Saturday, February 21, 2009

Radical Praying

book cover
Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers
Prayer for ordinary Radicals
Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove
InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 2008

This is not a book about the kind of prayer where we tell God things God already knows, as if Jesus needs a reminder that kids are dying in Sudan. Nor are we talking about the kind of prayer that excuses us from responsibility. Any time we ask someone for help and hear "I'll pray about that," we know to start working on plan B. As our friend John Perkins from CCDA says, "When you see someone who needs a handicap ramp, don't go pray for a ramp! Build them a ramp."

When we pray to God asking, "Why don't you do something?" we hear a gentle whisper respond, "I did do something. I made you." Prayer is important. Just as important is the call to become the answer to our prayers.

We have so much to unlearn before we learn.

Here's the good news: prayer and action can go together; in fact they must. Otherwise we have little more than a bunch of inactive believers or worn-out activists, and neither do much good for the world.

Our Father in Heaven
Jesus' prayer does not begin with us or our needs--not even our confessions or our big dreams for the kingdom (though all of these are important and will follow). The prayer begins with a transcendent God beyond the boundaries of this world, whose name is so hallowed that it is not even mentioned. Instead of name for God, we are given a characteristic of God. God is Father--our Father.

When we say "Amen" at the closing of the Lord's Prayer, we are proclaiming, "So be it."
Saying "Amen," we commit ourselves to be the instruments that enact God's kingdom on earth. It is not the end, but the beginning. Let us begin to be Christians again. Amen.

As two people who love both the worldwide church and our particular communities dearly, we have to issue this warning: If you get involved with God's people, you will get hurt. The Holy Spirit makes it possible--compels us, even--to share lives with one another, live together, do each other's dirty work, offer hospitality, make peace, share money, raise kids together, start car co-ops and serve our neighbors. But if you do all those things with broken people (and broken people are the only kind available), you will hurt each other. You will be betrayed in one way or another. And you will, despite your best intentions and greatest hopes, betray. You will even forsake the people who have time and again laid down their lives for you.

A lot of intentional communities and justice movements get started because people's hearts are stirred by God's love for the poor and Jesus' passion for justice. In our own prayer lives, we have learned that activism alone will not sustain community life, and protest doesn't necessarily make us more loving people. It is so very important for the church to learn to name the powers and principalities, and to cry out against them. But it is equally important for us to remember that God has a plan to save the whole world through this peculiar people called "church." So nothing is more important than figuring out how to be church together.

As our brother Rodney Clapp says so well, we are still to "eavesdrop on the world" even as we create a new one, and practice the art of selective engagement and sanctified subversion. [Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People (Downers Grove, ILL." InterVarsity Press, 1996), pp. 154-57]

In his book The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark asks how faith in Jesus spread from a little community on the margins of the Roman Empire to the whole known world over the course of just a few centuries. He doesn't ask the question as a missiologist, but his observations are fascinating as we think about missions.

As far as Stark can tell, employing the tools of sociology and history, Christianity spread throughout the world because communities of Jesus' followers were willing to welcome outcasts and care for the dying, even at the risk of their own lives. In the ancient world, before modern medicine made abortions possible, people who had unwanted children would leave babies outside of the city to die from exposure and be eaten by wild animals. But early Christian communities, because they believed every life was a gift from God, would rescue these children from abandonment and raise them as their own. Evidently, a majority of these kids were girls. They grew up to be Christian women who had children of their own, and they passed their faith on to their children.

Another way early Christianity grew, Stark says, was through Christians' care for the dying. Because there was no way to stop the spread of plagues in the ancient world, it was common practice to flee the city when a plague broke out, leaving the sick and dying behind. Stark says that the Christians, instead of running for their lives, would stay to take care of those who were suffering the plague. Often all that people needed to survive the flu or other viruses was the basic nursing care of food, water and a bath. Meanwhile,

Christian nurses were developing immunity to these sicknesses. Stark guesses that when the patients who had been given up for dead recovered, they were interested to hear about the faith of those who had stayed around to save them. And when the plagues came around again, more Christians had the immunity to survive. [Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 98

Maybe Christians wouldn't be nearly as embarrassed about evangelism if we tried sharing good news more like the early church did.

This book has been about the marriage of prayer and action. We began by suggesting that we need to pray like everything depends on God and live like God has no other plan but the church. We are the ones God is waiting on. When we throw our hands up at God and inquire, "Why do you allow this injustice!?" we have to be ready for God to toss the same question back at us.

Predictably, some will say it's absurd to assert that we are the answer to our prayers because God is the only answer to prayer. That's the beautiful mystery: we have a God who chooses to need us. We have a God who doesn't want to change the world without us. We have a God who longs to cooperate with us, to allow us to fail and flounder and who promises to make up for our shortcomings, but nonetheless wants us. It's the story of our faith. Certainly nothing hinges on our own ingenuity or strength; quite the opposite--God works through weakness.

This is the great paradox and humor of God's audacious power: a stuttering prophet will be the voice of God, a barren old lady will become the mother of a nation, a shepherd boy will become their king, and a homeless baby will lead them home. God works not in spite of but through our frailty.

Prayer is not so much about convincing God to do what we want God to do as it is about convincing ourselves to do what God wants us to do." —from the Introduction

Activists Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove show how prayer and action must go together. Their exposition of key Bible passages provides concrete examples of how a life of prayer fuels social engagement and the work of justice. Phrases like "give us this day our daily bread" and "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" take on new meaning when applied to feeding the hungry or advocating for international debt relief.

If you hope to see God change society, you must be an ordinary radical who prays—and then is ready to become the answer to your own prayers.

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