Sunday, May 26, 2013

Abundance, Blessing, Cost

"If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it ...
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
Rich in the windows. The river will run
clear, as we will never know it . . .
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields . . .
Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality."
 (from Work Song, Part 2: A Vision, Wendell Berry)
Last week I wrote about The Grace Outpouring, a book sent to me by a fellow blogger in the UK. The book explores the idea of God’s blessing, and how we become avenues of that blessing.

This week, thinning peaches on my three young peach trees, I was reminded of the idea of blessing, and of Wendell Berry’s poem: 
“The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.”
 
I find myself in a season of abundance and great blessing. House wrens serenade me from the backyard box I put up weeks ago. Bluebirds perch on a log just yards from my front window where I leave seeds and bits of suet. Locust blossoms perfume the air, and my woodland beds of trillium, foamflower, and bluebells invite the buzz of nectar-laden bees.

The hummingbird is back, exploring the scarlet honeysuckle I’ve trained above the path from driveway to backyard. The rabbits have multiplied. I meet them along my mossy paths, or surprise them investigating my peas and lettuce nestled in a raised bed made of storm-torn locust limbs.

Most days I feel very rich: rich in friends and family, rich in health and purposeful, interesting work.

But perched on a ladder in a damp, cold wind, picking off tiny peaches so the remaining fruit grows plump and juicy, I find myself thinking about how much I take for granted.

I didn’t know, until I planted peach trees, how much work it takes to grow a peach. I bought them at the local farm market, complained when I succumbed to peaches at the grocery store and found them hard, or tasteless. I’m not sure I even knew what a real peach was like until I moved to Pennsylvania and encountered just picked peaches at a local fair: yellow flushed with pink and red, warm and juicy, sweet with a succulent sweetness food chemists still can’t duplicate.

We live in a flattened world, far from the blessings God intended.

We eat prepackaged food, shipped from somewhere far away.

We hurry through our days, missing the music of early morning birdsong, the beauty of clouds, the soothing whisper of breezes on birch branches, or streams slipping over mossy stones.

We are too often impatient, and hard of hearing.

Peaches, I’m reminded, are an investment in the future. For every peach I eat, there was someone who envisioned an orchard, and planted trees.

And someone who went out in the winter to prune.

And someone thinning the peaches, picking tiny spheres by hand, hour by hour, focused, painstaking work.

All of those investments are part of the blessing of peaches – a blessing easily missed, easily taken for granted.

Roy Godwin, author of The Grace Outpouring, speaks of the many aspects of blessing in God’s kingdom: forgiveness, health, unity, peace.

But none of that comes easily. There’s a cost. Not to the person who receives the blessing, but to the one who gives it.

Just as the grace of Christ’s cross is given freely, but cost him his life. Grace is free, but costly.

I didn’t see this the first time through my reading of The Grace Outpouring.

I found myself wondering, “Why does God answer prayer there, and not so often here?” “Why do they find themselves blessed, while we feel God is far away?”

But reading through again, I was struck by the tenacious obedience of Godwin and Daphne, his wife.

The decision to move to Ffald-y-Brenin, the retreat center, was costly, and disruptive.

The financial challenges were great.

The emotional work of rebuilding lives in a new, unfamiliar place was familiar. I’ve been down that trail: painful, costly, poised between regret and hope, far from hard-earned networks of support.

Finally settled at Ffaldy-Brenin, Roy and Daphne Godwin faced a series of strange leadings: preparation in prayer, risky conversations, small steps of obedience followed by next steps, more difficult, more costly.

Godwin describes a deepening pattern of obedience, a day of prayer in new, unfamiliar ways, a sense of contentment from knowing they’d done what they’d been given to do, then, unexpected fruit: 
“Early the next morning there was a frantic hammering on our front door, and we emerged to find the guests – who had come as individuals and not as a group – up and talking. I thought maybe the fire alarm had gone off, but it turned out that there was a different kind of fire at work.
 "During the night, Jesus had appeared in dreams to each of them and spoken amazing words individually to them, into their lives and their situations, and for each of them this had brought amazing healing. In many cases his words had touched concerns that nobody else knew about, in their childhood, very early on in their lives. There was wonderful healing and a new freedom for them all.
 "Now they wanted an explanation, and our pithy response to these thirty overwhelmed guests was ‘God is blessing you. Let’s just give him thanks, and let’s ask him to keep blessing you.”
 "That wasn’t all. In the following weeks a torrent of water began flowing out of springs above us that had been dry for many years. It was their dryness that had given rise to the name of the area here: Synchbant, which means “dry streambed.” The millstream that had been fed by the springs had dried up and was no more. But now there was a torrent of water"
 (p. 57).
There are mysteries far beyond me. Somehow, what we do ripples out, for good or harm. Careless choices, selfish appetites, harm the land, dry the streams, send birds into silence. And in God’s mercy, the opposite is true as well: costly obedience, acts of generosity and grace, bring healing not just to us, and to others, but to the land itself.

I have not finished with my peaches. I’ve let them grow too tall; some branches are beyond my reach. Balanced on my ladder, I consider: leave them to scatter the tree’s energy? Prune the tree back? Ask for help?

There was a time when I opted for easy, looked for the simplest solution, heated frozen dinners, watched too much TV. Took life for granted. Wondered why God seemed so far away.


Now, I choose to live like a slow growing tree, investing in wholeness, waiting for wisdom, shouldering my share in the cost of grace, so I can share the grace, as I’ll share my peaches later this summer: sweet, warm, surprising. Golden blessings to be savored. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pentecost People of Blessing


We live in a world thirsty for grace, hungry for any hint of blessing.

But what we find, too often, is judgment: not fast enough, not smart enough, not thin enough, not “good” enough.

Jesus said: 
I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5) 
On Pentecost, God’s grace rained down on the waiting disciples, then poured through them to the city around them:
“The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. . . .More and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.  As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by.  Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.” (Acts 5) 
That is far outside most of our experience, yet there are times and places where grace bubbles up, rains down, flows like living water through thirsty crowds. Some of us shrug, explain it away, fine-tune  theologies that justify our unbelief.

Others of us pray, with the prophet Habakkuk: 
Lord, I have heard of your fame;
I stand in awe or your deeds, Lord.
Repeat them in our day,
In our time make them known
Habakkuk 3
I have written about praying for a young woman named Emily, struck by lightening almost five years ago. A fellow Synchroblogger from the UK, Chris Jefferies of Journeys of the Heart and Mind, recently contacted me to say he’d been reading my posts about Emily and prayer and felt God prompting him to send me a book: The Grace Outpouring, Becoming a People of Blessing.

The title alone was enough to capture my interest. How do we become a people of blessing?

But I was also drawn by the sense of God weaving bits of his church together. Chris is part of a fellowship of Christians in Cambridgeshire, England. The book tells of God’s work at Ffald-y-Brenin, a retreat center in south-west Wales.  My own little group gathering to seek God’s healing now includes a friend from Albania, a lovely woman of faith from Jamaica, a missionary’s daughter born in Korea. Our backgrounds are all different. Our longing to know God more deeply is the same.

To me, one sign of God at work is the breaking down of boundaries, the weaving together of people from different places, different experiences. At Pentecost, the boundary of language was broken down:
“Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2)
But Pentecost was about more than breaking down of boundaries. God’s people, empowered by the Holy Spirit, began to do what Jesus had promised: 
“Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”(John 14:12) 
The Grace Outpouring is the simple story of how that promise is taking shape in one small corner of the world. Roy and Daphne Godwin stepped into leadership of a remote retreat center and began to explore what it means to be agents of blessing. 
“The measure we use toward others will be the measure that he uses toward us. As we forgive we will be forgiven (Matthew 6:14-15). As we bless we will be blessed (Genesis 12:3). In Luke 10, the disciples were instructed to declare the peace of God over the towns they entered. For us today, that means asking God to manifest his character in the communities we live in. As we pray using the revealed names of God, he will come and show his beauty, mercy and compassion.” (36)
 Roy Godwin, with coauthor David Roberts, talks about the way Christians sometimes think we’re called to pronounce judgment rather than blessing: 
"I had already begun to question a culture of faith that places a high value on correcting strangers. . . . Having a heart to bless will challenge the judgmental mid-set that can color how we look at those we live with and among. We can become a “grace first” people. . .
"If we will let the wisdom of God inhabit our thinking, a consistent “grace first” pattern will emerge in our actions and words. “Grace first” prayer for healing doesn’t search for wrongdoing in a person’s life that needs correcting as a prelude to a miracle. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence for that approach in the ministry of Jesus. We simply ask that the power of God should touch that life.” 
Godwin describes the ways he and others have seen God’s blessings at work: miraculous healing of physical and mental illness, sudden insight into spiritual things, unexpected unity, restoration of relationships, conviction of sin, deep experience of forgiveness. The stories are told simply; a statement at the start of the book explains:
“God is too great to need our exaggeration. This book contains many testimonies as spoken to us by guests at various times. We want to be as accurate as possible. If the reader is aware of any error, please let us know so that we many correct it in future editions.”
 Some of the stories from the book are excerpted, and indexed, on Chris Jeffries’ Journey’s of the Heart and Mind. More recent stories are gathered at Kingdom Vision UK

"Coming before the cross at Ffald-y-Brenin"
These stories resonate deeply with what I’ve seen of the way God works: bringing to light deep hurts no one else could touch, meeting doubts, anger, and grief with his own great love. Revealing truth through dreams. Speaking directly – sometimes in an audible voice – to those who doubt his presence.  Restoring damaged joints, healing mysterious, debilitating illness.

Reflecting on the healing seen at Ffald-y-Brenin, and beyond, Godwin concludes: 
“It seems clear to me that it’s impossible biblically to separate the good news of the kingdom from healing, because if you actually read the accounts of the Gospels and Acts, they flow together, so that when mercy flows out to us it is not just to help us find forgiveness, but it’s also to do with all that we are. This unstoppable stream, this river, this flood that is released upon us touches every part of our lives. . . 
"When Jesus came into a community, it was good news for those who were open to welcome him. Although they were amazed by his words and teaching and dazzled by the miracles, it was the outflow of his life that was such good news for them. . . . He reached out to the sick and healed them, opened blind eyes, restored deaf ears, lifted the weight of condemnation off the guilty and prompted them to live a different way in the future.
"All this, he taught, was a sign that the kingdom of God had come upon them. His healing miracles were not an incidental happening while he got on with the real business of preaching the gospel. He was the gospel. It was the overflow of his presence empowered by the Holy Spirit that was the breaking in of the kingdom.
"When jesus commissioned the disciples, it was with the instruction to mirror his own ministry. They were to heal the sick, release the oppressed, and declare that the kingdom of God was close. God cares for the whole person, and the gospel, the good news, is for the whole person.”(13) 
To all that, I say “yes,” while I wonder: why does healing come so freely in some places, and so rarely in others? How do we continue to pray when it seems like nothing changes?

I’ll be back to this topic next week. There’s more to process, and much more to learn.

In the meantime: 
“A kingdom worldview says that mercy and grace come first. .. 
"What might the song of the redemptive community we aspire to be sound like? Perhaps these words go some way toward capturing its essence: 
We welcome all who come here.
We greet all that we meet.
May we be as warm and open as Jesus was,
With a heart for the last, the lost, and the least.
We don’t want to look away
Or sweep anybody under the carpet.
With God’s help we will not diminish anybody.
We will be the voices of mercy,
Blessing all with the love of God
In the wonderufl name of Jesus.
 
"So how do you make this vision a reality in the streets and buildings around you?

Your comments, reflections, questions are welcome! 

Other recent posts on prayer:
Does Prayer “Work”? May 5, 2013
Like a Motherless Child, May 12, 2013 
Other posts on Pentecost:
Resurrection Power: A Prayer for Pentecost  May 27, 2012
Waiting for Pentecost June 5, 2011
An Altogether Different Language June 26, 2011


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Like a Motherless Child


I confess, I am not overly fond of Mother’s Day, much as I love being a mother. And now grandmother.

As a kid, I hated Mother’s Day. That’s a strong word – but true. Mother’s Day was the day to remember that mine had vanished before my second birthday. A day to note, up close and personal, that not every family looks and feels like a typical Hallmark card.

This month’s Synchroblog topic is “Being with those in pain,” and I’m reminded that even something as simple as “Happy Mother’s Day” can be occasion for pain. 

I pause to think and pray for the friend who this year lost dearly loved mother and mother-in-law in the space of a few short months. The friends who lost their mothers too soon and still carry the weight of “motherless child.” The friends whose mothers weren’t there, or only rarely, carried away by mental illness or addiction. The friends whose mothers linger but no longer know their names, or recognize them when they visit. The friends whose mothers could never quite affirm them, who carry their mothers' critical voices like embedded shards of glass, sharp points of pain that never heal.

There’s no shortage of pain. What of those who would love to be mothers, but aren't? Those mothers who have lost a child to accident or illness, or are losing a child to estrangement or addiction.  I think of the mothers and fathers I know who will spend Mother’s Day grieving the loss of a child to suicide. 

As Job’s comforter Eliphaz said, “Man is born to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.”

Or – to quote Frederick Buechner:  "Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.” Enjoy the dogwoods and azaleas. But remember those in pain.

Back to the Synchroblog topic: how have others helped, or harmed, in a time of pain? How do we walk alongside those in pain without doing harm ourselves?

I travel back to the spring I was sixteen. My grandmother complained of chest pain and went off to the doctor, from there to the hospital, leaving my brothers and me on our own.

Sifting back through memories of that difficult time, I find no conversations with caring adults. No one who sat us down and said “your grandmother’s had a heart attack, and this is what that will mean.” It was clear our lives would change, but how? When? Where would we be?

Kind people dropped off dinner: Roast chicken. Unfamiliar casseroles.

Kind people offered rides, wrote down the dates we needed to arrive at the camp jobs we had planned, promised they’d get us there.

But I don’t remember any real conversation about how we were doing. What we were feeling.

Resettled Farm Child, Dorothea Lange, New Mexico, 1935
And stranger: I don’t remember anyone praying with us. I know people prayed. But not with us.

Looking back on that season of my life, I am overwhelmed again by how alone I felt.

And overwhelmed, again, by how God’s presence became real, in a way I have never since doubted.

In the years since then, I've walked with others in pain, and my prayer is always that they know God's presence.

There are plenty of things people say when trying to comfort those in trouble: “It will all work out.”

Really? And what if it doesn’t?

“It’s all for the best.”

No. God can redeem even the ugliest event. But no – I refuse to believe bombs, massacres, kidnap, suicide are “all for the best.” Never.

“God needed her in heaven.” Please. No. Don’t.

Our attempts to sweeten, lessen, minimize pain just make the pain worse, just push the questions deeper.

Why did God allow a loving mother to die when her children were still young?

Why did God allow children to be gunned down by a mentally ill young man?

Why cancer, why psychosis, why heroin, why . . .

Here’s what I know for sure: we live in a broken world. We live in a world that staggers under the weight of folly, that shudders in the grip of sorrow.

And in the midst of our grief, we are not alone.

What I want to offer, to those in pain, is God’s presence. 

But that’s not mine to give.

What’s mine to give are prayer, and my own presence.

So somehow I want to say: you’re not alone. If you want to talk, I want to listen. If you need a hug, I’m here, nearby. If you’re angry – that’s okay. Go shout at God. He doesn't mind. Some days I shout too.

And if you’re sad – go ahead and cry. As long as you want. As loud as you need. I'll cry with you if you let me.

I’m not planning to tell you what to think, how to feel. I just want you to know: you’re not alone on this dark road you’re traveling.

But most, I want to pray. Over coffee, in a car in the driveway before you jump out and go inside, standing by the door as you leave for the hospital, deep in a couch that’s lost its springs.

On a crumbling cement stoop with neighbors walking by.


Untitled, Eduardo Kingman, Ecuador
Under a tree on a summer day. 

Around a late night campfire.

 Over the phone. 

After you’ve said what you need to say, shared your fear, put the questions into words, here's mine: "Do you mind if I pray?"

How many times have I asked that question?

On a battered city porch.

In a glass strewn park.

On the end of a dock, feet dangling in cool water.

In the prayer alcove of our church, or right there at the front, with the worship band playing loud.

Do you mind if I pray?

I want to pray for God’s presence to be known. For his love to be felt. For his goodness to be visible.

Sometimes when I pray, I’m overcome by the sadness the other person carries. I set a hand gently on her shoulder, and the grief travels through me – like a tide of darkness, flowing up my arm, through my heart, weighting me to the floor.

I hold that darkness out toward God, pour it, like dark water, into his waiting hands.

Sometimes when I pray, I’m overwhelmed with the sense of God’s great love pouring through me toward the person beside me. It wells up through me – warm, bright love – wrapping us both, setting our hearts pounding, spilling across us like golden sunlight after a winter rain.

Sometimes when I pray, words come un-thought. Words of blessing, forgiveness, of mercy, of hope. People come back, weeks, months later, and say “When you said that, this happened.”

Those were not my words.

Once, praying for a girl who had just lost another father, I felt all those things: the weight of her pain, the warmth of God’s love, the words of blessing. As I prayed, she sank to the floor, sobbing. Someone moved to comfort her – and I said, softly, “No. She’s crying in the arms of her father.”

We moved away and left her, sobbing on the floor. Later, she asked, “How did you do that?”

Do what?

She thought we’d been sitting there, rubbing her back, in a way that made her feel very warm, very loved, very held.

She was comforted. Joyful. Radiant.

That was God, pouring love and strength right through her. I pray she remembers that presence when she feels like a motherless, fatherless child, a very long way from home.

The prayer I pray often is this:
For this cause I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3) 
The family I’m part of might not look like a Hallmark card, but it’s a family of great love, love that flows through our places of pain and draws us deeper to an eternal, unfailing embrace.

And for you, part of that family or not, motherless child or not, walking today in pain or beauty or both, I pray that you feel God’s presence, that you see his mercy, that you grasp, in some small way, his love far beyond our understanding. 

I pray that you travel through the dark times, and the light, knowing you’re not alone. 

Road to Emmaus, William Strang, Scotland,  ca 1900

This is part of the May Synchroblog, "being with those in pain." Visit some of the links below to continue the conversation.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Does Prayer "Work"?

After reviewing Cross Examined, a novel challenging “the popular intellectual arguments for Christianity”, I’ve found myself circling back to some of the questions raised, wanting to respond.

This one cuts close to home and seems appropriate, given the National Day of Prayer this past Thursday, May 2:

Does prayer “work”?

Here’s part of the discussion: 
“’A woman was just released from the hospital, and here she says ‘The doctors told my husband that I probably wouldn’t make it. But he prayed and prayed. And his prayers were answered – it was a miracle.’ . . . So, according to this, prayer works. But I must wonder if I understand the meaning of the word ‘works.’ Imagine if the utilities that we use so often – electricity, clean water, trains, mail delivery, and so on – worked no more reliably than prayer.’” 
The assumption is that prayer is a means of implementing program: we pray for safety, health, success. If it happens, reliably, we can conclude that prayer “works.” If not, why bother?

Thought of in that way, prayer is more like a form of sorcery, or magic: say the words, click your heels and presto, all is well.

And certainly, anyone who prays falls into wishing for such easy solutions.

Yes, I pray for the easy way out: the quick relief, the sudden resolution. I woke one morning last week with my face blazing – afraid my encounter with poison ivy the day before would hijack my plans and send my weekend into splinters. And yes, I prayed the swelling would go down, the burning subside, that all would be healed with no effort on my part.

Squinting at my puffy eyes in the mirror, I reminded myself that poison ivy is dangerous. That I don’t take it seriously enough. And that if I didn’t get to the doctor – fast – I’d be very, very sorry.

Prednisone, I’m happy to say, “works,” for me, for poison ivy.

Prayer is something different. Not a magic pill – but an invitation, an opportunity, an avenue into something deeper.

Meditation?

Here’s how the argument continues: 
“Many spiritual traditions across the world use meditation to clarify the mind or relax. Christian prayer can have these same benefits. A mature view acknowledges what you can’t control and can be an important part of facing a problem, but to imagine an all-powerful benefactor helping you out of a jam is simply to ignore reality. None of prayer’s benefits demand a supernatural explanation, and to imagine that prayer shows that God exists is simply to delude yourself. The voice on the other end of the telephone line is your own.” 
So, feel free to lie in the hammock, listen to birds, mellow out, loosen your grip on the burdens of the day. Call it prayer if you want –but be clear: it’s an attitude adjustment, nothing more.

I wonder, though: what kind of arrogance pronounces millions of thoughtful believers “deluded”?

And what if there’s a voice to be heard – but not enough humility, patience, or wisdom to listen?

David, the shepherd boy who became king, man after God’s heart, author of many of the psalms and masterful model of the life of prayer, spoke often of listening, waiting, seeking.
  "My heart says of you, 'Seek his face!'    Your face, Lord, I will seek."
At the same time, he asked, again and again, to be heard:
"Hear my voice when I call, Lord;    be merciful to me and answer me."
“Hear my prayer, Lord, listen to my cry for help." 
And for every request to be heard, there was a corresponding assertion, a rekindling of confidence:
"Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice."""
"But God has surely listened and has heard my prayer."
 
We can think of prayer as purely transactional: an interchange like ordering pizza. I dial the number, ask for pepperoni and mushroom, sit by the door and wait for delivery. When the pizza doesn’t show, then I’m drawn to the conclusion: “The voice on the other end of the telephone line is your own.”

Or we can think of prayer as completely non-transactional: no claims, no assumptions, no hope of intervention.

But what if prayer is more like the mornings I spend with my granddaughter?

She tells me her latest adventures, shows me her recent bruises, asks for new bandaids.

She suggests a plan for the morning: Pickering Feed Store? Our favorite library? The local nature center? Mac and cheese on the patio?

I agree with her plan, or suggest alternatives. Remind her of our schedule, help her get ready for the kindergarten bus.

Some days it’s pure agreement.

Some days I pull rank.

I have things I want to show her, ways I’d like to see her grow.

She has things she wants from me. Things she needs. Things she hasn’t thought of.

That’s a place to start in considering prayer.

But I’m a limited person: trapped in my perspective, bound by time and space. I want her good, but I’m also caught in my own agendas, my own inattention, my own impatience.

And I can prompt change in her from outside, but not from within.

I can’t open her eyes wider than they already are.

I can’t fill her hands with skills that mine don’t have. 

Jesus framed prayer for us when he said:
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. . .  I no longer call you servants, because a servant doesn't know what his master is doing. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15)
Prayer fresco, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, ca 250AD
Prayer is that place of spending time: abiding, listening, seeking, waiting. It’s that process of becoming friends with God himself, trying to understand the larger plan, learning to see through very different eyes.

And prayer is the response that wells up inside us: help me, teach me, lead me, show me.

We pray for safety, comfort, convenience.

What if God’s purpose is to teach us courage, compassion, a longing for justice that puts our own convenience last?

We pray for health, happiness, success.

What if pain is an avenue toward growth, sorrow an avenue toward mercy, failure the surest road to real humility?

I’m drawn back to the story in Acts 4. 

Beaten, imprisoned, threatened, Peter and John gather with other believers and in prayer, realign themselves with the greater purpose: 

“Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:“‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up  and the rulers band together against the Lord  and against his anointed one.
"Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

They could have prayed for safety, revenge, an easy way out. And concluded their prayer didn't "work." But prayer led them to a deeper place of alignment, a deeper understanding of what to ask, a willingness to embrace the task ahead, longing for the courage and grace to be faithful to the calling. 


That prayer was answered powerfully.

There have always been voices asserting prayer is delusion.

Just as there have been men and women willing to listen, wait, share their fears, and align their hearts with God’s.

There have been stories – thousands and thousands, across thousands of years – of God’s intervention in healing, rescue, provision, wisdom.

And lives changed, from the inside out, in visible ways, for those who care to look.

We can set ourselves as the judges of prayer: evaluating, testing, asserting, refuting.

Or we can start somewhere different: acknowledging how selfish our longings, how small our vision, how far from understanding.

And then we can ask for change, insight, humility, wisdom, and wait for the sweetness that comes as we grow in friendship with God himself, wanting nothing more than to be faithful partners in his plan.

Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.
Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.
We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.
    (Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844-1849)

Other posts on Cross Examined and arguments for and against faith:
Other posts on prayer:
Please join the conversation. What's your experience of prayer? Does it "work"?