Praying God's Agenda
Scriptures: Matthew 6:7-10, 31-33
In Joseph Heller’s satirical novel Catch-22 there is a scene where Colonel Cathcart, the commander of a bomber squadron, is talking to the chaplain. He shows the chaplain a story in the Saturday Evening Post about a bomber group in England whose chaplain says prayers in the briefing room before each mission. He says to the chaplain, “I want to know if you think they’ll work here.”
“Yes, sir,” answered the chaplain. “I should think they would.”
“Then I’d like to give it a try,” says the colonel. “Now I want you to give a lot of thought to the kinds of prayers we’re going to say. I don’t want anything heavy or sad. I’d like you to keep it light and snappy; something that will send the boys out feeling pretty good. Do you know what I mean? I don’t want any of this Kingdom of God or Valley of Death stuff. That’s all too negative. What are you making such a sour face for?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the chaplain stammered. “I happened to be thinking of the 23rd Psalm just as you said that.
“How does that one go?”
“That the one you were just referring to, sir. ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I…”
“That’s the one I was just referring to. It’s out. What else have you got?”
“Save me, O God; for the water are come in unto…”
“No water,” the colonel decided, blowing heavily into his cigarette holder … “Why don’t we try something musical? How about the harps on the willows?”
“That has the rivers of Babylon in it, sir,” the chaplain replied. “…there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
“Zion? Let’s forget about that one right now. I’d like to know how that one even got in there. Haven’t you got anything humorous that stays away from waters and valleys and God? I’d like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can.”
The chaplain was apologetic. “I’m sorry, sir, but just about all the prayers I know are rather somber in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.”
“Then let’s get some new ones. The men are already doing enough [complaining] about the missions I send them on without rubbing it in with any sermons about God or death or paradise. Why can’t we take a more positive approach? Why can’t we all pray for something good, like a tighter bomb pattern, for example? Couldn’t we pray for a tighter bomb pattern?”
“Well, yes, sir, I suppose so,” the chaplain answered hesitatingly. “You wouldn’t even need me if that’s all you wanted to do. You could do that yourself.”
“I know I could,” the colonel responded tartly. “But what do you think you’re here for? … Your job is to lead us in prayer, and from now on you’re going to lead us in prayer for a tighter bomb pattern before every mission. Is that clear? I think a tighter bomb pattern is something really worth praying for” (pp. 190-192).
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It is an exaggerated satire, to be sure, but it illustrates a problem. Most of us come to prayer with our own agenda. I still remember one night listening to the bedtime prayers of my three year-old daughter. With complete seriousness she folded her hands and prayed, “Dear Lord, please help make cookies. Amen.” I don’t know what God’s agenda was for the next day, but hers was quite clear.
Which is one of the reasons that Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer. Most of us when we pray bring to God our own agenda. We want healing; we want jobs; we want our children to grow up healthy and well adjusted. We want cookies. These are not bad things, and it is not wrong to prayer for them. But they might be just a little too narrow, a little too limited in focus. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to pray for something much bigger.
Notice the connection between the Lord’s Prayer and the second scripture I read, also from Matthew, chapter 6. Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” These are the things we often tend to pray for, things like jobs, health, safety, and cookies. But Jesus says, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Notice the connection to the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom of God, and so in the Lord’s Prayer he teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come.” He tells us to seek first the righteousness of God, so he teaches us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” When Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer, he is teaching us to pray for God’s agenda, not ours.
When I think about God’s agenda, I remember a letter written for the Presbyterian Mission Yearbook of Prayer by Benjamin Weir, a missionary to Lebanon back in the 1980s. At the time Lebanon was in the midst of a devastating civil war. In the letter Ben writes,
The land of Lebanon has been marred, scarred, and charred with all the weapons of war imaginable to humankind. We are witnesses, here in Beirut, to homes destroyed and people brutalized in untold numbers.
Today that description could fit any number of places in the world.
Then he describes his work as a missionary. He says, “Our own efforts at rebuilding and renewing seem small and necessarily partial.” That could be said of most things we do here at Southminster: handing out food at the foodbank, serving meals to homeless women at Hospitality House, supporting the recovery of men and women at Praiseallujah, providing good reading material to the inmates at the SCORE jail. These efforts seem small and necessarily partial.
Nevertheless Ben says,
We are thankful that God has given us the opportunity to have a part in healing and rebuilding. We are part of the church’s efforts to reestablish worship services, to assist persons moving back to villages, to encourage youth leadership, to give support to those whose hope lies in the future.
Then he concludes with this magnificent testimony of faith:
The kingdom of God is a kingdom without weapons, without oppressive powers, without torture, without hunger—without exploitation of individuals and peoples, without prejudice, without an irresponsible use of what God has given us. It is a kingdom full of life, of faith, justice, peace, love—mutual understanding and reconciliation, of real possibilities for every human being. That is what we look toward, and we have no right as Christians to settle for anything less.
Every week when we say the Lord’s Prayer we pray for God’s kingdom to come: a kingdom where hunger, suffering and death will be no more; a kingdom where love wins out over hate, and compassion wins out over self-centeredness; a kingdom where people of all races, languages, and nations live together in peace sharing together the goodness of God’s creation. And we pray for it to happen on earth, and not just in heaven. That’s God’s agenda, and as followers of Jesus it must also be ours.