Here’s a prayer I know I can pray

One summer when I was in college, I worked on a paint crew that included several guys who one day aspired to be pastors. During our lunch break, we often got into theological discussions. Two guys in particular did most of the talking. One of them always was right.  The other guy always disagreed with him.

When the idea of women pastors came up one day, sparks flew. The guy who always was right strongly opposed any idea of female pastors. The other guy thought women should be ordained just like men were. All roles of authority and leadership should be open to women, as well as men, in his opinion.

Suddenly, with no warning, the guy who always was right lost it and started cursing like a sailor at the guy who always disagreed. Believe me, every swear word that ever crossed your mind came rolling out of the mouth of this pastor-in-training. He put on quite a show.

When Mr-Always-Right finally came up for air, he looked at the other fellow who always disagree and said, “Sorry.”  Shaking his head back and forth several times, he looked at the group of the 6 or 7 of us sitting there eating our lunch, and said, “Ah, that’s not the person I am. I hope you know that.” With that he closed up his lunch box and went back to work.

The fellow I was painting with and I went back to the room we were painting. As we walked back to the spot where we were we painting, my partner said out loud, “Good grief. Where did that come from?”

Isn’t that the question we all ask from time to time? “Where in the world did those words come from?”

Who of us hasn’t heard someone say, or said ourself, “Pardon the bad language. That’s not the person I am.”

I always want to say, “Really? I think those words came from your mouth, didn’t they?”

It may not be the person you want to be, but it was the person you were at that moment. We know the truth, don’t we? What is in the heart often comes right out of our mouth at the most inopportune time. Which gives us all some idea of how incredibly tough it is for these hard hearts of our to be changed.

“It takes so doggone long for this transformation process to happen,” a friend of mine lamented.

This takes me right to the words of the Apostle Paul as he reflected on doing the very things he once said he wasn’t going to do. “O wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from this body that is so subject to death?”

And Jesus was spot-on when he said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” 

Not long ago, I gave one of my granddaughters a set of Russian nesting dolls. You remove the top from the first doll and inside is another, smaller doll, which looks pretty-much identical to the outer doll. You keep removing the dolls and finally you get the 8th doll, which is tiny.

To my way of thinking, it’s sort of like that with our multi-layered selves. We all have lots of layers. The first time you meet us we make a pretty good impression. You’re just seeing the outer layer, of course. But if, say, you work closely with us every day, you get to know more of our layers. But then talk to people who live with us every day.  They see layers no one else knows about.

And then, of course, there’s part of us that none of us knows very well, and plenty of folks don’t even want to know. That part is buried deep down in our knower. The words of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah come to mind: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

Sometimes when I counsel pastors I ask them: “What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of person do you respect? How do you want to be remembered?”

One soft-spoken millennial pastor in his mid-30s recently told me he knows that even when he does his best — which he said he usually does — outside of God’s grace and mercy he knows his best falls way short.

He told me how meaningful Jesus’ parable in Luke 18 of the religious leader (a Pharisee) and a despised tax collector is to him. “I have that parable printed out and taped on my desk,” he said.

In the parable two men go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee quickly stands and loudly prays, numbering his good deeds as part of his prayer. Not the tax collector. He stands way off in the distance. He won’t even lift his eyes toward heaven as he prays “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”

“That’s my prayer,” the young pastor told me, saying he wanted to be remember as a man of integrity. “Even though I know I have a lot of layers in my life, I still believe that all of life is sacred. Everything I think, do and feel is cast in time forever. Because I believe every moment is hallowed, I humbly ask God to do his will in my life.”

He told me he starts each morning praying, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” But he doesn’t stop there. He adds these words from the New Testament book of Romans, “Help me today to not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed — all my many layers — by letting you renew my mind moment by moment.”

Now there’s a prayer I can pray.