The power (and limitations) of prayer

In recent weeks there was a story in the news of a Pentecostal couple who were sentenced to several years in prison for failing to give medical attention to their child. Their son had died after contracting bacterial pneumonia. The couple, who believed in faith healing, were already on probation following the death of their first child to diarrhea.

I am a firm believer in the power of prayer. I pray for those who are sick. But I am also a firm believer in the tremendous gift of medicine. It is a ‘both/and’ situation!

I have been pondering this week whether we apply the same kind of logic to emotional problems. Do we expect miraculous healings for things which have been deeply imprinted on our psyche? And… do we consequently fail to seek out the assistance of those equipped to help us.

Many psychological disturbances are the emotional equivalent of a cold. Give yourself a bit of break, ease up a little, and treat yourself gently and in a relatively short time the issue passes. As with a cold any medical intervention is probably inconsequential.

But occasionally we stumble across things which are truly problematic. Counselling is not a cure-all and it can be a bit hit and miss. Nonetheless, I am still surprised when I come across people who seek the healing of profound trauma simply in prayer.

I have certainly found tremendous healing for emotional issues through a combination of prayer and spiritual direction. My argument is simply that we still need to do the work. There are no short cuts. And often we cannot take ourselves on the journey we need to go on. We need a companion and a guide.

If we simply try to pray away the pain and it doesn’t go away we are left in a space where we are both broken and think we have insufficient faith. I can’t see why God would not want us to make the best use of the resources around us!

What counts as truth?

I have been pondering this question for the last few days. I remember a situation that happened in my last year of school. For years I held a particular version of that story until it dawned on me on everyone involved was in the midst of grieving. The facts as far as I understood them remained the same, but the flavour of the story changed.

Even the ‘facts’ as I think they occurred may have been a little different. There quite probably were things that happened that influenced the outcome that I will never know about. It is twenty years later now and I’m not sure anyone could unravel what really happened.

So where does the ‘truth’ lie?

In one sense, it doesn’t matter, I have made my peace with this particular set of circumstances. But I am grappling with something else from my past at the moment and this question is pertinent.

Events which are strongly emotionally charged are always difficult to get a handle on. And I am not sure that the best way to discharge the emotion is to try and get to the ‘objective truth’. I’m not sure at all that there is an ‘objective truth’ at all.

Rather perhaps to look at myth that I have created. Myth here meaning not simply something ‘made up’ but something which may not be literally true, but which holds symbolic meaning. I need to sit with the myth and explore it. To examine my emotional responses and to explore the possible intentions of those who were involved.

Sometimes the myth may shift a little in the exploration. As in my earlier example, the discovery of the importance of grief in the process changed the way I viewed the whole thing.

On my current exploration I am not sure where the journey will end, or what will be revealed along the way. For now I will simply let it be. I will pay attention and allow for the possibility for a shift.

In all I pray for grace, and trust that God has the truth in hand. And just as my understanding of God is limited and partial, so too my understanding of this particular situation will remain limited and partial. But even my limited and partial understanding of God has brought me a long way, so too I trust that my limited and partial understanding will be sufficient.

Slips in theology

‘God will give us peace, but first we must give Him our worries’

I hate these kind of sayings!

God will give us peace, but……

I have come across similar messages two or three times in the last week, and each time I find myself internally raging.

The problem that I have is that the implicit message is that we have to act in a certain way to somehow unlock God’s mercy. In this case, before we get the peace we so long for, we must hand over our worries. The converse to that – until we hand over our worries God won’t play ball.

There is an important slippage there. It is absolutely true that we are unlikely to find peace until we are able to surrender our worries. And I believe God is the source of that peace. I certainly have found that in my own life the transition towards peace has happened when I recognised my profound need for grace.

But I think what prevents the movement into peace is my own clinging to the world I knew before the chaos began. That isn’t on God, that is something I need to let go of.

I cannot believe in a god who would withhold comfort because I haven’t completed the checklist. In my experience it is I who blocks God’s action in my life.

If we fail to notice this slip – we can end up pouring coals on the head of someone who is already in pain. And we do so with the very best of intentions, often never noticing the wreckage we leave in our wake.

Getting to place where peace is possible is a bit life the journey of grief – it takes time and there are many stages along the way.

The only acceptable response to those who have not yet found peace is compassion. And the only prayer to be prayed is that they might find the desire to hand over their worries to God.

Loved sinners

‘If anyone among us does not feel in need of God’s mercy, if he does not consider himself to be a sinner, it is better that he not go to Mass! We go to Mass because we are sinners and because we wish to receive God’s forgiveness, to participate in Christ’s redemption, his forgiveness.’ Pope Francis

The ego is a powerful force and is quite averse to taking real responsibility for errors of judgement. I had a very interesting experience earlier this week where in the space a several hours I watched myself play through the different elements of my ego’s response to causing someone offence.

It began with sending an email. The email was sent in haste without proper thought in the early hours of the morning. At lunch time one of the recipients of the email expressed his unhappiness with the email in a very direct, non-confrontational way. I immediately acknowledged his upset and the conversation ended.

In the minutes after the conversation I found myself tracking over whether his upset was reasonable or not, and I found myself trying to minimise the significance of what I had done. Then I stopped.

I realised that the point was, that I was in the wrong, and he did have a reason to be upset. So I sent a follow up email with a real apology and he responded quickly with a note of thanks. Issue resolved – no big deal.

Nonetheless I was still a bit angry and frustrated at having been exposed (albeit in a very private way – I don’t think anyone else was aware of the interaction at all). Having deprived myself of the possibility of projecting my anger onto my friend, it turned inwards and I started beating myself up – how could I have been so foolish….

And then I realised that my ego was well in control and playing havoc with my mind!

The point of this anecdote is that we avoid being called sinners at all costs. Truly coming to terms with the fact that we are broken, and that we knowing and unknowingly hurt others is not easy. We fight it through justification and excuse. Avoiding the uncomfortable truth that we are indeed a part of the problem with ‘the world’.

It is hard to come to terms with because we don’t believe in unconditional love. We hide our transgressions because we feel we need to. Being a part of the church doesn’t make us good. It certainly doesn’t make us sinless. Rather, it should be the one space where we can be freed from the crippling shame which causes us to withdraw and isolate ourselves when we have transgressed. It should be the space where we can hold our capacity to sin seriously, but lightly.

We come to church because we sinners. We come because we need redemption. And we should be doing all we can to help those who worship with us to access forgiveness.

In the small interaction this week, I found myself deeply moved by the process of admitting my fault, acknowledging the other’s right to be upset, apologising and being released from it by the other.

So simple, and yet, all too often we avoid it at all costs.

Start with today

Making changes in our habitual patterns can seem like an insurmountable hurdle. We may know that we want to change something but at the same time find the thought of restructuring our day (or a part of the day) impossible.

My willpower is so easily overcome when I see myself trying to make this same decision every day for the rest of my life. Living a pretty busy and engaged life there are always good reasons to be easy on myself. All too quickly I let myself for today because blah blah blah. And before I know it another week has gone by and I have let my new resolve slide more often that.

But there is hope.

I have found that when I am in such a bind that the best way to approach it is to forget about the future. I simply make a choice for today. Today I will exercise; or today I will pray; or today I will forgo alcohol; or today I will eat more fruit and veg.

Somehow I am able to make that decision for today and because the choice is just for today there is no excuse to ease off. Then I try to make that choice several times a week. Over time the new habitual pattern becomes a part of my reality. It becomes a choice that is easy to make and carry through.

Once that is my pattern for three or four days a week, it isn’t nearly so hard to make it an every day thing. It then isn’t really a matter of will, so much as it is of recognising the benefit that the new behaviour has brought.

Richard Rohr once wrote ‘We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking’.

I thought I understood this quote until I stumbled in this new way of repatterning myself. Up until now I have tried to think my way into the new way of being. Now I am simply trying to live it. Praying that if I keep trying for long enough – it will take root.

Delicious fatigue

Fatigue is something that plagues me. I don’t have a huge amount of energy to begin with and I am just beginning to the learn the extent of my own limitations. So fatigue has been an old friend. I understand now that all too often my fatigue is rooted in my emotions. An unresolved issue is the energetic equivalent of trying to fill a bathtub when there is no plug.

And yet, there are days when the fatigue has a completely different quality. It is a fatigue at the end of a long and productive day, where I have managed to face things rather than procrastinate; where I have made phone calls and sent emails that I had been avoiding.

The image of the bathtub is a helpful one. I begin to really see the cost of my avoidance.

And yet in the middle of the day the temptation to say – I’ll get to it a little later – can be so powerful.

On days when I do get it right and I do feel that I have worked a good day I choose to savour the delicious taste of the fatigue of an honest day’s work.

I feel the temptation to wonder why I can’t achieve this every day? It is an important question. And I think it is good to ask such a question when I am feeling reasonably well. I know that fatigue plays havoc with my capacity to discern, and so even in this most succulent fatigue I am not at my best.

So for now I will simply celebrate that I know such days at all. And I will pray for the grace to deal with the things I least want to just a little more timeously!