Canticles—Isaiah 12:2–6: Springs of Salvation

This post is part of a series called CANTICLES, in which I reflect upon a poetic biblical text chosen for the upcoming Sunday’s worship. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.

Prayer does not “work.”

It is not about achievement, effectiveness, or getting things done. It is not “work” because it is not about our effort.

Last week, in the wake of the tragedy in San Bernadino, a debate about prayer erupted on social media. Igor Volsky began retweeting politicians’ comments about prayer alongside dollar amounts they had received from lobbyists. Then, the New York Daily News posted the cover to their upcoming issue, with bold white letters on a stark black background declaring: “God Isn’t Fixing This,” and the caption, “As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.” These platitudes included the phrase “thoughts and prayers,” as in, “our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims.” Volsky and The New York Daily News were attempting to call out people for using prayer as an excuse for inaction. Whatever we might think of their politics or their tactics, Volsky and the Daily News brought up an important question: what does prayer have to do with action?

Fr. James Martin responded that prayer cannot be divorced from action because prayer involves listening for God’s voice—a voice that leads us to act. This was a helpful recasting of prayer as both asking and listening. I want to respond differently. I want to insist that while prayer and action are inseparable, they are also not identical. Prayer is fundamentally not about human beings getting things done, nor about us getting God to do things. God is not a vending machine into which we deposit our prayer currency to get a bag of Fix-it chips. Our prayers must not exclude cries for help, but they also cannot be reduced to lament, just as they should not be limited to praise.

True prayer reminds us that, in all things, we remain coram Deo, in God’s presence, acting before God and listening to God. In tragedy, joy, pain, doubt, trust, hope, remembrance—in all things, we must reckon with the fact that God remains present and active. This does not mean that prayer is a bad response to crisis. But prayer cannot be the only response. And a moment of crisis is not the only time we should pray.

By reducing prayer’s primary purpose to getting God to fix things, we shore up the mistaken notion that “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when needed to resolve a problem.” This is a foundational tenet of what Christian Smith and others have called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD), a codename for the dominant religion of most young people and their parents in the United States. MTD is not the same thing as following Jesus Christ. Let me explain.

When we assume a fix-it model of prayer, it becomes an anesthetic to numb the pain that would otherwise stir us to address that pain’s cause. It becomes something that excuses us from ongoing participation in the kingdom of justice, love and peace that Jesus began and is bringing to completion. We only pray during crises and God only matters in those same moments.

True prayer reminds us that, in all things, we remain coram Deo, in God’s presence, acting before God and listening to God. In tragedy, joy, pain, doubt, trust, hope, remembrance—in all things, we must reckon with the fact that God remains present and active. This does not mean that prayer is a bad response to crisis. But prayer cannot be the only response. And a moment of crisis is not the only time we should pray.

So, if we want to avoid a fix-it model of prayer, what model of prayer should we consider? I want to suggest that our prayer should be play.

In the early 1970s, during a time of major social upheaval, Jürgen Moltmann penned a short book on a Theology of Joy, or Theology of Play. He was wrestling with the question, “How can we laugh, how can we rejoice… when we are worried, depressed, and tortured by the state in which we live?”1 Moltmann started by critiquing societies in which joy and play only have worth as a vacation to prepare us for more work, a safety valve for us to let off a little steam so that we can achieve more. Instead, “we enjoy freedom,” he wrote, “when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo….when the game affords us critical perspectives for change in our otherwise burdensome world.”2 When prayer enables us to envision a different future by listening closely to God, we are praying playfully.

God created the world in freedom. Human beings were not necessary for the existence of the universe. Therefore, “our existence is justified and made beautiful before we are able to do or fail to do anything.”3 A person who grasps the joy of this realization, “becomes immune to the prevailing ideologies that promise…meaning for life only to abuse [her] for their own purposes….immune also to a society which values and rewards men [sic] only in terms of their practical usefulness and their suitability as labor and consumers.”4

Far from lulling us into inaction, this joy in our unnecessary existence frees us to take risks in following Christ, who reached into the depths of our suffering, knows our every weakness and intercedes for us in prayer.5 We are freed not only to pray in all situations, recognizing God’s presence, but also to participate in the ways Jesus’ acts and intercedes on behalf of all those who are both mourning and rejoicing. “Freedom,” Moltmann insists, “makes us followers of the crucified and leads us into fellowship with the forsaken whose brother the crucified has become.” He continues:

Only those who are capable of joy can feel pain at their own and other people’s suffering. A man [sic] who can laugh can also weep. A man who has hope is able to endure the world and to mourn. Where freedom is near, the chains begin to hurt. Where the Kingdom of God is at hand, we feel the abyss of God-forsakenness. Where men are able to love because they are loved, they are also able to suffer, accept suffering, and live with the dead. Life as rejoicing in liberation, as solidarity with those in bondage, as play with reconciled existence, and as pain at unreconciled existence demonstrates the Easter event in the world.6

We play not in order to forget our past and present, but to live in hope for the future that God is bringing. So, prayer and worship no longer have to strive to be “modern, involved, contemporary, and relevant”—including false pretensions to “usefulness” through pursuing social justice—nor must they cling to doctrine or practices to demonstrate faithfulness as the last bastion of a dying tradition.7 “When religion, church, and faith are considered only from the standpoint of their expediency and usefulness for society, they are bound to vanish as soon as the purposes of society can be served by other means.”8 By praying playfully, we are released from having to be there for others, as if we could somehow save them or change the world on our own; and are freed to be there with others, in solidarity and true relationship, mourning with those who mourn, rejoicing with those who rejoice, working freely together for a world in which all are loved and are valued not for what they can accomplish, but who they are in God.9

A well is something that human beings dig in order to find water. It depends on human ingenuity, work and persistence. A spring is a naturally occurring overflow.

In today’s canticle, Isaiah 12:2-6, one word is often translated rather poorly. The verse in question is Isaiah 12:3: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” (NRSV) The word rendered “wells” certainly refers to a place from which one draws water, but the nuance of the term means it could be translated more accurately as “springs,” or “fountains.” Hebrew has a word for garden variety watering holes: b’er. The word used here is ma’yan.

The nuance depends on the difference between a well and a spring. A well is something that human beings dig in order to find water. It depends on human ingenuity, work and persistence. A spring is a naturally occurring overflow. Both involve water from the same source: an underground aquifer. A well requires effort; a spring is a gift.

The prayer at the springs of salvation is a prayer of joy and play. It is a sabbath prayer. It is a prayer that rejoices in our inability to do things on our own and sets us before God in every situation. Prayer as joyful play evokes water drawn from a free-flowing spring. By its very uselessness it frees us from the need to be useful and the need to be in control. Prayer does not lead to inaction. Instead, it frees us up to act.

Song Recommendations:

Charlie Hall, Salvation – This song actually does a great job putting together joy and a cry for deliverance, our action and God’s salvation that springs up without our effort. Also, it’s fun to sing and easy to play.

I’ve Got Peace Like a River (with actions!) – Nothing reminds me more of my inability and playfulness than a song with actions. Participating in a song with actions frees me up for the silly spontaneity of prayer. I know I’m not going to get it right, but I’m going to do it with joy anyway.

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing – Read and remember the lyrics. You could do this Sufjan Stevens style (think banjos) or Phil Wickham style (think contemporary praise and worship), though there’s also something to be said for the joyful, abundant fullness of an enthusiastic organ and choir.

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Footnotes:

1. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Play, trans. Reinhard Ulrich, (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1972), 1.
2. Ibid., 12.
3. Ibid., 21.
4. Ibid., 19-20.
5. See Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:1-10 and Romans 8:18-39.
6. Moltmann, Theology of Play, 31, emphasis original.
7. Ibid., 59-60.
8. Ibid., 61.
9. Ibid., 71.

 

Hong

Marcus A. Hong is a child of God, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. A lover of movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, Marcus and his wife Sarah have their hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.

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