After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
(This weeks’ TFG is adapted from the message I gave on Sunday. If this sounds familiar, it’s alright. Sometimes a second coat of paint is what you need to make the color pop.)
Wisteria vines look nice. And they’re horrible.
For two weeks their cascading purple flower clusters hang effortlessly from the limbs of trees, turning a forest into a wash of pastels. And then there’s the rest of the year, where they slowly choke out every single tree that comes into their viney grasp. It’s a horribly invasive plant.
In the woods right behind our fence, wisteria has grown untouched for several decades. It’s climbed 60 feet and nearly killed every tree within view. It blankets the ground with vines so thick that it’s impossible to walk through. I’ve been trying to make a difference with the slow choke of this invasive plant by chopping off the snakelike vine from trees. And more recently, I’ve been trying to clear out the ground brush layer as well.
Weedwacking was my first approach. But after one pass, my string trimmer only could get me part of the way there before getting all wrapped up. I was getting frustrated, not using the right tools at all. I decided (honestly I love feeling justified in buying tools) that it was about time to get a metal brush clearing attachment. As my string wrapped around another thick vine and drove my 2 cycle engine to a lurching stop, I said in my frustration without really thinking, “Gah! This kind only comes out with prayer!!!”
I laughed cleverly to myself (happens a lot) at my biblical wit, which my family has told me is not nearly as entertaining as I think it is. But it got me thinking about our world and a story of Jesus and his disciples and a little boy with a deeply rooted problem.
When a child who has suffered deeply from an evil spirit is brought to the disciples, they try to heal him. But we find out that they can’t, even though they’ve done similar stuff in the past! So Jesus comes and does what Jesus does… he heals, restores, takes a trajedy and turns it into a glimpse of beautiful hope.
But the story isn’t done. Later, removed from the embarrassing earshot of the public, the disciples ask Jesus…. why couldn’t we do it?
Jesus responds simply: “This kind can come out only by prayer."
That’s a powerful statement. Except for one thing.
No one says a prayer in this story.
I hope you’re asking, what’s going on here?
Clearly Jesus was not talking about saying the right words in the right order for 30 seconds. Jesus is talking about something far more pervasive. He’s talking about a way of life where compassion, action, and prayer all work together as parts of one whole.
There’s an unnecessarily complicated relationship of Christ followers between action and prayer. We live in a false duality that is neither Christlike or helpful in bringing the kingdom about.
Both are needed. Our lives must be built on both. The disciples had yet to learn this.
We pray, and then we get to work. And then as we work, we pray more. And then when we’re done working, we pray for God to multiply our efforts of faithful love by the power of his spirit. And we get up and do it again the next day.
I know my stuff only comes out with prayer. My laziness, my self-interest, my greed, my arrogance, my prejudice… these things rarely get solved by pushing harder and harder. But prayer. Prayer changes my mind. Prayer changes how I see the other. Prayer changes how I view God. Prayer changes how much power I have to live righteously in the world.
The Wall Street Journal recently published that Google searches for “prayer” skyrocketed in March as the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on our world. There’s something in all of us that seems drawn to pray in difficult times. And then there’s something else that tells us to quickly move on after a minute or two- as if it’s a task to be done rather than a life to be lived.
Even among Christians, a life of prayer seems to still be a rarity. Do we really believe that there are kinds of things that only come out with prayer? Are you willing to listen to Jesus now? The nastiest stuff, the most ingrown stuff deep within us… in our world… the things that torment and throw people onto the ground… do we believe that prayer is where power lies in overcoming those things?
As much as so many of us want to be people of action, we are not sustainable if we simply act for God without a foundation of being with God. We will have the capacity to love powerfully for the long haul only if we are so deeply grounded in Jesus that we are constantly accessing His spirit to do the work, and not relying on ours.
Honestly, I don’t trust my spirit that much. I can do good things on a good day- kingdomish things even! But then the next day I don’t feel like it anymore. Or I get mad at someone, or I get discouraged at the state of the world. And then I can be like, I’m done.
But I can’t do that if my life is grounded on prayer. There will be too much of God’s love in me. There will be too much hope to live in despair. There will be too much understanding to hate my neighbor. There will be too much motivation to see good prevail in the world.
I look at my wisteria every single day- the vines are too deep to be done in one project. I’ll have to keep after it year after year- much like my own soul. Much like the brokenness of our world.
Jesus challenges us in this story. He calls his disciples “unbelieving” because they’re trying to do everything on their own strength. What do you need to bring to Jesus today? Where is the deep stuff in you and around you that can only come out when prayer is the foundation for action?
Jesus, help us root out the deep things in and around us by taking us deeper with you today.