Sunday, 25 October 2015

"In Jesus' Name...": What if he doesn't answer the prayer?

In what follows you will see that on several occasions I use the word magick rather than magic.  This is to distinguish between a stage conjuring trick, 'magic', and the tool that some use to impose their will on the world which tends to be referred to as 'magick'. 

Revelation 21:1-7

The New Heaven and the New Earth
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

John 16:22-33
Jesus said, “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.’
His disciples said, ‘Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’

The Problem with the Prayer
I often speak in admiring terms of the layers upon layers buried within the language and symbolism that John uses in his Gospel, but sometimes he also has a talent for raising the issues that cause us to question our faith deeply, reminding us to be careful not to build a theology around one verse in isolation.  Here, in this passage, we see misunderstanding by the disciples, encouragement by Jesus, a reality check about the true state of their belief, and a final, triumphant statement which makes it clear to them and to us that our place before God is dependent upon Christ's grace, not on us and our doubts. But a massive question is raised about the assurance regarding what we ask for in prayer against the dissonance of what we experience in real life; i.e. 'I asked in Jesus' name and did not receive.'

Some of us have had the pain and privilege of accompanying someone through their final hours and helping them on their journey out of this world. Others of us have watched as friends cried out in prayer for help and healing only to see one trauma after another seemingly piled on to them.

There is a rather trite saying that is sometimes trotted out by Christians: 'God never gives you more than you can handle.' This simple saying has been the cause of much agony and heartache for many who have not coped and felt guilty about it. Just within my own profession I could talk of the clergy suicides and mental breakdowns, and I know other professions have similar tales to tell.  The saying is based on a simplistic premise which I want to challenge, that God is in control. I am not saying that he isn't, but I am saying that our understanding of control and God's are radically different, and we may need to modify ours if we are to understand this passage.

Control, for us, is often viewed from a mechanistic angle. When I drive a car it is under my control (hopefully!). The reason for this is that it doesn't do anything unless I tell it to. Self-driving cars worry us.  But the universe works differently.  It is not driven mechanistically by God like we drive a car. It's designed, I believe, by God to have more than just a small degree of autonomy, and that's why this passage about asking in the name of Jesus and receiving is such a problematic one for many with life experience rather than na├»ve theology. What I hope to do here is to reduce the problems, but in the process of doing so I may well raise new ones.  So please feel free to post your thoughts either on this blog, or preferably on the Facebook page you found it, and I'll try and offer further thoughts.

As an important aside to this, when, in the middle, Jesus says to the disciples, 'Do you believe? Really?', it's because he knows they don't actually understand yet that suffering and death is implicit in what is going to take place. They haven't understood yet that nothing of this will make sense without the resurrection.  I am intent that we do not make the same mistake, and that's why there is a first reading from Revelation, not because it seems like 'Pie in the sky when you die', but because without looking ahead we will be simply unable to make sense of the present. So let's look at this problem statement from Jesus when he says, and then underlines this saying, 'If you ask for anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.'

Does the resurrection make sense of that verse too? Because for me, this concept of asking and receiving is one of the most problematic part of any of the Gospels. More or less the same words come up in the synoptic Gospels as well as here in John's Gospel, so we can be pretty sure that Jesus said it, and probably said it more than once.  As a statement on its own we can say that it doesn't seem to be borne out of experience, but following the tone of this passage all being about how the resurrection is the lens through which Jesus' life and teachings come into focus, so we have to ask whether the resurrection makes sense of 'Ask and you shall receive'.

Because we don't always receive, do we, not if we're honest

Which one of us hasn't had a family tragedy or colossal pain witnessed amongst friends when we have prayed fervently for God to intervene and change the course of our reality? How many of us have prayed, 'in the name of Jesus', and asked the Father to heal someone who was dying too early?
And how many of us have felt so screwed up about it, yet feel unable to talk about it, perhaps  because we're Christians and we're scared of what other believers will say if we confess our anger at God? There is an emotive part of me, following the experiences of my own family and the pain of sitting with other people as they watch loved ones who or sick or dying, that wants to hurl these words back at the face of Christ and say to him, 'You lied. I asked and I did not receive.'

There was a time, a few years ago but after my sister had died, when another member of the family was taken seriously ill. I remember clearly shouting in anguished prayer to God, 'Don't you dare do this to us again! Don't you dare!' Outrageous, isn't it. Me, a mere mortal, trying to tell God what to do.

But Jesus said, 'Ask and you will receive', and sometimes, it seems, we ask and we don't receive. So how do we make sense of that? Because if we don't make sense of it, it has the possibility of sitting inside us and festering away, and I know that this is an issue that some of those who read this are facing right now.

The first thing we need to do is to relinquish any idea of God the Father as being like some kind of Cosmic Genie wherein instead of rubbing a lamp we say magick words, 'In the name of Jesus', and 'whoomph' there's what we asked for right in front of us. Sounds crazy I know but there's a branch of theology called the Prosperity Gospel which really does believe this.

In order to address this problem fully we have to split it into three questions:
1. What does it actually mean to ask in the name of Jesus?
2. What happens when we take a wider look at the way God has dealt with all of creation and use that lens to read this verse?
3. Jesus is speaking in the context of the resurrection, so how does the resurrection bear upon the words he is saying?

Dealing with them in order, then, the first question is about what it actually means to ask for something in the name of Jesus. Our main priority is to stop treating them as magick words which, if recited properly, will permit you to impose your will on reality. That, genuinely, is what magick is; the imposition of will. If we think that by saying, 'We ask this in the name of Jesus' on the end of a prayer that it will happen, then we are treating prayer as magick and we will be sorely disappointed.
So if it is not about magickally imposing our will on reality through using the correct form of commanding words to strong-arm God, what does it mean? 

 It is all to do with acting on the authority of someone else. If someone who is above you in a hierarchical structure gives you authority to do something, then that's what you do; what they have told you to do. When you do that, then you are acting in their name. It is about acting in accordance with the will of the higher authority. I have a mental image of guards outside a castle saying to an intruder, 'Stop, in the name of the King!'. So essentially it comes down to this: If you do something in someone else's name then what you are doing must be in accord with their will.

'In the name of Jesus', then, is not a magickal phrase, it is about being in a relationship in which those under authority consult Christ as to whether what is being asked for is in his will. If it is, then when they ask for it, then they will receive it.

But can you see, then, that there is a problem. How could, for example, cancer possibly be in the will of God? When I pray for someone to be healed in the name of Jesus, shouldn't they be healed? Isn't that always going to be in the will of Christ? After all the Gospels are full of the healings Jesus did, at least one of which was a resurrection. That leads us to the second point we need to consider regarding what happens when we look at the wider picture of creation.

Once we start to do that, and to be honest, once we start to get over ourselves and our anthropocentric self-importance, then we see that the plan for all creation is one that is based around freedom and freewill, and not just for us but for all things. The universe, in order to evolve and grow towards supporting intelligent life, has always needed space to be what it was created to be.

This is where the seven-day creationist view becomes profoundly unstuck. It is not just that the fossil record doesn't agree with Genesis 1, which is a poetic hymn anyway, not a scientific textbook. It is also that the whole understanding of the nature of God is undermined by seven-day creationism because it portrays a thoroughly interventionist God and the reality is very different.

I am not saying that God doesn't intervene; God does. But God intervenes in often subtle ways, sometimes simply in the timing of a natural event. I believe in miracles and I have witnessed them, but not necessarily on demand, and I believe that is because of the freewill of the universe, as given by God. So what do I mean by that?

The universe has been created with freedom to grow and become what it is. Initially it was just hydrogen and helium that condensed out of the primordial inferno. None of the other elements could be created until hydrogen and helium did their work of fusing together in the hearts of the first stars. And elements heavier than iron couldn't be created without the pressures involved in giant supernova explosions. We are all stardust.  Right from the start there was space to build and grow through change and experiment. When it comes to life itself, we only progressed from the first self-reproducing molecules by their mutation. Most mutations are dead ends, whilst some produce an evolutionary advantage and are passed on to the next generation. But some mutations are harmful.

So life progresses and develops in intricacy by this process of mutation, of trying out new random things which may or may not convey an advantage. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't and sometimes it's harmful. So, for example, cancer can be the result of a mutation, and so, instead of a cell dying at the end of its life, it begins to reproduce uncontrollably.  That is harmful to the individual and so we pray for their healing, but, and make sure you hear exactly what I am saying, mutation as a function of life must be in the will of God if we believe God created the universe. Without it there would be just dead planets.

That is not remotely the same as saying your cancer, or the cancer of a friend or loved one, is the will of God. But the mechanism of evolution, of which cancer is a biproduct, is mutation, and mutation is built into the fabric of the universe. So to ask God simply to cure cancer is to ask God to have created the universe in a way that was different from the one he chose.  (Why he chose to make it in this way is another matter entirely that I can deal with, but not in the same blog post!)

The same kind of thing goes for ageing and death. I hate that it hurts to run now because of arthritis in two of my toes, but it it my body reminding me that some day, also in the will of God, I have to get out of the way for the next generation. That is how evolution and development works.

But what if this universe is just the first stage? 

 What if this is the place where we are given the freedom to make a choice about what comes next? What if none of it makes sense without resurrection? I know this isn't going to be a complete answer, but it takes us into the third point.

This is where the resurrection comes in. In this passage Jesus is talking about asking in his name in the context of the resurrection. In his resurrected form he is referred to by St. Paul as the firstborn over creation; that he is the new Adam, the one who marks the first inkling for us of what the next stage in life, the next creation, will be like.  And what do we see there? In Christ post resurrection we see one who is clearly the same person but whose humanity has been remade to be immortal. In his own words Jesus declares elsewhere that things will be different for us in the new creation, that we will be there far more like the angels are now.

I prayed that my sister would be healed of the tumour that was taking her life in exactly the same way that many of you have prayed for loved ones who were slowly succumbing to a terminal illness. Yet she died in this life. Despite that, and this is not a cop-out - I've had to do some serious wrestling, I am slowly coming to the conclusion that my prayer is in the process of being answered; that in the context of resurrection, of her resurrection, so she is made whole and far more complete than ever she was here.  Here I may pray, 'Heal her in Jesus' name' and he responds, 'I am, and I have and I will, but in my timing in a new creation where it is my will for there to be no more physical and biological mutations for all things will be remade complete and whole.' That's why we had the reading from Revelation as our first reading. That's why there will be no more mourning, crying or pain.

This, then, is an answer to the problem of why, when we pray in the name of Jesus, we might not receive what we're asking for. It's not to be used as a magickal phrase. And we should not ask for something which we do not know to be within his will. And his will is quite likely to be different from what we imagine it to be.

Does that mean we shouldn't pray for healing? 

Of course not! Sometimes, and in the mystery of his own will, God will heal some people. But it is complicated. Wholeness of mind and spirit are of greater importance than wholeness of body, but at the same time we cannot divorce our physical capabilities from our non-corporeal being. We are one being, not three divisible parts. The healing, though, may sometimes come in the growth wrought in us through the spiritual help that comes in coping with the difficulties we are confronted with.

But in the final analysis we must not be like the disciples who said, 'We understand now', unless we take into account the resurrection. At that point they hadn't and that's why Jesus questioned their understanding.  The prayer, 'In the name of Jesus', cannot make sense unless we have a more complete understanding of the nature of the will of God. That means we can only pray it when we know we are asking for something in accordance with his will.

It also means that sometimes his answer will be yes, but not in this life. Ultimately, the only thing which makes sense of this life from a Christian perspective is the assurance of the resurrection. Without it all we have is a good preacher-man whose words haven't always been backed up by our experience. So let us learn to see life from the perspective of this just being the first stage of existence. There is more to come.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Harvest Thanksgiving: Tilling and Keeping the earth - or Domination? Genesis 1 vs. Genesis 2

Genesis 1:26-30, 2:4-9, 15
26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
27 So God created humankind in his image,
   in the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them.
28God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ 29God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 

Luke 12:54-58
Jesus also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
‘And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison.

When it comes to harvest, the question that I want to consider is, 'Are we Genesis 1 people, or Genesis 2 people?'  The two chapters were written by two authors at two different times and they say different things about creation.  Genesis 2, about Adam and Eve, is an older story than Genesis 1, and we know this because in the Hebrew they use different names for God and different writing styles. What we find in Genesis 1 is a hierarchical build-up towards humankind having dominion over the earth and subduing it. Genesis 2, on the other hand, looks towards nurturing creation with a specific emphasis on farming and our God-given human responsibility to till the ground and keep it.

The two are different. What I want to suggest is that the first almost looks like it is influenced by observation; that the writer saw what humanity does and assumes that must therefore be what God made us to do, to subdue everything before us. But, to my ears, Genesis 2 is more a command from God. 'Here is the earth in your safe keeping. Farm it, care for it and cherish it.'  You might recall later on in Genesis 2 that God asks Adam to name all the animals, again underlining this sense of the duty of care that is being placed on his shoulders.

So it's easy to see that the two chapters are really very different. If we take the Genesis 1 approach, which is to observe what humanity does and then call it the right and God-given thing to do, we realise that this has become unsustainable. When humans have 'dominion', it's one thing if there are a few million of us, and when this passage was written there were only about 50 million people in the entire world.  Now there are over 7 billion, but we haven't changed our habits.

For example, recent fossil evidence has shown what homo sapiens did as we moved out of Africa into the rest of the world. Everywhere we went all the large animals quickly became extinct. We hunted them until they were gone. That's domination; that's dominion. But we can't keep on like that. We cannot continue to be Genesis 1 people. We have to be Genesis 2 people now.  And Genesis 2 is about tilling the ground and keeping it; it's about caring for and taking responsibility for that which has been placed in our charge for a time. As we give thanks for the harvest of today, this is the approach we will have to take in the future if we are to continue to have harvests.

Another way we can think about this is in the literal name of the church. Most of us, when we hear the word, 'Catholic', automatically assume that we're talking about the Roman Catholic church, but actually the word catholic simply means, 'universal'. That's vital in understanding the meaning of what the 20th century French philosopher and Christian mystic Simone Weil meant when she asked this question:
“How can Christianity call itself catholic, if the universe itself is left out?”

So I suggest that when it comes to Harvest thanksgiving it should be about receiving with gratitude God's graceful provision in the present whilst accepting responsibility for the future, a future we are currently not paying sufficient attention to. What I mean by that is that, worldwide, we are simply taking more than the earth has got to give.  So Simone Weil's statement was that we, as Christians, cannot call our faith catholic, or universal, unless it takes account of the needs of the whole earth, and that's another reason why we have to become Genesis 2 people.

If there is to be a sustainable future we have to go much further than we are currently going, both individually and corporately. If we are to go on harvesting we are required to change how we understand the earth and all the life that's upon it. We need to move from treating our planet as a commodity over which we have dominion to treating it as a sacred gift in our care.

There are two further things in the second chapter of Genesis which, I think, back up this argument. First the name ‘Adam’ means ‘man of dust’, or more literally, 'Dirt-man'. It is a subtle acknowledgement that Adam is made of the same stuff as everything else on the planet. When we are conceived our mothers use food from the earth, including all the healthy minerals, to build our bodies. Throughout our lives we will go on doing the same thing.  But when we die we have no further use for these bodies and so we return them to the earth for the minerals to be taken up and reused in some one else. It's likely that every atom in your body has been animate before in another form of life and will be again after you have gone. We are all Adam. We are all made of the same stuff of life that everything and everyone else on this planet is.

Something else that's rather interesting is that Adam is only a living, moving being because God breathes his breath, his Spirit, into him. It is only because God is within him that Adam lives and moves and breathes. So Adam, and us, and our crops, and the birds, the dogs and cats, the sheep and cows and every other living thing exists because of a partnership between God and the earth.  Our planet supplies the material and God breathes in God's breath, God's life. God the Father is in partnership with Mother Earth, and if we are created in God's image, then we are expected to be as well. Nurture and participate, not domination. Genesis 2, not Genesis 1.

Secondly, to add a little more detail, there are two key words in this phrase from Genesis 2:15: 'The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.'  ‘Tilling’ means to cultivate - of helping the land to become everything that it is capable of becoming. Those of you who are farmers know all about this. We are grateful to you and to the many others who put such huge amounts of work in to cultivating the soil and enabling it to yield food for us to eat. So farming is certainly a part of this, but it is not the whole of it. We all have a role to play in ensuring future harvests.  The reason for that is that the phraseology is about care. This is further underlined by the use of ‘keeping’, which comes from a Hebrew word which means to take great care of and guard. What we find, therefore, is that if we read more of the story, then it emerges that God’s plan for humanity is one of nurturing and participating with creation. It's a partnership.

The trouble is, that is not what it has become over the course of just one lifetime. This is highlighted for Anglicans in the fifth of what we call ‘The five marks of mission’, (which define for us the ways in which the church should be engaging with the world), which is stated thus: To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.  And that is where the rest of us come in. The farmers have to respond to the markets, but it is we, the people, who drive those markets, and every scientific and economic indicator shows us that we are over-consuming.

Look at what Jesus says in the Gospel reading about reading the signs. He was talking in a different context but the truth holds for us here. All the signs are that we are changing our planet and wiping out vast ecosystems by taking out more than we are putting back. We need to read those signs and respond.  And the really frightening thing is how quickly it's happened; within the lifetime of some of those reading this.

After the second world war we were left with a planet full of wrecked economies. The powers that be, especially in the USA, decided on a form of economy based on global consumerism. The result of that was the on-going post world war two boom. According to the calculations of Alan Durning, we produced and consumed as many goods and services in the fifty years between 1950 and the year 2000 as we did throughout the entire history of our species prior to that date.

This cannot continue simply because the planet isn't big enough. Some commentators suggest that if everyone on the planet lived like the rich west does we would need seven earths to sustain us. Genesis 1 domination has led us to this; now we need Genesis 2 tilling and keeping.

So what can we do? History shows that democratically elected governments eventually change their policies when there is a grass-roots shift. That's how they remain in power. So we have to change first and that eventually will shift governmental policy. Look at how the Green Party has slowly but surely had an impact on the policy of successive governments. They have changed opinions.

The change to sustainability starts with people like us. As we give thanks to God for our harvest we need to resolve to change our approach to the world in which we live. We need to learn to buy something and use it until it is worn out, not just replace it because we can. We need to move back towards repairability by buying the goods that can be repaired.

Examples of this comes from two friends of mine. One is very mechanically savvy. He owns a very elderly, very simple car. He doesn't have far to travel so he just keeps repairing it. Another covers huge miles, so every few years she buys a nearly new car that can cope with those miles. Then she runs it right into the ground before replacing it.  And when you do have to replace, take the old one to recycling. Car dismantlers, for example, will give you a few quid and keep other elderly cars going. We should aim to be the last owners of everything we buy, and whatever we buy should be aimed at what we need and should, within our budgets, be bought to last and be repairable.

Many of the generation that used to live like this are still alive. For the sake of future harvests we need to look at a more sustainable lifestyle, because this one isn't. If we care for our children and grandchildren we have to start building lifestyles that will mean that when they are old they can still give thanks for harvests whilst still breathing clean air and eating food they can trust.

We cannot continue to dominate the planet. Genesis 1 is a poor fit for over seven billion people. If we do we will wipe ourselves out and take a lot of the ecosystem with us. But we can re-learn the skill of nurturing, of tilling and keeping the ground; of naming once more the animals. Only then are we fulfilling the commands of Genesis 2. And then, not only can we give thanks for our harvests of today, we can look forward to the harvests for our children and their children.