Sometimes prayer feels unreal

At another prayer meeting someone prayed so earnestly. “We’re yours Lord, we just want to belong to You, You alone.” And I was quiet. Do I really want first and foremost to live for God and not myself? I wasn’t sure.
As I went home I did open up to God. “Lord, I’m willing to make a few sacrifices for your kingdom. I went to that prayer meeting didn’t I? I’ve gone to some other meetings, I’ve taken a few risks to try to serve you. I've worked in hard climates for you. But don’t ask me to do anything really painful, like getting tortured or imprisoned. Then I felt a flash of joy, as if God whispered “Thanks for leveling with me. I knew it already, but thanks for not pretending.”
But as I write this I'm wondering, shouldn't I be willing to do anything to serve God? I do sense in me a longing, a readiness to press in closer to God. Lord, enlarge and strengthen this longing to be closer.

Prayer: when the familiar isn't boring

Group prayer can feel routine. A couple weeks ago, I was feeling bored as our prayer meeting started. Then we rea some familiar passages about the importance of prayer. Nothing new, but afterwards, I felt content, perhaps even "strangely warmed", to a small degree.

There is a mystery. The words of Scripture are not just words, but are pointers to God, life himself. I think he came to us and gave us a fresh bit of life last night as we read together. And I had asked for that. I had written on my yellow prayer request card that we'd be encouraged and inspired again for prayer.

That night I hadn't wanted to pray. I'd thought I had nothing new to say, that there was no point in me saying the same things once again. But I was reminded that night how the familiar, the "same old" could still bring life.

A dangerous flaw

Too many evangelical churches have a hidden weakness. A gap in their armor through which a fiery dart could come, burning to ash their treasures.

 The evangelical church is rightly concerned for the Gospel, the good news that Jesus Christ has come and brings grace and mercy for anyone who has failed. God loves you, no matter what you have done or not done. Turn to Jesus, live life in relationship with him, accept that his death and his resurrection are the answer to anything and everything that afflicts you, because in him you are made new. This is not illusion, but truth. Jesus does come healing, transforming and making new.

 But the fatal flaw is to expect Jesus to make you new in an instant. You realize your need, you bow your head and pray the prayer, come forward and say the words and now rejoice in the promises and the peace with God. You know you are broken and needy, and you are grateful for a new chance, for Jesus coming and meeting you when you needed his help. But you also look around the church and see the confident smiles of people who have come for a while. "Then, I was a sinner like you," they seem to say, "but now I am new." And you notice that messages and prayers always assume that the needy ones are those outside. So then you're in the church for a year, two years, five years, and wonder when the complete change will arrive for you. When can you too look back on a fallible past, comfortably different from your almost infallible present. You still struggle, but how can this be? Didn't Jesus make all things new? Didn't you believe, come forward, receive the promise? Are you the only one still struggling? What is wrong?

 Another part of the myth: There must be certain sins almost unknown among the truly born again. No depression or bitterness or unreasonable anger, no alcoholism nor drug dependencies, no struggles over sexual purity, no abuse of children. No people who live just to control things and have everything their way. How can those things be among people made new? At least among those who really believed and prayed the prayer right and have joined the right church.

 How long does Jesus take to make anyone new? How long did it take God to deal with sin? Eighteen hours, right? Late Friday afternoon he said "It is finished" and gave up his spirit to the Father. They took him down and buried him, and Sunday morning before dawn he was alive again. That is one perspective. But look again. It took three years of public ministry before that Friday afternoon came, and it took thirty years preparing for those three years of ministry, and it took centuries of prophets and priests and kings leading up to the fullness of time when God With Us could be born in Bethlehem; and before that centuries of judges and prophets from Moses' time until David's time, and centuries from when the first promises were made to Abraham until Moses came to deliver the people out of Egypt. And on this side of the resurrection, almost two thousand years of "these last days" waiting for the promise that he'd return on the clouds of heaven as they'd watched him go away into heaven. We like to think the default moment in the Old Testament is Moses parting the waters and leading the people out of Egypt into the Promised Land. And the default moment in the New Testament is Jesus on the cross saying "Father forgive them," then dying and rising again a few hours later. But the most common experience before Christ or after Christ has to be knowing that God has made promises, remembering that he did something powerful, and waiting for God in power to act again and finish what he started. Completion not now, but in an indefinite future we don't know when it will come. All we have is the promise it is coming. So we live with patience and longsuffering enduring the present mess because we know while no end may be in sight and it's been all we've ever known, it is not permanent. If God makes all things new in a short time, why do the Scriptures talk so much about patient endurance? If God changes everything for anyone who truly believes, why does he commend the faith of those who didn't see what he had promised (Heb 11:35-40?

So let us take up the shield of faith, faith in God and his promises, faith that we don't have to pretend we are all finished now, faith that God has still more to do in us and we don't know when he will do it, but that is OK because he has promised he will do it.

Another paradox of faith

Scripture informs us that the greatest and most powerful being in the universe loves us and is on our side. Yet it clearly states that this great powerful and loving being is not supremely concerned about our ease and comfort. The great lover of our souls sometimes is disturbingly slow in giving us what we want. Worse, he sometimes gives us the exact opposite of what we want. The most deserving soul that ever lived had his life cut short by a wicked and barbaric execution. Yet then he came out of the grave. In our lives God can demonstrate great power and intricate planning to suddenly lift us safely out of an impending disaster, or cut short a major or minor trial. Other times he leaves us in the disaster with only a promise that it will be better in the end, and a surprising calmness that as bad as this gets, the promises are still precious. Why make promises when he could just deliver us? Because he wants to give us the experience of clinging to the promises when we don't see him at work. What then is prayer? Going to him with all the messiness of our lives, acknowledging that the messiness is greater than our ability to distract ourselves or keep going in our own willpower, to celebrate the certainty of the promises while embracing the uncertainty of how those promises will be implemented in our here and now. And we give thanks for the unique and unpredictable path he's led us on up to now. And worship, for his greatness and love and perfection can never be celebrated enough. I've looked at the promises and thought I shouldn't have problems. Then I've looked at my problems and thought the promises couldn't be true. The best is to look at both problems and promises, remember God is with me, and ask him what he is going to do this time.

Emmanuel Road, Emmaus Road

God is with us. That's the key point. Walk the Emmanuel Road.

But it feels like Emmaus Road.  We don't recognize God with us. We don't have what we want, and things aren't pleasant. In fact, we may be miserable. How can God be with me and let this happen? Because when we recognize he is with us, and lay our discomfort and misery at his feet, he enables us to bear it.

Sometimes "road" is the hard word. We want to arrive. We want to have arrived. We don't want to admit we're not there yet. But God talks a lot about being with us while we have yet to arrive. So we have to accept we're on the road.

Sometimes grace is a process

God wants a relationship with us, he wants us to keep coming back to thank him, to ask him. to be with him.

God can make instantaneous changes. By one word the Red Sea was parted and the people made their way across, by another word the sea closed back and Pharaoh and his army drowned. By one word the storm was stilled, by another word Lazarus was raised.

But he doesn't always bring instantaneous change.  Look to Scripture. How long it took from Abraham to Moses, from Moses to David, from David to Jesus.

We must believe both in the God that can change in an instant and the God that brings change over a long time.