Monday, July 30, 2007

Lord, teach us to pray.

A Christian missionary in Africa was being chased through the bush by a ravenous, hungry lion. Feeling the beast come closer with every breath, and knowing that his time was short, the man turned to the Lord in prayer. “O Lord, I pray you to make this lion a Christian.”

As soon as he prayed this prayer, the missionary instinctively knew that the lion had stopped the chase. When he turned around to look, sure enough, he saw the lion bowed down on his knees, with his hands folded, and with his lips moving in prayer. Joyous and exhilarated, the missionary wanted to join the lion in meditation. As he knelt down in front of him, the missionary heard the lion praying, “. . . and bless, O Lord this food which you have set before me . . .”

Prayer is fundamental to being Christian disciples. We are called to be God’s people, to enter into a relationship with him, and no relationship is sustained without conversation. Imagine, if you will, that someone close to you--a spouse, parent, or child--someone you see every day, never said "Good morning," never spoke to you, never said “I love you,” never told you what they thought of you, never told you what was on their mind. And yet, some expect to have a healthy relationship with God even if they never answer him.

They never answer in worship--either public or private. They never answer by speaking to the Lord (except maybe when the lions are after them). And I use the word “answer” deliberately in regards to prayer. God always takes the initiative--even when we haven’t realized it. The Bible says, “We love him because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19).

The catechism in the Prayer Book answers the question “What is prayer?” by saying that prayer is response--“responding to God by thoughts and by deeds, with or without words.” It puts the old question “do you think God answers prayer?” in perspective. Many people think of prayer as being like room service. We call in and place an order that God is supposed to fill.

But those who are experienced in the art of prayer have a different question in mind. “Have I been answering God in prayer?” is what they are asking. C.S. Lewis said, “I don’t pray because it changes God, I pray because God changes me. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because the need flows out of me.”

Do you have a prayer life like that? It is possible. It’s a relationship with God characterized by good communication. Jesus knew the art of prayer, and his disciples saw that. The Twelve were with him all hours of the day--they saw the real Jesus.

They saw things in Jesus like how he would get up extra early in the morning just to go off to a quiet place and spend some time in prayer before the distractions of the day got the best of him. The disciples asked Jesus, “Can you tell us the secret? John the Baptist taught his followers how to pray. Teach us to pray.”

It is here that Jesus teaches the disciples what has been called “the Our Father,” or “the Lord’s Prayer.” I’m sure most of you are familiar with the text, so I won’t go through it line by line. But I would like to highlight a few things that have helped me, because if you’re like me, prayer is not something that comes naturally. (Perhaps it is more natural when the lions are chasing you.) But most of the time, it is something that you need to be very deliberate and intentional about.

Prayer is an art that needs habitual formation. It is no mistake that our worship in the Catholic tradition from Sunday to Sunday and indeed from day to day is very repetitious. We need that constant formation, that regularity that shapes our own interior conversation with God.

1. I’d like to point out first, Jesus’ use of the term Father. And this is a very intimate term--Abba--it means something like “Daddy.” Jesus says when you pray, say “Father in heaven . . .” We need to be constantly reminded that God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, is big enough to fill the universe, yet small enough to dwell in the human heart.

Through Jesus--the only Son of God--we have received this personal access. God is not some distant thing, God is some one--he is our Father. We have been adopted into God’s family, and we have a right to come sit in his lap and call him daddy. Through Jesus, we have been given that privileged, personal access. And we should use it. When we begin to think of prayer in terms of family and conversation and relationship, it breaks down some of the barriers that we have to prayer. It can help prayer become more natural--even “second nature.”

2. I’d like to point out second, that Jesus’ example immediately turns to praise and adoration. When you pray, say, “Father in heaven, hallowed by thy name.” “May you be loved; may you be known everywhere as holy.” If you have not learned to praise, you have not leaned to pray. Does God answer our prayers? Absolutely he answers them. We know that because he is holy; he is wonderful, he is beautiful, he is lovely, he is kind, he is awesome, he is majestic, he is powerful, he is the fount of all goodness, he is the defender of the lowly, he is the source of all purity, he is the savior of the world, he is the abode of justice and mercy, he is the seat of all virtue, he is the giver of peace, he is the fairest of ten thousand, he is a worker of miracles, he is worthy of all praise.

What should occupy the highest calling of every parish church is the worship of almighty God. If we are not here for that reason, we are here for no reason at all. Adoration is the highest act of man--something done for God alone. As the catechism in the prayer book tells us, “Adoration is the lifting up of the heart and mind to God, asking nothing but to enjoy God’s presence.”

If you want to know what prayer is, you need to begin by practicing praise and adoration. Set aside time in the morning to praise. Set aside time in the evening simply to sit in silence and love the Lord. If there is something noble and rewarding that you regularly do, say, “I’m doing this for the Lord, to show God I love him.” Prayer can sanctify all the precious moments of our lives when we make them offerings to God, when we say “I’m doing this as an act of love, I’m doing this because I love the Lord.” When you learn to make you life a prayer, your life will change forever.

3. I’d like to point out third, Jesus’ tells us that God is a generous and powerful giver of gifts. All good things come from above, and we should bring our needs straight to the source.

While some people mistakenly picture God as a cosmic bellhop--waiting to meet our every demand--others go to far in the other direction. They feel like they should never ask for anything from God. But Jesus says no; that’s not what God is like. A Father wants to shower gifts on his children.

One of the lapel pins I wear on my jacket is a depiction of Madonna and child in the style known as “Our Lady of Perpetual Help.” When people ask me about it, I remind them, if you don’t ask for help, you don’t get it.

In the Old Testament lesson today, we see Abraham interceding with God to spare the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. He easily whittled the number down to ten--“If there are ten righteous people in Sodom,” God says, “I will not destroy it.” The truth is that if there was one righteous person in Sodom, God would have spared the city. But no one there was asking for mercy.

This church has needs--needs that it will never see met if there are not people praying for those needs to be met. Each one of you has needs in your personal life--needs that will not be met until you bring them to the Lord. Often because the things we really need most, are the things that only God can provide. I pray that everyone in this room today may feel something of the power and generosity of God. The Lord is powerful.

How long has it been since you really felt prayed for? God offers that opportunity to us. Remember to call upon the God we know intimately as Father. Remember to lavish your love and adoration upon him. And do not be ashamed to call upon his power and goodness.

Let me leave you today with the words of the Lord Jesus, “And I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish, give him a serpent? or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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