Scripture: 1 John 5:1-20
It is one of my mom’s favorite stories to tell. I was somewhere around the age of five, and we were at my grandmother’s house. While doing some cleaning they found a picture of my dad from his senior year of high school. They showed it to me and asked if I recognized the person, which I did not. They told me who it was and then said “someday you may look just like that.” Upon gazing at the picture again, my response was an exasperated prayer, “Oh God, I hope not!” Kids, it seem pray the darndest things. If you are having a bad day and want a way to lighten your heart then use google to look up funny kid prayers. The prayers of children tend to be innocent, sweet, and honest. For instance one I ran across was Dear God please change the taste of asparagus. It’s gross. “ Another food related prayer that a mother reported was every day their son would pray, “Dear God, please make this taste good.” However, my favorite story of kids’ prayers that I ran across was relayed by a mother and it happened after giving birth to their third child a boy. The two older children came to the hospital to meet their new baby brother. The oldest, a six year old girl was disappointed and whined “but I prayed for a girl.” The now middle child, a four year old boy, a matter of factly replied, “I prayed harder.”
In churches we tend to do a decent job at teaching children about prayer. I know this because it is one of the default answers. I have taught teens in youth ministry for almost fifteen years now, and I know that it does not matter what the scripture we are studying is or the topic we are discussing if I ask a question that involves some form of how we can put our faith into action someone will always say “pray”. Now technically, they are right. It is very rarely not appropriate to pray, but I have to wonder how much thought most of us have put into prayer. We know we are supposed to pray but how much do we know about why we pray, how to pray, and what to pray? Once someone accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior, we tend to assume people just know how to be Christians. Throughout Lent we are going back to basics. We are going to try to get on the same page about the things we as the people of God and why we do them. Today, we are getting back to the basics of prayer.
The most basic and perhaps the most important question to answer about prayer is why we pray. This is such a fundamental question that some of the best Christian thinkers in history have weighed in on it. The great reformer Martin Luther wrote, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” We pray because it is one of the most basic expression of our faith. The reason for this is reminded to us by the great preacher Charles Spurgeon who preached, “True prayer is neither a mere mental exercise nor a vocal performance. It is far deeper than that - it is spiritual transaction with the Creator of Heaven and Earth.” He reminds us that prayer is more than inspiring words and it is much more than thinking good thoughts or sending positive vibes. A “spiritual transaction” is a 19th century way of saying encounter. When we pray we are encountering God. As this morning’s scripture puts it, we approach God. Catholic saint Mother Teresa explained the encounter with God that we have in prayer in very intimate terms when she stated, “Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.” When we pray in this way, we truly put ourselves in the hands of God and listen to for God’s voice in the depths of hearts something truly remarkable happens. The hugely influential 19th century theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard plainly stated, “Prayer does not change God but it changes [the one] who prays.”
The collective wisdom of the voices out of Christian tradition paint a consistent picture of why we pray that aligns with scripture. The reason why we pray is to build and continue a relationship with God because it is in prayer we directly interact with God. Now I know for those of you who are routine church attenders, that is a standard statement, you know that already. However, I do not think we truly appreciate the epic scope of that statement. We are saying the creator of the known and unknown universe, the God who sees and knows all things at all times, and the God who is infinitely power gives us the time of day whenever we seek it. For that reason prayer absolutely should change us and that is also one of the reason why we pray. In this morning’s scripture John wrote in verse 18, “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe and the evil one cannot harm them.” John is writing about the ideal, to reach a place in life where we do not willfully sin and fully love God with all of our being. Why we pray is because reaching that state of Christian perfection is only possible by God changing us as we interact and changed by God in prayer.
The next basic question, which is the primary focus, of this morning’s scripture is what we pray about. In some ways understanding what we should pray about is just as important as understanding why we should pray in the first place. Perhaps, collectively as the American church this might be one of the most areas we need some guidance and help. I do not know if you have noticed but our prayers can be kind of selfish. Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton noticed this and wrote about it in their influential and prophetic book Soul Searching. They identified that by the approach many take to prayer they treat God “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he's always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.” In other words, what we pray about is ourselves and how God can make our lives better in the most comfortable way possible.
That way of praying is not really supported by scripture including this mornings. At first glance it does seem that this morning’s scripture might support the idea that God is always at our beck and call ready to bless us. Verses 14 and 1 do state: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know he hears us-whatever we ask we know that we have what we asked of him.” Again, at first glance it does seem this scripture supports a “name it and claim it” idea. But there is a huge qualifier in verse 14. It says if we ask anything according to God’s will. We can confidence that God will hear and answer our prayers if our prayers are in accordance with God’s will.
In this morning’s scripture John is very helpful because he gives us example of the kind of prayer that would be in God’s will. In verse 16 John writes about seeing a fellow Christian sin and praying that God will give them life and lead them to repentance. That is the kind of prayer that is in accordance with the will of God. This is why the TV preachers who peddle prosperity and treat prayer like an unscratched lottery ticket are so odious. Prayer is not about taking our wish list to God and demanding we be given what we want or think we deserve. Prayer is not about what we want or our will. What we pray should always be rooted in God’s will. This is why every single Sunday we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.” Ultimately what we pray should be informed by why we pray.
Again, the reason why we pray is to maintain and grow our relationship with God, and doing so should and will change us. In Romans the apostle Paul wrote about this change. Paul wrote “be transformed by the renewing of your mind then you will able to test and approve God’s will is- his good, pleasing and perfect will. Prayer is more than just asking God for things, it is a communication with God that aligns our will with God’s will. We can get to a place in our faith where pray “your will be done” and have a good idea what that will be. For when we are not to that point, I do have a suggestion then for a good starting point about what we should pray. To modify a quote from President John F. Kennedy, in prayer we should not ask what God can do for us, but ask what we can do for God. Part of what we pray should not just be us asking from God, but we should ask what God wants from us. Then, the most important part is we then go and do it. That is how prayer transforms us and how we in turn transform the world.
The final basic question about prayer is how we pray. Now as a lifelong United Methodist, I have gathered that the answer is as silently as possible. Nothing mortifies a room of Methodists like asking someone who is not a pastor to pray out loud. Jesting aside, if the reason why we pray is for the right reason and what we pray for is what we should be praying for then the how is a matter of personal preference. Again, there is no shortage of advice here on how to pray, and the answer is to pray in the way that feels most authentic for you. It is commonly said to pray to God like you are talking to a friend, if that works for you then pray that way. There are others who feel like they need a little more structure and they follow a prayer model such as the five finger prayer. Because you are going to ask, this is a model of praying for the needs of others that uses your hand as a reminder: 1. Pray for those we love (family and friends) 2. Pray for those who teach us. 3. Pray for those who govern and hold authority. 4. Pray for the sick and the weakest 5. Finally pray for yourself.
Then there are those who prefer a lot of structure and enjoy guidance by following along with prayers from a devotional book or a daily prayer ritual. As long as our prayers are authentic and driven by a deep desire to connect with our heavenly father and pray according to his will then the how of how we do it is not that important. The substance of our prayers is vastly more important than the form. You pray how you pray, because you can have confidence in approaching God. The one piece of advice that I would offer up in how you pray, is allow space for God. Prayer should not be a one way conversation but we should pause, breathe, sit in silence, and give space for the Spirit of God to move, lead, mold, and guide us.
The song is probably dated now, but several years ago one of the debut hits of the band Casting Crowns was “What if his people prayed?” The chorus of the song ask the rhetorical questions “What is his people prayed? And those who bear his name would humbly seek his face and turn from their own way?” What is clever about the song is that they do not actually give an answer to their question. They leave it up to their listeners to determine what the outcome would be if the people of God prayed to seek the face of Christ, sought the will of God, and prayed to be used by God for God’s purposes? Just what would happen if Christians prayed in that way? Edinburgh UMC, let’s find out.