Tuesday, June 23, 2009

petition [disciplines for the inner life]

My friends Lori and Chris are great dancers. First hand I've seen them swing, waltz and polka. For my birthday gift this year they demonstrated for us a polka to the tune of In Heaven There Is No Beer. They had us roll up the rug and move the furniture in the living room and then gather round to observe before it was our turn to give it a whirl. We watched and clapped and laughed along. Then we tried to dance and *some* of us did a pretty decent job.

Some of us, not so much.

I realized -- quickly -- that watching Chris and Lori dance was not nearly enough to teach me how to dance. I would probably only figure it out by following their example and then doing it like them. (and Chris was so kind to give my two left feet a whirl around the room to Roll Out the Barrel). The apostle Paul tells us that being united with Christ is putting Him on like putting on new clothes. Recently my friend David Taylor told me a story of how he learned healthy confrontation from his brother-in-law Cliff and now when he finds himself in a similar circumstance he chooses to put on Cliff because Cliff is so excellent at healthy, productive confrontation. In other words, if I find myself in a polka match some day, in order to even come close to looking like a dancer I would likely put on the stellar skills of Chris and Lori.

And what the heck does this all have to do with the discipline of petition, you might ask? Well, I'm getting to that: In the same way as I've been studying and meditating on the inner discipline of petition I have stumbled on many saints (ancient and contemporary) who know how to pray. I studied passages about prayer -- Matthew 7:7-12, Psalm 5, James 5, for example -- and I read profound insights about prayer from Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Albert Day. But out of all that the best example I had was a brief, simply-written biography about the life of famed prayer George Muller: The Guardian of Bristol's Orphans.

The man knew how to pray, but even more importantly knew what to pray and when to pray. He chose to put himself in a place in life where he could not rely on anything or anyone more than on God. He did not surround himself with crutches, escape hatches, door #2's or plan b's. He did not take one moment of his time away from rescuing orphans and teaching underprivileged children and pastoring a church in order to raise funds. But he did take many, many moments to pray. [and it would be appropriate to laugh at that last sentence as a major understatement!]

He knew what his purpose in life was and it wasn't because he spent years reading books about how to find his purpose or attending classes about his purpose; he prayed about it and then made choice after choice after choice that left him solely dependent on his Creator for everything he and his family and his church and his school and his orphans needed. When God didn't meet the need he was praying for he simply knew he needed to change course. The man lived in desperate situations (including experiencing the death of a child and two wives) for his entire ninety-two years on earth.

Desperate Prayer is one of our covenant values at Union Center Christian Church : God doesn’t answer prayer; he answers desperate prayer. That doesn’t mean we contrive a constant state of anxiety. It means we have a clear understanding of what’s at stake, and we’re aware that without God’s blessing, wisdom, and direction, we’re a mess. A covenant commitment to prayer means that there are times we refuse to accept that God is done answering us, and we’re bold enough to wait and wrestle with God until he answers.

But, after reading about George Muller I'm not sure I have any idea at all what desperate prayer really looks like. I'm thinking I need to put on Muller when I'm petitoning God but also when I'm making choices that will eliminate crutches, escape hatches, door #2's and plan b's in my life. What good is desperate prayer when I've surrounded myself with so many options and ideas and comforts? I can't even pray intelligently because I haven't figured out what I'm truly desperate for.
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions (James 4:3). To ask rightly involves transformed passions. In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God's thoughts after him: to desire things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills. -- Celebration of Discipline, Foster
And this bold statement from Foster makes me think of that beautiful line Liv Tyler's character gives to the self-absorbed rocker who breaks her heart in That Thing You Do: I have wasted thousands and thousands of kisses on you. .. Shame on me for kissing you with my eyes closed so tight.  I wonder how many prayers I've wasted on my own passions. Prayers that felt desperate because I hadn't decided on what God was asking me to spend my desperation.

Shame on me for praying with my eyes closed so tight.

At the end of his life, George Muller had provided care for over ten thousand orphaned children. He went from being a con man and petty thief in his youth to being a man whom God trusted to steward a fortune. He supported Sunday schools and regular schools around the world, printed Bibles and supported missionaries [at one time he sent his friend Hudson Taylor enough money to support all the missionaries of the China Inland Mission!] But history remembers him most as a man who, in his very own lifetime, rescued and cared for over ten thousand orphans.

So when I enter the discipline of petition I choose to put on George Muller both in the times my eyes are shut tight in desperate prayer and my eyes are wide open in desperate living.
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