Tag Archives: Prayer

Why ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Don’t seem to Work

Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”(read the whole passage)

Sermon

For every prayer that is offered around the world today, there must be an equal amount of opinions and ideas, rules of thumb and conventions, that tell us how prayer works. Ask, seek, knock. Ask and keep asking. Seek and keep seeking. Knock and keep knocking. Pray boldly and you will receive. You need more faith to pray. You need to pray more. You need to pray for God’s will. You didn’t pray enough and you were punished with illness, suffering or death. Prayer brings us closer to God. Prayer doesn’t do anything. Prayer is for us, so that we know our needs. God hears the prayers of holy people more, especially pastors. God hears all prayers. God only gives us what we need. God will give you what you ask for. There are three answers to pray, yes, no and maybe later. Prayer is like meditation. God speaks to us in prayer. You have to pray from the heart, you need to pray with words that have been prayed by the faithful for centuries.

Lost and confused yet?

Prayer is a key aspect of Christian life. We pray together each Sunday, we pray alone.  We pray for many things here: for rain and sunshine. For Justice and peace. For those who are ill, who are grieving and in distress.

And still prayer can be a very frustrating aspect of Christian life. We want to know the hows, and the whens and the whys. Prayer carries with such expectation that it has the power to make things happen, and yet… we have prayed for and with those for whom prayers have not been answered. We have all had prayers that are not answered. And it begs us to wonder what use is prayer, and perhaps more painfully, why God does not hear us.

The disciples ask Jesus how to pray. And he gives them a mouthful.

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

It sounds familiar, but not quite. Of course it’s the Lord’s prayer, but not quite the one we remember. There is no earthly will of God mentioned in Luke’s version, but it is an earthy prayer that gives us a foundation. The Lord’s Prayer has grounded Christians for 2000 years. Daily bread, forgiveness of sins and salvation from trial and temptation.

This prayer is so engrained in us that we pray it without needing to think… like breathing. It becomes part of the most basic aspects of our living. Its a prayer that goes with us through life from beginning to end. A prayer prayed at baptisms and prayed at funerals.

Yet, the disciples surely were not hoping for a prayer like this. They maybe wanted one of the cool ones like Jesus would pray. When Jesus would look to heaven and bread and fish would multiply, or dead children would be raised, or demons would scatter, or the sick, blind and lame would be healed, or when a man who had been a corpse for four days would rise up from a sealed tomb. The disciples, 70 of them, had been just sent out and had been healing and casting out demons in Jesus name. Yet, like us, they probably wanted to control such power, not for it just to happen without really knowing why. They want to know the trick, the formula to prayer.

We want prayer to be the same as rubbing a magic lantern. We hope that prayer can gives us wealth and happiness. We hope that it will save us from harm and heal everyone who is sick. Or at the very least, we all wish that prayer and its effects would be something we can measure simply and easily. But it isn’t… Jesus doesn’t do simple and easy.

With yet more shootings in Baton Rouge, Miami and Munich this week, we have heard politicians and other leaders stand up and offer ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ for victims and families. It is starting to feel like an empty phrase. Every time there is yet another horrendous act of violence, thoughts and prayers abound, but nothing seems to change. It makes us wonder, if all this praying is doing anything at all. It makes us wonder if there is a point to praying at all.

When the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, it may seem like they are looking for some angle on power, on the ability to get stuff from God. They might be looking for what so many TV prosperity gospel preachers are offering.

But they might also be more like us and how we feel about prayer. They might be asking Jesus how to pray, because for them, prayer feels empty and powerless.

And so Jesus offers them a place to start, a beginning. Jesus give the disciples instructions on how to achieve great things in prayer, but how to start and begin.

Daily Bread, Forgiveness, Salvation from Trial.

God’s Kingdom come.

Jesus shows them that prayer doesn’t achieve the results but begins the process.

Praying for Daily Bread doesn’t feed all who are hungry.

Praying for Forgiveness doesn’t reconcile all peoples.

Praying for salvation from times of trial, doesn’t alleviate all suffering and pain.

Praying begins those things. Prayer is the starting place.

To put it another away, what would it look like if we didn’t pray the church, the world and those in need.

How many refugees would find new homes if we didn’t pray for displaced persons week after week? None. Yet ELCIC congregations, including ours, have helped to sponsor over 250 refugees just in the past year.

How many congregations would run food banks, serve at soup kitchens or offer meal programs if we didn’t pray for the hungry week after week? None! Yet, churches and people of faith have been the primary feet on the ground for feeding the hungry for years, decades, centuries!

Would we will be able to offer forgiveness if we didn’t pray that God would help us forgive? No we wouldn’t. Yet, as we ask for forgiveness, God shows us how to give forgiveness.

Where would we turn in times of trial, if we didn’t pray that God would save us week after week? We don’t know. Yet, as we pray that God would deliver us, God reminds us that we do not face the trials of our world on our own, but together as the Body of Christ.

Prayer is the beginning. In Prayer God reveals to us all the places where God’s Kingdom comes into world. In prayer, when we pray for daily bread, for forgiveness, for salvation from time of trial, we see that God’s Kingdom is breaking into the world with food for the hungry, with mercy and forgiveness for sinners like us, with salvation for those suffering under the shadow of death.

But even more than that, God gives a way to speak about the needs of the world in prayer. God gives us words in prayer to speak about the hungry, the poor, the suffering, the dying without it sound like a depressing new report. Instead, prayer allows us to see where God is already at work meeting the needs of the world, and God gives us words to express this reality in prayer.

Prayer is a starting place, when we so often treat it like the end point. Prayer helps us to see where God is at work in the world, where God’s Kingdom is coming.  Prayer helps give us the language to talk about the needs of the world without being overwhelmed and depressed like we are watching the news.

And so when we wonder with the disciples about whether prayer has any meaning or purpose, Jesus shows us that prayer is the starting place. The starting place to see God in our world. When another politician or leader or Facebook post offers “Thoughts and prayers” for something and we wonder if that does anything to help… Jesus shows us how to begin in prayer, how to begin with daily bread, with forignvess and salvation from trial.

Jesus shows us that in prayer God’s Kingdom begins to come.

Amen.

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Jesus, the Centurion and the Prayer of Last Resort Trope

Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. (Read the whole passage)

This story sounds like one we have heard before.

The narrative of this powerful Roman solider calling on Jesus to help when he seems to have no other option is actually a fairly common story telling device. In fact, it is called the “Prayer as a last resort” trope. It characterized by the main hero of a story exhausting all other avenues for success, and finally turning in desperation to prayer as a means of solving the problem or saving the day. Praying before the last resort, would of course be a sign of weakness.

Prayer as a last resort is common in movies and on tv. A character is trying again and again to have things go their way, with no success. When faced with no other ptions, they then find a quiet place kneeling next to a bed or they wander into an empty, but open church with candles lit to offer an awkward prayer, something along the lines of:

“I don’t know if you are up there God, but if you are, can you do this thing for me, just this once.”

It is actually a pretty common example of how hollywood, pop-culture and many people in our world think prayer works. It is even pretty common among people of faith like us. We might find ourselves turning to God in ways we have never imagined when we are faced with trial and tribulation, with struggle and suffering. There are usually a lot more prayers offered in hospital rooms than in living rooms. We are more than willing to seek out a greater power when we are in trouble and desperate. But often, like the Centurion who tells Jesus that he doesn’t have to come all the way to his house, that just doing the miracle from a far is enough, we too generally prefer a little distance from God. Or at least, most people in our world are happy to let God be far away until needed.

The story of this Centurion and his request for help is a way of approaching God that is generally familiar to us… or least it is easy to impose this familiar trope onto this story and view it as confirmation that Jesus is pretty cool with staying out of our business until we need help and ask for it in a nice way.

But the Centurion’s story isn’t so straight forward as we think.

The details shows show something very different than the typical “Prayer as a last resort” trope.

First the when centurion sends for Jesus’ help, he sends Jewish Elders when he could have sent soldiers. The elders probably put Jesus ease, while the soldiers would have forced Jesus to go.

The centurion has risked looking like traitor to empire by funding the local synagogue, by being in good standing with the religious authorities, by working with the Jews, rather than subjugating them.

And then to prevent Jesus from having to come to the home of an unclean gentile or risk looking like a collaborator, the Centurion sends word to let Jesus take a pass on the whole healing if he chooses to. The centurion is allowing Jesus to decide what he will do, recognizing that Jesus might say no.

Usually, when a tv or movie character offers up a prayer of last resort, God is only secondary to the equation. It is the willpower or desperation or virtue of the person praying that is supposed to make the prayer work. The power of person praying will accomplish the task. Even a desperate last resort prayer becomes a sign of the hero’s power.

So often our desperate prayers are not about God at all, but instead are about us and our issues.

But not so with the Centurion.

The Centurion’s request for help comes in such a way that it shows that the solider recognizes that despite his power, despite his ability to command and order people around, despite his position in the community… that salvation and healing for his slave is entirely in the hands of Jesus.

When Jesus recognizes the faith of the Centurion, it is NOT about seeing some kind of virtue or worthiness in the Centurion. It is NOT that the Centurion is such a good person that he has earned healing for his slave. The centurion allows Jesus to show the people of Capernaum, and to remind us, of something important. We are reminded of a narrative or trope that we don’t hear all that often.

The faith of the Centurion is that he recognizes how deeply he needs God. Faith is understanding how deeply we need God, no matter how much power or strength or righteousness or virtue we attain. We are all equally and deeply in need of God’s grace, no matter who we are.

And when faith recognizes all that we are not, how powerless we truly are, how deeply we need to be healed and saved… that is when we can see just what God has been already doing long before we ever utter a prayer of last resort.

The last words that Martin Luther wrote remind us of this truth that the Centurion helps us to see. Luther wrote:

We are beggars: This is true.

We are beggars: This is true.

When it comes to the matters of life and death, like the Centurion’s request for his beloved slave who was near death or like so many of those prayers uttered by TV and movie characters…

When we get down to the real power we possess in this world, we are beggars.

We are beggars whose prayers are of little power. They are of little power when compared to the One who can actually do something in the face of death.

And so when the Centurion asks for help, Jesus already knows that this powerful solider is actually powerless man. When the hero of TV and movies pray as a last resort, God already knows that these powerful characters are actually powerless people.

But there is also another truth at play. A truth about real power.

Far from being some passive silent onlooker in the sky who may or may not hear those prayers of last resort…

The God of power and might who has created all things has already chosen life over death.

The God of power and might who has died an risen from the dead has already chosen us.

And this powerful God has already come into the world to meet us in human flesh, to encounter our powerlessness, to join us in our weak humanity.

Jesus was already in Capernaum ready to meet the powerless centurion, even if the centurion asked for help in the most gracious way.

Jesus is already here, ready to meet us in the our weak words of confession with the power of forgiveness, to wash away sin and death with the power of the waters of baptism, to gather sinners and outcasts into the one body of Christ in the bread and wine of communion.

Jesus has already already gone to place of our greatest human power and greatest human weakness – death.

Jesus has gone to the cross and faced death head on. Faced the thing that makes us beggars no matter our human power… and Jesus has swatted death away like it is nothing.

And that is because it is.

The centurion’s request for Jesus to heal his beloved slave reminds us that we are all indeed beggars: this is true.

And the centurion’s request also shows that Jesus is already here, already ready with New Life, given long before we ever turned to prayer to save us. New Life given long before we ever knew we needed it.

The centurion’s request shows us where the things that really matter in this world, life and death, are held in God’s hand. Only God has power over these things, no matter how many prayers of last resort we may hurl towards the heavens. And God has chosen not to be far away waiting for a powerful prayer, but to be nearby and ready for powerless people, powerless us. Ready with new life given for us.

Today, underneath this story that sounds like one we have heard before, is another story. Another narrative that we forget too easily and don’t hear enough.

And that is the story of the powerful God who has compassion for and loves deeply a bunch of powerless beggars like us: this is true.

 

How we screw up prayer and how social media teaches us to do it right.

We have a problem with prayer. So many Christians seem to think prayer can only happen in one way. One dimensional prayer I call it.  Let me elaborate…

As a pastor, one would think that I spend most of my time in my own congregation. However, one might be surprised just how often I worship in other churches, and it is always interesting to watch how my fellow colleagues have planned and then preside at (lead) worship. I try to bring a sense of curiosity when I worship at a church other than my own. Often there are little things to learn and borrow.

prayer11However, over the years, maybe even for decades I have noticed many churches operate with an understanding of prayer that I just cannot get behind.

In Lutheran liturgy, our worship contains many different kinds of prayer. There are prayers said in silence like confession, prayers said by the presider (worship leader) like the collect/prayer of the day and eucharistic prayer, prayers said by an assistant minister like the prayers of intercession and offering prayer, and there are prayers said by the whole assembly, like the Lord’s Prayer.

Prayer is used in a variety of ways, with the understanding that there are a variety of ways to pray. This has been the way the church has done liturgy and understood prayer for hundreds, almost thousands of years.

Yet, even as a child I remember prayer being taught and spoken of largely with one understanding, and so often this one understanding is how many christians understand prayer today.

Prayer is talking to God. Specifically, it is us talking to God. More specifically, it is us saying words with our mouths to God. And there are all kinds of teaching and theories and styles to saying these words with our mouths to God.

As teen and young adult in church, I remember being sent on occasion to different workshops on prayer, and I remember all the courses that were offered that I didn’t go to. I recall thinking it was strange that learning how to pray was all about becoming more open and vulnerable in my prayers, learning how to “open my heart” to God. As if prayer was some kind of divine therapy session, and I had to learn how to say the words just right.

As a pastor, one of the chief concerns of our church, and of many of my friends and colleagues is that we aren’t spiritual enough as leaders. Specifically, that our prayer life isn’t up to snuff. When I ask more about this, it seems that many pastors worry that they don’t pray enough (translation: not enough time saying things to God). We worry that we are not spending enough time in silent meditative prayer (saying things to God in our head), or enough in morning devotions (telling God our daily plans), or enough in small group prayer (taking turns saying words to God in front of others).

So many Christians and Christian leaders seem to have the notion that prayer is saying words to God, and the better we get at saying these words, the better our faith will get, the better our “relationship with God” will be. Prayer becomes exceedingly one-dimensional in this view.  Whether praying is done alone, in a group, or in church, we seem to believe that only the one speaking is the one praying.

What this translates into is a lot of pressure to be pray in this one way. Pressure to pray at home, and pressure to pray at church. For Lutherans this has translated into a poor understanding of the worship and liturgy. We treat liturgy like vegetables. You have to eat them, but nobody likes them.

imagesPrayers that were once prayed on behalf of the assembly by one voice are now prayed by all. And pastors have this awful, awful habit of saying little phrases that betray our one-dimensional understanding of prayer:

“Let us pray the offering/collect/post-communion prayer together”

“Pray with me this prayer…”

“Let us all pray out loud.”

These phrases reinforce the idea that praying only happens when we say words with our mouths.

Liturgy is not to be understood this way. Prayer is not only prayer when we say words with our mouths.

(As a tangent: I think it interesting that we are increasingly leaving our music making to a group of experts like a band, while we are all praying out loud which has been normally done by one voice).

Before I say what I think is a healthier understanding of prayer, I think there is an example we all use regularly that would help us into a deeper and broader understanding of what prayer looks like.

0_23_ibreviary_churchSocial Media.

Yes, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Pintrest etc…

Okay, so I know that Social media at its worst is a lot of people cyber “yelling” at each other.

But social media at it is best is conversational. It involves speaking AND listening.

In fact, most of social media is not speaking at all, it is mostly hearing. Social media wouldn’t work if most of us weren’t listening, reading, hearing, receiving.

But social media takes it a step further. With social media you can like, favourite, share, retweet and more. You can read or hear what others have said and add your approval or endorsement without adding your own words.

Likes, favourites, shares, retweets are nothing new. We have been doing them in church for 1000s of years. They are the equivalent of “Amen.”

Social media teaches us that it isn’t always about saying words with our mouths. Sometimes it is important not to say anything at all but to let the words of others speak as if they were our own. You can probably see where I am going.

As a pastor, my voice is often the one that speaks for the assembly in worship. It is my voice that voices the prayers of the whole group. And so when I worship in other churches where I get to be in the pew and the presider or worship leader says, “let’s all pray together this prayer…” I say nothing. I sometimes wonder if the people around me think I am not participating.

When we see prayer only as saying words with my mouth, we all have to mumble the unfamiliar texts of liturgical prayers in an unpracticed and monotone way. Have you ever paid attention to how a congregation prayers the Lord’s prayer versus the prayer of the day? The Lord’s Prayer is the same every week, and we learn how to pray it together. But the Prayer of the Day/Collect changes every week and so we stumble through if we try to say it out loud together.

C1010109prayerYet, when we understand that when the presider or worship leader says a prayer with one voice, and still we are all praying together (one by speaking, the rest by listening) with one voice as a group, prayer becomes deeper and broader.

When we understand that the deep breaths and moments of silence before a prayer is spoken are the moments when we can, in fact, all truly pray together (instead of all reading monotonously at the same time), prayer becomes deeper and broader.

When we understand that in the “Amens”, the “and also with yous”, the “Lord’s Prayer” that we not just praying individually at the same time with our voices, but with the voice of the whole church, with every Christian who has ever said “Amen”, with every Christian who will ever say, “Our Father in heaven”, prayer becomes deeper and broader.

When we understand that prayer is more than one dimensional, more than saying words with my mouth, prayer becomes deeper and broader. Prayer becomes something we really do together, not something that we do individually at the same time which is really what we are doing when we say those phrases like, “Pray out loud with me.”

I think a deeper and broader understanding of prayer would help us realize that sometimes saying nothing, or just “Amen” at the end is prayer just as much as saying words with our mouth. Just like we know that a like, favourite, share or retweet is using social media the same as updating a status.

So let’s start praying with our ears, likes, retweets, with our Amens, in the silences and, when it is appropriate, together with many voices.

For more on social media and liturgy read this: Social Network Liturgy: Putting down the iPhone


So, how do you see prayer? Can we learn about prayer from social media? Share in comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik 

PS I recently read that one fewer hour of sleep a night for a week gives you the equivalent mental capacity of someone with the blood alcohol level of 0.10. With a new baby in the house, that would make my mental capacity the equivalent of 0.40, I think. This has been the reason for few posts lately, but I hope to pick up the pace again soon.

PPS Twitter has been flagging my blog as spam lately. If you would like to help get it unflagged (because according to wordpress and google it is fine), file a ticket with a link to my blog here

 

 

 

I don’t get prayer

20130716-215908.jpgThat may be an odd thing for a pastor to say.

In a couple weeks, the lectionary appointed Gospel lesson will be Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, and it has got me thinking about prayer. Now, maybe I should be more specific when I say, “I don’t get prayer”. Because I am am a pastor and I do pray a lot. And I get prayer in worship, at meal times, to open meetings, prayer with the sick and dying, with those who grieving, with those who are celebrating.

So what was my problem again?

Well, my problem is with a specific kind of prayer.

I don’t get prayer as practiced by most Christians these days, especially evangelicals. The kind of prayer that is extemporaneous, rambling, telling God to do things, prayer that all about emotion and experience, preferably euphoria. Something like this:

The prayer that so many are trying to practice is the prayer of results. There seems to be this sense in North American Christianity, that prayer can get you stuff. And yes, Jesus does say something to that effect, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

Yet, Jesus was speaking to 1st Century Jews who were fearful of God, and for whom prayer was very prescribed and formal. Jesus encouraging a very restricted audience to broaden their prayer horizon. He was NOT speaking to North Americans who are accustomed to getting everything and having what they want. He was not providing prayer as means to get the things, the outcomes, the results that we want.

So I don’t get prayer as so many of us do it today.

To me prayer is a space set aside to be mindful of the divine. It is an experience of the sacred. It is a chance let go of those things that we cannot control, instead of demanding God provide the outcomes that we want for things that are out of our control.

Prayer is acknowledging that God holds all of creation in God’s self, that God holds on all of my stuff, my issues, my problems. Yet, I don’t get to tell God what to do with them.

So… maybe I do get prayer… just not North American Christianity.