Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, was composed in the summer of 1909. In the spring of 2022, Staff Sergeant Christopher Schmitt played it very, very well.
I don't have a metaphor ridiculous or crass enough to do it justice, so I'll simply say it was stunning.
Technically, it's one of the most difficult pieces to perform that has ever been written. Over 30,000 notes, all of them on purpose, and it is pushing what is possible for a human to play, or hear. Kudos to Sgt. Schmitt for not just playing it, but playing it as it deserves to be played - at the very highest level. There are perhaps 50 people on earth that could play it as well as he did... and without being an expert in this world, you could count on one hand the virtuosos that could have played it better.
I didn't hear a single buzz, or note that seemed out of place... on the contrary; he was calling out individual notes in the nutty 64th note runs - playing with dynamic - with his hands literally leaving blurry afterimages and moving faster than the eye can follow. It was, as my Karen would say... Musical.
He just clobbered it. I was there. Evangeline was too, which I am thankful for. And I will remember the performance forever. The communal spirit of the audience was with me, happily doling out four standing ovations, followed by the lovely foot stomping from the Band itself, and the encore was a breathy, afterglowing, momumental testament to a highly musical moment.
Also, a hearty handclap for Major Ryan J. Nowlin for the gumption to program this piece. That's a risky move, showing a lot of trust in Chris, and in the Band, somehow knowing they could pull it off. And he prepared the band well to lay a most excellent foundation for Chris to soar. He put a guy on the tightrope, in high wind, over the canyon... and brought him back alive.
You could have heard a pin drop, it was breathtaking.
Ok, Ok, I'll stop gushing. But one more thing...
It may be my lack of knowledge or taste, but I prefer older composers to newer ones, at least outside of movie making. Too often the modern composition will be technically incredible, with neat ideas, that quickly drive off some atonal cliff into "something", without heart or resonance, at least for me.
But Sergei is doing something else. He is pushing the technical further than almost anyone, without sacrificing the idea of beauty or coherence. Rachmaninoff is such an interesting composer and it seems to me that a central communication of his music is the idea of human potential and how it touches the ideas of chaos, or madness, or hubris that has potential to fall to it's own destruction. Is it possible to go too far? Is it possible for humankind to reach too high? Is it possible to create too well and have that not be Good? Is there a line where it is too much to bear, or understand, or see, or express? If there is such a demarcation, Rachmaninoff has his toes on that line.
It's a popular theme in myth making; Icarus flying too close to the sun and being destroyed. The nations gathering for the Tower of Babel, only to be frustrated, confused and scattered by direct divine intervention. You have Prometheus with his liver and chains and Sisyphus with his rock and hill. In our shared bedrock of stories, the verdict is clear enough: reach too high at your peril.
Our knee jerk is to take the side of the punished and shake our fair fists at the gods. But maybe, just maybe, there is something true here. That there are some things we shouldn't reach for on our own.
Is there a possible truth in that terrifying and disturbing thought? That we can overspend the currency of genius or the limits of our own soul in our attempts to control Everything and there are times when we get beaten back for our own good?
We see it and shake our heads in popular culture as well; even in the small subculture of music, as recent decades have seen Jimi Hendrix, and Amy Winehouse, and Jaco Pastorius (and many others) shining brightly, and flaming out all too quickly in troubled and genius ridden light. Can we agree that it would be better to back off just a bit, find some pace and live?
It seems to me that the Rach 3 in particular dances with this idea. The movement of the piece flows from a lovely theme, surrounds it with harmony, and then steps on the gas. Increasing in complexity and speed, while retaining beauty, the music starts to add notes of dischord, followed by runs of beauty battling with dissonance and surprising flourishes of what can only be genius and with speed so complex it can scarcely be apprehended and the torrent of notes starts to wiggle into chaos.
But then he pulls back, from the cliff's edge as it were, from the burning of the melting wax, from the building of the forbidden tower, back into beauty. Back, into humanity and community and serenity and rest and peace.
Then he does it again. A few times actually. Sgt. Schmitt was as cool as the other side of the pillow... but my hair was all messed up and my eyes were bloodshot and haggard just from listening.
With Rach, we all took a moment to peer into the abyss, then he reminds us that there is an edge to our map and there be dragons. He takes us for an Icarusian flight, but somehow gets us back to earth alive, if a little singed.
The idea that I'm struck by is this: that the limit here isn't a bad thing. To recognize these boundaries can be a protecting influence for the better angels of our natures and in the final calculus, Plato and Christ are better guides for human flourishing than Sartre, and Nietzsche, and Epicurus with the freedom that flings itself off of the edge. We can deny the existence of the edge itself, or spin ourselves off of it claiming that it doesn't matter anyway. That only jumping matters.
Don't misunderstand what I'm suggesting here. I think we're much more beguiled by sloth in our screens and games and shows and food and comfort and you get the idea.
I think you should put your phone down and go for it. Whatever "it" is for you (well for the most part). I really do. But Sartre's vision of get moving isn't the only game in town. Rachmaninoff is a lot of things, but I'm not buying that he is the waiter in bad faith.
Rachmaninoff is making a compelling case for the existence of beauty, for the reach of human greatness and for, perhaps, our human relationship to the limiting principle of the sacred... which frames, bounds, and focuses our ambition to the Good.
Here are some songs of Christ's coming that "speak to me, and speak for me."
This year's presentation consists of several YouTube playlists. Most of these are live 2018 performances of Keith and Kristyn Getty, including videos licensed to YouTube. In performance, Kristyn read the Bible passages listed here to introduce the songs that follow.
Christmas with the Gettys Part 1 (25 minutes)
Sing We Now Of Christmas (alt)~ God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen ~ Inishowen ~ Sleigh Ride Medley ~ Elizabeth, w Ellie Holcomb
Christmas with the Gettys Part 2 (16 minutes)
From Isaiah chapter 9
The people walking in darkness have seen
a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel ~ Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus ~ O Children Come, w Ladysmith Black Mambazo ~ Silent Night, w Phil Keaggy ~ Wexford Carol/Magnificat
Christmas with the Gettys Part 3 (19 minutes)
From Luke chapter 2
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby,
keeping watch over their flocks at night.
An angel of the Lord appeared to them,
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were terrified.
But the angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid.
I bring you good news that will cause great joy
for all the people. Today in the town of David
a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah,
the Lord. This will be a sign to you:
You will find a baby
wrapped in cloths
and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of
the heavenly host
appeared with the angel,
praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those
on whom his favor rests.”
Sing We the Song of Emmanuel, w Matt Boswell & Matt Papa ~ Joy Has Dawned/Angels We Have Heard On High ~ Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendor ~ Go Tell It On The Mountain
Christmas with the Gettys Part 4 (38 minutes)
In the Bleak Midwinter ~ In Christ Alone ~ Joy to the World ~ An Irish Christmas Blessing ~ O Come All Ye Faithful. Bonus: Getty Kids on the move
Christmas Cheer (38 minutes)
White Christmas, The Drifters ~ Songs of Praise Christmas Big Sing 2018, BBC One ~ We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Illinois State Madrigal Singers
or, Pselected Psalms
Stretching increases flexibility.
One type of flexibility exercise is frequent, varied, one-sentence prayers. These one-liners take several forms: Flash prayer, "can I help you" prayer, reflexive prayer, Practice of the Presence of God prayer, arrow prayers. Haven't heard of these? A frequently-cited Biblical example of a flash prayer is in Nehemiah chapter 2.
The king said, “Why do you look so sad? You’re not sick. Something must be bothering you.”
Even though I was frightened, I answered, “Your Majesty, I hope you live forever!
I feel sad because the city where my ancestors are buried is in ruins, and its gates have
been burned down.”
The king asked, “What do you want me to do?”
I prayed to the God who rules from heaven. Then I told the king, “Sir, if it’s all right with you, please send me back to Judah, so that I can rebuild the city where my ancestors are buried.”
Nehemiah also prayed long prayers,. But you don't want to pray a long prayer while a scary king is staring at you.
So, like Nehemiah and many others, pray for what you most need right now. Take 10 seconds to pray for someone you meet. Hear an ambulance? Pray. Thank the Almighty for whatever good thing you’re experiencing.
We see further examples of these streaming and steaming prayers throughout the Bible. One-breath prayers are the only practical way to pursue Paul's directions in 1 Thessalonian's 5:
"Always be joyful and never stop praying.
Whatever happens, keep thanking God because of Jesus Christ.
This is what God wants you to do."
All that said, I've been yammering for several blog entries about preparing for prayer, about improving prayer by stretching my grasp of what prayer can be. We've considered prayers Jesus approved. Another rich source of prayer stretches is one Jesus used, the book of Psalms.
Not all psalms are prayers. For example, Psalm 1 is not addressed to God but aims to instruct believers:
"God blesses those people who refuse evil advice and won’t follow sinners or join in sneering at God...." .
Psalm 2 is addressed to non-believers: "Be smart, all you rulers, and pay close attention. Serve and honor the Lord; be glad and tremble. Show respect to his son..."
Psalm 3 is a prayer to God. However, David’s prayer is not entirely my prayer: "Ten thousand enemies attack from every side, but I am not afraid. Come and save me, Lord God! Break my enemies' jaws and shatter their teeth, because you protect and bless your people…." Many of David's prayers are like this; hyperbole about ten thousand enemies and asking God to punish said enemies in painfully memorable ways. Should I pray this about the handful of knaves who irk me? In Matthew 5, Jesus said, "You have heard people say, 'Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.' But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you." Not all prayers in the Bible speak to me or speak for me.
Jesus applied some of David's prayers to himself, for example Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you deserted me?... Brutal enemies attack me like a pack of dogs, tearing at my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones, and my enemies just stare and sneer at me. They took my clothes and gambled for them...." Maybe I need to be more like David in earnest defense of God’s people and more like Jesus driving the money-lenders from his Father’s house. Psalm 22 serves to build my appreciation for Jesus but not yet as my own prayer.
When David or the other Psalmists simply ask God for mercy and grace, those are prayers from which I can learn, prayers I can make my own. Take Psalm 6: "Don’t punish me, Lord, or even correct me when you are angry! Have pity on me and heal my feeble body. My bones tremble with fear, and I am in deep distress. How long will it be?..." . Such psalms encourage me to boldly confess and request.
The Psalms, like much of the Hebrew Bible, use words that identify something that can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted, or heard, rather than abstractions. Once in a while a Psalm lapses into Greek-style abstraction, as in Psalm 103: "The Lord is merciful! He is kind and patient, and his love never fails." As though the psalmist realized his lapse, he comes roaring back with specifics:
"How great is God’s love for all who worship him? Greater than the distance between heaven and earth! How far has the Lord taken our sins from us? Farther than the distance from east to west! Just as parents are kind to their children, the Lord is kind to all who worship him, because he knows we are made of dust. We humans are like grass or wild flowers that quickly bloom. But a scorching wind blows, and they quickly wither, to be forever forgotten...."
People love such sensual Psalms even when they are outside their experience.
"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures...."
Raise your hand if you’ve herded sheep or even just chickens. Have you smelled a sweet meadow after a rain or after mowing? Rolled around in it? Have you known someone you can 100% trust? Not many urbanites have had such earthy privileges, but still can kind of appreciate them.
No more than the rest of the Bible, most of the 150 Psalms do not prepare me for the modern prayer requests which tend to be about medical and relationship problems and progress. Psalms that do touch on such matters include Psalms 6, 16, 31, 34, 35, 38, 41, 73, 107, and 147.
Many psalms praise and thank God. These speak to me and speak for me. They encourage me to be demonstrative in worship. These include Psalms 7-9, 34, 40, 65, 89, 92, 95-101, 103-118, 135-139, and 144-150. The Psalm writers were emphatically ecstatic about God’s goodness. How much more can I, with a clearer perspective of Messiah’s work, sing Joy to the World!
or, The Utterly Unselfish Prayer
(Starting Sep 12, Sunday sermons will address Dangerous Prayers. Be there or follow online.)
There are hundreds of prayers in the Bible. One could start at Genesis and buzz through, snarfing insights like a bee among the flowers. I was tempted to do that. Tempted for about six seconds. But I knew of two prayers that Jesus presented as exemplary.
First: "God, have mercy on me a sinner." Genuine humility is fundamental to prayer. Humility is a basic stretch before the activity of prayer. Humility is not simply focusing on how I have messed up, or how messed up I am. Some such stretches can do more harm than good. Humility best starts from appreciating what the Creator has done for all of us. Humility includes trusting that the Almighty can cover my debt of disobedience, the debt I cannot pay.
Here is the second prayer that Jesus endorsed. In Matthew chapter 6. Jesus frames this Model Prayer with two ways not to pray.
When you pray,  don’t be like
who love to stand up and
pray in the meeting places
and on the street corners.
They do this just to look good.
I can assure you that they
already have their reward.
When you pray, go into a room alone
and close the door.
Pray to your Father in private.
He knows what is done in private,
and he will reward you.
When you pray,  don’t talk on and on
as people do
who don’t know God.
They think God likes to hear long prayers.
Don’t be like them.
Your Father knows what you need
before you ask.
You should pray like this:
If you forgive others
for the wrongs they do to you,
your Father in heaven will forgive you.
But if you don’t forgive others,
your Father will not forgive your sins.
Before presenting this model prayer, Jesus encouraged his students to "go into a room alone and close the door. Pray to your Father in private." The KJV says, "enter into thy closet."
Now look. In the "Lord's Prayer", do you see the words "my", "me", or "I"? Go ahead, look.
Nope. It's "Our Father", "Help us", "give us", "forgive us", "we forgive", "keep us", "protect us". That's a crowded closet! On one hand, Jesus says to hide out when we pray. But then his Model Prayer has no "I" or "me".
I've considered a perspective that keeps this prayer private. All the statements and requests of "the Lord's Prayer" model unselfishness. The Lord's Prayer is not about me. It is relentlessly devoid of self. The Lord's Prayer is first about God and secondly about us.
The Model Prayer is shockingly unlike my typical prayer and unlike what I hear in most prayer meetings. It doesn't even end "in Jesus' Name, amen." the first three requests of the Lord's Prayer are not about my worries, not about any human worries. Read it again. The first half of the Lord's Prayer is completely about what God wants.
I once felt that whatever the creator of galaxies and goldfish wants is beyond my understanding. There's truth to that. But wait. The scriptures quite clearly name several things God wants. A previous post lists around a dozen Bible passages that say, here is God wants. Such as: "He does not want anyone to be lost, but he wants all people to change their hearts and lives." And: He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
It should be perfectly clear that God is not presently getting what he wants from humans generally and me specifically. God is capable of getting specific things he wants, but he does seem to have priorities, to have delayed gratification, and to have standards about how these wants are to be fulfilled. Part of this involves me, praying. Really, us, praying.
The first half of the Lord's Prayer is a way for me to say, for us to say, "God, I, with other believers, give up what we want. As our first priority, we really, really, really want what you want."
The second half of the Lord's Prayer considers needs I have in common with all other people.
These are "stayin' alive" needs! Just today's food; forgiveness; God's leadership. Therefore I try to not treat "daily bread" as representative of all the cupcakes, challah, ciabata, or cornpone I will ever want.Rather, I remember that some people are in such dire need that "daily bread" or "food for today" quite fills their desperate hopes. If you haven't lived one day at a time, perhaps you can imagine it.
The Jews who first heard the Lord's Prayer would have remembered where the idea of "daily bread" came from. It came from Exodus chapter 16:
“This is the bread that the Lord
has given you to eat.
And he orders you to gather
about two quarts for each person
in your family.
That should be more than enough.”
They did as they were told.
Some gathered more
and some gathered less,
according to their needs.
None was left over.
Moses told them
not to keep any overnight.
Some of them disobeyed.
The next morning what they kept
was stinking and full of worms,
and Moses was angry.
Each morning everyone gathered
as much as they needed,
and in the heat of the day
the rest melted.
I want more than today's food. God does sometimes direct us to stock up for predicted trouble. But isn't it better to trust God continually? Can I not trust God that I can ask next Thursday for next Thursday's biscuits? You think you need more? You expect more? First. World. Problems.
Not that prayer about my needs is wrong. Most of the prayers in the Bible, including Jesus' prayers, have "I", "me", and "my" in them. Jesus endorsed the humble man who prayed simply, "Lord show mercy on me a sinner." Still, look again. Do you find any medical requests in the Lord's Prayer? Petitions to overcome injustice? Pleas for discernment? Relationship problems? These all are exemplified elsewhere in scripture! But specifics about uncle Ted who has cancer, specifics that I always pray about, simply aren't in the Model Prayer.
Perhaps my observations here are old news to you. Great! But only recently I came to stretch my prayers by better understanding some bits of the Lord's Prayer that have puzzled me for over fifty years. I had shrugged them off.
You might understand then when finally I compared my prayers to the Lord's Prayer, the Model Prayer, I didn't come close. For days I was ashamed to pray. I'm meeting the Creator! What insanity. I approach the King who ultimately gets what He wants. I petition One who gives daily bread to all on this ball. I represent not just me and uncle Ted, but all our common dependence on our Provider. I stand anxiously before the only Judge who can forgive anyone, and I'm naked. I seek One who can lead me out of testing and disaster. Given that I am addressing the Almighty, the Redeemer, the Orderer of all things, I ought to be a little nervous.
But eventually after some prayer paralysis, I gained boldness. How? Because I can greet the Almighty as "Our Father". That's how the Lord's Prayer begins. That's how Jesus' personal prayers proceeded. The prayers of Peter, James, and John had been addressed to Lord, King, Holy One, Redeemer of Our Nation, the Name Above All Names. The new Christ-followers now prayed "Our Father".
"For all who are led by the Spirit of God
are sons of God.
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons,
by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!'" - Romans 8
The Lord's Prayer is for me not a stretch. Just the opposite. It's the Olympic event that demands I stretch beforehand. The Lord's Prayer does mention a stretch, something that prepares us for prayer, and that is actionable after prayer. The stretch is this: "forgive us for doing wrong, as we forgive others." Jesus emphasizes that line in his comments after the prayer. Jesus graphically urges me to do forgiveness before I come to my Judge and Redeemer.
So if you are about to place your gift
on the altar
and remember that someone
is angry with you,
leave your gift there in front of the altar.
Make peace with that person,
then come back and offer your gift to God.
To me, forgiveness is giving up my what I believe someone owes me. Jesus has lots to say about forgiveness, doesn't he? Forgiving someone involves more than changing my attitude, it involves communication and other action. I suppose I can pray, "help me forgive." But the way Jesus puts it, forgiving helps praying. Forgiveness is an earthbound stretch before walking with God.
or, Kneeling Without Nagging
(Hey, starting Sep 12, Sunday sermons will address Dangerous Prayers. Be there or follow online.)
As a teen I had knee surgery. My leg was in a plaster cast for several weeks. On removal of the cast, that leg was skinnier! I couldn't stand, much less walk. So I sat and did leg lifts. Eventually I could with that leg lift a heavy flatiron. Yes, that was long ago.
That knee repair finally wore out. I had the knee replaced with titanium and plastic. Soon after I woke from that surgery, hospital staff wheeled me upstairs. They directed me: there's your bed; walk to it! Cautiously I walked the twenty feet to my bed. Amazing, I thought. No cast, no shrinkage, no limping. The next day, convalescing at Dwaine and Jackie's, I zoomed around their first floor, not really using my cane. Then the meds wore off. No more zooming. Leaning on a walker I lumbered around. Physical Therapy—in the form of various stretches and just keeping in motion—helped me abandon the walker, then the cane.
It seems to me that ability to pray can be injured and can atrophy. I've wondered, is there then therapy for prayer, spiritual stretching that will help me pray, a path through the "dark night of the soul"? This is my continuing research and experience.
In Luke chapter 18, Jesus tells a story—really two stories—about how people should keep on praying and never give up:
In a town there was once a judge
who didn’t fear God
or care about people.
In that same town there was a widow
who kept going to the judge and saying,
“Make sure that I get fair treatment
For a while the judge
refused to do anything.
Finally, he said to himself,
“Even though I don’t fear God or care about people,
I will help this widow
because she keeps on bothering me.
If I don’t help her,
she will wear me out.”
Think about what
that crooked judge said.
Won’t God protect his chosen ones
who pray to him day and night?
Won’t he be concerned for them?
He will surely hurry and help them!
But when the Son of Man comes,
will he find on this earth anyone with faith?
The widow's nagging succeeded with the crooked judge. But does nagging make sense with the Almighty? Jesus' summary here is emphatic: No, you need not nag God! The payload of this parable is that unlike the crooked judge, God hears, God cares, and God is not slow. Elsewhere, Jesus directly admonished, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Ooh. Conflict City. How do I persist in prayer but not nag?
I've learned this: Keep praying but go back to basics. That's not obvious. It's a stretch. But it works.
Does a request to God fail to bring desired results? I can—I must—keep praying--but about other matters. I trust that God heard me the first time. I trust that God understands the situation better than anyone else and before anyone else. Therefore I persist in the attitudes and actions that the Bible says enable prayer. These stretches include: humility before my Creator; confident trust in God as my Father; and compassion to people.
Jesus' second story in Luke 18 seems disconnected from the first story except for involving prayer. The second story mainly deals with humility.
Two men went into the temple to pray.
One was a Pharisee
and the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood over by himself
“God, I thank you that I am not greedy,
and unfaithful in marriage
like other people.
And I am really glad that
I am not like that tax collector.
I go without eating for two days a week,
and I give you one tenth of all I earn.”
The tax collector stood off at a distance
and did not think he was good enough
even to look up toward heaven.
He was so sorry for what he had done that
he pounded his chest and prayed,
“God, show mercy on me, a sinner!"
Then Jesus said:
When the two men went home,
it was the tax collector
and not the Pharisee
who was pleasing to God.
If you put yourself above others,
you will be put down.
But if you humble yourself,
you will be honored.
The payload is this: God honors genuine humility.
Did you notice the large key above?
The ordinary way to ask for mercy is demonstrated later in this chapter of Luke. A blind man implores, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The tax collector uses a less common verb that can be translated, “God, show mercy on me!” In the New Testament, this show mercy verb appears in just one other place, referring to Jesus, “that he might pay for the sins of the people.” The tax collector knew he owed a debt he could not pay. Jesus paid a debt he did not owe.
The Sinner's Prayer is fundamental. The Sinner's Prayer opens the door. If genuine, it pleases God. But reciting the Sinner's Prayer is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, compelling God to show mercy. Jesus repeatedly connects my receiving mercy to my giving mercy. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
There are many examples in the Bible and experience of prayer enablers, prescribed stretches and encouragements to use when I seem out of touch with God.
“So if you are about to place your gift on the altar and remember that someone is angry with you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. Make peace with that person, then come back and offer your gift to God.” Matthew 5:23-24
1 Peter 3:7, Proverbs 21:13, 1 John 3:21-22, James 4:3, Psalm 66:18, ...
I'm thinkin' maybe churches should offer Prayer Therapy; not just fixing problems via prayer, but fixing prayer by exercising our abilities to appreciate God, to trust God, to discern what God wants, to give and receive mercy, to merge humility and boldness, and thus walk and talk better with God.
"Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear." - Isaiah 65
"I am the Lord, and I created the whole world. Ask me, and I will tell you things that you don’t know and can’t find out." - Jeremiah 33
"We have a great high priest, who has gone into heaven, and he is Jesus the Son of God. That is why we must hold on to what we have said about him. Jesus understands every weakness of ours, because he was tempted in every way that we are. But he did not sin! So whenever we are in need, we should come bravely before the throne of our merciful God. There we will be treated with undeserved kindness, and we. will. find. help." - Hebrews 4
"Without faith no one can please God. We must believe that God is real and that he rewards everyone who searches for him." - Hebrews 11
Next, in Part 3: The Lord's Prayer
My renewed interest in prayer began with knee surgery.
Appropriate, right? But the knee was not a significant subject of my prayers.
Following my surgery I was beat up by a little girl. Three times a week, for three months. These physical therapy sessions stimulated prayers for those I met there. However, PT (aka Pain Time) did not lead me to pray much more or pray much differently.
Graduating from PT, I thought that my old practices of just walking and biking would suffice for maintenance. I was wrong. A year after knee replacement, I was limping again. I thought that maybe I had overdone walking and biking. I prayed with remorse. But remorse is not unusual for my prayers. My habits of prayer still had not changed.
I returned to the doctor and the same little girl physical therapist.
To my relief I learned that I just needed to continue the simple stretches I'd already learned. Plus a couple more, presumably as punishment for substituting my favored exertions. The beatings and recommended stretches worked immediately!
Here's how I came to renew interest in prayer: During a subsequent stretching exercise at home, a question entered my mind
Might I also benefit from stretching in non-athletic ways?
An answer pretty quickly followed.
"Train yourself for godliness;
for while bodily training is of some value,
godliness is of value in every way,
as it holds promise for the present life
and also for the life to come." - 1 Timothy 4
But where to begin? Should I consult a prayer doctor, or what? I dug out my old copy of Richard J Foster's book Celebration of Discipline. Foster examines a dozen classic practices of the Christian life: Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, and Study; Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, and Service; Confession, Worship, Guidance, and Celebration. I knew that disciplines and virtues build from each other. I suspected pursuing too many of these at once would hurt more than help. I chose kind of arbitrarily to focus first on prayer.
Before I report on the dismaying yet fruitful experiences in "prayer stretches", let me emphasize this:
"You were saved by faith in God, who treats us much better than we deserve.
This is God’s gift to you, and not anything you have done on your own.
It isn’t something you have earned, so there is nothing you can brag about.
God planned for us to do good things and to live as he has always wanted
us to live. That’s why he sent Christ to make us what we are." - Ephesians 2
God is not a vending machine. Improving praying--or service, or worship--must not be an attempt to buy God's favor. He already favors us. Suppose as some do, that progress in prayer is measured by miracles. How is that so different than the rooster who feels his crowing causes the sun to rise? Perhaps with better praying I gain appreciation of God, enjoyment of his creation, empathy for people, or insights and feelings about myself. Positive as these are, ought these be my motives to pray? What are the purposes of prayer?
Studying prayer has been productive for me, but is no substitute for just praying. I ought not delay until I'm good. As Chesterton put it, "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." I found that are such things as prayers God doesn't like. Yet as you'll see in a minute, I also found that God is prepared for us to pray poorly, with inferior knowledge and deplorable technique. As we come to pray, we have resources besides prior study.
It's not all up to me. I have--we have--a coach, a helper.
"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.
We do not know what to pray for as we ought,
but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with
groanings too deep for words." - Romans 8
Paul wrote about half the New Testament. Paul admits that he and other believers know diddly-squat about prayer. "We do not know what to pray for!" Many translations put this, "we don't know how to pray!"
Genuine humility is not a defect. Humility and confession are recommended opening stretches for prayer.
But Paul also has good news. He immediately adds that God's Spirit comes alongside as a helper, a coach, an advocate. Jesus several times says as much of the Spirit:
"I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper,
to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth,
whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him
nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you
and will be in you." - John 14
I plan to ramble on in several installments about what I've learned so far this year about prayer, how these stretches of my mind, my emotions, and even my muscles are improving my praying. In any case, I hope you will be encouraged to pray, just pray. You are not alone.
I recently had a great conversation with a friend of mine, Brad Barker.
Brad is an extraordinary individual, talented, smart, funny, and has been met with success everywhere he's been.
But maybe his biggest success would be his kids. Brad and Stacey have great kids.
To be sure, this is partly from their superlative genetic stock... but not completely, because child number three is adopted and she is incredible too.
So at least some of this in environment. Well done sir.
We're starting an Online Campus at The Surge and I'm on the hunt for interviews that would be interesting, meaningful and funny. Brad was a logical choice for the first one.
The long form of the interview is here. (click the link to watch)
And here are links to his kids and their recent activity - check them out if you would!
Matthias Barker TikTok
Benjamin Barker SoundCloud (check out These Long, Last Days)
Lily Barker Spotify (singles also on AmazonMusic)
At The Surge we love doing things together... that includes writing a blog! Here are a few of our main contributing authors:
Our fearless leader, Dwaine is the lead pastor at The Surge. His experience in counter terrorism with the CIA prepared him for ministry and he likes dogs and babies even more than E does.
E (short for Eric Reiss) is the Wingman at The Surge and likes dogs, music, Mexican food, his wife Karen and his little girl Evangeline... not necessarily in that order.