Prayer and the Practice of a Flawed Church

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

If you prayed recently for a non-Christian to be saved, you did something that, as far as we can tell, no one in the church recorded in Acts ever did. That does not make what you did wrong, but it does make it curious.

As the New Testament unfolds, we begin to see the ways in which the newly Spirit-filled church prayed. It is surprising that no where in all of the book of Acts, no where in all of the account of the phenomenal expansion of Christianity, no where (but possibly once, Acts 26:29, which in my mind has more of the feel of a rhetorical device) in the history of the works of the Spirit among this newly anointed people do we see anyone or any group praying for unbelievers to come to faith in Jesus. Rather, time and again they pray for believers to be bold.

Is that something worth noting? I think so. Crump makes an important case suggesting that we ought never to idolize the past, even if that past is divinely recorded. And yet we can learn much from these early saints, particularly what God has chosen to reveal about them.

As I think about this ‘lack’ among the Christians in Acts, I realize that it is easy to pray for unbelievers. When I do that I’m asking God to do something with them, while I sit safely in my study or in my small group or in my pew. To pray rather that God would give me and my Christian friends boldness requires a different frame of mind. It requires that I actually want to be bold and that I believe in something worth being bold about. It requires that God act on ME before he acts on others, and I may not be sure that I want that. But that hesitation did not hinder the Christians in Acts. They prayed for boldness, for God to act on THEM.

Something else these early Christians did not pray for was protection. Their’s was a volatile and hostile setting, but they prayed that they might be engaged in God’s kingdom work, not that God would put up hedges and protect them from the fray. As taught by the Lord’s Prayer, they cared more for God’s glory and kingdom than their own personal peace. Our prayers are more likely to be prayers seeking comfort than seeking his kingdom. We are more likely to pray for proper political leaders than to pray for boldness. And this contrast should unsettle us.

The church in Acts was a flawed bunch, as every manifestation of the church in history has been. And yet, it has left us an exemplary model of prayer. These Christians prayed together (a point we too often overlook!), and they prayed for the kingdom (rather than for comfort). In so doing they opened themselves up to the work the Spirit would do, and the world has never been the same.

Click to go to the next post in this series.

Magic, Mystery, and Prayer in Jesus’ Name

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

The phrase ‘in Jesus’ name’ is experienced by many of us as the (often long awaited) indicator that prayer has finally ended. Since it is so much more than that its true power and significance needs to be rescued. The Gospel of John helps us in that rescue.

Crump helpfully observes that with the way we use the language of prayer, or the way we might insist on setting or posture or other matters of ‘propriety’ we turn prayer into something that looks more like a magical incantation. No longer are we speaking honestly with our heavenly father and king. Rather we are stringing together the right phrases in the right way in an effort to move the spirits to do our bidding. There is nothing but hopelessness down that path.

This is what we do when we insist that for a prayer to ‘work’ we must end it with ‘in Jesus’ name’. In reality, the point is not the words we use but the spirit we bring.

All that Jesus did, he did in the name of his Father. That is, he lived and acted and spoke in complete submission to the Father. To pray ‘in Jesus’ name’ is to pray like Jesus lived, as completely sold out to and longing for his kingdom. The words we use do not matter.

As well, to pray in his name is to invoke his authority. The fact that we have the right in the first place to be standing in the presence of the Father is owed solely to Jesus’ past and present and ongoing intercession on our behalf. We come marked as his and so can expect that our prayers will be heard as his. These are both huge encouragements toward prayer, but do not require the use of particular words.

To pray ‘in Jesus’ name’ also implies that we come with Jesus’ sense of submission to the Father.
A difficulty in the gospel and letters of John is how he repeatedly speaks of praying ‘according to God’s will’. Some conclude that God’s will is fixed and that prayer is not something that shapes the future but is only a part of that will which God has fixed. Our prayer is as ordained as the results. For most of us, Crump included, this does not seem satisfying or biblically right. He hazards some suggestions as to how prayer and the Father’s will reconcile, but they are only satisfying when the mystery is allowed to stand. Scripture does not answer all the complications that life in the presence of an infinite, wise and eternal God will raise. Scripture tells me to pray, to ask for things, and to do so in submission to him and in the authority of his son. I cannot peer into the mystery of what effect such prayers have, but I have to believe that the God who presents them as genuine and effective means us to understand them that way. There is no ‘magic’ in prayer but there is mystery. We speak to a Father who effects our desires as he sees fit, and we trust him to do so. Using the phrase ‘in Jesus’ name’ helps us to remember that.

There was a day not too long ago when I was in great distress and in a fairly public place. I found refuge on a low wall separated from the sidewalk by some bushes and trees. But I was still clearly visible, and clearly crying. A woman with a Bible saw me and kindly asked about my welfare. We spoke briefly and she asked if she could pray for me. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Hers was not a shy prayer; it was not a quiet prayer; it was not a timid prayer. She sensed every dimension of my need and lifted each up to God in turn, separating each with the urgent and vigorously spoken refrain, “In JESUS name!”

She was appealing to the Father on my behalf in the authority of the Son. I will never forget the power of that refrain, or the comfort it brought.

Click to go to the next post in this series.

“These Are a Few of My Favorite Prayers”

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

It’s time to take a break from our journey through David Crump’s book on prayer. His reflections on the Lord’s Prayer leads me to think about the prayers in the Bible that I consider my favorites. Among them, I confess, is this very prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer has been and will always be one of my favorite prayers. I suppose it is meant to be so. Regardless, I have found that it shapes my thinking in more ways than I can imagine. Years ago, I sat down and tried to write in just a few short phrases what I felt my purpose was as a person and as a pastor. I labored over that for some time and emerged with what I thought was an accurate reflection of my heart, when my heart was at its best. As I looked at that statement, I saw that it reflected unmistakably the contours of the prayer Jesus taught us and which I had been taught to recite since childhood.

But there are other biblical prayers which have become favorites over the years. One that a fellow pastor recently shared with me comes from the life of Moses. Moses was at the time so overwhelmed with the responsibilities of caring for God’s people that, at his whits end, he burst out with this honest little request (here shared using Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase):

“I can’t do this by myself—it’s too much, all these people. If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favor and kill me. I’ve seen enough; I’ve had enough. Let me out of here.” (Numbers 11:14, 15 / The Message)

Most pastors I know resonate with that feeling now and then!

Jehoshophat was a king in Israel who, when informed of an approaching army of enemies, very honestly spoke the words that often reflect my own perspective on the unmanageable:

“O our God…we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (2 Chronicles 20:12)

The great horde for me may be a parenting conundrum or some other unsolvable puzzle. I rarely know what to do. I can only look to God in desperation.

And then, not quite a prayer, but a blessing which can be easily converted to prayerful use is this:

“The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)

I have often had occasions when I’ve not known anything else to pray for someone who is hurting and broken. In such occasions it has seemed right to pray this for them, to wish every component of God’s favor upon them, to ask that the “Lord, bless them and keep them….”

These, I say, are a few of my favorite prayers. What are yours?

Click to go to the next post in this series.

Prayer for Tractors and Other Things

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

One of the first petitionary prayers I recall praying was for a tractor. I don’t know why I wanted a tractor and I don’t know what I would have done with one had I gotten up the morning after the prayer and had found a brand new red Massey-Ferguson tractor in my front yard. I’m supposing that someone in my life had communicated the powerful possibilities of prayer that in asking we receive and with a child’s faith, I acted. To my dismay, I did not get, nor have I yet gotten, my tractor.

Since then, the things for which I ask are more sophisticated, though I’m not sure that is always a good thing. What I do want is that my prayers be shaped by the things that Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer says that my heart should long for in prayer.

If we are praying according to this guide, we will be praying for the regular provision of our needs (“…our daily bread…”). We will pray for reconciled relationships and peace (“…forgive us our debts…”). And we will pray that we will be sustained through every test of our discipleship that comes our way, even as we ask that we might be spared them (“…lead us not into temptation…”).

But what we long for in the end cannot help but be tempered by the weight of the first petitions of this prayer. It is right to petition God for all that we desire. If that is a tractor, then ask for a tractor. If that is for a husband, then pray for a husband. And if it is for a convenient parking place, then pray for that. And yet the more our hearts are trained to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, the essential direction of the first three petitions, the more content we will be to take what he gives on a daily basis, whether great or small. We will be more happy to remain tractor-less if God is glorified in it.

Crump looks at this prayer as something of a grid by which our own heart priorities are revealed. And I must confess that my heart’s desire to embrace Jesus’ passion for the kingdom and my actual practice of that are at times some distance apart. Prayer along the lines of the Lord’s Prayer cannot help but bring them nearer.

Click to go to the next post in this series.

Prayer When Things Are Not As They Should Be

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

Prayer is a mystery. How else can we explain the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done.” How is that a prayer? Is that not like praying that water be wet or that a sphere be round? Is not the will of God something by nature and definition that is done whether we seek it or not? Some find they are able to answer these questions easily. I don’t. How do prayer and God’s sovereignty exist in the same universe? It is the question that troubles many who find their way to their knees. But to pray within this tension is what we are called to do, even as the Lord’s Prayer makes clear.

Crump makes the necessary point that the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer all are making somewhat the same point. To pray that God’s name be honored is to pray for his kingdom to be manifest in all the earth, which is to pray for his will to be done, and all of this on earth as it is in heaven. But does this imply that his will is not being done? Does it imply that we can, by our prayers, hasten the coming of his will and kingdom?

Those are complicated questions which find some de-tanglement when we understand that this prayer for God’s will was central to Jesus’ impassioned prayer in Gethsemane. To pray for his kingdom and will to come and be done is in many respects to pray that our hearts be submitted to him, that our desires be his desires, that our personal impulses be submitted to his greater vision.

And yet, I’m not completely satisfied by this. It does not completely give me rest to suggest that when I am praying, I am simply putting myself in a place where my heart and passions might be changed and molded. When I see brokenness and injustice and anguish among God’s people, I pray that HIS KINGDOM come. I am praying that he would bring more into the ‘already’ the ‘not yet’ realities that will dry those tears and heal those broken hearts. I pray that his will be done because in many respects is is NOT being done yet, no matter what we make of the mystery of divine providence. All is not as it should be, and so I pray that God would hasten the day when it is. And I am encouraged to pray that, and to pray it with vigor.

Whether Crump would embrace the above paragraph or not I can only guess. I sense that he would. We must avoid every sense that God’s responsiveness is only apparent. Those who suggest that “God ordains the means as well as the ends…” are, he says, giving a theological answer aimed at intellectual satisfaction at great cost to the biblical text. And Crump’s desire to always lean on the text even when our minds are left reeling is part of what I appreciate about his approach and his honesty.

And I appreciate his heart, as it is expressed in this summary of the first three Lord’s Prayer petitions:

“In these three requests, we acknowledge that even as we pray for miracles with a faith that moves mountains, we would gladly exchange the most astounding miracle for the smallest mundane moment, if that mundane will bring greater glory to our Father who is in heaven.” (page 131)

That is where I want my heart to be.

Click to go to the next post in this series.

Marriage and Mystery

Tim Keller is his excellent book on marriage The Meaning of Marriage makes the shocking (to some) point that we never know who we marry. Once we bring two people together in such intimate closeness, they change each other so that the one we find ourselves married to in three or four or forty years is never quite the same person to whom we said ‘I do’ at the ceremony.

Poet and author Kathleen Norris makes a similar point in her memoir Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. After telling the story of how her husband came close to a drink-induced suicide, she says this:

Like faith, marriage is a mystery. The person you’re committed to spending your life with is known and yet unknown, at the same time remarkably intimate and necessarily other. The classic “seven-year itch” may not he a case of familiarity breeding ennui and contempt, but the shock of having someone you thought you knew all too well suddenly seem a stranger. When that happens, you are compelled to either recommit to the relationship or get the hell out. There are many such times in a marriage. (Page 83)

Long married couples understand this and agree. Engaged couples with whom I share it shake their heads up and down but really don’t believe me. They will.

Learning New Stuff

The son, Paul Dombey, in Dickens Dombey and Son, at age 6 is placed under a tutor named Miss Blimber, a most peculiar woman:

She was dry and sandy with working in the graves of deceased languages. None of your live languages for Miss Blimber. They must be dead—stone dead—and then Miss Blimber dug them up like a Ghoule.

She probably didn’t get out much.

Paul’s experience under her tutelage was a bit disorienting.

[His books] comprised a little English, and a deal of Latin – names of things, declensions of articles and substantives, exercises thereon, and preliminary rules – a trifle of orthography, a glance at ancient history, a wink or two at modern ditto, a few tables, two or three weights and measures, and a little general information.

Change the names a bit and you have me starting seminary or, I’m guessing, just about any of us plunging into something new.

When poor Paul had spelt out number two, he found he had no idea of number one; fragments whereof afterwards obtruded themselves into number three, which slided into number four, which grafted itself on to number two. So that whether twenty Romuluses made a Remus, or hic haec hoc was troy weight, or a verb always agreed with an ancient Briton, or three times four was Taurus a bull, were open questions with him.

Yes. Exactly like seminary.

Prayer to God as Father

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

It is too easy for us to treat prayer as a skill to be learned when it is better thought of as the fruit of a relationship that is nurtured. It is something the children of God do with their heavenly Father. That is what is at the very forefront of Jesus’ most formal teaching on prayer which we call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.

My (albeit simplistic) take on this prayer has always been that Jesus here, in modeling prayer for his disciples, also models for them the longing of the righteous heart. If these are the things for which we ought to pray, then these are the things fundamentally our hearts should be trained to long for.

First and foremost, this prayer trains our hearts to approach God as our father and our king. The image of God as father is for some very comforting and for others problematic. Jesus introduces the term here not to convey a simple paternal sensitivity (and Crump does a good job of disavowing us of any notion that Jesus encourages us to call God ‘Daddy’) but to present the Father in heaven as both creator and redeemer, as Lord and as king. He stands as the one who loves and the one who commands. We come before him with awe even as we come boldly. As Jesus teaches us to pray “Our Father” he invites us to enter into a relationship with God not analogous with our own troubled father-child relationships, but analogous rather of the intimacy between Jesus and His Father. He invites us to enter into prayer as he experienced prayer.

We are to approach God not as we might approach our own fathers, which is quite hard for some of us, but we are to approach him as brothers and sisters of Christ. We are to approach God as Jesus approached God, as his father, as the one who loves him, and as one he loves, whose will he respects and keeps. We are to step away for a time from our own flawed and broken imagery of a father and come to God upon a foundation built of the revelation of Jesus’ relationship to the father. This can be freeing.

Often those who are good at something are not the best teachers. They can only tell us how they do something and cannot lead us through the painful steps of getting to where they are. But we can learn a lot by watching and listening to them. There is a man I know whose prayers lack sophistication and style. But I love to hear him pray and am comforted to hear him pray for me. That is because when he prays, he is clearly talking as a child to his father, and that seems to capture better than anything, the essence of prayer.

He learned that by listening to Jesus. I want to do the same.

Click to go to the next post in this series.

The Journey, by Dickens

I confess, I like plot. Rare is the book (among them anything by Marilynne Robinson) that captivates me when nothing really happens in it. In reading Dombey and Son, I feel like I’ve begun a long (940 page) journey by train. I believe we are going somewhere worthwhile, but I’m not yet sure where. The first 170 pages, so far, have simply been Mr. Dickens introducing me to the passengers, some of whom I’ve already forgotten. Reputation, and that first paragraph, keep me from debarking at the next stop. For now.

Prayer: the Price of a Miracle

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

Years ago, I heard a man speak whose church had grown phenomenally. He attributed this growth to his commitment to spending hours daily in prayer, a commitment in which his church had joined him. A correlation was drawn between the number and persistence of people praying and the success of the church’s ministry. I was moved by the man’s faithfulness. I was challenged by his model. But I was never able to duplicate his devotion or his success. I am left to wonder: if I’d prayed one more day or had one more person join me, would we have tipped the scale in our favor?

What, that is, is the price of a miracle? Or is that even a proper question?

Some have read Jesus’ parables in the gospel of Luke (chapters 11 and 18) to suggest that prayer not only requires a special quantity of faith but as well particular investments of time, repetition, and emotional fervor. And such quantification seems to put a price tag on the miracles we seek. Is it really true that what God will not do if only ten are praying he will do if there are eleven or twenty? To have many praying, and praying long and hard is a good thing. But the line between doing what is good and attempting to manipulate God can be invisible to us if we are not careful. Crump unpacks these parables and in so doing helps us see our way beyond this creeping mechanistic view of prayer.

The point of the parables of the friend to who seeks bread from his neighbor at midnight (Luke 11) and the widow before the judge (Luke 18) is not that we can with our persistence irritate God into action. Rather, the point is that we should come to God at any time and with whatever need without shame and without hesitation.

We are to let nothing prevent our bringing our petitions to God. We will be persistent and we will pray without ceasing because we care about the matter at hand. But we do so not to pay a certain ‘price’ for a miracle. Our Father is always and ever willing to hear and to give what we most need.

The encouragement of these passages is to pray. We are encouraged to pray not so as to up the ante against God so that he must respond, but to pray knowing that he loves to give good gifts to his children, even when all we can see is darkness. Faithfulness in prayer is what is encouraged, and faithfulness is always more precious than a mechanistic persistence. The child who asks and asks and asks her father for a snake will not get it. But the child still asks, and the child will get what she most needs. But she asks not to up the pressure on one who will not give, but she asks simply because he is her father.

“The point is this: will I continue to bring my life before God in prayer when all tangible, empirical—and even all personal, experiential—evidence demands that I abandon prayer as worthless?” (page 88)

I want my answer to be, “Yes.”

Click to go to the next post in this series.