|There are many lessons put out about prayer these days. But one of the best, to my mind, came from the French Quarter, a place which really needs a lot of prayer these days, both from inside and out. We'll also get some help from offshore oil and the casinos, too.
Today we have the sad spectacle of New Orleans, once a grand city in its own right, reduced to a cesspool, both literally and in a human sense as well with armed looters taking control in a scene more reminiscent of Iraq than Arabi. My grandmother, born and raised there at the turn of the last century, hated to return there in the 1960's and 1970's to see what it had become; she's surely turning in her grave at this. But let's consider something cheerier and more informative that took place just a few years ago.
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I was in town with a business associate who was kind enough to take me to Galatoire's, one of the French Quarter's finer restaurants. Along with us came his attorney. We sat down and the waiter came to take our order. The attorney gave his order, and the waiter, an old coot in the best Gulf Coast sense of the word, barked back, “You don't want that.”
“What do you mean, you don't want that?” the attorney asked, puzzled.
“You don't want that,” the waiter gruffly replied. “You want that,” he continued, pointing to another item on the menu. The attorney tried to get the waiter to take his order as he had given it, but the waiter refused. The waiter served him what he had recommended and, sure enough, it was good! The attorney was pleased with the result.
Unfortunately, many Christians don't approach prayer to God the same way the attorney approached ordering at Galatoire's. Their approach is more like the workers who went offshore to build the platforms, now struggling to get going again. Platforms are generally built from a derrick (construction) barge, complete with a crew who were furnished with all kinds of tools, including hand tools. Most men who work with their hands are particular about the kinds of tools they use, but the purchasing department in New Orleans was looking for a good deal, so they'd order a different kind of tool. Better or worse, it wasn't what the workers were looking for, so they'd throw these tools over the side into the Gulf and write on the next purchase requisition, “No Substitutions.”
No substitutions...isn't that what we all too often tell God when we pray? Years of “prosperity” teaching has given the image that God is like a slot machine in the casinos in Biloxi: you pull the handle just right, it comes up all cherries, and you hit the jackpot. The casino analogy is good for other reasons: winning the slot machine up front only whets the appetite of the gambler for more, so he or she keeps feeding the machine money. Since the machines are set up to retain a certain portion for the house, the gambler effectively squanders their initial gain. Or, like the derrick barge workers, they throw what they obtain from God over the side because it doesn't suit them for one reason or another.
If we think about this a while, this is incredible. How is it that we can know so much more than an omniscient creator God that we can make such absolute demands? “For your father knoweth whereof ye have need, before ye ask of him.” (Mt. 6:8, Tyndale) Or worse yet, know his will and yet try to bend it to our fancy? “When he was come unto us, Ghe took Paul’s girdle, and bound his hands and feet and said: Thus saith the Holy ghost: So shall the Jews at Ierusalem, bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the gentiles. When we heard this, both we and other of the same place, besought him, that he would not go up to Ierusalem.” (Acts 21:11-12) Paul, however, knew both God's will and the danger he faced: “Then Paul answered, and said: What do ye weeping, and breaking mine heart? I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Ierusalem for the name of the Lord Iesu. When we could not turn his mind, we ceased saying: The will of the Lord be fulfilled.” (Acts 21:13-14)
The Lord's will indeed. One of the secrets of successful prayer is synchronising our will with God's, just as you reading this need to synchronise your computer with the server time. We also need to realise that God's purposes are greater than ours and more important than ours, which means that we need to align our purpose with His. We also need to understand that eternity was designed to be the ultimate fix of the problems we face in this life, as events such as Hurricane Katrina are brutal reminders of.
It's going to be a long time before places like Galatoire's and Commander's Palace (where my great-grandparents dined) are going to be back in business again. Probably quicker to rise again are the offshore oil fields (where the rejected tools make their watery grave) and the casinos in Biloxi (regrettably.) But in the meanwhile we can seek to be in tune with God's will and plan for both our life and His plan for the world around us. And then we will receive not only what we ask but what is best for us.