Thursday, August 12, 2010

Always Keep on Praying

Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. (Ephesians 6.18)


In these days when most people walk around with mobile phones in their pockets or mashed to their ears, what I’m about to describe will sound quaint to anyone younger than 30 or so. But there was a time when talking on the phone meant staying put until the conversation ended. Moving about during a call required lengthening the cord. Kitchen phones with cords spiraling to the floor were common sights, and many had foam-filled shoulder rests glued to their handsets so talkers could hold long conversations hands-free. Lengthy calls and idle chat were verboten in our house, as the line needed to remain free in case members of my parents’ church needed their help. They were also forbidden in my best friend’s home, because his mom thought hanging on the phone while working on other tasks distasteful. “Phone-huggers,” as Mrs. B called them, were a favorite gripe. “Who wants to talk to someone who’s not paying attention?” she’d say. “If you’re cooking, tell me and we’ll talk later. I don’t want to pour my heart out while you’re making gravy. That’s just rude. And don’t get me started about people whose lines are busy day and night…” (Sometimes I think they invented call waiting just for Mrs. B.)

It may also seem quaint that “back then” the telephone was a common metaphor for prayer. In part, this was because it was the quickest, easiest way to contact anyone, regardless of distance or time of day. So preachers compared prayer with phone conversations to stress God is never out of reach—a message that worked its way into popular gospel numbers like “I Can Call Jesus Anytime,” “Operator (Give Me Jesus on the Line),” and “Jesus on the Main Line (Tell Him What You Want)”. The telephone’s imperfections also figured into the metaphor. God’s line is never busy, we were told. He’s always there to pick up the phone. We can call Him no matter where we are. Such quips encouraged us to be spiritual phone-huggers, taking full advantage of God’s accessibility and interest in what we say. Frequent, lengthy talks with Him were our privilege.

Empathetic Prayer

We don’t hear the metaphor these days, since the phone is now as much a nuisance as convenience. The same goes for texting, IM’s, and email. Our fast-isn’t-fast-enough world of ring-tones, acronyms and emoticons, has cheapened prayer. We want to Twitter God while we multitask, jumping on and off so quickly we seldom reach that golden moment when running out of things to say about us turns our focus to others. How often do we hang on long enough to pray earnestly for others? Do we finish with us and click “send” or resort to ticking off names like children praying bedtime blessings on Mommy, Daddy, Bubby, Sissy, and Cousin Tommy, who’s sick with measles? How many of us pray for one another like we should? I know I don’t, which is why Ephesians 6.18—and many similar verses peppered through the Epistles—grabs me by the scruff of my neck and gives me a good talking-to. “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests,” it says. “With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”

There are all kinds of prayers, Paul says: recited ones, like The Lord’s Prayer; ritualized ones, like mealtime grace; prayers of penitence, thanksgiving, faith, entreaty, intercession, and so on. There are all kinds of requests, he says: for mercy, provision, protection, insight, comfort, etc. He points this out to remind us these options aren’t available solely for our personal benefit. The prayers and requests we use to bring our needs to God are also useful when praying for others. Paul implies we should pray for each other with the same fervor and consistency we pray for ourselves. This requires some pre-work. Upholding others in prayer as Paul instructs necessitates identifying with their situations, conflicts, sufferings, and fears as though they’re our own. Empathetic prayer asks more than briefly mentioning another’s condition, perhaps tossing in a few symptoms of what afflicts them. It expects us to agonize with their pain, tremble with their uncertainty, and stretch our hands to God from their valleys of confusion and doubt. “Be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints,” Paul writes. Alertness insinuates authentic, spirit-to-spirit connectivity that grips us with urgency and tenacity to pray in depth and detail until God’s answer comes. We always keep on praying for one another.

Teaching Us What to Do

Rushing through prayer for one another—treating it as an itemized to-do list for God—defeats its capacity for teaching us what to do. The investment of proper time and attention to pray empathetically for others rewards us with meaningful responses to their needs. It increases our potential to serve as instruments of faith, encouragement, and wisdom. Earnest prayer fills the hollows in words of comfort to those in sorrow, hope to those in distress, and guidance to those who seek direction. By alerting us to the pressures confronting those we pray for, it opens our eyes to ways we can provide practical assistance and relief. In the end, praying for one another in depth and detail blesses us by addressing deficits in our lives. Our compassion increases. We’re enriched with better insight to life’s complexities. We grow in wisdom, knowledge, and experience we apply to our own problems. Finally, praying for one another multiplies our opportunities to watch how God answers prayer in every circumstance. His line is never busy. He always picks up when we call. He never tires of listening to us. Making time always to keep on praying for one another keeps us hugging the phone, because there’s always something important to discuss with God.

When we uphold one another in empathetic prayer, the time and attention we invest are rewarded with meaningful responses and insights.


kkryno said...

I pray all the time, but I still take the time at night when I go to bed to sop and pray about friends and loved ones. I rest so much better in having done this. I find it to be an extension of my heat for those I care about.

I still have a lot to work on.


Tim said...

We all have a lot to work on, Vikki. And because the need for us to pray for so many is so great, I think we'll always have a lot to work on.

Your comment reminds me very much of my mom, who did exactly as you describe. I can't tell you how many hundreds of times growing up she'd mention feeling burdened about someone--or several someones. Often after our family prayer time ended and she'd put my brother and me to bed, she'd sneak downstairs to the room below mine. Through the air vents, I'd hear her weeping before God as she prayed for the people He'd placed on her heart.

What always struck me about her prayers was how thorough they were. If the person was sick, for example, she'd pray God's will and healing. But she'd also pray for physicians treating him/her, the family members and caregivers, the individual's peace of mind, the children who were frightened to see their parent so ill, added provision to meet the family's financial and physical stress, etc.

When Mom prayed for someone she stepped into their shoes so she could also pray around them. She did this no matter who the person was or the nature of the need. And, at some point, every prayer included two requests: "show them Your love" and "build a hedge of protection around them so they'll stay safe in Your care."

All these years later, she still prays this way. And she says exactly what you say. Unburdening herself before she sleeps enables her to rest well.

Your habit is one we all should adopt. Thanks for sharing it!

Blessings always, dear friend,

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

lovely post. I belong to a prayer group in which people will call during the day and ask each other to pray for someone in need -- not necessarily each other, even. This group is a real blessing.

Tim said...

Elizabeth, welcome to Straight-Friendly! I've just come from reading your most recent post and I can see you are what my Southern relatives call "a prayer warrior!" Your comment means very much.

While I don't belong to an organized prayer group, I've been blessed with a tight circle of friends who work the same way. And over the past two years, this blog has also brought together a group of readers who stay in touch electronically to agree in prayer on needs as they arise. In both cases, the requests and concerns reach far beyond our immediate needs to include others, many of whom probably have no idea how many people are praying for them.

This is a blessing, indeed--and a comfort, because when I'm trouble, I remind myself that God has no doubt seen that people I don't know and never will are praying for me.

I wanted to include a reference to Revelation 5.8 in this post, but it would added considerable length so I decided to save it for another time. But it is my favorite image of prayer: John of Patmos tells of seeing 4 angelic beings and 24 elders, each "holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints." Sometimes, when I'm praying, I envision my prayers rising before God, fragrant and appealing to His eye. And I love that, because it suggests our prayers ignite His senses in many ways.

Thanks so much for your comment. I trust you'll find time to come by and add more to our discussions.

Blessings always,

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

I like that image from Revelation. Will drop in as time permits. I like good conversations, and, yes, I guess some might consider me a prayer warrior, except I don't think of myself that way. I just think of always having a "buddy" (God) around to talk to about whatever I need to talk.

TomCat said...

I like it, Tim. I confess to being a phone hugger. I veber have long conversations, but I seem to spend hours on hold waiting for customer service. ;-)

My prayer life is quite informal. I talk to God as though he (or she) were sitting next to me, often asking help for those in need, asking him WHY, and when I feel like I'm at the end of my rope, asking for a few more feet of rope.

Tim said...

That's the way to pray, Tom--as though God's beside us because... well, He (She) is. I know the "customer service" feeling, as well. While it's frustrating, listening to the messages He's provided while we wait helps redeem the time!

Have a blessed weekend, my friend. I hope it's cool where you are; we're praying for relief in these parts!


claire said...

A great post and lovely comments, Tim. I agree with your way of looking at prayer. I read today that "You sanctify whatever you are grateful for." (A. de Mello in Fr J. Martin's latest book). So often I start my prayers with thanking Godde for the people in my life for whom I am about to pray. Sanctifying them... Hm... Endless joy.

Thank you for this very special post, Tim :-)

Tim said...

Sanctifying those we pray for with gratitude--what a magnificent idea, Claire! Endless joy indeed.

Thank you for this!

Blessings always,