Effectiveness and “making a difference”

Effectiveness and “Making a difference”

Or, Ineffective Interviewers, Political Activity, and (sometimes) Prayer

On a Netflix special that consisted entirely of an interview, I heard a master interviewer¹ interviewing another interviewer-become-interviewee about a project that involved hundreds of conducted interviews.  (You might have to read that sentence again.)  Near the end, the interviewee was asked why she did it all.

“Because I believe we can make a difference.”

And then—as though she knew those words were empty, and being unaware that adding the next part would actually weaken her statement—she appended,

“I really believe that.”

No matter how much I might sympathize with her cause (and I happened to have been tipping about 72% in her direction), I didn’t “believe that” at all.  I don’t believe that her thoroughgoing efforts, her passion for the subject, or the resultant documentary about her interviews will make any noticeable difference in the reality of the situation.  They will ultimately be ineffective.

~ ~ ~

More than one Facebook friend believes the current U.S. presidency (or another one—it really doesn’t matter which) has a chance of making a positive difference.  Many also feel otherwise.  Whatever their vantage points, they all really seem to “believe that.”  I’m not necessarily able to discern these matters very well, but I myself haven’t observed much presidential effectiveness.  I suppose several presidents of yesteryear could be said to have been effective in one or more ways.  I’m not about to sing “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again” here, but it does seem that there’s a slim current-era likelihood of much good effect from major political figures in this country.  I highly doubt that petitions, bills, resolutions, and documentaries (no matter how interesting and on-point) will ultimately be effective.  Political gangings-up, whether by the liberal-biased media or the conservative-biased evangelicals, aren’t going to be too effective in working good, either.  None of it will make much difference, or if it does, it will be short-lived.

~ ~ ~

My wife notes that certain consumer product markets have changed in good ways in the last decade, based primarily on the demand side.  Non-GMO-label products have proliferated, and artificial coloring has disappeared from many items, for instance.  While regulations have not followed suit, i.e., government lags reality, some health advocates and activities have arguably made a difference.

~ ~ ~

James said the prayer of a righteous man is effectual.  (OK, I don’t actually know the words James used, or whether they were first penned in Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek, but “effectual” in the KJV is a richer word than “effective.”  I can do without the subsequent “availeth much.”)  Most people I know would say “prayer makes a difference,” but I have for years preferred to put the emphasis on God, not on the activity or the words of prayer per se.  Prayer is not some elixir or magical incantation that is effective in itself.  No, it is the One prayers are directed to that must make them “effectual.”  My own “prayer life” (a Christianese phrase not found in scripture) was once in a time of relative plenty, but it is now in a time of famine.  The prayers I’ve eked out in recent months/years haven’t seemed very effectual.  They just haven’t made a difference.  Not so far, anyway.  That is discouraging.

~ ~ ~

My dad recently wrote me a personal reflection about a prayer in his own life.  His words were transparent, humble, and rich in personal history, and he experienced the “effectualness” of his own prayer.  I am grateful for him and his experience, and I am also envious.  May I be simultaneously encouraged for him and discouraged for myself?

~ ~ ~

A couple weeks later, I participated in a small group study of the last part of James chapter 5.  That passage of text has some interesting translation-interpretation issues (e.g., healing/saving, the connection with anointing, righteous/just, and others).  Beyond those matters (which do intrigue me), I keyed in early on the word “anoint” and began to wonder about possible allusions here to King David’s sin (2Samuel 11).  Could it be that this entire, concluding section of James’s epistle was intended to lead the predominantly Jewish audience to hark back to times of old?  Below, I have divided James 5:13-20 into three sections and made a few observations on the right.

13 Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up – and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness.  

This section can be taken as relating to emotional and spiritual health as well as physical.  See especially v16 which may be connecting the two.  There may be dual “healings” here (v15, v16)—both spiritual and physical.

17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain and there was no rain on the land for three years and six months! 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land sprouted with a harvest. This section provides a clear, emphatic example of the effectiveness of praying.  Here, it is physical, but the earlier part of the Elijah story (1Kings 18) dramatically connected both the spiritual and the physical.
19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone turns him back, 20 he should know that the one who turns a sinner back from his wandering path will save that person’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

 

Elijah and David would have been quite familiar to James’s audience.

It is really only the anointing in v14 above that caused me to recall and look up David’s repentance story.  If my hunch is correct that there might be an echo here of Nathan and David, the import of 5:13-20 could be to say to the Jewish audience, “Pray for one another’s deep needs.  Remember:  praying was effective in Elijah’s case and also in David’s.  The physical side may or may not be changed, but the spiritual will be.”  

In any event, the praying James is encouraging focuses on spiritual results.  

Doubtless, Jewish believers in the middle of the first century CE would have known well the story of David and Bathsheba, even though it was 1,000 years in the past.  Perhaps when reading James’s suggestion of anointing the (spiritually?) sick one with oil, the Jewish reader would have called to mind more than one anointing in their history, including David’s anointing of himself, connected with his own spiritual healing, as recorded in 2Samuel 12:20.  The appeal to Elijah is inserted as a central testimony to God’s responsive action, and then the curious James 5:19-20 concludes the letter.

So, what to make of verses 19-20?  If—and I do say if—I’m onto something with this recall of King David, then verses 19-20 could be alluding, in rabbinic remez² fashion, to the work of the prophet Nathan.  In other words, the ideas of (1) turning a sinner from his ways and (2) the resultant covering or cancelling of sins could have led a Jewish Christian to remember that Nathan effectively spoke a message from God for the sake of a sinner.

It can also be so with the Jesus-follower in the new age, when he, too, will speak for God to a sibling who is sinning.  A few people have attempted such a “turning” effort with me; their concerns were well-intended and appreciated but not entirely on point.  I’ve probably needed it a lot more at other times, and I’ve neglected doing the same for others way, way too much.  Maybe I just didn’t believe it would make a difference.  And that is on me.

B. Casey, 5/2/17 – 5/27/17


¹ I know of only a few who could rightly wear the label “master interviewer,” but I’m sure there are many others who just aren’t known to me.  Barbara Walters has been known as a master interviewer, but the interviewer in this case was Oprah Winfrey.  I myself would like to interview Oprah to ask if her parents didn’t look up how to spell “Orpah” before naming her.  And then I would like to discuss the biblical account of Orpah, Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz with her.  Somehow I think Oprah probably already knows of the story, but we could discuss it with some depth, and I imagine she would be intrigued by the details of the Hebrew narrative.

² Remez is briefly explained here (“Remez is one of the methods that Jesus used quite often when he quoted scripture, which is a teaching method by which the teacher quotes a verse from the Bible but the point he is making is from the verses surrounding the one he quoted”) and also here, and here.

Interjection: prayer in small groups (4 of 6)

The prayer that typically occurs in small groups has for decades been a frequent matter of dissatisfaction for me.

It’s certainly a mixed bag.  Some praying has been very richly meaningful, but for me, those instances have been too far between and mostly in the distant past.  There is always room for improvement and growth; I do believe a large part of the problem lies in me.

Today, I want to express resistance toward the pervasive “prayer request” method.  As well intentioned as it always is (attempting to show care for lists of “needs” for group members, “taking these things to God,” and keeping track of “what God is doing in our lives”), the listing commonly uses an inordinate amount of time, often seems shallow and one-dimensional, and in any event leaves me shivering and looking for warmth elsewhere.

In one small group, there were four listings of the same items in the same 75 minutes:

  1. “Let’s go around the room and have everyone share a prayer request.”
  2. Leader prays for each item in order.
  3. (After Bible study) “Let’s remember [reiteration of each item on the above list].”
  4. Leader prays again for each item in order.

I kid you not:  four times through the same list!  I don’t think that’s what “pray without ceasing” means.  Since God is in fact God, I doubt He needs to hear the re-petitions.  For my part, I need and want more from praying than a listing of needs that corresponds exactly in number to the number of people in the room.

Can’t I have two needs?  (What would that do to the decorum?)

Does everyone has a need that ought to be shared?  (Save us from the kindhearted but out-of-place requests on behalf of Sue’s daughter’s friend from school whose aunt has a sick puppy.)

Aren’t there greater, more comprehensive matters that demand address to God?

Where the “prayer request” method is used, may I suggest that it be acknowledged that God hears the items when they’re being shared the first time.  It may not be necessary to mention each one in order again.  Alternately, a specific prayer could be spoken immediately after each matter is disclosed.

Now concerning the voicing-aloud . . . any prayings in small groups are by nature relatively informal; even Christian groups that limit women’s roles may be able comfortably to explore including men and women in the praying aloud.  Yet it is not necessary to “go around the room” in a perfunctory manner that obliges everyone.  Not everyone needs to pray aloud every time.  The method/pattern that seeks to be inclusive may end up discouraging genuine engagement if it forces the unwilling to speak.

No matter the numbers of people or methods employed . . . please, please can the prayers be

  • more “natural” (yet retaining reverence, which is an absolute),
  • deeper,
  • more inclusive of Kingdom matters, and
  • more pervasively cognizant of God in all His majestic identity, as well as His abilities?

In a small group, it seems that prayer might be explored and experienced to a greater extent than in larger groups.

Next:  Current Arkansas small groups

Lewis on prayers and answers (post #1300)

I have only dabbled a tiny bit in C.S. Lewis, never gravitating to him as many other serious believers do — and this lack of acquaintance may be to my detriment.  So, I recently pulled off my shelves The Joyful Christian, a volume in which are compiled many writings on various topics.  I’ve sampled a couple dozen of these and would like to offer this section that I found as honest as it is helpful:

The New Testament contains embarrassing promises that what we pray for with faith we shall receive.  Mark 11:24 is the most staggering.  Whatever we ask for, believing that we’ll get it, we’ll get.  No question, it seems, of confining it to spiritual gifts; whatever we ask for. . . .  No question of getting either it or else something that is really far better for you, you’ll get precisely it. . . .

How is this astonishing promise to be reconciled (a) with the observed facts? and (b) with the prayer in Gethsemane, and (as a result of that prayer) the universally accepted view that we should ask everything with a reservation (“if it be Thy will”)?

As regards (a), no evasion is possible.  Every war, every famine or plague, almost every deathbed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted. . . .

But (b), though much less often mentioned, is surely an equal difficulty.  How is it possible at one and the same moment to have a perfect faith—an untroubled or unhesitating faith as St. James says (1:6)—that you will get what you ask and yet also prepare yourself submissively in advance for possible refusal?  If you envisage a refusal as possible, how can you have simultaneously a perfect confidence that what you ask will not be refused?  If you have that confidence, how can you take refusal into account at all?  . . .

It seems to me we must conclude that such promises about prayer with faith refer to a degree or kind of faith which most believers never experience.  A far inferior degree is, I hope, acceptable to God.  Even the kind that says, “Help Thou my unbelief” may make way for a miracle.  Again, the absence of such faith as insures the granting of the prayer is not even necessarily a sin; for Our Lord had no such assurance when he prayed in Gethsemane.  

– C.S. Lewis

Communal confession

I heard last Sunday from a preaching pastor[1] that the plurals in the so-called “Lord’s Prayer” indicate that “confession is done in community.”

Let’s examine this idea — not because I disagree with the conclusion, but because I challenge the way this well-meaning man reached  the conclusion.

The plurals he spoke of are these:

  • Our  Father”
  • “Give us  this day . . .”
  • “Forgive us  our debts, as we forgive . . .”
  • “Do not lead us  into temptation, but deliver us  from evil”

First:  there is no confession per se included in this prayer (not as the pastor was using the term, anyway).  The “forgive” request in this prayer is not specific, and there is no obviously personal aspect.  Surely Jesus and the Father do want us to confess personally, but that desire doesn’t really appear in this “model prayer.”

Second, and more significant:  this model prayer is found within a specific literary context.  I haven’t spent as much time with this gospel as with Mark or John, but I do know that, in Matthew, a sectional structure — including so-called “teaching blocks” — plays a major role in how the gospel is laid out.  Considering this particular teaching block, one would want to know something about a) how chapters 5-7 fit into the whole, and b) how this prayer fits into the so-called “Sermon on the Mount” (not a biblical label).

One might also inquire into such aspects as

  • how Matthew treats prayer from a Jewish, and then a new-Kingdom, perspective
  • what significance there might be in the concepts of forgiveness, debts, “kingdom,” end-time matters
  • how the Father is understood in this text
  • the relationship of this prayer to the one recorded in Luke 11
  • immediate contextual matters (alms, hypocritical religion, etc.)

Other questions:

Did this amount to new garments on a traditional body for prayer?

Or was Jesus providing the disciples with a framework for a completely new kind of prayer that should now become typical for them?

Could Jesus have been acknowledging Jewish synagogue custom of public prayer here, using it as a basis, in the time period before Pentecost?  (A follow-up here might involve whether the kingdom is generally seen, in Matthew, as having begun already, during the time before Jesus’ crucifixion.)

Could Jesus have been using the royal “we” and “us”? Or perhaps he was not implying a grouped, public sort of praying, but was speaking plurally to his hearers who were assumed to be individuals when engaged in the actual act of prayer?

What about the history of the evangelical “altar call” or “invitation” might come into play?confession

Is an innate evangelical reaction to the Roman “confessional” at work here?  In other words, do the rest of us believers naturally assume the confessing-to-one-cleric thing is off-base, and therefore lean toward the opposite extreme — assuming the whole gathered church should hear a confession?

~ ~ ~

Again:  I heard it said that the plurals in the “Lord’s Prayer” indicate that “confession is done in community.”

I have not raised questions here because I think confessing sin to some group is a bad idea.  I, too, tend to gravitate toward a small group, or to one sibling, for some “confession.”  I think confessing to one another is a good  idea, in many cases.

But I question whether the confession-to-the-whole-community conclusion may rightly be drawn from the “Lord’s Prayer,” and I think it is important to be circumspect and careful with biblical texts.

=========================

[1] I specify “preaching pastor” because, biblically speaking, pastors would not be assumed to be public teachers/preachers.  Today’s pastor role — while it may make sense in some scenaria — is not, by and large, a scripturally supported role.

Substitutions

Among the aspects of modern major league baseball that I like to fuss about is the all-too-frequent, early, frequent substitution for pitchers.  Time was when pitchers pitched complete games regularly.  Today’s pitchers are wimps.  Or their managers and pitching coaches and general managers and owners are worried about overusing million-dollar arms.  Or both.  Whatever the reason, “relief pitching” is a burgeoning enterprise because of all the pitching substitutions made in most games.

But this blog is about a different kind of substitution:  the mental  substitution that my wimpy soul finds necessary in certain church assemblies.

Here in this post, I decried an ineptitudinal trifecta — words, rhythm and melody all wrecked by a careless leader.  And here in this one, I attempted to honor a dear sister, now in the land of the eternally living, who was an exemplar of worship “no matter what.”

And here, now, I’m back, expressing some similar frustrations about surface-level mistakes and distractions.  If you’re one of the grace people who doesn’t have a critical bone in your body, you probably want to skip this.  But if you want to understand those of us who become deeply discouraged and don’t know what to do about it, maybe try skimming this?

When song leaders skip beats willy-nilly and use unintelligible beat patterns that hinder instead of helping . . .

Or when announcement-makers bore me with impertinence . . .

I substitute studying my Greek flash cards, fueling my drive to know more of the ancient texts.

When punctuation is incorrect on the PowerPoint screen . . .

Or when the word “chasm” is mispronounced . . .

I substitute pondering a worthy lyrical expression for a few extra seconds or minutes.  Recently, the words I chose were these:

  I trust in God, no matter come what may,
  For life eternal is in His hands.

When public prayer voices are humdrum, monotonous, or sing-songy, turning off my spiritual perceptions and energies . . .

Or when prayer seems eternal (ignoring our time-bound hind ends and attention spans) or consists almost entirely in lists of names that I don’t know . . .

I try to substitute my own praying (but I don’t always do so well on this one).

Today, even when there are several relatively viable options for church in Arkansas, we’re substituting a nonstandard gathering in a home with some old friends.  We look forward to it.

Pillow Prayers 12

I share this 12th and final set of “pillow prayers” from Patsy Clairmont because a) my words aren’t this good, and my thoughts, much too dense these days; and b) I think some of us, including me, need to have material like this for our own prayers.

Omega, I’m relieved that You have the final say…  In life, work, relationships, politics, wars, and death.  Not that I don’t question Your ways and Your timing, . . .

. . .

Wonderful counselor, speak your words into my spirit.  Loose me from my shallow routines.  I keep falling headlong into the pit of habit.  I want to change, but I need a Samaritan’s hand to pull me out of this familiar pit.

Perhaps I need a holy jolt.   . . .

© 2005 Patsy Clairmont, published by J. Countryman/Thomas Nelson Book Group

Pillow Prayers 11

I post these “pillow prayers” from Patsy Clairmont because a) my words aren’t this good, and my thoughts, much too dense these days; and b) I think some of us, including me, need to have material like this for our own prayers.

I long to leave a rich history, footprints for others to follow.  Speak life into any barren agendas I have, that they might bring forth pleasing fruit.  I realize I can do the right thing for the wrong reasons.  Purify my infected motives.

. . .

Friend of sinners, I’m pacing.  Harsh words spoken by another keep replaying inside me.  Help me not to obsessively rifle through the conversation in search of more than was there.  Protect me from coddling pride as if it’s my best friend.

. . .

Holy Renewer, I’ve pushed toward deadlines and other people’s expectations.  Now I’m spent.  I don’t resent an active life unless my efforts divert me from Your superior paths.  My desire is that my energies bring forth enduring results.

. . .

© 2005 Patsy Clairmont, published by J. Countryman/Thomas Nelson Book Group

Pillow Prayers 10

I post these “pillow prayers” from Patsy Clairmont because a) my words aren’t this good, and b) I think some of us, including me, need to have material like this for our own prayers.

Tonight in your consoling presence, harmonious rhythms replace my frenzy.  Thank you for evening closure . . . sweet sleep arrives as a welcomed friend.

. . .

Steady my concerns.  Lamplight my struggles with your clear counsel.   . . .

. . .

Thank you, Jesus, for not shooting me for my ragged righteousness.  Or abandoning me when my walk teeters.  Or for seeking me when I fail miserably.  You truly love completely.  In you I find companionship, forgiveness, acceptance, privilege, discipline, and safety.   . . .

. . .

You Who cradled the moon, ignited the stars, set the path of the planets, and wrapped us in the blanket of nightfall, I rest in Your wondrous design.  Amen.

. . .

© 2005 Patsy Clairmont, published by J. Countryman/Thomas Nelson Book Group

Pillow Prayers 9

These “pillow prayers” continue to provide some extravagant, poetic faith-expressions.  I offer them because a) my words aren’t this good, and b) I think some of us, including me, need to have material like this for our own prayers.  Some of these words speak almost peculiarly to my spirit as I paste them.

Matchless Illuminator, bring Your holy lantern into the corridors of my mind….  Turn me away from my gloomy musings. . . .

Breathe Your purity into the unlit corners of my imagination.  Ignite Your purposes within me.  As I think on You, I’m aware that You first thought of me.  The magnetism of that understanding draws me back to You again and again.  I fall asleep comforted by Your pursuing love.

. . . .

Untie the gnawing tension in my stomach, shoulders, jaw, and aching back.  Liberate me from the strain of self-assertion that I might acquiesce to Your higher plans.  Quiet my pounding heart, my pressing fears, and my personal agendas. . . .

I pray Your stunning beauty would be seen in my repose, rhetoric, and responses.

. . .

© 2005 Patsy Clairmont, published by J. Countryman/Thomas Nelson Book Group

Pillow Prayers 8

These “pillow prayers” in a little book I have continue to provide some extravagant, poetic faith-expressions.  I offer them because a) my words aren’t this good, and b) I think some of us, including me, need to have material like this for our own prayers.  Today, I also honor once again the memory of my maternal grandfather.  He was one with a prayer-vocabulary rich with genuine devotion.

Guiding Light, for the first time today, as evening enfolds me, I’m still. Movement keeps adversaries at bay, but I know I must rest. Enemies seem more threatening in the night. My problems rise up and cast Goliath-sized shadows across my pebble-sized faith. Darkness is dispelled in your presence, and one day, night will be noonday bright. You know until then I need lights. . . .

. . .

Word of Life, advise me. My thoughts can spark words that cause harm; I know that was not Your intention.…

I want the wounded to find shelter in my conversation with them.

Thank you for those along life’s journey who have spoken kindly to me. . . .

Regenerate my vocabulary; permeate it with vitality.

– Patsy Clairmont, in Pillow Prayers.  

© 2005 Patsy Clairmont
Published by J. Countryman/Thomas Nelson Book Group