There is an old joke that goes something like this:
There’s a Christian who’s hiking in the woods one day when he comes upon an angry bear.
The bear stood up on its hind legs and growled ferociously, clearly preparing to charge.
In panic, the Christian started to run, but the bear followed close on his heels.
Finally the hiker came to a cliff. So he dropped to his knees and asked God to please make this bear a good Christian bear.
To the hiker’s amazement, the bear suddenly stopped growling, fell to his knees and folded his paws together in prayer!
“Thank you, Lord!” exclaimed the Christian.
“Thank you, Lord!” exclaimed the bear,… “for this meal I’m about to receive!”
No, I’m not going to stand up here with a stand up act for the next 20 minutes, but I do want to talk a little on the subject of prayer.
As some of you know there is a prayer vigil being held starting today, and it will go on for the next 24 hours as this congregation prays during the Associate Pastor Nominating Committee search process. As someone who has gone through this whole pastoral call process, prayers ARE needed! During this time the congregation will help uplift the APNC as it seeks discernment, vision, encouragement, and love as the committee discerns finding the next pastor to join in the ministry here at Saint Andrew. This is a wonderful experience for all of us to participate with!
But this prayer vigil got me thinking more about the concept of prayer, and just how many more questions than answers I have when it comes to this topic.
I say the word ‘prayer,’ and what do you think of?
Maybe we think of ‘saying grace’ before a meal. Maybe we think of kneeling on the side of our beds praying before we sleep. Maybe we think of public prayer, prayer groups, or a variety of other forms of prayer!
I know that we as Christians love to talk about prayer, but honestly, how many of us struggle with it? Maybe you’re like me, and sometimes have trouble finding the right words. Maybe we feel uncomfortable praying in public like at restaurants or at school. Maybe we even question the very effectiveness of prayer; after all, we see time and time again many of our prayer requests not being answered, whether it is a prayer for victory of our local softball team, or something more serious like the healing of a loved one.
How, as Christians and as Presbyterians, should we approach this topic? Well, a good place to start, as with anything else, is with Scripture.
Our New Testament Reading this morning comes to us from the third chapter of Ephesians. In this letter we have the author, named Paul, sharing a much larger message of God’s uniting love for the world, and in chapter three discussing Paul’s experience of grace offered in Christ, and the impetus for him to share the Gospel message with the Gentiles in Ephesia. God’s love knows no bounds. Paul then describes his prayers for this community of new believers, beginning in verse 14, and we learn quite a few things about Paul’s understanding of God and prayer through these next few verses. Again, Paul is writing to a community that does not necessarily have the history or the Jewish understanding of God to guide them in their experience of the Divine, so Paul’s words are quite vivid and fresh in both their spiritual yearning as well as their theology.
In verse 14 and 15 Paul will go on to describe physically how he prays, as well as how God works in ways beyond our understanding.
In verse 16 we read that we are empowered through the Spirit of God in our daily lives.
Verse 17 teaches us that it is Christ who moves within us through faith.
Verses 18 and 19 we learn that in prayer we build a foundation of faith discovered in God’s love.
God works beyond our imaginations, our requests, our abilities, and God is bigger than us, than our problems, than our requests.
But it’s here in verse 20 where I would like for us to meditate this morning as we read this phrase,
‘20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.’
Yes, we understand that God moves within, and even beyond, our limited selves, but what, exactly, does it mean to have ‘more than all we can ask or imagine’?
I’m not sure about you, but when I don’t feel particularly ‘educated’ in something, I try and read and research as much as possible on a topic, which now usually is ‘googling’ on my phone. One area in my spiritual life that I wanted to educate myself on more was the topic of prayer, so I began to research some more.
How should we pray? Should we always use the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus taught his disciples? And if so, why don’t we say it the way that the Bible actually says? (Big tangent)
Should we pray alone by ourselves as Jesus teaches? Or should we pray in public as Jesus and his disciples also did?
You see the predicament we are in here, right!?
Then I put my Presbyterian dork hat on! Aha! Maybe some Reformed theologian has the answer! In his Institutes John Calvin calls prayer “the chief exercise of faith…by which we daily receive God’s benefits.” Well, this is all good, but how should we pray?
So then I looked for prayer models, and was taught the ACTS prayer model in seminary; have you seen this before? I actually use this quite often and teach with this model. The first is Adoration, then Confession, then Thanksgiving, and then Supplication. One day a friend of mine noted that there were many prayers of lament in the Psalms as well, so we decided that we now will teach it as ACTSL.
For me personally, it’s not talking at all, but simply being silent, present with God, and listening. Some people would call this meditation, or contemplative prayer.
Okay, so now we have some Biblical teaching on the matter, some theological reflection, and even a great form. So we begin to pray…and it just doesn’t feel right. In fact, it feels…fake…artificial. Ever see the movie ‘Bruce Almighty’? There is a scene with Jim Carrey where he meets God (who of course is Morgan Freeman), and God asks Bruce to pray. Bruce then begins with this extremely awkward prayer, using all of the formal titles of God, and even manages to throw a few Thou’s and Thy’s in there (sound familiar?). Finally, God asks Bruce to just talk to him; ‘What do you want?’ It was then, when Bruce was honest and straightforward with God and himself, that there was a genuine connection and communication made.
Prayer, quite simply, is connecting and communicating with God. We can go on and on about this topic (and believe me, there are just as many books, DVDs, and guides to aid this conversation), but when it comes down to it prayer is whenever we are in communication with our Creator. It may be using something like the finger prayer we taught our children today. It may be saying the Lord’s Prayer together. It may be using forms to help us articulate our thoughts like the ACTS prayer, or it may be us simply talking with our Maker. One of my favorite quotes about prayer comes from Meister Eckhart, a German theologian of the 13th Century was credited as saying, ‘If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.’
Whatever form or model we engage, Paul reminds us that God is there; and furthermore, God is working beyond ‘more than all we can ask or imagine’.
But while prayer can be comforting, there is also a rather discomforting side to this message as well; right? What would it truly look like for God to move within and beyond our prayers on this earth? Perhaps God would call us to sit and talk with others who we don’t feel comfortable with in our communities or schools. Maybe God would call us to be more generous with our time and resources than we want. What if God calls us to go to neighborhoods or communities to share the Good News where we don’t quite feel comfortable or even safe? How will God move in our lives through prayer?
While this idea may be unsettling, this is the Good News today: Despite our efforts to mess things up by trying to make everything perfect and organized (or in Presbyterian jargon ‘decently and in order’), God works for Love and Goodness in ways that go beyond anything that we can ask or imagine.
When we pray we communicate with our Creator, allowing the Holy Spirit to move within us and others, allowing Christ to dwell within us through faith, and opening our very selves to every day miracles found in God’s movements on this earth.
And what can happen? Well, we saw what could happen with the disciples on the day of Pentecost. We witnessed Calvin changing the very foundation of church history. We have seen Christians lead the way towards freedom for slaves here in the US and around the world. We have seen prayers lead to equality for women in both the church and the world. We have have seen the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King witness to nonviolence as he changed the trajectory of the civil rights movement here in the US during the 20th Century.
This is why I’m excited for this congregation to continue the custom of prayer vigils as it relates now to calling this next Associate Pastor. Let’s together be amazed at how God works within the process to move beyond all that we can imagine this to be!
So go ahead! Pray however you feel comfortable praying! Talk as much as you want. Listen as much as you want. Just make it authentic and genuine. And let’s together be amazed at how God continues to move in our lives and this world in love.