A Dehydrated Spirit

“Pray without ceasing.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:17)

While I was in Haiti last week, I took everybody’s advice, and I stayed well hydrated.  Haiti is hot, there’s no way around that.  It’s in the Caribbean, so it’s got the warm ocean wind and the sun beating down directly overhead.  Add to that, I went at the end of August and first of September, when it’s already hot (usually) in Northern Iowa – so, yeah, staying hydrated was important for a successful mission trip.  I went through at least 6 large bottles of water per day, sometimes adding electrolytes to the bottle just for good measure.  I even had a couple of Coconuts, the milk and meat of the Coconut having tremendous restorative properties.  All in all, I stayed hydrated, and therefore stayed pretty healthy.

Then I came home.  Back in the states, its cooler.  I’m not working as hard physically.  Don’t get me wrong; while I greatly enjoyed cutting metal and welding to help make beds and desks for the orphanages, I much prefer my study, with my cushioned leather chair, my books and keyboard, and, best of all, the air-conditioning.  And yet, Monday afternoon, my first full day back in the office, I found I was sluggish and having stomach troubles.

That’s when it hit me, I hadn’t had any water all day.  There was the cup of coffee early in the morning, but other than that, no fluids all day long.  I had gone from almost 200 fl. oz. of water a day in Haiti to about 6 fl. oz. in Iowa.  I was unintentionally dehydrating myself.  Why would I think that if I needed so much water there, I wouldn’t need any here?

And then I got to thinking, what else was I doing in Haiti that I quit doing as soon as I got home?  The answer was rather disturbing.  I had stopped praying.

I hadn’t stopped altogether.  I still woke up and prayed as part of my daily devotion.  I prayed at meal-time, and at the end of the day before going to bed.  I would say a prayer, when prompted, too, for those who asked for prayer.  But I wasn’t praying, unceasingly praying, like I was in Haiti.

When I was in Haiti, I was out of my comfort zone.  I didn’t speak the language, I was unsure of my surroundings, and I was there to do work and ministry in a way that is vastly different from my day-to-day work and ministry here.  So while I was in Haiti, I was dependent upon prayer.

I wasn’t obvious about it. I wasn’t closing my eyes and bowing my head every minute.  But I was still praying.  Before every conversation, before heading out to a new destination, before and during every encounter, I was going to God in prayer.  I was praying for His wisdom to guide me, His hand to guard me, His love to be seen through me, His name to be glorified in me.  I was praying that all that I would do would help to promote the Gospel of my Savior, Jesus Christ.   I lived and breathed in prayer while in Haiti.

So why did I stop when I got home?  I was comfortable here.  I spoke the language, I knew North from South, I could easily hold a conversation with those around me. I didn’t see my day to day living as mission, nor did I see myself as needing God’s wisdom, God’s protection, God’s grace every minute of the day.  I did not need God (or so I thought), so why should I pray?

In the story of the Transfiguration (Mark 9), Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray.  While they are praying, Jesus is transfigured so that he shone white, brighter than the sun.  Beside Him were Moses and Elijah, and from the clouds came the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, whom I love, listen to Him.”  All of this happened while they were there to pray.

When they came down from the mountain, though, they met up with the rest of the disciples, and there was a crowd there arguing with them.  Apparently, a man had brought his son to the disciples to be healed, but the disciples were unable to heal him.  Jesus rebuked the disciples, and the crowd, for their faithlessness, then He healed the child.  When the disciples asked Him why they couldn’t heal the boy, Jesus said, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

I’m guessing the disciples were thinking they had seen Jesus heal other before, all they needed to do was follow His example.  They had even done some miraculous healing, so if they just followed the right procedure, all would go well.  And they failed.

So often we get to where we think we have all the answers, that we know how to do what needs to be done.  We follow the steps laid out before us, we do the right things, say the nice things, and all will go well.  And yet when the world comes to us demanding a sign, wanting to know why our faith should matter, we find our formula falls short, our plan is powerless – because we have not prayed.

Shouldn’t we treat every day, every moment, like we’re strangers in a strange land, pilgrims through this world?  Shouldn’t our language, our custom, our service, be so radically different from the rest of the world’s that we are constantly in need of the sovereign hand of God to guide us and protect us, the Spirit of God to move our lips in praise and powerful witness to Jesus Christ.

A life without prayer is a life without faith, without trust in the gracious hand of God.  A life without prayer is a life that is blind to the reality of our great need for God’s goodness, mercy, and love.  A life without prayer is a not a life at all.

I am reminded of the old hymn which draws us back to a life of absolute dependence on God:

I need thee every hour, most gracious Lord; no tender voice like thine can peace afford.
I need thee every hour, stay thou nearby; temptations lose their power when thou art nigh.
I need thee every hour in joy or in pain; come quickly and abide or life is in vain.
I need thee every hour, most Holy One; O make me thine indeed, thou blessed Son!

I need thee, O I need thee, every hour I need thee;
O bless me now, my Savior, I come to thee!

SDG

Why I Struggle to Pray

“Pray without ceasing.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:17)

I heard it said once that if you want to embarrass a Pastor, ask him about his prayer life.

The sad fact of the matter is, even as pastors, we struggle to pray.  You probably expect that pastors have got a handle on these spiritual disciplines, after all, we’ve got our Master of Divinity hanging on the wall.  Truth is, though, the life of a pastor is just like the life of any other Christian.  Pastors wrestle with sin, struggle with discipline, and must constantly come back under the Word of God for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).  No Pastor has arrived at that point where they have got Divinity Mastered – and those who tell you otherwise should be avoided.

All that to say, I struggle with prayer.

I hesitate to tell you this because 1) I am ashamed of the fact, and 2) I don’t want you to use that as an excuse (Well, the pastor struggles with prayer, so I don’t have to pray…).  Still, I think that as a Pastor, I should live the Christian life in such a way that demonstrates a life of Discipleship, through what I say and do.  Discipleship is a journey, and that journey has ups and downs, hard lessons to be learned, and there are times when each of us stumble and fall.  To model Discipleship that is so polished and perfected is a lie – not even the Disciples in the Gospel followed Jesus perfectly.

So, back to prayer…  I struggle with prayer.  Sometimes I forget to pray.  There, I said it.  Sometimes I lay down and night and I’m asleep before my head hits the pillow, and I’m up with the alarm rushing for a busy day – and nary a prayer has been uttered.  Sometimes I’m frustrated, preoccupied, or I just don’t stop to take the time to do it.   This isn’t always the case.  Often I do pray, and I try to maintain a daily habit of time before the face of God in prayer.  But then there are days when I find I don’t pray – and that disturbs me.

I hate this about myself. I know that prayerlessness is faithlessness.  Prayerlessness is disobedience.  Prayerlessness is godlessness.

So why don’t I pray?  I ask this so that I can identify in my own life, and possibly yours, the reasons we struggle to pray so that we can, hopefully, grow in prayer.  Here are a couple of thoughts:

It feels like I’m not doing anything.  When there is a problem I want to fix it. I want to address the issue, talk to those affected, work to bring help, relief, and resolution.  And so it seems counterproductive to stop and pray.  Shouldn’t I be doing something, anything, instead?

What I forget is that prayer is the most important thing I can do.  Martin Luther once said on a busy day, “I have so much to do that I will spend the first three hours in prayer.”  Prayer brings us in touch with the One who is able to do all things, the One who makes our actions effective, the One who empowers and supports our love.  Any action that does not begin in prayer will ultimately rely on your strength and power to sustain it.

I’m not good enough to pray.  I can’t work with a dirty desk.  If I’ve got a day of writing ahead of me, I’ve got to clear the desk first, remove all distractions, then I can get to work.  We often assume the same attitude with prayer, that we’ve got to get our hearts right before we can come to God.   Silly rabbit, that’s what prayer is for.

I don’t get anything out of praying.  For some reason we’ve come to expect that every experience of prayer should culminate in some ecstatic mystical delight that satisfies our existential longing for communion with God.  We should feel swept away, tingly, overcome with the moment of prayer.

What we fail to remember is that, as in any relationship, oftentimes in prayer before God we find ourselves dealing with the daily, ordinary, pedestrian affairs.  We come to Him asking for our daily bread.  Sometimes we find ourselves with bread to satisfy our needs; other times we discover steak, wine, and desert.  But, most usually, it’s the bread that we need that we find in prayer.

My mind wanders and I don’t know what to say.  You know how it is.  You sit down to pray, and 10 seconds in, you’re already thinking about your bills, your schedule, your kids, the ballgame – everything but prayer.  Maybe you refocus, and get back to your praying, and a minute in, you start dozing off.  Even the most focused of us can get Spiritual ADD when we close our eyes in prayer.

Ultimately, we are undisciplined and unfocused in our prayers.  The disciples struggled with this, they couldn’t stay awake to pray with Jesus in the Garden.  We hate the idea of reading prayers, and think we have to forge out on our own, and then we ramble and mutter and really say nothing at all.  We think of all the random things that come to mind while in prayer as distractions, when in reality they may be the Spirit’s prompting us to actually pray for those things.  We are spiritually lazy, and we give up too easily.  We find opening our hearts to be a difficult thing, and so we offer up a few platitudes and deprive ourselves of the sweet communion with God that fervent prayer can offer.

I don’t really need God.  I don’t think anyone would really ever come out and say this, but a prayerless life is a life without God.  When we don’t pray, we are telling ourselves, I can take care of this on my own.  There’s no need to bother God with these day to day issues; I can handle it.  I’ll wait to ask God for help when things really get bad.

Genuine prayer is humbling, dependent, and needy.  Genuine prayer to God is like a beggar pleading for food.  “Give us this day our daily bread” Jesus taught us to pray.  We are, whether we acknowledge it or not, constantly dependent upon God.  Prayer brings us back to the reality that no matter how successful we may be, we need His help, His provision, His grace, His mercy, His strength, His love, His wisdom, His everything.

I don’t think God will hear/answer my prayer.  Yes, I know that throughout Scripture God heard the prayers of His people, and He promises to hear our prayers through Christ who intercedes for us.  I know the stories of answered prayer; I’ve even seen prayers answered in my own life.  Still, maybe God will let me down this time.  Can I really trust Him?  Maybe God will not grant what I want… no, NEED… or His plan will be different than mine.

We doubt God’s goodness, we forget God’s faithfulness, we do not trust His provision and so we do not pray.  We think we know better than God what we need in this life, we have our plans worked out and all we really want is His approval, not His will.  So we insulate ourselves: God can’t let us down if we never ask anything of Him.

I love my sin more than I love God.  That is a hard truth to accept, but it is often the case.  I love the power that a bitter and unforgiving heart gives me over others.  I love the immediate gains that selfishness and indulgence offers.

Coming into the presence of God reveals my sinfulness and demands a healing.  Praying for my enemy forces me to see him no longer as an enemy but someone to love.  Praying for healing in my marriage requires me to accept my responsibility in its brokenness.  Prayer doesn’t change the world, it changes me.  And the old me doesn’t want to change.

Okay, so I’ve been brutally honest.  But isn’t that where we need to start with God?  Maybe you can relate, perhaps I’m alone here.  The fact remains, we need to pray.  We need to cast aside these hindrances that would keep us from coming with confidence before the throne of God.  Christ has opened the way, let us draw near to Him.

SDG