THERE ARE NO ATHEISTS IN FOXHOLES!
Branching out from my previous post where I described my early prayer-life (or more to the point, the near non-existence of it), I reached a point in my early adult life where I discovered the rich glory of prayer and of relating intimately with God there in, and I note that the beginning of knowledge is the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7 (among others)).
When I reached my early adult years, I moved from the rural life to the big city of Phoenix, Arizona. Without recounting all the stresses going on in my life just then, I will point out that my parents were going through divorce, I had a new bride, and I was in a form of culture shock as I adjusted to life in the fast lane. I found myself going back to church with new fervor. I was making my own way in the world (so I thought) for the first time. And suddenly, amid all the stress of trying to make a new life, I found my heart and soul COMPELLED to pray – EVERY DAY!
It actually was a thrill! I needed God’s help to get up in the morning. I needed God’s help to go to work. I was a stranger in a strange land among very strange people and customs. (My first job was at a record distributor full of head-bangers and rock-star wanna-be’s!) I remember being so filled with anxiety at one point that I could not imagine getting my car from one red light to the next! And Phoenix was like Mars to me. I had come from Colorado where cold drinking water came from the tap, but now I did not need to add any hot water for a shower! It tasted almost as salty as the sea. And the strange desert vegetation had pricklies and bite! My little marriage needed help. My little car needed help. I had a nice little apartment, but it was situated on, as one first-responding, law enforcement official put it, “…the worst street in East Mesa for drugs, gangs, and prostitution”. Even my car-pool friends feared driving up my street to pick me up and drop me off! So… yeah… I prayed! And yeah… I drew close to God!
A strange thing happened then.
God answered me!
Yeah. First my motorcycle broke down, then my car broke down one day, and I was stuck. Money was tight. Options were…. were just not there. I went over them again.
Nope. No options. Still zero.
I could have called my grandfather to come bail me out, but that was going to invite my broken family into my problems and enslave me to them forever. I almost preferred suicide. So, I went over my options again. Still zero. I cried some more.
And then I realized, I had been praying all along. I was talking to God about all this. Right from the start. But even though my heart and soul had been engaged, I had not sensed – really sensed – that God was really listening or that he really cared. And I told him then, “There are people in this town… wealthy people… who, when they need a car, they pick up the phone. They say something like, ‘Wilson! Fetch my car’, and then the car comes to their door; they walk out and drive off where ever they desire. But I have no options!” And just then he caused me to think of my church family, a group I had come to lean on already as my faith was growing, but whom I feared might be tired of helping me. (I guess I was afraid they would view me as a free-loader who always needed more but never got any better, so I was really afraid to ask. Sort of a “When Helping Hurts” mentality long before that damaging book was ever written. And my own fears had closed off the very option God wanted me to consider.
So, I called my church family.
One good sister answered my call. And she said that she and her husband had been laying in bed the night before talking to God and saying, “We want to be useful for Your Kingdom cause!”; she went on and on and on about how God was just not using them enough. And somewhere in the midst of her banter she mentioned, in passing, that she had a truck. But she kept droning on and on about talking to God. And I kept thinking, “Hey…. lady… you mentioned a truck back there somewhere… can you get back around to that part again??? But of course I did not say that to her.
Finally, after a good 15 minutes of praising and worshipping God’s favor for prompting me to call her so she could serve his cause, she got back to talking about the truck again. And then it dawned on her that I had no way to come get it. So, she offered to bring it over to me! As she hung up the phone so she could bring me a truck, I turned back to God in prayer and said, “Thank you, Wilson.”
The first thing I realized was that between the culture shock, lack of money, and surplus of car problems, my prayer life suddenly had a life of its own. I was not studiously embracing a disciplined life of prayer like a monk in a monastery; I was thrust into prayer as my life overwhelmed me. Many a soldier has found a rich and abiding prayer life in just that way, though I will admit combat presents significantly greater stress and anxiety. But we find it in jail and prison too. Many an inmate finds “jail-house religion” to be almost second nature. Of course, once the war is over or the inmate is released, the prayer life frequently dies. In the meantime, my “relationship” with Jesus was on, and at the moment, I was enjoying the blessing of that truck!
I drove that truck for a month while my car was in the shop, and meanwhile I saved the money to fund its repair. And that truck was a fully restored classic Chevy that turned heads everywhere I went! I mean, people thought it was mine! I kept confessing to people that it wasn’t; I kept thanking God for the love, and I kept getting his love in high style. And the second thing I realized was that those rich people who get on their phones and order a car had nothing on me! The great God of all creation loved me with red-carpet treatment. I was his Prodigal Son returning to him in prayer, and he was lavishing his wealth on me.
As I spent that month rolling around in style and THANKING God profusely at EVERY red light! I already knew that God would not thereby unload all his wealth on me in some health-n-wealth gospel fashion. After all, I knew full well that some widow ladies’ miracles consist of going to that jar in the cupboard and finding it never quite runs dry (II Kings 4). That is not the same as driving fancy classic Chevy trucks around town. Besides, the truck was not mine; it was God’s! I was driving God’s truck! Still, in this case God had lavished his treasures on me, and it was his grace all the same for which I was appropriately thankful.
Staying Awake to Pray
Have you ever felt like you took a sleep aid at just the mere mention of “developing a prayer life”? “Developing Your Prayer Life” just sounds like the title for a sleepy sermon series, don’t you think? I catch myself yawning at the end of the word “developing”. Wow! But of course, I would never tell that to Pastor. I wouldn’t want to discourage him, and besides, there surely would be some wisdom on offer there, even if I would have chosen a different title (or even topic).
And anyway, have you ever laid in bed and tried to pray in the dark? What happens? A six-thirty buzzer wakes you up… No???
Yeah. I been there/done that. It’s a phenomena, alright. No denying it.
But it was right around the time I was driving God’s truck everyday for a month that I listened to a radio pastor who had a call-in show where people could ask the wise old pastor questions. And one night this fellow calls in to say, “Pastor, I can’t pray like I should. I keep falling asleep! I feel so terrible. What can I do?”
And I wanted to reach into the radio choke the guy! I felt so upset that this guy would call in with such a question before the whole listening world to hear. I felt sure some atheist was listening and thinking, “Duh! Idiots. If you’re gonna talk to yourself with the deluded idea that some ‘God’ is listening, you should expect to be put to sleep….” And I chafed at the notion.
But then Pastor had good, sound, practical advice. He said, “Don’t lay down in bed, in the dark, with your head on your pillow and expect to have a good talk with anyone for long. No. Get up and walk as you talk. Walk and talk with God in the cool of the day. He will meet you there….”
And it was good advice, I thought, but it was not my experience. I felt the pastor had left out another very important observation. I recalled that when Jesus and the twelve went to Gethsemane, Jesus prayed and could not sleep; the twelve slept and could not pray. And it dawned on me that if the pillars of the church, the twelve founding apostles themselves, struggled with this stuff, then there really is hope for the rest of us! But still, that is not in and of itself a real answer. No. Jesus was compelled to pray, and it was because he knew he was in the lurch! There are no atheists in foxholes! And when your life is on the line, you pray! And in my experience, when I put myself out in vulnerable situations, and this seemed ever more meaningful if this was done in service to God, then I was compelled to pray, with all my heart and soul, and there was neither falling asleep nor going through the motions to be worried about.
I took my own advice. I began looking for adventures that would scare me. I talked to God about it, and said, whatever mission You have for me, I’m in! About a year later, I cashed in my 401k, left my job (by this time I was a test driver for General Motors), and moved to Texas to study Bible at Abilene Christian University. And all that radical movement put me in a whole new prayer life alright.
Moving like that did not happen over night. I had to save money, get affairs in order. There was a lot to it that I will not cover in this blog. Suffice it to say: it took time and energy just to leave town, not to mention reach my goals. And all the time and energy was submerged in anxiety and second-guessing myself. In fact, I had my first real church conflict in the middle of it all which created a dark cloud over my acceptance and entry into ACU – in fact it haunted me for the next 7 or 8 years! My plans were in jeopardy! But I had taken it as a sign from God that I should go, and wouldn’t you know it, one night at church, an old cowboy got up to welcome a newcomer from Abilene, Texas and made a tongue-in-cheek remark about how Abilene, Texas is the Promised Land! And what he could not have known is that by that time I had been keeping prayer journals in which I had dared to see myself as one called by God to leave my home in Colorado, sojourn in the desert (of Arizona), and finally enter the Promised Land of Abilene Christian University.
I took it that God spoke to me that night through that old cowboy, and I ran with it. I have never looked back. In fact, my life is characterized largely by signing on for dangerous or risky missions or the call of God to explore humiliation, suffering, and shame. He leads me into these missions, and I find my prayers deepened and compelled.
I mean, if you want to embrace a discipline of “developing your prayer life”, you have my blessing. There is nothing wrong with it, and everything right about it. BUT… if you find it hard staying awake to pray, perhaps you could look around in your community, see where God is and what he is doing, and then join him there. I have a feeling prayer will be compelled from deep places within!