I notice her standing in line at the café. She’s young, attractive, and has an easy smile. Everything about her appearance screams confidence and self-assurance. She’s dressed stylishly, I suppose, a little bit provocative or edgy or something (as if I knew a thing about style). She turns toward me and I notice her shirt. It’s tight and black and it has what looks like a Jack Daniels logo on the front. But it doesn’t say “Jack Daniels.” It says, rather, in bold, bracing white letters, “100% PURE ATHEIST.” Underneath, in smaller letters, “Two hands at work for good in the world are more useful than a thousand folded in prayer.” I sigh, almost audibly. I would have preferred Jack Daniels.
I feel sad, when I look at this girl with the black t-shirt. Why, I wonder? It is not sadness for a wayward soul that I should busy myself with correcting or converting. No, nothing like that. It’s not a sadness borne out of the false dichotomy that the shirt gives voice to—as if our options were either work or prayer but not both. It’s not even a sadness that this pretty young woman should feel the need to give in to our cultural addiction to cheap and easy sloganeering in place of honest conversation about truth and goodness and how and why we want the things that we want from the world or from God.
No, the sadness is of a different sort. It comes from a different source, even if I struggle to name or describe it adequately. I suppose it is a sadness that comes from the recognition that there are times when those words on the pretty young girl’s tight black t-shirt feel an awful lot like the truth. It is a sadness that comes from being the owner of two of those hands that are so often folded in prayer, from being so well-acquainted with heaven’s silence in the face of the same entreaties, voiced over and over again.
Praying for peace, for justice, for endurance for the many vulnerable people around the world whose struggle I can barely comprehend… praying for friends to receive the child they so desperately long for… praying for relief from suffering for dear old saints whose bodies lie broken and failing in hospital beds… praying for victories over the petty, niggling, corrosive sins that daily eat away at hope and joy… praying for faith for those more familiar with doubt… praying for the church to grow… praying for meaningful employment for those I care about… praying for wisdom in the face of difficult life decisions… praying for my kids to know more of kindness and joy than of mocking or silence… praying for clarity and confidence instead of restlessness and apathy… praying for this elusive kingdom to come, this elusive God’s will to be done, on earth as in heaven…
All of this praying. All of these words, measured and eloquent or blurted out in frantic desperation, all of these hours spent pleading before God on behalf of myself and others… And for what? Would not these two hands have been more usefully occupied doing one concrete thing in the world, than folding, yet again, in prayer?
I stare at the pretty young girl with the black t-shirt in the café and I feel something like envy. What would it be like to be unencumbered by this God who tells his people to pray and work and sometimes gives them so very little to go on when it comes to results? I imagine her blissfully sailing through life, doing what good she can and never troubling about the how or the why or the when. I imagine her two hands, freed from the burden of folding, accomplishing all kinds of practical, useful, valuable things in the world. I imagine never having to contend with the silence of heaven.
She’s walking out the door now. She smiles as she passes me by. I hope she didn’t notice me staring at her. I hope she didn’t get the wrong idea. I watch her as she walks confidently into the day. I wonder if she ever feels sadness about the way the world goes? I wonder what she does with it? I wonder if her two hands ever come close to folding, if not in prayer, then in sorrow or rage or weariness at the many things that human hands can never accomplish. I wonder if her two pretty hands ever make fists that shake at the silence.
And what else is prayer, sometimes, but giving voice to the sadness? What else is prayer but a kind of bearing witness to the ineradicable sense that things ought to be better than they are, that we ought to be better than we are, and the conviction that God is the one—the only one—to whom we can finally bring all this scattered longing? What else is prayer but recognizing that hands are for folding and for working and for folding some more for all that the working will never achieve?