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A Life Of Prayer

Matt. 14:23-  And after he [Jesus] had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,…; (NRSV)

Peter Marshall once began a Senate session with this prayer, “O Lord, forgive us for thinking that prayer is a waste of time, and help us to see that without prayer our work is a waste of time.”*

I once calculated that a little over 4% of all my sermons as a pastor had been on prayer.  So I averaged about 2 sermons a year on prayer.  They included a series of sermons on “The Lord’s Prayer.” Some of the titles were “The Most Difficult Prayer To Pray,” “The Least Understood Prayer,” “Jesus’ Prayer For His Church,” “A Pastor’s Prayer,” “When Praying Seems Hopeless,” “A Prayer For The Right Stuff,” and “The Ultimate Weapon.” Of course, I talked about prayer at other times, mentioned it in other sermons and I hope made prayer a significant part of my life.

But, I have to confess that when I talk to you about a life of prayer, I feel a little like the parent who says, “Don’t do as I do, but do as I say.”  Because, in my life, it is more about need and aspiration and goal than achievement.

Notice how this is labeled—“A life of prayer.”  I did not say we need to pray. Or this is how to pray, etc.  When I first thought those words, I was probably thinking more like that. But I realized it’s much more.

It is true of course that a Christian ought to engage in the activity of prayer a lot. A life of prayer certainly means we pray much. We pray with breadth—in and for all things, all forms, places and times. Sometimes we even pray with urgency and depth.

But a life of prayer can never be confined to formal prayer—in church, specific places, times, causes, etc., no matter how frequent or intense.  That is relatively easy. They may be activities of a life which is characterized by something else.

A life of prayer brings God and his work into sharp focus. In a little book more than fifty years ago, Roslind Rinker wrote: “Prayer’s real purpose is to put God at the center of our attention, and forget ourselves and the impression we are making on others.” (Conversing With God, 5)

It is of course to speak with God. But Martin Luther put this in perspective when he said, “The fewer the words…the better the prayer.” Because it is about listening to God. The great missionary Frank Laubach once said, “God is speaking all the time, all the time, all the time.” We need to hear what God is saying.

Prayer is not just utilitarian, how we get something. A life of prayer is in some sense an end in itself. William Law put it this way: “Prayer is the nearest approach to God and the highest enjoyment of him that we are capable of in this life.”

I understand why the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  Even more help us to live a life of prayer.




Praying for Effect

Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers. -Ephesians 6:18

Praying is an important human activity. Historically Christians have believed it essential:

John Wesley, the father of the Methodist movement, said, “God will do nothing but in answer to prayer.”
S.D. Gordon said, “The greatest thing anyone can do for God and for man is to pray….”You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.”
E.M. Bounds: “God shapes the world by prayer. The more praying there is in the world the better the world will be, the mightier the forces against evil.”

It seems the American people agree. A 2010 survey by the National Opinion Research Center determined that 86% of Americans pray; 57% pray at least once a day and 75% at least once a week. Surely then for Christians, the percentage is much higher. Certainly our church does a lot of praying. We have our prayer lists, prayer chains, prayer groups, prayer teams, prayer meetings. We invoke and “benedict” every meeting or occasion and have several prayers in every service. We request prayer for ailments, troubles, decisions, for friends, relatives, ourselves. The last thing we need is someone telling us to pray—right? Maybe, but why does our praying sometimes seem to make so little difference? How can we pray “for effect” so to speak?

Maybe the problem is not so much how often or how much we pray but the nature of our prayers. The most obvious characteristic of our praying is we pray “for.” We are asking for something we want from God—healing, direction, comfort, strength, peace. Now that’s appropriate and important but not primary. And until we get the order right, our praying will be less than what God intends.

Christian prayer begins with listening to God. In silence, in meditation, reflection but most of all the context of the Scriptures. Then we need to respond in praise, adoration and action.

As Eugene Peterson says, such praying is essential to keep the reality of the Good News (vs Bad News) as a basis for living:

“It is hard to believe and much-denied…The sheer quantity of wreckage around us is appalling: wrecked bodies, wrecked marriages, wrecked careers, wrecked plans, wrecked families, wrecked alliances, wrecked friendships, wrecked prosperity” (Peterson, Working The Angles, 15)

It is also essential to maintaining our relationship to God. Only as prayer fills that place in our life can we really pray for effect. Only then does it change us and change the world.

The Difference Maker

My former District Superintendent, Chuck Kellogg, tells this story from his time in Vietnam.  He said his unit lost 19 men in combat.  One of the men a Californian, Bill Rhodes, was killed on February 6, 1971. “Bill was not a believer in Christ.  But a Sgt. Avery frequently witnessed to Bill and the rest of us about matters of faith and prayed for all of us.

            Sgt. Avery felt compelled to visit Bill’s mother (Avery lives in California).  He was very apprehensive about doing so.  Upon arrival Bill’s mother warmly greeted Sgt. Avery.  She has a letter in her hand written by her son, Bill.  He said he had accepted Jesus Christ as his savior and Lord and he wanted her, his mother, to be the first to know.  The letter was dated February 5th.”

            Prayer, what a mystery—what a power!  We often never know the effects of our prayers.  But God assures us they are effective—James 1:16b The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

            Want to make a difference in a life, in the world?  Pray.   Check out Messiah’s Prayer Team Ministry.

“Prayer—Just Do It”

“I remember you in my prayers….pray…for all God’s people.  And…me….” -Ephesians 1:16b; 6:18,19

Someone once said, “Ask a Baptist for $50—he’ll say, “let’s pray.”‘
‘”Call on a Methodist to pray—he’ll say, “here’s $50.”‘

The reason that is funny is that Methodists (at least the modern ones) are not noted for their praying.  Most of us will certainly acknowledge the need to pray but look on it a little like the little boy who one day asked his grandmother to take him to the circus.

She replied, “I can’t, I’ve got  to go to go to Prayer Meeting.”
He thought for a minute and said, “Grandma, if you’d go to the circus just once, you’d never want to go to prayer meeting again.”

Even preachers are not immune to a certain reluctance to pray.  One Sunday morning, a preacher went to visit a neighboring church.  The pastor called on him to pray and he replied, “Pray yourself, I’m on my vacation.”

Prayer is problematical.  Even many who say that believe in prayer see it as getting in touch with your deepest self, or visualizing what you want and then doing it.  It is associated with all kinds of strange notions, ideas, and even drugs.   Timothy Leary (psychedelic drug guru) once said, “to pray properly you must be out of your mind.”

R. Gregor Smith says that a majority of “even conscientious church members” have given up the habit of private prayer in the conventional sense.  If he is right and certainly there is evidence he is, we are in serious trouble.   Because James Montgomery was right, when he echoed John Wesley, calling prayer the Christian’s “vital breath.”  Prayer is the most distinctive Christian act.  Biblically and historically, Luther was on solid ground when he said if one does not pray then he is not Christian.

In the Ephesian letter Paul begins by assuring the believers that he is praying for them.  He closes by urging them to pray for each other and for him.  All that he has called them to do is to be done in prayer.

“I find I am better or worse as I pray more or less…I can never be better in life than I am faithful in prayer…when prayer lags, life sags…If you know how to pray, you know how to live.” (E. Stanley Jones)

If we want renewal, if we want to be Christian, to be better Christians, then we must pray.  There is no option.

Prayer: the Essential Tool (Part II)

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. Ephesians 6:18a
I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.  John 16:23  (NIV)

There is much I don’t know about prayer, especially what you learn by experience.  But I know a lot about it.  The problem is that my beliefs and my knowledge don’t always translate into practice.  There is a great disparity between our belief (stated) and our practices.   We give lip-service to the importance of prayer.  We talk about it a lot.  We request prayer—for ourselves, others, for events, ministries.  We do pray (most of us).  We have our prayer list, prayer teams, even occasionally special times of  prayer, gatherings for prayer.

But I believe prayer is the weakest link in my discipleship.  It is the chink in my armor.  And I suspect, no I know, I am not alone in this.  I believe in prayer.  I am convinced it is the bottom line of discipleship.  And as Jim Cymballa says, “We are not New Testament Christians if we don’t have a prayer life.”1

Christians have always known that prayer is the essential tool of the Christian life.  Listen to what they say about it:

It changes the pray er.  “To pray is to change.  Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.  If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.”2  “Prayer is designed more to adjust you to God than to adjust God to you.”3

God’s work is done.  “Most of the people we meet, inside and outside the church, think prayers are harmless but necessary starting pistols that shoot blanks and get “things going.”4  “Anything creative, anything powerful, anything biblical, insofar as we are participants in it, originates in prayer.5

We become recepients of God’s greatest gifts.  St. Augustine said, ” God does not ask us to tell him our needs that he may learn about them, but in order that we may be capable of receiving what he is preparing to give.”Kierkegaard insists, “The true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until he is the one who hears, who hears what God wills.”7

Prayer is for everyone.  Everyone needs to pray.   Everyone can pray.   Steve Harper tells about visiting at Sunday dinner.  His hostess called on the youngest child to pray.  The little girl says, “God is great….”  Then mother turns to Harper and asks, “And now preacher would you ask the blessing for us?”  “All children pray, until we teach them not to.” (Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick)8

Nothing should be more convincing than Jesus’ model for us.  The great example is what Jesus said to his disciples on that last night with them (less than 1/10 of 1% of his ministry).  This is recorded in four chapters in John’s gospel.  One of those four chapts. is the prayer that Jesus prayed.  Can you believe that is not significant?  One fourth of what Jesus said that night is prayer, almost 5% of whole book of John.  Not teaching about prayer but praying.

Don’t let the tool get rusty.  Pray!


1Cymballa, Fresh Wind Fresh Spirit, 50.
2Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline quoted by Maxwell, Partners In Prayer, 74
3Blackaby and King, Experiencing God, 174
4Eugene Peterson, Working The Angles, 32
5Eugene Peterson, Working The Angles, 28
6Bloesch, The Struggle Of Prayer, 29
7Bloesch, The Struggle Of Prayer, 63
8Betty Shannon Cloyd, CIRCUIT RIDER, Nov/Dec ’98, 12

Prayer: The Essential Tool (part I)

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. Ephesians 6:18a 
I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.  John 16:23  (NIV)

On Sunday, as part of a Father’s Day/birthday present from my wife Alana, we attended a service at the Brooklyn Tabernacle in downtown Brooklyn, NY.  What an amazing experience/place.  Perhaps you know of the award winning Brooklyn Tabernacle choir.  But there’s much more to the church than that.  Four two hour high octane, spirit-filled services on Sunday to overflow crowds which total more than 8,000 fuel all sorts of ministries in Brooklyn and around the world.  Pastor Jim Cymbala  faithfully and powerfully delivers God’s word.  As I witnessed the many ministries and life of the church highlighted I was awed by God’s powerful use of that congregation.

You might ask, “How does this all come about?”  A lot of things certainly could be credited, but there is one thing that to me is the most crucial to all that church is.  If you weren’t paying a lot of attention you might miss the announcement of a Tuesday night prayer meeting.  You might not catch the fact that around 5pm when the doors open for the 7pm meeting people begin to gather.  You might miss that literally hundreds of people show up each week for serious spirit-directed prayer.  In his book, Fresh Wind Fresh Fire, Pastor Cymbala attributes this to be what, more than anything, triggered and sustains the growth and life of “BT” as they refer to it.  This is consistent with the Biblical proclamation that prayer is the essential tool for God’s people.

More than 30 years ago as a graduate student in history at the UNC-Greensboro, I read a statement by historian Cain Brenton which I’ve never forgotten:  “Once we we have put something into words, we think we have accomplished it.”    He was writing about our substituting talk for action, discussion for accomplishment.

In no area is this more true than in the Christian life.  We talk a great game, but never actually do it.  Prayer is especially susceptible to this problem.  We can read books on prayer, preach sermons on prayer, have studies on prayer, develop great theories and never do much praying.  I am especially susceptible to doing that.  We actually have “prayer meetings” where little praying is done.  They are filled with Bible study, formal liturgies, music, teaching, etc. but not a lot of prayer.  Someone said that the syndrome of Protestant churches is that we have become “artful dodgers of a disciplined prayer life.”

I am sure what we are as a Christian or a church rises no higher than our prayer life.  To be continued.