Not long ago I was driving my daughter home at the end of the day and I had the news playing on the car radio. And I was just turning onto our street when Risa asked me from the back seat, “Daddy, why is the news always bad? Why do they always talk about wars and people shooting each other and things like that? Why don’t they ever have news about the good things that people do?” Well, there were a lot of different ways I could have answered. I could have given her a dose of cynicism about the media. Or I could have said something jaded about human nature, and the fascination that violence and catastrophe seem to hold for us. But she’s nine years old. So what I did was to agree with her that it just doesn’t seem right that the news is always bad. I said I thought she was right that there must be a different way to talk about what’s going on in the world, that there must be more to the story.
Some of us at St. John’s have been taking part this year in a program of reading the Bible from cover to cover. And along with this so-called “Bible Challenge” I’ve been reading books about the Bible, and also leading courses of study at the church on especially important pieces of the Bible. So I’ve been reflecting on the Bible in recent months even more than I usually do. And this week as I was reading the lectionary texts for this morning, and remembering that conversation with Risa about the news, it struck me that things haven’t really changed all that much since the Bible was written. People often fault the scriptures because they contain so much violence and catastrophe and terror. But it doesn’t seem to occur to them that this is still what the world is like, and it wasn’t any different in Bible times. In some ways, it was worse.
The other thing we sometimes forget is that when the Bible was written there was nothing else in print. The Bible was not shelved in a specialized section of the bookstore labeled “Inspirational.” And there was no idea at that time of a dimension of human experience called “spirituality” or “religion,” that only had to do with lofty, uplifting, and comforting subjects. In fact the Bible speaks out again and again against the notion that religion is somehow unconcerned with all the ugly and disturbing things that people think and do. What the people who wrote the Bible said is that there is one world of human experience and knowledge, and the whole thing, the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, belongs to God.
Which sounds kind of reassuring until you start to think about all the stuff that happens, and what that says about God. And the prophets and sages of ancient Israel knew they had to think about it. They had to make room in their understanding of God’s sovereignty and holiness, for the bad news. Their experience of God’s goodness and faithfulness had to allow somehow for the arrogance and greed of the rich and powerful, and the sufferings of the poor, for apostasy and injustice, and the devastation of their land by invading empires, and the wholesale slaughter of their people. And when you read the Bible you start to see that they didn’t give themselves an easy out. If you go to it looking for a simple explanation for why the world is the way it is, or a straightforward solution to its problems, you will be disappointed. They are not there.
What you will find is a record of the thoughts and words and deeds of men and women seized by a profound awareness of God, an awareness that comes to bear on every aspect of human experience, from the most exalted states of religious vision, or worldly triumph, or erotic love, to the depths of physical agony, emotional abandonment, terror and despair. It’s not always easy for us to see the value of this kind of faith. We are powerfully conditioned by the modern mind, which only wants to allow meaning to that which can be explained. But the truth is that most of our experience, and in particular that part that affects us most deeply, is inexplicable.
We will never know why that particular sunset was different from all the others, or why we’ve never forgotten that particular meal. We will never understand exactly why we fell in love with that person out of all the men and women in the world, or why that child came to be ours, or why we got sick, or that one had to die, or why people make such foolish choices, or rise up with murder in their hearts. But the faith of the Bible is that in spite of the limits of our comprehension, everything that happens, every that is, every last bit of it, down to the hairs on your head, means something to God.
So when we talk, as we have been doing this month during our Stewardship Season, about the abundance that we share as a faith community, we might consider this: our greatest gift may be that here, in a world where wonder and reverence are melting away under the hot wind of shallow explanations, is a place where there is always more to the story. St. John’s is like a little wilderness preserve, where we keep alive the possibility that everything means more than we know. And the way we do this is we pray. Praying is where we meet the limits of our understanding of why things happen the way they do, and we go beyond them into God.
Prayer is more than asking God to solve our problems. It is also asking God to make meaning of things that are beyond our comprehension. That goes for the good things as well as the bad. Every day we receive blessings that we did not obtain for ourselves and can’t say with assurance we deserve. When we make prayers of thanksgiving we stop sleepwalking numbly through the miracle that is our lives. Giving thanks, we make even the most ordinary day a journey of discovery, the discovery of meaning.
And as for the bad news, the personal struggles and the mass suffering, to pray about it is to stop explaining it away. It is to acknowledge that it affects us deeply, and is more than we can handle by ourselves. We could come up with explanations, but they wouldn’t really satisfy. And knowing that, in itself, is the first step toward taking responsibility. I don’t mean so much “responsibility” as in “guilt.” Or as in, “it’s up to us to fix it.” I mean respons-ability just like the word says—the ability to respond.
Prayer is empowering, because it says that we are able to respond to what happens, no matter how incomprehensible it is, because we know the world is God’s. That’s what gives us the confidence and the mandate to keep praying for peace in a nation in a state of endless war, to keep praying for healing, though the doctor says it is hopeless, to keep praying for justice when inequality and corruption are on the rise.
It is this knowledge that world is God’s, that keeps us praying for the safety and dignity of women and girls, that keeps us praying for the survival of species, for sight for the blind, and liberty for the captives, and good news for the poor, and for the resurrection of the dead, and the coming of the Kingdom. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like enough just to pray, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing. And I like to think that persistence in prayer makes it more likely, and maybe it happens more than we care to admit, that we will, from time-to-time, hear an answering voice in our hearts that says, “okay—here’s what we can do.”