Mystery of God – Part 5
Text: Matthew 1:23
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
Over the past few weeks we have been exploring what I called the mystery of God. I have mentioned that I believe the mystery of God often comes to us in the form of a question. Some of those questions that we have been examining are often asked by individuals searching for that Divine connection that we often find elusive. Questions like why bad things happen to good people, or what is God or perhaps who is God are the kinds of questions we ask and hear. I have also mentioned that I believe sometimes the answers to those questions, or at least the beginning of understanding around those questions can be found in our natural world.
Today, I want to explore a new question; does God answer my prayers? As we begin to unravel the mystery around this question I want to look first at the scripture I read a few minutes ago. The text states that the name given Jesus is Emmanuel, which means God with us. Is that not the very intent of prayer? If you think about it, when we pray, we want to bring God in alignment with where we are and what we are experiencing. We want God to be with us. The phrase to be with us can have multiple meanings; for example, we want to have God be present with us, beside us, like someone went with us to the movies or the mall. We also interpret the idea of God with us, as being supportive and pulling for us, we want God to be with us in the sense that we want God to desire the same outcome for us as we want. Much like we use the term when we describe our interest in an athletic team or a performer, “I was really with them” or “I was sure pulling for them to have a great game” are the kinds of comments we hear. When we think of God with us, I think we look for both of these manifestations of having God with us. We want to feel the personal presence of God and we want God pulling for us as well. I think most of us look to prayer to help us fulfill this desire.
But there is a fly in this ointment. What happens is that our prayers are not always answered in the way we feel they should be. When that happens, God is no longer with us; we feel the absence of God, we feel alone and lost. Sometimes our personal circumstances become so bad that we even feel that God is no longer with us, but perhaps even against us. It is not a good feeling and it can challenge your faith; I know, I have been there.
So I will ask the question again; does God answer your prayers. My answer to this question will probably surprise you, but before you react too violently or shut down completely I ask that you allow me to explain. This may also be a good time for the customary Pastor Chuck disclaimer that these are my thoughts and my ideas, they don’t have to be your thoughts or beliefs, but I do ask that you think about it.
So does God answer your prayers? I would have to say no. But my answer comes with an explanation and perhaps a different question. My new question might sound something like this; did God design a system in which prayer can make a difference? My answer to that question is a resounding yes! So let me see if I can explain the difference I see between these two questions and why I think it matters.
I have often said that I think the image we hold of God is an important part of our personal theological approach to life in general. I have also said that my personal image of God has evolved over the years to where I no longer image God as a being; more specifically, I no longer experience God as what is called an anthropomorphic being. That is a being with human like qualities. Last week I spoke of God as a Spirit and having qualities that resemble light more closely than a human being. The image of God that we hold makes a big difference in how we pray and what our expectations are of that prayer.
Years ago I believe that I did hold a much more anthropomorphic image of God. I saw God as an all-powerful being that had the ability to do anything and perform any miracle. When I prayed about something the answer to that prayer was viewed as a decision that God makes, either God says yes or God says no. The problem with that approach is that when it seems like God says no, it can be very difficult. It leaves you questioning everything.
I had an experience much like what I just described about 35 years ago. At that time my dad was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. The doctors told us after surgery that it would most likely grow back and when it did, a second surgery would not be an option and it would be fatal. The surgery and follow-up chemo provided about one more year of life for my dad. During that year we said lots of prayers for healing but God said no. So where does that leave you on a faith journey when God says no? Did you do something wrong? When Jesus told others that their faith had made them well, does that mean I didn’t have enough faith? I had a lot more questions than answers and I was questioning everything.
After that experience I pretty much decided that prayer didn’t make any difference at all. How could God say yes to one person and no to another? What kind of just God would do such a thing? Why did it seem like my father’s death was my fault? Why did it seem like I didn’t have the faith required to have God say yes? What was wrong with me? What was wrong with God?
The anguish I experienced going through this process was quite profound. Over time I began to realize that in other places, in other circumstances, in other peoples’ lives, prayer did sometimes change things. There was no denying that the evidence suggested that prayer can make a difference. There are even double-blind scientific studies that show prayer makes a difference. So why didn’t it work for me?
Eventually, I began to change the way I thought about God. As my image of God evolved, so did my attitude about prayer. As I moved away from the image of God as a being with human like characteristics that decided either yes or no based on my level of faith I began to feel better. As I moved toward a new image of God as energy or a source that we are allowed to tap into I began to realize that perhaps the answers to prayers are not as much up to God as they are up to us.
To ask the question does God answer my prayers seems to set as a pre-requisite the image of God as a being that decides yes or no. But to alter the question and ask if prayer can make a difference, puts the question in a more flexible state.
I now know and believe things that I did not when my dad got sick. I now know that thoughts and intentions and positive energy can have the power to alter our physical perception of reality. I know that what we believe we will see can influence what we actually see. I perceive God as part of that energy and when we tap into that energy we can share it with others and add to that positive energy. This is how I now think about prayer. When I pray, I am adding to the reserves of positive energy.
Sometimes that energy is just enough to make someone who is sick or dying feel just a bit better. Sometimes that energy is enough to slow the progression of disease and cause someone to live a year rather than just 9 months. Sometimes the energy is enough to actually stop the disease in its tracks.
The mistake I made when I prayed for my dad was that I was not looking for the difference that positive energy was making in the day to day. I was instead focused on an answer that was yes or no, life or death, healed of cancer or not healed and I thought that God made that decision. That concept that caused me so much pain was grounded in my image of God as a being with human like qualities. God as energy makes no such decision.
If you look to our natural world, we can see the same kind of energy flow as it moves and accumulates in one form or another. Just one quick example of what I’m talking about. In a few weeks we will experience the winter solstice; this normally occurs sometime close to Christmas day. That is why in our Christian faith tradition this date was chosen – it was already a holiday of sorts. The winter solstice is the day when the nights are no longer getting longer and the days shorter, but rather we turn that corner and the process of the days getting longer and the nights getting shorter begins.
Even though the days begin getting longer around December 22 or 23rd most years, the coldest months are still ahead of us. January and February are normally the coldest months of the year, even though during those months the days have been getting longer. There is an accumulation of energy, or the lack of energy, that has a bit of a residual impact. If you think about it, the same thing happens in the summer. The summer solstice arrives in the third week of June. From that time on, the amount of sunlight we receive begins to diminish. Yet what are the hottest months of the summer? July and August, right?
So when we pray, I believe we participate in an energy exchange similar to our understanding of the winter and summer solstice; it may take a while before our energy is manifest as something significant that we can observe. But it does make a difference and it does contribute to the whole. In other words, God never says no. We are free to join the flow of energy whenever we choose to do so and for as long as we choose to do so and it will always add to the accumulation of energy which will eventually come to manifestation. But if we are focused on only a yes or no answer, it can be easy to miss those little manifestations and begin to think that our prayers make no difference whatsoever. That, of course, is one of the many reasons I choose to image God as a non-being and that is food for thought.
Go in peace, Amen.