The Core - Week Two: "Continuous Prayer"
This week we are continuing our exploration of the core values of our church--what we've called "The Five Things:" Worship, Pray, Grow, Love and Serve.
Five years ago, our church embraced these core values and we identified that if we were able to focus on these values, that we would be able to move closer to our vision of being the kind of church that reflects and reveals the unselfish love of Christ.
From time to time it's important for us to be reminded of why these values are so important to us, and so this sermon series...
But it's not merely enough to say that these values are important, we need to understand why they are a vital part of not only our life as a church, but also our individual lives as followers of Jesus.
We called this sermon series, "The Core" because we are re-exploring our core values, but we also wanted to draw attention to a very important fact: We are made of what we value.
Last week we tackled the first of our core values: Worship. And we explored some basic ideas regarding quantum physics, what we are made of, why we react to our surroundings (through the exchange of energy on a quantum level) and we ended the whole thing with a tribute to Gloria Gaynor's timeless disco hit, "I Will Survive."
The gist of our exploration was simply this: There is a reason why we feel something when we encounter the Divine all around us. We have God's DNA. And our hearts sing when we truly value what God values.
This week we need to talk about Prayer--what it is, what it does, how it works and what happens when pray. And we have to do this in thirty minutes or less.
First, let me share something with you that will be important later: "Continuous Prayer Keeps Us Connected To God." If you are intrigued by this statement, then I am pleased. If you have no idea what I mean by this, all will be revealed. If you absolutely are uninterested---hang on, you will be.
I have to tell you a story about a time when I prayed really hard. It was when I was fourteen years old and was skiing in Colorado with my church youth group. I had lived in Colorado my whole life, but skiing had been a relatively new sport for me. But despite my inexperience, I thought that I was ready to accompany my much more skilled friends on a run down a black diamond slope. "It won't be bad!" they told me. Liars.
As the ski lift went higher and higher, past all of the slopes I felt comfortable with, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. We got off the lift at what felt like the top of the world. There were few trees there, and the wind swirled the snow around us so I could barely see.
I looked down at the slope we were about to ski. My skis hung over the edge, suspended in the air. It was a steep drop, nearly perpendicular to my body. It felt like Mt. Everest.
I am pretty sure I saw a yeti standing off to one side in the swirling snow--shaking his head in disbelief.
My friends started down the slope with the ease that only young men who know how to do those kinds of things possess. Not me. I stood there staring down into the abyss, my knees knocking and my heart pounding.
"God, if you're listening," I prayed, "then I really need your help." I went on to confess, "I am sorry for all the bad words I said earlier today when I fell and lost my skis... And I'm sorry for the way I looked at that girl back at the lodge--even if she was really hot... If you could just do me a solid now and not let me die... that would be great."
And I pushed off into the unknown.
The fact that I am preaching to you today is proof positive that God answered my prayer that day. At least that's how I'll interpret it.
Writer Anne Lamott tells us that "Help!" is the first of three kinds of prayers that we always seem to pray. The other two are: "Thanks!" (as in "God thank you SO MUCH for getting me off of that mountain without dying or breaking something important!") and "Wow!" (as in God you are SO AMAZING because you gave me the skill to ski the black diamond AND you made that girl at the lodge!)
But how does prayer work? Does it really work at all? Why do we pray? What happens when we pray? These are questions that most people have asked or will ask at least one time or another over the course of their life.
It's confusing when you think about it. Sometimes God seems to be listening and responding to our prayers---and sometimes, not so much. Which leads us to wonder if there isn't any rhyme or reason to the way God responds to prayer...
And if there isn't... Does it even matter if we pray or not?
I remember standing over the hospital bed of a church member who was gravely ill. She had tubes running in and out of her---she could only breathe through a ventilator. I held hands with her weeping family members and prayed that God would heal her--that she would be restored to strength and be able to return home.
And two days later she died.
I also remember standing over the hospital bed of another church member who also was on a ventilator, and who had been given very little chance of recovery. I held hands with her family and essentially prayed the same prayer I had prayed for the other lady.
And later that week, the woman was talking, walking around the hospital and then she went home. The doctors were amazed that she had recovered.
It was--they said--a miracle.
Why does God seem to answer some prayers but not others?
Some people describe what happened to the woman who was healed as "God showing up." They will say things like, "We prayed for her and God showed up, and healed her."
So, if God showed up to heal that woman---where was God when I prayed for the woman who died? Did God have something else to do that day? If God can do anything---then why doesn't he?
There's this passage from the Bible that lots of people like to use when they talk about prayer. It's from a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to one of the churches he started two thousand years ago.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
"16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
"Pray without ceasing."
Lots of people try to mitigate this seemingly impossible exhortation by saying things like, "Well, it doesn't mean that you pray all the time--it's all about having an attitude of prayer."
What does that even mean?
Because the word that's translated "without ceasing" is adialeiptos, which means: incessantly. It doesn't translate, "have an attitude of prayer." It translates, "pray incessantly---all the time---without ceasing."
I think at this point it would be helpful for us to understand what we're talking about when we say "prayer," wouldn't it? I mean if we are being exhorted to do it incessantly, it might be a good idea to know what it is, first.
The ancient mystic of the Church, Teresa of Avila said that "prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God." Some people might be thinking at this point, "That's beautiful, but not practical." You're right. There are times when you need a logician to help you figure something out---and sometimes you need a poet to describe how you feel.
For example, the seventeenth century English poet George Herbert described prayer as "Reversed thunder" and "Church bells beyond the stars." Almost as if he believed that when a person prayed to the God of the Universe---something actually happened.
Not everyone embraces the mystical when it comes to prayer, however.
Practical theologian and author Tony Jones doesn't see prayer as a therapeutic exercise, and doesn't buy into the notion that if enough people pray for something to happen--God will listen and share his power to answer those prayers. But, he admits, "I need to pray. I now pray out of obedience because Jesus tells us to pray."
So, does something happen when we pray---or not? Is praying simply an exercise in obedience, or is it something far deeper and life-changing?
I have to admit, it feels a lot better to think that my prayers actually make a difference in the world, rather than being a rote act of obedience.
This is where lots of people want to chime in with all kinds of thoughts on the best kinds of prayers, which books to use, what formulas to employ and such...
Listen, Jesus Calling and The Prayer of Jabez are awesome books that lots of people love---but that doesn't mean they work for everyone. Using an established pattern to pray every time you pray might be comforting for some people, but for others it might feel like going through the motions.
All of us are different, and it's not always helpful to try to prescribe the "correct" ways to pray when what is correct for some is actually downright joy-stealing for others.
One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, writes this about prayer: "Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen and do not have to get it together before we show up."
I rather like her definition of prayer, to be honest. There's an openness and vulnerability to it that speaks to me--and honestly should speak to all of us. I'm not sure what the best way to pray might be, or the best reason to pray. Sometimes it's just as simple as "Help!" "Thanks!" and "Wow!"
But I do feel that something happens when we pray--both to us and to the universe we are connected to through the God who made us.
As you recall from last week's sermon--we are constantly exchanging the atoms that make us us with one another and everything else. Energy is flowing around us, in us and through us all of the time. And to think that we aren't affected by this billions-of-atoms-a-second energy exchange is ludicrous.
So there's all of this energy flowing back and forth between us--energy that bears the very DNA of a God who is not far away in his holy temple tuning in occasionally to hear our puny prayers. This God is here, present, flowing through us in what Christians call the Holy Spirit. And I believe this God is speaking, laughing, guiding, whispering and creating in the midst of all of it.
When we read about the way Jesus always seemed to be speaking to God, sharing something special with God, maintaining an open channel, so to speak with God... it makes you wonder if this was exactly what Jesus was trying to demonstrate.
Which makes me wonder if maybe prayer is simply a way to be open to the God-energy, the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus all around us.
When you are open-minded and open-hearted to God---you have a tendency to be more aware of what God is doing, saying and creating.
And prayer is a huge part of that openness.
So how do we remain open in our prayer life? How do we pray (as the Apostle Paul exhorted) incessantly? I think it begins with Honesty, which--as it turns out--is actually the best policy when it comes to prayer.
Being honest with the ones we love, ultimately draws us closer to them.
In the same way, when you are honest, when you tell the truth--you are close to God. Honesty might sound simply like, "I'm tired... I'm exhausted... I'm afraid... I don't know... I feel joy... I'm in love... " or Honesty might even sound like, "I hate you... You abandoned me... Where are you? I don't know if I believe in you..."
Here's a secret... God can handle your honesty.
God invites your honesty because God wants to be close to you.
In the Jewish tradition there are literally prayers for all aspects of life--because, according to the ancient rabbis, being open to God requires a shift in your understanding about what is sacred and what is "profane"---another word for what is seemingly earthy and not holy.
In fact there is a very old "privy" prayer that is meant to be prayed after you have finished doing your business in the privy, which is the old English word for bathroom.
Listen to this from Rabbi Abayei:
"Abayei said, when one comes out of a privy he should say: Blessed is He who has formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if one of them were to be ruptured or one of them blocked, it would be impossible for a man to survive and stand before You. Blessed are You that heals all flesh and does wonders."
In case you were wondering if that was a prayer of thanksgiving for your being able to go potty---you are correct.
This kind of prayer life gives new meaning to the word incessantly. A person who is praying incessantly is so open to the incredible, joyous energy of the Holy Spirit they actually pay attention to the wonders of their own body and how it works. True, there is an earthiness to this prayer that might less than genteel, but that's kind of the point.
There's nothing more honest than saying to God: "Thank you that my body works like it's supposed to----Oh, and thank you for air freshener, as well."
By now I hope I have your attention. Stop giggling.
So what happens when you are honest and open in your prayer life? Does anything really happen when we pray?
We already know that there is a massive, largely invisible energy exchange going on between us and the world around us all of the time. And we have given the source of that energy a name--the Holy Spirit of God.
What I think is also happening is this: The Holy Spirit of God is flowing all around us in us and through us, and when we are incessantly praying with openness and honesty we find we are close to God and "tapped in" to that energy. We are more able to hear the voice of God speaking, to notice the way God is revealing Godself all around us...
And to be connected with others who are also surrounded by this same energy.
The reason why sometimes people will say that they felt the prayers that were bing prayed for them---is because they do. Prayer is powerful.
Years ago someone gave me a little plaque that is on the mantel in my office. It reads, "Prayer Changes Things." Maybe you've seen this little aphorism before. This is an excellent little phrase, but I think it needs to be nuanced just a bit.
I would say the following is more accurate:
"Praying changes things---prayer changes us."
As I pray--when I am opened to the power of the Holy Spirit and to hearing the voice of God in all of the infinite variety in which God speaks--I can easily be transformed by the very act of praying itself. My heart can be moved... My thoughts transformed... My very being realigned with God's purposes...
Every single one of us have had prayers go unanswered. We've prayed and prayed and all we hear is silence. I've had more than my share of conversations with wounded and broken people who have said to me, "God didn't answer my prayer."
Maybe you were the answer to your own prayer.
There's a popular Christian song on the radio right now where the singer asked why God won't do anything about world hunger, human trafficking, poverty... and God replied, "I did--I made you."
At this point someone might be thinking, "But what about that time I prayed for God to heal my loved one---and they died? What about the time I prayed that God would heal my marriage---but it ended? Are you saying that I was the answer to that prayer? That it was my fault or something for not seeing it?"
No... I don't know why bad things happen. I have said repeatedly that I don't think God causes all things to happen. But maybe God wanted to be close to you when things went south.
Or maybe there's more going on than you can see right here and right now.
Listen, if you can't see the energy exchange that is happening right now between you and your chair--chances are you aren't aware of everything that's going on in the universe.
Let me tell you a story...
When I was a little kid we went to this tiny fundamentalist Baptist church that had Wednesday night prayer meetings every week. At the end of these informal church services all of the men (which included any male in the joint) in the church would leave their pews and head to the front of the sanctuary where they would kneel on the steps leading up to the chancel while all the women would stay in their pews.
I know that was sexist. What can I say? They were fundamentalist Baptists. Hey, this isn't a knock on fundamentalist Baptists. Okay, maybe a little one.
Then a good old fashioned pray-off would begin. We didn't call it a pray-off, but that's what it was. We would all begin by praying out loud at the same time. The object was to pray for as many things as you could think of, throw in as many "thees" and "thous" as you could, say "Father" a hundred times a second and keep going until you ran out of things to say. At that point you would fall silent in defeat whilst the remaining men would continue.
There were always these two guys who would be the last two dudes praying. By the time they were the only last two guys, they were basically praying nonsense, "Father, I thank thee for this floor that is beneath my knees and for the godly people who tithed so many years ago to build this floor, and I thank thee that thou made the wood for that floor and gave someone the skill to turn a tree into the wood for that floor..."
Finally, one of them would give in and the other would pray a bit longer just to show that he had something left in the tank.
It was a silly tradition.
But here's what I remember more than those two pompous nonsense-praying dudes... I remember kneeling in my church with my dad next to me, and I could hear him praying in a deep voice. I remember trying to think of all the people in my life I could pray for--my parents, my grandparents, my aunts, uncles, cousins... I prayed for my dog. I prayed for the sun to shine the next day...
I remember thinking that many of those family members were in the room and that felt pretty good, too. I loved the way things smelled--all church-y and awesome.
I also decided that God was somewhere in the room, too. Or if God wasn't exactly in the room---God was close. And I had the funny feeling that somehow, despite all of the people praying in the moment... God had heard me.
And the act of praying changed me. I never forgot those moments--ever. Even when I tried to laugh at them, and poke holes in the memory because it was a silly tradition. When I would close my eyes I be right there--feeling warm, surrounded by something/someone far bigger than me.
Feeling connected to God---and to the people I was praying for...
Continuous prayer--incessant prayer-- is truly formed by a constant pattern of honesty and openness to the God who is still speaking, still connecting, still surrounding us. And this continuous prayer keeps us tapped in to the Holy Spirit energy that is between us and all around us--energy that connects us to one another and to the Divine.
Because continuous prayer keeps us connected to God.