How to Pray When You Don’t Know How

It sounded like an easy assignment. “You’ll start the day by finding a room in the building by yourself. Then pray for an hour.” “No problem,” I thought. “Sit quietly and pray? No sweat.”

Turns out I did sweat. I had gone with other college students to Miami, Florida to be part of a Spiritual Life Internship conducted by a church located in Little Havana. The church wisely did not run their air conditioning in typically unused parts of the building. A number of us unwisely chose typically unused parts of the church building for our personal prayer spots.

The rooms were warm. The air was heavy. So were my eyelids. My mind was wandering. My head was bobbing. When a bell rang to signal the time to regroup in the meeting area I realized that I had snoozed more than supplicated.

In a moment of honesty, I reported how my time went. To my relief I was not alone. It was a common experience for our group. Blame it on muggy Miami or chalk it up to our inexperience. We discovered what we were expected to discover: we needed to learn to pray.

Might you feel that need too? We pray… at times.  When we need help we pray. When we get bad news we pray. When the doctor calls us in we pray. We may offer a prayer when we come over a rise in the road and see the Rockies. We may remember to say thanks when something good comes our way: a promotion, a birth, a new love.

We pray … at times. But wouldn’t you like to pray more? More often? More powerfully? More selflessly? For all the reasons we don’t pray more often, more often it is simply because we’re not sure how.

We aren’t alone. The first followers of Jesus needed help too. Before you think you can’t pray like Peter or Andrew, James or John, think again. Luke records that on one occasion “one of his disciples said to him ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’” What he doesn’t record is any of the other disciples piping up and saying, “Yeah, he needs help. We’ve got this one. You teach him while we grab some figs and dates.” You won’t find any of the other disciples opting out of the lessons.

That is because prayer is a learned language. Go to Italy and it helps if you know some Italian. In the same way there is a language found in God’s kingdom: prayer. The disciples had watched Jesus’ prayer life and wanted theirs to match what they had seen in his. They had seen him pray before meals and powerful acts and important decisions. They had learned prayer was so vital to him he would disappear to pray.

It seemed Jesus did nothing without prayer. His disciples took notice. So when they asked for training he did not embark on a five-part webinar on “How to Pray.” When the disciples asked him to teach them to pray he simply gave them a simple prayer.

You may know it as The Lord’s Prayer. It is a skeleton of sorts that over time can hold more muscle and heart and lungs.

Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy.

Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not bring us into temptation,

but deliver us from the evil one.

For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

That’s how Jesus said to pray. If you are a prayer novice, you can master this prayer. If you are a prayer warrior, you should not venture too far from this prayer. Prayer is the only thing we find the disciples specifically asking Jesus to teach them. And this is the prayer he gave.

It’s been a long time since that assignment in Miami. I still struggle with prayer at times. But I’ve gotten better. When I get distracted now I use this prayer. When I get sleepy now this one can be uttered quickly.

When you don’t know how to pray this one will help. Your Father wants to talk with you.

Let him teach you how.

Question: What keeps you from prayer?

What to do When You Find Yourself Waiting

It’s the four-letter word we most dread to hear. Speak it in a group of high-powered deal makers about to sign on the dotted line and watch their jaws drop. Whisper it in a fast food lane and watch old ladies react in horror. Yell it out to your kids on Christmas morning as they are about to rip into the wrapped packages and see them turn and look at you with disgust.

It’s a cringe-worthy four-letter word and it may surprise you that Jesus uttered it. And since he did, I will too. Here it comes: “Wait.” Jesus told his disciples to wait. “While he was with them, he commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise” (Acts 1:4).

We need training in waiting. Fortunately for us there is a place where we can go to hone this skill. You may have been there. I was recently. The appointment was at 9:45 a.m. I thought I might show up early and get lucky. So at 9:20 a.m. I tapped on the glass of the receptionist’s window and announced my presence. She greeted me and promptly announced, “Have a seat and wait here and the nurse will come get you when we’re ready.”

She slid the glass closed and I imagined her sending word to the doctor: “Mr. Brown is here early. Let’s reward him for helping us get ahead of schedule!” I imagined that while I waited in the waiting room.

I looked around while I waited. There was one young wife with her husband. She kept hacking while she waited. I was glad she was waiting with her hacking on the other side of the room.

There was one woman in her later years with her father who was in even later years than she. At one point he got up and shuffled to the door, opened it with great trouble, and then started to shuffle down the hallway. I was amused by this thinking, “Ha-ha…he’s a wise old man. He’s making a run…or shuffle…for it while he can. What if he gets lost?” Another patient was alarmed by this and told the daughter, “He’s heading down the hallway.” She got up and walked at a somewhat quicker gait than her father and eventually brought him back to his seat where he…waited.

At 9:45 a.m. the door opened, a nurse appeared, and called someone else’s name. At 10:20 a.m. she reappeared and called me back where she took me to a smaller room where I sat on the table and waited. I waited until 10:35 a.m. That’s the time the nurse practitioner finally saw me. Not that I was watching the clock while I waited.

We don’t like to wait, do we? Raise your hand if, like me, you get in the “10 items or less” checkout line and, when it doesn’t move, start counting the number of items in the carts in front of you. You find 11 and want to report the person. Why? Because they’re making you wait one item longer than you should have to.

 

“Wait” is a four-letter word. Just utter it to someone in a hurry and record the response you get. We are a people who are used to being on the move. To us, waiting is equated with waste. One estimate suggests that some people spend a year or two of their lives waiting in line.  We have to be doing something so we just look at our mobile devices. We read. We text. We email. We work while we wait.

But God prefers that he work while we wait. He has trained his people in the art of waiting throughout Scripture. Abraham had to wait for Isaac. The Israelites had to wait forty years before entering the Promised Land. Joseph had to wait for his dream to be fulfilled. Mary had to wait to give birth to Christ.

And the disciples had to wait in Jerusalem. But while they waited and while God worked there was something to do. Waiting in the Bible has to do with paying attention to God, watching to see what he is doing, and when his people are given a green light they move.

To wait is to pray. Gathering to wait and pray are the two primary activities of a faithful church.  Reread that sentence and answer this question: if we looked at most churches today in our fast-paced society, would we say that these two activities were the primary activities of the modern day church?

Possibly not. The reason is that, as one modern day theologian penned in song, “the waiting is the hardest part.”  Waiting is the hardest part because there are things that need to be done in the world and we think we need to get about the task of doing them.

Could it be that to wait is contrary to our nature because it confronts our desire for control? When we wait we feel as if we have no control. Which is exactly where Jesus wants us. Peter was probably champing at the bit to start witnessing. Andrew was ready to invite someone else into this movement. James was ready to lead the church in Jerusalem. But just because Jesus had instructed them for forty days was not enough to carry out this mission.

They needed the power to do so. And power comes through waiting. “…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.”

Have you been asked to wait on something today? A job? A healing? A spouse? Has Jesus asked you to wait before doing something? Before a move? Before accepting a job? Before marrying that person?

Not everything God has in store for you will happen quickly. Some things require that we wait. It may be a week. It may be, as in the case of the Israelites, forty years. It may be, in the case of the disciples, forty days. But while you wait, God is working. And he wants you to be ready. He wants you to have renewed strength. He wants you to soar like eagles. He wants you to run the task ahead and not be weary.

All you need to do is wait and pray. Funny, isn’t it? Both are powerful. And they are both four-letter words.

Question: How can learning to wait increase your spiritual power?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your Failures are not Final

As rejection letters go this one wasn’t too bad. I had an idea for a book, had written most of it, and decided to send a proposal to a publisher that was fairly new on the scene.

I imagined them reading the first few lines and shouting, “This is it! Our next bestseller!” Their offices would shut down and celebrate before a contract was even signed. Within two weeks I received a response. “Thanks so much for your proposal. Your topic is certainly a worthy one, and we’re honored you thought of us as a publisher. Unfortunately, we don’t believe this book is the right fit for us at this time. Our niche is in practical church leadership, and we don’t typically publish inspirational works.”

Someone taught me to look for the good things so I did. “Worthy topic.” “O.K.,” I thought. “I’m on the right track.” They were “honored” I thought of them. “Great. I made them feel good about themselves. That’s honorable of me.”

Nothing in there about bad writing. They could have said, “We read your sample chapter and honestly…we don’t really understand what it was we were reading.” It was just not a match for the kind of publishing they do. It wasn’t bad. But it was still a rejection.

It did not matter that Karen kept reminding me I had only sent the proposal to one publisher. It did not matter that she recounted the stories I’ve shared of writers who were turned down numerous times before they found their publisher.

It didn’t matter. I spent exactly 36 hours and twenty-one minutes feeling like a failure.

Maybe you have too. You lost a job. You lost a marriage. Never finished school. Watched your business go under. Planned to improve yourself one year but didn’t change a thing. You described yourself as a failure and thus prescribed your role for life. You’ve lived with the consequences ever since and decided to return to something safe. Instead of pursuing something else and risk failure you retreated to the familiar.

If you can relate to what I’m saying, you can relate to Peter. He’s been fishing all night and hasn’t caught a thing.  After the events of the cross he retreated to what was most familiar to him. Something safe. He went fishing.

After a long night he has nothing to show. It’s not the first time he’s failed either. It’s not the first time shame has been taunting him: “Maybe you’re not really cut out for this business.” “You don’t have what it takes.” “You let yourself down and you’ve let others down.” No one else has to say these things. The tapes are playing in his own mind.

But that’s when Jesus appeared on the shore. Peter jumps in the water and meets him by a charcoal fire. The last time we saw the words “charcoal fire” Peter was warming himself while turning a cold shoulder to Jesus. At that charcoal fire Peter denied Jesus. At this one he will see his shame burn away and his new life appear when Jesus gives him an assignment. “Feed my sheep.”

Failure and the shame that accompanies it can cause us to quit. We go into hiding and don’t take another swing at the ball. We disappear into the bushes like Adam and Eve, afraid to make another move.

I did. For exactly 36 hours and twenty-one minutes I resolved to never write again. “How can God use me if I can’t get a publisher to take a chance?” I thought. I know. It sounds crazy, but you’ve said similar things, haven’t you? The Enemy will take anything we think we’ve failed at and use it to stifle us. He plants the thought in our minds that failure makes us unfit to be used by God.

Whatever your point of failure is, take it before Jesus. That weekend in Cancun when you were younger. That word you spoke to that friend that ended the friendship. Those thoughts you have that no one else knows.

If Peter can take his denial to Jesus, you can take your misdeeds to him too. Jesus does not call the holy. He makes holy the ones he calls. That’s what he does with Peter. He sets him apart for his service.

Peter’s task is to feed the sheep. The one who denied Jesus three times would now be the one who would lead the fledgling church in its infancy. The one who was afraid to die at the first charcoal fire found the courage to die by the second.

Jesus tells Peter how he will die. He tells him that when he grows old “…you will stretch out your hands…” This is a metaphor for crucifixion. He would face death on account of his faith because he faced his failure.

Early Church Fathers wrote about Peter’s history. Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 150-215) wrote “They say when the blessed Peter saw his wife led away to death, he rejoiced that her call had come and that she was returning home.” Then, sometime after witnessing his own wife’s martyrdom, he endured his own. Tertullian (A.D. 155-250) wrote that “Peter endured a passion like that of the Lord” and “In Rome Nero was the first to stain with blood the rising faith. Peter was girded about by another when he was made fast to the cross.”

Jesus has a way of using people who have failed. Abraham’s cowardice caused him to lie about his wife being his sister before God made him the father of many nations. Moses’ anger resulted in a dead Egyptian and a 40 year hiding in the wilderness before he led God’s people to the Promised land. David had Uriah killed so he could have Bathsheba before God used him as an example of a man after his own heart.

He used Peter, denials and all, to lead his own bride, the church.

And he has something for you to do too. It may not be leading the church the way Peter did, but it does include loving the church the way Jesus did. Your failures are not final.

Publishers can send nice rejection letters. But Jesus won’t. You’re a part of his story.

And there’s more writing to be done.

Question: What failure is keeping you from moving forward?