I stood in the Christian bookstore thumbing through a volume on a subject I’d been researching. This looked like exactly what I wanted. “How to Help Your Child to Faith” contained 35 chapters, each directed toward parents on counseling and preparing their child for understanding the Christian faith and making his own commitment. What got me, however, was chapter 35.
The topic for that chapter was “Finally, all you can do is pray.” I laid the book down in disgust and walked away.
“Finally” implies that prayer is the last thing to do. “All you can do is pray” clearly says that prayer is the least thing you can do. The last, the least. What’s wrong with this picture?
What kind of philosophy of prayer is that? Think of it! As though to call on the Lord of Heaven and Earth to become involved in a situation involving a child you love dearly is some small thing to be lightly regarded.
If you need evidence of the fallen nature and sinful heart of man–even the best among us–consider the low regard we hold for prayer.
Confession time. I consider myself a person of prayer. Prayer is never far from my mind throughout the day, and after reading several chapters in the Bible each morning, I try to spend a good deal of time in prayer. And yet, I did the same thing I was criticizing that book’s author for doing.
I forgot to emphasize the pre-eminence of prayer. Over the past six months, as I have added the occasional “leadership lesson” to this collection, only this week did it occur to me that prayer should have been featured more prominently and much sooner.
I deeply apologize. Since my son has taught me how to edit these blogs, I know how to go into the website and insert this article earlier, giving it a much higher number. The problem is that no one would see it way down there, since those were written and dispatched into cyberspace months ago. So, number 40 it will have to remain, at least for the time being.
A leader is a decision-maker and a people-influencer. A leader sets the direction, then stands out front and blazes the trail. His mantra is “follow me.”
Jesus said, “When the shepherd puts forth his sheep, he goes before them.” (John 10:4) That’s surely the most basic element of leadership. You lead.
The danger for God’s children however is that we will try to lead people in directions the Lord is not leading us. Conversely, our challenge is to make sure that where we are directing others is the same place the Lord is leading us.
That’s the role of prayer and the Word, to attune us to the Father’s heart and thus, to show us His will.
We pastors sometimes say, half-humorously, “Well, I’m not Moses, just off Sinai with the commandments!” The point we’re trying to make is that our program is open to discussion, that there might be flaws in it, and that we’ll be needing the input of the rest of our team. That’s true, no doubt. However….
The congregation expects you to do precisely as Moses did–spend time with the Heavenly Father and to bring to them what God lays on your heart. It may not require 40 days on a mountaintop (or it could; who’s to say) and may not be accompanied by thunder and lightning or by the congregation turning to idolatry in your absence. You’ll not be bringing tablets of stone into the camp when you enter the pulpit on the Lord’s Day. All you will have is a burden, an inspiration, a plan for something which you feel is from God.
That is not to be taken lightly. It is the very essence of the life of a minister, the plan which the Lord had in mind when He called you.
In Jeremiah’s day, the prophet waded into the midst of the lazy and good-for-nothing preachers in that land in chapter 23. Any minister interested in doing his job well could benefit from camping out on that chapter for a few days. One thing in particular about those renegade prophets stands out in my mind.
When it came time to prepare sermons, the priests and prophets resorted to a number of tactics: they turned to Baal and preached his messages, whatever that was; they stole sermons from each other; and they thought up clever stuff from their minds. Jeremiah says, “They speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord.” (23:16)
The remedy, God says, was simple: spend time in His presence and He would tell them what He wanted them to know and say. “If they had stood in my council, then they would have announced my words to my people and would have turned them back from the evil way.” (23:22)
We take that “standing in the Lord’s council” as a euphemism for prayer and Bible study. For a preacher of the gospel, there is no substitute for these two.
The fact that Jesus was such a man of prayer most believers have always found intriguing, and questions about the nature of His deity come to mind. We’ll not detour into those here, but simply point out that our Lord was praying real prayer. Watch Him on His knees–Gethsemane comes to mind–and you quickly conclude that He is not just going through the motions of prayer to set an example for us. He is agonizing with the Father over real issues.
“Father, I thank you that you heard me when I prayed,” was the simple prayer Jesus lifted to the Father outside the tomb of His friend Lazarus. (John 11:41)
When exactly had He prayed? He didn’t say, but we know the answer to that. Jesus and the disciples had just arrived at Bethany after a walk of several days. As many of the Lord’s children find out sooner or later, walking and praying are a great combination. Surely, that’s when He prayed, as He walked.
(Mark 1:35 seems to picture Jesus walking in the mountains while praying early in the morning.)
When Jesus and His party arrived at the tomb, He was “prayed up” and ready to go. He did not have to pull aside for a lengthy prayer session to prepare Himself and to find the Father’s intent for this situation. He already knew.
Nothing is more sensible for believers–particularly those assigned to lead God’s people–than that we spend time in prayer every morning, going over the challenges and tasks lying in wait for us throughout the day. Nothing gives us more confidence when we enter a tense situation–a counseling session, a conference, a congregational business meeting, a worship service–than knowing we have met with the Father earlier in the day and we are prepared for all that is before us. We do not know what will happen in this session, but we know the Lord is there and is in charge. We go in peace.
When I was a young pastor, a friend urged upon me the importance of morning prayer. He said, “Imagine a violinist playing a concert and at the end, tuning his instrument.” Evening prayer is good, he pointed out, but can never take the place of time spent at the beginning of the day “in council” with the Father.
“My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O Lord. In the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee and will look up.” (Psalm 5:3)
Prayer is the best thing you can do, as well as the most.
Therefore, it ought to be the first.
“I exhort therefore that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made….” (I Timothy 2:1)