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Praying, Honestly

In the Gospel we hear this Sunday, James and John come to Jesus and say, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."

When Jesus says "what is it you want me to do for you?," they tell him they want to sit at Jesus' right hand - to have places of honor in heaven. So usually, when you hear a sermon about this passage, or when you read any commentaries about it, James and John don't come off so well.

Usually, the line of thinking/preaching goes, "How dare they! How selfish! How inconsiderate; how egotistical." Or at least "how clueless."

And according to that way of understanding the passage (an understanding I've had almost my entire ministry, I must admit), Jesus is seen as sharing the anger or frustration that we're told the other ten disciples have toward James and John, and his tone toward James and John is seen as scolding.

But nowhere does the text say Jesus was angry with James or John.

And the Bible does not give us stage directions (i.e., "Jesus [scolding, in a stern tone] 'You do not know what you are asking.'")

So instead of piling on, I'd like to give James and John a break.

After all - re-read the passage - Jesus does not tell them their desire for greatness is itself bad.

He does not say, "you should not seek to be great. Your desire to be first is bad."

Instead, he redirects their notion of greatness. He says (essentially), "your notion of greatness and God's notion of greatness are different. You want to be first? Good, be the first person to serve. Be the first person in someone's day to say "you need some help with that?, can I help you?, is there some way I can be of service to you?"

In other words, Jesus meets James and John where they are, and pulls them to another place.

And so I think that James and John actually model a good (or at least sincere) way of praying: in our prayers, we should tell God what we want, even if "what we want" isn't a model of purity or holiness. 

You see, it's not as if God doesn't already know what we want -- as the first part of the Collect for Purity puts it, God is a God unto whom ALL [of our] hearts are open, ALL desires known, and from whom NO secrets are hid." 

In other words, God already knows our deepest desires. 

So go ahead and pray for whatever it is that you think you want: in fact, I'd go so far to say that it's better to pray for something bad, selfish, or greedy on a daily basis than not to pray at all on a daily basis, because if we keep going to God on a daily basis, our relationship will be strengthened, and -- as the second part of the Collect for Purity puts it -- God will "cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of God's Holy Spirit." God will meet you where you are, and pull you to a different place. And over time, we'll find that our desires have changed into things that aren't bad, selfish, or greedy, but good, serving and giving. 

So hear God ask you: "What do you want me to do for you?" and answer God, honestly.

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