Prayer, pt 4: What to expect

[Part 4 of a four-part adaptation of my message, “Our Daily Bread.”]

Matthew 6:25-34 was pivotal in my decision to come on staff at the church almost two summers ago. Back then the church was only a few months old; we weren’t even meeting in the school yet—we were still in Aaron & Amy’s living room. And I needed a job. I’d come to the end of a year-long internship and none of the jobs I’d applied for had panned out; in fact I hadn’t even heard back from any of them, which was disheartening.

When Aaron and I started talking about the possibility of coming onboard as the church’s first leadership resident, it seemed almost perfect: I had been a part of shaping the vision and culture of the church; I loved the people; it would mean that I’d get to stay in DC, a city I was learning to love. But there was one problem: the church, being as brand new as it was, didn’t have money to hire staff, and for me, financial security was a big thing. I would need to raise my own support, which I’d never done before—beyond raising money for a short-term mission trip.

So I took time to pray about it, and as I did so, God brought Matthew 6 to mind: “Do not worry about your life. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all that you need will be given to you as well.” It was both a challenge and a reassurance.

The last year and a half of raising support has certainly been an exercise in building trust. I wrote earlier that I hate asking for things, and money is the thing I hate asking for most of all. But just a few weeks ago, I got to a point where I had only about a month’s left of reserves—the couple months prior had been extremely exhausting and I hadn’t had time to fundraise, so it was getting close to crunch time. And so, out of desperation and also knowing that, while God said he would provide, he also wanted me to do my part, I sent out an email to friends and family asking them for help, asking them to give financially.

The response was overwhelming—someone gave within a couple minutes of me sending that email; someone else gave another thirty seconds after that. And over the couple weeks that followed, many, many people stepped up and gave, including one friend’s parents and grandmother!

On top of that, a few days later, the church’s Executive Team met and decided that, thanks to your generosity and commitment to the church—particularly in the area of financial giving—they could now afford to increase their support for me.

So God has provided, and that’s one way I’m learning to trust God—by seeing him come through on those things, those basic yet desperate things, that I bring to him.

And I know not all of our prayers get answered the way that we would like them to be. That’s a huge question that many of us have–for some of you it’s the biggest question–and I didn’t have time to dive into on Sunday, but I may do a stand-alone post on that at some point.

Ultimately, what we expect also comes down to whom we are asking, because if we make basic, desperate requests with trust of God our Father, who loves us, who cares for us, who knows us better than we know ourselves, and who certainly knows what’s going on in the people and the world around us better than we do, we can rest assured that he will come through … though it may look vastly different to what you expected.

One commentary says this: when we pray, we can trust that God will give us what we need—not what we want or even what we think we need—but what God our Father sees our need actually to be. This is our daily bread that we ask for; not our daily feast, though that would be nice, but our daily bread. So 19th century Scottish minister Robert Murray M’Cheyne concludes, “God will either give you what you ask, or something far better.”

Last week, Aaron shared about Ryan Woods, a pastor in Washington State, who’s been fighting a terrible cancer and whom doctors have given only a few months to live. He wrote a blog a couple weeks ago answering the question he gets asked a lot—“Do you blame God for making you sick, for the cancer?” Here’s one paragraph that I wanted to share with you all:

I think about my kids at Disneyland. They kept wanting to buy those big giant suckers that look really cool. But the thing is, they taste like crap and my kids hate them. Every time they buy one of them they regret it and wish they had bought something else. I know better than them. I do. I’ve got more perspective, I’ve got a better memory, I have more information … I just know better. I’m the dad. Ok, maybe that’s not the best illustration, but the idea that God knows better is important to me because if he truly is good (as my foundational assumption tells me he is) then I can trust that he’s not trying to screw me or those I love over. All of his activity is first and foremost motivated by love. Always.

This is why it is so important that Jesus begins the Lord’s Prayer with, “Our Father …” Because everything else that comes after, all the praises we can sing, all the requests we can make for provision or forgiveness or keeping us safe, that will all crumble under the slightest pressure if it isn’t founded on a relationship of trust and obedience and dependence and respect.

Trust God, who is our Father. Trust God, who is love. Trust God, who desires and knows what is best for you. Make basic, desperate requests of God with trust. “Give us this day our daily bread.”

What might “our daily bread” be for you and your community? What is that basic, stuff-of-life thing that, as far as we know, we need, desperately? I need a tough conversation to go well that I’m supposed to have today; I need this housing option to work out today; I need food for today; I need some way to get through the pain of this physical ailment today; I need some way to figure out this financial mess I’m in today; I need a relationship with God as Father today. “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Whatever it is, write it down: on a card, in your journal, in your diary, on your hand. Write it down, and come back to it every day this week, and ask God how he might be answering it—it may not look like you think it will, but trust that he knows what he’s doing.

God will either give you what you need, or something far better.

Amen.

Prayer, pt 3: How to ask

[Part 3 of a four-part adaptation of my message, “Our Daily Bread.”]

There are many ways in which I could answer the question of “How do we ask for things in prayer?”, but I’m just going to say this:

Make basic, desperate requests of God with trust.

In our lives, in our conversations and talks with God, we bring the very basic matters of our lives but also the awareness that comes with desperation—we need God, we need a Savior, we need to be rescued from our own sin and selfishness and even our own tendency to think we can do it all on our own, we need to be connected to the One who is bigger than anything we might face. Jesus reminds us in John 15:5, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

I know some of us (myself included, on occasion) might be tempted to arch our eyebrows and say, “Not even a little bit?”

Nope: “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

So make basic, desperate requests of God with trust.

A.J. Swoboda, a pastor in Portland, OR, writes:

To build muscles, people lift weights. To grow trust, Christians pray. Nothing else builds trust quite like facing all of your ongoing problems and unsolved struggles by getting down on your knees and not trying to fix them the way you would your gutters or broken refrigerators.

Yeah, I hate it too! 🙂 I mean, sometimes I hate asking in the first place because it means I’m admitting that I need something, and that’s just not fun. That’s humbling. But then admitting to God that I need something, bringing a problem to him and not immediately trying to fix it myself … that can be even harder!

Many of you know about my friend Ashley, who passed away a couple months ago. I’ve never had anyone this close to me pass away, and I’m going through the grieving process right now. And there is nothing I would like better than to fix this problem myself and get back to so-called normal functionality. But one of my friends gave me this advice, “You can’t fix this; don’t do anything. Just sit in it with God.”

Just sit in it?! Just tell me what to do to make things better!

But grief doesn’t work like that; you can’t just follow these five easy steps and heal yourself.

And life doesn’t work like that—there are so many things over which we have no control: what someone at work might say to you, how some random person on the street might be having a bad day and take it out on you, how your husband might mishear you, or how your wife might forget something you asked her to do; an experience that was inflicted upon you as a child or as a teenager or as a grown-up, that you still haven’t recovered from; a relationship or a marriage you fought hard to save but you were the only one who fought; the loss of a child or friend.

So in prayer, we bring our basic, desperate requests to God our Father—if there is anyone in the world we can trust, it is him. He is the One who cares for us more deeply and more furiously than anyone ever has or ever will. This is the God of the universe we’re talking to, who has invited us into a relationship of trust.

“Talk with me,” he says. “Listen to me. Walk with me. Spend time with me. Trust me.”

Later on in Matthew 6, Jesus says:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

Jesus prays the prayer of the poorest of the poor, and he says, “Pray for the basic things. Pray for food, pray for shelter, pray for clothing. But trust that your heavenly Father will provide. Seek him, and he will give all these things to you. The most important thing is your relationship with God your Father, not all the things he gives you.”

Prayer, pt 2: What to ask

[Part 2 of a four-part adaptation of my message, “Our Daily Bread.”]

To begin with, some of you might point out that in Matthew 6:8, Jesus says, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” which echoes Psalm 139:4—“Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely”—so why even bother voicing these requests? God knows, right?

Well, yes, he does, but there’s a great quote from P.T. Forsyth, a Scottish theologian who lived about a hundred and fifty years ago, that I found helpful in how I understand this. He said, “Love loves to be told what it knows already … It wants to be asked for what it longs to give.”

I have a four year-old niece called Amy, who lives in Southern California, and when I’m back there, I always make sure to spend some quality time with my brother’s family. Now before every meal, of course, the kids have to go wash their hands, and Amy’s not tall enough to reach the bathroom sink on her own, so there’s a stool in there to help. And she’s old enough and smart enough to grab the stool and wash her hands without help, but this one time she turned to me and said, “Will you help me, Uncle Jus?”

Love wants to be asked for what it longs to give.

Pastor and author John Ortberg highlighted something in a recent sermon and it was a revelation to me, so I want to share it with you. Jesus lived in a time in which agriculture—farming—played a huge role in life; most farmers operated on the yearly food cycle of sowing and harvesting. Back in Old Testament times, when God was establishing the people of Israel as his own, he gave instructions for creating a culture of generosity; so for instance, in Leviticus 19, he says to the farmers, “Do not reap to the edges of the field; leave the gleanings—the leftovers—for the poor and the immigrant,” those who have no way to fend for themselves. Moreover, farmers were instructed to provide for the local poor—the poor in their towns—about a week’s worth of food, so they wouldn’t have to come back and ask every day. But for the itinerant beggars, the poorest of the poor, those who traveled from town to town, they would provide only enough food for the day.

So when it came to food, farmers operated on the yearly cycle, the local poor operated on a weekly cycle, and the poorest of the poor operated on a daily cycle. In Jesus’ day, the normal prayer for food that rabbis taught was, “Bless upon us, Lord our God, this year and all its types of produce for good.” It was common practice for disciples to ask their rabbis for their own versions of these prayers—like customizing them for their team; so, in Luke’s account of this incident, the disciples come to Jesus and say, “Rabbi, teach us how to pray.”

And Jesus says, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.”

This is the prayer of the poorest of the poor—“Give us what we need for this day; that’s all we’re asking.”

There’s an interesting episode in Mark 2. One sabbath, Jesus and his disciples are walking through some grainfields and the disciples begin to take some of the heads of grain. These aren’t their fields—they don’t own any fields—so they’re taking food that doesn’t belong to them! And they get in trouble with the religious leaders. But they get in trouble with the religious leaders not for taking the food, but for doing what’s considered work on the sabbath. Why is this? Because that food was left for them—remember: “Do not reap to the edges of your fields; leave the leftovers for the poor …”

So when Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “Christ, though he was rich, for your sakes became poor,” he actually means poor—not just poor compared to the riches he left in heaven; like, actually poor.

I want to suggest that this means two things for how we pray this line. First, when Jesus taught his disciples—when he taught us—to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” he was identifying with, and asking us to identify with, the poorest of the poor. The life of faith is not one you can walk on your own, with no reference to those around you, and especially without regard for those who are less fortunate. God made every single one of us—rich and poor—in his image; Christ lived and died and rose again to rescue and redeem every single one of us—rich and poor. We are called to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, to care for the poor, or as Matthew describes them later in his gospel, “the least of these.”

In prayer, even when we make requests, even when we ask for things, God doesn’t want us to withdraw into our own self-centered shells, as it’s so easy to do. That’s not what prayer is about, not even petitionary prayer. So maybe when you give thanks for your food … first, you don’t take it for granted–after all, it’s real easy to just go through the motions, and second, you pray for someone who doesn’t have food, that God would provide their daily bread, too. Or maybe when we ask God for something, we ask God to open our eyes to someone else who might have this same request, and we pray for them too.

The second thing I think Jesus means when he tells us to pray for our daily bread is that you can ask for what you need.

For some of us, “Give us this day our daily bread” is a strange request—here’s the material world intruding on the realm of the spiritual; prayer’s about asking for patience and wisdom and grace and forgiveness and joy and all these other intangible things, right? And the older and wiser and more mature we get, surely the less self-focused we should be, the less our own requests should factor into our prayers, and the more we should be able to just bring the causes of others—especially those less well-off—before God. That’s what I thought growing up, and maybe you may not say that, but when you stop to think about what you pray for, maybe that’s you.

You might think that you really shouldn’t bother God with the small, seemingly petty, definitely mundane things in your life. We can ask him to help us forgive someone who’s hurt us deeply; we can ask him to heal someone who’s dying of terminal cancer; we can ask him for guidance and wisdom and clarity about whether or not we should get married to the person we’re dating; but he’s not really interested in the little things, is he? He doesn’t care about a meeting we might have this morning, or a leak in the roof, or a broken heel. We can handle that stuff!

You see, we can think that prayer is to God as decisions are to the President. Barack Obama has a lot of decisions to make, and only a limited amount of time to make them—he is only human. So if there are easy decisions to make, they’ll get made further down the chain of command; responsibility is delegated, so if something does make it to the President’s desk, it’s because it needs his attention.

And in the same way, we can think that we should only bother God with the really important stuff, only with the things we can’t handle. And there’s a real power that comes from asking God for the seemingly impossible; there’s a kind of faith that comes out of that; and we should definitely, definitely ask God for the ‘bigger’ stuff. But here’s the thing: God is eternal, God is not bound by time and space and the finiteness of humanity, God does not have a limited capacity that he has to carefully divide up between the billions of us who are clamoring out our requests.

More importantly, God is, as we looked at a moment ago, our Father.

Now I don’t have kids of my own, but sometimes I get to go pick up Elijah, Amy and Aaron’s three year-old son, from school. I’ve known Elijah since he was only a few months old, and I care about him as much as I care about my own nieces and nephews. And so when I pick him up from school and as we walk home, I ask him about his day: I want to know what he did that day, I want to know what he learned, I want to know if he had fun or if he cried. It gives me joy to hear him talk, to hear him share, to hear about his life. Because I love this little man, I take an interest in his life. There is nothing too mundane; and there is nothing too small.

And in the same way, Jesus tells us, God cares for us, as our heavenly Father, infinitely more than human fathers and mothers ever could. He says in Matthew 7:

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

God’s not out to get you. No, God cares for us so much more than we care for those we love. There is nothing too mundane; and there is nothing too small.

Asking for the food we need to make it through the day is about the most basic thing you can ask for, and if Jesus doesn’t look down on it, I don’t think we should either. So don’t let anyone tell you that bringing your humblest, most ordinary, most practical requests to God is somehow less spiritual. Nothing is more important to God our Father than what we are going through, whatever that might be. These things—great and small—are important to him because they are important to us. Just as I love hearing Elijah share the smallest details of his day at school, so God longs to hear from us the smallest matters of our lives. It delights him when we share; it gives him joy when we ask him for things that he desires to give us—remember, “Love loves to be told what it knows already … It wants to be asked for what it longs to give.”

As human beings, we have physical, material needs—food, shelter, clothing—and for most of us these things aren’t an issue, but for many in our city, they are. In 2007, there were 200,000 children in the Greater DC region at risk of hunger, including 1 in 2 children living in the District itself.

How can we be asking for our daily bread, where “our” means not just me and the person I’m praying with at this particular moment, but the people of this city that we live in?

Stepping out from the literal understanding of our daily bread, what else do we need for our day? Maybe some of those intangibles we mentioned earlier: peace when you’re facing a tough classroom or work situation, joy when you’re just feeling like your back’s against the wall, hope when you can’t see even the faintest glimmer of light in your situation, faith to trust that God your Father hears you when you ask. You can pray for these things too; you can ask your Father for these things.

“Give us this day our daily bread” is both very basic and very desperate. Remember, this is the prayer of the poorest of the poor. It’s very basic, to do with the stuff of life: “Give us food for today.” And it’s very desperate: “Give us food for today.”

And that leads us into tomorrow’s piece: How to ask.

Prayer, pt 1: Whom we’re asking

[Part 1 of a four-part adaptation of my message, “Our Daily Bread.”]

I remember writing letters to Santa along with the rest of my elementary school classmates, asking for things that we wanted. I don’t even remember what I asked for, but I do remember one year—when I was about 8 or 9—staying up till midnight on Christmas Eve, taking peeks out the curtain to see if I’d spot him—but not too blatantly, in case it scared him away—all the while wondering, “How is he going to get into our apartment when (1) we don’t even have a chimney, (2) we live on the second floor of a twenty-story apartment building, and (3) does Santa even make it to HongKong?!”

Then I got a little older and a little wiser, and grew out of Santa; and I replaced him with God. Only instead of writing letters and asking for toys, I sent prayers and asked that he would make this cute girl I had a crush on like me back. That would be fantastic, thank you very much.

For a long time, that’s all I thought prayer was: Dear God, please could you give me …? In Jesus’ name, amen. Because that’s what I understood from what I was taught and what I saw modeled in the church: prayer was simply asking God for stuff that you wanted. Now to be fair, that wasn’t what people in my church necessarily believed, but that’s the truth that I picked up from what I saw and heard. And I think that’s what a lot of us still believe—you know, I thought about naming this message, “How to get what you want from God,” and while that’s obviously a caricature of how we look at prayer, for many of us it’s not that far off, is it? We’re not quite sure how to understand prayer, and specifically what it means to ask God for things.

Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, writes, “Prayer is simply talking to God about what we are doing together.”

So every night before I went to sleep, my dad would make sure to come and talk with God with me. And through that I began to cultivate a relationship with God.

At fifteen, I left home, went to boarding school, finished high school, studied law at university, and got pretty good at looking after myself. God and I sort of lost touch a little, not in the sense that we didn’t get along any more; more in the sense that I just forgot to call. And part of that was related to what I understood about prayer, and also what I understood about myself. There wasn’t a lot that I couldn’t do for myself, there wasn’t a lot that I wanted or needed from other people. (Though I probably did still pray that old prayer on occasion: God, please make this cute girl I have a crush on like me back!)

For the most part, I considered myself to have ‘graduated’ into a pretty self-sufficient, adult walk with God. I don’t need anything from you, God. We can just hang out and relate as grown-ups; what a mutually beneficial relationship we have! Aren’t you lucky to have me as part of your family? (Anyone else think that they knew it all when they were younger?!)

Over the first two weeks of this series looking at the Lord’s Prayer, Aaron took us through “Our Father in heaven” and “Your kingdom come.” This week, we’re looking at “Give us this day our daily bread,” at asking God for things, what’s known as petitionary prayer. Indeed, if you look at it, much of the Lord’s Prayer is petitionary prayer; it’s asking.

But I think, if we’re being honest, we often don’t really know what to ask for in prayer or we don’t know what to expect or we don’t know how to ask; and I want to suggest that part of the reason for this is that we don’t know whom we’re asking. So this week, I’m going to try to hit all four of those points, in this order:

  1. whom we’re asking (today),
  2. what we’re asking for (tomorrow),
  3. how to ask (Wednesday), and
  4. what to expect (Thursday).

Each of these individual points could be books of their own, so I’m going to touch on them a lot faster than maybe we’d like, just throw the seed out there, and see what God grows in us.

Whom we’re asking

How we talk to someone, how we approach somebody, how we request something from someone, differs depending on who that person is, right? If I don’t know you as well, I’m less likely to, for instance, ask you for a favor; or vice versa. We haven’t built up the trust, we haven’t developed the relationship, on which that request can stand. Whereas with my parents or with my brothers or my close friends, I can make a request with confidence, knowing that they know me and that they’re not going to think I’m just trying to take advantage of them.

So it’s important to know what relationship we have with God as we pray; and fortunately, we have the prayer that Jesus taught us to help us: the Lord’s Prayer establishes the relationship first. It begins with being about God before it’s about us; it starts with recognizing who God is: our Father in heaven.

We often just skip over this part in the prayer; it’s just the salutation–just saying “Hey.” Aaron talked about this a couple weeks ago when we kicked off the series, so I don’t want to rehash all of that—and if you missed it, I encourage you to go back and listen to the podcast.

But I will say this: it makes all the difference in the world that Jesus tells us, invites us, to call God “Father,” and he later uses that word “Abba.” When I call my parents back in Hong Kong, I don’t address my dad as “Professor Fung” or “Doctor Fung,” though some people do and he is those things. And when that happens, it always both fills me with pride and makes me laugh, because to me he’s just “Dad.” That’s our relationship; that’s the level of our intimacy; that’s how we relate. He’s my dad.

And in the same way, only on a scale far more amazing and in a way far more mind-boggling, Jesus, in calling God, “Father,” and inviting us to do the same, was opening the door for us to enter into an intimacy with the God of the universe that none had ever known. People in Jesus’ time knew God as the Holy One, the Lord of the hosts of heaven, enthroned on high, unreachable, untouchable, unapproachable; and yet Jesus says, “Come join me in talking with my Father and your Father. Come meet the One who is great and holy, and who is also so loving and intimate and desiring to be involved.”

Now, it’s important not to go too far with this: abba is not the same as just daddy, because in family circles where the term abba was used, what was central to the relationship between father and child was obedience and respect. And so this is the dynamic that we are invited into: a relationship with the God of the universe, who is at the same time more than worthy of our obedience and respect, and yet invites us in to be a part of his family. That’s part of the wonder that is core to our faith: the God of the universe invites us to be a part of his family.

This is the ‘who’ of prayer; this is whom we’re asking: God our Father. For some of us, this is the first step toward prayer: beginning to understand the relationship into which we’ve been invited. Prayer is about relating with the God who is revealed in the person and character of Jesus Christ.

And when we realize how close God our Father desires to be with us, when we begin to grasp “Oh, how he loves us,” then we can begin to be honest, then we can begin to feel free to ask, to request, to bring ourselves and our lives to him.

This is whom we’re asking: God our Father.