Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lord, Teach Us To Pray

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 11:1-13:

Prayer is at the heart of Christianity.  Martin Luther said “to be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”  When you join the United Methodist Church, you pledge your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness.  The order is not insignificant.  I do believe that prayer is first because it is the most important.  But, prayer is one of those difficult things for many Christians.  I suspect that even with the quote I just read that few of us have actually ever been taught how to pray, at least formally.  Even though prayer is vital to who we are, to what we do, and to deepening our relationship with God we don’t spend a lot of time learning how to do it, but for the weeks of Lent, we are going to be looking at prayer in many different forms, and we won’t even begin to touch the surface of everything that might be said.
by Carrie Grant,

Prayer is very important for Luke.  He talks more about prayer than any of the other gospel writers, and he has Jesus praying all over the place for lots of different things, but apparently to the disciples, whatever it is that Jesus is doing does not look like or feel like what they have been doing.  Jesus seems to be like the old EF Hutton commercial, “when Jesus talks, God listens.”   Comparing themselves to Jesus, they must have been feeling a little inadequate, so they begin to think that maybe they are not praying correctly, or maybe that they don’t know anyone about prayer at all, and so they go to Jesus and say, “Lord teach us how to pray.”  This is the only time they ask Jesus to teach them how to do something, and that should give us some comfort I think, because like the disciple, it feels like we should know what you are supposed to be doing and you don’t, and you want to say to Jesus, just like the disciples did, “Lord teach me how to pray.”

I remember as a child sitting in worship one day with my mother, and we got to the point in time in the service when we all recited the Lord’s prayer, and this was the time in which everyone was assumed to know it and so it wasn’t printed in the bulletin, a standard we can no longer expect, and so I turned to my mother and asked her how she knew the prayer, and she told me it was just something you learned by going to church.  That is my earliest memory about prayer, and being taught about prayer and what it meant to pray.  But, how I really learned how to pray was by sort of being pushed into the deep end and being told to swim, which is what happened as soon as I said that I was going to enter the ministry, then I became the designated prayer at seemingly every event, from family meals to church meetings.

I know that you all have experiences about prayer that have impacted how you pray.  So I want you to think for a few moments about your earliest memories of prayer, maybe it was at church, maybe it was a prayer before a meal, or your parents or grandparents praying with you before you went to bed, or maybe it was people not praying, or saying it could only be done by one person, not all of our memories will be good, some will have negative connotations which also affect how or if we pray.  So take a few moments and try and recall some of your earliest memories or experiences of prayers, and then I want you to share that memory with someone sitting near you.

As it turns out we all know something about prayer.  None of us start out with a completely blank slate, for nearly all of us we have been taught about prayer throughout our lives simply from the prayer that has surrounded us, but for some of us to begin to try and pray, or to learn to pray, we need to put aside many of the rules that we have learned in order to free ourselves to connect with God in prayer, and to also broaden our understanding of what constitutes prayer.

There was once a monk who was renowned for his spiritual practices.  He was so famous that other monks would come from all over Europe to study at his feet.  One day the monk found that the mice in his cell had become such a nuisance that he was becoming too distracted to be able to pray.  So he went out and got a cat, and the cat would circle around him while he was praying, and would occasionally sit in his lap while he was meditating and the monk would cheerfully rub his ears.  But the monk did not tell anyone else why he had gotten the cat.  Shortly after seeing this, all of the other monks in the abbey went out and got cats too, because not knowing the real reason they all thought that having a cat around would help them come into a deeper relationship with God.

There are no magic words or actions that make our prayers any better, because God already knows what is on our hearts and what we need.  Notice that Jesus does not say that you need to be kneeling or sitting a certain way, there is no specific way to hold your head or your arms, in fact there are no specific directions given about the body in relation to how to pray.  All the rules we have come from other places.  There is no specific posture physically you need to take nor is there any special place you need to be in order to pray.  You can pray at home, at school, at work, even in your car, and sometimes it’s very helpful to say a prayer while in the car.  What we are doing with our bodies or even what we say during prayer is not nearly as important as where our heart is.

Prayer is not about asking for something from God; it is about establishing a relationship with God.  And most importantly it is about opening ourselves up to the possibility of change and of being willing to listen to God.  The theologian Soren Kierkegaard once observed “a man prayed, and at first thought that prayer was about talking.  But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening.”  We work and work to make prayer so complicated and then we wonder why it doesn’t work for us, why it has become so burdensome and why we get nothing from it.  Prayer is simply about deepening our relationship with God by being willing to interact with the divine, and God will always meet us where we are and move us slowly into deeper things.  Dancing, gardening, cooking, cleaning, writing, singing, working, everything in our lives can in fact become a form of prayer, if we have the intentionality to make it so.  There is no right or wrong way to pray, except for the attitude with which we approach prayer

Recognizing that reality is really the starting point of any prayer life, because prayer is not simply about giving thanks and then asking for things.  Prayer is about conversation.  Prayer is about listening.  Prayer is about engaging with the almighty in a meaningful way the same way that we would be with our friends and family.  Prayer opens us to possibilities and realities that we would never know existed without prayer.
Now I know some of you are saying that’s all nice and good John, but I hear people praying, and I read written prayers, and they are brilliant, but when I pray I don’t sound anything like that and I really don’t know what to say and therefore I don’t do it.  But that’s why Jesus discussion about prayer is so vital.

We often get confused about what is truly important about prayer and think that if only we could come up with the right words, or if only we could find a comfortable place to pray, or if only we could pray like someone else, or if only we had the magic cat, then we would be okay.  We become so wrapped in the externalities of prayer that we end up missing what is truly important about prayer: Being honest and open with God and engaging in a conversation with God about what is going on in our lives, both the good and the bad.  God does not choose whether to listen to our prayers because of the words we use, the posture we have or where we are praying.  God listens to us because God loves us, and to be involved in prayer means that we must love back, which means being open and vulnerable in prayer, which is hard.  But the most important thing about prayer is simply to do it.

We learn to pray the same way we learn other things, first we observe, then we imitate.  We don’t learn to drive simply by watching others do it.  Instead we get out there and do it.  I know when I was learning to drive I always wanted to be the one driving.  I never said to my parents, “I’m not good at driving, so why don’t you drive and I’ll just sit here and watch.”  I always wanted to be the one doing it, and from the nodding of heads I can see that that was either also true with you or your children, and as I’ve already said, praying in the car can be a very good thing.  If you feel uncomfortable creating your own prayers, then use printed prayers, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I know that many of you ultimately wonder whether God in fact answers prayers.  Some people say that God answers all prayers, and the answers are either yes, nor or maybe.  But then we sometimes even thank God for unanswered prayers.  Christian Scientists do not go to doctors because they believe that all diseases can be cured through prayer.   The minister who married Linda and I received a pamphlet when his wife was pregnant with their first child that said that any problems during pregnancy, any birth defects and even pain during childbirth could all be cured with prayer.  Of course the corollary to that is that if you did have complications, if your child was born with a birth defect or if you did have pain during childbirth, imagine such a thing, then that must mean that you therefore did not pray well enough or hard enough for God to help you.

I have lots of trouble in believing in the sort of capricious God that these theologies sometimes imply, but I believe strongly in the power of prayer and it is found in something that we are missing from today’s passage that is lost in the translation.  The Greek text does not really say “ask and you will receive.”  Instead, it says something like, ask and keep on asking, seek and keep on seeking, knock and keep on knocking.  The verb implies ongoing action.  This is not a onetime event, it is a constant activity.  So go right up to that door and keep on knocking on it, for in reality God answers all our prayers, which is what the last line of today’s scripture tells us.  Will we get everything that we ask for?  We know that’s not true, for if it were every little girl and boy would be out riding their own pony or perhaps playing catch with Tim Tebow or Tom Brady.  In fact, pay attention to the Lord’s Prayer, we pray not for “my kingdom come, my will be done,” but instead for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done.  God does not give us everything we ask for, but, and here is the most important part, if you get nothing else from this message, remember this, when we pray, we get God.

When we pray for something, anything, God gives us the Holy Spirit.  Through prayer we are infused with the Holy Spirit and are brought into a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God.  We are infused with the Holy Spirit so that we might have the strength and endurance and go on, the vigor to keep fighting, the enthusiasm to share God with others, and the love and joy that can only be found in a relationship with Christ.  That is the power of prayer; it is the power to invite God into our lives, to say to God “I want to be in relationship with you,” it is to turn ourselves over to God and not only to talk but more importantly to listen.  It is to engage in a conversation about our lives, our joys, our struggle, our triumphs and our tragedies, our strengths and our weaknesses, and it is to seek God’s guidance in undertaking everything we do in life.

If you do nothing else as a daily spiritual practice, you should be praying and then reading scripture.  Prayer is seminal to having a relationship with God.  And what you will find when you engage your prayer life is that instead of going around with a battery that is missing, that because of the gift of the power of the Holy Spirit given to us because of prayer.

In a book entitled Grace All the Way Home, Mark trotter writes, “Throw anything up there.  Stumble, use bad grammar, have long embarrassing pauses, split your infinitives and even dangle your participles.  It doesn’t matter.  Just groan or sigh if that’s all you can do, because God’s hearing your prayer does not depend upon your eloquence, but on God’s grace, which is already at work in your life.”  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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