When I was a kid in Sunday school, I earned a little plastic plaque that read, "Prayer changes things." It glowed a sort of neon green in the dark and I remember waking up in the night and thinking it was cool.
It took me a while longer to think that praying was even more cool then glowing in the dark. I have been slow in coming to love to pray. Prayer is hard work. It takes energy and focus and time and a good deal of discipline. Yet, over the years, I have come to love praying and especially praying with others.
I was thrilled to go to the Prayer Summit. Back home in Tucson, I attended the Village worship service on Sunday evening and then hung out until it was pretty late. I had packed my bags earlier so I left Tucson directly from our church to head to the highway and then the 500-plus miles on to California. I stopped in Phoenix to catch a couple hours of sleep at Mom's house before heading across the desert at about 4:00 in the morning.
When you are alone in the car, you have lots of time to think and pray. The Mojave Desert is stark and gray in the early morning light. There is a deep sense of aloneness as the slowly rising sun creeps above the horizon. As I drove, I spent a lot of time asking God to come on those of us who would gather and to change us and revive us. I prayed that I would not be selfish and would offer myself for the sake of others. I left the music off and avoided as many other distractions as one can while driving. It was a sweet time with God.
I arrived at All Nations Church just as they were beginning to take registrations. It was a delight to see so many eager volunteers anxious to guide people through the process of registering. Smiling Korean folks invited me into a hospitality room where I grabbed a light snack and 'rested my eyes' for a while. I wandered around the campus then and met lots of old friends and started making a few new ones. We were served a lunch of uniquely flavored wonderful food that reminded me that I was at a Korean church and not back home in Tucson. I was so thankful for the folks who cooked it and offered it. Delicious!
The summit began the way conferences often do: lots of lighthearted instructions and explanations and then the first speaker. I have to admit that I was a little upset when we ran overtime a bit and cut the praying short in order to hear the next speaker. I hadn't driven through the night to be taught about prayer. I had come to pray.
That is not meant to slight the speakers. They were excellent and the teaching was good and wise. But this wasn't a conference; it was a summit, a mountain top, a place to meet with God. Sometimes in the CRC we teach too much and think we have to learn more before we can things. I wish we prayed more instead of teaching more. I wish we had our neighbor over for dinner more and had fewer evangelism programs. I wish we could study justice less and fight for the destitute more. That said, we have some pretty wise teachers and we should listen to them.
I enjoyed a good dinner and hanging with friends and then left the summit a little before the end of the evening session to go to my brother's house about an hour away. I should have gone to bed right away, but when Hugens gather we talk into the wee hours while constantly reminding each other that we really should be going to bed.
My brother is a math professor at a local college and we talked about patterns and how we often see patterns where others don't. I am more of a word guy and he is a numbers guy but we both have experience in seeing patterns and marveling in them. I got up at 4:00am in order to get back to the summit on time for the 5:30am prayer service. The alarm was brutal but the California freeways were nearly abandoned, so I arrived before dawn and watched people sprinting to get into the sanctuary before the service started. There was beautiful praise music and a full choir and a sermon and then the lights dimmed and we all prayed 'Korean style'. It was good to be in the middle of hundreds of people praying.
One of the patterns I have observed when Koreans pray is that they all pray out loud alone together. That is, they pray aloud and in the same room, but the prayers seem very individual. Each person is crying out to God in their own unique way. It is wonderfully noisy when Koreans pray together. The Spirit in the room is palpable. But you don't see people praying for each other while laying hands on each other or gathering in groups of two or three to pray one at a time for each other. I don’t say this to criticize, but just that it is a pattern I have noted.
I was praying and calling on the Maker of the universe and I suddenly felt a deep compulsion to go lay hands on a friend and pray for him. I longed to tell him that God loved him and wished to heal some of the wounds he bears. It is hard to resist this compulsion. I also recognize the pattern of prayer that was being practiced and I didn't want to disturb the pattern. It was quite a quandary and I spent quite a bit of time arguing with God about whether I should go and 'break the pattern'.
My friend was deep into his own prayers and it seemed almost rude to interrupt him, but at the same time I felt the urging of the Spirit to go and touch his head and cry out to God for him. In the end I felt propelled forward by an unseen force and I interrupted him and prayed over him and it was a beautiful time of speaking truth to him. I 'heard' God say to me that he doesn't show me patterns just to continue them, but to speak into them or break them or point them out to others. It is hard to overcome the awkwardness of just blurting things out and saying what you see and hear from God.
After that encounter, God brought hundreds of faces to me. Faces I know and love. I found myself crying out for healing for them. Healing from shame. Healing from physical pain and suffering. Healing from broken relationships. Healing for my friends and family and church. And then I cried out that God would heal me, too. Heal my ADD brain. Heal my broken places. Heal me from the sins I so quickly repeat. I have not asked him to heal me in a long time and the longings came tumbling out. It was a horribly selfish prayer, but it was a prayer I very much needed to pray. So much for my vow to not be selfish. God does that to me. He breaks my vows. He changes my patterns and in doing so he changes me in deep places. I was exhausted and I went to one of the hospitality rooms and fell asleep on a couch. Prayer is exhausting.
We learned a lot about praying at the summit. The Koreans are good teachers. Many of them rise before dawn every morning and go to church to pray. It shames me that I don't have that kind of discipline. When I got up at 4:00 Wednesday morning to drive to the church and pray, I saw many of the same people literally running through the parking lot in order to not be late to pray and sing and listen to a sermon.
I wish my people were that anxious to meet with God. I know there are some sinful cultural patterns in Korean churches as well as my own and they don’t do all they do from pure motives, but they are most certainly people of prayer. I have talked to Korean leaders who assure me that it can just be another form of working to earn God’s favor, but I sense that in calling out to God as they do, he does visit them and speaks truth to them and answers them. I so loved the opportunities to gather with them and others to pray.
I also loved the opportunity to pray for each other. Pray for our denomination. Pray against our sinful strategies and the lies we believe. Pray and tell God how amazing he is. I loved ministering to and with friends I love. I loved the opportunities to confess and acknowledge sin. It is always easy to do that in general terms, but much more difficult to recognize our own idols and the things we worship and to cast them down and destroy them and return to the one true God.
Tuesday was a full day of praying and listening to speakers. The worship times were sweet and watching the artist paint pictures of Jesus on canvas was enriching. I also stepped out to share with a good friend how God had come to me and spoken to me. I went to a breakout session and heard beautiful things about praying the Lord's Prayer from David Crump. It was rich to see the amazing patterns in that prayer. My eyes were opened to a whole new way of seeing the prayer and I will not ever be the same.
I skipped out on the evening session to go to my brother's house and have dinner with him and his children and grandchildren. It was such a fun time to share their stories and giggle at the antics of the little ones. I am a bit of a mystery to little Trey and Quinn because I look and sound so much like their beloved 'Papa'. I loved the family feel at the Prayer Summit as God’s kids gathered together around him.
Wednesday, things were wrapped up and we said our goodbyes. I was reminded of the majesty of our King as we now wait for him to answer us. I hugged new friends and old ones. I drove back to my brother's house and took a long nap. We went out to dinner for some Lebanese food. It was unique and delicious and reminded me of the beautifully diverse church that gathered at All Nations Church to pray. It was a delightfully multicolored, multi-cultural church that met in the foothills of California. God has been kicking open our doors to the world and it is a wonderful thing to see the results of his work among us. We have so much to learn from each other.
Suddenly things are over. I rose early on Thursday and prayed. I prayed that I would leave the summit and move slowly back into the world where God has me at work. After breakfast, I went to the college where my brother teaches and sat in on his math classes and marveled at the way God has shaped him and used him. Mark received an award for being a Distinguished Faculty and I had the joy of joining his immediate family and celebrating that accomplishment.
While he was meeting with students, I read and caught up on some work. One of his students approached me and asked me whether I was a professor. I told him I was a pastor and he acknowledged that he did not believe in God, but was interested in my take on creation and evolution.
We chatted for a while and he told me he had not ever read a current philosopher who was a Christian. I invited him to check out Alvin Plantinga and he wrote down the name and promised to read him. We talked about life issues and the problem of suffering and he shook my hand and thanked me for talking to him. I told him I had thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and asked him to open his mind to the possibility of God. He promised that he would. He talked about how my brother is a great teacher and that all his students love and respect him. That was nice to hear. I was reminded that one of the many things we are praying for is that young folks like the young man I talked to would come to deep knowledge of Jesus because folks like my brother live out their faith and share it freely.
Soon, I headed back across the desert to return to my first love. I went home on a different road and stopped to visit family on the way. I couldn’t help but bubble over in gratitude for having been with God’s people to pray. It is good to pray. It is good to go home after having been changed and healed in deep places. It is always worth putting a thousand miles on the car and losing hours of perfectly good sleep to gather with God’s church to pray. I would do it again in a heartbeat.