Prayer Workshop - March-April, 2013
Courage to Keep On Praying
He raised his hand in a prayer workshop I was leading. “I’ve come here for only one reason,” he said. “I want to know why I should continue to pray.” He went on to describe several experiences in his life when God seemed to have moved away and left no forwarding address. The room fell silent, but I could tell that he had spoken what many of us were thinking and feeling. No matter how much we profess our faith in prayer, and no matter how devoutly we seek to practice it, always the nagging question lurks just off center-stage: “What difference does prayer really make?”
Scott Peck became famous for the opening sentence of his book, The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult.” Many of the meditations in this edition of The Upper Room relate to these difficulties. Somehow, prayer has to be part of this; otherwise it becomes an ivory-tower experience that leaves us in spiritual limbo. So how do we find the courage to keep on praying?
I’ve come to believe that the courage to pray begins and ends with God. But instantly, we realize that not “any old god” will do. In fact, some concepts of God are downright negative and counterproductive to cultivating a life of prayer. Some views of God are toxic and debilitating. Years ago, I was walking with Dr. Charles L. Allen (former pastor of First United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas). I asked him what he had found to be his number-one problem in working with people. Without hesitation he replied, “The notion that God is mad at them.”
Without some way to break through this notion, prayer can seem like talking in the dark or fiddling while Rome burns. None of us will give ourselves over the long haul to an exercise in futility. I have found only one way to move from thinking of God as distant and unmoved, and that is by looking at Jesus. Instead of revealing a God who is aloof, Jesus “moved into the neighborhood” (as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, John 1:14). And when he did, he showed us the face of a God who loves and cares — who never turns away — who walks with us even through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23:4, kjv). And he went on to say what we all need to hear if prayer is to be real and vital: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, nrsv).
Whatever else this means, it means that God is not reluctant to hear and respond to us when we pray. When prayers seem to go unanswered, we can say one thing for sure: God didn’t turn away. Life in a fallen world creates reasons for unanswered prayer that we will never be able to understand or explain. We have no choice but to live with this deep mystery, and sometimes doing so is very painful. But Jesus is Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” E. Stanley Jones said it this way: “Jesus puts a face on God.” We all face struggles, sometimes over large things and sometimes over small ones. But what we discover through the witness of Christ is that we never face them alone.
At this point, we move into a second element that can help us maintain the courage to keep on praying. We come to the Church — the body of Christ. Unfortunately, when we move from Christ to the Church, we move from clarity into a mixed message. Most of us can remember tough times when the community of faith has failed us. We may have experienced the absence of the Church or maybe even judgment from its teachings and its people. When we are mistreated by God’s people, it’s easy to feel mistreated by God as well. But we must not equate what humans do with what God does.
Nevertheless, we are called to love and care. In this regard, I think of the people who carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus (Mark 2:1-12). This parable helps us in two ways to keep praying. First, we sometimes find ourselves the ones on the stretcher. We must then rely on others to carry us into Christ’s presence. At times we simply cannot pray — but others can pray for us. And that is legitimate prayer. Second, sometimes we can be one of those who carry the stretcher. We can weave our lives into the lives of others and become intercessors. This is part of our call as disciples of Jesus and members of Christ’s body. (See 1 Cor. 12.) Sometimes we must ask others to pray for us; at other times, we can respond to needs by praying for others. In either case, this is what the Church is meant to be and do.
When I look at Christ as he is and at the Church as it is supposed to be, I find courage to keep on praying. When we think of prayer as conversation which includes both listening and speaking, we realize an amazing and powerful truth: sound travels in both darkness and light. We can pray in the dark. Quite a few meditations remind us of this. You may want to read again those for March 2, 5, 8, 13, 17, 18, 21, and 28 and April 4, 9, 11, 15, 18, 20, 21, 22, 27, and 29 as you prepare to reflect on the following questions:
1. What image of Christ gives you comfort and hope when you face difficult times?
2. Can you recall a tough time in your life when another believer became Christ to you? If so, describe that time.
3. How have you sought to be Christ to others, especially as you cross paths with hurting people?
4. Besides Christ and the Church, what other ideas or images enable you to keep praying with faith and hope?
5. Is there something you’re dealing with right now that you’d like to ask Christ to help you with? Whom can you ask to join you in praying about this?
6. Do you know someone who is going through a particularly hard time? What will you pray for on their behalf right now? As you do, ask Christ to show you how to add actions to your words.
Steve Harper was born in Texas. He is an elder in The United Methodist Church, retired from the Florida Annual Conference. Over the years he has served as a youth minister, evangelist, pastor, professor, and seminary administrator. He is the author or co-author of more than 20 books, and a frequent speaker and teacher in local churches, conferences, workshops, and retreats. You can follow his blog at oboedire.wordpress.com.