Monday, March 17, 2008

Four Means of Grace Part 2: Prayer

I find it very difficult to teach about prayer.

It isn’t because prayer is a mysterious and esoteric practice where only a few spiritual giants live and move. It isn’t because the practice of prayer is impossibly complicated and difficult.

I find it very difficult to preach on prayer...

...but not because the Bible gives us impossible ideals to follow or because we just don’t know enough about prayer.

I find it very difficult to instruct people about prayer because prayer is none of those things.

Truth is: many of you already know so much about prayer that I seriously doubt I will have anything to say to you that you have not heard somewhere before. Prayer is one of those topics about which you expect to hear religious teachers teach and preachers preach. It is one of those topics most every Bible class has explored dozens of times. It is one of those basic disciplines commonly practiced by people across America (even by atheists and agnostics).

Prayer is also what men like David Lipscomb and James Harding described as one of the four means of Grace—that is one of the practices of the early Church God used to transform people into the image of Jesus. It is the environment where the Holy Spirit does his work on us.

But if that is true, then why are there so many praying and yet so few being transformed? If there is so much power in prayer, then why do churches seem so often to be powerless? If God really hears our prayers, then why do people still die? Why does it seem that certain diseases are never healed? Why do we still experience difficulties and problems, trials and tribulations?

I won’t pretend to be able to answer all of those questions, especially in this brief discussion! However, perhaps we can deal with these issues from the back door, by discussing exactly what God had in mind when he calls us to pray.

That God calls us to pray is beyond dispute. You can’t read through the Bible without recognizing God’s expectation. Luke begins his gospel story with Zachariah’s and Mary’s prayer. He depicts Jesus in Luke 5 as going out to the wilderness to pray as a common practice. He dies with a prayer on his lips. When he opens scriptures and prays over bread, the disciples in Emmaus recognize him. The book of Acts (Luke, the sequel) is a book filled with prayer. The letters of Paul are filled with his personal prayers and his requests for his readers to pray for him as he prays for them. Prayer is an essential Christian practice.

But what is the purpose of prayer? Basically I think the purpose of prayer can be summed up in three words: relationship, transformation, and kingdom.

We’ve often viewed prayer as the place where we beg God to do our will—to accomplish our agendas and to do our bidding. Now when we say it that way it sounds crass and horribly self-centered. But ultimately, isn’t that true? If you were to listen to our prayers what do you think you'd hear most often? Do you think you’d hear more requests for healing of people we love or like, more calls for God’s help and deliverance from the things in our lives, which frighten us, and more calls for God to spare the lives of people we know and we love? More often than not, those issues take the pride of place and time in our prayers.

I'm not suggesting it is wrong to pray for healing and deliverance. There are several examples in the Bible of just those kinds of prayers. The book of Psalms are loaded with prayers for deliverance, protection, and health. According to James 5, one of the tasks of elders in local churches is to pray over sick people.

But what if that were not the ultimate point behind prayer?

What if ultimately the point of prayer was to embrace God? The psalmist, David calls out in Psalm 63:

O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you... your love is better than life…on my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night…I sing in the shadow of your wings. My soul clings to you.
This is the prayer of relationship. Far too often we’ve allowed non-believers frame the argument about the existence of God here.

If there is a God, why isn’t he answering your prayers?”

Who said the primary purpose of prayer was for God to wait on us? That would be like saying: "If your wife exists why doesn’t she do what you want her to do?" Are we assuming the purpose of conversation is to get people whom we love or wish to know to do things for us--to manipulate them into doing our will? Or is the purpose of conversation to know someone better: to develop a deeper relationship with that person?

Maybe we place our focus too often on the wrong things.

We pray to know God, to embrace him.

We’ve already briefly discussed this idea of transformation—being changed into a people who reflect kingdom values--who live to do God's will. When examining the prayers of Jesus, I am struck with the fact that he was most concerned about the will of God being accomplished: This was the essence of his three hour prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He cried out: I don't want to do this! But he ended up with: Not what I want, but what you want! That prayer only takes about 10-15 seconds to say. Yet according to The Gospel of Mark, Jesus prayed that prayer, face on the ground, for three hours! He was literally praying himself into the will of God.

According to the Hebrew writer, when Christ came into the world he said… “I have come to do your will O God” (Hebrews 10:5, 7).

One of the primary purposes of prayer is to change our will into God’s will. To make us into his image.

Senator John McCain, when he was a POW in Viet Nam was offered the opportunity to go home. Broken arm, messed up knee, he weighed about 100 lbs.

I wanted to go home more than almost anything in the world. But our code of conduct says the sick and injured go home in order of capture and there were others who had been there longer. I knew they wanted to release me because my father was commander of US forces in the Pacific…I prayed for the strength to make the right decision. and I am certain those prayers helped me do what I had to do. I had to stay there.
McCain had a better view of prayer than many church leaders. He was praying himself away from self-centeredness—he was praying himself into doing what Jesus would do.

The purpose of prayer also revolves around God’s Kingdom Agenda. Just what is the kingdom agenda? It is most simply expressed in what is called The Lord’s Prayer: ”Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is done in heaven.

God’s kingdom agenda is for world to be made right again: for people to be reconciled to him, to each other, for peace to fill the earth, for God’s justice to be accomplished and his mercy to be shown.

Praying “your kingdom come” is not praying that the church would be established. I grew up hearing that. Bible teachers in Sunday school told me we couldn’t pray the Lord’s prayer anymore because the kingdom came on the day of Pentecost. I want you to notice, no where in the Bible do we see any passage telling us the kingdom and the church are exclusively paralleled. Nor does Jesus say: “Pray this way until the church is established on Pentecost.” Kingdom come is parallel to “your will being done on earth” not to “your church coming into existence at Pentecost.”

There is still poverty and hatred and injustice and war in existence. God’s will is not being done on the earth, yet. It is not God’s will for people to kill each other. It is not God’s will for the sex-slave trade to be thriving all over the world. It is not God’s will for children to be abused by their parents or wives to be beaten by their husbands. It is not God’s will for people to be dominated by their fears and dominated by Satan. It is God’s will for this world to be renewed and for the people in this world to experience renewal. It’s time we started taking seriously our call to pray—especially to pray for God’s kingdom agenda.

I think it is interesting Jesus’ disciples never asked him to teach them how to preach or how to conduct an evangelistic Bible study. His disciples never seem to ask him how to meditate or how to study the Bible. They asked him: Teach us to pray. Maybe that should be our first prayer request.

I am not an expert in prayer. None of us are. We are all fellow travelers trying to know God better, trying to be more like Jesus, and trying to make the world a better place. We need to start with prayer. Because we can’t know God, we can’t transform ourselves, we can’t change the world: but God can. Perhaps our problem has been we thought prayer was just something you did at supper time or in church—or perhaps prayer was more about asking for our own needs. Or maybe we thought prayer was really just a waste of time—maybe we bought into the lie that God doesn’t work in this world anymore since the apostles died. Whatever reason—it’s time for us to repent and turn back to God and to pray.

What can I do? The best way to learn how to pray is to pray. Pray the psalms, pray the Lord’s prayer, pray your own prayers every day. Jesus followed a rhythm of prayer. According to Luke 5 it was Jesus’ regular practice to go out to the wilderness to pray. In Acts 10 we notice Peter keeps a schedule of prayer. This is a place to start. The psalms speak of seeking God morning, noon and night. Other psalms mention praying to God seven times a day. Others mention praying morning and evening. The trick is: set up as schedule and pray. Pray to know God, to love God, to embrace God. Pray for his transforming power: that he will change you into a person who longs to do his will—that he will change you into the image of Jesus.

Here’s my challenge: this week devote yourself to prayer. When you wake up in the morning, the very first thing you do—you don’t even have to get out of bed: pray the Lord’s prayer. Pray it as your prayer. Pray it in your own words if you don’t have it memorized word by word. As you drive to work, use that time as prayer time. Don’t use prayer language—just talk to God the way you talk with a friend. Tell him about what you fear, what you are excited about, what you dread. Ask for wisdom to act as his person. During your morning coffee break—take a moment to talk with God. Ask him how you are doing so far. Pray for those at work who may be experiencing problems or challenges. At lunch pray: pray a psalm, pray the Lord’s prayer again. Pray a song such as My Jesus I love thee I know thou art mine / for thee all the follies of sin I resign / my gracious redeemer / my savior art thou / if ever I loved you / my Jesus ‘tis now. On your way home pray God will help you to respond to your family with his character and attitude. When you go to sleep at night close out with a prayer. Review your day, ask God how you could have done better to reflect his glory. Ask him to help you see opportunities to do his will, to seek peace, to love others, to provide justice and help. Close again with the Lord’s prayer.

I find it very difficult to preach on prayer. Not because it is mysterious, but because it is not. I find it difficult because there isn’t much more I can say that you don’t already know. I find it difficult because we have so often taken the practice for granted, it is hard for us to really hear it fresh. I find it difficult because we are a people who long to hear new things—more powerful things. We want new understandings and new theories. But the search for new theories is merely an excuse to avoid the practice. Truth: if we are a people who believe God lives and moves in this world; if we are a people who believe God wants to see his will done in this world; if we are a people who believe in God’s agenda and his vision—then we will pray. We will pray continuously, we will pray regularly, we will pray fervently.

Let those who have ears to hear, hear God’s word to them.

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