Life Without A Net - Part 5 "Living In Prayer"
Just a little over a month ago, Nic Wallenda (of the famous "Flying Wallendas" family) became the first man to walk a tightrope across the mouth of the Horsehoe Falls of Niagra Falls. The wire stretched nearly 400 yards across the swirling falls, and Wallenda walked through wind and mist to other side. Here's a bit of the back story that made headlines after he made it:
The New York Times wrote this about the stunt, "[Wallenda walked ] in a mist so thick he was not visible on the Canadian side for more than ten minutes after he started. The walk... had an Old Testament feel to it."
Old Testament feel... Why? Because of the mist?
Or because he prayed before during and after he walked four hundred yards on a two inch wire that was stretched across certain death.
And it was crazy.
And it was something a prophet might do.
Maybe all of those things, but I bet it was mostly because of the prayer.
Most of us find the time to pray when we are about to do something really scary, or something really scary is about to be done to us. We might not be all that great at praying as a general rule, but when scariness is afoot---we become professionals pretty quickly.
But do we really believe that prayer----works? Or is mostly wishful thinking?
Does God really pay attention to our prayers, or do we just get lucky once in a while?
I recently sat by the bedside of a man who was dying. He didn't believe he was dying, though. He'd beaten three kinds of cancer, a bad heart and a bunch of other things that should have killed him, including the Korean War. This man asked me to pray that he would be healed. In fact, he demanded that I do so.
So I did.
And he died two weeks later.
My mom's cousin was diagnosed with terminal cancer like a decade ago. She was written off by all of the best oncologists that she could find. So she had a bunch of really awesome Christians pray their hearts out for her, and she's still alive, and still praising God and still believes in the power of prayer.
So what makes one person better than another?
Is there any rhyme or reason to this?
And how about this little chunk of doubt----why do we bother praying that wars will end, poverty will be erased, hunger will be vanquished and everyone will live in peace when we know good and well that none of these things will ever happen?
Feeling pretty awesome about prayer right about now, aren't you? You're thinking, "Thanks, Preacher Man. God must be pretty happy that you're sort of messing with his brand."
Let me tell you something. I do believe in prayer. Despite my occasional doubts, and despite the frail and broken way I approach it. You see...
Prayer doesn't just change things---it changes everything.
Let me tell you a story from the life of Daniel that involves a seriously dangerous act of prayer that changed everything. We're going to the life of Daniel since that's been the focus of this whole sermon series we've been working on for the past month. If anyone from the Old Testament stories knew how to live life without a net, it was Daniel.
Read Daniel chapter 6, just for kicks.
We need to have a little background information on this story.
To begin, the Babylonian Empire had fallen to the Medes and the Persians, who came from what we would know as Iraq. Darius had not been king of this new empire for very long, but he was organized. There were 120 satraps, or wise men in his kingdom---all of whom had been given different areas of responsibility. There were three administrators or "presidents" who oversaw the satraps, and who reported directly to Darius. The king was trying to limit his direct reports, apparently, because he was going to make Daniel the leader over all of the presidents.
Naturally, if you follow the story of the life of Daniel, this made the other guys mad and they began to plot against him.
They tricked Darius into passing a law that they knew would violate Daniel's covenant with God, and would also appeal to the king's great vanity. The law stated that no one would worship or pray to any other god other than the king for one month, upon pain of death. Since Darius would have believed that he was king, not only by divine right, but also because he himself was divine, he loved the idea.
When Daniel discovered the new law had been passed---a law described as "The Law of the Medes & The Persians Which Cannot Be Repealed"---he did as he always had done: he opened his windows toward Jerusalem, and prayed three times a day to his God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
When the jealous types who were plotting against Daniel brought this information to Darius, he was loathe to carry out the punishment. He tried to think of a way to get around "The Law of the Medes & The Persians Which Cannot Be Repealed," but to no avail. In the end, he had Daniel thrown into a den of lions.
It's kind of ominous how he even has the den sealed shut with stones, and then also with an official seal, presumably wax, imprinted with his signet ring.
After spending a sleepless night tossing and turning in his bed, Darius arises at daybreak and goes down to the den of lions. He has the seal broken and then shouts into it, "Yo! Daniel, you still alive?" Only he did it in Persian so it sounded different, and probably more elegant.
Of course Daniel is alive. "My God sent his angels," he tells Darius, "and shut up the mouths of the lions." Basically, Daniel and the lions had a nice evening together. Daniel may have even used one of the lions as a pillow when he finally stretched out and caught some "z's."
You know the rest of the story. The evil dudes and their entire families get thrown into the lion's den. And the lions tear them to pieces before they can even hit the ground. It sounds harsh, I know. But that's the way things got done in the land of the Medes & Persians.
Then Darius, much like Nebuchadnezzar in the story of the fiery furnace, issues a decree that no one can talk trash about Daniel's God---or else.
And naturally this was part of the "Laws of the Medes & Persians Which Cannot Be Repealed."
All of this happened because Daniel prayed. Or should I say, Daniel prayed, and all of this happened.
Prayer doesn't just change things---it changes everything.
What was the first prayer you ever prayed? I bet it was the "Now I lay me down to sleep prayer," wasn't it?
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
This is a serious prayer. You think it's just a kid's prayer because it's sort of always been prayed by kids. But it's more than that. When you pray this prayer, Heaven is on alert. If death should come like a thief in the night, God knows what needs to happen next.
It's almost like praying, "God, I'm going to slip into unconsciousness for a few hours when I will be completely and totally helpless, susceptible to boogey-men, lightning strikes, radon gas, alien abduction and evil clown dolls. So, I want to put you on notice that you've got my back on this one for at least seven hours, maybe eight."
This all presupposes that your soul is sort of ready for the Lord to take, right?
"Whoso will pray he must fast and be clean/And fat his soul and make his body lean." so wrote the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.
I rather like that one. In other words, make sure that when you pray that you have your stuff together, your "i's" dotted and "t's" crossed. Don't worry about whether you are physically hungry, make sure that you are spiritually full.
Or there's this beautiful poem from one of my poetic heroes, George Herbert:
Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well driest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
Is your mind blown by that? Or do you find yourself going, "huh?"
It's about impressions as you read the poem. Herbert is connecting all of the images and words that come to mind as he seeks to define prayer, its purpose, its power. Did you pick up these phrases as you read?
banquet, breath, pilgrimage, plummet, thunder, piercing spear, transposing, all things hear and fear, softness, peace, joy, love, bliss, exalted manna, gladness, heaven in ordinary milky way, church-bells beyond the stars, land of spices, something understood
This is prayer in all it's glory. Powerful, dangerous, familiar, beautiful, mysterious, unknown-yet-known, near and still so far away...
And it changes everything.
Don't believe me? Look to this story of Daniel once again. Think about what Daniel was up against. The Law of the Medes & Persians Which Cannot Be Repealed. Sounds pretty unchangeable doesn't it? I don't know about you, but this reminds me of all of the things that people describe as "inevitable," "unstoppable," "irrevocable," "impossible," or "just the way things are..."
Even the greatest, most powerful king in the known world was made powerless by the inevitable, the impossible, the irrevocable.
Daniel was confronted with the choice of breaking faith with a king who thought he held the power of life and death in his hands, who thought he was divine, who thought he was the master of all that he surveyed... but he was powerless to stop the inevitable.
Daniel's other choice was breaking faith with a God who could overcome both life and death, and who relished the moments when the impossible would be shown as possible, when what was inevitable came to nought, when what was irrevocable was revoked with extreme joy and prejudice. Those two words don't usually go together. That's how awesome God is, people. Even the so-called laws of grammar need not apply.
But this is where you and I fall away a bit. We like the idea of prayer. We think it's a nice way to spend a few moments before dinner or to start church, but seldom do we really evaluate it's pure power. Sure, there are moments when we pray like the dickens, but even then it's more out of desperation and blind hope rather than surety, certainty and awesome faith.
We believe the lies of the Laws of the Medes & Persians Which Cannot Be Repealed.
It's a lie... that addicts can't find sobreity.
It's a lie... that war can't be stopped.
It's a lie... that injustice against the helpless can't be thwarted.
It's a lie... that simple people, praying simple prayers can't make a difference.
Don't believe it?
Try it. It just might ruin you. In an incredibly awesome way.
You are looking at the Latin Chapel in the cathedral at Christ Church College, Oxford England.
When I studied at Christ Church College, I would begin each day by having a time of prayer in this chapel, sitting on an ancient pew in front of the tomb of a king who died in the late 1100's.
It smelled of old wood, candles and holiness.
The light in the morning would dance through the stained glass like the reflection of angels, and I would sit in prayer and wonder until my back ached. And, after praying for the safety and well-being of my family, and for peace, direction and fulfillment for myself, my prayers would wander to bigger and perhaps grander things. I would pray for peace in the world. I would pray that the Church would be the Church. I would pray that people would come to know Christ. I would pray these prayers in the stillness of that chapel, and I half-believed that God just might do something about them.
God did---in a way.
One evening, I stood in the cathedral at the Evensong service, listening to a boys' choir sing a beautiful Psalm in Latin, and clutching my order of service. My eyes lifted up to the flying buttresses of the cathedral above me, and I thought about the centuries of song that had echoed between them, dancing in the highest parts of the place, descending down with joy among the columns and again to the faithful standing watch and worshipping.
Tears began to flow down my face, and I fell to my knees in my pew. What was stirring in my heart then was the first, halting steps toward realization that one of the many ways that God wanted to overcome injustice, reach those who were far from Him, share the Good News that through Jesus, Death itself was defeated and lead the Church to be the Church was through me.
I was ruined. And here I stand fourteen years later.
See what prayer does? When you pray, things happen. Or maybe things happen because you pray. Who knows? It works. Even the Law of the Medes & The Persians Which Cannot Be Repealed doesn't stand a chance.
Prayer doesn't just change things---it changes everything.