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Archive for November, 2008

Bear Scat and Public Prayer

November, 2008

I was walking our dog Rose along the creek in the late afternoon. It was warm and overcast, threatening rain; she was running ahead, as she is wont to do, to see what small animal she might surprise on the path. I had bunched her leash up in my hand and was carrying it loosely, thoughtlessly. And then there, around one of the trail’s many twists and turns, there it was: a fresh pile of bear poop.

In a second, my experience of the walk was re-framed. Instead of a meditative stroll along a crashing creek, the dog’s daily constitutional became a scary hike in a dangerous place.

I started shaking Rose’s leash vigorously so that the bear bells would ring. I picked my head up, scanned side to side, strode more swiftly, made more noise. My breathing quickened. I lost sight of the tiny rocks under my feet, rain-brightened moss, late wildflowers. I quit hearing the creek and seeing the mountains. All I attended to was the possible presence of a bear.

This is the way re-framing works; this is what our brain can do in the blink of an eye, the firing of a neuron. When we plunk down the same facts—walking, woods, afternoon, alone— in a new frame—bear—we come up with entirely different understandings. One moment I was peaceful and safe; the next I was agitated and afraid.

It works the same way in my prayer life. Depending on which mental frame is active in my mind, my lack of a regular job is freedom to follow my call or proof that I am on the wrong path. Some days I can say the Jesus prayer in its entirety—“Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—and other days, I have to change that last word to “screw-up” or even just “human,” because “sinner” is too loaded; I’m too full of self-hate to use that name.

This is why I choose my prayers carefully. There are some prayers and biblical passages I can’t stomach, and I don’t actually think I should have to. I sometimes say to God, “I don’t like this and I don’t agree.” Which is not to say that I expect prayer just to be comforting, or to imply that we aren’t supposed to stretch and grow. But I can only grow into some prayers by changing my framing of them, my understanding of my life.

Jeremiah 20:7 is a good example. “Oh LORD, you have enticed me, and I was enticed,” says the New Revised Standard version; “O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived,” translates the New American Standard. My favourite translation, the New Jerusalem Bible, is much earthier. “You have seduced me, my God, and I have let myself be seduced.”

Twenty or thirty years ago this was not a translation that I would choose or an image of God with which I felt comfortable. At all. During those days of my alcohol-soaked twenties, I was well acquainted with being coerced and letting myself be coerced. It wasn’t a good feeling, but common, because I was desperate for someone to love me and something to make me feel better. I got myself “seduced” by whatever came down the path—men, experiences, ideas—because I didn’t actually know who I was.

But now I do know. And now when I think about God seducing me, and me letting myself be seduced, I just laugh. Because that’s exactly how it feels to be on the spiritual path. Getting close to God is overwhelmingly attractive and I know there will be a cost to pay.

Between here and my twenties was a long journey. I couldn’t imagine God as my seductive lover if I hadn’t had the real life experience of a trustworthy (and irresistible) partner. If I hadn’t learned to forgive myself and various others for the ways we coerced each other. If I hadn’t been willing to bang my head against the wall of my fear and my history and ask for redemption and healing. I made new frames; I sufficiently untangled myself from parts of my past to make fresh vision possible.

Paul tells us that the strong must not become a stumbling block to the weak (1 Cor 8:7). That’s part of the reason why I am careful about the words I use when I lead worship, knowing that for some the traditional words of worship are—like the earthier Jeremiah translation—so tainted by personal history and broader culture that it’s impossible to hear behind or beyond them. So I use new words, different words, broader words; I explain what I understand when I say “sinner,” for instance.

But for some congregants, those old words are the mental frame that ushers them into holy space. These people too must be treated respectfully. So how do we adjudicate this difference? How do we find the words that will welcome all of us?

There is no easy solution and no right or wrong answer. Certainly, just using “inclusive” translations isn’t the answer. For one thing, neutering all references to God makes it harder to connect—the human mind needs basic-level categories, needs “mother” or “father” to love, not an abstract “parent.”

I have found it useful to take the hateful and hurtful parts of scripture and worship, the parts that don’t work, and explore why. When I bring to consciousness the stories that lie behind my own or another’s feelings, we are then better able to see a passage on its own terms and with its own story. I still may not like the story; I still may find a certain way of referencing God problematic. But if we want to make public worship truly public, then we have to talk about what each of us hears when we say our prayers, about what is happening inside of us when we speak these words together.

Is this passage a sunlit walk in the woods, or a desperate dash to safety from a bear? It all depends on your frame.

Copyright © Mary Therese DesCamp 2008