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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 Hardest Prayer to Pray

(a sermon for  July 2, 2017, the 4th Sunday after Pentecost; third in a series, based on Matthew 6:9-13 and Colossians 1:9-14)

“Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Two brief sentences contained within a single verse of Matthew’s gospel that are considered by theologians and biblical scholars to be the second and third petitions of the Lord’s Prayer; and yet it’s a sentiment that just kind of flows together as one as we quickly repeat the words on any given Sunday morning (“thykingdomcomethywillbedoneonearthasitisinheaven”), to the point where we might not notice, much less wholly understand what we’re saying!  And that’s unfortunate, friends; because it’s precisely at this point in our praying the Lord’s Prayer that things, as they say, get real.

It has been aptly suggested that there are essentially three levels of prayer; and how and when you and I transition from one level to another says a great deal about our own personal and spiritual growth.  Now, the first level of prayer is very basic and, well, very self-oriented: these are prayers that we say quite naturally as children, and which sometimes continue on as adults; where God is the heavenly giver of all good things, and you and I are the ones placing the orders!  It’s “O Lord, please give me a pony!”  It’s “O God, I don’t ask you for very much, but could you please, please, please not let the teacher call on me today because I didn’t do my homework and I’m not prepared!”(That’s the kind of school prayer that will always be with us, friends!) It’s “O Lord, help me get this job today… let me get the car I really want at a price I can afford… please, God, won’t you make this person I’m about to ask out on a date say yes?”

And on it goes; not that it’s inherently wrong to pray these kind of prayers (sometimes they even work out!); it’s just that as we live and grow and reach a deeper understanding of God, we do begin to realize that prayers like that can be a little frivolous, not to mention materialistic; that God’s not to be seen as merely some cosmic Santa Claus, and that just maybe our prayers to our Lord really ought to be a little bigger than that.

And therein lay our transition to the second level of prayer.  We still ask for God to give us what we’re asking for, it’s just that now we’re asking for things like life and health and food; for comfort and healing and strength in the midst of sickness and sorrow; for insight and clarity in times of discernment; for the inspiration we need to make good and right decisions regarding employment, relationships or any other number of challenges we end up facing in this thing we call life.  We are literally and spiritually asking that God “give us this day our daily bread,” and by the way, we’re also praying that those around us might be given that bread as well.

I dare say that this “second” level of prayer is the place where the most of us dwell in our spiritual lives; and I do mean that as a compliment!  It’s the place where we are profoundly aware of God’s abiding presence in our daily lives; it’s where we begin to truly understand that God’s Holy Spirit is alive and moving in and through all his people in ways that are transformative and empowering;  it’s where we are moved to truly love our neighbors as ourselves; and it’s how we as the church are, as the Rev. John Dorhauer, our General Minister and President in the United Church of Christ, said in a speech yesterday at our General Synod in Baltimore, equipped to be “one of the greatest agents of social transformation that this world has ever known.”

The truth is that many of us, as we say in our communion liturgy this morning, who “confess Jesus as the Christ and who seek to follow Christ’s way,” might well spend the whole of our spiritual journeys at that level of prayer.  And that’s not a bad thing; I mean, there’s communion with our Lord, there’s great spiritual depth; it’s good and nurturing, and brings us hope, and comfort and strength.  And moreover, we discover that life is not all about us, but about reaching out to others in Jesus’ name, and seeking to live together in a just and loving community.

So spiritually speaking, you see, this second level of prayer is fineexcept…

… there’s this third level of prayer; a higher level, but one that’s more difficult. And it’s all summed up in what might be the hardest prayer of all to pray: those two simple and yet all-encompassing phrases, “Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done, one earth as it is in heaven.”

Thy will be done! Think with me for a moment about the sheer weight such a prayer; for it represents the polar opposite of those level one, “give me what I ask for” prayers, in that God’s intent and desire for our lives and our are placed at the forefront rather than our requests and petitions; we’re not asking God to change his will, nor are we asking God to bless ours.  We are coming to the Lord God and saying, whatever you wish, whatever you desire, whatever you plan for my life and for this world, O God, so might it be according to your will!

The thing is, friends, we pray this prayer every Sunday and at nearly every gathering we have as God’s people:  “Your kingdom come.  Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We know the sound and the flow of the words; but the question is, how many of us truly understand what that means?  How many of us are willing to give up the control that we at least like to think that we have over this life, and to surrender ourselves, our lives, the lives of those we love, and the well-being of our very world and willingly place it all in the hands of God; trusting God and God alone to care for us and bring us into his kingdom?   That’s what makes this the hardest prayer to pray; for in doing so you and I are forced to shed this notion, seemingly part of our human nature and reinforced again and again by the popular culture that we are so-called “self-made” men and women, and instead live wholly unto the truth that we are God’s children, precious and chosen, and subject to God’s will for our lives, and not our own.

“Your will be done on earth:” I love what the Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, has written about this particular petition of the Lord’s Prayer; he writes that these words bring us right back “to the pew where we sit, to the shop where we work, to the relationships where we struggle to be responsible, to the place where we try to serve.”  That’s because when we are faithfully living unto God’s will rather than our own, there is going to be a strong and essential connection between that decision and everything else we do here on earth. “A cry to the God of salvation leads us in God’s name to our neighbor in need” because, writes Long, “a plea for the heavenly God to save empowers to be earthly agents of reconciliation.”

To put this another way, for us to surrender our priorities to those of God doesn’t mean we’re surrendering altogether.  This is borne out of our text this morning from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, in which the Apostle, perhaps writing from prison and toward the end of his life, tells these newly minted Christians that “we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understand, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord.”   Paul’s prayer for them is that they be filled with strength and joy and purpose and patience in their lives and living, bearing fruit “in every good work” even as they continue to grow “in the knowledge of God.”  Make no mistake; what Paul is saying here is that the spiritual journey begun by these believers in Colossae is only at its beginning, and likewise, their discipleship in doing the will of God in the name of Jesus Christ is a work in progress; much, as it turns out, like the kingdom of God itself!

There’s a reason, I believe, why those two petitions – “thy kingdom come,” and “thy will be done” – follow one another so closely in this prayer that Jesus teaches us to pray.  Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God are central to his message and “good news,” but if you read through the gospels, you’ll find that there’s this dichotomy of thought to what he says about that kingdom.  On the one hand, Jesus says again and again that the kingdom is already here in the midst of us, by virtue of Jesus himself; and yet Jesus also says that this promised kingdom will, but has yet to emerge in its fullness.  And so it is a work in progress, this blessed kingdom to come; and when you and I pray, “Your kingdom come,” we are also humbly and yet boldly praying that God’s will be done for the sake of that kingdom.  We are asking God to bring that kingdom to fruition; so that God’s reign of love and justice and peace and true prosperity will be extended to all of God’s children everywhere.  But above all, we are praying that this all important work of the kingdom might be furthered in and through you and me, so that God’s will might be wholly and wonderfully done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Anyone who’s ever had to do so, in any fashion, knows just how hard it is to “let it go.” As I alluded before, as people we’re simply not wired that way; even as we pray to God for life and health and food, even as we ask God to bless others in Jesus’ name it is tempting and much easier for us to try to keep our own handle on things.  But isn’t it also true that it’s when we do “let it go” that we’re enabled to truly experience the wonder and adventure of life?  I think of our children learning to ride a bicycle for the first time; how it was only when they decided to have us stop running beside them and let go of the bike they could experience the incredible sense of freedom that the two-wheeler could provide.  Or how it was, not too many years later, to let go of those same children so they might be able to build lives of their own as adults.  For that matter, how it felt for us to let go of old fears and apprehensions so that we might be ready to engage in the next great adventure that life sets before us! Indeed, so much of what makes life meaningful and fulfilling has to do with letting go with that which holds us back from being who we really are; and so it is with our walk with the Almighty. To release from our own grasp the need to do everything “our way” ultimately keeps us from living and walking in God’s way; and what an adventure we’d be missing!

For you see, for us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven” not only shows forth our true allegiance to God in Christ, it also means that we are participating in the greatest adventure of all: the gospel’s good news that God’s kingdom is already at work among us and is coming, soon and very soon, in all its fullness.

And so let us not be afraid to pray this amazing, wonderful, utterly hard prayer that Jesus has taught us; placing ourselves and this world in God’s hands… for even now, and even right here, the kingdom comes!

And thanks be to God for it!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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And When You Pray: Hallowed!

(a sermon for June 25, 2017, the Third Sunday after Pentecost; second in a series, based on  Luke 11:1-4 and Ezekiel 36:22-28)

In a quote that I must say resonates with me on this particular day, the Baptist preacher and author John Piper writes simply and beautifully that life is “a combination of spectacular things and simple things.  In almost everyone’s life,” he says, “there are breathtaking things and boring things.  Fantastic things and familiar things.  Extraordinary things and ordinary things.  Awesome things and average things.  Exotic things and everyday things.  That’s the way life is.”

In other words, for every day that we are celebrating glorious and life-changing events (!) there are just as many that we are pretty much sitting back and watching the world go by.  I was reflecting on this truth just recently on one of these very hot summery days we’ve had as of late, as Lisa, Sarah and I were all three sitting out in the backyard; lawn chairs surrounding and feet dangling in this little plastic wading pool our adult daughter keeps for just such afternoons.  And though it was hot, and as we like to say in Maine, “the air was thick with hum’dity,” it was… wonderful: soaking in the sun, feeling that warm summer breeze blowing through, and watching as that same wind wound through the trees and curled the leaves and branches above us; hey, we even got to watch our dog Ollie walking in circles around the wading pool for literally a solid hour, all the while diving for little bits of leaf and tree bud that had blown into the water!

Nothing special; just another summer Sunday afternoon in New Hampshire, but a good one, and a true blessing.  And, might I add, something very, very close to prayerful.  That’s something else that John Piper writes; he says that there is “a correspondence” between the content of prayer, in particular the content of the Lord’s Prayer, and “the content of our lives,” whether that involves the big or the little, the glorious or the common, the majestic or the mundane.  For you see, just as God is present to us in all of the wonders, both small and large, of our lives, in the act of prayer you and I are caught up in the great and glorious ways that God moves in and through it all!  As Piper puts it, prayer is “iridescent with eternity and woven into ordinary life” so that in each and every one of our days we might truly walk in tandem with the Almighty; perchance to be enriched, ennobled and empowered along every step of the journey.

At its heart, you see, this is what prayer is about: affirmation, adoration, dedication… and ultimately, a promise; and as Jesus would teach his disciples, and us, it all begins with these words: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

And that’s where we begin as well.  It’s worth noting, I think, as now we get into the parsing of all the particular verses of the Lord’s Prayer in this sermon series, that this is a prayer that can basically be divided into two parts: the first speaking of God’s presence and purpose in the world (in other words, we are praying about God’s name, God’s kingdom and God’s will), and the second, centering on our lives and living in relationship to God (our daily bread, our forgiveness and our lives steeped in holiness).  Two very distinct perspectives; but taken as a whole, a prayer in which we have this wonderful and transcendent intermingling of the divine presence and the human experience.  And it all starts with an amazing affirmation from which everything else proceeds: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

What’s interesting, you know, is that scripture doesn’t spend much, if any, time debating the existence of God or answering the question of who is God; throughout the Bible there is simply the assumption that God is!  Right from the very first verse of Genesis, we are told, “In the beginning, God…;” and later on, when Moses asks about the divine identity to the burning bush, God’s answer is “I AM WHO I AM!” (Exodus 3:14) the word in the ancient Hebrew language that we know as Yahweh.  This is, in fact, the most fundamental truth in the universe, that God who God is, and far beyond our ability to wholly define, identify or hone in any way, shape or form; all of which makes it all the more significant that when Jesus bids us to come to this infinite, unidentifiable God with our prayer, he instructs us to call him “our Father!”

Think with me for a moment about the awesome wonder of this: here’s the Lord of the universe, the creator of heaven and earth, the God of all time and no time and we get to call him… Father!  Now, I hope we all understand that this is no mere patriarchal construct because the God who is the great “I AM” certainly exists beyond our human concepts of gender; moreover, the God of the Bible includes not only male images of the divine, but also a great many female characterizations as well. Moreover, we have to be careful not to equate this to the difficult and sometimes even destructive human relationships that all too often exist between a father and a child.  No, the relationship that’s being set forth here is that of an infinitely loving parent unto a much cherished child; a caring, loving and deeply intimate relationship that seeks for the best for that child, providing for that child in and all circumstances.

Our model for this is Jesus himself, whose very life was one of intimacy with his Father and is reflected throughout the gospel story, from the time he was this precocious 12-year old in temple who knew he “must be in [his] Father’s house” (Luke 2:49) to those harrowing hours on the cross when he prayed on behalf of those who crucified him, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  (Luke 23:34) It’s particularly telling that so often in the gospels, when Jesus addresses God, he uses the word “Abba,” which in our usage is best translated as “Daddy.”  Think of it; in the words of Victor Pentz, “God is all powerful.  God is infinitely loving.  Jesus says, ‘Call God Daddy.’”

So right away in our praying this prayer, we establish this heretofore unimaginable relationship with the divine; when we pray, “Our Father,” we are affirming that God is right here, right now and for you and me ever and always!  However, that said, we also have to know that this relationship does not come at the expense of God’s authority or power: to pray to “our father” is not to diminish God in any way; and we know this because we also pray to “our Father [who is] in heaven.”

I’ve actually heard it said that this is the part of the Lord’s Prayer that gets glossed over the most often; as though it’s just some kind of throwaway line that expresses where it is that God dwells and by extension where we are as well; you know, the idea that God’s “up there” (as in, “the man upstairs”) and we’re “down here.”  But in fact, it’s much more than that; it actually establishes the full impact of what it means that we call God “Father.”  Actually, this is an affirmation that is not as much spatial as it is spiritual.   What we’re saying is that God, our Father, is in heaven, which is the seat of all authority and power and dominion and greatness; and so what we have is this infinite and majestic God who has the authority and the power to hear us and to come to us when we pray!

What this all means, friends, is that we are meant to be secure in the Father’s love!  We are always blessed to know that despite the vast, unbridgeable gulf that exists between a holy God and a sinful humanity we are nonetheless brought into a relationship with God that is as expansive as the cosmos and yet as close as our very breathing.  You and I are the recipients a loving embrace that stretches into eternity and that not even death can destroy; and it comes to us by the grace of “our Father, who art in heaven.”

But the question is…what do we do with that?  How are we to respond to that all-encompassing kind of presence?  What are we to pray that even begins to approach a fitting level of gratitude for what we are given in the kind of relationship that God extends to us?  It turns out that this is what the first “petition” of this prayer that Jesus teaches us is all about; as recorded in Luke’s version of the prayer: “Father, hallowed be your name.”

Of course, the word hallowed is not one that we use all that often in today’s language; in fact, I suspect that for most of us, this part of the prayer amounts to another word of praise to God, albeit written in the language of King James English!  But in fact, it represents much more than this; to hallow, you see, means to sanctify, or to make or treat something as holy; so when we speak of the name of God being hallowed or sanctified, what we are saying is that is that we wish to treat God as being wholly holy (!) in our lives and for our world.  It means that we believe God is our Father in heaven, that this understanding has consequences for everything else we know to be true, that every direction of our lives will shift simply by virtue of this understanding, and that as a result we will honor God in the very ways that we live and move and have our being.  To quote John Piper one more time, “[We] hallow the name of God when [we] trust him, revere him, obey him, and glorify him.”

Isn’t it interesting, beloved, that in affirming the name of God, who is our heavenly Father, we also make a promise to live unto the truth of that name?  And isn’t it even more interesting that it’s only a very small step between letting God’s name be hallowed in our lives and to letting God’s kingdom come forth in the here and now, and to let God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” (but I get ahead of myself… that’s for next week!).

For now, let us rejoice in what we’ve been given.  Life is indeed a combination of the spectacular and the routine, the easy-going as well as the nitty-gritty, the utterly earth-bound and the gloriously heaven sent; all of it imbued with the presence and power of God. But in this daily mingling of the Eternal and the Everyday, and as we pray, we discover that in all things we are the people of a God who loves us beyond measure; who, in the words of our Old Testament text for this morning from Ezekiel, gives us “a new heart… and a new Spirit” within us, so that we always know that we are his people and that he shall always be our God.

He is our Father, and may we seek today and always to hallow his Holy name with lives of adoration and faithful service.

And in all that we say and most importantly, in all that we do…

… may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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