Shuck and Jive

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Prayer and the Powers--A Sermon

Prayer and the Powers
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 17, 2012

The apostles said to the Master, “Make our trust grow!”

And the Master said, “If you had trust no bigger than a mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree, ‘Uproot yourself and plant yourself in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Luke 17:5-6

Prayer is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet and washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes and then watching God swell with life and vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes. . . .
Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, p. 303

Last night on CNN I watched a segment about belief in God. The host was interviewing people about a recent survey that said more and more young people are doubting the existence of God. The people being interviewed thought that was a pretty good thing seeing this survey as an indication that reason would eventually eclipse superstition. One of the guests implied that it is time to give up on outdated belief systems, magical thinking, and supernaturalism.

The reasons offered for this shift were many and varied. The culture wars, science, boring church services. In particular, the internet was acknowledged as having a role. The worldwide web makes available information at the touch of a finger as well as social networks of other doubters and skeptics. More and more people under 30 are calling themselves atheists or skeptics.

These surveys poke at our emotions. I can imagine different reactions from among you. People tend to think this is either good news or bad news. Others will dismiss it as youthful rebellion, reasoning that once these young people face existential angst, danger, or suffering, they will believe in God.

The announcer tried to extrapolate by saying that if these trends continue in 50 years belief in God will be a view held by a small minority. I thought about the 1960s and the theologians who announced the death of God and others who wrote that we were on the verge of creating a secular city. They seemed to predict God’s demise prematurely. Yet maybe this time God really is fading away.

What I wanted to explore further as I watched the show was what “belief in God” means. The announcer and the guests seemed to want to suggest that there are two types of people,
  1. those who are religious and 
  2. those who don’t believe in supernatural beings.

I kept wanting to suggest to the folks on my television screen that there might be a third type.  These are people who would agree intellectually with the atheists that there probably is not a supernatural being who exists outside of the natural world and comes to mess with it on occasion. Yet these people would also say that they have a heart for transcendent experiences such as awe, wonder, creativity, compassion and that church and God language is part of that. I think I want more definition regarding the phrase “belief in God” before I side with one camp or the other. I want some more options.

I find myself interested not so much in what God is but in what God does. What does God do exactly?

Bishop John Shelby Spong said that Copernicus and Galileo rendered God homeless. When they discovered that Earth was not the center of the universe but was like the other heavenly bodies, the planets, that moved around the sun, they messed up the medieval system of heaven “up there” where God lived.  Heaven became Earth and Earth heaven. In a few centuries along comes Darwin with his theory of natural selection. Humans are more like apes than the angels. Darwin and later the astronomers rendered God jobless. There was nothing in nature for God to do. The universe works without him.

I slightly object. I agree with Bishop Spong that this conception of God has lost out to reason and to science. Yet that isn’t the God who ignites my heart anyway. That God was an explanation for things for which we now have better explanations. Further we may not need the stories of the gods or of the god of our tradition to be literal or real. Our conception of God is changing. But that doesn’t mean that God is gone or has nothing to do.

In fact, I think, or perhaps I have faith, that the most interesting thing that God does and has always done is not to sit up in his home above the clouds and throw down balls of fire on sinners. The most interesting thing that God does is give us a sense of meaning, belonging, and vitality.

I do not insist. I have no need to defend God or my concept of God. As we know, some folks are quite evangelistic about their god. They need you to believe. I don’t intend to be one of those people. BYOG. Bring Your Own God…or none. It wouldn’t break my heart if someone explained my blather about God as a misunderstood psychological quirk or a biological brain burp.

I do think that humans have a capability to experience transcendence, that feeling of being more than who they are normally. That feeling can enable them to engage in acts of love, compassion, heroism, awe, creativity, and beauty. They can discover and offer forgiveness, find a sense of belonging and happiness, and feel at home in their own skin. That is religion for me and God is my shorthand way of expressing that action.

I said earlier that I don’t really care much about what God is, but I do care about what God does. That is what God does for me. God wakes me up. It is also true, that I wake God up. That is done in the religious setting in the experience of worship that is ultimately prayer. One of my favorite quotes is from Walter Wink, the theologian who died earlier this year and who inspired this series of sermons this Spring on the Powers. Wink writes:
Prayer is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet and washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes and then watching God swell with life and vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes. . . .

That is a provocative paragraph. It messes with our aesthetic of theological correctness. There is something improper about waking God up, isn’t there? Yet this image is as old as the Bible. The Psalmist yells at God:
“Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?” Psalm 44

This isn’t a polite prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep….” This prayer is a call from the depths. It is a demand. It is a call to action. It is banging the pots and pans.

The rest of that particular psalm, Psalm 44, continues:
23 Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off for ever!
24 Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For we sink down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
26 Rise up, come to our help.
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

You can appreciate and use that prayer even if you don’t believe in a literal being out there who hears it. What you are awakening is your own vitality. You are rousing your own strength that is also transcendent. You are finding your voice, tapping into that well-spring of energy and creativity you didn’t know you had, calling to that courage that you thought had been lost. In the words of poet, Ntozake Shange,
I found God in myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.

Again, I don’t insist. If God is more other, more literal or more real than what I have suggested, I don’t object. I would say that prayer is real. The reality is the passion and the openness to possibility. It is the faith that uproots and plants mulberry trees into the sea. It washes the caked sweat from God’s eyes. It makes your logical and reasoned mind connect with what really motivates you, that is your largely unconscious emotional brain and body. When worship is done in community and prayer is done with others, it can lead to feelings of love and compassion.

Most of what we think we want and what we do is not based on logic or reason. We use logic and reason to rationalize what our emotions and sense of aesthetics want and do.  Meditation and worship--or prayer--gives language to our feelings. It helps us bring to consciousness what has been unconscious. It helps us be aware of what is going on. Or to put it another way, we are waking God up while God wakes us up.

This sermon series has been about the powers that be. These forces dehumanize. I am not going to go into that anymore today except to say when the powers that be get you down, and they will, what are you going to do? How are you going to keep your sanity, your humor, your happiness and your hopefulness? Where will you find your strength and your perspective?

Wink’s response is to rattle God’s cage and wake God up. How? Lots of ways, but one I’ll offer:
Go to church. 
It isn’t totally outdated, oppressive, and hypocritical. It isn’t all about being forced to believe in dogmas or other impossible things. It can be if you want it to be, but it can also be a place that is like a deep well where you can utilize the wisdom, ritual, and practice that goes back thousands of years and touches the heart and the unconscious. Couple all of that with modern ways of knowing and we can probably wake that God up and get some stuff done.

Or maybe we need a break from doing too much stuff and need to be still, draw from the well, and fill up our tank. In that case, we allow God to embrace us, smile upon us, call us his or her own. We may not even know what we need. The most important and interesting things often take us by surprise. Then we can follow God wherever God goes. That is especially important in a world where the powers that be are rough and ruthless.

I started this sermon with the survey that said that young people are doubting God’s existence in larger and larger numbers. I think we should pay attention to that and ask what that means. We don’t necessarily need to judge it, fight it, or celebrate it. I do think it is an opportunity to talk about what we mean when we use the word God. But more than that, we have is an opportunity what it means to be human and to find happiness and a sense of purpose and meaning within life.

That is the focus of my next series of sermons as we begin summer and spiral both backward and forward to the spiritual path of awe and wonder.



  1. This may be some of your most significant and profound writing, John. I am thinking about these things and jotting some notes. I have wondered how prayer could be of value when we are essentially talking to ourselves. You have made some sense of that.