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#2 Prayer

In his book about Discipleship, Jim Harnish tells a story about a Methodist church that was located right across the street from a rather disreputable bar. The members of the church were teetotalers and they prayed for years that the Lord would do something about the bar across the street.  One night the bar was hit by lightning and burned to the ground. The bar owner promptly sued the church, saying that the congregation’s prayers were responsible for the fire. The church contested the suit. After hearing the case, the judge said, “I’m not sure how I’ll rule on this case, but one thing is clear. The bar owner believes in prayer, and the church people don’t.”

Prayer. That is what we’ll be talking about this morning, and we’ll focus on two things: Why we pray and How we pray.

As Pastor John reminded us last week, we don’t become faithful disciples of Jesus Christ by accident.  Growing in discipleship requires practice of certain spiritual disciplines – spiritual habits that shape us and help us grow more Christlike. We commit to these disciplines in our membership vows when we join the church.  We commit to being faithful in our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.  Notice that the first practice we commit to is Prayer.

So – Why is prayer so important?  Why do we pray?

99% of the time when the subject of prayer is brought up, the discussion starts off with the question:  Does God answer prayer?  …. Hasn’t everyone here asked that question at one time or another? …. What we really want to know is:  Will God give me what I ask for?  Or Why didn’t God give me what I asked for?

Sometimes someone will say, Yes, God always answers prayer. But sometimes the answer is no.  Anyone heard that?

I won’t say we need to stop asking these questions, but I do think we need to broaden our view of God and prayer. 

If we focus too much on whether or not God gives us what we ask, we risk making God into a heavenly vending machine. Instead of a dollar, we put in our prayer and out comes our bag of chips – or our raise or our clean bill of health or whatever it is we wanted.

Or instead of a vending machine, we treat God like a heavenly magician; and prayer is the magic spell, the Open Sesame, that makes God do our bidding.  If we can just figure out the right words to use, our prayers will be answered. Or if we can figure out the right way to approach God – kneel or bow? fold our hands or lift them up? close our eyes or keep them open? – our prayers will be answered. Or if we can just figure out how much faith we need for our prayers to be answered. If we can just figure out the right way to pray, our prayers will be answered; God will do what we want and our desires will be granted.

Let me clear about this.  God is not a vending machine or a magician. And prayer is not a magic spell or a way to manipulate God to do what we want.  Prayer is much more important than that.

The scriptural way to think about prayer is that it is a building block in our relationship with God. A building block, a basic part, of our relationship with God. Prayer connects us to God.  It’s a vital link between us and God.

As we grow in discipleship and our connection to God deepens, so does our prayer life. And as our prayer life deepens, so does our relationship with God.

One way to picture this is to compare our growing relationship with God to the developing relationship between a parent and child. 

A newborn baby is completely self-centered.  Her prayers are all about me, me, me.  I am hungry; give me food, she cries. I am wet; change me. I am lonely; hold me. As the child grows, he remains dependent on his parent but his needs change, and his conversations with his parent change also. It can become a real conversation, not limited to cries of self-need, but including many subjects and other people.  By adulthood the child and parent enjoy a relationship of respect, love, and companionship, talking to each other, listening to each other, and sometimes simply sitting in silence together.

As we grow in discipleship, I think our prayer life matures in this way also.   

I find it a helpful image, but one thing I want to add.  As far as our prayer life is concerned, the stages are fluid, not fixed.  I do not think of prayer as I did when I first became a disciple of Christ.  But I do still call out with a ‘baby’ prayer now and then.  And I believe God is okay with that.

We can also put our developing prayer life in the framework that Pastor John shared last week. Look on the back of the bulletin to see the graphic “Spiritual Practices Change as We Grow.”

You can see on this chart that as we grow in our discipleship relationship with Jesus from Exploring to Getting Started to Going Deeper to Centering, our prayer life expands also. As the relationship gets deeper so does the conversation, and as the conversation grows deeper so does the relationship.

This is true of any relationship, of course – friends, lovers, spouses, whatever. Every relationship begins on the surface, with simple interactions. As it progresses – if it progresses – it becomes more complex and deeper. If two people never move beyond the surface level, their relationship will stay at the surface level.

On the chart, you can see that in the Exploring stage we start with an introduction to formal prayers – saying grace before meals, for instance, or a prayer at bedtime (Now I lay me down to sleep) or the Lord’s Prayer.

Moving to the Getting Started stage, we include more informal prayers, prayers in our own words, and we may set aside a regular time or place to pray. We may pray in small groups and with others.

Going Deeper, we discover the freedom that comes with conversational prayer – simply talking to God, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit as to a friend. In this stage we are ready to learn about different types of prayer also. (We’ll hear about a couple later.)

Reaching the Centering stage, we find the value in silent prayer, in simply listening, and in contemplative prayer.  Be still, and know that I am God.

Pastor John and I encourage you to reflect on your prayer life and consider taking a step to move to the next stage.

But again, don’t think of these stages as boxes walled off from one another. Think of them more as a flowering plant – a bud that opens and gradually reaches full bloom but not losing anything that came before.  All that we learn about prayer along the way is good and worth keeping. We just keep adding more – or going deeper.  The Lord’s Prayer is one of the first prayers we learn – and we pray it all our lives, even as our relationship with God keeps growing.

So that’s the why. The reason we pray is to deepen our relationship with God and grow as disciples of Jesus.  Now let’s talk a little more about How we pray.  Let me say, first of all, that there is no one right way to pray.  There is no formula you have to follow. But there are some patterns and suggestions that can be helpful.

One of the main ways we pray is in worship.  Corporate prayer.  Prayers of the people, we call them, as we pray together as a congregation.  The pastor says the words. We join in with our hearts.

The Lord’s Prayer.  We pray it every Sunday as a congregation. It’s one of the first prayers we learn.  I recommend that you pray it every chance you get.  When you have no words of your own, pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Another form of prayer is called ACTS.  ACTS is an acronym for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. It’s a great short-cut for remembering what to include in prayer. It’s pretty self-explanatory.

Adoration. Begin with praise of God, recognizing our humble position as human beings.

Confession.  Acknowledge any of your actions and words that are unworthy of a disciple. And don’t forget the good and right things you could have done that you didn’t.  Name your shortcomings and ask forgiveness.

Thanksgiving. Thank God for the blessings in your life. Take some time for this. You may have more blessings than you first realize.

Supplication. At the very end we present to God our needs and our concerns.  And not just for ourselves, of course, but for others also.

ACTS.  A good pattern for deepening our prayer life.

Another model is the Five-Finger Prayer. This is a simple model we can remember by looking at our hand.

Thumb.  The thumb, which is closest to you, stands for the people who are closest to you.  Pray for your family and your friends.

Pointer. The Pointer finger (the index finger) stands for those who point you to God. Your pastor, church leaders, spiritual mentors and teachers, prayer partners, and so on. 

Middle. The Middle finger is the longest finger and stands for leaders. Leaders in our community, our state, our nation, and the world. Church leaders, government leaders, business leaders, the people who have power to influence our lives.  They need God’s guidance.

Ring.  The Ring finger is the weakest finger. It stands for those who are weak and needy.  The sick, the poor, the marginalized, the grieving, victims of disasters and wars, all those who are troubled or in trouble.

Pinky. The Pinky finger, the little finger, is the smallest finger.  It stands for you or me, the person who is praying.  Praying for ourselves last helps us keep our wants and needs in perspective and helps us remember that prayer is not all about us. ….  But also reminds us that we are on the prayer list.

Next, I want to mention a prayer called the Jesus Prayer.  It’s very simple: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It can even be shortened to “Lord, have mercy.” A pastor I know told me once that that is the only prayer anyone needs.

Sometimes people think that to be genuine a prayer must be in their own words, but remember, there is no one right way to pray.  When you have no words of your own, the Lord’s Prayer or the Jesus Prayer connect you right to God.

As we move to the Centering Stage, we find Contemplative prayer and Silent prayer listed. Basically, both mean allowing yourself to become aware of the presence of God.  There are several ways recommended to practice Contemplative prayer – sitting in silence, meditating on scripture passages, walking a prayer labyrinth, taking a spiritual retreat – and so on.  Silent prayer simply requires that you sit in silence.    To me the heart of both is found in the verse: “Be still and know that I am God.”

I think it must be a big step forward on our prayer life journey when we do finally realize that sometimes it is good to slow down, calm down, quiet down, and just listen.  ….  Listen to what may sound like silence. And finally realize that silence does not necessarily mean that God is not there.  But that silence may be the blessing of a long-time companionship, one built on faithful presence and mutual trust, one in which neither partner feels the need to fill every space with chatter. 

Wherever we are on our journey, may God bless and guide our prayer lives as we continue to grow in discipleship.