This sermon continues A Deep Life series and launches a three-week mini series on prayer. What is prayer and why is it important. The main text is 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.
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Prayer is weird. Think about it. You talk to someone, or something, that you can’t see and that never seems to talk back. You ask for things, but don’t always get them.
Then, to make things even weirder, when we gather together we spontaneously regurgitate a string of words in something that sounds like the Borg, “Our Father, which art in Heaven…Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”
Be honest. To the modern, western, secular mind it’s weird…and maybe a little creepy.
So, why do we pray?
This week we shift our focus in A Deep Life to begin a three week mini-series on prayer. This week we focus on How to Pray.
I’m not exactly sure where I will land with this sermon. It is a HUGE topic, after all, and I have a VERY short amount of time in which to preach. I invite you to listen to this sermon from 2016 titled Does Prayer Really Change Things?
This post will visually explore two common misconceptions about prayer.
Most people consider prayer as the process in which we ask God to do something that we think God should do. Dear God, please heal my grandmother. Please deliver my son from addiction. Please keep my husband safe on his long drive. Please let me win the lottery.
Then grandma dies, our son overdoses, our husband is killed in a car accident, and we are still broke.
And we are convince that either a) there is no God, or b) God doesn’t really care about or listen to me.
This is all about control. Who drives the bus on making decisions in the universe? Us or God?
There are some theologies that want all the agency of power to be on our side. If you have enough faith, then you can “name it and claim it.” I call this the Vending Machine God Theory. God is either a cosmic vending machine that dispenses the goods we want once we crack the God code, or God is a kindly old grandpa that wants the best for us but can only hope that we make good choices.
In the secular worldview we call this either science or magic. The universe is simply energy that can be learned and harnessed. The power lies with those who have figured out how to manipulate it and bend it to their own will.
On the other end of the spectrum are theologies that believe all the control rests with the Divine. All the decisions and processes of the universe are controlled by God, or by the Fates. The secular worldview would call this Chance or the Cosmic Crap Shoot. We are worms, eaten up by powers far greater than ours.
The pious response to this theology is to resign with, “Not my will, but thine be done.” While these are Jesus’ words, under this theological frame they imply the unspoken rest of the sentence “…because I am scum and don’t deserve to have a say in anything anyway.” That, by the way, is NOT what Jesus was doing in the garden (that’s another blog post).
So, which is it? Who’s in control here?
Here’s the answer…WRONG QUESTION!
The underlying assumption in this question is that all interactions in the universe—whether they be human-to-human, human-to-nature, human-to-divine—are transactions. You have something I need, I have something you need, we bargain, we exchange, then we go on with our radically autonomous indiviual existance.
The theology that makes sense to me challenges that assumption. We are not radically autonomous individuals navigating a transactional universe. We are unique parts of a dynamic, interconnected whole.
Prayer is not about transactions. It is about relationships. The creator creates all things to be in relationship and actually delegates authority. Humanity was created to have dominion, to co-rule and co-create, this world. God gave us free will and promises to work with us and we navigate this wild and wonderful world…together.
When Jesus taught us to pray, he started with the word, “Abba” We say “Our Father.” This is not to say God is masculine. Rather, it is to emphasize that God is personal, like a loving parent who wants to listen to her children.
We will spend the next three weeks looking at prayer practices that will deepen our relationships with our self, with others, and with God.
Prayer cultivates three types of relationships.
First, it cultivates a healthy relationship with self.
There is a growing interest in practices like centering prayer and yoga meditation. The discipline of slowing down, breathing, and imagining yourself in light of the universe helps you to gain a healthy perspective on your problems. It promotes health and wellness.
It is a good practice and we should take time to pray in this way.
But, here’s where I differ from my buddhist friends. I think it goes beyond that.
The discipline of prayer also cultivates relationships with each other.
As I pray for the sick and the hurting, and as I take time out of my day to pray for my wife, my children, my family, my friends—even my enemies—something mystical happens. I become connected to them.
If everyone took time to pray for each other, things would change.
I’ll tell you right now, it is hard to stay angry at someone for whom you are authentically praying.
Finally, prayer cultivates a relationship with God.
God is not a non-personal force of the universe. God is personal. Yet, God is not a person like you and I are a person. We need to be careful not to reduce God to my co-pilot, or by buddy, yet, God does invite us into relationship with God, through Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This happens through worship, through scripture, through meditation, through action.
When we engage in all the spiritual practices, we learn more about who God is and the kind of world that God imagines for us.