Post 28

What’s the Magic Word?
Reflections on Prayer as Unmannered Asking

In some ways, the inarticulate infant is the best ‘asker’ the world has ever known.  A baby’s sobs are not as high on the decibel count as they seem, but they have a way of affecting us really quickly.  I heard of a study where a recording of a baby’s cries was played and people were asked to estimate the length of time the baby was crying.  The estimates were way too high – people thought the recording was a lot longer than it was.  There’s a reason people dread sitting next to a baby on an airplane – that cry is, well, uniquely effective at pushing our buttons, especially at close range, which is where it often is. (And once you add the visuals of the red face, flailing arms and tears spilling everywhere, it’s even more effective!) You could call it evolution: it’s a cry perfected through the ages in order to get results.  The quiet babies didn’t survive – at least that’s how I understand the application of the theory.  Survival of the Loudest.

Anyway, when this infant becomes a toddler, the methods are a little different: ‘Papa! Papa! Papa! Papa!’  ‘Mama! Mama! Mama!’  These requests are simple and spontaneous and not particularly polite either.  As a matter of fact, they are often complaints more than requests.  “Hungry!” we said when we were toddlers, or “Milk!” or “Up!”  But the incessant, repetitious pleas are indisputably effective.

As the toddler gets better at talking, it’s a top priority for parents to get these requests under control.  “What’s the magic word?” say the parents.  “Please” says the child.  “And now what do you say?” “Thank you” says the child.  My mother’s first language wasn’t English, so I never received the lesson about using “May I?” instead of “Can I?” but a lot of children learn that too.

In any case, as we get older, we internalize the rules of polite asking.   As it turns out, there are many unwritten rules.  And for the most part, that’s okay.  All the politics of asking, in general, have the effect of keeping our day-to-day relations more peaceful.  But it’s complicated; personal pride gets mixed in here too, of course, because asking suggests weakness.  And it’s interesting how some people get really good at asking, and know exactly how to spin their requests and get all the doors opened for them.   I liked this quotation: “You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.” (Albert Camus)

And aside from charm, there are other ways of asking which are quite artful.  The Socratic method is education based on asking, and our litigation system is built on calculated asking.  By the time we’re adults, our asking has certainly changed from that bald-faced demand for a glass of water that we made when we were a meter tall.

And I guess what I’m wondering is whether our grownup, sophisticated rules of asking make us less capable of praying. After all, prayer is a way of asking that breaks some fairly basic rules.  Consider what we’re supposed to do, when it comes to prayer:

Ask for gifts: A young child will ask his parents for everything and anything.  He’s not shy.  He doesn’t say to himself, ‘well, my mother knows perfectly well that I would like a puppy, so there’s no point in asking;’ he just goes ahead and asks, again.  The little girl will ask to have cookies for breakfast and will ask you to carry her all around the house, until finally your arms fall off.

Contrast this with adults; we know better than to ask for gifts.  A woman won’t demand signs of affection, but this doesn’t mean that she or the relationship has somehow progressed ‘beyond’ such things – it’s too bad that many men don’t realize the secret power of well-timed flowers or cards!  Perhaps such men don’t realize it because they themselves have little interest in birthdays, and their male friends also don’t make a fuss about them.  It’s so different for women – most of them keep track of such dates in order to act upon them; they know that forgetfulness of another woman’s birthday might have consequences.  And so you can see the problem with the male-female difference in approach: a woman knows when St. Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day is just around the corner, but the man is just coasting along, blissfully ignorant of the upcoming relationship test.  Hopefully he has programmed a reminder into his phone so that he can wake up before the day arrives!  Indeed, for many men, the calendar is a minefield of unspoken expectations.

So consider how different it is with prayer.  If we believe, then we believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful being, who already knows what we want and what we need.  He is not Santa Claus who needs a list, surely?  So how odd it is to make requests to someone who already knows everything!  Christ even said God knows what we need before we say it.

Yet isn’t this child-like asking precisely what we are taught to do?  Jesus says that if people, who are as flawed as we are, are capable of giving good gifts, then “how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”  Notice how it says “to those who ask him.”  So in the case of prayer, we’re actually supposed to ask for gifts.

When you look at the gospel stories, you’ll find a catalogue of all the artless and clumsy (childlike) ways of asking – sure, some people were careful and very respectful, but it seems to me that they were in the minority.  Story after story show people being reckless and wild and (literally) pushy in their asking.  Short Zaccheus climbed a tree to get a better view, the woman with the hemorrhage reached and touched Christ’s garment, and the four buddies removed part of the roof so that they could lower their friend down right in front of Christ’s nose. Then there was the blind man who cried out, which prompted those nearby to tell him to please settle down (which made him even louder, feisty fellow).

Constantly the people surrounded Jesus and asked for his intervention.  They were often really bold.  And Jesus was never critical of this needy behaviour; he never complained of it; he had compassion.  But he did complain about those who didn’t ask; the people in his home town, for example, thought they had him all figured out and were pretty dismissive.  They didn’t have much interest in him and did not come asking, and so nothing really happened for them.  Asking is valuable because it shows faith, and faith is, for whatever reason, the precondition for a miracle, usually.   I say ‘usually’ because I am thinking about this story, which recently hit me as if I had never heard it before:

Jesus [referring to the man’s son]: How long has he had this?

Man: From childhood.  And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.

Jesus: If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.

Man [immediately crying out]: I believe; help my unbelief!

– Mark 9: 21-24

I like a lot of things about this passage, but I especially noticed the way Jesus repeats the man’s words back to him, showing him that he is doubting: “If you can!”  I wonder if Jesus said it like this: “if you can!” or like this: “if you can!”  Then the man’s response is so moving and so true-to-life – I can just picture the scene.  He knows what he’s supposed to say to Jesus in order to obtain help for his son and in front of all these people (“I believe!”), but he’s honest too, and he can’t help but exclaim as well, “Help my unbelief!”

The point is, God wants us to ask for his gifts.  He waits for that; it’s the way it’s supposed to go.  Even Jesus made requests.  The point is to at least ask.  But if you insist on being more ‘mature’ about it, then you’re still supposed to ask, but then add this at the end: “nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

As long as we remember that we’re asking for a gift, all will be well.  It’s when we act like the Pharisee in the temple, who thought he was so good that he deserved it, or the elder son in the prodigal son story, who thought he was so good that he deserved it, that we’re in dangerous waters.

Ask for the small things too:  Another thing we learn in life is that we’re not supposed to bother people about the little things.  Be sensible, and save your requests for the times when you really need help.  If you pester people when the need is small, then they’ll start ignoring your requests, or – even worse – you. The tale of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” had a moral, of course, but was the moral that you mustn’t request help on false pretenses or was the moral that you mustn’t request help until there’s an emergency?  We sometimes get the message that you really shouldn’t bother other people unless it’s of wolf-level significance, which perhaps explains a man’s reluctance to ask for directions. The last thing you want to do is cash in your goodwill needlessly.  Wait until you have a biggie, because then it’s okay, maybe.

Yet with prayer it’s just the opposite.  We’re supposed to pray about everything, and not just about the emergencies.  That typical behaviour, to pray only when we’re really stuck (no atheists in the trenches), isn’t ideal.  We’re supposed to strengthen our relationship with God by bringing all aspects of our lives to him in prayer.  There’s no request that’s too small.  In fact, I think God delights in giving us these tiny tokens of his love.  And when we look at the prayer life of a child, it’s full of cute requests.  But God will strengthen this budding faith by bending down to hear and answer a disproportionate number of such requests, even if they seem insignificant to adults: like getting the right roll of the dice or finding a lost marble.  If it’s a big deal to the child, it’s a big deal to him.  But even when, as children or adults, we know something is not really important in the universal scheme of things, he will often answer with a surprise.  I like the story about how St. Teresa of Avila was gardening in the heat and she was complaining to God about the scorching sun; she was so astonished because then a cloud came and covered it up.  And which saint was it who was longing for asparagus like his mother used to make?  Suddenly he saw a little bundle of it on the rock beside him.  Sometimes we say, “God has a sense of humour” – yes he does; he made it.

And in addition to strengthening the relationship, praying about all the different aspects of our life will have the effect of making us bring these areas into greater accordance with his will.  We are more likely to mess up the areas of our lives that we think don’t have spiritual significance.  If we’re going to be true Christians, then it’s actually wrong to compartmentalize our life into spiritual and non-spiritual zones.  Do we think that God cares that we go to church, but that he doesn’t care how we drive there and back?  He cares about everyone and everything.  (This is why a Christian will always bring his religion into the public arena; his values should permeate his whole life.)

Skip the line: We also learn that we can’t or shouldn’t approach those who are ‘above us’ in the pecking order.  We learn pretty early on that you run the risk of humiliation and shunning if you don’t correctly direct or phrase your request.  Approach those who are ‘in charge’ at your own risk.   When you are in grade ten, don’t expect that someone in grade twelve will have any time for you.  And it goes beyond high school; in the ‘real world,’ boundaries are based less on age than on job titles.  The executive is behind closed doors and layers of staff members.  Perhaps if you ingratiate yourself to his secretary, you will be able to have your request considered.  (For this reason, those in power can easily become gradually more conceited and arrogant, just because they are so used to having people fawn on them and approach them with such delicacy.  It messes with the brain!  I guess that’s why saints warn it’s safer to be the servant than the master.  And to go on a tangent from a tangent, I suspect that those people who are the ‘prize’ on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette will never recover from the imprint of that experience!)  We’re supposed to take our place at the back of the line.

But anyway (where was I?), we bring this notion into our prayer life, because we may have a sense that we aren’t really in a position to ask God for anything because we’re not ‘good enough.’  It’s kind of like St. Peter saying to Jesus, “Leave me, for I am a sinful man.”  Plus there’s a notion of inconsistency – how can we approach God when we’ve neglected him all this time?  We’re not even on good terms with his secretary!  But here again, Christianity emphasizes that everyone has ready access to God, and as a matter of fact, the more sinful we are, the more we are ‘qualified’ to have his ear.  It’s the sinners who get a ‘Skip the Line’ pass. After all, he said, “I came to call sinners.”  In fact, the better we think we are, the more in danger we are – then we’re the Pharisee in the parable, who said, “I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector.  I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.”  No – it was the tax-collector who got it right, when he said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other . . .” (Luke 18:9-14)

In the end, Christianity is not a religion where the only thing we can do is stand in awe, and bow very low, fearing to pronounce his name.  It’s a religion about relationship with a three-person (even God is in relationship!) God.  He has demonstrated his love for us in the person of Christ, and he’s not done yet.  He desires to show that love to each of us, but he’s not pushy.  He waits for us to ask, to give him a chance to show us that love.  So let’s set aside our grownup reluctance and our grownup complexity, and behave like unmannered children.  Let’s be the little child who runs into the grand hall, past all the stoic diplomats and guards, and flings himself into the king’s arms.  Let’s be simple and trusting, and tell him what’s really on our heart.

Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.  But Jesus called them to him, saying “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Luke 18:15-17


[My longest post – so far.  Next time I’ll aim for under 1000 words, in order to ‘facilitate consumption’]