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<i>"Operator, Get Me Heaven on the Line"<i>
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How many of you are willing to raise your hands and confess that you sometimes struggle in your prayer life? My hand is up too, you’ll notice. I think we struggle simply to do it as a spiritual habit, and we also struggle out of a lingering doubt about whether prayer even works.

In one of his many powerful books about the Christian life, Pastor Morris Venden tells a very personal story about prayer that I want to share with you this morning. Here it is:

"One time I went to see a man who was a hard customer. I was holding some public meetings in his town, and someone said, `Why don't you invite him to the meetings?' I went to his home, out at the edge of town, and knocked on his door. He opened the door, and when he heard who I was, he said, `Oh, you blankety-blank preachers!' (Only he didn't say blankety-blank!)

“Then he invited me in—and that didn't make sense! But I went in and sat down, and he began to unload on me, trying to insult me. One of the things he said was `I have talked to the blankety-blank pillow [praying] just as many times as to any blankety-blank preacher, and I never got any blankety-blank answers from either.'"

Well, after a little story like that one, I almost wish we had one of those little censorship beepers that you sometimes see on television when some foul-mouthed celebrity is interviewed, because that's a lot of blankety-blanks. But Venden concludes with an insight that I think is very helpful. Here it is: "This man had scrapped his prayer life on the basis of whether or not he got answers. If the only reason you pray is to get answers, you are going to scrap your prayer life sooner or later.” I guess the implication is that most of us are never going to get enough yes miracle answers from God to keep us going.

All during this sermon series on living a healthy Christian life, we're talking about commitment to God and building a personal one-to-one relationship with Him. And today, just maybe we can discover—or rediscover—that prayer is more than a selfish Christmas scramble for things or even for answers.

Here's Pastor Venden's own admission at the end of his story: “There was a time, he admits, “when I thought that Bible study and prayer were an end in themselves. But then I discovered that these are the great avenues that God has given so we can communicate with Him. If we will make the commitment to communicate with Him through these avenues, we will get to know Him. And when we get to know Him, we will find that trust”—or faith—“is awakened spontaneously."

I suppose we've all had a few people in our lives who only stayed in touch because they wanted something from us. You’ve heard about the kid who got down beside his bed and night and began to pray in a loud, almost shrieking voice: “Dear Lord, please send me a new bike and a new I-Pod and a new Wii and a new this and a new that.” And his mom said to him, “Uh, honey, you don’t have to shout, you know. God isn’t deaf.” “I know He isn’t,” the kid replied, “But Grandma, visiting just down the hall, IS deaf.” Or the young lady who sent an e-mail to her boyfriend: “Dear Fred, I just love you so much. I think of you always. I want for us to be together forever. Yours for eternity, Susie. P.S. Congratulations on winning the California lottery.” 

I can remember other churches I’ve pastured—churches many, many miles away from this wonderful congregation—and there would sometimes be just one person who always wanted favors. Every few days, they would call or come by . . . and it was always with some need or desire or wish list. It got to the point where the ring of the phone almost sounded a little bit different when it was them on the line. I'd look over at my wife and say, "It's Brother X again. I wonder what he wants this time."

Now, I hope this doesn't sound like complaining. That's the life of a pastor, and overall, it’s always been a rich and rewarding time for us. But what kind of a relationship is it if every point of contact involves favors and not friendship? How must God feel if we simply want stuff from Him?

Last Sabbath we explored the importance of Bible study as a means of getting to know Jesus. Now we want to explore the practice of praying with the same emphasis.

Now, obviously, the biblical topic of prayer is a huge one. We could spend many, many Sabbaths together studying how we can learn to pray more effectively. But how about praying simply for the sake of friendship?

One principle that we mentioned earlier regarding Bible study is just as helpful today. If prayer is really an avenue to a deeper relationship, then, it's got to be regular. It's got to be daily. We need to be in a frame of mind where we comfortably slip into prayer mode often, instinctively, like breathing. 

I have had pastor friends who were just wonderfully in communion with Jesus all the time. If you mention a challenge or a recent frustration, their faces will warm up with love and they’ll quickly say: “Listen, let’s pray about that right now.” Before you can even get your eyes closed and your hands folded, they are reaching up to the great throne of God and seeking His presence.

How many of you remember when we first began to all get e-mail accounts? I suppose some of us resisted at first; it seemed like a hard thing to master. You had to know how to log on, how to type in—and remember—a password. How to file away old messages. How to combat the incoming spam. Etc. But the flip side of that is that we can stay connected to those we love on a daily basis, no matter where we are in the world.

I know many of you have rejoiced to find an Internet café down in Mexico, or on a mission trip to the Philippines. It’s such an amazing feeling to be able to go to your Yahoo account . . . and there is your wife’s message waiting for you! If you’re a teenager on a school mission adventure to Thailand, you can hear from your mom and your dad. You can check and see how the Dodgers are doing. Pastors can even get in touch with the home office, compose the church bulletin in Manila and send it over here to the secretary. 

Of course, the most important blessing is that we can simply stay in communication—from a love and friendship—point of view with those we most care about. Even if there isn’t much news to share, it’s just great to get a few lines where that certain someone says, “I miss you so much. We all prayed for you last night at supper. Can’t wait to see you again.”

Let me encourage you right now to consider the good habit, the daily habit, of prayer. Have a time and a place where, every day, you spend time reading God's Word and praying. It doesn't have to be a long period of time; not every Christian is ready to pray all night or stay on their knees for an hour. But get into this good habit of daily prayer . . . for the purpose of nurturing a friendship with God.

What do we say in our prayers, then? That's a huge topic that could take many Sabbaths here at church, but let's simply focus on the idea that our prayers are deepening the relationship. Sometimes we do ask for things. We thank God for His blessings; we pray on behalf of others. We unburden our hearts to God about those we love, the people we are anxious to have in God’s eternal kingdom. We praise Him for His goodness and His character and the kind of government He is running in His universe. We tell Him how thankful we are for Jesus. It's a long and wonderful and never-ending list.

But at all times, we remember that we're talking to a friend.

You know, an old story sticks in my mind. It’s entitled So Dear to My Heart, and is a perennial favorite, a classic children's tale. Maybe you remember how a little boy, Jeremiah Kincaid, loses his little black pet lamb out in the stormy weather. And Granny, bless her heart, watches the drama and sees the ache in that little boy's eyes.

Finally, all alone at night by her bedside, she gets down on her knees and she really lets the Almighty God have it with both barrels. Now, God is her Friend. For many long decades they've held conversations—generally respectful conversations. But right here she speaks very frankly to this Friend about Danny, the rebellious little black lamb that’s out there in the storm.

The line I remember is where she says to Him, "Lord, I'm not askin' You, I'm TELLIN' you.” There aren't any thee's and thou's in this prayer; she's upset at this turn of events and she speaks her mind.

Now, we can't draw a whole theology from an old children's story like this one. And we do need to always subject our prayers to the ultimate will of God; that's part of what trust is all about. But I can tell you this: God is glad when we speak frankly and openly to Him. He doesn't mind when we throw up our hands and tell Him, "God, I don't know what's going on! I can't take much more! I don't have any idea which direction You're trying to lead me."

In his marvelous book, The Bible Jesus Read, Philip Yancey devotes an entire chapter to the stark, often heartfelt and even ragged emotions we find in the Psalms. He describes some of them as “wintry” as writers pour out their despair to God. In other places, people like David almost shout out their rage; Yancey uses the words “imprecatory” to help us understand that God isn’t angry when we cry out to Him: “Lord, please give me some revenge here! Smash the jaw of my opponent, and that will really make me happy!

Do you remember how John the Baptist, lonely and discouraged in his prison cell, sent a message to Jesus? A prayer, if you will? A crying-out kind of prayer, where he asked: "Are you the One who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Matt. 11:3).

And Jesus accepted those fourteen blunt, unrehearsed words as the cry of a friend. And without clenching His fists or getting red in the face, He sent an answer in return to His frustrated friend John.

I like how the bestselling book, Steps to Christ, says very clearly in its chapter called "The Privilege of Prayer": "Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend."

Your conversations with this best of Friends might include frustration. Pain. Rambling little speeches that start at Point A and all of a sudden are over on Point Z-and-a-half. God doesn't mind. Maybe your mind wanders and you have to bring it back. He doesn't mind. Sometimes our prayers are stumbling and immature and even selfish. But He accepts them, just as a dad gratefully listens to the dumb little things his kids say while he pushes them on the swings over at the playground.

That same book, Steps to Christ,  has this line a bit further along in the chapter. Listen: "Keep your wants, your joys, your sorrows, your cares, and your fears before God. You cannot burden Him; you cannot weary Him."

God's not like an earthly friend whose ear gets tired from holding a receiver up to it while you yak away for too long a period. His eyes don't begin to droop; He never looks down at His watch and say, "Won't she ever shut up? Get a life!” No, friend, God IS your best Friend when it comes to prayer.

A mom and dad once got a hesitant phone call from their daughter, who was 150 miles away at college. She had just spotted a cute little rental trailer in a mobile home park, which would make the perfect home-away-from-home while she was away at school. Would her parents mind driving up and helping her take a look and make a decision? Well, of course they would.

They looked it over, decided it was a good buy, signed up papers with the realtor, had dinner together at a restaurant and the parents drove home.

Just three days later, the daughter called again, this time a bit hesitant. Uh, there were actually two more papers that needed signing and also an inspection this or that which required their presence. She hated to ask, but would Mom and Dad be willing to drive up there again?

Of course, the answer was yes a second time. Why? Because this is what parents do.

Now, the point is this. This young lady didn’t need to wait until she thought her parents were going to be in a good mood. She didn’t need to finesse the situation with flowers and compliments. No! These were her folks! They loved her. She could simply ask. “I need you. Please come help me.”

And it’s the same way with God. The writer of Hebrews comments in amazement that we can “come boldly before the throne of grace.” “With confidence,” says the NIV.

Let me relate a brief anecdote as we consider what we should pray about.

The great book, Believe in Miracles, But Trust in Jesus, was written by the late Pastor Adrian Rogers, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He explores the story in John 4 where an official came to Jesus asking that his son might be healed.

Now, that is a good prayer. Rogers describes it as a good prayer. All of us who have sons and daughters know how anxious our hearts are at such a time. We pray earnestly and we pound on the gates of heaven until our fists are bloody stumps. This man believes Jesus has the power to make his boy well, and sure enough, the son recovers. 

Frankly, I never would have thought of this—but Rogers observes that even when we want something as wonderful and as understandable and as natural as the healing of our children, that is not truly the deepest thing we should want. Most of all in life, we should simply want Jesus Himself. His presence, His love, His friendship, our interests allied with His own. We should want the triumph of His kingdom. To want our child healed should be secondary to simply saying to Jesus: “I want to be with You. I want what You want. I want all of heaven’s plans to be put into effect.”

Here’s how he puts it: “So many of us are concerned only about our health, our welfare, our children, our families, and our future—but not about the will and kingdom of Jesus. That’s not strong faith. Could it be wrong to plead for the health of a child? In itself, of course not. But strong faith is interested primarily in the glory of God and a right relationship with Him.”

The good news, as Rogers concludes, is that this official gave his heart to the Lord and began to seek Jesus simply for the sake of Jesus and His goodness.

Let me share just one more insight as we close.

Dr. Tony Evans, from his book The Victorious Christian Life, describes a man who scrimped and saved up $1,300 in order to go on an ocean cruise. Every penny he had—but this had been the dream of a lifetime. Still, he knew he was broke now, so before going on board he packed a huge suitcase full of peanut butter sandwiches. Here's how Evans paints the scene:

“As he enjoyed the swimming and the sun deck and the fresh air, he noticed how well the other passengers were eating. They seemed to do little else. Wherever he looked were lavish spreads of appetizers, salads, fruits, breads, and desserts. At the end of the long buffet tables chefs were carving mouth-watering slabs of beef, roast turkey, and rack of lamb. On the last day of the cruise, his curiosity got the better of him. He stopped a passing steward, who was carrying a particularly delicious looking room service tray. ‘Excuse me, young man,' he asked. `How much does a meal like that cost?' The steward was taken aback by such a question, but managed an answer. `Sir, you don't understand. All the food you want is included in the price of your ticket.’”

Can you imagine? Evans closes by observing with a sad shake of the head: “How tragic to be given such a privilege and not use it."

The good news today, folks, is that the power of prayer is yours for the asking. The privilege of prayer, the friendship of prayer . . . is free. It's included in the price of the ticket. For heaven's sake, put away your peanut butter sandwiches and join the feast.

Father in heaven, we come to You just now amazed that You love us and that this very message, these words right now, reach right to Your throne and right into Your heart. What an incredible miracle, and what a glorious reality. Lord, please help us to bask in this love, and to rejoice that You have such an interest in us. Help us not to simply pray for things, but to pray for the purpose of knowing and loving You more. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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