Psalm 17 – Investigating Prayer

Hear me, Lord, my plea is just;
    listen to my cry.
Hear my prayer—
    it does not rise from deceitful lips.
Let my vindication come from you;
    may your eyes see what is right.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

My personal attitude towards prayer

I mentioned in my last post that I’m not great at praying.  It’s part of my spiritual practice I would like to improve.  I imagine it’s a common enough predicament, especially in progressive Christian communities.  Some people are completely comfortable talking to God like an old friend, in their head or out loud.  Others are unembarrassed to publicly call on Jesus in praise or request. My favorite is how casually some people can attribute events to divine acts of intercession, in the middle of regular, secular conversation.

None of those things come naturally to me.  Quite frankly, I don’t think I’ll ever be someone who says something like “I was blessed to be born and American,” but mainly because these statements of “blessing” imply that God loves the bless-ee more than the non-bless-ees.  Does God love Americans more than the Syrians?  The Chinese?  I don’t think so.  Perhaps Xe did make certain individuals certain nationalities as part of Xyr divine plan, but I think saying we were lucky enough to be (fill in the blank here) is a more accurate statement, and by no means negates God’s divine will.  But I digress.  We were talking about prayer.

The documented benefits of prayer

For those that like solid facts, there are actually documented benefits of prayer.  And no, not anecdotal stories of “God answering my prayers” (though feel-good stories of that nature abound, too), but scientifically proven benefits.  Engaging in prayer reduces our heart rate and blood pressure, increases dopamine levels, and may even help to deactivate genes that trigger inflammation and prompt cell death.  (A wonderful overview of the effects of prayer are in this Huffpost article.)

The above-mentioned article says that the jury is still out on the efficacy of praying for other people; that only half the studies on the subject have documented a noticeable improvement in groups that are prayed for vs. those that are not.  But honestly, seeing positive differences in half the studies, is, I think, pretty encouraging.  In this scientific article on prayer and healing, co-authors Andrade and Radhakrisknan make some interesting points (both pro- and con-) regarding the limitations in scientifically studying the effects of remote prayer. For example, the overlap of first names (say, John) in both control and prayed-for groups.

So, if enough people are praying for the same thing, can it make a difference in the world?  A while ago, I would have said no, rather abashedly, because I feel as a Christian it’s something I should believe.  But there was another study, not specifically about prayer but about expectation, that changed my mind.  In this study, researchers were told some rats were incredibly smart while others were incredibly dumb (even though they were all, in fact, pretty average rats).  The expectations of the researchers impacted the performance of the rats: the ones expected to be smarter performed better, and the ones expected to be dumb performed worse.  This was explained through subtle shifts in the way the researchers handled the rats based on their perception of them.  So no, neither prayer or expectation opens the door to some sort of magical telekinesis or mind control, but it does change us.  Perhaps if we pray for healing, we will find more opportunities to heal.  Perhaps if we pray for peace, we will be more peaceful ourselves.  Perhaps if we pray for miracles, our eyes will be opened to the daily miracles happening around us.  And just perhaps, if enough people are united in prayer throughout the world, we will be agents of God’s divine plan of universal reconciliation.

In short, I think prayer should be our first – and last – resort.  Let me explain:  I think prayer should lead our actions, and then when all actions are exhausted, we can return to prayer.  I actually agree with a lot of critics of prayer when they say prayer can lead to inaction and dismissal.  “Thoughts and prayers” has become an empty phrase people mock (and rightfully so) after every new tragedy.  If praying is truly all you can do, then yes, please, pray away!  But if you are praying in a truly open, reflecting, and receptive way, I think that more often than not, you will be moved to seek more ways to participate in whatever challenge that’s gotten you to praying in the first place.

How to start praying

So great, I’ve sold you on the benefits of praying, but where to start?  As mentioned above, I’m no expert, so I’m hoping my advice makes up in authenticity what it lacks in experience.  There are two techniques for easy entry into praying:

  1. Gratitude prayers.  This can be as easy as saying thank you for….anything.  Or nothing at all, just a “thank you” in your head or out loud.  You don’t even have to start with “Dear God,” if you don’t want to.  I often quietly thank God when I’m outside on the daily walks I take with the girls or when I’m working in the garden, because that is when I am most likely to be struck by the beauty or abundance of creation.  I’ve thanked God for mild breezes, warm sunshine, pea shoots, rich compost, and a full rain barrel, among other things.  Also, if you’re in a dark place, gratitude praying can sometimes help you climb out of that hole because it forces you to find something to be grateful for.  A few weeks ago I stormed out of the house, mad as hell.  After walking a while I forced myself to say some thank you’s.  I was first thankful for the bracing cold air coming off the river.  Then I was thankful for an outside space to which I could run, then for the freedom to be able to move about that space….and soon enough there was more to be thankful for than mad about.
  2. Rote prayers.  I don’t know many rote prayers.  Honestly only the last verse of Psalm Four, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Oh, and I guess the Catholic, Anglican, and broader Protestant dinner blessings that all children of said faiths can rattle off by the time they are five.  I turn to the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm Four when I need to recenter, when I’m too distracted or anxious to come up with something original.  But if all you know is “God is great, God is good…” start with that.  It is a blessing, after all, and repeating a blessing over and over again to help calm yourself down can’t be bad, even if it is a bit out of context.

Today is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week.  It commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and the beginning of his last days.  It was a time in which we see Jesus pray often – with his disciples at the Last Supper, privately the night he was arrested, and even when on the cross.  Jesus makes prayer look natural….but then again, he is Jesus.  Wherever, or however you start praying, just start. You’re not going to sound like Jesus, especially not at first.  But as with any other habits, practice makes perfect.  The important thing to remember is this: that praying (yes, your praying, however imperfect it may be) is making a difference in the world, even if that difference is “only” in yourself.

If you are learning from what you read here, please follow the blog for more.  Click the folder icon in the upper left corner of the menu, and you can follow via WordPress or email.  Please also consider supporting the blog through Patreon or Venmo.  Thank you!

Psalm 04 – Processing Our New Normal

Answer me when I call to you,
    my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress;
    have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

How long will you people turn my glory into shame?
    How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?
Know that the Lord has set apart his faithful servant for himself;
    the Lord hears when I call to him.

4  In your anger do not sin;
    when you are on your beds,
    search your hearts and be silent.
Offer the sacrifices of the righteous
    and trust in the Lord.

Many, Lord, are asking, “Who will show us any good?”
    Let the light of your face shine on us.
Fill my heart with joy
    when their grain and new wine abound.

8 I will lie down and sleep in peace
    for you alone, Lord,
    make me dwell in safety.

 

I am fortunate enough to work from home to begin with, so “sheltering in place” for COVID-19 has been less disruptive to my routine than it has been for many.  I already had my youngest here full time (now her older sister is officially home until August, since the rest of the school year has been cancelled for Virginia), and right now my farm duties consist mainly of keeping everyone fed.  That’s no small feat with three hardworking men in the house (our two farm employees live with us at the moment), but it’s something more or less compatible with watching children simultaneously.

That being said, I feel like we’re living in a state of suspended animation.  The farm is doing well, for now.  We lost all our wholesale business but retail demand has spiked.  How long that will last is uncertain, as economic hardships become more likely for at least some of our customers as time wears on.  Farmer’s markets, due to open in about a month, have been at the very least postponed.  So I wonder what the future will bring, living in a little bubble now with my two girls, doing pretty well at sticking to a schedule that leads us nowhere but down the road for a walk with the dogs, back to the kitchen table for some home-led occupational and speech therapy, and into the garden after quiet time.  It’s pretty much the same day in and day out.  I’m guiltily enjoying the day-to-day of it, except for the rainy days that make outside-time a little less fun and a lot shorter.  But I don’t know what’s on the horizon: will we be able to continue like this for weeks, possibly months?  Will the orders hold, the money hold?  How long til we can go to the playground again, see grandparents again?  Will farmers markets start up in the summer?  Will our restaurants come back online in a way that allows them to order from us again?  All I can do is sit here and wonder.

The dichotomy of spring bursting forth while the world crumbles in on itself is disorienting, as well.  I have gone grocery shopping twice now, and each trip into town it seems like there is a malignancy in the air.  There is a feeling of emergency because the shelves are empty. I’m afraid to breathe, afraid to touch anything.  The produce looks sinister because I do not know what germs might be lingering on the peels and rinds.  But then I get home, and see the remaining daffodils waving cheerily in a warming breeze, birdsong filling the air, and early butterflies fluttering by.  The wildflower meadow I’ve been painstakingly establishing the past two years has lots of new shoots in all different shapes and sizes, promising for a beautiful display starting in a few weeks.  My volunteer strawberries have flowers on them.  A few days ago, I had to turn the TV off after watching a special report on an Italian hospital because it was so unsettling, but that same day I noticed the tulip poplars are leafing out, and my mustard greens were sprouting second leaves.  Fear and joy follow each other in a tight circle right now.

Because of this unprecedented mass pandemic and the global effects it’s having not just on people’s physical health but also their economic and mental health realities, I’m going to set my Lenten reading of Job aside for now.  While Job makes an ever more relatable figure in this time of uncertainty and anxiety, I want to take a break from these passages of anguish to focus first on some passages of comfort and encouragement.  Perhaps, given the time, I’ll be able to provide some distraction, diving into some of the Bible’s most interesting stories, or provide an antidote to some of the fear-mongering eschatological readings some zealots like to throw around in times of crisis.  I’ll take it week by week.

Today I want to introduce you to my favorite Psalm, one I’ve been thinking of a lot in the past couple weeks.  It has been one of my favorites since high school.  It strikes the perfect balance between counsel and rejoicing.  I am not always great at self-regulating, and am very quick to anger when hungry, tired, or stressed.  As such, I have felt like verse four, “in your anger do not sin, when you are on your beds, search your heart and be silent” is always a needed reminder.  My fuse was very short at the beginning of our shelter in place, in truth I had a bit of a breakdown that first Sunday.

I’m terribly ashamed I let it get to that point, but I’m sure that a lot of people out there have similarly been pushed to their limits of late.  If you are having trouble, ask for help.  This is not some vague call for “self care,” a lovely idea that is often hard to put into practice due to constraints of time, money, and family.  No, this is a call to action.  And yes, there are still resources out there right now, even if person-to-person contact is limited.  For myself, I finally started counseling through Better Help – and guess what? They have an unemployment discount. If you are able to pay in bulk, the price keeps dropping.  They’ve also provided this article on free online therapy, and NAMI has this list of hotline resources for those in crisis or needing guidance in where to turn. I also finally got an anti-anxiety medication filled, too.  These two steps have helped me tremendously, and I’m not ashamed to admit to either.  Taking care of your mental health – in the form of counseling, medication, or otherwise – is of the utmost importance, especially in times like these.  Through these things, God has given me relief from my distress, indeed.

As a person prone to anxiety (and in recent years, insomnia) I especially appreciate that last verse, “I will lay me down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” and will often repeat it to myself in an effort to get to sleep. You see, I’ll fully admit to prayer not being the strongest part of my spiritual practice.  “Talking to God” does not come naturally to me, so I appreciate rote phrases, such as this or the Lord’s Prayer.  (The number of easily memorized, rote prayers is one of the things I find most appealing about Catholicism.)  If you, too, struggle with praying in times of trouble – or just in general – I suggest memorizing the last verse of this Psalm as I have and using it as your bedtime prayer.

I am finishing writing this as the girls watch a movie and dinner simmers on the stove.  With Chris throwing everything he has into farming while we can still make some money at it, I’m only left with stolen moments like these that I have time to write.  I’d love to be doing so much more, but I’ve made peace with it.  If a little writing time is all I have to give up, I’m doing pretty well.  I hope you are giving yourself the grace needed to get through this strange time, and would love to hear from you all on how you’re coping.  I am happy to lend an ear to anyone who needs to talk, provide comfort food recipes or activity ideas for small children, or recommend some readings.  Comment or message me, and be sure to take care of yourselves.  God bless, and I’ll be back with something new next Sunday.

If you are learning from what you read here, please follow the blog for more.  Click the folder icon in the upper left corner of the menu, and you can follow via WordPress or email.  God Vs. The Patriarchy is also on Instagram and Twitter, too.

Job 20 – Reconciliation is Dead Part 2: Joining the Broader Fight

17 He will not enjoy the streams,
    the rivers flowing with honey and cream.
18 What he toiled for he must give back uneaten;
    he will not enjoy the profit from his trading.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Zophar tells of all the wicked man will be forced to do: his own hands must give back his wealth, he will spit out the riches he has swallowed, when he has filled his belly, God will vent his burning anger against him.  I like Zophar’s latest speech better than Eliphaz’s recent one because it more fully acknowledges the greedy, opulent, and oppressive nature of the proverbial “wicked man.”  Of course we must remember that Zophar is implying that Job’s fortune was the “mirth of the wicked” and “joy of the godless.”  In Zophar’s mind, it wouldn’t have been taken away from Job if it hadn’t been so. As such, we must take Zophar’s words with a grain of salt.  But it still leaves me wondering, as I continue to ponder the phrase “reconciliation is dead,” is it appropriate for us to be agents of God’s anger, and if so, how would we go about doing it?

As a reminder, this is a blog about finding Biblical evidence of God’s radical love for all.  And I think it might be time – past time, really – for some tough love.  Let me fall back on a parenting analogy:  I try corrective behavior as much as possible in my house, trying to redirect frustration away from hitting and pinching when I see those little hands start to raise.  But sometimes, no amount of redirect is going to keep one sister from hitting the other, and the only recourse is a time out.  A swift, unceremonious scooping up of a child any way I can grab them, plopping them in their room, and shutting the door.  Talking comes later, after they calm down and aren’t a slappy, bite-y threat to the other one.  Perhaps a collective time out is needed for certain people, organizations, and governments, as well – and that gets me back to the call to action listed in this article (the same one mentioned in Part 1 of this series).

To recap: this article was written by native people for native people, at a time when First Nations in Canada are blockading railways and otherwise disrupting the economy in an effort to protect their unceded homelands from being stolen for pipelines and infrastructure that would be environmentally and culturally damaging.  There is no love lost in it for the Canadian government, and it’s outright anarchist in passages.  As I’ve said before, I still urge you to read it. It contains some very salient points that, if we are to stay true to Jesus’ message of love and stewardship, I think we are called to do as Christians.  Of course, these apply primarily to the land reclamation and defense movements going on but I think these points can also inform our larger role of Progressive Christian Activists.  Let’s examine them:

  1. Change the rules, breaking them if necessary.  The Wet’suwet’en have exhausted all other outlets for peaceably and legally challenging these land grabs.  The greed and destruction they are fighting against is wrong, so I fully support their “illegal” actions.  Remember, just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.  Didn’t we have a whole civil rights movement in this country to change the laws oppressing black citizens?  Remember that?  I don’t see thoughtful law-breaking as anarchy, I see it as fairness in action.  So let’s support these rail blockades, and look closely at the laws governing the lives of women, minorities, immigrants, children…are they fair? If not, maybe it’s time we stop following them.
  2. Widen our scope. The article talks about dreaming big – past just blocking the pipelines and into full reclamation of land and indigenous governing structures replacing the Canadian state.  I’ll admit, my knee-jerk reactions are “that’s impractical” and also “how many lives would that negatively impact?”  But what if we lean into that dream?  We need to shake off this image we have of red savages circling the wagons of innocent white folk.  No one is going to scalp us if  we actually start meeting these revolutionaries halfway, and truly figure out ways to: reduce and improve government, turning more of it over to local councils; encourage landowners to return that land to native stakeholders (I’m particularly thinking about farmland that would otherwise be bought by developers, and parks and public spaces that are the current responsibility of government); and just generally put more ecologically and culturally sensitive practices into place in white society.  All of these efforts would benefit not just native society, but broader society as well.  I’m not going to lie – we as white people are going to have to put a lot of good faith efforts out there to start this ball rolling, as we as white people have a long history of broken treaties and unfulfilled promises.  And that’s going to take some courage on our part.
  3. Unity. Again, this article was written by native people for native people, so its focus was on infighting and backstabbing between different nations.  But I’m going to go ahead and give the same strongly worded sentiments to women more or less in my situation (white, middle class) who refuse to pull the wool from over their eyes, like the neighbor up the road with a giant “Women for Trump” flag in her front yard.  Why, ladies, do you keep voting men into power that do not have your best interest at heart?  Men who lie, men who abuse women, men who rape the earth for their own gain?  I can forgive you your first vote for Trump, or McConnell, or whoever…but can you not now see the depths of their depravity? I know many of you are one issue voters who are only interested in seeing that abortion bans are put in place and upheld…but please, do not let that one issue blind you to the children – the same children you are so desperate to support when they’re in the womb – that they are hurting at the border, in reservations, in economically disadvantaged families.  If you would but stop and look, you have more in common with the Wet’suwet’en than you do with the oppressive men in power.  Please, I pray, that you recognize it.
  4. Prepare for a battlefield with multiple fronts – The author of the above article ends with a call for settlers to not fall into tired solidarity traps.  I hope I haven’t, and I’m encouraged by their call to fight parallel battles towards the same goal.  I stand with Wet’suwet’en, but I’m not standing idly by.  I’m looking around my own little community and seeing what needs to be done, teaching my own children the way they should treat the world, and the way they should demand it to be treated.  Doing the same with your children is an act of resistance.  So is reclaiming spaces where you are underrepresented or flat out discouraged (yay @accessibleyoga @queerswhofarm and @blackgirlstrekkin for just three examples of such initiatives on Instagram); interrupting the cradle to prison pipeline through education and restorative justice efforts; supporting ecological initiatives in your community (the plastic bag bans in certain states are just the tip of the iceberg); and just continuing to speak up, speak out, and create alliances with like-minded people whenever possible.

I want to close with some words from the original article (which again, you can read in full at the link above): “Being determined and sure is not the same as being unafraid. There are many dangerous days ahead of us. It is dangerous to say, ‘I will not obey.’ ” It is, and there is no guarantee that, even if we are the ones proverbially putting those currently in power in time out, that we will live to see the “fate God allots the wicked” which Zophar so illustratively describes in this chapter of Job.  But even if I don’t see all the changes that I hope and dream for in my lifetime, I want to at least make it a little better for my girls, and they’ll make it a little better for their kids, and so on down the line.  But none of that is going to happen if we don’t start working for it, now.  The battle cry has been issued: reconciliation is dead.  Let it be our invitation to join the fight.

If you are enjoying what you read please follow the blog for more!  Click the folder icon in the upper left corner of the menu, and you can follow via WordPress or email.  And don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter, too!