I want to talk to you today about the practice of prayer. I think it is safe to say that all of us here have practiced something at some point in our lives…whether it is using a math formula over and over again, a card game or video game, learning a new language, playing an instrument, or being involved in sports. We practice so that something will become second nature to us. What we practice becomes part of our identity. We own it.
When I was in high school I played volleyball. I was an outside hitter. My job was to spike the ball at the net. My coach would place me a certain length back from the net and instruct me to practice some very specific steps over and over. “Left, right, left, accelerate and explode”. It was the exact formula he wanted me to use to run to the net and get to the ball with precision timing…without thinking about it, without being distracted by the stress of the game or the crowd…to be able to do this task like instinct no matter what was going on around me. It was repetitive, but that’s what you do to practice. So one summer I decided to go to a volleyball camp. I spent quite a bit of my money and dedicated my precious time, and I was excited. I was excited because I was sure that at this camp I was going to get special instructions…I was going to learn the secrets…be brought into the mystery of how to excel at my sport. I saw others soar to the net with such power and grace and I wanted very badly to do the same. So here I was at camp. Once they divided us up into what positions we played, they took me over by the net and asked me to spend the next 20 minutes practicing left, right, left, accelerate, and explode. Apparently there was no mystery here at all; just a disciplined practice. When my colleagues flew to the net, they were soaring on the wings of hours upon hours of practice.
When we pray we are practicing something too: we are practicing the art of communication. Prayer is communication with God. It is the stuff that builds relationship and understanding. We are speaking to God, and hopefully we are listening too because sending and receiving are both important parts of communication. As we communicate with God, we learn better how to continue to do so. As a child first utters simple words, then later phrases, and eventually whole paragraphs, we too must grow in our prayer life. Just like with physical muscles, our spiritual muscles grow with exercise and use. Again, with prayer as with volleyball, there is no mystery or secret knowledge. We learn by doing.
This month we are going to explore prayer in our sermon series. Today we will cover the basics of prayer. In week two we will explore prayer in the Hebrew scriptures or what some call the Old Testament. Week three we will look at prayer as taught by Jesus. Finally, in week four we will discuss different forms of written or planned prayer and give you some instructions on how to write some prayers for yourself if you would like to do so.
Today I want to look at the who, what, when, where, why, and how of prayer to understand it better. We will explore what is meant by prayer in our tradition. First of all, I want to ask “who?” Who is prayer for, and who is prayer to? Prayer is for us. It is a form of communication that is meant for anyone and everyone. God reaches out to each of us. We then can reach back through prayer. This is universal and not just for anyone of a particular faith tradition. There is a universal call from God to God’s creation. God’s movement towards us happens first, and we respond.
So who is prayer to? There are many names and attributes of God. It is normal that some will resonate with you more than others. You might prefer to speak to God as a father or mother. Or you might pray to God who is a rock, a wonderful counselor, and a hiding place in times of trouble. Or if you are unsure how to address God, you can simply say “God”. What name you use for God is very personal. I am drawn to address God as a Creator. I choose Creator God because it is important to me to reiterate that God has loved all of creation and has chosen to make us God’s own. A Creator is someone who reaches out. Think of something that is meaningful to you to call God. Switch it up if that feels comfortable, or keep it consistent if that is more your style. God hears your prayers regardless of what name you use.
Now that we know the who of prayer, we can ask, “what is prayer?” and “what do I pray?” We have already discussed that prayer is communication with God and that we grow as we go. Because prayer is communication, there are many different ways to pray. We pray individually and together. We pray in planned or written prayers, as well as spontaneously with words we make up as we go along. We can use our minds, our voices, and our bodies in prayer. The Bible shows examples of prayer while sitting, walking, standing, dancing, and laying on the ground. There are many ways to pray. There is the potential for prayer for every emotion or circumstance you might experience. We might pray in adoration or worship, say a prayer of confession, thanksgiving, petition or intercession, or a lamentation to name a few examples. It is common practice to combine these types as well. We will see this when we look at the psalms in week 2, at Jesus’s prayer in week 3, and at different types of planned prayer in week 4.
So what do we pray about? When we look at the scriptures and the history of the Church we find that people pray about all kinds of things. Expressing anger can be prayer. Asking for help can be prayer. Being attentive to your breaths in and out can be prayer. So if there are millions upon millions of ways to pray, what do we start with when we aren’t sure? I like to start with thanking and praising God, and asking God to allow me to be aware that I am always in God’s presence. This helps get me into the proper attitude for prayer. Next, I pray for others: this will often include family, friends, and others who have asked me for prayer. I also pray for the world and for those who suffer who I do not know. I pray for religious and civil leaders. And of course, I pray for myself and my needs. This includes prayers asking for forgiveness. One tip I like to use when praying is to widen the circle out. That means that if I am praying for someone with cancer, I extend that prayer and pray for all those who are suffering from cancer or from sickness. I do not often pray for specific outcomes, but rather pray that God’s will be done in the situation or that God be present to the person. I pray for mercy and that suffering be lessened or resilience and strength given.
Now that we understand the “what” of prayer, when do we pray? The scriptures tell us in 1st Thessalonians 5:17 that we should, “Pray without ceasing”. This is a beautiful idea but seems difficult to put into practice in the midst of our busy daily lives. How might we move towards this goal of being a people who pray without ceasing? John Wesley wrote, “All that a Christian does, even in eating and sleeping, is prayer, when it is done in simplicity, according to the order of God.” Everything we do can be dedicated to love of God. Everything we do can be prayer. That which we do with love is that which belongs to God. When should we pray? The answer is now and always. In the scripture we read today the author of James points out the variety of times one can pray and makes clear that these opportunities abound.
Once we are ready to pray, where do we pray? Of course, the answer is anywhere and everywhere. All of the earth belongs to our Creator God and it is right to pray in all these places. Wherever you pray, becomes holy ground because it is the ground where you meet God. We pray in church, at home, at work, in nature, in cars, and everywhere.
Why do we pray? People pray hoping for many different outcomes, but in the end, we pray because it is a practice that brings us into relationship with God. Sometimes we are asking God to change circumstances, but the truth is that we pray not because prayer changes God, but because prayer changes us. Praying for someone helps us to grow in love and forgiveness for that person…especially when it is someone we have complicated feelings towards. Praying for what we need can be a reminder of all that God has blessed us with already. Praying for forgiveness reminds us that we are imperfect and must rely on God’s grace. No matter why we enter into prayer, God will meet us there.
Finally we ask, “how do we pray?” When it comes to how to pray, diversity is the answer. For every person, there is a unique relationship with God that is marked by specific ways of communicating: both of speaking and listening to God. However we pray is meaningful. This all sounds quite simple, but in reality we often end up feeling like we don’t know how to pray. So, are we lost without recourse? Romans 8:26 tells us, “Likewise the spirit helps us with our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” When we do not know how to pray, God speaks to us on a deeper level than our conscious minds. It is okay if you don’t have the right words…God knows your spirit and your needs. Use whatever words come to you, or no words at all. Sing a song from church. Dance and pray with your body as David did in 2nd Samuel chapter 6. Whatever you do, know that God is waiting for you and will enter into relationship with you.
In the next weeks we will explore examples of what and how to pray, including how Jesus prayed. Learn what you can from these examples, but remember that each of us has a unique relationship with God and with prayer. Give yourself lots of grace and remember that it is a spiritual practice…and practice is something we do over and over again so that we can make it part of ourselves. Let prayer become such a part of your life that you might pray without ceasing.