Category Archives: Prayer

Charismatic Gratitude

Read this excerpt from _Grateful_ by Diana Butler Bass, then let’s discuss.

The sign outside read “Trinity,” and a stylized dove hovered above the logo formed from a Celtic cross and triangle. Underneath the picture, the line read, “Assemblies of God.” I wandered into the small church on my own, no friend, no family to accompany me. I was only seventeen, following the path of life’s first spiritual journey, and I had no idea that the Assemblies of God was a Pentecostal denomination, a group emphasizing the power of God through gifts like speaking in tongues and miraculous healing. I was not looking for any of that, however. I was just curious about church.

The sanctuary was simple, more like a cafeteria with carpet and nice chairs than any traditional church. Although the building was new, the congregation was not small—many people filled the seats as a professional-sounding band played music to warm up the crowd. The preacher, in a business suit, an odd choice of vestment for an Arizona summer, stood up.

“Welcome!” he shouted, “Welcome to God’s house! Let’s all thank Jesus for bringing us here! Get up! Stand up! Thank Jesus!”

The music swelled and people swayed, some chanting in a language that sounded like Latin to me, but full of strange intonations, maybe Chinese. The pastor pointed at a woman in the congregation.

“What do you thank Jesus for today?” And the reply: “That my mother was healed!” He shouted back, “Praise Jesus!”

He pointed again, “And you?” The response was tearful: “God paid my electric bill!” “Yes!” cried the preacher, “Thank you, Jesus!”

The music went on—a soft-rock litany of “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, thank you, Jesus.”

“Oh yes!” the pastor shouted, now needing no prompt from the congregation. “Thank you, Jesus! We all thank you! We praise you and thank you!”

It was like a spiritual sea, full of waves of praise, as all around me people with eyes half open joined their words to his as if mesmerized by gratitude, first gently whispering thanks and then shouting praise. From every direction flowed thanks—appreciation for miracles received, prayers answered, healings bestowed, financial provision, good weather, missionaries in foreign lands, heathens converted, children who spoke in tongues, the pastor’s recent sermon, and all who came to paint the new church. Hands were raised, palms facing up, waiting to receive the gifts of a good God; lips were ready with eager words of thanks. Everyone awaited grace, overwhelmed by gratitude.

Everyone except me, of course. I felt nothing.

Well, that is not entirely true. I was bewildered by this polyphony of appreciation. Maybe a bit angry, as I felt left out of their thanksgivings.

Is prayer a transaction?

“God waits for us in the inner sanctuary of the soul. He welcomes us there, where we can experience, in the words of Madame Guyon, a “continuous inner abiding.” And here is the joy: the results are always in excess of the work put in.”
From: Richard J. Foster. “Prayer – 10th Anniversary Edition.”

If one believes, as I do, that God is Omnipresent, then there is no place God doesn’t exist. That would, then, include “the inner sanctuary of the soul.” But to imply that God is only there, in our individual souls, seems wrong to me. First of all, what “soul” means is unclear to many people.

Some might say our soul is “the part of me that lives on past death and goes to heaven to be with God who is waiting for me there.” For those people, the notion that God is waiting for you in your own soul would seem strange indeed. Others might define “soul” the way Plato did… or perhaps St. Augustine’s Body-Soul split. How is Soul different than Spirit, for example. To say God waits for us in the soul implies God (the divine) does not similarly wait in our bodies. That’s anti-Incarnational; a part of the theology that allowed us to abuse the planet, other life here, and each other. Considering “the flesh” as “sinful” has had major negative impact on attitudes toward healthy sexuality, marriage, and the roles of women, etc.

Orthodox Christian theology is that, in Jesus, God became flesh and divinized us as whole beings. Paul taught that in Christ crucified and risen all of creation is reconciled to the Creator.

Madame Guyon’s “continuous inner abiding” is taken from “The Way of the Cross” from 17th Century France. She was a Contemplative who kept notes regarding her contemplation. These were later compiled. In one note she wrote:

“To be continuously turned deep inside simply means that, having turned within to God-by a direct act- you have remained in His presence. The only time you need to make a point of turning again is when your abiding is interrupted for some reason. You rest in the continuous inward act of abiding.”

Hmm. Foster is not talking about Contemplation. What Guyon observed is that once you learn Contemplation, you can keep it going a long time. As I understand it, Contemplation is a spiritual practice of many religions, most Buddhism, where one learns how to turn off the Cerebral stream of words and thoughts and rest that part of our brains. It must feel like God’s in charge and present when a person is in the pre-verbal parts of our brains (the brain stem mostly). At least that’s what they report and why they advocate it. I would have to take classes.

Prayer, overall, is a generic human practice. Although one might think Christians assume they invented it. There was a fellow at the table beside us at the bakery this week with a sign “Free Prayer.” His sign mentioned his Christian Church. He had a King James Bible open. Did he not know that we live in a community where our Muslim friends pray five times a day (for free). Orthodox Jews pray three times a day (for free). And for the past 10,000 years (before smallpox killed them), the Sammamish People who lived here prayed to their gods both individually and as a group. We don’t know much from before 10,000 years ago, but one has to guess that shamans and priests have offered up prayers since the invention of language.

But the phrase that most bothered me in Foster’s statement is “results in excess of…”

What? Prayer is a transaction in the Spiritual Free Market? Do we pray as an investment with a positive return? “Dear Lord, I hereby give you 50 cents worth of prayer time, time is money you know, and in return I would like you to cover the rent this month. Amen? Deal?”

I think prayer is a good thing, don’t misunderstand me. I just don’t think it’s a conversation with God who lives in my own soul, or that it’s about turning off part of my brain, or an investment with an expected positive return.

I learned that the “praying hands” position is from an old practice of binding the wrists of captured people so they’d be unable to carry a weapon or attack the captor. Eventually subjects would voluntarily assume that position before people of power to show submission, just like genuflection. The captor or master was their “lord”… who they might petition for something or other.

I hope prayer doesn’t require any particular posture, gesture, special table, room, or practice. And I hope it is more than going into our souls where god awaits us to reward us for a wise investment of time and effort.

Things to pray about, or meditate on, or contemplate…. or as I put it “to ponder.”