THE GIFT OF PRAYER
When I was a teenager, I remember hearing a sermon by Rev. Dick Ingram that stuck with me. The resonating theme through the sermon was the sentence, "We more often need to be reminded than instructed." I'm not sure why that had such an impact, but it struck me as being absolutely true. At that time in my life I went to church as a sponge, eagerly soaking in all that was said, longing for new insight and truth.
But what Pastor Ingram was saying, was that we don't need new information or insight nearly as often as we need to be reminded of the basics that we supposedly already know, but often forget or fail to put into practice. And that is why we turn this morning to the topic of prayer. We have dealt with it before, we will deal with it again, and again, and again...because we do more often need to be reminded than instructed.
Prayer is not something reserved only for the spiritual elite. Prayer is the protein of the Christian life. Every one of us needs it to grow spiritually. Why? Because all spiritual growth really means is getting to know and to love God better. Spiritual growth is improving our relationship with God, and it's very hard if not impossible to have a relationship with someone when there is no communication. You will learn some things about me from coming week after week and listening to my sermons, but you will not have a relationship with me unless you and I sit down and talk...spend some time together...and do things that help us both get to know one another in a personal rather than a public way.
It's the same with God. We can know a lot about God from reading the Bible, and that is another key component of our spiritual life and growth. But it's not enough. Unless we seek out the God of the Bible in prayer, our knowledge OF God will never move to being a relationship WITH God. So I encourage you as you think about prayer, to think about it in terms of relationship. Prayer is not meditating ABOUT something. Our faith has a place for meditation, it's just not prayer. Meditation is thinking about and focusing on something. Prayer is conversing WITH. Prayer is interactive...it takes two...you and God.
Prayer is personal, intimate, interaction with God. That means that it can take any number of personal and intimate forms, depending on your own personality. Some people have run into blocks in their prayer lives because they think there is only one form or style of prayer. There isn't. Some need silence, some need music. Some need to be still, some need to pace or drive or run when they pray. Some need to sit, some need to kneel, others might need to stand or lie down. What is right for you? Well, how do you like to get to know new friends? Do you sit over a cup of coffee? Go for a drive? Walk, or jog or ski together? What puts you in a frame of mind to open up your heart to someone? Do that when you pray.
And what should I say? Think in the concrete terms of relationship. Say what's on your mind. Be honest. We know from our human relationships that intimacy is only possible when we are willing to risk letting someone else into our lives. If we insist on pretending to be something we are not, if we will not reveal the thoughts and desires of our hearts and accept the risks that come with that, our friendships will develop only so far and then stop. It's the same with God. If we keep our prayer time to the pleasantries of casual conversation...lovely weather, isn't it? How ‘bout those Celtics...Did you read about that fire in the paper?...you will succeed in making God a casual acquaintance.
To reap the benefits of an intimate relationship with God...to find real purpose and meaning in your life, to have a life that always has intimacy even when you're alone, you have to do more than know God as a casual acquaintance. You need God as a soul friend...Anam Cara the Celts called it...Jesus, Lover of my Soul we sing in the hymn. What a friend we have in Jesus.
To have THAT kind of relationship with God, you have to be open and honest with the fullness of your joy, sorrow, anger, pain, and hope.
Often the biggest obstacle to prayer, however, is simply the self-discipline to make it a priority. Prayer will not one day jump you from behind the bushes so that you immediately go from never praying to spending an hour a day in intimate conversation with God. Like with human relationships, you have to make time for them and work at them. And like with human relationships, you get less from them at the beginning stages and more as the relationship progresses. Prayer is a reciprocal relationship...you will get in proportion to what you give.
The single most important thing you can do to jump start your prayer life is to make time for it. Real time...not the five minutes before bed when you are exhausted anyway and can't stay awake. Couples who have counted on quality time together just happening, usually find that it doesn't and before they realize it, they have grown apart and the relationship has suffered. You have to set aside quality time for spouse, children, and friends if you want those relationships to thrive. It is the same with God. You have to give it a time apart...quality time with God.
It's a help if you can find a regular time and place...something that becomes a habit, so that it begins to feel wrong if you don't do it. That way you are more likely to stick to it long enough to really develop a relationship. A daily routine is the best. But if you're brand new to this and don't yet feel you can do every day, join us for our weekly prayer time here. Starting this coming Wed. and every Wed. thereafter, the church will be open for prayer between 6 and 6:30 pm. Maybe you can stop off here for a few minutes and pray with us. Or maybe you can just stop for a few minutes wherever you are at those times and say a prayer in the car, at home, at work, or wherever you happen to be. The Wednesday night times can be a way to get started.
If you are really feeling stuck for words, go with Jesus' advice to the disciples and use the Lord's Prayer. Have it written out, if you don't know it by heart. A lot of people find benefit in expanding the words of the Lord's Prayer to fit their own situation. Instead of just saying, "Forgive us our debts"...or trespasses...or sins...or whatever you say, add the very specific things for which you would like forgiveness. Instead of only saying "Give us this day our daily bread," ask for the very specific things that are on your heart.
If you are just getting started, or
even if you have been praying all your life, it is often a great help to pray
the prayers of others. Most bookstores have collections of prayers and every
Bible has the book of Psalms, which was...and is...
I want to be careful in saying that, because there are times when every Christian goes to prayer and it seems empty. Maybe we just say the Lord's Prayer without really thinking about it or we talk to God and just don't seem to connect. I don't want to imply that those times are false prayer. Again, think about relationships. Think about a couple who set out to work every morning. Before heading in separate directions, they give each other a quick peck on the cheek and say, "Love you, Bye!" They are not feeling particularly passionate, they may not even like each other at that moment, depending on what happened over breakfast. They may not even really hear what they say because it is an ingrained habit. But is it helpful? Absolutely.
Or think of friends who see each other in the mall or out somewhere. They may both be preoccupied with other things and not really in the mood for socializing, but it is much better for the friends to connect with a perfunctory, "Hi! How are you?" than it is to pass each other by and leave the words unsaid. It is the same with prayer. There will be times when you are not in the mood, when pressures and concerns so occupy your mind that real engagement with prayer is difficult. Do it anyway. Stop for two minutes and say the Lord's Prayer as your own "Love you, Bye" or "Hi! How are you?" to God. Like in a human relationship, those little perfunctory gestures are a way of acknowledging the importance of a relationship even in the down times or the busy times.
When I say that prayer is false if your heart is not seeking after God, I mean that in the large sense of your general attitude rather than in the specific way you are feeling at any given moment. The perfunctory prayers actually can indicate your general commitment to a relationship with God. It all depends on where you are coming from. If I see a friend in the mall and wave hello, I might either be taking a moment to engage an important relationship in the only way I can at the moment, or I might be hurrying along hoping that I won't have to engage any further with someone I'm not really interested in.
It's the same with God. If a perfunctory recital of the Lord's Prayer is my way of stopping and saying to God, "You're important, but I'm just not with it right now," that's fine. If it is taking care of a social obligation to a God that I really don't want to engage any further, then even the Lord's Prayer just hits the ceiling and falls back on your head.
I hope you can hear what I'm saying through all of this and that is that our relationship with God begins with the attitude of our hearts. The rightness or wrongness of something has to do with what's inside, not what our outward actions show. Our actions are very important, yes. They are vital and necessary. "Faith without works is dead," says the book of James. But Jesus is always jumping on the Pharisees for following the law of God without their hearts being in it. In Matthew 15:8-9 Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah when he says, "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain."
When your heart is truly seeking after God, you cannot pray wrongly. No matter if you stumble in prayer, no matter if your words are inelegant or even crude. When you come to God in prayer because you want a relationship with God, your prayer is every bit as holy and sacred to God as any prayer by Mother Teresa or any great saint of the church ever was or is. When you come with that attitude, your prayer is always heard with love.
There are volumes that could be said...there are volumes that have been written on prayer. But this is not so much instruction as a reminder that without a prayer life, we will not grow in our relationship with God and without the commitment and discipline on our part to set aside a time and place where we can pray, we won't have a prayer life. That is not deep spiritual truth, it is simply the practical reality.
The spiritual truth of which we need to be reminded is that God looks on the heart. When you want God above and before all else...when you love God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your strength, you are always guaranteed access to the presence of God. Your prayers can't be wrong. Your worship can't be wrong. That attitude is all that is necessary for God to dwell in your heart.
(c) 2001, Anne RobertsonReturn to AnneRobertson.com