Eighty-four months after they were married, Anna's husband died. Now she was eighty-four years old and had spent most of her life as a widow. The Gospel of Luke tells us Anna had made herself a woman of prayer and was living out her days in the temple of Jerusalem, engaged in intercession before God for her people and looking for the Messiah who was to come.
Anna was right there the day Joseph and Mary brought the baby Jesus to the temple to "present him to the Lord." She came over to greet them and to give praise to God for the child, whom she recognized as the promised Redeemer of Israel. As a prophetess of the tribe of Asher, she declared as much to all the people who were present.1
What a beautiful person! Have you noticed that when an elderly person offers prayer in public, that person somehow ceases to appear old? The lined face, the wrinkled hands, the slight
tremor in the voice seem to acquire a natural loveliness. The prayer itself becomes a benediction to those who are within hearing. Nothing graces the serenity of old age like prayer.
Leaving on one side for the moment theological presuppositions such as belief in God and the nature of the Trinity, let me ask a simple question, "Why don't more elderly people pray?" It's not just the age factor. I could widen the subject and ask, "Why don't more people of any age pray?" Surely it's not for lack of effort. Millions of folks, including some who call themselves Christians, have tried praying but are now convinced it doesn't work. That leads us to the basic question Ole Hallesby once raised: "Why do most of us fail so miserably at prayer?"2
We're looking at a spiritual problem that goes deep. I remember being on the island of Iona in Scotland when Sir George MacLeod suddenly asked a group of us young ministers and theological students, "How many of you are having problems with your personal prayer life?" Every hand shot up. Many earnest Christians, if they are open, have to admit that their private prayer lives are in shambles, and always have been. When they were children and tried to pray, the exercise made them fidget. When they came to adulthood, their praying was mostly wishing. (Someone has said that most prayers can be granted either by a gift of money or a kind friend.) Middle life found them too busy or too exhausted to pray.
Now that they're growing older, it seems that
some of them are about to give up the fight. They say prayer doesn't appear to change things much. They note that the eyes of the wicked "bulge with fat" as they did in Old Testament times. At the same time praying people, honest citizens, and deserving folk still suffer the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."
What is the trouble? Is it God? No, God hasn't changed. He is still there, still our loving Heavenly Father who reigns in glory and majesty. His Son, Jesus Christ, is still our Risen Lord. The Holy Spirit is still our Advocate, the One who stands alongside us. Then what is it?
The trouble is with our praying. We don't know how to pray. We can't seem to face up to it. Instead of communicating with the One who made us, we just skirt around the edges and talk. A minister was once invited by a colleague from another church to join several pastors who wanted to get together weekly for prayer. The minister replied, "No, I'm too busy to join your group, but I'll be glad to come and give you a little talk on prayer."
For thousands of years Christian leaders have been turning out books and preaching sermons on prayer. They have discoursed on the nature of prayer, the value of prayer, the perplexities of prayer, the hindrances to prayer, and the times and manner of prayer. They have even separated prayer into compartments of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication, and submission.
As we grow older, such chatter begins to sound
wearisome. We have heard it all before. We would like to cut through the sludge and get down to the real issue: Does prayer work or doesn't it?
I find it does. In recent years I am praying more than ever, enjoying it more, and seeing more things happen as a result. I am convinced that prayer is an instrument we older believers can use with tremendous effectiveness. But I have discovered it is like any other fine instrument: You have to know how to use it, and how not to use it. And it's never too late to enroll in the school of prayer.
Reuben Torrey put it quite simply years ago: "In so much of our prayer there is really but little thought of God. Our mind is wandering here and there throughout the world. There is no power in that sort of prayer. But when we really come into God's presence, really meet him face to face in the place of prayer, really seek the things that we desire from him, then there is power."3
For what they are worth, I have tried to draw from Scripture some simple guidelines that have worked for me in learning to pray, and I would offer them particularly to my fellow senior citizens. These are intended for Christians, believers in God who are serious about improving their prayer lives. They are by no means an exhaustive treatment of the subject. (For further reading I recommend the Gospels!) I will also bypass any treatment of the physical paraphernalia that we Americans like to introduce about posture, breathing exercises, time of day, color of
the wallpaper, litanies scribbled while waiting for a traffic light to change, and other details. After all, prayer is like breathing: You can do it anywhere there happens to be air.
Without Me You Can Do Nothing
For a start, you begin with nothing. You tell me you can't pray. It's no use. If you tried, your prayer wouldn't reach the ceiling. The prayers you learned as a child have lost their meaning: "Now I lay me down to sleep . . ." "Safe in the arms of Jesus . . ." The thing won't work. You're not fit to talk to God. You don't want to talk to God. You've made your bed, and now you have to lie in it. You took some wrong turns, and no power in Heaven can bring you back or straighten you out. Spilled milk will never go back in the bottle. Scrambled eggs cannot be unscrambled.
The moving finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.4
So you are empty, are you? Excellent! Your feeling of helplessness is exactly what God has been waiting for. In fact He has already begun moving in your life. He was waiting for you to reach this position, for as long as you thought you could handle things, He was held back. Now,
out of your sheer despair at ever getting anything out of prayer, He is beginning to work in your life. But prayer is not going to help you. God is going to help you.
This may sound strange and even confusing, but whoever said we could understand God's ways? We know, because He has told us, that He is not interested in long, dull, repetitious prayers. In fact, He despises them. But when He finds someone who honestly admits that his or her prayer life isn't worth beans, He is delighted.
When the Devil attacks me, as he does on occasion, I just have to laugh. It's preposterous. What can I do against the Devil? I'm of the flesh fleshy. (If you think older people are not troubled by the flesh, read the rest of this book.) So I find myself helpless. The Devil has me. If I launch into one or another of the traditional prayers of the church, I get the distinct impression that I am trying to "psych" myself out of an ugly situation. On the other hand I know that Jesus is stronger than the Devil. So I call on Him. "Jesus, help! I'm in deep trouble. Take this monkey off my back. Drown this temptation. Clean me up. Help!"
And Jesus delivers me. Like that!
When we expect nothing of ourselves, God steps in. We don't need to intone, call, sing, whistle, wave our arms, dance, speak in tongues, or recite the catechism. The great Augustine simply threw himself under a fig tree and began to bawl. That's when God began to work.
Forget about the "moving finger," the scrambled
eggs, and the spilled milk. When God does a thing, He does it magnificently. "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation."5 What if you are over sixty or seventy or eighty what is that to God? He can save you. A few years mean nothing to Him.
Do you want to learn how to pray? Just get rid of number one. The rest is like shooting fish in a barrel. Remember what the Lord told Solomon? "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves . . ."6 As we grow older, we find ourselves looking for respect. We want to be treated with dignity and kindness. Be careful! The more we get, the more we want, and the less inclined we are to pray. It is when we pray out of need that God reaches down to help us.
Pray One for Another
The next step is to shift the prayer emphasis from yourself to someone else. The prophetess Anna in the temple was not praying for herself; she was thinking about Jerusalem. Such prayer is called intercession. If you would like your prayer life to come alive and make your growing old a delightful experience, get rolling on a personal program of praying for other people.
It takes some practice at first. Someone comes to you with a problem. Let's suppose it is a granddaughter who is facing a stiff competitive examination and is worried about it. What if she fails? What if she disappoints her parents?
What if . . . Your response is to take charge and say, "Let's pray about this." You put your hand on the grandchild's head or shoulder and talk to God, asking for His help in removing fear and giving a clear mind. Request that He remove the worry about her parents' reaction because it is irrelevant. If the youngster does not know Christ, you have an opportunity to talk to the Lord about it right then. Don't miss it!
Perhaps half a continent away a sister or brother or aunt is facing an operation. You can pray for the loved one over the telephone. What better use can be made of the instrument? Perhaps that is why God gave it to us.
But what if the aunt dies, and the granddaughter fails the test? What if the prayed-for promotion does not materialize? Does that mean the prayer was of no value? To get the true answer you must ask the person who was prayed for. I can guarantee that you will not get a negative response. In fifty years as a minister I have never heard a person express regret at being prayed for.
The minute we stop asking something for ourselves and begin praying for someone else, we begin to sense the joy of prayer. We forget to think about whether we are "getting through," whether we are praying "spiritually," whether we are "really sincere," whether God is "real," or whether we are just talking to our "higher self." All such introverted thoughts become academic; we are now intercessors, on the battlefield for the Lord and on behalf of our brother or sister.
Is God listening? You had better believe it!
Why do we fail so miserably at prayer? We just spend too much time praying for the wrong person ourselves.
One Thing I Do
The third suggestion I would make to my fellow seniors about prayer is that we sharpen our focus. We don't have all the time in the world left. For us to get results we need not a shotgun but a rifle. We are trained from childhood to pray for the sick, the needy, the bereaved, the neglected, for those in authority, and for the "heathen." The church has engaged in such general prayers from biblical times, and they surely have their place and purpose.
I have found, however, that when I leave the more formal prayers and concentrate on a particular person or object, my own prayer life seems to have more unction than when I indulge in sweeping petitions. Certainly my conversation with God becomes a lot more exciting. Instead of nodding through the prayer time which we older people have a habit of doing if our attention is not directly engaged I wake up in a hurry.
There is another danger, and that is too much concentration on a subject of deep personal interest. I once had a distinct sense of receiving a divine rebuke by spending too much time praying for a single individual. It happened in 1968 during the Vietnam War. Our son was a sergeant
in charge of a village of some ten thousand Vietnamese, as well as a small U.S. Marine detachment and a squad of "popular forces." He had been overseas for two years and was due to rotation. The Tet offensive had broken out, and I heard on my car radio that the Viet Cong were threatening to overrun all the villages controlled by American military units.
I was spending so many hours praying for our boy that I got what seemed a rather definite reply to this effect: "If you will just calm down and leave your son in My hands and stop all this muttering, I will take care of him and bring him home. I hear you. You don't need to remind Me again. I got your message."
For the next month, until Sergeant Alexander Wirt reached home, I ceased to pray for him simply because my prayer had been answered. Today in my prayers I am reminded that concentration, when kept carefully within bounds, really does sharpen the prayer life. Kierkegaard spoke well when he declared, "Purity of heart is to will one thing." Now when someone calls me on the telephone to describe an emergency, I zero in on the target right there over the phone.
There is yet more to be gained by limiting some prayer to a specific person or object. Dr. James Hastings, in his book The Christian Doctrine of Prayer, calls attention to an interesting note in the Gospel of Mark's account of Jesus' calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee.7 As Mark described Jesus' boarding a small vessel with His disciples and putting out on the lake, he added,
"There were also some other boats with them."
When the winds blew up it was not just Jesus' boat, but all the others as well, that were in danger of being swamped. When Jesus spoke to the storm and it subsided, it was not just one boatload that received the fallout from His intercession, but many.
When we pray for one person riding in an airplane, and God in His mercy protects that person the crew and all the other passengers are also protected. When we pray for rain for one farmer, and God sends the rain, all the other farmers are blessed. This spiritual fallout is happening to us all the time. If I pray for protection for my wife's nephew in a certain school, and God answers by putting a shield around that boy, the whole school is protected. When Billy Graham was very small his Christian parents prayed that God would put His mark on the boy. God did, and today millions of men and women can point to Billy's preaching as the cause of their giving their lives to Jesus Christ.
The book of Proverbs says that gray hair is the splendor of the old. One of the most beautiful sights on earth is the sight of a venerable prayer warrior who has spent many hours in communion with God, and is now living a life of serenity, waiting for an angel escort to Heaven. When he or she speaks, ripe wisdom comes out. How the world needs such people to listen to and admire!
Yes, some of us oldsters ramble when we talk, but so do youngsters. The real veterans of the
Cross did not become attractive models for the young consciously, through going after honors. Nor did they attain wisdom just by reading books or watching television. They got that way through prayer. The more we engage in prayer to God, the more wonderful an experience it becomes to us.
As to the fallout from intercession in blessing to others, it is beyond all imagining. Ruth and I take great delight in our beloved grandchildren and have the highest confidence in their Christian parents. Yet we cannot predict infallibly how our grandchildren will ultimately turn out. What we do know is that they know that each night they are lifted up to the Royal Throne on High in prayer and we get blessed in the bargain.
Chapter 7 || Table of Contents
1. See Luke 2:36-38.
2. O. Hallesby, Prayer, trans. C.J. Carlsen (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1937), 37.
3. Reuben (R.A.) Torrey, How to Pray (Chicago: Bible Institute Colportage Assn., 1900), 32.
4. Edward FitzGerald, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
5. 2 Cor. 5:17.
6. 2 Chron. 7:14.
7. James Hastings, The Christian Doctrine of Prayer (New York: Scribner's, 1915), 109.
Chapter 7 || Table of Contents