17 September 2009

Faith and certainty, part two

City Day in Elektrostal

New Humanities Institute's City
Day parade contingent gathers
Institute co-founder Sergei Kazantsev
Parade units form up on Soviet Street
United Russia's activists parade past
the reviewing stand
Part of the United Russia parade
Holiday souvenir stands lined Lenin
Prospect; Gzhel's stand features a
porcelain Chipollino
Judy and I paid ten rubles for this photo op
Just before City Day, the Fellowship of
Elektrostal Artists held its fall
exhibition and meeting
Fellowship president Misha Medvedev
gives his report

(part one; part three)

Does prayer "work"? Does intercessory prayer do any good? How can I be certain?

These questions have come up in my life again for several reasons. The first one is the simplest: Once again, my daily prayer list has several people on it who are struggling with cancer. I remember the first person I ever prayed for intensely who had cancer--as much as I visualized his home being full of irradiating light, and as intensely as I pleaded for us to have him remain in our company longer (he was a cherished member of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Right Sharing community), his time among us ran out. Nobody who asks for our prayers is expecting any sort of money-back guarantee, but still, sometimes I feel like whispering diffidently, "Maybe you should find yourself a more effective intercessor than I seem to be."

The second thing that sparked these thoughts was an entry on Liberata's Blog, "The Bumbling Quaker and the Virtuoso." Confidence in prayer is part of a larger theme that always fascinates me--faith and certainty, to which Liberata speaks eloquently. I see myself totally on both sides--I know that I can sometimes appear to handle Scripture as deftly as Liberata's Justin.

(NOT glibly--I cherish the Bible and have read it for decades, so it is not at all surprising that at least sometimes I can come up quickly with a needed verse).

But if you pin me to the wall with questions about why people suffer, why the prayed-for outcome doesn't happen, why the seeming randomness of suffering and catastrophe, I'm out of quick answers.

As I continue meditating along these lines, I remember a conversation with a pastor in Northwest Yearly Meeting. We were talking about a church where many members tend to approach questions of faith using their intellects. "Sometimes I wish I were serving a church where people had strong, simple faith," she said. I know what she meant! Is it possible that those who live in a culture of intense faith and gratitude actually experience more confirmations of answered prayer?

When I'm among people--I'm talking about committed believers, now--who point out that crippled airliners that crash probably had passengers praying just as intently as airliners that made miraculous landings, I can respect their zeal for integrity, their determination that piety not trump rationality. There's no room for an innocency that ignores the Holocaust and Hiroshima. But when I'm among people celebrating answers to prayer, I will equally not pour cold water on their gratitude! In fact, I will join right in.

Do I seem inconsistent? Guilty! But, happily, the third thing that is happening to me right now is that I'm hungrily re-reading Thomas R. Kelly's A Testament of Devotion, along with a Googlegroup of others gathered by Mary Kay Rehard. (Invitation to join is [was] available here.) Much of this book is an extraordinary beautiful and persuasive call to a life of prayer--in fact, prayer without ceasing--but it's not prayer for "results." It's prayer as holy attentiveness, and holy obedience. It's prayer that may lead to suffering as well as to healing. It requires lowliness (смиренномудрие in Olga Dolgina's wonderful translation) as well as confidence. As Kelly says (retranslating), we stop trying to direct God and make God listen to us; we become God's joyful listeners--listening to the Master who does all things well.

I cannot claim any mechanical connection between my prayers and the apparent outcome. The eventual outcome is not in doubt--today's apparent randomness, not to mention human capriciousness and cruelty, will sooner or later give way completely to the relentless pull of God's love, a process which has already started (hence the celebrations!) and might be hastened if we believers were more devoted to our part in fulfilling God's promises, instead (as some of us intellectual types are fond of doing) explaining why God really didn't mean those promises literally!! But for today, what I take from Kelly is not to be fixated on my effectiveness, but on remaining in that place of God-attentiveness.

PS: The thing I like about the best writers on prayer--Thomas Kelly and Anthony Bloom, for example--is their way of inviting me into a constant, daily practice. This is not a matter of being inspired momentarily by lofty language; this is solid material for daily work, for starting and ending each day, and for building a stream of attentiveness that flows quietly all day long. With my own tendency to get exasperated by setbacks--especially those that are my own fault--this constancy is key to any chance I have of being serious about prayer.

Righteous links:

Several of Thomas Kelly's sermons and essays are available on the Internet. This one is chapter two of A Testament of Devotion, "Holy Obedience." Here's a link to the Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Reality of the Spiritual World. (PDF format.) And the Tract Association of Friends makes available his classic essay, "The Gathered Meeting."

It's wonderful to see a credit line for Elektrostal's own Maxim Nilov in the latest exhibition announcement from Wolfson Design. (Pictures here.)

Several items from recent issues of Quaker Life: From the July/August issue, "Early Friends and Scripture," by Michael Birkel. And the current issue brings us a tribute to Tom Mullen, accompanied by Tom Mullen's own "Two Funerals and a Party."

What's happening to the Russian language? First of all, the number of users is declining. Second, English words are invading. (A mild article ... but there's more.) Third, lolspeak (note: vulgarisms abound). But it's comforting to see Judy's textbook from the Russian Language Centre--expressive "normal" Russian, a true linguistic treasure.

Oleg Dorman's Word for Word comes to the Russian TV screen. (Russian description here.) I hardly ever turn on our TV, so I missed this event--glad to know it's also coming out in book form. [UPDATE: I wrote about the book in this post. Excerpts from the television program are available in this Youtube playlist.]

Some evangelical commentary on Caritas in Veritate.

Rest in peace, Mary Travers. ("Conscientious Objector.")


Bill Samuel said...

Johan, I read your account of the conversation with the NWYM pastor just after coming back from the discipleship group I'm in which is using Renovare's Spiritual Classics.

This week we were on Paul Tournier. He says, "I have often had occasion to share silence with others. I can say in general that it is the less sophisticated person who understands best. A rustic who decides to listen in to God can in five minutes make you a list of all his problems, which a professor of philosophy would be incapable of doing. Children understand straightaway, too. The naked truth comes out. We are dealing with simple matters, and modern people have lost their understanding of such things."

Johan Maurer said...

I wouldn't want to put it that starkly, because I have known "sophisticated" intellectuals whose faith is practically incandescent. (And I don't want to be mistaken as over-romanticizing "rustics"!) But in pointing at a tendency, Tournier might be right.

forrest said...

Why on Earth would anyone want a mechanical connection between your prayers and what happens in response?

We have a wise Friend; we can ask a favor and can reasonably expect to receive it if there's no good reason we shouldn't.

If there is good reason to deny anything we've asked for, it's a very good thing our request does go to One with better discernment.

Responses to prayers -- as I've experienced them -- have been more often surprising than mechanical. Life is better that way, isn't it?