The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
REFLECTIONS: When we think our prayers have failed Bishop Woodie W. White, Feb 7, 2012
Bishop Woodie White
By Bishop Woodie W. White UMR Columnist
It is a mantra I have heard most of my life. The words were posted on church announcement boards and printed in bulletins. I have heard them uttered in my home, church and community, and proclaimed from pulpit and pew. The words seem to carry their own power and impact. “Prayer changes things!”
Without being irreverent, might I add: Not always.
There seems to be an underlying assumption—no, assertion—that the very act of prayer is capable of turning a situation, circumstance or even a person around to whatever the petitioner desires.
Does that lead us into a false sense of hope? Does it unintentionally “box God in”? Does it assume our prayer, rather than God, will determine the outcome?
What happens when prayer does not change things? Indeed, I have prayed reverently and faithfully, only to see the circumstance or situation get worse! It seemed the more I prayed, the more the situation deteriorated.
How many pastors, after counseling that “prayer changes things,” have then faced a weeping parishioner who received the unbearable news that their loved one was not healed, the disease was not cured? How many of the faithful have made such a promise, only to then search for another (equally inadequate) mantra or cliché?
Sometimes prayer does not change things! I know the agony and pain of “unanswered” prayer. That is, not receiving my desired answer, my desired change. What do you do when the “prayer chain,” the praying congregation and the words of “prayer warriors” do not have their desired result?
Like all Christians, I have a profound belief in prayer and its purpose and power. Like most Christians, much for which I have prayed was not fulfilled, especially on my timeline. I don’t bother God with frivolous matters, such as praying for the outcome of an athletic contest or other utterly selfish appeals requiring—if my desire were granted—that yours would have to be denied.
But pray I do! Even when things don’t change.
In the little communities on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where I spent summers as a child, the place of my parents’ birth, the roots of family, the place of my spiritual formation, there is an interesting phrase describing prayer. They call it, “sending up my timber.”
I have no idea of its origin, but I learned early on that the phrase meant no ordinary or perfunctory prayer. It was serious praying. It was not only what one did, but also what happened to one in the process. It was not just about the object of prayer, but about the person praying as well. Sending up my timber.
Over the last few years, when I have promised a colleague, loved one or friend that I would be praying for them or the situation for which prayer was requested, I have frequently told them, “I will be sending up the timber!”
A few weeks ago, I returned to a little Methodist church on the Eastern Shore, the home church of the paternal side of my family. The place where I would sit as a little boy with my grandparents and then with a beloved aunt, who died recently.
During her funeral service, I glanced at the Order of Service and was stunned to note that a “selection” to be sung by the choir, was “Sending Up My Timber.” I never knew the phrase came from a song! As the choir sang, the memories came, as did the tears.
What do you do when prayer does not seem to change circumstances? You simply keep on “sending up the timber,” because prayer can change you in the process.
Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Candler School of Theology.