I believe in prayer. I believe that it works, that it changes things for the better. But more than that, I believe that praying works in me, that it changes me for the better.
I’m a list person. I keep lists of all kinds of things, and two are related to prayer. One is a list of things I’m currently praying for. Some of those things are so much on my mind that I don’t even have to write them down, while others are needs that friends have asked me to pray for or situations that I have read about or seen on the news and felt moved to pray for. When anything seems to warrant more than a one-time prayer in passing, onto my list it goes.
About three thousand years ago, a wise man named Agur said, “There are three things which are too wonderful for me, yes, four which I do not understand.”
Really? I used to think. Only four? Of course, he did pick four good ones.1
I recently considered some of the ways I benefit from prayer. I was especially reflecting on various aspects of stability and clarity—inner poise and grace—that prayer adds to my life. In keeping with Agur’s group of four, here are my top four gains.
When I sat down to write an article about prayer for this magazine, I heard a little inner voice say, “You can’t do that. You don’t pray enough!”
That set me back a bit, and I had to think about it. It’s certainly true that I don’t pray as much as I could and probably should. So instead of writing, I closed my laptop and went to the kitchen to prepare the dough and start slicing toppings for a pizza dinner. Meanwhile, I couldn’t shake that thought. Do I pray enough?
Often our world is all we know. Our world has been shaped by our experience—where we have been, who we have known, what we have done—as well as by our habits, standards, and aspirations. When we see a man sleeping in a doorway or a woman asking for help in a slurred voice, we compare their condition with our world. We may assume there is something fundamentally wrong with someone in such a state.
In truth, poverty puts people into a different world. The homeless person sleeping in the doorway may not have been able to rest the night before because he was guarding his few possessions. Thatwoman may have an untreated medical condition that affects her speech.
I stared past the rusty window frame, out of the bus. The day was off to a gloomy start and so was I. Lost in thought, recalling things that would have been better left forgotten, I sank into a dark mood. Sad, isn’t it, how when we’re feeling down we tend to busy our mind with thoughts that only waste our time and further sap our spirits?
The bus rolled to a halt. Again. Manila traffic. I glanced at my watch. 6 a.m. Too early for traffic to be moving this slowly. I had a deadline to meet and hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before. Angrily, I turned back to the window.
Several years ago, I spent two weeks in Sahrawi refugee camps near the oasis city of Tindouf, in southwest Algeria. Ten of us, from teenagers to fifty-somethings, had made the trip from our base in Granada, Spain, to speak and perform in the camps’ schools and community centers.
The Sahrawi people are the remnant of the nomadic tribes that roamed the deserts and coasts of the former Western Sahara. During the 100 years that they lived under Spanish rule, they became accustomed to living in more stationary situations and built large communities like Smara.
When’s the last time you tried doing something completely new to you? My last time was when a friend and I decided to sample wakeboarding, and I got to put my courage to the test.
My heart pounded as I lined up at the beginner’s line. “God, please help me to make it at least a few feet away from the dock,” I prayed. Frankly, at that point, a few feet seemed like it would be a huge accomplishment.
Shortly after the Tohoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami of March 11, 2011, I read an article about the 600-year-oldstone markers that previous generations of Japanese had erected in the hills along the coastline where many past communities had been devastated by tsunamis. The boulders marked how far inland the wave from a previous tsunami had reached and warned residents not to build below that line.
The stone markers were disregarded by modern property developers who built far below the safety line, some right up to the coastline. Seawalls were built to protect the new residential areas, and engineers were confident that they would be able to withstand any tsunami. The seawalls failed, and the only villages that were spared were those inland and uphill of the stone markers.
People often talk about “getting out of your comfort zone.” I hate hearing that. I confess—I like my comfort zones. I don’t like doing new things, especially things that I don’t understand or don’t think I’ll do well at. Lately, however, I’ve been pushed out of my comfort zone regularly. I think about the magnitude of some new project or venture, and I start to shrivel inside, mentally backing away.
“I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him.”1 Last night, thatverse came to mind and hovered for a long time. It’s not unusual for a Bible verse to show up in my thoughts, but this time was different. The words and their richness were enhanced—they seemed “louder” or something. I turned the phrases over and over, and looked at them from all angles, meditating on what that passage meant to me.