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God and On-Star

Marvel once again at the ingenuity of the television and radio commercial writers. You’ve heard the General Motors On-Star ads. A woman is in her car in the middle of nowhere and an emergency arises. She pushes her On-Star  button and there is an immediate answer from the heavens via satellite phone. Locked out? We’ll unlock your car right now over the air waves. Flat tire? We know exactly who to call and they will be there as fast as the tow truck can get there, and, by the way, we also know exactly what tire you have on that car so there will be an exact replacement. Need directions anywhere, doesn’t matter whether it’s a restaurant or a hospital, just stay on the line and we’ll tell you when and where to turn. And my favorite . . . if you are going to start out on a trip, just call On-Star and they will run a diagnostic on your engine right there in your driveway . . . before you ever leave . . . and you can know for sure that your car won’t break down on the road. In some small way, your future is secured.

Now let me just say this right up front. I am thankful for On-Star. My 84 year-old mother who drives in rural areas has it and it reassures me. This is a great safety innovation. But I wonder what this advertising campaign’s theological implications might be. The appeal of On-Star for potential consumers is its On-Staromniscience and omnipotence. It knows all and can handle everything. When a driver in distress asks On-Star for something, the response is quick and satisfying. I wonder what kind of impact such media advertising has on Christians’ understandings of God. Might consumers’ expectations of On-Star migrate to Christians’ expectations of God? Might the push-button omniscience and omnipotence of On-Star heighten believers’ expectations of a push-button God?

My ministry in a congregation leads me to say “no.” I have the privilege of praying with people every week. After each of our three morning services, we have a time of prayer in our chapel. Anyone can come and pray for anything. And they do. I have seen little of “On-Star-type” prayer requests. Instead, I have seen prayer times shaped by worship and preaching. One memorable Sunday, our senior pastor preached on the Man Born Blind and simply spoke of seeing Jesus more clearly. The sermon wasn’t particularly stunning in its rhetoric or organization, and after the benediction I headed off to the chapel. I was not prepared for what was about to happen.

Pew after pew was filled with people–individuals, families, young and old–just waiting to come forward to pray with a pastor and an elder. Their concerns were different but they were all serious and painful–a recurrence of cancer, a child going blind, a job lost, a marriage ruptured, friends at odds with each other–on and on it went. But every single person spoke almost the same words when they came forward. It was a remarkable morning. This is what each person said, “I was going to come here and ask you to pray for my need, but I just want for you to pray that I will see Jesus better, because I know that if I see Jesus, I will see my problem differently.” Something about that sermon, that particular sermon, impacted scores of hurting people, so that they were filled with hunger to see Jesus. They did not come to the prayer chapel to push the “God-button” and get their problem fixed. They understood the difference between an “On-Star God” and their Loving God. They came to drink at the well of God’s grace and mercy revealed in Jesus Christ through the preaching of the word. At its best, this is what the Reformed theological tradition has always affirmed.

Eunice McGarrahan is Associate Pastor at the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. and is a member of the Perspectives Board of Editors