I am a baby Gen-Xer. I identify pretty strongly with Rachel Held Evans’ sentiments: “Despite having one foot in Generation X, I tend to identify most strongly with the attitudes and the ethos of the millennial generation.” While I traded in Bon Jovi for Nirvana a long time ago, and these days listen to Arcade Fire more than either one of those bands, I do still hold a special place in my heart for Bon Jovi. If you strip away the trappings of 80’s glam, the song writing team of Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora offered the world some of the best working class narratives this side of Springsteen, only dressed up in Aquanet, spandex and stone washed denim jackets. I think that is why I like “Livin’ on a Prayer ’94” (featured in the video above) so much better than the original. It strips away the pomp and circumstance of 80’s glam-metal/power-pop ballads and with it the triumphalism of that sound. I can really hear Tommy and Gina’s struggle to make it, to survive. One day at a time. Livin’ on a Prayer.
And I can relate. So there is no pastor’s union to go on strike. But the false polarization of American partisan politics and the abysmal economy, especially in MI, has definitely taken its toll on the pastoral search process, not just for me but for many of my colleagues as well. After two years and a pile of rejection letters, my search for placement finally led me to a church interested in contracting with me… provided I could raise my own funds. While I count this opportunity as a blessing each and every day, my wife Erin and I – much like Tommy and Gina – have still felt a bit down on our luck. And while I have no six-string to put into hock, I did have to recently part with my cherished Technics SL1300 and my vinyl collection to buy groceries and get by in between paychecks without overdrawing our checking account.
Unfortunately, American Christianity seems to be inherently prosperity oriented. The Charismatic and Wesleyan traditions of my youth were steeped in the ol’ time “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” religion of American revivalism. When I traded this in for the Reformed tradition, I inherited the Protestant/Calvinist work ethic. It was not so much that I could ever pull myself up; but my prosperity was understood to be a sign of God’s favor and my election. What a tragic notion of election.
Of course these are bastardized versions of both the revivalist and the Calvinist traditions. But the theology that drives us is usually more defined by the words spoken in the pews, after church, at a potluck, in a prayer meeting, Bible study or Sunday school class than by what comes from the pulpit (let alone the other pastors or theologians a pastor may be consulting in his or her studies). The success of the “Prayer of Jabez, ” the build it and they will come mega church formula, Sean Hyman’s “Biblical money Code” and Joel Osteen’s own unique hybrid self help, empty platitudes and plastic smiles all testify to the fact that as Americans we want a faith and God that ensures we can go to bed with full bellies, no worries and wake up with a smile upon our face to greet the day. And for the most part we feel entitled to this good life, provided we do or believe the right things. In fairness, this Karmic notion of religion is not unique to American Christianity or even Christianity in general (but perhaps that a conversation best kept for another day).
Today I am thinking about my own sense of entitlement. It started a few days back. I was standing in line for a free pair of shoes for my daughter. She recently began kindergarten and a local non-profit picked the k-5 students at her school and several other schools in low income districts to receive new pairs of shoes. I was standing in line thinking, “God why the hell is this happening to me after I have worked so hard to serve you in ministry and to provide for my family” and while I am disgusted to admit it, “God how am I ever going to help ‘these people’ if I can never get out of ‘these’ circumstances.”
That’s where this all converged for me with Bon Jovi and a sermon my good friend Jessica preached in seminary. Her passage was Luke 11:1-13, Luke’s rendering of the Lord’s prayer and the explication that follows. The prayer Jesus offers his disciples to emulate assumes a lot of things we don’t always assume in our entitlement laden context. The prayer assumes there will be a need to pray regularly for enough bread to sustain us for today. It assumes moral, relational and perhaps even financial failures will follow us, even after we follow Jesus and that we will daily be in need of the grace it takes to ask for forgiveness and to forgive everyone indebted to us. This prayer assumes – Jesus teaches us – that constant dependence upon God will be needed to steer us away from rather than towards times of trial.
And the commentary after the prayer helps us make sense of some of Jesus’most difficult parables about persistence in prayer, parables about annoying neighbors with late night visitors, unjust judges or parents who give their children a hearty plate of fish and eggs. And it helps us make sense of some of Jesus’ most abused sayings, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Jesus’ contrast between a good parent who gives fish rather than a snake, an egg rather than a scorpion to a child in need might lead me to feel licence, entitlement or perhaps even obligation to pray for a day when I can buy my daughter a pair of Nike’s and not have to stand in line for free off-brand shoes. And the abrasive contrast that follows – between human parents who are evil and a heavenly Father who is good – might even be thought to further validate such a reading. That is it might if Luke did not include one little detail. But thankfully in Luke’s account of things* Jesus reminds us what the true good gift from God, the true “good life” is really all about: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” The Holy Spirit! God’s presence with us! That is God’s gift. It is poured out in good times and in bad. It has the power to sustain our faith during feast or famine. The same Jesus who told his tempter “one does not live by bread alone;” who told the man convinced he had done all he could to love God and neighbor “sell all you possess and give to the poor;” yes this very same Jesus calls us quite literally to a life of livin’ on a prayer.
*The parallel rendering of this teaching in Matthew (Mt 7:11) does not include the clause “the Holy Spirit” leaving it somewhat easier to twist into validation for praying for our every whim or even the false assumption that not having every whim met equals a lack of faith or sincere prayer.