Finally, by our prayers for seemingly small requests, we have an opportunity to turn one another’s eyes toward the spiritual purposes of temporal need. Just as Jesus concerned himself with both healed legs and forgiven souls, just as he handed out loaves of bread and gave himself as the bread of life, we pray for the material concerns of our brothers and sisters so that they might learn to seek the fulfillment of their spiritual needs also.
“Pray for the dead bird on the sidewalk!”
The six-year-old’s words rushed through the church prayer meeting leaving an uneasy silence behind. Our pastor had invited requests, and one little boy–the newly-attending grandson of a church member–was endearingly eager. But his request? Not even just a bird. A dead bird.
Were we really supposed to pray for a dead bird?
Anyone who has participated in a time of corporate prayer probably has a similar awkward prayer request story he could tell. Even more common are requests about the physical illnesses and material needs–some critical, some relatively minor–of people only loosely related to the church.
And in conservative, Reformed circles we can sometimes treat these petitions dismissively, or even critically. For example, a recent book on prayer jibes at the prayer time in which “a couple of people will inform us of their next-door neighbour’s friend’s aunt who has just got bad news” and make requests for “someone’s next-door neighbour’s grandmother who may or may not be a Christian and has been diagnosed with cancer.” An article last year similarly poked fun at a prayer meeting where a member might say, “my aunt is going in to hospital for an ingrown toenail,” and then ask for prayer on her behalf.
I affirm the basic point of these critiques: we need to pray together with greater concentration on God’s grand, redemptive purposes. Jesus himself taught us to pray “thy kingdom come” before “give us this day.” And the Scripture establishes prayer as a spiritual weapon and a spiritual tool; it is therefore rightly applied first to spiritual concerns.
I also agree that corporate prayer entails corporate responsibilities. Praying together “in Jesus’s name” is no magic abracadabra but is an intentional submission of all our wills to his. When we pray together as the church, we should regularly and deliberately pray for the God-directed mission of the church: the advance of the kingdom, the strengthening of the body, and the exaltation of Christ.
But it is no mark of holiness to disparage the small and sometimes immature requests of those who are also in the body. As people who are being built up together into Christ who is the head, we have good reasons–kingdom reasons!–to sometimes pray together for dead birds and ill aunts and next-door neighbors who have had bad news.
First, such requests remind all of us that we are weak and dependent on the Lord for everything.