I Believe; Help my Unbelief
Yesterday afternoon I led my Liturgical Writing workshop for some of the Intro to Christian Worship students. The model I teach is simply based on my own approach to writing for worship, which is a contemplative one.
One of the steps that I discuss with the students is "Locating yourself before God." This is what I do after I've written one or more pieces for worship. I settle into prayer and ask myself: "Can I say this with integrity to God on behalf of the congregation, with all of the world's concerns and realities in our midst?" Usually, if the answer is no, it is because I have been too surface in the prayers I wrote. To speak with integrity before God in worship for me means being willing to say what's most difficult to say. Walter Brueggemann in his book Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation says:
Believers whose faith is greatly diminished may utter a truth greatly reduced: 'Smile, God loves you.' Does God love because God is engaged in some cover-up with us and does not know about the alienation? Because if God knew, God would not meet me with a smile, but with a deep, deep cry for life run amiss. The alienation is heavy, serious, and burdensome for us, because it is heavy, serious, and burdensome for the alienated father God, for the mother God who grieves for us while we are too numb to grieve.
When I look over the prayers I've prepared for worship, I ask myself, "Am I engaging in some kind of cover-up here?" And if the answer is yes, then I go back to the drawing board.
All of this to say that, after I shared this yesterday, a student asked me, "What about when I don't feel like I believe it, but as the pastor, I need to pray it anyway? What about the times when I can't say it with integrity before God because I'm in a place where I just don't feel it?"
Those of us in the room merely nodded our assent to her question. I think because we'd all been there. And none of us had an easy solution to it. It was the kind of question that seemed best responded to by a "yes," even though it was far from being a yes-or-no question.
Shortly after she asked this question, I had the group break up for a session of writing. We took about an hour to work, then came back together. I spent some time praying for the participants of the group, while they were writing. At the end of the hour, then, as I sat there watching the rain come down in sheets, I remembered the prayer that has been my saving grace so many times: "Lord, I believe; Help my unbelief."
This came to me again after I read Dana's entry: 'I believe; and yet. . .' This experience is similar to my own. I experience it as the steps in my dance with God: I believe. And yet. It is a step in, close. It is a step away. It is a surrender into. It is a pulling back. It is a sweeping off my feet. It is a soaring away. It is a kiss. It is a back turned. All of it, though, is the dance. All of it taking place in relationship. The step away, the pulling back, the soaring away, the back turned--none of those steps is the ending of the relationship but a part of it. They are all, in the end, relational terms. This is my experience.
For me, I think, intercessory prayer seems to come down to this: I have no idea where I end and someone else begins. I don't know where someone else ends and God begins. I don't know where those boundaries are, if there are any. Now, I'm fully aware that a psychotherapist would have a big problem with this kind of worldview. (We hear nothing in pastoral care if not--know your boundaries!) But I think the question is real: where do I end and you begin and where do you end and God begins?
Because I can't answer these questions with any sense of certainty, then I recline into trusting intercessory prayer "works."