By Jake Hall

published in Family Matters eNewsletter, August 10, 2017

"Precisely These" is the line that always gets me in Scott Cairns poem, Possible Answers to Prayer. It reminds me of a C.S. Lewis quote: "If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity." Upon reading or hearing the poem, you soon realize that sometimes God's answers to our personal prayers might be as unsettling as they are comforting when they reveal the parts of our character still in need of redemption.

The poem imagines God's response to our less than faithful prayers against those we consider our enemies or those we hold as somehow less than us, different from us, or less deserving of the grace of God. I don't know whose names are on your list, but the very people we hold in low esteem are also beloved children of God. God loves precisely these...

When the world is filled with so many "other people" we need to be unsettled by precisely these words of unsettling grace.

Possible Answers to Prayer

Your petitions — though they continue to bear
just the one signature — have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties — despite their constant,
relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value — nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.
Your repentance — all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment — is sufficient.
Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.
Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you —
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passion.

Scott Cairns (PhD University of Utah) is an American poet, memoirist, librettist, and essayist. He is the Catherine Paine Middlebush Chair in English at the University of Missouri.

Enjoy the spoken word version of this poem below, performed by Courtney Stewart