Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Eve of All Hallows

There's a house a few blocks from where I live, on one of my regular walking routes, where Hallowe'en is the highlight of the owner's year. He puts up his decorations gradually, beginning about two months in advance, in the high heat of summer, with a digital sign that changes daily indicating the number of days left until October 31. The item in the picture here is, in my perverted opinion, his masterpiece, though some might argue for the pirate ship (see way below). I've actually met the guy (the owner of the house, that is, not the one in the picture), and he seems pretty normal, thirtysomething.

While he is certainly, by any definition, a little over the top and around the bend, the difference between him and rest of us is one of degree, not of kind. We find Hallowe'en strangely compelling, even as we disguise our feelings in playfulness, because we find the subject of death hugely compelling. It is the sum of all our fears. Whatever momentary worry we may experience during the course of a day, there is a direct chain between the feeling of that moment and our fear of death.

So how is it that we have come to mock that which we fear? It is, I suspect, a speciation of the same genre from which we get gallows humor. Some of our pre-Christian forebears in northern Europe apparently had an annual ritual in which they lampooned death and everything associated with it, including the spirits of the departed, evil and otherwise. In due course, the Church in the west, as a matter of mission strategy, exploited this observance and baptized it, linking it with the great festival of All Saints (or All Hallows; hence the eve thereof contracted to Hallowe'en).

In this context--the context of a festival in which we celebrate the exquisitely thin veil between the living in Christ and the dead in Christ--mocking death and the symbols of death begins to transcend gallows humor and make some actual sense. The defeat of Death by the resurrection of Jesus is the linchpin of all that it means to be a Christian. It is that alone which allows us to negotiate the territory of our primal fears with some degree of grace, and even joy. It is the truth of Easter that makes Hallowe'en possible. If Christ is risen from the dead, then those who have died with him in baptism stand in a pretty good place from which to mock.

Friday, October 05, 2012

On the Efficacy of Prayer

To be clear: I believe that it is the joyful privilege of Christians to pray for "the sick, the friendless, and the needy" and for "those in any kind of trouble" (both quotes are from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979). I believe such prayer may and ought to include specific petitions for specific outcomes. I also believe that God can and does act in the lives of those who pray and those who are prayed for in such ways as effect their healing, and that such healings often cannot be readily explained by medical science and may indeed, from a perspective of faith, be classified as miracles.

That said, I must confess that I get a little queasy when I hear language along the lines of "prayer works." 

A screwdriver certainly works to drive a screw. A hammer works to drive a nail. A lawn mower works to cut the grass. There is an evident and expected outcome to the use of each of these tools, provided that they are in good condition and employed under appropriate circumstances by a knowledgeable user. 

Last winter I fell and hurt my knee. A friend recommended an ointment called Blue Emu. I got some and used it and experienced temporary relief from the mild pain in my knee. I reported to my wife, "Wow. It worked!" I now recommend Blue Emu ointment myself. I have found that "it works."

Is prayer a tool? Is prayer something available for us to use, like a lawn mower or Blue Emu ointment? Would we say to someone, "Hey, try praying. If it works, great. If not, move on to something else."? 

These questions are difficult to answer with a flat out No, because it just doesn't feel right to demean something as sacred and precious to so many people as prayer. But it also doesn't feel right to cheapen prayer by putting it in the same category as Blue Emu ointment--just one more thing to try, and see if it works.

I suspect that, if we're going to talk about prayer as a tool, we would do well to think of it as a tool for God's use, not ours. God's pet project is to redeem the universe, and that includes the defeat of pain and suffering, from the trivial to the substantial to the cosmic. Blue Emu ointment is one small thread in the grand tapestry of redemption. Prayer is another one, though, I think it's safe to say, a much larger and more significant one. How all these threads fit together is something we can only catch rare glimpses of from our human point of view this side of Eternity. The virtue of humility, ever an aspirational virtue, seems to call for a certain degree of reticence in our statements about just how God is accomplishing his purposes. 

I shall keep praying. "While I breathe, I pray" (Andrew of Crete in the 7th century, via the magisterial translator John Mason Neale). I shall also keep an eye peeled for "God sightings"--miracles. But I'm still going to be uneasy about thinking of prayer as a tool at my disposal.