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)
Adapted from: Herbert Lockyer, All the Prayers of the Bible. 1959, Zondervan Publishing House
If you click on the item title, such as Prayer History Begins, a tab opens to the passage in your most recent Bible Gateway translation: the KJV, The Message, La Biblia de las Americas--whichever you last used.
On a computer, if you hover on the scripture reference, such as Gen 4:26, you'll see the initial lines of that reference.
As we get closer to crawling out of the morass of COVID-19, I’ve been thinking about joy.
In that process, I’m reminded that there are magical moments in life where, even in the moment, we realize that we are touching greatness.
Most of us have experienced this, and it’s actually been named. People call it being, “in the zone.” Or special forces call it the “green room.” We’re, even for a moment, completely dialed in, time seems to slow down, and you can execute your task perfectly. For me those moments have been rare, but entirely memorable and they are sources of joy even in remembering.
These have been most common in a venue of performance, either athletically or musically, or in public speaking or teaching. I was engaged in a great conversation with a friend about this dynamic and he rightly pointed out that for the “green room” to happen, there are several components.
1. It involves some measure of physicality.
2. It involves practice, rehearsal, or repetitive motion or activity.
3. It involves a public stage of performance, often accompanied by adrenaline.
4. It involves a special sense of awareness and an altered sense of perception.
5. It involves a feeling of power, where even something complicated feels effortless.
6. It is completely in the moment.
7. It is filled with joy and a ridiculous sense of fun.
There is a level of focus, of connectedness, of rightness that is difficult to communicate… but fortunately most people have experienced this at some point in life. Maybe it was the curve ball that didn’t curve, and time slowed down and you clocked it. Maybe it was the three you hit deep in the game and you knew it was in before you let go of the ball. Maybe it was a musical performance where it felt like you had a silly amount of time to place the 64th note just so. Maybe it was the moment of improv and you saw it, and dropped the line, with perfect comic timing. Maybe it was a near miss car accident where you saw everything and did a series of things exactly right to avoid the collision. Maybe it was a first kiss that was better than it had any right to be.
The difference between professionals and talented amateurs or semi-pros, is that professionals (perhaps intuitively) understand the run-up to this process better than the rest of us do. They get enough sleep the night before. They eat the same thing before the game or the concert. They wear the same socks. Many will have a highly regimented pre-game routine that is all about getting into this mental space. They do these things, not as a guarantee to the “green room” but they do everything they can to make it more likely. And somehow it is more likely. What can feel like superstition is actually participating in their activity at the highest level.
Even normal people can see it when this happens. Michael Jordan gets “that look” on his face and buckle up because something amazing is about to happen. Dave Matthews creates this incredible and musical moment and shares it with us. The orchestra fills the room, the conductor is perfect, the musicians just nail it, and the whole room is transported.
My argument is that this is the framework of joy.
Specifically in the idea that joy can be found in the nexus of things fitting together in exactly the right way in our response to a given situation. The good news is that this isn’t just limited to pros, or performance, which perhaps not everyone participates in. But these elements can also be present in the larger context of life, where routine can seem like drudgery and we don’t always see our day to day activity as rehearsals and run-up to greatness. The other piece of good news is that this kind of joy isn’t particularly dependent on external circumstance. Even in chaos, or in tragedy, we can sometimes find the green room to amazing effect. You don’t have to be able to dunk a basketball to find more joy.
Be intentional, with even the little things, as if they were preparation for a major event.
Invest in the things that are most important, both intimately with significant others and friends, but also with cohorts of activity and larger community.
Be in the moment as much as possible. Reflect, yes and plan, for certain… but don’t fall into the trap of always trading yesterday and tomorrow for today. One of most surprising things in the narrative of the gospels is how very present Jesus was, day to day.
Expect great moments to come. I honestly believe that we were created for these things and it is sacred to be conscious of the hope that longs to manifest.
Be vigilant when the great moment arrives. And enjoy it would you? Savor the perfect meal, the great conversation, the unexpected beauty of a sunrise, the run on the beach, the warmth of the fire with loved ones, the aggressive wet nose of a pet, or sharing the simple joy of finally letting your hair down after a hard day’s work.
And as the Bard says,
“Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none: be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key: be cheque’d for silence,
But never tax’d for speech.”
(~All's Well that Ends Well, Act 1, Scene 1)
Merry Christmas Eve Surgeons!
We are missing spending time with you directly on Christmas Eve, but pray that your holiday will be lovely and bright in spite of the year 2020 has been so far.
We were testing live streaming equipment this week... and wanted to share a few of those things with you, as we learn this new medium from scratch!
The first clip is Karen and E doing Mary Did You Know? (Turns out she DID know per Dwaine... so you can skip that one if you wanted to...) and Oh Holy Night...
This second clip is one of my (E's) favorite things of the year. Karen playing Christmas Music on the harp. I love this girl and the music she brings! So if you're interested, take a few minutes and enjoy some carols from the online socially distanced but still loving space from our rehearsal room in Burke!
Take care and Merry Christmas Everyone!
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.