My daughter prayed for snow last night. 

I wanted to tell her not to do it. You know, on the grounds that praying for the weather is typically a selfish endeavor. If God granted the wish of every person who wanted sunshine for her picnic day, we would not ever get any precipitation. Plus, God is not our personal, private genie, granting us snow on one day and a pony on the next. 

But, honestly, I wanted to tell her not to pray for snow because I was nervous. My daughter is not much of a pray-er and I didn’t want one of her first requests to be shot down. I wanted her to pray for something… well… that was going to have a high likelihood of actually occurring.

I started to talk her through a theology lesson on what she should pray for and what she shouldn’t. But I stopped myself. I mean, if she wants to pray, who am I to stop her?

After all, I have always been told what to pray for and what not to pray for. Don’t pray for selfish things. Do pray for others. Don’t pray for small things. Do pray for the big stuff… on and on it went.

It got to be rather stifling actually. I was a pray-er when I was my daughter’s age, and even as a teenager. But when I went to seminary, I felt like I had to figure every request out theologically before uttering it. Every time I would begin to pray, my brain would stop it. My internal, snobbish, master of everything divine would kick in and say, Now, really, Carol. Do you really think that God has time for that?

I’ll tell you a moment when I knew it changed. It had to do when I prayed the most selfish prayer of all. We were in Rhode Island, and I was the pastor of a tiny church. We had enough money so that my husband could spend a couple of months looking for a job. But, after a couple of years, he still didn’t have one (not a lot of Presbyterian Churches in RI…).

It was great, in one sense, because he was able to take care of our daughter during her formative years. Although, financially we couldn’t make it. We began to cut corners. Then, we looked for every bit of change that we could possibly carve out of our budget.  Then we began to sell our stuff at pawnshops, consignment shops, and yard sales. Then we started running out of stuff to sell….

I was totally stressed, running numbers in my head all the time, trying to figure out how the ends would meet. When another mom working in the church nursery pointed out that my daughter’s dress was too small and that I needed to buy her some new clothes, I almost burst out in tears. We were relying on hand-me-downs. I knew we couldn’t afford new clothes for her.

Finally, when I was completely at my wit’s end, I prayed a completely selfish prayer that went something like, “God, I know I’m a pastor, and I’m not supposed to care about money. I know I’m supposed to be above it. I know I’m not supposed to pray these selfish prayers. But we can’t pay our mortgage. We don’t have another penny to spare. We can’t do it any longer. I just can’t handle this. I am powerless over money, and my life has become unmanageable. You have got to restore us to sanity. You’ve got to figure out a way out of this for us.” 

And somehow… the prayer was answered. We didn’t win the lottery or anything, but I suddenly saw a clear shining path in front of me. Very quickly. 

I don’t tell people what they cannot pray. It’s just not my business…. Instead I encourage people to talk to God about anything and everything.

So, how did seminary change your spiritual life? What do you tell children about prayer? What do you believe about it?

The photo is by *Piney*


20 thoughts on “Prayer

  1. I pray without boundaries. I figure God is interested in my coming into God’s presence. I figure its good for me to remember that God participates in my life. And I let God sort it all out. Who am I to be in charge of what God chooses to do or not do?

  2. I don’t think your prayer was a “completely selfish” prayer. I think it was a prayer, born of desperation, of acknowledgement of our complete dependence on God. And my experience with this sort of prayer is like yours- the prayer is answered.

    With my children, they are 12 and 14, we pray the Lord’s prayer. As we pray, the phrase, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” has become more and more meaningful to me.

    So when I suspect my petitions are swerving into selfish territory, I try to, as honestly as I can, pray for God’s will, not mine to be done. Sometimes that involves saying what I think I want and confessing that that it may be selfish and may not be God’s will.

    I try to remember not to ask God to “fix” someone else. Or correct, or make them less annoying, or less flawed,less of a problem, more helpful etc. Those sorts of prayers for others are really selfish prayers (at least when I pray them), more concerned about how that person affects me, rather than praying for the true well being of the other. Fix me, please. But not others- for them- healing,support, comfort, peace and so on.

    Thanks for your blog, I enjoy reading it.

  3. Prayer . . .

    Years ago while taking a break from our studies, some friends and I were sitting talking about prayer when our theological professor stopped by for a quick listen. As he walked away he asked, “Who is prayer for . . . you or God?”

    Perhaps, Carol, the fact is that your prayer, born out of the situation in which you found you and your family, moved you to be open to the Holy Spirit in ways that you were not able, for a variety of reasons, to be open to before.

    You see I believe the answer to the professor’s question is that prayer is really for us . . . that prayer at its best ultimately changes us . . . into being more loving, more caring, more open, and perhaps, most of all, more open to being in tune to and with that still small voice.

    Thanks for the provocative posts . . . I was especially interested in the one on “to blog or not to blog” and being lead to Shuck and Jive’s post on blogging . . . very moving and heartfelt.


  4. Re: Ruth – It’s wonderful if you are able to accept prayer and the mystery it is without thinking about it. I’m not able to do so, and the same goes for many wonderful Christians I have known.

    To me, prayer is an intellectual exercise, but not only an intellectual exercise, it’s also spiritual (duh), emotional, and sometimes bodily exercise as well. Different people approach God on different path’s, mine has often been one of loving God with my mind (Matthew 22:37), as was part of Jesus’ command.

    All of that being said, I’ve partially given up my quest to understand/define prayer. What I find helpful now is simply looking at all the rich and varied prayers and ways of praying in the Bible. I’ve found that I don’t have to understand or even agree with those ways of prayer to emulate them.

  5. There’s nothing selfish about praying for God to meet our needs even if you are a pastor. God doesn’t want to hear from you only after you’ve reached your wit’s end.
    And if you’re still wondering how somehow you’re prayer was answered…it was God!

  6. Thank you for being open and honest about your prayer life. Some people want to overspiritualize everything and act like nothing is ever wrong in their spiritual lives. It is your honesty that I think that God craves and I think that she is pleased with you.

  7. Shawn, I didn’t mean to insult Carol, I think the world of her. I’m just sad that growing up she learned to overthink what should be a natural response. The definition that speaks to me is this: Prayer is the inward turning of the heart to God. Sometimes prayer is carefully considered words, sometimes it is a cry, sometimes it is just breath. To wonder whether one’s concerns “warrant” a prayer is a sad thing.

  8. Thanks, Ruth.

    What happened… especially as money was concerned… I grew up with a “name it and claim it” prosperity gospel (Benny Hinn used to come over to our house for dinner). I was taught that God wanted us to be rich, and in that context, the good news often became distorted. Rich people were seen as particularly blessed by God. The US was a rich nation because we were a Christian nation, etc. I was raised to pray for money. All the time.

    When I worked in inner-city Chicago, I realized that poor children were no less godly than rich children. When I went to Africa, I realized that the Christians in Uganda were no less Christian than we were.

    I reacted against my upbringing strongly, began thinking more about how I pray. Realizing how many of the prayers for wealth were selfish (and in that religious milieu, they were selfish), I became drawn to ascetic spiritual practices.

    It was in seminary that I often heard what not to pray for. Part of the intellectualizing of my prayer life was an important deconstruction/reconstruction of my faith.

    But then I was a failed ascetic…. I think I’m in a healthier place now….

    Maybe this is all too much information, but all of the economic turmoil that we’ve been experiencing as a culture reminded me of that moment, and that prayer (which was a monumental breakthrough for me), so I wanted to write about it. Then, from some of the comments, it seemed like I needed to provide more context… so there it is!

  9. Lydia wrote: “some friends and I were sitting talking about prayer when our theological professor stopped by for a quick listen. As he walked away he asked, ‘Who is prayer for . . . you or God?'” I think this says everything about seminary and spiritual life.

    In my experience, I found that in Austin within the seminary there was very little “spiritual” life. It was an academic and vocational community in the same way law school is an academic and vocational community. I think Lydia’s observation makes the point as the professor turns the discussion from what it was to an academic exercise in theology.

    This isn’t a slam against the professor, the professor was doing what academics do, not what pastors do. What could have become a pastoral exercise became a Theology Ord Prep opportunity. It’s an observation about what an academic community is. Before seminary, I worked over ten years in Higher Education. I have also been an ordained deacon and elder in the church. In my opinion, seminary presents the best and worst about the Church and the best and the worst about higher ed in the same breath.

    Seminary forces the student and family to become more intentional about a spiritual life because of the way it is not and cannot be that community. A seminarian has to find pockets of spirituality with friends, family, and colleagues, and yes, they exist. They just aren’t part of the formal experience.

    Yes, I include chapel. After my second week, I don’t think I ever went to chapel without looking for or finding some subtext. With classes in theology, polity, worship, and homiletics it was impossible to go to chapel without looking through the academic lenses. Especially since papers and journals were due which required this sort of informed reflection.

  10. I arrived to seminary with a prayer posture that I had to be in the right frame of mind and pray [ask] God in the right manner in order that my prayers would be answered.
    I consider myself a pray-er. I pray about everything. It drives Mere crazy. I love to reflect theologically in prayer. I love to meditate in rushing thought in prayer. I am learning that prayer is more for me soul than it has been for the stuff I pray about.

    I see it now as an exercise of connectivity rather than provision. I still pray that my brother wins the lottery and that God send s radical, life-changing, ass kicks to me and the church I am serving. I pray that stuff happens that only God could cure or provide. I want those Pentecostal, revival like miracles to invade the righteous reason of where I am and shake shite up. I believe prayer can do this. How? I have no idea. I just know prayer works and my understanding of it changes with the wind.

    I love this story. I pray it snows as well.

  11. Carol, have you written about a Benny Hinn supper? I would love to have you paint that picture. Also, this post has made me realize that we grew up with opposite attitudes toward money. In my family, having money was suspect.

  12. I thought you were just speaking metaphorically. You know…sitting around the teevee with the foldout trays and the Husky Man Dinners, watching Benny slay ’em in the spirit.

    But Benny Hinn? In all his kata sarka glory? Over for dinner? Dang.

  13. Alas, I was a kid and can’t remember it well. What I do remember is he was young and just starting out. A nice guy. You know… just the kind of guy any parent would have over for dinner. And to me, he was kind of exotic. I had never met a Christian Arab Palestinian.

    Mom and dad were on the PTL Club a couple of times too. Mom’s got some Tammy Faye stories from back in the day. They are even in the PTL Club Devotional Guide (“Daily Friendship Messages by Jim Bakker, the PTL Family and Friends”).

    I’m pretty sure that Brian married me to get closer to my parent’s rolodex. He and his buddy, Jesse, would spend days imagining what they would say to Oral Roberts when they called him on his home phone.

    I never met Jim or Tammy Faye, and I was deathly embarrassed by the whole celebrity Christian thing as I was growing up. I thought it was tacky (imagine that…). Now I wish I would have met her. You know, there’s a whole slice of religious Americana that I missed out on.

    May TFM rest in peace.

  14. While I share the theological quandaries about prayer, I find myself praying a lot about the weather these days, and if my child wants to pray for snow, I say go for it. In an age of climate change, it’s like praying for world peace — just because you don’t expect it to arrive overnight doesn’t mean you don’t keep praying for it, because you know it’s good for the whole of creation.

    Love your blog!
    Pam Fickenscher

  15. Carol, you left out the fact that John Arnott(of Toronto Airport Vineyard and the Renewal)was a neighbor and her daughter was a friend of yours. The Arnott family was at your home almost daily for about three years. How could you forget?

    What about the Margaret Feinburg stories? Come on, Girl, you have some tales to tell.

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