Jesus on the Mainline, tell him what you want– The Staple Singers
you got to call him up and tell him what you want
My wife, reflecting on both the miraculous and the “merely” wonderful healing experiences she has witnessed, observed that the types of prayer the people who experienced these healings engaged in varied wildly from person to person. They didn’t always pray for healing, or to know God more, or for any of the traditional things modern Christians are told to pray for to endure hardship and to receive blessings.
I had separately observed the previous week that I was starting to think that prayer itself was less about worship and more about connection. This is why some monotheists pray to saints or to ancestors and do not consider that the same as worshipping them as deities. It’s about connection.
During the period in my adult life where I was deeply involved in a church, I did get some good things out of it. Community. Accountability. Discipline. But I never really developed a “prayer life”. In the tradition I was in, what I’ll call the “Abba Father” prayer style was popular. There were not rules per se, but there were expected patterns:
- Say “Father”, “Daddy”, or “Father God” a lot
- Start with gratitude for what God has done in your individual life
- Continue by abasing yourself as a person might before a king and acknowledging God’s sovereignty
- Make your request as a supplicant
- End with gratitude for whatever God will decide to do
Different leaders had different variants on this, but this was more or less the pattern that was most popular.
In contrast, I never really prayed in this way, because it didn’t feel authentic to how I experienced my relationship with God. God for me is simultaneously an intimately close being that cares a lot about my pain and challenges, and a wholly other, vast being for whom traditional monarchic worship doesn’t feel quite right. I have described myself over the past year as leaning into the “mystery” and “weirdness” of God, and that feels more correct. I still haven’t figured out how that translates into a regular discipline, but the style of prayer I have developed is what I call the “Hey God” style. It’s still being refined, but it looks something like:
- Say “Hey!” to God. For me, that’s “Hey God”, (as in “hello”, not as in “I need your attention”) but for others it may be something else
- Sometimes I ask how God is doing. (I told you I’m leaning into weirdness.) I have been touched in a very childlike way by sermons I’ve heard in the past encouraging prayer that describe God almost like an empty nesting mom hoping to hear from her kids. And so I sometimes imagine God finds it nice when someone cares about how God is doing.
- I talk about what I’m worried about.
- I ask for help or support.
- I say, “Thank you for listening.”
My primary other form of prayer is enjoyment of the world. Sometimes I will be skiing, or walking in a city full of people, or lifted high on good energy from people that care about me around me, and I take a moment to experience gratitude. I think that’s prayer, too; it’s recognition of both the good thing and the source of the good thing.
I am not encouraging anyone to adopt my styles of prayer. I don’t even know if they’re valid. The point isn’t that there is a better or worse prayer technique. The point is that if we seek connection with God, we should actually do things that connect us rather than follow rules and patterns that make us feel more distant, abased, and small.
My mother had to have an unexpected surgery recently. She found a doctor that could do the procedure in a safer and less invasive way, but it was serious, even though her prognosis was good. I talked to God about it, and asked for help and protection for her. And then I talked to my grandma.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, died earlier this year as a centenarian. She lived a long, faithful life and has at least 4 generations of living progeny who she actively influenced. She was truly a matriarch and a model for the people in our family. And in that moment, I asked her, “Hey Grandma, could you please look out for your baby girl? Thank you.”
Most of the faith experiences I have had taught me that praying to anyone except God is idolatrous or blasphemous. One of the many things taken from the enslaved people brought to the Americas was their connection to their ancestors. And as the Catholic Church split in Europe, the intercession of the saints was increasingly forgotten in many of the newer Protestant traditions. The reasons for this are probably book-length subjects, but probably had to do at least partly with who European Christians had to become to justify the colonization of the world. People who have no connection to their ancestors, only to a distant God-king that tells them that they are the chosen ones, lose spiritual accountability and perspective beyond their own lifetimes. They neither answer to and learn from their ancestors, nor feel the responsibility to future generations of eventually becoming an ancestor. In the US, we preserved a weak form of ancestor worship in the mythology of the Founding Fathers, but they were specific, often problematic men that few of us feel a direct connection to from our own family stories. Even with them, we continually re-interpret and adapt their complex and sometimes conflicting reasoning as simple, received texts handed down from a new Mount Sinai.
Some of the syncretic religions that emerged did not have this problem. The Afro-Caribbean manifestations of Christianity preserved ancestor worship, and kept African ritual and ancestral reverence alongside church attendance and Christian practices. In Mexico and in parts of the US that were once Mexico, the Day of the Dead, popularized in the American imagination most recently through the movie Coco, is a day when families embrace full connection with those family members who have left this plane of existence. I have some limited experience with Santeria, the fusion of Ifa, the Yoruba religion of Nigeria, with Catholicism, including a visit with a babalawo (high priest). And his recommendation to me when I sought his counsel? Go to church and thank God. He meant a Christian church, because for him, there was no conflict between his practices and those of the priests in the local Christian church.
Modern fundamentalist Christianity thinks of these practices as Satanic. Usually, when modern fundamentalists call something Satanic, they typically mean “not from the specific allowed set of traditions and practices we have approved”. There’s again, another book-length conversation about whether some forms of Christianity are actually bitheistic, with a stronger Greater God and a weaker but still quite powerful “god of this world”, an adversary who arrays forces against humanity that we are ill-equipped to resist.
(As an aside, I looked up the phrase “god of this world” found in 2 Corinthians 4:4, and while many translations refer to that concept as “Satan” explicitly, the literal translation actually just says “the god of this age”, which could be interpreted as a specific being or as a mindset or ideology. This is important as we consider the relatively recent trend of Biblical literalism, where ancient texts are translated in a particular way, held up against modern understanding, and deemed to be specifically speaking into our moment and experience rather than primarily into the moment and experience for which they were written.)
I do believe in spiritual malevolent forces, just as I believe people on the material plane have great capacity for evil. However, I do not see my own family members’ energy as a work of an adversary plotting my eternal downfall. And besides, where is the energy to name the explicit perversion of Christianity to support chattel slavery or white supremacist terror as Satanic? The same people will call it “wrong” and “bad” when pressed, but will name teaching what science observes as “lies from the pit of Hell”.
To understand how problematic the above teachings are, imagine something that we can all agree is bad, like sacrifice of live children, let’s say 3 year olds, via fire. This was probably a thing in the land where the ancient Hebrews of the Torah lived, and was explicitly called out as something followers of YHWH should not do. Take a look at Leviticus 18:21, King James Version:
“And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord.”
Now, imagine that for several hundred years, your church advocated that this passage in fact said:
“And thou shalt let thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, lest thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord.”
Now, imagine after thousands or even millions of children were sacrificed, that went out of fashion and was no longer allowed, and the full text was restored, but the church did not acknowledge or repent loudly and fully of it. That’s basically where we are.
Isaiah 5:20 says:
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”
When I look at how so many modern fundamentalist Christians land on unloving, inflexible, and historically inaccurate sides of the issues of our day again and again, I can’t help but ask, “are you calling evil good and good evil?”
I’m sure they have the same question for me.
Anyway, my mother’s healing, while not miraculous, is going as well as it can possibly medically be expected to, and I’m grateful. I thanked God for her healing. And I also thanked my Grandma for her support. She’s not a deity. But I do believe her energy and wisdom, along with that of our other ancestors, continues to be available to us if we choose to ask for it. I can’t know whether she had anything to do with it. But it’s nice to think that even after leaving this plane, she shared the love she gave us throughout her life and used it to help things along a bit.
I did look up recommendations from both Afro-Caribbean traditions and hoodoo, the under-discussed form of African-European religious syncretism practiced anywhere in the US enslaved people were held, for how to better connect with one’s ancestors. I’m not ready to build a mantel or altar, with photos, candles, water, and gifts. I’m less concerned with breaking the norms I was taught and more concerned with attracting spiritual energy I’m not ready to process. But my grandmother and my uncle who passed a few years ago are people that I’ve started to talk with from time to time. Perhaps, with time, I’ll learn to talk to others. And perhaps in the process, I’ll gain some additional understanding of the God that set this whole thing up.