I’ve always cringed when people refer to praying as “petitioning God.” To me, it makes God seem like a governmental bureau that rarely condescends to pay attention to a matter unless enough people make a big enough ruckus that it can no longer be ignored. It reminds me of boycotting endeavors or protest rallies or public demonstrations: noisy affairs people sometimes resort to when other methods of communication have fallen on deaf ears.
The word petition, of course, has a fuller meaning than that, but for me, those are some connotations. The way I see it, a distance between the petitioner and the person of power who makes the decisions is the key feature of this dynamic: me, the flea-sized minion who gets stuck in some mud while trying to use a toothpick slingshot to lob a little list of concerns to God, who happens to be located just past the moon. If I hit my target, my list might get looked at and help might be sent to fetch me out of the puddle, but then again, my request might get lost in the heaps of other requests from worthier supplicants with better writing form, and I’ll be stuck in the morass forever.
Or, worse still, if God is the perpetually frowny faced, voyeuristic superpower some envision (I hear the Star Wars Imperial March tune as I write this), we might think it better to fly under the radar or just ignore the matter altogether. The problem with God is, as Rob Bell aptly points out in What We Talk About When We Talk About God, the word God has so much baggage. God the Hostile, God the Generous, God the Angry, God the Father, God the Punisher, God the Absent, God the Oppressor, God the Forgiving, God the Disappointed: it seems we have a lot of ideas about God floating around.
Most of us are aware that our concept of God often differs from other people’s concepts of God. Anne Lamott, writer and speaker about faith and life, reiterates a telling statement from her friend Father Tom told her about God: “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Madeleine L’Engle, author of The Wrinkle in Time series, sometimes referred to God as “El,” a Hebrew word for God, to avoid the pesky “he” or “she” pronouns that impede some on our spiritual pilgrimage. For L’Engle, using the term El became a way of pointing to a loving heavenly parent without bringing to mind the patriarchal baggage that has come to be associated with the masculine pronoun. Whatever connotations the concept of God has for us, it’s a worthwhile endeavour to think about identifying how we arrived at them and how they are impacting our lives. Substantial potholes are along the road to discovery, though: consider confirmation bias.
Sometimes, as we delve further into a topic we already have opinions on, we become more convinced of our original thought. In other words, humans are subject to finding information that reinforces our opinion. It’s not always the case that we embroil ourselves further into our own opinion the more we search; for example, we have cases like journalist Lee Strobel who started his book with the mission to disprove any claims about the historical accuracy of a man fitting Jesus the Christ’s description in ancient times. His resulting book, The Case for Christ, tells us the evidence he found was contrary to what he expected and so he completely reversed his thesis for his resulting text. We hear of these examples occasionally, but they are usually the exception rather than the rule.
Sometimes it can be helpful to alter our approach entirely and learn about something from an alternative angle. It can help us sideline our own preconceptions and learn something new.
Would you do me a favor? Think about a relationship you have with a sibling. Now imagine with me what made your childhood relationship with him or her—hopefully a good one—different from the one either of you had with your parents. A lot of it has to do with shared experiences, right? Some of you had to endure the horribly bland/burnt/healthy/spicy and so on cooking your mom or dad inflicted at dinnertime. You shared a house and maybe went to the same school and had the same teachers from time to time. You saw the same TV shows, heard the same music, and went on similar outings. You shared a generation and it gives you a certain understanding of each other; a certain bond of familiarity. Your sibling knows about your experiences growing up in a way nobody else does.
Shared experiences do that. When we seek advice on matters close to our heart, we often ask somebody who has been through a similar decision-making process. People in grief over traumatic events sometimes find comfort in talking with someone else who has a similar shaped scar on their soul.
On December 25 we celebrate the birth of Jesus: candles are lit, carols are sung, nativity scenes pop up around the city. For some, the season reminds them of the type of God who needs to be petitioned to be heard; for others, an outdated rule book with little significance to today’s problems; or worse still, an ideology that promotes silent shame of self often expressed in the vocal hatred of others.
Many feelings arise during the Christmas season, but what I’ve been thinking about most is how our spiritual perspectives may be influenced if we think of Jesus as our big brother more often. We hear the words “God made flesh” and “incarnation” so often that it can be easy to lose sight of their significance. Sometimes the baby Jesus story is violently launched in our faces as the ultimate stick-up trick: “He gave up His throne in heaven to live and die a horrible death for you so you BETTER give Him your life!”
Instead of that message, though, let’s think about this one: Jesus, the child of God, became 100 percent human to experience our troubles, empathize with us in our trials, and come running to our rescue when He hears our cries for help.
It is written that He was not ashamed to call us His siblings; and, as our big brother, He knows what we’re going through and He’s got our backs. He became human so He could rush to our aid. This is the incarnation. Perhaps, if it doesn’t rivet us to the core, we haven’t quite grasped it yet. As Frederick Buechner says in Faces of Jesus, “Until we too have taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken.”