Thursday, February 24, 2011

To what end...

Here is the beginning of my post.
My wife was out-of-town President’s weekend, visiting old seminary pals. So I did what I often do during such times- caught up on some reading- and finished a novel of historical fiction called “World Without End.” If you haven’t encountered this book, it’s set in England during the Middle Ages, and is the sequel to an Oprah Book Club novel, “Pillars of the Earth.” It deals with Medieval religion and politics, architecture, women’s rights, early market economies, and class issues during the horrible era of the Plague. It’s also very plot driven, i.e. challenge after challenge arises, and must be overcome. As Steve Larson put it, it’s like reading a history book, but so much more fun. I recommend it to anyone looking for a good read. Be informed, though, there’re a few, shall we say, PG-13 (at least…) scenes.

One part that that struck me was the story of two brothers- Merthin and Ralph- who take very different paths in life. Their father had been a knight, but lost his status and ‘family honor’ from debt, which changed the equation for his sons. Ralph, the younger, follows his father’s footsteps and becomes a knight. Merthin, however, wasn’t cut out for rough and tumble, so instead becomes a fabulously talented, and wealthy, builder. Being a tradesman brings lower social standing, but he doesn’t care. Ralph is ambitious enough for the family, and Merthin has other priorities anyway.

Long story short, Ralph’s pursuits lead to land, titles, prestige, but he’s does many dastardly things to get there, and ultimately ends life unhappily. Merthin, on a less ‘glorious’ path, sure, nevertheless overcomes challenges and achieves his hopes and dreams. Both professions, of course, require much hard work, discipline, years of training and practice, and either could yield a good life. But whereas Merhin directed the vigor of builder training to imaginative and productive ends, Ralph sought simply his narrow and shortsighted self-interest, foregoing any modicum of empathy and compassion.

What’s this got to do with church? Well, last week’s letter asked a question I didn’t fully answer- What are the side effects of prayer? I thought the primary effect was receiving the blessing of being directly in God’s loving presence, from which we came and to which all human endeavors move. How does that blessing, though, effect our lives over time? Are there extra benefits of prayer?

That takes me back to Ralph and Merthin’s story. Like them, we all spend time acquiring skills and talents. We work hard at being parents, students, employees, church members. We might volunteer time at favorite non-profits, or develop hobbies. But as the brothers show, getting good at something is never enough. Part of being human is choosing where to direct our efforts. The question becomes, then, what kind of human shall we be?

I presume, by caring about Christian faith, we all want to answer, “A good and faithful person.” And if I understand Jesus’ teachings correctly, he’d say ‘goodness and faithfulness’ involve empathy, concern for our neighbors. Jesus would rather see us be Merthins, not Ralphs, whether we’re builders, soldiers, or whatever. I think that’s where prayer can help. Studies of master meditators suggest that one effect of prayer is enhancing the brain’s capacity for compassion. Repeatedly prostrating oneself before a greater power helps people internalize that their lives aren’t all that’s important. Christians have long suspected this; science is beginning to show why. And sure, that doesn’t mean each prayer will ‘work,’ in the sense that God will give me the Ferrari I’ve long requested. But through weekly worship, daily prayer, even simple mealtime blessings, we discipline ourselves to acquire the skills of compassion. We direct our time and energies to learning a lifestyle of love. And this not only helps us meet others’ needs, but even provides perspective for all work we do. We become more understanding parents, grandparents and spouses, more engaged church members, our business endeavors build equity for shareholders and the common good. Can prayer alone do this? Perhaps, perhaps not. Can we get there without it? Maybe, but why turn our backs on what works? Side effects, indeed!

Grace and Peace,
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