I am a pray-er. I pray alone and in groups; silently and out loud. I pray at the side of hospital beds with people who are frightened. I pray over the phone with people who are struggling. I believe in prayer, and I practice prayer.

Which is why, in the fall of 2016, I was surprised by a situation that revealed to me I still had much to learn about prayer. I was leading a team that accidentally birthed an outreach ministry for vulnerable children in a small, rural community. By accidentally, I mean, we had tried to start one thing, and the Lord saw fit to offer up something extraordinarily different.

That something different meant that each Wednesday night, three to four dozen children would appear. We would feed them, try to teach them, and attempt to lead them in worship. While we were doing these things, we would also break up fights, work to quiet foul language, and do our best to dodge the insults hurled at us when our offerings didn’t meet expectations.

The kids we worked with were challenging. They were in trouble at school, some had run-ins with the law, and more than one of them would have been considered homeless. Their lives were in a constant state of upheaval, and an outpouring of love was not a welcome, familiar experience them. It was the messiest ministry I had ever been a part of, and at first, all I wanted was to find the way out.

But God. God immediately and undeniably began to reveal Himself on Wednesday nights. Because I witnessed Him at work, it was abundantly clear that this program and these children were precisely what God had in mind. As the weeks passed, He wrecked my heart for these kids in the best way a heart can be wrecked. I began to see past their nasty insults and look deep into their eyes. There I found a longing to be loved, and it was like looking into my own reflection.

Here’s where the praying comes in. Every Wednesday night after the kids had been dropped off at home, van drivers returned to the church, and the rooms that had been filled with noise got quiet, the dozen or so adults who had survived the night would gather for prayer. Often, I would start us off, and in the most honest praying I have ever publicly done in my life, I would thank God for using me and plead with Him to equip me. I would confess my unwillingness to continue in one breath and ask Him to leave me there forever with the next. I was raw, broken, and desperate, and I knew nothing but Him would hold me together.

Then another voice would do the same. And another. Sometimes several of us would get on our knees or even get flat on the floor as we cried and lifted our sorrow over the brokenness we had witnessed in the previous hours. We would say out loud our temptation to admit defeat and not return. We would fervently request that He filled us anew with the power only He could provide so that we could press on.

Then, when everyone was spent from expression and free from the turmoil inside, we would begin to lift up the names of the children for whom we were especially burdened. Often my tears would flow as I would hear the names and remember their faces from moments before. These were my children now because they were His children, and somehow in His crazy way of using His followers, He had offered me an opportunity to care for them in His example.

When God called me away from that ministry, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever let go. I confess I almost didn’t leave it even though I understood Him clearly to be instructing me to do so. The lessons I learned during that season of service has made me a better pastor, teacher, and Jesus follower. I am grateful for the time I was granted to be used there. And the memory of the powerful prayer time we experienced in our moments of desperation planted seeds of His faithfulness that bear fruit still today.

Peace.

This post is chapter 4/6 on Spiritual Habits (Prayer)