Recently I had a camping trip to Wombeyan Caves. It was at the campsite that this picture of a goanna was taken. On seeing this photo, one of my friends asked, “Were you using a telephoto lens, or were you very close?” My initial answer was “A bit of both.” In fact, when I lifted my eyes from the viewfinder of the camera I went “Oops, I’m a lot closer than I thought I was.” Initially the goanna had been much further away. I had not moved but had been concentrating on taking photos. Slowly the goanna had been moving toward me and the photos had been getting better and better.
A few days later I was reminded of Abraham Heschel’s comment on prayer that often we are mistaken in thinking that we must search for God, rather it is God who comes to us and it is we who must respond. Often in prayer we are tempted to keep God at a distance. We don’t like the experience of “Oops that was a bit close” because prayer opens us up to the dangerous and to the unexpected, at least as far as our self-centredness and our fantasies of our self-importance are concerned. Prayer may often be reassuring and comforting, but it never loses its underlying “goanna” edge.
Often progressive Christians struggle with the notion of prayer. Many progressives have rejected the idea of an omnipotent powerful God, who micromanages the universe on our behalf if only we have enough faith, are persistent enough or pure enough. However, the question is often left open as to how God responds, or even does God respond, or perhaps can God respond to prayer. These are complex questions which have been asked well before modern times. In a sense these are questions which each person must struggle with and formulate their own answers.
Yet, I think the progressive Christian movement could have given more guidance. Too often the questions on prayer have been quickly dismissed as infantile. Yet they are among the deepest and most meaningful of questions.
With this is mind, I was heartened to hear a fascinating podcast on petitionary prayer in which the author, counsellor and theologian Mark Karris was interviewed by the eccentric broadcaster and theologian Tripp Fuller.
Mark Karris proposes that when we seriously petition God, we should think of it as “conspiring” with God. Conspiring has the sense both of “breathing with” God, but also being subversive to injustice and evil in the world. In this sense, when we petition God, it is not we who are waiting on God to act, but God who is waiting on us. God has already acted and is acting in the world. God’s love is already in the suffering and hurt and pain that our prayer has spoken of. It is we who must enact that love. What are we are going to do? This is why Karris calls petitionary prayer, “beautifully dangerous.”
Karris goes on to criticise the petitionary prayers that we often hear in churches. He claims that they mar the image of God. They do this by putting all the responsibility for changing the world on God. In so doing they distance us from God and let us off the hook. We lose the opportunity to conspire with God, to breath together.
This is a challenge for nearly every church. The prayer of petition should not be the section in which we quietly go to sleep, but the section in which we go “Oops, that was a bit close, how must I respond?”
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