"Prayer changes things."
"Prayer changes those who pray."
Which is it? Or is it both? Prayer has a mysterious alchemy that is often inscrutable. We want to parse out prayer, to determine how exactly it works, or doesn't work. We tend toward a spiritual utilitarianism, which reflects so much of the rest of our lives: you get out what you put in; garbage in, garbage out; what's my return on investment? Those kinds of things.
How does prayer work? Prayer certainly is a mystery. At its core, prayer is a conundrum: we Christians confess our faith in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth. This God is sovereign, the ruler of all things. God is eternal, immortal, and omnipotent. In what possible ways might we little human beings nudge God or bend God's will to act on people, circumstances and needs? It would seem that God, who is gracious and good and wise and loving, would not need our puny efforts to assist him or direct him in any way.
But what if prayer is primarily about transformative relationship? What if in prayer God invites us to participate with him in the unfolding of his gracious purposes on earth? What if prayer is God's chosen means to pour out blessing? Not that God needs this...but what if God wants this? For our sake, our good, and the good of the world? If this is the case, then prayer changes things AND prayer changes us, the people praying.
On my bike ride today an analogy hit me. It's summertime, my boys are home and they have more time on their hands. While I've been doing the lawn care around our home all year, it really makes sense that I'd share the work with them. After all, it's good for them to participate in our household and know the joy (and the work) of contributing. Rolling up their sleeves, putting in a little sweat equity, these are transformative experiences that will ready them for the responsibilities of adulthood. They'll be better people if I ask them to help.
But in my mind, I say: "I can do it better than they can. I'm more attentive to details. I'm more diligent and careful and particular." All true. But still...how will they grow if they're not invited in to share the work?
Couldn't this be roughly analogous to God's invitation to join his work in prayer? Of course, God could enact his gracious will independently. Without a doubt, God doesn't need our fumbling, inadequate mumblings of prayer to accomplish his work. But what if this is God's gracious way of being family? Of calling us to maturity? Of helping us to grow up and share his heart for people and for our world? It doesn't remove the mystery of prayer, but I think it makes sense.
And, besides, that grass is getting long.
Last night I attended the Boulder premiere of Alex Gibney's newly released documentary "The Armstrong Lie." The project started as a bit of hagiography: Gibney sought to celebrate Armstrong's 2009 comeback, a plan that was derailed by Lance's subsequent doping confession to Oprah a year ago. Apparently, the disgraced cyclist agreed to have Gibney interview him post-confession as a sort of recompense. As it stands, the film is now a detailed two-hour indictment not only of Lance's falsehoods, but more importantly, of his systemic and strategic abuse of power.
With the movie's references to Lance's lies, deception, and what the producer of the film, Frank Marshall, in a live interview at the theater afterwards referred to as Lance's hubris, I think the subtext of the film and this whole chapter in sports history is morality: how and why do people persist in patterns of deception and then cover them up with denial, deceit, and duplicity? And when they do this, what happens to them psychologically, morally, and spiritually? And why, oh why, when given the opportunity to own up to their transgressions, do some people stubbornly cling to their pathetic defenses, self-justifications, and self-destructive behavior? Gosh, if it weren't so egregious and banal, I'd say this is Greek tragedy we're watching, not sleazy unsportsmanlike conduct.
After dragging on in its documentation, the film left me with questions about moral change: can Lance be reformed? Is he contrite? Will he accept this opportunity for spiritual illumination and character change? Or will he persist in self-justification and squander this possible moral breakthrough? Will his soul further harden as he desperately seeks to save some shreds of his former empire? Or will he soften and submit, humbly receive correction, and chart a new course for his life? Is there redemption for Lance Armstrong? Can his soul be healthy after all of this? A lot depends on him.
As great as Lance's cycling achievements seemed to be, I think it was his human story (his near death experience with cancer and the hope he gave to cancer patients worldwide in his first comeback) that endeared him to a wide audience. He seemed to care for others; he was about more than cycling. "It's Not About the Bike", remember?! Or so it all appeared. Hopefully clinging to his story, Lance's fans were willing to look the other way as reports of his bullying, coverups, and unsavory behavior mounted year by year. But then these sordid revelations exposed his story as fiction. Yet his story isn't finished. I believe there's always opportunity for redemption and deliverance. But the path is often painful. Armstrong's Lie is not as important as Armstrong's soul.