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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Prayer: It’s Easier Than You Think

Pentecost 9C, 2010

Luke 11:1-13 7/25/2010

A long time ago when I was in college, I was the guitar player and song leader for what was then called the “Experimental Worship Service” at the church next door to the college. That worship was the infant form of what we would now call “Contemporary Worship:” the songs were played mostly on guitar, people were encouraged to dress casually, and the interaction between worship leader and congregation was more spontaneous. For that worship service, we trotted out new songs from Christian songwriters. One song that was especially popular was called You’d Better Go: a pretty revolutionary song rebuking old ways of doing church. One line bothered me, even as a young church radical: If you’re looking for an answer or a lesson how to pray, then there’s nothing for you here, you’d better go. You’d better go.

Shouldn’t the church be the place where we teach people how to pray? That’s why I’ve never had any problem with banning compulsory prayer in public schools (mind you, prayer has never been banned in public schools. Forced, involuntary, compulsory prayer has been outlawed. As someone said, as long as there are tests, there will be prayer in public schools. And many schools have voluntary gatherings of students before or after hours for prayer.). I don’t want school teachers to teach my children how to pray: that’s my job – and yours. The problem is that we’re not doing a very good job of it.

In the Gospel lesson this morning the disciples as Jesus to teach them how to pray. He offers them what we now know as The Lord’s Prayer as a model. When Vicki and I served three small churches in Orange County, our parsonage was sandwiched between one of our churches and a conservative Christian Church, whose pastor, George Vartenisian, lived on the other side of his church. George and I had wonderful and friendly debates daily about everything, one of which was the use of the Lord’s Prayer. George’s church didn’t use – or even know – the prayer. “It’s not the Lord’s Prayer,” George would insist. “Jesus would never have prayed “forgive us our trespasses, because he was sinless. He said to pray like this, not to pray this.” Well, technically, George was right. It’s a model for prayer, not a commandment. But just as a musician has to learn and rehearse scales before she can improvise jazz, rehearsing the Lord’s Prayer teaches us important components of any prayer, including prayers we create on our own. And, if you’re going to pray only one prayer for the rest of your life, this would be the one to pray.

This morning, I want us to look very briefly at what the Lord’s Prayer teaches us, but then move on to another form of prayer you’re probably not familiar with – a way of connecting with God that Christians have used for centuries. This morning, I don’t want to talk about prayer – I want us to learn by actually praying. What a concept!

The Lord’s Prayer teaches us all the pieces of how to talk with God. Note that I said with, not to. Hold that thought for a few minutes – it’s vitally important, and we’ll get back to it. What are those pieces?

Our Father: Right off the bat, this is not our private God. Christians only pray as part of a much larger community. Next time we celebrate communion, I want you to listen carefully to the words of the prayer I pray, just before we say Holy, holy, holy Lord. I pray, and so, with all your people on earth, and with all the company of heaven, we praise you, saying. . . Christians never pray in isolation – we pray with each other and with all the saints and angels.

Further, we pray to a God who is in relationship with us. Father. Not Thou who dost make the mountains rise up above the seas. . . This is someone who loves us and craves our companionship.

Hallowed be your name: God, you are awesome! Prayer involves praise. Too often we come to God with our shopping list. Parents, and spouses, don’t you sometimes wish instead of being greeted with a list of complaints, you were greeted at the door with a hug, a kiss, and an I love you? Where do you think you got that yearning? When we practice praising God, it changes our whole relationship from God as a divine vending machine to God as a friend and companion.

Give us today our daily bread: Ask, simply, for what you need – not what you want. Ask for bread, not a pony.

Forgive us: Remember that you are broken, and live as part of a broken world. Remember who you are, and confess that to God.

Do not bring us to the time of trial: Stick with me, God. Don’t let me go off on my own after I’ve said amen: keep me on the road.

That’s it. It’s really pretty simple stuff, isn’t it? So, why are we so lousy at it? One reason, it seems to me, is that just as we’ve learned that children learn in different ways, there are different ways of relating to God. Again, briefly, let me run down some of those ways:

Verbal. Protestants tend to be people of the ear. We talk about God. And that works for many people. We pray in words. But it’s not the only way.

Visual. Catholic and Orthodox churches are usually filled with stained glass, statues, pictures, and special pictures called icons. An icon is understood to be like a window into heaven. Protestant churches are now picking up on using images in worship and prayer thanks to the use of projected images. I’d like us to experiment with that as well – using great art, film clips, and other images as a way for us to connect to God. Our children, especially, are visually oriented, and respond powerfully to images.

Musical. Charles Wesley understood that you could teach people theology by getting them to sing it. For many of us, good music well done connects us with God. My experience has been that it really doesn’t make any difference whether it’s Johann Sebastian Bach or Metallica as long as it’s well done. Singing or playing a song that praises God is a powerful form of prayer.

Kinesthetic. I have friends who do their morning devotions lifting weights, running, cycling, swimming, or doing some other form of exercise. I find physical labor deeply spiritual, whether it be in the yard or on the house or on the boat. Brother Andrew prayed scrubbing kitchen floors. Monks work in the fields or kitchen or elsewhere as a form of prayer. Men, especially, often have a hard time sitting in church praying, but may find working with each other a powerful spiritual experience.

Intellectual. People like Malcolm Muggeridge, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and St. Augustine were converted largely by intellectual conversations and reading. For many, reading and writing are powerful forms of prayer and connection with God.

Sacramental. I love that this church has Holy Communion more than once a month. Putting the Body of Christ in your open hands is one of the most powerful spiritual experiences in my life. Baptism, especially of infants, is a window to the great river of God’s grace. You’ll hear me tell lots of communion and baptism stories in the years to come.

Contemplative. Silence. Stillness. Just being in the presence of God.

Good worship and good church should invite us to and teach all those, and more. Now, let me introduce you, in the briefest way, to an ancient form of devotion called Lectio Divina, Latin for Holy Reading, which incorporates several of the ways of prayer I’ve just mentioned. When I teach the Basic Course in Lay Speaking, this is how I teach people to prepare a sermon. You can use this for your personal devotions, for preparing Sunday School and other lessons, for lay speaking, and for discerning God’s will for your day and for your life.

Lectio Divina has four parts, which I’ve listed in the bulletin. If you have you Bibles, turn to this morning’s gospel lesson. We don’t have time to really work our way through the Lectio properly, but let’s walk through it quickly.

First, put yourself in a place free from distractions. Turn off the phone, TV, and everything else. Be quiet, and settle down. You may want to focus on a cross, a piece of religious art, or light a candle. Try to create a time and a place for this and this alone – perhaps just a chair that you don’t sit in unless you’re doing Lectio. Slow down, and don’t begin until you’re ready. Use the Jesus Prayer to focus and quiet yourself.

1. Lectio: read. Read a passage of scripture slowly. Treat it like a wonderful dessert or piece of meat that you don’t want to gulp down. Enjoy it slowly, treasuring every morsel. Read it again. Write down words that stand out to you.

2. Meditatio: meditation. Christian meditation is active. Put yourself into the story you’ve just read. Who are you? How would you have responded, had you been there? Why did certain words stand out to you? What is God saying to you in this passage?

3. Oratio: prayer. Pray about this passage. Pray about what God is saying to you. Pray about any confusion you have about this text. Surrender yourself and your understanding to God, to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, speaking through these words.

4. Contemplatio: comtemplation. Now, just be. Simply rest, in quiet, in God’s loving presence. Just as a child crawls into a parent’s lap, or a lovers rest in each other’s arms, gently and quietly rest in God, not seeking, not asking, not struggling. Just be.

Prayer: it’s easier than you think. I want Providence Church to be a school for prayer, where people can come and learn from what we say, from what we do, and from how we live, how to connect at the deepest levels to a God who yearns to hold us in his arms.

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