When I was a youngster my mom would have me pray to my Guardian Angel, and I would do that more often than I would pray to Jesus or God. After all, the rewards seemed to be more immediate. Later I struggled with the idea of Mass Cards, in which you could purchase prayers for yourself and others, said by an order of nuns devoted to just this purpose. I used to wonder, what about the poor people who couldn’t afford to buy these prayers? What of their fate?
Much later, when I came back to the Church , I belonged to a congregation that practiced that ‘old time religion’. It was a nice little place made up of friendly folk that seemed to take their faith seriously. Although fairly low key and modest, when it came to Sunday morning everyone was comfortable enough to freely share how God was working in their lives.
It was customary every week to devote a significant part of the service to public prayers of praise and petition. People would stand up every week and ask for their friends to pray for something of particular importance in their lives at that time; be it an illness, financial difficulties, broken relationships, victims of disaster or even for personal courage in their own faith. Their was even a quaint Christian phrase that was often used as it pertained to planes, trains and automobiles; “Traveling Mercies”.
Then some would stand and offer thanks, praising God for the good things that happened in their lives; cures, mended relationships, promotions, or even just thanking God for the beauty that surrounds us all.
I now belong to a more ‘progressive’ faith community and this is probably the one thing that I miss the most from my old church. There was a genuine sense of community during those moments that is hard to capture in other ways.
At times, though, I used to feel a bit uncomfortable with some of these public prayers. Sometimes they seemed perhaps just a bit too personal with just a little bit too much detail provided. I think that certain subjects cry out for a little ambiguity. Sometimes they seemed too partisan, as when we would ask God for success on the battlefield. Some seemed to be a tad trivial (like the time someone gave thanks for a specific US victory in the Olympic games). I’m pretty sure though, that this is my problem, not the problem of those who offered those prayers. Maybe if I was more comfortable with my prayer life I would be shouting Hallelujahs over the successful housebreaking of our cats. (Believe me, that is a significant part of my daily discussion with God.)
And though I usually do appreciate its earnestess, one common prayer of thanks has caused me more than a little unrest. You probably hear this kind of prayer almost every day, from the religious as well as the non-religious. Here is a typical example:
Someone close, let’s say a good friend, is driving through an intersection on a green light when suddenly a cement truck blasts through against the red, at the last minute swerving around the friend’s car and then disappearing down the road in a cloud of stinking rubber and exhaust. Your friend sits silently shocked yet safe, the engine of his stalled car ticking over quietly. “Praise God! The Lord was surley looking out for him that time!”
Now, I firmly believe that at all times and with all things, an ‘attitude of gratitude’ is the secret of a happy life. And if you are grateful, who else do you thank but God? And there have been many times, before I had a faith and since then, where I have had to thank God for plucking me or someone I love out of the frying pan. But I often wonder what the implications would be if instead of being plucked I had been…….fried? (I know, I know, but I want to keep the PG rating). If the cement truck had slammed into our friend’s car, resulting in tragic injury or death, could we then say that God was not with him when he needed him?
I don’t think many people would seriously entertain that idea. After all, we are talking about someone that we love and obviously God loves them as well. But what of those people that we don’t know, those that experience disaster on a scale much greater in magnitude than the common (although tragic) automotive accident?
We all heard the unfortunate remarks made by some televangelists concerning God’s involvement in the 9/11, New Orleans and tsunami disasters. Later we all heard their apologies as well. The excess of rhetoric and all apologies aside, I would tend to think that they did mean what they said, that they do believe that there are times in which God, if he does not actually initiate disaster, at least he decides not to prevent it, because of the victim’s lack of worthiness.
So when I dodge that bullet, when that other driver hits the oak tree and not me, is it fair to say that God was looking out for me? What about the careless driver, who narrowly missing me, is paralyzed or dies upon impact with the oak? Where was God for him? Has God remembered you when your tests come back negative? If so, has he then forgotten the woman in the next bed who is told she may never walk again? Are we secretly relieved that it is them and not us or do we remember God when we realize that the accident victim and the cripple may be us next week or next year? We should thank God for the blessings that we do have and in that spirit hopefully reach out to those who have been devastated.
Of course we wouldn’t think that the man in the wrecked car or the woman in the hospital bed are less worthy than we are, but they just might be thinking that themselves. I know very smart, very spiritual people, who are struggling with this heavy, heavy burden right now. Our glib spiritual rhetoric, when we heap God’s blessings upon ourselves, somehow inferring that because we have turned to him, because we have faith, that because of our good qualities he now looks favorably upon us….this does nothing to help those who suffer.
So I don’t think that one of the external signs of a “Godly” person is that they can successfully skate through life, avoiding disaster because God’s guiding hand is upon their shoulder. It might be more telling if that person displays a peaceful demeanor as they struggle through life’s tragedies and sorrows. They may even be able to see through their own pain as they see the pain of others. That could suggest that they are with God, not that God is with them. For God is with everyone, he has no favorites.