Essentials: Prayer

This morning we are going to begin a new series we are calling the Essentials.  And it’s a call to revisit our time-honored basics of the Christian life – disciplines that God has called the church to since it’s beginning.  And these five elements are the study of God’s word – worship, fellowship, service, and what we are going to be talking about today – prayer.

Now I want to remind us that one of our slogans around here at Journey is – the faith is a journey, not a guilt trip.  So we aren’t approaching these five elements from a guilt perspective – but rather – from the perspective of fellow journeyers traveling on this road of faith together.  And we’re trying our best to be helpful as possible.

It’s always a good time to work on strengthening our prayer life – and perhaps no more so than 2020.  The end of 2020 is near – and I say – that if we are able to finish 2020 by strengthening the essentials of our faith, then there is yet time to redeem this miserable dumpster fire of a year.  Right?  Who’s with me?

So let’s jump in and talk about prayer.  And this morning I want to talk briefly about our call to pray, the obstacles of prayer, and finally, I want to spend most our time looking at one method of prayer.

There are many methods or templates one can follow and I’ll share a simple one that can help guide our prayer time so it’s not always the same thing.

So first – Jesus calls us to pray.  It is an expected part of the “with God” life we are called to live.  Jesus expects prayer to be more than theory with us.

As he disciples tagged along the heals of Jesus – watching him live life – they quickly learned that Jesus led a life of prayer.  And – this ought to encourage all of us – they realized they had much to learn about prayer.  So in Luke 11, the disciples ask Jesus, teach us to pray.

Prayer is something expected and learned.  It’s not automatic.  So what does Jesus teach us about prayer?

First – what is prayer?  Our working definition of prayer here in our Journey community is, that prayer is talking to God about matters of mutual concern.  Prayer is ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate father.

This is the first thing Jesus teaches us about prayer, actually – is how to address God.  Jesus says, the God of the Universe, the most powerful being in the universe, he likes it when you call him Dad. 

And this frames the entire conversation we have with God.  This frames the relationship as we speak to God.  It’s like a child speaking with Dad.

And – as a child of God we don’t need to put on airs to get his attention.  Simply – we bring ourselves to God – with our warts and all – and we talk with him like we speak with a parent.  This is God’s preferred way that we relate to him.

The first thing that Jesus taught the disciples was how to address him – and Jesus said – start by praying – our father – the one in the heavens -that father – hallowed be thy name.

By the way – I just dropped a THY in the middle of a point about speaking to God simply and plainly – that’s just how I learned the Lord’s prayer.  There is no need to be popping a bunch of THY’s and  in our prayer. You don’t get bonus points from God for dropping a well placed “We beseech thee” in your prayer.  God doesn’t speak King James.  Not only King James – he also speaks your language.

Of course, we speak respectfully to God, but we need not worry about being formal.  Just talk to him about matters that concern you – if they concern you they concern him too.  So keep it simple.

Now – here’s another thing to keep in mind – you don’t have to make long prayers.  In fact – I think this is one of my favorite quotes from Jesus – he says – listen when you pray – there isn’t any need to go on and on.  Don’t babble on and on.  7 “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. 8 Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! 

So – keep your conversations simple and succinct.  He is aware of the agenda – just talk with him simply, regularly, but – and this is the tension we feel at times – but also tells us – to keep it up!

Luke 11:9 “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. 

God responds to persistence.  He honors it.  So – this is a good time to bring up some common obstacles to our prayer life. 

Obstacle #1:  If God already knows what I’m asking for, why does it matter if I pray?

Why should we ask God for anything if he already knows our needs?

Straightforward answer – because he likes to be asked.  He wants to be included in the details of our life.  We are his children – not playthings of the Gods?

In another all time great passage – a blind man approaches Jesus in the book of Luke 18:41 – and Jesus asks the blind man an interesting question.  “What do you want me to do for you?” “Lord,” he said, “I want to see!”

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked.  Now – everyone knew the guy.  Why does Jesus ask that question?  He expects us to ask.  To talk with him about matters of mutual concern.

Obstacle #2:  If God is in control of all things – why should we pray – isn’t he going to do what he wants to do anyway?  Is prayer a futile effort?  Is it one of those things where we are trying guess what he is going to do, and if we guess right we feel like he answered our prayers?  A fatalistic, but fair question.

And the remarkable answer is – that God welcomes our input into how he governs the universe.  God allows himself to be flexible.  God welcomes our input and – on more than one occasion in scripture – we find passages where God changes his mind.  God allows us to influence him.

Now – of course, God is never coerced.  He cannot be prevailed upon to do anything outside of his will.  But we have a God who is capable of folding in our input into the overall governance of the universe without difficulty.

For instance –  Moses – famously intercedes on behalf of the nation of Israel – and Exodus 32:14 says, God changed his mind.

How humble of God to profess to be the kind of God who says – together, let’s make decisions.  And how beautiful of God – how magnanimous and gracious – to invite us to have a say.  So prayer is not futile.  He welcomes our input.

Listen – Jody and I – there were many times when we made a decision and our kids appealed the decision and we changed our minds.  God allows us to think of prayer in that context. It’s mind blowing – and would be terrifying if not for the fact that God knows what is best and can be counted on to work all things together for his good.

We can trust him to always make the right decision.  And – as there were also many times we said NO to a request our kids made – even that our kids made with great fervor – we said no because we knew more than they did.  And so it is with God.

Obstacle to prayer: #3 – Is overcoming the feeling that I am ‘bothering God’ with my many issues.  And the answer to this is also almost unbelievable – but it’s wonderfully true.  God delights to hear from us!

Again, think in the context of your own home.  At dinner – you are seated around the dinner table – don’t you want to hear about the details of your kids day?

How exhilarating is it to sit down at dinner and ask your kids – how was your day?  And hear your kids all say – Fine, chomp chomp.  Nothing exciting about that.  But that seems to be the way we carry on our prayer life.  Hi God.  I’m fine.  Everything’s fine.

Now – here’s a parenting tip, by the way that Jody picked up and implemented in our house to great effect.  Jody started asking our kids very specific questions, like, “What was the best part of your day?”  Or, another meal, “What was the most frustrating part?” – or “What made you laugh out loud today?”

Just as we long for our own children to share with us the petty details of their day at school, so God longs to hear from us the smallest matters of our lives. It delights him when we share.

Last obstacle: #4 – I’m not sure how to put this, but sometimes we fail to pray because prayer has a way of revealing all the turmoil going on inside of us – of revealing the conflicting at times warring parts of our life.  It makes us confront the condition of our soul.

For instance – sometimes in our prayer life – we find ourselves praying that God would be merciful to people, but also Lord, we wouldn’t mind if you smacked some sense in them.

Here’s something for all of us who voted – and 50% of you felt this way two weeks ago and 50% will feel this way going forward – we pray for wisdom and blessings upon a president that you didn’t vote for and wanted to see lose.

Prayer reveals this inner turmoil going on beneath the surface.   We pray and we find that within us resides hate and anger and love and compassion at the same time.  And it leaves us uncomfortable, and our prayers feel disjointed.

We feel hypocritical to pray that God would forgive someone when we know that deep down we wish God would hurt them.  And so, we don’t know what to do with ourselves and so – we just don’t pray- we’d rather not stir all that stuff up.

Let me quote from a great book that I read recently – simply called “Prayer, by Richard Foster.  And if you hear something that sounds too smart t be coming from me – it’s probably me summarizing something I read from Richard Foster.  But Foster writes this.

We do not need to have everything just right in order to pray.  It’s not something we will ever master or ‘be on top of’.  We will never have entirely pure motives – “We come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives – altruistic and selfish, merciful and hatful, loving and bitter. 

Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright, or pure, or filled with faith, or anything. That is what grace means, and not only are we saved by grace, we live by it as well.  And we pray by it. 

God receives us just as we are and accepts our prayers just as they are. In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer. 

Now – let’s turn our attention to a simple method of praying that you might find helpful.  And – in true preacher fashion – we will cover four parts of a prayer time that each begin with a letter that together, spells PRAY.

PRAISE, REPENT, ASK, YIELD.  Clever, eh?  Not so much, but hopefully helpful.

When Jesus taught us how to pray – he started, Our Father – the one in the heavens, Hallowed be thy name.  He began by praising God for who he is.

We ask for nothing but to cherish him. We seek nothing but his exaltation.

What does this sound like?  Lord you are great and glorious.  You are perfect and good.  Lord, you are all wise and all powerful.

Now you will find when you start praising God that you will find yourself expressing thanks at the same time.  There’s no need to separate these things- it’s only natural.  You are all wise – and I thank you that I know you are wisely governing my life.

Lord you are good – and so I know Lord that I can trust you to be able to make gold out of the garbage that I’m going through.  Lord, you are a good shepherd and I’m so grateful that you lead me and will be with me.

I haven’t asked for anything yet.  In some ways, I’m reminding my soul of who is God and who is not.  Of who is all powerful and who is not.

The book of Job is an interesting book that deals with suffering and pain – and it ends with an interesting exchange between God and Job – who is praying – some might read Job and feel that Job is complaining to God – but God never chastises Job for his honest, raw, prayers.

But what God does, is to remind Job of who is God and who is not.  He asks Job a series of questions in Job 38 – like – were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Who set the boundaries for the seas.  Is it you who keeps the seas in their boundaries?  Or when I created the whales, or the dawn, or when I created snow, and made a plan for the sky to drop water on the earth to produce fruit and harvest.  Tell me what you know about lightning.

What’s going on?  God is reminding Job of the importance of praise.  And of being thankful.  Now we know more than Job, not only of the earth, but of God.  We know that we can praise God for Jesus and the work of the cross.  We can praise God the way the angels praise him.

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered- to receive power and riches
and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.” (Rev. 5:12).

In this method of developing a prayer life – we begin with Praise.  Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the lamb of God forever and ever.

From there – we can move on to repentance. 

Again – when we look at Jesus’ model prayer – we hear him teach us to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. 

Repentance comes from seeing ourselves in light of who God is.  And adjusting our thoughts, our mindset accordingly.  Repent means literally to change my thinking.

And when we see God for who he is – we often will be convicted of wrong thinking.  We will say, Lord, I’m sorry for the manner in which I’ve been living.  I’ve lived this week as if I am in charge of the universe.  I’ve taken things that don’t belong to me.  If not physically, in my heart – I’ve coveted and taken things that don’t belong to me.

So – one of the jobs of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of our sins – and we simply ask God to forgive us.  And we do so knowing that God loves to forgive.  He aches to forgive.  100% of the time, God forgives 100% of the time.

Importantly, Jesus ties together our request for forgiveness from God with our willingness to forgive those who have sinned against us.  And so we respectfully, acknowledging that we might not feel very forgiving, we ask God not to smite, but to bless our enemies.  Out of respect for God and in honor of Jesus who’s dying words to God included a prayer that God would forgive those who were actively killing him as he prayed.

So we start with PRAISE, then we REPENT.

Next, we ASK.   There’s nothing untoward about asking God to give you what you need or even what you want.  Smack in the middle of the greatest prayer ever – is instruction to ask God for our daily bread.

We ask God for what we need.  The theological term for this is petition.  We petition God for our needs.  We answer Jesus question, “What do you want me to do for you?”  We ask God to provide for our needs.  And it’s okay to ask God to provide for our wants too.  There’s nothing degrading about praying for your needs.

We also, however, pray for others.  The theological word for this is intercession.  We are praying to God that he might work on behalf of others.

Foster, again:

If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is within our power to give them, and this will lead us to prayer. Intercession is a way of loving others. People today desperately need the help that we can give them. Marriages are being shattered. Children are being destroyed. Individuals  are living lives of quiet desperation, without purpose or future. And we can make a difference…if we will learn to pray on their behalf.

Lastly, we can end our prayer time by taking time to YIELD to God.

We’re praised and thanked God.  We’ve confessed our sins.  We’ve asked him for stuff.  Now – we end our time by giving God a chance to respond.

We quiet ourselves.  We listen.  We yield ourselves to Him.  We listen – is there something he wants us to do?  Some way he wants to encourage us?  We must give time to God to be able to respond.

We wait quietly, attentively, to whatever the Lord wants to say to us.  Sit in silence and just be with God.  You will discover that silence has substance.  It’s not just the absence of sound, it’s the presence of the Lord – who likes to speak in whispers.

I suggest sitting with your hands open – like this.  We aren’t grasping.  We hold all things loosely.

Yesterday Jim shared with me a story he had heard regarding a man named Don Stephens, who – along with his wife Deyon, started a ministry called Mercy Ships.

95 of the worlds 100 largest cities were port cities.  And Mercy Ships currently operates the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world providing humanitarian aid and health care around the world since 1978.

The dream of Mercy Ships began in prayer.  As Don prayed, he yielded his life to God.  I’ll do what you ask of me Lord.  And in through this prayer, he says he heard the voice of the Lord speak to him in his heart to buy a ship, build it into a hospital and help people around the world in Jesus’ name.

And he shares, that I said, Okay Lord, I’ll do that.  And Don reports that he heard the voice of the Lord say, “Thank you.  You are the third person I’ve asked.”

To yield to God means to listen to how you and God together are going to bless the world – even your world.   So let’s try our method out now. I’ll give you 60 second- four minutes of prayer.

In your heart – begin with Praise. Now repent.  Now Ask, Now yield.