Jesus wants us to be without pretense when we come to him in prayer. Instead, we often try to be something we aren’t. We begin by concentrating on God, but almost immediately our minds wander off in a dozen different directions. The problems of the day push out our well-intentioned resolve to be spiritual. We give ourselves a spiritual kick in the pants and try again, but life crowds out prayer. We know that prayer isn’t supposed to be like this, so we give up in despair. We might as well get something done.
What’s the problem? We’re trying to be spiritual, to get it right. We know we don’t need to clean up our act in order to become a Christian, but when it comes to praying, we forget that. We, like adults, try to fix ourselves up. In contrast, Jesus wants us to come to him like little children, just as we are.
The difficulty of coming just as we are is that we are messy. And prayer makes it worse. When we slow down to pray, we are immediately confronted with how unspiritual we are, with how difficult it is to concentrate on God. We don’t know how bad we are until we try to be good. Nothing exposes our selfishness and spiritual powerlessness like prayer.
[But] God cheers when we come to him with our wobbling, unsteady prayers. Jesus does not say, “Come to me, all you who have learned how to concentrate in prayer, whose minds no longer wander, and I will give you rest.” No, Jesus opens his arms to his needy children and says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NASB). The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.
A Praying Life, Chapter 3
Seventy-two hours ago, I was walking off an American Airlines plane with 23 other people who just spent a week in Haiti. We walked through the security exit and into a crowd of family and friends, hugs and flowers, laughter and tears. We were home.
And we were so glad to be home. Home, where we don’t lose electricity at a moment’s notice, where we can take long, hot showers, where we have clean drinking water right out of the faucet, where we have traffic laws and little white and yellow lines painted down the middle of the roads, where we aren’t sweating 24 hours a day because oh my gosh it’s the middle of the night and it’s still 88 degrees and 80% humidity.
But we hadn’t gone all that way just to come home and go back to living the way we did before. We all bear — gladly bear — a responsibility to take the things we learned and share them. We are all changed by the things we saw and did (or, more accurately, the things we saw God doing, and the things God did through us), and that’s great. But if it ends with us — if the impact is contained to a team of 24 people who shared an amazing experience — we’ve failed. It’s about asking what’s my response?
Stories upon stories
I could tell you so many stories from my week in Haiti, and hopefully I’ll be able to share some of them with you in the weeks to come. Stories of how God not only showed up but met all of us — our team as a whole, each of us individually, every one of the Haitian women — exactly where we were at. Stories of Haitian and American women singing the same songs, each in our own language but in melodic unison. Stories of women who lost babies in the earthquake, and stories of women with children who were miraculously saved when their homes collapsed. Stories of women who are now solely responsible for church congregations, for young children, for families and communities, because their spouses and pastors have gone missing. Stories of women who have been healed, and stories of women who need healing. Stories of women who dance with complete abandon while singing about how God’s promises are for you and for me. Stories of how women are women, and their God is one, regardless of circumstances and geography.
The first story I have to tell you, though, is about prayer.
Before I got home, I thought that the first story I was going to tell you was about vulnerability and surrender. I thought that was the theme of my week. But now I know that that was but one facet of the meta-narrative of prayer. Prayer that moves the hand of God.
I didn’t know it, but everything God has been doing with me lately was leading up to this. The first Tuesday truth post I wrote here was about prayer. The devotional that I wrote to share with the Haitian women was about faith that heals — faith that, in my life, had to be demonstrated through prayer. Several months ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to the book A Praying Life by Paul Miller. It was on sale for Kindle, and on a whim, I ordered a copy. Over the last few months, I’ve been helping to facilitate a study through Power of a Praying Wife, and I’ve been reminded of all the prayers that God has answered since I did the study two years ago — even when many of my prayers from then were half-hearted and lacking faith.
Be quick to pray and pray often
On our first day in Haiti, we were encouraged to be quick to pray and to pray often. We all took that counsel to heart. In the middle of the week, we joked that one of us could run into the room with a hangnail and everyone would gather around them and pray. But it was powerful. Two or three of us would gather around someone to pray, and before we knew it, half a dozen other women were there too, laying hands on the person and agreeing in prayer. We also knew that women back home were constantly covering us in prayer, and we can attest to the impact of it. We had a posture of prayer, ready to pray at any moment for any need.
Obviously, we were in an extraordinary circumstance, and this wasn’t everyday life. But everything in me says that it shouldn’t be as far from everyday life as it is.
On the plane ride home, I finished a novel (The Windup Girl, in case you were wondering) and decided to start reading A Praying Life. I hadn’t even finished the first chapter before it all snapped into focus and I saw how God was bringing everything full circle. I spent the first two days in Haiti in the misery of insufficiency, self-doubt and isolation, but when did my trip completely turn around? When my team rallied around me and prayed for me, when I started weeping uncontrollably because they somehow knew the incredibly specific things I needed them to pray even though I hadn’t shared more than a dozen words. I struggled to connect with the small group I facilitated at the Haitian women’s conference, but when did everything change? When that group of 17 women stood around me and my teammate and prayed over us — a cacophony of Creole prayers, all of them speaking at the same time in a language we didn’t understand, and yet we had the profound sense that they were praying exactly what we needed.
There are a great many things that I know will be part of my response to my trip to Haiti. You can’t spend a week there and come back with only one thing to share. But if I could only choose one thing, it would be to pray. Be quick to pray and do it often.
Being, not wanting
It’s likely that, in the not-too-distant future, I’ll insist on praying for you or put my arm around you when I pray. I’m done wanting to be a woman of prayer; it’s time to start being one. I can’t promise that my prayers will be profound or eloquent — to the contrary. Yet I know that those wobbling, unsteady prayers are answered.
God hasn’t spent the last 18 months teaching me about transparency and vulnerability for vulnerability’s sake; vulnerability isn’t the end but the means. It was all to prepare me to get over myself and come messy. As Miller writes a few pages later, “Your heart could be, and often is, askew. That’s okay. You have to begin with what is real. Jesus didn’t come for the righteous. He came for sinners. All of us qualify. The very things we try to get rid of—our weariness, our distractedness, our messiness—are what get us in the front door! That’s how the gospel works. That’s how prayer works.”