Friday, April 11, 2008


Imagine a world in which prayer works, without fail, all the time. What kind of world might that be?

At first glance we might think it would be a paradise. Who among us hasn't wished at one time or another that a prayer might be reliably answered? We may have prayed for the healing of a loved one--or for our own healing. We may have prayed for help at a time of crisis. When all other resources have been exhausted, how nice to know we had prayer to fall back on to resolve our problems.

But consider this a little more. Suppose some white supremecist living in the hills of Idaho prayed that all people of color turned white, and they did. Or suppose an African-American prayed that all white supremecists would turn black, or in a fit of artistic humor, turned green, or paisley, or purple with orange polkadots and a feathered crest.

Suppose I prayed my kids never grew up and left me. Suppose my parents had prayed that about me, condeming me to eternal life as a ten-year old, always living at home, always following their rules.

Suppose we prayed there was no death. Where would we have room for all the people, all the squirrels, all the mice, all the geese, all the bacteria that never, ever died?

If all prayers were routinely, reliably, perfectly, unquestionably answered, we would be living in hell.

OK, so we may not want a world in which all prayers are answered. What about some prayers? Would it be ok if some prayers were reliably, perfectly, unquestionably answered? But which prayers? Whose prayers? Well, mine, of course... But yours? Can I trust your prayers where I'm concerned? For that matter, can I really trust my own? Am I wise enough, knowledgable enough, loving enough, farseeing enough that I can guarantee that the consequences of my prayers will be reliably, unquestionably good?

I should probably be grateful (and I am!) that God grants some prayers and not others!

But which prayers does God grant? How does God decide? Is there something I can do--a good deed slipped under the table when no one's looking, perhaps--to influence this decision?

A favorite way of thinking about God is that God is omnipotent, the very definition of all-powerful-ness. But in fact, God has boundaries.

At times in my life I have lived in earthquake-prone areas, like Southern California or the Pacific Northwest. I've ridden through a few tremors in my time. It's an odd sensation to feel the earth, ordinarly so stable and placid, suddenly move like the ocean beneath your feet. Even more disconcerting is the realization there is no place to go that will be stable, for in that moment the very thing that normally defines "stable"--the bedrock under you--is dancing and shifting. Unless you could levitate, no place is safe in that moment.

This sense of vulnerability and loss of foundation can affect people in strange ways. I've had friends who long after an earthquake has become memory--and even when it did very little damage--still suffer from stress and fears awakened by that moment when the most stable thing in their lives--the ground on which they lived--became active and unpredictable.

What if the ground of all being were similarly unstable and unpredictable? What if there were Godquakes? What if we didn't know from one moment to the next if we would exist at all or what form we might exist in? What would my life be like if I could be a human now but a minute from now I might turn into a duck or a fish or a parameceum, or if I'm David today but tomorrow I could be Dorothy or Tom or even George Bush? What if at this moment I'm a caring, loving person, but an hour from now I turned into a violent, sadistic killer--or vice versa?

There certainly is change in our lives, and in fact, a loving person can--and sometimes does--fall into rage or fear or insanity and become a monster. But underneath all this is a confidence that our fundamental beingness is secure, held in safety and love by God. In fact, it's testimony to how much the earth is usually seen as the most secure, foundational presence in our physical lives that we use it as a metaphor for the most secure, foundational presence in our spiritual lives: the Ground of all Being.

But unlike the earth, we don't have "Godquakes" in which that foundation is lost. This is not to say we don't go through experiences that can profoundly shake us and upend our most cherished thoughtforms and beliefs, but this is not the same as losing the foundation of our beingness and of our existence itself. I can be shaken and transformed through an experience but even in my transformation, I remain human. I don't become a giraffe.

So God has boundaries. They are the boundaries necessary to provide the ground for our being, for all being. They provide the confidence that I will remain human and the birds outside my window will remain birds. They are boundaries set by the nature of things, by the need of creation for a fundamental stability, coherency and integrity. And God, to be God, cannot abridge or overrule those boundaries (though God can work miracles by acting within the boundaries in ways we might not expect).

I would like my prayers to be answered, but God has to work within boundaries. The latter may prevent the former. There are boundaries I cannot change, but there may well be boundaries I can. And if I change some of the boundaries I have created or participated in creating with others, that may open up possibilities that God can flow through and work what seem to be miracles. My fear or hatred for a person is a boundary to ways we might cooperate and even partner together, for instance. But if I change that boundary to love, who knows what may happen?

That Shiites fear and hate Sunnis or that Arabs fear and hate Americans fuels conflict in the Middle East. Our fears and hates set boundaries for us, and God cannot just remove them without our participation. I can pray for peace all I want, and it will not happen. But if I change that boundary in myself from fear to openness, from hate to love, then a whole new condition exists. Now the boundaries are there to include, not exclude, and in that inclusion, God can indeed work miracles of peace and blessing.

God has boundaries, and more often than not, we are those boundaries. If we want our prayers to be answered, we might begin by exploring the boundaries we can change, which may mean changing ourselves.