By George Elerick
Someone once said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Gehenna (the Aramaic word used in the New Testament used for “hell”) was this trash heap outside of Jerusalem where dead bodies were tossed amongst all of the trash. Emanating from the depths of this place were atrocious smells and maybe even half-hearted screams of those who might be hanging on to all of their broken limbs if the fire didn’t get to them first. Hell was rhetoric for a way of life. And if you turn on your television or walk down the street, you might agree with me that the man living in his cardboard hotel is living in hell.
And we can do something about it.
Some might think the best way to help this man is to pray for him, others might add they they want to pray and see if God wants them to do something. All the while, the rivers of rainwater that have flooded this man’s home, keeps him moving on and keeps him homeless while you wait for God to get back to you.
Waiting on “God’s will” to happen sounds like a good idea. For God to answer your prayers about whether or not to help someone in need though, doesn’t do much for the person in need. Let’s say you have a strong desire to venture off and work alongside some indigenous people groups in Africa, and you find out one of their greatest needs is food. But you want to make sure it’s what God wants you to do.
While you are sitting, waiting, and wishing, your prayers don’t do much for the bloated baby waiting for a meal, literally hanging on for dear life. Or let’s say you want to do work within the people trafficking sector of world development. While you wait to either hear a word or get a verse, teenage girls are growing up way too fast, some of them might even die of a four-letter disease without even seeing the age of eighteen. And all of this because we have been taught that prayer means waiting on God.
Don’t get me wrong, I think prayer is important. I think it is their for us to connect with our Creator. With the divine. I am not so sure it was given to us to find answers though. How did we inherit this idea that prayer is the magic ticket to God? Or somehow if we end our talks with ‘Amen’ or ‘In the name of Jesus’, somehow miraculously Jesus will rend the heavens and come down? The ancient Jews had this idea that prayer was communion with God. Union with the divine. The mystics borrowed some of this thinking and even tried to connect with God while they were still alive. It was as if, to them, God could be reached and prayer was the way to do it. I think, if we’re honest, the art of talking with God like the ancients did, has been far removed from what it was meant to be. Prayer was about connection, not about getting something. It was about relationship, not forced mechanistic approaches to twisting God’s arm. Some of these Jews believed prayer was more spontaneous. It just happened. And it was naturally a reaction to the realization that you and I are alive. It was poetry of the heart.
One of the most famous of all Jewish prayers is the Shema Prayer, it is taken from Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Hebrew word for “hear” is the same word for “listen”, but we might think of someone who is attentively sitting in the first row of English class, but the word is much richer and deeper than that. The underlying word for hear is an action; it is to do something.
When King David asks the question to God, “How long, Lord?”, the word “wait” draws the picture of someone who knows something is going to happen and yet is running around preparing for the arrival of that which is to come. Wouldn’t it be the worst thing if somehow consumerism has crept in to the halls of our churches and has made prayer into something about us getting what we think we should of it? I wonder if when we’re waiting for answers from God, if he is waiting for us to be the answer.
This isn’t humanism. This is learning rhythms of life where we get to partner with the divine in making the world a better place. Praying about it, in the old sense of the word, point blank, does nothing. If we can recapture what prayer was meant to be, maybe we can help those in need. Maybe we can make the impossible possible. Who knows, maybe if we learn to be the answer to our prayers, we can make a considerable dent in world hunger, or world debt, or world poverty to name a few of the big ones. But, I think it has to start with us realizing that half of the time we’re waiting, God is waiting on us.
George loves the outdoors, singing in the shower and doing underwater, synchronized pilates. He is currently working on a book entitled Jesus Bootlegged: Recapturing the Stolen Message of Jesus for The World. You can read more about him at his blog.