God help us

Texts: “School Prayer,” a poem by Batya (2013) * Romans 8:14-27 (“the Spirit helps us in our weakness”)

What role can prayer play in the face of an epidemic like the one caused by the new coronavirus? I ask this today not to contribute to panic but because news of the virus, which arose in Wuhan China in December, has been everywhere of late; and I hope that discussing it might help us reflect on the place of prayer in our lives.

Animal viruses that make the leap to humans have long been a serious concern. Since the domestication of animals 8,000 years ago, history has been shaped by them. In prehistory when humans lived as hunters and gatherers, no one died from diseases like tuberculosis, smallpox, and influenza. But when agriculture developed, people began living in close proximity to cattle and sheep, and diseases like smallpox jumped from these animals to humans.

One of my favourite all-time books, titled “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1997, shows how Spain’s conquest in the 1500’s of advanced civilizations like those of the Aztecs and the Incans was facilitated by the absence of animal-based diseases in the Americas before European contact.

By 1500, people in Eurasia had been living with and dying from tuberculosis and smallpox for thousands of years. But in the Americas, which contained virtually no mammals that could be domesticated, such diseases were non-existent.

Some historians estimate that in the 150 years after first European contact in 1492, 90% of the indigenous people of the Americas died. Some of this horror was the result of war and enslavement. But much of it is attributed to diseases like smallpox.

No one expects the new coronavirus will be anything like this. From what researchers have learned so far, it does not seem all that infectious nor all that deadly. Like any respiratory infection such as influenza, it should be taken seriously. But so far, it looks like it may be less dangerous than the SARS epidemic of 2003, which killed 774 people including 43 in Toronto.

I was living and working in Toronto in 2003, and the SARS epidemic made life feel pretty grim. Happily, containment efforts in Toronto, China, and elsewhere worked, and life returned to normal.

I pray that the same thing will occur with the new coronavirus. This does not mean that someday there won’t be a viral outbreak that is harder to contain. Public health officials are always scanning the horizon for novel viruses that might move from epidemic stage to become a pandemic, as happened with the Spanish flu that killed 50 million people worldwide in the aftermath of World War I.

In the meantime, there are things we can do. We can get the flu vaccine each year; we can wash our hands frequently; we can stay at home when we are sick; and we can stand up to social media messages that strike us as alarmist.

In the latter regard, I will now show a meme I came across yesterday. It is a visual comment on the confusion some have expressed between the word coronavirus and the Mexican beer Corona. I hope you will agree that the German beers in this picture are being overly panicked in the face of a single Corona!

But what should we do if someone we love becomes sick from this virus, or if the epidemic spreads to become a world-wide pandemic? What can we as a praying community of faith do?

Every week at Mill Woods United, we share concerns and make prayer requests. And every week in communal prayers, we offer words of thanksgiving, concern, and intention. But why do we do this?

Part of the answer turns on what we mean by the word God. For much of history, God has been used to describe a being a little like us, but one that is all-powerful and all-knowing. When God is seen as the Supreme Being among other beings, prayer can feel like a conversation with a friend. When a friend does something we like, we thank them. When they threaten us, we ask them to back off. When we are in trouble, we ask them for help. When we hurt them, we ask them for forgiveness.

For many of us, this works. In prayer, we talk to God as a friend, but one who is special and fearsome, a friend who is the Supreme Being.

If this describes your prayer life, I am happy for you. But what about those of us who no longer use the word God to refer to a Being among beings? What does that faith stance mean for our prayer life?

I use the word God to refer to something I imagine to be deeper and more mysterious than a Being. For me, God is the very Ground of Being, or the Source of Life and Love, or the Spirit that animates all life. There are many reasons I have stumbled into this approach. One is to avoid the question of why a supposedly loving Being would create a new virus in the first place. Viruses leap from an animal species to humans and they cause the damage they cause. But I am confident this doesn’t reflect the will of a controlling being. It’s just what is happening.

This approach to the Divine changes the meaning of prayer. If God is the very Ground of Being, I don’t think it makes sense to thank this Ground for one’s blessings. If God is the Source of Love, it doesn’t make sense to ask this Source to provide us with something we need. If God is the Spirit that animates all of life, it doesn’t make sense to ask this Spirit to forgive us when we do something we regret. If one’s Higher Power is the set of cosmic, biological, and cultural forces upon which every breath is dependent, it doesn’t seem to make sense to ask this Power for help.

But even though Ground, or Source, or Spirit, or a set of impersonal higher powers are what come to my heart and mind when I hear the word God, I still pray. When I pray I begin with words of thanks. But these words are not directed to a person-like Being. I start with thanks because I want to settle into a grateful frame of heart and mind as often as possible and to remember that life’s blessings are not because of my efforts. Almost always, life’s blessing come to us as free gifts.

In prayer, I don’t ask for help, but instead try to remind myself of my fears and desires and of the values I hold sacred. I seek to remember our utter dependence on forces that are deeper, higher, and more powerful than our egos.

I am glad that traditional ways of praying work for so many people. But since praying to a Supreme Being doesn’t work well for me, I am grateful that other approaches exist. In today’s passage from Romans, I appreciate it when Paul says the Spirit can turn our groans into prayers too deep for words. For Paul, even a groan or a sigh can be considered a prayer, and why not?

In the poem “School Prayer,” Batya suggests that prayer can be a thought, a song, or a sob. She continues that prayer can be all one aspires to be, all one has lost, and the last thing we have to give. I’m not sure I understand the poem, but I appreciate her words.

In a recent book on prayer from Woodlake Books in Kelowna, the author Vance Morgan suggests that prayer can be things like attentiveness, or silence, or a way of being, or a reflection of who and what we are.

I like all his ideas, and I will continue to try and make them real in my prayer life.

When a new disease like the Wuhan coronavirus appears, many of us turn to prayer. When I do so, it is to quiet my heart and mind; to attend to my wishes for the health of friends, family and community; to descend into silence in which values like love, solidarity, and justice can surface; to remind myself of the things we can do; and to remember that our egos with all their small fears and desires are both illusory and utterly dependent on forces so vast, awesome and mysterious that the only word that seems to fit is God. I pray because I feel moved to pray.

One thing I probably won’t do in the face of the coronavirus is pray for God to use His supernatural power to stop its spread. That wouldn’t feel right for me. Instead, I use prayer to remind myself of things we can do to prevent the spread of the illness; to strengthen our intention to work with others to provide more healthcare resources; and to remember that, regardless of the outcome of any crisis, all of us have come from to Love and to Love we all return.

Prayer is not magic, at least not for me. Nor are my prayers attempts to cajole or awaken a Supreme Being. Instead, they are a space in which I try to connect with Source; to centre energy and spirit; to remember and encourage; to build community; to remind us of the realm of God that exists within us, and to strength our intentions to work with others to make this realm a reality in human society as it is within our eternal hearts.

In the face of a new disease, some will ask God to help us, others will remind us that God helps those who help themselves. But I will do neither. In the face of the coronavirus, as with any other difficulty, I pray that we will reconnect with the Amazing Grace in which, without anything supernatural needing to occur, we can remember that all is well and all will be well.

May it be so. Amen

Preamble to worship on February 2, 2020

Dear friends,

Whenever we gather to sing and pray, I enjoy a wonderful sense of anticipation. I wonder if we will experience mystery together and feel a deeper-than-normal connection. I wonder how our spirits might be stirred or our souls nurtured. It’s a marvelous thing, I find. So, thank you for coming this morning to engage in the gracious work of worship, and for all the other work we do at Mill Woods United to become a spiritual community where we can explore our purpose and place.

I also wonder if, like me, you come with a litany of questions. What is the mystery that we sometimes feel at the communion table? And what might it mean if we don’t feel it this time, or ever? Why do some hymns electrify us, others ground us, and yet others leave us cold? What do we hope to gain from hearing a passage from the Bible, or from a contemporary poem?

Today, I am going to reflect on two of these questions. Why do we pray and what do we expect will flow from our prayers, whether here in this public gathering or when we are alone?

This is the third of four Sundays in which I am focusing on prayer in general and the so-called “Lord’s Prayer” prayer more specifically. I will finish this series in two weeks on February 23 when I return from two Sundays off. Next week will be my first continuing education experience of the year. I am participating in a circle of men, most of whom are ministers, at the United Church’s Five Oaks Centre. This is something I have participated in several times, but not since 2017. So, I am glad that I have a chance this week to return to this circle.

The week following, Kim and I will be in Mexico on my vacation for 2020. I am happy that the Worship Committee has arranged for our friend David Faber to preach and preside on the next two Sundays. Many of you will recall that David was here on the Sundays in May last year and then again in July when I was on sabbatical, and I am confident that people will appreciate his leadership again.

The connection between today’s service and “The Lord’s Prayer” might seem tenuous. In the second reading, Elfrieda will read a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In it, he writes that those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God, and by that same Spirit they cry out, “Abba!” or “Father!” John Crossan whose book “The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer,” which I used on the first of these four Sundays on January 12, thinks that this simple cry “Abba” is the Lord’s Prayer in miniature. I don’t know if Crossan is correct in this idea, but I find it intriguing.

The other connection to “The Lord’s Prayer” today is the paraphrase of it that we will use in our Communion prayers. On Monday, instead of using one of the paraphrases we have used on a rotating basis over the past few years, I decided to try my hand at restating it. As a non-biblical scholar, I did not turn to the original texts from Matthew or Luke, which would have been nothing but Greek to me . . . literally. Instead, I relied on what I have learned from the prayer over the years. I will speak more about this paraphrase when I end this series on February 23. But for this morning, I hope that it will fit into an hour of song, reflection, and sacrament, one that I pray will bring us closer of the Spirit of Love that leads us to pray.

Paraphrase of The Prayer of Jesus

Source of life and in-dwelling Spirit:
May we respect all life as sacred.
May a commonwealth of love arise among us
and help unite all people in justice and peace.
May hunger disappear from the earth.
May those burdened by oppression find release;
and may the forces of evil yield to a Spirit of Love.
For Love is our source, our calling, and our sure destiny
both now and always. Amen.

Ian Kellogg, 2020