A New Prayer
“I guess we need to pray together,” Christina said last night as we laid on our bare bed waiting for the sheets to come out of the dryer.
We had just told our small group that something big is about to shift in our life. We don’t know what, we don’t know when, but we’ve felt this feeling before.
It was back in 2010 when we lived in Houston and our eyes were first opened to the disparity between the Haves and Have Not’s. We were - and are - among the Haves, and that recognition ignited two prayers that changed the trajectory of our lives.
At the time, we lived in a five-bedroom house in a gated subdivision in the northwest suburb of Houston called Cypress. I worked with the youth ministry at a big suburban church, and Christina was at a nice suburban hospital.
Everything was easy.
That is, until I prayed the first simple prayer.
PRAYER 1: HELP ME NEED YOU
One day it occurred to me that not one part of our life required any trust whatsoever in God. No miracles were required to heal anyone in our family of illness. No magical bread from heaven had to fall so we could feed our family. No coincidental meeting had to occur so I could find a job. We were completely self-sufficient.
And yes, I know, we’re supposed to say that God provided the opportunity for us to work and raise our family and have a nice house and so forth. Without getting too theological, I’ll just say that I wholeheartedly disagree with that premise.
So one night as I rolled these thoughts around in my head, I whispered this prayer: “Help me to need you.”
A few weeks later, God showed up.
If you are naturally skeptical of people’s stories about “hearing from God,” I am totally with you! But on this particular day, the only explanation I can offer is that I heard from God. I had been feeling some sort of rumbling inside me - an anxiousness that wouldn’t go away. I kept asking God what it was and, as you might expect, he didn’t offer any answers. So, I started throwing out some ideas to see if maybe I could get him to answer.
“Do I have cancer?”
“Is Christina pregnant?”
“Am I supposed to do something with our youth ministry?”
I kept pacing and praying, and finally blurted out:
“Do you want me to get out of ministry?”
At that moment two things happened; the anxiousness I had been feeling for weeks instantly went away. It was like a fog lifted and the sun broke through. Complete and total peace.
The second thing was that I didn’t hear a voice, but I felt it. And the voice simply said, “Yes.” It came from the far left side of the chapel where I was praying, and as soon as I felt it, it was gone.
A few months later I announced my resignation and set out on what was the hardest two years in our entire married life. Christina worked full-time as a home health occupational therapist while I was a stay-at-home dad.
I was lost. I was searching. I floundered around looking for “the next thing,” but nothing made sense. I wondered aloud on more than one occasion whether I had been duped by God, whether he actually answered my prayer that day, and whether he had left me hanging after I made this leap.
But after several months of this it became clear that, despite our now moderately inconvenienced life, nothing had really changed. We still lived in our big 5-bedroom house. Our kids still went to the same school. We still attended the same church. We still had more than enough food and clothing and shelter.
I still didn’t need God.
But then I prayed a second simple prayer.
PRAYER 2: USE ANYTHING IN MY LIFE HOWEVER YOU WANT TO USE IT
During this time of wandering I volunteered at a few homeless shelters in downtown Houston, and that was when my prayer changed.
I learned that in Houston somewhere around 18,000-25,000 men, women, and children sleep on the streets on any given night. I met many of them at organizations like Loaves and Fishes, Bread of Life, and SEARCH. On Thursday nights I joined some staff from SEARCH as we’d drive the streets of Houston in search of homeless camps. We’d introduce ourselves, listen to their story, give them some basic supplies, sign them up for services at SEARCH, and give them a couple of bus passes to get them there.
I loved doing this work.
But it was hard to drive down Hwy 290 every Thursday night back to the suburbs and our gated subdivision, into our house with 5 bedrooms but we only used 3.
Something was off.
When I would sit down to read the gospels I would read things like Jesus’s quote from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
When people in our suburban church talked about passages like this they always talked about it in terms of “spiritual” poverty, imprisonment, blindness, and oppression. it seemed that no matter how literally we read other parts of scripture, this one was only metaphor.
I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now. Jesus made it perfectly clear that as God-incarnate his Kingdom starts at the bottom.
It’s hard to swallow that when you’ve only known life at the top.
So, my prayer changed from “Help me need you” to “Use anything in my life however you want to use it.”
And it started with our house.
Because how can you live in a five bedroom house in the suburbs knowing that human beings sleep outside just a few miles away? It was too much.
I prayed that prayer late one Sunday night, and that Wednesday - only 3 days later - I ran into a friend at a homeless shelter. He was there to get some food from their food pantry to take around to homeless teenagers for the ministry he ran.
I told him about the prayer I prayed Sunday night about God using our house.
He stopped and said, “Yo, what?” (did I mention he’s a rapper?)
I told him again.
He said, “Dude I’m not lying. When I drove up just now I was out in my car on the phone with a good friend of mine. He just finalized his divorce. He got custody of his 10-year-old daughter but his wife got their house and they’ve got nowhere to go. Can they come to your house?”
I answered my friend just as God answered me.
He put us in touch with his friend, we made all the arrangements but when the day came for them to move in they didn’t show. A week passed and we didn’t hear anything. I finally got in touch with him and he said they found a place closer to their neighborhood so his daughter could go to the same school.
So they didn’t move in, but still we prayed: “Use anything in our life however you want to use it.”
This experience led us to talk about other ways to use our house, and that conversation led us to foster care. And foster care led us to adoption. And adoption has led us to start our own company called 366 Gathering through which we offer training and support for foster and adoptive families.
THAT OLD FEELING AGAIN
A few weeks ago we were talking again about our life and the easy privilege in which we live. And again we felt something poking at us.
We left Houston almost 7 years ago and have now lived in Little Rock longer than we lived anywhere else in our married life.
Little Rock is home.
And Little Rock is broken.
There’s an actual line that divides our city in half - it’s called I-630, a main freeway that runs east and west. Everybody knows that south of 630 is the “bad” part of town. You don’t buy a home there. You don’t send your kids to school there. You don’t open a business there.
This article about our new mayor - the first African-American mayor in the history of Little Rock - in the local paper highlights the deep racial tension that still exists here.
Crime is high.
Schools are struggling.
Prisons and foster homes are overcrowded and underfunded.
Our experience in the foster care and adoption world has opened our eyes to the struggles faced by birth parents who lose their kids to the system. We fight for the children in the system, but why not their parents?
People affected by these things are pushed out to the margins to make space for those of us with money and privilege and the luxury of living high above the struggle.
Yet our faith tells us that the people shoved to the margins is precisely where God’s Kingdom starts.
And sure enough, those same feelings and thoughts and emotions that provoked us almost a decade ago have come back. We’re asking all the same questions again:
“Do we actually believe this stuff about what it means to live in the Kingdom of God?”
“What are even doing with our life right now to make life on earth as it is in heaven?”
“How can we use what we have to spread the Kingdom beyond our privileged white world?”
PRAYER 3: OH SHIT
So, as we laid there on the bare mattress waiting for our sheets to dry, Christina said, “I guess we need to pray together.”
But this time we paused.
This time we played back in our minds everything those prayers have done to our life over the past ten years.
This time we came not with excitement and urgency, but with fear and trembling, knowing full well that God might not answer every prayer, but he sure seems to answer these.
This time our prayer didn’t start with the customary, “Dear God…” or “Father…” or “Lord…”
This time we said, “Oh shit…” like a couple of people going over a waterfall, and we offered ourselves again - every part of us - to him.
Because regardless of the doubt with which we wrestle about whether or not God exists, and the frustration we often feel with the western American Church, one thing has never changed: life on earth is not like life in heaven.
And until it is, there’s work to do.
So here we go again.