Prayer Changes Things

“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
(James 5:16)

In all the time I’ve served as a Pastor, I have never heard or experienced such a rejection of prayer as what we hear today in our culture.  With every natural disaster or act of terror and violence (and there have been many), when people offer their prayers, the hurting world more and more lashes out with mocking and derision.

There is a part of me that understands the frustration might come when one hears this.   If I were hurting and someone were to say to me, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers,” but then they don’t pray, or their life is such that everything they say and do contradicts a life of prayer, then I would know that they are just spouting empty words to make themselves feel better and quickly get out of the conversation.  How many times have we heard, or worse, told someone ourselves, “I’ll be praying for you,” but then never a prayer is uttered, and no further thoughts are expressed?  We have, by our own prayerlessness and lack of sincerity, given a poor example to the world of the power of prayer.

But what is most astonishing is the boldness of some today in their outright denial of the effectiveness of prayer.  Most notably, in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, FL, in which 17 students and teachers were gunned down, when our President offered his prayers and condolences for those who were mourning, the “rock-star” astrophysicist and agnostic, Neil deGrasse Tyson, replied, “Evidence collected over many years, obtained from many locations, indicates that the power of prayer is insufficient to stop bullets from killing school children.”

For starters, as a scientist, when Tyson says he has collected evidence, I wonder what that evidence might be. Is it the fact that bad things continue to happen even when people are praying?  That does not necessarily disprove the power of prayer. It may just mean that we don’t know how the prayer has been, or will be answered.

Of course, one shouldn’t expect someone who denies the knowledge of a real and personal God to uphold the power of prayer as a means of communing with that God and knowing the transforming power of God’s grace.  As intellectual as Tyson is, he is blinded by the veil of sin in this world (2 Cor. 3:14),  but ever the ultracrepidarian, he boasts of that of which he cannot know.

Still, as Christians, those who know and love God, and have been commanded to pray, this current cultural resistance to prayer should serve as a reminder to continue praying, but to pray with confidence in the one who hears our prayers.

Prayer does change things

Contrary to Tyson’s bold declaration, prayer does change things, and there is an abundance of evidence. R.C. Sproul, in his book, Does Prayer Change Things? noted the following evidences in Scripture:

  • By prayer, Esau’s heart was changed toward Jacob, so that they met in a friendly, rather than hostile, manner (Gen 32).
  • By the prayer of Moses, God brought the plagues upon Egypt and then removed them again (Ex 7-11).
  • By prayer, Joshua made the sun stand still (Josh 10).
  • By prayer, Elijah held back the rains for three and a half years. Then by prayer, he caused it to rain again (1 Kings 17-18).

I could go on, but there are also the prayers that have been answered in our own lives.  How often have we prayed and found that God has delivered?  Was this evidence taken in to consideration?  How many times has prayer stayed the hand of an angry father, or a desperate man contemplating crime?  Those stories we may never hear, but they are still answered prayers.  Prayer does change things!

More importantly, prayer changes us.  When we pray, the purpose of our prayer is not so much to see the world around us change, but that God might change the way we see the world around us.  Prayer teaches us to look not to wisdom and influence of man for our peace and security, but to trust in the Lord alone.  Prayer reorients our perspective; we may not know why this is happening, or what it all means, but we can know the Sovereign Lord who reigns over all things, and know that He is good, and He is able to work in all things for the good of those who love him.  We may not know the how, we may not understand the why, but we come to know the One who is at the center of all things, who hold all things together, and who has shown His great love for us in Christ our Lord.

So let us recommit ourselves to prayer.  In the face of overwhelming grief and tragedy, may we pray that God would give us the grace to comfort those who mourn, and to weep with them in their sorrow.  And when we say we will pray, let us pray.  Don’t put it off until you get home, pray right then and there.

And let us pray that God would give us wisdom to heal, not the symptoms, but the cause of the sickness in our culture.  No new legislation, no amount of community organizing, will curb the violence and division in our world today. Those are merely the painful symptoms of a systemic problem. The underlying cause is a radical brokenness within our souls that come from sinful rebellion and rejection of God. The only cure, the only hope that we have is the salvation that has been secured for us in Jesus Christ. May we, through prayer, have the wisdom and boldness to share the Gospel freely, and may God heal our land.

SDG

Living By Grace: A Study of Jean Valjean

“Therefore, my beloved… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,
for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
(Philippians 2:12–13)

With every role I’ve had in community theater, I have tried to write up a brief character study.  I find this helps me develop my character and to understand his actions and his significance in the larger story.  As I step into an iconic role like Jean Valjean in the Cherokee Community Theater production of Les Miserables, a part that has been played by some phenomenal actors, a character whose story is known and loved by so many, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on this character and the powerful message that he presents.

Les Miserables, as a novel, is Victor Hugo’s reproachful commentary on society and its treatment of the poor, the uneducated, and the suffering of women in his time.  Within this critique unfolds a story of the redeeming and transforming power of love and grace, set in stark contrast with the inability of the law and revolution to affect any real change on the human condition.  The musical focuses primarily on the story of the redemption of Valjean, and his effort to live worthy of the grace he has been given.

Here’s what we know of Valjean:

(All of the quotes are taken from Victory Hugo’s Les Miserables, http://www.classicreader.com/book/268/).

Jean Valjean was orphaned at an early age and raised by his older sister.  When Valjean was 25, his sister’s husband died, leaving her with seven children under the age of 8, and him taking the father’s place in the family, “simply as a duty and even a little churlishly” on his part.  A hard winter came, and without work, they had no food.

In desperation, Valjean robbed a baker’s house, breaking a window and stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family.  He was captured, and sentenced to 5 years of hard labor, serving as a slave in the galleys.  He never again saw his sister or her children for, as Hugo says, “what becomes of the handful of leaves from the young tree which is sawed off at the root?”

While in the galleys, Valjean tried to escape three times, only to be recaptured and sentenced to more prison time.  In total, he spends 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.  He entered “the galleys sobbing and shuddering; he emerged impassive. He had entered in despair; he emerged gloomy.”

When finally released, Valjean blamed himself for his wasted life.  He knows he would have been given the bread had he asked for it; that his act of violence benefited no one.  At the same time, Valjean also blamed society for punishing a man unjustly, and he blamed God, for having created such a society.  He condemned himself, society, and God; he had nowhere to turn.

Valjean ivaljean awakeneds paroled, but everywhere he goes he is treated less than human.  He cannot work, he cannot
find lodging; he is a dog on the streets.  There is no compassion, no mercy, just law and condemnation at every step.  Until, that is, he meets Bishop Myriel.  The Bishop takes Valjean into his home, feeds him, offers him a place to rest, and when Valjean is arrested for stealing the silver from the church, the Bishop offers him the candlesticks he had left – giving him forgiveness, giving him a second chance, giving him grace.

When faced with such grace Valjean had two options: “if he were not henceforth the best of men, he would be the worst; that it behooved him now, so to speak, to mount higher than the Bishop, or fall lower than the convict; that if he wished to become good be must become an angel; that if he wished to remain evil, he must become a monster… That which was certain, that which he did not doubt, was that he was no longer the same man, that everything about him was changed, that it was no longer in his power to make it as though the Bishop had not spoken to him and had not touched him.”

The rest of the story comes down to how Valjean responds to this grace.  I won’t go into all the details (read the book, or come see our show), but from his encounter with grace, Valjean is a changed man, and with every day he seeks to live a life worthy of such a gift.  Alive because of grace, grace flows freely to others, bringing help and hope to those in greatest need.

What I love about the character of Valjean is that he is truly an “everyman.”  He stands as a symbol for  the human condition, our need for transforming grace and love, and our struggle to live according to that love once we find it.

In a way we are all like Valjean, cut off from the blessings of God because of our sin.  We fall under the penalty of the law and are crushed under the weight of sins consequences.  Each sin compounds our guilt and our burden.  We think ourselves free, but our freedom is an illusion, for in sin we are bound to sin and to the law.

Then we encounter grace.  As Paul writes in Eph. 2:4-7, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  This grace liberates us from the law.  This grace transforms the wretched soul.  This grace brings peace and joy to the burdened heart.  This grace gives life to the dead.

And this grace calls us to walk in a new and different way.  Valjean knew he could not act as if the Bishop had not touched his life.  When God touches your life, you cannot be the same.  This is why Paul writes to the Philippians, “Therefore my beloved… work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).

When you have known the grace of God in Jesus, the rest of your life is lived trusting in that grace, living according to that grace, and sharing that grace with others.  Grace runs through every part of life.  Grace is that which saves.  Grace is that which restores.  Grace is that which gives us strength to go forward.  If we live at all, we live by grace alone.

I hope that my performance in the role of Jean Valjean in some way communicates this transformation in grace, and that through this show God may be glorified and known and the God of grace and love.

SDG

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