To Whom Do We Pray?

Dear Friends:

This week’s message is a New Year’s devotional that I presented to the leadership of a Christian non-profit institution. There are some hard questions asked of necessity.

I hope these words bless you with thought and with encouragement to seek the will of the Lord in prayer. There are applications here for both corporate and individual prayer.

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It is typical for meetings of all kinds in Christian organizations and institutions to begin with prayer. This is certainly true of this institution. My question to you is to whom are we praying?

You are undoubtedly going to tell me that we are praying to “God.”  Yes, but is it God the Father, the sovereign Lord of our life, ruler of heaven and earth, to whom we owe our total obedience? Are we praying in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, our Creator and King? Are we making our wants and wishes known in reverent submission to God the Holy Spirit, who is our counselor, advocate and guide?

Or, are we praying to the other people in the room, a so-called “horizontal” prayer, in the thought that we will all feel better about what we are doing if we put God in the mix? Maybe we think that if we get the right things said in the prayer, people are more willing to agree with our position on the agenda.

Who is it that we invoke so casually into our deliberations?

The Pulitzer Prize-winning nature and spiritual author Annie Dillard wrote these words about coming into the presence of the Lord that I think are most apt here:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return (Teaching a Stone to Talk [HarperPerennial: New York, 1982], pp 58-59).

Indeed, what recognition are we really giving to the rule and power of God over us when we pray at the start of our meetings?

Is it not tempting in the Christian organizational culture for prayer to become an end in itself, kind of a psychic “rabbit’s foot” to be rubbed for luck before getting to the “real business” at hand or the “Last Rite” when all other strategies have failed?

The fervent prayer and listening that led to the founding of institutions and initiatives eventually fade to a number on an agenda and are replaced by management principles, systems, policies, and the comfort of traditions. Somewhere along the line, Divine Providence goes from regard as cherished gift to simply the ribbon on the package.

The long Scriptural history of Israel and the history of the Christian church reveals a temptation for leaders to take themselves and their abilities too seriously even as they come to take God for granted. Apostasy generally starts with self-righteousness and complacency, not with lust.

Substantive time taken for careful, deliberative corporate prayer as an approach to organizational planning and problem-solving is something rare, even extinct, in my experience.  I heard a board member of a Christian college comment in response to a suggestion that time be taken in a meeting for corporate prayer, “Why take the time for prayer? God gives us common sense and expects us to use it.”

The truth is that the silence and waiting necessarily involved in honest prayer causes those of us who take our worth from our busyness and executive status to squirm in embarrassment. We think, “We are executives. Our job and our right is to do something! We have to move on the plan and move now.”

The wonderful promise, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (Ex. 14:14) is ignored by functional atheists in many board rooms and around conference tables in a lot of Christian organizations. By “functional atheists,” I mean those who pay lip-service to God in stating their beliefs but in practice place their reliance on human effort, performance and approval.

Lest you think that I am harsh in the use of this term, “functional atheist,” I give you the succinct conclusion of Jesus that those who crave recognition and acceptance from their peers more than the approval of God are unbelievers. John records Jesus saying to religious leaders, “How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?” (Jn. 5:44).

Jesus prayed spare, simple prayers. He instructed his disciples to make direct, simple requests to Abba (Mt. 7:7-11). He warned against piling on words, trying to impress others with our prayers, or manipulating others to share our misery through our prayer practices (Mt. 6:5-18).

Of course, prayer,in and of itself, and no matter how fervent, is no substitute for positive systems of quality,service, justice and accountability that lead to effective, fair and reproducible results (See Jeremiah 7). There are few sights more appalling to the committed institutional employee than to see leaders taking enormous risks without due diligence or prudent safeguards on the presumptions that “We’ve prayed about this,” or, “God gave us the opportunity and the authority to make the most of it. Who can question us about this?” Scripture endorses due diligence in Solomon’s observation that “Desire without knowledge is not good, and one who moves hurriedly misses the way” (Prov. 19:2).

However, before we develop and implement our systems of quality and accountability, before our service, and before our performance of works of justice and healing, we need to bring these matters before God to seek his blessing and guidance. It acknowledges God and places our need in the right perspective when we pray before our action. Peter states this principle: “‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” ( 1 Pt 5:5b-7). In other words, true humility is considering nothing too small or too large to bring before the Lord.

David writes in Psalm 37:5-6: Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.” Note that we “commit,” and we “trust,” but it is the Lord who acts.

In Psalm 36:9, David prays to the Lord, “In your light we see light.” We need God’s light to clearly see our way forward.

James says: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God who gives to all generously, and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect anything from the Lord” (Js 1:5-8). We are asked to put our entire hope and trust with the Lord in our praying, but if we hedge our risk by saying “Well, it won’t hurt to pray, but let’s make contingency plans to get us through this on our own” our prayer is faithless and really no better a superstition than wearing our lucky jacket on days when we desire a particular outcome.

I suggest that there are three behaviors that get in the way of our honest petition to God for help: pride, rebellion and hurriedness.

In our pride, we may think, “This is God’s institution and God’s work and I am appointed to lead here, so why do I need to ask him what he wants me to do?”

In our rebellion, are we tempted to operate the institution like the Pharisee who said, “Lord, I thank you that I am unique because of my prowess and accomplishments,” rather than follow the example of the penitent Publican, who cried out, “God, be merciful to me a sinner”? (Lk 18:9-14, my par).

In times of struggle, do we eschew seeking the providence of God with excuses? “We are doing what we need to do to keep things together” We have to concentrate on profitability now. There will be time for mission later on.”

Do we hold with the faith on which we were founded, or, have we like Israel of old, “mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did” (Ps 106:34).

Are we tempted to avoid finding out what God really thinks about what we are doing by not submitting it to prayerful consideration?

In our hurriedness, we may think, “We need to get through a heavy agenda. We don’t have time for prayer. ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves,’so let’s get going.” When we do that we are practicing functional atheism.

There are only two kinds of people in spiritual terms. Those to whom God is an intense, sovereign reality and those to whom he is not. The difference is expressed in prayer. C.S. Lewis put it another way in Mere Christianity. He said, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.'”

A crucial question that we must ask in praying together for the institution is: Are we asking God what he desires of our stewardship, or, are we asking God to bless our “ownership”? It makes all the difference of eternity to think of our business in terms of its consecration to Christ and our obedience to his will rather than to merely claim Christ’s brand for our product. When we ask Christ to direct our planning and our work and then follow his lead, our work becomes a prayer.

I ask again, who are we praying to when we pray at the start of this meeting and what does He expect of us?

In closing, here is Romans 12:1-2 from The Message. It frames the issues nicely:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life–and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

May we submit to the Lord’s will in this as in all things as we begin 2010.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,

Kent

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