The kingdom of God is essentially a prayer movement. That’s the kingdom’s skeleton key, the secret to opening all its doors. “How should we pray?” Jesus’ disciples ask Him. “Thy kingdom come,” He answered. He was pointing to another beer for in season and out.
The kingdom comes on the wings of prayer. The kingdom is a bloodhound, and it’s sharpest tracking scent is the prayers of the saints. The first, best posture for kingdom-seeking is on our knees. The first, best place for laying hold of it is in our prayer closets.
All this my wife had to teach me, and still I’m slow to learn. She, by a trick of genes or temperament or just greater spiritual maturity, has a hunger for prayer that makes me look anorexic. I have a hunger for prayer that is tossed up with a few bites, a couple of sips, a little sniffing at the thing. But she could stay at a prayer banquet most of the day, and it would only increase her appetite.
Essentially, her example is shaming me into a deeper prayer life.
But the deeper I go, the more something different from shame takes over. I am starting to understand what Cheryl has always known: prayer, even the sweaty bone-breaking kind known as intercession, is not an act of exertion but a source of replenishment. It is not a fuel burned but fuel tapped. It is not the duty of the disciple but the privileged. It’s a perk of friendship, like having the key to someone’s boat or car and the freedom to use it whenever you like.
When I pray — not in the token, rote, rushed away way I sometimes do, but in the lingering, savoring, soul-baring way my wife’s taught me — I find ready access to the presence of God. And I find that I walk in greater spiritual power.
Hebrews tells us that we can come to the throne of grace whenever we want. This is astonishing. In the Old Testament, no one ventures to God without due preparation. You had to be invited, chastened, chosen, cleansed. Even then, your chances of surviving the encounter were slim. People who were ambushed by God — Jacob at the river Jabbok especially comes to mind — walked away amazed by one thing: they saw God and didn’t die.
But Jesus solved that problem. His death rent the curtain — top to bottom — that divided the manifest presence of God from all but a few. This was God’s idea. It was God Himself who removed the barrier that kept most of humanity from coming near to Him. The last and greatest high priest, Jesus, changed the rules. He used His divine authority to rewrite the playbook. Now any of us who walks with Jesus can walk into the throne room of God, anytime, from anywhere, and not to bring God anything but to get from God whatever we need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
This is called prayer. Even as I write this, it strikes me as sheer madness that I don’t do more of it.
The season of winter was when I was least inclined to pray and most in need of it. I often in that season practiced a simple and ancient discipline called breath prayer. I breathed in a phrase from the Bible — “The Lord is my shepherd” — was my favorite — and breathed out the corresponding phrase— “I shall not want.” I’d do this until the cadence of it slowed my mind and my breathing, stilled my anxiousness. I do it until all I wanted was God’s shepherding presence. I’d do it until I experienced God’s shepherding presence.
This is not some Buddhist mediation technique, as cult hounds sometimes label it. It was a practice that grew up in the Eastern church’s monastic life as a way to be faithful to the Bible’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing.” It was a way, simple and deep, to practice the presence of God in season and out, to pray when you’re also grinding, laughing, haying , baking.
In my winter, it was my way of clinging. It was how I held on to God, and found out He was holding on to me, even when it felt otherwise.
But there are times for me when prayer is not only a cry for the kingdom; it’s a tangible experience of it. I’ve attended, so have you, prayer meetings so dull and depressing that even the devil must feel no need to stay awake. The prayers rise no higher than the ceiling, reach no farther than Aunt Mildred’s bad knees, little Billy’s meeting with the principal in the morning, dear Betty’s interview for a new job on Wednesday. The tone is bemoaning, the tenor is disbelieving, the subject matter banal. It’s not that God doesn’t care about the little things — sparrows, Lillie’s, all that. He does. It’s just that our prayers get stuck here, as though the main business of heaven is sorting out our bus schedules, smoothing out our little wrinkles, and getting our cars to run forever without maintenance.
I love those prayer meetings when we storm the gates of hell. When we wrestle with God and refuse to let go until He blesses us. When we command mountains to throw themselves into the sea, and they do. I love those times when we cry for the kingdom and it comes, when we ask God to bring us people far from Him, and two days later seven show up, or we ask God to heal a marriage that looks shattered beyond mending, and He not only restores it but makes it the source of many other such healings.
Which leads me to what else I pray for besides God’s presence. I also pray for God’s power.
There is a story about prayer in Mark’s gospel (Mark 9:14-32) that troubles and intrigues me. Jesus takes three of His disciples — Peter, John, and James — to witness His transfiguration. When they return the next day, they come down the mountain and straight into a skirmish. The rest of His disciples are in a heated argument with the teachers of the law. A desperate father with a demon-afflicted son had come to the disciples for help. They’re helpless. So, it seems, are the teachers of the law. Both sides are powerless in the face of radical evil and heartbroken suffering. So they do what God’s people typically do to compensate for impotence: they fight.
Split theological hairs.
Jesus is disgusted with all of them. “O unbelieving generation . . . . How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?”
And then: “Bring the boy to Me.”
“Bring the boy to Me.” No more lollygagging. No more he-said and she-said. No more my-theology-is-better-than-your-theology, my-church-is-bigger-than-your-church, my-seminary-has-more-tenured-faculty-than-your-seminary. No more standing around quibbling over fine points of doctrine while the whole world is hurtling to hell, and fast.
“Bring the boy to Me.”
This irritates Jesus, having to ask this. It irritates Him to the point of quitting. “How long will I stay with you?” It irritates Him, because the father came to Jesus’ disciples with the innocent hope that to bring a problem to them was the same thing as bringing the problem to Jesus. The father says to Jesus, “I brought You my son, who is possessed by an evil spirit. . . . I asked Your disciples to drive out the spirit.”
He actually thinks to bring a problem to Jesus’ disciples is the same thing as bringing the problem to Jesus.
And that’s what Jesus intends. Jesus nurses the hope that He can go away — up a mountain, up to heaven — and His followers will carry on His work.
How naive is that? Jesus actually expects that we will do greater things than He. He actually expects that as the Father sent Him, He can send us. He actually expects that those who follow Him will do the works of God on this earth. He actually expects that a desperate father with a tormented son can bring his problem to our church, and the problem will be dealt with.
“Bring the boy to Me.” It breaks Jesus’ heart to say it. But the boy is brought. And with a word, Jesus does what needs doing: deal’s decisively with evil, heroically with the afflicted, tenderly with the brokenhearted. The demon doesn’t walk again. The boy walks away free. The father walks away rejoicing.
The teachers of the law just walk away.
And the disciples — they follow Jesus. They walk where He’s walking. Jesus goes inside, and they come shuffling after Him. A question vexes them, and they need an answer: “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
Their question answers a question that’s vexed me for a long time. My question is, What’s the difference between a disciple and a teacher of the law? Or ask it this way: what distinguishes a Christ-follower from those who are merely religious?
What is the difference between a disciple and a teacher of the law?
So far, in this story, nothing. Except one thing. The only difference I can see is that a Christ-follower is dissatisfied with his or her level of spiritual power.
“Why couldn’t we cast it out?” They really want to know. They really want to live into the expectation Jesus has for them. They really want to live lives that fill the God-hungry with wonder, evil spirits with terror, desperate fathers with joy, tormented sons with peace.
Spiritual impotency, especially in the face of desperate need, actually bothers a Christ-follower.
The teachers of the law, they’ve already moved on to the next theological squabble. They have witnessed Christ’s power. They must have had a fleeting moment of wondering what was amiss in their own lives. But it never ruffled them enough to inquire further. They’re off to the races, off to the afternoon debate about prelapsarianism, off to hear Professor Itoldyouso lecture on three views of the millennial reign, off to whatever. No time for worrying about the demon-wracked children and heart-stricken fathers, no time to live lives of wonder or to give evil a reason to wish it hadn’t come ‘round — no time for the business of heaven when there’s always the business of counting angels on pinheads.
“Why couldn’t we cast it out?” The minute we stop asking that, as long as our power is insufficient to deal with the pain of a world God so loved, is the minute we’ve traded following Jesus for just attending meetings.
“Why couldn’t we cast it out?” Jesus, in reply, says the most subversive thing: “This kind can only come out by prayer.”
Only by prayer. Two things, neither in the story as it stands, immediately jump out.
The first: Jesus doesn’t pray. Not here. Not now. He just says the word, power goes out from Him, and one very noxious spirit gets clobbered.
The second: the disciples are not prayerless. They must have prayed. They’re Jews, for crying out loud. They’re Christ-followers, for heaven’s sake. It’s not possible that they’ve not prayed — and not just recently but right here, right now.
The real question is, What does Jesus mean by prayer?
And the best answer I can come up with is that He wants us to say, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”
My best answer is that what Jesus means by prayer is for our lives to look more like His life. He sees prayer as Christ formed in us. He sees prayer as being transformed, from glory to glory, into His likeness. He sees prayer as abiding in Him until His grace, His truth, His peace, His presence, His power so fill us and and form us that we, just likeHim, can just say the word, and the word is done.
If certain evil spirits come out only with prayer, then it’s true that certain manifestations of the Holy Spirit in us come about only with prayer. And the prayer Jesus wants us to pray most is for His kingdom — His rule and reign — to take up residence in us.
It’s a prayer for all seasons.
Community is a well I had to dig for myself. It’s a beer I had to brew, so to speak. It’s served me in season and out.
I woke up, age forty, to a hard reality: I had not had one “three o’clock in the morning” friend, that person I could call any time, night or day, from any place, who would consider it their deepest honor to be roused from sleep or pulled from a board meeting or interrupted in the middle of a family dinner to help me. Not one. If life unraveled— my marriage crashed, one of my children was brought home by the police, I was in a faraway city late at night and some trouble, inward or outward, beset me — I hadn’t, besides my wife, a single friend in whom I could find refuge, seek counsel, ask to get up in the middle of the night and come sit with me.
At forty, I knew more people than I could name. I enjoyed the company of dozens. I had multiple social circles I moved within, and was even sought out.
I just had no three o’clock in the morning friend. The realization startled me.
I’ve always loved David. There’s always been a part of me, half vanity, half valor, that’s identified with him. David was only a boy when he faced down Goliath. All that giant’s menacing girth, hair-raising taunts, soldiery skill provoked in everyone else paralyzing fear; in David, they raised faith. David defeated him with nothing but a slingshot and a holy pluck. The story stirs my blood and tests my own mettle. David is a man of undaunted courage and unflinching trust.
But he’s also a man of fierce independence. David needs no one but God. That is a good thing. But not always. Later, David will lose his heart’s bearings, looking for anything but God to satisfy him. Among other reasons this happens, I think this reason ranks high: he was friendless. After the death of Jonathan, David never, by all appearances, got close to anyone or let anyone get close to him. He had henchmen, servants, colleagues, acquaintances. He had a virtual harem of wives. He had children by the score.
David had success: power, prestige, wealth, clout. Servants gaining, women doting, men appeasing. He had all this, but what he lacked was a friend: someone to watch his back, hear his heart, share his grief. He had no three-in-the-morning friend. And that, I’m guessing, made his soul thin.
Goliath wasn’t the only giant David fought. There was another. His name was Ishbi-Benob. But unlike David’s battle with Goliath, his one with Ishbi-Benob is virtually unknown. Here’s the story: “Once again there was a battle with the Philistines and Israel. David went down with his men to fight against the Philistines, and he became exhausted. And Ishbi-Benob, one of the descendants of Rapha [that is, a giant], whose bronze head weighed three-hundred shekels and was armed with a new sword, said he would kill David. But Abishai son of Zeruiah came to David’s rescue; he struck the Philistine down and killed him” (2 Samuel 21:15-17, emphasis mine).
Ishbi-Benob’s bronze spearhead was precisely half as heavy as Goliath’s (See 1 Samuel 7:7). The implication is that Ishbi was only half Goliath’s size: a diminutive giant. David, a hero in his youth, has become weak and slow in middle age. He exhausts quickly. He succumbs easily. Fully armed, he still needs rescuing from a runty giant.
It’s disappointing, though not surprising, that we don’t herald this giant story. We’ve made an icon of David’s battle with Goliath. We largely ignore his battle with Ishbi-Benob. And is it any wonder? We don’t celebrate weakness. We don’t honor dependency. We don’t value needing others.
We love the tale of the lone hero.
The tale of the struggling companion embarrasses us. Indeed, every indication is that it embarrassed David, and was likely was the trigger for his sin with Bathsheba. His contest with Ishbi-Benob was his last time on the battlefield. The closing line of that story: “Then David’s men swore to him, saying, ‘Never again will you go out with us to battle’” (2 Samuel 21:17). The opening line of Bathsheba’s story “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joan . . . . But David remained in Jerusalem” (2 Samuel 11:1). The humiliation of being to old for war, I think, set him up for other means of conquest, some other way to feel young again.
David was a man after God’s own heart, which is what I want to be. I wonder if he’d have been more of a man after God’s own character if he’d had a friend or two close enough to rescue him in other battles. And would he have needed Nathan to confront him in anger if he’d had Jonathan to do that in love?
At forty, I had people around who could rescue me from small giants, and many other predicaments I got myself into, the liabilities of warfare: unjamming the photocopier, dealing with a chronic complainer, covering a Wednesday night class I had to miss. I even had people willing to help me with my golf game, though that was way beyond recusing. But I had no one to rescue me from myself. There was none who, if middle-aged ennui and some skewed sense of entitlement conspired to wreck my life, would step in on my behalf. There was no one to watch my soul. And though I was doing that — watching souls — for many people in a general sense, I was doing it for no one in particular.
So at forty, I decided to change that. I dug a well. I approached two men whom I liked — men who would have helped me in a battle with giants — and asked if they would be my lifelong three-in-the-morning friends. Well, it wasn’t quite that abrupt. It unfolded slowly, over many walks, coffees, camp outs, dinners, prayer sessions. We’d each take a risk — disclose some innermost thought, some lifelong secret, some personal struggle — and watch to see what others did with it. We kept on testing the watertightness of the friendship, whether the things we poured in afterward leaked out.
That was nearly ten years ago. I renew my friendship with these men weekly. We’ve laughed together, cried together, argued with each other, rebuked one another. We’ve solved problems, built things, given courage. We’ve applauded and exhorted each other. We’ve been iron to sharpen the other’s iron, and salve on one another’s wounds. We were there for each other when Carol died. We are there for each other when one of our children isn’t doing well. We’re there when one of us is discouraged, or tempted, or frustrated, or under attack. We anticipate being there when our health starts to fail, and our minds start to wander, and our hands get shaky, and our eyes get runny.
We’ll be there for each other when winter comes. And then as we each go away, one by one, we’ll be there to say goodbye until there’s no one left to say it. And then we’ll meet again, and really know each other, and start all over, and go forever this time.
Friendship has been a good beer. It helped me know where I’ve came from. It’s helping me to know where I’m going. And many times, it has given me the courage to go back to the situation I thought unbearable. But, mostly, my friends have helped me recover God’s presence, and I’ve found strength not to return but to do it whistling and skipping.
~ Darren’s Comments ~
I have always had a deep prayer life since the age of 7 when I accepted Christ into my life through the Holy Spirit. As I have told you before (Running With Christ * just click on it) was my biggest test in whom I’d believed in and to whom I prayed — Jesus Christ. He is the only intercessor which made it possible to get access to the Father through His sacrifice.
If you have been following along with this amazing book called “Spiritual Rhythm: Being With Jesus Every Season of Your Soul,” you have been evidenced through Mark Buchanan’s words and Darren’s Comments of just how important it is to have a relationship with Christ through prayer.
I will tell you it is not easy surrendering your life over to Christ. However, it is worth every minute of it, even the tough times. And when hard times come, you have Somebody to share them with since Jesus Christ, through His passion and death on the cross, experienced every kind of pain you face, have faced, and will face. Yet, we don’t turn to God. We don’t turn to God since He offers us a guiding hand through whatever it is you are trying to avoid, rather than a quick avoidance of it. Jesus offers us a way through this life through prayer; the devil or satan wants you to do everything but pray. That is why he set up all these false gods who offer a little bit of false hope until you become addicted or worse. Satan will do anything to disrupt God’s plans for your life. Satan is ever trying to make havoc in my life, and yours too for all those who are unashamed to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ — especially for True Life Christians.
Which brings me to another event that happened in my life, and it was rather recent. The Lord was prompting me to leave the church where I spent 17 years at being their elder of prayer for nearly 15 out of 17 years. I could tell you of some of the highs like that time the church spent all day and night praying and you should have seen what answers to prayer we got. Or I could tell you of some of the lows like there was a visitor portraying to be something he wasn’t, and that caused us to deeply pray. Or my wife had an opportunity out west, but through prayer we decided not to move out west. Prayer is crucial.
Evan Roberts who was the principal human agent who was used by God in the Welch Revival of 1904-1906. Charles Moody in Chicago, Illinois in the 1920’s spent his time in deep prayer as he wrote spiritual songs and ministered. The missionary, Hudson Taylor, is the one who went to inland China and was one of the two founder of CIM (China Inland Mission) who lived from 1832 – 1905. Or John Hyde who was a missionary to India who prayed that he have one soul a day up to four souls a day and God granted it to him which he lived from 1865-1912 and also known as “Praying Hyde.”
Prayer was the key to open that heavenly door.
That is where my calling by God has a special purpose. At the age of 13 I went to a Sunday night service which featured a missionary. The missionary had an altar call for those who wanted to give their lives up to Christ. I went forward. I said something like, “I will do anything for You!” Nearly 5 years later, I was in an almost death-inducing car accident. I spent one month in a coma, and I was forever damaged. I gave my life to Christ again. The minute I did that, I began to accelerate. The Holy Spirit inside of me was praying to Jesus who is praying to the Father on my behalf.
Throughout college, I needed help. Through my educational master’s, I needed help. Throughout my accomplishments, I needed help. Through my whole life, I need help. And that help comes through prayer to the Holy One, Jesus Christ.
Which leads me into community. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was in a different community— a community of the disabled. And I grasped on to it like no tomorrow but I still was looking for a way to go back to my life I was experiencing pre-accident. Like the apostle Paul, I prayed at least three times for Him to take this away. Yet my answer was “my grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect through weakness . . . .” (2 Corinthians 12:9 KJV). On occasion, I still pray that prayer.
See, I promised that I would do anything to proclaim His name back when I was 13. By the grace of the Holy Spirit in my life, until the rapture, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14 KJV)
How Do You Measure Your Spiritual Growth?
~ Darren L Beattie, The Soul Blogger of TrueLifeChristianity.com ~