“Do you get what you’re hoping for? When you look behind you there’s no open door. What are you hoping for? Do you know?” – Theme from Mahogany
“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” – The Rolling Stones
In the 1975 movie, Mahogany, (starring the legendary Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Anthony Perkins) a young woman gets what she wants and it almost destroys her and everything she holds dear. It’s a lush, dramatic telling of a classic storyline: not everything we dream of is good for us, and need is very different from want.
In my experience with evangelical Christianity, this same storyline is used as cautionary reminder of why God doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we want God to – sometimes the answer is No. That, and millions of other platitudes are offered when people are in pain over the loss of a job, a child, a relationship, or even a church. It makes sense that people outside of this tradition are skeptical. This seems like a convenient way to explain away unanswered prayer. I struggle with this skepticism, but I have also experienced the phenomena that Luhrmann researches in When God Talks Back. By taking an anthropological approach to the study of Vineyard churches, Luhrmann brings a fresh take to the topic of prayer and hearing God speak, particularly in evangelicalism.
At this point in my life I struggle to identify myself as an evangelical. I still deeply value Scripture as God-breathed (just maybe not quite so literal as some think); I continue to trust in the death and resurrection of Christ for atonement and redemption (I just think the incarnation offers some pretty big ideas as well); I am sold on the utter duty of Christian activism (I may interpret this a bit more liberally than some from my tradition); and I believe that turning one’s life over to Christ is the way to be in complete relationship with God (I just have an issue with selling fire insurance). So, TECHNICALLY I check all the boxes of Bebbington’s Quadrilateral that classically defines evangelicalism. I just don’t seem to check the boxes in the way a growing number of evangelical traditions seem to require.
Luhrmann’s study reminded me, however, of the reason I have not left Christianity – God cares enough to talk back. I’ve mentioned before that I am in a particularly “silent” and dark place in my life. Where I was once like so many whom Luhrmann interviewed – hearing God clearly on a daily basis – I rarely hear more than a whisper these days if I hear anything at all. I can’t even do that thing where, as Luhrmann puts it, I pretend that God is right next to me like my best friend. Because, once you have heard rushing winds, there is no pretending that a ceiling fan is the same thing. The formulas, routines, and practices that once ‘worked’ don’t do it anymore.
Rather than discouraging me, however, Luhrmann’s account of the people she met and the conversations she had made me smile and remember the way God tends to give us what we want in the beginning. Like a parent who replaces the pacifier every time her infant cries (even when the baby is the one who threw the pacifier away in the first place), God hovers close by to fulfill needs AND wants so that we know we aren’t alone. Similarly, there comes a time when that child must learn to self-soothe, to find her own way and, eventually, live life without constant attention and help. My Spiritual Director calls this time a place of learning to rely on what God has placed in me; understanding that as I lean into becoming like Christ, I don’t have to ask which direction to go anymore. Frankly, it sucks kind of like paying for my own car insurance sucks. But how will I learn what I know if God never stops fixing my problems for me? God has not left me. God is in me just as God always has been.
Does that sound like heresy? Even writing it felt like I was stepping into a place where many from my tradition are not willing to go. But Luhrmann explains that the invitation she noted in her time with Vineyard Christians is, “to experience God as if he were real in the flesh and standing by your side, with love.” If that is truly the invitation of evangelical Christianity (which I believe it is), then am willing to journey places where the tradition of my youth doesn’t travel. If I know God the way I think I do, there are others heading the same direction and I will not be alone.
If you know of a tradition or faith community that is willing to walk alongside people like me, let me know. It’s what I want AND what I need.
. I suppose I should note here that, in my spiritual formation journey, I have come to avoid using male pronouns as a descriptor of the Creator or the Holy Spirit. Occasionally I will use female pronouns, especially when describing the Holy Spirit, but I have realized that visualizing God as solely a male entity was limiting the intimacy of our relationship.