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Why does God value persistence in prayer? Shouldn’t he remember our requests? Shouldn’t once be enough? Isn’t he a good and loving God who knows what’s best for us? Shouldn’t he give us that without our having to ask?

Yancey argues, “Persistent prayer keeps bringing God and me together.”

“Cicero gave a blunt assessment of the purpose of pagan prayer: ‘We do not pray to Jupiter to make us good, but to give us material benefits.’ For the Christian, something like the reverse applies. We may approach God with some material benefit in mind, and sometimes, blessedly, we receive it. But in the very act of praying we also open up a channel that God can use in transforming us, in making us good.”

How often do we approach Christian prayer as pagans? Perhaps unintentionally, but how often do we pray only for what we can get out of it? We pray when we’re desperate. We pray when we’re in need. We pray when there are no other options.

“The real value of persistent prayer is not so much that we get what we want as that we become the person we should be.”

Prayer as a transformative power. Prayer, not to get what we want, but to change us. That is Christian prayer.

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There are so many subjects that could be taken up in prayer. Many are large, overwhelming personal subjects. Illness, unemployment. Some take on a more global nature. War, poverty, persecution.

Yancey writes, “To my shame, petty interruptions in my own life often crowd out these concerns: a balky computer, a series of car and home repairs, a to-do list that never gets done. I confess to God my sins and realize they are the same sins I confessed yesterday, and last week, and the week before. Will nothing every change? Will I?”

As I sit and try to quiet my mind to pray, my world calls to me. Things that need done, things left undone.

Yancey continues, “Go into your closet and shut the door, Jesus advised. I envisioned doing just that: entering a closet with my pressing, time-bound burdens and asking God to renew, refresh, remind–in other words, to pour some eternity into me.”

I like that phrase, “pour some eternity into me.” Prayer can shift my focus from me, my, mine to larger needs of the world and God’s action in it.

What is the nature of God? Is he a changeless (consistent, reliable) or is his attentive to his people (responsive, able and willing to change his mind)? In response to this paradox Yancey cites C. S. Lewis.

First the problem:

“I don’t think it at all likely that God requires the ill-informed (and contradictory) advice of us humans as to how to run the world. If He is all-wise, as you say He is, doesn’t He know already what is best? And if He is all-good won’t He do i whether we pray or not?”

“In reply, Lewis said that you could use the same argument against any human activity, not just prayer. ‘Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they’ll come clean without your washing them. . . . Why ask for the salt? Why put on your boots? Why do anything?’ God could have arranged things so that our bodies nourished themselves miraculously without food, knowledge entered our brains without studying, umbrellas magically appeared to protect us from rainstorms. God chose a different style of governing the world, a partnership which relies on human agency and choice.”

God is responsive and yet reliable. God is both attentive and consistent. Prayer becomes a means of partnering with his people.

One last quote from Eugene Peterson in Yancey’s chapter on “Partnership.” Peterson advises, “Be slow to pray. Praying puts us at risk of getting involved with God’s conditions. . . . Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back.”

On to Yancey’s chapter, “What Difference Does It Make?” Yancey writes, “‘Electricity will replace God. The peasants should pray to it; in any case they will feel its effects long before they feel any effect from on high,’ wrote Vladimir Lenin in the heady days of the Russian Revolution.”

I would have liked to see your face before you saw who the quote was really from. Yancey did write it, but he was quoting Lenin.

Often it is when we realize that we are powerless that we turn to God in prayer; when we have no power that we turn to a greater power. But how often does that happen for many of us today? Yance writes, “The persecuted church . . . confronts [the forces of evil] in the form of hostile governments and violent opposition. The European church confronts them as cynicism and indifference. The U. S. church faces a seduction to rely on power, wealth, and political influence. The developing world faces disease, poverty, and political corruption.”

Will we lean on our own understanding and power or will we turn to God?

“A rabbi taught that experiences of God can never be planned or achieved. ‘They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental.’ His student asked, ‘Rabbi, if God-realization is just accidental, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?’ The rabbi replied, “To be as accident prone as possible.'”

Yancey also quotes a Franciscan Benediction.

May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.

Amen

“History is the story of God giving away power. . . . Apparently God committed to work with human partners no matter how inept.” God seeks to draw us into his plan and work with us and through us. Jesus didn’t communicate his message through loud speakers and multi-media presentations. He chose twelve common, ordinary men to share his message.

Yancey writes, “God did not design this planet as an arena in which to demonstrate natural-law bending skills, much as we humans may crave that at times. Mainly, God wants to relate to creatures personally, to love and be loved. Restoring such a relationship has been painfully slow, fraught with error, and punctuated by fits and starts. Compared to Old Testament stories of miracles and triumph, it often seems like regression. To the contrary, the New Testament presents a long but steady advance in intimacy with God.

I know Christians who yearn for God’s older style of power-worker who topples pharaohs, flattens Jericho’s walls, and scorches the priests of Baal. I do not. I believe the kingdom now advances through grace and freedom, God’s goal all along. I accept Jesus’ assurance that his departure from earth represents progress, by opening a door for the Counselor to enter. We know how counselors work: not by giving orders and imposing changes through external force. A good counselor works on the inside, bringing to the surface dormant health. For a relationship between such unequal partners, prayer provides an ideal medium.”

God has a new way of dealing with us. That doesn’t deny the possibility of miracles. “Prayer is cooperation with God, a consent that opens the way for grace to work.”

“Why does God seem so capricious in deciding if and when to intervene on this chaotic planet?” Some prayers he answers. Some he doesn’t. Is this difference in the piety of the pray-ers? It doesn’t seem so. So what causes God to intervene sometimes and not others?

As I wrote last time, Yancey asks they question, “Why pray?” and answer with “Because Jesus did.” He continues:

“The Gospels record just over a dozen specific prayers of Jesus, along with several parables and teachings on the subject. He followed the normal Jewish practice of visiting the synagogue, the ‘house of prayer,’ and of praying at least three times a day. We can safely assume that Jesus often prayed in private too, for when his disciples asked for instruction on prayer Jesus said they should seclude themselves. Such prayers made an impression on his followers” five times the Gospels mention Jesus’ practice of praying alone.”

“When alone, Jesus relied on prayer as a kind of spiritual recharging.”

But Jesus also had unanswered prayers. Yancey cites Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his followers in John 17, or his prayer before selecting the 12 apostles in which he picked Judas, or in the garden when he asked that the cup be removed.

Yancey concludes, “I believe in miracles, but I also believe they are miracles, meaning rare exceptions to the normal laws that govern the planet. I cannot, nor can anyone, promise that prayer will solve all problems and eliminate all suffering. At the same time, I also know that Jesus commanded his followers to pray, certain that it makes a difference in a world full of opposition to God’s will.”

“The main purpose of prayer is not to make life easier, nor to gain magical powers, but to know God.” So often, whether we confess it or not, through prayer we are trying to manipulate our situation or even God to get what we want.

Yancey asks, “Why pray?” and answers his own question, “Because Jesus did.”

“Jesus seemed fully at ease with the Father and at unease with the world. . . . prayer provided a refreshing reminder of cosmic reality.”

He later confesses, “I find prayer hard work, not the rejuvenating refuge it meant to Jesus. I struggle to see prayer as a dialogue, not a monologue.”

How do you find prayer? Is it the refreshing experience of Jesus or the hard work and struggle of Yancey?