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Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Never Pray Again by the Three Mosquitos

From Miami University Libraries
I spent the day reading Never Pray Again by Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson (otherwise known as @TwoFriars @AndAFool on twitter). They have a long-standing blog with more of their foolishness which can be found at Two Friars and A Fool.

Full disclosure, I received a digital review copy and a print copy is coming in the mail. If it comes in time, I fully intend to bring it to UNCO14 next week to get it autographed by these three absurd men, who happen to be friends. Unconference is a few days of open source gathering to discuss the future of the church. Nobody has given us permission to meet, but we didn't ask either. You should come, by the way.

I first met the friars and the fool on twitter, where they inspired several #GetOffMyLawn tweets from me. I later met them at UNCO in person, and they have grown on me like mold on bread. I am, at this point, very fond of these three smartasses. I recommend their book to you, with the caveat that it inspired more than one utterance of #GetOffMyLawn as I read it. Two Friars and a Fool are forever provoking me like mosquitos; I am never bored when they are around. Through their provocation, they sharpen my wit, force me to articulate my muddy thoughts, and
occasionally change my mind. The Good Lord can attest that not much changes my mind.

Of the three, I have spent more time in absurd debate with Aric, who masquerades as one of the @TwoFriars. Our longest debate was over his use of the "royal we" when tweeting as @TwoFriars. He maintained for the longest time that it wasn't royal, nor was he attempting to condescend in his use of it. It was simply that when he tweeted as @TwoFriars, he was tweeting for the both of them.

But I could always tell when it was Aric tweeting, and the royal we in tandem with his various proclamations rankled me. More than once I think we could have resolved our differences much sooner (or at least put down our weapons), if @TwoFriars could have just used the pronoun "I". 

At some point Aric quit using the "we" with me, and I quit accusing him of being a condescending bore, and our friendship deepened immeasurably. So I am delighted to have read this book written by the Three Mosquitos, and I'll be thinking about it in the days to come as I work with my congregations to consider what actions and prayers might be our next steps in engaging our local communities and contexts.

The argument of this book can be summed up in this way: When Christians engage in prayer, they are involved in a form of self-medicating that eliminates the urge for action. As we confess or pray for our neighbors, we place the world's brokenness in God's hands and then walk away. This leads to sinfully neglecting God's call to action in this world. Therefore, Christians should stop praying, get off their butt, and go DO.

As an example, if a person falls half dead at your feet, you ought to DO something, not just stand there and pray for healing.

The authors charge Christianity with creating zombie followers, more interested in sitting in a pew praying with their eyes shut, sitting on their hands, than actually engaging the brokenness in the world. Rather than think creatively for ourselves and step out into insecure risk to make a difference, we turn inward and avoid making eye contact with anyone different than ourselves. As they put it, "Dogmatism takes a thinking, feeling person and replaces them with a simple algorithm--predictable results everytime. When the articles of faith become non-negotiable, which by definition dogmas are, then we are reduced to the function of replicating ideas like theological copy machines." (10)

Reading this book comes at an interesting crossroads for me. Last Thursday I went on a prayer walk in Trenton to visit the places where 11 men in our community have been murdered this year. We prayed, poured out oil, visited with families, and prayed some more as we walked through spaces of violence and fear. We had with us mighty prayer warriors who poured out words like the Spirit rushed through their veins. We didn't solve the problem of violence in our community, but it wasn't NOTHING, what we did. It mattered, what we did. To the mother we met on our journey, it MATTERED that somebody remembered her son and took the time to weep with her. Our prayers in those places were powerful and important. As I read this book, this is the context I have in mind.

I got stuck in the first few chapters because of the insistence that prayer and action contradict one another. In the introduction the authors state it plainly: "This book tries to teach another way. We want you to lift your head, open your eyes, unfold your hands, and get to work. It’s our observation that prayer is often a substitute for action. So if we want you to act instead of praying, what would we suggest? This book is our answer. We hope that after you read this book you will never pray again."

I'm struck by how contextual this claim is in itself. While there is much work to do in my Trenton community, it would be extremely difficult for me to suggest that it should be done without prayer. As I collaborate with church folk who live and work and have their being in Trenton, one of the places of commonality and hope is in prayer itself. You can go into the community and DO all you want, but it would be culturally illiterate to try and dismantle prayer as part of community organizing here. For people who do not have access to the resources of the suburbs, prayer remains a vital resource for hope and change.

Or to put it another way, I attended a meeting for clergy the other day, focused on violence in Trenton. While at Trenton Deliverance Center Church, I noticed a display of crutches hanging on the wall of the sanctuary. I asked the pastor about the display, and he told me those were the pieces of medical equipment collected from members who had been healed of their infirmities while a member of the church. "Ask anyone who has been here," he said, "they will tell you it's true." I posted the picture on my facebook page with a caption about the faith healing. Immediately I began to receive inbox messages from other liberal Christians objecting to the message of faith healing. And I understand the objections--I surely do! And yet, this community requires a miracle along the lines of Jesus' healing, and I plan to cling to that symbol of hope. As another friend said to me, "It is easy to not believe in miracles, if you have access to healthcare."



So in the first few pages, I was already yelling #GetOffMyLawn. And it's weird, because I did not grow up in a church, nor have I ever held a very powerful view of prayer. If you had asked me 10 years ago if prayer changes anything, I probably would have snorted. But in the last decade I have prayed with and for others. I have had hands laid on me, been anointed with oil, been charged with speaking truth. A few months ago a congregation prayed extra for me because I'm white folk. I never stop smiling about that blessing. I can't answer to what prayer can and cannot do, but I know that it changes me (and thanks to Lukata Mjumbe of UMIO for articulating that on our prayer walk).

Beyond that, I am deeply suspicious of people who go out and DO without appropriate reflection and care. In our rush to DO, we sometimes DO more damage than if we'd just sat on our hands.

So already I was feeling irritated by this book written by the Three Mosquitos, when I came to this line regarding the apparent pointlessness of praising God: "Praising beauty is as worthless as praising winners...It’s like calling a press conference to declare: 'I like puppies!' Who cares? Everybody likes puppies." (16) I had to put the book down and take a break.

Seaman on YAHIKO MARU with two terriers and a litter of puppies, c 1950
I don't like puppies. Not at all. They are hyperactive and lick your face. They bark overmuch and sometimes they bite. They don't stop moving, not even for a second, and they chew things up. I don't like puppies at all. I got sidetracked by this rabbit trail for 17 minutes while I wrestled with whether I could continue reading this book. The struggle I have with this otherwise excellent book is the sweeping pronouncements. Everybody does not, in fact, like puppies. Everybody does not, in fact, use prayer as a spiritual sedative. I glared at the pdf file balefully.

And then I remembered a story told by one of my professors a decade ago. He had a student who believed every word of the Bible should be taken literally. He had been reading through the Hebrew Scriptures, apparently able to merrily reconcile all contradictions enclosed therein, EXCEPT: in Leviticus 11:3-6 and Deuteronomy 14:7, scripture clearly states that rabbits are unclean and should not be eaten because they chew their cud. Rabbits do not chew their cud. The student could not reconcile this apparent contradiction and ultimately rejected Christianity in its entirety, stating that if just one thing was incorrect, then the entire Bible was suspect. I happen to agree--the entire Bible is suspect and needs examining and consideration. But this student could not move forward through the ambiguity.

(It turns out one might consider rabbits to chew their cud. If you're dying to read the somewhat earthy description of a rabbit's digestive process, click here.)

As usual with the Three Mosquitos, I was being principled and ridiculous. And I was in danger of missing their entire point by dwelling on what I felt was a straw man: prayer as the opposite of action. I decided to forgive them the puppy love and keep reading, conceding temporarily that prayer is a useless ritual and seeing what they wanted to put in place.

A few pages later, I found this line: "If you praise what is ugly and despised, call clean what is filthy, and celebrate what no one desires, then you are doing more than speaking a counterintuitive truth--you are creating the reality you speak of." (25) I had to laugh, because as far as I am concerned, the Two Friars and the Fool had just written out what I understand to be true of prayer--that what we are doing in our prayers is creating the reality God longs for. Ultimately, I believe this book is a prescription for prayer exactly. I half expected the final chapter to be a concession that actually our whole lives are prayer--that everything we do and say is a prayer--every groan, every cry, every piece of clothing offered to the naked, every visit to those imprisoned--that is all prayer. I suppose next week at UNCO, I will have this argument out in person.

Read the book and see if you agree. Never Pray Again is addressing a particular audience and context, critiquing what has become a gulf of indifference in the lives of white mainline and evangelical churches. I am not sure it applies in the same way to folks living under conditions of oppression and marginalization. Last Thursday it would have been churlish and cruel to deny the families of murder victims our prayers. The work that night WAS prayer itself, and nothing else would have sufficed.

But in its context, this book is helpful and important. Never Pray Again would be an excellent book to start discussion in many churches about how to go beyond prayer into action in our communities. Or rather, how to expand our understanding of prayer to include our actions and words beyond the walls of the church. It is easy to read, accessible, and not too long--no need for a seminary education to finish the book.

In particular I was moved by the chapter on healing and our preferential treatment for able bodies. Writing about what it means to be healed by God, they wrote: "Perhaps it is impossible to be made whole by God and to also be 'healed' by the usual standards. One who is made whole by God will never again fit into the world as they once might have." (54) And on that we agree.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you very much for your thoughts - I look forward to arguing about whether the whole book is about prayer at UNCO :)

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