First lesson: Romans 12:9-16
Second Lesson: Luke 18:1-8
Children’s story: Luke 18:9-14
We talk a lot about prayer in this church and we do a lot of praying in this church. A few weeks ago now Rev. Howard Vanderwell and Norma deWaal Malefyt were here to talk with us about Presbyterian worship. They taught us to think about up and down arrows in our worship, if you recall. They asked to think about when in the service we are talking (or singing) to God, and when in the service God is talking to us. And when are talking with each other in worship. They helped us see that our Call to Worship is often a prayer to God. Oftentimes the songs we sing are prayers to God – songs in which we pour out our hearts to God in music. Two of our songs today are really prayers to God. Our opening song, “When Morning Gilds the Skies” and the song we’ll sing at the end of the service “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” are really prayers. We have a formal prayer of confession pretty much every Sunday. We pray with the children before they leave the sanctuary. We pray before we read scripture and we ask that God’s Spirit will reach our hearts in ways that will surprise us. And we have that beautiful moment in our service which I love - when the sanctuary is silent. And when all of us are making our way into God’s presence with our prayers. Prayers that rise straight from our weary spirits and our wounded hearts – prayers we don’t have words for, but we offer our tears and our sighs to God. Or our prayers of deep gratitude which sometimes also we can’t put into words – and we simply empty out the fullness of our hearts into God’s heart. Those are all times in our service when the arrow goes “up.”
And I love to imagine those prayers all rising straight up past the ceiling of this sanctuary straight into the very presence of God, who has been waiting for us, and who loves us more than we have words for, and who hears us. And then we pray in unison, the powerful prayer that Jesus taught us. And if you’ve noticed, the words of our final song these days are also a prayer.
So today I want to talk about four parts of prayer. Not that each part is in every prayer. Sometimes our prayers are more one thing than another, but it’s a pattern for prayer that may serve us well. We use the acronym ACTS – for the parts of prayer. You saw that in the bulletin this morning. We talk about Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.
I am thinking of a dear woman named Millie. She and her husband farmed a small farm south of here. She had been very active in the Presbyterian Church – organizing all the women’s sales for years and years, and climbing up on the roof to fix shingles and she had also led that congregation in their mission outreach. She was well known and dearly loved in that church. By the time I knew Millie she wasn’t doing any of those things any more. She was mostly sitting in her brown corduroy lazy boy chair in her big old farm house. And in that brown lazy boy chair she was also praying a lot. Sometimes I would come to visit her she would tell me, “When I want to pray, I sit in my chair quietly and wait. And when I feel that God is with me, I start to pray.”
The first step in prayer is simply to adore God. To reflect deeply on the goodness of God and the grandeur of God, and the absolute majesty of God. So find a mental picture that reminds you of the greatness of God – waves rolling on the beach, perhaps. Or a delicate sunrise, or a brilliant sunset, or the sky on a perfectly clear night. Or a mountain scene. And stay with that scene in your mind for a few moments. And let the beauty of God, and majesty of God and the mystery and power of God roll over you and through you. Or find a Psalm that expresses the awesomeness of God. Read each word slowly and let the words soak into your soul. Or if music is the way you express your feelings, let the words of a hymn float through your mind. “O Lord, My God, When I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds thy hands have made. Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to thee: How great thou art, How great thou art.”
Then, when we are properly in awe of God. Then when we have a sense of the glory of God through the eons of time. Then we place ourselves like a tiny pinprick in all that was and all that is and all that ever will be. Then we begin to form our words to God.
And the first thing we do is confess. We confess that we are puny little specks in God’s consciousness. We confess that as much as we try, we so often cannot get it right. Even though we know better. We confess that for days on end, we dash through our lives without a thought of God. We confess that the world is a mess in so many ways and that we are a part of the mess and in our own way, we are responsible for that mess. We confess that even on our best days – even if we tried to make a difference, the powers against us are too strong and we fail. We confess individual failings in front of God – as if we had to remind God, who knows it all perfectly well already. Not like that man in our story for today. He stood in front of God proudly and announced how wonderful he was, and how perfect he was, especially compared to other people. And you know what Jesus had to say about folks like him, “The ones who exalt themselves will be humbled and the ones who humble themselves will be exalted.” There is a translation of the Bible that you may be familiar with. It’s called The Message and here’s the way the Message puts Jesus words: “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
And then we wait to hear God’s words of forgiveness to us. In our minds, we see the picture of Jesus hanging in shame on his cross and we claim Jesus. We cover our faces and wait for the loving voice of God to reassure us. And miracle of miracles, we hear that loving voice of God – forgiving us. And we imagine ourselves nestling like a baby in the arms of God. And we can breathe again.
And then we are full of thanks. Then we have long lists of things we are thankful for, and we can’t get them out of our mouths fast enough. We thank God for big things and little things and the longer we pray the more we think of. Maybe you have this habit: that before you fall asleep every evening you write down three things you have been thankful for that day. And maybe many more things than three - as a way of living in gratitude. We plan how we will say our thanks and show our thanks and do our thanks and give our thanks and live our thanks. We pledge that our entire lives will be one long song of thanks to God.
And when we have sat in awe in front of God, and confessed to God what puny little people we are, and when we have wrapped ourselves in God’s forgiveness, and when we have exhausted ourselves being thankful, THEN we start in with our requests. Sometimes we call them Supplications. THEN we pray, “O God, I’m so worried. I’ve got this pain and the doctor doesn’t know what it is, and we’re doing all kinds of tests, and I’m afraid.” THEN we say, “Help me because I’m worried sick about my son or my daughter and I don’t know what to do.” THEN we pray, “Oh God, my life is a mess and my marriage is in trouble, and I can’t see any good future ahead of me. So help me.” THEN we say to God, “Don’t you see all those refugees coming pouring into Europe with the winter coming on and no place for them to go and no warm clothing and what are you going to do about that, God? And what about all those innocent people dying in plane crashes that seem pretty suspicious? What about 129 people who were murdered in Paris and so many, many others who were seriously wounded a couple of days ago? Aren’t you going to do anything about that? These are you children. This is the world you made. Where are you? Get on over here and do something, won’t you?”
THEN we pour out our hearts in words and in sighs and in tears and in great deep grateful laughter. Then we ask God for our heart’s desires – for ourselves and for others. That’s when we take a good long look at the world and the troubles in the world – of every kind, and bring it all to God. That’s when we beg God and bargain with God and pound on God. And yank on God’s shirt and refuse to let go. That’s when we ask and ask and ask the same things for weeks and months and even years on end. Persistently. Like the widow in our story for today. Never giving up. Never slacking off. Pestering God in that way that God loves to be pestered. Which is exactly what God expects from us.
And sometimes. Not always, but sometimes – a sense of calm sneaks into our hearts, and we have the absolute assurance that we have been heard. And are well cared for. By our awesome God, who forgives us and receives our thanks and who all but smothers us in love.
There is another dear woman whom I know now who also sits in her navy blue lazy boy chair – in her nursing home room. It’s Jeannette Perry. Whenever I visit her we talk about how she misses all of you and how she used to sing in the choir and worship with all of you and attend the women’s breakfasts. She asks about you by name, and wants to know what’s happening with you, by name, and in the church. And then, every time I see her, she says with a sort of sadness in her voice, “I pray for all of you every day.” Tell the women in the breakfast group that I pray for them every day.” And the most recent time I visited Jeannette a couple of days ago she sent me back with this message for all of you: “Tell them that I pray for them every day. Tell them that I pray that they will have a good new pastor who will hold the church together.”
And so I have.