Maybe you remember O Brother Where Art Thou, a Cohen brothers film from 2000. Set during the depression in the American south, the plot follows a small group of inmates as they attempt to get their lives together.
Everett, played by George Clooney, is especially interesting to me. Unlike his two simple companions, he sees no need for religion, no need for God, no need to pray to a nameless and non-attentive character in the sky.
That is, however, until he suddenly needs divine help.
Our inmates, during the final scene, have been caught by a ruthless county sheriff and are about to be hanged for their crimes.
Suddenly, Everett’s atheism evaporates as he falls to his knees, searching the heavens and praying for rescue. It is a poignant moment in a film that can too easily be seen as a fun ride lacking any depth.
Soon a floor rushes through, sweeping away the gallows.
And, needless to say, sweeping away Everett’s concerns about God.
He quickly dismisses the flood scientifically, insisting it came because of a state hydroelectric project. And whether that’s the case or not matters little, because Everett believes it to be the case. He puts his faith in science and in himself, ignoring the possible link between God and the life-saving flood.
No need for me to draw connections between Everett’s tendency to draw near to God during distress and the human tendency to do the same. It’s a universal trait. If we are honest with ourselves, we will see parallels between our own actions and his.
Now, a brief story from Scripture.
You can read it in the Bible’s Old Testament book, Daniel, chapter 6.
So there’s this guy, Daniel, a Jewish man who has been taken into exile from his former home by a group of marauding Babylonians led by the well-documented leader Nebuchadnezzar [who long name has surely confounded Sunday school teachers ever since ever!].
Maybe you already know the story of Daniel and the lions’ den, but if not, I’ll summarize for you. The new king, Darius, has appointed advisors who have become jealous on account of Daniel; he is a foreigner, but he is wise and is appointed to a special leadership position within the kingdom.
And the other advisors can’t accept that.
Without much forward thought, they get Darius to sign a law that prohibits prayer to any god but him, Darius, the king. And they cleverly get him to sign.
Soon, Daniel is busted for praying to the God of Israel.
Following his typical daily routine of authentic prayer, he isn’t trying to be politically divisive or antagonize anyone, but he does feel convicted to pray to the God in whom he believes, and not to a human king.
Though Darius is sad and fairly upset about the situation, he has to follow through: after all, it was his law. He stays up all night, sleepless and wondering whether Daniel will make it in a den of lions.
And… Spoiler alert… Daniel makes it. He is found alive and unharmed.
Daniel and Everett from O Brother Where Art Thou strike an interesting contrast, do they not? Everett prays during the one time he is in genuine trouble. And after his rescue, he immediately discredits any possibility of God’s involvement.
The account of Daniel is altogether different. Here, we don’t even hear mention of him praying while he was in the lions’ den, only before. And after his night in the den of lions, he credits God for having rescued him from the vicious animals.
Friends, I want to be like Daniel.
I want my prayer life and spiritual practices to go on whether things are awesome or awful, to honor God with my time and talent [and treasures too!] whether or not everything is going well.
I want practice gratefulness, and not just at Thanksgiving.
As a side note, prayer and spiritual practices are widely regarded as healthy and life-giving. The Harvard Medical School acknowledges the research on the benefit of being thankful, and even of acknowledging God’s care. Check out the research they point to here if you’re curious.
In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised that grateful people are happier and healthier. And of course, as a rule of thumb, it will generally be more difficult to be thankful when we are doing really well-for then we are distracted from God. It can also be difficult to pray after a painful loss or searing rejection.
And yet, practicing faith through these daily rhythms is what Christians are called to. These prayer habits of gratefulness and petition just happen to harmonize with our physical health. The theme of physical and spiritual health running a common course comes up more than I realize!
We must continue to pray, continue to believe, and continue to be open to God’s leading in every moment. And when we do these things, more and more we notice how God has been at work all along. Then, when difficult times come, we will have an established pattern of being attentive to God; we won’t have to awkwardly stumble back to God and re-learn who God is.
But if we do drift away, we have every reason to know that God still listens and receives us back. God demonstrates grace throughout Scripture, grace for people who forget about Him and grace for people that misunderstood Him.
And though we make every effort at being constant in our prayer and in our faith, our passions are still divided, mixed with some lingering pride or un-forgiveness or quiet hate. And yet, stubbornly, we pray, waiting with expectation for the day Christ makes all things new.