Tuesday, July 12, 2005


I think of prayer, and approach prayer, somewhat differently from most people. Most of the things I hear and read about prayer are about very deliberate words and thoughts addressed to God at specific times, or for specific reasons. (I have read that, for the ancient Hebrews, a "prayer" was a public chant or proclamation to God, while Jesus was the first to suggest that prayer might be private.)

With me, prayer is more like an aside. I'll be thinking about something, really chewing on it or wrestling with it, not thinking of God at all, but then at some point a part of my brain will say, "What do You think, God?" And then I’ll get the answer.

(And, if you don’t mind my saying so, sometimes the answer is a little flip, but I've come to expect that from God because He usually doesn't waste time beating around the bush or sugar-coating it for me. ... But I digress.)

Jesus tells us that God already knows what we need, so praying for what we want is an exercise in redundancy. And Jesus also promised that God will provide what we need.

The great Christian theologian and Phillies center-fielder, Gary Matthews, once said that he believed that all prayers are answered, but that sometimes we don't like the answers.

So we need to distinguish between what we want and what we need.

I once heard a sermon about prayer that drew on the story of the death of King David's first-born son by Bathsheba. (2 Sam. 12:1-23) David had arranged for Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, to die in battle, and then David took Bathsheba as his wife. This "displeased the Lord," and God told David that Bathsheba's son by David would die. According to the Bible, David pleaded with God, fasted, and prostrated himself on the ground for six days. On the seventh day, the child died, and then David got up, washed, went to the temple to worship God, and then ate. His servants couldn't understand why David would fast and weep while the child was alive, but get up and eat once the child was dead. David explained, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said 'Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.' But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me." (2 Sam. 12:22-23)

The preacher used this as an example of the failure of prayer, but it is actually an example of success. David got what he needed, even though he didn't get what he wanted. What David needed was humility and the strength to accept God's will (i.e., the death of his son), and David got those things from his prayers. So David's prayers were answered, even though David didn't like the answer.

I sometimes think of prayer as a "reset" button for our brains. When a computer gets so hopelessly confused and messed up that it doesn't operate properly any more, the solution is to "reset" the system and start all over, with a clear memory and all of the operating priorities back in order. Similarly, prayer is I how lose the crazy thoughts with which I have become obsessed and am able to reconnect with God.

Which is what I usually need.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

The Meaning of Communion

As a teenager in the Presbyterian church, I decided that I didn’t understand the meaning of communion. This is my body, broken for thee? Eat of it? Why should we eat the body of Christ and drink of the blood of Christ? It didn’t make any sense to me, and it seemed to be cannibalistic.

And so I stopped taking communion. I couldn’t share in something that I didn’t understand.

Later, when I was in my thirties, I started taking communion again, but not because I understood what it meant. Only because I thought I should share the communal experience.

Then, one Holy Thursday during a Tenebrae service, I decided to try to figure out what Jesus might have meant by the words of the Last Supper. What was he thinking? What was he feeling? Why did he say what he did?

I tried to imagine that I was Jesus, and that I knew what the New Testament accounts said that I knew, meaning that I knew that I would be betrayed, that my disciples would desert me, and that I would be tortured to death. Imaging that, I felt alone and scared. Imagining myself at a Passover seder, an annual celebration that is rich with symbolism (and feeling somewhat melodramatic), I realized that I might have asked my disciples, when they gathered for the same Passover celebration next year and in years to come, to think of the bread that was broken as my body, broken for them, and to think of the wine as my blood, spilt for them, and to remember me as they eat the bread and drink the wine.

In other words, I imagined a plea from Jesus that he be remembered. He was lonely and scared, and he wanted to be remembered. So he asked his disciples to remember him during Passover meals in the future.

And that’s all there was to it.

And, in thinking of Jesus in that way, I saw a great irony in the traditional celebration of the Last Supper, because it is celebrated as a holy event, a sacrament, full of divine meaning. But there was no divine meaning. Jesus was asking for a very human thing: to be remembered. What is called "holy communion" has all of the theological significance of a group of guys hoisting a beer at a corner bar and saying, "Here’s to Jesus."

Which is a relief to me. It's a relief to know that I haven't missed something or misunderstood something. And it's a relief and comforting to think of Jesus in a very human and very understandable way.

As a result, I still don’t have much use for communion. But every year, before Easter and during Lent, I like to pause, lift a glass of something, and say "Here’s to Jesus."

I like to think that he’d like that.