Acceptable Prayers

We’ve been church shopping lately around our new home in Pennsylvania. We are, in theory, Methodists. I volunteered that we might try a Presbyterian church, with the conversation between me and my husband going something like this:

Me: “Methodists and Presbyterians are theologically very similar.”

Michael: “No they’re not. They’re very different.”

Me: “Really? Can you articulate the differences between Methodists and Presbyterians?”

Michael: “The differences are so important that they don’t need to be articulated.”

Anyway, I’m sure the winner will wind up being a mainline Protestant church of some type, which is hopefully kid friendly — with the option to keep your kids with you or bring them to nursery/Sunday School, depending on how the day goes — has a good choir (our old church in NYC kind of cheated by hiring professionals!) and intellectually engaging sermons that don’t just hinge on a cute story the pastor found on the Internet. And yes, I know that there could be a whole theological discussion on whether one’s church offerings should center on parishioners’ happiness, but this is one big difference between being a Protestant and, say, Catholic, where you have your local diocese, and that is where you go.

As we go to different churches, however, I’ve noticed an intriguing similarity. Most churches offer some sort of group prayer, with people offering up suggestions of what they’d like prayed for. Now, there are a lot of things that one can and should pray for in this world, but I would wager that 90% of the requests are about health woes, and most  of these are the health woes of the middle-aged and older.

Why is that? I guess people universally care about health, and it’s a safe topic. Everyone can agree that cancer is bad, and it’s really unfortunate that someone was stricken with it. We feel comfortable praying for “healing” — the side we assume God is on with a clarity we may not feel with other issues (should one pray for victory in Iraq? If you pray to land a certain job, that means that someone else won’t land it, etc.). And, of course, in church, people have a tendency to think of issues of mortality and immortality.

But I do think this is one of the subtle things that alienates young families and younger people in general from congregations. People tend not to pray about, say, school bullying, or even finding the right school for a child or — speaking of health woes — making it through a 48 hour stomach bug that infects everyone in the family. And there’s a stunning lack of prayers expressing gratitude for various things that go right. It’s like things have to rise to a certain level of importance (like a heart attack) to justify public praise.

There’s no particular reason this has to be the case, though. Here at home, I’ve been trying to talk with Jasper at night about the things he’s happy about, so we can say “Thank you God for ___.” He has no such filter. Tonight he told me he was happy about the sunset. Today’s sunset? I asked. No, the one in Maine last week, he said. So what if the sun rises and sets every day. A sunset a little over a week ago is still something to be grateful for. He was also happy that he’d played “taking a trip to Colorado” with his little brother in the basement tonight, and that they’d made a “big mess.” I agreed that it is nice to have a friend one can make a big mess with. It’s even nicer when the friend lives with you and sees you every day. These things will probably never be prayed about in a church public prayer, but they seem like pretty worthwhile ones to me.



8 thoughts on “Acceptable Prayers

  1. Jesus told us to come to him like the little children. We need more prayers like Jaspers. It’s also good to know that even though he said he liked the Burger King playplace best, he has memories of the sunset you thought he wasn’t really paying attention to.

    1. @Denise: That is true. Or perhaps we just showed enough pictures and talked it up enough that he now “remembers” it!

  2. Perhaps the demographics of the church affect the prayer topics? The mainline Protestant churches I’ve attended skew older. Our pastor generally focuses on worshipping God in prayer. Health topics are included in the prayer, but so are prayers for the unemployed who seek employment and for expectant mothers to have healthy babies- also noncontroversial topics. 🙂

  3. I think there is a quiz (somewhere on Belief Net?) that you can take that will tell you which denomination is the best fit for you. My sister took it after finding that her church was not a good fit and was intrigued by the results. I looked for it (out of curiosity), and it told me that I was a 100% fit for the denomination that I already “belong” to.

    I’m sure the test has not been tested for inter-rater reliability etc. that would confirm its reliability and validity, but it seemed like a good starting point. Maybe it could help in the discussion with your husband.

  4. In the colony years of our country, before the 13 states were basically 13 different ‘church’ states – meaning you settled where your church was most popular. Though all 13 states wanted separation from England, none could agree together on the focus of initiating independence. One state’s reason was not tolerated in another, mostly due to religion – as opposed to faith – differences.

    The arrival of a young Anglican preacher named George Whitefield probably sparked much religious conflagration. Whitefield, whose reputation as a great pulpit and open-air orator had preceded his visit, traveled through the colonies in 1739 and 1740. Everywhere he attracted large and emotional crowds, eliciting countless conversions as well as considerable controversy. The English minister George Whitefield who declared the whole world his “parish” sparked the Great Awakening. God, Whitefield proclaimed, was merciful. Rather than being predestined for damnation, men and women could save themselves by repenting of their sins. Whitefield appealed to the passions of his listeners, powerfully sketching the boundless joy of salvation and the horrors of damnation.

    Wherever he preached, he shared a little tidbit. There are several renditions, but all have the same focus. This rendition is the one that stays with me…

    A preacher approached the gates of heaven and asked if there were any Quakers in there, “No, there are no Quakers in here” came a reply. “How about Baptists?” the preacher asked again. “No, there are no Baptists in here” came the same reply. “Jews? Anglicans? Protestants? Catholics? Methodists? Presbyterians?” The reply, “No, we do not have any of them in here either.” The preacher, baffled, then asked, “Then who is in heaven?” A figured emerged from the light at the door with His hand extended, “Christians” said the Lord Jesus.

    Critics of his day condemned his “enthusiasm”, his censoriousness, and his extemporaneous and itinerant preaching. A famous literary example of the new style of preaching can be found in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God“. (Hopefully your blog will hide the programming for the link? — if not, the URL leads to a copy of Jonathan Edward’s book, which I highly recommend of course.)

    However criticized, Whitefield’s techniques were copied by numerous imitators both lay and clerical. They became itinerant preachers themselves, spreading the Great Awakening from New England to Georgia, among rich and poor, educated and illiterate, and in the back-country as well as in seaboard towns and cities.

    What I have learned from all this is religion provides comfort where faith has not gone…

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