The great baseball catcher Yogi Berra was involved in a ball game in which the score was tied, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. The batter from the opposing team stepped into the batting box and made the sign of the cross on home plate with his bat. Berra was a Catholic too, but he wiped off the plate with his glove and said to the pious batter, "Why don't we let God just watch this game?"
That is good theology when applied to the outcome of a baseball game. It is terrible theology when applied to the way we live our lives and carry out the work of the church. Worse than that, it is fatal. But too often that is precisely the outlook we bring to our vocation as Christian elders, deacons, and pastors. God is in attendance at the game, but only as our honored spectator. Our prayers are merely ceremonial functions: tips of the hat, verbal recognition over the loudspeaker between innings, or requests to throw out the game ball. He may even have the best seat in the stadium, but He rarely if ever gets on the playing field.
Am I overstating things a bit? Not if I am to believe half of what I hear from my colleagues about the weight and frequency assigned to the role of prayer in their work. Prayer is always getting nudged aside, neglected, or perfunctorily performed as more pressing concerns take center stage. Many of us feel we just have too much to do to have time to pray. That is the problem. At bottom, we don't believe we are really doing anything when we pray, other than pray, that is.
It is this attitude I would like to address, for I believe it is one of the most subtle and pernicious forms of worldliness in the church today. Why don't we believe we are getting anything done when we pray? Two reasons: the world's view, and the world's pace.
The World's View
The world's view is basically a philosophical issue. It is the view of secularism; the view that this material world is all there is; that we live in a closed system of cause and effect with nothing outside; that official reality is only what is accessible to our senses. The secular worldview is what Peter Berger called a "world without windows." There can be no such thing as prayer in that kind of world.
Of course, any Christian can see that the world's view is at odds with the faith. For the church, however, what is more significant than secularism as a former philosophical system is secularism as a logical phenomenon. For secularism as a sociological reality, says Os Guinness, is the notion that religious ideas, institutions, and interpretations are losing practical social significance.
For instance, it is fine to pray in your support group, for it can be a warm exercise in intimacy. But pray as a means of doing the business of the church? When we must get something done, we need to start talking, writing, telephoning, spending, budgeting, mobilizing, organizing, and mailing. Those kinds of things take time. So prayer gets preempted. It is a pleasant luxury that would be wonderful to spend more time on, if only we did not have so many necessities pressing in. After all, we must complete the budget and formulate policies and act on the proposals from the fellowship committee.
God's view couldn't be more in opposition to that fatuous notion. Our battle is not with those socalled necessities, but "against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." We therefore fight our battle with truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the Word of God. And we "pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests" (Eph. 6:18, NIV). That places our work in a totally different perspective, doesn't it? That demands an entirely different agenda of what things must get done, does it not?
What if every church business meeting began with a reading of that passage from Paul? What if we pastors, elders, and deacons really believed we were in the midst of a raging spiritual battle in which the stakes, the territory being fought over, is none other than us and our people? What confidence would we place then in our organizational charts, lines of accountability and authority, budget reports, and plans for the Labor Day picnic? My hunch is we'd all be too frightened not to pray. We'd all become foxhole Christians. Can there be any other kind?
It isn't that those business items are trivial; they are to be included in the responsibilities of Christian leaders. They are, however, trivial in comparison to our vocation to be men and women of prayer. To paraphrase Calvin Coolidge's famous remark about the business of America being business, the business of the church is to pray.
The World's Pace
The world's view leads to the world's pace. There is a sign reputed to be on the Alaska Highway that says, "Choose your rut carefully. You'll be in it for the next 200 miles." The view that sees the material reality as all there is, or at least all there is that is worth bothering with, creates a pace that is frantic at times, monotonous at others.
I read an article that created a great deal of anxiety in me. It was entitled "If You Are 35, You Have 500 Days to Live." Subtract the time you will spend sleeping, working, and tending to personal matters such as hygiene, odd chores, eating, and traveling. In the next 36 years you have 500 days of leisure. If this world is all there is, then none of us should waste our time praying. We should be literally grabbing for all the gusto we can get.
We see precisely that all around us. Yet, as leisure time increases, so do the problems of emptiness, boredom, and restlessness. We have, as a culture, a frantic determination and anxiety to relax, unwind, and have fun. Where an earlier generation may have been compulsive about work, we are compulsive about what we do with our leisure time. Martha has become the patron saint of American recreational life.
Of course, this affects the church. Activists that we are, we all feel there is so much to do and so little time to do it. A sign of our times, religiously, is the fact that Hans Kung's otherwise brilliant theological work On Being a Christian did not have a chapter on prayer. When asked about its absence, he apologized and admitted it was a serious oversight. But, he explained, at the time of writing he was so harassed by the Vatican and busy trying to meet his publisher's deadline that he simply forgot. That is my point exactly. Prayer is always the first thing to go when we get caught up in the world's pace. And only prayer can deliver us from that pace.
We would do well to take our clues from Benedict of Nursia. He founded his Benedictine order as a reaction to the worldliness of the sixth-century church. His slogan was Ora Labora, from the Latin ora, pray, and labora, work. He taught his followers that to pray was to work, and to work was to pray. Following that rule, the Benedictine order broke down the artificial dichotomy between work and prayer. From there they also bridged the gap between the manual arts and the liberal arts, the physical and the intellectual, and the empirical and the speculative. A great tradition developed in which learning, science, agriculture, architecture, and art flourished. Much of what is thought of as beautiful nature in Europe today, particularly in France, was created by the Benedictine monks who drained swamps and cleared forests.
We must learn that prayer is our chief work. Only then can our work become prayer: real service, real accomplishment, real satisfaction. This simple truth alone explains why so many workers in the church find themselves exhausted, stretched to the breaking point, and burned out.
The apostle Paul, when writing to the church at Colossae, wanted to encourage them by telling the things to be done on their behalf. He mentioned one of his colleagues, Epaphras, whom he described as "always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. ... he is working hard for you" (Col. 4:12, 13, NIV). Epaphras' hard work for the church was his earnest prayers on their behalf!
How often has our telling people we'll pray for them been a cop-out─meaning we won't do anything that really matters, anything concrete; or meaning we want to maintain a safe distance from them and their need.
Our prayer is our work! Only when that is true for us will our work be prayer: real worship, praise, adoration, and sacrifice. The classical postures of prayer, arms stretched out and hands open, or head bowed and hands folded, are gestures of openness and submission to God. They express perhaps the greatest paradox of prayer: that only when we give up on humanity's work can God begin and, mysteriously, can humanity's work come to fulfillment. As Dr. Hallesby puts it in his book Prayer. "Wherever we touch His almighty arm, some of His omnipotence streams in upon us, into our souls and into our bodies. And not only that, but, through us, it streams out to others." Ora labora.
* Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Ben Patterson is pastor of the New Providence Presbyterian Church, New Providence, New Jersey. The above article is reprinted from Leadership, vol. 3, No. 1, p. 114. Used by permission of the author.