‘Isaac Prayed’ (a sermon on Genesis 25:19-34)

Some years ago a man in one of my previous parishes decided that he was going to read the Bible all the way through. Like many Anglicans he’d never really read the Bible for himself; he’d heard the readings in church on Sundays, but he only had a very vague idea about how it all fit together. He had a copy of the Good News Bible, which is a pretty easy translation to read, and he decided that last thing at night he’d read a few chapters and see how far he got.

I’m glad to report that he read through the whole thing over a period of about six months. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. When he was about half way through the Old Testament he and I were having coffee one day and I asked him how it was going. He said, “It’s not what I expected at all! I thought the Bible was going to be an inspiring and uplifting book, but it’s not! It’s full of people who fight and kill and commit adultery; it’s full of animals being slaughtered as sacrifices and so on. Am I supposed to see those people as a good example to follow? Because I really can’t!”

I know what he meant; the Bible is very honest about the sins and weaknesses of its heroes and heroines. If you think of the life of King David, there are stories of obedience to God and faithfulness and courage and all that, but there are also stories of disobedience and murder and adultery and abuse of power. Abraham is held up in the New Testament as the father of faith, but when we actually read his story in the book of Genesis we find his faith was often weak.

How could it be otherwise? The Bible is the story of God’s work through ordinary human beings, and human beings are a mixture of good and evil. We’re made in the image of God but also infected by sin; we do our best to create a good and just and beautiful world, but it seems inevitably to fall short of our dreams for it. I’m reminded of Francis Spufford’s definition of ‘sin’ as our ‘Human Propensity to F____ Things Up’! This is the material God has to work with, folks; yes, he rejoices in our gifts and strengths, but he often has to make allowances for our weakness and sinfulness as well.

In today’s Old Testament reading we have the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob, who are the grandchildren of Abraham. Some of you will remember that Abraham and his wife Sarah had to wait until their old age to have a child. God first spoke to Abraham when he was seventy-five years old, promising this childless couple that they would be the ancestors of a great nation. But it was twenty-five years before the promise was fulfilled, and Sarah gave birth to the miracle child, Isaac. This miracle motif comes up again and again in the Genesis story. In today’s story, we read that ‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren; and Yahweh granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived’ (25:21). The same thing happens in the next generation: Isaac’s son Jacob has several wives, but his favourite is Rachel. However, for many years she seems unable to have children, until finally the Lord hears her prayer and gives her the gift of a son, Joseph, who turns out to be the saviour of the whole family when the great famine comes upon the land.

Why is there this constant theme of barrenness followed by what seems like miraculous conception? What are the authors of Genesis trying to get across to us? I believe they’re trying to tell us that the creation of this family – which will become God’s people Israel – isn’t merely a story of human expertise and strength; it’s the story of God’s miraculous intervention into the history of the world. The world is going nowhere; like the womb of Rebekah, it’s barren. God created a world full of wonder, but human history has been poisoned by sin, and if we read the first few chapters of Genesis we can see sin in all its darkness and horror. If the world is going to be saved, it needs something more than human expertise and wisdom; it needs a miraculous act of God to begin to put things right again.

So what does God do? He doesn’t perform an act of judgement like the flood, or send a great military victory. What he does is to create a new community, a people who will learn his ways so they can be a light for the nations. In later years they came to see themselves as God’s chosen people, but that never meant that God was only concerned for them and not the nations around them. No – God’s original promise to Abraham said, ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3).

You and I stand in continuity with that promise today. Our Lord Jesus Christ has come from the family of Abraham, and his gospel message has gone out to the whole world; the blessing promised to Abraham has spread through all the earth, just as God promised. And God has called the Church to carry on the work of spreading the light and love of God everywhere we go. As we love others in the name of Jesus and as we spread the gospel and invite others to follow Jesus, we’re taking our place in that great plan of God that started nearly four thousand years ago when wrinkled old Sarah had a baby and called him Isaac.

But sometimes that work seems to hit a roadblock. Sometimes churches seem to stagnate and get stuck in ruts. Sometimes we get focussed inward on our own survival or our own life, and don’t look outward in love to the world that God wants to bless through us. Sometimes we forget that the church is always only one generation from extinction; we forget the call to go out and make new disciples and we come up with all sorts of sophisticated reasons why evangelism is not such a good idea after all. Sometimes we get absorbed in the creation of beautiful buildings and splendid liturgies and forget that Jesus told us to serve him in the poor and needy. And sometimes churches are consumed by conflict – conflict in denominations, or at the local level between flawed and imperfect human beings who bring their insecurities and power struggles into the church with them.

What do we do when we hit a roadblock like this? Well, the leaders lead, the managers manage, the visionaries share their visions, the facilitators facilitate, and so it goes on. Dioceses send in consultants, and consultants help churches come up with plans, and committees set goals and objectives, and off we go. And let me hasten to add, there’s nothing wrong with any of this.

Unfortunately, though, we sometimes forget what Isaac did when he and his wife Rebekah ran into the roadblock of childlessness. Genesis tells us simply, ‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren’ (25:21a). This story is told in a very simple and straightforward way. It doesn’t say that Isaac went through a complicated liturgy, offering a thousand rams and a thousand lambs in sacrifice to God, like some of the later Israelite kings did. It sounds more like a child coming to her mom and saying, “Mom, can I have a piece of cake?” And Mom replies, “Of course you can! I’ll get one for you right now”.

Not that this prayer was answered quickly. This little detail in the text often gets overlooked, but Isaac prayed this prayer for quite a while. Verse 20 tells us that he was forty when he married Rebekah (we’re not told how old she was), and verse 26 says that he was sixty when Esau and Jacob where born. Given the probability of a couple of years of trying before he started praying the prayer, that’s still eighteen years of praying and not giving up. I’m reminded of the time in Luke’s gospel when Jesus told his disciples the story of the widow and the unjust judge; Luke says this parable was about ‘their need to pray always and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1). And this is what Isaac did, for around eighteen years.

And by the way, Isaac wasn’t exactly a spiritual superstar. He comes across in the book of Genesis as a quiet man who is easily manipulated by his clever wife; later on in the next chapter she devises a plan to make sure that the younger son Jacob, who is her favourite, gets the paternal blessing from Isaac rather than his favourite, Esau, the older son. I get the sense that she knew her husband well, and she knew how to mould him to do what she wanted. And also in the next chapter we find Isaac doing exactly what his father Abraham had done; going to live in a foreign country for a while in a time of famine, being afraid that the locals would kill him and steal his wife, and so asking her to pretend she was his sister so this wouldn’t happen. So this isn’t a spiritual superstar we’re talking about here; this is just Isaac, who prefers a quiet life and enjoys taking his older boy out trout fishing on Saturday afternoons!

This is the sort of thing my friend came up against when he was reading the Bible through for the first time; this was what scandalised him so much. To be quite frank, in the Bible God doesn’t seem to be picky about whose prayers he hears!

Let me remind you of some of the people whose prayers got answered in the Bible: Moses, who killed an Egyptian and buried his body in the sand to try to hide the crime. David, who committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, and then had the soldier killed so that he could take Bathsheba for himself. Solomon, a king who apparently had seven hundred wives. Nehemiah, who when he got mad at people didn’t just yell at them, but beat them and pulled out their hair. Paul, who before his conversion worked hard to stamp out the church by having Christians arrested and executed, and who even after his conversion doesn’t always seem to have been a particularly pleasant guy to be around.

So don’t think you have to be some sort of spiritual hero in order to pray and have your prayers answered. The prayers of the Bible aren’t the prayers of spiritual heroes; they’re the prayers of ordinary human beings like us, and some of them are definitely not nice people – if you doubt that, read some of the psalms! If God only heard the prayers of spiritual heroes, no one’s prayers would ever be heard.

So here’s the people of God in microcosm – the little family of Isaac and Rebekah. They believe God has called them to be part of the family line of his chosen people, but at the moment their future isn’t going anywhere, and so they do the best possible thing they could in the circumstance: they pray. Now let me ask you – do we do that?

What is the place of prayer in our life as a congregation? When we read the stories of the early church, it seems as if prayer was at the centre of everything they did. And I’m not just talking about formal, liturgical prayer – the sort of thing we do on Sunday mornings. I’m thinking about the day of Pentecost, when they had been meeting for long periods of prayer together over a ten-day period, and then the Holy Spirit fell on them, and the explosive growth of the early church began. I’m thinking about the times in the early chapters of Acts when they were being hauled before the ruling council and reprimanded for preaching the message of Jesus – and sometimes whipped as well. Their first response when they got home afterwards? Prayer together. I’m thinking about Acts 13, the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the early church, when Paul and Barnabas were sent out from Antioch to spread the gospel in what is now Turkey. How did it begin? When they were meeting together for a long period of prayer and fasting, and somehow the Holy Spirit spoke to them: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).

Prayer isn’t just about getting what we want from God. Of course, in Isaac and Rebekah’s case, that’s exactly what it was about: having the children they longed for. But prayer isn’t a slot machine and it’s not magic; it’s more about aligning ourselves with God’s will than it is bending God’s will to our own. The main benefit of prayer is that it draws us closer to the God who made us and who longs for us to know him better. And when we pray together – honest prayer, that is – it draws us closer to each other as well.

When I was the minister of the Church of the Resurrection in Holman in the high Arctic, we planned an evangelistic mission for our parish. We invited Terry Buckle, who twenty years before had been the minister in Holman, to come back and lead the mission. We planned evangelistic services every night of the week, and meetings in people’s homes during the day. We really wanted people in the community to hear the gospel message through Terry and give their lives to Christ.

But Terry said we should pray, so we did. We decided to have a prayer meeting on Friday mornings at 7.30 a.m. When I first announced this in church, one of the men said to me afterwards, ‘You meant 7.30 p.m., right?’ ‘Nope – early in the morning!’ So for six months we met every Friday morning to pray, usually about five or six of us. Officially, we were praying about the mission, but when people get together to pray you can’t keep them on topic, and before long all sorts of other stuff was being prayed about. When the week of the mission finally arrived we decided to pray every morning, but we moved it to ten o’clock which was coffee break time in Holman; people walked over to the church for half an hour, and each day about twenty people gathered there to pray.

The mission was great and people’s lives were touched, but the really great thing was that after it was over the people said, “We can’t stop this praying!” And so they decided to keep meeting at 10.00 on Friday mornings, and when I left Holman that prayer meeting was still going on. It was one of the most fruitful things we did in all the time I was in that community.

Prayer is really important for a Christian church, and as we think about our growth as a parish and our ministry plan, I hope we will look for more opportunities to grow in prayer and to pray together. I think this should be our first priority.

But prayer is also important for us as individuals. Sometimes as individuals we hit barren times in our lives, when all the joy seems to have drained away and nothing seems to be working out the way we want it to. At times like that, it can make a huge difference to turn to God and pray.

Remember, you don’t have to be a spiritual superstar to do this. Very few people in the Bible were spiritual superstars; they were just ordinary flawed human beings like you and me. And you don’t have to pray particularly long prayers, either. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray he gave them the Lord’s Prayer, which is a very short prayer! Sometimes the best thing to do is just to get alone with God and spend time in silence, paying attention to his presence and his still, small voice in our hearts. It doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be very very simple. And if it seems hard at first, remember that we all had to start somewhere, and the universal testimony of Christians is that practice helps! And also remember what we said earlier on: Isaac prayed this prayer for a long time. Perseverance – patience – faithfulness for the long haul – what Eugene Peterson calls ‘A long obedience in the same direction’ – this is incredibly important. As Luke says in his gospel, we need ‘to pray always and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1).

‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren; and Yahweh granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived’ (25:21).

Are we ready to learn from Isaac’s example?

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Random Lent thought for Saturday March 25th: ‘Father’

I think we can probably take it for granted that the prayer life of Jesus was formed by the psalms. In one respect, however, he departed radically from that model: his name for God. In the psalms God is usually addressed by such titles as ‘Yahweh God of Israel’, or ‘God the King’, or ‘Yahweh my rock’. Very rarely, however, is any sort of parental metaphor used. Jesus, however, takes the parental metaphor and makes it absolutely central to his way of understanding and addressing God. ‘Father’ is not just one title for God among many for Jesus. In fact, there is only one time in the entire gospels where he talks to God using any other name, and that is when he was nailed to the cross and was quoting from the psalms: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’.

So Jesus’ way of addressing God is entirely simple and unpretentious. He doesn’t make speeches to God; he simply comes to God and says, ‘Father…’ And he encourages us, his followers, to do the same. ‘One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples”. He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father…’ ” ‘ (Luke 11:1-2a, NIV 2011).

The liturgical tradition in which I was raised (Anglican) has a long history of making beautiful poetic speeches to God (‘O Lord our Heavenly Father, Almighty and Everlasting God…’). Many of us Anglicans have been intimidated by the poetic genius of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and his Book of Common Prayer. Jesus does not encourage us to make speeches to God. Nor does he appear to be in favour of long prayers. He encourages a simple and unpretentious approach to God.

What’s the most important thing we can know about God? That he is our parent (which means that he loves us more than we love ourselves; that he will die rather than not provide for our needs; that he is a role model for us; that he guides and teaches us, and that he disciplines us because he loves us). We can be entirely secure and confident in his love for us. Children who are secure in their parents’ love don’t make speeches to them; they talk to them naturally, simply, and without any sort of prevention.

“When you pray, say: ‘Father’ “. What a privilege!

Random Lent thought for Friday March 24th: ‘Hallowed be your name’

“Father, hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2, NIV 2011).

I once preached a Lent series called ‘Living your life as a prayer’. It was a series on the Lord’s Prayer, considered not so much as a prayer, but as a guide for daily discipleship. What would it mean to ‘put legs on our prayers’, and live our lives so that we are part of the answer to our prayer?

‘Hallowed be your name’ means ‘May your holy name be honoured’. How do I live my life in such a way as to make that happen? Or, as someone once put it, how do I live in such a way that God’s reputation in the world is enhanced, and not diminished, by my life?

Once when I was going to an Alberta registries office to renew my vehicle registration, the agent called up my driving record on the computer and was shocked to discover a list of drunk driving convictions! For a few minutes we had a rather tense conversation; then she tried to call the list up again, and was unable to do it; it had all been some sort of computer glitch! But for a few minutes I experienced what it was like to have your reputation in the world diminished and your good name dragged through the mud!

What am I doing to God’s good name? How can I live today in such a way that his reputation is enhanced, and not diminished, by my behaviour? Father, hallowed be your name in our lives today. Amen.

Random Lent Thought for Thursday March 23rd: ‘Teach us to pray’

‘One day, Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray,just as John taught his disciples”‘ (Luke 11:1-2).

There was no such thing as privacy in the time of Jesus, and there wasn’t much silent praying either. People prayed in public and they prayed aloud. Jesus’ private prayer life was often not private, except when he withdrew to lonely places to pray.

I’ve learned a lot about prayer through books, but I’ve learned more from people who’ve been open about their prayer life and have been willing to invite me into it. I’ve learned the most from good friends who have ended significant conversations by offering to pray with me, and modelling for me what genuine, unpretentious prayer really is.

Jesus’ prayer life was attractive to his disciples; they wanted to learn to pray like that. And if the prayer that follows is any indication of the way Jesus habitually prayed, we can describe it as short, simple and unpretentious, focussing on God’s concerns first, not greedy for things we don’t need, but focussing on our real needs (daily bread, forgiveness, strength in times of testing).

Lord, teach me to pray as your prayed. And Lord, help me to teach others too. Amen.

Prayer (2016 Lent Sermon Series #3)

Two and a half weeks ago, at our Ash Wednesday service, I used these words:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.

Here we have six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives, as a way of opening ourselves up to the presence of God in a new and fresh way. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits, and this week, the Third Sunday in Lent, we’re going to look at prayer.

Our theme verse for Lent is the well-known verse from the Book of Revelation:

“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20).

In this verse the Lord is calling us to welcome him again into the centre of our lives – to return to our first love for him, or perhaps to kindle a deeper love for him than we’ve ever known before. And there is probably no practice that’s more fundamental to this than the practice of prayer.

Prayer was central to the life of Jesus. Jesus had a busy daily schedule and he was always on the move. But in the midst of all that, the joy of his heart was to take time to be alone with God. In Mark 1:35, after a very busy sabbath, we read these words:

‘In the morning, while it was still very dark, (Jesus) got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed’.

We know from the gospels that this was his habit – regular withdrawal from the crowds for that quiet time with God. When he had decisions to make or when he was facing some particularly difficult task, he sometimes spent whole nights in prayer – no doubt waiting on his Father to guide him and strengthen him for what was ahead.

Jesus is also our teacher of prayer. In Luke 11 we read,

‘(Jesus) was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples”’ (Luke 11:1).

Have you ever felt that? Have you ever felt this deep hunger inside to come closer to God, to be more aware of God’s presence in your daily life? Have you ever wished you could find a journeyman prayer who could teach you how to pray? If so, you can understand what the disciples felt as they saw Jesus’ prayer life and thought, “Wow – he seems to be so much more aware of God’s presence with him! I wish I could pray like that!” And Jesus responded by giving them a prayer outline that we’ve used ever since – we call it ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, although it might just as easily be called ‘the Disciples’ Prayer’.

I don’t consider myself to be a journeyman prayer – far from it – but this morning I want to give you a personal testimony of prayer. My experience is that prayer is like a rich banquet with many different dishes available for us to enjoy. Christians have been praying for nearly two thousand years now, and our Jewish ancestors in the faith were praying long before us, as the Book of Psalms testifies. Down through those years our fathers and mothers in the faith discovered many different ways of praying, and all of us can find ways that work well for us. So this morning I want to pass on to you some of the things I’ve learned from them, in the hope that maybe you might get some ideas that will be helpful to you.

I’m going to go in roughly chronological order, in terms of when I discovered these various ways of praying in my life. So I want to start with the simple daily Quiet Time. The person I learned this from was my dad.

Some of you will have heard me tell the story of how, when I was a young teenager, my dad challenged me to give my life to Jesus, and I did. Not long after that, my dad gave me a little booklet called Seven Minutes with God. It was designed for people who had never prayed regularly before, and it described a very simple and accessible way to get started in daily prayer. The idea was to start with a short time, with the idea that it’s better for people to think “I wish I could go longer” than “This is boring – when is it going to end?”

The idea was to start with half a minute of silence, just to slow down, relax, and open yourself up to the peace of God in your heart. Then you would turn to the Bible, read a short passage, and maybe try to find one thing you could take with you through your day – perhaps a promise to receive, or a command to obey, or an example to follow, and so on. Having done that, you would turn to a very short time of vocal prayer, based on the outline of the word ‘ACTS’ – ‘adoration’, ‘confession’, ‘thanksgiving’, and ‘supplication’. ‘Adoration’ of course stands for worship and praising God. ‘Confession’ is admitting our sins to God and asking his forgiveness. ‘Thanksgiving’ is self-explanatory – naming our blessings and thanking God for them. And ‘supplication’ is simply asking God for his help – whether for other people or for ourselves.

The little booklet gave strict time allocations for this – half a minute for silence, four minutes for Bible reading, half a minute each for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication, and then half a minute at the end again for silence. I started following that outline almost immediately. I was always a morning person, so I liked doing it first thing in the morning before anyone else was awake.

As time went by, of course, I found that seven minutes wasn’t long enough, and so it gradually expanded. I wanted to spend longer in Bible reading, thinking about the passage and maybe noting down specific things I thought God might want me to do about what I was reading. I wanted to pray about what I was reading, too. And of course, it didn’t take me long to think of far too many sins to fit into thirty seconds of confession – not to mention needy people I wanted to pray for. So without feeling any sense of compulsion about it, I found that as the years went by the time expanded until it gradually settled down to about half an hour.

I didn’t always feel anything special while I was praying. I didn’t have great mystical experiences of the presence of God, and a wise spiritual writer called C.S. Lewis taught me not to worry about that. Don’t try to manufacture a feeling of God’s presence, he said; let God worry about that. If he thinks you need it, he’ll give it to you, and if not, trust that he knows best. One thing I did almost always experience, though, was a sense of peace after my prayer time. I still experience that today.

So that was the first meal I discovered on the banquet table of prayer. The second meal came after I started working as an Anglican minister. That was when I became aware of the ancient discipline we call ‘the Daily Office’. The Daily Office was developed over many centuries in monasteries as a way for monks and nuns to pray together. Monks had seven daily services, but in the sixteenth century Anglican reformers wanted to make them more accessible, so they reduced them to two – Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Many of us who have been lifelong Anglicans remember when these services were used on Sundays, but they weren’t originally intended for that – they were intended for daily prayer.

The Daily Office uses set written prayers. At its heart is the praying of the psalms – one hundred and fifty hymns and songs written by people in ancient Israel, and quickly adopted by the Church for its worship. We still say the psalms in our services each week; they are by far the oldest part of our service, as they were all written before the time of Jesus. In the Daily Office we pray through the book of Psalms regularly – the joyful ones and the miserable ones, the loving ones and the cursing ones. It doesn’t matter whether an individual psalm fits for us on a particular day; the Daily Office is the prayer of the whole church around the world, and you can bet that someone, somewhere is feeling what that psalm says! So we join with that person in offering the cry of their heart to God on that day; on other days, they join with us.

The Daily Office also includes short readings from the Bible, canticles of praise for us to pray together, and intercessions for us to offer for people all around the world. You can find the Daily Office at the front of our Book of Alternative Services in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer. Many Anglican clergy and some lay people use these offices to help them through times in their lives when prayer seems difficult, as well as good times. If you’re interested, I’ve prepared a shorter form of the daily office in bulletin format, and I’ve put some copies of it on the table at the back of the church today.

As I mentioned, I find the Daily Office very helpful when I’m going through a dry time, or when I’m tired, or when I just can’t think of what I should say to God. Sometimes it’s a great way of ‘priming the pump’ and getting prayer going. And it gives a good sense of fellowship; even if you pray it alone, you’re conscious of hundreds or thousands of others around the world who are doing the same thing. When we lived in the Arctic, in a very isolated community, I found that very meaningful.

So we’ve looked at two meals on the banquet table of prayer – the simple daily quiet time, and the daily office. A third one that I discovered was the prayer of silence, sometimes called Contemplative Prayer.

In one of his books, Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom tells the story of a priest who noticed that an old man was coming into his church every day to spend an hour or so, just sitting quietly, looking up at the figure of Jesus hanging on the crucifix at the front. The priest noticed that the man just sat there quietly, not moving very much, and he didn’t appear to be praying, because his lips weren’t moving. ‘He must be praying in his mind’, the priest thought. Eventually after a few weeks of this, the priest went and asked the old man, “What are you saying to the Lord when you sit here every day?” The old man smiled and shook his head. “Nothing”, he said. “I look at him, and he looks at me, and we are happy together”.

That’s a good description of contemplative prayer. We have a tendency to want to fil the universe with words all the time, but contemplative prayer recognizes that God is far beyond any words we can use. In contemplative prayer we simply quieten ourselves down, listen with our hearts, and open ourselves up to whatever it is God wants to give us. If we feel something or hear something, well and good. If we don’t, well and good too.

Some people find that quietly saying a verbal prayer in their hearts, over and over again, is a good way of moving into that contemplative silence. An old Orthodox prayer called ‘The Jesus Prayer’ is especially well known; it goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. The idea is to quietly say it in your heart, over and over again, until the repetition helps you to centre your heart on God. Some people like to coordinate it with their breathing, so that they’re breathing in for the first half of the prayer, and out for the second half. Eventually, when the verbal prayer has done its work, you can let it rest and just be quiet before God. If you find yourself getting distracted, you can use the verbal prayer again, to centre your mind and heart.

I have to say for myself that I find contemplative prayer difficult. It’s rewarding, but it’s hard work for me, so I don’t try to do it very often. That’s probably something to do with my temperament. We’re all different, and, as a wise prayer teacher once said, “Pray as you can, and don’t try to pray as you can’t”.

So we’ve talked about three ‘meals’ on the banquet table of prayer: the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, and contemplative prayer. Now I want to mention a fourth one that I’ve personally found very helpful: writing my prayers.

 

I learned this one from Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. Bill is the sort of person who runs on adrenalin; slowing down to be with God is not something that comes naturally to him. He’s also discovered that it’s very easy for him just to say words without really thinking about what they mean. But he’s discovered that writing is a good way of slowing down.

Bill’s daily discipline is to journal and pray, one after the other. Every morning he writes a page of journaling, just looking back on the previous day, reflecting on his walk with God and how it’s going. He then writes a one-page prayer, thinking carefully about what he wants to say to God, usually using the same four-part outline I mentioned earlier – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It’s his practice to then kneel down and pray the prayer he’s written out loud.

I tried Bill’s method for a while and then I modified it a bit to fit my own preferences. I started with the journaling, and then I did my daily Bible reading, trying to be alert to any particular verse or teaching that God wanted me to reflect on a bit. I find that reflecting with a pen in my hand works very well for me, so it was easy for me to write out my meditations and underline the things that were particularly significant.

I sometimes found that my writing was turning naturally into prayer. I didn’t feel the need to follow Bill’s practice of reading my prayer out loud to God; I figured that God could read my writing quite well, thank you very much! Nor did I necessarily feel the need to cover all four of the prayer subjects – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. An ordinary conversation doesn’t go that way; it tends to be unscripted, and sometimes we’re surprised at the way it goes. But I did find, like Bill, that writing the prayer was a good way for me to slow down, think about what I was saying, and use words that meant something – not “heaping up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard by their many words”, as Jesus says in Matthew 6:7.

This prayer journaling is a very effective way of praying for me; it’s probably my favourite way of praying. As I said, we’re all different, so pray as you can, not as you can’t!

However, it’s not my most common way of praying. I know my sermon is longer today than it normally is, but this is an important subject and there’s one more ‘meal’ I want to lay before you. We’ve thought about the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, Contemplative Prayer, and written prayer. The last one I want to share with you this morning is regular prayer with someone else.

People who want to exercise regularly will tell you that there is real power in agreeing to exercise together with someone else. We don’t always feel like doing it, but our commitment to the other person can carry us through those difficult times. And prayer is like that. Monks and nuns meet together every day to pray – that’s how the Daily Office started. They have their private prayers too, but the daily corporate prayer keeps them going. And praying together can be a powerful way of bringing us closer together too.

Well, I’m not a monk, but I do have a community; it’s called a marriage. And so I’m very happy to share a commitment with Marci that we pray together each day. This is not something that we’ve been doing for very long. We tried it a few times over the years, but we usually fizzled out – often because we were trying to do it last thing at night, and sometimes when you’re tired, it’s easy to put things off. But about three years ago we decide to try praying together first thing in the morning, and it seems to have worked well for us. We make a cup of tea and then pray a simple form of Morning Prayer together. We use little devotional Bible commentaries that lead us through individual books of the Bible; sometimes we discuss what we’ve read, and sometimes we don’t. Then we pray out loud in an informal way, first one of us, then the other, bringing our thanksgivings and requests to God. If one of you has asked for our prayers, that’s when we pray fro you. We finish with the Lord’s Prayer, and then we start our day. I think we’re both grateful to have discovered this practice, and we would certainly recommend it to others.

Well, this morning I’ve laid out a banquet table for you. Here are five different ways of praying that God’s people have discovered down through the centuries: the simple daily Quiet Time, the Daily Office, Contemplative Prayer, written prayer, and praying together with someone else.

Is it possible that this Lent God might be calling you to try one of these things? Maybe you’ve already got a regular habit of prayer, but you’re getting a little bored with it, you want to try something different, and something you’ve heard this morning has piqued your interest. Or maybe you don’t really have a regular prayer practice at all, and you can sense the Spirit calling you, saying, “Now’s the time”.

Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20). That knocking that you hear this morning is the call of the Holy Spirit to a deeper life of prayer. It’s probably one of the most powerful ways of welcoming God into the depths of our hearts. Psalm 8 says:

‘“Come”, my heart says, “seek his face”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.’

Let’s not ignore that voice in our hearts. Let’s seek the face of God by going deeper in prayer. Amen.

A Word of Encouragement

Thursday is the day I prepare my Sunday sermon, but it begins at 7 a.m. with our weekly Men’s Bible Study group at the Bogani Café. I was driving one of the men home this morning after the study, and as I dropped him off he said, “I’m praying for your sermon preparation today”.

What an encouraging moment! I know that he values the preaching ministry, and he is joining me in prayer that God will help me with the preparation process today. Thank you God for a word of encouragement this morning.