My church started a new Bible study last night: When God’s People Pray. It is hosted by Jim Cymbala, pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle.
Here are some thoughts. Warning: This will be a long post.
1. I was struggling over whether or not to attend this Bible study, for a variety of reasons: ideological differences, social anxiety, a spiritual inferiority complex, wanting more time to read books, etc. I was about to call my pastor yesterday morning to tell him that I didn’t need a ride to the Bible study, for I would not be going. But something changed my mind. I asked someone I know to check out her tarot cards (or something similar to that) so I could gain insight about whether or not to attend the Bible study, and she did so. Her conclusion from the cards and the book accompanying them was that I may experience some discomfort at the Bible study, but that I will ultimately be glad that I went.
This was actually pretty ironic! Not long ago, I was watching a YouTube clip of Pat Robertson answering questions that viewers sent him. One question concerned tarot cards, and Pat was saying that people who consult them are hearing messages from the devil. Another viewer asked how we can be sure that the Bible is not from the devil, since II Corinthians 11:14 states that Satan can transform himself into an angel of light. Pat responded that the Bible coincides with good values, and he also said that the Bible promotes praising God, something that Satan would never support. Well, according to his logic, Satan wants me to go to a Bible study! Go figure!
Incidentally, the person who read the cards for me is quite disenchanted with organized religion. She respects my church attendance, but she said that she herself would never go to a church Bible study, and that she could identify with why I was hesitant to go. The fact, therefore, that she was encouraging me to attend the Bible study, notwithstanding my reservations, got my attention!
At Harvard Divinity School, I had to do field education for my M.Div. program, and I was part of a group in which students shared their experiences with each other and sought feedback. We had to write papers in which we detailed an experience that concerned us, then referred to something (a story, an idea) in our religious tradition of which the experience reminded us. Allow me to do that here! Yesterday, I felt like King Saul, who went to the witch of Endor because he prayed to God and got no answer. I liked the message from the tarot cards because they seemed to speak to my situation, and they appeared to be sympathetic about where I was. Why don’t I ever get that from prayer, Bible study, or certain believers? I wasn’t getting much from prayer, in this case. I did an online search and found someone talking about her reservations about her church’s Bible study, and a pastor commented that she was selfish. I needed something other than “Tough it out.”
Of course, I don’t want to believe that I am deciding between Christianity and something else. What is interesting is that, after I heard the interpretation of the cards, I felt at peace, and I was then joyfully listening to Christian sermons. Perhaps God can speak to people in all sorts of ways.
2. The first session of the Bible study was all right. A couple of people there were getting into a little debate about whether we had to ask God for something for God to do it for us, or if God may do it for us without us asking, since God already knows our needs. One person was saying that God assists those who are trying to follow Christ’s teachings, but we watched on the DVD the story of someone whom God rescued, even though he wasn’t exactly following Christ’s teachings: he was a photographer for Vogue but ended up on the streets due to a drug habit, and he was hearing annoying or hostile voices in his head. Yet, when he cried out to the Lord on his hospital bed, he began to experience healing.
Another question was whether God is more likely to answer prayers when a bunch of people are praying for something, as opposed to when just one person is praying.
One guy aptly said that you cannot put God in a box, since God is sovereign. This was pretty ironic, coming from him. He is a conservative evangelical. He argued a while back that people who engage in homosexual conduct will not go to heaven, for I Corinthians 6:9 declares that homosexual offenders will not enter the Kingdom of God. He said that we need to treat the words of the Bible in an absolute sense, otherwise what assurance does he have that he will go to heaven? (His assurance depends on the Bible’s declaration that people are saved by trusting in Christ for salvation, which he does.) Yet, he was saying that you cannot put God in a box! My impression was that he often put God in a box!
Notwithstanding whatever disagreements I have with him, I agree that you cannot put God in a box. I don’t believe that we have to pray for God to act on our behalf, for God can meet our needs without us even asking, but I think that prayer is useful, for reasons that people stated in the group: it allows us to depend on God, it builds our faith, it helps us to clarify to ourselves what our true needs are, etc. On whether God is more likely to answer the prayers of a group rather than those of one individual, I agree with what one lady in the group said: that God can answer the prayer of only one person. Still, God may choose to answer the prayer of a group to build that group’s faith.
3. The church that I attend is Presbyterian. We are not overly expressive when it comes to our religion. One lady there was fondly recalling her time in a Pentecostal church, when she would get enthusiastic in worship or lift up her hands in adoration to the Lord. She said that made her feel good, yet she is reluctant to lift up her hands at the Presbyterian church because people might start talking or look at her funny! The pastor told her that she should never feel embarrassed about lifting up her hands, and he said that he himself did so during the worship service. And he’s right about that: I’ve seen him lift up his hands on numerous occasions!
Ordinarily at Bible study, the pastor alone does the closing prayer. But the pastor said that he hoped that we would eventually get more comfortable in the course of the study with adding our own prayers to the mix, however brief they might be. We didn’t do that last night, but maybe we will as time progresses! Personally, however, I prefer the status quo. I don’t miss listening to mini-sermons or rebukes masquerading as prayers, as occurred in one small group I was in.
My pastor seems to admire evangelicalism and its passion and fervor, yet he realizes that our Presbyterian church is where it is. I would say that there are times when our worship is lively, and times when it is not so much. My approach to worship is rather contemplative: Often, I prefer to read the lyrics of a song rather than to sing them, for those old hymn’s lyrics can be rather deep! But there are also times when I feel like moving my body to some rhythm!
4. The pastor was asking about liberal churches and why they don’t seem to pray that much, at least not informally, in the sense of really talking to God. The more evangelical person in the group responded that it was due to rote and tradition. There was then a discussion about whether or not people in our general culture are aware of the human instinct to cry out to God. Many people in the group thought not. The evangelical mentioned a bumper sticker he saw that upset him: “If you don’t pray in my school, I won’t think in your church.” He felt that Christians were besieged by atheists.
I did not entirely agree with the tone of this discussion. I believe that liberal churches do pray, but not necessarily in the way that evangelicals do; my impression is that their prayers are more contemplative or meditative. Moreover, I would say that people in society desire some guidance or communion with a higher power, even if they might not pursue it within the church. I was thinking of expressing these points in the group, but I did not, either out of shyness, or a desire not to disturb the spiritual flow of the group with my ideological objections. Unfortunately, I keep replaying in my mind what I wanted to say last night in the group!
Although I am against demonizing liberal churches or looking down on them, I do have to admit that I share my conservative friends’ impressions, in areas: It does not seem to me that liberal churches really do emphasize prayer, in the sense of asking God for provision or revival. (I am open to correction on this.) I remember Pastor Tim Keller in Manhattan saying that you don’t see revivals in Unitarian churches, and his point there may have been that God backs conservative Christianity. I have wondered why mainline churches are dying whereas evangelical churches are growing. I don’t believe that it is because evangelical churches have the truth, whereas mainline churches do not, for my impression is that there are areas in which mainline Protestantism is correct whereas conservative evangelicalism is not: I think of Biblical inerrancy and evolution. Perhaps God blesses evangelical churches because they pray to him more: they want to make a positive difference in the world, they want to bring people to God, and so God honors their request. Even if people become evangelicals and hold some wrong views, evangelicalism still brought them into a relationship with God, and God blesses its passion, fervor, prayers, and love for him.
UPDATE: On a related note, check out mainliner Aric Clark’s post about prayer on Rachel Held Evans’ blog.