Sunday, September 29, 2013

Running on Empty? OnStar (Luke 11:1-4)

Jesus was praying in a certain place.  When he finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus told them, “When you pray, say:
‘Father, uphold the holiness of your name.
Bring in your kingdom.
Give us the bread we need for today.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who was wronged us.
And don’t lead us into temptation.’”

If you’re just joining us today, we are in the middle of a series of messages called “Running on Empty.”  In these messages, I am giving you real, concrete, practical ways you can experience God’s grace. 

We have already talked about how God gives us grace when we worship, how that is like using the right fuel.  I encouraged you to show up to worship with an open and expectant heart.  We have talked about how God gives us grace in baptism, both initially and when we remember our baptism, and I’ve invited you to remember the grace in your baptism often.  Today, it’s something a little different: the OnStar button.  May we pray.

Those of you with cars equipped with OnStar know that by pushing that button, you are immediately put in touch with someone who can help you.  In the life of faith, prayer is sort of like OnStar – prayer gets us in touch with God.

The followers of Jesus came to him while he was praying and said, “Lord, teach us to pray” (v. 1).  It doesn’t matter how eloquent our prayers are, because prayer’s effectiveness has nothing to do with the qualifications of the pray-er, and everything to do with the qualities of the one to whom we pray.  Prayer isn’t about us, it’s about God.

In our text, Jesus addresses God as “Our Father,” in other words, as our loving parent.  I think of the small child who will fling themselves off the bed or the kitchen counter in the direction of their father as they scream “Daddy, catch!” in sure and certain hope that their father will open his arms and catch them and hold them close.  It is this kind of relationship that is intended between God and us – God who shamelessly and unconditionally loves us, and our experience of that love leads us to unconditionally trust God.  That relationship is nurtured and made real in prayer.

Prayer is the language of our conversation with God, and learning how to pray is much the same as learning a language.  We have several friends with small children, and it is fascinating to watch them learn language – every new word is just waiting to be used appropriately and in context.  It also makes me very careful what words or phrases I use around their children, knowing that they are soaking up and repeating everything, and I don’t want to be the one credited with teaching them some new and colorful word!

As they are learning a language, kids love trying out each new word.  You have to use a language to learn it.  The same is true in our prayer language.  The best way to learn how to pray – to develop the vocabulary and language of prayer – is to start praying.  When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, they didn’t assume that prayer was something only for a special few or some elite group of prayers, but that all of them, as followers of Jesus, were to be people of prayer.

One of my frustrations with our current religious culture is that we have professionalized prayer.  Nine times out of ten, if I am in a group setting and prayer is called for, all eyes will turn to be, because of, course, the pastor in the group is the natural choice to pray – I’m a professional, after all – and my prayers must surely have some extra va-va-voom in them simply by nature of my vocation, right?  I do pray in these situations, but I also don’t mind telling you that I do so somewhat reluctantly, not because I doubt my own ability to pray but because I don’t want to reinforce the idea that prayer is best left to the professionals and only the professionals.  We are all called to pray.

Whether you pray or not is up to you.  Just know that you’re leaving a whole lot of God’s grace untapped if you choose not to pray.  The hymn says, “Oh, what peace we often forfeit, Oh, what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”  Prayer is yet one more way we fill up with God’s grace – and the more we do it, the more grace we receive.

You’d better believe that as soon as you hit that OnStar button of prayer, God is going to be on the other end of the line waiting to answer you.  God is just hoping you’ll call, staring at the phone whispering, “Please call.  Please call.  Please call.”  God wants that relationship with you.  Prayer is the language of our relationship with God, and it fills us with God’s grace.

The first step in learning any language, including prayer, is to listen.  We think of prayer in terms of what we say, but prayer is much more about listening than it is about speaking.

My first grade teacher taught us the importance of listening.  “You have two ears and one mouth,” she said.  “So you need to spend at least twice as much time listening as you do speaking.”  Given my love for talking, I was reminded of this lesson with greater frequency than were others in the class.

Effective prayer, that truly nourishes and responds to our relationship with God, will devote twice as much time to listening to God as it does speaking to God.  It requires the intentional setting aside of our distractions and giving God our full attention, so that everything about us says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  The disciples said, “Teach us to pray,” but then they had to be quiet, and listen to what Jesus had to say.  So it is for us.  When we pray, we need some time to simply be quiet and listen for what Jesus has to say – twice as much time listening to God as having God listen to us.

Further, if you’re still worried about praying “wrong,” you can’t really mess up because all prayer is basically one of three expressions.  When you boil it down and strip away the fancy words, all prayers are either saying, “Help,” “Thanks,” or “Wow!”  There may be some other sentiments that get mixed in there, but they are simply variations of these three basic expressions.  If you’re worried about what to pray, start by saying “Help,” “Thanks,” or “Wow!”

Let’s start with “Help.”  Help prayers are when we ask God, beg God, or even demand that God do something, either on our behalf or on behalf of someone else.  Help prayers are a good starting place, the Scriptures tell us to bring our needs and the desires of our hearts before God, and so we should.

What I’ve seen, however, is that many Christians get stuck at “help” in terms of their prayer vocabulary – prayer is treated as little more than an opportunity to bring our list of wants, desires, and needs before God – “God, give me this; God, grant me that; God, do such-and-such.”

I know of parents with kids in college who only call when they need something, usually money.  Unfortunately, I also know of many Christians who only call out to God in similar situations.  God is not a vending machine or a granter of wishes – it would be nice for God to hear from us not only when we need something, but because we are interested in a relationship with God.

Help prayers are more effective if we offer them first rather than as a last resort.  Starting the day by saying, “Lord, help me through this day” puts us in a place where we start out by inviting God’s presence into our lives.  This keeps God at the center, keeps the conversation open constantly, and we live as if we really are dependent on God’s grace, rather than only inviting God into our lives in the midst of life’s crises and desperate situations.  Make no mistake, God is still there with us in those crises – yet God doesn’t want to be called in only when we need something.  There’s nothing wrong with “help” prayers and I encourage you – keep bringing your needs before God – but we need to understand that they represent the most basic of prayers; they are sort of like step one, and to deepen our relationship with God, we need to expand our prayer vocabulary.

Here’s where the next type of prayer comes in, when we say, “Thanks.”  This one should be an easy one.  When someone does something nice for you, or helps you out, how do you respond?  You say, “Thank you.”  Saying “Thank you” is a simple way to say, “Hey, you’ve done something for me, and I appreciate it!”  It acknowledges that person and keeps us from taking them or their gift for granted.

Question for you this morning: Has God ever done anything for anyone here?  Truth is, God does even more than we could ask or imagine.  The creative gift of life, reconciliation through Christ, the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit – all of it a gift from God!  When we realize that God has given freely, generously, and abundantly to each of us, what else can we say but “Thanks”?
Actually, there is one more thing we can say, and that’s “Wow!”  Every night before we go to sleep, Ashley gets out her iPad and reads articles on LiveScience.  A common theme in those articles is discovery – from something in the farthest reaches of space down to something happening in our bodies at a sub-cellular level.  Usually, what we learn in those articles makes us say, “Wow!”

All around us, God’s handiwork is on display, and if we’re observant enough to catch a glimpse of some of that, we say, “Wow!”  It’s why, in the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Hallowed be your name.”  Hallowed means Holy – because what God does is far beyond our ability, yet displayed in such a way that we are able to appreciate, at least in part, what God is up to.

In the movie Forrest Gump, after he has started to become quite wealthy toward the end of the movie, he quotes his mother, saying, “Mama always said there’s only so much money a man needs; the rest is for showing off.”  Likewise, there’s only so much creativity and power God needs, but the rest is for showing off.  It’s enough to make us say, “Wow.”

Who God is and what God does is more than enough to take our breath away, but the real kicker is that God who is holy has not only invited us to see and participate in the splendor unfolding around us, but has even invited us into a relationship, simply because God loves us. “Wow!”  Our lives become a symphony of constant praise.  Having encountered the holiness of God, we are constantly experiencing and telling the glory of God, and the more we tell of God’s glory, the more we, ourselves, are filled with grace.

Lord, teach us to pray.  Here at Morehead, prayer remains a life-giving and grace-filled priority, and we have several groups that meet at various times throughout the week specifically to pray.  There are folks here early on Sunday morning to pray for the worship services, everyone who will lead them and each one who worships, that the Holy Spirit will move mightily in worship.  There are folks who meet throughout the week at various times to lift up, by name, each person in this congregation, and to pray for the needs of people both around the corner and around the world.  If you are part of one of our prayer groups, would you please raise your hand and raise it high?

I am deeply-appreciative for what they do.  However, you need to understand that they are not doing something special; they are simply doing what all of us should be doing.  I think they would agree that we should not applaud them for praying, but join them in praying.  Before I give the benediction, I’m going to ask all of them to come here to the front, and before you come to speak to me on your way out, I want you first to speak to them about participating in a prayer group.  Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh, I’d like to, but I just don’t have time.”  Then make time.  All relationships require our time and attention.  Your relationship with God is important enough to make the time to nurture it.  Prayer is not just something for the professionals or an elite few; we are all called to pray because prayer develops and deepens our relationship with God.

When the disciples of Jesus came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray,” Jesus knew that the best way to learn to pray was to start praying.

You don’t have to live your life on empty.  We are invited into a life-giving, grace-filled relationship with God, and the language of that relationship is prayer.  Let’s learn the language.

May we pray.  Lord, teach us to pray.  Teach us to listen more than we speak.  Teach us to say help, thanks, and wow.  Lord, teach us to pray.  Amen.

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