A talk I gave at a nursing home. 🙂
I invite you to read along or listen to the Word of God as we find it in Matthew 6: 5-8. These verses are from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is speaking to the crowds.
Matt. 6: 5-8
I’d also like to mention 1 Thess. 5: 16-18 where Paul gives this direction to the new Christians at Thessalonica and also to us: Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Most of us who are Christians know we are supposed to pray. Prayer is found all over Scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches the people the Lord’s Prayer. We know that Jesus himself prayed. He gave thanks for food. He prayed before important events. He spent the night praying to God before he chose the twelve disciples and before revealing himself as the Messiah to them. He prayed before the Transfiguration on the mountain where he was glorified and affirmed by God in front of Moses and Elijah and Peter, John, and James. He prayed with deep fervour and intensity in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed on the cross.
We know prayer is important, but why? We just read in Matthew 6 that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” How many of us have prayed for things that simply weren’t granted? How often do Christians secretly struggle with the practice of prayer? I know I have.
My teachers taught me that a good prayer should be made up of four parts: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. The first letter of these parts spell out the word Acts, like the book of the Bible. Easy to remember. But even if we know the four parts of a well-constructed prayer, does it help us understand why we should pray? God is omnipotent and Christians believe that everything is going to unfold his way in the end. Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in a human heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” So why pray?
It helps me to think of prayer as something God asks of us because it’s good for us, not because he needs it. Prayer is a spiritual discipline that has benefits for me personally. God doesn’t need my prayers, but he knows I need my prayers. He calls me to pray because it’s intended for my own growth!
Think about adoration. We often begin a prayer adoring God. We might mention his majesty, his might, his love. We praise him for his mighty acts … his creation of the world and its incredible beauty and variety. We praise him for his salvation of the world and for the wondrous gift of his Son as our Saviour. This praise delights God, but it’s not something he needs. It delights him because as we praise God, we are maturing in our faith. We are internalizing lessons, like little kids learning the times tables. God knows that every time we review his greatness in our prayers, we’re being strengthened in our faith. Every time we praise God, it’s like we’re putting on a piece of armour. Or we’re improving our spiritual health with a praise pill. The more we focus on God and his holiness, the more protected we are from spiritual depression or the loss of our faith.
Confessing my sins to God is _also_ more about what I need as a believer than about what God needs. God knows my sins. He knows about the sins I commit that I don’t even recognize myself. But the more faithfully I seek to repent of my sins in prayer, by name, conscientiously reviewing my day and asking God to forgive my selfishness or rudeness or bad language or stinginess, the more I grow spiritually in awareness and prevention of these sinful habits. By naming my sin to God, I’m naming it to myself, too. If I can recognize my sin, I can take steps to prevent it.
It’s the same with thanksgiving. As I list in prayer the things I am thankful for, my attitude is adjusted. Sometimes I don’t feel so thankful. Perhaps you have days like that, too. There might be times when you would like your family to drop by more often. Or you are tired of struggling with medical issues and frailty. Perhaps life has just been pretty tough lately. Paul told the Thessalonians to be thankful _in_ all circumstances, not _for_ all circumstances. Sometimes, when I am out of sorts, it’s hard to find things to be thankful for. But Paul’s command is sound. If I discipline myself to review the day and find things that I am thankful for … my garden, enough food to eat, the freedom I enjoy in this country, friends, books, clean water, then I see that God is still providing for me even though there are things in my life that might be disappointing. It’s like exercise… you don’t always want to do it, but when you do it, you reap the benefit. Maybe you can’t be thankful for your health, but you can be thankful for the personal support worker who is patient and gentle. Maybe you don’t feel thankful because your family members live far away, but you can be thankful for volunteers who come here to run a birthday party or for school children who come to Meadowview to sing. As we come up with a list of things to be thankful for everyday, our attitudes improve. We find that God is good… there are many things to be thankful for. And a thankful spirit brings joy and peace into our lives and into the lives of those around us.
Lastly, our prayers should involved supplication and intercession on behalf of others. God wants us to pray for others. For those who are sick. For those who are mentally ill. For those who are in prison. For those who are struggling with doubt. For those who are hungry. For those who are persecuted and oppressed for their faith. For those who are mourning. For those who are addicted. For those who are homeless. This list could go on and on. I was very struck once by a speaker who described a convent in Greece where the nuns pray around the clock for various cities. The morning shift might pray for New York. The afternoon shift prays for Moscow. The evening shift prays for Jerusalem. That’s just beautiful, isn’t it?
But even when we pray for others, we experience spiritual benefit ourselves. Our prayers for others are like the Holy Spirit poking us. They are like to-do lists. I can pray for someone I know who has lost a child. But the prayer will be a nudge… what else can I do? I can send a card. I can visit that person. Or perhaps I will pray for Haiti and Pakistan, countries devastated by natural disaster. My prayer will nudge me to do something concrete. Maybe I can give a more generous offering in the collection plate. I can pray for our nation’s leaders. Maybe that prayer will be a reminder that I should write an encouraging letter to my MP.
Do our prayers for others really help? Does it make a difference that there are some nuns in Greece praying for New York? We don’t really know exactly how the Holy Spirit works to build his kingdom here on earth, but the Bible gives us plenty of evidence that yes, somehow our prayers fit into God’s grand design. Hannah prayed for a son who was eventually a leader in Israel, Daniel prayed and was able to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Paul and Silas were freed from prison as their friends were praying for them.
I have a couple of pictures in my mind about how our prayers might work. Here’s the first one. You and I rarely think about the huge hydro network that powers our life. Our air-conditioning, our lights, our TV’s. That power is underground, or in the walls, or in wires strung high in the air. That hydro regulates traffic lights, and airports, and the heat in our homes. Sometimes, that hydro is used in surgery to save a life. I think of prayer that way. Prayer is like a power current that God uses to do his work.
Or prayer is like God’s own rubics cube. He can work his will without us, but it brings him joy to incorporate our prayers into the solving of his puzzle. He makes our prayers fit his perfectly organized plan.
I also like to imagine God knitting a shawl or a scarf. I bet some of you women like to knit or crochet. Just imagine that our prayers are like stitches. Here’s a prayer for our Canadian government. And God knits that prayer into a good decision made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Here’s a prayer for a friend who is distressed. And that prayer gets knitted into God’s garment of salvation.
One more example – my favourite. Sometimes I think of God as an artist painting his great salvation plan. Each prayer we pray is a colour. A yellow prayer goes here, a pink prayer goes there, a deep purple prayer is added to the background. Our prayers don’t create the painting. God does! But he uses our prayers.
We are called to pray. Prayer is a good habit like brushing your teeth or like exercise. Prayer is for our own spiritual benefit. The more we pray, the more faithful and mature we will be as Christians.
So, that’s all well and good, you might say. But why did Jesus pray, then? He didn’t have to confess sins. He didn’t need to grow spiritually. Jesus prayed because prayer, above all else, is talking to God. It’s conversation. In prayer you and God are having a cup of coffee together. God draws close to you. You tell God about how things are going in your Christian walk. Then you listen for his response. You’ll hear it. In the words of the Bible, in a sermon or a devotional book, in the comments of a friend, or in the words of a favourite hymn.
I ask you to pray. Maybe you remember a time when you could do so much more for the church. You taught Sunday school or you sang in the choir. Maybe you were an usher or a deacon. Maybe you really miss doing those things. Don’t despair. Pray. Your prayers continue to be a valuable part of your Christian discipleship. You will grow. God’s kingdom will grow.
I ask you to pray. More importantly, God asks you to pray. Hear his words in Romans 12: Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Amen.