Last Wednesday at my church we began taking a closer look at the spiritual disciplines of Lent. Every year on Ash Wednesday we commit to these disciplines of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love – strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament. Last week we talked about self-examination and repentance. This week, we’ll think about prayer.
Oswald Chambers wrote: “We tend to use prayer as a last resort, but God wants it to be our first line of defense. We pray when there’s nothing else we can do, but God wants us to pray before we do anything at all.”
Or how about this quote from Corrie Ten Boom which is along those same lines: “Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?”
Prayer is a spiritual discipline we tend to talk about more than others because it is part of our life together as a church. We pray in worship and before meals. We pray before meetings. We pray when we visit one another in the hospital and we even have a prayer chain where we can let people know the needs for prayer in our community.
Ask anyone here if they pray and I bet we all would say, “yes, of course.” But ask a different question and the answers get more complicated. How about if we ask, “Does prayer work?”
And while my answer would be “yes, prayer works,” it would feel incomplete to stop there because prayer does not “work” as we always or even often might wish it to work.
Prayer is not a magic charm. We can pray and pray and pray for rain but that doesn’t mean we won’t still go through months of drought. We can pray and pray and pray for healing to come but that doesn’t mean the healing will come when we want it to, or even on this side of the grave. We can pray and pray and pray for an answer but sometimes all we feel for seemingly far too long is deafening silence and confusion.
And when this happens – which it does – this confusing business of prayer can leave even the most faithful to feel disillusioned with the practice and wondering what good it does, wondering if it is really much different than hoping or wishing. Then frustration can set in and sometimes people begin to pray less and this can really begin to diminish our spirits in serious ways.
Because the thing about prayer is that the more we do it, the more we feel the fullness of its’ benefits. We need to pray. This is why scripture advises us to pray without ceasing and to not worry about anything but instead to pray about everything.
There are many ways that we talk about prayer in the Christian church and it never hurts to remind ourselves that prayer is about more than making requests of God. In addition to our prayers for things we need and others need, we offer prayers of thanksgiving for all the blessings God has given us; we pray prayers of adoration, proclaiming how wonderful and faithful God has been to us; we pray prayers of confession – admitting our shortcomings to God and repenting of these things. We can’t forget meditation – just being silent and listening for God – I like to do this when I’m out walking or sitting out on the porch at night.
And I like how Max Lucado talks about prayer as also being a practice of receiving. I read an interview with him when his book, “Come Thirsty” came out and he was talking about the imagery of water on the cover of this book that is all about prayer.
He said he was noticing as his church was growing, people were busy doing a lot of things, but they looked as tired as people who didn’t go to church. They just looked tired; they seemed so busy—they had so many activities, good activities, things they wanted to participate in. But he realized they never talked about the importance of receiving.
He writes, “And the imagery of Jesus is that he can do for the soul what water can do for the body; he can go where it’s cracked and flaky and dusty and he can bring nourishment; he can soften that which is hard. So I got really fascinated by this and began to experiment with it in my own life. I realize, when you drink, you don’t drink one day a week for six days’ worth. You know, you don’t drink 3 or 4 gallons to get you through the whole week, but you take regular sips throughout the day.
And I’ve tried to develop a practice in my own life of receiving God’s moisture and his nourishment, on a regular basis, taking Jesus literally at his word. It phenomenally changed my own life; I found that I wasn’t anxious. I found that it was easier to forgive people, that I didn’t have worries; I slept better. What I was doing was on a regular basis, receiving the basic gifts of God, his forgiveness and his drink and his presence. It really changed my outlook.”
So what Lucado urged his people to do is on a regular basis, three, four times an hour, was to offer a prayer that says, “I receive your Lordship. You’re protecting me. Anything happens, it filters through you first and I receive your love because I can never outlive your love.”
Thinking about the practice of prayer as an intentional, regular, frequent practice of receiving God’s love and replenishment is something I think we all can benefit from and something we desperately need in our busy, stressful lives. Praying in this mindful, frequent way, can work great things in us just as it did for Lucado – as we train ourselves to fix our eyes on God and not on our worries.
Prayer is a spiritual discipline, but it is also a precious gift. How blessed we are that each one of us, at any time, can lift up our words and sighs to the God who made us, and God has promised to hear us. Prayer may not be a magic charm – but I fully believe that is because God loves us too much to always give us exactly what we want in the way we ask for it – because our wisdom is not God’s wisdom, our time is not God’s time. But in all things God works for the good of those who love him.
May God help us to be diligent in our prayers – to begin our days with them, to fall asleep with them, to raise our children up on them, and always trust that the One who loves us most hears us and will answer.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
I read a story yesterday about a campus chaplain, Dr. Randy Beckum, who was demoted for preaching about peace and the false god of patriotism during a campus chapel service. He had his role as Vice President of MidAmerica Nazarene College stripped of him because many saw his words as inflammatory, yet he retained his role as chaplain.
Perhaps one cannot be both chaplain and hold a role that needs to answer to human beings in power. In fact, I think it is impossible to satisfy both God’s calling upon our lives and the desires of the human beings around us. Any preacher understands this – if you are going to preach from the scriptures, you are going to upset people. If you are trying to actually live by what Jesus taught, most will think you are nuts or naive or both. The Gospel of Jesus Christ (grace, peace, kindness, mercy) is just too contrary to the gospel of popular culture (war, revenge, violence, materialism) for many people to stomach.
I have seen evidence of this so often in churches – lay people in leadership feeling torn apart because they want to do what is right and yet too often their vision gets clouded because they don’t want to upset anyone. I hear multitudes of pastors feeling real fear of job loss if they were to proclaim the Gospel fully rather than temper it for their own particular, comfortable setting. I’ve known many congregations who compare themselves to a “family” and wring their hands over they don’t the “family” to be disrupted over an issue or, heaven forbid, someone to leave! When the loudest voices cry that it’s better to stick to what is tried and true, when most decisions are made out of fear rather than faith, eventually God’s holy house begins to look more and more like a feeble social club rather than a place for the Living God to be made known. It might be a nice place to visit and catch up with one another, but bears little to no resemblance to Jesus’ intention for His church on earth.
I have been a pastor for sixteen years. I love the church beyond measure. I love the different-colored banners for the changing church seasons, sharing the stories that Jesus told, and singing the hymns I learned sitting next to my grandmother on a wooden pew in a little Lutheran church in Minnesota. There is nothing that makes my heart so glad as carrying on the rituals of making ashes from dried palm leaves, reading sacred scriptures as a parishioner takes her final breath, hearing children learn the Lord’s prayer, and the smell of coffee wafting from the church kitchen. The Lutheran church, everywhere, has always been my second home. Life looks beautiful to me in the glow of the stained glass and with the sound of Jesus’ words echoing in my mind.
But I’m just as guilty of creating false gods. Mine might not be patriotism or materialism, however I still like to keep God in the places I can understand God and where I can make sense of God. Others may catch glimpses of holy things in flags, earthly heroes, or an ideal of a perfect church “family” that exists only in their minds. I have caught glimpses of holy things in quiet country churches and the nostalgia of sacred music.
I guess I dream of what is impossible while I’m still here on Earth – the sacred unfettered by all that we put upon it in this world. I long for God, pure and only, not God through the eyeglasses of a particular group or faction.
All our best intentions, our righteous rites and wordy words, still only hint at the wonder and mystery of the One who made us.
So why should we be surprised when speaking about God and trying to live our lives in God often gets frustrating? We are trying to lasso the wind. We are looking out for the black dog laying on the black pavement on a pitch dark night. All is hidden from our sight – yet – the smidgen of the Holy One in each of us can’t help but keep searching for and naming God, while at the same time, the sin in us is busy pointing out the speck in one another’s eye and ignoring the log in our own.
I’m proud of Dr. Beckum for naming the false gods he has witnessed. He is called there to do just such a thing. I bet he wasn’t surprised at all about the reaction it received. We preachers know when buttons are being pushed. But God has called us to do just that. When we stop having the courage to name sin and proclaim God’s forgiveness to the repentant, it is time for us to step down from the pulpit. Until then, preachers – take heart, fight the good fight, keep on preaching.