Remember Batfink? No, I didn’t think so.
You probably didn’t grow up watching obscure cartoons on Saturday mornings in the 1980s. Or maybe you did! Batfink was one of my favourites—a super-hero . . . and a bat! No, he wasn’t related to the caped crusader. No spotlights in the sky. Batfink was a funny-looking bat, complete with bright yellow lycra suit and red boots and gloves, who arrived just in time to save the day. But his defining feature was his metallic wings which gave rise to his catch-phrase—which sticks with me to this day—‘My wings are like a shield of steel’. And it’s that catchphrase I want to draw your attention to today.
My wings are like a shield of steel.
I’ve been wondering if perhaps we sometimes use prayer requests like that.
It’s an unhealthy habit I first spotted during my time at bible college. My year was organised into small groups with the aim of fostering relational connection and pastoral care. My group included a wise, challenging, and godly theologian whose married name is now Rebecca McLaughlin. You may have heard of her.
As we were sharing prayer requests one week, she challenged the largely male group with words to this effect: ‘Stop asking for prayer for your wife—I want to know how I can pray for you personally.’ I’m not quoting her precisely—she would have expressed herself more graciously—but her point was profound.
This time of prayer was meant to be a way of deepening our relationships and supporting one another. But rather than revealing anything about ourselves, we were directing the prayer attention elsewhere. Whether this was a conscious act or not is a moot point. The result was that we didn’t really get to know each other any more deeply. Relational depth suffered.
Let me be clear that it’s not a bad thing to ask for prayer for your wife. And no doubt there are times when this really is the most important request you can make. Please pray for my wife, she’s facing huge challenges right now. But this is to miss the point. As I reflect on this now, I can see a pattern that has repeated itself over and over again through the years, in many different groups and contexts.
Prayer requests can become like ‘shields of steel’. We use them to protect ourselves. We direct our friends’ attention away from us and towards what we consider to be more ‘noble’ and important causes. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we do this to avoid self-disclosure, honesty, and vulnerability. I was reminded of this recently during a conversation with a friend (who’s also in full-time ministry). His wife had noticed a similar pattern in the way he responded to requests for prayer. Let’s call her Sally (not her real name).
Is there any hope for us inveterate Batfink pray-ers?
Well, Batfink had a second catchphrase. ‘My supersonic sonar radar will help me!’ I confess this is how my brain has stored the memory, but it is from almost forty years ago! Perhaps it lacked the ‘sonar’. I can’t be sure. But you can’t miss the point, can you? His supersonic sonar radar had the power to cut through things. It was his secret weapon and it helped him save the day.
I think Sally had come up with just such a supersonic sonar radar to help us cut through the prayer request impasse. She had noticed that her husband, like me and many others, possessed a real nervousness about sharing deeply. At times, we have steel-like shields around our hearts. Speaking theologically, our default position has more in common with Adam’s ‘behind the bush’ behaviour in Genesis 3 than with exhibiting our freedom in Christ.
Sally’s secret weapon solution?
When we ask someone, ‘how can I pray for you?’ and they request prayer for their friend, Algernon, she recommends a supersonic sonar radar response. Here it is.
‘I don’t know Algernon, but I would love to pray for you. How is Algernon’s situation affecting you? How is it making you feel? What can I pray for you that might be of help to Algernon?’
So much better. She’s Batfink!
So, what is she suggesting? Like a good counsellor, she is refusing to be misdirected. She remains laser-focused on her priority, which is to show intentional care for the person in front of her. I won’t let you hide. I want to show I care for you, so please answer one of these questions. We can talk about Algernon another time. This is your time. Those are her thoughts.
As I listened to Sally’s suggestion, I realised it would help me when leading a prayer meeting myself. No more hiding and misdirection among those gathered to share and connect more deeply. But I also felt challenged personally. I know this is an area in which I also need to grow. At times, my own ‘wings of steel’ need to be clipped.
What about you?
When someone next asks you, ‘how can I pray for you?’ how wiIl you respond? May I suggest a few possibilities?
I will start by being honest about the challenges I’m facing, asking for prayer for myself.
I will be as open as I can, without being inappropriate about my boundaries. I’m quite aware of what can be shared in a group, and what should only be for the ears of my spouse and counsellor.
If I’m feeling weak, I will admit that I’m feeling weak.
If I need advice, I will seek it.
I will not hide or pretend.
I will avoid the bad habit of directing attention towards others in order to hide or protect myself.
As you grow in this area, I encourage you to use a supersonic sonar radar response when you hear others straying into this bad Batfink habit of using a ‘shield of steel.’
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but people tend to mirror the openness of the leader. If we are open, vulnerable, and honest, others feel that they have permission to act in a similar manner.
So we need to take initiative in this area. We cannot allow our communities to become places where people hide. They are hiding for a reason, and normally it has to do with their own hidden pain. God cares about that, and his grace is abundant. So it’s time we cared enough to ‘push’ a little, to express our desire to pray specifically for those whom God has placed in our circle.
Not Algernon. Not their relatives.
When we say, ‘how can I pray for you?’ we must mean it. We must break down those ‘shields of steel’ we place around our hearts. And we must encourage others by stepping forward ourselves and being honest about our own struggles. Not Algernon’s.
St. Paul has given us a wonderful example of vulnerability, and so I leave you with the following verse from his second letter to the Corinthians.
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Cor 12.9b-10