On Prayer

Psalm 130, Romans 8:26-27, July 12, 2015

Today is the first in a series of at least three sermons on prayer. And I love the way this series started. About 6 of us were sitting around the table at Brown Bag Bible Exploration one Tuesday, having brought our lunches, Bibles and curiosity, and someone said, “I don’t know how to pray.” I love the honesty and clarity of that statement. I love that that’s something that people will say at church, and I love that it’s a topic that so many people are interested in!

I’ve drawn on a number of resources I find helpful in thinking about prayer for my remarks this morning, but I also know that your experiences and thoughts are also very important in how we think about prayer and pray as individuals and as a community. There’s a blank page on the back of your announcements insert this morning. I hope you will use it to jot down thoughts and comments about prayer this morning. You can put them in the offering plate, hand them to me following worship or send me an email or phone the office this week. Prayer is truly a topic where we can benefit from hearing about what other people do.

The first source I’m going to cite this morning is the Bible. There are lots and lots of psalms that mention prayer, psalms that are themselves prayers, it was hard to choose just one. But I picked Psalm 130 because I like its honesty. The psalmist cries out to the Lord, and demands to be heard. The psalmist waits…the psalmist waits….this is the part of prayer that I find difficult, the waiting, the listening. I’m pretty good at putting things into words, in fact sometimes just saying things out loud helps me clarify my thinking, but waiting, slowing down, that’s more difficult. It reminds me of another source that I like to mention when I think about prayer, Mother Teresa. When she was interviewed by Dan Rather more than ten years ago she was asked what she says when she prayers and she said, “Nothing. I just listen.” And Dan Rather asked her what God says to her and she said, “Nothing He just listens.” There’s someone who gets the kind of waiting that the psalmist mentions, that I find difficult. Finally, the psalmist hopes. That’s really important. Remember three verbs about prayer from this psalm: Cry out, wait, hope. Note that there are no specific requests in psalm, no petitions asking for peace or healing or prosperity. But all these verbs point to a relationship between the psalmist and God. To me, that’s the key to all prayer, the relationship that is nurtured, maintained and strengthened by being in an attitude of prayer.

The New Testament lesson this morning is one that I always use as a guide in prayer. The Spirit helps us in our weakness…it intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God who searches the heart knows the mind of the Spirit…” I think the person who said, “I don’t know how to pray.” was thinking in terms of not knowing the right words. And this passage gives us the freedom not to think about getting the words right. It even says words aren’t necessary, and sighs are deeper prayers anyway.

Prayer can take many forms, and I’ll share some of what Presbyterians believe about the various forms in a moment. But prayer is always addressed to God. Prayer is communication between a person, or a group of people, and God. I have attended meetings at which someone has been asked to give an opening prayer and heard instead a list of announcements, jokes, mild insults at other members of the group, and comments on current events all of which was concluded with “Amen.” I do not consider that prayer, because the person speaking did not address God. I don’t think I’m prayer snob, and I try to be a good guest, but unless God is being addressed, what’s being said is not prayer. I heard a story years ago that Tony Campolo told. He is a Baptist minister and he can be fairly provocative and political. Once after worship a member of his church charged up to him and said, “I don’t like what you said in that prayer” and he responded, “That’s OK, I wasn’t talking to you.”

Another source I draw on that shapes my thinking about prayer is the Book of Order, one third of our denomination’s constitution. I read a number of passages about prayer this past week and what struck me is what was sort of written between the lines. Prayer is a response to God. We respond to God in prayer. Repeatedly and even subtly the Book of Order tells us that God started it and prayer is one way that a person can respond to what God has already done.

Listen carefully and follow along on the screen for some of the things the Book of Order has to say about prayer.

Slide #1

Prayer is at the heart of worship. In prayer, through the Holy Spirit, people seek after and are found by the one true God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ. They listen and wait upon God, call God by name, remember God’s gracious acts, and offer themselves to God. Prayer may be spoken, sung, offered in silence, or enacted. Prayer grows out of the center of a person’s life in response to the Spirit. [Book of Order W-2.1001]

Did you notice that prayer can be spoken, sung, offered in silence or enacted? I hope you did. There are lots of ways to pray. And because of that, everyone should be free to find the style or mode of prayer that works best for them. We talked about this around the lunch table. For some people praying the Lord’s Prayer in a group and losing one’s voice in the crowd of voices praying in unison is really a powerful, prayerful moment. It is for me when we gather around newly ordained and installed officers. But for other people, the Lord’s prayer is so familiar, so routine, that its words have lost their meaning when prayed in a crowd.

Here’s what the Book of Order says about music and prayer: Slide #2

Song is a response which engages the whole self in prayer. Song unites the faithful in common prayer wherever they gather for worship whether in church, home, or other special place. The covenant people have always used the gift of song to offer prayer. [Book of Order W-2.1003]

Isn’t that great? Music “engages the whole self in prayer.” Have you ever thought of the Psalms as a prayer book or a hymnal? It is both. And music and prayer have always gone together. For some people singing in the choir is a true and deep time of worship. And for others, me for example, singing, that is singing accurately, hitting the right notes and/or harmonizing…um, that’s not our gift. But it can be our prayer!

Slide #3

To lead the congregation in the singing of prayer is a primary role of the choir and other musicians. They also may pray on behalf of the congregation with introits, responses, and other musical forms. Instrumental music may be a form of prayer since words are not essential to prayer. In worship, music is not to be for entertainment or artistic display. Music as prayer is to be a worthy offering to God on behalf of the people. [Book of Order W-2.1004]

This paragraph is important, not so much about prayer but about worship more broadly considered. The choir and musicians do not perform, they lead worship. Because they lead worship many people believe it is inappropriate to applaud in worship as a response to music, or as we had last week, dancing. I get that and believe me I grew up in a church where applause was completely taboo. And yet, the psalms mention clapping ones hands as an act of praise and worship. So, when we clap along to “Glory to God” that’s worship and praise. If we’re applauding God for beautiful music that has drawn us closer to God, then applause is appropriate, though for some people it will always feel inappropriate in worship. Did you notice that instrumental music can be a form of prayer? See, words aren’t essential for prayer to happen. Sounds, silence, sighs too deep for words…all of these can also be prayer. When we have baptisms there is a moment in the prayer of thanksgiving when water is poured from the pitcher into the font. The sound of water flowing is a sound of prayer.

Slide #4

In the Old and New Testaments and through the ages, the people of God expressed prayer through actions as well as speech and song. So in worship today it is appropriate

a. to kneel, to bow, to stand, to lift hands in prayer,

b. to dance, to clap, to embrace in joy and praise,

c. to anoint and to lay hands in intercession and supplication, commissioning and ordination. [Book of Order W-2.1005]

This is important to keep in mind when we think about prayer: We can assume a lot of different positions and even move when we pray. In the Old Testament when it says “He worshipped,” for example when God told Abraham the second time that Abraham would have son by Sarah, Abraham “worshipped” that is he bowed before God. Our tradition is to bow our heads as a sign of respect and humility when we pray. But look what else prayer can be: dancing, clapping, embracing in joy and praise…I find repetitive activities lends themselves to prayer. For example, on the Nordic track in the morning, or washing dishes I get into a rhythm and pray for people.

I’ve just got one more thought to toss out this morning—remember I’m counting on you to provide additional insights for next week’s sermon! There is a striking contrast in the approaches that our members take to personal, daily prayer. I know many of you start your days with reading a devotional book like These Days or The Upper Room. I call this a discipline of prayer. And I am always impressed when people share their experiences with these resources. For some of our members starting the day with a time of prayer is almost equivalent to breathing.

There is another group of people who pray regularly, but not at a specific time or with a printed resource. I think of these people as the “Help, Thanks, Wow” crowd. I take that phrase from Anne Lomott’s book of the same title. For her, and many of us, we need to jolted, and startled into praying, and our prayers fall, nearly always into categories that could be called Help, Thanks and Wow! I am in this latter group. I have tried using a devotional and found that about one day in ten I got something that I found helpful and inspiring that helped get off to a good start. It just didn’t work for me. And yet, I have lots of moments each day when I am startled into being aware of God’s blessing and the presence of the Holy Spirit right now!

Last month, for example, I was making breakfast in the kitchen and looked over and saw my wife packing a lunch for my son. Something I’ve seen countless times before, something I have done myself countless times. But there was something I noticed, about the attention and love that she put into that ordinary task that just filled me with love and gratitude. Why that? Why then? I dunno. But in that moment I lifted a prayer of thanks and praise. Nature, clouds, kindness, smiles, things like that startle me into prayer and gratitude. I describe my prayer life as being one of “spontaneous discipline,” which I know is a paradox, but it’s what works for me. At this point in my life.

So I’ll leave you with a similar question: What works for you, and your prayer life? Write it down, let me know, and let’s share our experiences of prayer. I’m done.