So a few years ago, my friends Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson of Two Friars and a Fool told me about a book they were writing together called Never Pray Again. I admit I was a little skeptical - heck, I'm still a little skeptical - but as they explained the questions and ideas behind their of their provocatively-titled project, I knew it would make for a great conversation-starter. (And far be it from me to challenge a book idea on a provocative premise!)
Anyway, the book has finally been released and Aric has given us a little glimpse of its content with a guest post today. Aric is a Presbyterian minister from Fort Morgan, Colorado, who you may remember from his pervious guest post on "the passionate Mainline." You can find Aric, Doug, and Nick at http://twofriarsandafool.com/ and @TwoFriars.
Along with my partners in crime, Doug Hagler and Nick Larson, I recently published a book entitled Never Pray Again.
The book began as a thought experiment: What if we took the word “prayer” out of a variety of public and private forms of prayer? What would be left? Instead of prayers of confession, we'd just have an imperative to confess. Instead of prayers for intercession, we'd have an imperative to intercede. We noticed that in almost every case, there was an interesting spiritual practice rooted in neighbor-centered activity instead of the predominantly passive mode of prayer.
With this in mind we structure our book to follow the ordo of liturgical worship. We begin with types of prayer designed to call us to attention, move through praise, confession, intercession, thanks, and so on. We also threw in a couple unusual styles of prayer, such as exorcism...because exorcism is rad.
But one type of prayer absolutely didn’t get included. It wasn’t even considered, and that is imprecatory prayer. Imprecatory prayer is when you beseech God to harm or punish someone you think deserves it, either as an act of vengeance for something they did to you, or generally because their behavior or lifestyle offends you. It’s found in scripture, notably in the psalms (eg: “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.” - psalm 109:9), and some Christians argue it is an appropriate way for faithful people to respond to sin in the world through prayer.
If you applied our thought experiment to this type of prayer the results would be unthinkable. Imagine if someone tried to turn psalm 137 into lived action: “A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock!”
The obvious barbarity of this serves, in my opinion, as the exception which proves our thesis that prayer as a surrogate for direct action is detrimental to our spiritual life. Everyone would be instantly appalled if Christians started acting out vengeful fantasies, even if the victim was broadly agreed to have deserved punishment. And yet some Christians don't see a problem with calling upon a divine intercessory power they fervently believe to be capable of enacting their petition to mete out bloody judgment.
Maybe what this reveals is that people don’t actually believe what they claim. They know that God isn’t going to be bringing any columns of flame down on anyone’s head just because they said “pretty please.” In the same way that most Christians will take you to the doctor if you break your leg no matter how much they insist that prayer is what actually cured their cousin’s cancer and “it will cure your depression too if you just have enough faith.”
But I think an even more important lesson here is that we’re pretty comfortable with the idea that our beliefs expressed through prayer don’t impact the world very much. Part of the reason we pray is to avoid doing something that carries a greater risk of succeeding.
When I recently met with students at DePauw University in Indiana to discuss Never Pray Again one of the things I said to them was, “If your spiritual practice is such that it is possible to have a good relationship with God while having a terrible relationship with your neighbor then you are deceiving yourself about your relationship with God.” What if a major function of prayer is to numb us to this dissonance in our lives, to make us feel like we’re working on our relationship with God the whole time our relationship with our neighbors is deteriorating?
After all, some of the most pious and fervent prayer warriors out there feel perfectly at ease praying for their enemies to be struck down. If that makes you even a little uncomfortable, you might consider replacing some of your prayers with more concrete, neighbor-centered action.
Do you think we use prayer as an excuse for not taking more action toward loving our neighbors as ourselves? Why or why not?
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