“What is the purpose of belief if even God can’t put the world back the way you worshipped it?”
This is the question a character in Shubangi Swarup’s novel Latitudes of Longing asks as he watches the flames of the funeral pyre slowly devour the body of his beloved wife.
It is a question that we, too, may ask when a painful tragedy or disruption destroys the customary comfort of the world in which we live.
It is a question that may challenge one’s belief in a Power out there Who can fix things and make them right.
But it is a question that might shed some light on our own desires and expectations.
So many of our prayers seek restoration.
We have a friend struggling with cancer and we pray for the restoration of their health.
We have a child struggling in a marriage and we pray that they rediscover the love that brought them together in the first place.
We have a loved one in the grip of some addiction and we pray for a return to sobriety.
We look at the turmoil of our country and pray that we can return to some sense of normalcy, honesty and mutual respect.
We watch wars in foreign lands and we pray for a peace that will make those embattled countries as tranquil and un-newsworthy as they used to be.
There is nothing wrong with these prayers. They are genuine and caring.
But they are asking God to put the world back to the way it was, and that is not going to happen. Everyone involved, from the sick friend to the victim of war, and including ourselves, has been changed by these experiences.
Like the old Greek philosopher said, “No man can step into the same river twice.”
And it’s not just Heraclitus, but the Jewish prophets and then Jesus who talk about change and turning, not to the past, but to the future to which God beckons us.
That demands a much more unsettling, much more vulnerable prayer. We have to give up the world as we worship it and seek what it means for us to be faithful in the world that is to be.
We still pray for those suffering people, but we also pray for ourselves in light of them, imagining how the God of Life is calling each of us to the future through one another.
We can’t doubt God until we’ve done our part.