We like cats on the campus where I work in campus ministry. The pet kind. Calicos, tabby cats, but especially black cats. Yep…the ones that are supposed to bring you bad luck. For us, they are actually good luck. You see—it has to do with our mascot (stay with me, here…it’s a little confusing). Our nickname at Southwestern is the Moundbuilders, but our mascot is The Jinx—you got it, a black cat! So…while you may have a Wildcat or Panther, or even a Bobcat, we have The Jinx. The Jinx came about through a fun and (mostly true) story about how we beat a rival football team on Halloween one year in the early 1900’s. So says tradition: our players put a tombstone on the goal line with a black cat and the other team’s name on it. After we won, our guys carried it around, only to get it out again the next year. And the next. And the next! After 14 years of victory on our part, the rivals thought that we had really put a jinx on them! And so…The Jinx was born! Anyway, that’s much easier to visually represent than a Moundbuilder, anyway!
So at my campus, no one has the heart to ban the 5 or 6 stray cats that live around us. They roam around outside, of course, being fed by students, maintenance workers or an occasional faculty person. As I walked across campus one day recently, I saw one of the black ones hiding in some high grass. Its sleek coat was sleeker by the prowling it was doing, advancing on some unseen-by-me prey. I laughed, thinking that it certainly thought it was something bigger and stronger than the stray cat that I thought it was. Perhaps it thought itself a panther, or bobcat, about to catch some dinner. But I knew that it certainly couldn’t do much damage to whatever little thing it approached. And then I thought about prayer.
Too often I view prayer like the stray cat. Prayer looks quite a bit like one of the larger cats, and sometimes it even fancies itself powerful, but often it is fairly harmless. However, we as Christians like prayer. The churchy kind. Memorized prayers, meeting wrap-up prayers, but especially the pre-dinner kind. We speak frequently of prayer, so much so, that we tend to tame it. While it is easy to say the “pet cat” types of prayers, the “big cat” prayers often evade us. Let me explain.
I think that we often treat prayer much more like the pet cat than the big predator cat. It is something to which we run to be comforted, it’s really nice to have as a part of our Christian lives, but it doesn’t really affect us too much. When this happens, I think that we are actually thinking too little of prayer. Or actually, thinking too little of the God to whom we are praying.
Prayer is actually an encounter with the Living Spirit of God…when we dare to hear God’s voice…intentionally! Haven’t you read Psalm 29? The voice of the Lord can be pretty destructive: “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders…the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars, the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon…the voice of the Lord twists the oaks and strips the forests bare. And in his temple, all cry, ‘Glory!’” (Ps. 29:3-5, 9). Prayer invites this massive intrusion of God into our lives. When we, or should I say I, pray, I confess that I often think too little of God. I may indeed lift up some hard things to God, but do I really open myself up to the transformative work that will be painful, yet good? I sure hope that I do! And sometimes, I know that I do. Like the little cat who chases her prey despite the bowl of kitten chow provided for her, I also have times when I do believe that God answers big prayers and even wants me to spend time in God’s presence, praying them. I remember that the destruction that I feel when God rips through my life is actually not disfigurement, but transformation! I encounter God, resign my plans and, with the broken pieces of cedar, I cry, “Glory!”
In working with students, I teach about prayer somewhat frequently. Sometimes the teaching is formal, other times it is more by how we pray in the ministry. But I have decided in recent years that the crucial ingredient in my ministry is found in my prayer life. A mentor of mine once called prayer, the life with God. Period. A life with God equals praying. And so I can no longer be content with times with God, but must experience a life with God. Enough of the pet cat life for me. I can only be content with somewhat unpredictable, powerful, big-cat-like relationship with God. To paraphrase Mr. Beaver’s answer in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Lucy’s question about whether Aslan was a safe lion, “He’s not a safe lion, but he is good.” And such is a life of prayer. Good, really good, in fact. But definitely not safe. And by God’s grace, I’m up for the challenge.