Bible Reading 1 Thessalonians 5:15b-17,23-25, Matthew 6:5-9
We continue a series on the fundamental building blocks of establishing and maintaining a rock-solid relationship with God. We began with the brick of getting a true vision of Jesus and what he came to do. We added the brick of getting to know God personally. Then we added the brick of careful listening. Today, we add the other side of that communication. Our speaking to God. Paul and Jesus remind us to
… always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. Rejoice always,
pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus…
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit,
soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you
is faithful, and he will do it. Brothers and sisters, pray for us... (1 Thessalonians 5:15b-17,23-25 (NIV))
“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.
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. And when you pray, do not keep on
babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be
like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. “This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. (Matthew 6:5-9 (NIV))
Message Established by Talking Mathew 6:5-9
If you were here last week, you saw this chart with just a small sampling of the types of “noise” that gets in the way of successful communication. For ex-ample, A child brings home a schoolwork assignment. The parent begins the conversation. “You need to do your homework.” “I don't want to.” (Any parents ever hear that before?😊) The parent continues, “You have to.” “I'll do it later.” “No. Now.” The reluctant child is frustrated and angry and the studying is hard - for all the time their young brain is not saying, "This is how I spell..." but is dreaming of playing outside, making the study much longer and more difficult. Despite this noise, these distractions, the student hears the parents, hears the experts who wrote the text book, does their best, completes the work and later brings home what for that student was a good grade, and proudly shows his parents “Look at what I did!” (Even though if it hadn’t been for the teacher, the parents, the experts who wrote the book, it would have never happened!)
Give to help, not to be seen as generous.
Do good for compassion, not to be seen as good.
Pray to speak to God,
not to be seen as devoted. We give, do good works, read the Bible and pray -- sometimes wishing we were doing something else. But we struggle through the noise, hear the encouragements, fight to finish the spiritual disciplines, and then feel proud of what we have accomplished. Spiritual disciplines, like homework, like disciplines in every field of life; help us understand, master and make the most out of life. Yet it is very normal that we will have days or times in our life when we will, like our young student, be filled with emotional noise and struggle to accomplish spiritual exercises.
But if this is always the norm, if spiritual disciplines flow only from a desire to impress others, or fulfill another’s expectation of us, or is a religious “have-to”; then it is in danger of becoming a task we will always look forward to with distaste, perform with reluctance, and brag about afterward -- except we don’t have anyone to show off our grade.
Being spiritual or being seen as spiritual
People in Jesus’s day resolved that problem. The broader context of our Matthew reading describes those who, (perhaps gradually over a long period of time, and probably in the name of noble reasons) became more interested in being seen as spiritual rather than being spiritual. They gave to the poor, but only to demonstrate their generosity. They fasted in ways that others knew they took their faith seriously. They timed out their day so that the required private prayers had to be spoken in very public places displaying their superior spirituality.
But Jesus taught that we are not to be sensations, but servants. When giving, don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, when fasting, don’t look like it, and when you pray those private prayers, do it in private. Spiritual disciplines are not a performance for God, for others, or even ourselves. It is an expression of love to the God who loved us first.
Tony Compolo says “it is this wild love for him that changes everything. Everything will be done differently because it will be felt differently. Objectively [externally], everything may look the same, but subjectively [internally] nothing will be the same.
Whether the prayer is public or private, read from a prayer book and other prayer resources, or spoken spontaneously: don't use a lot of empty words (or read them vacantly - without meaning) or to impress others. We pray the Lord’s Prayer almost every Sunday and many of us we pray it more often than that. It becomes very familiar and very easy to say the words without ever thinking about what we are praying. In essence, Jesus says keep it simple, to the point, and from the heart, and concludes by giving an example of what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.
Diana Butler Bass wrote that for her, Lent was 40 days of guilt whenever she ate chocolate. But after years of struggling to keep Lenten disciplines, she quit. And then an odd thing happened. Freed from expectations (remember how we said “expectations” can be a noise that interferes with communication?), freed from them, suddenly sermons and scriptures began to speak to her. By the end of Lent she found herself willingly attending extra services, and on Easter the resurrection broke over her with unexpected power. She concluded, “When we cling tightly to our own desire, we struggle and suffer. When we let go of these desires, God can move us toward deeper spiritual understanding and compassion… Lent urges us to let go of the false paths of self-deception and pleasing others to find our truest selves journeying toward God...”
(Chicago Tribune - Diana Butler Bass (3/20/98))
She threw off expectations and guilt and moved to relationship.
It is not about whether we observe Lenten practices or not, but the motivation and attitude that lies behind everything we do. If our ultimate motivation flows from a desire, choice, or commitment to connect our heart with God’s heart, then God will grow our relationship with him, and we will more freely appreciate and respond to the beauty and grace of God and our privilege of being called his children.
And as his children, Jesus teaches us to pray. As our reader mentioned, last week we focused primarily on receiving, on the listening side of prayer. This week, we will focus on the sending, the speaking side of prayer, not so much about what words to say, but the heart behind those words - for prayer is a loving communication and is not a magical formula.
Why “rules” of prayer?
So, if it is not magical or formulaic, why are there so many “rules” about prayer? You know: bow your heads, close your eyes, fold your hands, in some settings, stand or kneel, just to name a few… Couple answers.
Holistic connections between body, mind, emotion and spirit
There is a connection between physical posture and mental, spiritual attitude. They’ve made an art (even science) out of non-verbal cues. Observe a person’s posture and gestures and facial expressions because they will reveal what they think or feel inside - even more than the words they say. I’m not sure I completely buy into that, but that is what they claim. The body reveals the spiritual/emotional/mental life. But it can work the other way too. Exercise the body and the mind and emotions respond. We tell people to “keep your head up” to help them not feel defeated by something that has happened. We tell people to “bow their heads” to show deference, respect to someone else. Put the body in certain positions and it may influence the attitude within.
Practical, based on past experiences of what helps people focus.
Another reason is that rules of prayers are practical helps, especially for the young. If you fold your hands, you can’t reach out and bonk others, disturbing them from their prayers, and if you close your eyes, you are not distracted by others trying to bonk you. If you lean forward, it brings energetic expectation to our attentiveness - we are “on the edge of our seat”. These are examples of practical helps that draw our focus to the prayer we are hearing or that is spoken and heard within us.
This is not to say that they apply in every situation. To quote fictional radio psychologist Dr. Frazier Crane as he responded to a caller, “Gee, I'm sorry, Blake. When I told you to close your eyes and visualize that you were on a tropical island, I didn't realize you were calling from your car phone.” (Frasier 1:23 Frasier Crane’s Day Off)
Principles of Prayer
But more seriously, some of the most memorable prayer times I have experienced were not following any of the rules or suggestions I just mentioned; I was walking alone at night with eyes wide open and observing everything around me, which God then used to teach life lessons. We are all built different. Different things work for different people, and I encourage you to explore the many suggestions of methods and means and way of praying, so that you find one that works for you, and then keep exploring still -- so that you have a broader base of effective prayer for you.
Rather than talk about certain methods, I’ll talk about three attitudinal principles of prayer, the first of which is expressed in salutation of the Lord’s prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven”, where intimate respect, love and lordship are equally combined.
Focus on the Father
First, focus on the Father. Like any loving relationship, our relationship with God thrives when both sides take time to focus on each other. When we listen (last week) and speak (this week), God builds our trust in him and he grows us in faith, preparing us for the future.
This kind of intimacy with the heavenly Father was new with Jesus. Before him, God's name was not spoken or written because it was too holy. They substituted a symbol for God’s name. But Jesus tells his followers, "I'm the Son of God. The father and I are one. If you believe in me, you too can become his child and call God your Father.” Calling himself the Son of God and addressing God as intimately as “Abba” was shocking and offensive, and one of the reasons they crucified Jesus.
Yet Jesus tells us to pray, “Our Father.” In Luke, Jesus asks, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13 (NIV)
The questions are meant to be rhetorical. Yet fathers have not necessarily given children what they need, much less good gifts for life. In Paul’s words, they can exasperate, provoke, or make them angry and bitter about life (See Ephesians, 6:4) -- and perhaps even worse. The point isn’t to compare God to earthly fathers with all their failures, but to imagine God as a Father as fathers are meant to be. Someone to whom we can bear our soul and still be loved. One we can depend on, can gain insight into our life and who has our best interest at heart, helping us grow to face the world with confidence. Focus on God as a loving Father as fathers are meant to be.
Secondly, be yourself. Don’t pridefully pretend you are more than you are. You may fake others, but you will never fool God. You might as well be honest with him about everything. Talk to him about your thoughts and feelings. Express your gratitude, your joys, your frustrations and failures. He already knows them all. He knows you better than you understand yourself. He is not shocked by what we do, say, think or feel. Peter writes, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6-7)
It is only as we become transparent before him, (and to ourselves) that he can begin to work with us and our trek through this life and bring the good work he began in us to completion. (See Philippians 1:6)
In the movie, Forrest Gump, Gump and Lt. Dan are on a shrimping boat. Dan is angry because he lost his legs in the war. He asks Forrest where God is. Suddenly a storm begins to throwing the boat around. Forrest narrates that he was scared, but Dan was mad, and we see him at the top of the boat shouting at God in the storm. The next day is bright, sunny and peaceful. Lt. Dan thanks Forrest for saving his life in the war, and then with a smile he hops off the boat into the ocean and enjoys a back stroke. Gump narrates, "He never said so, but I think he made his peace with God.” Psalm after psalm is filled with raw emotions expressed poetically and musically, sometimes not politically correct or religiously proper -- but they are there, and when they are honestly expressed, God. the loving Father, can work with us just as we are.
Do it always
Finally, invite Him into every part of your life, and recognize his presence with you throughout the day. In the Bible reading, we heard Paul tell us, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will…” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) Most of what we have been talking about so far are those quiet, intentionally created, as noise-free as possible, quality times. But in loving relationships, there is also a tendency to think of each other and talk to each other throughout the day, even in the midst of daily routine activities.
With each other, or with God, you can talk in the car, on a walk, as you shop, etc… not just about the “important stuff” but about anything. This “conversational prayer” helps you intercede as things come up in the day. Reading the paper can be an opportunity to pray for what is happening in the world. Driving a child to school is an opportunity to pray (eyes open, mouth closed) for your child’s day at school. You're giving Him your attention no matter what comes your way. It reminds us that God is in the midst of our lives throughout the day, and is present during every activity, guiding us to good decisions and growth of our relationship with him, faithfully keeping us blameless through and through -- body, mind, and spirit - even as we strive to do what is good for each other and everyone else.
Closing Prayer Lord, may our prayers, spontaneously communicated in the moment, carefully crafted, or written by others, not simply be words, but words to live by. Tune our hearts to your grace, remind us how you help us work through the everyday stresses of life, and keep us from wandering away from your precious grace. Bind our hearts to yours that we may grow in your love each day. Amen.
Closing Hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Closing Blessing Now go to live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who deserves all the glory, both now and forever! Amen.