There have been many blessings in my life. Yet I’ve also had a share of being down on my knees praying to God for answers. And I can tell you in earnest: all those prayers have been answered in one way or another. Sometimes, they have been the exact result of what I (or more often we) were praying for. At other times, those prayers have been answered in ways that instruct, inspire, challenge, or serve as a catharsis of spirit. All those are rewards of some kind.
It’s the simple truth that not all prayers get answered in the manner we might like. Often there is hard news that comes along with answered prayers. And let us be clear: I do not believe God is the author of all fate. For I cannot believe that our lives are the product of predestination. God is clearly not a control freak, as the group Modest Mouse once sang.
That’s also why I admire and accept the theory of evolution. There is great beauty in the fact that life has diversified and thrived on this planet, and that human beings of all creatures have the capacity to study and appreciate it. That is our dominion and perhaps even leads to a role of stewardship over all the earth. That bit of biblical prophecy has certainly come true.
Yet it does not mean we control every aspect of life on this earth. Every once in a while, nature comes along to kick our ass. Hurricanes. Volcanic eruptions. Earthquakes. Drought. Floods. Lightning. Fire. Snow and ice. Some religious folks attach spiritual meaning to these natural disasters, calling them signs that God is displeased with the human race in some way. These are desperate attempts at playing God in hopes of winning converts. That is not a race well run.
There are always big wheels turning. It was only 10-14,000 years ago that mile high glaciers spread across the Midwest flattening the landscape here in Illinois. Now, thanks to anthropocentric climate change, the heating of the climate is headed in a dangerous direction. I don’t know why so many religious believers don’t get the fact that human arrogance is so capable of massive flaws like that. Did everyone suddenly forget the tale of the Tower of Babel and a hundred other bible tales when God became angry at humans trying to act like gods? But when you deny science on basis of your anachronistic faith ideals, it appears even the lessons one should learn about human nature from the bible are easily forgotten.
Deep evidence and a chorus of crickets
Personally, I revel in the age of the earth and its workings. Consider that 100 miles to the northwest of where I live, there are rich valleys formed of limestone and sandstone. These were laid down millions and millions of years ago when massive oceans covered the central plateau of the American continent. There are deep beds of shelly limestone and fossils right beneath our feet. We know the processes that led to this geological phenomenon and can trace the very roots of evolution in the fossilized creatures we find as we go deeper and back in time. One could call all this the Fingerprint of God. Who is not a control freak.
I now ride bikes and run on these hills and its a treat. I’ve stood still in the woods of Governor Dodge State Park in Dodgeville listening to the crickets in August. As I stand there issuing salty sweat and pumping blood through my veins that is nearly the same consistency as ocean saltwater, the sense of time changes. I realize those crickets will be singing the same songs long after I’m gone from this earth. Forty years ago I heard crickets singing in that same place. They are not the same crickets, but their genes have been passed down through generations just as it happens with human beings. It is this temporal quality that makes life so precious.
That same ephemeral quality makes running and riding through those hills all the more precious. I’ve been doing that for more than 40 years now. It makes me appreciate being alive.
What I know of the grace of God comes through these experiences. In my book The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age, I wrote that the principle relationship we should aspire to with God is that of grace appreciated. That is, contemplate and be grateful for the blessings and challenges of life, for these are the tests of our character. It is also ours to share what we can of this grace by being a blessing to others when possible, and to help them through challenges as they face them. That is grace appreciated in the sense of growth.
Which is how this thing we call the Kingdom of God is supposed to work. In Genesis, we read the words “be fruitful, and multiply.” And some people have interpreted that to mean that we should breed our way to dominance over the earth. But we can read it in the sense that multiplying grace is a question of extending the gift we’ve been given in character and grace to others. That is grace appreciated as well.
And when we stand on the sidelines to cheer on our fellow athletes, however talented or not they may be, we are giving a dose of our grace to them. We are wishing them well. Offering them encouragement.
It also goes the same for us when we train and compete. An encouraging word is not the reason we are able to do what we do. But it can inspire. Knowing that we are loved in some way is the greatest source of affirmation in this world. We strive to find that love with each other. Yet some people view love as a much greater force in the universe than simple human relationships. Love is real, we say, for it bonds families and brings people of all types together. We also see manifestations of this force in loving what we do for work and play as well. All you need is love, John Lennon once sang.
God playing favorites
Yet it’s hard to imagine that a loving God would play favorites in any of these endeavors. Hard to imagine that God would even assist an athlete to win over another person in competition. It doesn’t make any sense. It certainly isn’t manifested in any other respects in this world. The very real phenomenon of evolution plays no favorites. There is random violence and chance survival at every turn. And whether we like to admit this or not, that is the factual foundation for free will. We are free to make choices in this world. Free to choose to believe in a God or not. Free to follow the provisions and guidance of faith if we so choose. Free to exercise our will upon others for good or evil. Free to accept the gift of grace and love that can fill our souls and abide with us through times difficult or joyous.
All these options, and all of them tracing back to love.
But there is hate in the world as well. And we see that circling back upon itself in a thousand ways, these days. Our violent inventions can be used for sport and for terror. They can uphold the law, but they can also trash it. They can help people imagine they are far more powerful than they really are, and let them act on those notions.
There are violent inventions of spirit as well. These are people to want to dominate the world. This is a very different notion from accepting the role of dominion over the earth, which is a loving relationship that gives back rather than takes. Yet people mistake domination for dominion all the time. American politics is now a textbook case of this struggle to understand our roles in that classic play. And yet people are drawn to violent leaders because their promises sound like dominion. Yet they deliver on something very different. It is a Faustian bargain.
The Olympics and God’s Chosen People
Soon we’ll be watching the Olympic Games. These were designed to celebrate the human spirit through physical and emotional achievement. We’ll see flags proudly raised and national anthems sung, for our tribal instincts have not changed in the 2000 years since God supposedly singled out his Chosen People. It seems as if we’re still selfishly fighting to determine that status for ourselves.
But what if the entire manner in which “God’s Chosen People” has been interpreted is wrong? Is it not true that the people God had chosen once demanded that he deliver them a king? God answered: “If you follow my rules, you will live peacefully and prosperously, and have no need of a king.” But the people insisted because people always do. And God gave them kings, the bible says. And all of them proved to be highly flawed and prone to all the things God warns us against, like pride, vanity, acquisitiveness, lust and more. God eventually even denied one of his eager servants, King David, the opportunity to build a temple in His honor. “You have too much blood on your hands,” he chastised the faulty fellow.
So it is not likely that God wants you to win the next race or to win your age group. And praying about such things is an exercise in vanity. Instead, your prayers should focus on gratitude for your health and ability, and be thankful you can compete, and do your best with a full heart knowing that you are loved either way.
And when you do that, it is likely you will find true gratitude for both your success and your failure rather than feeling bitter over small failings that in the spectrum of this world mean nothing.
1 Corinthians 9:24 says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”
Notice that it does not say, “Run in that way and you will get the prize.” It implies instead that your striving is the reward along the way. But if you neglect that reward, life will not be so fulfilling. You will not have enjoyed the process. Nor will you have achieved your goal.