November 17, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
HOW TO PRAY
For some time now we have been using those yellow “Connection Cards” that you find in your bulletins. We always print a few “next steps” on the back of those cards. These are just suggestions to help you go a little further with what we’ve been exploring in worship. The idea is that what we do in worship on Sunday should carry over into your life the rest of the week. Some of the “next steps” are customized to the specific sermon and theme for that day, but a couple of them always stay the same. One is “invite someone to church next Sunday”. This one is huge and worthy of attention all by itself in a whole separate sermon. The other one is actually pretty huge, too. “Pray daily this week.”
Many of you have been checking that one every week. I’m always encouraged to see that. I was taking that as a great sign. We were really making progress in developing a praying congregation. Pretty soon we’d have everyone praying every day and we’d be the most spiritual church in town. And then I got the card that told me I needed to preach this sermon. One of you gave me some very valuable information. You circled the words, “pray daily this week” and next to those words you wrote : “I don’t know how to pray.”
It took some courage to write that. I really appreciate your honesty. And I’m certain there are many others who could have written those words but didn’t. They are glad you did. They are listening extra carefully this morning.
Actually this is a very easy sermon to preach because Jesus has already answered the question, “How do we pray?” It’s not a new question. It’s a very old question. One day Jesus “was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’.” (Luke 11:1) And then he taught them. He taught them how to pray. He gave them “The Lord’s Prayer.”
It’s interesting how we use “The Lord’s Prayer.” We have it memorized. Those of you who don’t have it memorized yet probably feel guilty that you don’t, as if it’s a requirement for all real Christians to be able to recite those words without even having to think about what you are saying. Somehow I don’t think that is what Jesus had in mind.
The first words of our text are, “Pray then like this.” That word “like” is there for a reason. It doesn’t say, “Pray these exact words.” It doesn’t say, “Use this magic formula to unlock heaven’s gates.” It says, “Pray like this.” The Lord’s Prayer was given to us as a pattern to use as we pray. It’s to help us craft our own prayers.
Not that reciting the Lord’s Prayer is a bad thing. It’s a good thing. Every time I fly in an airplane, as we speed down the runway at takeoff, I’m reciting the Lord’s Prayer. If it’s a small plane, I have to talk fast. There is nothing wrong with knowing the Lord’s Prayer by heart and saying it frequently. But this scripture is pretty clear that knowing how to pray is more than just knowing this one prayer. We are to pray like this.
First, “Hallowed be thy name.” Hallowed means “holy”. And holy means “set apart, blameless, worthy of praise.” When we start a prayer it’s always a good idea to start with praising God. Just tell God how great he is, how good he is, how much you love him. Sometimes it’s easier to praise God with music than with spoken words. Hopefully some of the hymns and praise choruses we sing here at church are catchy enough you take them with you in your head. You can’t get rid of them. That’s a good thing! As you praise God you are praying. Jesus said to begin your prayers with praise.
Then “Thy will be done.” Jesus teaches us that the second part of prayer is submission. We submit to God. We let God know that what we really want out of prayer is for God to get his way. That’s a hard prayer to pray for people who are used to getting their own way. Prayer means yielding to God, surrendering to God. It means we stop trying to control everything that goes on and we just acknowledge that God is in control. We aren’t. We know it’s pointless to try to get God to do something God doesn’t want to do. So we just say like it says in that hymn, “Have thine own way, Lord.” We submit to God’s will.
First we have praise, and next submission, and then petition. “Give us this day our daily bread.” We ask God to give us what we need. We’re pretty good at this kind of prayer. This comes quite naturally. And the tendency is to for us to skip right past the formalities of praise and submission and to begin with petition. “God, give me this.” “God, do this for me.” “God, here’s what I need.” “God, please hurry.” And pretty soon our prayers sound like what a child sitting on Santa’s lap might say. “God, here’s what I want for Christmas.” Our prayers can easily become selfish and self-serving.
Now, God wants to give us what we need. God delights in that. And Jesus taught us to ask. “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). But there’s a reason Jesus taught us to pray in a particular order. There’s a reason we don’t just cut to the chase and start asking God for stuff. And here is that reason: If we begin our prayers with sincere praise and humble submission, we can know our petitions won’t be selfish. Because we’re putting God first. Once we’ve lifted God up in adoration and once we’ve surrendered our wills to God’s will, then we are free to start expressing to God our heart’s desire. Then we can know our deepest desire is that what we desire might be consistent with what God desires for us.
Finally, we come to intercession. We pray for others. In fact, we’ve already started praying for others when we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Because we don’t say, “Give me.” We say, “Give us.” Others are included. And we continue: “Forgive us.” “Deliver us.” Every pronoun is plural, not singular. In fact, the very first word of the Lord’s Prayer sets the tone. “Our Father.” Not “My Father.” John Andrew Holmes said, “It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception is composed of others.” It’s not all about you! Not that you aren’t loved and cherished and have infinite value in God’s eyes. But you aren’t the only one. Jesus teaches us to always include others, not just ourselves, in our prayers.
That’s the pattern. Jesus keeps it real simple. Praise, submission, petition, and intercession. That’s how to pray. Don’t just memorize one prayer and say it over and over so many times you can say it in your sleep. Do your own praying. Come up with your own words. It’s really not that hard. It’s really not that different from carrying on a conversation with your best friend.
There’s one major difference. You probably don’t begin your conversation with your best friend with praise and submission. If you have to do that every time you talk to your best friend, you probably need to start looking for a new best friend. But aside from that, praying to God and talking to your best friend are not really all that different.
Best friends share deeply and honestly with each other. You share your needs and your hurts and your fears. You can do so because you know your friend cares about you. You express gratitude. You say you’re sorry. You ask for forgiveness. You communicate what’s really important to you. And then you close your mouth and you listen to what is really important to the other person. Michael Foss says, “Prayer is simply doing what we already know how to do, but with God as the one to whom we speak and to whom we listen.”
So, here’s the big question of the day. If prayer is so easy, why don’t we do it? Why do we spend five hours every day in front of the television set but we’re too busy to find five minutes to pray? The answer is really quite simple. It’s a matter of priorities. We have time for that which is important to us. We don’t have time for that which is not important to us. So if prayer is a priority, not just because we say it is, but because it really is, we will rearrange our daily routine so that prayer takes priority.
How do we do that? The good news is we don’t have to go to the store and buy the latest prayer equipment. People decide they are going to exercise, but first they go to the store to buy exercise equipment. People decide they are going to diet, but first they spend money on all the recommended diet food. The equipment needed for prayer is simply this: A quiet place, a quiet hour, and a quiet heart.
A quiet place. Find a place where you can get away from the distractions of life. A place where you won’t be interrupted. Jesus modeled this for us. “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). This solitary place might be somewhere in your house, it might be somewhere outdoors, maybe where you can pray as you walk, it might be in your car as you are driving. Although, be sure to obey all traffic laws. I don’t think the police will think much of the excuse that you were praying. Use your creativity on this one, but find a place.
And then we need a quiet hour. For Jesus apparently his quiet hour was “very early in the morning, while it was still dark”. That may not work for you. Praying before going to bed at night might be a better time. For me, that doesn’t work at all. I remember back when I was praying at the end of the day before I went to sleep that I would typically fall asleep in the middle of my prayer. We’re all different. But here’s what’s important. Don’t just say you will find a time to crowd prayer in around everything else. If you don’t have a time, everything else will crowd prayer out. Again, make prayer a priority. A quiet place and a quiet hour.
Finally, a quiet heart. This is the biggest challenge for many of us. Our minds are racing. There is so much going on. Our hearts are so full. We’re still replaying the tape from yesterday about something that happened. Or we’re already thinking ahead about something that hasn’t happened yet — something we’re worried about, or something we’re excited about. There’s all this inner noise going on. We may be able to talk over all this. But we certainly will not be able to listen as God wants us to listen to what God has to say to us. So for many people, before even starting the prayer per se, it is necessary to quiet their heart.
Here are some things that might work for you. Starting by reading some devotional literature might help. Or reading from the Bible. Music can be very helpful. You can play some. You can sing some. Remember, we’re in a quiet place where no one else will hear you! Or you can just hear the music in your heart. Music that will bring you into the presence of God. You might want to start your prayer by just being silent. Be aware of your breathing. You’re breathing in the good things God has for you. You’re breathing out all that you need to release to God. Maybe that is your prayer for that day. Maybe you didn’t even get to the words.
There was a farmer who prayed three times every day — 10 am, noon, and 2 pm. One day at 10 am, he realized he had left his prayer book back home. He was way out in his farthest field. It was too far to go back home to get that prayer book. So he prayed the alphabet three times and he said, “God, you can rearrange the letters any way you want.” That’s when he heard God’s voice. God said to him, “That’s the best prayer you’ve ever prayed!”
Prayer is not so much the words we say. Prayer is being attentive to God. A quiet place, a quiet hour, a quiet heart.
All the clergy of our Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference were asked by Bishop Hagiya to gather in early October in Portland. Our guest speaker was a young woman named Elaine Heath who is professor of evangelism at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. Her area of expertise is reaching the “spiritual but not religious” segment of our population that is large and is growing and is resistant to what most organized churches have to offer.
I just want to close by sharing with you something she shared with us. She said that in her experience, bringing people to Christ by telling them what they are supposed to believe is not very effective. The “Four Spiritual Laws” approach does not connect with very many people any more. So she said, don’t begin with doctrine. Begin with God’s love. Begin by helping people know that God loves them unconditionally and extravagantly. Nothing they can do can make God love them any more. Nothing they can do can make God love them any less. Begin by helping people to be centered in God’s love. That’s first. Second, teach them to pray. Teach them how. Help them to make prayer a priority in their lives.
She said that if we can lead new believers into these two simple steps, they will have everything they need to discern between good doctrine and bad doctrine. And they will live lives that will accomplish much good. Lives that will reflect God’s will that we pray might be done on earth as in heaven.
Thank you, God, for prayer. Thank you, God, that for all of us, there is more to a life of prayer than we have yet experienced. So help us to make prayer a priority. Not because we know we’re supposed to. But because we want to. Because our deepest desire is to spend time with you. We wouldn’t skip prayer any more than we would skip eating, or sleeping, or breathing. Prayer is our lifeline, because prayer is our connection to you. We pray through Christ Jesus, who taught us to pray and through whom we truly can be connected to you. Amen.