(Originally written for Daily Episcopalian, August 23, 2012)
In my mind, Mack’s situation was different from that of a starving child or a civilian wounded in war. He was a competent adult who decided to stand by what he understood to be the word of God, no matter the consequences. And so I’ve started to come to peace with the fact that everyone in the crowded trailer, including myself, let Mack die as a man true to his faith.
--Lauren Pond, from the May 31 Washington Post article, "Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith"
This story still haunts me--not so much from the story, per se (I have no intention to handle vipers, personally) but because this is how the popular media views "faith."
Randy "Mack" Wolford was one of a small group of people whose ministry takes the words in Mark 16:17-18 literally:
And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Yet, I could not help but think of what Jesus said in Matthew 4:2-12, based on Deuteronomy 6:16: "Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test."
It's disturbing that for the writers of secular news, "faith" is too often defined as "doing things that reek of magical thinking, including some pretty crazy things." Faith is seen as handling snakes, or thinking the world is coming to an end on a particular date, or eschewing evolution for a literal seven day creation. Now, these are the more severe cases. But even with the smaller stuff, it's clear that magical thinking is equated with Christianity in the secular press.
However, before we get too high and mighty about Mack Wolford's untimely and tragic death, the truth is, we're all guilty of some degree of magical thinking somewhere now and then. Fact is, any time we are praying for a particular outcome, we are, albeit in a usually very minor way, putting God to the test. We pray for our loved ones to change their behavior, or for something to be reconciled with an "and everyone lived happily ever after," ending. We pray for uncertain medical diagnoses to turn out benign over malignant, or perhaps we pray for malignancies to be Stage I when we fear Stage IV. We pray for rain and for the cessation of rain. We pray for safe travel for our particular loved one but don't think ten nanoseconds about every other person on the road in that prayer.
Oh, I think at the time, we're just being earnest. From another angle, though, it's pretty clear we, at times, assign outcomes to our prayers and pray for the things to happen in a certain way so that our petitions are fulfilled by our specifications.
Show of hands--how many of us have prayed for a specific outcome, and the exact opposite thing happened?
Yeah, me too.
Truth is, too often we've played God in our prayer life, and too often, the results reminded us we're not God. If we're not open to the awareness of the futility of praying for things to meet our specifications, it can breed feelings of skepticism and disbelief, as well as resentments towards God about the outcome. God's neither the celestial suggestion box, nor a supernatural catalog order form.
That said, it's not cause to chastise ourselves, either, when we come to that realization that we've been blurring the lines between our wills and that nebulous thing called God's will.
The other truth in this complex thing called prayer is that it's only human to express our desires to God. Sometimes, prayer is the only means by which we ever get around to revealing the deepest core of those desires to ourselves. It's why one of my particular favorites among the collects available following the prayers of the people is this one:
Almighty and eternal God, ruler of all things in heaven and
earth: Mercifully accept the prayers of your people, and
strengthen us to do your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
That collect doesn't say, "Do all the things we just asked." It simply asks for God to receive our prayers, and to strengthen us to do God's will. It asks for God to hear us, and for us to hear God. It changes the focus to the relationship rather than the outcome.
What changes in us when we stop handling the deadly snake of praying for a particular outcome and instead invest in the act of prayer being the purpose of prayer? Will we discover that we get "bitten" by the outcomes of our life situations less frequently?