Pastoral Ministry
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When I Can't Pray

Romans 8:26-27


I attended my first Conversational Spanish meeting a week ago. It is an optional meeting held on Friday Afternoons at the College for Spanish students who want to have a "safe" environment to practice the language they are learning. Until going to that meeting, the only practice I've had speaking the language is saying hello and goodbye to the few people I know who speak the language and ordering food at Chipolte, Subway and El Indio. I entered the classroom with great anticipation, but was soon drowning in frustration. Our professor broke the ice by having each of us talk about our families. The first person to speak did a wonderful job and I was able to understand most of what he said. Then it came my turn to speak. I began. <<Mi esposa y yo vivimos in Seaside con nuestro hijo menor>>. "My wife and I live in Seaside with our youngest son." Not too bad a start. But then the train derailed. <<Mi hijo major vive en...>> My professor interrupted, "mayor, not major, mayor" Instead of saying my oldest son lives in Chicago, I said, my better son. From then on, I struggled to say anything. It isn't that I'm a perfectionist, it's just that I can't tolerate making mistakes. I know, it is no big deal and I expected to make mistakes, really I did, but for some strange reason I began to fell extremely self conscious.

After we all told about our families, she broke us up into small groups. This will be easier, I thought, I won't have to speak in front of so many people. All the students in my small group had already finished the class I'm enrolled in, one of them has already completed the Spanish course offerings at the college and only came in to brush up on his skills. They spoke so well. I was tempted to just listen and not enter in, but I risked it-I jumped in with both feet, which soon ended up in my mouth. We were talking about what we did for a living-easy enough, in español Pastor is "Pastor." But then they wanted to know about my church. <<Es su Iglesia grande?>> I understood the question, they wanted to know if my church was big or small, easy enough to say yes or no, right? But for some reason I couldn't answer. I tried to explain that our church varied in size in response to the flow of the military population and that I was taking Spanish at the time to help our church reach more of the indigenous people around the church, but the thought was far to complex for my limited communication skills. I choked and answered in English. When I did, my Professor patiently translated my English words into Spanish for me, I repeated them, then the group moved on to the next person.

Romans 8:26-27 says, "...the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will." (NIV)

I didn't understand this passage of scripture until I couldn't pray. Notice I said, couldn't, not wouldn't. There is a difference between not praying when you know you should and not being able to pray when you desperately want to. There is even a difference between not knowing how to express a feeling and not knowing what the feeling is-or should be. I'm not talking about the kind of frustrations I experience as I'm trying to learn a new language, that kind of frustration is low grade in comparison to what I'm talking about. Have you ever been so numb that you couldn't pray? I have a couple of times in my life, both happened within a few months of each other.

The first was when my little sister died. I've retained very few memories from the time Mother woke me early in the morning to tell me Lori had died and when our plane touched down returning home from the funeral. It is one long blur. I know there was a funeral, but I don't remember what was sung or said. One thing I do remember is watching my family hover over her casket and trying to pray for them...and for me and not being able to. 

The next time I couldn't pray I remember in slow motion detail. A few months later I laid in my bed listening to Susan sleep, trying to pray. The words of the surgeon kept running through my mind, "We got all the cancer, and we think your voice with return, but there's a chance it may not." I tried to give myself a pep talk. I tried to have faith the size of a mustard seed. But I didn't. I couldn't pray, and with time, it only got worse. If you've read the chapter on Brokenness in my book Future Church, you may recall that I even got to the point that I resented the prayers of other people. I'm not proud of my attitude. Actually, I'm embarrassed to talk about it and was embarrassed to write about it, but I can't deny that it happened; it is part of my pilgrimage.

"...the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will." (Romans 8:26-27 NIV)

I still don't claim to have full understanding of this scripture, I just claim to have experienced it. Get your mind around this thought-in those times when you cannot pray, the Spirit of God prays for you. It isn't that he provides eloquent words for you, or like my Professor did, give me the words I needed to complete a sentence. It says that His prayer consists of groans that cannot be expressed in words. In anguish and pain, He groans a prayer for you. Some of the most profound spiritual expressions are monosyllabic: "Ahhh"-stand before a Holy God and catch a glimpse of His glory and the most profound thing you will be able to say is "ahhhh." Anything more would be less. "Ohhhhh"-experience the depth of human suffering and the most appropriate thing you can say is "ohhhhh." The Spirit of God does not pray an eloquent poetic prayer for you when you are so numb you can't pray, He just comes beside you and begins to groan.

His groaning is an intercession, the scripture says, one that is in perfect harmony with God's will. Does it surprise you that God intercedes in prayer for you when you can't pray for yourself? This passage talks about the Spirit's intercessory groanings, other New Testament passages talk about Jesus' intercessory ministry. In Luke 22:32, Jesus told Peter He has prayed for him, listen as I read it, "but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers." NASB In John 17:20, He says that He will pray for more than just his disciples: "I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me because of their testimony." (NLT)Hebrews 7:25 assures us that his intercessory ministry continues to this day: "Hence, also, He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them." (NASB)

Not only does God pray for us when we can't, but He also prays for us when we don't even know that we need it. But God also intends for us to intercede for one another.

1 Tim. 2:1 says, "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone--" (NIV)

Most of you have experienced the power of having someone pray for you. I know I have. Before Susan and I boarded the plane to fly to my folks house for Lori's funeral, Mrs. Cuevas, a member of our church stopped by the office to encourage me. I began telling her how I got the phone call early in the morning from my Mom. "What time was that?" She asked. Today, I don't remember what time it was, as I said earlier those days were a blur to me, but I do remember her response. Her face animated and said, "I was praying for you at that very moment." Then she told me something I didn't know. She told me that every morning she gets up early and walks before she makes breakfast for her family and she devoted that time to praying for me.

Today I'm wearing a tie that she gave me from her husbands collection after he passed away. Whenever I wear one of his ties, I remember Pastor Cuevas' passion for mission work among the Hispanic population and I remember her gentle, prayerful spirit. Today as I put on the tie, I specifically thought about how valuable it is to have people praying for me, even when they don't know I need it. And especially, how valuable it is to have someone join God in praying for me during those times when I can't pray for myself. 

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