A Season for Growing--Prayer

by Rev. L. John Gable

A Season for Growing–Prayer by Rev. L. John Gable
June 25, 2017

I know you know the song “Summertime and the livin’ is easy”, but I’m not so sure about that.  The people I talk to, particularly young families say, “Summertime and the livin’ is busy”, and when we are “busy”, perhaps too busy, we let some of our regular practices and routines slide, the very practices we typically use to keep us focused, balanced and healthy.

With that in mind, we are going to focus the next several weeks on some of the spiritual practices which are central, vital and life-giving to our faith, yet are sometimes easy to let slide, particularly when we are stretched and “too busy”, beginning with the practice of prayer.  Summertime may not necessarily be “easy”, but it is the season for growing, so we want to use this time as a season for growing in our faith.

In our Gospel lesson the twelve ask Jesus to “teach them to pray”.  That’s interesting?  Prayer was not new to Jesus, it had long been a traditional practice for people of faith, but apparently the disciples saw something in Jesus’ prayer life that was different, special, unique, something that they wanted for themselves, so they asked Him, “Lord, teach us to pray as You pray”, so He offered some advice and gave them the model prayer we now call “The Lord’s Prayer.”  We are going to return in another season to unpack that prayer, but for now we can see some helpful and workable advice that Jesus gives, beginning with the understanding that prayer is a practice, a discipline, a regular part of our spiritual lives that we can actually learn, apply and get better it as we grow in our relationship with God.

Notice, Jesus begins the prayer by saying, “our” not “my”, so He is including us and all of His followers in this model prayer, instructing us to pray “Our Father”, using the familiar term “Abba”, the term of endearment which any Aramaic speaking child still uses today, as in “Daddy, Papa”.  That alone should tell us a great deal, not only about Jesus’ relationship with His Heavenly Father, but also about the kind of relationship He invites and desires for each and every one of us.  Like any parent/child relationship whose conversations ideally are personal, intimate and regular, so should be our prayer conversations with God.  Which of us as parents want to hear from our children only when they need or want something?  So, regular conversation with God is part of the regular routine or practice of our faith, part of the daily maintenance of our relationship with God.  In his instruction on prayer Martin Luther says that “prayers ought to be brief, frequent and intense.”  “Brief” – even Jesus says that God is not impressed by the length of our prayers. “When you are praying do not heap up empty phrases like the Gentiles do, who think they will be heard for their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”  “Frequent” – like the daily conversations you have with your husband, your wife, a parent or child or friend, not everything has to be said all at once.  And “Intense” – We could understand that in many different ways.  I think he means that our prayers should be “purposeful and heart-felt”, talk with Him about the things that matter to you.

But the disciples specifically asked Jesus to “teach them HOW to pray” which makes it sound like there are some methods or techniques we are supposed to employ.  The followers of Saint Dominic described nine different ways in which he prayed including, bowing humbly before the altar, lying flat on his face before the crucifix, standing with hands and arms spread out like a cross, stretching himself to the limit and standing as upright as possible.”  Any or all of those may work, but I don’t think that is exactly what the disciples were asking or what Jesus was getting at in His answer.  Prayer is certainly more than proper technique, but perhaps there are some helps we could employ to enrich our prayer lives beyond the rote and routine, and certainly beyond our too narrowly focused petitions for those we love, those who are closest to us.  Like the man whose daily prayer was, “God bless me, my wife, our son John, his wife, us four, no more.  Amen.”

So let’s look at a couple of practices of prayer which believers through the ages have used to see if any of these might benefit us in our prayer lives.  Many faithful pray-ers have used the acronym A-C-T-S to help form and guide their prayers.  A Adoration – “God, I bless and praise You!”  C – Confession – “God, I’m sorry for…please forgive me.”  T- Thanksgiving – “God, I thank You for….”, and S – Supplication, typically our supplications come at the beginning of our prayers or are the sum total of our prayers, but here we are encouraged to put them at the end of our prayers.  Our supplications or petitions to God, “Please help, or heal or be with…”  A-C-T-S.

Another practice many use involve the five fingers on their hands, each finger being a reminder of a different person, or topic or situation they want to lift to God.  These can change fluidly as circumstances change.

Others have used the number 7 as a guide.  There is nothing magical or mysterious about it; however I did hear once, and I don’t even know if this is true or not, that telephone numbers are 7 digits because people can readily remember 7 numbers.  I’m not even sure people memorize telephone numbers anymore with speed dial, but I sure did when I was a kid, and my 93 year old mother can still rattle off all of the numbers of her kids and closest friends…and there are many.

So using the number 7: there are seven days in the week, each day can be assigned to a different prayer need.  And, there are seven continents.  You can pray for the work of ministry and growth and protection for believers around the globe.

In a similar way, many people make prayer strands of 5 or 7 beads which they keep in their pockets or close at hand as a daily, hourly reminder to pray.

Another practice of prayer which I have found helpful is to think in terms of concentric circles, like a target with a bulls-eye.  The closest ring are those closest to me: Kris, our kids and grandkids, our mothers and families; the next ring, our friends and those with whom I work; the next, you, our church family and those who come to mind in the other churches I have served; then, our neighborhood and community; the nation; the world.  I can pray my way inside out or outside in, all in one sitting or each circle in a different sitting.  I have simply found those concentric circles to be a helpful way to visualize and organize my prayers.

Some religious traditions have set hours of prayer.  One time while leading a tour in Greece we were visiting an ancient ruin when I heard a man’s voice calling out over a loudspeaker.  I asked our guide if that was the local imam calling the Muslims to prayer?  She listened for a moment then said, “No, that’s some guy selling plastic chairs out of the back of his pick-up truck.”  Oh well, at least I was thinking of prayer.  However, I will confess that that kind of a “regular call to prayer” would be a really good discipline for my prayer life and many Christians do pray what are called the “hours”, morning, noon and evening.  I know some who also use “unplanned” reminders or prompts which call them to prayer, such as every time they sit at a stoplight, hear a siren, a baby cry, or see a person in uniform, it triggers them to pray.  If we take those kinds of cues our prayers could indeed be “brief, frequent and intense.”

I have known still others, particularly those who are homebound or shut-in, who no longer think they have a useful part to play in ministry, who are “prayer warriors”.  They take it upon themselves to pray for the ministries of the church, the pastors, the staff, the elders and deacons, the calendar and even individual members by name.  I know of others who pray through the newspaper, not only for the headlines, but for those who grieve the loss of a loved one or celebrate the birth of a child, for those who suffer violence or do something kind for another.  These faithful pray-ers remind us that all of us have a part to play in the building of the Kingdom and the opportunities are endless.

I’ve known many people who keep prayer journals.  They record and date their prayers, sometimes for years on end, then review and re-pray them over the passage of time, making special notations when a specific prayer has been answered, sometimes years later.  I’ve tried that off and on over the years, but have found that I get overwhelmed trying to keep up with the prayer requests I receive and then I start feeling guilty, which is a terrible reason to pray.  So now I make it a practice to pray with or for the individual or need as soon as the request is made, and then again whenever that person or circumstance later comes to mind.

I know you are aware that each week in worship you are invited to allow members of our Tab prayer team to pray with and for you, and there are blue prayer cards in the pew racks which are received and prayed over weekly.  But are you also aware that there is a prayer ministry that meets every Tuesday evening at 6:30 pm in the chapel?  They don’t meet to talk about prayer; they meet to pray, and anyone is welcome to join them in this vital ministry.

There is a great story of a young pastor who had just settled in to his first call in Philadelphia.  One evening he was visited by a member of his church who told him, rather bluntly, “You are not a strong preacher.  In the usual order of things you will fail here, but a little group of us have agreed to gather every Sunday morning to pray for you.”  They started with six people, but over time, that little group grew to more than one thousand who gathered weekly to pray.  The pastor was J. Wilber Chapman who came to be one of the greatest preachers America has ever known.  I always appreciate it when you tell me you are praying for me, and Oscar, for our staff and lay leaders.  Prayer is the vital underpinning of everything we do here.

These are just a few practices that many have found helpful.  I’m sure you have still others, and I’d love to hear those and share them.  These fall in line with the advice Jesus offers and models when He says, “go in to your prayer closet and shut the door” and when He frequently went off to have time alone with His Father.  So, find a time and place that works for you, where you can be quiet and focused, intentional and undistracted in order to have one on one time alone with your Heavenly Father.

Even as I offer these suggestions I know that they can begin to make prayer sound rote and mechanical and formulaic, while Jesus was suggesting just the opposite.  That being said, isn’t it interesting that the very prayer He gave us to help us keep from making prayer a meaningless religious ritual we now use with such regularity that we can repeat it without even thinking about what we are saying?  So please take any of these suggestions exactly as they are given, as “suggestions”, or “prompts” or “helpful hints” to help you keep your prayer life fresh and nimble.

Prayer is not the rote repetition of a litany we have been prescribed to say, nor it is its effectiveness measured by the number of our words, like coins dropped in to a vending machine until we get the prize we want, nor is it an attempt to wrestle or twist God’s arm (as if God had an arm to twist) to get our desired answer.  Rather prayer is a special exercise of our faith.  It is a means we have been given to establish and deepen our relationship with the God who made us, and loves us and redeems us.

Like faith itself, prayer is something of a mystery.  It doesn’t necessarily change God or the course of human affairs, but it does change us, the pray-ers.  The great summation of Jesus’ model prayer is this, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  This perhaps should be the essence of our prayers as well.  As we pray for the coming of the Kingdom and the doing of God’s will we find ourselves starting to align ourselves with it and preparing ourselves for its coming.

Prayer then is not so much the one-sided monologue we too often make it out to be, as it is the on-going, “brief, frequent and intense” conversation we have with God about every aspect of our lives, which is perhaps what Paul meant when he instructed the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.”

The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray because they could see that His prayers arose out of a deep and personal relationship with God, spoken directly from the heart, and ours can be as well.

Still not quite sure how to pray or where to start?  Let me offer this as one possible way.  “OK, God, it’s me. Help me to see what You are doing in the world, in this community, in our church, in my life, and show me how can I be a part of it?”  Or, simply start by telling Him what’s on your heart.  Take what’s there and offer it, like you would to your closest friend or dearest love.  It doesn’t matter if the words come out right; if you are happy or sad, desperate or angry.  The Lord will hear you.  He already hears you.  And you don’t need to talk very loud; He is closer to you than you think.  If you but tell Him what’s on your heart, you are already praying.

“Pray on, then, child of God, pray on.

This is thy duty and thy task.

To God the answering belongs,

Ours is the simpler part, to ask.”  (Chisholm)