There is a prayer dating from somewhere in the late 17th century that has graced the lips of Anglicans in Morning and Evening Prayer, and sometimes in the Sunday Eucharist.
O God, the creator and preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations. More especially we pray for thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to thy fatherly goodness all those who are in any ways afflicted or distressed, in mind, body, or estate; [especially those for whom our prayers are desired]; that it may please thee to comfort and relieve them according to their several necessities, giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. And this we beg for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
I wonder sometimes what good it does to have been said so many times by so many people for over three hundred years, and to see it bear so little fruit. Various members of the congregations I served before I retired would tell me how much they loved this prayer, and would we please use it more often. I have no doubt that the sentiment was sincere, but it also seems to me that the only way for God to fulfill its petitions is for Christians to carry them out, and that seems to be the rub.
How is God to make God’s ways known unless we know what those ways are, demonstrate at least some of them in our lives, and are willing to tell others about them? And I don’t think sending missionaries to far off lands counts when we fail to make God’s ways known to the people around us every day.
We ask God to guide and govern the Church universal, and then act like every part of that Church with which we have some small disagreement is an enemy.
We commend to God’s care those afflicted in mind, body or estate, and then oppose anything that smacks of welfare, especially for those whom we deem to be undeserving. We ask God to give them a happy outcome, and do very little to make that possible.
I’m not only fulminating at the usual list of hypocrites. They are out there, and they do get under my skin. But when I look in the mirror, around my own neighborhood, and at my friends and fellow worshipers, I see good people who too easily become complacent, self absorbed, and anxious about engaging in lavish generosity when we have been so well schooled in the fear of scarcity. A lack of confidence in our own faith, combined with fear of not having enough, leads smoothly down the path of sincere prayer followed by precious little response, not from God, but from us.
When confronted with this painful truth we get defensive, and our best defense is to self righteously point to all the good causes we support one way or another, and the diligent work of the greater Church undertaken with our various tithes and assessments (about which we complain just the same). What we are less good at doing is working on public policies that would go far toward alleviating afflictions and suffering at their root, nor are we comfortable enough in our Episcopalian skins (I can’t speak for any other denomination) to share the good news of God in Christ as we understand it.
I wonder if God doesn’t say to the assembled heavenly court something like, “Here comes that blasted prayer again. I’ve told them what to do, come to them in person to show them the way, inspired scriptures to guide them, given them every resource they need, empowered them with my Spirit, and showered them with miracles, and what do I get in return – not much.”
It’s a good thing God is slow to anger and abounds in steadfast love.