Lately my prayer has been to be useful: Make me useful, God. Where this plea originates during days overflowing with unending tasks and responsibilities, I do not know. Or maybe I do.
I took a pastoral call for a friend recently. The phone rang: “Are you the pastor on call?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then I guess you are it,” the voice on the other end replied.
I felt this wave of gratitude, so glad to be “it.”
Praying at the hospital bedside or presiding at a funeral come imbued with a sense of being needed, useful. I suspect physicians suturing a wound or teachers helping children learn to read or mechanics fixing an engine understand the satisfaction of unequivocal usefulness, a feeling elusive to those of us who trade in ideas and deep thoughts.
But “make me useful” morphs quickly into “make me valuable, admired, affirmed.” Make me useful has “me” at the center. My silent prayers of confession become less an exhibition of a contrite heart and more a display of my need for approval, both divine and human. I share this not for self-inflicted public shaming (which is just another form of egotism). I name it because this personal prayer has corporate implications.
Prayers for usefulness fit nicely in a culture that prizes individual agency and independence. In our modern context — where everyone from artists to prospective adoptive parents need platforms for self-promotion, where aging is a moral failing and poverty a mortal sin, where illness is attributed to a lack of willful, positive imagination — usefulness smacks of the American gospel: God helps those who help themselves. God aids the efficient and effective. God approves of those with a can-do spirit, the “try-hards” as my children dub their relentlessly top-grade-seeking peers. We come to believe blessed are the useful for they shall get a cookie and a gold star. Hence, our need to worship.
Worship suspends the loop of endless, self-referential usefulness. Jesus said blessed are the poor and the meek, the hungry and merciful. Jesus lollygags around dinner tables and keeps company with the least useful of society: children, the blind, lame and shunned. The story we proclaim and call the Word of the Lord in worship counters the heresy of instrumentalism professed on every American street corner.
Jesus came to save sinners, not laud winners. Prevenient grace reveals our worth; our worth does not earn us God’s favor. Neither aging nor illness, disability nor exhaustion, failure nor ineffectiveness will separate us from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord. God looks upon people not as we do, and works through those we think unlikely candidates: murderers, adulterers, shepherds, fishermen, Samaritans and tax collectors. In other words, people for whom we often have no use. The reconciliation of the world is ushered in on a cross, not an award ceremony or military parade.
Worship, by definition, moves our focus away from ourselves and to God. “Me” gets uncentered in the hope that I might get out of my own way. Nothing we have or could possibly do merits or moves God’s loving kindness towards us. God in no way needs us. God’s plans include us but do not depend upon us. While we were yet sinners Christ died for us. While we yet sin, Jesus prays for us. To paraphrase Stuart Smalley: even when I am not smart enough, nor good enough and not everyone likes me, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Further, Jesus loves the ones I don’t like, and I am called to love them, too. We are commanded to love our enemies, rather than cozy up to the powerful no matter the cost to others.
Corporate confession, prayers of the people, the Lord’s Supper, the Word read and proclaimed week after week and worship shatter the myth of my usefulness and the entire American gospel built around pragmatism that goes with my all-too-frequent petition. The gospel truth reveals that there is nowhere we can’t go with alleluia on our lips, because the One we worship loves us and all the world even when we are utterly, totally and finally useless. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Grace and peace,