Thursday, May 04, 2006

prayTripper: the ancient practice of honesty and transcendance

When I was about eight or ten years old, my good friend, Ryan Rainnville discovered that his father, Russ, had contracted cancer; and, three months later, he died.

In three months I saw my friend’s dad visibly deteriorate almost before our very eyes.

Russ was an active participant in our church - he was one of our worship leaders, and was always up on the platform, even during his battle with cancer. He was leading in the corporate worship space, in the corporate worship time, and demonstrating for us what it meant to be a person who honored God in all circumstances. Russ was a great dad, a great example, and he was a great father.

The night before Russ died, I can remember being overcome with emotion. Our whole church was praying for Russ’ recovery, and we, as a church, believed that prayer could bring healing change to his health. So, as a young guy, I remember standing there shaking with the belief that if I could somehow just say the right prayer, like if I could somehow do it right, that God would heal Russ Renville and spare his life.

Well, the next day he passed away and so I was catapulted into this whole huge set of metaphysical questions that young boys aren’t entirely equipped for. I begin to ask questions like, “What does it mean when you feel like you have faith, but God doesn’t answer your prayer?” What does it mean when you ask for something, when you ask for a favor, for a little bit of help, from the god who created you, from the god who knit you together, who breathes life into you, who is the giver and sustainer of life—the Bible refers to him as the Great Physician—what does it mean when you call the Great Physician and he doesn’t answer?

When I think of prayer, I think of that prayer, my very first unanswered prayer and what that did to me in my understanding of spirituality and the lessons that I’ve learned about how we understand God.

I think one of the great mistakes that we often make is the mistake that I made as a little boy and that I still make all the time is that we think that prayer really is almost like spell-casting. We think if we can pray the right words or say things the right way, that we can somehow magically invoke the Great Spirit of God; but the Bible doesn’t support that belief at all. In fact, nothing that we’re taught about prayer or about God anywhere in the Scripture sounds anything like a magical incantation.

It’s the exact opposite.

Prayer, quite simply, is conversation with God.

When your speech is directed to God—that’s prayer. It doesn’t matter what you say. It doesn’t matter if you say it right. It doesn’t matter what words you use or what language you use. It doesn’t matter if it makes any sense. The fact that we come to God is most accurately, most definitively, prayer; so you can’t pray wrong.

There’s no wrong way to eat a Reeses Pieces; there’s no wrong way to pray.

Did you know that prayer is actually the oldest form of human communication? The earliest records we have in all ancient civilizations, be they Mayan or Ancient Egyptian, or Phoenician, are records of prayer. We have accounts of people worshiping the Creator, of people calling out and begging for some kind of contact with God, and tat’s a thread that’s maintained itself throughout all of human history, because today we see in every culture, in every little undiscovered part of the world, as we discover it, we find people searching for God and wanting to have contact with God.

I think that speaks to us here in the Twenty-First Century, living in a post-modern world in America, full of Best Buys and Wal-Marts and Starbucks. It tells us we have a need to talk to God, a need to get some answers, a need to get some clarity.

For people in the ancient near east, prayer was an act of total openness. There weren’t any rules that they were trying to abide by; so I love when Jesus appeared to the disciples and he was walking on the water. The disciples are all in a boat and they’re discouraged, the storm comes up and they’re worried for their lives [that they’re going to be capsized and they’re all going to drown]. They look out across the water and they see Jesus walking on the water coming towards them.

Peter, terrified by the sea and yet full of faith in the power of Jesus Christ, sees Jesus walking out on the water and gets out of the boat to try and actually emulate this miracle. Incredibly, Peter begins to also walk on the surface of the water towards Jesus, calling out to him and reaching out to accept Jesus’ stretched out arm.

Then Peter begins to falter. He gets scared, doubts, and he begins to sink. At this point, Peter prays one of the most profound prayers that we see anywhere in the Bible. He says, “Jesus, help.”

That’s all.

It’s a great picture for us of how that whole culture understood prayer, that there’s not form or convention, just desperation for God to hear us. Now, over the last couple thousand years we’ve put all kinds of like tricks and tips into prayer, into making prayer right or into making prayer nice. But let’s read from Psalms, Chapter 5 and look at the beautiful portrait of King David’s heart totally borne open before God.

Listen, GOD! Please, pay attention!

Can you make sense of these ramblings, my groans and cries?
King-God, I need your help.

I love that he starts off by going, “Am I making any sense here? Does anyone up there understand what I’m trying to communicate right now?”

Every morning you’ll hear me at it again. Every morning I lay out
the pieces of my life on your altar and watch for fire to descend.

You know, I think there’s probably times where everyone of us feel like our lives are in pieces, where we feel our family is somehow separated from itself or we feel like our job doesn’t relate to our faith or that our faith doesn’t relate to our marriage, etc…I love that even King David, the foremost figure of Jewish royalty, one of the most important historical figures of all time, says, “My life’s a mess. My life is in pieces,” and what is his response? “Every morning I take the broken pieces of my life and put them on your alter so that fire can consume them, can unify the garbage of my life.”

You don’t socialize with Wicked…

That’s “Wicked” capitalized, “Wicked” personified, a person named “Wicked.”

…or invite Evil over as your houseguest.

Hot-Air-Boaster collapses in front of you, you shake your head over

God destroys Lie-Speaker, Blood-Thirsty and Truth-Bender disgust

And here I am, your invited guest—it’s incredible! I enter your house;
here I am, prostrate in your inner sanctum, waiting for directions to
get me safely through enemy lines.

Every word they speak is a land mind, their lungs breathe out
poison gas. Their throats are gaping graves, their tongues slick as

Pile on the guilt, God! Let their so-called wisdom wreck them. Kick
them out! They’ve had their chance.

But you’ll welcome us with open arms when we run for cover to you
So let the party last all night long and stand guard over our celebration.

You are famous, GOD, for welcoming God-seekers, for decking us
out in delight.

You know, when I pray, I typically don’t want to do anything wrong—like I don’t want to call anybody names. I try to avoid things like, “Oh, God, help me with that total, dirty, Communist jerk who I hate.” I don’t ever pray like that, because I’m afraid that He’s going zap me, or call down divine WMDs or something.

But King David prays using some caustic labels for people, “Don’t socialize with Mr. Wicked, Hot-Air Boaster, Mischief-Maker. Destroy Lie-Speaker, Mr. Blood-Thirsty and Truth-Bender.” Remember that are probably references to a real person[s], not a fictional narrative. This is a real man, a national ruler, who is talking about actual people. David has in his mind someone who he identifies as Mr. Wicked, the bad guy, and he’s calling out to God these accusations.

This prayer starts out by painting a picture of total honesty before God. The mistake that I always seem to make is that I’m always fudging the truth. David, on the other hand, comes and says, “I hate this guy and that guy and that guy and that guy. They are wrecking my life, so pile on the guilt for them, Lord.” David isn’t playing games.

If we’re going to approach prayer, I think we really have to grab hold of the fact that God is not interested in our BS.

He’s not interested in our lies, in our deceit.

He wants us to come completely, honestly to him - He knows the truth anyway, he’s able to see through you—but he values it when we’re honest.

So let us ask ourselves a couple of questions:

When was the last time you actually told God exactly how you felt?

When was the last time you said something to God that you’d never say to your spouse, to your friend, to your brother, that you’d never say in church?

Understand here that I’m not advocating some kind of prayerful potty-mouthing. I’m talking about vulnerability, about coming open to God, about cracking open your chest and bearing your soul and saying, “Maker and Father God, I need you.” I think that’s what we see here in David.

Even Jesus, when he gave us the Lord’s Prayer [which we have so often, erroneously, reduced to some kind of formula] attempts to show us that our whole lives are to be presented before God as an offering, that there is to be no stone unturned, that every part of who we are and how we understand ourselves is to be given to God without restraint.

My dad taught me how to pray when I was a little guy. He knelt beside my bed and every night before bed we did this family thing. He always taught me that prayer was about thanksgiving, repentance and request. I think the whole rest of my life, I’m never going to be able to get that out of my head, but it gives me an anchor for those times when I don’t know how to pray.

I remember when I was doing college ministry and working with college kids, we had a group of guys who were recovering heroine addicts [actually, they were just addicts when they came; thankfully, they became recovering addicts]. Our group of college kids was so cool in how they embraced these guys and how they loved them and welcomed them into our community. I was really proud of them.

But I remember one fellow showed up and has got about 800 hundred piercings in his face, and he’s got a Mohawk and he’s covered in tats got a big chain hanging off his belt. We had a lot of people like that anyway, but this guy was bit different.

As he’s walking down the aisle—he’s going to come and sit in the very front—I’m seeing all my guys and gals stare at him. Because I can see them staring, I’m getting mad while I’m preaching and I’m judging them for judging him. I can remember thinking, “Oh, you hypocrites, how can you do that? Don’t you know Christ died for you?” Until this guy gets to the very front row and he stands up and turns around and bends over to move something off his chair. It’s at this point that I realize that the bum-cheeks are cut out of his leather pants. Now I’m the one staring – and his naked behind is staring back while I’m trying to talk about Jesus.

My experience with this group of guys taught me that people really don’t really care what advice I have. They don’t care about my formula for life, about my three points to this or how I understand that. They don’t care one bit. The only thing that matters to them is that I love them, that I talk to them. There are months that go by where I’m not even sure I did anything good to help them, but what mattered is that we talked, that they spoke into my life as much maybe as I spoke into theirs.

I think this must be what the experience of prayer is like for God. I think He’s asking us to cut out the formula, to just get to the heart-issues, to who we really are and who He really is, and pour out our lives out ahead of Him.

Jake, my two year old son, and I were watching T.V. yesterday morning. We’re all cuddled up on the couch watching The Wiggles and I say, “Hey, bud, Daddy really loves you.” To which Jake replies, “Daddy, I like The Wiggles.”

“Yeah, do you know your daddy loves you?” “Yeah.” “Do you love Daddy?” “Daddy, I really like The Wiggles.”

For the next ten minutes, I am desperate to hear “Daddy, I love you. Daddy, I love you.”

I think maybe this is a good place for our prayers to start.

Prayer is the, “Daddy, I love you.”

I told you about my friend, Ryan Renville, and his dad, Russ, and what that did for me to have those prayers remain unanswered. A couple years later, I went to the Philippians with a humanitarian aid group. We were in a city called Tarlock and had a couple days set aside to go pray with people who were connected to the school that we were working for.

So, myself and another gal from Vancouver got into a taxi with an interpreter and he starts carting us around to all these different places to pray for people. One of the stops that we made was in a little hut, up on stilts with a thatched roof and a small generator for electricity. It was pretty primitive. Inside there’s an older Pilipino fellow lying down in a bed. When we enter, he props himself up on an elbow and looks at us. Our interpreter walks in and they talk while we’re waiting.

Finally, the interpreter says, “Why don’t you come pray for this older fellow?” and we begin to pray. Remember, in this story I’m young, I don’t really know what I’m doing and I’m feeling sick and I don’t know why I’m there. The whole experience makes me feel stupid, but I remember putting my hand on this fellow’s arm and praying for him. I don’t remember what I prayed, but I remember it feeling lame – weak – and being something like, “Dear God, thank you for this day. Help this guy and make him happy. Amen.”

Well, this fellow hops out of bed, runs around, grabs a kettle and makes some tea while we all sit down at his kitchen table and are talking. It’s all still feeling awkward, but this man is really animated and will sit down and talk to us for a bit and then get a big burst of energy and run around the room, then come back and sit down for only a second.

Our interpreter is visibly pleased by all of this, but we’re still a little disoriented.

We leave, say goodbye, and as we’re driving back in the taxi I ask the interpreter, “What happened? What was he so happy about?” Through his broken English and, of course, later on as he talks to others, we find out that this old man hasn’t walked since he was seven years old.

The foolish, simple prayer of a young boy and girl from were used by God to be the conduit for incredible healing power.

So, when I think about prayer and what it is, I have these two poles, these two stories - of Russ Rainnville, my friend’s dad, who I loved, who I admired, who I prayed for with every ounce of vehemence and fervor and who wasn’t healed – and this elderly Pilipino man who I have never seen since - whose name I don’t even know, and the way God used my crummiest prayer to bring healing.

I look at these two things and all that I’m left with is that life’s not about how good you pray. It’s about how God’s goodness, about how he honors our openness and honors our love. It’s about how He sits and waits for His little boys and girls to look up and say, “Daddy, I love you.”

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