Tuesday, August 23, 2011

When Prayer Is Not Enough

Stephen Johnson was a devoted husband, gifted teacher, nurturing pastor, and intense intercessor. He was loved and respected by many in the small Midwestern community in which he lived, those inside and outside his church alike. He was especially adored by the many members of his church, House of Prayer, because they knew him to be a prayer warrior. They were proud that their church was known around the city as a house of prayer.

Unlike many churches in the area, nightly intercessory prayer brought in large numbers of people who would storm the heavens all night beseeching God on behalf of a “lost and dying world.” Visions of the future were common and prophetic mysteries were unraveled at these meetings. These gave the attendees a level of preparation that many of the neighboring churches did not enjoy. Still, faithfully, this congregation would pray that the eyes of these other churches would soon be opened, and they prayed this sincerely.

Stephen’s wife, Hannah, often led these midnight vigils. She seemed deeply committed to the mission of the church and was likewise admired by many of its members.

These meetings were filled with young children too. You could often see some of them marching up and down the aisles waving little banners praying and praising the Lord late at night. Most, however, could be found sleeping soundly on the pews as their parents persevered in prayer into the wee hours of the morning.

Sadly, Stephen and Hannah were unable to conceive children. This, along with the immense pressure that came with such a powerful ministry, brought tension into their marriage. Their congregants were reassuring and would often encouragingly inform them that they were praying and that God would give them children.

No one noticed, not even Stephen and Hannah, that this couple’s relationship was slowly eroding. They talked to each other less and less, and soon they found it very difficult to lay aside the many ministerial demands—especially intercessory prayer—long enough just to pay attention to one another. Somehow, this seemed a necessary sacrifice if they were going to truly please the Lord.

Stephen and his congregation were stunned one day when they learned that Hannah had left Stephen for another man. It was as if a locomotive had derailed and ripped through the church doors maiming everyone in the building.

Members spoke in hushed tones as Pastor Stephen tried to endure this “test.” They all let him know that they were praying for him even more intensely and would storm the throne of God on his behalf; they would stand up for Stephen before the mercy seat. Yet none went beyond these proclamations of prayer. He was surrounded with isolation.

The congregation went from prayerful to perplexed when Pastor Stephen failed to show up one Sunday morning. What followed next, only a child could understand.

Members commented on how peaceful Pastor Stephen looked as he lay in the coffin at Burke’s Funeral Home. The peculiar scent of artificial flowers tickled the noses of those attending. The flowers looked beautiful but were bereft of life. They had the form of the real thing but reeked of something akin to formaldehyde.

A number of individuals sought to console one another in whispers attempting to explain what had actually taken place. How could this powerful man of God—this prayer warrior—have taken his own life? It just didn’t make sense.

Three women in particular were huddled together in front of the casket staring at their pastor’s lifeless body as a five-year-old girl gazed up at their confused conversation. “Why didn’t he just pray more?” exclaimed one lady. “Maybe he just didn’t have enough faith” interjected another. “We should have prayed harder for our leader” lamented the third lady—all heads shaking side to side in disbelief.

“Why didn’t somebody give him a hug?” asked the little girl in a gentle tone.

“Aren’t you just the sweetest thing?” the three ladies chimed in simultaneously as they collectively patted the top of the little girl’s head. “Now run along, we’re discussing grown-up things.”

*******

The Namuhton village was situated at the edge of the Sahara desert in North Africa where arid met oasis. The villagers had eked out a meager existence along this line of conflicting possibilities for centuries before the Pentecostal missionaries had arrived declaring to them the water that would enable them to never thirst again.

The Namuhton people enthusiastically slaked their spiritual thirst with the Good News that had been delivered to them through these earthen vessels. The missionaries spent many years discipling the people and teaching them how to pray.

After several years, with the village 100 percent evangelized, the missionaries moved on to the next field to which God had called them. The Namuhton people continued fervently in prayer and became a spiritual oasis of miracles and signs and wonders to the surrounding people.

People from other villages would travel for days to reach the Namuhton people who would pray for the sick and cast out demons. The Namuhton people soon realized that they had moved beyond the status of mere earthen vessels to spiritual vehicles. The fame of their spirituality and powerful prayers grew rapidly and garnered the respect of untold people.

The Namuhton had learned to die to self and would devote themselves to unceasing prayer. In fact, for 7 years they maintained an unbroken prayer vigil. Members of the tribe would take turns interceding hour by hour, even throughout the cold nights and scorching days.

The whole village became one giant prayer chain. It was an awesome thing to behold. Over time, villagers found it increasingly difficult to find time to relate to one another or even eat together as families. They didn’t mind the sacrifice though. They knew they were doing the work of God!

Their king, Lau-tirips, taught them to shed their sinful humanity and transform themselves into supernatural beings through the power of prayer. It was even reported that a number of the villagers were actually translated like Enoch. They were able to step out of their humanity. What is more, a number of dead people were actually raised through the powerful prayers of these people. This made the king’s heart swell with joy. This village was indeed an unbreakable spiritual chain—all except for one link.

The king’s son, Mereh-trae, was always the weak link. He was a broken vessel, not a spiritual vehicle. This troubled the king’s heart greatly. Mereh-trae, at age 21, was just not serious. He would often play with the small children and listen intently as they would tell him stories. And he would do all of this carrying-on while other adults were busy about the Master’s business, in deep prayer. But some prayer warriors appreciated Mereh-trae because he made quite a babysitter.

Although the Namuhton village was an oasis next to the desert and blossomed with lush foliage that was fed through the underground springs that ran into the area, over the years many of the wells had become dry. Since the villagers had been in 7 years of revival, no one had time to dig any new wells. Mereh-trae had tried, but he could not dig deeply enough alone. His father and the other villagers would always tell him that God would provide as He always had.

Even though Mereh-trae wasn’t particularly spiritual, many villagers appreciated that he would go and draw water for them from the one remaining well and bring it to them while they were in deep prayer. At least he had some use, even if it wasn’t a spiritual one.

The king became increasingly indignant at his son when he eventually noticed that Mereh-trae would disappear from the village for 7-8 hours per night. “He has time to go out and partake in the things of this world for these many hours, but he cannot watch and pray with us for even an hour” thought the king.

Then it happened. Mereh-trae went missing for 3 days. “What is he doing now?” thought his father. But after a while, the king’s annoyance gave way to fatherly concern. Mereh-trae had never been gone this long! His father loved him very much and began to pray earnestly for his return. He did this for an entire day and night. Finally, Lau-tirips decide to assemble a team of prayer warriors to go out looking for his son.

The warriors set out early in the morning into the treacherous surrounding desert that separated their village’s oasis from the oasis of another village. The scorching heat from the Saharan sun leaned heavily upon their dark shoulders. They fanned out canvassing as much territory as possible.

“I have found him! Come quickly!” shouted one of the villagers in a frantic voice. The noonday sun made it impossible for the other villagers to see them. They could only follow the desperate echoes of the prayer warrior’s voice. Soon they came upon the warrior and Mereh-trae.

The king’s son lay withered under a desert bush. He was unconscious, but he was still breathing. The prayer warriors lifted him from the searing sands and ran with him on their backs to the Namuhton village. They lay him in the center of a chain of prayer warriors comprised of the entire village.

The collective voices of the king and his people shot up to heaven with the roar of a torrential thunderstorm. The people prayed with the tongues of angels as they commanded the spirit of death to loose its hold on Mereh-trae. The people prayed without ceasing all night. They cried out, “Are you not God? Are you not able to raise even the dead?”

Unlike other nights, this time even the small children—the ones who had so fondly loved Mereh-trae—stayed up until the dawn. Throughout the night they tugged at the robes of the adults, trying in vain to get their attention. But these prayer warriors would not be distracted from their spiritual mission.

As the morning sun’s light became more vibrant, Mereh-trae's fragile earthen life faded. At last, it was extinguished. The people wailed. Some continued to pray hoping to raise him from the dead as they had done so many times before.

One small boy, age six, continued to tug at the king’s robe as he had done the entire night. Overwhelmed and annoyed, the king swatted this frustrating fly. As his hand made contact with the small boy’s body, he heard the sound of pottery shattering. When the king’s gaze fell directly on the child, he noticed the dry ground quickly licking up the water that spilled from the broken vessel. The little boy’s eyes were flooded with tears.

“Why couldn’t we have just given him a drink?” questioned the sobbing child.

It was later learned that for the many day leading up to Mereh-trae’s death, he had been crossing the arid land to fetch water from the neighboring village because Namuhton’s last well had gone dry. He did this each day in order to provide for the needs of the prayer warriors. Only the children who had a relationship with Mereh-trae knew what he had been doing.

The next day, a new missionary—a physician—happened to come by the village. The king asked him to look at his dead son. The doctor reported that Mereh-trae had died of dehydration but would have lived if he had received water a few hours earlier. Sometimes, prayer is not enough.

*******

It has been a very long time since I last blogged. Honestly, I’ve had neither interest nor energy to do it. Recently, I have been reflecting on a number of thoughts that have made me want to jot them down somewhere just so that I could look at them and see if they make sense. Without sounding too spiritual, I want to say that I believe these are things God has shown me.

I also want to urge anyone who reads this post to NOT read too much into it. It is not aimed at anyone in particular, but the Church in general. Also, for the record, I am not angry, suicidal, or bitter. But I think that I am a little hurt—not by anyone necessarily—but by a pervasive attitude I see in the Church. Maybe I am just so blind that I cannot see my error? It could be that I am so lost and sinful that I want to harbor a lie. In any case, I want to flesh out some of my thoughts here.

The title of this entry—When Prayer is Not Enough—may evoke some passionate feelings in the religious establishment. To some, the very words sound blasphemous. To others, at the very least, they smack of faithlessness. To yet others, this is like saying that “God is not enough.” After all, to those people, prayer and God seem like interchangeable terms; prayer is God. And, of course, there are even others who will simply and politely think that such a statement issues from the mouth (or fingers) of a na├»ve child in the faith—someone inexperienced in either trials or revelations.

Do the words “Prayer is Not Enough” stir such feelings in you? If so, why?

I cannot answer that. I suspect that, at least to some, prayer has become a sacred idol. It has become an end within itself. It has become the pinnacle of spirituality. This is similar to people who worship the Bible. Bibliolatry is a real thing. To some, the Bible and God are synonymous; to suggest otherwise is blasphemy.

Whenever religion supplants relationship, white noise becomes a confusing cacophony that leads to misunderstanding. Let me illustrate.

For whatever reason, whenever I suggest to someone that God is bigger than the Bible, that person somehow “hears” me saying that the Bible is less than inspired. Immediately it is assumed that I have a low view of scripture. Likewise, whenever I suggest to someone that God is bigger than prayer, it is assumed that I have a low (and truly wrong) view of prayer. Neither could be further from the truth.

In my mind I see the Bible and prayer as components of a healthy spiritual life. I often liken it to a balanced diet. If you eat only one kind of food, or even primarily only one kind of food, you risk nutritional deficiencies. You can’t have all meat and no fruits or vegetables and remain healthy very long. At least this seems reasonable enough to me.

So, neither the Bible nor prayer is the sum of the meal. They are just important, necessary components. For example, a Bible devoid of the Spirit to lead us and guide us into all truth is inadequate. In fact, it might be downright dangerous. It can lead to distorted interpretations, religious cruelty, or just plain silliness. We need both the written word and the living Spirit.

Genuine, healthy spirituality has numerous components that go far beyond the themes of Bible, prayer, or Spirit. But in this post, I want to focus in on the inadequacy of prayer alone.

Yes, I said it. Prayer alone is inadequate!

But like all virtuous enterprises—especially those we highly esteem—it has potential to blind us. This RELIGIOUS IDEA about prayer can seduce us into an unhealthy preoccupation with one component of a robust spiritual life. It can entice us like chocolate cake (or insert your favorite nutrient-deficient dessert here) into making the dessert the main dish or the only dish in our spiritual meal. I know I know… those who venerate prayer will claim that it is the meat or main dish of true spirituality. I won’t argue with them.

I simply don’t have a ranking system for spiritual food components. I’m inclined to say that love is the main course, but I could be wrong. Nevertheless, all components are necessary (read NOT OPTIONAL) to a healthy spiritual diet.

And to tell the truth, I am probably deficient in all of these necessary components for a healthy spiritual life. With that in mind I am about to write some things that will, on the surface, look like I have a low view of prayer. Please do not “hear” me saying that.

In fact, let be very clear: Prayer, especially intercessory prayer and worship, are absolutely vital and are far too rare in the average Christian’s diet. Too often Christians live lives absent of prayer or their prayer lives are woefully deficient—me included! It is a sad spiritual epidemic.

Prayer changes things! It’s able to reach across continents and change the destinies of nations. Its power and effectiveness cannot be overstated and should never be underestimated or minimized. It is one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal God has given us.

Still, prayer alone is insufficient, inadequate, deficient…not enough.

I often figure prayer as simply communication with God. It is paying attention to God as He pays attention to us. It is dialoging with God. It is more than all of this, but it is at least this. And when I picture prayer in relation to God (yes, it can be in relation to other things), I see it (admittedly inaccurately) as a vertical relationship. I say that because I see God as higher than us and analogically I picture a vertical—looking towards heaven, if you will—dialogue with Him. To be sure, God is with us and ever present. He is living inside us. He is imminent. Still, this vertical notion pervades my thinking.

How can prayer be in relation to other things? What do I mean by that?

I believe that we can pray on a horizontal level. We just don’t use the fancy word “prayer” here. We say things like “communicate,” “discuss,” “dialogue,” and “interact.” Whatever words we use, we instinctively know that it is a vehicle for cultivating relationship.

On a vertical level, prayer is cultivating a relationship with God. On a horizontal level, it is cultivating relationships with God’s creation. Both are indispensable.

Failure to do either is to rip the door of authentic spirituality or relationship off of its hinges. We can neither love God nor our fellow humans if we do not do both (cf., Matthew 12:28-33; Luke 10:27; 1 John 4:20-21). I will come back to those passages in a moment.

I almost titled this post “Death of the Good Samaritan.” In a moment you will see why. If you’ve managed to read this far that is. I know that this is an exceedingly long post. And, if I were smart, I would break it up into smaller bites so that it would be easier to swallow this spiritual meal I’m talking about. But I’m not breaking it up, and I’ll let that speak what it will about me.

I have noticed two extremes along this theme. On one end of the spectrum you have people (like some in traditional mainline churches) who have reduced spirituality to mere social justice. For too many of them, social activism and justice are the only components of a spiritual meal. On the other end, you have the hyper-spiritual who see prayer and miraculous intangibles as the sum of spirituality; they ignore the prophets and Jesus and a bunch of other guys who call for social justice, etc. And, it seems, that they believe you have to be one or the other, or favor one or the other. I hate that either/or proposition.

This post is focused on an attitude about prayer, not prayer itself. And it comes off as a negative. But I could have just as easily focused on an attitude about social justice and an unwillingness to embrace prayer and its supernatural components. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not picking on anyone or any particular group. I’m picking on an attitude—one that is imbalanced to the point that I think it literally kills people, or maybe it’s just too impotent to help the ones that are dying?

Anyway, I don’t want to pontificate any further. Let’s just look at several passages and I hope that the Holy Spirit continues to teach all of us, especially me since I’m sure I’m not seeing a lot here.

Consider these three passages:

Now one of the experts in the law came and heard them debating. When he saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the most important of all?" Jesus answered, "The most important is: 'Listen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." The expert in the law said to him, "That is true, Teacher; you are right to say that he is one, and there is no one else besides him. And to love him with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." (Mar 12:28-33)

*******

Now an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus, saying, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you understand it?" The expert answered, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus said to him, "You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live." But the expert, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him up, and went off, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, but when he saw the injured man he passed by on the other side. So too a Levite, when he came up to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan who was traveling came to where the injured man was, and when he saw him, he felt compassion for him. He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him, and whatever else you spend, I will repay you when I come back this way.' Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" The expert in religious law said, "The one who showed mercy to him." So Jesus said to him, "Go and do the same."(Luk 10:25-37)

*******

If anyone says "I love God" and yet hates his fellow Christian, he is a liar, because the one who does not love his fellow Christian whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And the commandment we have from him is this: that the one who loves God should love his fellow Christian too. (1 Jo 4:20-21)

*******

Now, I think many of us know what these passages mean, so I don’t want to say too much about most of them. We know that loving God and our neighbors is a hinge; there is no “one or the other” as 1 John makes clear. It is both of these or nothing. (There’s an either/or for those who like it.) Anyway, the command to love is the highest spiritual thing we can do, at least as I see it.

What is interesting to me, and what I want to focus on is related to the Good Samaritan. Notice that when spiritual/religious people want to justify themselves, they often ask some strange questions, like, “Who is my neighbor?”

I have no doubt that these priests and experts in the law prayed a lot, tithed, and knew the scriptures. So when Jesus tells the parable about the Good Samaritan, I kind of believe that the priest and Levite he refers to both passed this man by and maybe even offered up a prayer for him as they made their way to their final destinations. They may have even prayed for him once they arrived. I don’t know. In any case, they were certainly trying to do what they thought was spiritual.

But Jesus makes it clear that what is truly spiritual is something that is practically natural: someone paid attention to this man’s humanity, his frailty, and actually was there to assist him. The Samaritan didn’t stop to pray for this man (although I wouldn’t be surprised if he did); he stopped to actually minister to him—something that exceeded prayer alone. Loving—in the way the Samaritan demonstrated—was more important and justifying than burnt offerings and sacrifices. Dare I say it? It was more important than sacrificial prayer alone.

This is because God wants us to relate to others (meaning Him and other humans) on both a vertical and horizontal level. The Incarnation argues that God wants and humans need both this vertical and horizontal relationship.

We need the prayer. We need the sacrifice. We need practical love demonstrated in tangible ways.

Haiti doesn’t just need your prayers. It needs your real demonstration of love. It needs both. So does the whole world. So do all people. I need people praying for me. But I don’t need people ONLY praying for me. I need people who are there for me both prayerfully and tangibly.

Sadly, at least on one extreme, the Good Samaritan is dead. Still, prayer alone is not enough. Maybe only a child can see this?

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