“I’m going out of town for a few days,” Loola says over the phone. You flip pancakes on the stove-top skillet. You pinch the phone between your shoulder and your ear.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to see my son,” she says. “He never comes to town. He’s become too important.”
“Well, I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”
“I don’t know if happy is quite the right word. He says he has something important he wants to talk to me about.” She pauses, takes a deep breath, and coughs.
“Are you ok?”
“I’ll be fine. It’s that fruit tree you should be worried about.”
“How many days are you going to be gone? I’ll need at least a week to kill it.” You reach for the knob on the stove and twist. You stack the pancakes on a plate and head to the table.
“Listen, Honey. You’ve got to keep weeding. I’m not going to be around to hold your hand to the briar.”
“Clever.” You slap a log of butter on the cakes and then drown the pile in syrup. You can’t stand cold pancakes, so you fill your mouth. Muffled, you say, “It’ll be fine. Have a good trip. Don’t give your son too hard a time.” You say your goodbyes and focus fully on your pancakes.
Doing the dishes, you look out the kitchen window and feel a sense of freedom. You’ve loved your time with Aunt Loola, but it might be nice to get a break from her constant instructions. There are things you’ve wanted to do, but knowing Loola will arrive early has kept you focused on gardening. You’ve thought of little else for months.
With your freedom, you catch up on some chores. You get some bills paid, and some laundry done. You oil that squeaky hinge that squawks when you open the door. By midday, you’ve met most of your responsibilities. By two you hit the couch and pull out your phone.
“I’ll do a little gardening research,” you say to the empty room. You go to your favorite video sharing website and search for gardening tips. You watch a few on-topic videos before an adjacent video takes your attention. You click on How To Make The World’s Best Pancakes. That leads to bacon infused pancakes, then the world champion pancake flipper. It’s on to a video documenting an incident where someone’s pancake batter miraculously spilled out into the perfect silhouette of Abraham Lincoln. A local priest declared it a miracle, and now the Lincoln Cake is on display at a church history museum. That video ends with an advertisement for a revolutionary cake batter mixer, which sweeps you away to an online shopping page.
When the sun is down you rise from the warm sweaty indention in the couch, stretching your back and arms. As you pass by the window, you look out at the darkened yard. You had planned to weed, but the time slipped away. “Why weed every day, anyway?” you ask. Though there is no one to hear you, you notice that your tone sounds defensive. “I can let ‘em grow, then just get them all at once.”
You spend a week’s worth of days similarly. You don’t make it to your garden a single time. Each day ends with promises to fulfill your Loolaific duties soon. “I’ll get around to it before Loola gets back,” you tell yourself.
One morning a knock on the front door shakes the house and rattles the windows. You rise, wiping your eyes and stretching away the stiffness. “What time is it?” You glance at the clock. It’s early. Really early. It’s Loola early. “Oh, no! It’s—”
You rush to straighten your hair and throw on clothes. You make it to the door and find Aunt Loola, back from her trip, wearing a particularly satisfied expression on her face.
“I— uh—” you stutter.
“Hello, is the word you’re looking for, Honey.”
“Of course, hello. Welcome back. Did you—”
“Nope,” she says.
“To whatever you were about to ask. The answer is, nope.”
“Come in.” You scoot out of the way to let her by, but she doesn’t budge.
“I’m not here to see you, Honey.”
“Oh, the tree. Right.” You grip the doorknob as if the house is tilting on its side. “The thing is, I’m really pretty busy today.” Loola glances at your bare feet. “Or, I mean I will be. I have to—”
“That’s alright,” Loola says as she steps off your porch. You expect her to walk toward the street and to her home, but she doesn’t. She turns the corner and moves in the direction of your backyard. You gulp hard and follow her.
“Are you sure you don’t want to just come back tomorrow?” You chase her around the side of the house and plant yourself in her way. “I mean, you’re probably tired from your trip.”
“Not a bit. I slept in till five.” She smiles. “I’m old, remember.”
You follow as she continues to move toward the massive embarrassing mess. As you both approach, you can hardly stand to let your eyes fall on the new tangled overgrowth. The fruit tree stands above it all, but the weeds that surround are half as tall as the burgeoning sapling.
You watch Loola as she steps into the fray of weedy mess and greets the head height fruit tree. “Hey, there,” she says. Her warmth surprises you. You wait with a heaviness. You know that at any moment she is going to turn on you and deliver a fiery lecture. Certainly she’s going to reprimand you for letting the weeds grow so tall, but she doesn’t.
She steps out of the patch of weeds and passes you by. She pats you on the shoulder as she says, “It’s good to see you too, Honey.” With that, she’s on her way.
“But—” you start. “Aren’t you disappointed or something? Where’s the witty banter, or the cutting criticism?”
“For this,” you say as you gesture to the weeds that encircle your feet. “You told me to weed while you were gone. I’m embarrassed that you are seeing the garden like this. I meant to weed it before you got back.”
“Oh, no,” Loola says as if she’s just discovered the problem. Is it possible that she didn’t see the weeds? “You meant to weed before I got back? Why?”
“Because, I didn’t want you to see it like this. It’s a mess.”
“So you were going to weed, to please me?” she asks.
“Well— I— uh...”
“That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? You knew I’d be displeased, so you were going to weed the garden. Is that what you meant?”
“When I left your gardening goal was—?”
“But now that I’m back, your gardening goal has changed? Your goal is to please me now?” She smiles with a glow that warms you from the inside. “Honey, I’m a terrible reason to work in your garden. You got to get back to your goal.”
You look at the ground for a long few moments and then glance to the weedy mess behind you. She rests her arm on your shoulder as she whispers.
“Don’t you dare pull any of those weeds to please me. If you decide to uproot ‘em, ask yourself with every one of them, why am I pulling this weed? If the answer isn’t, fruit, then stop pulling them until it is.”
“And, Honey. Don’t be embarrassed. I’ve been gone for a week. My garden has just as many weeds as yours. And I know exactly why I’ll be pulling them.” She points at you, waiting for your response.
“Fruit, abundant fruit.”
I used to meet with a group of men for lunch who were struggling with doubt. One of the repeated questions that came up was, "why are we supposed to pray?" There was a time in my life when I was asking that same question. I asked a pastor friend, "why do we pray?" And he honestly answered, "I don't know." I found his honesty admirable, but his answer frightening.
Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt like prayer is a useless waste of time? I've had entire seasons of my life where I hardly prayed at all because of that exact feeling. All of this changed for me a number of years ago, and I'm a die-hard believer in prayer. It has helped me tremendously to understand the purpose of prayer.
So, why do we pray? This is one way that Paul answered that question in a letter to his friends in Philippi, “pray and ask God for everything you need, always giving thanks for what you have; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.1
What you need is a never-ending focus and reliance on the Spirit's power, which is able to transform you. You need a mindset that stays focused on God and godly things. Paul says that when you pray, God's peace, which is beyond understanding, will guard your mind. Prayer is armor for your mindset. His peace wraps around your frazzled and worrisome mind when you pray so that you can remain focused on the Spirit. Prayer quiets the world full of distractions so that you can allow your mind to do what it is supposed to do, focus on God.
Prayer is designed to focus your mindset on spiritual things. Each time you pray, you hand your worries over to God so that you can maintain your focus. All of this is to accomplish the ultimate goal, which to have an abundant and fruitful life. When you maintain a spiritual mindset, God's power is released into your life. Prayer is the best way to keep that spiritual mindset alive.
Some might ask, "how much should I pray?" I would return that question with another question. "How much abundant life do you want?" Pray in proportion to the amount of spiritual fruit you wish to have. Do you want more joy? Ask God for it. Do you want more peace? Ask the Lord. Do you want more love? It's His will for you to have that, so ask. In fact, each time you sense your mind swerving off of its target, pray. This practice will get the mind back where it's supposed to be.
In answering, "how much should I pray?" It would be easy to give you a time requirement to fulfil, but I think that's the wrong approach. The flesh wants a box to check, a to-do list, a quota to fill. The Spirit seeks your heart. It's a different approach altogether. Remember, the ultimate goal is not to spend a certain amount of time in prayer. The ultimate goal of your time remaining on earth is to experience abundant life. The danger of turning your prayer time into a mechanical ritual is that it can become meaningless repetition, said without sincerity. That defeats the purpose.
Prayer is a tool that will help you achieve abundant life when you do it sincerely. Jesus even offers a model for prayer that we can follow. (more on that in the next few chapters) Setting a quota for prayer time can easily shove you into being a lifestyle legalist. Let’s avoid that. A great rule of thumb is to pray as often as you need, to focus your mind on Spiritual things. Let the need for maintaining a Spiritual mindset guide how much you pray.
Let me illustrate this concept. I used to have a very used car which was badly out of alignment. It was the kind of car you couldn't nod off in even for a second because it would automatically steer itself off the road. That terrible steering would pull me toward the ditch, where a collision would mean my untimely death. Your flesh wants to pull your mind into the ditch, where death waits. Prayer is your first weapon against the swerve. In the same way that I would correct the steering each time it pulled to the right or the left, we must correct our swerving minds with prayer. This is why Paul said, pray constantly.2
You might feel intimidated by prayer. It might be one of the divine mysteries that you've never cracked. You may even feel as if your prayers bounce off the ceiling, or maybe they're not even getting that far. Prayer can be a daunting task, but it really doesn't have to be. Paul offers hope.
Paul explains one of the methods for accomplishing it when he says, We don't know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit himself speaks to God for us. He begs God for us, speaking to him with groans too deep for words. God already knows our deepest thoughts. And he understands what the Spirit is saying because the Spirit speaks for his people in the way that agrees with what God wants.3 This is great news. You don't have to be a perfect prayer expert. When you pray to God, the Spirit speaks on your behalf. When you offer up your sincere requests, the Spirit fills in the gaps.
Growing up, I had a brother who was fairly quiet. I often found myself speaking on his behalf. I would answer questions for him, even when someone addressed him directly. He seemed pleased enough to have someone close to him be his mouthpiece. Now, I was an amateur, but the Spirit is an expert. The Spirit takes your broken and imperfect prayers and explains what you need to God, and makes requests on your behalf. The Spirit knows God's will, so the requests the Spirit makes on your behalf are both in your best interests but also in alignment with God's will. Thank you, Holy Spirit!
There’s more good news. Jesus said, Pray to your Father… and he will reward you.4 If you pray in the way that Jesus teaches, there will be a reward. God rewards us both in this life and the life to come. Our focus, for now, is on the reward we receive in this life for praying to Him. What is the reward for prayer? Simply stated, it's a more Abundant life!
Prayer, by its very nature, is an action you can perform that focuses your mind on that which is Spiritual. If you are sincerely praying, not just mindlessly reciting meaningless words, it forces your mind to focus on God and godly concepts. When you do this, the Spirit is active. He is busy when you pray, acting as an advocate and translator. That spiritual activity works on your mindset, which releases the Spirit's power of transformation into your life. It even changes the way you will act. This is why prayer is so incredibly important.
How do I pray? You may ask. If you asked a hundred different people how to pray, you would get a hundred different answers. Luckily, Jesus' gave a beginner's guide to prayer. In the next section, we'll take a look at how Jesus taught us to pray.
1 Philippians 4:6-8
2 1 Thessalonians 5:17
3 Romans 8:26-27
4 Matthew 6:5-6