Pray Till You’re Scared

“I know you pray a lot, but what actually gets done?”

I’ve said before that I get a lot of odd questions in this calling. The one above came recently while I was at lunch. To tell you the truth though, I wasn’t really surprised by this one. The value of prayer seems to be at an all time low right now. I’ve had good leaders in the church say to me “we’re not just praying, we’re doing.” In December the New York Daily News ran on their front page “God isn’t fixing this” with the opening line of the article saying “Prayers aren’t working.” And truth be told they are saying this because so often politicians and leaders use prayer as a substitute for actually living out their calling.

Prayer, it seems, is at an all time low.

Over and against this, however, is what I experience in my neighborhood on a regular basis. Within the first month of arriving at Martin Luther a woman in my neighborhood said “oh you’re the new pastor! Please pray over me because I got a demon.” Another man said to me “I really respect what y’all are doing and I pray for you every night” after he told me that he couldn’t come to church anymore because he was moving. Prayer is this vital action in my community that grants life, or at the very least sustains life for another day.

No experience sums up this prayer dialectic better than when I discuss my time. A few months ago I was in a meeting with a few pastors and I told them, that as an inner city pastor, I purposefully left 50% of my time unscheduled so  I could have room to deal with the various crises that arise in my neighborhood. The pastors I was with then asked “what happens when no crises arise.” Right then, as a joke another pastor said “oh, you spend all that time praying” and everyone began to chuckle. The very next day I was in a meeting with some of colleagues from the city and we got on the same subject of our time and someone said to me “young man, you had better be spending all that time in prayer and meditation” in the most serious manner you could imagine.

Prayer as joke and prayer as dead serious matter. Ever since that week a couple months ago I’ve been trying to reconcile this dichotomy in our world. How can prayer be so dismissed on one side and so necessary on the other?

It doesn’t come down to basic belief in God because, as I said, I find the dismissive attitude about prayer among Christians as much as I find it among non-believers. The person who asked me “I know you pray a lot, but what actually get’s done?” goes to church every Sunday (full disclosure: not mine so respect their privacy and don’t go looking for them).

In an interview with Matt Fitzgerald on the podcast Preachers on Preaching Will Willimon said that often we use prayer wrong. Prayer, he says, often gets reserved for the elderly and for people who are sick. Biblically though, Willimon points out that prayer is often used for a lot more than that.

So in Acts 4 the Apostles, facing all sorts of threats, pray for boldness. Not wisdom or safety, but “with all boldness they may speak Your word” and “That signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus.”

If I think back on my own prayer life, how often have I prayed that “signs and wonders” be done? Truthfully, not very often. Part of this is because I am afraid that it might not happen. Prayer isn’t a wishing stone and God’s not a genie with a lamp.

However, I think a larger reason is that I’m afraid prayer might actually do something.

Our problem with prayer is that we put limits around it. I pray for the sick. I pray very general prayers in worship. But prayer in scripture is often bold, almost terrifying, requests of God. In Acts 12:5  “the church prayed fervently to God” for Peter while he was in prison. The next thing that happens is that an angel rescues Peter and the Church can hardly believe it themselves.

My community needs prayer and finds that prayer does actually get things done. Maybe they believe that because their prayers are bold. Prayers that ministry will thrive and prayers that evil’s power be put to flight.

So with all that we face in this world what we need more than ever is prayer. Not just prayers for the sick or prayers of sympathy, but bold and almost scary prayers.

Our churches, in the face of decline need not new strategies but prayers for boldness and prayers that we be driven by the Spirit to places that we fear. Warning to the wise: these prayers will scare us, but we need them.

In our world today where racism and hatred and injustice seem to be so strong we as a church need to start not with new programs, but with prayers for signs and wonders from the living God. Warning to the wise: these prayers will scare us, but we need them.

“I know you pray a lot, but what actually gets done?” I ended up listing off a lot of things that get done, but what I should have said is that prayer has a power to do more than just accomplish things. Prayer is asking God to act with the full power of the living God instead in some tame and predictable way.

I prefer tame and predictable. It’s less terrifying.

But also not what I need right now.

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