Not that I think it's always necessary to tie things up in a nice little package, but there's one more thing that we have to say about that nephew's ex-wife's new mother-in-law that started this whole discussion on prayer:
Do you know how lonely she is?
We talked a couple of weeks ago about loneliness in the church and how it's a serious problem, and I think the prayer list is a great place to see where loneliness may be a problem in your own church.
Maybe you find yourself troubled by the notion that someone would write into the prayer list to say that their cat has diarrhea and they are concerned, but have you considered that perhaps the prayer list is the only "person" she can talk to? Perhaps the prayer list is the only way she has of connecting with others. Maybe it's just her and her cat in that house all alone and her kids don't call or visit any more and her husband has passed on and no one even notices whether she's at church on Sunday or not and so the only meaningful connection she has with other human beings is to communicate with them through the prayer list.
This thought ought to give us pause, especially when we are tempted to groan inwardly about "another" "trivial" request from so-and-so.
It's almost always a female, by the way, who uses the prayer list this way. It's almost always a single female, whether young and looking for a support system or older and looking to replace lost connections. Very, very rarely have I seen a male use the prayer list in this way. No, it's our widows and orphans and single mothers who are lonely like this.
And these prayer requests, she hopes, are not just connections throughout the week, but conversation starters the next time she sees you. She's hoping not only that you are praying for her cat, but that next Sunday, you will ask her about her cat. She's hoping that the next time you see her, you will talk to her.
Think about that for a second. Think about the kind of lonely heart that has to reach out this way.
This is, by the way, why it is so doubly painful when we turn the prayer list into gossip and start talking about that nephew's ex-wife's new mother-in-law instead of talking with her. It's salt in an open wound. She took a risk by putting herself out there, doing the only thing she knew to do to try to make connections in the church and let others know who she is. She put her small talk on the prayer list hoping that it would lead to the chance to small talk in person, and now, the church is talking about her behind her back. This why we have to resist the temptation to use the prayer list as fodder for gossip, especially when it comes to these "trivial" things that we think we're bothered by.
We have to learn to look under that request and see what's really going on. And what's really going on...is that that nephew's ex-wife's new mother-in-law really needs a friend.
Will you be one?
Maybe you're bristling right now, all self-righteous in yourself, thinking that there are better ways of going about making friends and connections than sending your small talk through the prayer list. And maybe you're right.
But in my experience? The women (again, overwhelmingly women) who use the prayer list this way are the women who are also standing in the church foyer every Sunday, saying a quiet hello to many persons they are trying to talk to, and they get passed right by as everyone heads toward their friends, toward the persons they already know. I have watched these women stand in the greeting space and attempt connection only to be avoided or ignored because they are not well-known, and then the very next day, here comes a prayer request to the church about her cat.
Here's what else I can tell you from my own experience - when these women finally get connected into the church, when they join up with women's ministries or small groups or service opportunities, the "trivial" prayer requests slow down, if not stop altogether. Months will go by and you will realize you haven't heard about so-and-so's cat any more, and you'll look up and wonder if she's even still part of your church. And then, you'll see her, talking with her new friends from whatever ministry she's hooked up with. And because she now has someone in her life to talk with, she doesn't have to do her talking through the prayer list.
See how loneliness plays such a big role in this?
So the next time you see one of those prayer requests come through, one of those ones you don't understand as easily, one of those ones that seems "trivial," ask yourself if there might be something more going on than just a cat's diarrhea.
Usually, there is. And it takes not just a prayer, but a friend, to address it.
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