16 March 2006

The villages in my head

Maghera, IrelandOver the years, I've promised lots of people I would pray for them. Given my brain's embarrassingly limited storage capacity, how can I keep my promises?

It's important to me because sometimes praying is the only thing that seems within my power to do. Great outcomes don't seem within my power—my fantasies of a joyful miracle did not materialize for Tom Fox in Baghdad. But when I persist in prayer, I commit myself to staying oriented to God's realm rather than putting weight on political pretensions that have an even sorrier record than my own poor attempts at praying with power.

Old neighborhood in ElektrostalSometimes I am released from my prayer promises because the need is short-term. But sometimes I don't feel released even when the crisis is over; other times I know that the promise is a long-term commitment. And there are several people who don't know they're on my list.

I'm not quite sure when the people for whom I pray daily arranged themselves into villages in my head. There are three of those villages around a courtyard. In the courtyard are the people I pray for first—those whose company I seek least. Not exactly enemies, but we're not members of each other's fan clubs. As I leave the courtyard, my final prayer is for a guard on my own tongue.

Immigrant neighborhood in OsloThe first village is family and church. It's also the biggest. If I'm very tired, I sometimes drift off to sleep during my prayers for the people in this village, and wake up trying to remember where I left off.

The second village is for people linked to Friends United Meeting, either now or in the past. The Christian Peacemaker Teams hostages are in there. So are field staff and their children.

The third village is made up of all the other people I'm praying for daily. It's the smallest village, but also the most stable. Sometimes the population doesn't change for months or years. It's where I live.

More than prayer goes on in these villages. Especially back when I worked at Friends United Meeting, I was aware of how some of my inhabitants were, in real life, not very fond of each other; but in my inner world, reconciliations and collaborations were the stuff of happy fantasy. My Walter Mitty moments were the sometimes heroic ways I'd be able to help people overcome hostilities. Needless to say, in real life I was rarely that successful. Sometimes I probably made things worse, but prayer has always been a safe place to bring disillusionments and disappointments, whoever or whatever the source.

I like the perspective Philip Yancey brings to my reflections on prayer. In a wonderful Books & Culture article last fall, he wrote:
Prayer, especially, brings together Creator and creature, eternity and time, in all the fathomless mystery implied by that convergence. I can view prayer as a way of asking a timeless God to intervene more directly in our time-bound life on earth. (Indeed, I do so all the time, praying for the sick, for the victims of tragedy, for the safety of the persecuted church.) In a process I am only learning, I can also view prayer from the other direction, as a way of entering into the rhythms of eternity and aligning myself with God's point of view, a way to desire while on earth what God has willed for all eternity, to harmonize my own purposes with the purposes of God. In prayer I ask for and gradually gain confidence in God's justice and mercy and holiness, despite contemporary events that might call those traits into question. I immerse myself in the changeless qualities of God, and then return to do my part in acting out those qualities on earth: "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

More connections:

Yesterday in the weightroom I was listening to the Roadhouse blues podcast (No. 53—I'm a few weeks behind). Ruthie Foster was just starting a song, "Woke up this morning with my mind ..." and my own mind raced ahead to finish the line, "... stayed on Jesus." What she actually sang was, "... stayed on freedom." After being startled for a fraction of a second, I said to myself, "Same thing." I want to live in the village where people know it's the same thing.

(At the moment, I'm replaying the Ruthie Foster track. It's amazingly good.)

Lots of food for thought and fantasy in that particular podcast. Another wonderful track was the Mike Andersen Band and their song, "My Love for the Blues." He sings about my favorite American city, Chicago:

And I want to go to Chicago,
That town I have to see,
It's too late to see Muddy,
But then again Buddy Guy will do for me.

And I believe I can stand the weather
If it's true what people say,
This town's got blues,
Each and every day.

and a bit later in the song,

Now if you listen to the blues, people,
And to the words they sing,
I really don't blame you
If it makes you think,
'How could something so sad
Make a man feel so good?'
But the blues is a mystery
And I'd solve it if I could.
But the blues is as simple,
As simple as it may seem,
Three chords and twelve bars
Can make everybody scream.

To end this bit on a really profound note, here's a scrap of blues lyric I heard on the Salty Dog podcast: "She was raised up a Baptist, she'd never been kissed. When I got through with that woman, she became a Methodist." All lyrics are not created equal.

Revival: Northwest Yearly Meeting's electronic lists have hosted discussions of the recent spontaneous revival that broke out at Asbury College in Kentucky. I enjoyed reading these accounts, which manage to be both restrained and touching at the same time, on the Asbury College Web site:

How it began
... and continued
... and came to a close.
A student looks back.

A question that's not aimed at Asbury College in particular: The tears of joy and contrition in a revival are chemically the same as the tears of the torture victim. Are there other connections to be made? Can minds newly "stayed on Jesus" also be "stayed on freedom"?

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