Together Week Two: Kneeling Together

This week I am continuing our sermon series entitled, "Together," which is focusing on the core values of my church--what we call "The Five Things."  This installment is centered on the second of our Five Things: Pray.

I read this statistic the other day from a nationwide survey on faith in the United
States that something like 84 percent of Americans pray on a regular basis.  That's a staggering number considering how in our culture fewer and fewer people are attending church, or espousing a particular faith.

Maybe you're not a Christian, or you're struggling with this whole Christian thing, and you're not really sure how you feel about church or Jesus.  But one thing is certain:  There are moments when every single one of us tosses up a prayer for one reason or another.

Most people pray.  There is something about the act of praying that speaks into the depths of humans beings, regardless of our religious bent.

Here's the problem with prayer, though:  It's unpredictable.   And because it's unpredictable, there's a high potential for being let down.

From our perspective, which admittedly is pretty narrow, there is neither rhyme nor reason to how prayer gets answered.  We all have seen this at work.  One family prays that their loved one will be healed from a terrible disease and the loved one dies.  Another family with a loved one suffering from the same disease offers the same prayers and they are healed.  Two young couples will pray for a child, and one will get pregnant and the other remains childless.

Or how about this, in honor of the season:  two football teams pray before their game, but obviously only one wins.  Well, technically it could end in a tie, which totally blows my analogy and sends me into a theological tailspin.

But you get the point.

Sometimes when we pray all we get by way of an answer is the sounds of silence.  We'll pray fervently for a job when we don't have one, and find nothing.  We'll pray that God will help us with a tough decision, but then find no clues as to what to do.  It's almost like God isn't listening.

Then you encounter the "Perfect Pray-er," you know the person who always seems to have their prayers answered, and love to tell you about it.  They also pray about everything, which makes those of us who don't really feel like rotten Christians.

"Well, I just prayed so fervently that little Bobby would be healed from that zit before his school pictures, and Praise Jesus he woke up on picture day and his skin was as smooth as a baby's bottom."  

"I was in that parking lot looking for a parking space, and started praying that I would find one real close, and BAM! Some old lady left her spot right next to the entrance and in I went, thank you Jesus!"  

All of these things can leave people in a situation where they feel unanswered and dejected.  Some people struggle to maintain their faith in the midst of their dejection.  And the truth of the matter is that when we feel let down by God, we have a much harder time seeing all of the ways that God really is working in our lives, and working his will all around us.

Christians don't do themselves any favors when they talk about prayer, though.  We seldom allow ourselves to really be honest about our feelings on the matter.

Instead we do things like speak in platitudes ("7 Days Without Prayer Makes One Weak") or we practice prayer as performance art.

When I was a kid, I attended a little Baptist church in Greenville, SC that used to have a Wednesday night prayer meeting every week.  At the end of the prayer meeting all of the men in the congregation (and six year old boys) came forward and knelt down in front of the "altar" for a Pray-Off.

Seriously, this is how it worked:  Everyone would start praying out loud all at the same time.  And when I say everyone I mean only the men.  We would all pray out loud until the last person stopped praying.  It always came down to these two guys, who would inevitably be the last ones praying, and then they would sort of get into the prayer meeting equivalent of a staring contest.

At some point one of them would run out of things to say over and over again, or would find their prayer cliches had run out, and they would give up.  They sort of traded weeks as to who would be the victor.  It was pretty messed up, I will admit.

But that's sort of what Christians do, don't they?  Take something that everyone does--mostly out of a deep desire to connect with the Almighty and find assurance that they are not alone--and make it weird and awkward.

What is prayer anyway?  What are we really doing when we pray?  Why do we do it?

I love what Philip Yancey says in his incredible book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? 

"Prayer is a subversive act performed in a world that constantly calls faith into question." 

Isn't that beautiful?

All around us there are all sorts of messages both from within and without telling us that faith---especially faith in a God who actually gives a hoot about what happens on this earth--is an archaic and somewhat amusing idea.

But when we pray with authenticity from our very soul--from that place where we desire to connect with God and to know and be known--we are pushing back against those messages in a quiet, small and very powerful way.

Read 1 Chronicles 29:10-20

This is the prayer that King David prayed toward the end of his reign as he was gathering gifts to build the temple.

David prayed like he meant it, didn't he?  He prayed like man who believed God answered prayer.  He prayed that God would keep the hearts of the people of Israel loyal to God.  He prayed that his son Solomon would offer God his wholehearted devotion.  He prayed that one day the temple would be built and the dreams of his heart would be fulfilled even though he would never see it.  He prayed that his whole life's work would count for something.  

David prayed all of these prayers believing that God would answer them---even though God hadn't always answered his prayers, and even though some of these prayers that he prayed wouldn't be answered either.

Once David prayed that his infant son would be spared when he was ill.  His prayer wasn't answered.  I am sure that David prayed over his wayward son Absalom, that God would spare his life, and that he would one day be reconciled with his father.  His prayer wasn't answered.  David prayed that God would allow him to build the temple.  His prayer wasn't answered.

Still, he prayed.  And he did so fervently and with belief.

What does it take to pray like we believe God answers prayer?  

I think it takes four things:  Defiant Faith, Defiant Gratitude, Defiant Love and Defiant Peace.  If that seems like a lot of defiance, you are perceptive.  Remember that quote from Philip Yancey?  Prayer is subversive... it's defiant.

1.  Defiant Faith

Holocaust survivor Etty Hillesum was in Auschwitz, the most infamous of all of the Nazi concentration camps.  She was surrounded daily by death and destruction, walking on the ashes that rose and fell from the ovens where hundreds of thousands, even millions perished.  She recalls standing near a barbed wire fence on a beautiful summer day, with blue sky above her and a bit of heather growing outside the fence.  In that moment she felt filled with a love for God that nearly burst her heart.  She wrote, " need only keep walking with God and life becomes one long stroll--a marvelous feeling."

What kind of faith does it take to be connected to God in that kind of place?

Defiant faith.  The kind of faith that brings you to prayer, despite all of the things that you have been told, and maybe even the things you've experienced that point to prayer as a powerless act of futility.

Defiant faith urges you to pray like you believe God answers prayer.

2.  Defiant Gratitude

Several years ago, I led a mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico.  We worked hard all week repairing roofs and running a children's program in conjunction with the local Catholic parish.  One of the church leaders invited all of us to his house for supper one evening.  He prepared fajitas with steak and chicken, there was ice cold Coke to drink.  His family served us, and watched us eat.  I was told that they were waiting to eat theirs after we were done so that there would be enough for us.  I was also told that the meal probably cost him the equivalent of what he would spend a month on his family of eight.

I remember those were the best fajitas and Coke I have ever had.

Christians talk about showing their gratitude to God and the sacrifices that they supposedly make to offer themselves and what they have to him.  But we all know that most of us are just going through the motions on this one because to do much else would hurt.

It's not really a sacrifice if it doesn't hurt to hand it over is it?

But when we practice defiant gratitude in the midst of our poverty, our brokenness and the pain that comes from giving when it hurts to give.  We pray differently.

3.  Defiant Love

I heard this story the other day of a little boy whose mother overheard him praying the Lord's Prayer like this, "Our Father who art in Heaven, I know you know my name..."

That just lights me up.  There are these moments when I realize that God knows me better than I know myself.
Maybe it's the card with a note of encouragement that I open up on the day that I am feeling like hanging it up.
Or a glimpse at what could have happened had I made that tough decision differently.
Or the realization that so many things had to happen in order for me to be just in the right spot to see that person that I really needed to talk to, and probably never would have unless...

A God who not only knows me, but loves me just wants me to know that he knows...

Have you ever experienced or had someone tell you of an experience with their beloved---the person they loved with all their heart---where they just sat without speaking, knowing that they loved each other, knowing that they didn't have to say anything that a simple touch, a shared experience, a sacred moment said all that needed to be said.

True love doesn't have to speak to be heard...  This, I believe is how God works in our hearts and our lives.  His love comes to us in ways that transcend speech.

4.  Defiant Peace

I read the story of a community that was transporting a huge bell to be placed in their town tower.  There was an accident with the barge that was carrying it across the river and it sank to the bottom.  Recovery was impossible, but an old Buddhist priest nearby offered to retrieve it, if it would be donated to his temple.    He had divers dive to the bell and attach bamboo rods to it with rope.  After hundreds of rods were attached, they tied the final rod in place and the bell floated to the surface.

This story sort of reframes the idea of a "last straw," doesn't it?  What if the last straw was the thing that you needed to find true peace, to finally have the weight that has been weighing you down released and floating?

Like those bamboo rods, prayer can be the thing that can keep adding those straws until at last you find freedom.  What are you doing then to focus on getting to the last straw?  Are you carving out quiet time during your day?  Are you shutting out the noise in your life?  Are you getting rest?  Are you just keeping company with God with a sort of quiet, attitude of prayer throughout the day?

The world doesn't give you peace.  It gives you another meeting, another item on your schedule, another bill to pay, another crisis to solve.

When you practice defiant peace, you pray with some meaning.

So how do you learn to pray like you mean it?

I think that the passage of Scripture we just read has a pattern for Defiantly Believing Prayer:

David begins his prayer with Praise (verses 10-13).   He says things like, "Yours is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in the heaven and earth is yours."

You don't have to be so fancy, but praising God right away when you pray reminds you that God is God and you are not.

David then moves into Admission (verse 14).  Some people might call this confession, and I suppose confession could be a part of it.  David says things like, "But who am I, and who are my people that we should be able to give as generously as this?"  He is admitting his frailty and placing things in their proper order.

Maybe you could pray something like, "God, I don't get why bad things happen to good people.  I don't understand it at all."  Or you might say, "I know that I have not been the kind of person I should have been.  I feel so broken."

David then goes to Remembrance (verses 15-17) where he invites God to remember all the ways that God has been good.  It's not like David expects God to forget these things, but he says them as a reminder to himself and to his people.

When you begin praying about all of the ways that God has kept promises with you in the past, showed up in unexpected ways, demonstrated supernatural intervention to save your life...  it connects you with those moments in ways you might be surprised.

David then begins to Petition God (verses 18-19) asking God to keep his people faithful to give his son Solomon a proper spirit, and much more.  These are prayers that are done on behalf of someone else, but they are also the desires of David's heart.

Sometimes prayers for others are hopelessly intertwined with prayers for ourselves, aren't they?  Maybe when we pray for others, we start to realize how we are all connected through the power of the Spirit.

David ends his prayer with Praise (verse 20) and worship to remind himself and his people that God is God and they are not.

You sort of end where you begin, which is always smart, I think.

What happens when you pray like this? 

I believe that we develop the right amount of self-forgetfulness, what the Apostle Paul would have called "dying to self," so that Jesus can be resurrected in you in an amazing and mystical way.

I also believe that we pay closer attention to our relationship with God, which always needs more attention.  Sometimes the relationship can be rocky, that's okay.  God can handle rockiness.

Finally, I believe that when we pray like this we start to get a glimpse of the bigger picture.  God has a God's eye view of all of this, doesn't he?  We don't, which is all too apparent sometimes.  When we take the focus off of ourselves for a while, we just might find the gift of wide-angle vision.

Who knows?  Maybe as you walk through this pattern of prayer, and you practice defiant faith, defiant gratitude, defiant love and defiant peace... you may discover that you actually believe that your prayers are not only being heard, but that God will answer them.

And in the end, you will also discover that whatever the answer to your prayer, your will is completely connected to God's.

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