The painful images of Houston, and the rest of east Texas, soaking in the devastating wake of Hurricane Harvey is hard to process. I say that sitting in a kitchen in South Carolina, where we only got a few sprinkles of rain yesterday and there is literally no chance of my family having to swim to safety. So there is also no chance that I will be able to imagine the distress, confusion and emotional emptiness the actual victims are facing this morning. Though I am sympathetic, it is difficult to conjure true empathy as I have never been in such a life-crushing event.
But that doesn’t mean I haven’t prayed, longed and felt some of the weight my fellow human beings are experiencing. Where we, the citizens of Texas, Louisiana and myself, can find common ground is in the moments of helplessness we all experience. Everyone, at some point, finds themselves in situations where there is no steering wheel and no way to control what is happening. This is a frustrating and frightening feeling that can cause us to physically feel the unforgiving weight of the chaos and the quicksand-like grip of our lack of resources or solutions. Becoming self-aware is something that we often assume to be a good thing, and it is, but becoming self-aware through a loss of control is not only humbling, it can be paralyzing.
It was after watching news reports about the flooding in Texas and seeing the images of the devastation on television that I came across something in Eugene Peterson’s book, “Practice Resurrection,” that was so timely.
There is a way that we pray when things have gone bad, a desperate, pleading kind of petition. We look to the sky and wonder if getting loud, or shedding tears, or just laying defeated in the middle of our life will conjure some sort of response. It is easy to pray from this perspective because it is the one we know best. We know it because it is the view that most of us have most of the time. We see things at ground level. When there are problems we don’t get the luxury of looking at it to analyze it, we have to try and dig our way out of it just to catch our breath.
But it is important to remember that just because we don’t see the other perspective, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t another perspective.
Peterson, talking about the Apostle Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21, offers these incredible words:
In any congregation, on any given Sunday, it doesn’t take long to look around and locate and name a dozen people whose identity is synonymous with need…There is not a pew in any sanctuary that does not reserve space for needs that require and receive prayers of intercession.
Paul’s prayers of intercession add another dimension, the huge reservoir of plentitude our of which the intercessions flow. His prayers of intercession flow out of the plentitude of God. The plentitude of God, not the penury of the human condition, undergirds the intercessions. Paul is certainly not unaware of the neediness of the congregation to whom he is writing – he is, after all, a pastor. But his prayer do not arise out of pity or desperation over the human condition. The intercessions are shaped and energized by God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The point Peterson is getting at is more than astute and more than interesting; it is soul-shaking.
If we, when we pray, would take a moment and decide which direction we choose to believe from, it might change the way we pray AND the way we see our needs. God hears our prayers no matter how we offer them to Him, and He is perfectly capable of discerning even the most jumbled and confusing thoughts and words. But prayer is not just about us unloading ourselves onto God’s plate for consideration. Prayer is not just where we list our problems. Prayer is not merely a tool designed to assess and identify needs.
Prayer is not just a way to express your problems, it should be part of the answer to those problems.
Paul doesn’t pray for the Ephesians in a way that ignores their struggles, or that trivializes their difficulties. But Paul also chooses not to let the those struggles and difficulties be the point of his prayer. Instead of beginning from the normal, boots-on-the-ground perspective, Paul chooses to pray with language that preemptively proclaims the abundance of answers to the needs that are presently being experienced!
Imagine prayer as a solar system. Most of us pray in a way that understands our needs as the center of the system, and we pray for God’s blessings, healing, direction, etc… to orbit around those needs. The goal being that the solutions of God would slowly close in on our troubles and, hopefully, changing them.
Paul, on the other hand, sees the solar system differently. He sees God’s eternal supply, His goodness and grace, as the center of everything and the needs of the people show up around it. In our scenario, the focal point of everything is a place of emptiness, of lack. But in Paul’s vision, everything finds its identity in relation to God and His fullness.
How different would it be if we really believed that in the middle of all our chaos the love of God was holding everything together? As opposed to our temptation to see our needs as the center of everything that we need God to invade. What if we don’t have to have God’s “grace invaders” to break their orbit and penetrate our lives? What if we are assured that even if we collapse and fall into the middle of life, we will find that we’re on the only eternally stable place in all of existence?
What does that kind of perspective shift do to the way we pray?
We see clearly what it did for Paul’s prayers. Peterson sums up this shift in expectations saying:
Our problems don’t define us; God defines us. Our problems are neither the first nor the last word of who we are; God is.
This is why Paul ends his prayer with these famous words:
20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.