Sunday, July 11, 2010

Choosing Prayer

Scripture Text for Sunday, July 11th, 2010.

Colossians 1:1-14


When possible, I always like to lift the veil over what is going on in church. Why do we pray this particular prayer, who made this decision, why are we looking at this particular text? A number of Christian denominations came together to work out a common scripture schedule. This way, the church could live out its unity by having Christians throughout North America think, pray, and preach from the same set of scriptures each week. The schedule is designed so that in a three-year cycle, each church will cover the most important parts of the bible.
Though I don’t always use lectionary to pick the texts for Sunday morning, it generally is my starting point. Each week, we are presented with four different options of texts to preach from. Normally, I spend Monday morning reading, praying and researching the texts to try and figure out where our focus will be.

This week, in addition to the passages from Luke and Colossians, we had the option of portion of the book of Amos and Psalm 82. I was excited upon reading the texts because each dealt with the issue of God being angry with God’s people for failing to enact justice in their land. One of my deep passions is that we as a church and individual Christians must care deeply about the treatment of others. We need to care about the sick, the hungry, and the poor. We need to care about people of all lands, friend and foe alike. Furthermore, that care needs to extend beyond sympathy or charity so that we attack the very sinful structures that malign all of God’s creation.

Because Monday was a holiday, I left it there and went about enjoying the day. However, something kept tugging at me about the decision. As much as I wanted to preach on social justice, I began to wonder if this was really the message God wanted me to bring to this community on this particular Sunday. Faced with this discomfort, I went back to the suggested texts. When I had read the selections from Colossians the first time, I had quickly dismissed it. It’s just the beginning of a letter where Paul is greeting the people and telling them he is praying for them- not much there. But, whenever I started to work on the other texts, my mind was continually drawn back to the issue of prayer...

You see, perhaps unlike other pastors, prayer may be among my least favorite topics to talk about. It comes out of the struggle I’ve had for years in maintaining what I consider to be a disciplined, joyful prayer life. Though I have thought considerably about God and the church, devour books about theology, love to engage in mission, I find it really difficult to enter into silence and just sit and pray to God.

In his book, Messy Spirituality, Michael Yaconelli related his own struggles in the area of prayer. In his mind, spirituality described people who prayed all day long, read their Bible constantly, and had a special connection with God. Since this did not describe his own life, he saw himself as a spiritual dunce and as a failure as a Christian. His experience parallels well with my own- How could I be a Christian, or even dream about being a pastor, if I wasn’t able to maintain a prayer life.

So, now maybe you can understand when my first reaction to reading the passage from Collisions to be “ehh, prayer…let’s find something more interesting.” And yet, despite all personal protests, I felt increasingly compelled to make the issue of prayer the center of today’s service.

Some here may be wired so that they can spend hours in silent prayer, lifting up the needs of all those around them. God bless you if this describes you, I ask that you use your considerable talents to pray for this church, this community, and the world. Perhaps there is no one else here who struggles with prayer the way I do, but I’d guess I’m not the only one who wrestles with this issue.

In his book on prayer, Philip Yancey said that the simplest answer to the question “Why Pray?” is “Because Jesus did.” He admits that this is simplistic, and spends much of the other 340 pages taking about the issue of unanswered prayers, whether God can intervene, and whether individual prayers make a difference. These are important questions that I don’t want to dismiss. But, for now, let’s stay with the simple answer- “Because Jesus did.” What can we learn about prayer from Jesus?

Jesus, as a Jew, likely followed the practice of visiting the synagogue and of praying at least three times a day. The Gospels also reference Jesus taking time to pray by himself. He expressed a need to withdrawal so he could recharge through prayer. And, like us, Jesus turned to prayer in times of trouble. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus expresses his inner turmoil as he asks God to take the cup away, and after collapsing three times on the ground due to the intensity of his prayers, eventually accedes to the will of God. Generally, though, all of Jesus’ prayers were about and for others. He prayed for children brought by their parents, by those standing at Lazarus’ graveside, for Simon Peter who would be tested, and finally for those who were persecuting him. (Yancey, 77-79)

When I read about Jesus praying, it tends to accelerate my fears on the subject rather than relieve them. Jesus doesn’t pray for things, he doesn’t pray for success, he doesn’t pray for a promotion, for a successful relationship, for Lebron to stay, no he prays for others. And he prays to understand the will of God.

So, what then can today’s passage tell us about praying for the will of God? In the letter to Colossae, Paul (or more likely one of his students) writes to a community that he has never visited. However, word reaches him that the church there is mired in conflict. It seems that some in the community are troubled by those who are arguing that God’s love is not free, but can only be earned through specific religious rites and achievements. They were debates over the type of food or drink that was appropriate to serve, how and which holidays should be celebrated, and what the proper time for worship was. You know, the usual stuff we still fight about from time to time.

Knowing the situation, the author begins to try and resolve the conflict through prayer. He doesn’t begin by suggesting a solution, by saying who is right or wrong, or with a theological treaty, but instead reports that he has been praying for a few specific things-

First, that they may know God’s will. We often see prayer as something we do- we lift up petitions, we say what is on our hearts, we say the things we need, or want. Now, none of these things are necessarily bad. But, when faced with conflict, the author indicates that the first thing we need to do is seek to understand God’s will. Easier said then done, right? I mean, perhaps all those super spiritual people get a direct answer, but at least for me, it’s sometimes hard to discern God’s will.

If we read a bit further though, we begin to get the hint that the author acknowledges the difficulty of this. As the people in Colossae continue to grow in God, he indicates that he also prays “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience.” Notice, though he prays for strength, its not the kind of strength we usually think of. This is not strength to overcome the arguments of the other side. We tend to equate strength with victory in our culture- strength is the superhero defeating the villain; the righteous army defeating the evil army in conflict; the right side of the argument emerging victorious over those who are wrong. No, the strength is instead one of endurance, of outlasting what is sometimes a painful process- it’s the mother who drops exhausted at the end of the day from working two jobs to take care of her child; it’s the parent who weeps as their children make the difficult decision to put them in a nursing home; it’s the teenager who is ostracized for choosing to stick up for the loser rather than going with the popular crowd.

This letter to the Colossians tells us that resolving conflict; discerning the will of God, growing in the Spirit; these are all difficult things that require time and patience. But we are assured that if we can be patient and we are diligent in trying to seek out God’s will, joy will follow. Why, prey tell, may we be confident in this promise? Because Jesus has already gone before us, and continues to go with us. Jesus showed that though the pain on the cross might have required the ultimate endurance, in the end, the resurrection testifies to the goodness of God.

So, where do we start? Even if we know that praying for God’s will requires patience, how do we begin the process? I know I probably can’t pray the way Jesus did, and I’m certainly not up to the monk’s status, so what do I do? Well, I heed some advice and realize that “the way of spiritual life begins where we are now in the mess of our lives.” (Messy Spirituality, 22). I may not be able to sit silently and pray for long (though I keep trying), but I do know the reading about God gives me greater insight into the divine will. When I read, my mind often sparks with new insights and I feel I grow. I also know that I pray best when I am moving and speaking aloud. So, I’ll take a walk and pray. What about you? When do you feel closest to God? Is it in conversation with others? in silent mediation? working on a house? Writing in a journal? You see, this letter assures us its not about praying the proper way, using the proper words, but about coming to God as you have been created, knowing that Jesus and the Holy Spirit will help to make up for any deficiencies.

Whatever it is, that is where we as individuals need to start. We need to do this as a church community also. Lisa Withrow, a professor of church leadership at MTSO, once went to a congregation and canceled all Sunday school classes, meetings, and missions for a year so that they could spend the time praying for God’s discernment. I’ll be honest, I probably don’t have the patience do to that, but I do believe that each and every committee and group in our church can incorporate prayer into their business practices. Our outreach committee has committed to praying for the next month about the missions we have been called to; while our finance committee is praying for the best way to increase our apportionment giving (or the giving of money for mission beyond the walls of this church). Some of that prayer has already born fruit as the committee has decided to set aside a fixed portion of every offering to be paid toward our apportionments until we can eventually pay them all. In whatever form it takes, we need to pray so that we might patiently listen for what God desires us to do. God might call us to different tasks, but God will call. God might seek us out in different places, but God will call. God might send us in different directions, but God will call. May we be bold enough to listen.

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