A Ragamuffin Prayer

The Ragamuffin Gospel
Brennan Manning

Lord Jesus, we are silly sheep who have dared to stand before You and try to bribe You with our preposterous portfolios.  Suddenly we have come to our senses.  We are sorry and ask You to forgive us.  Give us the grace to admit we are ragamuffins, to embrace our brokenness, to celebrate Your mercy when we are at our weakest, to rely on Your mercy no matter what we may do.  Dear Jesus, gift us to stop grandstanding and trying to get attention, to do the truth quietly without display, to let the dishonesties in our lives fade away, to accept our limitations, to cling to the gospel of grace, and to delight in Your love.  Amen.

Teach Us to Pray

Does Prayer Change Things?
R. C. Sproul

[1] Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

– Luke 11:1

I have always been amazed that the disciples didn’t ask Jesus how to walk on water, how to still the tempest, or how to do any of His other miracles. They did, however, ask Jesus to teach them about prayer. Note that they did not ask Jesus to teach them how to pray; instead they begged, “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).

Be Slow to Pray

Working the Angles
Eugene Peterson

The Greeks were experts on understanding existence from a human point of view; the Hebrews were experts in setting human existence in response to God.  Whereas the Greeks had a story for every occasion, the Hebrews had a prayer for every occasion.  For [Christians], the Greek stories are useful, but the Hebrew prayers are essential.  Prayer means that we deal first with God and then with the world.  Or, that we experience the world first not as a problem to be solved but as a reality in which God is acting.

We want life on our conditions, not on God’s conditions.  Praying puts us at risk of getting involved in God’s conditions.  Be slow to pray.  Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests.  And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back.  Be slow to pray.

A Psalm of Praise

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

[7] When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
[8] Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
[9] But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

– Jonah 2:7-9

The commonest form of prayer in the Psalms is the lament.  It is what we would expect, since it is our commonest condition.  We are in trouble a lot, so we pray in the lament form a lot.  A graduate of the Psalms School of Prayer would know this form best of all, by sheer force of repetition.

Jonah in the belly of the fish was in the worst trouble imaginable.  We naturally expect him to pray a lament.  What we get, though, is its opposite, a psalm of praise, in the standard thanksgiving form.

Circumstances dictated “lament.”  But prayer, while influenced by circumstances, is not determined by them.  Jonah, creative in his praying, chose to pray in the form “praise.”

Genesis 20

[1] From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. [2] And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. [3] But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” [4] Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? [5] Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” [6] Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. [7] Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” …

[17] Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children.

– Genesis 20:1-7, 17

Abraham travels to the Negeb.  He has followed the Lord many years and trusted Him.  Abraham believes in the promises of God.  But he is afraid.  He says that Sarah is his sister, putting his wife as well as the people of the Negeb in danger.  Though he is the one who lies, Abraham’s prayer for Abimelech and his household is effective.  Amazingly, God uses the prayers of this fearful man.

We, too, can be used despite our fear and sin.  But it is best if we can put aside our doubts.  If we do not trust in the Lord’s provision, then most of our prayers and actions will be self-centered.  Our thoughts will be on ourselves and our worship will be distracted.  God is patient and will walk with us, but may we desire to be free to follow Him sooner than later.

Genesis 18

[20] Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, [21] I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” [22] So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. [23] 18.2.1Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? [24] Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? [25] Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” [26] And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” [27] Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. [28] Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” [29] Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” [30] Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” [31] He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” [32] Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” [33] And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.

– Genesis 18:20-33

The Lord reveals to Abraham that He will go down to Sodom and Gomorrah to see if their wickedness is as great as He has heard.  Abraham pleads with the Lord to spare the city, first on behalf of fifty righteous persons, but ultimately for the sake of ten.  Abraham’s intercession is both compassionate and wrongheaded.

As the reader of Genesis soon finds, not even ten righteous people are to be found in these large cities, and God rains judgment on them.  This is tragic, disappointing, and unsurprising.  On the objective scale of a Holy God, “none is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10-11).

We cannot ask that God would spare the world for the sake of ten righteous people; they will not be found.  But, thankfully, we can plead that God would spare the world for the sake of His glory and for the sake of His Son.  We can call on God to be who He is: gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  We can plead the precious blood of Christ, which is powerful enough to wash away sin and redeem a lost world.

A School of Prayer

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

[1] Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, [2] saying,

“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
[3] For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
[4] Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
[5] The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
[6] at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O LORD my God.
[7] When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
[8] Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
[9] But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

– Jonah 2:1-9

That Jonah prayed is not remarkable; we commonly pray when we are in desperate circumstances.  But there is something very remarkable about the way Jonah prayed.  He prayed a “set” prayer.  Jonah’s prayer is not spontaneously original self-expression.  It is totally derivative.  Jonah had been to school to learn to pray, and he prayed as he had been taught.  His school was the Psalms.

JOnah-620x335Line by line Jonah’s prayer is furnished with the stock vocabulary of the Psalms:

  • “my distress” from 18:6 and 120:1
  • “Sheol” from 18:4-5
  • “all thy waves and thy billows passed over me” from 42:7
  • “from thy presence” from 139:7
  • “upon thy holy temple” from 5:7
  • “the waters closed in over me” from 69:2
  • “my life from the Pit” from 30:3
  • “my soul fainted within me” from 142:3
  • “into thy holy temple” from 18:6
  • “deliverance belongs to the Lord” from 3:8

And more.  Not a word in the prayer is original.  Jonah got every word – lock, stock, and barrel – out of his Psalms book.

But it is not only a matter of vocabulary, having words at hand for prayer.  The form is also derivative.  For the last hundred years scholars have given careful attention to the particular form that the psalms take (form criticism) and have arranged them in two large categories, laments and thanksgivings.  The categories correspond to the two large conditions in which we humans find ourselves, distress and well-being.  Depending on circumstance and the state of our soul, we cry out in pain or burst forth with praise.  The categories have subdivisions, each form identifiable by its stock opening, middle, and ending.  The rhythms are set.  The vocabulary is assigned.

This is amazing.  Prayer, which we often suppose is truest when most spontaneous – the raw expression of our human condition without contrivance or artifice – shows up in Jonah when he is in the rarest condition imaginable as learned.  Our surprise lessens when we consider language itself: we begin with inarticulate cries and coos, but after years of learning we become capable of crafting sonnets.  Are infant sounds more honest than Shakespeare’s sonnets?  They are both honest, but the sonnets have far more experience in them.  Honesty is essential in prayer, but we are after more.  We are after as much of life as possible – all of life if possible – brought to expression in answering God.  That means learning a form of prayer adequate to the complexity of our lives.

Genesis 16

In an attempt to provide Abram with a child, Sarai, his wife, gives Abram her servant, Hagar.  Hagar becomes pregnant and begins to view Sarai with contempt.  Sarai then mistreats her servant, who flees.

Genesis 16:7-13

[7] The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. [8] And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” [9] The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” [10] The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” [11] And the angel of the LORD said to her,

HagarAlone“Behold, you are pregnant
and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
because the LORD has listened to your affliction.
[12] He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
his hand against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”

[13] So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.”

– Genesis 16:7-13

Hagar is a servant.  In the Ancient Near East, this means she has no rights.  Sarai can abuse her however she pleases.  This is tragic, yet she is not a kind of Cinderella, noble and mistreated.  Hagar has been been sinfully arrogant toward her mistress, Sarai.

Yet to Hagar, the angel of the Lord appears.  When he speaks to her, he addresses her by name.  He promises prosperity for her descendants.  He tells her that the Lord hears her suffering.

Aptly, Hagar calls the name of the Lord who spoke to her, the God of seeing.  She may not be valued or known in her society or even by the family that she serves.  But Hagar knows that the God of heaven and earth knows her and looks after her.

The Storm

The Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

[4] But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. [5] Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. [6] So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

– Jonah 1:4-6

Storm is the environment in which we either lose our lives or are saved; there is no cool, safe ledge on which to perch as spectators.  There are no bleachers from which to enjoy the lightning and thunder, the waves and breakers of the storm.  We are in it, prophet and people, sailor and saints.  Nothing else matters at this point; it is life or death.  Whatever else has been on the agenda is on it no longer.  There is this single item: salvation – or not.

Money, a powerful element in human autonomy, holds a key place in [this story], Jonah using his excessively large sum of money to purchase passage to Tarshish…But the power of money disappears in the storm.  There is only a single power to deal with now: God – and God’s salvation.

StormThe only thing the sailors found useful to do in the Jonah storm was to lighten the ship, get rid of what they had heretofore assumed was their primary concern: “they threw the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them” (1:5)…As God’s action intensifies, the significance of our human lives…comes into focus as the single point of who we are, not what we have to offer him, not what we can do to help him.

If the storm sets the conditions in which these stories take place, prayer is the essential action.  In the Jonah story, the sailors pray, each crying to his own god (1:5) and then to Yahweh (1:14).  The captain asks Jonah to pray to his god, but Jonah doesn’t do it (1:6).  Jonah will later pray from the fish’s belly, but the salvation has by then already been accomplished…

Trouble, at least extreme trouble, storm-trouble, strips us to the essentials and reveals the basic reality of our lives.  In Jonah it was prayerlessness…The storm revealed Jonah to be a prophet who did not pray.