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.

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Matthew 21 – Growing from Criticism

We’re getting into some long chapters here, just FYI – keep reading!  There’s a lot of good stuff in them.

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,
    ‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”

14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.

16 “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.

“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,

“‘From the lips of children and infants
    you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?”

17 And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.

18 Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

21 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

24 Jesus replied, I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.

35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’]?

43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.

This chapter holds Jesus making his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed as a king.  A donkey is considered a royal mount, or even more specifically, a mount for the son of a king, which is fitting as Jesus is the son of God.  In addition to Zechariah 9:9 (the prophetic verses Matthew references here in v. 5), there is also an established Old Testament tradition of kings’ sons and households riding donkeys.  Judges 10:4 and 12:14, and 2 Samuel 16:2 all portray such.  Donkeys are gentle beasts, and used in contrast to war horses, like a metaphor for peaceful rule.  Additionally, throwing capes and palms on the road is an act of homage to royalty. So Jesus, and the crowd surrounding him, are really making quite a stir with this entrance.

While this is important to the linear story that is Jesus’ life, my focus today will be on the rest of the chapter, because in it I think we find the true instruction.  We have three examples of rebukes from Jesus.  The first rebuke comes when Jesus clears out the temple, expressing his anger and dismay at their “pay to pray” attitude. The second rebuke, and my favorite, is Jesus causing the fig tree to wither.  It is my favorite because I think we see a bit of Jesus humanity peek out.  By this point, Jesus has been doing a lot of travelling.  He is up early in the morning, going back to the city for what promises to be another long day, and hasn’t eaten yet. Seeing that fig tree from a distance he must have felt some relief, but then when he realized it didn’t have any fruit, he became angry.  How many times have you gone to a McDonalds and tried to order a shake when their shake machine was down?  I bet Jesus’ disappointment was akin to that feeling, and so he cursed the fig tree.  The third rebuke and longest example is Jesus back and forth with the Pharisees.  This takes place in a common teaching form at the time, with a question being answered with another question, along with two parables.  And while the end of the chapter states that the Pharisees start looking for a way to arrest Jesus, I believe that Jesus was truly trying to reach them on their level, if you will, in a way that would speak to their hearts.  These are learned men, remember, and they value discourse, which is what Jesus offered them here.  The tragedy is they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, accept it.

The question I was left with, after reading this chapter, is how to graciously accept a rebuke, a criticism, or correction, and grow from it? How do we avoid being like the fig tree, that withers, or the Pharisees, who get angry?  As someone who is quick to get defensive, I’m probably not the best person to answer this question.  But, I have Google, and if you, like me, struggle with growing graciously from criticism, here’s a few steps for you to follow:

  • First, don’t give in to anger.  This is probably the hardest step, since when someone tells us we’ve done something wrong, our first instinct is to defend ourselves.  But not giving into that first impulse of anger, indignation, or defensiveness allows us to analyze what we’ve just heard.  It’s totally OK if you need to separate yourself from the situation.  If the person criticizing you truly wants to see change, they should be able to accept it if you say something like “I hear what you are saying, but I need a moment [or whatever length of time you need, within reason] to process this.”
  • Now that you’ve established a rational headspace, you can determine whether or not the criticism offered you is, indeed, constructive or just a personal attack.  Constructive criticism offers ways to improve.  That might mean offering a solution for you to work towards, or just pointing out behavior that needs to change without relying on guilt and blame.  Guilt, blame, and general belittling is not constructive criticism, that’s just a personal attack.
  • If the criticism you received is constructive, great, you can work towards improving the situation, enrolling the help of your critic if appropriate – say, for example, if your spouse says they’re feeling like you never have time for them. In that situation, you have to enroll the help of your critic to come to a solution.  But if the criticism you received is a personal attack, you can still learn from it.  Try to stand in the critic’s shoes.  Perhaps they were just speaking out of anger that doesn’t really have anything to do with you, and you can dismiss it.  Saying a quick prayer of forgiveness and blessing for the critic sounds really hokey, but I find it helps me put it away.  But sometimes people can reveal truths to us in their anger or frustration.  Do your co-workers often get defensive or even combative with you on projects? Perhaps you are the one being overly bossy or pushy, and need to work on your soft skills a bit.  Stepping back and thinking the criticism through with a clear head and honest desire to better yourself will help you determine if there is a kernel of truth fueling the criticism, constructive or otherwise.  Also, talking it over with someone you trust can always help.
  • The final step is to grow!  Spouse feeling neglected? Make time for them!  Coworkers being uncooperative? Reach out to ask them how they think things are going.  Indignation and anger without analysis and action are going to get us nowhere, we’ll just stay stuck in a rut where things get worse.  God doesn’t want us there.  Remember, if we view God as our loving parent, Xe wants nothing more than for us to grow and mature.  And by learning from our experiences with others, even and maybe especially the criticism they offer us, we will grow in our relationships – not only with each other, but also with God.