O God, you are my God; my soul thirsts for you. My lips will praise you. I will bless you as long as I live, for you have been my help…
For those engaged in the practice of daily prayer, the psalms – more than any other book of the Bible – have been their chief inspiration. Many of the psalms are beautiful. Some are harsh. All display the raw emotion of individuals and communities at prayer.
In some ways, the discipline (or practice) of prayer is very different from the discipline of Bible study. Bible study involves a lot of talking about God; especially about how God is revealed to us in scripture, but also how God is revealed to us in life, in our experiences. It can be very stimulating for one’s mind.
Prayer, on the other hand, isn’t talking about God; it is talking to God – and listening to God. It is having a conversation with God: an ongoing dialogue.
Prayer is an exercise of the heart more than it is of the head. It involves our strongest emotions, our greatest joys, our deepest sorrows.
Prayer is “up close and personal.” One can very easily read the Bible in a detached sort of way, but prayer does not allow one to stand back and watch.
Every once in a while, someone will ask what is the right way to pray, the proper way to do it. Well, what I am learning is that there are as many ways to pray as there are people in the world, each with their own unique personality. Some people are extroverts, so naturally their prayers will have lots of words that flow out of them seemingly with little effort. For others, silence is a prayer, as thoughts are put together, and then the realization hits that the thoughts themselves are a prayer, and words are not necessary.
Some people can stand in front of others and offer a prayer on the spot. Others are willing to lead a group in prayer only if they are able to have a moment or two first to ponder what they should pray for, while some people have never spoken a prayer out loud in their life. Prayer is, after all, a very personal and intimate experience.
Nevertheless, there are some people whose speech is filled with prayer. They can’t help but interrupt nearly every sentence with a prayer. They mention someone’s name, and out pops a “God bless him;” or they mention how they found a parking spot at the mall on the day after Thanksgiving, right up close, and “praise God for that!” Quite often these are talkative folks, real jabbermouths, but not always…
I’ve mentioned to you before how my prayers often come to me as I walk to church in the morning. I say that my prayers “come to me” because often, I start walking with no real intention of praying. I’m just walking. And then, as it usually happens, I’ll be halfway or three-quarters of the way here, and I’ll realize that, somehow, my mind has, in fact, slipped into prayer. You see, that is often the only time during my day that I allow my mind to enjoy a period of silence. Even at my desk here at church, I find it hard to ignore the emails on the computer, even for ten minutes. I find it hard to ignore the list of things on my to-do list. I feel a constant need to be productive, to get things done, and so when I do make myself stop for a time of prayer, I find myself resisting the urge to rush through it and get on with my day.
Now, if my prayer comes to me so easily as I walk, why should I go through the effort to pray at other times? I’ll tell you why. It seems to me that, at least some of the time, prayer should be intentional. I think it’s wonderful when prayer comes to me. I think it’s wonderful when God comes to me. But I think it’s important for me to actually go to God in prayer, too. At least some of the time. I think that I probably shouldn’t let God do all the work.
And sometimes, prayer is work. Not too long ago, I read a book on prayer by Robert Benson. It’s actually one book in a series of books on ancient spiritual practices that inspired me to do this sermon series on spiritual practices. There’s one more book in the series yet to be published; I’m hoping it comes out before I preach on it.
Sometimes prayer is work, and in his book, that’s what Robert Benson talks about. He also talks about the work he does in his garden. Here’s what he says:
“In a few weeks, the rakes we own will make their first appearance of the spring in our yard. It will not be too long before the mulch will be delivered. Here we go again.
“Sometime soon, I have to rake off all of the winter mulch, rake up all of the leaves that have ended up in my yard over the winter, turn over the dirt in all of the flower beds, and reset some of the bricks in the patio and the walkways that have been dislodged by the winter rains. I have to prune the roses and trim the hedges and cut back the monkey grass, fix the gate in the back fence, reset the hinges and the lock on the front gate, power-wash the porch, put a new screen in the doors to my studio, edge the patio, put pine straw in the lower garden, and figure out a way to attach a rosebush to the house, the one that is so big now it keeps falling over and blocking the front gate.
“None of which I can actually do in a weekend. So I have some yard work to do, every day for weeks to come. And the truth is that the yard is not going to look like much for some weeks to come yet.
“There is a moment out there somewhere, though, a single afternoon or evening, when I will come around the corner, and the roses will have begun to bloom or the light will fall just right on the fountain, or I will see the cardinals playing tag in the hedges, and it will take my breath away….
“Between now and the time we will put the garden to bed next winter, I figure I have about twelve moments of magic coming, and I could miss some of them if I do not do the daily work it takes to make such moments possible. I also think it is worth every moment of work for those six or eight or twelve moments of pleasure, whenever they come and whatever they turn out to be like when they take my breath away.”
Robert Benson then describes how daily prayer – that is, intentionally praying at a set time or times every day – is like working in the garden. It’s work that, sometimes, we must force ourselves to do every day. But there will be those magic, holy moments that take our breath away. And in those moments, we realize that all our work is worth it.
By the way, the same could be said about worship. Benson says that “there is a temptation for all of us to feel as though worship is not really worth much unless we are personally moved by it. If we are not emotionally touched, then our worship does not seem spiritual to us. It helps to remember that liturgy is the work of the people, not the magic wand of God.”
This week I was invited to join one of our CWF groups for their monthly meeting. An article they were reading mentioned prayer beads – similar to the rosaries used in the Catholic church – that, for some people, help with the work of prayer. I like the idea of prayer beads. I think I might like to get some – or make some – for me. Maybe I’ll get some for all of us. We’ll see.
In Unbinding Your Heart, the book that our Lenten study group is reading, there is the story of a church evangelism committee that had just been formed and was ready to get to work. But they were given a challenge: for three months, do nothing but pray. Meet together once a week, and pray. In their reports to the church board, they said that they were doing nothing but praying. The board members chuckled. Then they started giving prayer requests.
When the three months were over, the evangelism committee “went to work,” which isn’t quite the right way to put it, since they had been working all along, praying. They were fired up with energy, and – led by prayer – began doing evangelism in such a way that the church began to grow and grow.
In ancient times, many Christians prayed seven times a day, at set times. That practice continued for many centuries in monastic communities, and in fact continues today. Outside those communities, the number of daily prayers was reduced to four, for practical reasons. Today, some Christians still pause four times a day for prayer, while others are lucky if they can find one ten minute period to pray.
In his book, Benson describes in greater detail the history of these prayers, and what they are like. Typically, they include some opening sentences of prayer, the reading of a psalm and one other scripture passage, prayers of thanksgiving and intercession, the Lord’s Prayer, and a concluding blessing. Our society being what it is, these prayers are often said in private, although there are those who gather, early in the morning or at some other time, to pray together.
There is no doubt, however, that for individuals and communities and churches that are alive and thriving with the Spirit of God, prayer is at the center of everything they do. Prayer is the core and the foundation. I’ve learned that so much of what we attempt to do in the church would be impossible to accomplish without prayer. All our efforts would surely fail if prayer were not a part of what we do.
I know a lot of people worry about whether they are praying right. I think that the only way to pray wrong is to pray a prayer that isn’t really your prayer, one that doesn’t come from your heart. Other than that, I don’t think you can go wrong. If you ask for something in prayer that God, in his wisdom, thinks is not right, then God isn’t going to answer that prayer. Scripture says that if a child asks for bread or fish, the parent isn’t going to give that child a snake, but I think that if the child asks for a snake, the parent still isn’t going to give him a snake.
Besides, there are psalms in which the psalmist asks for things, prays for things, that I can’t imagine God being okay with. But still, they are honest expressions of the psalmist’s heart. That, I think, is the most important thing in prayer.
The movie Bruce Almighty has some important lessons about prayer. In one scene, Bruce, played by Jim Carrey, has been given God’s powers, and he answers everyone’s prayers by giving them what they want. Complete chaos is the result. He then complains to God, played by Morgan Freeman, and God responds: “Since when does anyone have a clue about what they want?”
If you don’t have a clue, that’s okay. In fact, maybe you should pray about that.
There is another scene in which God asks Bruce himself to pray. So Bruce offers up a prayer about feeding the hungry, world peace, etc. etc., and then turns to God and says, “How was that?”
God replies, “Great, if you want to be Miss America.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with praying for an end to hunger or world peace, if that is really what’s in your heart. But that wasn’t what was in Bruce’s heart. All he was doing was praying the prayer that he thought he was supposed to pray, the prayer that he thought God wanted to hear. But what God wants to hear is what’s in your heart. As long as you pray like that, you can’t go wrong.