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The Ways We Pray

In and through “the act and attitude of worship” on an average Sunday morning, one is apt to be led in prayer in any given number of ways.

For instance, depending on a congregation’s particular tradition of faith (or denominational affiliation), there will likely be some sort of bulletin containing a selection of unison and responsive prayers designed to lead worshipers through a celebration of Word and Sacrament that’s both spiritually meaningful and liturgically correct. Other churches tend to be a bit more “freestyle” about the matter, leaving pastors and other worship leaders to lead and direct the church in its prayerfulness; music very often plays an important part in this, and depending on the size and shape of a particular congregation (not to mention the length of the service!), prayer concerns are often shared from the pews before and during the act of prayer itself. But however it’s done, speaking and silence, confession and assurance, thanksgiving and dedication all end up as part and parcel of the church at prayer.  Oh… and yes, usually somewhere in the midst of things, the Lord’s Prayer is a part of it.

At East Church, as was true at other churches where I’ve been privileged to serve as a worship leader, our prayer life has been a healthy mix of the liturgical and casual; always seeking to allow what we do together as God’s people to embrace the inherent and Spirit-led movement of the worship service from praise and thanksgiving to nurture and dedication. It’s all about tradition, creativity and above all, reverence to God; and I try my best to guide the congregation accordingly.

I will freely confess here, however, that as a pastor I’ve always had a few preferred prayers to which I regularly return; for example, just prior to preaching (“O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts…”), or occasionally something like an invocation or offertory prayer. But just as familiarity often breeds contempt, I’ve learned over the years that sometimes this kind of repetition can get you into trouble: once, years ago when one of my sons was still a teenager, during one such prayer I glanced up (yes, sometimes we do that, too!) to discover that he and his buddy were at the back of the sanctuary not only silently mouthing the words I was speaking but also imitating my particular vocal inflections with appropriate facial movements; giggling the whole time!

It was funny, I’ll admit – and trust me, I mixed things up the following Sunday (!) – but it was also an enduring reminder to me of how easily the flow of our words of worship and prayer can become little more than habit.  I think this about this a lot when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer, especially about now as we’re in the midst of a sermon series that seeks to unpack those all-important petitions that Jesus taught his disciples and us to pray. To wit, if our repeating of these words is merely by rote or because it’s what’s printed in the bulletin, are we truly “hallowing” the name of God?  Are we at all claiming the supremacy of God’s will or acknowledging God’s gift of daily bread, and are even really asking for forgiveness of sin?  If praying the prayer of our Savior is simply a matter of mechanics, can we honestly say that “thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever?”  I wonder…

Interestingly enough, over the years when I’ve been asked by parishioners about a way to begin or renew a discipline of prayer, I’ve recommended something that’s worked well for me: to go someplace quiet and say the Lord’s Prayer… again and again and again.  But in this instance, rather than engaging in an empty exercise in sheer repetition I’ve found that this offers us the much needed opportunity for us to pause after each and every phrase and prayerfully consider what’s actually being said; perchance to let God’s own Spirit not only deepen our understanding of the prayer itself, but also our relationship with the one who gave us the prayer to pray!

To be sure, for such a true spiritual awareness to grow within us takes time, effort and perhaps above all, patience; indeed, for every part of this prayer that comes easily to our lips, there are inevitably those bits and pieces that we stubbornly resist. But that’s the very nature of prayer, isn’t it: that even as we give thanks and praise to God for giving us all the myriad blessings of our lives, we are forced to confront the ways that we’ve fallen short of God’s intentions for our lives, our living and our world; truly, it seems to me that if we’re doing it right, the very act of prayer ought to be as humbling as it is uplifting!

And if all this feels a bit overwhelming… well, you’re right.  But the good news is that when we pray in this way, we are promised that God will be present with us in every moment and beyond with hope, with peace, with joy… and love that’s abundant and eternal.

And to this, what can we say exceptAmen, and thanks be to God!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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And When You Pray: The Trouble with Prayer

(a sermon for June 18, 2017, the Second Sunday after Pentecost; first in a series, based on Matthew 6:5-15)

The Lord’s Prayer – or, as it’s named in our Sunday bulletin, the Prayer of Our Savior – it’s almost certainly the most well-known prayer found in scripture; it’s at least arguably the prayer that we as Christians pray the most often; and for a whole lot of us, it might well be one of the first prayers we ever learned, or at least that we learned in church or at Sunday School.  In fact, over the years as a pastor, I’ve discovered that whether we make an effort to do so or not, our children tend to learn the Lord’s Prayer simply by virtue of their being present in worship and hearing that prayer spoken week after week by all the adults around them!

The only trouble with this, however, is that as kids are wont to do, they sometimes get the words a bit mangled: for instance, the little girl who began her prayer like this:  “Our Father, who art in heaven, Hello!  What be thy name?”  Or, as if to answer that question, the boy who prayed: “Our Father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name!”  Or how about the child who asked God to “give us this day our jelly bread,” which stands in stark contrast to the kid who prayed that God should “give us this day our daily double” (which I’m not sure means that someone in the family was going to the race track, or was watching Jeopardy!). And, of course, there was the child who prayed, “Deliver us from weevils,” which is a misinterpretation I can get behind (!); and my absolute favorite (though it is a little dated… but then again, so am I!), “for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever and ever.  Amen… and F.M.!”

Eventually, however, we all learn those all-important words, don’t we?  I mean, as I said before, as Christians this is the prayer we pray at just about every gathering we have for worship.  It is a central facet of our church liturgy; it is an essential piece of our celebration of the sacraments, in particular the Lord’s Supper; and I can tell you from experience that it has served as a powerful word of comfort and assurance during countless graveside services that I’ve been a part of over the years.  And yet, I can also attest to the fact that its power exists not merely to regular church goers and devout believers; I could tell you about a great many bedside vigils spent with people who are sick or dying, and who have had little understanding of God and faith, and at best a nodding relationship with the church, and yet the one prayer they always seem to know, the one prayer that inevitably will give them a sense of calm and peace in the midst of impossible situations is… the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father,” as they’ll sometimes refer to it. Indeed, I’ve found in so many situations that this prayer has had the power to bring forth reverence where there was little or none before!

And so for these reasons and so many others I could name it’s important and essential that we know and that we pray our Lord’s Prayer, and do so often.  All this said, however, there is a risk – a trouble with prayer, if you will – that comes in our praying this prayer so often that it either, on the one hand, becomes so familiar to our ears and our lips that it becomes rote and little more than an inspirational recitation, without anything at all that would render it vital or compelling to our lives and our faith; or else, on the other hand,  ends up being spoken in such a way that is, well… arrogant, as though this prayer were merely some incantation of self-proclamation; the kind of exercise preferred by “the hypocrites,” (or, as the New Testament Greek can also be translated, “the actors”) “[who] love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”

Friends, I’m here to tell you this morning that it happens, and more often than we might realize!  But understand that neither of these scenarios – the ritualistic empty repetition of phrases, nor the blatant use of religion as self-aggrandizement – represents the purpose or the proper practice of prayer; and that is what lay at the heart of both our text for this morning, and quite honestly, the impetus for this particular sermon series.  For the thing about the Lord’s Prayer is that it is the prayer of our Savior; it is, as I so often say here in our worship, the prayer that Jesus himself taught his disciples, and us, to pray!  And as such, Jesus gave these words not so that they could be used merely as another “official” prayer of the faith, and certainly not as a means of proclaiming to the world just how faithful we are!  Just the opposite; this prayer that Jesus provides us is meant to to be the model on which our every other prayer – in fact, I dare say every expression of our faith as well – is built.  In other words, to quote Philip McLarty here, “Put the elements of the Lord’s Prayer together in your own words and your prayers are sure to be complete.”

Of course, it’s important to note that as Matthew’s gospel tells the story Jesus offers up this prayer in the context of some thinly veiled contempt for the scribes and Pharisees, the “mainstream” religious establishment of his time; they were indeed those to whom Jesus was referring when he spoke of the “hypocrites,” the religious actors who loved to be seen and heard and thus “have already received their reward.”  Likewise, Jesus had little patience for those who “heap up empty phrases like the Gentiles do; for,” Jesus says, “they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”

I’ll be honest; whenever I read this passage, I’m reminded of a very fundamentalist pastor I knew in my younger days as a pastor who was notorious for loud, spontaneous and very emotional prayers in the most interesting (and often inappropriate!) places:  like at the supermarket, or in the middle of a busy hospital aisle, or at somebody else’s church!   Now, I’ll give the man his due: he was truly a man of faith who for many years an effective pastor to his own congregation; but for some reason, there were times he was compelled to drop to his knees, start waving his hands and begin to pray in a very loud voice, literally weeping and wailing every word so that we all stop what we were doing and pay attention!  Who knows why exactly he would do this, but it used to happen a whole lot; and unfortunately, rather than bringing all those within the sound of his voice into the circle of love and salvation, his style of prayer did little more than drive people away (in fact, no joke; the hospital was so upset by this that our entire ministerium in that town was nearly banned from making unsupervised pastoral visits!).

Not to make any unfair comparisons here (!) but quite frankly, this was the kind of behavior that Jesus had witnessed in the scribes, the Pharisees and others of his time as well: prayer filled with “vain repetitions” and “showy” presentations all for the sake of drawing attention to oneself.  This was not the kind of prayer that Jesus had in mind; no, says Jesus, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  Likewise, don’t pile on the words, for ultimately “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Do you see the connective tissue here?  Prayer, you see, is first and foremost to be about God, not about us.  In the words of 19th century Methodist pastor and writer E.M. Bounds, “Prayer puts God in the matter with commanding force… prayer honors God; it dishonors self.  It is [our] plea of weakness, ignorance, want; a plea which heaven cannot disregard.  God delights to have us pray.”  Or, to quote Phillips Brooks, “the purpose of prayer is not to get [our] will  done in heaven, but to get God’s will done on earth.”

Simply put, prayer is meant to be relational; since the very essence of prayer is speaking with God, then it is indicative of the depth of our relationship with God!  And that’s what is wonderful and so very powerful about the Lord’s Prayer, because every phrase that Jesus has given us to prayer – from “Our Father, who art in heaven,” to “deliver us from evil” and beyond – represents the many parts of a rich and deep relationship with God.  It’s all there:  adoration, confession, petition, the willingness to let submit to God’s will and purpose for our lives; and throughout there’s this spirit of thanksgiving and praise and perhaps above all, hopefulness born of the sure and certain promises that God has given and is personified in Jesus himself. Beloved, nothing stands more squarely at the heart of faith than prayer, for prayer is born of a close, personal relationship with the Almighty God; and nowhere is this illustrated any more fully than in the Lord’s Prayer.  And so that’s why over the next few weeks this summer, we’re going to take the time to “unpack,” verse by verse, phrase by phrase all the many and varied blessings that are found in these words of Jesus; so that “when we pray,” we might be wholly and fully inspired to understand and embrace what our doing so offers.

Some years ago, I was asked to offer a prayer – a table grace this time – at a Women’s Fellowship banquet being held at a local restaurant.  We actually had a sizeable group that night, and so had been gathered in a room off the main dining area; but the place was still very busy, and as I stood up to pray, it happened that there was still music wafting through the room from the speakers above me.  And as I began to give the Lord thanks for our food and the fellowship in which it was being shared, I could not help but notice that what was playing above me was Frank Sinatra singing, “I’ve got youuuuu under my skinnnnn, I’ve got youuuuu deep in the heart of me; so deep in the heart that you’re really a part of me; I’ve got youuuu under my skin!” (Hey, at least it wasn’t “I get no kick from champagne…!”)

As I recall, we all had a good laugh as the minister and “Ol’ Blue Eyes” competed for attention!  But it occurred to me later that in some small way, that particular song was a fitting response to prayer, mine or anybody else’s, for that matter; for truly, as we prayerfully seek reach out well beyond ourselves to seek and to embrace the Lord our God and the unending hope, love peace and joy he offers in all of its fullness, we discover that  God has already proclaimed that we’re his; that we’re already so far under God’s skin, so deeply held in the heart of God that we’ve become a part of God’s purpose and plan for us and the world!

May it be said that our prayers, today and every day, reflect that incredibly graceful promise.  “And may thine be the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2017 in Church, Ministry, Prayer, Sermon, Sermon Series, Worship

 

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Spirited People, Surprising God

(a sermon for June 4, 2017, Pentecost Sunday, based on Acts 2:1-21)

The story goes that in a small village located along a South American border there lived a little boy whose name was Angelo.  And it seems that every morning Angelo crossed the border to the neighboring country and that later on that day, just as regularly, crossed back; but this time always carrying a wheelbarrow full of sand.

Now, Angelo was never questioned as to why he always crossed over in the morning; but as you might imagine, upon his return there was always some level of suspicion on the part of the customs inspector.  “Young man, what are you smuggling in that sand?” he’d always ask, and Angelo’s answer was always the same:  “Nothing… it’s just sand.”  But the inspector was never convinced; so every evening, all of the sand would be poured out of the wheelbarrow and sifted through a screen before Angelo was permitted to go on.

Believe it or not, this went on, pretty much day in and day out, for the better part of five years (!); every time the same: the customs inspector interrogating young Angelo before sifting through the sand in his wheelbarrow.  And they never, ever found anything!  But the inspector would always explain himself by saying, “I know that someday if we’re careless, that’s when he’ll smuggle something across.”  And that’s how it went; every day Angelo appearing at the border crossing with a wheelbarrow full of sand and every day the customs people pouring and sifting through the sand before letting him pass… until finally, one day it just stopped.

Well, as the story goes, years later the inspector, now long since retired, met Angelo – now long since grown up – on the street.  Angelo was now well known in the village as one who had prospered; he’d opened a thriving business and bought a big home in the tiny village. And so of course, the inspector was still more than a little suspicious; and so he asked him point blank: “Look, I have to know; how could you have possibly become so wealthy when you spent so much of your time as a youth hauling worthless sand across the border?”   Angelo just smiled and replied, “You see, my friend, during all those times when you paying so much attention to the sand, I was smuggling 1,593 wheelbarrows into the country!”

Now, I’ve heard that story told in a variety of ways so I can’t vouch for the veracity of it; but I do know that as a parable it points up an important truth of human life: namely, that we are often so accustomed to seeing things in a certain way that we fail to see what’s really there before us!   The fact is, life is full of easy misconceptions and surprising revelations; it’s only as we go along – or at least hopefully so (!) – that we are apt to discover that there are a whole lot of things in this life that are much more than what they seem!

How many of us, for instance, have encountered someone in our lives who we more or less “wrote off” as being somehow less than what they eventually turned out to be?  I’ve been thinking about this lately as the 40th anniversary of my high school graduation approaches: thanks to the miracle of social media and the planning of a  class reunion, I’ve been getting little bits and pieces of what’s become of some of my classmates, and it’s been fascinating; in the sense that all these people that back then we (myself included!) so blithely pigeon-holed as perennial athletes and cheerleaders, popular and outcast, winners and losers (!) have gone on to have these full, rich and meaningful lives that tell stories that I couldn’t even have imagined back in the day!  It’s been interesting (and a bit humbling!) finding these things out, and a wonderful reminder of how if we get beyond all of our surface impressions of one another, we might just discover something far deeper and greater that we could ever have possibly seen before.  The point is by only seeing people, things or events in a limited way we end up missing the whole, glorious picture!

And isn’t it true that this is so often how we approach God as well?

Ask a child, for instance, to draw a picture of God sometime and odds are good that he or she will create some kind of image of a saintly Santa Claus without the red trim or the reindeer; a long white beard to match a long white robe.   And even as adults, in what I pray is a more inclusive time, when we think about God we still tend to fall back on those familiar images of “the man upstairs,” of a father in heaven with the face of, depending on our generation, a Charlton Heston, George Burns or Morgan Freeman!  Ours is the God of the booming voice, the roaring thunder and crashing sea; ours is the God of star-filled skies and dew-drenched mornings; God for us is what’s out there and what’s inside here… all of which is true, but none of which tells the whole story.  There’s always more to God, you see, than what there seems!

The truth is that we grow so accustomed to thinking of God in a certain way or to looking for God in a certain form that we risk being caught off guard when God in all of God’s creativity and power is revealed!  And this is what lay at the heart of this day of Pentecost: the proclamation that God is ever and always “doing a new thing;” that God will come to us unexpectedly and in ways that may not always be recognized as coming from God!

One of the first things that’s clear from our text this morning is that as the disciples were gathered together “in one place” on that morning of Pentecost they still had no idea that God was coming to them in the way that God did.  Certainly, they knew something was going to happen; after all, as we’ve been talking about here over the past couple of weeks, Jesus himself had promised them a Spirit to guide them: an Advocate to teach them, bring them comfort and to empower them for the way ahead.  But you see, like all of us they too had their preconceptions; ways of relating to God that were familiar and patterned (which is actually pretty amazing when you think about it, especially given all they’d been through with Jesus!).

So even now there was no way for their being fully prepared for the Spirit’s coming to be like the rush of a mighty wind [that] filled the house where they were sitting,” nor could they have anticipated “tongues, as of fire,” appearing among them and resting on each one of them; indeed, in their wildest imagination they could not have possibly conceived the idea that everyone on the streets of Jerusalem would be hearing good news of “God’s deeds of power” each in their own language.  Understand that these were people for whom dreams and visions were little more than the faded, hopeful memories of generations long past; and yet now, here was Peter speaking boldly the words of the prophet Joel:  “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”

Even some 2,000 years later, we who are the church still wrestle with the wonder and the mystery of what happened that day on the streets of Jerusalem.  But whatever else we still can’t comprehend, one thing is for certain: this was not the act of a predictable, categorical God, but rather a surprising God who refuses to be limited by the human mind and heart.

In the words of John Macintyre, the day of Pentecost is “the wholehearted expression of the almost unlimited imagination of God.”  Isn’t that great?  Today, as the church we celebrate no less than the triumph of God’s Holy Spirit over all the vast differences of language, race, gender, class and culture that exist in our world, but moreover the triumph over all the limitations that we of this world have placed on who God is and who we are in relationship to God.   Our God is the God who speaks all the languages of the human heart; who comes to us in the midst of the pains of life as well as its pleasures; who exists in the mighty winds that occasionally rush through our lives and living, but who also is palpable in the gentle breezes that whisper in and through each day.  The miracle of Pentecost is that when God’s Spirit moves, each one of us will hear God speak in our own language, be that language one of love and joy and laughter, or one that offers comfort in the midst of grief and pain.

And it’s a miracle that continues to be revealed… as God’s Spirit is still poured out on us in unique and powerful ways; we are, by definition and by the grace of God, a “spirited people,” a covenant community of faith.  This is one reason that the day of Pentecost is often referred to as the “birthday” of the church, because we are the recipients of God’s Spirit, and as such the carriers of God’s good news, as well as the purveyors of dreams and visions for a world in need of both.  As the church, we are literally and spiritually “moved” to participate in the promised kingdom that’s to come, working in love, faith and stewardship unto the ever-widening purposes of God in our life and living.

I guess the question before us today is whether or not we truly believe that.

I suppose our answer to that question comes down to whether dreaming dreams and having visions is something that for us was “once upon a time” when our idealism matched up with our hope, but which has now faded away with age and the disillusionment that life sometimes brings; or whether we can still say today that what we’re doing for ourselves, our families, our communities and our world is what we know in faith God will someday bring in fullness, just as He has promised.  The answer comes down to whether we set ourselves forth as a church that is wholly “spirited,” enthusiastically alive and well, serving people and being witnesses to the risen Christ in everything we say and do, truly living out of  our prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10)

Do we believe this, friends?   Are we ready to embrace a surprising, unpredictable and limitless God for our own lives and living?  Are we ready to dream dreams and have visions for the future; for God’s future?

If we are, then we should also know that we have placed ourselves in the midst of a life where amazing things can and do happen in and through our lives and the life of the church in which we are gathered together!  Of course, such a life tends to be unpredictable, shaking up regular routines and more than occasionally challenging valued traditions along the way; but then again, that’s also the incredible wonder and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit; and why wouldn’t we want to be a part of that?

After all, what is it that Ralph Waldo Emerson said?  “The power of the Gulf Stream will flow through a straw if the straw be placed parallel to the Gulf Stream.”   Such is the power that works through us as we open ourselves to God’s own leading.

Oh, come Holy Spirit, come!  Come and blow your mighty winds through us today.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2017 in Church, Holy Spirit, Pentecost, Sermon

 

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