In 1945 Norman Vincent Peale, with his wife Ruth and Raymond Thornburg, a New York businessman, founded a magazine which they called Guideposts. Its purpose was to publish Rev Peale’s sermons, which were usually of a motivational nature, in much the same vein as his bestselling book, The Power of Positive Thinking.
In one of his talks, which was widely used by sales organisations, he tells how at a crisis meeting to discuss mounting debts he berated his creditors for their stupidity in demanding payment; ‘... any fool would have known we didn’t have any money!’ he howled.
One of the people sitting around the table that day was James Cash Penny, founder of the fashion retail company known as J C Penney. There was a big pile of unpaid invoices in the middle of the table and Penney, who was a Christian man, suggested that the group should pray about the situation. Peale described how, after an hour or more crying out to God, he opened his eyes in the hope that God would have come down and swept those bills off the table; ‘But there they still were!’
He was making the point that, more often than not, the problems we face call for practical solutions. A few years ago my wife and I had a couple of friends whose business collapsed and whose marriage ultimately failed. It was an intensely difficult time for them and my wife, a trained counsellor and a Christian, spent hours with the lady, talking, discussing and befriending her as well as a lot of practical stuff, like accompanying her to see her solicitor, or helping to move her belongings to her new accommodation.
Then one day the lady called my wife to say how encouraged she was when she went to church and one of the leaders prayed for her. She was told that she was the ‘apple of God’s eye’, that he would never let her down, he would ensure that all financial needs would be met and so on.
Now it’s great when such a thing happens, and I know the leader as a sincerely good person, but aren’t there times when such a prayer can be a cop-out, a bit arm’s length, sterile, no need to get ‘down and dirty’ the way Jesus did? I mean, you could never accuse him of being detached from the world in which he lived: he was involved, he sat the children on his knee and made it clear that they were important to him. He filled tired fishermen’s nets, he saw to it that the hungry crowds were fed and he walked for miles to heal the sick daughter of one who, in their desperation, sought him out.
We’re all familiar with Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, but I sometimes think that when the priest came along and ‘passed by on the other side’, perhaps it wasn’t the way we tend to think. I don’t think he would have ignored the injured man. Maybe he said a quick prayer and shuffled on about his important business.
In the same way, could it be that when we ‘say a wee prayer’ when what is really needed is a practical helping hand, we are behaving like the sterile priest? And could it be that when we look on at situations, even feeling sincere compassion but unprepared to get our hands dirty, we are passing by on the other side?
Maybe we need to engage more in our community, for I think that’s what Jesus had in mind when in his ‘High Priestly Prayer’ he prayed for us that we would be in the world, but not of the world (John 17).