As often as Harper and Blaise had talked, and even talked about spiritual things, Harper had never really seen him like this in teacher / preacher role. Even when she heard part of the sermon the week before, she was sitting in the dark around the corner. Being in the room and watching him start to speak was like watching a transformation of sorts. His eyes got brighter, and his body became more animated with expressive hands, when he wasn’t holding his Bible or his notes. His whole body seemed to be smiling. It was obvious to her, and probably to everyone, the passion he had for Christ and for sharing his faith. She found herself mesmerized by his words and his delivery.
“As I told you last week, we’re going to do a deep dive into prayer this week. I hope you brought your questions and anecdotes to share, and we will hopefully get to those at the end . . . if I’m not too long winded.” He smiled at that. “If I had to give you the bottom line, it would be that prayer is communication—communication with our God. That sounds like it should be simple, right? But just as in any other context with our family and peers, communication is complicated. It can involve words, but also sounds and hand motions, facial smiles or grimaces, written words, and pictures. We can toss our hair around with a smile and communicate one thing, or we can toss our head around with a grimace and communicate something totally different.” And with that he tossed his graying, auburn hair around wildly with a big smile, and it fell again around his shoulders. “Just in case you didn’t catch it, I was happy there.” Someone in the back yelled out, “Got that!” And the audience laughed.
“Well, it’s just the same in communicating with God. All of those things come into play, not just formal expressions that pass literary and liturgical inspection.
I considered giving you an overview of the prayer Jesus modeled for his disciples. We recite it almost weekly here, but it would be good to break it down into smaller pieces. By giving this prayer, Jesus was not saying these were the only words to pray, but He was giving a good model to base our prayers upon.
I also considered going into depth with how I personally use the Psalms to pray. For example, Psalm 27, verse 1 says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” If I wanted to pray that for you, Sandy, I would say, The Lord is Sandy’s light and salvation; so, don’t let him be afraid. Lord, be the strength of Sandy’s life today, etc.
I also considered . . . are you sensing a theme here? I also considered showing you how I use the written prayers of early church fathers and other godly men and women, praying their words as my own, informing my own faith with their testimony and passion. One favorite that I pray almost daily is by a missionary named E. Stanley Jones, who wrote, “Gracious Father, I thank Thee for those who have come into my life with kindly word and deep insight. Help me this day to be the agent of Thy mind to some other person. Help me to speak that word which will lift the darkness for some fumbling soul. In Jesus’ name.”
I considered all these things, and I will get to them some other time; but for today, I felt that I would get right down to the nuts and bolts of why we should pray and whether it means anything because I think that is where we all live and struggle. If we believe God is real and that He is approachable and responsive, talking to Him should be as natural as breathing, right? But why is it hard? I think part of that has to do with the myriad theological underpinnings that cause people to do mental gymnastics, trying to make incongruent pieces fit together to make sense. And they don’t: make sense, that is. And when they don’t fit, we are asked to accept that these conflicting beliefs are just a paradox or a mystery to be accepted. But I think we can have much better clarity than that. God has revealed His message in words, so it is not unreasonable that He would want His words to be understandable and able to be followed. By the way, if I get too deep into the theological weeds, don’t be afraid to raise a hand if you need clarification on any point. And you may disagree with me, of course, but this is where I have landed in my study.
Christian hard determinists believe everything is controlled by God. And I mean everything—from wars and famine continents away to what parking spot you were able to find tonight out back. Any conception of free will is an illusion, and we are only ‘free’ to do what God has already said we can do. That belief in some form or other has infiltrated much Christian thinking so that you hear things like the following: ‘We don’t understand why that accident or disease happened, but we know it was God’s will,’ or ‘It was just God’s appointed time for her to die.’ And yet when faced with a crisis, what is the natural response for Christians and many non-Christians alike? It is to pray that God will change something in that situation—intervene against the natural order of things. And if He doesn’t—at least to our satisfaction—we hate Him for it.
We pray for change—for what seems a better outcome, at least to any rational being. When a child gets sick, the parents want everyone to pray that the child will recover; but if the child dies, they either say, or others say to them, that it was God’s will, and He just needed another wee angel in heaven. When Aunt Joan dies of a heart attack, we declare it was God’s will; but we go on an exercise program and a diet so we don’t suffer the same fate. Do you see how irrational that appears?
For me, I could not live with the idea that this God I worshiped, who was supposed to be love personified, could intentionally decree rapes, disease, murders, and wars—all the emotional and physical suffering we see in our world every day. If some theologians were correct in their understanding, He would seem capricious at best and cruel at worst. And yet if all was ordered by this God, why were we commanded to pray to Him without ceasing, as stated in I Thessalonians 5:17 in the scriptures. Why? Pray for what? If everything is controlled, what am I praying for? In any other area of life, I would not accept this contradiction, like believing water was cold and hot at the same time or that a person was a friend and an enemy at the same time. So, my own journey led me on an extensive study to try and make sense of it all. I knew I could worship a God who controlled every little thing, as one would give obeisance to a despot; but I also knew I could not honestly love a God like that—yet that is what my heart longed to do. Love and be loved.
I believe that when I read the scriptures, I see a God who is personable and involved in His creation. He walks with Adam; He talks with Abraham; He sheds His glory and comes to earth as the God-man Jesus to heal, to teach, and to redeem. He is not the determinists’ despot, but a loving Father who invites us to belong to His family. In your handouts, I have listed a lot of scriptures that I hope you will look over this week. They give a better picture of God than the God promoted by many of our Christian theologians. I hope you will think about those in your private devotional time.
I pray because I trust the One to whom I talk. I believe prayer changes things. I believe God wants us to be an integral part of His kingdom work here. It is not just a ritual performed by a robot, meaning nothing. But my prayers, our prayers, are part of the kingdom story we are working out in this time between the resurrection and the second coming of Christ. God wants to be invited into people’s lives, and we get to be part of that happening by our active testimony and our prayers. Do I understand it all? Of course not. Is there still a lot of mystery to go around? Of course. But I do know we have a part to play. We live in a world where our own choices and other people’s choices inform and change lives for good or bad. We also live in a world where invisible spiritual entities are not convinced about their defeat at the cross, and they are warring for our souls. So, our communication with God is not just a sweet thing we do to feel centered or holy, but it is a critical part of an arsenal we have in living in this war zone of a world. We have a part to play.
There is much more to say, but I would like to open it up for any questions you might have up to this point.”
A young man in the back who was new to the group raised his hand. “In that verse in Thessalonians you quoted, it also says to ‘give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ I mean, all my life I’ve heard that the verse proves that everything is the way God wants it. I mean ‘all circumstances’ means everything, doesn’t it?”
“Good question. What’s your name, by the way?” Blaise asked.
“I’m Jack. I came with my friend here.”
“That’s awesome, Jack. It’s nice to meet you. I’m glad you’re here. That verse is used just as you mentioned, and it was a tough one for me. But when I went back into the original languages—and believe me, I’m not an expert there, but I consulted those who are—and the ‘this’ in ‘this is the will of God’ refers back not to ‘circumstances’ but to the idea ‘give thanks.’ That is what is called an antecedent. When we read it in English, we might get the idea that everything that happens is intentionally decreed by God, but what Paul the Apostle is actually saying there is that in all circumstances what is the will of God is the giving thanks part—not the circumstance itself. And that is probably hard enough. Right? Does that mean give thanks for a horrible thing by calling it a good thing? I don’t think so. I think we give thanks that we are not alone. That God still has us in His hand, and that He is with us in all things—even these terribly hard circumstances. That’s a huge difference from attributing violence and evil to the Almighty. He loves us and has not left us to walk through this war zone alone. Does that make sense?”
Jack slowly rose to his feet, and tears were streaming down his face. He choked out, “I have felt alone. I have felt that God has left me. When my father died in Afghanistan, I was told it was God’s will. When my mother committed suicide out of the grief she felt, I was told she disobeyed God and was going to hell. Why was not that God’s will, too? No one would listen to me, and I have felt so confused for so long.” At that, he broke down sobbing. Others around him stood with him. Some laid their hands on him and started to pray; others embraced him as his body convulsed. From that small group, it was like a wave poured over the gathering. Little groups formed all over the room, and they prayed. Some soft, some loud. Some cried, some laughed.
Harper sat with her eyes closed. There was such a sweet presence in the room, and it touched her in a way that was palpable. She felt the warmth on her head just like the day she had been healed of her migraine. It flowed down over her shoulders, and over her whole body. She knew Jesus was with her, and she wept, her hands clasped to her chest. As she sat very still, taking it all in, the words came to her mind of a song she had started to write a few days before. She had not been able to finish it, lyrics or music; but when it played in her mind just then, it felt complete even though she had no idea why.
The room had grown still, and Blaise spoke softly, “Let’s just wait on the Lord to hear what He would speak to us.” The quiet was long, but not uncomfortable. It was as if peace had blossomed as a flower with its fragrance resting on everyone. Harper had never done anything like this before, and it wasn’t as if she was a robot and could do nothing other than stand; but stand she did. She felt compelled, but this obedience was more like a child’s natural and loving response to a caring father’s gift. She began to sing. Her voice, pure and bell-like filled the room. When she got to the end of the section she had written, the words kept coming, and the music kept flowing, and Harper kept singing as the gift flowed through her. Before one phrase ended, another was there to take its place, and her heart swelled with thankfulness.
Calm in the trouble, Love in the heartbreak
Right in the wrong.
Joy in misfortune, Peace in the madness
Hope brings a song.
Beauty for ashes and Healing for pain
Presence in loneliness, New Life again.
Cleansing communion, Friend for the journey,
Safety in storm.
Pardon in distance, Light in confusion,
Shelter in harm.
Rest for the footsore and Strength for the soul,
Blood-bought redemption, the part is made whole.
Beauty for ashes and Healing for pain
Presence in loneliness, New Life again.
God is . . .
Her song seemed to linger in the air as the quiet descended again.