Preferences, not Conditions

Our preacher-in-training last Sunday had been encouraged by two of his mentors to include a personal story at the end of his well-exegeted sermon from Luke 19. We had heard about Zacchaeus, and considered the parable of the businessman who went away, and also been challenged from the prophecies fulfilled in Jesus' ride into Jerusalem. It just needed something at the end, to take it from head to heart. And he took the advice. J told of his 14 year old self considering what it would mean to take Jesus seriously. He had seen one parent model what that might look like, and the other display a life where Jesus was not in charge. "What would it mean to let this God take control of my life?" he asked. And he had prayed his own tentative version of "the sinners prayer", giving God the reins and hoping it was the right decision. Fast forward a few months later, and he described a conversation with a teacher at school which convinced him that even if he didn’t feel much was different others had definitely observed a changed life .

I was intrigued by J’s description of his prayer as being one that laid out some “preferences, not conditions”. He didn’t say what they were, but I can imagine they were of the "Please don’t Send me to Africa" variety. Looking back thirty years on, he says he was wrong to articulate those preferences (which incidentally God has honoured), but I suggested he be a little gentler on his teenage self. And I remembered back over the years to three times I had prayed in terms of “preferences not conditions,” which God has honoured by his grace.

1. When I first learned about the Baptism of the Holy Spirit in the charismatic movement of the early seventies, I was a committed believer, keen to experience the “something more” that seemed to be on offer. But the whole notion of speaking in tongues, which was a huge emphasis of Spirit Baptism at the time, was alien to me. Nobody taught me about it being a prayer language that built intimacy with God, I was only exposed to the “stand up in church and give a mysterious message that someone has to interpret or you are exposed as a fraud” paradigm. So when my evangelical Anglican cellgroup leader prayed for me, in 1970 in the Lady Chapel of St Paul’s Symonds Street, I said, “whatever you’ve got for me Lord, but please, I prefer no gift of tongues”. And thankfully I didn't burst out into the uncontrollable babble of spiritual language I thought that word meant. Over the next year I learned much more about the way God and humans cooperate in this gift, and came into a rich practical use of the charism, but I am glad that wasn’t confusingly bundled up with my first sincere prayer to be filled with the Spirit.

2. When I went to Dunedin to study theology, a year earlier than planned because of an abortive romantic entanglement, I prayed a genuine prayer of relinquishment of my dream of getting married. I truly wondered if God meant me to be single. And I expressed my desire to obey in a prayer that said,” I would love to be married, and have kids, it would have been my preference. But it’s not a condition. If the plans you have, for me to serve as a minister, don’t include marriage and family, I’m good with that.” The week I arrived in Dunedin I met my husband-to-be at an EU freshers evening. I'd forgotten that the ivory towers of my theological college were in the same city as a large medical school full of romantic potential! And in time, I was clear that God’s plans did include a good man and a fine family.

3. When in 1993 our family was considering a move from rural Northland, where a woman minister was a step too far for the Pressies, to a city where I could more likely serve in pastoral leadership, I wrote a list of the “desires of my heart”. It was headed up “Dear loving Father…”. It contained ten preferences - aspects of a desirable church placement. It looked something like this ( I don’t think I have it any longer)
• University City
• North Island
• Good high schools
• Job potential for Ric (a GP)
• 200+ member parish
• Good youth ministry
• Values Biblical preaching
• Values music and singing
• Missionary conscience
• Dance group

Cheeky, eh! But God had been showing me in myriad ways that year how he loved us and was calling us to serve, not just as individuals, but as a family. When I was appointed as assistant at a large suburban parish in 1994, I found that every one of these preferences was, by God’s amazing grace, met. I should note that although I am a dancer, I never participated in that dance group myself, as it was mostly young folk, but I loved having that ministry available for enriching our worship in that place where I would become Senior Minister and stay twelve years.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him." Matthew 7: 9 - 11, NLT.

God is a loving Father, and he does want to answer our prayers. Sometimes, like any parent, he just can’t give us what we prefer, but that doesn’t mean we shoudn't ask.
Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift.

To Chew Over: What preferences are you expressing to God for your future?

My times are in Thy hand;
My God, I wish them there;
My life, my friends, my soul I leave
Entirely to Thy care.

My times are in Thy hand;
Whatever they may be;
Pleasing or painful, dark or bright,
As best may seem to Thee.

My times are in Thy hand;
Why should I doubt or fear?
My Father’s hand will never cause
His child a needless tear.

My times are in Thy hand,
Jesus, the crucified!
Those hands my cruel sins had pierced
Are now my guard and guide.

My times are in Thy hand,
I’ll always trust in Thee;
And, after death, at Thy right hand
I shall forever be.
© William F Lloyd. Tune Franconia.