The strangest thing: no one has ever asked me, “Pastor, could you please teach me how to pray?” That’s crazy because I’m frequently asked to teach people how to study the Bible, how to share their faith, how to fast, how to prepare a sermon, even how to find their spiritual gifts. Despite the fact that 95% of church folks confess, “I know my prayer life is not what it should be,” no one has ever asked me to show them how to make it right.
That’s why I think prayer is anti-American.
The same Americans who boldly fight for the right to pray at football games and commencement ceremonies aren’t even up to a minor skirmish when it comes to a quiet conversation with God in private. And it’s not because most church people are actually lost, or because they don’t love God. It’s just that prayer seems like a waste of time for many Americans. It’s a fact: we value our time and we’d rather spend our limited hours doing something– actually doing it ourselves. Invite us to a Bible Study. Organize us for a mission trip. Rehearse us for a worship spectacular complete with music and fireworks! But don’t ask us to just sit down and do nothing. That’s un-American, isn’t it? Doesn’t the Bible say something about working while it’s still daylight? Indeed.
It also says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) For all my frantic, over scheduled, hyper-drive fellow saints, I want to offer up a fresh, new paradigm for prayer. For my fellow worshipers in the USA who cannot imagine anything meaningful happening in a prayer closet, except maybe coming out of it, would a new image help?
Devotional prayer is much like a trip to the beach. You have to take off your shoes and slow down. You walk more slowly and finally you just stop. You need to hear the roar of the sea, and fall into the rhythm of the waves. The noises of people slowly fade into the background as the cry of the gulls begins to do something inside your heart. The things you do on a beach are not much different from regular life- sitting and lying around, running or throwing a frisbee, walking or standing around in the surf. The presence of something vast and a purpose that is profound make everything seem different on the seashore.
God moves slowly. Granted, he was able to release the Hebrew slaves from captivity in Egypt so quickly that there was no time for the bread to rise. But more commonly, the God of Eternity tends to work in seasons, generations and even centuries. Not so much in seconds! No one can outrun God, but when he pauses to talk, you could run past Him! So prayer requires that highly motivated, overcaffeinated people do something almost impossible: slow down and come to a halt. Be still and listen. Devote yourself to stillness even if nothing happens for a bit. In an invisible Kingdom, important things can well be happening when it seems like nothing’s going on.
Most of us are familiar with the episode in 1 Kings 19 in which God speaks in a small, still voice to one very discouraged Elijah. You may recall that God first sends a mighty wind that blasts the rocks on the mountainside apart. Then he sends an earthquake that rocks the whole region. Next he dispatches a raging fire that scorches everything in sight. Only after all the chaos is finished do Elijah’s ears detect the gentle whisper of Eternity: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” We can read the entire account in less than five minutes. It probably lasted for hours! The legendary man of God stood there waiting for hours, enduring all manner of terrifying phenomena, before he was finally rewarded with the gentle sigh of a loving Go. Sometimes you can do nothing but wait.
“But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31.)
Devotional time alone with the Father is not much like 21st Century America, but it is so very much like 1st Century Jesus. In only three or four years, he managed to accomplish everything required of him to redeem the world and launch the Church, and he did it in spite of all the days and nights he spent alone in prayer. Dare I say because of all the days and nights he spent alone in prayer?
The first step forward into the presence of the Almighty God is counter-intuitive to us in America: stop. Let your life slow down. Let your heart slow down. Be intentional and find a quiet place: force everything to stop for fifteen minutes even if nothing supernatural happens. Somewhere in the Kingdom of Light, something supernatural will occur.
Lift up the Cross!