Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How Foolish Is Prayer?


I find paradoxes interesting. And here's one that is VERY interesting: There are certain things that have the feel of being cool, hip, "with it" -- but these are things that according to the writers of the Bible really are foolish.

For instance, atheists in our society are presented as cool, smart, and "hip" ...but the Bible says: "The fool says in his heart: 'There is no God.'"

There are other things that seem foolish to us. Last weekend I flew on planes from Seattle to Newark, Newark to Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh to Denver, then Denver back to Seattle. When I fly I take one small paperback so I'll have something to read below 10,000 feet while we're not allowed to use personal electronics. I took a small book by John Piper called "Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came To Die." Each of the 50 reasons are decorated with a large cross and emblazoned in large font, such as: "To Absorb the Wrath of God."

As usual I sat in the "B" seat between two other passengers. As I turned the pages of this small book I could feel their eyes upon me, no doubt evaluating what kind of grown man would be entertaining such "religious" silliness. I found myself fighting embarrassment despite knowing better. And thinking about 1 Corinthians 1:18: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." I forced myself to keep the booklet open and ignore the stares.

I think prayer falls into that exact same category. While most people believe in it and most people have done it, at one time or another, it still seems silly or foolish to see a grown person talking to an invisible deity. In large public events such as presidential inaugurations we embellish such moments with pomp and eloquence, in an apparent attempt to give the activity some dignity which it might otherwise seem to lack.

Christ prayed A LOT but his prayers were not full of pomp or eloquence. His were the prayers of a Child submitting himself to the wisdom and protection of an all-knowing and all-powerful Father. I love how He prays in John 11:41-42, just after He has had mourners roll the stone away from the tomb of Lazarus, a man who has been dead four days:

"Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." It is simple, trusting, talking to His Father about those who are standing nearby and listening. If ever there would be a time for pomp and eloquence, one would think it was when you needed to raise someone from the dead. But not here. Jesus ends His prayer with those words, then cries out simply: "Lazarus -- come forth!"

My most effective prayers have been like that. One or two desperate, very ineloquent sentences. In 2003 I spent the morning mountainbiking on the Angeles Crest trail high above the Los Angeles basin. I was utterly alone all morning, and loving it. I had a cellphone with me, but each time I had checked it, it had registered 0 bars. No reception whatsoever.

After three hours ascending slowly to a peak above what in wintertime is a popular ski resort, and taking in the fabulous views while I rested, I started zooming back down the trail toward home. But, perhaps half of the way down, I got careless. The singlewide trail had turned to asphalt, but it was rough. I came flying around a blind corner, doing maybe 25 mph, a severe drop on the left side and rock wall on the right, and suddenly saw in front of me a washout. I must have crossed it on my slow journey upward, but totally forgot about it. A more experienced mountain biker would have known enough to power through the washout, front wheel held high, but I panicked and attempted to brake. Without anywhere near enough room to stop, I plunged into the washout. At that point I tried to jump it, but my front wheel caught the far edge and I was flipped onto my face on the far side.

As I lay there, trying to pick myself up, I knew I was badly hurt. I had broken five upper teeth and torn an enormous gash across my face. I couldn't see out of my right eye. My left cheek hung flapping open, molars exposed on that side. In blazing pain, I could feel bone grating on bone somewhere on the right side of my face. (I thought my jaw was broken; later on it turned out to be only my cheekbone.) My helmet above my forehead was bashed in -- I'm sure it saved my life. Blood was streaming down my neck onto my shirt, and when I looked down I saw it was also pouring down my leg from a mangled kneecap.

My bike was completely unrideable, and I had no idea how far from help I might be, but I knew it was a long walk. But I really had nothing else to do, so eventually I found the strength to pick up my bike and started hobbling down the trail with it.

Something like 20 minutes later, the world started to spin and I knew I couldn't continue. I lay my bike down and sat down by the side of the trail. I looked at my phone for the hundredth time since the accident -- still no bars. Then I thought, foolishly, Why hadn't I prayed yet? If ever there was a time for it, this was it. By this time the realization that I could continue no further was heavy upon me. Without help I really might die there.

So, no eloquence in me, I lifted my bloody face painfully skyward and cried out, "Jesus, please help me! I don't want to die here!" That was it -- all I had. I lowered my face and looked at my phone again through my working left eye.

I saw the signal strength indicator was still at 0 bars. But then, as I watched, it suddenly but steadily climbed through all the options -- 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Full strength! It was as if Someone had simply thrown a switch.

I dialed 9-1-1 and counted the rings ... 20 of them. Then a man's voice answered: "9-1-1. What's your emergency?"

I explained my predicament as he listened. When I told him I was on the Angeles Crest Trail, he stopped me. "Angeles Crest? Where's that? Is that anywhere near Los Angeles?"

"Yes," I said, a chill running down my spine. "I'm northeast of Los Angeles. But I'm not sure how far. Maybe 50 miles."

"What county?" he asked, sounding incredulous.

"I'm not sure of that either," I confessed. "It's either San Bernardino or Los Angeles county. I think I'm somewhere near the border between the two."

"Wow," he exclaimed. "I'm in San Diego. I don't think I've ever received a 9-1-1 call from anyone outside this county. But don't worry, we'll get you help. I'll dispatch a helicopter from San Diego right now, then we'll start calling L.A. and San Bernardino County services and see who is closest to you."

We were soon joined by a dispatcher from L.A. County who transferred us to someone in the mountains near the Angeles Crest Trail. "Yes," he told me, "I think I know approximately where you are, or at least what trail you are on. Sit tight and we'll send a rescue unit your direction."

The dispatcher from San Diego came back on. "Okay, Larry," he said, "help is on the way. I'm going to stay right here with you -- so don't hang up the phone."

"I won't!" I assured him. But at that very moment, the line went dead. I looked down at the signal strength indicator. It was on its way back down to 0 -- where it stayed.

At first I felt another chill of fear run down my spine. Did they really know where I was? Could they find me in time? But then I realized, I wasn't asking the right question. Obviously, God knew where I was! Was I going to trust Him?

Twenty or 30 minutes later, I saw a cloud of dust rising, way down the mountain. Then the flashing lights of a rescue vehicle, bumping up the trail toward me. I was found!

It was a long and painful ride to the hospital, about an hour or so. They said I was in shock, but I improved after they found a vein, got some fluid in, then began giving me pure oxygen. They helped me ring up my mother-in-law, and I asked her, as calmly as I could (trying my best to talk normally through broken teeth) to have Darlene call me. "Where are you?" she asked, suspiciously. (That's a hard question to answer tactfully when you're in an ambulance!)

The rest of the day and into that evening I spent in an emergency room in Fontana, where I was x-rayed, cleaned up, and sewn up. The next day, miserably sore but happy to be alive, I was able to attend my daughter's orientation at Pt. Loma University in San Diego.

Healing up nicely, a week after the accident.
This is a dramatic example, but it's how prayer has been for me. (I'll share more examples in subsequent posts, so stay tuned!) God doesn't always answer the way I want, but He's always there, always meets me at my point of need. Prayer is therefore, as seemingly foolish as it might be, the most powerful and effective thing in my life.

So then, why don't I do it more?

Obviously, those occasional, serious, dramatic needs are great times to pray. It should be our first instinct. (I still am ashamed that it took me 20 minutes to even get the notion to pray.) And I know God wants us to pray over the simple things as well ... a lost contact lens, an interpersonal frustration, a fear that holds us back. A temptation that we struggle with. After all, what's small to God? (Everything!) What's big to Him? (Nothing!) We are all on a very level playing field before God.

As I've studied Scripture and watched how Christ prayed, I've realized the main power in prayer is not in having some 9-1-1 dispatcher in the sky. It's simply in having an omnipotent, all-knowing, and all-caring Father we can talk with, One who desires us to know one another better. It's building the relationship.

So, I am trying my best to do that every day, to spend some time praying and just expressing my heart, as ineloquently as it may be, to my heavenly Father. Will you join me?

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