thinking about prayer while waiting for a post.

I never know how long to pray about things.  I’m often not sure exactly how to pray.

The other day, Hope and Nancy and I were talking about this question, about what to pray for in a particular health situation. Hope and some of her friends had been discussing it at great length.

I laughed. “Imagine you and Andrew having a conversation about how to ask me for something. You spend a long time talking about how much to ask for, about what the best approach might be. Why wouldn’t you just ask me? And in our conversation we can talk about the best way to ask.”

Discussions of the right way to pray only make sense if God can’t hear us talking. They only make sense if somehow, we can trick God into doing something for us if we can ask in exactly the right way. They only make sense if there is a penalty for asking the wrong way, for asking too much.

When Hope and Andrew and Allie ask me for something, they don’t have to be afraid of saying the wrong thing. They may not get what they want, but they have my attention, and my interest, and my heart.  Andrew, for example, just asked for feedback on something he had written. I gave him suggestions on how to change it. It involved more work on his part. But that’s part of the conversation.

I understand disappointment. I’ve asked for healing when the result was death. I’ve asked for restoration when the result was disintegration. And I’ve watched others ask for rescue when the result was destruction. I don’t think that the problem was in the approach, in asking for the wrong thing or asking the wrong way. But I’ll keep asking and listening, until I know.

A different way to talk with God

God loves to hear us, like any good father. We’ve often heard it said that the model for how to talk with God is The Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew 6:9-13, Jesus taught his closest followers to pray. That way of praying is a good guide to use, most of the time. But David often prayed in a very different way. And God said David was a man after His own heart.

The book of Psalms is a collection of prayers and songs. David wrote many of them. He consistently starts by crying to God about the trouble he’s in:

  • Being chased by someone who wants to kill you? That’s pretty serious. In the midst of that ordeal, David complained to God.
  • Sleeping with a woman and then arranging for her husband to be killed? Not a light matter. Afterwards, David confessed his actions to God and asked to be made clean.
  • Hearing person after person say untrue things about you? It’s hard for anyone to keep quiet about that. David brought that to God.
  • Watching the nation you lead being conquered by other nations? That would challenge anyone’s feeling of self-worth. David gave God all the details.
  • Spending the night crying till there are no more tears left? David was there. And he told God about it.

After David is done crying out to God, he recognizes who God is and then praises Him for the ways He is great. David doesn’t do that before complaining first. When a child is crying because she stubbed her toe, her dad doesn’t expect her to tell how awesome a father he is before he comforts her. It is OK to cry to God first. After you finish telling Him all about it, He wants you to stay long enough to recognize who He really is.

(Paul Merrill writes here every First Friday.)

Can I take that toilet paper?

“Can I take some of that toilet paper,” my friend said, “or do I need to go buy some?”

That was the request when I walked in our outer office. My friend needed several rolls of toilet paper for a children’s activity. Perfectly appropriate need. A black garbage bag with rolls of toilet paper, paper towel, and napkins was sitting by one of the desks. Perfectly appropriate resource.

But I didn’t know how to answer. The bag of toilet paper that she was looking at was for someone else. But there was no need for her to go buy some. I knew where there was a box with four times as much as she needed. For no cost to her.

All that processing of options took me a few seconds, during which I was silent. I think I appeared baffled. Finally, I said, “You need 8 rolls of toilet paper.”


I knew how to answer that request.

“I’ll be right back.”

I went upstairs. I went to the closet. I filled a bag with toilet paper. I took it to my friend.

Taking it from the bag in the office would have been quicker, but that wasn’t really available. Buying more would have allowed her to act without inconveniencing anyone, but it would have inconvenienced her and it would have cost more than the paper we can get.

I needed to separate the need she had from the solutions she offered. Once the need was clear, the best solution could come.

I suppose this could be a lesson about teamwork and collaboration. But for me it’s a lesson about prayer. Too often I tell God the solution, and wonder why I don’t get my way. When I let him know the need and wait, solutions I never imagined appear.

On setting prayer goals.

I asked our Saturday night group to think about some goals for 2013. I decided to talk with you about  that exercise as well.

I said, “I know that sometimes some people have a hard time setting goals, especially when it comes to God-related things. But what if we talked about having some prayer goals?”

These aren’t goals of how much to pray. Not any more than we set goals of how much to talk with other people that matter to us.

I suggested that we could talk with God about things about us that we want to change, that we want to have him help us with. In the same way we say to our spouse or business partner or coach or close friend, “I’d like to talk this through with you and have you help me understand it better,” we can talk with God.

We could finish sentences like this:

a. For 2013, I pray to learn to …

b. For 2013, I pray to obey when…(thing x happens or when person y does that or when I start remembering how person always told me I’d never make it)

c. For 2013, I pray to understand…

d. For 2013, I pray to be available for…

e. For 2013, I pray to be free from …

f. For 2013, I pray to learn to love …

g. For 2013, I pray to be reminded to ask you before I …

h. For 2013, I pray to learn contentment about …

Those kinds of goals will involve learning how to listen for what God might say back to us through the Bible. They will also involve adjustments in how we are living, or in how we are spending our time, or in how we are spending our money or attention or energy. They will involve other people. They will mean saying “yes” or “no” or “wait”.

Make sense?

Every Monday

It happens every Monday morning.

Every Monday is a restart of our pilgrimage. Every Monday we say, “I want this week to be different. I want to be more committed, more caring, more thoughtful, more loving, more focused, more significant, more successful.”

And then we open our eyes. And shuffle to the mirror. And the words of the psalmist become words in our bathroom: “I call on the Lord in my distress.”

Our resolve and our dreams and our plans run into “lying lips and deceitful tongues.”

Have you heard them yet today? “This food will give you fulfillment, not just fill you up  That candidate is the worst. These three simple steps will make your life easy. You will never amount to anything.”

Some come from a screen. Some come from faces we know. Many come from the mirror. All run the risk of derailing us. And when we clear our head (and drink a little coffee) we warn the lying voices:

May the way your words stab my heart be pierced the way a warrior’s arrows find their target. May the way your lies cause fires in relationships and raise the gossip heat be burned away with coals of a broom tree.

The images seem harsh, but no harsher than lies and deception deserve when we consider the disruption they bring to pilgrimage.

Every Monday we start new, we will be challenged. We live in inertia. When we want to change our eating, we are surrounded by food ads. When we want to claim our team colors, we are surrounded by opposing fans. When we want to wage peace, we are surrounded by heckling hate. 

But a pilgrimage always starts with one step. In the right direction. Like the people who sing Psalm 120 on the way to follow God. 

See also A Long Obedience