In southwest Utah there is a 17-mile, one-way, single-track road that travels into and then out of a wild and desolate basin. This road consists of a combination of gravel and bedrock and sand. It passes over desert, through arroyos, and between towering sandstone buttes. It is rugged enough that upon completion, having pulled a camper over its course with a family-filled minivan, one’s wife might well say something like: “If I’d known beforehand… I probably wouldn’t have agreed to…” My wife spoke those exact words in 2014 once we had completed this loop and were safely back on hard-surface roads.
This place has a name: The Valley of the Gods.
Something happened in that place that still comes often to my memory. As we drove through a dry streambed, I saw a flash of something colorful—something metallic—20 or 30 yards off in the brush. So I stopped the van, stepped out into the heat, and went over to recover this piece of trash that was marring this otherwise wild place. What I found was a deflated red Mylar party balloon. That in itself isn’t very remarkable, but what was written on it in large black lettering was:
Please help my mom beat this cancer!
Here in my hands was the pleading prayer of some heartsick person, a prayer that had been sent off into the atmosphere, as if to the universe itself—to any and all gods, known or unknown. Yet this prayer had fallen flat and died here in The Valley of the Gods.
Lately, I feel like a have been hearing a lot about the sending of prayers on behalf of others—or more accurately I’ve been seeing and reading this a great deal on social media.
We are sending prayers your way…
Sending prayers to God for you now…
Prayers are being sent…
An Internet search of word and phrase usage in English publications shows that in the 30 years from 1977 to 2007 the usage of the string “sending prayers” increased by 10-fold. In any case, I make note of such language because it strikes me as emphasizing distance and even absence. For we send things to those who are far off, whereas we share life with those who are near. Do we pray to a god who is far off?
But of course there is another dimension to this deflated prayer that I found in The Valley of the Gods, and it is more ancient still. For though this red-mylar-prayer was sent off into the ether it was addressed to no recipient, no god in particular. In this way I can’t help but to be reminded of how more than 1,900-years ago the Apostle Paul visited the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). It was there in their place of worship to many gods that he noted also an altar “To the Unknown God.” In fact, Paul noted this very thing to a gathering of people at the Areopagus only a moment before he uttered this most amazing of phrases:
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you! – Acts 17:23
And Paul did just that. He spoke to them of the God of creation, and how this God of creation is not far from each of us, but rather has come near in Jesus Christ, Who in the flesh lived and died, and Who has risen from the dead. Therefore, people everywhere [are] to repent and receive the righteousness of this Jesus for comfort and assurance.
God graciously bursts our foolish plots by coming our way, into our very flesh, and being God with us!
For there is Good News from God that bursts all human plans intent on reaching out to, and sending prayers to, a god who is nameless and distant. Yet this Good News from God does not coldly, or unlovingly deflate our plans. Rather, God graciously bursts our foolish plots by coming our way, into our very flesh, and being God with us! (Matt 1:23) And this God has a name—Jesus. This Jesus not only took on our flesh, carrying away and paying the debt of our sins on the cross of His crucifixion, but through baptism He has also grafted us into His own flesh in order that where He goes we go. This includes rising with Jesus just as He is risen from the dead! (Rom 6:1-4)
So to readers and social-media-posters who trust in this Jesus, the Christ, I give a gentle reminder—a truth that I hope brings comfort and protects our own words from painting false pictures. And that gentle reminder is this: We need not send our prayers anywhere! Rather, we are blessed to pray to the God—Father, Son, & Holy Spirit—Who is so near to us as to be with us now, always, and into the ages to come!
And to those who trust in this Jesus, the Christ, I give one more reminder still: There are people all around us who knowingly, and unknowingly bow to every god or no god at all. Yet when this life of worship—or non-worship—is collapsing all around them, such as when mom is struggling with cancer, they will send prayers to an absent and unknown god in a dim hope and a weak plea for help. On that day I am thankful that you are their neighbor, their friend, their family member. For what they pray to as unknown and far off you are blessed to proclaim to them as the God Who is close, known, and life-giving. His name is Jesus.