A few months ago I was meeting a good friend for lunch at a local restaurant. I was a few minutes early , so I decided to go the restroom and wash my hands before he arrived. As I entered the men's room, I quickly realized that I was a part of a crowd who had apparently all had the same idea. One of the men was the father of a toddler who couldn't have been more than three years old. As I waited for the sink to open up, I watched as the father tried to help his young son navigate a world that was far bigger, and way taller, than the little guy could possibly manage. Nonetheless, as the father tried to help his son through the rigors of a restroom that was made for grown men, the little boy continually insisted that he wanted to do everything by himself. Yet the geography and the physics of the situation made that impossible. He couldn't come close to reaching the top of the toilet seat, much to his dismay and annoyance. Yet with each obstacle that was placed in his path he uttered the words, "By myself. By myself." When his father lifted him up on the toilet seat he uttered, "By Myself." And then when the father picked him up so he could reach the sink he said, with more than a little frustration, "No, no, by myself. By myself!" And finally, even when they tried to open the door to leave the restroom, the little boy screamed, "By Myself!" even though he could not even budge the door on his own. And as I watched this whole thing unfold before my eyes, I thought to myself, "I know that kid." Then I had a realization, "Wait a minute. I am that kid."
Flashback to a fall day in 1984. I had just gone on the Young Life staff in Charlotte, North Carolina and had found out that one of the two schools I would be working with was a small private school where they were hoping to start Young Life. A few leaders were on the team and they had slowly begun going to the high school to befriend high school kids wherever and however they could. So one of my very first days in Charlotte, thinking a lot more of myself and my abilities than I probably should have, I charged off to the school, totally planning to take it by storm once I arrived. I got out of my car, went to the office, introduced myself to a few administrators, and headed off to the lunchroom; fully intending to have every kid in the school enamored and captivated in about an hour's time. As I busted through the lunchroom door, I noticed that it was one of the smaller school cafeterias I had ever been in, holding roughly seventy-five kids. And as the door opened, everyone in the room stopped and looked at me. I totally froze. Feeling their eyes burning into me, and needing to diffuse the awkwardness and tension as quickly as possible, I walked right through the lunchroom and out the back door into the courtyard. What a disaster. I thought about getting back in my car and leaving town immediately, driving all the way back to Knoxville where I was known and loved and forgetting about this whole Young Life staff thing forever. But instead I sat down on a bench in the courtyard and tried to collect myself. I turned to God, in humiliation and failure and fear, and cried out for him to be the one to do this ministry, and not me. Finally, God had me where he wanted me. A few minutes later, I slunk back in very quietly and tried to strike up a conversation with a few kids. I actually only met one kid that day. His name was Rick. Needless to say I didn't take anything by storm. It was actually the beginning of a long, humbling, wonderful process. I did, however, happen to see Rick at the football game that Friday night and got to say hello to him. When I did, he stopped in amazement and said, "You remembered my name. I don't think anyone has ever remembered my name." And so it had begun. But first I'd had to learn some things the hard way.
In case you haven't noticed by now, I have a tendency to charge ahead, trying to do life and ministry on my own; or by myself , as the case may be. The problem is that when I do that, it doesn't usually end up quite like I'd hoped it would, and even less, I'm sure, like God hoped it would. It's usually not a pretty sight. So, as much as I'd like to deny it, I am, indeed, that kid. Glad to know that I'm not the only one.
The disciples did the same thing. Just look in Mark 9:14-29. Jesus had just come down from the Mount of Transfiguration with his three closest friends, while the rest of the disciples were trying to "minister" to the people down in the valley. But it wasn't going too well. And when Jesus and the other three disciples arrived they found themselves in the midst of a complete mess. It was chaos. A father had come, begging the disciples to heal his demon possessed son, but try as they might, the disciples just couldn't do it. I guess that should've been lesson number one to them--apart from Jesus we, not one of us, can do it, whatever it may be. It makes me wonder why I continually try; when doing life that way can only end up in frustration and failure.
"O faithless generation," Jesus replies. "How long am I to bear with you. Bring the boy to me." Which becomes lesson number two. Whenever we face anything that is beyond our capacity or capability--which, in all honesty, is just about everything--the answer is to simply bring it (or them) to Jesus. The life of faith and ministry is not complicated, although we tend to make it that way more often than not. Whoever, or whatever, it is, bring it to Jesus. "Stop trying to do it by yourself. Bring your friend, your issue, your wound, your obstacle, to me. That's what true ministry is all about."
Well, to make a long story short, Jesus healed the boy and gave him, both healed and whole, back to his father. And after he did, the disciples came to him in private and asked' "Why could we not drive it out?" And Jesus' answer is priceless: "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer." In other words, "You can't do it by yourself. Why do you continually try?" And can't you just see the disciples looking at each other in shock and embarrassment as they realize, "We didn't pray. Why didn't we pray?"
Which leads me back to my own tendency to try and do things by myself. And leads me to the very same question the disciples were asking themselves: "Why don't I pray? I mean, really pray." Where is prayer in my life and ministry? And how can I embrace, and practice, prayer in a way that recognizes and nurtures my dependence of God?
Not to long after my little episode in the high school cafeteria in Charlotte, my Area Director gave me a training assignment. He wanted me to visit another city and follow another Area Director around for a day and see what it looked like to do life and ministry. He had even picked out the place and the person he wanted me to visit--Ken Schultz, who was in Johnson City, Tennessee at the time. My Area Director said that Ken's Young Life club at Science Hill High School was one of the largest in the entire region, and he wanted me to find out why. Sounded like a great assignment to me and I was really excited about it, so I made arrangements to spend a day with Ken and to go with him to his Young Life club that night.
When I arrived in Johnson City, Ken greeted me warmly and gave me a little outline of the night ahead. And as we jumped into his car and headed toward the place they had club he said to me, "Now I have to warn you about something before we get there. We spend the first hour of our team meeting before club in prayer. I don't care if the skit is not done, I don't care if the songs are not done, I don't even care if the talk is not done. For that hour before club we pray." And sure enough that's exactly what we did. We arrived at the house and everyone was scurrying around in typical fashion, trying to get all of their ducks in a row for club. But when Ken and I walked in, everything stopped, and for one hour we prayed. Now I have to be really honest with you, up until that point in my life (I was probably around 24 at the time) I'm not sure I'd ever prayed for one continual hour without stopping. But for a solid hour we prayed, and it was wonderful. We prayed for kids, we prayed for families, we prayed for God's Spirit to be unleashed and move powerfully. We prayed for hurts and pains and challenges and conflicts. We prayed for the school and the administrators and the community and the church. We prayed for God to show up and to heal and to save. We prayed for everything. And not long after we finished praying, hundreds of kids poured into the room for club. It was a typical Young Life club. It was even a good Young Life club. But the one thing that made it what it was, was prayer. It was prayer that made it the biggest Young Life club in the region.
A year later Ken actually moved to Charlotte and was my Area Director for the second year of my training. Being as young and curious as I was, one day I just started asking him about the details of his life. "What time do you get up in the morning?" I asked. And when he told me, I was amazed that anyone could humanly get up that early and still function throughout the day. So I asked him why he got up so early. And, among other things, he told me it was because of prayer. "With all of the things God has given me responsibility over each day, I dare not leave my house in the morning without having spent at least an hour in prayer." And ever so slowly I was beginning to get the picture.
What about you? Where is prayer for you? Where is it in your life? Where is it in your ministry? Oswald Chambers once said that "Prayer is the way the life of God within us is nourished." Is your soul and your ministry being constantly nourished by the reality and the practice of prayer? Or are you, like me, still too often trying to do it by yourself?