Monday, April 23, 2012

Magical Thinking, Miracles, and Mercy

"Be careful not to indulge in magical thinking," my confessor warned me.  I had been relating my fervent prayers for a solution to an absolutely overwhelming problem.  I had no idea what he meant by "magical thinking" but decided that, since he'd bothered to say something, I'd probably better find out what it meant and why he was concerned.  But, when I looked it up, I was even more confused.

Magical Thinking is a disorder, most often associated with young children and people who suffer from mental illness.  If a person is engaging in magical thinking, they generally believe that if they've thought about it or talked about it, then the problem is solved.  This disorder is not limited to individuals.  Many volunteer organizations, companies and families suffer from this problem, too; if they've had a meeting about it and talked all around the issue, it must be solved, right?

A magical thinker (individually or corporately) is not doing anything at all to help unravel the problem.  There is no concrete evidence that a solution is being worked on.  That being the case, prayer might be considered magical thinking by some.  I didn't consider it so, which is why I was confused.  After all, when you pray you're communicating with God.  That's definitely doing something.  But, sometimes it's not so clear cut.

We've all heard the story about the guy on his roof in the flood.  He prayed to God for help and when the boat came he turned them away because God would save him.  Then a helicopter came, but he turned them away, too, because God would save him.  And when he finally was washed away he asked God why He'd let him drown.  God replied, "Who do you think sent the boat and the helicopter?" 

There is an old adage, commonly attributed to the Bible, "The Lord helps those who help themselves."  And while you won't find that exact phraseology in the Bible, you will find many instances where God expects the people who pray to Him for help to do something themselves, to follow directions or seek assistance from another source.

When God finally led the Israelites to The Promised Land, he didn't just give it to them. They had to fight for it.  Consider the story of the Wall of Jericho.  Joshua had prayed for a solution and the solution God gave him seemed outrageous.  They were going to march around the city, then blow a trumpet, and the wall was simply going to fall down. But, despite their misgivings, Joshua led the people of Israel, just as he had been directed and that wall came down. Joshua trusted in the God's providence, but he didn't just sit around and wait for God to handle it.  He had to do something.

Often, I find myself in the opposite situation: I rely on myself to solve the problem and don't pray for assistance.  This is just as big an error.  When we rely on ourselves and the means that we have at hand, and leave God out of the equation completely, we discount God's mercy and generosity. 

In this case, I had gotten myself into this mess and I was determined that I was going to get us out, too.  It wasn't until I had nowhere else to turn that I finally bowed my head, bent my knees, and asked for help from God.  But this isn't an unknown malady, either.

When the Israelites were dying of thirst in the desert, Moses asked God for help.  God told Moses to strike the rock with his staff one time and water would flow out.  Moses struck it once, but water didn't come right out, so he struck it again.  Instead of trusting God's promise of mercy, he relied on his own power to provide the water to save the people from dying of thirst. Because of his lack of faith, Moses only got to see the Promised Land.  He didn't get to enter.

In our modern age of science and progress, it would be easy to discount prayer as magical thinking, but that would be a mistake.  Prayer is the act of wrapping ourselves up in the life of the Trinity.  Through prayer, we immerse ourselves in His mercy, grace and peace.  If we open our hearts to Him in this way, He will put people and things into our lives and it will be clear to us what should happen next.  It is magical - in the sense that we don't understand it fully- but it is not magical thinking.

On Divine Mercy Sunday I got the calls that I had so desperately hoped and prayed for.  The significance of the feast day was not lost on me.  Both calls were from places that would normally never do business on a Sunday.  I don't believe I have ever been given a clearer sign of God at work in my life.

Psalm 40: 2.-4 (NAB)
I waited, waited for the LORD;
Who bent down and heard my cry,
Drew me out of the pit of destruction,
Out of the mud of the swamp,
Set my feet upon rock, steadied my steps,
And put a new song in my mouth, a hymn to our God.
Many shall look on in awe and they shall trust in the LORD.

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