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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thy Will Be Done

A topic I try to cover every semester in theology class is the theology of prayer.  I first introduced this topic to illustrate the theological category of a "practice" which has become more and more prominent in theological reflection in recent decades.  Taking such a familiar concept as prayer gave me the opportunity to investigate the goal or purpose of the practice, the proper means of practicing prayer, the various forms of prayer that make up the general practice, the "rules of the game" that define what is and is not prayer, the virtues required by and strengthened by practicing prayer, the relation of prayer to a more general practice of worship, and the corruptions of prayer in contemporary practice.  I've written about aspects of this conversation at various times in this blog.

Last week in Systematic Theology class, I started down that road in our unit on ecclesiology.  Having gone over various ways of outlining the doctrine of the church, I had ended with McClendon and Yoder as examples of theologians who had turned to practices of a shared life in community as the crucial ways of elaborating on the nature of the church.  I took the low-hanging fruit, prayer, and began to illustrate how to understand it as an example of a practice.

As usual, the students were fairly quickly drawn into the reimagining of this subject in which they had long been immersed and about which they had often reflected.  As usual, I began to take critical shots at common popular assumptions and problematic teachings about prayer.  We addressed the idea of prayer as a consumer activity, of "shopping" with God.  We looked at the ways we have been told that if we do or say or think or feel the right things, then prayer will work out how we want.  I stressed that prayer is not about getting God to change and do what we want, but that it is an opportunity for God to change us and align us with the divine purpose.  Students were offering helpful supplements to my prepared remarks, and all in all the discussion seemed to me very successful as a teaching and learning activity.

Then the conversation turned deep and personal.  One experienced pastor began to describe pastoral experiences in which a young person had endured a terminal illness.  Another spoke of her sister's illness and partial recovery.  I tried to draw upon my own experience of losing Everly to cancer even as we prayed for God's deliverance.  Finally one told of the sudden death of his young son.  We ran up against the limits of prayer as an input-output machine.  Prayer can never be reduced to doing our duty so that God will do God's "duty" to give us what we hope for.

One obvious protest brings up the story of Lazarus or Jairus's daughter or Peter and John in the temple with the lame man, or any number of other divine interventions for healing and life.  If they prayed and God delivered, why can't we?  The unsatisfying answer is that Peter and John and Jesus did not heal every lame person, raise every dead child, or open every grave.  These mighty works were a sign of God the Creator who is able to do all things in the world God has created.  They were not a sign of the reversal of every pattern and system in creation so that none will ever die or be sick in this world, if we just pray hard enough or in the right way, with the right words. 

The asked but unanswerable question remained:  If God acted in those events, why not in my crisis?  The question has many shades of meaning.  One is the question of whether I have failed God in some way and therefore did not merit God's favor.  Jesus challenged that kind of thinking by the synagogue leaders as wrongheaded.  We do not need to be trying to figure out how to blame people who get sick or face disabilities.  We need to be compassionate toward them.  Another shade of this question is whether God has abandoned us.  But God cannot and will not abandon God's creation.  God stands by us even in the most difficult and most evil of circumstances.  God can, but mostly does not, intervene in the events and actions of human life.  How many years was Jesus living in the world?  Yet we know only a few days and weeks of his life.  These highlights, which emphasize his teaching, his confrontations, and his mighty works, might be assumed to be representative of every day of his life.  Or they may more likely be great and memorable times surrounded by and interspersed among many normal days more like our own experiences.  It's not an answer to the question, but a way of trying to think through the problem.

When I am most faithful to my professed method of theological reflection, I link my arguments back to Jesus.  In this case, words from Jesus about prayer become highly relevant, as well as examples of his prayers.  There are many of these stories and teachings in the gospel, and I will not take them all up in this blog post.  We discussed quite a few in class.  For instance, Jesus' "High Priestly Prayer" of John 17 helps us to identify the purpose of prayer--union or communion with God.  Jesus' parables about prayer teach the proper virtues of communion with God (the Pharisee and the Publican) and the trust in God's loving purposes for us (the Importunate Widow and the children's requests for bread or an egg).  Jesus' model prayer in Matthew 6 deserves extensive analysis for its contributions to an understanding of prayer, but let it suffice here to say that at it's core is the prayerful person's aligning herself or himself with the purpose and will of God:  "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth."  It is this sentiment that inspired the name of this blog.

So last week I tried to make sense of this aspect of Jesus' praying:  praying for God's will to be done.  It is not only in the model prayer.  Jesus did not forget his own advice when he found himself in a crisis.  Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, not long before he would be arrested, tortured, and executed, Jesus poured out his heart in prayer.  He asked if the expected sequence of events could be avoided.  He asked if there could be another way.  And he followed his cries with the prayer, "not my will, but Thine be done."  He prayed that he would align his will with the purpose and will of God.  As my friend J. Kameron Carter showed me, it was the prayer his mother taught him.  When we first encounter the young Mary in Luke's gospel, she responds to the pronouncement and promise of God's messenger Gabriel by saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  The mother who was willing to align her life with God's purpose taught her son to pray in this same manner.  When he was old, he did not depart from it.

Even here, we run into dangers interpreting Jesus' prayer.  The core prayer is clear--praying for communion with God and the capacity to join oneself to God's purpose in the world.  But what is it that Jesus wants to avoid?  What other options are available to him?  What is it that he ultimately agrees to be the will of God?

Too often, we operate primarily from our position of hindsight.  We overlay the conversation of this prayer with layer upon layer of traditioned interpretation.  We import the revivalist's personal salvation preaching, the early modern construction of spheres of power through the nation-state, the medieval divinely predestined feudal order, and so many potential distortions of race, capital, religion, and violence.  We assume that when Jesus is asking to avoid the abandonment and torture and execution that he is facing, it is God's will that Jesus be abandoned, tortured, and executed.  We leave aside the actualities of a concrete life and let our minds wander among eternal verities and metaphysical principles.  We accept that dangerous theological dictum that Jesus came to die, as if the life he lived was not itself the purpose and will of God.  We turn Jesus in the garden into a mere cypher for an internal conflict within God.  We pretend that one part of God does not want to die, but the other part of God wants him to die.  But this is the wrong interpretation.

What were Jesus' options?  He could continue to follow the path of proclaiming and embodying the Kingdom of God.  This is what had gotten him in trouble.  This is what had aroused the powerful to make plans to destroy him.  This is what had stirred the crowds to follow him and put their hope in him.  This is what had motivated the disciples to be part of his movement.  He had challenged the social order, the economic disparities, the political structures.  They had pushed back and threatened and plotted to end his movement.  Now, at this moment of truth, what should he do?

If it be possible...this phrase represents the question of how to proceed and be faithful.  For Jesus to stand up for the people, to continue his mission, and to do so stubbornly now is going to mean he will be arrested, tried, tortured, and executed as an enemy of the state.  Another option would be to retreat again to the countryside and wait to continue the battle another day.  He has done this more than once in the past, if we can piece together a history from the four gospels.  But for several weeks at least he has been convinced that the time for retreating is over.  He has told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem for a final confrontation, and that it is going to cost him his life.  Would retreating once more be a way of extending his influence and building his movement?  Or would it be a way of undermining the work he had built up thus far?  Would it be a cowardly retreat, or a strategic plan for a long-term struggle? 

A different option would be to walk away from it all.  Jesus could concede defeat.  He could say, "Sorry, I didn't mean it."  He could settle back down to carpentry or join his buddies in the fishing business.  He could be that guy everyone has heard of--"remember who he used to be?"  He could give up on the calling he had previously accepted and renounce his critique of injustice.  He could promise to leave the Sadducees and Pharisees and Herodians alone.  He could even hold a joint press conference to say they had worked out their differences and that he is now in full support of their leadership.  Jesus would not have to deal with arrest and execution.  He could walk away.

Jesus also could reverse his previous position on violence.  He could embrace the popular notion of a Messiah as a conquering king.  Although he had spent his career rejecting and denying that was his way, even at the end telling his followers that he did not come to lord over anyone, but to lead as a servant, Jesus could conclude that it was not working and not worth the cost.  He could get his followers to gather their weapons.  He could stir the crowd which loved to follow him and hoped he would lead them into battle.  He could become that Messiah and fight to the bitter end.  Who knows if he could reach the same success as Joshua or as Judas Maccabeus?  This is what all his people seem to want him to do.  If it be possible...

Then again, he might hope that the people who were his enemies, the ones who were at that very time preparing to arrest him to fulfill the plot they had made, would suddenly change their minds.  Could it be that he would not face their wrath, but they would embrace him?  Certainly that was a possibility in some universe.  But it was unlikely.  And the only way he could find out about that was to go confront them again.

This is the choice Jesus grappled with that night in the Garden.  Should he continue faithfully on the path that he had discerned as the calling of God--to confront injustice, face down the powerful, proclaim a counter-politics and a contrast society, no matter where that might lead or what it might cost him?  Or should he renounce his calling, give up on the struggle, concede the defeat, walk away, turn on his people?  He wasn't choosing whether to accept God's plan for his death.  He was choosing whether to accept God's plan for his life.  Would he be faithful to the end, even if it meant his enemies would execute him?  This is not the same as saying God planned for him to die.  This is saying that God planned for him to struggle against evil without taking up the ways of evil and violence, even if it meant his love for his friends meant he would lay down his life.  God's will is to love.  In Jesus' case, to continue to love to the end meant he died the death of a political enemy.

In a similar way, I think it is possible to reflect on the challenges we face without depending on a predestinarian view of God's will and feeling that we must concede to the chess-game god's next move.  I mentioned earlier the hard questions that we ask but cannot answer.  Just as Job wondered why such terrible things happened, the whirlwind only offered the disappointing answer that there are many things we will not know.  When Everly was sick with cancer, we could not know how the illness would respond to medicine and treatment.  We went through ups and downs, through many pains and struggles, in an effort to see how she might live out her life as anticipated.  At 53, too young for a person to die, she had been stricken.  She faced the difficulty of giving up her career at its peak of success.  She wondered what she could do to build up her children who as young adults still had much to learn from her.  She knew that leaving us behind in the world would mean a harder financial existence and an emptiness in our homes from her absence. 

My own struggles were similar.  How could I support her through her trials?  How could I live without a partner through whom God had always led and guided me?  What kind of life should I have, since so much of the life I had been living was tied up in her career and person?  What both of us had to face was the necessity of living the life we had been called to live in a new set of circumstances.  To the extent that we had heard and responded to God's calling in our lives, then that calling was not changed in this new crisis.  However, it was a new context in which to live it.  Everly came to realize that the time she had available could be best used to build up the people in her life--her children, her family, her friends, her colleagues, and me.  She headed straight into the life ahead of her, following the calling she already knew was upon her.

Knowing the "why" of tragic events often escapes us.  Thus, my theology professor from seminary, William Hendricks, offered a response formed not in certainty, but in wisdom.  He urged us as ministry trainees to learn to convert the question.  We must push past the unanswerable "why?" to the practical "what now?"  What now, O God, would you have me do?  In the new circumstance I face, how do I remain faithful?  If this is what my life has come to, then how can I be the person you have called me to be?

Jesus prayed that prayer in the Garden.  He was up against an unfolding sequence of events that would not go well for him.  Like any sane human being, he did not want to go through the things that now were about to come to pass.  Is there another way?  Can I do something else?  What are the options?  God, help me know what to do.  He concluded that the God who had called him and the Spirit who had annointed him to preach good news to poor people, to set at liberty the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor--this same God who had willed this life for him would carry him through whatever evils and trials he must face to carry out that mission.  God wills for us to take up the mission of Jesus.  May I be always able to pray with him, "not my will, but Thine be done."

1 comment:

Vincent Lau said...

Many thanks, Dr Broadway. It will be a material for the courses of Pastoral Care and Counseling, and Pastoral Leadership and Ministry.

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