Thursday, June 5, 2014

Thoughts on Prayer

[The following thoughts on prayer are taken from my Facebook "Just a Thought" entries. Like my other "thoughts" they are intended to reflect things I have learned and taught over the past forty plus years of life and ministry. I will no doubt add to this series as time goes by. As of today, these entries have already appeared below in the Post titled "Thoughts on Discipleship."]

1. Just a Thought: I have never been comfortable referring to glossolalia as one’s “prayer language.” My reservations are that to me it sounds too much like a learned behavior that can be practiced without the direct unction of the Holy Spirit, or worse, like a tool for conjuring the Spirit’s presence. Yes, spiritual gifts require the willing participation of the person but they only qualify as gifts of the Spirit if they function under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. We must never take for granted the Spirit will be present just because we reproduce sounds or other actions we initially experienced in a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues and all other behaviors we attribute to the Spirit should only be done under the unction of the Spirit. Having said that, it is important to also acknowledge that the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives mingles with our own spirits. The unction of the Holy Spirit must find a home in the unction of the human spirit. The Spirit in us prompts us to pray even as She prays for us from within us. These promptings are grounded in our affections and not our emotions. In other words, we may not feel anything when the Spirit prompts us to pray other than those feelings common to our love for God. The very impulse to commune with God in the Spirit is an unction of the Spirit. By faith we respond to the Spirit’s invitation and speak. Tongues should always be experienced as an expression of the Spirit’s sovereign presence in our lives. Thus, our “prayer language” must always be understood to be the language of the Spirit, an expression of the full surrender of our spirit to the Holy Spirit of God. Participation in the gifts of the Spirit requires constant discernment of the Holy Spirit and our own spirit and the divine dance they share. JDJ # 415

2. Just a Thought: A few weeks ago I was complaining to God about the way He had mishandled my life; He had not answered some specific prayers in a timely fashion and because of His delays my life has often been less than ideal. In fact, He had taken 28 years to fulfill a request and as a result I endured a lot of pain and disappointment. I registered my confusion and dissatisfaction frequently during the intervening decades. The answer to my desperate pleas began to unfold a few years ago, but my complaints continued. What I heard Him say a few weeks ago was a little un-God like to my thinking: “Isn’t it about time you let go of this bone.” I understood it really wasn’t a request.  He expected me to cease my complaining about this. I struggled for a couple of weeks trying to let go while complaining that He wasn’t helping me let go. Then He spoke again, “Why are you complaining? I gave you exactly what you asked for the way you asked for it.” With that He reminded me of my specific prayers those 32 years ago, “Father, I’ll do whatever it takes for as long as it takes, if you will only …” [Lesson: be careful not only what you pray for but also how you pray for it.] With that reminder I have been able to shift from complaining to thanksgiving. This has not answered all of my questions, nor healed wounds inflicted over time. It has phenomenally altered my perspective. I have much more for which to be thankful than I allow myself to ponder. I am beginning to reinterpret those horrible experiences in my life through a lens of God’s faithfulness. I suspect there is much to learn from this process; I can be a slow learner. For now I am rejoicing in His reminder of my exact prayers. JDJ # 444

3. Just a Thought: It is only by the Holy Spirit that one knows to call upon the Lord. By the Spirit one believes that God hears, understands and is inclined to respond with grace. The fullness of the Spirit places God at the center of our existence so that His presence is the “center of gravity” for our consciousness; our thoughts are always inclined toward him (see yesterday’s thought). In this we “pray without ceasing,” that is to say prayer to God is the normal posture of our existence. Prayer remains a discipline in that we must take the time to shut out the world and commune with our Father. But prayer is always within us, a positive force looking for opportunities to fly out to the Father. It is that “pre-analytic disposition to see God at work in, with, by, and through all things” combined with the affection to know God in, with, by, and through all things. To pray without ceasing is to have a heart that longs without ceasing for the face of God. Such is the longing of the Spirit for the Father and Son; the Spirit sheds this longing, this love, abroad within our hearts. JDJ # 447

4. Just a Thought: The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he spoke in tongues more than all of them (I Corinthians 14). He continued that he would pray with the spirit and pray with the understanding. While the meaning of the sentence is debated, i.e., was he referring to spirit or Spirit? If spirit, in what sense? Human spirit? Or, spirited? The context I Corinthians 14 and other references to tongues makes clear to me that Paul is here associating “spirit” with tongues making it doubtful he does not intend the verse to be read as “Spirit” or perhaps “S/spirit.” What is undeniable is that Paul is contrasting “spirit” with “understanding” or “mind.” There are prayers that flow out of and are structured by reason or understanding. There are other prayers that flow freely from the depths of one’s being less formulated by human reason. There are prayers carefully structured to make our case before God and others that flow unencumbered from the whole of our being. Other texts make it clear that the Holy Spirit prays for us and through us making it certain that for a believer to pray “with the S/spirit” is always a combined effort between the divine and the human spirits (Romans 8:26).  In my own life, I find myself praying more and more with the Spirit in tongues. I pray with my understanding prayers of carefully chosen words, but I seem to desire more to pour out my soul before Him, my whole being. It is as though my prayers of understanding are increasingly being enveloped within this gift. I am discovering that often I do not know for what to pray or how to pray until I am praying in the Spirit. The Spirit informs and transforms my prayers of understanding. Praying with and in the Spirit carries me into and out from the presence of God. It changes my focus from what I want or think I need to what I believe He desires for me. Frequently, these are prayers for purification and sanctification; consciousness of the Spirit’s presence creates a desire to be an acceptable host for her habitation. JDJ # 448

5. Just a Thought: Prayer does not always come easy. There are times of despair, dryness, uncertainty and confusion, times when prayer collapses in on us. God seems distant and unconcerned. There is a part of me that believes that we should always be able to pray through to God’s presence and peace at any time. My testimony is that I have often not been unable to do so. There have been times of struggle when all I could do was let the Spirit pray through me in a heavenly language, whispering back into my spirit that God knows, cares, and has a plan. There have been darker seasons when words failed and all I could do was groan and moan, not knowing if it was the Spirit or I who was pleading for my deliverance. Even darker times have left me unable to make any sound toward God, times when it was all I could do to hold together the shattered fractures of my soul. Silence itself became my prayer and the silence of the Spirit my only comfort. It may seem strange to some, but my pain and my disappointment became assurances that I still existed and if I existed God had not forgotten me. The conscious sense of God’s absence affirmed that by the Spirit my life still centered on Him. In all of this I have learned that when I do not know how to pray or I am too weak even to join the Spirit in prayer, the Spirit still prays for me (Romans 8:26-27); Christ still intercedes for me (Romans 8:34; I Peter 3:18). Indeed, His strength is perfected in my weakness (II Corinthians 12:9). The prayers of the Spirit on my behalf are perfect and effectual in the times and seasons when I cannot pray for myself. JDJ # 449

6. Just a Thought: “Thank you for your prayers; I felt the prayers of the saints undergirding me through it all.” Growing up Pentecostal, I heard that testimony countless times. I always assumed it was a hyperbolic euphemism for the gratitude derived from the knowledge that others were praying; you can’t “feel” prayers, or so I thought. Then came October of 1986. Paul Henson resigned as Senior Pastor of the Westmore Church of God where I was serving as one of the associate ministers and I was asked to serve as Interim Pastor. The problem was that I was on a deadline to complete my doctoral dissertation. If the completed work was not submitted by the end of the first week of December, I would not be allowed to graduate; I had not yet submitted the next to last chapter. Because the church had been so good to me, I felt I had no choice to accept. I asked my family and covenant partners to pray for me but silently prepared my heart for the worse. It seemed an impossible that I could assume the additional responsibilities and complete my dissertation. But something happened. A couple of days after I agreed, I woke up with clarity and energy. I sensed grace. It was like I was wrapped in a bubble of grace. It was a palpable and constant presence unlike anything I had ever experienced. As soon as I became aware of this supernatural presence, I knew I was feeling the prayers of the saints. I was overwhelmed with a sense that people were praying for me, more people than I would ever know about. I knew without a doubt I was feeling their prayers and I knew I was going to be all right. That sensation stayed with me until a couple of days after I successfully defended my dissertation on January 27, 1987, three days before I was to be dropped from the program if I did not have a successful defense. I still think some people are prone to hyperbole and euphemisms, but I know God sometimes lets us feel the prayers of the saints. Our prayers for each other are more powerful than we can know. JDJ # 450

7. Just a Thought: Prayer is a discipline; prayer is a way of life; prayer is an attitude or disposition, a state of being. Thanks to my mother’s fervent, effectual prayers, I have always known that prayer is a vital aspect of the Christian life. Yet, I find I am continually learning to pray. In my youth I divided prayer into two types; there were prayers and there were PRAYERS. I thought of the first as words directed toward God. I thought of the second as taking heaven by force and laying myself and my desires at the feet of Jesus. PRAYER was the process of “praying through” to the peace and presence of God. Prayers were nice and God liked them, but PRAYERS moved God to action. To be fair to myself, it was not that I measured my prayers in decibels or numbers of tears. I measured them by the depth of my self-revelation, the depth I was willing to open my innermost self to God and the assurance He was present and working in my life. These prayers were/are loud and passionate. But emotion and noise were more the byproduct than the essence. I was convinced God would always respond to a sincere prayer that came from the depths of the human heart. That is the way we prayed in the Church of God of my youth and in our prayer closets. It came as a surprise to me that not all Spirit-filled people prayed that way and indeed some could not pray in the midst of such overt intensity. I have learned that there are many forms of prayer and that God listens just as carefully to all that are offered in faith. But I am not ashamed to confess that I still need to pray through to the presence of God even if that process is not a sight for the timid; but now it only happens when I am alone. JDJ # 451

8. Just a Thought: “I wouldn’t give you two cents for a prayer you had to read.” I heard a preacher say that when I was young and I’m pretty sure I repeated it on occasion. I am certain I believed it. My conviction was that prayers had to be born in the heart, formulated in the head, and spoken through the mouth. It was a neat paradigm for effectual praying. I even understood the Lord’s Prayer to be a recommended pattern not intended to ever be repeated verbatim. In time the logic of my argument began to break down. First, I began to recognize that my prayers were laced with memorized Scripture quotations. Second, I became convinced if the Scriptures were indeed Word of God they should always be read and studied prayerfully. Before I knew it I was finding strength in praying the Scriptures. The Psalms and many other Biblical texts are in fact prayers given by God to be prayed, sometimes set to music. The Bible is a book that by design is to be a prayer book. It must inform our prayers and it must form prayers within us. Third, I had a prayer book thrust into my hands at some ecumenical gathering. What I discovered (to my disappointment) were beautiful and powerful expressions of our faith. Those “not worth two cent” prayers were prayers I could pray with my whole heart. It was immediately apparent how they could serve as a means to help people pray Biblically and theologically sound prayers. Prayers that had stood the test of time could help people identify with our common human struggles and learn to respond to those struggles in a way that pleased God. I would now suggest that effective prayers must fuse the head and heart and are typically sealed by being spoken. Prayers born in the head (or borrowed from others) must be joined to the heart and vice versa. Some written prayers are worth their weight in gold for those who hunger to please God and want to pray faithful prayers. In truth, I do not use a prayer book, but I am convinced they can be an aid to true worship. JDJ # 452 

9. Just a Thought: Jesus prayed a lot. He prayed in a variety of circumstances: sometimes before He healed or worked a miracle, always before major transitions in His life, alone in the wilderness and on the mountain and in the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed for Himself, He prayed with and for others, and He often retreated from people to pray. He prayed short prayers and extended, agonizing prayers. He prayed at the tomb of Lazarus and from His own cross. Upon request He provided a model prayer for His followers. He taught about prayer: pray in faith, be persistent, avoid vain repetition, don’t pray to be seen, and pray in your prayer closet. Yet, we know surprisingly little about His daily practice of prayer. He did not produce a “Handbook on Effectual Prayers.” I suspect He avoided producing a manual on how to pray because such instruction would distort the very nature of prayer as a relational activity. Prayer is not an Olympic sport. There are no standards for what constitutes an exemplary prayer. Prayers cannot be rated on a scale of one to ten. The qualifier for a good prayer is simply whether it is prayed in faith. I am not thinking here of faith that the prayer will be answered the way we desire but faith the prayer is being heard by our compassionate God. Effectual prayers are those which express trust in God, trust He is attentive, capable, gracious, and responsive. Effectual prayers are those we do with God, not before or toward, but with Him. Such prayers not only touch the heart of God, they join our heart to His. JDJ # 453

10. Just a Thought: On a Sunday morning forty-one years ago this past spring at the West Asheville Church of God I preached a sermon titled “The Authority of the Believer.” After the sermon we prayed for a paralytic and she was healed, one of the few overt healings in my ministry. I was nineteen years old. My texts were from Matthew 28:18 “All authority in heaven and in earth is given to me,” and Mark 16:17, “in my name they will …” I was passionate; my points were simple, though my style may have been brash. Jesus has commissioned us to carry His ministry into the world. That commission is to make disciples the way He made disciples, in the power and demonstration of the Spirit. This is to be done in His name. He has authorized us to act in His name. We carry His signet ring, His credit card as it were. His name and the Spirit empower us to act in His behalf, to do the works He did. We are empowered as His ambassadors with one caveat. Jesus never relinquishes His authority. He is never an absentee Lord. He is with us always. Our authority is not to do what we think He wants done, but to do what we know He wants done, what He is doing through us. Except for the credit card reference and some other points not herein mentioned, I could preach that sermon today. Effectual prayers are prayed in the name of Jesus because His name assures us of His presence. We have full authority to be what he wants us to be and do what He wants us to do, to make His authority manifest. JDJ # 454

11. Just a Thought: Another trait of effectual prayers is that they seek as much or more to hear as to be heard. They listen for the voice of God. They are events of communion between the deep things of the human heart and the heart of God. They open the doors to the innermost recesses of our being. They are shared explorations with God into the deep things of the human heart where He turns on a light for us to see things long forgotten and others hidden from ourselves. These prayers seek to know the self as the self knows God. They are marked by a hunger to know and to be known by God. They are only accomplished by total surrender to his loving embrace. JDJ # 460

12. Just a Thought: There are some other characteristics of effectual prayers. While they may not begin with an attitude of full surrender, effectual prayers always move into a posture of total submission. Their character is transformed into that of the heart of Christ who prayed “not my will but thine be done.” But this is not a passive fatalism, what will be will be. It is a surrender that first acknowledges the deep desires of the human heart and places them in the care of a merciful God. In a parallel thought, effectual prayers are focused but flexible. They name names, identify situations and make specific requests but they are also open to see things from God’s perspective. There is then a great need for another kind of effectual prayers, those in which we stand in the gap for others. In them we carry the plight of others into the presence of God where we own their suffering as our own and we surrender to His mercies on their behalf. JDJ # 470

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