I was feeling really clever about the title of my sermon, “Why I Don’t Pray,” until I actually got to church this morning and I realized that as an employee of the church, it might not be such a cool thing to actually be talking about why I don’t pray. But, you know, that’s what I decided to do, and they haven’t fired me yet, so I guess I’ll go ahead and tell you why I don’t pray.
Before we get started those of you who don’t know me may want a little background. I grew up in a Christian home. And by that I mean both of my parents were strong believers. I went to church almost every Sunday of my life and after church most weeks we would sit around the dinner table and we would have a conversation about the pastor’s sermon and we would quiz each other on Bible verses and sing “Kum Ba Ya.” Any Simpson’s fan here? Does the name “Flanders” mean anything to you? “Hay ho, neighbor!!” Well anyway my point in telling you this is that from as early as I can remember prayer, and the idea that prayer is important to the Christian life, has been a central part of my growing up.
So with that kind of background, you would think that I would be able to respond when someone says to me, “Oh hey, how’s your prayer life?” that I would be able to say, “Well, it’s great, I pray all the time. It’s second nature really. Most of the time I don’t even realize that I am doing it, I pray so often.” But I can’t say that. No, not truthfully anyway, and now I can’t say it to you because you know the truth. But, it doesn’t mean that I don’t pray at all. You know, I pray at the appropriate times like before meals, or at the start of church meetings and if there is enough time at the end of church meetings. But when I am by myself and I am able to choose to do what I want, the truth is that I rarely pray, and most of the time this doesn’t bother me.
Originally Pastor John said to me that one of his biggest worries for our church is our collective commitment to prayer, and the vision that we developed and that Pastor John has preached on for the last six weeks. One of the statements that caught my attention is that prayer is always our first course of action, but Pastor John has also noticed that the people who participate in the prayer meeting ministries of this church are almost all over the age of 65. And that’s nothing against people who are over age 65, its really more for the rest of us who kind of go on doing the ministry of the church and sort of expecting those few people to do the praying for us. And so, that caused me to wonder, “Well why don’t we pray?” And right on the heels of that question is, “Why don’t I pray?”
And so I have been thinking about that second question for about a month or so, and here’s what I have come up with.
First, I don’t pray because for me, prayer is boring and hard. Now maybe some of you have found a different experience, but I suspect that some of you probably feel the same way. Now, it wouldn’t be so much of a problem if prayer were boring but easy. I do things like that all the time, and in fact just this morning I tied my shoes and brushed my teeth. They are not particularly fulfilling, but because they are relatively easy I can do them and get on with my life. Nor would it be so big a deal if prayer were hard, but not boring. Activities like this include playing softball, learning to play guitar, home maintenance… Those kinds of things take some difficulty, but because I enjoy them, I put up the effort. Prayer, on the other hand, is both boring and hard. It requires long periods of focused silence in order to rattle off long lists of desires and sins couched in highly specialized religious jargon. The silent focus and tedious lists of course are boring and the hard part is trying to keep my mind from wandering to the day’s to do list or the pattern of the carpet that’s beneath my feet. Some people can relate. I’ll speak to you. No. So anyway, these things and the fact that it is both boring and hard conspire to motivate a life without prayer.
Another reason that I don’t pray is because I don’t need to. Now this is the part where I get fired. I have been taught that I need to pray, but my life experience has shown me otherwise. I mean, when I don’t pray, my heart still beats. When I don’t pray, good things still happen to me. When I don’t pray, my paycheck still shows up every other week. And, yes, that paycheck is from the church. You know, when I don’t pray, plenty of good things still happen to me, and for a lot of people in the world, they spend their whole life not praying and you know plenty of them are happy and successful and fulfilled. I’m not saying that there aren’t plenty of good reasons to pray, but there are a lot of days that even though I want to pray, I don’t because I found that I don’t need to and I really have to do some other things that are more important.
The final reason that I don’t pray is because of fear. One thing I am afraid of about praying is that my prayer won’t get answered. I have spent all of my life in this environment of Christianity and that’s pretty important to who I am, and I’m afraid that if I would have the audacity to pray something and God doesn’t answer that, that might sort of chip away at the foundations of my religious construct that I have developed for myself. And so, I am much more comfortable trying to figure out things on my own and then giving God credit once things go right.
I am also afraid of getting too close to God. I am very comfortable with a God of principles and idealogies, but if on the off chance that I am actually praying with some frequency, there is this fear that I might start getting close to God, and that I might have to risk exposure of my soul and that might cause me to have to change some things about my heart that I don’t want to change. And so fear keeps my prayers to a minimum.
Now, I am guessing that I am not the only one who has been a Christian and knows they are supposed to pray and doesn’t. So now that I have sort of purged myself, just to help us feel a little more comfortable with this, a show of hands: how many don’t pray? Oh, come on – be honest. You know, we’re in church here. All right.
Well, hopefully some of your reasons are similar to mine. And maybe they are not and you have your own reasons, but either way, I would like to take some time to look at the heart of what’s behind these barriers to prayer. I think they are worth examining more closely because for 2000 years the church has prayed and has taught that prayer is not just a good idea, but it’s essential to everything that we do. Has human society or culture changed so much, that in the last century – that the things that have motivated Christians for thousands of years to pray, are suddenly no longer a motivation? Or maybe — maybe I have misunderstood something central to the reason for prayer.
So to find some answers, I would like to look at a story where Jesus is teaching his followers about prayer. I mean, what better way to set the record straight on prayer than to find the person who really established our faith – gave us a reason to believe in the first place? And Jesus was a master at prayer. One of the most disturbing things about my own lack of prayer is the fact that Jesus was doing it all the time. At parties, by himself, with his friends, in public — I mean, he was always praying. And one place where you can really see this in particular is in the Book of Luke. In chapter three for example, Jesus is baptized and as he is being baptized, Jesus is praying. Later in chapter five he goes out in to the wilderness for 40 days and it says that the time he spent there, he spent praying. Next chapter: Jesus went up to a mountain to pray and continued all night in prayer. In fact, the disciples were like. “Where have you been?” And he’s like, “Don’t you know? I’ve been praying.” In chapter nine, Jesus again goes up to a mountain to pray and this time as he is praying, he is transfigured. I mean, his appearance is totally changed. That’s some powerful stuff, and so today we are going to look at chapter 11, where Jesus is teaching his followers about prayer. So why don’t you turn with me; you can find the red pew Bible – somewhere near the back, in Luke. I think it’s 735 maybe. Don’t quote me on that. Also, it will be up here on the screen if you would like to read along up there. We are going to look at verses 1 through 13.
One day, Jesus was praying in a certain place. And when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say ‘Father, hallowed be your name Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who sins against us, and lead us not in to temptation.'” And then he said to them. “Suppose one of you has a friend and he goes to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me and I have nothing to set before him.’ And the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness, he will get up and give him as much as he needs. And so I say to you, ask and it will be given. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. He who seeks, finds, and to him who knocks the door will be opened. 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’re 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?
Now you might recognize this as the Lord’s Prayer. Or at least it’s Luke stripped down version of a similar prayer in the book of Matthew that the church has used for nearly 2000 years. And in some ways, I think that its high profile and familiarity has caused us to overlook some fundamental insights we can learn. So today my intention is not to pick apart every line of this prayer, but instead to find some direction and its overall purpose in context.
The first thing that I ask myself when I am looking at this passage is, what is it about Jesus’ prayer that prompted his disciples to ask him to teach them how to pray? I imagine that one of the reasons that I gave for not praying, that the disciples probably found prayer to be hard and boring and they grew up in a very religious culture where only the highly specialized priesthood would offer specific prayers. But they saw something different in Jesus’ prayer, something vital, something natural. What is different about the prayer that Jesus teaches? And I think the answer can be found in the very first word. He said to them, “When you pray, say ‘Father.'” This is not a prayer at God. It’s not a prayer about God or even for God. It is a prayer to God – and not a God that must be approached tentatively or lavishly, but personally and simply. “Father.” Jesus is lifting an enormous burden that most religions place on the shoulders of their adherents. A basic characteristic of Jesus’ prayer is that it doesn’t require elaborate ritual or endless chanting, mindless formulas, and in that way Jesus strips away this notion that prayer is hard. In fact, it’s the simple art of conversation, which is the foundation of any relationship.
Now, this has nothing to do with thinking our God to be small or too insignificant to warrant the appropriate reverence. But it’s just one more way of showing God’s amazing, all-encompassing grace. The fact is that we have no right to approach God at all. He is the creator and sustainer of all things and as such, he has powers beyond our comprehension and he hates the evil and imperfect things in our lives. It’s only through God’s grace and Jesus’ love and sacrifice that we have any right to speak to God at all. But this access that we have been granted is not partial access. And that makes prayer all the more wonderful and mysterious. Because of this access, we have the opportunity to connect with the heart of God as our Father.
And so Jesus next teaches that the appropriate attitude of prayer is in being attentive to the Father. So often our approach is to fling prayers up to God like he is some grown up version of Santa Claus. Or it’s this cursory request for God’s blessing at our committee meeting — an afterthought for his approval once we have already made a decision. But the burden of prayer is not for God to connect with us. As a loving Father, he has known us, he has seen us growing up, he knows all of our desires long before we had ever even conceived of him. No, the burden of prayer is for us to connect with God. And so, Jesus teaches us a prayer that resonates with his heart. “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.”
Now this is no small prayer. For many years, I had kind of regarded this as the preamble to the actual prayer. But I think the reality is that this is the prayer that Jesus is trying to help us learn. And the closer we get to being able to pray this prayer, from the depth of our hearts, the closer we get to the heart of God. “Father, cause your name to be hallowed,” which means, “God, let your name be worshipped as central to everything. And God, cause your kingdom to come on earth.” God’s name. God’s kingdom. Not Caesar’s, not the King of England’s, not George Bush’s or John Kerry’s, not The American Way or any other political power or ruler — but God’s kingdom come: God’s total, unequivocal, absolute, all-encompassing kingdom. And all of a sudden this prayer is no longer rote or boring. This is a subversive, rebellious, counter-cultural prayer. It’s our heart forsaking the things of the world and longing for the things that God’s heart longs for. “God, bring your kingdom” – and can you imagine what it means for God to bring his kingdom on earth? It doesn’t mean we go to church every Sunday. It doesn’t mean we gather together and huddle in our little prayer corners. If you take a look at Jesus’ life, you will begin to see what God’s kingdom looks like. The broken and downtrodden are lifted up and empowered. The sick and the sorrowful are given healing and comfort. The unlovely and unlovable are honored and loved. Relationships are restored. Hate is defeated through love. Violence is conquered through peace. “Father, would you, could you do it? May your kingdom come.” Jesus is teaching us to spend more time learning what God wants, than asking him for what we want. I believe that as we learn to pray for the things that God desires, prayer grows out of this boring religious exercise and becomes a vibrant, exciting and dynamic part of our intimate relationship with an amazing God.
The second reason I gave for not praying is that I didn’t need to. And while I may not need to pray in order for my heart to keep beating, this prayer for God’s kingdom is clearly something that I can’t do. I don’t have the power to change my own heart, let alone someone else’s. I don’t have any means to affect the governmental or economic systems that prevent God’s justice. This is something that I must pray for, as I have no other recourse of seeing it get done. And this like — the three personal requests that Jesus models in the second half of the prayer are not simply for our own good, but they become vital to the primary request. He teaches his disciples, “Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who sins against us, and lead us not into temptation.” And this was the prayer that Jesus teaches us to ask God to provide for our basic needs, because if they aren’t met, our attention is diverted from building his kingdom. Jesus doesn’t want me to pray for daily bread simply to satisfy my own belly. He doesn’t teach me to pray about my sins so I can feel better about myself. He doesn’t teach me to pray to ask forgiveness for other people, simply so I can have a better friendship with them. Rather, I ask God to supply my needs day by day so I can keep my attention on him. Because I desire for God to cause his name to be hallowed in my life, I ask forgiveness for the things that keep me disconnected from him. I want to continue to desire God’s kingdom and so I ask that God would keep me from being tempted by things that would lure me away from him. And so as we ask God for the things that we need in order to be part of his kingdom, prayer is transformed from this peripheral activity to this central and essential part of our life as we seek God’s kingdom.
I don’t know about you, but as we start to think about prayer in this way, one of the things that doesn’t go away that keeps me from praying is fear. These are no benign little prayers before mealtime. These are deep requests that tap into the very heart of God. This is the kind of thing that the Old Testament priests and prophets trembled before God for. And so after Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray, he tells them two parables to encourage them to pray these prayers in spite of their fear.
The first parable encourages them to boldly seek God’s heart. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend and he goes over to him at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me and I have nothing to put before him.’ And the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me: the door is locked, it’s late. my kids are in bed with me. I can’t get up and give you anything!” And it’s not because of their friendship that the friend will get up and give him what he wants, but because of his boldness. I don’t know if any of you have been in this situation where you have to ask someone’s help and in a really inappropriate time. When I have been in that situation, I first consider really hard whether or not I even want to ask them in the first place. I am weighing, how important is my request? How do I think they will react? Will they blow up at me and tell me they will never be my friend again for being so rude? I am stuck with needing their help, but really not wanting to ask for it. And in the same way, I think prayer causes us to feel that way about God. We are conflicted many times with wanting to be close to him, and yet we don’t want to be. And I think many times this conflict keeps us from approaching God. Now Jesus’ point here isn’t that God is a grumpy neighbor who helps out reluctantly simply because we are bold enough to ask. He is saying, “If even your grumpy neighbor will help you out, even though he is all tucked in bed, how much more will your Heavenly Father, who’s neither grumpy nor in bed, be willing to help you when you ask – particularly about the things that are close to his heart?”
In the second parable, Jesus is encouraging us that when we go to God for these things, we can trust that he will give us what’s truly best. “Which of you fathers,” he says, “if your son asks for a fish, would give him a snake instead?”. Anyone? “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 Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?” And remember that Jesus is addressing his disciples and he calls them “evil!” That seems kind of harsh. I think his point is that compared to the Father, they are evil, self-centered, sinful, obstinate, prideful, and yet they still know how to give good things to their children. Jesus reminds us that God is a better father than we could imagine and we need not be afraid that he is withholding anything from us.
In addition to addressing our fear of God holding out on us, this last parable is really a fitting conclusion to Jesus’ lesson on prayer. He is saying, “this prayer that I have taught you is in essence a prayer that asks God for his spirit.” For when you ask God for these things, for God’s kingdom, and the strength to stay focused on this kingdom, what you are really asking for is that God would give his Spirit to live inside of you, to take up residence in your heart and to transform your heart into the heart of God. “And my Father,” Jesus assures us, “would love nothing more than to do just that.”
As I thought through the reasons I don’t pray and looked at this passage, I really began to come to a new understanding and attitude toward prayer itself. Maybe prayer isn’t so hard – at least in its complexity. I still have to actually go and pray, and that can be hard sometimes. Maybe prayer isn’t so boring, but that it’s actually exciting when we pray for the things of God’s heart. Maybe prayer isn’t something that is unnecessary, but central as we ask God to bring the things into this world that we can only ask him to do. And although this kind of prayer is still frightening, Jesus encourages me – in fact, he is encouraging all of us – to pray boldly and then to trust God to give his Spirit so that we can be an integral part of what he is doing in our world.
But perhaps the biggest motivation that I found to pray, that is really something that I wasn’t even anticipating, and that’s the implication that through prayer we have a hand in being part of God’s redemptive work in this world. That God so delights in his children desiring the things that he loves, that our prayer affects God’s action. Not that we have God’s power ourselves, or that God does something that he wouldn’t otherwise do, but as a father responds to his child’s good request, God responds to us.
Any Lord of the Rings fans out there? J. R. R. Tolkien who wrote those books wrote a companion book called “The Silmarillion.” And in it he describes the creation of this imaginary world called Middle Earth. And in this creation story he pictures that God first creates the angelic powers and God puts the desire, when he creates them, he puts the desire in their hearts to sing. Slowly, each one begins to sing. Individually at first, and listening to the others while they are singing. But over time they all begin to allow their voices to rise, and God begins to weave their song into a grand chorus complete with melodies and harmonies and counter-melodies. And the song, which is more beautiful than anyone could ever imagine, fills the heavens and angels delight in the song that they can bring to God, and God delights in it. But here’s the thing that they don’t realize, that God is doing behind the scenes is that, through their singing, God has been creating.
I wonder what would happen if we here at Central began to pray for the things of God’s heart. That we allow God to put a desire into our hearts to seek the things that he wants. That behind our efforts of developing good programs and building new buildings, our heartfelt prayer was, “God, let your kingdom come!” And I picture that prayer rising from the hearts of believers in and around Baltimore, rising to God. I imagine God weaving those prayers into a grand chorus that in some mysterious way becomes the redemption of our families, our city, our world. And I believe that God wants to do it, and that he wants us to join him as we raise our hearts and our voices to him. Will you join the chorus and pray for his kingdom? Will you join the chorus and pray for his Spirit?
I would like to take a few moments now and do just that. I want you to just take some time and close your eyes right now, and be silent and center your heart on God. And as you begin to sense where God’s heart is, I’ll invite you to begin to whisper a prayer that asks God to provide for your needs and to help keep you from those things that distract you from joining him. And then I’ll invite you to let your whispering grow as you begin to hear the whispers of other people around you, to grow into a bold prayer for God’s kingdom to come and for God’s Spirit to fill your life. Take some time now and center your heart on God. I invite you now to begin to whisper the things that you need to God, so you can participate in his kingdom. As you begin to hear the whispers of those around you, I would just invite you to allow your prayers to become bold as you ask God for his kingdom and his Spirit.