"And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should."
It's funny how things work together sometimes. Because of an experience I had while in New York last week, I had planned to write a post about prayer today, and at church yesterday morning, the focus was also put on prayer, with the above passage being the text for the sermon. Apparently, this is a thought that God especially wants to drill into my head.
The truth is that I'm a poor pray-er. (I'm also afraid that this post could be terribly confusing in that "prayer" in the sense of "one who prays" looks exactly the same as "prayer" as "a petition made to God." So when I mean the former sense, I'll write it as "pray-er.") But honestly, one of the many failings in my life is that I need to learn to pray better. That phrase "pray better" sounds inappropriate because, after all, aren't all prayers precious? Isn't any prayer a good one? Maybe so, but some prayer lives are weaker than others, and I know that there is a great deal of room to grow in mine, and I know all of us have at least some need for maturation in how we pray. I know that for me, my prayers are far too infrequent, bland, vague, and wishy-washy. When I do pray, my thoughts are bombarded by daydreams and distractions, and I hurry through the whole ordeal so that I can get to something else. Very different from the devotion and focus that the Bible calls us to and that Jesus exemplified.
I was in New York City last week for a class. New York was amazing, and the trip will probably be influencing my next few posts. One of my favorite times of the week was Tuesday evening when our class attended the prayer service at Brooklyn Tabernacle. The pastor at Brooklyn Tabernacle is a guy named Jim Cymbala, who wrote a book called Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire. It's all about how the church grew dramatically because of constant, powerful prayer. Prayer lies at the foundation of Brooklyn Tabernacle; it's its lifeblood and fuel. Walking into the building, the most noticeable feature was that almost the entire congregation was black. In part because of that culture, and in part because of other factors, the way the people prayed was a little different than what I was used to. None of it was done in a way that attracted attention to the pray-ers, nor was it chaotic. But people were crying out to God in ways that are not often seen in churches I have been to, and it was both refreshing and challenging. There was an especially powerful time of prayer because Tuesday was the day of the earthquake the devastated Haiti, and they had all of the people at Brooklyn Tabernacle from that nation go up on stage and the entire church prayed for that situation.
While it's unfortunate to say, many church in America come nowhere close to the dedication to prayer present at Brooklyn Tabernacle. In many churches, prayer functions as a time of transition between segments of the service than it does as a dynamic means of communication with God. We use it as a means to let the worship band get to their instruments while congregants have their eyes closed, or we use it to recap the three main points of our sermon before the invitation hymn. At Brooklyn Tabernacle, however, it's at the center. They have awareness of needs both in the world and among themselves, and they pray faithfully, truly believing that God is able and willing to reach into the world and make existence better, to allow his kingdom to be come. Their prayers are rich, not because they use King James-y language or lift up their hands, but because they pray heartfelt, earnest, urgent prayers. Conversely, in our prayers, both individually and corporately, we use a lot of words to say very little. I spend time in prayer and later think, "Man, I don't really even feel like I prayed for anything."
Although done differently than Brooklyn Tabernacle, we had a pretty great prayer experience at Carterville yesterday. As I mentioned, the topic for the day was prayer, and throughout the worship service, times of prayer were mixed in among the songs. So we would sing a song, and one of the leaders would say a few things, and then we would spend time in prayer for things like Haiti or families or how God can use us. Prayer was intertwined with the rest of the service. And I think that's sort of how prayer should work its way into our lives. Prayer needs to be the underlying fabric that weaves itself throughout our days. Ongoing conversation with God, not just a few minutes of filler.
Maybe the best way to become a better pray-er is to be around good pray-ers. I had that opportunity a couple years ago when I was on Ozark's camp teams with two girls who were great pray-ers, and I learned a lot about prayer from both of them. Joni modeled a life of specific and faithful prayer. While others may pray things like, "God, help me be a good witness for you," she would pray something like, "God, give me an opportunity to speak with So-and-So this week, and give me the words to say." And then she would really believe that God would answer that prayer. Maybe the reason our prayers aren't as effective as we would like is that we present foggy requests instead of specific ones.
From the other girl on my camp team, Kaylene, I was able to see the importance of persistence in prayer. Jesus talked about that when he told a story about a widow repeatedly pleading to a judge that she be given justice. For a long time the judge denies her request, but eventually he obliges. There is value in continuing to ask for something, and thankfully, God doesn't get annoyed with our constant requests as easily as most parents do with their children. But faith is proven most in silence, when we don't know if God will work things out the way we expect, but we continue to pray.
Last year I read The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, and if you want to be challenged and inspired by someone who had this prayer thing down, I highly recommend it. It's an area where none of us are at complete maturation, and as with most aspects of being a Christian, we need to grow in it every day.
I mentioned a while back about the possibility of my friend Caitlyn and I co-writing a post together. She's smarter than me in a lot of ways, and she said that she finally has an idea, so we'll be working on that for next time. Try to contain your excitement. I know it's hard.