Monday, August 29, 2016

Is it okay to pray for what I want?

I was just a kid the first time I heard Janis Joplin sing about needing a Mercedes Benz. I could tell that the woman could wail, but there was something about that song that did not sit right with me. I did not know anything about cars. I did not know anything about prayer, and I sure did not know anything about satire. But somehow I knew that there is more to prayer than asking God for stuff.
It seems selfish to ask God to bless me. It seems rude and more than a little presumptuous to ask the Almighty God to bless ME. I’m nothing special. And God is GOD! Why should the Creator of the universe worry about me at all? Because God created me. God created you. That makes God our parent. And, like any good parent, God loves his children and wants the best for them. That’s why Jesus called God “Father.” Because God is not some supreme being sitting way up in the clouds, unaware of and unconcerned about what is happening down here in Memphis, Tennessee. No! God in Christ came here to live with us. Jesus came here to walk beside us. Jesus came here to work beside us. Jesus came here to save us from sin. God is a really good father.
But God is NOT Santa Claus! God has really important business to take care of. And there are a lot of folks in the world. And some of them need real help. So sometimes we think, surely, God is much too busy to listen to my shopping list of wants and wishes.
God certainly does have plenty to do. But, in the gospel of Luke, when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to talk with God, Jesus says, “When you pray, tell God: ‘Give us each day our daily bread.’”
Gimme gimme gimme. Is that what it means to pray? Is Jesus teaching us to pray for what we want? Sort of.
Prayer, after all, is talking with God. And good conversation demands honesty. So, if there is something you want or need, you can be honest with God about it. It will not come as a surprise to God. Our Heavenly Father knows what we are thinking even before we do.
In Psalm 139, David prays, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.”
God made us, so God knows everything about us. In Luke 12, Jesus tells his followers, “Even the hairs of your head are all counted.”
God keeps a close eye on us because God loves us and wants to take care of us. But God is not some stalker just waiting to pounce on us when we are vulnerable. God wants to give us good things, but God waits to be invited into our lives.
In the parable that Jesus tells in Luke 11, we are the ones who go and knock on the door to heaven. God provides when we ask. God already knows what we need, and God wants to give us good things, but God waits for us to ask.
In his letter to the exiles, James writes, “You do not have because you do not ask.” (4:2) The believers were fighting amongst themselves because they were envious and jealous of one another. And they were so busy fighting that they had not even thought to pray! It is no wonder they did not have what they needed!
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once said, “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.”[i] Did you hear that? “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.” God moves when we ask.
So what happens if we do not ask?
In The Workbook of Intercessory Prayer, Maxie Dunnam asks, “What if there are some things God either cannot or will not do until people pray?”[ii]
After all, lots of God’s promises are connected with conditions which we must meet.[iii] For example, in 2 Chronicles 7:14, God says, “If my people who are called by name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” IF my people humble themselves …. then I will forgive.[iv]
Prayer unleashes the power of God! Prayer unleashes the power of God in us! And prayer unleashes the power of God in others!
We do not pray in an attempt to persuade God to do what is right. We do not pray to try to make God work harder. We do not pray to try to convince God that we have the right answer. When we pray, we open ourselves up so that the Holy Spirit can work in us. And then, through us, God is able to work in others’ lives, too.[v]
So, yes, it is okay to pray for the things you want. In fact, Jesus commands it. But, just because we ask, that does not mean we will get what we want. Sometimes, we get what we need. And sometimes it seems as if God does not answer at all. But God always responds to our prayers. We just might not see it.
Sometimes we are so intent on seeing dramatic answers to our prayers that we miss subtle changes that are taking place.[vi]
When we pray, whether it is for ourselves or for others, we usually want an answer right then and there. We want what we want right when we want it. But prayer is not ordering from a menu. We are not telling God what to do. We are telling God what we want.[vii]
But remember that guy in Jesus' story (Luke 11:1-13)? The man felt deep compassion for his friend. He wanted to give his friend bread, but he had none to give. So he went begging for the friend. And he did not stop begging until he got help for the friend.
When we come to the point of helplessness, when we realize there is nothing we can do, that is the moment, Dunnam says, when our prayer becomes purified and powerful. Because, in that moment, we come to a place of “utter faith in God to do what we CANNOT do.”[viii]
Notice how the fella in the parable keeps asking for bread. Over and over and over. He keeps asking.
A couple of years ago, Amy Grant released a song called “Overnight.” And the chorus says: “If it all just happened overnight, you wouldn’t know how much it means. If it all just happened overnight, you would never learn to believe in what you cannot see.”
When we pray for something over and over and over, new truths are revealed.
“There’s freedom in hitting bottom,” writes Anne Lamott in Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. “There’s freedom … in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin, because when you’re still in the state of trying to fix the unfixable, everything bad is engaged: the chatter of your mind, the tension of your physiology, all the trunks and wheel-ons you carry from the past. It’s exhausting, crazy-making. Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through. It is the first great prayer.”[ix]
Lamott continues, “I try not to finagle God. Some days go better than others, especially during election years. I ask that God’s will be done, and I mostly sort of mean it.”[x]
“I want to tell God what to do,” she confesses. “But it wouldn’t work.”[xi]
Instead, she prays for God to help and trusts that God does help. We don’t have to know how God helps.
 “When we think we can do it all ourselves… it’s hopeless.”[xii]
But, as we continue to pray, we find ourselves slowly being able to let go and trust God.[xiii]
And that may be the biggest miracle of all.

[i] Dunnam, 89.
[ii][ii] Maxie Dunnam. The Workbook of Intercessory Prayer. Nashville: The Upper Room, 1979. 15.
[iii][iii] Dunnam, 17.
[iv] Dunnam, 17.
[v] Dunnam, 19.
[vi] Dunnam, 84-85
[vii] Dunnam, 79.
[viii] Dunnam, 80.
[ix] Anne Lamott. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. 14-15.
[x] Lamott, 16.
[xi] Lamott, 16.
[xii] Lamott, 37.
[xiii] Lamott, 38.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Why do we pray to forgive?

Has anyone ever made you mad? I don't mean irritated. I don't mean annoyed. I mean MAD! I mean really really mad! I mean nose snortin', foot stompin', door slammin' MAD! Like maybe they broke your Iphone, or made fun of you at school, or shoved you into the lockers. Maybe they stole from you. Broke your heart. Broke your bones. So you get mad. Of course you do! Anybody would. And you go to your best friend and tell her all about it, expecting her to agree when you say that no good so-and-so better watch his back 'cuz I'm gonna get him! And instead she says, "You've been stewing over this for days/weeks/years. Sure are giving him a lot of power over you. Don't you think it's about time you forgave him and moved on?

At first, you're mad at your friend for not taking your side, but you can't deny the truth of what she said. So you let it go and feel so much lighter! It feels good to forgive.

There once was a young man named Steve who carried around a lot of guilt. He had made a stupid decision when he was in college, and that decision resulted in some unpleasant consequences that left him reeling with guilt and shame and depression. Luckily, he had family and friends who loved him and stood by him, and, in time, he was able to move on. But, somewhere, deep inside, there was still a nagging fear. "They wouldn't love me if they knew what I had done."

Steve carried that fear for 10 years. And then, one day, he told his "secret sin" to a group of friends from church. One of the men looked Steve right in the eye and said, "I forgive you." And Steve's heart broke wide open. It wasn't so much that the friend forgave Steve. It was that he represented God, and when Steve's friend said the words, "I forgive you" it was like Jesus had said it himself. In that moment, Steve knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that God knew him. God knew Steve inside and out. God knew exactly what Steve had and had not done. And God forgave Steve. And Steve was finally able to forgive himself.

It feels good to forgive. And it feels good to be forgiven.

"Your kingdom come." Jesus prays, "Your kingdom come, O God." Forgiveness starts in God's kingdom. It starts with God forgiving us. Then we who have been forgiven begin to pray that all people will be forgiven. Forgiveness starts with God wanting us to experience grace, and then we find ourselves changed. Instead of condemning others, instead of wanting to get even with them, we find ourselves wanting others to experience grace, too. We want the people we love to know that God loes them, too. And we want the people we like to know that God likes them, too. And, in time, through prayer, we will even begin to want the people we do not like to know that God loves them. In fact, through prayer, we may be surprised to discover that we love them, too.

That is why we pray to forgive. Because everyone needs forgiveness. And the more we are forgiven, the better able we are to forgive.

Monday, August 15, 2016

What stops us from praying?

It seems like we can find all kinds of reasons NOT to pray: We don't feel like it. We don't know how. It does no good. We don't have time. Maybe the real obstacle to prayer is that we do not understand what it is. Prayer is not a genie-in-a-bottle make-3-wishes-and-all-your-dreams-come-true solution to all the problems of life. Prayer is not magic. It is a conversation with God. And one of the cool things about God is that you can talk to God any time, anywhere, and any way you know how.

When I was in elementary school, I was probably one of the worst softball players ever to walk out on the field, so the coach would put me way, way out in the outfield, where I could do the least damage. It would get kind of dull out there by myself, so I would talk to God. Too many years have passed for me to remember what I might have said, but I do recall gazing up at clouds and listening to the wind and watching dandelions in great fascination. Stopping to admire God's handiwork is a great way to pray. It's always good to say, "Thank you."

An easy way to work prayer into your daily life is to pray wherever you are. If you are waiting to see the doctor, pray. Pray for the other patients in the waiting room. Pray for the doctor. Pray for medical researchers. Pray for those who cannot afford medical care. If you are waiting to pick up your kids at school, pray for students to make good choices. Pray that teachers will be kind and wise and alert. Pray for the kids who cannot afford school supplies. If you are standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, pray for the cashier. Pray for the safety of the stockroom boy. Pray that those folks whose faces are splashed across the covers of tabloid magazines will be good role models.

One of the things I have tried to teach myself to do is to pray about annoyances. When something irritates me and I start to complain about it, I tell myself to stop and pray. For example, instead of getting frustrated about a train making me late to a meeting, I can pray for the hard-working men and women who make the products that the freight cars are carrying.

If we consciously make prayer a priority, we can find countless reasons to pray every day. We can stop to smell the roses and offer prayers of gratitude to God for all the good things in our lives. We can cry out for help when the car won't start or the dog is lost or all of our teachers load us up with homework on the very first day of class.

If you really want to pray without ceasing, pay attention to anything that "grabs" you. If a commercial makes you cry, pause for a moment and ask yourself why. If you find yourself singing along to a song on the radio, stop for a moment and think it. What is it about that song that speaks to you? Pay attention to anything that moves you or angers you or confuses you or brings forth any strong reaction. You may discover that God is trying to get your attention.

Which, of course, only matters if you believe that God has something helpful to contribute to your situation. In Companions to Christ, Adele Gonzalez notes that most of us are pretty sure we've got things under control. We do not pray because, truth is, we really do not want anyone's help, not even God's. We would really rather do it ourselves. Because, if we do everything ourselves, then we can control the outcome. Or we think we can. And we desperately want to control the world around us. That is one of the reasons why prayer is such a challenge (Companions in Christ, 127).

"In prayer we are called to let go, to surrender ourselves to God who loves us and knows us in ways we cannot even begin to imagine. Letting go is difficult ... because we do not trust that God's answers to our prayers ... will be what we want them to be. As Christians, we sometimes claim that we trust completely in God's ways. Yet many of us try to tell God exactly what we want, as well as when and how we want it." (Companions in Christ, 127).

But that is not surrender. And surrendering to God's will is what God asks of all who seek to follow Jesus. It is not easy. It was not easy for Jesus either! On the night he was arrested, Jesus prayed. He knew what was coming. He understood EXACTLY what was about to happen. And he was not happy about it. Jesus did not want to die. He certainly did not want to die as a criminal. Who would? No sane person would. So Jesus begged God to find another way. Jesus cried out to God repeatedly. Jesus poured out his heart to God, but Jesus STILL did not get what he wanted. And sometimes we don't either. We cannot control God. Prayer is not some secret weapon we use to manipulate God into doing what we want. Sometimes, we pour out our hearts to God, and it may feel as if nothing has changed. Jesus was still arrested. My mom still had cancer. The love of your life may walk out the door.

But, when we spend time with God, we are reminded how much God loves us, how good God really is, and how faithful God has always been. And that makes it a little easier to follow Jesus and surrender.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What is prayer?

Prayer can work miracles. There once was a boy named Johnny who had been a very naughty boy, so he got sent to his room.[i] After awhile, he came out and informed his mother that he had thought it over and then said a prayer. “Good,” said his mother, feeling very pleased. “If you ask God to help you behave, God will help you.” “Oh, I didn’t ask God to help me behave,” said the boy. “I asked God to help you put up with me.”
Prayer truly can work miracles. So what is it? What is prayer? The answer to that question is unbelievably simple and incredibly complex, all at the same time. Prayer is talking with God. It is a conversation. That sounds pretty simple, right. We know what conversation is. We know how to talk. But the idea that we, mere humans, might presume to engage in any kind of dialogue with the Almighty God, the Creator, the Alpha and Omega, the one who holds all things in the palm of one hand … now that’s audacious! And then to believe that this Almighty One would LISTEN! And care. And respond. To what WE have to say … that is truly remarkable. But it’s true! Not only does the Almighty God make time to hear our prayer, but God INVITES it. God WANTS to talk with us. Why? Because God loves us, and God wants to give us good things. So God calls us to pray.
When Solomon became king of Israel, he set about building a temple for the Lord so the people would have a place where they could come and worship the one who had created them and rescued them. Not only had God delivered them from slavery in Egypt, the Lord had rescued them from sin and danger and disaster time after time after time. So they built a temple where they could worship their Redeemer. Once it was completed, they held a special service to consecrate it, to set it aside as a holy place. And Solomon prayed, saying, “I have built you a house, Lord. A grand house. A place where you can live forever.” And they worshipped and feasted and celebrated because God had been very, very good to them. And then they went home. That night, the Lord appeared to Solomon and made him a promise. In 2 Chronicles 7:14, the Lord says, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” God promised to be with them. To help and forgive and bless them. If they would pray. If they would humble themselves before the Lord. If they would seek to do what God wanted them to do instead of what THEY wanted to do, God would take care of them. All they had to do was pray.
So how do we do that? How do mere mortals communicate with the Almighty God? In her book “Help. Thanks. Wow: The Three Essential Prayers”, Anne Lamott defines prayer as communication from the heart. “It is a cry from deep within…”[ii] It is the human heart reaching out for the eternal.[iii]
In fact, the poet and hymn writer Richard Baxter once wrote that the purpose of prayer is to spend time with and to get to know God.[iv] “It is, in the first place, a life of deepening acquaintance with God, a life of removing the layers of misunderstanding that obscure our relationship with the Holy One.”[v]
Richard Foster, author of “Celebration of Discipline,” says that prayer “catapults us” into the spiritual life. It ushers us into “perpetual communion” with God.[vi] And this communion changes us. Foster writes, “The closer we come to the heartbeat of God the more we see our need and the more we desire to be conformed to Christ.”[vii]
Prayer is a powerful thing. An important work. It takes us right to the very heart of God. And maybe that is why it intimidates so many of us. We are afraid that we might say the wrong thing or do it “wrong.” But prayer can take many forms. We can pray for stuff. We can pray for people. We can even pray for ourselves.[viii] Lamott says, “We can pray for a shot at having a life in which we are present and awake and paying attention and being kind to ourselves. We can pray, ‘Hello? Is there anyone there?’ We can pray, ‘Am I too far gone, or can you help me get out of my isolated self-obsession?’ We can say anything to God. It’s all prayer.”[ix]
Lamott believes, and I totally agree, that “when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God.”[x] And, many times, the truth is NOT pretty. But if you are grieving or in pain or just plain MAD and you say to God, “I don’t like You at all right now,” it’s okay. That may be the most honest thing you have said in a long time.[xi] And God can handle it. God is big enough to take on your pain. God is big enough to take on your sadness. God is big enough to take on your anger. In fact, God may be the only one who can.
Maybe the truth is you’re not so sure that there IS a God. And that’s okay, too. You are not the first person to doubt God, and you will NOT be last. But your skepticism does not change who God is or how much God loves you. If you are not sure what you believe, perhaps you can begin by praying as if you DO believe that God is real. What have you got to lose? Act as if God is real and that God cares enough about you to want to hear what you have to say. Start where you are. Start with your truth. Tell God what is in your heart.
You don’t have to worry about the words you use or how you express them. Prayer happens all kinds of ways. It can be spoken or silent. It can be done whether you are sitting or standing or kneeling. Prayer can be sung or danced or chanted. Prayer can take the form of poetry, pottery or painting. Prayer can be quietness. Prayer can be stillness. Prayer can be contemplative. Prayer can happen when you are alone or in a group. Prayer can be recited from memory. Read from a book. Or spoken off the cuff. Prayer is as diverse as the people who pray because, above all, prayer is personal.
Prayer is a personal response to God.[xii] God is always trying to communicate with us, through scripture, nature, the teachings of the Church, preachers, friends, music, sports…. God can use anything, really, to get our attention. God once used a burning bush to get Moses’ attention. And locusts and plagues were messages intended for Pharoah, but he was just too stubborn to listen. And we do that, too, sometimes. We ignore the things that God is trying to tell us. Sometimes, we ignore them intentionally, and sometimes, we simply do not pay attention. We are too busy and distracted by other people and concerns and work. But prayer opens us up. Prayer opens us up so we can hear what God has to say. And prayer opens us up to what God wants to do.
Wendy Wright, author of more than 20 books on prayer, teaches that prayer is a process of letting go. “As we mature,” she writes, “we encounter ideas and events that profoundly challenge the sense we have made of human life. Sometimes the encounter is shattering, so much so that we feel, or may actually be, utterly adrift.”[xiii]
When this happens, Wright explains, we try all kinds of things to regain our sense of balance. We may retreat, deny or reject our experience. We might adopt “a callous cynicism” or “face into apathy.” We might create rigid and separate spaces for things like religion or business or politics or relationships.[xiv]
But prayer, she says, is “that radical and risky opening of self to be changed by and, in some way into God’s own self. It is a formative life; it changes us and our perceptions. It causes us to see beyond our present seeing. Thus it is a life of continual dying, of being stripped over and over again of the comfortable and familiar, a life of letting go and allowing a reality beyond our own to shape us.”[xv]
That may SOUND scary. Making ourselves vulnerable always IS a little bit frightening. But, when we are open to God, then we are also open to receive the good things that God has for us. Things like wisdom and power and courage and love and direction and hope and healing and wholeness and forgiveness. All these things – and so much more – can be ours if we are open to receive.

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer
O what gifts we often forfeit, o what needless pain we bear
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.
Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer.
In his arms he’ll take and shield thee; thou wilt find a solace there.[xvi]

[i] The story of the naughty boy is titled “Helpful Prayer” and was published on the Christians Unite website at Copyrighted @ 1999-2016. Downloaded August 2, 2014.
[ii] Anne Lamott. “Help. Thanks. Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” New York: Riverhead Books, 2012. 2.
[iii] Lamott, 6.
[iv] John S. Mogabgab. “Editor’s Introduction.” Weavings. July/August 1992.
[v] Mogabgab.
[vi] Richard Foster. “Celebration of Discipline.” 33. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978. 33.
[vii] Foster, 33.
[viii] Lamott, 4.
[ix] Lamott, 5.
[x] Lamott, 6.
[xi] Lamott, 6-7.
[xii] Gerrit Scott Dawson. “Companions in Christ: A Small-Group Experience in Spiritual Formation Participant’s Book.” Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2001. 111.
[xiii] Wendy M. Wright. “Contemplation in Time of War.” Weavings. Reprinted in A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk With God. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2013. 291-292.
[xiv] Wright, 292.
[xv] Wright, 292.
[xvi] Joseph M. Scriven. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989. 526.