Written by Bryan Niebanck
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see GodMatthew 5:8
What is prayer? We spent a year focusing on prayer, but what is your takeaway from that? What is your takeaway from growing with the Christian church? Have you been taught well enough how to engage in prayer? If not, do you know how to challenge the church to teach you better? It might surprise you at times that the church is not really all about God. The church is about you. The church should want you to grow. The church should want you to fee valued. The church should help you in the areas that you need help in, to be encouraged, to find strength, and to find peace. Go ahead and ask questions as you need to; we do not need to be and should not be just in a one-way dialogue. We learn from each other and we need each other to grow.
I am hoping that you feel invited to answer some of the questions that I pose to you in sermons going forth. I do want you to be able to learn from me, but I also expect to be able to learn from your wisdom as well, as we are both servants of Christ trying to forge our way forward and to grow in our faithfulness. And I am curious as to your responses. As we continue to talk about how we can more easily trust God as we walk along this journey, today I want to focus on how prayer is actually a declaration of trusting God. And I want to ask you these questions:
Who taught you to pray? [parents, church, friends]
Where is your favorite place to pray? [church, prayer room, outdoors]
So, what is prayer?
When someone asks me what prayer is, I usually respond by saying that it is a conversation with God. It is. But in saying it is a conversation, I mean conversation. It is not talking to God, or at God, or about God. It is talking with God. It is engaging with God to a point that you can both understand each other, at least to a degree. You may not think that you can understand God, but for every time you say that, there is someone who does not think they will understand their brother, and do not even try. You cannot assume that you will not understand God – to some degree – if you are not willing to try. Samuel understood God. So did Gideon, and Isaiah, and Jonah. They, along with Moses, and Elijah, and David, all sought to help others. They taught others about God and about prayer, most if not all of them leading by example. So, I also ask this question: Who would you set an example for through a regular prayer life? Perhaps you already do have a regular prayer life, and I commend you for that. And we should not aim to pray in public, because we are not aiming to show off our apparent faithfulness. But when we do pray often, it shows through our actions. It shows through our trust in God and our faithfulness. And we also never know when someone is watching. When they do watch, we want to be caught doing something we want them to follow.
Let me share something that prayer is not. It is not slandering with your tongue and it is not taking up a reproach against your neighbors (Psalm 15:3). It is not advocating for division from your brother. It is not wishing ill on someone. It is not exalting yourself or trying to defend yourself or save your back. It is, instead, as Matthew 5:12 points out, rejoicing and being glad. It is being able to rejoice and be glad knowing that we are not alone in our struggles. It is trusting that, as Matthew 5:12 assures us through the words of Jesus, our reward is great in heaven, no matter what we may receive here. Hear this explanation from the famous preacher Jonathon Edwards – and no, this is not from fire and brimstone. He preached, “Prayer is as natural an expression of faith as breathing is of life.”
There are so many types of prayer, especially when we see it as an expression of faith. We may think prayer is secluded to folded hands and a bowed head. But have you ever considered that you can pray while reading a book? How many of you have opened a book so far this year? … Good, we do still read. Have you ever, even perhaps while reading a magazine article or devotion, thought that something someone said was so powerful that you just had to stop and write it down? My desk at home is filled with clippings and copies of pages that I haven’t wanted to forget after I recycled the magazine or put down the book until who knows when (because I have a couple hundred other things on my list to read). They serve as reminders of God’s faithfulness to me, which I believe God put in my path when I needed to read it. They almost serve as a kind of breath prayer for me. They are daily reminders that can be said in a sentence or a couple sentences. Here’s one: “Talk with God; no breath is lost. Walk with God; no strength is lost. Wait for God; no time is lost. Trust in God; you will never be lost.” One form of prayer is using the works of other Christians to help us find our way to God.
A breath prayer is a short phrase that connects you more deeply with God. Let me share a few of the breath prayers from the Bible. Here is one from Job: “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4). There are countless others: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2). “My soul finds rest in God alone” (Psalm 62:1). The Psalms are a very helpful book, especially when we might find ourselves wrought with emotion. As Jennifer Williams wrote in an article on Ministry Matters, “there are passages in which we can yell at God through our anger, cry with God in our sorrow, rejoice, and give thanks. Whatever our emotion or state of mind, the Psalms can help us reach out to God.” This was her breath prayer when her father died: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord” (Psalm 121:1). This reminded her that God was still present in her life and that God was the only help that she ever needed.
In your bulletin you will find a space for a breath prayer. Please take a few moments. What sentence will remind you to refocus on God? What sentence will remind you to refocus on God as a commitment to your baptismal vow to serve God and continue to get to know God better? Remember that in this season of Epiphany, we are in a four part series to remind ourselves to reaffirm our baptisms. We reaffirm our baptism and our commitment to God through prayer, through presence, and through service. Last week, we talked about baptism. This week, we talk about prayer. I am challenging you to write down a sentence that you can pray over and over again, to remind you of God’s love, or God’s presence, or of the hope that you find in God. And if you cannot think of one today, take your bulletin home, go read some Psalms, and make the commitment to write something down that you can keep on your desk, or on your refrigerator, or in your car, or somewhere where you are going to see it and be reminded of it repeatedly.
Would any of you like to share your breath prayer?
Through our breath prayers, we will remind ourselves to trust God even when it is hard. And even when it is hard, we can still find a way to come to God. We read a lot in the Bible about people giving thanks. Paul begins nearly every letter to the people of various churches with a note of thanks for their work, even when he was upset with them and about to point out all the things they were doing wrong. When you have not prayed for awhile, or you are feeling lost, and you do not know what to say, thanks is a great way to start. When you know you are about to have a very difficult conversation, why not start with a word of thanks, or a word of prayer, or both? Wherever you find yourself today, I encourage you to write down your answers to these questions as well:
What are you thankful for?
What is God doing in this world to be thankful for?
What is God doing in this church for which you would like to give thanks?
Remember how God’s faithful ones are to persist. We want to be able to, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “persist in praising God – or at least in trusting God – through all that befalls [us]” (Feasting on the Word, A.1.149). Our help comes from the Lord. May all honor and glory be to God! Thanks be to God! Amen.
15:1 O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?
15:2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart;
15:3 who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
15:4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the LORD; who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
15:5 who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved.
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
1:18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
1:19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
1:20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
1:21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.
1:22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,
1:23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
1:24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
1:25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
1:26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
1:27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
1:28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,
1:29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
1:30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,
1:31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.