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The Lonely Place
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
Perhaps nothing is more difficult than prayer.
For followers of Jesus, we describe efforts to pray with phrases like
I wrestle with prayer
I struggle to pray
My prayer life is weak
All my prayers sound the same
I know I should pray more
I don't pray enough
I don't know how to pray
I fall asleep when I pray
Praying is boring
I tried but I just can't pray
I used to pray, but it did not work
Dr. Howard G. Hendricks, distinguished professor for over fifty years, editorialized, "Hold a conference on prophecy and people come out by droves. Hold a conference on prayer and people stay away by the thousands."
On another occasion, Dr. Hendricks queried, "Did it ever occur to you that there is only one thing the gospels record, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them something? They asked Jesus to teach them to pray. What does this reveal of the disciples' struggle?"
Over the years, many have tried to help us, teach us, and encourage us to pray. Devotionals, daily readings, prayer books, journals, entries from saints of other generations, mystical intrigue, and studies have been produced to cheer us on to pray. Call it a discipline, devotion, duty, or even religion—it seems that only silver-haired widows know the richness and joy of prayer.
My journey with prayer may be like yours. On rare occasions, I think I am praying well. Most of the time, I know I do not have a clue about prayer. I can quickly feel guilty about not praying. I can muster up a good habit for a while, but praying for lists of sick people does not keep me motivated. This may say more about my personal issues, but I find many believers pale to prayer. So, perhaps like you, I have read books on prayer, kept prayer lists, studied prayer in the Bible, and kept prayer journals. (The quirkiest attempt was to record prayer requests and answers in an unused checkbook register, dating the request and answer like a deposit and withdrawal.)
So maybe we visit a prayer meeting or a prayer service. As a pastor, it is a horrible admission to make, but I hate prayer meetings. Think about the last prayer meeting you attended:
We spend more time talking about requests than praying
We share concerns (code language for "gossip" and "worry")
We pray about generic items: travel safety, health, upcoming surgeries, jobs
We pray through a list of unknown people (the hallowed "unspoken requests")
If we pray about other things, it is about someone else's prodigal son, a friend of a friend's marriage, a distant relative's problems
Maybe we pray for things like church leaders, unity, people coming to Christ, and missions
And we lament with the prophets of old, and pray that other people would be more committed and come to our prayer meeting
All of these are fine concerns. I do not mean to demean. We are instructed to pray for all things. And very committed believers faithfully come to prayer meetings and are serious and devout in their prayers. Yet if this is supposed to be vital, crucial, essential, the warp and woof of a believer's soul, why does it still fall flat for the great majority of believers?
Prayer can feel like a wedding reception of people you do not know very well but among whom you have to be on your best behavior. It seems more like a tedious gathering than Gethsemane, more like coffee and fellowship than Paul's prayer for enlightenment.
I hold several convictions about prayer. You may not agree with all of these, and if not, I hope you will develop your own. But these are mine:
A personal prayer life is more important than group or public prayer
The discipline or development of prayer is an indicator of growth, maturity, and intimacy with Christ
Prayer is a relationship, not a task
Prayer is recognition that my dependence is not partial but total
Our prayer "life" will wax and wane
Pain, suffering, and problems may well be God's motivators for us to pray
Eloquence in prayer is not important
Prayer is communication with the Creator of the universe. As a result, why use repetitious, dull, canned language to talk with God?
Choosing good words, expressions, phrases that clearly articulate prayer is important
Keeping a journal or writing prayers helps us see, over time, more about ourselves than whether God "answers" prayer
If prayer is important to Christ, would He leave His followers in a fog for all time?
As the Mennonites urged, pray until you have prayed.
—Michael J. Easley
~ Again ~
Lord Who sustains
Again I come to You for grace
Grace that kept me overnight
Grace that keeps me this moment
Grace that will keep me tomorrow
Again I move "in but not of"
where my affections will be tempted
My head will be turned
My heart will be deceived
My motives twisted
My will overused
Again, I need You, every moment, every step, every glance
I offer nothing good apart from You
I only harm others and myself
I always rebel
Again, I need
Your Spirit's control
Your power to resist
Your Word to guide
~ Everyday ~
Great Provider and only Creator,
Help us every day to know that You
Gave to us in our sleep
Renewed our weary frames in the night
Presented us with a new start—every morning
Help us every day to remember You
Provide a roof
Supply us with nourishment Protect us with clothing
All of which—to our shame—we take for granted
Remind us when we forget that You
Heal us when we are sick
Nourish us when we (greedily) consume
Supply us when we freely spend
Use us—even though we sin—for Your glory
Forgive us every day when we
Hurry into busyness
Disregard appointments with You
Rush past You with self-importance
Think our lives are more important than You
Help us have a constant awareness
That Jesus has covered all our sins
That as unlovely as we may feel, Jesus loves us
That forgiveness cost immeasurably
That our lives can be more about Jesus and less about us
That our lives can be an ongoing "Thank You" for
Your grace, righteousness, mercy, and love.
~ Those Who Followed ~
Your disciples followed
They saw Your power
They witnessed You
Yet they were afraid
They saw You
Face to face
Sweat to sweat
Land to water
Death to life
They heard You
Were Your friends
May we follow well
Not turning to the side
Walking the path straight
Keeping the narrow way
With an eye to the light
Hold my hand to Your plow
Keep my back to the sun
My face like flint
Directing my heart to serve You, and You alone.
So when I am weighed in the balance
I will have been a good and faithful follower
Of my Lord, my Jesus, my Christ.
Eternal Father, Three-in-One:
You have existed from and in all eternity
We exist only in Your choice (before the foundation of the world)
You have created and sustain Your creation
We can only live within Your creation
You have always been the Father to the Son
We are only sons because You are the adopting Father
You have designed space, time, life, and death
We only inch near knowledge
You have been enthroned for all time
We watch one generation erase another
You order unbendable laws of this realm
We play with and pretend we understand Your ways
You have not changed
We bend with winds of fashion
You are always with us
We are great risks of flight
You love the unlovely
We, the unlovely, seldom love
Your holiness and glory set You apart
We smudge and smear all that is good
You give, bless, forgive, and hear
We take, demand, blame, and forget
Your Son has made the way
We require Your Spirit to compass our hearts
Your Son has obeyed in every and all ways
We need Your Spirit to obey at all
Holy Father, Three-in-One, according to the kind intention of Your will, help us be Your faithful children, heirs to an indescribable eternity with You. For apart from You, we can do nothing.
We honor God when we
Ask for great things.
It is a humiliating thing
To think we are satisfied
With very small results.
—D. L. MoodyCHAPTER 2
The "I Love Me" Wall
He is pretty matter-of-fact about it all, but his was a prestigious career as a naval pilot. He ended his tour with a successful command, and rather than move yet again—flag in sight—he got out of the Navy and gave the moving vans (and his wife) a rest. It has been several years now, and he does not talk about it much. Once I visited his home and on a basement wall hung records of achievement—all kinds of awards, plaques, medals, and citations. Apparently at one time these trophies were pretty important to him because they had been nicely matted and framed. I asked about them and he said with a deflecting smile, "Everyone has an 'I love me wall.'" One time he did tell me what kind of jet was in a particular picture, but that was all. He still won't tell you anything about them.
I got to wondering about this "I love me wall." Some display sheepskins. Some have sports trophies. Some have a rack from a buck, or a large bass. For some, it might be their kids, their prom photo, or their wedding day. Lots of things can be a display of "I love me."
John 15 is weighted with many profound issues. The vine imagery has theologians still scratching their heads. Significant concepts in the chapter include prune and clean, abide (occurring about ten times), keep My commandments, love (eight times) and others. It is a body of crucial concepts the Master gave us.
One that struck me was Jesus' notice to His disciples— His close friends—that "apart from Me you can do nothing" (v. 5). At least we can understand that the vine imagery and abiding mean there is a relationship between the disciples' doing what Jesus wants them to do and their total inability to do it apart from Him. He's telling them to abide, and there is some sense in which they choose to abide—yet He is the vine. He wants them to "bear much fruit" (v. 8), and that somehow that proves them to be His followers. Then in verses 9–13 "love" becomes the operative term. If they "keep His commandments" they abide in His love. Then He gives them the commandment in verse 12, that they "love one another, just as I have loved you."
~ Because ~
I love the Lord because
He listens to my prayers
He hears my complaints
He knows my longings
He does not reject me when I am stupid
Help me, great auditor
To admit and confess my transgression
To embrace and own my sin
To examine and uncover my defensiveness
To lay the blame at my feet, not others'
Empower me, great Sovereign
To keep close to You in my "dailyness"
To call on You when trouble begins
To rest in You and not my machinations
To confess, admit, and acknowledge my guilt
Remind me, patient Father
That my salvation is secure
That while men fail, You do not
That I serve You, not myself
And that I can only offer thanks because of you.
~ The Problem with Self ~
It calls for attention
Longs for it
Becomes jealous when ignored
How can it not be
Always, always about Me?
I am to do nothing from selfishness
I am not to be conceited
I am to be humble
I am to regard others more important than Me.
~ The Distracted Traveler ~
Father, Maker of time
Move my mind from the droning routines of my life,
To an increasing occupation of captive thoughts toward You.
Forgive my here and now focus that excludes
You from my heart,
Forgive my frantic activities that crowd
You from my mind,
Forgive my penchant to busy myself with
distractions far greater than Martha's,
Forgive my sin-sick self and its unyielding
demand for attention.
You have created every day.
You have allotted to me a number of days.
You have ordered all my days.
You have created every day I take for granted.
You have permitted every day for which I demand more.
You have given me great freedom in the use of these
fleeting minutes, hours, days, and weeks.
You have known before the foundation of the world,
what lies in wait for me.
You have measured out grace in time in every step of my life.
Please, by Your powerful Holy Spirit,
Help this distracted traveler.
Help me to calm when details demand attention.
Help me to rest when I see mountains of tasks
that will never be done.
Help me to once in a while think a little less of me
and a little more of You.
Help me not to live this life in the horizontal, never
slowing or resting long enough to see Your vertical vistas.
Ever patient Father, maker of time, what will it take
for me to live as You want me to live,
Rather than my penchant for clamor and anxiety?
It will require nothing less than Your very presence.
It will require Your grace—yet again—to this distracted saint.
It will require You to measure out mercy like a paycheck—
to give to me what I need more than want.
Yet, since you indulge your distracted saint this far, will
I ever be released from my horizontal fixation?
O God of time, release me from this dailyness and grant me
once in a while, times where You transcend me from my
routines that cleverly chain me to the mundane.
For what if I live this life so unfocused on the next?
What if I live this life so fixated on distractions?
What if I live this life anxious, busy, frenetic?
How will I face eternity with You?
Would you in mercy measure more to help me?
Inching Toward Peace
Over the years, I have struggled with anxiety a lot. In God's great kindness, I see it less and less in my soul, but at times it creeps in like kudzu. I've been dealing with my own "stuff" with an anxiety that is less the panicky kind and more of a sense of feeling torn and pulled. So today, I returned to the shopworn Philippians 4:6–7 for relief and found none. Not because the text is inadequate— but because I am in rebellion. But, that said, I found myself inching toward "peace" and "rest" in the oft-overlooked context, verses 8–9. Interesting instruction to "dwell on these things" that refer to what I'd call the "whatever ..." list. Take a look at it—and ponder a bit. May His Word refresh us all and help us confidently rest IN HIM, not our machinations. I kind of "diagramed" the verse a little:
* * *
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren,
whatever is true,
whatever is honorable,
whatever is right,
whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely,
whatever is of good repute,
if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.
The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Excerpted from Interludes ... by Michael J. Easley. Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Easley. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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TABLE OF TABLE
The Lonely Place
Those Who Followed
The "I Love Me" Wall
The Problem with Self
The Distracted Traveler
A Theologue's Prayer
What Is Prayer
A Parent's Plea
A Preacher's Petition
How To Be Like Clarence Thomas
We Are Only
A Few Books That Help Me Pray
Praise God Because of His Works
O Faithful Lord
For the Fidgety Soul
What's It Worth To You>
How Can I Be
"There's Always One"
Paul on Prayer
Your Church, Your People
A Preacher's Prayer
A Prayer for My Firstborn
A Leader Asks
Just Plain Stupid
A Non-Anxious Presence
Prayer Terms... Attitudes...Posture
Passion & Anger
O Great Physician
Eye On The Ball
Like a Dead Man
What Happens When You Talk?
Hating Sin, Loving Him
About the Author