Prayer: God Listens, Partners, and even Surprises
Acadia Divinity College, Simpson Lecture Prayer Breakfast, at Manning Memorial Chapel
Tuesday, February 12, 2019.
Steve McMullin has invited me to offer thoughts for this years prayer breakfast. He told me to keep it “practical and inspiration.” I can tell you that after a big plate of bacon and eggs, I don’t really know what is going to come out of me. You might have to settle for vague and semi-coherent!
Someone asked what I was talking on for the prayer breakfast. I paused and looked at them: “Umm…I am going to talk about prayer.” Am I being unoriginal? I suppose I could have talked about the meaning of breakfast, but that probably would not have been as practical or inspirational.
There are many great passages on prayer, but I found myself drawn to these words in thinking about the subject this morning: 1 John 5:13-15 writes,
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
Stated right at the end of the First Letter of John, like many epistles with powerful theological treatments at the beginning, the closer is often simple words of wisdom for everyday life. John begins his epistle with explaining how God is light and how Jesus is the atoning sacrifice. He treats difficult topics like apostasy and apostolic discernment. He gives his beautiful explanation of how God is love, but he reserves his final words of advice to remind his congregation about the necessities of prayer.
I think that is a fitting reminder for today as we listen to all the wisdom Dr. Theissen has to show us, all the sophisticated ways we can be more effective pastors and leaders, understanding our communities. There is so much data and effective strategy and wisdom to be learned here in these few days.
But lets just take a moment, as John does, to remind ourselves of the simple fundamentals: we need to pray. We need to ask God, what does this mean? How do we act on this? How do we follow Jesus? How is God’s Spirit addressing us? Where is God’s Spirit sending us?
For five years I served as Pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. It is a small aging church. Through my time there, it should be no surprise to you that I realized just how integral prayer was to pastoring.
It should also be no surprise during times of trying to do it all on my own or merely going about my day forgetting to centre myself in prayer that day, that it effected what I did negatively.
Of course the opposite was also true, the times where I was in deepest prayer, those were often the times that I saw God act. I am sure God was and is always acting, but it was prayer that helped me see it.
I would like to tell three stories of realizing the necessity of prayer in pastor. The first shows that God is a God that listens to us, comforts us, gives his presence as provision to us. The second shows that he invites us to partner with him in realizing his kingdom. And the final story shows us that God is faithful to meet small needs, that God also is capable of wonderful surprises that we are to expect.
He listens. He partners, and he even surprises.
1. God Listens
As you can imagine, pastoring a church with a number of elderly people meant I often made visitations to the nourishing home. One lady in our congregation had surgery, and was placed in long term care. As we visited her, one of the deacons of my church and I, she instructed us that we should visit the lady down the hall.
So, she phoned her, and the lady was up for us visiting. As we walked down the hall, I suspected this would be a difficult turn in an otherwise mundane pastoral visit.
We stepped into a room with this middle-aged lady. I tried not to stare. Bedridden, her limbs were terribly, inhumanly swollen. “Come in, don’t be alarmed,” she said with a beaming, bright smile. I was surprised. She was in wonderful spirits.
We inquired what her condition was. She had a rare lymphatic infection, that has left her bedridden, functionally paralyzed. Every day, day in and day out, she had to receive a steady drip of strong antibiotics. But also, steadily, day by day, the infection grew immune to the antibiotics. The very thing that was saving her, was also the very thing slowly killing her. Day by day the inflection slowly but surely was winning.
And yet, to my amazement, I have never met a happier person.
She proceeded to tell me that at the beginning, she was bitter and resentful. She prayed angrily that she would be healed, and of course, while she still does pray for that now, something changed in her disposition.
“What changed?” I asked.
“I realized that Jesus was enough. Everyday, I get to thank God for another day, and I know he is with me. He listens to me and is my friend. That is enough for me.”
She told me that she saw her condition as a calling to be Jesus’ presence here in the nursing home, to the nurses and other patients, who in her mind needed hope and healing more than her.
I think this helps us understand a bit of what John is saying when he says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
This person knew the gift of eternal life. She knew the gift of his presence. While she still prayed for healing, that was enough.
Whenever I am tempted to ask, “Does prayer actually work?,” I am reminded of a quote that P. T. Forsyth once said, “The greatest answer to prayer is first and foremost prayer itself.”
Before we can fret about getting anything through prayer, we have to cherish the gift that prayer is. We have to cherish the fact that God is listening, that the first and greatest gift is eternal life, in how Jesus died for our sins and rose from the grave.
In Jesus Christ, all our prayers are already answered. Jesus is enough.
2. God Partners
So why do we trouble God to ask for more? When we rest in Jesus we know we can because he is generous. When we know he is generous, we also confess that everything we have and are comes from him, so we ask in acknowledgement of him. We ask because we cannot do and be anything other than what God in his generosity gives. As God is at liberty to give in the abundance of his generosity, we ask because we know we are free in relationship to ask.
So, I am reminded that John tells us, “…that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” What is God’s will?
During my doctoral studies, I was the co-ordinator of a soul kitchen called the Gathering Spot at Walmer Road Baptist Church in Toronto, off of Blood and Bathurst if you know the area.
It was an odd job. I applied to it because it was near the University of Toronto, where I did my studies, and I really just needed the money, and I wanted something ministry related. I got more than I bargained for.
At that point in my faith, I was going through a disorienting time. Pastors can go through disorienting times. We don’t like to admit that to our congregations, but we do. As some of you know both my parents died while I was in seminary, and I was still processing that as I was trying to grasp my calling in ministry and in academia. Grief effects us all different, and looking back at that, I remember feeling for several years, numb inside
I don’t think I ever stopped praying or stopped believing in praying, but let me just say that it certainly just did not feel like prayer was doing much. Your soul just felt dried up inside.
Well, my perspective changed working at the Gathering Spot. It changed as I was surrounded one night a week, by people whose problems in life vastly exceeded my own.
I felt moved to pray, not sure what this whole prayer thing was anymore, but praying nevertheless because I cared about these people.
You see a scary underside of humanity, the realities of poverty, of the dehumanizing despair of homelessness. People would come off the streets and wanting a meal, needing services of various kinds.
My prayers took on a different fervour. Mostly because I wasn’t praying for me anymore.
I have learned that service moves us for prayer, and prayer moves us to service.
I remember one bitter cold night in January. We had a large crowd that night and the food went quick. But just as we were finishing, a guy showed up out of the cold. “Is there any more left? Sorry I had trouble finding this place.”
We scrounged up as much as we could. He ate quickly, and I sat with him. I heard a little bit of his story, about how he lost his job and so he was recently evicted from his apartment.
He had to leave because he wanted to get to the shelter before it got too late. But he asked me to pray for him. I did. “God please get him to a shelter.” I wanted to go with him, but I knew I had to stay there at the kitchen till closing. I also had to get the bus home to Bradford, or else I would be stuck too. I prayed with him and he left.
I thought of nothing else as I rode home on the bus that night. And I just kept praying.
I got home late, and I sat in my warm town house in Bradford, think and praying about him.
I heard the next morning that 30 people froze to death that night on the streets of Toronto.
I don’t think I ever prayed so passionately in my life that night, and the only thing I could resolve to do in the light of that is to say that if I see someone in need, and if I pray for their well being, we have to consider that perhaps God has moved us to pray for that person because he is moving us to do something for that person.
Why? Because as John says in the passage previous to ours this morning. God is love. God’s will is love. God is light and in him there is no darkness.
Mother Theresa once said God wills no one to be poor, it is our will that keeps others poor.
The question then is whether we will partner with God in obedience to his will, not ours.
I told you that story to tell you this one: Several years later, as I pastored First Baptist Church of Sudbury, we ran a community meal at one of the low-income residences a few blocks from the church. One person, a young guy came to our Christmas service. He just kind of look like he had a dark cloud over him.
Turns out that dark cloud was serve mental illness. One night, after giving a lecture at Thorneloe University, where I also taught, I came back home, ready to relax and get some sleep. I got a text from him. “Pastor, help me. I have been evicted. I went off my meds, and they kicked me out. It was stupid. I know. The shelter is full.”
I can tell you I was tempted to ignore that text. I was tempted to say, “Hope everything works out. I’m praying for you.” But I knew I just couldn’t live with myself if I did. So, I prayed, “God help me to help this man.”
So, I grabbed my coat, and met up with him at a Tim Hortons. We drove from Hotel to Hotel, trying to find something. I could tell he was taking his meds again, but he really was not in a good place still.
Hotel after hotel was either too expensive, or they took one look at him and made some excuse. I asked him whether he had any friends that he could couch surf for a few nights. He didn’t have any friends. No family in the area. Nothing.
It is the fundamental truth that many people are homeless well before they don’t have a roof over their head. People are homeless before they are houseless.
I thought to myself, “What if we don’t find anything? It is getting late. Should I just bring him back to my house to stay the night?” He really did not sound safe or in a good state of mind. In fact, he seriously turned to me and wondering, if he just went out and committed a small crime, he would at least get so stay in a prison where it is warm. He had been to jail as a young man, and I told he wasn’t going to take that way out.
Finally we found an inn above a small pub that was not too expensive, and we went with that. The next day, I was able to arrange a bus ticket for him to get to where he did have some folks that agreed to take him in.
As we pray, God partners. We partner with him, in conformity with his will, and he claims us as his own and uses us. St. Theresa of Avila once wrote, “Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses.
We pray for our prayers to be answered, and sometimes God can turn that back to us and commission us to be that answer.
If ever you pray to God, “God I pray someone would do something about crime or poverty or sickness or whatever.” Be prepared that that someone could be you.
3. God Surprises
I say God surprises because while that last point is true – God chooses to use us – so is the simple fact that God also goes beyond us.
God is powerful, but he chooses to partner with people. Humans are free and Christians are Christ’s hands and feet, but that does not mean God does not act. God acts in wonderful and surprising ways.
Notice I have described three ways God answers prayer: by giving comforting presence, by commission us to act out his will, and also acting beyond us. We would be wise to know that to say that God answers prayer is not too say that God is predictable. And that is why I say God surprises.
In ministering in Sudbury, I came across a young man, who also lived in the low income housing development.
Early twenties, a poor kid, as I got to know him, he had endured the worst in this world: terrible abuse, such that just to talk with him, he was deeply erratic. It did not take long in his presence to know his soul was in deep chaos: that lethal mix of hatred and hurt.
I would come by his apartment from time to time to check on him. He was on welfare, but there was a strong possibility that it would run out, so he was looking for a job. He was about the same height as me, so I gave him some of my dress clothes. We practiced interviews.
He applied around all over the place. Each time, employers would just hear how he talked, how it was hard to hold down a conversation with him, and go with someone else. Didn’t matter he was willing and able. As he applied here and there, the more downcast he got.
One day, I did rounds around the apartments asking if anyone needed a ride to the food bank I would take them. This was my usually Tuesday noontime routine. The food bank was at the other end of the town and often the food bank packages were heavy, and often people had mobility issues. So, I put out a sign at one of the low income apartments that if anyone needed a ride, i would help. Word spread and there was about a dozen or so I would regularly meet up with.
I knocked on his door, and he answered, a bit dishevelled. I figured he was just getting up. He decided to come along to the food bank that day, even though he did not need anything.
I turned to him in the car, and gave him a Jesus Calling devotional. I had gotten a bulk order of these things, figuring this was an easy way for some of the people, who were not strong readers that I ministered, could nevertheless hear an uplifting scripture spoken over them on a daily basis.
While the one guy went in, this young man turned to me and said, Spencer, I was sitting in my room thinking I got nothing to live for. I have no peace in my life. I was ready to end it when you knocked at the door.
I prayed with him, and I suggested, let’s see what words of encouragement the devotional he had in his hand had to offer. Turns out that day, the topic was scriptures relating to finding peace in life.
He did a stint in the hospital, but after he got out, I met up with him again. He seemed to be in a bad state of mind. I learned that previous to me meeting him, he had committed a crime, which he was going to be sentenced for. The possibility was weighing heavily on him.
I asked him about what he believed in, whether he trusted God’s love and forgiveness in all this.
He turned to me, and said that he admitted his mind is so erratic, so faulty, he resolved at some point to just stop believing anything. He figured his brain is just so unreliable, there isn’t any point to believing in anything. He told me he felt ashamed about all the ideas that would get him worked up. So, one day he just decided he would stop believing in anything.
I tried to offer some words of encouragement, but I was taken back. How do you get someone to believe in Jesus, when they don’t even think they are capable of believing anything?
I went home that day particularly distraught. I remember praying, “God how can a person like that be reached? How could a person like that be discipled? God you’ve got to reach this person, but if the Gospel means anything, it has to mean something to a person like that. The Gospel is good news to everyone, especially a desperate, troubled young man, who needs hope in his life.”
My prayers for the next little while took on a tone of frustration and disappointment.
A little while later, I came by his apartment. I found him in the apartment’s communal kitchen. He turned to me. “Spencer, I was sitting in my apartment. I was ready to end it all. I just felt so worthless. But then he showed up.”
“Who showed up?” I asked. He just pointed up. In a dark moment, he heard a distinct voice say to him, “Your life is worth something to me.”
“Spencer I don’t know what I am, but I know I ain’t an atheist.”
God surprised me that day. It is because what John says, “we know that he hears us.”
God listens, God partners, God surprises.
And of course, as God is faithful to save from sin, to give comforting presence, to commission for courageous service, and to show up in all sorts of unexpected ways, God is also, I fundamentally believe, there for you. He has not forgotten you or your family. God has not forsaken his pastors, his chaplains, or his church.
His will is love, life, and light, says John, pleasing and perfect. And we will know this as we ask, as we follow, as we wait on him – all by prayer. Can not do this any other way.
What are your needs? What are your church’s needs? What our your community’s needs? Are they small? Are they big? Do you sometimes think they are too big? Perhaps sometimes you think they are too small.
Whatever they are, John says, to pray for we have confidence in him.
Pray about it anyway. Pray boldly. Pray persistently. Pray to the point that you think you are praying foolishly and wildly, because then it is a very likely possibility that you are praying in line with God’s will for us all: the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Now, let’s turn to God in prayer…
Blessings. To me, prayer is the opening of the heart to God as a Friend. There is no need to tell God who we are so that He can listen to us. Prayer does not bring God closer to us, but us to him.
If we always think about God, having our hearts in thanks and praise towards Him, our spiritual life will be constantly renewed and vigorous. Our prayers will take the form of speaking to God as a Friend. They no longer will be as supplications, but our friendly conversations, in which He will personally tell us His secrets. We will feel a pleasant, joyful sense of the presence of God. He will draw near to us as to Enoch, and our hearts will burn when we commune with Him. When such experiences become the property of Christians, then meekness, humility, simplicity will be shown in life, showing everyone with whom they communicate, that they were with Jesus and learned from Him
Prayer is the breath of our soul. This is the secret of spiritual power.
Prayer cannot be replaced by any other means of grace and preserve the health of the soul. Prayer brings the heart into direct contact with the Source of life and strengthens the muscles and tendons of spiritual experiences. Neglecting prayer or praying rarely — occasionally, or only under convenient circumstances — we will lose touch with God, and will be religious, rather than alive and well followers of Christ.
Thank you for the inspiration, Spencer. It is so good to hear from you. Will try to send you my news soon.