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"Should I Answer the Phone?"


Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ 2He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.’…9‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:1-4, 9-10, NRSV)

Caller ID helped change phones for the better. Yes millennials, there was a time when phones did not have caller ID. These phones of old also had something called a “cord” that connected to something called a “phone jack” on the wall. It was so primitive. How did we survive? Caller ID is great because we can look at our phones and see who is calling. Now is it more complicated. Up until recently, if it was an 800 or 888 number, we knew it was likely a telemarketer and didn’t answer. Lately, though, telemarketers are “spoofing” caller IDs with numbers that look local but aren’t, thus hiding the true origin of the calls. Nevertheless, more times than not, caller ID is usually dependable, especially with people we know.

Case in point, our son Matthew, who lives near my parents in Tennessee. For Colleen and me, when the caller ID shows it is Matt, we know that chances are good he needs help in the form of money. Matt works more than 40 hours a week, but at $10 bucks an hour, there’s not much left at the end of the week. So the phone rings. We see it is Matt then ask each other, “Should we answer the phone?” Keep in mind that if we don’t pick up, Matt can leave a voicemail and we’ll call him back later. To be sure, we love our son and enjoy talking to him. It’s just that lately if the phone call has anything to do with pickup trucks, it’s a call for help and it is going to cost us money.

Here is the saga of Matt’s pickup trucks, yes plural. He moves to Tennessee and buys my dad’s used pickup truck (that is in great shape). After a month or two, Matt is involved in an accident. Luckily, no one was hurt. Not so lucky is the fact that the truck is totaled. Matt then takes the insurance money and buys a truck that every member of our family told him not to buy. But of course he did. It was a 1999 Dodge, yes 20 years old. Matt was only one-year-old when this rattle-trap truck was built. Then there’s the mileage. Brace yourself. The truck has well over 200,000 miles on it…yes, over 200,000 miles on it. You know where this story is going. We spend more money keeping the truck running than Matt paid for it in the first place. After months of breakdowns, towing, and money for mechanics, Colleen and I hit a point of no return, and tell Matt he needs to get a better truck and we’ll pay for it with the stipulation that we would find the right truck. You know where this is going. After weeks of searching the internet, we find Matt a new used truck, a 2010 (yes only 9 years old) Ford F-150 with only 80,000 miles on it. While not happy spending the money, we knew it would save us money in the long run. But you know where this is going. Over the past month we’ve spent $1,700 in repairs on the new used truck that dear old dad found and bought. While Matt’s truck is being repaired (again and again), Matt borrows my dad’s new used truck. For those keeping count, this is the fourth pickup truck that Matt has driven in 18 months! As John Walter loved to say, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Which brings us back to caller ID and the perennial question, should I answer the phone?

I wonder if God has caller ID? Something happens and we pray for help. Does God look at the ID and say, not Jimmy Only again. He’s going to need help for the tenth time today! Sometimes it feels like God has let our prayers go to voicemail. What is prayer anyway? In her book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott begins with this question, “What is prayer?” She writes, “Prayer is…communication from one’s heart to the Good, the force that is beyond our comprehension but that in our pain…we don’t need to define or have proof of…Or let’s say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love…Prayer is communication from our hearts to the great mystery, or Goodness, or…the animating energy of love we are sometimes bold enough to believe in” (pp. 1-3). Elsewhere she writes, “Prayer is…making contact with something unseen…It is something we might dare to call divine intelligence or love energy…Prayer is us…reaching out to something having to do with the eternal, with vitality, intelligence, kindness, even when we are at our most utterly doomed and skeptical. God can handle honesty, and prayer begins an honest conversation” (p. 6).

Sometimes when we pray, we feel angry, sometimes even furious with God. In the book, when her beloved cat Jean is dying, Lamott seeks to prepare Jax, her young grandson, for Jean’s death. Lamott tells him that soon the angels will be taking Jean away to live in heaven. Jax replies, “I’m mad at the angels.” Lamott continues, “He’s mad at death. I’m mad at death, too. I’ve had it. I am existentially sick to death of death, and I absolutely cannot stand that a couple of friends may lose their children. I cannot stand that my son’s and grandson’s lives will hold so much isolation, strife, [and] death…This is a hard planet, and we’re a vulnerable species. And all I can do is pray: help” (pp. 12-13).

What do we as people of faith do in the face of death, be it one solitary death or the deaths of thousands from typhoons or terrorists? We cry out to God from the bottom of our hearts in an anguished prayer saying, “help!” Lamott writes, “I pray for a lot of things. I ask for health and happiness for my friends, and for their children. This is okay to do, to ask God to help them have a sense of peace, and for them to feel the love of God. I pray for our leaders to act in the common good, or at least the common slightly better. I pray that aid and comfort be rushed to people after catastrophes, natural and [human] made…I ask for help for this planet, and for her poor, and for the suffering people in my little galaxy. I know even as I pray for help that there will be tremendous compassion, mercy, generosity, companionship, and laughter from other people in the world, and from friends, doctors, nurses, hospice people. I also know that life can be devastating, and it’s…okay to be [ticked] off at God” (pp. 13-14).

And so with Jesus who, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed that he might avoid the impending suffering and with the psalmists who, in a variety of calamities cried out to God for help, we cry for help too. Lamott says this is the first essential prayer. She writes, “Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through...In prayer, I see the suffering bathed in light…I see God’s light permeate them, soak into them, guide their feet…I pray for people who are hurting, that they be filled with air and light. Air and light heal; they somehow get into those dark, musty places, like spiritual antibiotics” (pp. 15-16).

Most of us have been asked by someone to pray for them or someone else. Has a stranger ever asked you for prayers? I’ve had this experience working in our church. I’ve had strangers email me through the church website asking for prayers. I always offer a prayer for them or their loved ones. I’ve had strangers call me at church asking for prayers. If possible I find more about the situation and say a prayer with the person on the phone. I’ve even had strangers walk into my office and ask for prayers. I always offer them a seat, listen to their troubles, and pray with them as best I can.

When I was new to this church and started making hospital visits, I wasn’t sure whether to pray with the patients or not. On one of my first hospital visits I stopped by North Shore to see an elderly lady from our congregation. I spoke with her daughter in the hall before entering the hospital room. The well-meaning daughter asked what I planned on saying to her mother. “We’ll talk for a while,” I said. “I’ll ask how she’s doing. And before I leave I’ll say a prayer for her.” “Oh no don’t do that,” said the daughter. “If you say a prayer she’ll think she’s dying and you’ve come to give her last rites.” I entered the room where the patient and I had a nice conversation. After a while, I sensed it was time to go. I said goodbye and started to leave. “Wait a minute,” said the lady from her hospital bed, “Aren’t you even going to say a pray for me?” I looked at the daughter who shrugged. I feigned forgetfulness, took her hand and said a prayer. Now when I make a hospital visit I ask if the patient would like me to say a prayer. Usually people say yes, but every now and then someone will say no or no I don’t believe in prayer. Once a man asked me, “Well what good will it do?” In all honesty I replied, “I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think it will hurt you.” With that he laughed and asked for a prayer.

Sometimes people are facing an excruciating experience and ask me for a prayer. Even when I feel spiritually inadequate, I pray for them and hope against hope that it might help. Anne Lamott writes, “A lifelong friend, a staunch agnostic, has asked me to pray for her daughter, Angie, who has young children and a diagnosis of aggressive lung cancer, the kind that continues to grow tumors in the midst of chemotherapy. I close my eyes and say in silence, ‘I hold this family in Your light. I pray for them to get their miracle, to have stamina, and for them to be okay today, for their love and amazing senses of humor to help them come through…[Lamott continues] I’ve seen miracles, although they always take too long to make themselves known, if you ask me. Also, I’ve seen grace manifest as spiritual WD-40, as ribbons of fresh aid in tight, scary rooms…I have seen many people survive unsurvivable losses, and seen them experience happiness again. How is this possible? Love flowed to them from their closest people, and from their community, surrounded them, sat with them, held them, fed them, swept their floors. Time passed. In most cases, their pain evolved slowly into help for others…I know Angie and her mother will get a miracle, although it may not be the one they want—the one we pray for, in which the doctors break the grip of cancer and help Angie live. But the family will come through, even if Angie dies. The little ones with their grandma on board: time will pass. Death will not be the end of the story” (pp. 21-23).

It won’t be the end of Angie’s story regardless of how the cancer progresses and it won’t be the end of us either. So in the midst of life’s trials and tribulations, whether life takes us to the boardroom or the hospice room, we are never alone. And even when we think we haven’t got a prayer, we still do as we utter one simple but honest word. The shortest of prayers—help. AMEN.

Written by Rev. Jimmy Only

September 29, 2019

The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)


Loving God, we cry out to you for help when life is not going our way. We cry out to you for help when calamity strikes. We cry out to you for help when we suffer the consequences of our own bad choices. Thank you for being near us in the best of times and in the worst of times too. Remind us that your help often comes through the kindness of others, through their compassion and their offer of a helping hand. Infuse us with a love for others that we too might be conduits of your love and grace. Through Christ we pray. AMEN.

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