How and Why to Pray

Today we’re going to keep talking about what we need to prioritize in our transition time, and the number one thing we can do for ourselves and our church is pray.

Our gospel story today is from Luke, and we see Jesus praying, talking about prayer, and using prayer in his ministry in the Gospel of Luke more than any other gospel.

Luke tells us that Jesus “often withdrew to a lonely place and prayed,” (5:16), that he prayed on the mountainside and stayed there praying all night (6:12), that he prayed alone (9:18), that he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and thanked God publicly (10:21-22), and of course we know his prayers in Gethsemane and from the Cross.

Here in chapter 11 of Luke, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to do what they see him do so frequently: pray.

We in the Episcopal Church are great at liturgical prayer. We have profoundly beautiful words handed down to us in the Book of Common Prayer that stir our hearts and bring us into the living presence of God.

We can find the sweeping majesty of God and the intimate comfort of God all brought to life between the pages of our little prayerbook.

We also use spontaneous public prayer, often at the beginning or end of meals and meetings, and it can be a great way to unify the hearts of a group in a shared experience, bringing that experience before God.

But we don’t talk enough about private prayer, and it is such a rich field of spirituality.

In fact, it is the lifeblood of our Christian walk. It is the way we communicate with God.

The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians to pray without ceasing.

Sometimes trying to maintain an active prayer life can seem like a chore, but there’s a quick cure for that.

Imagine for a moment a life in which you could not pray, in which you were prevented from reaching out to God, your spirit silenced and shackled.

I imagine that would be a very effective definition of hell.

An active prayer life does the same thing for our souls that an active physical life does for our bodies.

It makes our spirits strong and flexible—something we need more than ever right now.

It increases our appreciation for the joy in life and helps us bear the trials.

And it because it’s so important, because it’s the very oxygen of our relationship with God, it’s worth taking some time to think about how our prayer life is structured.

Different people thrive on different types of prayer habits.

For some people, variety is the spice of their prayer life. They get bored and distracted doing the same thing over and over.

For them, regularly changing from repetition of the Lord’s Prayer, to the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer in the prayerbook, to sitting meditation to walking meditation, to singing hymns, to praying for others by name, to little informal chats with God during their daily activities—changing it up keeps their prayer fresh and alive.

Others find a particular prayer discipline that sustains them with its bedrock stability—reading a chapter of the Bible and journaling about it every morning, using a set of prayer beads, chanting the psalms, naming their blessings while they hike or jog.

Whatever their discipline is, it is as stable and unchanging as the rising and setting sun, and it gives light to their lives.

Variety or constancy, take your pick and do what works for you.

One thing that’s worth paying attention to is whether you’re involved in all the different types of prayer.

Most of the time we are a little bit stuck on petition.

We show up to God and present our laundry list of requests, and it can be as exactly as passionate as reciting a laundry list.

Dear God, please help me to follow your commandments, please bless my family, please bring me a winning lottery ticket, Amen.

Petition is an important and worthy part of prayer, in fact it’s the main focus of Jesus’ teaching in our gospel today, but let’s not forget the other types of prayer.

We can start with intercession, or praying for others.

There are some people who have a profound gift for intercessory prayer. They can take a list of names of people and make it come to life with their passion and sincerity for the healing and well-being and blessing of those people.

There are some orders of Roman Catholic sisters whose entire ministry is intercessory prayer. They devote hours every day to praying for the need in the world, and it’s an important ministry.

Work with intercessory prayer and see if you perhaps are gifted in it.

Intercessory prayer can be a particularly helpful tool in the quest for authentic forgiveness.

Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. When we are struggling to forgive someone, we can pray for them.

Sometimes we can sincerely pray for them to be blessed.

If the hurt and anger is too raw for that, we can simply say, “God, I can’t love this person right now, so I give thanks that you love this person and I entrust him to your care.”

Confession is the next type of prayer on our list.

We do it every Sunday in church, but in the middle of liturgy we don’t really have time to do a full examination of our conscience.

It is worth taking time apart to think about what is holding us back in our Christian walk, what are the patterns of sin for which we need to ask for healing and redemption.

And although the moment we repent and ask forgiveness for our sins, they are wiped away immediately and for all time from God’s reckoning, we all have things in our past that still make us cringe with guilt and pain many years later.

God will not grow impatient with us if we need to confess something again, even many times, slowly draining the poison of our own shame until we know at a bone deep level that we are forgiven.

And don’t forget that we have sacramental confession in the Episcopal Church, the sacrament of the Reconciliation of a Penitent.

It can seem terrifying to those of us who were raised Protestant—actually say my sins out loud to another person? No thanks!

But I have been on both ends of the sacrament, both making confession and hearing confession, and I count them as among the most profoundly moving moments of my entire ministry.

Seeing someone muster the courage to speak out loud their most painful failures before God, to admit the hunger for God’s forgiveness that we all silently share and to reach out for it—this is truly holy ground.

If you’ve never tried the sacrament of confession, give it a read through in the prayerbook and consider if you might be called to it at some point. It starts on page 447.

Thanksgiving is perhaps the type of prayer we do take part in the most aside from petition.

It is instinctive to give thanks to God for our blessings, but there can be a deeper level of discipline of prayer of thanksgiving, and that is tracing back through the bad things in our lives and searching for how they have helped us to grow stronger or deeper as people.

God does not will our suffering, but God can bring blessing out of suffering.

The next time you’re giving thanks to God, go back and think about a time that was particularly hard for you.

Did a tragedy you experienced bring your family closer together?

Did a financial hardship make you more creative and resourceful?

If nothing else, if a moment in your past is totally irredeemable in any other way, can you give thanks for the fact that somehow you kept breathing and your heart kept beating?

Exploring this type of prayer can take our thanksgiving from a rote counting of our blessings to a deeper place in our relationship with God.

And then the prayer that we most often neglect: praise.

Praise is a type of prayer that is distinct from thanksgiving because it is glorifying God not for any particular blessing we have accrued from God, but simply because God is great.

Many people reach a state of adoration of God in music, a pure sense of communion with God and God’s goodness, but how often do we consciously pursue praise when we’re not swept up in the moment of some externally beautiful circumstance?

Many things can draw praise out of us simply because they so clearly reflect God’s glory—a radiant sunset, a mountain view, a piece of music.

But take some time while going about your day and see if there is any praise to God in your heart just waiting to be let out, apropos of nothing.

There are so many passages in the Bible that are rich with praise. Start with something as simple as the beginning of the Magnificat—my soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior.

Explore the prayer of praise and adoration and see if it opens up new doors of joy in your life.

Let’s turn back to the type of prayer Jesus is teaching us in our Gospel today.

We don’t often consider the Lord’s Prayer in conjunction with the rest of Jesus’ teaching in this passage. We act as though when Jesus says, “And bring us not into the time of trial,” he’s finished speaking.

But he actually has quite a bit more to say that I think adds a lot to our prayer life.

Jesus is teaching us first of all that our prayer life is the key to our spiritual sustenance.

Both in the Lord’s Prayer and throughout this passage, he describes prayer as food.

He tells the story of the man going to his friend at midnight to ask for bread, and of the children asking for fish and eggs.

Prayer feeds us, and we need it on a regular basis, just like we need food.

Just praying on Sunday morning is not going to cut it.

Can you imagine only eating on Sunday morning? Your body would starve if you did that, and so will your soul starve if you do not take in the strengthening and renewal that daily prayer bring you.

And the other theme of Jesus’ teaching on prayer is persistence.

Sometimes we wonder if we should keep praying for something because, God already knows everything, so what’s the point? God has already decided what is best for us, so why should we keep asking for what we think we want?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, how our prayers of need and desire interact with God’s sovereignty.

All I know is that when Jesus taught on prayer, he told us to be persistent, and that’s enough to encourage me to keep reaching out and talking to God about my needs and desires.

And here’s the part that can take our prayer life to the next level.

Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

That is a three-part process. Ask, search, knock.

Most of the time we just ask and then sit around waiting for a miracle to descend from on high.

Jesus says that if we just ask, we are not really praying.

We have to get out there are pursue what we want from God, whether that be healing or holiness or blessing or forgiveness, or clarity for the future of our church, strength and guidance for our clergy transition.

We pray and ask God for these things, and then we need to search for how God may be making them manifest in our lives, and then when we find that answer, we need to do something to make it bear fruit in our lives.

So in this time of transition, I want to encourage you to pray.

Pray like you’ve never prayed before, and I mean that in the sense of being more creative and bold that you’ve ever been before in prayer.

Pray in different ways and at different times and with different people.

And as Jesus encourages us in the gospel, pray boldly! Pray with confidence!

Think and talk together about what you really want for the future of St. Thomas, what will help you best share the good news of Jesus Christ, and then ask for it, with faith and gratitude for the journey.

But don’t stop there, just with the asking. Follow Jesus’ command: ask, seek, knock.

Prayer is far more than just talking to God.

Prayer is searching for the blessings of God and then making them active in our lives.

Prayer is an ongoing process that is both quiet and reflective and active and passionate.

Do more than just talk to God, search for God and live with God. Jesus promises us that our experience of God in our lives will be profoundly enriched if we do.

Ask, seek, knock. That is how we pray without ceasing, how our entire lives become a prayer.

And so let us say to each other and ourselves in all times and in all places: let us pray.


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