Prayer - Week One: "Getting To Know God"
This week we are launching a brand new sermon series entitled, "Prayer" that will take us all the way through the month of June.
Our purpose throughout this sermon series is to take a long, hard look at prayer and to try to answer some serious questions that I am sure that many of us have had about prayer at one time or another in our lives...
Questions like: What is prayer, really? Am I really talking to God when I pray? Does prayer really work? How do I pray--do I need a format, or do I just let it fly? When do I pray--is it when I need something, or am in trouble? Does God really answer my prayers? What do I do when it feels like God doesn't answer my prayers? What good is prayer? Can it really change God's mind, if God already has a plan for everything?
That's a tall order for just four weeks--but we'll do our best.
I should tell you a little bit about my own history with prayer. I vaguely remember praying when I was about 5 or 6 years old for one thing or another. Once, when we were at a supermarket, I was told by mom that I was going to get a spanking when we got home because I was acting like an animal. I immediately went to a small corner by a display of pork-n-beans and started praying that God would deliver me from the spanking I had been promised.
When my mom discovered me, she asked me what I was doing. "I confessed my sin to God," I told her, "and he forgave me, so you don't have to spank me anymore." My mom thought that was pretty cute, so she let me off the hook.
I figured my prayer had been answered. Although the next time I tried the same tactic, my prayer went unanswered completely.
When I was six, I prayed the Sinners Prayer with my parents--a prayer where I acknowledged I was a sinner in need of God's grace through Jesus Christ. I asked Jesus to come into my heart--that's the language we used for that kind of thing--and to let me go to heaven when I died.
I remember that prayer pretty well.
I also remember a ton of other prayers that I prayed as I got older. Mostly when disaster was averted, I passed a test I didn't study for, or after I kissed the girl who would one day become my wife... Those were my "thankyoujesus" prayers.
Author Anne Lamott believes that there are only really three kinds of prayers. She says the three prayers are "Help!" "Thanks!" and "Wow!"
If you think about it, we all sort of pray those kinds of prayers. We ask God for help when the chips are down, when the world is on fire, when things are falling apart around us, when you find out you have cancer, or when we are about to have a wreck on the highway.
But then we also tell God "Thanks!" We thank God for things that are good. When we got that job we wanted so badly. When we find the person we want to spend the rest of our life with. When we sit down to eat with the whole family.
Then we have prayers where we say "Wow!" When we thought we had cancer, but we didn't. When we missed having that wreck on the highway by a hair. When we see the Grand Canyon or the Alps, or that waterfall in North Carolina--you know the one.
We all pray. And we all sort of pray those kinds of prayers.
But how many of us can say that we have a vibrant prayer life? And by vibrant prayer life, I mean the kind of prayer life that isn't reserved for rare moments where we say "Help!" "Thanks!" and "Wow!"
Today we're going to be discovering that the way to a vibrant prayer life is made possible when we choose to communicate honestly, openly and intimately with God.
The passage of Scripture that is going to guide us today is Matthew 6:5-7
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
This portion of Matthew chapter 6 is part of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus is commenting on what might be characterized as the "proper" way to pray. And it seems pretty cut and dried at least on the surface, right? Hypocrites pray out loud so that everyone can hear them, but those who want to be close to God just pray privately where no one can see them. And keep it simple. You don't have to say a bunch of stuff--God is all about brevity.
I remember the church I served when I was in seminary had this rule about the ministry staff leading a portion of the worship services called "The Prayer of the People." This was a rather long prayer that you had to read--you could pick what you wanted to read on your own, or you could use something the pastor would give you. The pastor of the church really believed in this prayer being a good length--at least 5-7 minutes long.
My friend George pushed the envelope to 8 minutes one Sunday--bragging to me beforehand that he was going to do it. I actually fell asleep while he was praying and my son had to wake me up when it was over. I had a red mark on my forehead afterward from leaning so hard against the pew in front of me.
So every time I read this passage of Scripture, that's kind of what I think about.
I have a question about this passage of Scripture, though. Based on what Jesus is saying here and how he is saying it, "Who are the hypocrites praying to?" They certainly don't seem to be praying to God, because Jesus doesn't say so. If he's saying anything, he's saying that they are praying for the purpose of being heard by the people around them.
This stands in sharp contrast with what Jesus says we ought to do--which is to pray in solitude to "your Father." There is an audience of one, in other words. Even if you are praying in front of other people for some reason, that's the mentality that Jesus wants us to have.
And then he busts on the pagans who babble. What does he mean by this? Well, Greek worshippers in the first century had a way of praying to their deities that was full of what was called panegyric praise. They would think of as many names and descriptions of the gods and goddesses they were praying to in order to recite them throughout their prayers. It sounded a bit like babbling, but it was mostly just a form of butt-kissing.
Zeus, great Zeus, bearer of the thunderbolt, granter of rule to the worthy, upholder of the mighty... and so on.
What follows this passage of Scripture is what we know as the Lord's Prayer. Jesus essentially says to his followers:
"Keep it simple. Don't think you have to butter up God so he'll like you--he loves you far more than you know. Don't worry about what other people think about your prayer. You aren't praying to them. The moment you start thinking about them, and praying for their benefit, you no longer have the audience of one. This is how you have a vibrant prayer life."
In other words, When we choose to communicate with God--honestly, openly and intimately--we open the door to a vibrant prayer life.
So what gets in the way of having that vibrant prayer life? What gets in the way of our choosing to be in communication with God? Because chances are, most of us struggle with this, if we're being honest.
Maybe we need to ask, "How do I see God?" Is our view of God informing our prayer life? If you see God as an old man with a white beard somewhere up in the sky, sort of chilling out and uninterested in what you're doing---it will definitely affect the way you pray. If you see God as an angry god, the bearer of the thunderbolt, ready to smite you at any moment--it will definitely affect the way you pray.
The fact of the matter is that many of us need to fire our image of God. We need to fire the distant, uninterested god. We need to fire the angry, vengeful and hateful god. We need to send them their walking papers.
Because if you view God as Jesus encourages us to--as a loving Father--then it becomes easier to talk to that God doesn't it?
Another question that we might need to ask if we are struggling to have a vibrant prayer life is simply this: "If God already knows everything, then what good is prayer?" Some people ask, "Can you really change God's mind? I mean, if God knows everything that's going to happen and has this plan sort of worked out--then what good is it for us to pray? It feels like an exercise in futility."
I get this. I don't believe that if you prayer really, really well that God hears you better. I don't believe that if you get a bunch of people praying for something--kind of like a petition--that God will suddenly go, "Oh, okay...since so many of you are into this, I'll do something about it."
Here's the thing. When we care about the things we care about with God--we have communion with God. I bet the people that you are closest to in your life are the ones who care about the things you care about--and who will listen to you care about those things... sometimes for hours on end.
And sometimes in the middle of praying about the things we care about--we start to see them differently. Sometimes we begin to realize that we might just be the answers to our own prayers--we'll come back to this thought later in the series.
The third and final question that we might need to ask is: "What if I don't really feel like God is talking back?" This one is difficult. I wish that God would just speak to us, give us clear instructions, don't you? It would be nice to have a memo on things that are hard to figure out, wouldn't it? And there are times when I am praying fervently for something, and I keep praying, and praying and there is nothing but crickets. There's no sign, no revelation, no feeling of peace, just the uneasiness that comes from silence and what can feel like apathy on God's part.
So what do we do when it feels like God isn't really talking to us?
We keep praying.
The great Christian mystic Thomas Merton once wrote, "We do not first see then act--we act then see." Sometimes when you don't know exactly where you are going, you have to just keep walking, one step at a time, putting one foot in front of the other. Saying one prayer after another. Keeping at it.
Because to do otherwise would be nothing short of disbelief, paralysis by analysis.
Thomas Merton also wrote, "And that is why the man who waits to see clearly before he will believe, never starts on the journey."
One of my favorite stories from the Bible is the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. He clings to the divine being with all of his might, never letting go, and repeating over and over again, "I am not letting go until you bless me."
And all of this leads us to a unique space where we are, if we are willing, able to finally get real with God.
Here is what getting real with God means to me. It means having Passionate Conversations. Sometimes the most passionate conversations I have ever had with God have been while I am driving down the road. Some of these conversations have been so passionate that I am sure if someone saw me railing away in the car, pounding the steering wheel, pointing my finger to the heavens, or reading some of the raw language on my lips--they would think I was crazy.
God can handle your passion. God can handle your anger, your fear, your sorrow, your doubts, your confusion... God can handle it. God can also handle your desires, wishes and dreams. Don't be afraid to get passionate with God. Shout, scream, cry, laugh, swear if you have to--but be real.
I also believe in Aggressive Listening. I learned this phrase from my wife, Merideth. She would pray some serious stuff to God--some questions that were plaguing her and keeping her up at night. And then she would say out loud, "God, I am aggressively listening to you." I love that. Aggressive Listening means that you are quite willing to shut out all of the noise in your life with extreme prejudice. You desire to hear the voice of God in whatever way, shape or form that God intends to speak to you. Your ears are pricked up, baby. The antennae are raised.
Try this out. Put all of your energy into it. Who cares if your friends and family think you are nuts. Practice aggressive listening, by tuning out their dumb comments.
You might be surprised what you'll hear when you're aggressively listening.
Finally, I believe in Revealing Confession. You need to share honestly with God who you really are. God already knows who you are. But sometimes it's good for you to hear yourself say the words out loud. Tell God everything. Everything. Confess all of it, lay before God all of the disgusting parts of you.
Trust me, it will feel good to do it. The word confession in the New Testament comes from the Greek word that means "to agree." So when you are confessing your junk to God, you are actually agreeing with what God already knows about you. God knows everything, my friends. God knows about every dark nook and cranny of every nasty closet in your inner shack.
And God loves you in spite of it.
This new space you'll find yourself in when you begin to deal with your doubts and questions is a pretty good space. I encourage you to practice it. We're going to be learning much more about prayer over the next several weeks, but we can't really take any other steps until we get real, can we?
Because when we choose to communicate with God, honestly, openly and intimately, we open the door to a vibrant prayer life.