• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Praying Carefully

I'm happy?... No, encouraged?... No, reassured?... No, well, some feeling I cannot name... to see so many random people in my expanding circles of relationships referring to "prayers" or "praying" lately. I too find myself needing to pause and pray more frequently under the shadows of CoVid-19 and our required responses to stay safe and save others. With the increased weights of separation, loneliness, isolation, and interruption, a prayerful life can bring solace, invite honesty, and rekindle embers of hope.


I'm also flummoxed when I sense in some comments, posts, or musings the sandy ground some call "prayer". I'd best tread lightly. I am not wanting to insult or critique other people's prayer lives. How they pray, that is theirs to chose and practice.


However, when people publicly suggest or advise prayer using a tone of teaching or advising others I know and love, I feel the need to listen carefully. If they offer sandy ground under the name of prayer, I want to make a counteroffer of something I believe to be more sturdy and stable.


For example, I sometimes hear a call for more prayers, as in quantity or count. The God I am trying to love and serve and the God I profess to know best in Jesus of Nazareth, that God is not waiting for a certain number of likes, retweets, or follows in order to take the actions we describe in our prayers. This God has always practiced, is practicing, and always will practice just love and loving justice whether we pray enough times for it or not. Prayer is not our way of voting for certain interventions from God, and God doesn't wait for our votes.


Another example... I sometimes hear folks suggest we send prayers in another direction because other people or groups need prayer more. The God I am trying to follow and obey and the God I see revealed best in the life of Jesus from Galilee, that God is not limited to answering only a certain number of prayers per day. This God can hear and handle every prayerful conversation. God doesn't run out of attention, or power, or will. There's no need to skimp and save our prayers for those moments or occasions when it really matters to us. Prayer is not a limited or scarce resource we have to spend wisely, and God is not limited in God's ability to respond.


One more example... I sometimes hear folks blame a lack of prayer for problems (and pandemics) in society, suggesting if more people had been praying all along, maybe these bad things would never have happened. The God who promised a coming Kin-dom and the God in Christ who came to insure Kin-dom's arrival, that God never promised us an absence of issues, problems, or pandemics if we would all just pray. This God promised us struggles, sacrifice, and resistance with every step of helping God's Kin-dom come on earth as it is in heaven. Prayer is not a shortcut around suffering or a vaccine to immunize us from struggle, and God does not eliminate temptations or evils from in front of us if we all just pray.


Here's my counteroffer.


Prayer is not about quantity but quality. In prayer, I want to honestly lay on God my sincere worries and wishes, no matter how silly, scary, or shallow they may seem to me. There is no thought, no feeling I cannot share with God in prayer, for God knows my true heart and mind already. In prayer, I try to listen for more about me I did not notice, or dare see or speak. If, in prayer, all I do is tell God things, ask things of God, expect God to respond the way I want, then prayer is a customer service line where I call God to complain or get the help I want. If however, I give the majority of the time in prayer to listening, waiting, hearing, seeing what GOD is interested in revealing, our time together becomes a more relational conversation. I become more able to see all things through God's heart and mind, not just through my own. Quality of prayer means giving more time in prayer to listening rather than speaking.


Prayer is not about our priorities but God's. In prayer, I do take to God the things I feel are most important. Right now, I want Jill to find a great job she will love, and that will compensate her fairly... no, scratch that... generously. I want to know where she and I will be living. I want to know if the moving truck will be allowed to move our stuff. (Yes, it will, but I keep worrying about it anyway.) I want to pray for every CoViD sufferer. I want to pray for every medical professional. I want to be a "normal" new pastor to these people. These are very important to me, and are my recent priorities. God nods along with me. Then, in prayer, once I stop talking, God might also pull my attention away from what I assumed were most urgent... God might ask me about my sons. God might ask me about that feeling of sadness in my own heart. God might point me to an email or note from a few weeks ago I haven't responded to yet. Prayer means listening for God's priorities, not demanding God listen to ours.


Pray less to change others, and pray more to be changed. Prayer is not intended to be a crowbar to leverage the change we want from others. Prayer is intended to change ME when I am praying personally, and to change US, the ones collected and praying together, when praying communally. If I pray for government leaders, I'm not praying for them to miraculously change. I am praying that I might become more knowledgeable and aware, active and supportive of causes and laws to help our society look more like God's Kin-dom. If I pray for CoViD sufferers and medical professionals, I am not only praying they are miraculously safe and fully heal. I am praying that I might become more responsible with the surfaces I touch, the gloves and mask I wear, and the physical distance I honor, no matter how sad and stir crazy I am becoming.


Prayer is less about us changing God, and more about us being changed by God. God is who God is. That's the beautiful holiness of Jesus, his flawless consistency to the will of God. In how he walked and talked in the world, he brought the will and intentions of God to life. The Word became flesh. Prayer isn’t to change God to do what we want. Prayer, by Holy Spirit, is more to be changed by God, so God's Kin-dom might come on earth sooner rather than later.


Who knows? This kind of prayer might just change the world. But the change would not start in God or in someone else. It would start in us.

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In 2002, I left my corporate career, and went to seminary. Since 2005, I've been serving churches, and trying to follow Jesus, and lead others in doing the same...

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