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Give, Forgive, Lead, Deliver

I’ve reflected many times here on the mystery of prayer and what often seems like the abject silence of God. We so often struggle to know how prayer works and how it influences God’s activity in the world.  We don’t know what the point of prayer is if God already knows everything.  Sometimes it all seems like a bit of a strange charade that has precious little influence on either God or each other.

I have found myself saying “I am praying for you” to people in my life quite frequently lately. So many people going through such hard things…. The death of a child, the breakup of a marriage, parents watching their children going through unnavigable crises of various sorts, people straining under the load of crippling debt, souls stumbling around in the fog of mental illness and addiction… On and on it goes. Over and over again, helplessly, confusedly, sadly, angrily, I say: I’ll pray for you. It’s easy for the words to feel embarrassingly hollow—nothing more than a perfunctory add-on at the end of a difficult conversation.

I know that many people struggle with how to pray or if they can pray at all with any integrity. Some alter their prayers to accommodate the perceived silence, turning them into blandly generic utterances of a barely hoped-for good will. May they experience comfort and peace… We pray that they would have hope… May they receive strength and wisdom… Of course, these prayers aren’t bad or wrong or anything, they’re just, well, kind of vague and human-centered. It’s like we don’t really expect anything from God—we’re barely even convinced he’s listening half the time—so we concentrate on ourselves. This is a far cry from a fist shaken at the heavens or the passionate and often baldly self-centered cries of the psalmists of old. Our prayers are so often tame, safe, predictable, tentative gestures toward a goodness that we hope might be out there somewhere. Maybe.

I struggle often with how to pray with integrity, compassion, and expectation. So often, it seems that one of the three has to be sacrificed for one of the others. Whenever the task of praying seems beyond me, I do what many others do and have done throughout the history of the church. I turn to the Lord’s Prayer. It is a daily feature of the prayerbook I use (and virtually every prayer-book I have come across). Some churches recite it weekly, even daily. It is, in many ways the prayer that we return to again and again and again when we feel like we don’t know what we’re doing. Whenever we, like the disciples, have nothing left to say but, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).

As I prayed these familiar words today, I was struck in a new way by the assertiveness of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. His language is simple, forceful, clear, direct. It does not wallow in safe platitudes or the elaborate expressions of piety that so often do little more than obfuscate and distract.  Jesus doesn’t mess around.  He puts God and us in our proper place.

Four expressions, in particular, stood out: Give us…Forgive us… Lead us… Deliver us… I was jolted a little as I prayed these words today. These are things, of course, that only God can ultimately do. There is no hiding here, no poetic evasions, no dancing around our obvious impotence and need.

Give us… For what do we have that does not ultimately come from God?

Forgive us… For who, ultimately, can absolve us of the wrong we have done and will do?

Lead us… For who, ultimately, knows the true and good way forward? Who, ultimately, can be trusted with the future?

Deliver us… For who, ultimately, can rescue us from/through this groaning creation, this ambiguous terrain of beauty and heartache that leaves its mark on each of us in our own way?

These four expressions all represent things that we cannot do for ourselves; they all represent things that we desperately need. And so Jesus tells us to ask for them. End of story. The simplicity of Jesus’ example slices through all of my insecurities about how I should pray, whether or not I will be seen as naïve, whether these are the sorts of things that postmodern folks so well acquainted with ambiguity and doubt ought to be praying for. To all of this, Jesus says, All right then, but why don’t you just be honest and be simple and ask for the things that you want and need?

Well okay, Jesus, then here it is. Fix all this bad stuff for all these people that I love. Help us to stop acting so destructively and stupidly. Show us better ways. Rescue us from these messes that we so often make. Gift us with better days.

Give. Forgive. Lead. Deliver.

Do it. Please. Amen.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    I Love it, man.

    September 19, 2014
  2. mmartha #

    ” Sometimes it all seems like a bit of a strange charade….”
    We can all follow that.
    My latest prayer request came y/day afternoon, to pray for a little dog, Nevaeh, heaven spelled backwards. She just came into the family to brighten each life in some way. It seemed an irritation was threatening the cornea of one eye and they were on their way to a specialist. This morning a report came : “Good news.” Nevaeh will be fine.
    Many years ago while reading Eugenia Price’s The Burden is Light I knew I wouldn’t ever want to be far from prayer.
    Oswald Chambers’ writings feature prayer and he suggests, “Am I close enough to feel secure even when God is silent?” (Prayer: A Holy Occupation) And then he asks if we have overlooked positive answers to prayer. In wondering about that, I thought of the times we pray almost by rote but with true ardor, They will be done; or we pray as we put on the Armor of God. And we have been protected, His will not ours has been done, we (and those we pray for) are the better, the securer for it.
    Thank you for writing about prayer.

    September 20, 2014
    • Am I close enough to feel secure even when God is silent?

      Great question.

      September 20, 2014
  3. mike #

    Sometimes, we can make prayer into a charade.There are many times when I intuitively know full well that God isn’t going to heroically intervene in a situation regardless of my pleas. Then there are other situations when I think that there may be a chance/possibility of altering an outcome with prayer. Sometimes prayer is answered, sometimes it isn’t. Who can know the mind of God, right?
    I love the question cited by Martha: “Am I close enough to feel secure even when God is silent?”. This “silence” is (or will be at some future point) a major stumbling block for many.
    I found that sometimes to endure a crisis in ‘silence’, a Buddhist perspective of life is helpful.

    September 20, 2014
    • Can you say more about “a Buddhist perspective of life?”

      September 21, 2014
      • mike #

        What I mean to say is that sometimes during one of those extended periods of ‘crisis’ in which God remains silent-when I have no other rational choice but to endure a particular suffering, I can oftentimes garner a measure of psychological relief through applying the more detailed and focused Buddhist teachings on life with it’s inevitable sufferings, it entails adopting a philosophical mindset which functions effectively as a coping technique. The Buddhist cut straight to the root of our suffering, addressing such human vulnerabilities as our sense of entitlement- arrogance, expectations, pridefulness and Ego, without which there can be no suffering, only Acceptance. Christianity has fallen woefully short here in my opinion. Frankly speaking, There are times when the simple admonishment to “Trust Jesus” or “pray hard and believe” just doesn’t cut it. Utilizing certain Buddhist concepts has only helped me and in no way has it diminished Christ in my life,…I simply need all the help I can get, wherever I can find it.

        September 21, 2014
      • I agree, Christianity often falls woefully short in helping people in pain. But there are many Christians who don’t resort to anything like a “Trust Jesus” or “Pray hard and believe” approach. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son is a great example of a Christian walking honestly through pain. So is Jerry Sittser’s A Grace Disguised, which I just read for the first time this week. There are many others.

        For me, Buddhist approaches often veers into the territory of asking me to imagine that suffering is illusory—that what we experience as suffering is only so because we have not yet attained detachment or enlightenment. It seems to block the way to being able to say, “this is objectively horrible and I am right to be feeling the way that I do about it.” Of course, my understanding of Buddhism is based on a few books read and a course at university over a decade ago… I imagine there are other ways that Buddhists conceptualize suffering, too.

        Whatever else I find difficult about the Bible, I do appreciate the raw, often selfish laments of the Psalms. It names the pain as real and lays it before God. I need this.

        September 22, 2014
  4. mike #

    Excellent observations, Ryan. Your absolutely right. I can think of no solid basis with which to argue against your point other than to explain that I speak from the perspective of a recovering Alcoholic/drug addict who struggles daily with the unease and discomfort of a overactive mind and imagination. This seems to be the curse that most of us Alcoholics must learn to live with somehow without resorting to the familiar relief of Alcohol and drugs to ease the often overwhelming anxiety we feel. I readily admit that the Buddhist techniques I mentioned previously are tantamount to elaborate mental gymnastics but it seems to work better than the Crystals I bought 🙂

    September 22, 2014
    • I’m not denigrating any techniques that might be useful for you, Mike. Not by any stretch. I don’t know what it’s like to fight the demons you fight daily. And I think there is much to admire about Buddhism, specifically their emphasis upon mindfulness, presence, etc.

      I guess I was thinking more in meta-worldview terms, as I am prone to doing (this seems to be the curse that most of us philosophy/theology types must learn to live with 🙂 ).

      September 23, 2014
      • mike #

        Sorry if I sounded defensive in my reply, Ryan. In no way did I take your response as denigrating, that’s not your style 🙂

        September 23, 2014
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Michael my prayer for you this day is that you would claim deliverance. That you will see the Lord is offering healing. That you are recovered, not recovering…you are a new creation. Great blessings await you, my friend. 🙂

    Sharon and I begin our day by holding hands and reciting the “Our Father” together. It is the tie that binds us in an everlasting love. With God and with one another. So much love within me would wither and die without this daily ritual. So much love comes forth because of it. I have come to believe that if every Christian couple began there day in this manner, the world would be changed….”they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love”…

    God is in the silence, it is His realm. Words are rarely necessary. Just feel His presence. His comforts. His mercy. Satan cannot follow you into transcendence. He lurks in your consciousness. His is a world of too many words.

    September 23, 2014
    • mike #

      Thank you, Paul. I appreciate you,man.

      “God is in the silence, it is His realm”. Yes!!

      September 23, 2014
      • You’re welcome Mike. Likewise I appreciate your sincerity here. With Christ our addictions have no power over us. 🙂

        September 23, 2014

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