In today’s gospel reading I am struck with the reality once again that one person’s hopes, dreams, and wishes are sometimes in conflict with what others wish for, hope and dream. In today’s story, Jesus listens and responds to four different parties’ wishes: the man with the demons, the demons themselves, those who tended the swine, and the people of the region who then begged Jesus to leave. And Jesus attended to each of those (again, even the demons – a point that is well worth thinking about) at each step of the way. So for example, he responds to the man with the demons by sending them out, but the demons request not to be sent into the abyss. So he sends the demons into the pigs because they ask to go there, but this obviously upsets the people whose job it is to tend the pigs, so then a further request is made for him to leave town, which he also does. The man is cured, but the pigs are harmed. The pigs go into the water, which then threatens the livelihoods of those who tend the pigs. And eventually, Jesus is sent away out of fear because of his power. Each request leads to a consequence, which leads to another request, and Jesus attends to them all. Still, in the end, the man is cured, healing has happened, a miracle has occurred, and that which was really needed has come about.
And again, I’m struck by the deep reality of this situation. Sometimes the things we want may seem to be best for us, but aren’t actually best for others, or even for ourselves necessarily.
In the movie Bruce Almighty, Bruce is given the opportunity to play God or be God for awhile. And when he hears the huge or “ginormous” (as my kids would say) numbers of prayers coming his way constantly, he feels completely overwhelmed at first. But one of the complaints that led to God giving Bruce a try at being God was that Bruce felt God didn’t respond well to prayers, didn’t respond to people’s needs and wants. So Bruce felt it was important to do things differently than God had, and he decided that the easiest way and best way to attend to everyone’s prayers and wishes was just to say “yes” to them all. Can you imagine the results that followed? The chaos that ensued was outrageous, though my guess is that the destruction depicted was not nearly as much as it would have been in real life. For example, many, many people prayed to win the lottery. They all did, which meant that each person only won a few dollars. This was followed by riots and rebellion. Bruce had also pulled the moon closer to the earth and this caused all sorts of weather problems, which caused power failures and other issues. Some people praying for one thing contradicted others praying for opposing wishes and the result was a complete mess. Confusion, destruction, outrage –chaos.
I am also reminded of Mark Twain’s story “The War Prayer”. The story takes place in a church during a time of war. And the pastor is praying for their side to win the war. Mark Twain says it like this: “The burden of (the prayer’s) supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory…” He then ends the prayer with “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord and God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!” But as he is saying this prayer, an old and oddly glowing stranger walks to the front of the room, nudges the pastor aside and Mark Twain continues the story in this way: The stranger said: “I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think. God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, and the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon your neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain on your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse on some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.” The stranger goes on to describe the reality that when we pray for victory for our own, we are praying for destruction of the other. When we pray that our soldiers might fight and win with strength and might, we are praying that others might die and be destroyed in horrible ways. When we pray to win, we are praying for others to lose. When we pray for success, we are praying that others might fail. It is a short story and I have a copy of it for all who might be interested in reading it, because it is a story worth reflecting on. But the point is not about war prayers. The point is much bigger than that.
Do we think about all the ramifications of our prayers? Do we think about our neighbors when we pray – all of our neighbors when we pray? A couple weeks ago I shared with you the story of the televangelist who, during a hurricane about 20 years ago, took a group of folk down to the coast to prove the power of prayer. These few people stood on the beach and prayed that the storm would not hit them. The storm did, in fact, avoid them, but instead it hit a town full of people who were injured or killed. Those who traveled to the coast proved that their prayers were answered. At what cost did they pray them? The people who stood on the shore to pray did not live there. They flew there to show the power of prayer. If in fact, those prayers were the reason the storm went north and hit the town instead, was their proving that prayer worked worth the cost to all of those injured people, families who lost loved ones and people who lost property?
The thing is, I actually don’t really believe that God cares so little for the consequences of our prayers that God only pays attention to what we say and not what others need or what is best for everyone. Even in today’s story, the man with the demons was not asking Jesus to help him but Jesus chose to do it anyway. I think God is wiser and more loving than to simply answer prayers regardless of consequences. None the less, none the less, I think that we are called to think through our prayers, to think through the consequences of those requests, to have a bigger vision for the needs of the community, of the world, of our neighbors, and indeed for our enemies as well. We are called to do that as part of our loving our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to do that to help us to have a bigger vision of what others needs. We are called to do that so that we may grow in compassion and love and deepen in our relationships with God. And we are called to consider our prayers seriously, since unforeseen and negative consequences to others impact us as well. We are also called to think through our requests in prayers because sometimes we, too, reap negative consequences of the things we wish for, hence the saying, “be careful what you wish for.” We know from personal experience that sometimes the very things we want turn out not to be best for us. Can you think of a time when you got what you wanted, only to discover it came with a cost?
I think about the movie Grumpy Old Men. The Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau characters have been at each other ever since they were young men because they had both fallen in love with the same woman. Jack Lemmon’s character won that particular battle, but ended up with a wife who was unfaithful and whom he eventually divorced. Walter Matthau’s character could never forgive him, though in losing his wish for Meg, he ended up with a wonderful and very faithful wife instead. And this story is real. It is real in the sense that many people have shared with me stories of heartbreaks in which they prayed fervently for a loved one to continue to stay with them, only to find someone who was so much better a partner for them, someone they never would have found if their original prayers had been answered.
So where does this leave us? Does it leave us afraid to pray for what we want? Does it leave us trapped in the saying “be careful what you wish for” and therefore afraid to wish for anything? No. We are still called to be open and honest with God, to talk to God about our feelings and hopes, our fears and our heartbreaks. But I do think we are encouraged to stay aware, even as we share our deepest desires, that God knows better than we do what is best for us, what is best for others, what is best for the world. I think we are encouraged to listen for God’s guidance and leading in our prayers and strive to pray for those things God calls us to pray for. And I always believe that ending our prayers with “yet not my will but yours be done” after we have had open and honest conversation is a good practice. After all, Jesus modeled this for us in the garden of Gethsemane, as he first shared his hope that he might not have to die – honestly sharing his feelings, and then ended his prayer with “yet not my will but yours be done.”
In today’s story, each request had consequences that led to further requests. But the good news is that God listens every time to those further requests. God does care about what we want, what we ask for, and what we need, even when those are different things. God listens to us, God responds to us, and God strives always to give us that which will bring the most healing and the most wholeness for everyone. Amen.