Monthly Archives: January 2013

3 Prayers in 1

Public prayer is part of almost every meeting associated with church, and often is offered in other community gatherings. Anyone who has attended many meetings can easily identify categories of prayers – invocation, benediction, etc. – by the vocabulary and structure of the particular prayer. In all likelihood, the familiarity of the form numbs many hearers into momentary mental freefall, rather than into true participation in the prayer.

I read an article some time ago quoting a widely-known Christian author and pastor who commented on phrases he found overused in public prayers. He told an audience of 600 pastors that if he heard one more prayer asking God to “lead, guide, and direct” us, he thought he’d vomit! My response to that phrase is not nearly so caustic, although “lead, guide, and direct” has often made me wince. I have wondered about what I call the “Roget’s Thesaurus” habitual approach to prayer. As the noted pastor opined, can’t we simply ask God to lead us? Why do we so often pray, lead, guide, and direct?”

On second thought, when was I (or the pastor quoted in the article) appointed as the authority to critique prayers offered by other people? Rather than scoffing at the verbiage used by someone leading public prayer, my role is to join them in praying to God. The prayer that is spoken aloud is a prompt for me to engage my own heart and mind in conversation with God.

The familiar phrase, “lead, guide, and direct” can serve as a reminder of the marvelous and essential ways God lets us know how to live and how to follow Jesus more faithfully. Each petition need not be a mere redundancy. For God to “lead, guide, and direct” us actually covers subtly different but vitally important elements of our dependence upon God.

LEAD – I am dependent upon “seeing-eye deacons” and others literally to lead me by the hand, especially to go anywhere that is potentially a dangerous trek. My sight is zero, while a sighted person leading me can clearly see the path we are to travel. God has promised to lead us in such a step-by-step manner, even describing us as blind and in need of his careful leading. Promising through Isaiah to send his Suffering Servant to redeem his people, God says, “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles…. {16} I will lead the blind on unfamiliar roads. I will lead them on unfamiliar paths. I will turn darkness into light in front of them. I will make rough places smooth. These are the things I will do for them, and I will never abandon them.” (Isaiah 42:6, 16 GWT) God promises that, “I … lead you along straight paths. {12} When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble.” (Proverbs 4:11b-12 NIV) God knows the way that is best and most fulfilling for our lives, and desires to lead us along that path, hand-in-hand. His careful leading is familiar from Psalm 23: “He leads me beside still waters; {3} he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:2b-3 NRSV) Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, who leads us into abundant life because of intimate relationship with him. (See John 10:1-10.)

GUIDE – When Sherron and I toured the Gettysburg historic battlefield a guide drove our car, since he knew the way to encounter all the important sights. Along the way, he pointed out details and told us all about Gettysburg, helping us to learn the significance of the battle fought there. As he expertly navigated the site that was unfamiliar to us, he taught us and filled us with deeper insight and appreciation for that hallowed story.

Even though we know the story of God’s redemption of his people throughout history and the story of his grace bestowed upon us in Jesus Christ, we still need a guide to help us grow in understanding of how to live according to God’s way. We are very similar to the Ethiopian official who understood enough to go to Jerusalem to worship God, who read the Bible for himself, but still needed someone to guide him – and us – into deeper relationship with God. He voiced what may be our plea for a guide: “Philip ran to the carriage and could hear the official reading the prophet Isaiah out loud. Philip asked him, ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’ {31} the official answered, ‘How can I understand unless someone guides me?’ So he invited Philip to sit with him in his carriage…. {35} Then Philip spoke. Starting with that passage, Philip told the official the Good News about Jesus.” (Acts 8:30-31, 35 GWT) God guides us into better understanding of his grace through teachers and other followers of Jesus who are our companions on our journey through life. But God’s guidance far transcends what other people have to offer us. Jesus assured his followers that the Holy Spirit would be their constant guide: “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into the full truth. He won’t speak on his own. He will speak what he hears and will tell you about things to come. {14} He will give me glory, because he will tell you what I say.” (John 16:13-14 GWT) A prayer for God to guide us is a petition for us to pay attention to what the Holy Spirit reveals to us as we seek to become more like Christ.

DIRECT – When traveling, we have the freedom to take any route we may choose. Having clear directions to our destination does not interfere with the freedom to enjoy excursions along the way, but the directions help to keep the path and the destination in mind. The best directions are personalized, beginning with one’s unique location and accounting for the particular situations each traveler might face.

God is eager to give us directions that are more reliable than our own free-lance attempts at finding our way through life. The general principle is clearly stated: ” Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. {6} seek his will in all you do, and he will direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6 NLT) Jesus gave directions to the way for those who respond to his call to follow him: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. {14} “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14 The Sermon on the Mount, along with Jesus’ other words, and the teachings of Paul, James, Peter, and others in the New Testament offer turn-by-turn directions for daily living as followers of Jesus.

Do you pay attention to what is being said in public prayers? Do they strike you as mere formalities for opening or closing a meeting, or do you enter into conversation with God as the spoken prayer is said? Do you become mired in clichés and habitually repeated phrases, or do you look for genuine expression of the miracle of communication with God in prayer? Next time you hear someone leading a prayer aloud in public, listen…. Let God lead, guide, and direct you to join the speaker in conversation with God.

– J. Edward Culpepper

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