Why pray at all?

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately thinking about prayer. I think with no small amount of conviction that I don’t devote enough time to this most important of activities. I think about the fact that now it will become more and more important as time passes, as we will hopefully soon be beginning a prayer ministry at FCC—an intercessory prayer ministry. I’m excited about it, and excited to be part of it. But I’ve been wondering.

What will it be like? Will other people want to do it, too? What, exactly, will we pray about? When the time comes, will God give me and others the right words? I don’t want to be a Pharisee, standing on the corner and praying at the top of my lungs so everyone can see how Holy I am. I have a lot of questions, and am looking forward to finding out the answers. But the main thing I wonder about is how, personally, will I do at it? I also ask myself if I even know how to pray effectively. Am I fit for such leadership? And what will the others involved in the ministry think of my involvement?

I realize that much of this is my own issues coming up and snapping at my heels, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel a certain sense of inadequacy from time to time. Probably I’m not alone in this. Once you come out of your prayer closet, you subject yourself not necessarily to the judgment of others, but at least to their scrutiny. And while I realize intellectually that it doesn’t matter at all to God what other people think of me (and that it shouldn’t matter to me, either) and my eloquence or lack of eloquence at prayer, some part of me still worries about it, and does not want to be subject to any opportunity for ridicule. I worry about….well, clamming up when the time comes. I worry about sounding like a tool when I do finally open my mouth.

In the introduction to his book of prayers/poems, Poet Ted Loder says “We are never restricted to repeating the prayers of our tradition, however beautiful and helpful. Nor are there “right” prayers and “wrong” prayers, or “right” ways of praying, or “right” words with which to pray…”

He goes on in his poem, “How Shall I Pray”

How shall I pray?
Are tears prayers, Lord?
Are screams prayers,
or groans
or sighs
or curses?
Can trembling hands be lifted to you,
or clenched fists
or the cold sweat that trickles down my back
or the cramps that knot my stomach?
Will you accept my prayers, Lord.
my real prayers,
rooted in the muck and mud and rock of my life,
and not just my pretty, cut-flower, gracefully arranged
bouquet of words?
Will you accept me, Lord,
as I really am,
messed up mixture of glory and grime?

I think that’s really what it’s all about. Will God accept us and our prayers? Will the people we worship with do the same? What do you say so God really hears you? I think we have to simply ask Jesus. Why not? The disciples did.

“Lord, teach us to pray…” Luke 18:1

And I think, no I believe, that the important thing is the asking; the dialogue with Jesus, even if it seems one sided. As it so often will. But much can also come from the silences of God.

So I began to flip through the word, looking for references to prayer. I was thinking of using my concordance, but I wanted to actually turn the pages myself, you know? And I suppose it’s pretty ridiculous to say it, but the first thing I discovered is that there’s a lot of prayer in the Bible. It’s kind of intimidating, actually. I won’t list everything I found here, obviously. We’d be here until the cows came home.

One thing I learned pretty much at the beginning is that it will take a lifetime to learn everything I want or need to know about prayer. And that’s OK. I suppose in a way, that’s the idea; taking a lifetime to draw nearer to Him. Often not getting any answers until the end, when you stand before God and go right or left.

So the idea is to seek him with all your heart, and then the hours, minutes and seconds are filled with the knowledge, the absolute certainty that He is at the end of the last mile, and waiting for you with open arms and a “well done, good and faithful servant.” But for that to happen–for that to have even a chance of happening, you have to start talking to him. It’s like that old saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Or in this case, a single prayer. Take these words, given to the disciples by Jesus in Matthew 6:

9 Pray like this:
Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
10 May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today the food we need,
12 and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
13 And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.

If I may indulge in a sports metaphor for a moment, it’s like running downfield with a football clutched in your arms and every enemy jersey on the field is running toward you at top speed. You know the end zone is there, even though you can’t see it through the forest of linebackers and safeties. But since you know it’s there, you struggle to find a path through the defense, and you end up twisting and turning, and yes, getting hit on your way there. And along the way, you find blockers to thrust the enemy aside; and you can sometimes open up your own “hole” in the same manner.

But how do you do that? How do you open up a hole in the enemy’s line and give yourself an opening to run downfield?

Well, one way is through practicing the spiritual disciplines and personal intercession–that is, personal prayer. You block for yourself, in a sense. I could extend the metaphor even further, but I probably ought to stop myself before I start losing people (if there are any out there reading this in the first place). I think maybe the easiest way to explain it is that it seems to me you aren’t going to get any help unless you ask for it. And ask for it. And ask for it some more, sometimes. Jesus will not force himself on anyone. We have all the freedom in the world, and what it really amounts to is that we can either ask for a life preserver or drown.

It’s just funny. Everyone has a different idea about prayer, even those who don’t do it. I imagine quite a few people think of it as a way for people who believe in something that doesn’t exist to find solace, and try to make sense out of the senseless. To make themselves feel better. Which I think is precisely the point (making sense out of the senseless)—but maybe that’s just me. And yes, I think prayer–and faith, for that matter–does make you feel better. That’s the point. It’s easy to go around feeling crappy.

Something else I noticed is that it wasn’t until I really started studying up that I realized I was remarkably deficient in that very department—that is, I had not spent nearly enough time praying, and…studying up. My discipleship was inconsistent at best, and occasionally non-existent. So I looked up “prayer” in the back of my bible and began to read (intercession is a helpful search as well).

One thing that caught my eye right away was John 14:13. “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.”

It seems obvious that God isn’t talking about asking for a pony or a new bike. I don’t believe the Holy Spirit will intercede for Christmas presents. So what’s he talking about then? Why should we ask him for anything?

Look at the text. “So that the son may bring glory to the father.” (emphasis added)

Oswald Chambers says:
Think of the last thing you prayed about—were you devoted to
Your desire or to God? Determined to get some gift of the
Spirit or to get at God? “Your Heavenly Father knoweth what
Things ye have need of before ye ask Him.” The point of asking
Is that you may get to know God better. “Delight thyself also in
The Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.”
Keep praying in order to get a perfect understanding of God Himself.

For me, the point is that when I truly began to know God, and know about Him, when I began to recognize Him as Lord at first thought instead of second, the desires of my heart began to change. That was one of the things so wonderful about Christ for me: the clarity he brings, if I ask him for it—if, when at prayer, I seek discernment, or wisdom. Though I know God wants me to bring all to Him, there comes a point when you realize just because you can ask God for a pony or new bike doesn’t mean you should. Prayer becomes more of a conduit for edification and enlightenment rather than simply a litany of wants, though it is that, too. But the wants will change with Christ.

Take Job 42:10. “After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before.”

Let me just say that I don’t expect God to make me prosperous, though I recognize that he certainly could. I guess it’s just that maybe when you get to a point where prayer is more about intercession than want, isn’t that more along the lines of what he wants us to seek in prayer? Also, note what the verse says—“after Job had prayed for his friends…” Job did not just start hurling petitions at God. He prayed for his friends, and then he was blessed. Prayer is not something to be self-centered about–it’s something that changes us from the inside out, and when we put other’s needs before our own (as the scriptures command), Jesus will meet our needs as well.

And I think of Jesus’ intercession in Gethsemane, praying so fervently his sweat fell around him like blood (Luke 21:44), and it occurs to me that maybe that’s the type of urgency that should be sought in prayer, at least once in a while.

How often have I done that? How often has anyone? I realize, of course, that prayer isn’t always about desperate entreaties. But intercession calls for something more than just thanking God and asking for a blessing, at least it seems that way to me. I mean, yes, take everything to Him. Just don’t make prayer merely about hurling petitions. Because in the lifting up of others, don’t we lift ourselves as well? And are we not drawn nearer to Him in the process (James 4:10)?

I want to draw nearer to the Lord, any way I can. I want him to draw nearer to me. I want Him to bless my family and friends, to lift them up, and to lift me up as well. I want Him to protect those I love from the enemy and his inevitable attacks. I want Him to protect me, too.

(sidebar–if you want a really great pictures of the war going on in the spiritual realms on our behalf, check out Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness)

Then I found another Oswald Chambers entry:

“We are too much given to thinking of the Cross as something we have to get through; we get through it only in order to get into it. The Cross stands for one thing only for us – a complete and entire and absolute identification with the Lord Jesus Christ, and there is nothing in which this identification is realized more than in prayer.

‘Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him.’

Then why ask? The idea of prayer is not in order to get answers from God; prayer is perfect and complete oneness with God. If we pray because we want answers, we will get huffed with God. The answers come every time, but not always in the way we expect, and our spiritual huff shows a refusal to identify ourselves with Our Lord in prayer. We are not here to prove God answers prayer; we are here to be living monuments of God’s grace.

‘I say not that I will pray the Father for you: for the Father Himself loveth you.’ Have you reached such an intimacy with God that the Lord Jesus Christ’s life of prayer is the only explanation of your life of prayer? Has Our Lord’s vicarious life become your vital life? “At that day” you will be so identified with Jesus that there will be no distinction.

When prayer seems to be unanswered, beware of trying to fix the blame on someone else. That is always a snare of Satan. You will find there is a reason which is a deep instruction to you, not to anyone else.”

Which is, I suppose, yet another way of saying God’s ways are not our ways. That’s something that’s pretty stinkin’ hard to remember sometimes, and it should be the easiest thing of all. God became human in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. But He is not, by nature, human. He is other. He is God.

Let me turn country for just a second or two–in the immortal words of Garth Brooks:

Sometimes I thank God,for unanswered prayers.
Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs,
that just because he doesn’t answer
Doesn’t mean he don’t care…
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.

How true is that? Geez. If God had answered my prayers the way I wanted Him to a couple of years ago, I’d still be in a horrible relationship and drifting farther and farther away from God.

Instead, I have been blessed beyond any expectation or agenda. I am a husband. A father.

And a son.

Decisions and choices

I read an interview with director James Cameron right after Titanic came out where he mentioned that he’d written the entire movie in order to get to the central scene between Jack and Rose on the prow of the ship

“Jack, I’m flying!”

The whole movie more or less hinges on that moment, because the story really isn’t about the sinking. Ostensibly, it’s a love story, and a more modern take on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet—or at least on the central theme of it. But really, I think, it’s about several people’s decisions, and the consequences those decisions have on their lives.

And let’s look at Romeo & Juliet, since I mentioned it. There’s a scene where Romeo is comforting Mercutio after his diatribe/discourse on Queen Mab

“Peace, good Mercutio. Thou talkst of nothing.”

and after that, he and his friends are talking about going to the party at the Capulet’s. There’ll be food there, and probably some girls. At that point in the story, Romeo is still pining away after Rosalind, and his friends are trying to get him to go to get his mind off things, and possibly even find someone else

“if love be rough with you, be rough with love…”

Romeo considers, and even though he has second thoughts

“my mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars”

he ultimately goes. We all know what happens after that.

Of course, these are both ridiculously over-dramatized examples, but they well illustrate the point that our lives are deeply affected by the decisions we make. In fact, I’ve heard it said that we are the decisions we make. I think what that means is that our lives can be profoundly affected by a single decision, whether good or bad. Lives can change in a second, and in most cases, you don’t get another chance to make the right decision if you make it wrong the first time.

This is something I’ve done badly for most of my life, to disastrous consequences each time.

While of course I can’t speak for everyone, my downfall seems to be that I often act depending on how I’m feeling at that moment, without considering that I might soon feel differently, or without seeking counsel from someone else. I don’t really consider myself and impulsive person, and probably I’m much less impulsive now that I’ve gotten married and grown up a little (I guess you’d have to ask my wife how much—might not be as much as I think. I do still love potty humor), but there was a time not long ago when that wasn’t the case.

There was a catch phrase a while back, and you saw it everywhere—on bumper stickers, ties, signs, t-shirts, etc—WWJD. What would Jesus Do?

What would Jesus do?

That’s the hard part. When I think about that now, I take from it that if you’re a Christian, you need to involve Jesus in your life on more than just Sunday. You need to ask Him what he thinks about whatever you’re planning on doing. Ask him what He would have you do in a given situation. You won’t always receive a pointed direction, but sometimes the lack of a response is all the direction you need.
But this is not as easy as it seems.

Our tendency, one would imagine, is toward self-gratification much of the time, even as Christians. What’s best for me. What do I want to do? That kind of thing.

While I can’t speak for everyone, of course, this type of thinking has really led me to some wretched decisions. In regard to living situations, and credit, money, and also in the few relationships I’ve been involved in, both as a youth and an adult.

I think of one situation in particular, and what makes it worse is that I actually did ask someone what they thought in regard to the situation, and I suppose I even knew what God would want from me. I just didn’t listen. I wanted what I wanted, and who I wanted.

Just before Valentine’s day a little less than six years ago, a girl I was very much interested in, and had been flirting with (it had began lightly, but had developed into something of a more serious nature), thought it would be a good idea to have a Valentine’s day party, and all the single people amongst our group of friends (we all worked together) would attend. She had just become single herself—separated from her husband—and I’m ashamed to say I had a part in that, as well. I knew her marriage was in trouble, and I knew all about the sanctity of marriage in the eyes of God. I didn’t care. I could rationalize my behavior because her husband was a jerk, and I deserved some happiness, damn it. And that February, since I was the only one who had my own apartment, the decision was made to have the party at my place.

This girl wasn’t a Christian, and I knew on several levels that pursuing a relationship of any sort with her would be a colossally bad idea. But she was beautiful, and seemed to like me, and I fell for her. So I decided to pursue her, even though my closest friend (who was a Christian) advised me it was a bad idea, and dangerous to my walk. She was right.

And then there came a point in the evening when it was very late and everyone was leaving. The girl and a couple more friends were still there and I remember them standing by the door and her looking back at me. “You guys go ahead,” she said. “I’m gonna hang around for a while. I’ll talk to you later.”
I didn’t even think about the consequences. I could’ve done a lot of things. I could’ve said I was tired. I could’ve said, “See you later.” I could’ve not had the party at all. But I did none of those things. I just went with the easy choice. And it took years to recover from it. I actually don’t think I fully healed from that situation until I met my wife to be, and discovered what it meant to be in a relationship that was blessed by God.

I guess my point in all this is mostly just figuring my own stuff out, or trying to. But I think I realize now that even if you don’t know God, it’s always a bad idea to go and do something just because, as the saying goes, “it seems like a good idea at the time.” Trust me. It isn’t.

Think about it, for at least a second or two. Think before you speak, and definitely think before you act. Before you buy that car, or that expensive whatever-it-is. Think. Ask someone close to you that you trust what they think, and at least consider their advice before you do anything. Sometimes cooling off will give you some much needed perspective, and sometimes that’s all you need to keep you from throwing a monkey into your life. I have, as they say, learned the hard way. I’ve made horrible financial decisions, and relationship decisions, even bad educational decisions.

And suffered the consequences. I’m actually still suffering the consequences for many of those choices if you take our present living situation into consideration. Which also means that those bad decisions I made before I even met my wife affected her as well—and my stepson.

If you do know God, then you need to pray about things before you do them, even if it’s only a quick prayer. It’s still a direct line to the most wisdom a person could ever get.

There’s another saying that also applies. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Also true.

Anyway, now I try to do the right thing as much as I can, what is right before God. I think about what things will mean to God before I do them (at least I try to–though it isn’t always easy). It might even be that I consider too much before I act, what Pastor Mike would call the “paralysis of analysis.” But anyway. Now I have people in my life that I can go to with difficult things, people that will hold my impulsive, dumb-ass self accountable. I am fortunate enough to have people in several states that actually care about me enough to try and keep me from jacking up my life any more. I will do my best to listen to them…