“We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” What does that request of James and John made to Jesus sound like to you? A toddler wanting a cookie? A child with their Christmas list? A teen demanding a later curfew? You can imagine the statement punctuated by an almost childish stomping of the feet. Yet aren’t our prayers all too often similar to that. We know what we want and we expect God to meet our demands – good health, financial success – and when God doesn’t we figure God does not hear us and that prayer is useless. But as the story unfolds, Jesus did hear the request of James and John only too clearly. He took the time to explain why their demands were not going to be met. “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” seems to be a constant human refrain that creates a mistaken notion about the nature and the power of prayer.
A second mistaken notion about prayer is almost the flip side of the childish demands seen in the gospel. This happens when we imagine that our behavior deserves to be blessed by God. I’ve been to Church, I’ve kept the commandments, I’ve contributed to the collection so you’ve got to reward me, God, and give me what I want. I was on retreat a few years ago at Eastern Point Retreat House in Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Meeting with my spiritual director I told him all the things I was going to do for God. He burst out laughing. “You don’t do things for God,” he said, “God does for you.” The blessings God bestows on us are not because of our goodness but because of God’s goodness. Everything we have is a gift, not something we deserve or that we’ve earned. Whatever we do that is worthwhile or beneficial is simply a response to the gifts God has bestowed upon us.
It is worth mentioning that there is a third mistaken idea we can have about prayer. This happens when we imagine that falling on our knees in prayer is a sufficient response to God’s many gifts. Communities that have been devastated by a destructive storm or a natural disaster or a violent crime are not consoled when someone from the government says “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” Thoughts and prayers should lead to a response. There’s a story about a plot of land that was filled with trash, covered by weeds and strewn with rocks. Jose worked the land – clearing the rocks, pulling the weeds, cleaning the trash. After planting a crop he had a beautiful garden. One day the parish priest came by and saw Jose working the field. “You and God have made a beautiful garden, Jose,” the priest said. “Ah si, Padre,” Jose answered. “And you should have seen it when God was taking care of it by Himself.” The gifts that God gives us are for some purpose and our prayer is designed to help us find that purpose.
Jesus tells us that his followers find our purpose in service, in helping this world to look a little more like the just and peaceful place that God intends it to be. Our prayers should guide us to finding what the will of God is in our lives. Instead of demanding God follow our will or expecting God to reward what we are doing or sitting back and letting God take care of things we need to actively seek to follow God’s will in our lives. That will might at times involve coping with suffering or going through mourning or laboring in vain. But if we always follow the will of God we’ll end up where we need to be. There is a story about Abraham Lincoln. Someone told the President to pray that God would be on the side of the Union forces. Lincoln answered: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about doing God’s will in the last sermon he gave the day before he was assassinated. ”We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.” Doing God’s will gets us to the promised land.
There’s just one teeny-weeny problem. Sometimes it’s hard to know what the will of God is. You pray but still don’t have clarity about how to live in the heart of God. It is then that I like to recite this prayer written by the Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton. I offer it to you since it might be one you find helpful as you seek God’s will in your lives as well. “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” AMEN.