Preached September 22, 2013
Texts: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, Matthew 6:5-8
When we take membership vows in a United Methodist Church, we vow to support that congregation with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness. Today we talk about that first vow: to support this congregation of the United Methodist Church with our prayers.
Prayer is a funny thing. Most of us do it – whether we go to church or not. Actually, many more of us pray than go to church. Pew Forum research suggests that 8 of 10 adults in the United States pray regularly, with 6 in 10 saying they pray daily. Among younger Americans – 18 to 29 – only 20% believe going to church is important, but more than 60% say they pray at least weekly. The Wall Street Journal even reports that most people who claim “no religious” also say they pray regularly. And of course, you know the bumper sticker that says, “As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in schools.”
Clearly the church does not have a corner on the prayer market! Author and storyteller Walter Wangerin, Jr. says in his book Whole Prayer: Speaking and Listening to God,
Prayer will never rust for want of use. People will pray. There are so many terrors in the world that, spontaneously, they will pray. So much remains unknown…[there is] sickness and sorrow, hungers of mind and heart and body, anxieties and frights…people will pray.
But then Wangerin goes on to ask:
But of all who pray, how many pray poorly? How many grow restless over a period of time and despair of prayer – not because the thing itself is ineffectual, but rather because their practice of the thing is cheap and incomplete?
Prayer is a funny thing. Many of us do it, but few of us feel we do it well. Trust me on that one – few of us feel like we do it well. Think about it – is there any faster way to suck the air out of a room than to ask for a volunteer to pray? Feet shuffle, heads duck, eyes wander. Prayer in those moments seems like a pop quiz for which we know we are unprepared.
When prayer comes up in conversation – as it sometimes does in this job! – you tell me that you don’t know how to pray, or that you can’t pray as well as someone else. And folks, you aren’t alone. A recent poll says only 16% of clergy are content with their prayer life! We don’t have it figured out either.
So we vow to support the church with our prayers. And pray, we do – the majority of us, every day! But yet we lack confidence that we do it well. Did I mention prayer is a funny thing?
Wangerin suggests that the reason prayer seems so odd, so familiar and yet so foreign, is that the last we learn of prayer, most of us, is in our childhood – the rote bedtime and mealtime prayers of children, and the simple, spontaneous cries of childhood needs. This isn’t actually a problem – for children pray well, knowing their dependence on others for help and the give-and-take of asking and receiving. Learning about prayer in our childhood is a good, healthy thing.
The problem is that, as we grow to adulthood, we become quite used to our independence, and impatient with admissions of weakness or need. It is harder, many of us would say, to accept help than to offer it. Our stubborn self-reliance prevents us from continuing the comfortable, continual rhythm of conversation with God that we learned in our childhood, when we were more willing to ask for help, and then trust that it will come. In our adult life, prayer becomes, instead, about saying the right words, using the right language, appearing competent and eloquent.
It becomes, in other words, about doing it right – which takes us to Jesus’ words in Matthew 6. Jesus draws a contrast here between hypocrites who pray with flowery words from the street corners, and those who pray quietly to God in the stillness of their own home. Jesus confirms our grown-up suspicions: there are wrong ways to pray, and right ways.
Upon first glance, it is easy to assume that the contrast of wrong and right is between public and private prayer. In the context of Matthew 6, though, Jesus’ focus is more on the attitude of the heart – it is a contrast between blustery bravado and childlike trust.
The word translated hypocrite quite literally means “stage actors” or “people wearing masks.” Its connotation is not intentional deception, but more of a false piety, or we might say, “putting up a good front.” But God doesn’t want us to hide behind stage makeup.
What God desires, Jesus tells us, is the kind of real-life honesty that comes behind closed doors, in the intimacy of our own home. Don’t pray with your game face on; pray the raw realness of life. Use words when they come, but don’t worry about getting the right ones. Wangerin reassures:
We may talk as we are able…ponderous religious phrases are fine. But so is lousy grammar fine. We may babble or roar or weep or sigh…fine! And we may speak with any part of our beings: spoken words…physical gestures…kneeling, bowing, curling into a posture of helplessness, laughing out loud and clapping our hands. There may occur in our hearts a warm intensity of love, a holy suffusion of tenderness. These speak too.
It isn’t whether the words of prayer are spoken out loud or silently that matters. Or for that matter, whether they are written or drawn or screamed or breathed. We do self-guided prayer retreats here at the church during Advent and Lent, and there are opportunities to walk our prayers through a labyrinth, to draw our prayers, to kneel, to write, to sing. There are many different ways to pray.
It isn’t right words that matter, but real words. Honest words. Authentic words.
And then, when we have spoken, it matters that we listen. Actually, Wangerin says there are four distinct parts to prayer:
- We speak – God listens – God speaks – We listen
When we cry and sing and speak and write our prayers, and then move on thankful for the cathartic opportunity to get that off our chest, we’ve missed the point of prayer. When we shout our prayers from the street corners and then assume the prayer is over, as if a curtain has come down on the show – they we’ve missed the point of prayer.
Whole prayer – complete, real prayer – really only happens when, as Wangerin says, we complete the circle by listening for God’s response. If we speak, we can be assured that God will listen and respond. We speak, God listens, and God speaks – the first three parts of prayer come naturally. But, Wangerin says, “Without our truly listening, prayer will seem to have failed because communication, remaining incomplete, did in fact fail. The circle stayed broken, and love was left unknown.”
I said at the beginning that most of us pray, but don’t feel like we pray well. I suspect it is this listening part that we feel most insecure about. How, exactly, do we listen for God’s voice? What does it sound like? How do we know it is God?
There are a few specific answers to those questions:
We know, often, by reading the Scriptures. That is why, if you are following along in A Disciple’s Path, you’ll see that prayer and Bible Study are combined in a single chapter. They really are two sides of the same coin – pouring our heart out to God, and then listening through the words of Scripture for God’s response.
We also hear God’s voice, God’s answer, in the words of others, the circumstances of life, the deep-seated convictions of our own spirit. Wangerin says that “all the elements of creation and all the details of human experience can be the elements of the divine response.”
So we learn God’s voice in Scripture, and we hear it through our reason, our tradition, our experience. But mostly, we learn God’s voice through practice. By actually praying – including making time to listen. Paying attention.
We can practice prayer alone in our rooms, as Matthew 6 says. We can also practice it in small groups, as the disciples did when they gathered in Acts. And we pray for ourselves, those we love – but also for the church, our leaders, our world. Prayer expands our vision.
In the context of our membership vows, our promise is specifically to uphold this congregation with our prayers. That means being connected enough to the life of the congregation to know our corporate needs, and talking to God about them. And it means shaping our life so that we can listen for God’s voice not only on our own behalf, but also on behalf of the community.
When we live in that kind of prayer together – rejoicing always, praying continually, giving thanks in all circumstances – then the words of 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 will be true of us:
The God of peace [will] cause us to be completely dedicated to him, and keep our spirit, soul, and body intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming. The one who calls [us] is faithful and will do this!
We speak – but that is only the beginning. Then God listens, and God speaks! Praise be to God! Will we listen?
 Walter Wangerin, Jr. Whole Prayer: Speaking and Listening to God, 27.
 Wangerin, 28.
 Wangerin, 30.
 Wangerin, 29.
 Wangerin, 33.