Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
A Call to Prayer
“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.” I imagine Jesus sitting there patiently with the twelve, as they shared their stories. Maybe one or two were overjoyed about how the ministry that they were doing with Jesus was changing lives. Maybe a couple of them were disappointed and wanted the mission to go into another direction. Maybe one of them was deeply saddened, because back home the family was struggling without him. Even so, Jesus invited them to come away from the chaos and sit with him for a chat, to lay their burdens at his feet, and to share the joys of their day together.
You can just picture Jesus listening to each one of them as he occasionally offered gentle encouragement or patient correction. I bet he lovingly taught, counseled, guided and consoled them too. Put yourself into that scene for a moment. Imagine being with Jesus having a conversation like that with him every day. You do know that you can do that right? We have a powerful communication tool that we can use to share our joys, fears, disappointments, and stories with Jesus anytime. It is not Zoom, a smart phone, or even Facebook Messenger. The tool we have available to share our joys, celebrations, fears, disappointments, and needs with God is called prayer.
What is Prayer?
Prayer seems a simple thing to do, but not all of us know how to do it. Maybe we believe we have to do it a certain way. Some of us did not grow up in a home where our parents prayed. Many of us were taught only one or two prayers like, “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” Maybe before bed we prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” Television and movies do not provide a good model for prayer either.
One of my favorite mindless comedic movies is “Talladega Nights” starring Will Farrell, who plays a successful, failed, and successful again, egotistical NASCAR driver named Ricky Bobby. One of the early scenes in the movie goes like this, after successful race Ricky and his family gathered around the dinner table, and Ricky says grace. He begins it with, “Dear sweet, tiny, eight-pound six-ounce Baby Jesus,” and then breaks into this weird speech prayer that I dare not repeat in church. Ricky’s prayer was naïve, immature, inappropriate, and a bit heretical at best, but the fact remains, he believed that he should pray.
Prayer is not perfect words or specific incantations we say hoping God will respond and give us what we want. Wikipedia defines prayer as, “an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with an object of worship, typically a deity, through deliberate communication.” The key to prayer is to see it less as a one-way dialogue, and approach it as holy communication. Communication, as I have experienced it, happens through the exchange of information with someone. Communication requires more than talking. Communication requires listening and speaking. Prayer also requires listening and speaking.
Prayer is not empty one-sided requests by which, we proclaim our needs to an unseen cosmic vending machine. Prayer is a conversation with God. Prayer is conversations like those you would have with a close friend. Prayer can be conversations like those found in our prayer book, which have been used by generations who come to God weekly to talk with God together in community. Prayer can be simply listening and relaxing with God in an awareness of God’s presence. We all need to pray, not to check off a spiritual to do list, but prayer affords us a chance to “take a break from all the chaos of life and spend time alone with Jesus every single day.” Prayer is about a relationship.
Put yourself into this scenario for a moment. You come home every single day after a hard day’s work, and you sit in your favorite chair and your spouse or partner is sitting on the sofa lovingly anticipating hearing about your day. He or she smiles at you, patiently waiting, but every day you never saying anything to them. There is no communication, and thus that relationship is doomed for failure. I guarantee it will not grow and flourish, because the couple will not share their lives with one another.
Prayer is a relational conversation and the model of that kind of prayer is found throughout scripture. Jesus invited his closest friends and followers to share with him, what they had done in their ministry. Jesus is interested in us. Jesus wants us to share our lives with him, as he shares his resurrected life with us. In a world where social media, cell phones, music, and other noise drowns out the still small voice of God, we disciples must make it a point intentionally to carve out space, to be present with God.
How to Pray
“Alright Eric, I will do it,” you may say, “but I have no idea how to pray.” Relax then, and just try this simple prayer formula I am offering. Prayer is so simple, because there are so many ways to pray. Reading scripture can open up a whole new way to pray. Let me give you an example using Psalm 23 and its beautiful words to help you pray. First you read, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” Maybe the prayer goes like this, “Dear brother Jesus, Lord, you promise to provide for my needs, and you do so in so many ways, thank you Lord, my friend, my brother.” Next you read, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.” Maybe the prayer is, “Father, I am in a really bad place right now with work, and I messed up. I am afraid I might lose my job. You promise me that I have nothing to fear, for you are with me. I trust that Lord, but right now, please give me peace and calm to deal with this situation.” You get the picture right. The Psalms are a playground for prayer, and each one can help the novice and expert prayer warrior alike, to have a conversation with God.
Maybe you would rather use something tactile to help you pray. I bet you did not know that the first “spiritual” fidget spinners (invented by monks) are called prayer beads. Prayer beads help you have something to focus your hands on, and to center your mind while praying. Repeating a simple word or phrase (grace, Jesus, Lord), while fidgeting with prayer beads, can calm your mind as you listen for God. Prayer beads can take you to that specific quiet space that allows you to rest and relax with Jesus.
Journaling is another way to pray. I often write in my prayer journal, and I start by finding a quiet place in our house, where I can write what I want to say to Jesus about my ministry, my day, my struggles, and my intercessions for others. On one page of my journal, I write a letter of love to Jesus, in which I pour out my fears, joys, and sometimes my anger. On the second page, after spending some time in silence and listening for the still small voice, I write a letter from Jesus to me, and that is where the conversation gets interesting. It has been one of the most powerful spiritual practices of my life. There are so many ways to pray, but the key is to commit to creating space and time to have holy conversations with God.
Go Pray, all day, every day
Do you know the old Janis Joplin tune, “Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all have my friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends? Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” At one time in my life, I thought prayer was a futile exercise, because I honestly thought prayer was merely coming to God, as if God was vending machine. I thought prayer was saying the right words, only to get what you want. I love Joplin’s prayer song, but like her song which was a hit so many years ago, prayer sounded less like a holy conversation, and more like a negotiated transaction.
We disciples must pray not because we wish to negotiate with God or event to try and change God’s mind. We pray because like in any relationship, we need to have conversations, which cultivate growth in our love and commitment to one other . Those conversations often require or lead to an exchange from the heart. Even Janis Joplin’s famous song or even Ricky Bobby’s “Dear Sweet little Baby Jesus” prayer may seem silly and irreverent, but I do like them both because they are honest and non-pretentious petitions from the person’s soul. Prayer must be authentic and from the heart, even if the words are not right, or even if the intention is a little misguided.
Then, there are times we do not have any words to say. Theologian Rachel Srubus wrote in a recent Christian Century article, “I trust that the Spirit, who deeply sighs where words leave off, intercedes for me— and for you, and for all creation.” If we but make the time, God will lead the conversation. Remember, the invitation to pray is there, “My beloved child, just come away to a deserted place all by yourself with me, and rest a while.” Pray my friends, and then, pray some more. Jesus is waiting patiently to hear from you today. So say a prayer, and “take a little break from all the chaos of life and spend some time alone with Jesus. You will find peace, strength, and hope when you leave your burdens at His feet.”
(1) Srubas, Rachel M. “Pray as You Can.” The Christian Century, vol. 122, no. 14, 12 July 2005, p. 19.