Tag Archives: John Shelby Spong

Why Didn’t God Answer My Prayer?

Unknown-1Fifty years ago, my friend’s mother was in a bad car accident. She hung between life and death for several days. I remember begging God to heal her; I truly believed that God could do it. But she died. And I wondered. 

Today, in the wake of the death of Rachel Held Evans, many people are wondering. On Facebook and other social media, I’m hearing the pain of those who had been praying so faithfully and diligently for her recovery. Some are expressing anger at God. Others are having a crisis of faith. And some are asking the question, “What’s the point of prayer?” 

As painful as that question is right now, it is the right question. 

Rachel Held Evans holds a particularly important place in the inter-Christian conversation. An evangelical Christian, who moved into a progressive-evangelical space, and then on to becoming a member off the Episcopal Church, she modeled for many the transition away from a constricting form of faith to one of openness and inclusion. 

I’m not familiar with enough of her writings to know what she thought about prayer. But I do know that her death has brought the subject into the foreground for many people, especially those still in theological transition. And to be fair, it’s not an issue just for exvangelicals. Mainline Christianity hasn’t really grappled with it yet, either. 

I began my own process of re-thinking the meaning of prayer when I first heard Bishop John Shelby Spong speak back in the late ’90s after the publication of Why Christianity Must Change or Die. A lot of what he said was new to me. Some of it really challenged my belief system. Some of it made so much sense, it was positively liberating. 

One of his stories really hit me between the eyes. He talked about the time before death5278262-John-Shelby-Spong-Quote-If-you-re-really-thinking-prayer-can-stop of his first wife. Because her husband was a bishop in the Episcopal Church, there was a sizable prayer chain in operation for her healing. When she lived 6 ½ years longer than had been expected, some people credited those prayers. But Bishop Spong began to question a God whose actions were influenced by social status. I remember him comparing the prayer chain for his wife and the small number of prayers for the woman dying in a village in Somalia (I don’t know if that’s correct, but it sticks in my mind as the country he named. I don’t think it matters; you get the point).

What kind of God listens to the prayers of hundreds and decides to act, yet ignores the plight of those who can’t muster up enough “prayer warriors”?

His question made sense. That wasn’t the kind of God I believed in any longer. But then, what is prayer? Why should we pray? How should we pray? After a book study at my church on Why Christianity Must Change or Die, a long-time member in her 70s came to me with a statement and a question: “I wish I  had read this 50 years ago!” and “But then, what do we do about prayer?”

Exvangelicals and mainline Christians moving into progressive Christianity have the same responses. There is initial excitement in discovering a form of faith that makes much more sense. But then come some hard questions as we navigate away from old understandings into uncharted waters. 

Thankfully, some have gone before us to do some of the charting. Bishop Spong is a great resource. Any writer or speaker coming from a process theology standpoint is good. Praying for Jennifer by John Cobb is great because it explores the different ways of thinking about prayer in story form. God Can’t, a new book by Thomas Jay Oord, is another helpful way to grapple with our question of why God allows bad things to happen to good people. 

I still believe in prayer. In my next post, I’ll talk about my own take on the subject. 

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Is Your Faith an ‘Innie’ or an ‘Outie’?

Or a Both/And?

This is a partial reprint of the Q&A column published each week by Bishop John Shelby Spong. This week’s answer is from the Rev. Mark Sandlin, who currently serves at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant and is a co-founder of The Christian Left. I believe the question gets at the heart of our current Christian identity crisis. As one who thinks we should balance both our inner spiritual life and our outer social activism, I appreciate the insight and challenge raised by both questioner and answerer. Undoubtedly, the subject needs further discussion. 

Kay from Florida, writes:
I have friends who seem to think believing that Jesus died for them is all they need to do. Some of them even treat other people badly and when I say something to them about being more Christian they just quote John 3:16 to me. What are your thoughts?

Dear Kay,
Most of us could probably quote at least one verse of the Bible and most likely that verse would be John 3:16. It has been called the greatest love story ever told. Martin Luther, (the early church reformer) called that verse “the Gospel in a nutshell.” Someone else once said that “if the Bible was destroyed and only John 3:16 remained, that would be enough information of God’s love to change the human heart.” It is also, by far, the most popular verse for cardboard signs at sporting events as well as for wooden roadside reminders.

Personally though, I sort of disagree with Martin Luther and others who hold this verse in such high regard. If anything, taken by itself, I find it to be symbolic of contemporary theological perspectives that find their way into books like the Prayer of Jabez and The Left Behind Series. They are overly simplified and promote a bumper sticker kind of theology that says, “Jesus did it, so come and get it.”

When we let John 3:16 stop at an understanding of “Jesus did it, come and get it,” we are only telling half the story. The remainder of the story is up to us. You see for me John 3:16, is incomplete without 1 John 3:16 – or at least the meaning behind 1st John 3:16. Let me read them to you together. (Note from me: I’ve changed the version of the texts to those from The Inclusive Bible.)

Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ died for us. And we, too, ought to lay down our lives for one another.

I’m much less concerned about what the theological question of atonement would encourage us to do and more concerned about what the life and teachings that lead to the cross would encourage us to do. In my way of reading these verses, in John 3:16 we learn how far Jesus was willing to go to show us how much we are loved, then in 1st John 3:16 we learn how far we should be willing to go in response to that love to show others how much they are loved.

Far too often, those of us who consider ourselves or call ourselves, “Christian,” forget to practice our faith as if these two verses go together.

Somehow, we don’t realize that on its own John 3:16 is only half the story. When we think it is the whole story, it is just a little bit too easy to feel slightly privileged, it is just a little bit too easy to measure the rest of the world by your own standards, judging whether people measure up rather than just loving them.

The truth is we all need to be a little bit better about turning our faith outward.