It was supposed to snow last night. I prayed that it might snow a lot so I wouldn’t have to go to work today. I wore my pajamas inside out, I did my devotions before bed and I didn’t even swear at my Hebrew homework. “Dear Lord, it’s been a long week and I’m tired; I could use a day off, time to get ahead in studying. Is that too much to ask for?”
Across the nation, “blessings” abounded. From Texas to Vermont ice covered roads, snow closed schools and sent cars careening off the roads. Businesses shut down and I heard from several friends who were granted a Sabbath thanks to an early winter storm. But not in Massachusetts. It even snowed in Ohio…where I used to live…where it never snowed when I used to live there. The snow is always deeper on the other side.
“Dear Lord, why did you send five inches of snow to Texas but none to Massachusetts? You realize they’ve no idea what to do right now, right? Like, they’re truly befuddled. And I know children are starving somewhere, there’s wars going on and Justin Bieber is on a world tour and all… but would snow in Massachusetts in December really have taken you that far out of your way?”
When I was a child I used to kneel beside my bed each night to pray. My prayers then were full of genuine concern for the well being of myself, my family, my friends at school and anyone who happened to cross my mind. I suppose most children are like that but then life gets busy. We grow up, develop schedules, hormones and opinions. Friends die and we’re educated on AIDs, world religions and theodicy. Prayer ceases to be much more than a cosmic vending machine.
Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal was just published. It seems like an invasion of privacy to be reading someone’s intimate conversations with God. If we stay on this trajectory I’ll bet twenty bucks that in fifty years we start marketing Timothy Keller’s accountability emails. But in one of her entries O’Conner penned the simple phrase “only God is an atheist”. Since reading these words I’ve been captivated by the concept.
It’s hardly revolutionary though entirely orthodox; O’Connor was, after all, a dedicated Catholic. But this was a beautifully succinct and artistic way of phrasing the notion that only God has the inability to believe in someone or something greater than him. Only God cannot appeal to, as Anselm put it, “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”. In the quiet of her own time with the Lord, O’Connor reminded herself that above God’s doorpost is a small, cheap metal sign. It’s one of those trinkets one could find at a gift shop and buy on sale. “The buck stops here”, it says. It’s ironic because it’s serious. There is no one else.
I used to have a prayer journal and I used to carry it around with me, jotting down notes at Bible studies and church services reminding me who and what to pray for. But I was often overcome with an immense feeling of guilt the next week when upon opening my journal I realized it was the first time I’d actually looked at it. It seems to me that I sometimes elevate myself into a state where prayer is not a way of connecting God but becoming God. My petitions are not to lift people up but to fix their problems; my personal pleas are not requests but work orders for the universe. In prayer, I am a practical atheist. Whereas O’Connor, at least in her reverent musings, acknowledged the latter reality to be true. Only God is the atheist.
And oh, what I would give to be reminded of that fact! To tattoo it upon my heart, my mind and my prayers. What I would give to be reminded of that when I am driving to working and complaining to this God about the fact that there’s no snow on the ground. I’m not saying there’s any resolution in my heart as I write these words, just like I don’t think there was any in Job’s and Noah’s. Sometimes I wonder about Jesus’ in Gethsemane. But with the petition lifted and the connection made the task was done; “it is finished”, the prayer had been made.
If God is an atheist who hates snow in Massachusetts then I will wake up, hit the snooze button, get dressed and try my best for it to be well with my soul. Because if I believe in prayer then I have to believe in prayer to a God who hears, who absorbs and loves. And I have to believe it stops there. I have to believe in a God who’s an atheist.
Even if there’s no snow in Massachusetts.