Prayer (re)Imagined

change switchI lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?

—Psalm 121:1

Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, at least that is what physicists assert in the Law of the Conservation of Energy.  Rather than being created or destroyed, the Law maintains, energy is merely converted from one state to another.  For instance, the energy stored in an object is called potential energy.  Potential energy describes the possibility that something might happen to or with that object.  Like a spring compressed, the energy used to compress it is transferred to the spring and stored inside the spring waiting to be released.  The release of that stored energy is called kinetic energy.  When the compressed spring is loosed, the energy is converted from a passive to an active state.  (Now, let me be upfront.  I am not a physicist but like to watch them on TV.  Huge fan of the Big Bang Theory.)  Taking into account my caveat of general ignorance regarding physics, I think several interesting theological observations lie embedded in my rather rudimentary recollection of physics.

First, the Latin root for “potential” is potentia, meaning “power.”  Second, the Greek root for “kinetic” is kinesis, meaning “motion.”  In other words, both instances assume action.  In the first instance, action is coiled in the spring.  The Law of the Conservation of Energy does not allow the energy used to compress the spring to dissolve.  Rather, that energy is transferred to the spring itself and stored throughout the object, awaiting liberation.  Similarly, the reality of stored action is a static state, a state awaiting its opportunity to erupt.  Potential has a real, tangible—yet hidden—power.  In the second, action is realized; motion is actual.  Our spring bursts to life, racing from compression to extension, from what might be to what is.  The activity that appeared lost was only dormant, now awakened to life.  This leads to my third observation.  The conversion of energy from potential to kinetic, the transformation of action from stored to sprung requires a catalyst.

Catalysts come in many forms and at many times, but in the case of our spring, they result in the same effect, i.e., the energy of change—often thought absent or destroyed—is made manifest, is incarnated in the object now in motion.

Metaphorical springs are coiled all around us, awaiting release, longing for their catalyst to come.

Prophets often serve as catalysts from action, change.  Their words recorded in both Testaments echo this potential for change, often acting as the catalyst itself.  Their words take dormant ideas and “enflesh” those ideas in the fervor and gesticulations of faithful servants of God, actively speaking latent truths before recalcitrant Powers.  Their bodies become the incarnation of God’s liberating ideas for change as the prophet places himself or herself between the Powers and the people.  This “enfleshing” of God’s words of liberation and change in our lives is the proper outcome for a life of faith.

Remember the words from the prophet Micah.  He said:

‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old?7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)

Here, Micah is not dismissing worship.  Rather, the prophet is reminding us that true worship begins in God’s presence at prayer but is realized in our active concern for those who are also connected to God and us, i.e., all our neighbors.  We cannot have true worship if we neglect to love and enact, to embody justice and kindness, particularly for those disempowered to do so on their own.

It is this active incarnation of God’s energy for active change that imbues Abraham Heschel’s memory of his time with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965.  He recalled, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”  Certain of the connection between faith and faithful living, between the potential energy of prayer and the kinetic energy of protest, Rabbi Heschel found a natural ally in King.  United in their common conviction that a faith embodied and lived is primary and is the most authentic expression of faith, their mutual convictions motivated their actions.  That common action found particular expression when hands were clasped and feet hit the pavement.  As an exercise in interfaith activism and the manifestation of a firm belief that the God of scripture is the same God opting for the disenfranchised, Heschel and King joined in a series of marches, affirming the more general principle of the equality of all who are created in God’s image.

In the opening passage from Psalm 121 offered above, the Psalmist sings a prayer of hope, a prayer of longing, searching the hills for the approach of relief, of rescue.  The plaintive tone of these words rings with a heavy yet hopeful cry, a cry filled with a potential energy of liberation scanning the horizon for a catalyzing release.  For the Psalmist, the release comes with the approach of God.  Yet, in what from does this Divine Agent take shape?

This particular text is silent on the manifestation of Divine Agency.  However, Micah’s message seems to imply that the manifestation of God’s agency might just assume the use of our hands and our feet.  Like the cries heard and responded to by Heschel and King, the cry of the Psalmist might assume and require our participation, our service as catalysts for active change, converting the cries of the needy into direct action of incarnate love.

Such opportunities for action are all around us.  Our valleys are filled with the captive potential energy in thousands of cries from the needy and hungry and pained, scanning—like the Psalmist—these hills for relief.

What will be the catalyst for their liberating release?  What will convert their cries and our hearing into active fulfillment, feeding, and healing?  What moment will transfer the energy of complaint into the energy of action?  Is it a simple presentation of an opportunity that is needed, an opportunity made known that converts hearing to doing, potential love of some neighbor to the kinetic love of an actual person who is our neighbor living right here in this valley we call home?  My hope is that all that is required for the release of our stored-up energy of love is the plain transition of an idea to an actual moment where aid is rendered possible.

Just such a moment might be upon us.

An important religious holiday will be celebrated this week.  More than a billion people around the world celebrate this holiday.  The holiday is called Eid al-Adha or “Festival of Sacrifice”.  This day is an important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims to honor Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, as an act of submission and to celebrate God’s intervening provision of a lamb to be sacrificed instead (Quran 37:100-111).  The festival includes fasting, prayers, and celebrations.  It is tradition that during Eid al-Adha that donations to the needy are given, particularly to children.  This year, in the United States, Eid al-Adha is celebrated on October 15.

A newly forming student group on our campus, the Muslim Student Association (MSA), will honor this celebration by continuing a tradition within the Muslim community of collecting donations for the needy children.  Our MSA will  collect donations for the children of Towns County by giving to the weekend backpack program facilitated through the Towns County Food Pantry.  The Food Pantry backpack program is an effort to give children on reduced and free lunches food to eat over the weekend, assuming that if they need food assistance during the week that they most likely need food assistance on weekends, too.

Continuing the tradition witnessed to by Herschel and King as they joined together in a common effort to convert the potential of prayer into the powerful witness of active work, may the people of this campus—all of us of different faiths or no faith—join together to support this work of our students, using this moment as the needed catalyst to release the liberating energy lying inside the cries of our hungry neighbors all around us.

Get your spare change ready.  We will be collecting your donations on Thursday in the College restaurant.

Have a great week and see you along the way.

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