Prayer, Good God, What is it Good For?

September 24, 2012

Prayer, Good God, What is it Good For?

This week on the Freakonomics podcast, Stephen Dubner interviewed Phillip Zimbardo the psychologist who developed the Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo mentioned how a person’s identity is in large part a result of context and relationships, though there is a fundamental identity which reveals itself when a person experiences the unexpected. To prove this, he likes to create unexpected situations to see how a person reacts. For example, when he goes out to dinner, and the server begins the conversation saying, “Hi, I’m Jake, and I’ll be taking care of you this evening. Would you like to start with something to drink,” he answers, “No, I would like to start with dessert and work backwards. Thank you.” He said in the interview, “Every time I do this, the server pauses and thinks for a moment as if to process whether or not this would be allowed.” I have experienced a similar reaction when leading a program here at the church when I say, “Who would like to close us with prayer?” Typically what happens is the opposite of a staring contest. We being bible-believing Methodists take Jesus literally when he says in Matthew 6, “Do not pray in public like the hypocrites; rather pray in secret and your father in heaven will reward you.”

This summer I had the blessing of traveling with the youth group to serve with Appalachia Service project, and each morning when we would gather for morning announcements, they would ask for someone to close with prayer. The first day I volunteered. The second day, Paul, our director of youth ministry volunteered, I guess because we are the professionals and we are supposed to? So Tuesday night I challenged the youth that next time they asked for prayer that someone from Broadmoor would immediately and confidently raise his or her hand. To prime them a bit, I gave them a cheat sheet for praying in public.

A collect (which is a fancy way of saying general daily prayer) have five steps. One—Describe God. Two—Who is this God you have described. Three—For what are you asking? Four—Why are you asking it? Five—Amen. So, a collect goes something like this: Gracious God, who loves us, give us strength to get through this worship service. In Jesus’ name. Amen. Now you have the secret. Now you can pray at the drop of a hat and sound great doing it. But it’s not about sounding great, and I think that’s where this fear of praying in public has it’s root.

Prayer is a huge topic. It would be foolish to encompass all avenues of prayer in one sermon, but there are some things I would like to offer as we meditate on prayer. First, prayer is not a commodity or a product. Yes we do offer petitions, asking God to send us blessings or strength or patience, but an appropriate posture of prayer is understanding that God is not a vending machine. When we think of prayer as a commodity or product, we tend to ask if it works or not. I think CS Lewis offers a better framework for prayer. He said, “Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In prayer, God shows Himself to us.” Yes, prayer does involve asking for guidance, strength, peace, but it is also confessing and pardon and adoration and enjoyment of God. Dr. James Howell writes in his book, The Beautiful Work of Learning to Pray, “When the great saints of the Church speak of prayer, they very rarely talk about whether it works or not. For them prayer is all about love, the creation of communion with the God from whom the soul cannot bear to be apart.”

Prayer is fundamentally about learning how to commune with God, learning how to rest within the heart of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray. If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (give us this day our daily bread). But God wants it otherwise. The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.”

This is why Jesus said, pray then in this way: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” This reminds us of prayer’s purpose—to commune with God. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Not only is prayer about communing with God, but it is the act of seeking God’s will. “Give us this day our daily bread.” Give us what we need, and help us let go of what we don’t. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Offer us pardon so that we might pardon each other. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Transform our hearts to desire you, not everything but you. “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” The world is yours and all that it in it.

Over the next six weeks as we commit our lives to Christ and the Church prayer must be the place where we start. Prayer is the means through which we receive blessings, offer adoration, seek wisdom, and are inspired to make God’s kingdom here on earth. Before you is a set of promises in which you will make a commitment of prayer . . .

Even though prayer is not a commodity, it does work. Philip Zambardo said that our identity is in large part dependent on our context and relationships. Being in the presence of God transforms our soul to conform with Christ by the power of the Spirit because in prayer through Christ we are surrounded by the love of God who calls us to serve those whom God loves. Amen and amen.