How this plea originated, during my days already overflowing with unending tasks and responsibilities, I do not know.
Praying at a hospital bedside, or serving in a soup kitchen makes me feel needed and 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.
But, “make me useful” morphs quickly into make ME valuable, admired, affirmed. Make me useful has “me” at the center. So, my silent prayers become less of 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 usefulness prayer can definitely have non-spiritual implications.
Prayers for usefulness fit nicely into a culture that prizes individual agency and independence. In our America, everyone from artists to prospective adoptive parents need platforms for self-promotion. In America, for some people aging is a moral failing and poverty is a mortal sin, and illness may be attributed to a lack of willful, positive imagination. So, USEFULNESS smacks of the American Gospel that “God helps those who help themselves.”
The so-called American Gospel would say that God aids the efficient and the effective. God approves of those with a “can-do” spirit. And God also helps the “try-hards” as my grand kids dub their relentlessly “top-grade-seeking” peers. We come to believe that those so blessed because of this kind of self-usefulness, should properly be rewarded with a cookie or a gold star.
I suggest that we need to balance this out with an antidote -which can be derived from regularly attending church Worship. Worship can suspend the loop of endless, self-referential usefulness. Jesus said blessed are the poor and the meek, the hungry and the merciful. Jesus lolly-gagged around dinner tables and kept company with the least useful of society – children, the blind, the lame and the shunned. The story we proclaim and call the Word of the Lord, when we worship in church, counters the self-oriented heresy of usefulness-seeking that is promoted on every American street corner.
Jesus came to save sinners – not laud winners. God’s gift of grace for us was given in anticipation of whatever we would eventually do. To me, this reveals our worth. Our self-oriented achievements do not really earn us God’s favor. Neither aging nor illness, disability or exhaustion, failure nor ineffectiveness will separate us from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord.
God looks upon humankind not as we do, but by working through those folks we think of as unlikely candidates – such as adulterers, shepherds, fishermen, Samaritans and tax collectors. In other words, people for whom we often have no use. The reconciliation of the world was ushered in on a cross, not an award ceremony or military parade.
Very importantly, in Worship our focus is moved away from ourselves, and is re-directed to God. The “ME” gets un-centered in the hope that I might get out of my own way. Nothing we have done or possibly could 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 yet sin, I believe Jesus continues to pray for us.
Furthermore, 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.
In church Worship, we participate in collective personal confession of our sins, prayers of the people, the Lord’s Supper, and the Word read and proclaimed week after week. This can strongly challenge my secular usefulness goals. But that strengthens me as a person.
So, could it be that we need to seek both kinds of usefulness in our lives ?
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC’s Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage some spiritual growth for you this Winter.