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When do we pray?

Paula O'Shaughnessy, Sunday, 11th February, 2018

When do we pray ? When are we awake to our need for God? Often when times are desperate – but even then, do we really always manage to pray?

With this thought in mind, I watched Anthony Hopkins play the part of Richard Nixon and there is a crucial moment when he gets on his knees to pray, asking his old trusted colleague Henry Kissinger to join him. It is a desperate time, just before he is forced to sign his resignation from the office of President of the United States. The evidence against him for his abuse of power and duties of office is overwhelming. He is presented as the creator of his own destruction and no one else.

Yet as Nixon says he wants to pray to God, as his pious and god-fearing mother taught him - he fails utterly in actually managing to pray. He is totally self obsessed and is possessed by a will to cling to earthly power.  Instead of praying, Nixon breaks down into tears of self pity, crying out of his perceived injustice of his fall from power.  He is unable to see how and where he has gone wrong.  He is a tragic figure, seeing himself as the victim of the elite establishment,  being rejected because of his humble origins.  He fails to see that he has become part of the establishment and that power has corrupted him.  The portrayal of the character lays bare the root cause of Nixon's weakness – his lack of humility, his refusal to listen to what anyone else is saying.  He talks non-stop, talking at people, detached from reality, in a world of his own.  That is why he is unable to pray.  God cannot be heard in his ears.  As Lao Tzu said in his epic poem, the Tao Teh Ching 'Only nothing can enter into no space.'

There are lots of political themes in Mark's Gospel, relevant today, as in the time of Jesus.  The parallels between Jesus' heavenly power and that of the material world are described by Mark, ultimately leading to Jesus' mock crowning with thorns, clothing with royal purple and being hailed as King of the Jews.  All this for challenging the established order of religious practices, with their hypocrisy and the abuse of authority by those with earthly power.

In today's passage from Mark, we hear of the Transfiguration of Jesus, with Moses and Elijah.  Peter is overwhelmed by the emotional and religious significance of the moment.  He at once wants to hold onto the power and assurance of their presence, by bringing tents for them – or as described in the King James Bible, tabernacles.  These as temporary dwellings for the Holy, the prophets.  But a mysterious voice speaks to the disciples, from the clouds – telling them that Jesus is his son and that they must listen to him.  God's voice, which we believe it to be is telling the disciples that the ways of the world are not God's ways.  Those who have enormous earthly powers often liken themselves to the goodness that we know to be only with God.

Ched Myers, in his book on Mark gives us a political reading of the Gospel.  He gives the example of how another American president, Ronald Reagan, likens himself to all that is good.  The American presence in the world, with its military interventions are presented by Reagan as noble and freedom giving.  America, the ultimate Imperial Super power – putting the British Empire, Roman Empire and all others in the shade.  This is the same story as in the Biblical one, where the force and power of Empire is at odds with the Holy Power that is God.

Interestingly, Myers describes how, during Reagan's second and successful presidential campaign in 1984, protesters were also making demonstrations.  They too erected a tent, in Lafayette Park – to remind people of the growing numbers of homeless people in America.  Reagan, though captured the hearts and minds of the the majority of voters, with his rhetoric of being a power and force for good in America and in the world.  Many of the protesters against Reagan were later imprisoned for what they did.

We know from the New Testament that being pious and outwardly conforming to religious practices is no guarantee of holiness or following the true will of God.  The film, Nixon shows starkly the dark side of religious zealousness and certainty that you are justified by God.  Nixon's parents doled out a brutal and bitter reality of religious experience – whipping their children, and laying great burdens of emotional guilt upon them, for being disobedient or sinful.  You could say that Nixon was indeed a victim, as his parents misunderstood God.  God is merciful.  God's mercy is what saves us all.

For us to be close to God in prayer, we must first listen, then follow as true disciples.  God leads us along the paths of peace – that is our mission.

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