Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Prayer! What is it good for?

This is the second post on Philippians 4:1-9.  The first post can be found here.  Even though it started out as trying to write the sermon that I needed to hear on a certain Sunday, this post is more of a meditation on prayer.  
I have a confession to make.  I don't pray as much as it perhaps should "behoove" a young seminarian.

It just doesn't happen.  Half of the time I don't have bother making excuses for why I don't pray.  You know, excuses like "I'm too busy to pray."  None of that mental justification.  I just straight up am not good about consciously praying like I ought to be.  (Or maybe there's no "ought?"  Do I need to compare my prayer life to others?  That sounds like a post for another day.)

Anyhow.  I just don't do it.  For the longest time I didn't think there was any particular reason or need for me to offer up prayer because 

  1. I shouldn't be asking God for anything for myself,
  2. God knows that there are lots of terrible things happening in the world and God is already on fixing those things.  (I have faith that God is, anyhow, some days I don't see it, but again another blog post for another day.)
  3. The Holy Spirit is already praying for me as Paul writes in Romans 8:26 "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words."
All of these very reasonable (if not necessarily true) statements worked together to create a space in my head that wasn't very welcoming towards the idea of conscious petitionary prayer.
You know, that idea that if we ask God for something, God will make it happen.  Petitionary prayer.  Like we can demand things of the Almighty Creator of the Universe, The Word Made Flesh, and The Spirit that Breathes New Life.

Last time someone tried that, I believe the answer was, "Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?" (Love God's portrayal in Job, so much snark.)

And then even when we do feel like we can ask something of God, how do we know that we will get the answer that we want or maybe even expect?

There's a great little story that a professor of mine (Dr. Daniel M. Bell Jr.) loves to tell regarding how many people view petitionary prayer that I'm going to hijack for a while.

There was a man who lived in a modest home in a small coastal town.  And to that town's dismay, a hurricane was about to roll through and flood most of the town.  When the man first heard about the hurricane, he said a quick prayer to God asking for God to save him.  Shortly after he finished praying, the man turned on his television and saw that the government was calling for an evacuation.  The man turned off his tv in disgust, saying to himself that God will save me.  Later that day the man went outside to get his mail when his neighbors noticed that he was still home.  One of the women called out to him, "Why don't you ride with us?  We can all get to safety later.  There's plenty of room for you in our car."  The man smiled, and then called back a little cooly, "I'm not worried, I've been praying for God to save me.  I know God will."  The woman shook her head, but unable to force him to come with her and her family, she took off.  Then the rains started.  The forecasters' predictions came close to describing the ferocity of the storm.  Soon the man was forced to sit on his roof.  While there, he saw a man on a rowboat come by.  The man in the boat called out to him, "Sir, I've got room in my boat, let me get you to safety." Our hero on his roof called back, confidently, "I'm okay, God will save me."  Again, the rowboat captain tried and tried to get the man to swim over to the boat, but quickly gave up, disgusted with the foolishness he'd just witnessed on the roof.  Unfortunately for our hero, shortly after the rowboat passed out of sight, his house collapsed and he drowned.  When given the opportunity to have words with God, the man had several.  The first question he asked was, "God why didn't you deliver me from that hurricane?  I prayed about it!"  God's response?  "I told you to leave through the government.  When that didn't work, I had your neighbor try to deliver you.  And even when you turned that down, I tried sending a rowboat.  Why didn't you take any of the help I offered?"

Now you might chuckle softly to yourselves, but that's how many Christians (myself included) view petitionary prayer.  That we ask for something and that God is just going to make it happen.  And then when we don't get the answer we expect, we begin to ignore the rowboats that cross our paths.

Now I can't quite remember which theologian said (and because this is a blog post and not a thesis or approval essay, it doesn't really matter), "the value of petitionary prayer is that it helps us see what our desires are and how foolish they are when we lift them up to God."

And while this seems counter to the message that Jesus lifts up in Matthew (and Mark and Luke), that if we "ask and it shall be given," there does seem to be a grain of truth to that.  When I really want a new car and I pray about it, I am more aware of just how silly it seems for me to be asking for that.  I mean, the car I have now works just fine, right?

But that's only a fraction of the things we pray for.

It's certainly not foolish to pray for God to end world hunger or for God to heal a sick child.  Or any number of incredibly wonderful things that we do and should pray for and over.

So what about those altruistic prayers?  What do we do about them?

And what about our needs?  I mean, I think it is a good idea for us to pray over certain things in our lives.  Things like whether to move, whether to start or end a relationship, conflicts that come up at work, how to deal with grief, stressful situations, etc.  The list of personal things that I could and should pray for goes on and on and on...

Leaving me (and probably not just me) with the question, "What's the point of prayer?" Or perhaps, "Why pray?"

What happens in prayer that doesn't happen when we just run through the list of things that are currently on our mind (which was a way that I prayed for a while, I must confess).

I think what happens in prayer that makes it unique is that it's a conversation with God.

You heard me.  Prayer is dialogue with God.

No, I don't mean that every time you pray God is going to answer you back and you can have the nice back and forth conversations that you see with Abraham.  Or Jonah.  Or Elijah.  Or whomever.

But I do think that when we pray we have to "open" ourselves up to the notion that God is present and that God has a will for our lives that at times we can only catch glimpses of.

Prayer is an opportunity for us to lift up something going on in our lives and allow ourselves to open up to where God is calling us to be.

To say, "I don't know where you want me to go, God, but I'm willing to listen."

This opening ourselves up is going to be a messy process.  Just like every other meaningful relationship.

And God isn't always going to give us a straight answer either.  Our answers are going to come in the form of rowboats or little things that we might come across in our daily life.
In our defense, it doesn't seem much safer to hop in the rowboat during the storm.

Opening ourselves up to God's answer means that we need to start paying attention to so many things in our day to day lives that we just walk past because we're "too busy."

It means being able to entertain the possibility that certain words or phrases that catch our eyes are going to contain a glimpse of where we are being called to go.

This does NOT mean, however, that every little sign or phrase that we see is going to contain God's will for our lives.

Instead, the other piece of prayer that I think we forget is that we need to be in conversation with others about this as well.  That we look to our communities and talk about what we are praying for (something that requires a degree of honesty and trust, shocking!) and talk through these phrases and signs that we see.

I love the 2014 Noah because Noah prays and prays for clarification and God doesn't just answer from the heavens.  Instead Noah sees signs that indicate what he thinks God is trying to tell him, but his family is telling him something different.  Noah's wife is the one who sees what the signs mean, but because Noah isn't open to hearing a different opinion, he misses the point.

How often is that how we work?  That we pray for something, see an answer that we want to hear, and then move on?

What if, instead of that, we opened ourselves up to what the community is trying to tell us on God's behalf?  What if we were open to God's presence in our day to day lives?

What if we opened our ears and started listening to God's half of the conversation?

Sorry for the longer post, but this is a kind of complex idea that I'm still working through.  Hopefully the next one will be a little shorter.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What I Wish I Had Heard: A Lament

One of the beautiful things about the Revised Common Lectionary is that with a few exceptions, most mainline Protestant churches use the same texts as the basis for the sermon.

While this is almost always a good thing, it can, on occasion, cause a Sunday like this morning where there are no really "easy Good News" texts except for Psalm 23.  And, to my pastor's credit, there are almost no good ways to tackle the passage from Matthew that was proclaimed as the "Gospel" for this Sunday.

In case you missed church this morning or perhaps were at a church that (probably considers themselves to be lucky because it) doesn't use the Revised Common Lectionary, the text is Matthew 22:1-14.  Go on, read it for yourselves really quickly.  I'll wait.

No seriously, go read it.

Ok?  Read it?  Not exactly a text that screams "Here is the Good News of the Word of God!"  

Not that the passage from Isaiah  or Philippians are much easier.  And of course the 23rd Psalm is kind of easy to preach.  So, I'm sure that your pastor did what mine did this morning and decided to tackle this Matthew text head on.  And to my nameless pastor's credit, he did a pretty good job with it. (Much better than some of the other pastors I heard about this morning, anyhow.)  However, that was not the sermon I needed to hear.

All of this is a precursor to the fact that I think I really needed to hear a sermon on this Philippians text this morning.  And because I didn't get one, I decided to write through what I did need.  Deal with it.

The Philippians text (in case you missed it) is 4:1-9.  And it follows.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Just a little academic stuff to note before we dive into why I think this was the text that I needed to hear preached this morning.

  1. How cool is it that Paul is talks about Euodia and Syntyche by name in this passage?  Yes, he's telling them to get along and for the community to help them with that, but still.  Women leaders in the ancient church?  Kind of a big deal.  You could probably have a sermon all about that in and of itself, but that's not what I needed to hear.  Sorry.  Maybe in another 3 years we can revisit this conversation.
  2. This is the conclusion to one of Paul's great letters.  Yes, this is probably actually Paul.  No, that doesn't actually matter cause it made it into the canon.  But this is basically Paul's opportunity to sum up everything that he's said in the previous four chapters.  You know, to make sure they actually got it.
  3. There are other notable things that Christian A. Eberhart wrote about in his Working Preacher article for this text, but you can read that for yourself here.  Really, you can, it's pretty approachable language.  But I'd rather you read the rest of my thoughts first.  Cause even though he says some profound stuff, that's not what I (or perhaps many people) needed to hear this morning.

 Ok.  That's out of the way.  Good.

Now I'm sure you're thinking, "Jared, that's a lot of cool stuff.  And none of that is what you needed to hear?  Then what was it that you needed this morning from Philippians?"

I'm glad you asked.

This morning (and the past couple of days while I was helping my roommate ponder his sermon for this morning) I kept coming back to a few key words that Paul repeats.   Prayer (with thanksgiving).  Peace.




In all things be in pray with thanksgiving.  In all things you will have peace.

To be fair, I did just finish up an incredibly stressful week at school but I can promise you in those things there were not prayers of thanksgiving and there certainly was not peace.

It's enough to say, "What the hell Paul?"

And it's not like Paul hasn't had his share of stressful weeks.  He's been imprisoned, stoned, put on trial, defended his dissertation on including Gentiles into the Kingdom of God, gone to a church council meeting, written several letters, travelled, oh, and he's been building tents throughout all of this.  Paul knows what it's like to be stressed and he still is writing to pray with thanksgiving and to know that the peace of Christ will be present.

I think we need to rethink some of these pieces in order to understand this.  And by we, I mean me (with your help).

And to think all of those preachers this morning thought the Matthew text was the hard one to read.

Which also means that in the coming week, I'll be continuing to let Paul's ideas of prayer and peace percolate (on top of preparing another sermon and working on a group project, but no big deal) and will be posting a sermon in parts.

If you did preach on this text or heard a good sermon on it, please feel free to share that message in the comments (bonus points if you can do it in 140 characters or less).