I suspect that family gatherings are a regular occurrence for many of you. When you were at your last family gathering, what activity dominated? You probably ate and you may have played some games, but I suspect that mostly you talked.
We are so thankful for the $17.95 long distance plan. There isn’t a month that goes by when we don’t use it up talking to our children or our mother’s.
Carla is in Lethbridge this weekend visiting our daughter. When she comes home tomorrow evening, we are going to have supper together and I am looking forward to a good time of conversation with her. We will talk a lot about all that has happened on the weekend.
In any good relationship, one of the essential elements is conversation. We have been talking about Passionate Spirituality as one of the quality characteristics of a healthy church. If we are in a relationship with God in which we recognize his love for us and love him in return, one element of that relationship must be talking. Indeed, one key aspect of passionate spirituality is a conversation with God.
This morning, I want to talk to you about your conversation with God, in other words, your prayer life. I want to talk about what Paul means when he says in I Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray without ceasing.” What is your prayer life like?
I. Mechanical Recitation or Conversation?
If we asked some people about their prayer life, they might tell us, “I pray three times a day, at breakfast, I pray, “God is great, God is good let us thank him for our food.” At lunch I pray the same thing and at supper the same prayer again.” If that is the extent of our prayer life, I suspect that there is something sadly wrong in our relationship with God.
Even if we pray a few more times but our prayers are all poems or going through lists, it indicates that our prayer life is mechanical, not the talk of persons in relationship. I watched a movie once in which a somewhat senile aunt was asking the blessing on the meal. She began well enough, but ended up reciting the pledge of allegiance. Of course, this was not a prayer, but a recitation of sacred words. Even if our words are Scriptural words, but are merely the recitation of sacred words, we are not really praying either. God invites us to a conversation.
A. Honest Speaking
A conversation involves honest speaking. Would you ever pray:
Psalm 88:6, “You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.”
Psalm 88:8, “You have taken from me my closest friends.”
Psalm 13:1, “Will you forget me forever?”
These are accusing, hard words spoken out of difficult circumstances, but each is a prayer in the Psalms. What we see in these prayers is honest conversation, speaking to God about what is on our hearts. God knows what is in our hearts and what we think. If we direct the deepest thoughts of our hearts, the most difficult concepts in our minds to Him in prayer, that is much more a prayer than any formal prayer spoken at a meal or even in church.
Psalm 5:1-3 says, “Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.”
That is a good description of honest conversation. The Psalmist prays a prayer of words, laying his requests before God; but also a prayer of sighing. Prayer is talking to God with words, but it is also talking to God with sighing. Sighing is inarticulate attempts to vocalize the situation. The inner murmurings of our heart are just as much a prayer as the words we speak. What is noteworthy about this prayer is that both the words and the sighing are directed to God. That is what makes them a prayer.
If our prayer is to be more than mechanical recitation, and really be a conversation with God, it must begin with honest communication from the depth of our being directed towards God.
If you are playing catch with someone, it isn’t catch unless both people are throwing the ball back and forth. Conversation always involves two directions. Often we feel that our conversation with God is a one way street. We talk to Him, but he never says anything. The problem is not that God is not saying anything, but that we are not listening. Calvin Miller talks about “tending the whirligigs of the trivial.” We are so busy with all the things that surround us, we never take enough time to stop and listen to God. Listening to God can never be done in a hurry. This is why in the midst of recognizing the natural and political chaos of the world around us, the Psalmist tells us in Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God…”
Miller also says, “The table of communion with the inner Christ is not a fast-food franchise.” God lives within us, but we are too busy to stop and listen. We say, “OK, God, I have a few minutes here, speak to me!” It is in taking time and being alone that we experience the presence of Christ. We need to quiet the voices of agenda and busyness long enough to listen to God.
Some of the ways we can still ourselves is to make sure we take adequate time for listening. There are a number of ways to do this. If we schedule a reasonable amount of time to focus, that is a good start. But sometimes, God gives us unexpected opportunities like the time spent waiting in a doctors office or when we wake up too early in the morning. These can be excellent opportunities to turn our minds towards God and listen to Him.
Listening also involves listening to what God has already spoken. The study of God’s word is an important part of listening to Him. I know that many times in the midst of a time with God, and meditation on His word, He has given me just the word I needed in the moment.
Another aid to listening is journaling. Sometimes it helps us to focus our minds when we sit down and write out some of the thoughts we have, concerns we have, recording what God has done, recording prayer requests and answers to prayer. As we do so, the focus helps us to listen to God.
Another aid to listening is to fast from time to time. Fasting is not a lever to get God to act, it is rather a way in which we communicate that our desire to get to know God is more important than our need for food. Some people with certain diseases like diabetes can’t do this and that is OK, but if you are able, I encourage fasting as a way to help us focus our thoughts on God. Fasting is usually associated with missing meals, but we can also fast from other things. A great fast would be to fast from TV for a time and dedicate that time to listening to God.
Prayer ought not to be mechanical because God invites us to a conversation of speaking and listening.
II. Magical incantation or Seeking God?
When we see prayer as a conversation, we develop a completely different understanding about what prayer is.
A. Prayer Is Not Magic
I love the story in I Kings where Elijah challenges the Baal prophets. Both groups are invited to prepare a sacrifice and then ask their God or gods to provide the fire for the sacrifice. The prayer of the Baal prophets is typical of their type of praying. They viewed their god as someone who was not kindly disposed to them and needed to be persuaded to act on their behalf by magical incantations, sacrificial acts, ridiculous gestures which would get the attention of the god. We read in I Kings 18:26-29 how they prayed, “Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made… they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response…”
Jesus warns us not to engage in similar types of prayer when he says in Matthew 6:7, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”
Eugene Peterson picks up on this when he says, “Magic is the skilled use of natural means to manipulate the supernatural.“ “God(is not) reduced to nature so that we can ‘handle’ him, convinced that if we only learn the right technique we can use him for our purposes.”
We sometimes see examples of this type of prayer among Christians. Some teach that if God is not answering, we must not be saying the right words, or we do not have the right kind of faith. We hear about those who promise that if we send them money, God will answer our prayers or if we send them money, they will send a prayer cloth over which they have prayed. And we can use this to get what we want.
When we look at prayer as a chemistry experiment which if we do it right, God will answer and if we do it wrong he won’t, we also do this same kind of praying.
B. Seeking God
I shared with you earlier what a difficult time I had leaving the MB church because I loved it. As I spoke to God about my desires in this regard, God spoke to me and showed me that I had a choice to make. Did I love one of his churches, or did I love Him. In this prayer conversation, after much struggle and asking, I finally got to the place where I sought what God wanted.
Sometimes, we look at prayer as a means of getting what we want. God invites us to a conversation in which we see what He is doing. When Jesus was in garden of Gethsemane, he prayed, “not as I will, but as you will.”
Instead of seeing prayer as a magical incantation by which we try to get what we want, we ought to seek God. One writer says that the three fold secret of this kind of intercession is that 1. “…we should feel complete freedom to ask a loving Father for the desires of our heart.” 2. “We must agree that what we want can be set aside to meet the demands of a higher will.” And, 3. “our ultimate motivation for prayer should not be that we want something from God but that we want God.”
III. Instant-answer or Waiting for God to Act?
But this is so hard for us. In one episode of Home Improvement, Tim has built a “Man’s Kitchen.” He describes the kitchen and all of its features. One of the key themes of the kitchen is that it does everything fast. He puts a couple of potatoes in a “macrowave” and advises that this is much better than waiting those “endless seconds to cook it in a microwave.” How typical of our age in which we want everything instantly.
I still remember when the Pentium 100’s came out a few years ago. A friend who was working with computers was so excited about them and how fast they were. Now, they are considered slow because there has been a drive to make what was already fast, even faster.
Our impatience and desire for instant everything carries over into our prayer life when we seek instant answers from God.
B. Waiting For God
In Psalm 130:5, 6, the Psalmist says, “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” What does it mean to wait for the Lord?
Waiting involves trust. As we wait upon the Lord, we trust that the one who has all power and all compassion and all knowledge will do what is right in His time. Our biggest problem with waiting for the Lord is that we are not convinced that he is able, that he knows or that he cares. Psalm 62:11,12 assures us, “you, O Lord, are strong, and you, O Lord, are loving.” Peterson says, “Waiting means that there is another whom I trust and from whom I receive.”
Waiting also involves patience. We have a zap mentality. We think that God should just “zap” us with the answer. Peterson says, “In prayer we are aware that God is in action and that when the circumstances are ready, when others are in the right place and when my heart is prepared, he will call me into the action. Waiting in prayer is disciplined refusal to act before God acts.”
Waiting also involves hope. Isaiah 40:31 promises that “…those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
IV. Working Without Praying Or Praying Without Working?
I remember reading about a woman who was very wealthy. She gave all she had to the church and asked the church to build her a room in the building and feed her through a window. She was going to spend the rest of her life in prayer and she did do this. We are so opposite. We almost complete a project, and after we do most of the work, we have a quick prayer to ask God to bless what we have done? Or we come to a church meeting and the agenda is long and difficult and so we have a quick prayer to start the meeting and then plunge into the agenda. How do prayer and work go together?
A. Prayer is Essential Work.
Over the last few weeks, we have watched as the machinery building the dike has been very busy. A few days ago, they went all night. They have machines of all sorts constantly on the go. They are a parable of our lives. In the church, in our work and even in our personal lives, we are always busy making the machinery of life go. In “The Table of Inwardness,” Calvin Miller writes, “Machines do not make a kingdom. A king does. At the centre of true Christianity lies communion with that King. This communion, whatever we call it, is simply prayer.”
When we engage in prayer as a token element of our work, we fail to realize that prayer is essential work. When the apostles were accused, in Acts 6, that the Greek speaking widows were being overlooked in the distribution of food, they appointed deacons. They realized that this was important work, but they did not want to stop doing what they saw as essential work, which they identify in Acts 6:4 as prayer and the ministry of the word.”
In speaking about the chaotic world we live in, Eugene Peterson says, “most do not see prayer as the central and essential action to remedy the mess that we are in.”
When Jesus taught us to pray, he taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” (Matthew 6:9-13) which indicates the essential nature of prayer in the building of the kingdom of God.
B. Prayer Will Result In Work.
But prayer is obviously not all we do. When prayer is a conversation with God that is a part of our life, work will result.
Nehemiah was a great man of God who led God’s people to build the walls of Jerusalem. Upon hearing news that the people who had returned to Israel were having trouble and that the walls of Jerusalem were still broken down, it upset him. He could have marched off to Jerusalem to do something about it but he did not. Instead he began with prayer. The prayer lasted for several months but when God led him to it, he approached the king for whom he was cup bearer, and asked to go and rebuild the walls. Prayer was the beginning, but it did not stay with prayer, it led to action.
We need to beware that we do not get into a holy huddle and stay there. Prayer that is a true conversation with God, will move us to do the work God calls us to do.
C. Prayer Must Infuse All Our Work.
But as we do the work, we need to continue in the conversation.
Psalm 46 talks about the chaotic world in which we live. You can’t guarantee that natural disasters won’t overtake you and you can’t guarantee that national disasters won’t come here. In the midst of life, the Psalmist chooses to look at life from the perspective, “ “The Lord Almighty is with us.” And in that context he advises, “Be still and know that I am God…” For him, prayer was a part of life no matter what the circumstances.
Peterson writes, “Prayer acts on the principle of the fulcrum, the small point where great leverage is exercised.” You know that with a lever, you can accomplish much more than with your own strength. Doing the work God has called us to and infusing that work with prayer allows us to accomplish much for God.
Our Father invites us to a conversation we call prayer. I confess that my prayer life has not been nearly what it should be. Over the years, I have grown to appreciate the importance of prayer and to allow prayer to be much more a part of my ministry and my own personal life. As this has happened, I have grown to have a greater trust in God and to see more and more of what God is doing. I have much to learn, but I have learned enough to know that I want more of this kind of a conversation with God.
As we grow in our love for God, I want to invite all of us to a conversation with God.