Prayer In a World of Pain

I still believe in prayer (even if I'm not 100% sure about God). Prayer is not just what you did when you were a child. The older you get, the more that prayer can become. At some point, maybe prayer becomes life and life becomes prayer. Maybe. Anyway, until then, I have found many different ways of praying. I say vocal prayers every morning and night, as when I was little. I also say prayers of petition when I'm in trouble or facing a dangerous situation. I pray for forgiveness when I get selfish, act nasty or otherwise falter (quite frequently). I pray for myself and for others. I pray in church with others (not much these days, for better and for worse). I pray alone quietly through meditation (again, not regularly, unfortunately). On rare occasion I simply have a sense of God's presence (or so I hope), without any planning or effort on my part. That's truly an undeserved blessing.

One interesting variant of prayer is music. I'm not exactly thinking of the usual organ or guitar music you get in church, although that can definitely be a part of prayer. I'm thinking of love songs. The connection between prayer and love songs is not new. Perhaps it goes all the way back to Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible. The song that I'm thinking about most right now is Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me". In my opinion, it reflects the kind of love that just can't exist between two humans. It reflects an ideal, something we can dream of and aspire to in our relationships, but really cannot attain. No, the kind of love that Ms. Dion sings about in that song is a heavenly kind of love. Only God can love us like that. So, whenever I hear that song, I re-think the words a little bit. Something like this: "I'm everything I am because God loves me". Or, "through the lies God is the truth ..."

As with most religious sentiment, love songs reflect a deep longing for a perfect lover, someone who completely understands us and knows just how to support us and gently restore us after we've faced the storms of life. We would like to think that God is the ultimate author of that deep, architypial longing. But then we stumble upon the problem of pain.

If God is omnipotent, why do we have to suffer so much? Why is there so much injustice, torture, inequality, and humiliation in the world? Why do children get crippling diseases; why do people suffer from cancer only to die; why are many violently killed as if they were no more significant than an insect? Why was there an Auschwitz? Or all the smaller versions of it that have been visited upon people of color, upon gay people, etc.? We can accept the need for pain up to a point -- it builds character, "no pain no gain". But at some point it starts to destroy us. Why, we wonder, is that kind of pain necessary? Why would God, as the ultimate lover of every human being, subject any of us to the existential humiliation of such pain?

I don't have an answer to all that. Like everyone else I've had some bleak moments in life, but I've hardly been taken to the point where I've lost faith. When I use the word "faith" I refer to the expansive definition explained by James Fowler in his book of the same name. Fowler's version of faith is something more than intellectual assent to God's existence, something more like radical belief in the reason for one's own existence within God's creation. I hereby propose that silly love songs like "Because You Loved Me" are perhaps a litmus test for Fowler's definition of faith. So far, I've never been in a war, I've never been in a torture chamber, I've never faced a lynch mob, and I've never been in a cancer ward. But I have heard that people who have been there still manage to retain their faith. Recall the story of the Jews in the Nazi death camps who held a trial of God, returned a 'guilty' verdict, and then broke for evening prayer. I'd like to think that they suffered to tell us that no matter how bleak life gets, God's love still serves to make it all worthwhile, just as those silly love songs all seem to hope.