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Powerless Prayer?

11-19-2017Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

Does prayer change anything? That seems to be a question that some are asking in light of the awful massacre at the First Baptist Church in Texas. After such a diabolical mass shooting, many people said things such as, “We send our thoughts and prayers to the families.” Almost immediately, others declared that prayer is useless; after all, they reasoned, if prayer worked, the tragedy would never have occurred, especially in a place where people were praying. Fair enough. I realize that some people were using the tragedy for political purposes to push for more gun control; others seem to have been drinking vinegar for breakfast or had a bad case of hemorrhoids, but others were sincere in their questioning of the efficacy of prayer.

Saying that prayer should have stopped the gunman belies a misunderstanding of what prayer is all about and causes confusion over the nature of the Judeo-Christian Godhead. If God were to intervene to stop bad or evil things from happening, that would make God a tyrant, albeit a benevolent one. By preventing all evil from occurring, God would be denying us the freedom of choice and hence the freedom to choose love or not love. The irony here is that the same people, who insist that God prevent someone’s bad and harmful behavior, also reject God because he is a tyrant who controls our behavior by giving us a moral code to live by and holding us accountable to it. So, they say, who is God to tell me how to live my life?  They reject the moral norms that emanate from Divine Revelation. It seems that they want it both ways: God as a benevolent tyrant who controls people’s evil behavior but who also has no control over the rest of our behavior.

Prayer is not about manipulating God to do what we think is best, but as in the Serenity Prayer, we are reminded to pray for the courage to change the things we can and accept those things we cannot change. In both cases prayer is giving us the solution or the way through things as we face challenges and problems throughout life. Our life consists not only in the choices that we make as individuals but also the intersection of the choices other people make that affect us directly or indirectly. For people of faith, the sum of all those choices works out, because of God’s grace, to the best possible conclusion for each believer. Prayer helps us to trust in that process despite the fact that we do not know what is happening on the unseen plane or how such incongruent choices and circumstances can work out for our best possible advantage. As St. Paul so confidently wrote in Romans 8:28: And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

Prayer does effect change, primarily in us who pray. First, it helps us to embrace God’s plan for our lives. That plan we call God’s Will. The general outline is found in God’s Word and the Teachings of His Church. And that is a tall order, no doubt. But prayer helps us to accept God’s plan and find the courage to live it out. Just imagine if the Texas shooter had been a man rooted solidly in prayer. At the minimum, he would have embraced the commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill,” and if he were Christian, he would have tried to live by the command to “Love one another.” If he had truly embraced that moral code, demanded of us by God, then how could he have possibly taken the actions he did?

The moral standard of behavior that God expects of us, if we live it out, does prevent evil. Prayer helps us to live by that standard of behavior. Prayer also helps to accept what comes and to find ways to deal with it and manage it. Remember - Jesus reminded us that God’s grace falls on the just and the unjust and that until He comes again, we live with the wheat and the weeds growing together in the field of the Kingdom. It can be a bit messy at times.

Be people of prayer. Prayer changes us. It changes our attitudes, builds our character, helps us find solutions to the problems that beset us, helps us discern the true from the false, and accept the cross that we each must carry.

For now, ignore the naysayers and pray that the people of the First Baptist Church in Texas will have the strength and courage to carry the heavy cross that has been laid on their shoulders.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change; 
courage to change the things I can; 
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time; 
enjoying one moment at a time; 
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it; 
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will; 
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next. Amen.

Love, Fr. John B.

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