Let me tell you a story.
Last summer, a man took his 8-year-old son (we’ll call him Jimmy) to his first baseball game, it was Jimmy’s birthday. As most 8-year-old boys at a baseball game do, Jimmy brought his glove, primed and ready to catch a foul ball. The boy waited expectantly for his opportunity, and he didn’t take his eye off of the game for the whole first inning. The first inning went by, no foul ball. The second inning passed with the same result. Then the third, then the fourth. Eight innings go by, still no fly ball for Jimmy. The father, who has been sitting and watching his son wait, becomes distressed. Jimmy still has hope, but will certainly be let down if they leave the park without having caught the ever elusive foul ball. It’s Jimmy’s birthday, and his father wants him to have the best possible memory of his first experience at the ballpark. So, Jimmy’s father prays to God. He prays, “God, please let a foul ball be hit over here. Its Jimmy’s first game, and its his birthday. Please, it would make his day. He’ll remember it forever.” Right on cue, with one out in the top of the ninth, the second baseman hit a lofty foul ball into the seats down the first base line. People all around are reaching out trying to catch this foul ball. The ball bounces off a man’s hand two rows in front of the father-son duo and hits Jimmy in the chest. Jimmy picks the ball up off the ground, finally in possession of his newest prized possession. Jimmy was beyond excited, and his father looked up to heaven thanking God for answering his prayer. It was a miracle! An everyday miracle.
I heard that story on a Christian radio station in Nashville about a month ago. I don’t think I had ever felt so angry at a radio station in my life. Why was I angry? Because that’s not how prayer works. Over the past several years, I have seen health declines and deaths, I have become more aware of poverty, both domestic and abroad, and time and time again, I have stumbled in my walk with Christ. In all of these situations, prayer has been present. So why the heck does God have time to send baseballs to little kids when people are starving and dying!?!?!? With stories like that in our Christian circles, it no wonder that people think we’re all hypocrites. Maybe God had something to do with the birthday boy catching a fly ball, and maybe he didn’t. That’s not the point. The point is that these aren’t the stories we should be telling. I don’t have a degree in marketing, but if our evangelism point is telling people that we prayed a wish list to God, and he gave us all the stuff we wanted, then we are attracting people who have wish lists. Then what happens when our Santa Claus version of God doesn’t come through? We end up with churches full of discontent, unhappy non-followers of Jesus.
Maybe I am being a little harsh. I mean after all, ending world poverty is a huge prayer, and surely it was part of God’s plan when those loved ones got sick and later passed away. Maybe God answers easy prayers. No, it doesn’t work like that. I pray for a lot of easy things. Sometimes, I pray that the stop light will stay green long enough for me to make it through (and I work at a church, so God definitely doesn’t want me to be late). In high school, I prayed that we would win football games. And we did win a lot of football games…until my senior year. I mean, come on God, Just make the ball bounce our way a little more. Keep the refs from blowing the call on the last play of the game keeping us from going to the playoffs (I’m not bitter, I promise). So why is God answering some dude at a baseball game’s “easy” prayer, but not mine? God, why couldn’t You have given me enough knowledge and wisdom to get an A on my Greek final? Where were You on that one?
We live in a culture saturated with wants. After all, I’m a 20-year-old, white, American male from a middle class family. I’m supposed to graduate college, get a job, get married, have 2.5 kids, and live a long and happy life after retiring at 65. I’m supposed to live happily ever after because God wants good things to happen to me, right? Wrong. If anything, by the standards of our culture, being a Jesus-following Christian actually makes life worse. Among other things, Sunday mornings are no longer sleep time for you, no more premarital sex, and you are called to give away your stuff and money. On paper, without supernatural genie powers, following Jesus just looks dumb.
So Jesus, let me get this straight. You’re calling me to come and die. Ok, well at least I get little “everyday miracles” along the way for, you know, praying and being a good guy. I may die for Your name, but at least before that I get to catch balls at baseball games and get to have perfect health for me and my family. This whole following Jesus thing doesn’t sound bad at all. No. No. No. No. No. Once again, this is not how following Jesus works.
Imagine a guy (we’ll call him Mike) at a bus station looking to purchase a ticket. Mike is sick and tired of the life he has been living in his hometown of Jackson. Jackson is a town, not too big but not too small, and Mike has grown discontent with the lifestyle. There’s not enough hustle and bustle in Jackson to keep Mike excited and on his toes, but he also longs for the simplicity and serenity provided by a farm town out in the country. He can purchase a ticket to Los Angeles or Farmville, USA. In a tragic miscue, Mike didn’t decide where he was going before leaving his house that day. Mike sits at the bus station all day trying to make up his mind, and finally decides that he is better off just going home. After all, home has got a little bit excitement, and a little simplicity. Mike missed the bus. Sometimes I feel like this is how we Christians are. Discontent with where we are in life, we look heavily at two sides of the coin, the American Dream & the Way of the Cross. After much thought, we decide that staying where we are is the safe play. There’s no risk. We’ve got some fun worldly pleasures, but just enough Jesus to get us on to heaven… or wherever it is we go when we die. There is no fusion between the American Dream and Jesus. That is a lie we as Christians have to stop telling ourselves. The Spirit of Christ does not reside in the things of this world. Jesus and his followers have gotten on one boat. The American Dream and the things of this world have gotten on another. You can’t sit in between the two boats. You’ll drown.
As a Christian, I am concerned about what kind of message we give off when we broadcast certain things. The beauty of following Christ is not how easy life becomes, but how much our struggles become worth the struggle. Our struggles become worth it when we see others fighting alongside us. The Church is God’s gift to us. Paul’s command to the Church in Romans 12:9 is, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” We have been given a group of people to cling to in times of trouble. So let us not only tell people of the random “everyday miracles,” but let’s share stories of grief and pain. Let us share stories of being uplifted in times of great hurting through the love of Jesus shown to us by his people. Let us pray about everything without ceasing. Prayer is a source of hope in our broken world. Without hope, there is no prayer.
We must choose to live a life fully in pursuit of Christ. That life is full of trials, hardships, and pain. James (the brother of Jesus) comes at it like this: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” Not only does James acknowledge that there will be bumps on the road, but he argues that they are necessary, beneficial even. If a child grows up getting everything he or she has ever wanted and has never been told “No,” then when they are finally told “No,” they will inevitably have a break down. This is a new experience for the child, and he or she doesn’t know how to handle it. After a while though, the child becomes accustomed to not everything going their way. This doesn’t mean they stop asking for help or things they think they need, but when they are told “No,” they handle it better. Also, having been exposed to “No” makes hearing “Yes” much sweeter.
So let us follow Jesus. Let us pray, understanding that “No” is a potential answer. Let us not be discouraged, but let us persevere. Let us live, knowing that no matter how bad life gets, we serve a God who understands our pain having lived on earth Himself.