Prayer That Makes a Difference

January 4th, 2011

Just about every church I know talks about prayer. But if your experience is like mine, you've attended more than your share of church meetings that “opened” with a prayer and “closed” with a prayer but nothing that happened between the prayers that would have been any different if it had been a meeting of a civic organization or a corporate board. What we actually do and how we do it do not indicate that we expect the God to whom we pray to become an active participant in the process. We offer a polite nod, a tip of the hat to God, but we act as if we are called to make decisions on our own with God sitting on the sidelines, waiting to be asked to “bless” what we have decided to do.

In Luke 18, Jesus tells two stories that offer a shocking word about the kind of prayer that makes a difference, not only in the life of the person who prays, but in the world for which that person prays. The story of the praying widow and the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector combine with our congregational experience to lead me to three underlying principles about living and leading in prayer.

1. Prayer that makes a difference is aligned with the redemptive purpose of God.

Both parables deal with the theme of justice. Jesus described the widow crying out for justice from the judge. He said that one of the two men who went to the Temple to pray went home justified that day.

When I hear the word “justify,” my imagination goes to the print shop. Back in the days of moveable type, the printer would justify a line of type so that both margins were even and so that the letters between the two margins were all in the right relationship to each other. The computer does that for us now, but it's still the same process. Biblically speaking, to justify is to bring everything into right relationship with the purpose of God. It brings people into right relationship with each other and right relationship with God. In the larger sense, it describes God' redemptive work of bringing the whole creation into harmony with God' intention for it. Paul describes it “as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).

We've discovered that prayer that makes a difference is aligned with the larger perspective of the way God' selfgiving love in Christ brings all things into right relationship with the promise of God's Kingdom coming on earth as it is fulfilled in heaven. Prayer is the process by which we bring our lives, our ministry, and our mission into proper relationship with the redemptive purpose of God revealed in Jesus Christ so that our life together becomes a translucent center of loving power for the transformation of the world.

When a congregation becomes aware that it is in or on the edge of decline, the primary question can easily become, “What can we do to help our church survive?” But when survival becomes the primary motivation for change, the congregation will inevitably turn in on itself and become so centered in its survival needs that it will be ineffective in responding to the real needs of real people in the world around it.

Genuine, Christ-centered, biblically-rooted prayer lifts our vision beyond the survival needs of our own congregation to see the way this particular congregation can become a part of God's redemptive purpose at work in the world. Praying the way Jesus taught us forces us to realign our ministries around the vision of God's Kingdom coming on earth as it is already fulfilled in Heaven.

2. Prayer that makes a difference is persistent in seeking.

When I try to picture the “importunate widow” in Jesus' parable, I think of Ma Joad in John Steinbeck's classic, The Grapes of Wrath. The woman in Jesus' parable was no polite, sweet little lady making a quilt or crocheting a doily. She kept pounding on the judge's door, calling on his telephone and sending him e-mail, pestering him day in and day out until finally, in sheer desperation, the unjust judge said, “Whew! I'd better give her what she wants before she wears me out!”

Jesus was not saying that God is like that unjust judge. Jesus was saying that if this corrupt, unjust judge would respond to the persistence of this widow, then “how much more” will the infinitely just and all-loving God respond to those who with unwavering persistence call upon God? When he got to the punch line, he asked a question that was not so much about the judge or the widow as it was about us. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

In very practical terms, persistence in prayer has meant that we have structured into our life together some basic patterns of spiritual discipline and prayer. Personally, I know that the quality of my spiritual leadership is in direct proportion to my discipline of daily meditation and prayer. In the same way, each program staff person is expected to develop their own personal discipline of prayer. As a ministry leadership team, the church staff meets together every Tuesday morning for worship and focused prayer for the needs of the congregation. We begin Sunday morning by gathering for a time of prayer in which lay persons pray for us. An Intercessory Prayer Ministry provides a structured format for at least one layperson to spend at least one hour every day in prayer for the needs of our congregation. In short, we are persistently at work to find practical ways of shaping our life together around our experience of prayer.

3. Prayer that makes a difference is centered in the love and mercy of God.

In the second of these companion parables, Jesus set the story up by saying that a very good guy and a very bad guy both went up to the Temple to pray. Immediately, the first hearers of this parable knew which was which. The Pharisee was the good guy. Just as quickly, the first hearers of this parable picked out the bad guy. It was obviously the tax collector. The surprise came when Jesus pointed to the tax collector and said, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other” (Luke 18:14). Jesus' interpretation of the scene was a radical reversal of everything the people expected. By turning their expectations inside out and upside down, Jesus pointed toward the radical transformation that is at the very heart of the mercy of God.

Prayer that makes a difference lives with a humble awareness of our need of the mercy of God. It grows out of a keen sense that at our very best, we are incomplete, fallible human beings. At our highest, we fall short of the glory of God. Our greatest strengths are weak in comparison to the strength of God's redemptive purpose in the world. It's the kind of prayer that engages us in the process of transformation by which the self-giving love of God that was made real among us in Jesus becomes a tangible reality in and through our lives. It's the kind of praying that gives us a tender heart for people just like this tax collector. It's the kind of praying that enables us to love self-righteous folks like that Pharisee, too.

We often hear people in our New Member Orientation Class say that Hyde Park was the church for which they had been searching for a long time. When we probe into those comments, the responses often point toward a gracious acceptance of people the way they are: a non-judgmental spirit, a sense that people are loved and accepted as they are, without needing to put on some sort of artificial religious façade. If that's true—and I hope it is!—it is because we are learning to live with a tender-hearted sense of our own need of God's mercy which enables us to extend that mercy to others.

In 1998 we broke ground for the largest construction project in the one hundred year-history of Hyde Park Church. A few months into the project, the construction superintendent said, “You know, it feels like there's something going on around here.”

The construction manager got it right: there is something going on around here. And what's going on around here is a direct result of learning to live and lead out of a life of prayer.

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