I once attended an interfaith prayer breakfast at which the opening prayer was delivered by a very highly-regarded chaplain from a local denominationally affiliated hospital. In his effort to be inclusive since this was after all an interfaith event he closed his prayer with a simple, “Amen.” He did not precede the word, “Amen,” by saying, “In Jesus’ name we pray,” which is a very typical way for conservative Christians and others to conclude a prayer. Most don’t even know why they are saying, “In Jesus name,” but I can tell you the reason behind the tradition is negative.
It rests on the belief that an individual cannot come into the presence of God on the basis of her or his own volition but must instead only come into the presence of God with Jesus interceding for her, for him, for us. The reason for this theological notion is that a very anthropomorphized God is so disgusted with human sin that if Jesus–now in heaven calling the shots on earth with God–did not mediate, there is no telling what horrible things God would do to us just for daring to show up in God’s presence.
Similarly, with prayer, the idea is if one does not say at the conclusion of her or his prayer, “In Jesus’ name we pray,” it’s an entire waste of time because, as folks of that theological persuasion believe, only coming though Jesus could get God’s appropriate or loving attention. This is the same mentality that motivated a one-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention several years ago to declare that God could not hear the prayers of Jews since Jews more than likely would not pray in Jesus’ name.
So Chaplain Royce Ballard prayed a stirring prayer and closed with a simple, “Amen,” not preceded by an, “In Jesus’ name we pray,” and the pastor of the local large fundamentalist church pitched a fit. He immediately called the hospital administrator and and demanded that the chaplain be terminated because, though he was employed as a Christian chaplain, when away from the hospital at least, said the complaining pastor, he was ashamed to profess the name of Jesus around whom Christianity was supposedly structured. Chaplain Ballard wasn’t exactly called on the carpet by his administrator, but there was this trace in the voice of the administrator wishing that Royce, knowing which people would be attending such a breakfast, would just go ahead and say as a conclusion of his prayer–paying no attention and exhibiting no respect for Buddhists or Hindus or Muslims or Jews–”In Jesus’ name we pray,” pretty much to appease the conservatives. Royce wasn’t big on appeasement.
The reason I bring that issue up today is because it is a testament to superstition to insist that God will only hear the prayers of people who remember to conclude by saying, “In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.” What about those who simply forget to say it. What about those who feel that life itself is an ongoing prayer from beginning to end? Thus there is never a need to say, “Amen,” at all much less with any preface. “Amen” isn’t a magic word; it simply means something like, “So be it.” It’s kind of like a verbal period. The “In Jesus’ name” part reflects some theological underpinnings as I’ve attempted to describe, but there’s also some superstition involved. I believe when we approach today’s subject–namely, why good things happen to bad people–superstition prevails.
The assumption that God causes good things to happen to bad people is as superstitious as the more frequently stated notion that God causes bad things to happen to good people or, as more of us would wish things were, God causes bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. The truth is that no one knows how much involvement God has, if any, in the events in anyone’s life or in the events that occur to a nation. What Jesus inherited from the ancient Hebrews was the notion that everything that happened was willed and planned for by God. And one could see whether she or he were doing well in the sight of God by taking an honest look at what was going on in her or his life.
If good things are happening the assumption was made that God brought those good things about. Conversely, if bad things are happening, just as surely, God was causing those as well.
What if destiny is determined by individual choices, by the choices of others that impact that same individual, and by random factors such as winning the 600 million dollar lottery or being an unfortunate passenger trying to ride your train through Connecticut?
I refer to people who believe that every single thing that happens is determined by God on a moment by moment and play by play basis as providentialists. If someone gets a great parking place at Walmart, God must have because involved. By the same token, f someone gets a disturbing medical diagnosis God is behind that too, according to this way thinking.
Then there are people like me who have tried to say that only good things come from God, and the bad things come from who knows where but definitely not from God. When I say such a thing I’m clearly in violation of the teachings of the ancient Hebrews, but not necessarily terribly far from the position Jesus took on this issue.
I don’t know if it’s my own process of seeking truth or my nearly13 years of having served as pastor this free spirit congregation that has rubbed off on me–(scary thought!), but my more recent perspective on this issue is that God is clearly not calling all the shots, as if human beings have no power to influence their own future. God is not in the business of relating to humanity by having a specific detailed plan for every moment of everyone’s life–to include for most people a little good, a little bad; and for a few, complete good or complete bad.
The brilliantly pastoral preacher of last century, who happens to have been British, Leslie Weatherhead, attempted to deal with these questions of fate or destiny by talking about God’s “intentional will” over against what he called God’s “permissive will.” To oversimplify Dr. Weatherhead’s view, and he was a liberal preacher in his day, every event has been caused by God in some kind of way–whether God was its direct cause or not. Perhaps that sounds pretty good if you absolutely must make room in your theological framework for God who in some kind of way is in on everything that occurs.
The interesting question comes up in the case of what he would have called the permissive will of God: If God doesn’t will something directly but permits it, is God not still complicit in the outcome? God puts something else in motion so that some sort of horrific event could come someone’s way with God making no effort to stop it. I have tremendous admiration for Leslie Weatherhead as a pulpiteer as well as a theologian–though we are not even close to each other on a number of theological issues. It’s all the same when it comes to his explanation of why things happen–whether God wills something directly or passively “permits” it seems to me to end up at the same place. God is behind it even if God merely “allows” it.
Eventually this subject gets us into the theological realm of prayer, at least as many people have traditionally practiced prayer. If I pray each day or several times each day asking God to enter into my life to be a power source for me, keeping me from giving in to what is self-centered and hurtful to others, I may come to believe on the basis of consistent experience that God actually answers my prayers so anything good that comes along I eventually trace back to God. And if I don’t get what I’m asking for in my prayers the assumption is that God is holding out on me. I don’t deserve what I’m asking for.
There are lots of people, lots and lots of people, who have religious backgrounds, thankfully not gained in this congregation, who have had to spend a significant portion of their lives getting rid of the damning intellectual effects of providentialism. They are told if they pray correctly and in the right place and for the correct amount of time that there will probably get results that look very similar to precisely what they prayed for and about.
There is a pivotal story in what has been reported as having come from the life of Jesus about a time when Jesus is said to have healed a man who’d been blind from birth. There were additional healing stories about Jesus and other healers restoring sight to people who had gone blind somewhere along life’s journey, but according to the story before us no one knew any accounts of someone who had been blind from birth suddenly getting the gift of sight well into her or his life.
Before Jesus gets underway with the healing process, his disciples ask him a question that reveals their understanding of the tradition their forebears passed along to them–namely, everything that happens is God’s will, and if what happens is painful or troubling God is still causing that to happen. A human being chooses evil, and someone suffers but not always the person who acts in an evil manner. The person who chooses evil may see the consequences fall on her or his parents or her or his children. It was clearly potentially generational.
So the disciples ask Jesus as he’s preparing to carry out this healing process, “Who sinned–this man or his parents?”
Jesus comes back by saying, “You disciples need to learn how to ask the right questions if you’re going to ask questions. Nobody sinned in this case. And this an inappropriate issue to raise at any point but especially as I’m standing here with this person trying to help him become whole. If there’s a reason this happened, let’s just say it’s so God can be glorified because of the healing that will occur.”
In this case at least, something bad plagued the man, and there was no reasonable reason for it. Healing would bring glory to God, but that didn’t help give the man back what his blindness from birth had robbed from him.
May I say with all due respect, and I mean that sincerely, karma as it is popularly understood and spoken of is nothing more than another helping of superstition. The popular notions about karma are that if you do good things then good things will come to you; on the other side, if you do bad things bad things will happen to you. So pro-karma people who have been wronged a little or a lot frequently say, “Fine. I don’t have to worry about this person who has done me wrong because it will all catch up to him or her sooner or later.” They are referring to karma, and people say this frequently despite the fact that all of us know good people who can’t seem to get a break in life. Bad things happen to them frequently.
Then, there are people who do very little for the betterment of humanity; in fact, just the opposite is the case. They are bringing negativity into the world, evil even; and, yes, good things happen to them. So karma maybe is the way we wish things would be, but it’s not the way things are.
Good things happen to bad people in this world. That is frustrating. That is complicated to explain. And that is just downright distasteful. It appears that God is falling down on the job. Some of the psalmists ask aloud in their worship prayers questions like this, “Dear God, how long can evil flourish?” In Psalm 37 for example, we read this testimony, “I have seen a wicked and ruthless person flourishing like a luxuriant native tree.” I trust you get the frustration and disgust in tone.
Jesus, in a sermon intended to reverse the typical patterns of living in which we hate our enemies and love our neighbors, says that we should be living beyond the standards of that so-called folk wisdom. One of the reasons, he preached, is that God doesn’t attempt to withhold anything intended to benefit the whole of humanity from the evil folk. As Jesus explained his point, “God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good just as God sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” If God can be so magnanimous, then, Jesus insists, so can we.
The minority of people in our world who are acting according to the standards of terrorism have the rest of us tense and occasionally fearful. Some special ops military personnel may take out Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, and pro-karma people along with providentialists can say, “See! See! He’s finally getting what he deserves.” But for a long, long time before the ending of life stops his acts of the evil, all sorts of wonderful things were pouring into his life. How can that be? Not fair! Not fair! It’s not a question of fair or unfair, though; it’s simply what occurs.