Search Terms, Algorithms, and Prayer Requests

I used to work in a public library. I was the Youth Services Librarian, which meant that most of my time was spent working on building up the collection of children’s books, planning and presenting programming and story times, and going into schools to do book talks and promote library offerings. But I also spent time at the reference desks– both in the Children’s Area and the Adult Services area– and some of my time was spent finding answers to a wide range of questions:

  • Does the library have books or articles about Okapis (for a 4th grade report)?
  • Do you carry tax forms for my out-of-state business?
  • What are the school colors for _______ college (a small community college in Nebraska)?
  • Do you have a picture of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut?
  • What is the title of a children’s book that featured muskrats making chicken soup?
  • My great-aunt left me a set of dishes and I want to know if they’re worth anything.
  • Do you have a recipe for pemmican?
  • What color is yak’s milk?
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Some questions were easy to answer. Some required a little research within the library’s resources. Some were next to impossible and required hours of searching databases, or calling on expert help. Searching a database can be tricky. You need to find solid key words and search terms. For instance, our computer catalog did not recognize the the search term “cooking” or “cookbook.” You had to use the term “cookery” to get the best results. You could also use “cook***” to force the algorithm to look at all words that contained the letters c-o-o-k and any other letters that followed, such as cooks, cookies, cookery, etc. (Many library databases have since been updated, so searches will automatically redirect or refine common terms like this.)

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Databases and search engines are amazing things, but they have limitations. They will only search for what you type in, and they will only search in the way they are programmed to do so. Computers (currently) “think” laterally–they do not make leaps of imagination, nor do they second-guess what you might have meant to ask but didn’t. If I want to know about pemmican, but I misspell it, the search engine may not find what I’m looking for.

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That’s where algorithms come in. If I misspell pemmican by leaving out the second “m”, the algorithm will look for words close to what I typed, based on thousands of other inquiries. It may ask if I meant to search for pelican, instead. Or it may ask if I want pemmican. But if my spelling is really bad, or if the word I type in is actually another word, the search engine may miss my real inquiry altogether, and send me on a fruitless search. If I’m searching for a children’s book with muskrats and chicken soup, and the search engine doesn’t find both terms in a description, the algorithm will usually stick with the first term, and give me a list of children’s books with muskrats. Hopefully one of them also includes chicken soup… If I type the key words in reverse, I will get a list of children’s books with chicken soup…hopefully one of them includes muskrat characters! And algorithms can be skewed by advertisers or other interest groups that pay to have their information appear more often or first whenever certain search terms are entered.

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How does any of this relate to prayer requests?

When people request prayer, they are usually focused on what they perceive as their greatest need. They are searching for an answer; a solution to a specific problem or situation. “Pray for complete healing.” “Pray that my son/daughter will…” “Pray that I get this job.” And it is tempting to pray very specifically. This is not wrong. But sometimes, it limits how we see prayer and how we look at God’s answers. The opposite is also true. Sometimes, we pray so broadly, that we may not see God’s answer for what it is. Sometimes, we pray, hoping to change some sort of algorithm and get to the “top of the list” or get the “right” answer. This is not what prayer is about…we know this, but sometimes, our wants blind us to what we are actually asking (or asking others to ask for).

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So what are some of the key words we can use in our prayer requests and prayers? Jesus gives us a fantastic blueprint in The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13):

“Our Father”–remembering to whom we are praying is vital. We are not praying to a distant, absent-minded, shadowy figure; He is our Father. He knows what is necessary, and what is best.

“Who art in Heaven”–God is Omnipotent. There is nothing we can ask or imagine that is too big, too difficult, or too much to ask. That doesn’t mean that God will give us whatever we want, whenever we want it, but it does mean that God is not limited by the same things that limit us!

“Hallowed by Thy Name.”–God is not our “genie in a bottle.” He doesn’t work for us, or at our command. God is sovereign; He commands the Universe. And even though He makes Himself known and wants a relationship with us, He is not like anyone else–He ALONE is GOD. When His answers seem “wrong,” or don’t make sense, it isn’t because He didn’t hear us, or because He doesn’t love us, but His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).

“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”–There are a lot of “good” things that are NOT part of God’s best will for us. There are a lot of difficult and painful things that God can use for our good. He wants to hear the cry of our heart–“I want to be healed.” But He also wants to hear our willingness to accept that healing may not be immediate or easy.

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“Give us this day our daily bread”– It is not “wrong” to pray for things in the future, or to pray for “big” or complex things, but our dependence on Him is shown best when we acknowledge our everyday basic needs are met by Him.

“And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”–Don’t be fooled. God will not ignore our hidden resentments, hatred, disdain, rebellion, and unforgiveness. Our requests can be sidelined by holding on to grudges and harboring secret doubts about God’s essential fairness, as well as hanging on to sinful habits.

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God doesn’t need algorithms or special prayer “search terms”. We can come to Him with our requests, and He knows precisely what we want and what we need. But we will learn more about ourselves and about who God truly is when we refine our hearts and our prayer life.

Influence…


This is how the Lord responds: “If you return to me, I will restore you so you can continue to serve me. If you speak good words rather than worthless ones, you will be my spokesman. You must influence them; do not let them influence you!

Jeremiah 15:19 (NLT via biblegateway.com)

I’ve been reading in Jeremiah for the past week. Jeremiah was given a thankless task of delivering a prophecy of doom for the people of Judah and Jerusalem. God, in His righteous anger even told Jeremiah that he should no longer pray for his own people. Their doom was inevitable, brought about by their continuous idolatry and arrogant disobedience. As Jeremiah received the visions, he grew discouraged. Why should he continue to preach to those who were never going to listen? Why face the ridicule, the persecution, and the death threats? Why bother?

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But the Lord responded with a rebuke to Jeremiah–“Don’t give up! Don’t walk away from your mission! Don’t let them influence you–You must influence them!” Those are difficult words to read. And even more difficult ones to put into practice. It is very easy to feel discouraged when it seems that you are alone in your beliefs; alone in your commitment; alone in your grief and distress. Jeremiah was torn and broken by his mission–no one wanted to hear his message. No one responded to his calls for repentance or his warnings of God’s judgment. In fact, his complaint was that other “prophets” were saying the opposite– that God would rescue Judah from her enemies; that all would be well. How could Jeremiah stand firm in the face of such opposition?

God’s answer may seem a bit harsh on the surface–“Stop whining! You WILL be my spokesman, and you must influence them and not let them influence you.” But look closer, and you will see an amazing and hopeful message in God’s rebuke. God has not set Jeremiah up for failure and discouragement. God’s promise is to strengthen and protect Jeremiah in spite of the opposition– if he will stay the course. Against the worst odds, against the threats of his enemies, God will be with Jeremiah as he speaks the truth–no matter how difficult; no matter how grievous; no matter how unpopular. Moreover, God will give Jeremiah the power to influence his enemies– not just with his words, but in spite of them–by his faithful, courageous commitment to the truth.

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We live in a world where people make a career out of “influencing” others– advertising, advocating, lobbying, arguing on social media, creating memes and soundbites and slogans. We are surrounded by voices and billboards and pop-ups demanding our attention and invading our thoughts. And it can be very easy to be swayed by the overwhelming noise and distraction offered up all around us. Just like Jeremiah, we can be discouraged, and even silenced, by the crowds of others, speaking fear, doubt, anger, and lies. And, in our own voices, we cannot drown out their “influence.”

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God does not call us to shout louder, or change our message to be more “palatable” to the masses. God does not call us to “win” every argument or convert all of our neighbors. But God does call us to be faithful in speaking the truth– more, He calls us to live out the truth in obedience and humility. It may seem thankless at times, but living with integrity and solid faith influences others in ways only God can know. We need to continue to speak truth. “Worthless words” may rule the airwaves, or glut our newsfeeds. But truth whispers in consistent, loving action, and humble service. May we be known for our prayers and our steady confidence than for our persuasive tongues and arrogant arguments.

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Hearts, Hype, Hatred, and Hope

Today marks the celebration of St. Valentine– Valentine’s Day. It is a day of hearts and flowers, romantic dinners and gifts, all celebrating love and marriage. Many people choose to marry on Valentine’s day; many more choose this day to propose marriage (my dad did, in fact, and he and my mom were married just a few months later in 1963).

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Gifts have gotten more elaborate and expensive over the years, though there are many who choose simple, homemade gifts or cards, as well. Advertisers promote their products as being perfect expressions of romance and love–diamonds, lacy nightwear, expensive candle-lit dinners, vacations, deluxe tool boxes, cars, spa treatments–if a new broom or pair of socks can be made to look romantic, look for them to be advertised as “perfect” for this year’s gift.

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I have a long and difficult history with Valentine’s Day. I remember, as a school girl, being forced to choose, sign, and address valentine cards for every person in my class at school. Some were easy enough, but I had to send cards to classmates I didn’t like; classmates who teased or bullied me, or were just “icky.” I think most parents did the same, but I noticed that I rarely got cards back from everyone, and sometimes, the “icky” kids only got two or three cards, which they hid away in their desk or threw away. I never knew if they were glad to have gotten the few cards, or if they were embarrassed and hurt (especially if they had no cards to give to anyone).

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As a young woman, I disliked Valentine’s Day for its way of sorting out the “loved” from the “unloved.” I was loved by my parents, and liked by friends and colleagues, students and neighbors. But every 14th of February, I was reminded painfully that I was not considered “loveable” by the young men buying candy, flowers, or engagement rings. Year after year passed with no gifts, no dates, nothing to signify that I was worthy of romantic love or attention. As I write this, I know there are millions of young women who are facing pain and rejection today, where they might feel confident and happy on any other, normal, day.

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This year, Valentine’s Day seems like a bad joke– talk of love and romance rings very hollow when I see the amount of hatred being spread on social media. Should I feel “loved” if I receive a card from someone who spews hatred and death wishes for people they barely know because of something they said about politics or the environment? If I followed my parents’ rules and bought valentine cards for everyone at the office, would I be brave enough (or foolish enough) to send them?

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The original St. Valentine (though this is disputed and there may be more than one martyr with the same name from around the same time) is believed to be a young martyr who was beaten, stoned to death, and beheaded for marrying young Roman soldiers against the mandate of his emperor. It was felt that soldiers would fight better if they were unmarried and unencumbered by family ties, but soldiers who had converted to Christianity wanted to live pure lives, married to one woman, and faithful to their vows. St. Valentine was committed to helping these men and women live their new found faith and show love for each other, and for God. For that, he was jailed and sentenced to die a horrible death. There were no greeting cards, no diamonds, no spa treatments on that day. There was suffering, death, sacrifice, humiliation, and loss. And plenty of hatred.

But St. Valentine’s death had quite the opposite effect than the emperor intended. God’s love has a way of shining brighter for being targeted, tormented, and beaten down. Real love doesn’t show itself in new clothes, hothouse flowers, or candle-lit dinners. It shows itself in a pouring out of self, and being willing to suffer for others– even those who do not love us back.

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This Valentine’s Day, I live in hope that Christians around the world will demonstrate the true love that comes from God– a love that practices Grace, Kindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Patience, and Joy, even in the face of Hatred and Evil. Hatred shouts and raises its fists. Let Love whisper and reach out hands of service. Let Love kneel and pray for our enemies, and bless those who curse us. Let love be ready to die rather than spread hatred and return evil for evil.

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Love One Another (1 John 3:11-24 ESV)

11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers,[a] that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God,[b] and God[c] in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.

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