Thursday, July 28, 2016

Teach Us to Pray...with Our Lives

(Preached at Nazareth Lutheran Church on July 24)
Luke 11:1-13
  There is the story of a devout old monk, the abbot of a monastery,
who was a powerful pray-er, a man of great faith who had a deep
relationship with God through his prayer life. Now, it seemed that
he was often bothered by mice playing around him when he prayed,
which he found very distracting. And so, he got a cat and kept it in
his prayer room to scare the mice away. Interestingly, he never saw
the need to explain to his fellow-monks why he had the cat, so one
day as he walked down the monastery corridors, he was surprised to
realized that each of the other monks had a cat in their prayer rooms.
It seems that after seeing the abbot with a cat, the others thought
that having a cat was the secret to powerful praying.
  Amusing story, it’s true. But there are many Christians who seem to
believe that they have to do something special in order for God to
hear them, in order for them to have their prayers answered. So
there is book after book on prayer on the shelves of every bookstore…
there are seminars and retreats on teaching people how to pray. In
fact, there are speakers and preachers and gurus of every sort telling
us how to believe and how to pray and how to make it “work” for us…
all of which seems to indicate that prayer is some kind of magic lamp or
vending machine. Say the right words, put in the right requests, and
you will get the result you want.
  Jesus seems to indicate to us in Luke’s gospel that prayer is intimate
communication with God, like speaking to a caring friend or a loving
parent…Abba, Daddy. And it is also being quiet, still, and listening to
God, being willing to be transformed by what is being communicated to
us…perhaps in ways both unexpected and yet, everyday…the advice of a
friend, the request for help from a neighbor, the inner nudge to make a
phone call or a visit to someone, the sudden recollection of the face of
someone you haven’t thought of in ages.
  Jesus taught us by his example that relationship with God could only
happen by being in communication with God…not like putting a message
in a bottle or in an envelope or email…but more like the regular conver-
sation we have with others with whom we are in relationship. In reading
through Luke’s gospel, we find Jesus praying at every turn of his life…as
he senses God’s call in his life; as he prepares to call his disciples; as he
serves and heals other people; as he feels the demands and pressures of
ministry; as he faces the cross; as he finishes his life on the cross. Jesus
is continually praying, prayer as vital for him as taking his next breath.
Jesus knew that in order for him to be able to be able to live out the life
God had called him to live, he needed to be continually connected to God
in prayer, for God was the source of his power- and peace.
  And so we come to today’s story. The disciples notice- have noticed-
that Jesus prays, seemingly all the time, and they finally ask him to teach
them to pray. Of course, this request is accompanied by the disclaimer-
“as John taught his disciples”, seeming to say that this is something
Jesus should have been doing all along as their teacher, their leader,
since this is what John had been doing for his followers. But he had been
teaching them- by his example, though they seemed to want…to need…
more than that. They wanted words. And so do we…words that “work”…
that result in an answer that will satisfy us, that will make us feel that our
prayers have been answered. Because unanswered prayer makes us feel-
at least sometimes- “well, why bother?”
  But prayer is not about how to persuade God to give us what we want
when we want it. It is not about right technique or the right words. It is
about connection and trust- trusting and believing that we will receive
generously from God rather than get what we want from God…two
entirely different things. Prayer is not about manipulating the Divine to
see things the way we do, but rather is about opening ourselves to
being transformed to seeing the world and the people in it with the eyes
and heart of God…which means no one is left out, no one is not
welcome, no one is seen as “less than”, as an outsider, but every
person is seen as a child of God with inestimable value by our incredibly
open, inclusive, welcoming God.
  So, what about when we pray and it doesn’t seem like we’re getting an
answer? Praying for healing for ourselves or someone else, and it’s not
happening. Praying for that job which just doesn’t materialize. Praying for
relief from financial worries, even as we sink deeper into debt. Praying for
a grown child who is behaving in self-destructive ways and turning his or
her back on family and friends. Praying about all of the many heart-
breaking things which have been and are happening in our nation and
our world. Doesn’t Jesus say in this passage that we’re to ask and it will
be given? Well, I’ve been asking, Jesus, but so far, nada, we may be
thinking. So, what do we make of this? Was Jesus mistaken about our
prayers being answered?
  Someone once said that God always answers prayer in one of four ways:
Yes, No, Not Yet, and You’ve Got to Be Kidding! In fact, there is even a
country song by Garth Brooks which says, “Some of God’s greatest gifts
are unanswered prayers.” Part of our human arrogance is thinking and
believing that we know what is best for us, and that we must surely
tell God what that is. And so we are like the man in the parable who
receives an unexpected guest in the middle of the night and awakens
his neighbor, asking for bread to feed the guest. When the neighbor
says NO at first, the man keeps pounding on the door and asking,
imploring, until finally the neighbor acquiesces in order to get the guy
to be quiet and go away. We believe that we have to keep bombarding
God with our requests- as if God doesn’t already know what we
need…what will be most beneficial for our wholeness as children of God.
  Ask, Jesus tells us, and it will be given...what you need, really need, in
the eyes of God- perhaps a change of heart, a change of perspective;
perhaps a change of life, of focus, even of career. Because, as the old
saying goes, “Prayer Changes Things”. And it does indeed. First and
foremost, prayer changes US. It opens us to a willingness to be remade
in the image of Jesus Christ, the one who came to show us who and how
God is. Prayer is not to change or persuade God; it is, instead, one of
the ways we are formed into disciples of Christ, living and walking the
Jesus Way.
   When we pray continually, persistently, something happens inside of
us. St. Paul exhorted to Timothy, “Pray without ceasing”…which doesn’t
mean spending all day sitting with your hands folded and eyes closed.
I think Paul imagined our whole lives- our thinking and acting and our
very being- offered to God as a prayer. And as we engage in this kind
of prayer, we become open to the spirit of the Living Christ, the Holy
Spirit, alive and active within us, drawing us into a closer relationship
with God, reshaping us, reforming us into the person God has created
us to be all along.
   So ponder this question: how would we act- individually and collectively-
if our prayers were offered to God confidently, trusting that God will
respond so much more generously than any earthly parent. Perhaps we
wouldn’t just sit back and wait for God to answer, at least in the way we
expect, but instead would start moving, getting to work, actually start
living into the reality of what we pray for. We say together each Sunday,
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”, and that
coming of the kingdom needs to begin with each of us. So, rather than
simply pray for someone who is lonely, maybe I’ll go visit. Rather than
simply pray for an end to violence, maybe I’ll campaign against the
legality of military-grade semi-automatic weapons, or protest when police
use unnecessary force, or go visit the police station to tell officers that
I’m grateful for their service and pray with them for their safety. Just
think of all the ways in which we can translate our prayers into action,
by living the Jesus Way, by following in the steps of the Master we say
we love.
  All of life is prayer- someone wise once said that. ALL OF LIFE…which
means it’s not about whether or not our prayers are answered but rather
about living into our prayers, helping to create the future we pray for. As
we do this, we ARE in fact, praying. As we work for the dignity and rights
of others, we are praying- WITH OUR LIVES. As we comfort those in
need, visit those who are imprisoned, feed those who are hungry, sit
lovingly with those who mourn, we are praying- WITH OUR LIVES. And
perhaps, just perhaps, we are being used by God as an answer to
another person’s- or even our own- prayers.
   There are so many people who need our prayers- prayers understood
as words, as actions, as our very lives. People who are dying and don’t
need to. People who are lonely and would welcome friendship. People
who are excluded and waiting to be invited in. People whose lives are
being destroyed by war. People who have been forced from their homes.
All kinds of people. So, let’s get praying…and doing…and being…all we
have been called by our God to be. And in that spirit, I share with you
The lyrics of one of my favorite songs:
      Let peace begin with me
      Let this be the moment now.
      With every step I take
      Let this be my solemn vow.
      To take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally,
      Let there be peace on earth
      And let it begin with me.  Amen and amen

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