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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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The People of What Happens Next

(a sermon for May 28, 2017, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on Acts 1:1-14)

Actually, for me the whole scene has the look and the feel of a high school or college graduation!

To begin with, this story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven represents the last gathering of Jesus with his disciples and marks the end of a long and remarkable journey: from the shores of Galilee where this disparate group of fishermen, tax collectors and societal outcasts first heard Jesus’ call, through the agonies of the cross, to the empty tomb and beyond; indeed, we’re told that in the forty days just past Jesus had “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them… and speaking about the kingdom of God.”  But that was all coming to an end, and now as “they were together for the last time,” (The Message) Jesus is giving these disciples some last minute instructions for the way ahead:  “on no account” should you leave Jerusalem, but instead you “‘must wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me.’” Soon, and very soon, you see, “you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit!”

See what I mean here?  Just as in any kind of graduation ceremony there’s a definite sense of closure, but there’s also this baffling and rather disconcerting reference to the mysterious future that is just about to unfold!  I remember very well my own graduation from Bangor Seminary; in particular the moment when our seminary president, the Rev. Dr. Wayne Glick, stood at the podium and informed us in his rich, Appalachian drawl, “You people think you have learned all you need to know here at the seminary… well, I am here to tell you that the learning has just begun!”  What?  You mean to say that our full three years of engaging in intense biblical study, all that wrestling with theological conundrums both old and new, to say nothing of all of the “on the job training” for any and all pastoral challenges that we faced as student pastors wasn’t going to be enough?  To employ the language of the Old Testament, “Oy Vey!”

But you see, that’s the nature of these kinds of moments, isn’t it? You’ve reached this very important place in your life’s journey when everything has rightly seemed to come into focus, and yet – I dare say even for those whose pathway seems solidly set before them – there is an uncertainty about it all that is both unsettling and even at times terrifying!

And so it is for the disciples; especially after they ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” and Jesus answers, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Can you even imagine what the eleven of them had to have been thinking at this point?  Jesus, we’ve come all this way and have experienced so much; to the point where the kingdom is in our very grasp and now you won’t even tell us when it’s going to happen?  Nope… as The Message translates it, “You don’t get to know the time.  Timing is the Father’s business.”

Oy Vey, indeed!  This was obviously not the answer they were looking for; they’d figured that now that the resurrection had happened everything else – for the world and for them – would most certainly fall into place.  But now they find out that their journey goes on, that the way ahead is just about as uncertain as it was before, and the Kingdom… well, the Kingdom will come when the Kingdom will come, and that’s all you really get to know right now!

But, Jesus goes on to say, even though you don’t get to know what happens next, “what you’ll get is the Holy Spirit.”  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Power:  in the Greek, dunamis, meaning dynamic, dynamo or even dynamite; Witnesses: from the Greek word marturos, from where we get our word martyr!  So, in other words, what Jesus says to them – the very last thing that Jesus says to them, by the way (!) – is that the way ahead for you is still uncertain, but that the Holy Spirit, which God has promised to give you, will provide you with the power, the dynamic, if you will, to keep on the journey ahead and to be my witnesses even when that way ahead proves to be very difficult; but moreover to do so with a clear sense of purpose and with joy!  You are being called to go “all in;” to live wholly and completely unto your faith, bearing witness to God’s enduring presence wherever you are and in whatever comes. What happens next?  In many ways, you are the people of what happens next!

And with that said, Jesus ascended into heaven.

“As they were watching,” Luke writes, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  Just like that.  It’s no wonder that apparently, the disciples spent a long time “staring up into the empty sky;” also no wonder that it took two men “in white robes” to stir them out of their reverie, saying, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” This Jesus, “who was just taken from among you to heaven will come as certainly – and mysteriously – as he left.”   The message was clear:  the time for standing around was over; there would be a moment when Jesus would return, but for now the next part of the journey – this immense, mysterious and seemingly improbable journey – was just beginning.

I love what  Barbara Brown Taylor has written about this; it comes from her book Gospel Medicine and she says that “no one standing around watching them that day could have guessed what an astounding thing happened when they all stopped  looking into the sky and looked at each other instead.   But in the days and years to come it would become very apparent… with nothing but a promise and a prayer, those eleven people consented to become the church and nothing was ever the same again, beginning with them.  The followers became leaders, the listeners became preachers, the converts became missionaries, the healed became healers.  The disciples became apostles, witnesses of the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit… [and] surprising things began to happen.  They began to say things that sounded like him, and they began to do things they had never seen anyone but him do before.  They became,” concludes Taylor, believers who were “brave and capable and wise.”

They became the church… they were formed into a gathered community of people bound by a common mission and a shared calling, to witness unto the resurrection of Jesus Christ; beginning in those times and situations where perhaps only two or more are gathered, but then maybe throughout Jerusalem, and then Judea and Samaria, and then… who knows, even “to the ends of the earth.”  It’s a mission that has endured throughout the centuries…

… and it is the same calling that is extended and continues in you and in me today.

That’s right… lest we forget in these days of confused situations: this story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven; this story of this time that exists between “the now” of the world as we currently know it, and the “not yet” of the world as it is promised it will someday be?  It’s our story just as much as it was theirs; and as the church, you see, as the church of this generation, we are “the people of what happens next.”

You see, in every generation the question has always been the same:  when is the church truly being the church of Jesus Christ?  How that question gets answered and the ways that faith is expressed most certainly has grown and adapted over the course of those generations and in keeping with changing times and new challenges.  But ultimately, the answer to that question – when is the church truly being the church – has never changed; we are the church when we are living wholly and completely as witnesses of the Risen Christ!

We are the church when we speak boldly of the truth of Jesus’ teachings (by our words, if necessary, but much more importantly by our example) unto people and unto a world that is hurting profusely and is desperate for love, and for justice, and for a peace that the world cannot provide.  We are the church when we make the commitment to not be passive about moving into the future, letting ourselves become diminished by whatever the world’s latest set of priorities happen to be; but rather to let the power of God’s own Holy Spirit be our own dynamic as persons and as a people, so that we might truly be part and parcel of “what happens next” for the sake of God’s Kingdom within us and all around us, starting right here on Mountain Road, in Concord and New Hampshire, and even “to the ends of the earth.”

And don’t misunderstand me here; for us to be an effective “witness” is not measured by the size or the scope of the effort; but rather by its sincerity and the depth of its love.

Many years ago – I think it was that same summer I graduated from seminary – I was actually on vacation and got a call on a Sunday afternoon from a member of the church where I had been serving as a student, and now newly ordained, pastor.  “I just wanted to tell you what happened this morning, so you didn’t hear about it via the grapevine,” she said, and went on to tell me how one of the older women of the church had suffered a stroke during that morning’s worship service.  Apparently, they’d just finished singing the middle hymn (which at that church was sung just before the sermon), and though everyone else had sat down, “Edna” remained standing, unresponsive to those in the pew next to her.

Now understand that under ordinary circumstances this was a small congregation, but in mid-August, and while the pastor was away, it was downright cozy!   So there was no way this was going to happen quietly or unobtrusively; and of course, everyone immediately gathered around Edna. The worship leader that day, as I recall, was a lay preacher from our association name Leona, and even she put aside her sermon notes and she also came down from the altar to see what she could do to help.

As it was described to me, everybody had a job.  One of the women was a retired nurse, so she started checking vital signs.  Another quickly went to the kitchen to bring in some cold water, while still another rushed to the phone to call an ambulance. One of the men went out to the head of the church driveway to flag down the EMT unit when it arrived.  As for the rest of the congregation, they either prayed quietly or held hands with others as they prayed.   Soon enough, the ambulance came and the paramedics did their work, but even the folks of the congregation waited and watched as they took Edna back to the hospital for a full examination; with a couple of them going along for emotional support.

And after the ambulance had left, the members of the congregation going back to their pews, one of the Deacons of that church (as I recall, he was always a Deacon of that church!), turned to Leona and said, “Well, Madam Pastor, I guess you can preach that sermon now.”  And with incredible wisdom, Leona just smiled and said, “I think you folks already did.”

It’s a scene that as a church pastor I’ve seen repeated time and time again over the years; I’ve seen it happen here at East Church and with you in a whole variety of wonderful, life-giving, gospel proclaiming ways!

Beloved, we are, each and every one of us here, called to be witnesses to the Risen Christ and a living testimony to the Kingdom of God taking root and flourishing in our midst. What we do here in this place, and also what we do out there, serves to proclaim the ways that faith informs and directs what, for the sake of our faith, we intend for one another, for our families and friends, for our community and for our world.  We are the people of what happens next by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us.

And so let us be bold in our witness; let us truly go “all in” for what we know is true.  Let the good news be heard and seen… in us.

May God in Christ bless our witness, and may our thanks for all things be unto God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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