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Effective Prayer

28 Aug

This is a rough sketch of a talk I gave to Center City on Sunday. I believe it’s a great way to end our series on prayer.

This past month we have been discussing the topic of prayer. Our pastor has been challenging us to pray bold prayers and circle them. We have talked about persistence in prayer and the idea of pushing through until we get an answer. I think it needs to be said, though, that we may have a very limited definition of prayer. We have been told or made to believe that prayer is something that starts with “Dear God” and ends with “Amen.” With this definition in mind, how do take Paul’s charge to the Thessalonians to pray continuously? Does that mean you need to quit your job? Is the effectiveness of your prayer based on the amount of time you are engaged in “Dear God, Amen” prayers? Not at all. Prayer is a posture of the heart. Prayer is your life. We try to drag law into this. We try to measure our prayer life on an achievement scale–as if God gives a quarterly performance review. “Your prayer hours are really down this quarter. You better bring those up in Q4” This is not the case. We do not engage in prayer because God demands it. Rather, we pray because God desires communion and relationship with his children. Our hearts long to be intimate and close with the Father. But when we make it about achievement it becomes a drudgery and we colossally miss the point. God wants to be with you. Prayer absolutely includes “Dear God, Amen” type moments in the day and it will certainly include extended times of that kind of prayer. But we can’t be legalistic with ourselves or others–however appealing it may be. It would help up to remember that we are in a relationship. When Chelsi and I sit in silence, is our relationship less? Does she end the night with a pie chart of our time together? ” We really need to bring up our talking hours and increase the amount of handholding.” Of course there would be an issue if we never spoke but that’s not an issue. We are in relationship. I am deeply aware of her love for me, so I love to converse with her. So what does a life of prayer look like?

In Matthew chapter 6 Jesus helps us out.

5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.”

I want to point out a few things from the passage that stick out.
1) Don’t pray to be heard or seen. God isn’t impressed by how spiritual you sound and if you’re doing it for that reason, you’ve already received your reward. God isn’t impressed by the quality of your prayers.
2) When Jesus says go into your room and close the door and pray in secret, this is a puzzling remark. Almost all of Jesus’ hearers lived in a 1 room house. There was very little privacy. Many commentators believe Jesus was talking about a heart posture. “Close the door to the noise of the world and pray to God who is unseen.”
3) The quantity of your words has nothing to do with the effectiveness of your prayers. Don’t babble on like the pagans. The Father knows what we need before we articulate a single word. The prayer Jesus gives us is a 15 second prayer. Feel the freedom to interact with God from a place of love not duty. The thing God blesses in prayer is purity.

So prayer is not simply our “Dear God’s” and “Amen’s.” It is so much more. Our worship is prayer. Our silent listening is prayer. Richard Foster says our desire to spend more time with the Father is in and of itself prayer. Our work is our prayer that we offer to God. The entirety of our life is prayer. Kierkegaard says purity of heart is to will one thing. With that in mind, purity in prayer is to will one thing–namely, communion with the Father.

Prayer (week 5)

21 Aug

Last week we talked about moving away from the idea that prayer is a transaction. From that perspective God is a cosmic clerk that is forced do to what the customer demands. We concluded that God is not playing a part in our world. We are playing our part in His world. He does answer prayer but not because we twist His arm. This will frame our discussion today.

Have you ever been on a long drive and suddenly realized you don’t remember one thing about the past 2 hours? Maybe it’s just a phenomenon I experience. I have a neutral part of my brain. This baffles my wife. She will ask sometimes, “What are you thinking about?” When I say, “Nothing,” I literally mean nothing. I believe there can be weeks, months, or years of peoples lives that are caught in this “neutral phenomenon.” They have been totally desensitized to the world around them. They serve utilitarian purposes. Their whole personhood is function first. Their bosses speak to them only as functionaries. They live drab routines and are only jolted into consciousness when a tragic event occurs. This is one of my greatest fears–to near the end of my life and not remember most of it. Irenaeus said, “the glory of God is man fully alive.” I want to be fully conscious and fully alive every day of my life. Prayer is the vehicle to awareness. Prayer jars us out of the fog and places us in the center of God’s story.

Self-Aware
The importance of being self-aware cannot be overstated. Over and over David asks God to examine his heart. (See Psalm 139) In order to approach God in prayer we must first be sure it is the “real I” that prays. It should be your aim to come to Him purely, without pretense. This cannot happen without self-awareness. This should not produce fear. It is not as if when you “reveal” your true self to God he is going to be surprised. He knows the deepest, darkest places of your heart. Introspection, in the Biblical sense, doesn’t turn you into a navel-gazer that is unable to muster an ounce of confidence. God meets you in your brokenness and reveals His love. In prayer we get an true picture of who we are.

God-Aware
In prayer we are nudged back into the awareness of the God-saturated universe we find ourselves in. There is nothing random. Nothing chance. The presence of God fills the earth. We are drenched in his presence even now. Prayer reminds us of this. Conversations at gas-stations, interruptions in your day, children laughing, a call from a friend are all God-moments. Every shrub is a burning bush beckoning you to take off your shoes and experience God.

Open your heart to the God who knows you better than you know yourself. Open your eyes to the God-soaked world around you.

Prayer (week 4)

16 Aug

Mark Batterson starts the third part of his book “Circle Maker” off with a story that challenges us to ‘think long’. He alludes to the biblical metaphor of planting/sowing. We live in a time where we want instant results and we get them. If I want to know who won the Braves game or how many people live in India, the answer is at my fingertips. If I want a car at this moment, I can go and take out a loan and ‘buy’ it (although ‘borrow’ would be a more correct term). Our society demands instant gratification. We bring this demand into our spiritual life. We say a prayer and expect that if God is truly God he will answer it immediately. God is not google. There are times when He instantly answers a prayer. But this is not the norm. Prayer is not a formula for getting results. Batterson alludes to Daniel who prayed fervently when he knew the answer was 70 years away. We don’t like to think that prayer can be long and boring. We like mountaintop experiences–when heaven invades earth and we feel the rush of God’s presence. We are addicted to “fits and starts” as Eugene Peterson says. In light of this, he titled his book on discipleship, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” If that is true of our apprenticeship to Jesus then it is certainly true of prayer. All we can do is be faithful to pray in the direction of the result we seek.

I was talking with someone from Center City last week about the tension of not being where you want to be. He is in a spot where he can clearly define what success is and pray for it specifically. But right now he is fighting to get to the mountaintop that seems so close, yet so far. I told him to imagine there are 2 guys that want to get the summit of Mt. Everest. One guy trains for 2 years to prepare his body. He spends thousands of hours training and preparing for the climb. He then starts the impossibly difficult journey to the top. He fights weather conditions that are unspeakable. He has to postpone portions of the climb due to storms. Then one day he makes it to the top–the highest point on earth. The other guy is incredibly wealthy and pays for someone to helicopter him to the top (this is impossible but go with me–it’s a story). He too stands on the summit with guy #1. Who get’s more satisfaction out of the experience? Who does it mean more to? The answer is obvious. The “destination” or answer to prayer is often our focal point. Batterson says in several of his other books, “God cares less about where you’re going than who you’re becoming.” The destination means nothing without the journey. Is there something that you’ve been praying for for a long time and haven’t gotten the answer yet? Join the club. Keep praying. God is taking you on a journey and the vehicle is prayer. The moment you stop praying you halt the process. God uses prayer to stitch our hearts to his. It is a moment by moment tuning of our consciousness to God. As we pray we realize we are a part of God’s universe–He is not a nice part of ours. We are caught up in His story (I purposefully refrained from using HIS-tory). Our story is a subplot in his narrative. Keep praying toward the result you seek but know that by the time you get there you’ll be a different person–and that’s the point.

“Prayer isn’t something we do with our eyes closed; we pray with our eyes wide-open. Prayer isn’t a sentence that begins with ‘Dear Jesus’ and ends with ‘Amen’…All of life is meant to be a prayer, just as all of life is meant to be an act of worship.” (Batterson)

Covenant Prayer (part 2)

10 Aug

Today’s guest post continues a series on “Covenant Prayer” from Steve Witherup, one of the other pastors here at Center City Church. He holds a MTh from the University of Wales and is way smarter than me.

As promised, the purpose of this brief series of blogs is to supplement the focus on prayer not through examining theories or ideas about prayer, but by becoming an eavesdropper to some who dared to actually engage in the transformative conversation with the Divine. As we listen, what we will hear is perhaps quite different from the safe ‘proper’ prayers we hear ourselves uttering.

​In Genesis 18, we read the story in which the Lord is on His way to investigate the outcries of evil He has heard coming from Sodom. Abraham sees three ‘men’ traveling and invites them to stop and rest. During this visit, it is confirmed to Abraham that he and Sarah would indeed have a son within a year…and then we are given the privilege of being able to listen in as Abraham and the Lord engage in somewhat of a strange conversation.

​It is easy to read stories like the one found in Genesis 18:16-33 with some preconceived thoughts. We ask the question, ‘how is it that Abraham seems to have so much influence in the interaction?’… and respond with the safe answer of–‘well, God is just testing Abraham’. However, there is no indication of God simply testing Abraham in this interaction. In other places (Gen 22) when it is a test, the reader is made privy to that fact.

What we do read is that Abraham stood before the Lord and had the audacity to speak and listen in hopes of ‘changing God’s mind’ for the sake of the righteous living in Sodom. We are left to speculate the thoughts of God behind His words. We do not know whether or not God would have destroyed the righteous with the unrighteous without Abraham’s influence. However, Abraham (right or wrong) seemed to believe with humility simply that his prayer had a chance to make a difference…his prayer mattered.

So…how could Abraham, who referred to himself in 18:27 as ‘but dust and ashes’ come to believe that his side of the conversation could make a difference? And how is it that God even entertained Abraham’s requests? I think the introduction to this story is key to establishing the mindset with which we read the prayer. God and Abraham’s interaction follows 18:17-19 where we are reminded of two very important things:
1. Not only does God have a plan, He desires to reveal it to his people. Creation was never in a static state, nor was it abandoned. God is at work and His plan will be brought to completion.
2. For whatever the crazy reason may be, God desires His people to play a part in His plan. He invites us to learn His desires and participate in them.

This happens through interaction…through transformative conversation in which we learn to listen and speak and respond. Abraham knows that he is not entitled to the privilege of conversing with God. He knows he is ‘dust and ashes’. However, Abraham dares to speak out of the confidence he has in the covenant relationship that he did not establish, but was invited into by God himself. ​

Finally, lets read this story with honesty…this is not a neat and clean story with a clear moral. If we wrote it, we would want it to read like this: Abraham intercedes and the people are saved! We would then easily apply it to our lives and we would be inspired to intercede so the ‘people would be saved’. Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed…Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt. Certainly, Abraham is aware of the destruction. Prayer is not a series of isolated events. It’s not a series isolated wins and loses. It is an ongoing transformative conversation that we are invited into. Despite the city being brought to ashes, Abraham continues on–learning who God is, what His intentions are, and what it means to be in covenant relationship with God as he works out His plan for creation.

Prayer (Week 3)

8 Aug

We are continuing to go through Mark Batterson’s book “The Circle Maker.” In the second section of the book Batterson says that prayer is a habit to be cultivated, a discipline to be developed, and a skill to be practiced. Habits, disciplines, and skills take real effort. That pursuit starts with this prayer…

“The prayer preceding all prayer is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.'” (C.S. Lewis)

There are two questions to ask yourself in prayer. First, ‘is it I that am praying?’ or ‘is it a carefully scripted version of myself that I believe God approves of?’ And second, ‘am I praying to God or a sanitized version of Him that I approve of?’

Real I
There are generally two versions of ourself that the world sees. There is the public persona that work colleagues, drive through workers, and acquaintances see. Then there is the more personal version that our close friends and family sees. However, as Philip Yancey notes, there is your true self that no one sees–all those secret things you live with. Those motives. Those thoughts. That past guilt. That hurt. These are the things that often go unsaid to the public and, sadly, to God. We are good at repressing those things and treating God as if he were a general acquaintance. We make awkward small talk with Him and never go further. Some move past that and let God in a little closer and give him access to our frustrations, joys, and daily life the way we would with a family member. But very few interact with God as their true self. We approach God with carefully rehearsed sincerity but never from a place of purity. This is a tragedy. Often we complain about not feeling God’s presence. I wonder if God too longs for our true presence. I wonder if God is waiting to heal the broken places in our soul but we don’t give him access. True prayer happens when you get honest with God. The posture of prayer is helplessness. Everyone has dark corners of the soul. God wants admittance into those areas to mend that which is broken. (Read Psalm 139)

Real Thou
Blaise Pascal said, “God made man in His own image and man returned the compliment.” Last week we talked about the importance of your view of God. If we have a misconception of God, our prayer will be greatly impacted. If we believe God to be a malevolent dictator in the sky that issues punishment with calloused anger, our prayers will be shaped by that. The “real thou” that Lewis speaks of will not be boxed in. He can not be contained and will not fit any mold we put him him. I believe one of the major problems in prayer is doubt. We don’t trust that God is what the Bible says He is. We doubt even his existence. The problem is that this feeling is tucked away in that dark corner of the soul that we don’t give God access to. Yancey says that he often challenges atheists and agnostics to come up with a doubt that they can’t find in the pages of the Bible. So many great biblical characters wrestle with doubt. The difference between their doubt and ours is that they voice theirs in the form of prayer. They pray to the God they feel is absent or silent. They persist. God loves their prayer because it is real. (Read Psalm 13)

Batterson challenges us to persist in prayer. He says the only way to lose is to stop praying. Pray to God as you are. Pray to God as He is.

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