The Conversion of a Praying Skeptic

 

Chapel Message

August 19, 2023

 

Months ago, when asked about bringing a devotional for chapel, I immediately sensed what I should share. However, I tried to shift to two other ideas these past few weeks. In each case, the Holy Spirit drew me back to the issue of prayer.

 

At one level, bringing a prayer devotional to such an illustrious group of scholars, ministers, and students seems superfluous. Indeed, no one listening today would doubt the importance of, the discipline for, or the need to pray.

 

We all know we should pray. Prayer is something the disciples watch Jesus do. In their request to teach them about prayer, Jesus taught it is not about length lest we babble like the pagans. Jesus offered what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” as recorded in Matthew 6. I love the beauty of the KJV,

 

“Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”

 

Prayer Journey

 

So today, my purpose is not to teach you about prayer or convince you to pray. Instead, I briefly want to share a testimony of my prayer journey and then suggest what I call a “Ministry of Prayer.”

 

I humbly titled this devotional “The Conversion of a Praying Skeptic.”

 

I think my journey with prayer was not so unusual. Before I became a Christ follower, I thought prayer was the reciting of some string of words that contained a level of persuasion for the “big guy upstairs.”

 

Or, it was the “break glass in case of an emergency” statement used when life was chaotic or challenging. It is a child’s prayer, who being carried out of the sanctuary under the discipline of a frustrated father, cried out for deliverance to the congregation with a “Pray for me!”

 

God is Glorified In and Through Prayer

 

In seminary, I learned I could use the ACTS approach to enrich my prayer life. “Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.” I still use this approach today. Reading Psalms as a prayer or saying the blessings of the great saints of the past have also enriched my prayer life. Additionally, prayer is sitting still, reflecting on God’s word, and listening. Learning to be still and quiet has never been easy for me.

 

Yet, I lacked the preparation for the moment when Mary (not her real name) came into my church office. I knew Mary and her husband Joe (not his real name) very well. They were a wonderful couple, loved the Lord, faithful to His church, and had become good friends to my wife and me. I knew they had been trying to have a child.

 

Mary confided to me that she could not have a child because of endometriosis, a condition where the tissue that usually lines the inside of the uterus grows in places where it thickens, breaks down, and bleeds and gets trapped within the body. For Mary, her condition was excruciating and prevented her ability to become pregnant.

 

Mary stated they had numerous medical procedures to help her get pregnant. Unfortunately, nothing worked. Now, she was ready to have the surgery that would relieve her of the pain but would forever end the possibility of her having a child. She asked me for prayer.

 

It was at this moment that I felt utterly ill-prepared. What was I to say to Mary? What was I to pray? At that moment, I knew I was a skeptic regarding prayer. Would it make a difference in their lives? Like doubting Thomas, my limited skeptical experience and understanding led me to believe my prayers would not do any good. I would pray, for that is what pastors are supposed to do. Yet, I was not convinced it would change their circumstances.

 

Yet, Mary asked me to pray. She needed me to join her and her husband in asking God to intervene and bless them with a child. Against all odds, she was holding on to the slim chance that they could still have a baby.

 

I asked Mary to bring me an object I would use as a prayer reminder. I didn’t want to be like many who flippantly say, “I’ll pray for you,” and either forget or do a quick prayer to cover the commitment made to the person. My commitment to her was, “Every time I consciously see your object, I will hold it in my hand and pray for you and Joe.”

 

She brought me a small Precious Moments statue with the caption, “I believe in miracles.” It was a small child holding a lower half of an eggshell with a tiny chick inside. I placed it beside my computer monitor and was faithful to pick it up and pray.

 

This experience began to change me as Mary got pregnant and had a healthy little boy. He was born on December 26. A Christmas baby. What a gift. What a joy.

 

I was thrilled for Joe and Mary. They now have two grown children. Yet, the miracle was not just the birth of their children but my awareness that God loves to be glorified in and through our prayers. It is not about the outcome but our expression of worship through prayer.

 

I returned the statue to them with a homemade shelf and a placard with their son’s name and birthday. It is a testimony to God’s grace and goodness in their lives. This skeptic was changing his understanding of prayer.

 

Worshiping God Through Prayer

 

Years later, I served as a senior chaplain in a deployment location in a Middle Eastern country. I was telling the story of Mary and Joe as an illustration in a sermon. Two weeks later, an Air Force captain made an appointment with me. He was about to return home but wanted to give me something before he left that week. I was wondering why he was presenting a gift to me.

 

I was about to politely refuse the gift when I discovered it was a request. The captain stated he and his wife had been trying to have a child for a long time and wondered if I would pray for them like I did for Mary and Joe. He then proceeded to unbox a statue as my prayer reminder. I had two immediate concerns. First, this ceramic statue of a man, a woman, and a baby was about 12 inches tall. I thought, “How will I get this home without breaking it in transient?” My second thought was, “I am no miracle worker. That story was a once-in-a-lifetime prayer experience.”

 

I held my doubts to myself and assured the captain that when I got home a month later, I would set the statue next to my computer and use it as my reminder to pray for them. I prayed and regularly emailed them. Two months later, I received his email along with a sonogram picture of what turned out to be a girl. God once again taught me about His desire to be glorified.

 

A Posture of Worship

 

Please understand my journey as a praying skeptic doesn’t mean that God is indebted to answering any of my prayers. The lesson wasn’t about me and my prayers. It is about God and how I can worship Him through my prayers.

 

And often, God chooses not to give what we seek but to be glorified in other ways. I rehearsed this lesson in my prayers for Velma (not her real name.) She had COVID. We often sat next to each other in our Sunday School class. While driving alone in a car, I prayed for her in probably the most intensive, fervent prayer I have ever voiced. Later as I returned home late the following evening, God said to me through a Christian song on the radio, “I am going to answer your prayer. I am going to heal her, but not on your side, but mine.”  She died two weeks later. Once again, God was glorified.

 

To the Apostle Paul, prayer is not simply presenting one’s wishes and desires to God; it is a way for believers to participate in the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan in history.

 

In the familiar passage of Colossians 4:2-4, Paul reminds the believers to “devote themselves to pray.” And he asked them to pray for him and his companions that God may open a door for the Gospel. He wrote,

 

“Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak.”[1]

 

The backdrop of this request is Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Through this trying circumstance, he asked for prayer. Paul sought not for the deliverance or provision within his suffering but to be alert for opportunities to share the Gospel, clarifying the mystery of Christ’s redemption.

 

His challenge to his readers then and us today is “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving” carries a sense of perseverance. It also is a posture of worship. It is also a ministry.

 

In my military career as a chaplain, I would commit to praying for different people. I would ask them for an object, a prayer reminder to me. Often, it was a military coin. Other times it was ear plugs, a wooden Christmas ornament of a soldier, or some other item. I would hold the object in my hand and pray for them. After holding the item several times in prayer, I would email them and let them know that I was still praying. This ministry of prayer reaped some amazing results in the hearts and attitudes of people and me. God continues to be glorified by His involvement in the lives of others.

 

I am no longer a skeptic about prayer. It has become a fantastic opportunity and ministry of reaching out to people.

 

The Privilege of Prayer, a Monument of God’s Grace

 

I conclude with this example. In my military career, I have prayed for hundreds of pregnant women. I did not know most of them, but they knew me as a chaplain. After talking with them about when their baby was due, I would ask them if I could pray for them. I would place my hand on top of their hands, which was on top of their extended abdomen. I would pray for the wholeness of the baby, the safety of mom, and jokingly, the sanity of dad. It became a holy moment. Never once did I have anyone in all my years of doing this refuse my request to have a prayer with them, no matter whether they were religious or not.

 

Prayer is a privilege. It is a moment to quieten my heart and head. It is a reminder to stop amid the chaos and get still. It is a desire to hear His small still voice. It is praying throughout the day using objects like a flag to pray for our country, an ambulance to pray for the sick, a school to pray for our students, and a chapel gathering to pray for you.

 

I conclude with a quote from Oswald Chambers found in his classic devotional “My Utmost for His Highest.” He wrote,

 

The Cross stands for one thing only for us—a complete and entire and absolute identification with the Lord Jesus Christ, and there is nothing in which this identification is realized more than in prayer. “Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him.” Then why ask? The idea of prayer is not in order to get answers from God; prayer is perfect and complete oneness with God. If we pray because we want answers, we will get huffed with God. The answers come every time, but not always in the way we expect, and our spiritual huff shows a refusal to identify ourselves with Our Lord in prayer. We are not here to prove God answers prayer; we are here to be living monuments of God’s grace.” [2]

I am no longer a praying skeptic. Instead, my prayer life and ministry of praying for others has become a living testimony, a monument of God’s grace.

 

 

[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 update (Col 4:2–4). (1995). The Lockman Foundation.

[2] Chambers, O. (1986). My utmost for his highest: Selections for the year. Oswald Chambers Publications; Marshall Pickering. Devotional on August 6th.

 

 

 

 

Published: Aug 21, 2023

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