“By prayer and supplication with thanksgiving”

Watch the following short video and notice what happens following the conclusion of the song: each person begins praying earnestly, out loud, individually, making their supplications to God. This isn’t speaking in tongues, by the way: Many of the pastors are praying in their native language, Swahili. Others are praying in English. Although I only captured a few moments, this type of praying went on for a minute or two. This also happened in worship last Sunday.

What do you make of it?

On the one hand I find it deeply moving—a beautiful cacophony of voices. You can’t see it from the video, but some of these pastors are nearly weeping! On the other hand, it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me feel spiritually dry—like, What’s my problem? When it comes to my own prayers, why don’t I share these pastors’ earnestness and enthusiasm? Why am I so buttoned-up all the time? Why do I have to play it so cool when I worship?

Is it an American thing—or a Western thing? It is cultural? In my prosperity, after all, I usually live so far from worrying about my “daily bread” that I often feel no strong desire to pray, much less with this kind of holy desperation. I find I have everything I think I need without even asking for it.

Someone will object: Yes, but prayer is so much more than just asking for things—especially for ourselves. And, yes, that’s true. But I sense that many of us Christians have been told so often and emphatically that prayer is more than asking for things for ourselves that we begin to think that there’s something unseemly, immature, or childish about it—that if we only could be more spiritual, then we would see that we already have everything we need. In fact, we already have more than enough.

(Come to think of it, I’ve heard some Christians complain about politicians who ask God to “bless” America—as if God has already blessed us enough among the nations, and, by their logic, there are only so many of God’s blessings to go around. Do you see how the logic of this complaint can easily filter down to individual Christians in America? If we buy into it, then we should never ask for anything for ourselves!)

Just this morning I had a few moments of panic. Susan and I have been using missionary Bill Coble’s computer projector for our class. I’ve been responsible for transporting it back and forth from our hotel to the conference center where we’re teaching.

Last night, I realized I didn’t have it. I thought I left it in the van that carried us back to our hotel. No problem: I’ll just get it this morning when we head back to class. It will be in the van where I left it. Only it wasn’t in the van. And it wasn’t at the conference center. In my mind, of course, I’ve practically resigned myself to having lost it. How much does one of those things cost, anyway? Ugh.

Naturally, I fired up flares of desperation: “God, please help me find it!”

Less than 20 minutes later, one of the pastors attending the class showed up to breakfast with my projector in hand. Turns out I had left it on a patio chair outside our conference room. This pastor picked it up for safekeeping.

Needless to say, for the next few minutes, I was so incredibly grateful to God: because in this instance I needed God to help me. I was in a place, for a change, where I couldn’t help myself.

Don’t get me wrong: contrary to Ben Franklin, I know that I never really “help myself.” None of us does. Whatever good that comes our way is by God’s grace, whether we care to pray for it or thank him for it or not. And this experience of losing the projector reminded me of this truth. Isn’t it good to be reminded from time to time that we’re not self-sufficient. It’s good to pray prayers of desperation from time to time.

A while back, in one of my sermons, I complained—slightly—about the recent internet meme known as “first world problems.” I said that I get it: “first world problems” are often very funny. And it’s good to put our problems in perspective, by all means. But this meme also has a way of trivializing our real problems, first-world or otherwise. They make us feel guilty: why are you worrying about whatever trivial thing you’re worried about? Don’t you know that children are starving all over the world?—or whatever. 

For three years, we had this problem at my father-in-law's house! I can totally relate!
For three years, we had this problem at my father-in-law’s house! I can totally relate!

No, like it or not, our first-world problems are real problems if we experience them that way. And if we experience them that way, why shouldn’t we ask for God’s help to solve them—and be very grateful when he does?

Regardless, filming people at prayer, as I did above, made me feel like a TV documentary-maker for National Geographic. So I put my iPhone down (naturally, this first-world dweller can’t live without his iPhone!) and joined them. I began praying out loud that God would help me solve whatever problems I was currently facing.

And he did. And he continues to do so. Thank you, Jesus!

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