As a Presbyterian minister there are two things I regard as professional imperatives: considering a new call when one is suggested and praying for people when they request it. Only once in my career has someone contacted me about a potential new call. I asked to see that church’s paperwork and declined to pursue the opportunity further. When it comes to praying for others, however, I am walking in new territory.
Earlier this year the congregation I serve upgraded its website. It is fabulous, if we do say so ourselves. One of the new features is that people can submit RSVP’s for congregational events and prayer requests.
So far we have received two prayer requests from members and dozens from God only knows whom. The requests come to the office from the website; we are unable to contact the people who request our prayers. At times, I read these requests and feel like I am hearing the distress cries of someone who is in grave danger, without knowing where exactly that person is.
Anyone on earth with internet access can request the prayers of this congregation. And they do. Phillip Brooks said, “A prayer, in its simplest definition, is merely a wish turned Godward.” I read requests like this one, from K., and you can be sure I am praying for her. I confess, however, that I am not following K.’s specific instructions.
Please, support me in prayers for an urgent, difficult intention: For my complete reconciliation with my loved one, ex fiancé N. That N. DOES NOT GET INVOLVED INTO ANY NEW RELATIONSHIP, but THAT HE BE DEEPLY IN LOVE WITH ME AND start CALLING ME, APOLOGIZE, that God with His QUICKENING SPIRIT work out peace between us, LEAD OUR FURTHER COMMUNICATION AND GIVE US WISDOM IN BEHAVIOUR TO EACH OTHER, COMPLETE RECONCILIATION and NEW BEGINNING! THAT GOD DESTROY ALL DEVILS AND WEAPONS FORMED AGAINST OUR RELATIONSHIP IN THE NAME OF JESUS ACCORDING TO HIS WILL, protect our love and future (that our relationship be a stronger and successful one) and bring us to marriage as soon as possible! God gives promises, and I know He is FAITHFUL! I am sure when your prayers join mine, I will surely receive a miracle. I am praying with Faith and please help me in this.
A Yiddish proverb says “If you pray for another, you will be helped yourself.” I have been praying for L., with this proverb in mind, since February, when she first sought our help. Her first request was longer than most of the sermons I preach. Here’s just the first paragraph:
Thank God that I can submit my prayer request here, and thank you for your prayer, may God bless you. Firstly, please pray for my mother who was cheated by Mr. K., Mr. H., H., C. and A. years before, she went to a company and worked as an office assistant, but they cheated my mother, and compelled my mother to give her money out to them (they cheated my mother and said that the money was used for investment, and the investment failed), and went away. Thank God that the policemen arrested Mr. K. now, but the Mr. H., H. C. and A. were still not arrested. Please pray that God can help policemen in the investigation, and find the evidence to accuse the Mr. K. and his helper in the judiciary court. Thank God that the policemen sent us several letters about how the investigation is progressing, and please pray that God can move their heart, that Mr. K. , Mr. H., H. C. and A. will regret that they cheated my mother, and they can have pity on my mother and return the money back to my mother. Thank you.
L.’s request continues for two more pages. She submitted this request verbatim several times through May. After that her requests have been less detailed. We have received this one more than ten times, “Please pray for that I now use sharp things to cut into my skin in order that I can keep on praying.” So now I find myself praying for L. even more frequently.
Emerson said, “Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life, from the highest point of view.” I suspect P. has not read Emerson; he submitted this request last month.
Please pray GOD gives me all the desires of my heart. Pray GOD sends me on the mission He has for me now. Pray GOD raises me a mile above those used by Satan to glorify GOD. Pray GOD Blesses me financially now and always. Pray GOD heals my body completely now. Pray GOD brings me my soul mate now In JESUS’ Name. Amen.
Years ago a friend observed to me that she only knew two prayers, “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I would not mind expanding the prayer repertoire of some of the people who visit my church’s website.
A. submitted the following request: “Please pray that I can have long healthy hair. I have been unable to grow it due to illness.”
Jesus got a pretty good response from the lepers he healed, I now realize. One of the ten turned around and said, “Thank you.” I have yet to have anyone submit a word of thanks for our prayer ministry. That is probably because I’m not very good at intercessory prayer.
Maybe we could run a disclaimer next to the prayer request form on our website. Something like, “Our pastor sees all prayer requests, but intercessory prayer is not his gift.”
Last month my son’s baseball coach told me that a boy on another team had a growth in his abdomen, three centimeters by nine centimeters. A biopsy had been scheduled. Coach asked if I would give a prayer at home plate before the game started. I accepted.
The twenty-five boys from both teams and their coaches gathered and Coach introduced me. “Peter’s dad’s a pastor.” I prayed for R.’s family, for those who care for him, for the staff of the hospital where his surgery would be. I prayed that we would feel strength and the presence of the Holy Spirit; that we would support one another and R. in the uncertain days ahead….And I was reminded, again, that I’m not very good at intercessory prayer. Coach added a post-script following my amen, “…that the growth not be cancer.”
Silly me! I was praying to change me and for my people to accept reality, for comfort and hope and strength in whatever lay ahead. I should have asked God to change reality!
The next week I found out the growth was benign, but that is not what I had led a prayer for! Doh! I coulda been a contender!
Presbyterians believe that prayer is “a conscious opening of the self to God.” I do not find much openness to God in the requests that find their way to our website. I find the same openness one has to a vending machine. The transaction should go like this: I put in the appropriate amount of money and the machine delivers my Cheetos. If my Cheetos are not forthcoming, the machine is obviously broken. If I do not get my money back, I have been cheated, nay, betrayed.
Every year about a dozen people are killed when they express their anger at uncooperative vending machines. Vending machines are large and heavy; sometimes the betrayed Cheetos-seeker is crushed when they [the vending machines] are knocked off balance.
I worry—and I pray too—for people whose prayers are not answered as they hope. I worry because in my own life God’s answers to my most fervent prayers have often come in ways that are completely unrecognized for years. I worry because so often God answers our prayers with “not yet,” or “I have something better in mind,” or “No! And one day you’ll thank me!”
But if I am expecting Cheetos from my prayer and I get something else, or silence, or nothing, or gout, I just might try to throw God off balance and get crushed. I hate when that happens.
During the Babylonian exile, Jeremiah spoke a word of great comfort, hope, and solace to the Israelites: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you” (29:11–12).
The problem, at least from my narrow, selfish vantage point, is that God promises to deliver after the seventy years of exile. It is as though God says, “That’s right, go ahead and have kids in a foreign country, have a couple generations, in fact. I will be there for them.”
That’s what I want to tell K. and L. and P. I want them to open their hearts in prayer and to be prepared to wait on the Lord. I will still pray for you when you ask; I feel ethically bound to pray for you when you ask, but the prayers you want me to raise on your behalf make me feel like an impotent genie, or Santa with an empty toy sack.
I will pray for you. I promise to pray for you, but I will pray for a change in you, for openness or humility or wisdom or patience. I will pray that you feel God’s presence; that you discern the guidance of the Holy Spirit; that you know the healing grace of Jesus Christ, but I probably will not get too specific. Except, just this once, I will concur with L.’s prayer that she keep eating her psychological medicines.
The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.