Two Saturday’s ago, I was in Rome, GA. My role there was to talk about the pluses and minuses of the one board model of church leadership we have adopted this year. That was just one conversation in an all-day church council meeting. The opening devotion the pastor talked about this very thing. He had these little post-it notes that were in the shape of a hand. He asked folk to write the one thing they pray for every day. During a break, I went and read the anonymous sticky notes. Some prayed for “our church”, others prayed for “my children”. This list continued “grandchildren”, “our country”, “peace”, “that I might find the person I am supposed to spend the rest of my life with”, “our schools”, and “our pastors”. The list went on. I was touched by the sincerity and the great attention the leaders of that church provided to that exercise.
You could feel their deep faith conveyed.
One of the things I was trained in at Candler—things might have changed in the intervening 15 years—is that when we’re praying with folk, sure pray with a deep, hope-filled faith. But don’t set people up. Like don’t pray for a full physical recovery when someone is under the care of hospice. That seems to make sense. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t able to offer God our petitions. We still are able to offered our deepest hopes to God, right?
So the difficult part is not what happens when the story ends well, right? When someone finds clarity about vocation, we celebrate. When a need is met, we give thanks. The uncomfortable part when other possible outcomes are the result. How do we explain it when someone prays to win the lottery, and they do. And they attribute that random event to God’s favor upon them.
Or the even more difficult ones—like health does not return, the relationship ends, or the job just won’t come.
What do we do then?
I think progressive Christians are tempted to simply write off this kind of prayer. God isn’t Santa Claus. Our relationship with God is not transactional—we don’t love and serve God simply because God provides us what we ask for. After all, that kind of misplaced theology is the kind that inspires pastors to ask their congregations for multimillion dollar airplanes.
But need not dismiss prayer—a regular engagement and relationship with God. We might offer other modes of prayer—from silent meditation, praying a daily office, praying the rosary, praying the Psalms, praying the Scriptures… the list goes on and on. None of that is bad. These all focus on different aspects of prayer.
But then we have blind Bartimaeus. We laud Bartimaeus as a hero of the faith, not because is was blind, not because he was blind and then healed, but because he refused to remain silent.
He asked for what he wanted and needed, not out of a sense of greed or self-satisfaction. He asked because of his faith.
How do we square this? After all, folks have been spiritually beat being told the ridiculous notion that they “did not having enough faith. That’s why your prayer wasn’t answered.”
And there’s the even more inane response, “well, it’s just simply not in God’s will.” And I just can’t accept that as a mature, faithful response.
Without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, how do we respond?
One way to look at it is “be careful what you ask for”.
It might seem somewhat simplistic, and probably not the best theology. But it seems to work. As a good Irishman, I’ve got something of a temper. And, as a child, I had the worst time trying to learn to control it. I would get in trouble all the time. I would embarrass myself and my family in public. Many a night I would go to sleep crying, begging God to give me patience. I confided this in my Sunday School teacher. He replied, “well, Dave. Be careful what you ask for. If you are asking for patience, what you are receiving is opportunities to learn patience.” Now, I don’t know if I started praying for something different, or the exercises in patience finally worked. But, that perspective was helpful.
Another way to respond is to say “try a different list”.
If all we are praying for are things that will aggrandize ourselves, if all we are praying for is for God to act in a way that simply reinforces our worldview, then maybe we ought to spend some time listening to God, spending time in holy conversations with close friends, time reading Scripture and letting those exercises shape how and what we our petitions to God.
Another way is to say, maybe its not that you have the wrong list, but maybe we need to approach the relationship differently—not that we put together a different list of petitions but maybe we see that God’s response leads us into a different, more complex, more beautiful existence than we could imagine.
You know, for the entire time I have been pastor here, one of the first things of my prayer list is for the people in our immediate community who do not yet engage in a faith community. Shortly after that are each person in this faith community, and then that this faith community might be able to be a vital, faithful witness in Atlanta. And now we are facing some of the opportunities before us to dramatically reimagine how we do ministry—to even be a new and different church. If I’m honest, it took me a while to accept that this was the direction we needed to explore. But just like sometimes the answer to a problem is not more effort, and new skill set, or longer hours but a different approach. Maybe sometimes our prayers to God do not resound with God opening door 1, 2, or 3 (that we identify) but God inviting us into an entirely new and different direction that leads to new and different possibilities that we previously thought not only impossible but were unimaginable.
So I come back to the question that the pastor of Rome first asked his folk, I now ask you.
What’s your deepest desire? What’s the first thing you pray for each and every day? What do you trust to God?
image “Prayer is the Language” by E. M. Bounds. Used with Creative Common–Attribution 2.0 Generic license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/