Part Three of "Early Prayers": The Prayer of Intimacy: "God, I love you."

  • During my time at Regent College I took a class on Prayer from Eugene Peterson. One of the assignments he gave us was to write a paper on “the soil of our prayer lives.” His intent was to have us reflect on the various aspects of our lives out of which we learned to express ourselves to God. It was a helpful exercise for me and I recently enjoyed reading the paper again. I’ve re-written it here now in three parts, entitled, “Early Prayers.” Below is Part Three.

It is not that my parents ever ceased to be an influence on me or an example for me. They have always remained very much actively involved in my life. They are still among my most faithful counselors. But some of the most important lessons I needed to learn about faith and prayer required me to step out from under their wings and engage myself in a more personal struggle.

I found the environment for this in Youth With A Mission (YWAM), an international missions organization. I was with this group, as a student in their training programs and then as a staff worker, for the better part of eight years between 1985 and 1994.

I arrived at YWAM with a rich spiritual heritage, but I had not yet come to terms with my own sin. I knew sin was present in my life, but I had not experienced repentance. I had felt some remorse over my sin, but had no grasp of the reality that it was a personal offence to God. This obviously affected my life of prayer. God was always there, but distant. He heard my prayers, but I could not hear his voice.

When God granted me repentance, my world changed. My sins were forgiven. A weight was lifted. It felt to me that God had come near. Though once offended by my life, God was now, through the atonement of Christ, pleased to accept me as his son. For the first time, I had assurance of my salvation. I knew the love of God in a deeply personal way. I began to understand what it meant to have fellowship with God. He was no longer the God of my parents; he had become my God, my Father. 

This conversion, or re-orientation, was a process, but there were events along the way which stand out as markers on the path. One event, in particular, summarizes well the effect that all this had on my life of prayer. It was an evening class in the discipleship school. The lecturer had spoken on the Father Heart of God and afterwards we were having a corporate time of prayer, responding to what we had been learning. We sang songs. Many of my fellow students were praying aloud. Some were crying. Others were silent. I was compelled to respond. I needed to pray something, to say something aloud, to address God and affirm the reality of his work in my heart. From the back of the room, in a moment of quiet, I opened my mouth and spoke these simple words, “God, I love you.”

It was a prayer of intimacy. It was as genuine as my earlier prayers, “O God,” and “O God, help us,” but now it was personal and direct in a way that was entirely new. This was more than an acknowledgement of his presence or a cry for help, it was a prayer of friendship, characterized by gratitude, freedom and familiarity. 

Part Two of "Early Prayers": The Prayer of Desperation: “O God, help us.”

During my time at Regent College I took a class on Prayer from Eugene Peterson. One of the assignments he gave us was to write a paper on “the soil of our prayer lives.” His intent was to have us reflect on the various aspects of our lives out of which we learned to express ourselves to God. It was a helpful exercise for me and I recently enjoyed reading the paper again. I’ve re-written it here now in three parts, entitled, “Early Prayers.” Below is Part Two.
My father was a college professor at the time of my birth, but when I was five he left the college and took a job at a maximum-security prison as a guard. His motivation in this career change was to have an opportunity to love and serve those in prison. But he soon realized that his position as a guard was not conducive to his role as a helper and friend of prisoners. So, when the job of prison chaplain came open he eagerly applied. 

For the bulk of my childhood, then, my Dad worked as a prison chaplain, and the farm that we lived on became the hub of a community of Christians who were committed to prison ministry. Our home was a place of refuge for prisoners who were out on parole and ex-prisoners who were making the transition back into society. For more than a decade, we as a family shared our lives with the lives of these very special men.

This phase of my upbringing was to have a major impact on my life in many ways. One of the most significant things that I learned was something that I saw modeled by my parents: the art of taking risks with people. This also played a profound role in the development of my prayer life.

Both my parents, together with a group of their friends, were committed to giving the men who came to us a chance to live new lives. For the most part, these were men who had either grown up in broken homes or foster homes or some kind of institution. Most of them had also been involved in drug and/or alcohol abuse. All of them, of course, had been involved in crime, and crime serious enough to merit maximum-security detainment. In addition, most had also been the victims of sexual abuse, brutality, prejudice, hatred and mistrust.

Our home was nothing like anything these men had ever experienced. For the first time, these men became a part of a loving and caring family. We all slept under one roof: my parents, my siblings, and our special guests. We ate together, worked together, played together, and prayed together. Everything that was available to us was also available to them. There were rules, but no locked doors.

That this was a risk was plain. Many who looked on, including Christians, voiced their concerns and criticized. My parents heard some of it. They were not unaware of the risk involved. They knew the potential danger that these men could have been to their family, their possessions, and their reputation. Indeed, rules were broken, possessions went missing, angry words were spoken, some friends may have distanced themselves, but my parents continued to give and to trust and to pray. For them, their faith in God enabled them to take the risks, and their prayer life empowered them to face the consequences.

For me, this example, lived before me, left an indelible imprint on my mind and quickly became the foundation for my own walk of faith and life of prayer.

One experience, in particular, brought a prayer to my lips that I will never forget. I was eleven years. My parents were away for the weekend (a rarity) and I was at home with my brothers and sisters and Ron. Ron had already been living with us for a month since his release from prison. He was one of the most gentle and considerate men that we had had live with us. In general, he was adjusting well to life on the outside. But with my parents away and one month of freedom behind him Ron decided that it was time to celebrate. After a drinking bout in town on Friday night he returned to our house in a drunken stupor. I remember getting the call from the taxi driver telling us that the man he had just dropped off at our house had passed out on the front lawn. With a supply of “uppers” on hand, Ron was high all Saturday and on to Sunday. It was a difficult weekend for us kids. We did have help from others, but we took the brunt of the mess upon ourselves.

Among my most vivid memories of that weekend was from Saturday morning when Ron came up from the basement to the main floor of our house. I had never thought of Ron as dangerous until then. I didn’t know the details of his past. I didn’t know what he was capable of. But now I was anxious and afraid. 

Being the second youngest, I stayed upstairs and let my elder siblings deal with Ron directly. But even from my bedroom I could hear his bellowing voice. I was trembling. Then I remember getting down on my knees, alone in my room, and with Ron’s stammering speech in the background, I prayed one of the most genuine and desperate prayers I’d ever prayed, “O God, help us.”

God answered that prayer. We survived that weekend. And what I gained from that experience far outweighed any negative effect that it might have had on me.

There are always risks involved in trusting people, because people are unpredictable. But what I learned from my parents was why we trust people. My parents trusted people not because they believed that people were intrinsically good and therefore it would be the logical and smart thing to do. Rather, they trusted people because they believed that trust communicated love. And they saw love as their chief responsibility before God, whatever the response would be of those who were the objects of that love.

So, it was in the midst of painful uncertainty that I also saw love and trust, and my own heart responded to it all in a desperate prayer to God. In my vulnerable state, I called out to him. I needed him. I needed something from him.

My parents taught me that the state of desperation is good and right. It should not be feared or avoided. We need to embrace the uncertainty in our lives and allow it to feed our understanding of what is certain.

Taking risks with risky people is a lot like traveling; both ventures push us into unfamiliar and uncertain ground. And that is precisely where I learned the prayer of desperation.

Part One of "Early Prayers": The Prayer of Awareness: "O God"

  • During my time at Regent College I took a class on Prayer from Eugene Peterson. One of the assignments he gave us was to write a paper on “the soil of our prayer lives.” His intent was to have us reflect on the various aspects of our lives out of which we learned to express ourselves to God. It was a helpful exercise for me and I recently enjoyed reading the paper again. I’ve re-written it here now in three parts, entitled, “Early Prayers.” Below is Part One.

Plants grow in soil. They need an environment in which they can receive nourishment. Prayers are similar. They don’t exist or mature independently of their surroundings. They require a certain setting. They are located in a life.

It was God, of course, who ultimately determined the nature of my soil and who planted faith and prayer in it. But he had labourers in his field, those who worked the soil. Among these labourers, it was without a doubt my parents who contributed most to the richness of my soil and to the development of my prayer life.

My parents are both well educated and are teachers by profession. Despite this, they both had an uncanny willingness to take risks, a quality that in my understanding could only be attributed to their faith and trust in God. They both studied abroad, away from their countries of birth. They met in the U.S., a foreign country to both of them. There they were married, away from their families, but in a community of faith, what they considered a true home. From there they moved to England, had three kids, and then moved to Canada, where I was born, within two years of their arrival. They raised a family in Canada, but when my younger sister had graduated from high school they moved overseas to Russia where they learned a new language and culture and embraced a new challenge.

For most people, international travel has romantic connotations. But actually moving from one country to another inevitably evokes feelings of insecurity and stress. In many ways, I feel that I was born with an inability to differentiate between the two. For me, traveling and moving were one and the same, and they meant one thing – excitement! This sentiment was to never leave me or forsake me. (I wrote this, originally, as a single person. When I married and had children, I came to a new understanding of the complexity of both traveling and moving with a family. But I can say that the excitement has never waned. In 2005, my wife and I moved to India with our three daughters, where we have now lived together for the past three years.)

Throughout my life I have been fascinated with moving and traveling, whether it was a ride in the car as a child, or moving from one bedroom to another in our giant farmhouse, or going to university abroad, or taking short-term teaching assignments in Asia and the South Pacific. And it was not only the new location and the new faces that stimulated me; it was the transition itself, the process of change, that I found exhilarating.

I received this from my parents. It was not taught to me. It is a noteworthy ingredient in the composition of my soil. It’s what I love. It’s a part of who I am.

Incidentally, the weeds of anxiety and self-concern also grow well in this soil. And even though my soil was rich and ready for the planting of God’s choosing, there were competitors, impostors, that also latched onto this nutrient and tried to suck it dry, to subvert its true purpose. These weeds would rear their ugly heads even when faith and prayer were present, and sometimes they grew up together side by side.

I remember well the insecurity that I felt being a new arrival at elementary school when our family moved across town, or the paralyzing self-consciousness that accompanied a new haircut or braces on my teeth. I was tempted early to resist who I was and to scorn my love and appreciation for change.

Fortunately for me, the seeds of faith and prayer were already firmly planted in my soil and they provided strong competition for the weeds. And though the weeds would always be a threat, God and his labourers were faithful with the work of the hoe.

Prayer flourished in the midst of change. More than anything else, it seems to have been my affection for change that was the first element of my soil that nurtured my young faith. If there was a prayer that I expressed to God in response to this stimulation, it was something very simple like, “O God.” It was a prayer of awareness, nothing more or less than an acknowledgement of God’s presence with me. Although I don’t remember necessarily uttering these specific words, in a profound way they capture the spirit of my early faith and my sincere belief that God not only existed but that he took interest in my life.