On Prayer, Part II

Matthew 6:5-15, Luke 11:1-4, July 19, 2015

I had hoped that last Sunday’s sermon would spark a conversation about prayer, a sharing of different practices, and I think it did. Someone told me Thursday morning, for example, that he’d talked about prayer with his wife as a result of last week’s sermon. As a preacher I am always pleased, and surprised, to hear that people are talking about a sermon days later. Unfortunately, all he shared with me was that the conversation had taken place, nothing that I could share or suggest.

Another member of the church sent me an email, describing her daily prayer routine. I was pleased that she includes the requests that come over the prayer chain. One of the things we’re very, very good at here is praying for other people. The systems we have in place work very well in communicating prayer requests. Pat yourselves on the back for that.

Two other people who were in worship last Sunday wrote notes. One suggested a devotional book for someone who has a hard time hearing God’s word. I’ve reserved it at the public library. Another shared a lot of different activities that are prayerful to her. As well as the need for other people to share ideas with.

I looked through the bulletin of a typical Sunday morning and found in the hour we spend in worship there are five different times when we pray. For some reason, the phrase “prayer punctuation” came into my head when I realized we pray five different times. At Bible Exploration someone pointed out that for him, speaking prayers out loud, even alone, goes deeper—feels more prayerful--than praying silently. He also said that prayers in worship are meaningful when read to together, for example, the prayer of confession and the prayer dedicating the offering, as opposed to those like the prayer for illumination and the prayers of the people. When I was a child my church had what was called The Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession. I remember, even as a child, calling it “The Mind Wander Prayer,” because well, my mind wandered and I could never stay focused for the duration of that prayer. We also have what I like to call a “bonus” prayer, one that is not listed in the bulletin. It’s the prayer I give immediately before preaching. For me, that is the moment of greatest anxiety during worship—except on days when I put the microphone in front of kids during the children’s time—and I am very intentional in inviting the congregation to join me in prayer, not ordering you. I need to share that I have colleagues who disagree with having this prayer and my invitation to join me in prayer. One told me, it’s as though you’re saying The Prayer for Illumination didn’t count—that the preacher needs to pray because that prayer was insufficient. I’d never considered that before and I disagree, but I understand how one could get that idea. Another colleague asked, “What do you do if someone says, ‘No.’ when you ask “Will you pray with me?” The answer is, “I’ll pray anyway,” but I believe that the invitation is a gentler approach, less authoritarian. I am very aware that preachers have a lot of authority and maybe too much. For example, can you think of anyone else who expects to speak, uninterrupted, for up to 20 minutes? I do a lot of things to not distance myself unnecessarily from worshippers. I preach here, most of the time, for example.

Our lessons this morning get at one of the questions I am often asked as a minister. “Which one is right? Should we say ‘debts and debtors’ or ‘trespass and those who trespass against us’?” People have very strong feelings about this question. And I really believe it all comes down to what you first learned as a child. The other version feels alien. Some congregations say “sin and those who sin against us,” and this innovation is brilliant, because it is offensive to both the debtors and trespassers!

The simple answer to the question of which is right is that both are. Jesus used both terms for sin when he talked about prayer. In Matthew the Greek word is ὀφείλω, which means “obligation” or “debt,” as in “Forgive us for something we ought to have done.”

In Luke, Jesus used the term ἁμαρτία, which literally means “miss the target,” it’s a term from archery. Both of these words depict a different way to conceive of sin, and also implies different remedies for sin.

I don’t want us to get distracted by this difference, rather I want you to notice the contexts in which Jesus gives instructions in how to pray.

In the lesson from Matthew, Jesus tells lots of people—this is part of the Sermon on the Mount—the people should not make a public spectacle of prayer, they should not pray seeking attention. They should pray alone, out of the public eye. People who pray should also “not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” Then he gives what we know, mostly, as the Lord’s Prayer. It’s direct. Almost terse.

The other place in the Bible where Jesus gives the Lord’s Prayer, it comes after he has been off praying alone—he did that a lot in Luke’s gospel—and an unnamed disciple said to him, “Teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples to pray.” And what Jesus said is even more spare than what he said in the Sermon on the Mount.

This gets at something else I’ve often heard about prayer that is hard for people. When Jesus tells us how to pray, he doesn’t instruct us to say “please.” Does Jesus want us to be rude? Along with that thought I’ve often heard people say it’s hard for them to pray because they feel like they’re always asking for something. And it doesn’t have to be that way, but prayer could be a collection of things you want God to do, like a Divine “Honey-Do List.”

When I think about prayer in those ways, I realize that if I were God I would feel like I was being nagged, especially if the only thing that a person ever expressed in prayer was a request for something. Let me remind you—as if you might need reminding!—I’m not God and God loves each and every one of us and I believe God is eager and ready to hear all our prayers. And still it’s hard to know where and how to start.

Here are two ideas that have worked for me for many years. First, it helps me to imagine my prayer as something physical. Sometimes I think of something as weighing or pressing on my heart and I imagine reaching into my chest and pulling this thing out, maybe it’s like a tumor and holding it up and saying, “Here, God. This.” I can’t say exactly why that works for me, but it really helps me when I’m feeling stuck. Sometimes I talk to God for a long time and when I’m done talking, I add, “God, I give all this to you…” And then, it helps me to sit in silence and just wait. For some reason, it just doesn’t feel right to get up from my seat immediately when I’ve done that.

Another style that I have found helpful is a breath prayer. This is really simple and can feel meditative. Imagine a name for God—any name that feels comfortable for you will do. Say that name as you breathe in. As you breathe out, say what you want from God. It might got something like, “Mighty Creator….inner peace.” For this I find that it’s helpful to sit down and to be in a quiet, solitary place. And it is interesting to me how sometimes both the name I use to address God and the request I pray for changing over time. And somehow, I always know when I’m done.

As I have been thinking about prayer I remembered a very significant moment when I was asked to pray and I’ll close with this story—again, with the hope that you’ll have something to think about in the week ahead.

About six years ago my son’s baseball coach told me that a boy on another team had a growth in his abdomen, 3 cm by 9 cm. A biopsy had been scheduled. Coach asked if I would give a prayer at home plate before the game started. I accepted.

The 25 boys from both teams and their coaches gathered and Coach introduced me. “Peter’s dad’s a pastor. And now we’re going to pray for Robert.” I prayed for Robert and his family, for those who care for him, for the staff of the hospital where his surgery would be. I prayed that we would feel strength and the presence of the Holy Spirit; that we would support one another and Robert in the uncertain days ahead. In short, I prayed at home plate with about 30 other people the very same thing I would pray with someone who was in the hospital facing surgery. When I had finished, Coach added a post-script following my amen, “…that the growth not be cancer.”

Silly me! I was praying to change me and for my people to accept reality, for comfort and hope and strength in whatever lay ahead. It simply didn’t occur to me to ask God to deliver a good diagnosis!

The next week I found out the growth was benign, and we were all relieved, but that is not what I had led a prayer for! Amen.