It surely was the ultimate irony.
It all started when the church built a new house for Marian’s family. Marian worked in the church kitchen, and her daughter Brenda did custodial work in the offices and educational building. Marian’s husband, whom they all called “Mr. Bill,” was disabled, so when their small house burned to the ground, everyone was concerned. That’s why one Sunday morning when the men of the congregation were having their monthly breakfast and someone suggested they pray for Marian and Mr. Bill’s situation, they began talking and soon decided to just build them a new house. No sense praying about something they could do something about. Within a few weeks, they had taken up $10,000 throughout the church to buy the materials. These were generous, kind-hearted people.
The project took about three months, and afterward, the women of the church furnished the house. At the dedication, they all felt pretty good about themselves, and well they should.
What happened next took the wind out of their sails. The associate pastor fired Marian from her job. “Well, she just wasn’t doing her work,” he must have explained to a hundred people, one at a time. “It looks like she felt like a privileged person the way we had done all these things for her and Mr. Bill, and we just couldn’t get anything out of her.”
After that, no one ever again talked about “the wonderful time we had putting up a new house for Mr. Bill and Miss Marian,” since she was now out looking for a job and basically embarrassing them all by her neediness.
The situation grew more ironic when Marian caught the pastor at K-Mart one day and right there in the checkout line, asked about his family and told him how much the church and her job had meant to her. “Oh, Pastor,” she pleaded, “would you pray for me that I’ll get my job back?”
The preacher thought that one over for a whole week. How could he pray for something he had the power to do himself. If he wanted her to have her job back, he could simply order her reinstated. But he couldn’t do that, couldn’t overrule his associate pastor who supervised all the kitchen and custodial workers and who needed to be supported in a rather thankless arm of the ministry.
That was 20 years ago, and the pastor still feels the contradiction of it all. To this day, he wonders what they could have done differently and should have done better.
In one of his books, Tony Campolo tells of the time he returned home to Philadelphia after an all-night flight and was met at the terminal by his secretary who informed him he had a speaking engagement on the other side of town in 90 minutes. He just barely had time to shower and change clothes before being whisked through the city to the meeting hall where he walked into an assembly of matrons expecting a little inspirational talk from him. Tony was so tired, he probably would have cooperated in their expectations had it not been for a prayer request that one of the women made.
“Let’s pray for our missionaries in Rambunctia,” she said, and proceeded to tell of a need in the mission station there for some essential item–I forgot what it was–that would cost $2,000. Then she said, “I’m going to ask our guest speaker, Dr. Campolo, if he will come up and pray for the Lord to supply that need.” Big mistake.
Campolo walked to the pulpit and said, “I’m not going to do that. Why should we ask God to provide what He’s already provided? He’s already given you and me that $2,000. So, rather than pray, we ought to take up a collection.” He turned to the woman who had spoken and said, “Let’s you and I start the offering. Let’s you and I give everything we have on us.” Later, Tony admitted he had chosen a good time to make that challenge, having only seven dollars on him. The woman turned every shade of red, and began to fumble in her purse. Campolo said, “What’s more, let’s all do that. And if you don’t have any money with you, write a check.”
I forget the exact amount of the offering they collected that day, but it was far more than needed. He didn’t say whether they ever invited him back. I doubt that he cared.
I have found myself correcting my own praying at times. I would be saying something like, “Lord, help me to live this day for you,” or “Lord, help me to give my best to you.” Suddenly the sound of such anemic praying pierced my mind and I said, “Excuse me, Father. I determine to live this day for you. I hereby give my best to you.”
Why ask the Lord to lead me to do what I already know to do. He is waiting on me to do it.
That’s not the same as saying I can do anything without Him, for I cannot. II Corinthians 3:5 puts it right: “Not that we are adequate to think anything of ourselves, but our adequacy is of God.”
However, once the Lord has made us adequate, we are to do what we can do. “She has done what she could,” is the accolade our Lord gave to a lady who anointed Him for His burial. (Mark 14:8)
Moses stood on the backside of the mountain, his sheep forgotten as He conversed with the Almighty. “Lord,” he said, “who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Israelis? And Lord, when I tell them God sent me, they will say, ‘Which God? What is His name?’ And Lord, I can’t speak. I’m not an eloquent person.” He went on like that he went for a time. Then he said, “And what if they don’t believe me, and they don’t obey me, and they say the Lord did not appear to me? What then?”
The Lord said, “Moses, what is that in your hand?” Moses looked down at his shepherd’s staff. God commanded him to throw it on the ground, where it assumed the shape of a snake. As Moses cringed, God said, “Now, pick it up.” He did and it became a staff again. (Exodus 4)
What is in your hand? A good question then, an appropriate one today. No sense in praying for something I can do, for something I can give, for someone God has already made me. Pray for the strength, yes, but then–just do it, give it, be it.
Jesus put it in perspective this way: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (John 13:17)