Prayer as a Means of Growth

Today, I preached at the Genesis Gathering. Here is the script:

We are in the fifth episode of a series called “How to Make Sense of Prayer” and I called it “Prayer as a means of growth”. Let’s go.

Last time, your pastor talked to us about the different ways we can pray.

On a side note, she told us that she was and still is rather talkative (I think you call this a chatty Cathy), but that her husband was the quiet one in their relationship–at least in the beginning.

I think that this represents our relationship with God and our prayers quite well.

Often, we take the talkative position. When in prayer, we talk and talk and talk, such that God needs to institute special times when we are forced to listen and visible people as his mouthpiece so we do listen. Those times are called Sunday morning meetings, and since we cannot listen too much, he allows us to worship him and express our feelings towards him in this setting, too.

Others act more like the quiet ones. Very soon, God’s ongoing expression is in danger to become background noise, while they are silent. Just like many husbands, after conquering their wives into marriage, have no need to invest themselves much more, they rest on the assurance of the sinner’s prayer and having attained heaven for the afterlife.

And maybe, both mature over time, like your pastors.

And this maturing is my topic today.

I have been told before that, when preaching, there must be at least one planned verse verbatim so that people believe that what I say has a biblical foundation without having to do the work themselves. I tend to allude to scripture spontaneously during my teaching saying, like Paul, that “it is written”, counting on you all that you are like the Bereans that went home and searched the scriptures–other than what is more common in Christian churches nowadays where people are well-trained, have unlearned to think for themselves (don’t lean on your own understanding) and just believe what is said in the authority of the pulpit and office.

But let’s talk about maturing (well, in a way I just did, didn’t I?).

John in the prolog to his gospel says:

He came to his own people,
but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves.

John 1:12 MSG

The Mirror Study Bible puts the same verse this way:

Everyone who realizes their association in him, convinced that he is their original life and that his name defines them, God gives the assurance that they are indeed his offspring, begotten of him; he sanctions the legitimacy of their sonship.

John 1:12 Mirror Study Bible

What does this verse have to do with prayer or maturing? Allow me to explain.

When I “gave my life to Jesus,” not much happened. I am not the emotional type, and there were no goosebumps or joy. Well, this verse does not promise anything like this. It promises that we would become aware of our child-of-God selves.

The emphasis is on the word child. Born from above, as it is called a few chapters later. It also is on the concept of awareness. This verse does not say that before, we were not God’s children. It is the starting point of a process and a point of awareness.

Think of the prodigal son. Both sons were the father’s children from the beginning, but neither believed it, until the younger was made aware of it by being accepted just as he was, and the older by being reminded of it (and we do not know whether the older really became aware of it).

But more consequentially, I think that we made and often still make a big mistake when we read this verse. We think that to be the children of God is an end in itself, a destiny, our purpose. We believe that we are called to worship God in eternity as his children.

Maybe this is why God is called a father. Mothers, on average, and certainly only in my culture, want children, fathers want sons and daughters.

Remember that the church often is likened to the mother of Christians. And look at the church at large nowadays. They want children, members, followers, pew-warmers, obedient pupils.

God wants mature sons and daughters, grown-up, a true counterpart and partner in creation with him.

And prayer is part of this journey.

The examples I am giving next will not be true for everybody, as they portray a mostly healthy family situation and society.

I’m going to allude to Biblical stories in a fashion you might not be used to. Frankly, I don’t care as much whether those stories ever happened. Somebody once said that the Bible is true, and some of it even happened. But why do I not care?

What good does it for me when I know that Noah was saved on a boat while everybody else was killed essentially by God, or that the earth was built in six days? There is a danger that I will defend God on this basis and concentrate on being right over living a godly life, but even if I don’t, I only profit little from this. Yes, it is important to believe that God created the universe. It is not so important that he did it in six days. But it is important that he does the same for me and, as we will see, with me today on an ongoing basis.

Remember the days when you were unaware of yourself? A baby, learning to be in this world? It was like paradise.

And I mean like paradise. You had your parents waiting on you, taking care of you, supporting you in learning to grasp, eat, move, talk, distinguish things.

Just like Adam and Eve, learning to speak, naming things, and thus distinguish things like animals, all trees, and those two special trees.

Communication was simple: “Picaboo” or “Adam, where are you?”, and “No” or “not from this tree”.

Remember the days when Dad was your personal hero, and Mom provided for everything you needed? You felt so secure that you even tested the limits, but they remained patient and loving?

But even then, they did not do everything for you any longer. For one example, they potty-trained you. At some point, they stopped cleaning your behind and changing your diapers.

This is a very early, very physical, and little disputed example of growing into responsibility.

Here, I am reminded of the stories of Cain and Abel or Noah. We always read these stories through the lens of the law. We have the advantage of knowing what was going to come. And frankly, even the writers interpreted the law back into these stories, emphasizing a moral component.

But these stories, for me, portray the love of a caring father. He lifts and protects those that he gave some responsibility, and that blew it. He takes the godly part of this person and saves it again. He speaks to their fear and promises to still love them.

When babies learn to walk, and remember that walking is controlled falling forward, they fall. Parents will not react in anger but put them back up and have them try again, praising them for trying and those little successes.

Parents are about two things: providing a safe environment for you and challenging you to grow past some of its artificial parameters they put in place to protect you in age-appropriate ways, such that you might become a valuable, responsible, mature member of society. And they talk you through it with age-appropriate language.

God does the same. He does that individually, and he does that with humanity.

The Bible is an account over the ages that shows us how God interacts and communicates with people in different stages of life.

He did everything for us in paradise, but challenged us to learn language, to walk around, to distinguish things and categorize them, to the point that we became conscious, even self-conscious.

I just gave you the example of paradise. And I told you that communication was rather simple.

He worked with us in the safe environment of a family and a tribe, but challenged us with external threats that helped us make decisions and stand for ourselves and our beloved.

Again, Cain and Abel, Noah, but also Abraham, when he called him to leave his family and to go without knowing where he was going.

The challenges start small in our lives, like going to the playground in the neighborhood.

Can you see how God communicated here? He called, he warned, and he lovingly restored.

He stands with us in our fights to overcome our enemies and exit our situations, but challenged us to keep some order in all this.

Here, I am reminded of the ten plagues as the big example, with a communication style of sheer power. The law of the jungle, and I am the boss here.

When we needed it, he provided rules that allowed us to live in larger groups.

Just like on Mount Sinai. Communication changes here. We lay down some ground rules, establish a moral and ethics. God tells us how things are done. Did your Dad ever say: “We are the Rickenbachs. This is not how we do things!”

But when the time had come, he made a new covenant with us, giving us more freedom. He had instilled the order within us, and we did not have to follow the rules any longer that were put on external stone tablets. We, in principle, were ready to see that “man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for man.” We were ready to learn to apply the rules consciously instead of mindlessly, to weigh the situation and ask what brings life instead of what the rule book tells us.

Communication starts to have a more individual component. It’s not about “We Rickenbachs don’t act this way.” It’s like, “Ralph, I want to have communion with you. Let’s look at what is best in this situation, within the guidelines and principles you are learned and my heart that you have picked up.”

Sadly enough, we decided that the Bible was finished that moment, that the perfect pattern and state of human living had been reached.

We even regressed, or never truly grew into the opportunity Jesus opened up for us. Like the Galatians, we decided to go back under a rule book. We decided that we must follow the rules not because it is written, but because I command you to do it out of free will.

Let me give you an example.

I was in fourth grade, and we had returned from an excursion to the remains of an ancient Roman settlement. That evening, I made a model of a door lock as we had seen in the museum. The next day, I lied about having it ready even before the excursion. My teacher told me that I was lying and asked me why we should not lie. I answered because the Bible commanded us not to in the ten commandments.

This answer was externally motivated by a command written on a stone tablet. It showed that I was solely reacting to external expectations. I would say, it was an age-appropriate response. I was 10!

She did not see that as I did and threw a bunch of booklets at me. She expected me to have internalized, analyzed, and adopted the command to the extent that I was able to say that I hurt others by lying and that I had the deep conviction of having done wrong.

Believe me, even if I had been socialized in an evangelical home, learning all the right words, I would have recited them because it was expected, not because I had a deep grasp of them. You want proof? Most grown-up Evangelicals still obey because they fear hell, rather than from a place of love towards others. This is the stage, the church at large has plateaued on.

This is best summarized by John 15:14:

You are my friends if you do what I command.

Well, this is how we understand this verse and translate it from the Greek when we read it in this mindset I just described.

A more mature reading would be, according to the Mirror Study Bible:

Our friendship is endorsed in your continual engagement with the conclusion of my mission.

The Greek word entole can be translated command, but from its root and composition is much closer to reaching a final goal, fulfilling a mission, manifesting one’s purpose.

So what am I telling you here?

Let me recapitulate:

We grow from “Picaboo” and “No” (paradise) to simple tasks with warnings, callings, and restoration (Cain and Abel, Noah), from calls for adventure (Abraham) and demonstrations of power (Egypt), to basic rules with rewards and punishment (Mount Sinai) to individual relationship (Our Father).

If we follow this trajectory of God leading us into our final goal, into the manifestation of our purpose, we arrive in a very different place than obedience to external rules, however much we have internalized them.

Like our natural parents have become people we work together with on equal standing to lead a good life, just as they only get involved as much as we allow them and ask for (and then some), God acts with us.

This is what your pastor alluded to when talking about Open Theology. God knows the past and the present and all possible futures, but he is on an open-ended adventure respecting all conscious agents in his creation.

And let me blow your mind: Quantum Mechanics basically tells us that subatomic particles are such conscious, free-willed agents. God respects the free will of every single particle.

Just as our parents do their best in supporting us in age-appropriate ways, frankly seemingly interfering with our free will at times (but we can do whatever we want anyway at all times, facing the consequences, but not losing their love), God works with us.

We could say that God lovingly persuades us or lures us into choosing the right next possible action with age-appropriate tools, be it “picaboo” or a grown-up discussion.

And this is prayer.

Prayer is one way that this relationship is kept alive.

As we just saw, little children (remember the verse that we become aware of our child-of-God selves?) communicate in less complicated ways, while at some point, they just need some external rules to nudge them in the right direction.

In its mature forms, prayer is how we exchange ideas and possible next actions, that we express our love, that we learn from each other, that we bargain, that we co-plan, co-work and co-create.

And yes, God learns from us. If we are truly free-willed agents after his image, we are creative and God does not know what we will do next. He learns about us just as we learn about him.

Prayer is like the exchanging of ideas. But why do we have ideas?

The purpose of thinking is to let the ideas die instead of us dying. Alfred North Whitehead

Prayer is acknowledging that we only see in part, and that running our ideas by God or asking for his ideas is better than blindly acting.

Prayer is like going to your parents and asking for advice. But prayer is also like trying to convince your parents of one of your ideas to get them on board. And prayer is like aligning with your parents on behalf of a cause, like the health of a friend or saving the planet. Prayer is like mourning, complaining, and searching for comfort. And prayer is like sitting at the feet of your parents and learning from them.

All with the goal of growing into what we are supposed to be while enjoying what we have at the moment.

So, in conclusion. Prayer is communication. It grows more complex over time, as we grow more capable of understanding complexity. There are times God does everything in his power for us and expects very little from us, while the universe aligns with God because we are so cute. But then we grow. We often do not mature at the same speed that we grow, and many stop maturing. God is faithful and meets us where we are, but does not stop investing in us and challenge us onward.