Learning to love others

March 9, 2012

I was a Baptist for the first 27 years or so of my life, and even now I can’t claim to be the biggest Lent observer. Already, my three kids, lifelong Methodists so far, are much more into the American and/or Methodist tradition of “giving something up” than I am.

But I have started one new practice, which accidentally corresponds to Lent. So I’m going to say it’s part of my Lenten observation this year—although I hope it lasts the rest of my life. For the first time, I’m actually reading the daily “Prayer Concerns and Celebrations” email that I get from the North Georgia Conference, which describes deaths, major illnesses, childbirths, etc., affecting the lives of my fellow Methodist clergy, the vast majority of whom I haven’t met.

I’m not proud of the fact that I haven’t paid attention to these emails. But when my mother died recently, one of the best, most loving gestures of support for me were cards that I received from fellow clergy who read about Mom’s death in this email. I didn’t even know some of these clergy! But they wanted me to know that they stood beside me in my grief and were praying for me.

This gesture—taking the trouble to handwrite a card, stamp it, and mail it—is small, I know. But it’s not nothing. So now I’m taking time to do that each week, too.

In my line of work I’m inundated with prayer requests, often for people I don’t know. Sometimes they’re like, “My aunt’s next-door-neighbor’s cousin has gout.” I often don’t know how to pray for strangers, and I wonder what difference my prayer in that situation would make. It can’t be that God is going to do one thing concerning this person’s aunt’s next-door-neighbor’s cousin, and then when he receives my prayer, God does something else. I have a hard enough time praying for people I know!

But I do know how to pray for people facing the death of a loved one. And for at least the length of time it takes me to look up a person’s address, write the note, meter the envelope, and drop it in the mail, I pray for that person. And maybe in the process of doing so, God is transforming me into a more loving and caring person. I hope so.

As I said a while back, I don’t want to care about appearing to love people (a constant temptation for us pastors who are in the business of caring); I want to actually love people. This small gesture, I hope, is a step in that direction.

2 Responses to “Learning to love others”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, speaking of prayer requests, as to mine I have posted here before, we are going to put my father-in-law in a nursing home for a week while the wife and kids go skiing, so that is a momentary “answer.”

    I am not sure that I take prayer requests to be as ineffectual as you may feel them to be when you say, “It can’t be that God is going to do one thing concerning this person’s aunt’s next-door-neighbor’s cousin, and then when he receives my prayer, God does something else.” From my perspective, God knows what he is going to do right up to the end from the very beginning. But, why did he decide what he would do along the way? All the admonitions to prayer suggest that he took into account who would pray when and for what. So, it is “just as though” God changes (changed) what he would do based on our asking him. “You do not have because you do not ask,” James says.

    This does not mean, certainly, that all our prayers will be answered affirmatively, of course, and I think there are some situations where the “inevitable” seems too obvious to warrant prayers over (except for God’s presence and comfort for those who go them, as I think you are pointing out). But I definitely in general think we should consider our prayers as “something that could change things.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      In general, I believe in intercessory prayer, Tom. It’s my particular way of interceding in prayer for others that I sometimes don’t believe in. I have deep reservations about the way that we church people often pray for others. It doesn’t make sense to me… For one thing, if we are praying for others, we need to hold one another accountable in a way that we often don’t.

      I’m so glad to hear about your father-in-law. I prayed for him in a specific way, and now you have “closed the loop” by telling me his status. We don’t do that kind of thing enough. We often throw around prayer requests willy-nilly. Spoken one week, forgotten the next.

      Let’s say I pray for your aunt’s neighbor’s cousin’s gout. Do I bother to follow up next week to find out how that person is doing? What sort of follow-up prayers does that person need? Is there something tangible I can do to reach out to that person in love?

      I guess what I’m saying is, I have a hard time really caring for other people, and it shows in my prayer life. I want God to change me! That’s what this small effort with the cards is all about.


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