I have grown up hearing language of “mobilizing” God’s people through prayer, of prayer being like the gas that fills up our spiritual vehicles so that we can run off in service of God.
But what if…
What if prayer isn’t the great mobilizer of God’s people, but the great immobilizer?
What if worship and contemplation aren’t the centrifuges that throw us out into the world, but the centripetal forces that suck us only and ever deeper into ourselves?
Those are the questions we’re asked to entertain in Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get To Work by Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson.
Though the provocative title suggests that leaving behind prayer provides the book with its energy, in reality the gravitas is its insistence that we move into faithful practice. Rather than sleepwalking through life, numbed by our pious practices, they invite us to wake up and engage.
Interestingly, the chapter titles could often be interpreted as postures of prayer.
The chapter entitled “Thank” caught me most strongly. There I found much of the language of “economy,” and a stern warning against living our lives in accordance with the economy of scarcity rather than in accordance with God’s economy of “enough.” (I prefer calling God’s an economy of “abundance,” but perhaps that’s a quarrel for another day.)
“Scarcity” demands that some win, some lose. “Enough” proclaims “abundant life for all.”
They rightly warn about how easy it is to “lazily import” the economies of scarcity in which we find ourselves into our Christian communal life. Taking the Corinthians as a prime example, we discover that an alternative economy demands that we not privilege those who are privileged in the world’s economy, that we invite and honor the outsiders, the unwashed masses, as we sit at our tables and eat together.
In another profoundly insightful word, they warn that the anxiety created by scarcity causes us to grasp and cling.
Eucharist reorients us, and demands of us that we be a thankful people. Thankfulness is the posture of those who have “enough,” know it to be enough, and therefore express the reality of “enough” by sharing on an even playing field.
I struggled more with the “Love” chapter than the “Thank” chapter. It started off with the assumption that God calls us to love ourselves.
I’ve never resonated with this claim.
It seems to me, instead, that the biblical writers simply assumed that most people love themselves, and this is the baseline reality (or even problem) that needs to be corrected through our love of others.
“Love your neighbor as yourself” isn’t a command to love yourself, it assumes that you pour out most of your energies on loving yourself, and that escaping such self-obsession is the way toward a surprising discovery of true humanness. (See also: “No one ever hated his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it,” Eph 5:28-29).
We’ll come back to self love in a bit.
The Three Amigos assert that it is neither self love nor neighbor love that makes Christian love unique. Instead, it is enemy love.
In a surprise move, but one that fits what I’ve already engaged, they speak of “Loving the Enemy Within.” That is, they recognize that for many of us our fiercest enemy is the criticism in our heads. The voice of hatred and vitriol that most often accuses us—it’s our own. There is a powerful recognition here, and perhaps one that, in its psychological and theological insight, chastens my objections above.
They then turn to more traditional enemy love. Here they are at the heart of things.
If there is one datum to point to that demonstrates how our insular practices have cut us off from the life to which God calls us in Christ, it is the fact that no one, ever, when hearing that someone is a Christian, first thinks, “Wow, that person must really love her enemies!”
Love. That kind of love, should be our hallmark.
The exposition of enemy love then begins to take a bold turn.
A section entitled, “Our Enemy Who Art In Heaven” talks about loving God when the world around us is going to crap. It asserts that God is our enemy when we beg for healing and find none, when we are left alone in the darkness, betrayed by God, crying out with Christ on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In the section entitled, “Jesus is the Enemy,” the turn is more subtle and perhaps more palatable for many readers as well: Jesus identifies himself with the world in need of salvation. Jesus is the one made sin for us. Jesus is the one present in the person of the person in need. Jesus died for our enemy, making our love for enemy nothing less than love for the Christ who gave his life for them—an extension of the love that we have been given.
Throughout the book, each chapter ends with suggested experiments: ways to begin moving toward the practices commended. These help put feet on the ideas so that we can begin to catch a glimpse of what they might look like in practice.
The need for practice is reiterated at the end, as the final admonition of the book is summed up as “Go and Do!”
Here, the leaving off of prayer is given one final commendation:
We noticed as we looked at the ancient liturgical structure of worship, and examined each type of prayer usually found there, that if we simply removed the word “prayer” we unleashed something vital and compelling… Prayer itself serves too easily as that thing we do instead of acting more directly and more powerfully.
Of course, this will be seen by many, perhaps most, traditional Christians as precisely the point. We pray to signal that God is in charge and we are not. We pray to confirm that we are incapable of bringing about the movement of the Spirit requisite for the tasks to which we have been called.
But, if we’re honest, do we not often pray in order to commend into the hands of God the very things for which God has placed on us on earth, and for which God has placed God’s own name on us and sent us out into the world?
That’s the question we are rightly haunted by when we leave the pages of this book… even if we choose to keep on praying.