Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Prayer Page 1 of 5

All Things Being (Un)Equal – the Prayer Edition

My wife and I were praying together after breakfast, as we do. It was her turn, and in a context I’ve since forgotten, she included this line in her prayer, “. . . it’s been a long time. . .” and for me all concentration was gone. Whatever spiritual demeanor I had worked up for that moment, drained away and was replaced with a series of queries, each leading to another.

“Where’s that line from?”

“Oh, right – from a Led Zeppelin song. What song?”

“I can’t remember. I need to look it up. Wait, I can’t do that right now. Okay. What are the other lines?”

“Wait. Barb’s still praying. Oh, she’s almost done. I’ll look it up then.”

There you have it. Insight into the mind and heart of a Deeply Spiritual Pastor.

I joke about being a Deeply Spiritual Pastor. But it is no joke that Christians condemn themselves without mercy for the state of their prayer lives. Perhaps we do need to pray more, or more often, or with more people. Others have addressed all those questions.

The question which few address is why it is hard for some of us to meet the goals others set for us. I would like to suggest that some of us are not wired to pray like everyone else. And to consider this can be greatly freeing.

I have never done well with private prayer. Sometimes that’s because I question its power or usefulness, issues of theology and faith whose solution lies elsewhere. I have something else in mind here.

Sometimes I struggle with prayer simply because it is profoundly difficult for me to sit still. I have a good system for prayer. I flip through names on cards and recite to God my concerns for each person, and this has value. But I quickly grow antsy.

I am fine with this until I read or hear someone say that we can assess the spiritual vitality of a person by his prayer life. We can know, it is said, what a man truly believes by the quality of his prayers. And suddenly, I feel like a spiritual hamster. I follow the rules for prayer, but as for Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, no, Tim, it ain’t happening that way for me.

Should I even be a pastor? What’s wrong with me?

I know others of you struggle as well and for you I want to offer a suggestion. What if we struggle not because there is anything wrong with us, but because who we are does not fit with the majority opinion on how prayer is to be done? What if some of us are cut out of different cloth?

The cloth from which I come is sufficiently ADHD that focus is a genuine problem. Create an environment in which I am to be alone with my thoughts and distractions come easy. Let a lyric from an old song cross my mind and I’ll chase that squirrel and cannot help myself. That should not reflect poorly on my or your spiritual vitality.

Maybe the way some of us are wired makes it fundamentally more difficult for us to pray privately than others. Maybe we are not like those spiritual giants whom we are told we are to emulate because we have, in fact, a more slippery hill to climb.

I posed these questions to my good friend and reluctant mentor Larry Edison, whose response was to write a book reflecting on the unique challenges that those with unique neurology face when sitting down (if they sit!) to pray. I know of no one else saying these things.

Notice the credentials following Larry’s name.

Larry does not want us to use diagnoses as an excuse for sin. At the same time he wants to liberate those whose minds work differently from the templates and paradigms laid down by those who write the standard books. The guilt for non-conformity and the shame of inability is already great in other ways for those with an a-typical mind. We would never tell a person with paralyzed legs that they must climb the stairs or the blind that they must admire a piece of an art. Why then do we insist that those incapable of focus should judge the quality of their spiritual lives by their conformity to a certain paradigm of mental focus?

It’s freeing to be told that perhaps prayer is more difficult because one’s brain is wired differently those who write the books and that is okay.

Always practical, Larry is honest about ways he has found to “pray without ceasing” that fit the way his ADHD brain works. You can judge the quality of a man by his prayers. But not if you force him to pray like everyone else.

The cover alone will encourage those of us with attention struggles. It was drawn for Larry by his good friend Tom Armstrong, creator of the syndicated comic strip Marvin.

Prayer will always be a struggle for Christians. It is, by nature, a declaration of dependence upon another, and our flesh will resist that. Let’s just make sure we are struggling with our flesh, and not with the expectations placed on us by well-intentioned but overzealous Christians. It’s encouraging to know that Right for me may be Different from the good people who write the books.

For those of you who have “read” this far, but not retained a word, I understand you completely. The information you are looking for is “Rock and Roll” released by Led Zeppelin in 1972.

Preparing for Silence

A week ago Monday I pulled into the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery set in the beautiful rolling hills of Western Kentucky. Gethsemani is home to brothers of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance. At Gethsemani the monks (including author Thomas Merton until his death in 1968) continue the monastic disciplines of prayer, silence and labor as it has been practiced there for the past 170 years and around the world for nearly a millennium. For ordinary people like me the Abbey provides a place where one might sample a period of silence and reflection, and so I had come.

I was directed to a modest third floor room that would be my home for five days. It had once housed a monk for life. On the desk were a schedule of meals and times of prayer and the ubiquitous FAQ answers. Were I in charge, I’d add a page to that stack to adequately prepare new ‘retreatants’. It would say something like this:

  1. Be prepared to be silent. There are specified places for talking, but signage nearly everywhere reminds one of the rule of silence. Shocking as this may be to us used to constant noise, it IS a balm to one’s inner introvert.
  2. Be prepared to be silent. I know. I already said that. But your hosts mean it. You will find yourself wondering whether to say things like ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you’ (you may). You will need to suppress the urge to ask others for their names and hometowns and stories. They will remain strangers. But they are there to hear from God, not you. So, as much as this is a challenge to your inner extrovert, be silent.
  3. Be prepared to be well fed with three precisely timed (7:00, 12:30, and 6:00) meals of simple and wholesome food.
  4. Be prepared to not find beer. These are not the Trappists who brew. These ones make fruitcake and fudge. Sorry.
  5. Be prepared to look at these men as if they are some kind of zoo animal. (“O, look! There goes one!”) Monks are rare, after all.
  6. Be prepared to climb. There is an elevator that serves the newer portion of the retreat house, but it is so slow that I fear if I entered with a green banana on the ground floor it would be rotten by the third. To get a cup of tea from my room required 140 stairs. I counted. Of course I did.
  7. Be prepared to be awakened at 3AM by the bell in the bell tower. (Your

    The Bell

    window is open because there is no AC in these rooms. The bell therefore sounds like it is hovering, oh, three feet above your bed.) Vigils are at 3:15 (followed through the day by lauds, terce, sext, none, vespers, and, before bed, compline). These monks are serious about prayer and think you might want to join them. Even at 3:00AM. (I did. Once.)

  8. Be prepared to be drawn into these rhythms of prayer and psalm. I found myself at times checking my watch so that I might sit in the back of the church and bring my own heart and its concerns to their scheduled times of prayer.
  9. Be prepared to be different – to not like it. Some of us don’t like silence. Some of us reflect better in a library surrounded by books or in a coffee shop with a laptop than we do sitting in a garden or in a church. That’s okay.
  10. Be prepared to sleep. It’s not being lazy. It’s called rest.

I left my ‘cell’ early Friday, summoned by the 3AM bell, trudging down 70 stairs and out into the darkness and back to the ‘real’ world. I left having grown fond of the place in spite of its oddities.

And I left sent on my way by prayer, by men devoting their lives to that “useless” endeavor.

Prayer and Broken Relationships

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

Several weeks ago, a reader asked in a comment for clarification regarding what we called one of prayer’s ‘limiting factors’. Circumstances prevented a rapid response, so it now seems better to reply here as one more post dedicated to prayer.

The questioner asked for clarification regarding the fifth limiting factor. This suggested that prayer might be hindered by ‘broken and unreconciled relationships’. The kind of relational brokenness in view is pictured here:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7)

As a husband, this verse is sobering. Mistreatment of my wife will not be tolerated by a just and compassionate heavenly Father and may even cause him to turn a deaf ear to my prayers. Crump is very careful in how he develops this, however. One might say that in my weakness, I’m rarely treating Barb in an ‘understanding way’. Am I always to despair of my prayers being heard? Crump anticipates such concerns.

Persistent mistreatment of brothers and sisters in Christ inhibits our ability to communicate with the Father, and this Father never turns a blind eye to domestic abuse. Until the perpetrators repent and seek the necessary reconciliation, their petitions will remain ineffective.

The question whether there are relationships unreconciled in our lives and hindering our prayers is one that is worth asking. Nevertheless we should not become desperately self-critical.

It would certainly be disheartening to imagine that none of my petitions have any hope of ever being heard by God until every aspect of all my relationships are put in perfect working order. If that were the case, all petition becomes hopeless again! Fortunately, by revisiting the original contexts we are reminded that the New Testament writers were addressing deliberate, persistent misbehavior. The sinner refuses to change despite (a) the sin having been openly confronted and (b) the necessary correction having been explained and then ignored. Consequently because the culprit willfully ignores God’s word, the Father may choose to ignore his or her prayers.

Self-examination is always appropriate, but perfection is never in view. God welcomes prayers from his most broken and inconsistent and weary disciples. Just keep praying.

God Is Faithful

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

I wrote this series with the presumption that not many, if any, readers of this blog would actually pick up David Crump’s book and read it. I hope I’ve done justice to it in my summary. As I’ve said, I need regular and frequent encouragement to ‘just keep praying’ and this book does that for me. I hope this summary has done so for you. I hope that we remember, through our tears and fears and doubts and questions, that he cares and hears. Just keep praying.

Early this summer I corresponded with David Crump about his book and about this series. (As much as I could – I emailed him through his publisher, and he was kind enough to email me back.) Even in this, I was encouraged, and determined to share a portion of that correspondence with you, as a fitting conclusion to this series.

I am reminded of a conversation I had when I was speaking at a denominational prayer conference in LA.

Before speaking the fellow introducing me asked, “Having written a book on prayer, what is the most important lesson you have learned from your study?”

I told him, “Though I still struggle with it, I have learned to believe that God is always faithful.”

I could tell from his face that he was a bit disappointed. “God is faithful. That’s it?” (I suspect that he was hoping to hear something about the power of prayer. We Americans are obsessed with power.)

Yep. That’s it. When we stop to think about it, what could be more important? Though I struggle to appreciate, much less fully apprehend, how completely all of my life hangs on those three little words, God is faithful.

Jesus Loves Me

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

These sentences from the final chapter of Crump’s book capture the struggle many of us have with prayer. It’s not with form or method or discipline or time. It’s with God.

“What kind of God allows such horrific tragedies to screech their unkempt nails across the cosmic blackboard…. Is there any rhyme or reason to the discordant notes and garbled syllables spat out at us by this occasional nightmare called life?…. There is a Grand Canyon-sized difference between theological answers that satisfy intellectually and a living faith that sustains a broken heart long after all sense and sensibility have evaporated from a tear-stained life.” (278, 279)

My prayer life has been forged over the past several years in a world in which those reflections seem very real. And I know that the same is true for some of you. And sometimes the theological answers that seemed so satisfactory to us at age 19 begin to seem a bit tenuous from the standpoint of a broken and tear-stained life. Are there answers? And where, if at all, does petitionary prayer fit into such a world?

These are the questions that Crump addresses in his final chapter. He proposes answers but in the end, I think there are no completely satisfactory answers other than those that lie on the surface of scripture. God is sovereign. He invites us, in fact commands us, to pray. His prophets prayed as if such praying was the ‘sinew that moved the arm of omnipotence’ (an evocative phrase from another fairly good writer, Charles H. Spurgeon). Jesus prayed that way, and Paul prayed that way. All believed in the absolute sovereignty of God and all prayed as if their prayers moved the hand of God. And if there was no conflict in their minds, how can I let such a conflict exist in mine?

And so, I ask. I ask for things that seem impossible now. I plead for God to bring more of his not-yet kingdom into my already experience. I plead for others that their tears may be taken away and that they might taste at least a small amount of happiness. I beg him to do things that I can’t really see him doing. I ask out of faith, foolishness, confidence and unbelief, and sometimes all at the same time. I do so because he says to do so, and I do so because he is my Father. I do so to hasten the kingdom and I do so to find solace in my own heart.

The one thing that causes me to stop praying is not losing confidence in prayer and it is not my inability to get sovereignty and responsibility to lay down arms. I lose confidence in prayer when I forget that I am loved by a heavenly Father who, for all the mystery surrounding him, loves to give. So perhaps the best place to find rejuvenation, in the end, is here:

“Jesus loves me, this I know,
for the Bible tells me so.”

Excursus: Evocative Turns of Phrase

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

The primary reason I have found myself coming back to this book is because it makes me want to pray more. It does so not through anecdotes of great practitioners of prayer (apart from Jesus and Paul) which often leave me overwhelmed and under-equipped, but rather through a careful unfolding of the biblical teaching about prayer.

Crump unfolds this biblical teaching with a detailed attention to what the text means and not to what we might want it to mean. In the process, he elevates the reader’s appreciation for the authority and sufficiency of the Bible. That is a gift.

As well, I appreciate the satisfying blend of scholarly rigor and pastoral sensitivity. I don’t know David Crump – though I think I wish I did – but he has clearly spent time out of his books and in the lives of Christian people stumbling like the rest of us through life ‘with wandering steps and slow’.

Further, Crump weaves into his presentation a knowledge of the fundamentalist/evangelical tradition’s misrepresentation of some aspects of prayer. But he does so with gentleness and respect. He is critical, but not with meanness or mockery. That is a gift. Where possible, he illustrates these aspects and his own wrestling with them with illustrations from his own life, but never to distraction.

But all of this he presents with a style that is accessible and often evocative. In these later chapters, for example, I am captured by some of his phrases.

“[Mark 14’s account of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane] confronts its reader with [a dense] constellation of Christological conundrums….” (255)

“Even the best of intentions frequently run aground on the shoals of execution. Commitment fades. Resolve melts away, leaving only the frail skeleton of human vacillation.” (260)

“[God] remains unmoved by selfishness, no matter how emphatically it is launched heavenward.” (276)

Never is his writing unnervingly flowery or trite. It is evocative and thoughtful, and a pleasure to read. (And he does it all without once quoting C. S. Lewis. He may the only contemporary evangelical author able to pull that off.)

Click to go to the next post in this series.

Prayer’s Limiting Factors

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

The unquestionable benefit of Crump’s book in my life is that as he strips some of the evangelical and fundamentalist encrustations that have been attached to the idea of prayer, I have been left with a greater desire to pray. That is no small feat. But the nagging question of whether prayer ‘matters’ never quite goes away. “If God is sovereign….” is the thought that continually flits around the edges of our praying minds and hearts.

But that question is not one that ever seems to trouble the writers of scripture. They write as if in fact prayer does have an impact upon the movement of God. How and when and why are not addressed. All our questions fall off into the abyss of mystery, but we are told to pray, and we are encouraged to believe, with integrity, that prayer does in fact shape the future. Obviously sometimes, and for some of us it may feel more like ‘all the time’, God answers our requests with a ‘no’. But what father does not?

In concluding his study through the New Testament with a look at the references to prayer in the remaining books, Crump summarizes what we might properly understand to be factors that limit the effectiveness of our prayers, if ‘effective’ is defined as receiving an affirmative answer the the plea. These six factors are worth simply noting here, hoping that those interested enough to have come with me this far will either grab the book or ask me for clarification.

Those six factors are as follows:

1. The failure to ask

2. God’s unwillingness to bless selfishness

3. Foolish prayer

4. Prayer encouraging or arising from disobedience

5. Prayer in the context of broken and unreconciled relationships

and ultimately, of course,

6. The sovereign wisdom of God’s timing

Crump wisely and helpfully reminds us, as he has done often in the book, that these are not ‘rules’ or ‘laws’ of prayer. God is a person. God is not a vending machine into whom we pour the proper coinage. He is a person, and prayer is a conversation between two persons. As he says,

“As in any personal relationship, certain attitudes and behaviors are more or less conducive than others to open communication.” (page 275)

It serves us well to remember that prayer is not the manipulation of the forces of the spiritual or natural world. It is not, as we have said, magic. Prayer is the approach of children to their father who loves to give.

Click to go to the next post in this series.

Prayer: No Cape Required

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

We are very skilled at creating superheroes out of ordinary human beings. We do it with the celebrities of contemporary culture and we do it with the celebrities of our religious tradition. Consider, for example, Saul, a Jewish rabbi from the city of Tarsus. Upon his conversion to Christianity he became Paul the Apostle, planting and nurturing the church in significant cities throughout the Roman Empire and writing letters that form a significant portion of the New Testament canon. We are not content that he remain merely human. We make him into a superhero.

Superheroes don’t have weaknesses. Superheroes are not flawed. And ordinary people cannot identify with what it means to be a superhero much less do the things that he does. So, no doubt Paul in his letters says a great deal about prayer and demonstrates even more, but we can’t be expected to pray like a superhero.

And that is the downside of elevating a flawed person like Paul to superhero status. Paul himself does not do that. In Paul’s engagement with prayer, we find a person, like us, who prays, who struggles, and who points us down paths that we can, in fact, pursue.

First, it is worth noting that Paul, like us, struggled to know how and what to pray. Paul is no stranger to the 2nd person pronoun, but he chooses the first when he says,

“For we do not know what to pray for as we ought…,” (Romans 8:26”).

We are not alone in struggling to know what to pray.

Secondly, though Paul confessed weakness in prayer, he still prayed. A lot. And he prayed expecting that it actually compelled God to act, even though there were prayers to which he didn’t get the answers he sought. Paul prayed as if it mattered, and so should we. Can we put this together in a nice, tight theological bundle? No. David Crump reminds us,

“…we need to acknowledge that a text can answer only what it was written to address, and very few texts ever address all the questions we would like to raise.” (page 210)

We need to be Biblical first and foremost. Paul, the great theologian of the absolute sovereignty of God prayed as if prayer impacted God’s actions. So should we.

The third thing I, at least, learn from Paul is that too often I pray for the wrong things. Specifically, Paul encouraged prayer with thanksgiving; I forget how to be grateful, much less to express it.

Further, Paul prayed time and again that his correspondents would grow in love for God and for one another and deepen in their faith. Those priorities too easily get lost in my prayer life. To pray deeply for another means that I come to know what they really need, not just what they want. It’s often simpler to pray for your new job and or your pesky cold and leave it at that. But Paul doesn’t, and neither should I.

These are not superhero things. They rather picture a man who struggling to pray nevertheless believes in prayer. We can’t be superheroes. But we can be this.

And we don’t even need a cape.

Click to go to the next post in this series.

Prayer and the Practice of a Flawed Church

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

If you prayed recently for a non-Christian to be saved, you did something that, as far as we can tell, no one in the church recorded in Acts ever did. That does not make what you did wrong, but it does make it curious.

As the New Testament unfolds, we begin to see the ways in which the newly Spirit-filled church prayed. It is surprising that no where in all of the book of Acts, no where in all of the account of the phenomenal expansion of Christianity, no where (but possibly once, Acts 26:29, which in my mind has more of the feel of a rhetorical device) in the history of the works of the Spirit among this newly anointed people do we see anyone or any group praying for unbelievers to come to faith in Jesus. Rather, time and again they pray for believers to be bold.

Is that something worth noting? I think so. Crump makes an important case suggesting that we ought never to idolize the past, even if that past is divinely recorded. And yet we can learn much from these early saints, particularly what God has chosen to reveal about them.

As I think about this ‘lack’ among the Christians in Acts, I realize that it is easy to pray for unbelievers. When I do that I’m asking God to do something with them, while I sit safely in my study or in my small group or in my pew. To pray rather that God would give me and my Christian friends boldness requires a different frame of mind. It requires that I actually want to be bold and that I believe in something worth being bold about. It requires that God act on ME before he acts on others, and I may not be sure that I want that. But that hesitation did not hinder the Christians in Acts. They prayed for boldness, for God to act on THEM.

Something else these early Christians did not pray for was protection. Their’s was a volatile and hostile setting, but they prayed that they might be engaged in God’s kingdom work, not that God would put up hedges and protect them from the fray. As taught by the Lord’s Prayer, they cared more for God’s glory and kingdom than their own personal peace. Our prayers are more likely to be prayers seeking comfort than seeking his kingdom. We are more likely to pray for proper political leaders than to pray for boldness. And this contrast should unsettle us.

The church in Acts was a flawed bunch, as every manifestation of the church in history has been. And yet, it has left us an exemplary model of prayer. These Christians prayed together (a point we too often overlook!), and they prayed for the kingdom (rather than for comfort). In so doing they opened themselves up to the work the Spirit would do, and the world has never been the same.

Click to go to the next post in this series.

Magic, Mystery, and Prayer in Jesus’ Name

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

The phrase ‘in Jesus’ name’ is experienced by many of us as the (often long awaited) indicator that prayer has finally ended. Since it is so much more than that its true power and significance needs to be rescued. The Gospel of John helps us in that rescue.

Crump helpfully observes that with the way we use the language of prayer, or the way we might insist on setting or posture or other matters of ‘propriety’ we turn prayer into something that looks more like a magical incantation. No longer are we speaking honestly with our heavenly father and king. Rather we are stringing together the right phrases in the right way in an effort to move the spirits to do our bidding. There is nothing but hopelessness down that path.

This is what we do when we insist that for a prayer to ‘work’ we must end it with ‘in Jesus’ name’. In reality, the point is not the words we use but the spirit we bring.

All that Jesus did, he did in the name of his Father. That is, he lived and acted and spoke in complete submission to the Father. To pray ‘in Jesus’ name’ is to pray like Jesus lived, as completely sold out to and longing for his kingdom. The words we use do not matter.

As well, to pray in his name is to invoke his authority. The fact that we have the right in the first place to be standing in the presence of the Father is owed solely to Jesus’ past and present and ongoing intercession on our behalf. We come marked as his and so can expect that our prayers will be heard as his. These are both huge encouragements toward prayer, but do not require the use of particular words.

To pray ‘in Jesus’ name’ also implies that we come with Jesus’ sense of submission to the Father.
A difficulty in the gospel and letters of John is how he repeatedly speaks of praying ‘according to God’s will’. Some conclude that God’s will is fixed and that prayer is not something that shapes the future but is only a part of that will which God has fixed. Our prayer is as ordained as the results. For most of us, Crump included, this does not seem satisfying or biblically right. He hazards some suggestions as to how prayer and the Father’s will reconcile, but they are only satisfying when the mystery is allowed to stand. Scripture does not answer all the complications that life in the presence of an infinite, wise and eternal God will raise. Scripture tells me to pray, to ask for things, and to do so in submission to him and in the authority of his son. I cannot peer into the mystery of what effect such prayers have, but I have to believe that the God who presents them as genuine and effective means us to understand them that way. There is no ‘magic’ in prayer but there is mystery. We speak to a Father who effects our desires as he sees fit, and we trust him to do so. Using the phrase ‘in Jesus’ name’ helps us to remember that.

There was a day not too long ago when I was in great distress and in a fairly public place. I found refuge on a low wall separated from the sidewalk by some bushes and trees. But I was still clearly visible, and clearly crying. A woman with a Bible saw me and kindly asked about my welfare. We spoke briefly and she asked if she could pray for me. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Hers was not a shy prayer; it was not a quiet prayer; it was not a timid prayer. She sensed every dimension of my need and lifted each up to God in turn, separating each with the urgent and vigorously spoken refrain, “In JESUS name!”

She was appealing to the Father on my behalf in the authority of the Son. I will never forget the power of that refrain, or the comfort it brought.

Click to go to the next post in this series.

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