“There must have been a lot of people praying the right way and at the right moment” a News anchor concluded in response to the lack of fatalities from this week’s plane crash in Mexico. Seriously? Such simplistic theology implicates every victim, anyone ever wronged. By contrast, those who knelt in grateful prayer afterward embraced a theology that is as credible as it is primal.
Where can we find an approach to prayer that is morally compelling, intellectually alive, and spiritually nourishing?
This week’s portion of Torah offers a guide. Moses makes two major points when we retells of the events surrounding the sin of the Golden Calf. First, when prosperity happens, it’s not all about you. Resist overconfidence. When successful “be careful not to say to yourself ‘It was my own strength and personal power that brought me all this prosperity” (Deut. 8:17). An inflated ego is never healthy.
Second, when emotions run high try to stay tethered to larger purposes that surmount that which feels immediately persuasive. This is what Moses helps God realize in the wake of Golden Calf worship. An infuriated God is pacified by a Moses who reclaims the covenant. “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do not pay attention to the stubbornness of this nation, or to their wickedness and sin” (Deut. 9:27). Context is not everything. Sometimes it should be checked by covenant.
Credible prayer inspires humility and responsibility. It urges us: ‘Act as if everything depends on you. In so doing, bear in mind, that it’s often much bigger than you’.
The gap between our efforts and lasting ideals is intended, not to cause us to surrender to despair, but to drive us toward new heights. Prayer reminds us that high ideals can help us stand taller.