… Society informs us that race, politics, and religion do not have a place at the dinner table. Even casual mentions seem to make people’s hair stand on end. This is privilege disguised as politeness; apathy cloaked in hospitality.
Here’s The Story
It’s crazy to think that it’s been almost a decade since I left the Bible Belt. In the last 10 years I’ve gotten married, bought a house, adopted a dog and a cat, lost a cat, had two kids, worried we might lose one of them, graduated from seminary, and planted a church.
There have been huge victories and even bigger failures. Friends have been made and lost...and overall I’m not sure Devin at 20 would recognize Devin at 30. I think he would be amazed at the patience, kindness, and the taming of a temper (although our recent trip to Disney and Seaworld revealed this area still needs a lot of work). It’s hard to go through your 20s and come out on the other side of a decade as the same person, and we all have forks in the road along the way that will determine the person we will become and the life we will lead. There have been a few things that happened leading up to the decade, and during it, that have further revealed Christ to me and in me, as well as some barriers that continue to obstruct the mission of Christ in our world.
Background: Waking Up From The American Dream
I grew up in the idyllic world of Northwest Arkansas. At the time that I moved there Bentonville had around 20,000 people. It was impossible to go anywhere or do anything without it getting back to your parents. For the most part everyone had good jobs and plenty of opportunity (a fringe benefit of growing up in the hometown of the world’s largest retailer). Eventually, I moved away to college that I began to see a world full of injustices. It was then that I realized how my own upbringing was able to shield me from the systemic injustices that I both directly and indirectly benefited from.
I attended college in Central and Southern Arkansas where racism didn’t feel any obligation to hide, and the structural and systemic racial inequality and inequity was on full display. I wasn’t able to see it growing up because the level of diversity was practically nonexistent. Yet, it wasn’t long before I was able to see that Sunday sermons either were an opportunity for Monday through Saturdays sins, or an excuse for them. The racial and economic divide was so stark that you would have to actively seek to ignore it simply to not have to address it. I guess when you’ve had a hundred years of practice, it gets easier.
Prayer gets a bad rap these days. Somewhere in the midst of “positive vibes” being “sent”, it became a bit trite to mention prayer when disaster strikes.
Saying, “My prayers are with you,” to someone suffering feels much like scraping a few lent-crusted pennies from the driver’s seat car door to give to someone who hasn’t eaten in three days. Like an afterthought, a nod without inconvenience, a glance so quick so as to acknowledge the person without feeling any pain, “thoughts and prayers” feel dismissive.
It isn’t that prayer doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work like that.
Prayer doesn’t work like thoughts or vibes.
Prayer is better than a wish list your kids write to “Santa”, mailed away to some mysterious storage place at the post office. It is more than a poem said before a meal.
But, is it more than that in your life? When you say, “I am praying for you”, what do you mean by that? If you mean you take five seconds and write a wish list to God in your mind then send it like an intangible text, then yeah, prayer might not work.
“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.”
Prayer connects us with God. That is the difference between prayer and a powerless thought- connecting with a powerful God. Communicating with God reminds us of who he is and who we are. The act of praying aligns us with his love for those we pray for (that includes his love toward us) and we are changed. God himself, changes things as he changes us.
Our thoughts don’t change things- we aren’t X-men. But God, he is a change-maker. And, because he chose to dwell in a people he calls his own, he moves in and through us to reconstruct our world. What’s more? God doesn’t just “use us” to further His Kingdom in the lives of others, but in the process he pushes back the darkness within us.
Through prayer, God invites us into the process.
Naaman and The River
Do you remember the story of Naaman (Find it here: II Kings 5 )? Here is my paraphrase.
Naaman was successful in many ways as a military commander for the Kingdom of Aram, but he had Leprosy. Through the inspirational faithfulness of a servant girl, and despite the faithlessness of the King of Israel at the time, Naaman heard that there was a prophet of the God of Israel who could heal him. Long story short, God’s prophet Elisha told Naaman to do something beneath him. He instructed for Naaman to wash in the Jordan river seven times to be healed and cleansed, which enraged Naaman because there was nothing special, or even all that nice, about the Jordan river. He was like, “HECK NO! I shouldn’t have to do that! Your method is beneath me, so your healing is beneath me.” But then, he got some sense talked into him to the tune of, “If you would do something very hard to be cured, why won’t you do something very simple?”
Convinced, Naaman waded and rinsed and was healed. He praised God, who not only healed his leprosy, but healed his heart of pride and idolatry. This former leprous idolator became a healthy God worshiper.
The answer to his request was bigger than he had in mind, the healing more complete. But the method? Basic.
What does this have to do with anything?
God’s invitation to be a part of the healing led to a greater restoration. Prayer often works like this. It is true that God heals people, and nations, in very different ways; sometimes with a word, sometimes in a moment, sometimes in stages, or even by spitting in dirt.
The consistency I have found in my own life and in the stories of others is this: God’s answer moves the bigger story of his Kingdom of Light.
So, when we beg God to crumble the injustice in the world, we have to be prepared to be shown an uncomfortable path forward. We have to be ready to take up our cross, the burden of others, and let go of our valuables for the sake of His Kingdom.
Take a moment and look at the context of the “ask and you will receive” passages:
What do they have in common? Action. Prayer is the pathway to obedience. Why would we settle for a lesser answer, one that only fixes the problem we notice, when God offers to restore us to his likeness in areas we didn’t know were broken? Oh, God, I repent.
Can we ask God to “just do things” like heal a friend who lives miles away? Yes! Can we ask that there would be an end to the evil and hatred that results in mass shootings, domestic violence, and genocide? YES! We absolutely should bring these sorrows and injustices to God with persistence and faith.
AND, as part of that prayer, we must be ready for his answer to involve us. Involvement that will most likely be in a way we feel uncomfortable with; because the love God will awaken in us will look like his love. The love that caused Him to give up His rights as King of Heaven and Earth, and take on suffering for our sake, will move us in similar fashion. He held back nothing, not even his breath, in response to the remnant who cried out for a Savior.
He loved us first. He has more in store for us than we anticipate when we get on our knees.
He loves you so completely, he is willing to transform your dirty-rag-priorities into the sterile bandages that save the sick and dying.
Do you dare ask the questions:
God, would you give me something I can do out of your love for those that are suffering?
What have I made more valuable than your love for my neighbor?
How might I take up my cross to more fully understand your love?