world of grammar and rhetoric. These two pillars, fire and cloud, can be understood as what is called a merism.

A merism is a figure of speech that takes two contrasting words to refer to a whole thing. To search high and low is to search everywhere. To include both young and old is to include everyone. When the Hebrew Bible story says God created the heavens and the earth, this means that God created the whole universe. When the pillars are both fire and cloud, both night and day, the merism is offering us an inclusive, broad view of time, as if to say that God will always be present as the Israelites’ guide.

And perhaps also as if to say that the divine is always in front of us too.

It is one of the most profound messages in our scriptures, this great paradox, this message that the pillars show up in the wilderness not when we have everything together, a map and a plan and a direct route from point a to point b, but when we’re on the roundabout way, in the lost space.

Our mission as God’s people doesn’t become clear by figuring it out ourselves or keeping it all together, but just the opposite. Right at the time when, we don’t know where we’re going or what we’re doing, and we have no other choice but to turn and look for God’s presence in our midst.

It’s there, where we’re lost, that we are also found.

The Exodus story was taken up not all that long ago a couple hundred years or less, not all that far from here by African-American slaves in the south imagining freedom. In this version of the story, the white landowners were the Egyptian oppressors, and the slaves were searching for freedom. So right in front of God and everyone else, a system of coded communication was developed and carried through songs that we’ve come to know as spirituals. In dusty fields as evening fell, simple melodies that recalled the Exodus story were sung softly to indicate the coast was clear and that the time to head for freedom had come.

The instructions were subtle in those African American spirituals still familiar to us today: wade in the water, a reminder that tracking dogs would lose the scent of someone whose footsteps toward liberation were through creeks and rivers. Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home: chariot drivers, conductors on the underground railroad will be arriving soon.

The divine directions were there, pillars, night and day right in front of everyone, in those barren wilderness spaces, but only the ones who were powerless enough to have to paid careful attention, understood what they meant. And what they meant was freedom.

One of the themes that shapes the entire biblical story, the entire mission of the people of God is the movement of our text today from bondage to liberation. The movement from enslavement to freedom.

And so this is what guides us in our mission as God’s people today too. When we are lost and when we see others lost – that’s where our mission is. When we are longing for freedom and when we see others longing for freedom – that’s where our mission is. When we have been left out, marginalized, overlooked, oppressed or when we see others who are on edges – that’s where our mission is.

Sometimes when I think of this Hebrew Bible story, I think those pillars of cloud and fire were so obvious that no one could possibly miss them. They hovered right in front of the people by day and by night, never leaving their place – the ancient version of today’s flashing digital signs saying this way. But other times, I think the people could see those pillars because they were in the wilderness, and because they were in the wilderness, they were lost, and because they were lost, because they were in need of directions, they were paying extra careful attention. And we should too.