Tuesday, October 11, 2005

prayer (a sermon)

Colossians 4:2 says, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.”

That's a short but powerful text of Scripture, but if we are to genuinely attempt to follow this admonition, we need to answer two big questions first:

1. What is prayer? and
2. What does it mean to “devote” oneself to prayer?

First, here are a few notes about the nature of prayer: Praying, it has been said, is the most important activity in which Christians can ever engage. Why? Because it is the most complete expression of the essence of our faith: relationship.

Jesus tells us the purpose of our existence comes down to just one thing: knowing God intimately. That’s why Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) Jesus tells us the whole point of life is to know God, to be in a growing relationship with God.

Prayer, then, is the vehicle that brings us to God, and faith is the gasoline that provides the power. It is literally impossible to come to God and grow closer to God without faith-fueled prayers. That is why author John Chittister writes: “A spirituality without a prayer life is no spirituality at all...Prayer is an opening of the self so that the Word of God can break in and make us new.”

Let’s put it another way. Answer this question: would I be married to my wife today if I had never talked with her and taken time with her when we first met? No. Let’s say I woke up tomorrow and said: “I don’t really feel like talking with Heather anymore. I don’t feel like taking time to be with her.” How long do you think my relationship with her would last? It is impossible for me to have a growing relationship with my wife without talking with her, listening to her, and taking time to be with her. In the same way, it is impossible to marry yourself to God (that is, to grow closer to God) without prayer. So, prayer is really about one thing: an exchange of love between two lovers. And, therefore, prayer involves at least 3 things: talking with God, listening to God, and taking time with God.

First, there’s “talking with God”: Most frequently, prayer involves “talking.” Often, people ask this question: “Do we need to speak when we pray, or can we just pray silently, in our hearts?” Prayer, we’ve noted, is essentially a touching of hearts, a meeting of God’s Spirit with ours. As such, prayer can be silent. But, even though God does not need us to speak out loud, I’ve become convinced we benefit extremely from doing as such. Here’s why:

Some time ago I tried praying without speaking out loud. Guess what happened? I started thinking about how cute our dog was, and about the emails I had to send out, and about the haircut I would get later. Gradually, I started to fall asleep. My concentration wandered from God. Like building any relationship, praying involves concentrating on the one you are getting to know. So, I’ve found that speaking out loud (or, equally as good: writing or drawing) helps keep my attention focused on God.

The second observation concerning “talking with God” relates to the next idea of “listening to God”. Specifically, when we pray, we talk with God, not merely to God. Praying involves two-way communication. I’ve discovered that if I give God time to speak to me during prayer, He does.

Some time ago, my wife purchased a book for me that helped me incorporate this idea into my praying. It’s called “The Book of Daily Prayer.” If you were to take a look at this book, you would immediately see this idea modeled: half of each day’s prayer time involves hearing from God. The other half involves responding to God. Each section is conversational: God speaks, I respond; God responds, I speak. That makes sense, since the essence of prayer is relationship. Prayer involves listening to God.

Third: prayer involves taking time with God. There are some important truths I would like to extract from this idea.

(One) Taking time with God means acknowledging that sometimes you just need to sit and “be with” God. For example, when I first met Heather, we did a lot of talking with each other. But, as we fell more in love, we became more comfortable, so we were not contained by mere words in expressing our love to one another. Sometimes, we simply enjoyed sitting and holding hands while perched atop a life-guard chair that was by the side of a lake. Taking time to “just be together” was just as important as actually talking with each other sometimes. Our relationship with God is like that. Sometimes in prayer it is good to just sit with God, to just be still, to just let His love sink in and to express your love to Him in a wordless fashion.

This has been a comfort to me because I realize that sometimes I get anxious in coming to God in prayer, thinking I’m going to run out of things to say. This is to assure you: that’s okay! Even if you only have 13 seconds’ worth of things to say, you can still take 13 minutes to pray! That’s because God loves it when we take time to be with Him! He doesn’t mind if you don’t have much to say. He just wants to be with you.

That’s why it hurts to state these next three facts.

Fact 1: We are all busy.

Fact 2: I have never met anyone about whom I could say truthfully: “They pray too much.” (And, sadly, no one could ever accuse me of that, either!) and

Fact 3: The hardest part about praying is praying.

Why is that? Why do we agree with the statement that “prayer is the most important activity of our lives” and yet we do so little of it? Why is it that we know God is longing to have us take time with Him and yet we don’t? Is it because we don’t have time? No. It’s because “we’re busy.” There’s a difference. We all have time, because time is a gift. Time isn’t ours; it’s God’s. God just happened to be kind enough to give it to us. And, to be honest, He’s given us an abundance of it. So, the real question is: what do we do with this gift? How do we respond to the gift of time? I’ve discovered it usually comes down to a question of priorities.

Here’s an example: I have a lot of things to do. I always do. But, what would happen if I said to my family: “I don’t have any time for you this month. I’m just too busy”? See: it’s a question of priorities. Taking time with God is like that. Author Anne Morrow Lindbergh confirms this when she writes: “I do not think it is a lack of time that keeps me from [praying], it is that I do not want enough to do [it].” So, it’s really a question of priorities, isn’t it?

But, what is more important than your relationship with God? Prayer is the way we strengthen our ties to the Source of life, so this is a life and death issue. If Shakespeare had understood this, he might have written instead: “To pray or not to pray, that is the question”! So you have a simple choice to make: “To pray or not to pray.” The question is: What will you choose to do with your time (which is really God’s time, anyway)? Will you take time to pray? If you want to know the Lover of your soul more intimately, if you want to receive life from the Giver of life (and time from the Giver of time!), the choice is that simple. Really.

So, recapping: we've observed that prayer is an exchange of love between you and God in which you talk with God, listen to God and take time to be with God. That’s prayer.

Now: what does it mean to “devote” ourselves to this? How do we “devote ourselves to prayer”?

Part of the answer to that lies in understanding the use of the word “devote.” In Greek this word is “proskartereo.” “Proskartereo” is used only ten times in the Bible and most of the time it is used in connection with prayer. Acts 1:14 and 2:24 are classic examples where we are told the apostles “devoted themselves to prayer.” Now, there is one particular instance in the Scriptures where “proskartereo” is used that clarifies its meaning abundantly:

In Acts 8 we read the story of a man named Simon who was a magician. When Philip the apostle came to Simon’s town, Simon saw Philip performing some miracles. Simon was fascinated with Philip’s abilities to perform “magic tricks” that he couldn’t perform. In fact, he was so fascinated that from that day on Simon “stuck to Philip like glue” so he too could learn how to do these “tricks.” That phrase that I've rendered “stuck together like glue” is the word “proskartereo.” And, that’s the picture we have here in Colossians 4:2: “Stick yourselves to prayer like glue.”

That’s a different picture than what I’m used to. To illustrate “what I’m used to” (that is, to illustrate how I tend to approach life) I’d like to engage you in an imaginative exercise now.

Picture this in your mind: I am standing in front of you with a pen in one hand and some Post-it notes in the other hand. Now picture that, as I mention the following list of items, I write one item per Post-it and stick that Post-it to my body. Here’s how I tend to manage and organize my life:

I have my work (with time slotted for that).
I have my wife (with time slotted for her).
I have my kids (with time slotted for them).
My dog (very little time for her).
My mother (even less time…),
my brothers,
my sister,
my hobbies,
small groups,
and I have some time left over, so…
I’d better stick prayer to me, too (with time slotted for that).

There are a few problems with this way of doing life. The biggest problem, in my opinion, is that it completely misses what Colossians 4:2 emphasizes; namely, prayer isn’t supposed to be stuck to us; we’re supposed to be stuck to prayer! So, instead of trying to work prayer into your life, why not try working your life into prayer? That’s the big idea of what it means to “devote ourselves to prayer.”

Here’s a reading from a book called “Prayer: The Great Conversation” by Peter Kreeft that unpacks this concept a little more. Listen closely and you’ll hear even more practically how we can “devote ourselves to prayer.”

Sal: Chris, I think I’ve found the biggest problem of all in prayer.

Chris: What’s that?

Sal: Everything else! I mean, there are problems in prayer, all right, but the biggest problem is outside of prayer: the rest of my life.

Chris: You mean prayer doesn’t make as big a difference to the rest of your life as it should?

Sal: Exactly. How do I remember God during the day?

Chris: How do you try to?

Sal: I try using gimmicks occasionally, like notes or time reminders, but it seems artificial.

Chris: It works for some people—like praying for a minute every hour on the hour.

Sal: That’s not enough. What about the other 59 minutes?

Chris: I’m glad you make that demand, Sal.

Sal: I don’t want compliments. I want answers.

Chris: Let’s get the problem fully stated first, okay?

Sal: Fine. It’s this separation of God and my life, God and my work. I can bring my life into my prayer, but I don’t know how to bring prayer into my life.

Chris: Well-stated. Be assured you’re on the right road.

Sal: I believe that. But how do I learn to see God everywhere in my life? To remember him during a busy day? To keep that closeness all day, not just during prayer time?

Chris: “Closeness”—do you mean feeling close to God?

Sal: No. I know feelings change. I mean being close. Willing his will. Offering everything in my life to him. Letting him make a difference to everything in my life. He’s God, after all. I can’t confine him to a church, or to a 15-minute prayer! He’s got to make a difference to everything in my life. And I also believe that it’s got to be done not just inside our heads but in the material world; that work has to be a prayer, somehow, not just that we can interrupt our work for prayer every now and then.

Chris: Well, you certainly have a good and noble goal there.

Sal: I don’t think it’s noble, really. It’s just sane. I mean, I just want to live in the real world. If God is everywhere, I want to live as if he is, just because he is. And if he’s not, then Christianity is a lie. So, how do I do this?

Chris: How do you do it? Now, I mean. What attempts have you made?

Sal: Well, for one thing, fifteen minutes of prayer often seems too short now. At first it seemed too long. But expanding the fifteen minutes is no solution, even if it got expanded to 24 hours. I don’t want just more prayer; I want a different kind of prayer: the kind I can bring into my day, my work, my life.

Chris: What else do you try?

Sal: I try to remember. But I forget.

Chris: You can’t consciously remember God all the time. He doesn’t expect you to. And of course you needn’t worry that he forgets you when you forget him.

Sal: I also try to begin every day with him. I wait till I’m more fully awake to do my 15-minute prayer, but as soon as I wake up I try to “think God”, to give him the first minute, anyway.

Chris: How does that work?

Sal: It’s surprisingly hard. As soon as I wake up, it feels as if a thousand little soldiers start attacking me: thoughts about the day, plans, and details, and obligations. I have to shove them aside ruthlessly if I want to pray first. They seem jealous of my prayer time, even fifteen seconds. They seem to be trying to make me put them first, not God. They seem to say to me, “You’re too busy to pray today.” And I try to remember the answer to that: “I’m too busy not to pray today. The busier I am, the more I need prayer.”

Chris: And when you succeed, what happens?

Sal: Sometimes it feels like a spy reporting for duty, getting my assignment, my secret mission for the day from my commander. It makes the day exciting and important, gives it a purpose.

Chris: And what do you usually pray then? Anything special?

Sal: When I’m still sleepy, I need the formulas, the good crutches. So I start with a morning prayer, a morning offering of my day to God. And I try to rest for just a few seconds in his arms, to remind myself where I am, where I’m coming from before I go everywhere else.

Chris: Sounds like an excellent start.

Sal: But that’s all. The only ways I can remember him regularly during the day are silly and artificial.

Chris: That may be true. Still, I’m going to suggest some things that will sound artificial at first, but they can become natural.

Sal: Suggest away, then!

Chris: You know God is with you every moment, right?

Sal: Right.

Chris: But it’s hard to bring that abstract truth into connection with your concrete world, right?

Sal: Right. What can do that?

Chris: Imagination can do that.

Sal: And how am I to use my imagination?

Chris: Simply imagine Jesus Christ at your side wherever you go.

Sal: Physically?

Chris: Yes, physically. It has to be physically. It has to be concrete, not abstract. For instance, keep an empty chair next to you when you sit down. That’s Jesus’ chair. It reminds you that he’s really there, just as real as you are. And when you’re walking, imagine he’s always at your right side—not just “at your side” in the abstract, but at the right side, concretely, physically, always in the same place, always on the same side. That’s Jesus’ side. Sometimes he goes ahead of you, to lead you where he wants you to go. And sometimes he stays behind, when you go where he doesn’t want you to go. That reminds you that you’re his follower, that you should follow wherever he leads.

Sal: I see. “Leading and following” can be made concrete. But isn’t that too concrete? Isn’t that superstitious and pagan and materialistic?

Chris: Why do you think God gave us bodies? And a material world? As a mistake? Or to use them as roads to meet him on? I honestly don’t think there’s much danger of becoming superstitious about it and taking it literally. You’re just not that stupid. I think there’s far more danger of the opposite extreme.

Sal: O.K. I’m convinced. Do you have any more specific suggestions?

Chris: Here’s a very simple one that works best when you combine it with the first one. Chat with Jesus during the day, as friend to friend. Aloud. That’s important. Vague, wordless thoughts and feelings usually dissipate, like steam. Use concrete words, not abstract thoughts and feelings. Whispered, maybe, but spoken.

Sal: Just chatting about anything, right?

Chris: Anything and everything. He’s interested in it all, you know. Everything about you. Just as when you’re passionately in love with someone, you’re interested in every little detail about that person. And his love for us is infinite. So don’t ever think anything is too small or ugly for him.

Sal: Do you think conversations should be long or short?

Chris: Either. Sometimes just a phrase: just turn to him and say, “Thank you, Jesus”, or “I love you, Jesus”, or “I do this for love of you, Jesus”, whenever the Spirit moves you.

Sal: I can see how this could bring about a really powerful change in my life.

Chris: All right, then. That’s the suggestion for the whole day. Now let’s see if we can divide the day into parts and find a kind of prayer for each part, O.K.? Everybody’s life is divided into basic parts or dimensions.

Sal: Like what?

Chris: Life and death, for one thing.

Sal: OK.

Chris: And joys and sorrows.

Sal: Right.

Chris: And waking and sleeping.

Sal: Yes.

Chris: And when we’re awake, we’re either sitting, walking, or standing, right? So that gives us eleven areas: work, play, joy, sorrow, sitting, walking, standing, sleeping, waking, living, and dying. I think we can find an answer to your need in each one.

I hope reading that excerpt was helpful as you think about the practicalities of getting your life into prayer, rather than merely getting prayer into your life. If you’d like to know more, the book does go on to note specific ways we can find a prayer for each of the items just listed: sleeping, waking, sitting, standing, walking, joy, sorrow, life, death, work and play. But, rather than merely reading what someone else has to say about this, why not devise some strategies on your own that are personal and therefore powerful?

This is to say: it’s time to stop talking about this and to actually do it. So, now it’s your turn. Specifically, God would have us grapple with the question: “What would it actually look like for me to incorporate prayer into the various ‘divisions’ of my life? How would I go about actually doing that?” By devising a plan that you determine to actually apply, you will be helping your life get into prayer. By doing this, you will experience first-hand what it means to "devote yourselves to prayer."

So, what are we waiting for? Let’s do this now. Let’s pray.

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