What's Up With Prayer?

In church, we make all kinds of assumptions. We assume that people will like us if they just get to know us – not always true. We assume that we progressives have a better grasp on the Gospel than some others – also not always true. And we assume that people probably know the basics of what we do in this room and why – definitely not true. Christians are an enigma to a great many people out there and the only thing we can safely assume is that some folks think we’re strange.

But even if you did grow up in church, you still may not know why we do the things we do. And it’s too embarrassing to ask since everyone else also pretends to know why. Take, for example, Bible reading. Perhaps you have never read the Bible outside of a Sunday worship service. Maybe you tried and thought it was boring or incomprehensible. By the same token, maybe you don’t really pray except on Sunday. Maybe you tried and found it boring or incomprehensible or a little silly. Liberal Christians, suspicious of piety, don’t talk much about the importance of Bible reading and prayer. Except that they are important. Maybe one day I’ll preach a sermon on the practice of Bible reading as a spiritual discipline, but today I want to talk about prayer: what it is and what it does and why it’s important.

So what’s up with prayer, anyway? As a child, I was taught to pray. Every night, I would kneel beside my bed and say, “now I lay me down to sleep…” and then I asked blessings upon my family and friends and pets. I learned that prayer was about asking for things.

That basic formula for prayer did not change so much when I grew up. All the adults around me used prayer to ask for things – all sorts of things; specific things. My grandmother used to pray for parking spaces. She would pull her big convertible Cadillac Eldorado into the mall parking lot and begin to circle, looking for a spot close to the door. And all the while she prayed, out loud: “Now Lord, I need a parking spot.” And she believed, with all her heart, that God would make the way.

I loved my grandmother, but at this point in my life, that prayer seems naïve. Perhaps some of you just think it’s selfish or even ridiculous. After all, if God can find us a parking place, shouldn’t God also be able to stop the civil war in Syria or bombs in Chelsea or gun violence in America?

That basic pattern of prayer; of asking God for things is still how most of us pray. Week after week, Sunday after Sunday, you turn in written prayer requests and we pray for the healing of those we love. We pray for travel mercies and good jobs. We ask God to intervene in human affairs. What do we expect to happen when we ask? What is prayer’s purpose and what is it supposed to do for us and the world?

The Epistle of First Timothy offers us some insight into prayer’s purpose and how we ought to pray. This letter, although written in Paul’s name, was probably not written by Paul. Scholars believe it was actually written after Paul’s death, some time near the end of the first century, to a group of discouraged people whose expectations about prayer had been severely challenged. You see, the early Christians believed that Christ would return in glory before the original apostles all died. But by the time of this letter, all of the apostles were dead and Christ had not returned. And as if that were not bad enough, these early Christians were being persecuted by the Romans and by synagogue authorities, who had begun to expel the Jewish followers of Jesus from the synagogue. So they were cut off from their community and support systems.

I have to believe that those folks prayed for a change in their circumstances – specific requests from God. They no doubt asked God for protection and pleaded for Christ’s return. --Now let me hasten to say that there is nothing wrong with those kinds of prayers; with specific requests. In fact, the Bible exhorts us to take all of our cares to the One who cares for us. But the writer of I Timothy, completely aware of the overwhelming nature of that community’s needs, encourages another kind of prayer; a broader prayer, a more inclusive concept of what it means to talk to God on behalf of others. He writes: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

These early Christians, suffering persecution, were reminded that prayer is about much more than simply asking for our daily bread. The practice of prayer is about our broadening. Prayer is about aligning ourselves – our thoughts, our desires, our inclinations, our reactions - with the will of God for the whole creation. Prayer connects us more deeply to the world.

Did those early Christians have their own immediate needs? Yes. Does this displaced congregation have its own immediate needs? Yes. Did you come here today with your own needs and concerns? I’m sure you did. And yet the instruction in I Timothy is to first of all pray for everyone; pray for all who rule over us, because those who rule over us have control over a great many people’s lives. We are to pray for any corrupt leaders to be saved. We are to pray for those who persecute us.

This message was not easy for those early Christians to hear. And it has not gotten easier over the centuries. When you have your own consuming, immediate needs, it’s not easy to pray for the whole world, but it is right. It is a spiritual discipline to pray for what our Jewish sisters and brothers call “Tikkun Olam” – the repair of the world.

This kind of prayer can be very hard work. But like other kinds of hard work, it builds character. Like physical exercise, it makes you healthy, if not sometimes sore. Soren Kierkegaard, the famous 19th century Danish philosopher once said: “prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays.” And quite frankly, after all we have been through lately, I could use a good change.

There is so much discord in our world; so much anger and suspicion and hatred and fear. And it’s so easy to react with the same emotion; to repost the same angry Facebook messages. But aren’t you sick of that vicious cycle? What would happen, inside of me or inside of you, if we had the discipline, every day, to pray for Tikkun Olam; for the repair of the world? Would the world actually change? Would we? Would prayer get us to that “quiet and peaceable life” promised in the ancient letter of I Timothy?

Prayer is about giving yourself permission to hope - permission despite the odds and the gloomy op-ed pieces. The “repair of the world” is the most hopeful thing I can imagine. And prayer is a valve by which we release that holy energy into the world.

So, let us pray…