Prayer of a Stranger

Travelers and immigrants seek accurate direction. In Psalm 119:17-24, the Psalmist confesses that he, a stranger, desires that God will reveal the wonders of his law. He contemplates the statutes of God’s word as carefully as a modern traveler might ponder alternate routes on a map app or, if using an old school method, an atlas. He prays,

“Be good to your servant while I live, that I may obey your word. Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law. I am a stranger on earth; do not hide your commands from me” (Psalm 119:17-19).

The motif of the stranger surfaces throughout the Bible. After killing his brother Abel, Cain fears that he will “be a restless wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me” (Genesis 4:14). Abram (Abraham), already a stranger in Harran in what is now Turkey after immigrating there from Chaldea, followed God’s instructions to go to Canaan. Later, his grandson Jacob would emigrate to Egypt. Still today, as millennia of his descendants have done, Jewish worshippers recite,

“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression” (Deuteronomy 26:5-7).

In the New Testament, the stranger motif surfaces most strongly in the book of Hebrews. In chapter 11, sometimes called the “Hall of Fame of Faith,” the writer emphasizes that these faithful heroes were spiritual pilgrims, or strangers. To paraphrase an old gospel song, this world was not their home, they were just passing through:

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting they were foreigners and strangers on earth…Instead they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:13, 16).

This status as exiles, aliens, travelers for Christians underlines the urgency of Christians keeping “our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2). This awareness fits well with the outlook of Psalm 119’s prayer. Because he is a “stranger,” he needs God’s guidance. His “soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times” (verse 20). He prays that God will be good to him and reveal to him the good in his commands. He asks God to rebuke those who arrogantly stray from the laws of God and to remove their “scorn and contempt” from him. He concludes with a declaration of his allegiance to God whatever may happen,

“Though rulers sit together and slander me, your servant will meditate on your decrees. Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors” (Psalm 119:23-24).

Not everyone that travelers meet is an enemy. And travelers can be “ugly” and arrogant themselves. The Psalmist does not assume that he always is right or that those he encounters are wrong. He confesses his need for guidance and understanding. He listens to the counsel of God’s message. We who seek to understand God’s will also must pray with humility and a willingness to admit our own failings. The prayer underscores the interplay between prayer and attentive reading of the Scriptures, the responsibility of God’s followers to meditate on His message and to obey him. If we follow Christ, lets remember that we are migrants and worry less about our rights. Lets focus more on staying in step with God’s Spirit and staying on course with Jesus.

God who blazes a path for us to follow, open our eyes so that we may follow the road that you have marked out. Forgive our stubbornness, arrogance, and selfishness. Help us to discern correctly when we stray from your commands. We pray that those who govern us will act wisely. If we suffer, may it be because we are faithful to you, and not because we are self-centered and rebellious. Help us to keep our focus on Jesus, in whose name we pray, amen.

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A Lament for Afghanistan

Impressions of Afghanistan included, for me, a sense of a people traumatized by decades of armed conflict in their nation – wrecked buildings, landscapes stripped of trees and vegetation in an attempt in previous decades to get rid of hiding places for attacking insurgents or terrorists, people living in shipping containers (and not because they wanted a “tiny home”), fountains that didn’t work, and people who seemed resigned to a future where it would not be safe for them to live in their homeland.

To be sure, I encountered Afghans who had big dreams for their country – a politician and engineer who envisioned millions of new trees planted, fountains repaired, and street intersections made navigable by installation of traffic lights or presence of policemen, women who imagined educational and career opportunities that recent decades had not enjoyed, vendors and shop owners who anticipated a resuscitated legal economy. Others, however, seemed still fearful of the Taliban’s return or surrendered to government corruption as a fact of life. Still others, I realized, thought that the return of Taliban-led government would bring order, and perhaps peace. Competing tribal, religious, and political allegiances made future conflict probable. Even a decade ago, too many (in my impression) already were trying to put together an exit strategy, determining how they might leave and where they might go.

Kabul, Afghanistan became more beautiful in the nine months I was there. The politician’s dream of more trees and flowers began to become reality, some intersections had policemen, and more color appeared in decoration and fashion. Stores seemed to be better stocked, and I enjoyed my introduction to pomegranate ice cream. Still, cultural clashes occurred that stoked conflict and shortly before I left, protesters gathered outside our camp. I had positive interactions with Afghan community leaders too, that both reminded me of challenges going forward and of possibilities for a brighter future. We discussed values held in common and how damaged buildings might be restored. We debated whether actions on either side represented exceptions to the rule or were intentional insults. A Muslim cleric asked with a smile how I could be a religious leader since I didn’t have a beard (Obviously, I have since corrected that.). I dreamed of someday returning with family as a tourist.

Today, I mourn because it seems less likely that that dream will become a reality. I mourn because fewer educational and career choices will be available for many Afghans. l mourn because discussion of both differing and common values will be discouraged more often. I mourn for the visionaries of Afghanistan whose dreams have been crippled, if not dashed entirely. I mourn for the women and children who will struggle more in a nation still torn by uncertainty and conflict. I pray for them and for foreign (to Afghanistan) missionaries who chose to remain there to continue discussion of agricultural improvements, educational reforms, and yes, the claims of Jesus.

While in Afghanistan, I read a history of Afghanistan which helped me understand its heritage of conflicting allegiances and successful resistance to foreign superpowers, whether Greek, British, Russian, or others. It has been called the graveyard of empires. I read both the Koran and the Bible. I listened to and talked with American and coalition soldiers about their vision of the mission, and their need to express their religious beliefs even as they engaged in armed conflict. I saw Afghan shopkeepers and vendors closing their business during a busy part of the day so that they and their employees could pray together. I heard dreams of hope. I heard nightmares of destruction.

So, I mourn the ending of a mission that seems incomplete despite having achieved its initial aims several years ago. I mourn for a scattered people who need hope, love, faith, and opportunity as they forge new paths. I pray for them. I pray for American and Afghan families who lost loved ones during a bombing at the Kabul airport during the evacuation process. I pray for my own nation that a spirit of divisive hatefulness will dissipate and that love for one another will prevail. I pray for those whom I served alongside and for myself, that our own scars may continue to heal and that we too may discover brighter and safer roads to travel. I pray for Afghanistan, that its people may know hope and peace once more.

“You, LORD, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long? Restore us to yourself, LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure” (Lamentations 5:19-22).

  • Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.

Lord, our God, misery and fear pervade swaths of our world. Large groups of people stoke the fires of enduring mistrust and hatred toward other groups or nations. Armed conflict has crippled the hopes and dreams of so many in Afghanistan for fifty years. That nation’s future still looms as murky and potentially violent, derailed by fear, hatred, and ignorance. May they remember how to hope and how to listen, how to work for justice and to defend the helpless. May they have courage to defend what and whom they love. I pray for those from so many other nations who have worked hard over the past twenty years trying to help a crippled nation build unity and restore infrastructure for agriculture, for travel, for education, and for self-government. Heal us as we stagger under the weight of physical and emotional scars, of unfulfilled dreams, of a sense that our sacrifices might have been wasted. Help us to see purpose in the good that we did. Help those whom we helped to remember that help. Restore faith, hope, and love around this globe. May we all learn to stop crippling ourselves by lashing out hatefully, seeking to find someone to blame. May you “fill [us] with all joy and peace as [we] trust in [you], so that [we all] may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” That prayer of Paul’s in Romans 15:13 is my prayer as I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

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Prayerful Preparation for Christ’s Return

Eight years ago today, I began a post on this blog with these words: “Paul’s prayers for the Thessalonians identify faith, hope, love and habitual prayer as essential means of preparing for the return of Christ.”
I have re-blogged it today as encouragement to consider how well each of us who claims to follow Christ integrates these qualities and actions into our lives. I invite you to read the original post. Pray hard and love well, my friends.

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Paul’s prayers for the Thessalonians identify faith, hope, love and habitual prayer as essential means of preparing for the return of Christ. After saying that he always thanked God’s for the Thessalonians’ faith, hope and love, he prays,

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you” (1 Thessalonians 3:9-11).

The apostle affirms again his continual prayer for these disciples. He also stresses his desire to return to them so that he may reinforce their faith. He prays that God and Jesus will make his return possible. He continues his prayer,

“May the…

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Praying when Blessed by Jesus

Several months ago, I memorized the Beatitudes. Since then, each morning I have included meditation on their meaning with reflection on my daily Bible reading and what I plan to write about next on this blog. According to Matthew, Jesus spoke these words after healing a number of people. Crowds thronged to him for healing, but Jesus went up on a mountain side, sat down, and began to teach these words that we now read in Matthew chapter 5. This afternoon, as I hiked along a wooded trail, I recorded reflections on how these blessings can affect the way that we pray. You can watch the video by clicking here or by clicking on the Call for Fire Seminar Facebook page link on this site.

When Christians pray, we should speak with God as the people whom Jesus blesses in the Beatitudes. Our prayers should reflect that we are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, that we are pure in heart, that we are peacemakers, that we continue to seek to act righteously even when persecuted. When we mourn, we cry for comforters, but also that we may be the comforters when others mourn.

Later in the sermon that begins with the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray by providing a template for their prayers that continues to inspire and encourage disciples today as we pray to our Father in heaven. Forgiveness emerges as a request in that prayer, a request that is tied to our willingness and ability to forgive. We pray as people who need forgiveness, but also as people who need to forgive.

As you and I pray, let’s remember the blessings that Jesus pronounced on those who seek the Kingdom of God. Let’s pray as the people whom Jesus blessed and live our lives as the people who make his vision reality. Pray hard, my friends.

Father, pain too often enters our lives. Often that pain is self-induced. We act selfishly. When we are hurt, we fail to forgive and discover that rather than healing, we increase our pain. Fear, distrust, and anger mar too many relationships now in our nation and our world. Awaken our courage and ignite our love so that we may act in purity of heart to reconcile warring factions to one another rather than stoking the fires of hatred and cynicism. Help us to identify our arrogance and pride, and to control it, so that we act with the strength of meekness rather than hiding behind walls that we have constructed with our pride. May we be the salt that retains its saltiness and the light that illumines the darkness. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

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How Shall the Young Secure Their Hearts?

How shall the young secure their hearts? Throughout my life I have sung lyrics by Isaac Watts that ask that question. Watts drew his inspiration from Psalm 119:9-16, the second division of that psalm’s 176 verse anthology of prayer. Concern for the moral direction of youth remains as relevant today as in the 1700s when Watt wrote his lyrics and as when the psalmist penned his words centuries before the birth of Jesus.

As in the rest of Psalm 119 (You may read my post introducing the psalm and its first section by clicking here), a steady repetition sounds throughout verses 9-16. Synonyms for torah or “law” recur throughout the Psalm. In this section there is a synonym for law in every verse: word (vv 9,11), commands (v 10), decrees (vv 12,16), laws (v 13), statutes (v14), and precepts (v 15). This repetition stresses the importance of God’s written revealed will for the psalmist, as the opening verse illustrates:

“How can a young person stay on the part of purity? By living according to your word” (Psalm 119:9).

As he prays through the remaining verses, the psalmist reveals his strategy for employing the “law” as his guide for deciding how to act. But first he confesses his wholehearted allegiance to God, while admitting he needs more than desire to follow God faithfully:

“I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands” (Psalm 119:10).

Just wanting to please God does not guarantee that we will achieve that goal any more than a baseball player wanting to hit thirty home runs in a season means that he will do so. While it does increase the likelihood (It’s easer to achieve a goal if you actually want to reach it.), actions must follow. To secure the heart, a young person should read the Bible enough that it becomes part of him or her. He or she should speak it to themselves or to others to reinforce the message to themselves. They should contemplate and weigh carefully what God is teaching them in what they read. The challenge is approaching these actions with an attitude of joy rather than regarding “Bible study” as a boring burden. The psalmist expresses his own practice of this strategy in these words:

I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to you, LORD, teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word” (Psalm 119:11-16).

How shall the young secure their hearts? First, read the Bible, God’s revealed message for humanity. I first read through the entire Bible when I was twelve years old, as part of a challenge from my Bible class teacher at church. I still begin my day by reading the Bible today, following a schedule designed to help me finish it in a year. Second, internalize that message. Make it part of yourself by reading it out loud and memorizing it. Third, understand the message. Reflect on what you have read and how it might apply to your own attitudes or actions. Meditate on what the messages means for you. Fourth, learn by listening. Let God teach you. Pride and distractions (peer pressure, conflicting advice, hormonal drives) may urge you to chart a different course, but choose to walk in the path that God has laid out. Fifth, enjoy life as you begin to realize the benefits of living in harmony with your Creator’s intent.

Surrounding this strategy is practicing what the psalmist himself is doing. As you study, whether you are young or old, pray. As you encounter moments of decision in life, pray. As you seek to live for God with all your heart, pray. Remember always the message of these verses. Desire to follow God with all your heart, pray for his guidance, but ground your obedience in the instruction that he has already given, the Bible.

• Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version of 2011.

God of revelation and of joy, you created us with purpose and, having completed your task, saw that it was very good. As we seek to live in harmony with your purpose, open our eyes and our hearts to what you have already taught us. Fill our hearts with joy when we recognize the answer to questions that have frustrated or even tormented us. Equip us to recognize distractions or false answers that will send us down paths that will harm us. May we grow in self-discipline and maturity, but may we always retain a sense of joy as we meditate on your word and as we contemplate this world that you have created. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Moving Forward after Prayer

All seemed lost. News that not one but three armies were moving towards the national capital frightened the nation. King Jehoshaphat responded. As I noted in a post in 2013, “A leader’s spiritual life affects the moral climate of those whom he leads. When he leads with confidence but also with respect, his people listen. When a leader is profane and abusive, morale among his people will communicate their fear of him or her; their speech and behavior will reflect the leader’s own. King Jehoshaphat of Judah, great-great-grandson of the powerful and wise King Solomon, provides a case study in effective prayer-propelled leadership.” In 2 Chronicles 20:1-30, Jehoshaphat’s leadership through prayer and humble following of God’s Word prepares his people for God’s giving them the victory. I wrote about Jehoshaphat’s prayer in that post you may read by clicking here.

Jehoshaphat’s subsequent actions flow consistently from his prayer. But when he prays, he does not know that he will have the opportunity to act. He prays a prayer of desperation.
Jehoshaphat prays in the presence of all the people. Then, after he prays, he and the people wait. How will the king and his people learn God’s will in a troubling time? How will we discern what is best? How will we move forward when we are frozen by fear, anger, indecision, or awareness of our own weakness?

In Jehoshaphat’s case, the Law of Moses already prescribed who should speak about God’s will when the nation would go to war. In Deuteronomy 20:2f, Moses tells Israel, “When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. He shall say: ‘Hear Israel: Today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be faint-hearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them. For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” But in Jehoshaphat’s beleaguered Jerusalem, the priest did not come forward. Instead, we read, “All the men of Judah, with their wives and children and little ones, stood there before the LORD. Then the Spirit of the LORD came on Jahaziel son of Zechariah, the son of jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite and descendant of Asaph, as he stood in the assembly. A Levite, one of the Temple servants, likely one of the Temple singers (a descendant of Asaph), proclaims the word of the LORD: “Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the LORD says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army for the battle is not yours, but God’s.” Then he tells them just what they are to do and reminds them again not to be afraid. He speaks the message that the high priest was supposed to speak, but he is not the high priest.

When I was in the Army, I often heard the importance of knowing how to do the job of the person two levels above you, because in the heat of battle their job just might become yours. Jahaziel knew what to do and the Spirit empowered him to do it. He could have stayed silent and reasoned that “it’s not my job.” However, he stepped forward and said what had to be said, did what had to be done, at a critical moment. Jehoshaphat, for his part, had enough humility to listen. The king did not say, “Be quiet, Levite! That’s not your responsibility.” Because he knew the word of God, he recognized it when Jehaziel spoke it. He and the people bowed down in worship as some Levites stood up and began to praise God with a loud voice. Jehaziel’s Spirit-charged, biblically based words spurred the king into action.
Early in the morning, the army set out. Jehoshaphat, having heard the word of the LORD, now stood before his peoples and told them,

“Have faith in the LORD your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful.’

Jehoshaphat was waiting no more. He now trusted God’s power to save and to transform. Then the king appointed men to sing to the LORD as they went out at the head of the army. Modern military forces have bands that perform similar functions, but in this case, something remarkable happened. Look at verse 22: “As they began to sing and praise, the LORD set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated.” The enemies turned against one another; when Judah’s army arrived at the battlefield, the combat had ended. Jehoshaphat’s army returned to Jerusalem triumphant, “for the LORD had given them cause to rejoice over their enemies.”

The last year has reminded us that what we consider normal and the way things should be can be torn away in an instant. Much of the world’s population, including our nation’s people, has had to adjust their work habits, their personal hygiene, their socializing, in response to an international health crisis that still rages in India and parts of Africa. Many of us have not liked change. We’ve missed out on assembling as churches and hugging family members who live far away. We’ve chafed because of uncomfortable masks and not being able to eat at our favorite restaurants. But crises have also made clear the resilience of people who trust in God. We’ve found new ways to communicate and worship when unable to meet, like a previous generation that started using individual communion cups because of a pandemic, many congregations have changed the way that they serve the elements of the Lord’s supper. Now, as we come back together, the way forward often is not clear. Like Jehoshaphat, we pray that we are waiting on the Lord, because we do not know what to do. To us again come the words of Jehaziel: Do not be afraid or discouraged; the battle is not yours but God’s. Stand firm. We see and hear also the example and words of Jehoshaphat, a leader who was not afraid to show his humility in prayer before God in public, “Have faith in the LORD your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful.” What King Jehoshaphat did after hearing the wake up call from Jehaziel also reminds us of a verse that Martin Luther King, Jr., who believed strongly in prayer, used to quote to his audiences – Exodus 14:15,

“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.”

In the rest of that passage God provides the victory as he opens a path through the Red Sea, but the people still have to believe strongly enough to walk through the parted waters. We Christians, following Paul in 1 Timothy, pray for our government’s leaders so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives. But while we pray, we also have to live, to act, to sing, and to speak for Christ in ways that teach our neighbors about the love of God through Christ. We have to trust God’s power to save and to transform.

When all seems lost, we pray fervently. We pray and then we wait. We listen. We remember. We wait. There is a time when we stop waiting and resume singing in response to God’s Word as we move forward. Are you ready to pray like Jehoshaphat? Do you know the Bible like he and Jehaziel did? Often, God has already answered our questions in its pages. Are you ready, like Jehaziel, to speak a word for God? Are you ready to trust God and let him fight your battles? Will you?

  • Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.

O God who urges us to move forward when you have answered our prayers, open our minds that we may hear, that we may remember what we have already learned of your will, that we discern the path you desire for us to walk. Calm our fears and fill us with the courage to do what is right. When we want to rush into action before reflecting on your will, help us to wait and to reflect, to envision what you want done in love to achieve justice. When we groan and mourn, teach us once more to sing and show us the way forward. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

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Thoughts about The Lord and His Prayer

British professor N. T. Wright has written a book, The Lord and His Prayer (published in 1997 by Wm. B. Eerdmans), about the model prayer that Jesus used to teach his disciples to pray. The prayer, recorded in Matthew 6:9-13 has been recited in public Christian worship and in private prayer since at least the late first century. I wrote about this prayer and its implications for our own prayers in a post that you can read by clicking here. The brevity of this book is balanced by Wright’s insightful, provocative revealing of the meaning of a prayer that we think we know well. Looking anew with his help, I discovered aspects of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in concrete ways. Awareness of this prayer’s power to transform our relationship with God are swept away when the prayer becomes mundane ritual or its meaning is spiritualized into triviality. Wright recommends pondering on the meaning and implications of each clause of the prayer, then building our own prayers and lives around that knowledge. I recommend the book highly.

I share a few quotes from the book. As he discusses what it means to call God “Father,” Wright suggests that it reminds us that we are children in the midst of a world that can be quite terrifying. But that, he says, is a prelude to our accepting the mission to which God calls us:

“But if , as the people of the living creator God , we respond to the call to be his sons and daughters ; if we take the risk of calling him Father ; then we are called to be the people through whom the pain of the world is held in the healing light of the love of God ” (p 9)

Wright emphasizes that we who pray following this model prayer should not pray it glibly, but consider carefully how each phrase unpacks itself into our lives when applied as disciples of Jesus. The prayer helps us find order amidst confusion and assign priorities correctly. Wright says,

God knows our desires in order that we may turn them into prayer ; in order that they may be sorted out , straightened out , untangled and reaffirmed . If we truly pray this prayer , with due weight to each clause , we are taking the first steps from the chaos of our normal interior life towards an order and clarity which will let the joy come through to the surface (p 29).

When we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, we must confront the grave possibility that God’s will does not match our desire. God may deny our petition, even when we pray intensely with tears. Wright considers the prayer of Jesus just before he was arrested and what the book of Hebrews says about that prayer and its relationship to this model prayer, and what the response to Jesus from God was when he prayed that he would be delivered from temptation (Wright translates it as “The Testing”) and that God’s will be done:

We therefore have to come to grips with the fact that Jesus gave this prayer to his disciples , but that when he prayed it himself the answer was ‘ No ’ . He put it together with an earlier part of the Lord’s Prayer ( ‘ Thy will be done ’ ) . When he held the two side by side , he found that God’s will involved him in a unique vocation . He would be the one who was led to the Testing , who was not delivered from Evil (p 50).

The prayer also includes a petition that God will forgive us in the way that we forgive. That in itself is a challenging prayer. Do we really want God to treat us the way that we treat other people? As we consider this model prayer and meditate on the meaning of these clauses that Jesus included in it, we discover, as Wright suggests, a framework that we can use to organize our own prayers, but also a challenging assessment about what it means to be adopted into God’s family.

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Learning When We Pray

We learn when we pray. That may ignite reaction or spark questions in your mind. How does that happen? Am I saying that we humans are like artificial intelligence that through continued interaction anticipates more what phrases or words people will use, what genres of books they will read, what products they will buy? Is that biblical teaching about prayer?

Biblical prayers assume knowledge of God and at least the beginning of relationship with God. Some prayers, arguably built upon a stronger relationship with the Lord, align more with God’s character and priorities. One passage that suggests this connection between learning and prayer is one that Jesus prayed shortly before his arrest. The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews comments,

“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7-9).

Those prayers of Jesus include especially those on the Mount of Olives on the occasion described in Luke 22:39-44. I wrote about how we learn from prayer in one of my earliest posts on this blog, a post about that passage in Luke. You can read that post by clicking here.

That prayer was not short, unemotional recital. Jesus engaged God in intense, tearful conversation, pleading for God to spare him from suffering he sensed was ahead. He had asked three of his disciples who were waiting nearby also to pray, so that they would not fall into temptation. Might we infer then that that also was a reason for Jesus’ prayer? I think so. He prays, and by the time he has finished, he is prepared, as his disciples are not, to meet the mob that has come to arrest him with calm. He has learned God’s will and has submitted to it. He still will suffer; he did not gain what he had requested first in the prayer. Still, God has answered, and Jesus learned. Jesus learned because he conversed with God in prayer, a conversation grounded in Jesus’ knowledge of what the Scriptures teach about God and his priorities.

We too learn when we pray. If we pray after having listened to God through Scripture, we realize still more about him as we integrate that learning with our observation of his creation around us. We also learn more about ourselves. As we voice our prayer, we learn more about ourselves as well – our priorities and the depth of our trust in God, how substantial our love for others is. We learn most when we pray as Jesus did, acknowledging that we submit to what God desires. We will learn more from the consequences of our submission, from what happens when we obey God, just as Jesus did.

I urge you to listen to God regularly, reading the Scriptures systematically and thoughtfully. Pray in moments of urgent need, but also pray as you run or cycle, as you shop, as you work. As you pray, reflect on what you already know about God, but also listen carefully to what you say yourself, and discern what that says about how you regard God. Are you submitting to his will? Are you obeying him? Are you aghast at what God seems to be allowing? Take a moment and reflect again on how Jesus prayed and what he learned, then consider what you learn as you pray – about God, about yourself, about love, about forgiveness, about obedience. I close with that prayer of Jesus from Luke 22, words which each of us may have reason to incorporate in our own prayer:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

• Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version, 2011 edition.

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A Survivor Prays on Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, I remember my uncle Jimmy who was killed in action in Vietnam, grieving with my friends Ray and Rhonda at their son-in-law’s memorial, praying at a ceremony at a French military Memorial Day ceremony in 2002, and listening to my Dad talk about his service in the Army. I recall speaking at military memorial ceremonies and funerals, notifying startled and sometimes angry families that their beloved hero had died, marching off aircraft behind the remains of Americans killed in Afghanistan while I spoke the words of Psalm 23 and Psalm 24 from memory. I remember praying with a Turkish Army officer after a helicopter crash killed the officer’s friend, a fact we learned as part of a team that identified the bodies. I have walked through beautifully maintained cemeteries in Germany and seen memorial markers for soldiers who died fighting for Germany during WWII. That nation still refrains from honoring those who committed war crimes during that era, but families mourn those who died fighting. I have witnessed the impact of war and military training on families. I have been the young nephew who winces and watches his aunt cry as an honor squad fires volleys in salute at the gravesite.

Memorial Day 2002

On Memorial Day, we remember people who acted on our behalf, sometimes in our place, and sometimes beside us. If we are the friends or family who survive, on this day we yearn for someone to remember the one we loved, or just to realize that our pain still survives at some level. We all need people who will rejoice when we rejoice, but will also weep when we weep. That is why I believe it is appropriate for religious assemblies to take time to recognize those who died serving their country and to console the survivors – the parents, spouses, children, friends, and comrades-in-arms who still ache because the unexpected vacuum that persists in their hearts. In the words of Lamentations 1:20,

“See, LORD, how distressed I am! I am in torment within, and in my heart I am disturbed, for I have been most rebellious. Outside, the sword bereaves; inside, there is only death.”

We who survive grieve potential that will never be realized, regret arguments that can never be retracted or forgiven, covet conversations that will never happen in this life. We remember, and when we remember, in some ways our heroes return and remind us of what we might achieve if we remain faithful. So, on this Memorial Day, when you pause to honor those who died, remember too those who survived, and when you can, encourage them, and pray for them.

O God, War ravages our cities and our countryside. It kills our heroes, or maims them, but somehow refines others so that they grow beyond what they might have been had they not been shocked into awareness by the horror of conflict. For many of us, the dead that we honor on Memorial Day have faces. We recall their voices and can almost still feel their hugs. We may still cringe when we reflect on a moment that we wish we could have back so we could live it better. Console the families and friends who grieve. Infuse them with a hope grounded in love that will encourage and produce a positive growth. Renew within us the urge to seek peace and pursue it, for we have seen and felt the pain of war. Remind us how we may encourage one another and spur each other on to love and good deeds. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

  • Quotes from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011
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A Disciple’s Full-Bodied Prayer

Humility and gratitude flow through prayer in Psalm 40, grounded in a full-bodied devotion to the Lord God. The psalmist recognizes his helplessness without God; he recalls how God not only rescued him previously, but also provided for him:

“I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me an heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in him” (Psalm 40:1-3).

These initial verses lay the groundwork for the prayer that will follow. God has rescued a worshipper from a predicament that is described as slimy and muddy. He has secured the worshiper’s future with a secure foundation. These verses introduce a vision of intense commitment to God. The psalmist’s whole body will follow God, will praise him and sing of him, will preach about his saving power, refusing to be silent about what God has done for him. A description of “full-bodied discipleship” emerges:

  • God has set his feet on a rock and given him a firm place to stand (v 2)
  • The LORD has put a new song in his mouth (v 3)
  • God has opened his ears (v 6)
  • God has prepared a body for him (v 6)
  • God’s law is within his heart (v 8)
  • The psalmist does not seal his lips (v 9)
  • The psalmist does not hide God’s righteousness in his heart (v10)

A prayer begins in verse 5 and, as can be seen, continues to develop a description of devoted discipleship. The prayer reveals an awareness that following God transcends practice of ritual and following of rules:

“Many, LORD my God, are the wonders you have done, the things you planned for us. None can compare with you were I to speak and tell of your deeds, they would be too many to declare. Sacrifice and offering you died not desire – but my ears you have opened – burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, ‘Here I am, I have come – it is written about me in the scroll. I desire to do you will, my God; your law is within my heart. I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help. I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness from the great assembly” (Psalm 40:5-9).

The writer of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament describes Jesus as praying this prayer. The words of the prayer describe well Christ’s intense commitment to doing God’s will with all his heart and his proclamation of the kingdom of God. Both Hebrews 10 and Psalm 40 emphasize that following God demands a whole-hearted following that goes beyond ritual. Both underline that following God may seem terribly lonely in difficult times, but occurs in the company of other followers who, with the totality of their being, pray together, who sing and proclaim to one another what God has done for them.

Times of trial and testing continue for the follower of God. Salvation does not destroy temptations or people who oppose faith in God and seek to disgrace the disciple of God:

“Do not withhold your mercy from, LORD; may you love and faithfulness always protect me. For troubles without number surround me; my sins have over taken me, and I cannot see” (Psalm 40:11-12a).

The psalmist, and we when we follow his example, cries out for God to forgive and to rescue. He already is a member of the covenant people of God. Because of that status, he calls out to the One he knows can deliver him:

“May those who say to me, ‘Aha! Aha!’ be appalled at their own shame. But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who long for your saving help always say, ‘The LORD is great!’ But, as for me, I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me. You are my help and my deliverer; you are my God, do not delay” (Psalm 40:15-17).

As I noted above, the prayer of Psalm 40 reappears in Hebrews 10, placed in the mouth of Jesus during his incarnation as a human being. There the prayer, besides asserting full commitment to God, occurs in a context that emphasizes that the follower of God functions as part of a community of believers who encourage one another through prayer and song when meeting together. As was the case with the psalmist, the Christian is not alone in following God, but does make an individual decision to follow with all his or her heart. Discouragement or fear may tempt us to give up or to compromise, but remembering God’s power to deliver and the fact that we are not alone enables those of us who follow God through Christ to continue. We trust, obey, and pray with all our body and our mind. As the writer of Hebrews said,

“But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved” (Hebrews 10:39).

  • Quotes from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.

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