This week we celebrate the National Day of Prayer. Since 1988, when President Reagan signed into law public law 100-307, the first Thursday of May is a significant time when we as a nation and community can gather and rejoice in all that God is doing for us. At the same time, we should be repenting for our sins and coming as humble servants approaching the throne of grace seeking God’s grace and mercy for our times of need.
Do you believe in prayer? Prayer has always been an important part of life. In good times and bad, whether we are Christ-followers or not, prayer has always held prominence in practically everyone’s lives. We pray when we go through hard times like sickness and death. We pray when we go through difficult trials like disease, relationship problems, or even simple exams in school. How many times have you uttered those three simple words, “God help me!” in the past year?
My father-in-law believed in prayer, even though earlier in his life he did not believe in God. On a trip to Florida once, he found himself in a jam that he could not find his way through. He asked God for help. He told God that if He would get him out of the current dilemma, then he would start going to church again (he had not been in church since he was a kid, except for weddings and funerals). Within just a few moments after praying that prayer, someone came along and helped my father-in-law out of his jam. My father-in-law, being true to his word, went to church faithfully after that — for the next four weeks. He claimed he never told God how many times he would go to church.
At its core, prayer is an admission and an expression. When I pray, I am admitting to God that I am not in control, and I am also expressing my total dependence upon Him.
Years ago, our family was visiting some friends of ours at their cottage on the shores of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. During that weekend visit, my daughter and I got into a canoe and paddled up the coastline around the next point in order to see the remains of a sunken ship on the bottom of the lake, close to the shore under about five feet of water. We saw that ship in the water — it was crystal clear that day — and began to paddle back when we were capsized by a wave that hit us broadside. Here we were on the Fourth of July in the warm waters of Lake Superior (42 degrees!). Boy, did we pray! That is when I wished I had a rope and could pull the shore right out to where we were hanging on to the canoe for dear life!
In “The Higher Happiness”, Ralph W. Sockman describes the true intention of prayer: “We use prayer as a boatman uses a boat hook: to pull the boat to the shore and not to try to pull the shore to the boat.” Caught without any resources in those cold waters of Lake Superior, I found myself praying that God would get us to shore, not that He would bring the shore to us. I was putting our lives in complete dependence upon God to rescue us (which He obviously did). When we pray, we are not trying to convince God to do what we want Him to do, but it is one way for us to get ourselves in line with what He wants to do in and through us. Whether we like it or not, though, that is the case. We are not in control and we must depend upon God, both individually and as a community. So we pray.
But why pray together? Why come together, even on one day a year, and pray? Is not this something we should be doing all year long in the privacy of our won prayer closets?
Prayer is simply talking with God. And did you know that right now, Jesus Christ is praying for you? Prayer is one way to join him. Yes, He is interceding on our behalf even now (check out John 17 for his prayer for you and for me). When we gather together to pray corporately, we make a powerful statement. P.T. Forsyth says this brilliantly: “The real power of prayer in history is not a fusillade of praying units of whom Christ is the chief, but it is the corporate action of a Savior-Intercessor and his community, a volume and energy of prayer organized…” to accomplish great things.
When we pray together, we help one another to pray better and we find that we minister to one another in a very personal and powerful way. Often the voice of another individual will express a hidden longing or heartache in our own lives. In the same way, we become a symphony of praise and gratitude in corporate prayer, rather than an orchestra composed of only one instrument.
Nonetheless, corporate prayer is a “useless” activity. Basically, we pray together not to get better results from our prayer but simply to delight in God together. All too often we define prayer as getting our will done in heaven, asking God to do for us what we want Him to do, just like my father-in-law.
South American theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez has said, “Prayer is an experience of gratuity. This pointless act, this squandered time, reminds us that the Lord is beyond being categorized as useful or useless.” In the end, the point of prayer, whether in a small group or a cathedral, is simply to be able to say with Job, not “Now I see it all” but “Now my eyes have seen you.”
Have you seen God lately? Why not pray?
Chuck Tabor is a religion columnist for The Times-Gazette and a former Hillsboro area pastor who now resides in Florida. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.