Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Gift of Prayer (Mark 1:35-37; Phil. 4:4-7) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Dear God, so far today, I’ve done alright.  I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent.  I’m thankful about this Lord.  But in a few moments, I’m going to get out of bed, and then I’m going to need a lot of help.  Amen!

This morning we are focusing upon prayer.  Why?   Three reasons.  Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, the Patron Saint of Ireland, a Roman Catholic Bishop in 5th century Roman Britain, whose life is well worth studying.  Prayer was central to the spiritual life of the Celts of Ireland.  God used Patrick to evangelize Ireland and to synthesize the Roman Catholic Faith with the culture of the Celtic people.  This synthesis has come to be known as Celtic Christianity.   Second, because today Christians are observing the season of Lent, with its emphasis upon the interior spiritual life.  Third, because prayer is indispensable to following Jesus and it’s crucial to the ministry of the church.

I am convinced that if a Christian is to be spiritually alive, if a Christian is to have a vibrant faith, if a Christian is to be joyful, faithful, Spirit filled, Christ centered, one must be continually immersed in prayer.  I believe the same thing about the church.   Is prayer important?  The Gospel of Mark says: “And in the morning, a great while before day, Jesus rose and went out to a lonely place and there he prayed.   It was important to Jesus.  Prayer was fundamental to his life and ministry.  Jesus personally prayed.  He taught the disciples and crowds how to pray.   He commanded his followers to pray.

What is prayer?  It's not an empirical science, based upon observation and experimentation.   Thousands of books have been written about prayer.  But prayer remains shrouded in mystery; we don’t finally understand it.   But that’s OK.  There is a plethora of things we don’t understand about life, but we keep on living it.  We don’t fully understand the human brain, but that doesn’t keep us from thinking.  We don’t know how to raise children, but we learn and keep having them and do the best we can.  We don’t fully understand human biology, but the medical field continues researching.  We don’t understand ourselves fully or what motivates others.  We don’t understand why the universe exists and we only have theories about how it came into existence.  We don’t know if life exists anywhere else in the universe except on earth.  We don’t know what happened to the dinosaurs.   I love what one scientist said:  It’s easy to focus on what we know, yet to me the wonder of the cosmos, the awesomeness, is never greater than when we contemplate all that we don’t know.  I feel exactly the same way about prayer.

I believe prayer is the highest activity of the human spirit.  Prayer is a gift of God's grace.  Prayer is a spiritual bridge in the divine-human relationship.   Prayer is the soul's approach to God.  Prayer is an encounter with God.  Prayer is communion with God, an intimate meeting with God.  Prayer is conversation with God which involves speaking and listening.  Prayer is a spiritual discipline which needs to be practiced.  Prayer is the path to a deeper relationship with God and to a deeper knowing of ourselves.  Prayer, transforms our minds, lifts our spirits, and enlivens our hearts.  Prayer is a way for our spirit to get in tune with God's Spirit.   Prayer is an expression of love.  Intercessory prayer is a way of loving others whether members of your family or friends or strangers.    Prayer builds our faith up in God and expresses our faith to others.  Prayer is a way God achieves His plans and purposes for human lives and the world.  Prayer is a way God changes us and circumstances around us.  Prayer keeps us dependent upon God which is a good thing.

Prayer says:  I need you God, I belong to you.  I want to be in constant touch with you.  My heart is restless until it rests in you.   Prayer helps us to be a better human being, a better follower, and to see God more clearly, follow God more nearly, and to love God more dearly.

I like what author Richard Foster says about prayer: “Prayer catapults us onto the frontier of the spiritual life.  Prayer brings us into the deepest and highest work of the human spirit.  Real prayer is life creating and life changing. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.  If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.

From where does prayer flow?  Prayer flows from a heart of Thanksgiving.  I thank you God.” “I praise you God.  Prayer flows from a heart of fear and need.  Help me God.  I am sorry, forgive me God.  Prayer flows from a heart of love.  Help this person God.   Prayer is our response to God’s word and activity in our lives.

I thank God for prayers which have been answered in my life: prayers about Nancy and our sons, and our daughters in law and grandchildren; prayers for protection in frightening situations; prayers for healing and health; prayers for surprises of grace which I didn’t expect nor deserve, but isn’t that what grace is all about; prayers leading me, guiding me, inspiring me and encouraging me in ministry as a pastor serving four churches in 42 years.

I am thankful for prayers for others which God has answered over the years.   Prayers for healing, for employment, for marriages becoming healthy, for parenting challenges which were resolved, prayers for older parents who reconciled with their grown children, prayers for grown children stepping up to care for aging parents, prayers for people who discovered direction and purpose in a life that had been aimless and lost.  Prayers for persons who came to faith in Christ as their lord and savior.

And yes, there have also been prayers that were not answered, at least in the way I had hoped they would be.  Some of those are the questions I hope to have a conversation with Jesus about one day.   I like some of you have questions as well.   In my own case I can think of prayers God did not answer in the way I prayed, but in looking back, I am grateful God didn’t, because things unexpectedly turned out better.  I am thankful for the prayers of others for our family over the years.  Yes, we learn a lot about patience and trust in the life of prayer.

I think of an older member in one of our congregations who was having severe back pain.  Two highly qualified doctors informed him of the diagnosis and the recommendation – lower back surgery.   He prayed about it.  We prayed about it, because he still had doubts in his mind.  He finally went to visit one of the Mayo Clinics.  They told him it was an issue with a leak in the cerebrospinal fluid and required a stint and that he needed a totally different surgery.  He recovered fully.   This is not to disrespect the doctors at all.  We all know diagnostics can be extremely difficult.  The point is my friend continually prayed and listened and was guided by God to the right place and the right doctor for him.

We know that prayer can be spontaneous or read, memorized, silent and spoken.  I love classic prayers, like the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  I love The Prayer of St Francis: “O Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred, let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon, where there is doubt, faith, where there is despair, hope, where there is darkness, light, where there is sadness, joy.   O master grant that I many not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood, as to understand, to be love as to love, for it is giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned, and in dying that we are born to eternal life.  I love the Lord’s Prayer:  Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I close with the inspiring words from the letter of Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I 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 minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen!

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