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.