Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Privileged Faith

I believe in prayer. I think I always have. And while most of my life I have prayed in silence or through song, I did spend a good amount of 2009 learning how to pray with words too. I have always felt that it is a profound and sincere way to offer support within a community, to release stress and re-focus one’s energy, and to come to a more grounded sense of living.

However, I have felt incredibly uncomfortable when I have been in circumstances where people have asked for specific interventions from God. If there was a continuum of those who give all credit for our actions to human agency and those who give all credit to the “will of God,” I would have been well over on the human agency side. I believe that people have choices, they make decisions, sometimes good ones and sometimes bad, but they are of their own doing, not of God’s. And when there IS divine intervention, it is not a response to one person’s private petition, but rather, a way of putting things right with the universe, the way they “should be.” In the same way, I do not believe that God punishes us because of the choices we have made, or that human suffering as a result of natural disaster, disease, or untimely death is purposely driven by God.

In Colombia there is a common phrase that people use in conversations: “Si Dios quiere.” This is a phrase that has irritated me greatly because it is used in very common contexts like, “Yes, I will make it to this meeting, if God wants.” Or, “Yes, I will complete that task tonight, if God wants.” In my most skeptical moments, I felt like it is a written-in cop-out. No matter what the outcome, they had God to blame if things did not work out for them. This is a theological phenomenon that happens a lot here in Colombia and I would venture to say in many parts of Latin America. And it rubbed me the wrong way.

For example, I have had many people who share testimonies with me that say that because they are people of such profound faith, God has sent them angels and has saved them from murder and kidnapping attempts. They don’t think that any of their actions have resulted in their safety, only their prayers. Or, I have heard that God condoned a massacre because most of the people killed were Catholics and he was punishing them for their faith. I do not believe that God gives “preferential protection” to save some of us over others. There is nothing that confirms for me that God will protect one family over another because of their prayers. I think it is a harmful and very judgemental assumption to make.

When the pastor here was talking to me about a threatened family we were working with, he said with complete sincerity, “We’ll see if God can keep them alive this weekend.” This made me pause to think.

The families that come to our church for help...

They cannot call the police for protection when someone is trying to harm them.

They cannot get basic health care for their children when they are abused, much less any legal processes that might help them recuperate.

They have been shot at, just leaving the house to try and buy milk for their children for breakfast.

They have lost contact with their extended families, their friends, their communities.

They are often living in substandard conditions, without secure shelter, food, or a comfortable place to rest.

They must change their physical appearance just to leave the house, hoping that they will not be recognized by their perpetrators.

They do not receive help from the government, nor recognition for what they have lost.

They do not have the luxury of picking up a telephone and calling a friend for help, as many of these calls are monitored and will potentially put them in harms way.

So the question for me becomes, what is left?

I realize now, that my perspective on what is appropriate or not appropriate to ask for in prayer was based on my ability and my understanding of what it is like to live a privileged life. Never, in the history of my Grandparents, my parents, my own life, nor what I can imagine of my childrens’ lives could we conceive of a time or space where there was nothing left but prayer.

This has changed me. I don’t think I will start asking God to do for me what in reality I can do for myself, but it has helped me to understand that we pray based on what we have, what we feel we can control in life and what we can’t.

And so today we surrounded a mourning mother, who does not have many options in life. I took her hand. I bowed my head and closed my eyes. I let the words of the prayer swirl around me. Several of us were all praying at the same time.

We cannot protect her children.
We cannot find her husband for her.
We cannot erase the images she has in her mind of torture and trauma.
We cannot give her a safe place to live.
We cannot give her any guarantee that she will be alive tomorrow.

So we pray.

And she leaves us feeling a little bit stronger, a little less sorrowful, and a little more hopeful for the next few hours to come. And that is all. she. has.


  1. beautiful, beautiful.

    you know that there are parts of this that fit me really well.

    love to you.

  2. Thank you for this perspective, Jen. I found myself agreeing to many of your own sentiments about how prayer is used in ways I disagree with. Your new insights make it clear how very much different is the cultural context in which you now live. This is important work.

  3. In the rural South there is a saying, "if the Lord is willing and the creek don't rise". I don't think that this type of thinking is making excuses or laying the blame for irresponsibility on a higher power. Rather, I think it is an acknowledgement of forces beyond one's control in places where the unthinkable happens every day, and there is no way to predict what the next disaster will be, only that there will be one. In such circumstances, it is more amazing that people are able to keep some kind of faith and hope that the Lord will be willing, the creek won't rise, and God will allow.

  4. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. I bet Rachel's right about "si Dios Queire" not always being literal As another comparison, I wonder what Spanish speakers must think when they come to the U.S. and hear us say things like "My Mom's gonna kill me." That pastor's comment seems like another thing entirely! How can you defer to a third party when someone appeals to you directly for help? I don't believe in divine intervention, but I thank all the invisible powers of the world for the depths of your empathy, Jenny.

  6. Jen, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experience. And thank you and your family for the amazing work you are doing.

  7. I would like to just sit down over coffee and talk about this with you. We encountered this same expression ("ako Bog da") among all ethnic groups in Bosnia. Some devout Muslims even use the Arabic "inshallah". It was easy to judge this expression as a naive, unsophisticated theological maxim. But with time, and a deeper understanding of the culture and the life journey of the people I came to see it as a wise, lived reality that so much of life is beyond control and that as a simple prayer it is perhaps an act of hope.