Why both pain and gratitude drive us to pray

A few days back the Rev Giles Fraser had a very good column in the Guardian about praying after tragedies like the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge. In the light of a radio presenter tweeting:

Fraser explains why he opened up his church – only a short distance from the scene of the attack – and invited strangers into pray:

Prayer is not a way of telling God the things he already knows. Nor is it some act of collective lobbying, whereby the almighty is encouraged to see the world from your perspective if you screw up your face really hard and wish it so. Forget Christopher Robin at the end of the bed. Prayer is mostly about emptying your head waiting for stuff to become clear. There is no secret formula. And holding people in your prayers is not wishful thinking. It’s a sort of compassionate concentration, where someone is deliberately thought about in the presence of the widest imaginable perspective – like giving them a mental cradling.

But above all, prayer is often just a jolly good excuse to shut up for a while and think. The adrenaline that comes from shock does not make for clear thinking or considered judgment. Those who rush to outrage say the stupidest things.

Naturally, I agree entirely. The only thing I would add is that because Fraser is writing in the context of a dark incident, he doesn’t touch on a key aspect of praying: being thankful.

Being grateful is really good for you. The Harvard Mental Health Newsletter has reported that:

Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.

One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

Another leading researcher in this field, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.

The article goes on to suggest ways of making oneself more grateful: writing thank you notes, keeping a gratitude journal, and, yes, praying. When pastors and youth workers teach children to pray, they often use the mnemonic: teaspoon. It helps you remember to say thank you, sorry and please. You see, the Christian tradition demands not only an active prayer life but also one that includes a great focus on being thankful.

There’s been a great deal of research on the objective, scientifically demonstrable benefits of mediatation. That’s led to its repackaging and propogation as mindfullness, a technique that’s now used both as a form of medicine and as an aid to personal development. I wonder if we might see a similar body of research emerge around prayer.

The God Stephen Fry is attacking is not my God

Stephen Fry seems to have caused quite a ruckus by saying, amongst other things, that God is an “evil, capricious, monstrous maniac”. The Reverend Giles Fraser unsurprisingly takes issue with this. He rightly observes that the image of God as some kind of celestial dictator is not one that really fits the Christian story. It centres on a being defined not only by his power but by his decision to forgo that power and become human:

Too many religious people actually worship power. They imagine the source of ultimate power, give it a name (God, Allah, Yahweh) etc, and then try and cosy up to it, aligning their interests with those of the boss. In this they are just the same as many non-religious people, except they believe that ultimate power is metaphysically situated. Whether it be a king or a prime minister or a CEO or God: the temptation is always to suck up to power.

This is why the Jesus story is, for me, the most theologically revolutionary story that there can be. Because it imagines God and power separated. God as a baby. God poor. God helpless on a cross. God with a mocking and ironic crown of thorns. In these scenes it is Caesar who has the power. And so the question posed is: which one will you follow when push comes to shove? You can follow what is right and get strung up for it. Or you can cosy up to power and do as you are told. By saying that he will stare ultimate power in the face and, without fear, call it by its real name, Fry has indicated he is on the side of the angels (even though he does not believe in them). Indeed, Fry is following in a long tradition of religious polemic, from Job to Blake and beyond.

Furthermore, this powerless thing subverts Fry’s accusation of God’s iniquity. For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity. Which is why, even in the midst of absolute horror, he has the authority to whisper in my ear that all will be well.

How liberal christians can make people uncomfortable

You might be wondering why making people uncomfortable should be something to aspire to. But as this incisive comic from Adam4D explains upsetting people was a big part of what Jesus did:

2013-09-25-never1

This notion is problematic for liberal christians. Many of us profess it. For example, Giles Fraser, the progressive priest par excellence:

[t]he background default position of contemporary culture is wholly secular, and takes religion to be a dull joke. The only effective way to challenge this is for Christianity to reclaim its position as something counter-cultural, and a form of resistance to the dominant assump­tions.

However, on many issues – notably human sexuality – we wind up defending the secular status quo against our co-religionists. In fact, evangelicals and Catholics often criticise liberal christians for having “nothing to say to people that they can’t already hear from Oprah, John Stewart, CNN, or the NYT.” If Christianity has no message that is not a reflection of prevailing secular values then it seems a bit pointless.

So where CAN liberal christians challenge the values of society. Besides the obvious ones like money and the environment, I’d also throw out the following suggestions:

  • Though shalt not steal intellectual property. Theft generally does not pass the social acceptability test but if my friends and acquaintances are anything to this particular kind does. That doesn’t stop it being  theft. Just because the marginal costs of distributing music or films online does not change the fact that creative industries still need to earn revenue somehow. So Philip Pullman is quite right to liken online piracy to ‘reaching into someone’s pocket and taking their wallet‘ and brand it online squalor. Churches ought to be challenging downloaders to contemplate how they would feel if their work was being taken without recompense.
  • Clever meaness.  Saying this makes me a major hypocrite because I love a good gossip and can be pretty snide. However, I’d suggest that celebrating cruelty if it’s sufficiently entertaining is a bad thing. Yet from reality TV to the performances of public intellectuals that’s what we do. Let’s aspire to fear being boring less than hurting others.
  • Alcohol. Binge drinking is a very British sin which: wastes the time and money of public services, puts people in danger and makes city centres no go areas for most people for a chunk of the week. Let’s try and steer our younger adherents away from this gross pastime.

So there are my suggestions. I hope you disagree with at least one of them.