One of my greatest joys and blessings in ministry is being able to pray with others. I recently had one of those special opportunities when a woman who was going through a difficult time came forward unexpectedly during the middle of the Sunday service and knelt at the altar seeking prayers and God’s blessing. It was truly a Holy Spirit filled moment that deeply touched me and everyone else at the service. I was particularly moved not only by the faith of the woman who came forward, but also by the love and concern that so many other members of the congregation had for her. It was clear that God was at work touching the lives of many people during that time of prayer. It truly is an awesome thing to see God at work in prayer.
As Christians (both lay and ordained), we are all called by God to be a people of prayer. In our Baptismal Covenant we vow to “… continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”(BCP p. 417) Those called to ordained ministry take additional vows regarding prayer. When I was ordained a deacon, I vowed to “be faithful in prayer, and in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures?” (BCP p.544) At my ordination to the priesthood, I vowed to “persevere in prayer, both in public and in private, asking God’s grace, both for myself and for others” (BCP p. 532) At my consecration service ten years ago, I vowed as chief priest and pastor to: “ encourage and support all baptized people in their gifts and ministries, nourish them from the riches of God’s grace, pray for them without ceasing…” (BCP p.518)
At the age of 59, having been born and raised in the Church and called by God to a life of prayer, serving Him first as a lay person and then as a deacon, priest and bishop, I thought writing about prayer would be relatively easy. That has not proven to be the case. Yesterday, after having reached the “FINAL” — final deadline, I received the dreaded, but well deserved email from George: “Bishop…hate to be a nag…but need your article…”
With the pressure and sense of guilt mounting, I sat at my desk thinking and praying about this article and what I should say about prayer and its impact on our lives. I kept praying that the Lord would miraculously organize my thoughts (that had been swirling around for days and weeks) in such a way that the message He would have me share would flawlessly flow from my brain to my fingertips that were sitting idle on the keyboard in front of me. Much to my dismay, that didn’t happen. Having personally seen and experienced God do truly miraculous things, I certainly believe in the power of prayer and know how important it is and what a difference it can make, and yet my heart just wasn’t in writing the article. I saw writing this article as just one more thing to do in a long list of other things that needed to be done, many of which I had fallen behind on, only adding to my growing sense of frustration and guilt.
Do you ever feel that way when it comes to your prayer life? You know it’s important and something you should do, but your heart just isn’t in it, or you want to be faithful in your prayers, but there are so many other things vying for your time and attention. When faced with an ever growing “To Do List,” it is so easy and tempting to either rush through half-heartedly saying your prayers, or skipping your prayers all together and jumping right into all the demands of the day, or in some cases those alluring activities that seem to be calling your name.
I wish I could tell you that never happens to me, but I would be lying. Often when it comes to my prayer life, I feel like St. Paul when he said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15) Often, when I least want to pray is when I am in greatest need of prayer. The Lord is constantly reminding me that despite all the “business” of the day, things tend to go far better when I take time to be with Him, “being faithful and persevering” in prayer, than they do when I cave in and jump right into the day skipping or shortchanging my prayer time. Bill Hybels wrote a wonderful book on this very subject: Too Busy Not To Pray – Slowing Down to Be with God. I highly commend it.
There is no getting around the “business” of life; it is a reality – even if at times it is self- created business. While we may or may not be able to control all the demands on our time and energy, we can control whether or not we consciously invite the Lord to share in those demands and all the other aspects of our lives. God does not want to be forgotten or left on the sidelines as we go about our day, but rather He wants us to invite Him into all that we are doing, seeking His company, guidance and strength. Jesus said, “Come unto Me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” (Matthew 11:28)
There is no one better to hang out with – no one better to talk to than the Lord. Prayer is one of the chief ways we spend time with the Lord. In its truest sense, prayer is simply being open to God’s presence and responding to Him as He makes Himself known and speaks to our heart and soul and mind in whatever form that might take.
While the act of praying is much easier than we tend to think, maintaining a healthy prayer life can be a challenge. In trying to write this article on prayer, I found myself experiencing a very frustrating obstacle often encountered in my prayer life — trouble focusing. My mind kept wandering, thinking about a multitude of different things. At various times I found myself under serious spiritual attack with Satan hitting me with one temptation after another, causing me to feel very distant from God. Does that ever happen to you when you are trying to spend time with God in prayer? Once again, “faithfulness and perseverance” in prayer (especially when you find yourself under attack), is so important. Jesus told Peter, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41) Throughout the writing of this article I have been praying, “Lord please help me focus on You and the task before me. Protect me from the distractions, temptations and attacks of the evil one.”
As the clock kept ticking away and the words still weren’t coming, I went from asking the Lord to telling the Lord to give me the words to say. I was becoming more anxious and just wanted to get the article done and over with. I was feeling very much like the Psalmist who wrote, “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to You! Do not hide Your face from me in the day of my distress! Incline Your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call.” (Psalm 102:1-2). When the perfectly organized three point outline identifying all the key characteristics of prayer; the various types of prayer; and the different ways to pray, didn’t materialize on the computer screen in front of me, I found myself only getting more frustrated and angry with God, wondering where He was and why He wasn’t helping me. Aren’t You listening Lord? I have a schedule to meet. I need Your help and I need it now! There was no disguising my growing frustration and anger with the Lord. He knows every thought and feeling we have. The good news is God can handle it and continues to love us. The Psalms are ripe with honest human emotion.
One of the problems with expecting God to respond within a certain time frame is that He often operates on a different time schedule than we do. In responding to those who were questioning why Jesus had not yet returned, Peter wrote: “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”(2 Peter 3:8-9) I am convinced that there are no unanswered prayers. Sometimes the answer is yes, (and almost immediately); sometimes the answer is yes, but not yet (there are still other things that need to happen first); and sometimes the answer is no, (because the Lord has a different plan).
Sharing with God what’s on our heart and mind is an important part of our prayers and something He wants from us, unfortunately our sharing can easily turn into instructing the Lord on what He needs to do about fixing our problem — what needs to happen; when it needs to happen; and how it needs to happen, as if somehow we know better than God, or perhaps we are simply fearful that the plan the Lord comes up with might ask things of us that we are not prepared or willing to do.
When we do that, we fail to “let God be God” and often rob ourselves of witnessing the true wonder and might of “God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth” as he deals with our prayer needs in ways that we might never have imagined and far better than anything we could have done. The bottom line is: Do we trust God or not?
Writing to the Philippians, Paul said, “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:5-7) When we bring things to the Lord in prayer, it is important that we trust Him, believing that He always has our best interests in mind and that He knows us better than we know ourselves and He knows our needs better than we know them.
In writing this article, the Lord has reminded me of the stark difference between “needs” and “wants” – something we sometimes confuse in our prayers. While I wanted to write the perfect paper on prayer, as quickly as possible, God wanted me to pray. He didn’t abandon me in my struggles to write this article, but rather He allowed me to struggle so that I would be better able to encourage others who share in the struggles that are so common to many of us in our prayers lives. Maintaining a healthy prayer life takes work. It requires faithfulness and perseverance in prayer. But it is worth all our efforts. There is no greater blessing in all of creation than to be in the presence of the one true God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May God bless and encourage you in your prayer life, drawing you ever closer to Him.