I’m preaching on prayer this week. It’s been a tough week to preach on prayer because I have been doing a lot of it and none of it seems to be working. At least not like I want it to work.
Take the other night for instance. My wife and I drove to the church where I serve with the intention of going into the sanctuary to pray. This is something that we do from time to time as a way of being connected to God and to one another. In the moment of prayer as we lay on the floor, breathing in the smell of church, we both felt that everything would be all right. We actually believed for a moment that all of the worries and anxieties that had been plaguing us during the week (and they were many) had faded and we were at peace.
But on the ride home they all came back in a rush. Whatever peace I had felt went out the window, and I found myself right back where I started--troubled and fearful. In my heart I wanted desperately to believe that my prayers were heard and that God was going to grant me what I desired, but my head was telling me to be afraid...very afraid.
Now I have had some incredible answers to prayer that seemed so clear and so particular that there could have been no other source but God.
Nearly six years ago, my wife and I went for our first sonogram after discovering six weeks earlier that she was expecting our second child. What should have been a wonderful and happy experience quickly turned to one of sorrow and disbelief. We were told that the baby’s heartbeat was too slow and that he would not survive the week. This was a Monday, and we were scheduled for a procedure that Friday to remove what the doctors believed would be a miscarriage. All week my wife and I and all of our family, friends and co-workers prayed fervently and desperately for my wife and our unborn son. On the day of the procedure we stopped at the doctor’s office for a required sonogram before being admitted to the hospital. The technician was unaware of where we were heading, and she methodically and cheerfully went about her work. “Well,” she said briskly when she’d begun the sonogram, “the baby’s doing great, the heartbeat is strong, and everything looks good!”
I remember feeling as though the earth had shifted just a bit. In that moment I thought about the child that we had lost to a miscarriage the previous year, and how our prayers had gone seemingly unanswered then. I didn’t understand how or why that child had died and the little boy growing inside my wife had not, but I felt so strongly that prayer was a part of both moments somehow.
I wish I always felt that strongly about my prayers.
Most of the time I’m left wondering. I wonder what I am supposed to do when it feels as though my prayers are bouncing off the ceiling. I’ll ask: “Am I praying correctly? What should I be praying for? Is it selfish to pray for myself?” And then I begin to wonder if there really is any point to praying at all.
I am beginning to understand some things about prayer that I have never really grasped before. Things like:
There is something about praying with others that’s powerful and meaningful. When I know that there are a bunch of other people praying with me---with the same thoughts in mind and the same words on their lips--it is both humbling and empowering. I am starting to know what it means to be truly and intimately connected to my brothers and sisters in Christ and then all of us to God when we pray in concert.
I also have come to understand that there are ways to pray that enable us to connect more closely with the Spirit of God than we could imagine.
All of this has led me to wonder why those of us who call ourselves Christians don’t spend more time in prayer together, and why we aren't more intentional about our prayers.
There is this moment in the book of Acts where two of Jesus' disciples, Peter and John are arrested by the very people who had been responsible for Jesus' death. They are threatened not to preach or teach about Jesus, and considering what had happened to Jesus, the threat was not empty. So Peter and John return to their friends and fellow Christ-followers and they have a prayer meeting.
It says in the text that they all prayed with "one voice." The Greek word that is used here is phonen, and ordinarily it would mean that everyone was praying in unison, but the word homothumadon is also used to describe the mode of prayer that was undertaken here, which tells us that everyone was on the same page, or one in spirit.
I am not foolish enough to believe that there is some sort of quota of people praying about a certain thing that must be reached before God will hear the prayer. I know better. I have joined with far too many Florida State fans each year praying that the Seminoles will completely humiliate the Florida Gators and have seen those prayers go unheeded time and time again.
But there is something to be said of knowing that there are people in your life or in the same room that are lifting up their voice to be one in spirit with you as you bring your joys and junk to God.
Back to Acts 4, though... The form and the content of the prayer prayed by the early Christians here is surprising. First and foremost, they do not pray for protection, which would have been the likely request to offer to God. Instead, they pray for boldness. And they do it in a way that defies most of our prescribed notions of prayer form.
To begin with, they verbally recognize that God is sovereign (vs. 24). I am challenged by this. How often do we begin our prayers with "God, you are God and I am not. You are in control and I am not?" Probably never. That's how often. But when we do begin our prayers by recognizing God's sovereignty we set the tone for the rest of our prayer, and we place things in their proper place.
Second, the Christians in Acts 4 remember what God has done in the life and history of God's people (vs. 25-28). There is an overwhelming sense here of a God who is present not merely in words but in mighty acts. We need to be asking ourselves, "Am I paying attention to the signposts in my life that indicate where God has been?" When we remember God's mighty works in our prayers, both in our own lives and in community we are even more prone to leave our pride at the door when we enter into the throne room of God.
Third, we see in Acts 4 that the early Christians ofer a petition to God (vs. 29-30). But this isn't your run of the mill, "God-grant-me-my-wish-bail-me-out-of-trouble-whatever-and-ever-amen" prayer. There is something self-less about the prayer that the Christians pray here. They do not ask for reprisals agains those that threaten them, instead they pray that God would do miracles and effect healing. We need to ask ourselves each time that we pray whether we really believe the words of the Lord's Prayer, "thy will be done." Do we mean this? Maybe we can prove it by praying that God would use our circumstances to heal and to bring about God's will.
Finally, the Christians in Acts 4 experienced power. The Spirit of God moved among them, shaking the room and filling them all with the courage and the boldness to go out into the world and bring the Good News. We need to have our eyes wide open as we pray in community, ready to see the places where God is at work, shaking things up and moving among us through the power God's Spirit.
I like to think that there are some practical applications for this. I would love to see my churc h practice this kind of prayer--together. I would love to see Christians with different points of view, theologies and doctrines practice this kind of prayer--together. Maybe if we spent more time wondering what God was all about, and up to and less about our own worries and fears, we would find the kind of peace and unity in the Church that we talk about, but never realize.
There are implications for individuals here as well. When we feel oppressed or incredibly burdened, we don't have to feel that way alone. We've got to know that we can share our burdens in community and feel the very presence of Christ around us when our burden is lifted up in one voice by our brothers and sisters. And further, we can learn a great deal about how to pray from these early Christians--selflessly, boldly, with reverance and humility.
When we do, we open ourselves up to the wild and wonderful moving of the Holy Spirit.
Who wouldn't want that?