Someone once said that God has four answers to our prayers: “Yes”, “No”, “Wait a while”, and “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
When I think of our requests we make of God, I find my own requests break down into a few categories – Personal needs, Family concerns, Parish concerns, and Hopes and Fears.
But one of the blessings of being Orthodox is that the wise prayers preserved in the Faith cause my prayers to ever expand to include the whole universe. The regular litanies of the Divine Liturgy and other services allow me to move beyond self-centered prayer to pray for concerns I would probable neglect if I always had to “make it up” as I prayed. Prayers for our nation, our “civil authorities,” “peaceful times,” “temperate weather,” and even for “a right answer before the awesome judgement seat of Christ,” broaden my prayers to fight my constant temptation to self-centeredness and reducing God to my “magic genie” Who exists only to get me stuff. This wise rhythm of prayer protects me from the perpetual childishness of focusing only on my needs and desires.
It also teaches me how to pray. And teaches me what my priorities should be in my prayers. It actually reveals a deep truth about who I am: I am one whose prayers are meant to help heal the universe! I pray for the whole world, not just myself!
In today’s Gospel Lesson in Matthew 20:17-28 we encounter two of the Lord’s disciples getting a profound lesson in the dangers of self-centered requests to God. James and John were the sons of Zebedee and were close disciples of the Lord. Both became Apostles and both died a martyr’s death for the testimony of the Faith in Christ. But here they ask for a place of honor on either side of Christ when he sits on His throne. This request clearly showed they misunderstood two important truths: First, they misunderstood what Christ had come to do. They thought He was going to establish a political kingdom and they wanted in on the ground floor of the new administration! Second, they completely missed Christ’s attitude and wisdom concerning how to use authority.
The Lord asks these young men “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” Their answer was “yes” but the Lord clearly said to them “You do not know what you are asking.” Of course both of these men did, indeed, “drink the cup” the Lord drank as well. They died a martyr’s death. But they remained faithful to Christ their whole lives.
When the other disciples heard what James and John requested, they were angry! I wonder if they were angry because they wanted those positions on the Lord’s right and left for themselves? Regardless, the Lord took the opportunity of this event to remind the disciples that, in Christ’s kingdom, we will not exercise authority like the world uses authority. The world uses authority to keep people subjects, but in Christ’s kingdom, we are to use authority to serve one another.
Today, what do your prayers focus on? (you do pray, don’t you?) Are you allowing the great and timeless wisdom of the Faith and the pattern of prayers preserved for us in the Church to instruct you about your priorities and your desires? Do you have a prayerbook so that you will be protected from constant self-centered requests? So, when you pray take your prayerbook and pray first for the whole world. When you are in worship services (you do go to services, don’t you?) listen and participate in your heart when the priest prays those litanies you’ve heard so often, and allow them to inform your priorities and requests. It’s learning to pray this way that will make you Orthodox on Purpose!