How To Pray

Prayer is something we talk a lot about as Christians. But how often do we start with the basics and teach people how to do it? The end result, as several studies have shown, is pews full of people who don’t pray very often or feel their prayers are effective, but are too embarrassed to ask for help because they think they should know this already. This was brought home to me in Confirmation class. This year, we begin each class by praying for one another … and the first thing I had to do was teach the kids how to do it.

The one part of prayer that each of them knew how to do was to ask for God’s help with a problem. Which is good! We should take our problems and concerns to God in prayer. But if that’s all that your prayers consist of, you are in danger of treating God like a vending machine. Prayer is not just about asking God for what we need. Prayer is about talking with God and building a relationship. You know that old hymn What a Friend We Have In Jesus? Prayer is how we build that relationship, that friendship. And any relationship in which one person does nothing but talk about what they want the other person to do for them isn’t a very healthy relationship, is it?

A very important part of prayer is thanking God for what God has done and is doing for us. Thanking God for being with us, for giving us the ability to get through the day, for helping us with our problems—that’s one reason I start of each worship service and class with “God moments.” If you don’t pay attention to where God is working in your life, you can’t thank him for what he does for you. Once you start looking for God in the world around you, and thanking God for what God does for you every day, it’s easier to open up to the desires God has for you.

Thanking God, asking for what we need, those are both very important. But there’s another key component to prayer that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s asking God what God wants … and then taking the time to listen. We get so caught up in what we want, that it’s very hard to listen to what God wants. It takes practice and attention. If you’ve never done it before, you can start out like this: “God, I’ve told you what I want and what the problems are in my life. What do you want? Help me to know your will for me, and to follow it.” Then take time to sit quietly and listen. That’s hard—Americans are bad at sitting quietly and listening! We fill every second of our day with noise and activity. But to hear God, it helps if you leave space for God to speak. You might find that breathing slowly and evenly helps you to stay focused. If you can’t clear your mind—if thoughts keep coming—consider praying for those things that are on your mind, and lifting them up to God.

Prayer should be a time of peace and rest. It should be a relief from the cares of the world. If it isn’t, if bringing everything to God in prayer leaves you more tired and more stressed than ever, ask yourself this: are you leaving those cares at Jesus’ feet, or are you carrying them away with you afterwards? It is really, really hard to give your worries over to Jesus. (I struggle with anxiety, and let me tell you, “laying your burdens upon Jesus” sounds easy but it can be one of the hardest parts of a Christian life.) It is tempting to pick them up and take them with you—after all, we’re taught to be in control of our lives, have a plan, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But we can’t control everything, and there comes a point where you can only say “God, help me,” and leave it in God’s hands. If you can do that, trust that God will take care of you even if things are going badly, you will find a kind of peace that you just can’t get anywhere else. (It’s okay if you struggle with this. Being a Christian doesn’t mean getting everything right, it means walking with God even as we get things wrong.)

I encourage you to pray about more than just your own needs. Pray for family and friends, too, but also people across the country and across the world. And pray for your church! At both annual meetings last month, I asked people to pray for each congregation. Birka is wondering when and if they should close, and several members of Augustana have come to me and said it feels like the church is “drifting.” In both cases, our first step should be prayer. What is God calling us to do? Where is God calling us to go? What dreams and hopes is God giving us, and what fears that are getting in our way? We don’t gather as a congregation to be a social club, to reminisce about the good old days, or because it’s habit. We are God’s people, whom God has called and chosen to be his hands and feet in the world. So whatever we do, it should be focused on God’s will for us. But to know God’s will, we have to ask—and that means praying! I hope this helps you deepen your prayer life.

 

Responding to Prayer

Fifth Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 18, 2014

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

 Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I was a senior in high school getting ready to go off to college, someone told me this joke: God answers all prayers. Sometimes the answer is “yes,” sometimes the answer is “no,” sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” That last answer, “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” by the way, is the answer you’ll probably get if you decide not to study for a test and just pray that the answers will magically appear, as I found out once or twice in college.

Jesus said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” And in another place, Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” These are words Christians quote a lot, when talking about prayer. If you just ask God, God will give it to you.

It’s an interesting lesson to be paired up with the martyrdom of Stephen, which was our first lesson. Stephen, you see, was one of the first Greek converts to Christianity. He was a deacon; he preached and he did social ministry work, giving food to the poor and making sure the widows and orphans were taken care of. But the authorities in Jerusalem were not happy. They had thought that when they had Jesus killed that they wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. They thought that Jesus’ death would mean that things would go back to normal. And here the Christians are, telling everyone they meet that Jesus was raised from the dead and helping people in Jesus’ name, bringing more people to the faith. The authorities tried to stamp this “Jesus movement” out again by arresting Stephen and putting him on trial. But they couldn’t get him to deny Jesus; in fact, he used the trial to try and spread the Gospel even to his accusers. And so they killed him. They took him out and threw rocks at him until he was dead.

“If in my name you ask me for anything,” Jesus says, “I will do it.” Then what about Stephen? If I were in his shoes, I certainly would have prayed to be set free. And what about the other Christians, the ones who worshipped with Stephen and worked with him and studied God’s word with him? What about all of the poor people whose lives had been touched by Stephen’s gifts? What about all the widows and orphans who needed Stephen’s help? Surely they must have prayed for him! Prayed to the God he worshipped to save him! And yet Stephen was killed in a brutal execution.

Our prayer list has several people on it who have been on it for quite some time. One of them is Grace, who is related to Julie from Birka. Grace is only a little girl, I think she’s about three, but she’s spent most of her life in the hospital. She has cancer in her brain. She’s had many surgeries, and although sometimes things seem to be going well inevitably there is some new problem, some new challenge, some new heart-wrenching procedure for her to endure. Her whole family are devoted Christians, and they have been praying her entire life. We have been praying for her for a long time. Jesus says that he will do whatever we ask in his name. And yet Grace still suffers.

When I pray with someone who is seriously ill, I always include this petition: “Lord Jesus Christ, we know that you are a healer. We know that you heal every ill, whether in this life or in the life to come. We pray that healing will come in this life, and soon. But we trust in the healing that will come in your kingdom.” Sometimes, when I’m praying with someone who is old and frail and at the end of their life, that is a comfort. Yes, things won’t get better in this life; but this life is not the end. But when I pray for someone like Grace, who would have her whole life ahead of her—her life in this world—if only she could be healed now, it is cold comfort. We know that God has a place for little Grace all ready, a place where she can play and laugh and run. But her parents would much rather be able to see her play and laugh and run now, here, in this world.

So how do we deal with times like this? Times when we pray and pray and pray and bad things happen anyway? How do we reconcile it with Jesus’ words? I’m not talking about when people pray for stupid things, things that they think they want but will only hurt themselves or others in the long run. I’m not talking about when people pray selfishly or only out of habit. I’m talking about heartfelt prayers that stream from deep needs. What happens when we ask Jesus for something, and it doesn’t happen?

There’s two responses that people generally fall into. One is to lose faith. “Nothing happened, so God must not care. Or maybe God doesn’t exist.” The other is almost worse: it’s to blame the one who prays. “Well, Jesus says he answers prayer, so if their prayer wasn’t answered, they must not have prayed the right way. Or maybe they just didn’t have enough faith. If they’d been better Christians, God would have listened.” What a horrible, hurtful thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one!

I am reminded of Stephen. He prayed. And I am certain he prayed to be set free; I am certain he prayed that he would not be killed for his faith. Stephen’s faith was as deep as it is possible to be: he would literally rather die than keep silent about it. And we know God heard his prayers; Stephen saw Jesus with him. He did not die alone. But he did die. It wasn’t because God didn’t care, and it wasn’t because he wasn’t a good enough Christian. So what do we make of that?

I notice a lot that when we talk about answers to prayer, we talk about specific things. We don’t tend to talk about prayer as a conversation with God; it’s a laundry list of things we want and things we want to apologize for. Yet when Jesus taught us to pray, he told us to start with the relationship: “Our father in heaven.” But even that is too distant a relationship: we say “father,” but what Jesus actually said was something closer to “Dad” or “Papa.” This is a close and loving relationship. That’s where we start from, with prayer. God is not a vending machine in the sky. God is the one who made us, the one who loves us, the one we can call at three in the morning when we hit rock bottom.

Then, Jesus’ prayer goes on: Pray for God’s kingdom to come. Pray for God’s Will to be done here on Earth, just like God’s Will is done in heaven. God’s Will—Jesus has told us what God’s will is. God’s will is for wholeness, and healing. God’s will is for all the things that have been broken by sin and death, by injury and illness, by malice and carelessness, to be healed. God’s will is for the entire cosmos to be saved. God’s will is for love to win. Bad things happen, in the here-and-now: good people die. Children get sick. People say and do things that hurt one another. People go hungry and can’t find work. But this is not God’s plan for the world, and this is not the end of the story. God’s kingdom will come. God’s Will will be done here on Earth as it is in heaven. We don’t know the timeline for that; we don’t know when. But it will happen, and we pray for it.

Jesus’ prayer continues. Pray for your daily bread. Not for steak dinners and caviar, not for a year’s supply, just what you need to get through the day. Don’t worry about the future; let God take care of it. Pray for the courage and strength to get through today. And while you’re at it, pray for forgiveness, for yourself and for others. Pray for the grace you need to get through the day, along with the strength. Grace given by God, and grace shared with the world around you. Pray that you won’t have to go through dark places in your life, and pray that God will lead you safely through those dark places you can’t avoid. But always remember that the dark places are temporary. The kingdom, the power, and the glory belong to God, now and forever. The dark places don’t win, in the end; the evils of this world don’t last forever. God’s kingdom is real, and God’s kingdom is coming, and thanks be to God for that.

God answers all prayers. But the answers aren’t always the ones we expect, or the ones we hope for. Sometimes the answer is yes, and then we rejoice. But sometimes God acts in ways we didn’t expect, to do things we didn’t even know to pray for. Sometimes the answer is no—sometimes we pray for things we shouldn’t be praying for. Sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” But sometimes, sometimes the answer is, “Wait.” Sometimes the answer is, “My dear, precious child, what you ask can’t be done in this world as it is now. But my Father’s house is large, and there’s room for all. I’ve prepared a special place just for you. It will be waiting for you, no matter how long it takes to get here. But in the meantime, let me help. Let me support you and guide you and comfort you. You are not alone; I love you.”

On Prayer

Lent Wednesday 1–Prayer

March 12, 2014

 Psalm 28, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, Matthew 6:7-13

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Imagine a family where the parents and children never talk.  The father gives long pronouncements on how the children should act, but never asks about what’s going on in their lives.  The children, in turn, only talk to the father when they need to borrow the car keys or want a new cell phone.  It’s not a very healthy family, is it?  The relationships between the father and the children are pretty weak.  The father doesn’t know what’s going on in his children’s lives, and the children know even less about their father.  They may love one another, but when trouble strikes, it’s going to be very hard for them to work together as a family.  And even when times are good, it will be very easy for them to drift apart without even realizing it because there just isn’t that much holding them together.

For many people, that’s what their relationship with God is like.  They’ll sometimes listen to God’s Word in worship, but they don’t really respond to it, and their prayers are mainly a laundry list of what they want or need in their life.  If they’re generous, they’ll pray for other people’s needs, too.  And if God is listening to their prayer, he’ll respond by granting their wishes.  If God doesn’t respond, then he must not be listening.  When you think about it, this kind of an attitude reduces God to one big vending machine up in the sky: you punch in the combination for what you want, and he gives it to you.  It’s not about building a relationship; it’s not about walking with God through the joys and sorrows of life, it’s about getting God to give you stuff.

But listen to the words from our reading from First Thessalonians.  Paul is concluding his letter with a bunch of general advice on how to be a Christian community.  There’s lots of stuff about how to build right relationships—respect the leaders, help the weak, always seek to do good to one another, greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss: it’s all about relationships.  And prayer is part of that!  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”  Instead of just giving God a laundry list of things that need fixing, thank God for what you have, and rejoice with God and your fellow Christians.  And pray without ceasing—in other words, prayer isn’t just something you do right before bed and when things are truly dire, prayer is part of every breath you take and everything you do.

Consider the Lord’s prayer, the model of how to pray that Jesus gave to his disciples.  We recite it every week in church.  Think of it like a framework for prayer.  You start off with the address—hey, God, how are you?  And, by the way, the word Jesus uses, it’s not a formal word like “Father.”  It’s more like “Daddy.”  It’s not about calling on some distant father-figure, but rather about a close and loving relationship.  Then you move on to talking about God’s kingdom and God’s will—basically, what God is doing in the world.  Then you move on to your own concerns, not just what you want but everything that’s going on in your life—your need for daily necessities, the times you’ve messed up, the times you’ve done good, the concerns you have about your life, the temptations and the evils.  Then you bring the focus back around to God for a little bit, before ending the prayer.  When you think about it, it’s a lot like a conversation.  If you recorded one end of a conversation over the phone, it would probably sound a lot like that.

How many of you have seen the musical Fiddler on the Roof?  It’s a movie about a devout Russian Jew named Tevye and his family.  Tevye narrates the story partly through his conversations with God.  God doesn’t answer back verbally; there’s no dramatic voice from heaven.  But Tevye keeps up a constant stream of commentary: what he’s thinking, his joys, his hopes, his fears.  All directed towards God.  Of course, God knows what’s in Tevye’s heart already … but speaking those things to God helps Tevye build a relationship with God.  It is definitely a relationship.  Tevye may not always understand why God allows some things to happen, but Tevye knows God intimately and has confidence that God knows him just as well.  God isn’t just an afterthought of Tevye’s routine, or a vending machine to be manipulated.  God is a real presence in Tevye’s life, because Tevye is paying attention to God, and Tevye has confidence that God is listening whether Tevye’s requests are answered or not.  Tevye is sharing all of his burdens and joys with God, and in so doing he leaves space for God to be in his life.  And it doesn’t just affect Tevye; Tevye’s faith and love ripple out through his family and his community.

What would it be like if we all prayed that way, without ceasing, confident that God listens to us?  If we truly brought all our joys and hopes and fears and concerns before God, and not just our requests?  If we built a relationship instead of just treating God like a vending machine?  I think our faith would be stronger, and our love for God and one another would be stronger, too.  I pray that we may all learn to pray as Jesus taught us.

Amen.

Prepare the Way of the Lord

Pentecost 22A, Sunday, December 4, 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

“With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”

Time is very important to us as modern Americans.  Our lives are ruled by clocks and calendars.  Time is measured, weighed, accounted for.  Time is money.  Time is saved and filled and well-spent.  We kill time.  We waste time.  There’s no time like the present.  As children, time seems to drag on.  As adults, time flies.  Whether old or young, time is something we think we can understand, predict, and manipulate.  But as St. Peter points out, God’s understanding of time is not like our understanding of time.  It’s not about hours or minutes or days or years.  God’s time is about what God is doing, and God’s time is about relationships.

Our understanding of time is tied to our understanding of the world.  It’s hard to understand God’s time because we are so caught up in our daily cares and concerns.  We’re particularly aware of time now, in winter, when the days are short and the holidays are close.  The end of the calendar year is coming soon, and Christmas will be here even sooner.  There are, after all, only twenty more shopping days until Christmas.  And there’s a lot to do in those twenty days!  Parties, presents, cleaning, travel—it’s a lot to pack in to a month!  Yes, we want the day of the LORD to come, we want God to make all things new … but we’ve got other things to worry about.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent.  That in itself is a reminder of how different God’s time is from the world’s time.  As the calendar year is fast drawing to a close, the church year—which begins on the first Sunday of Advent—has only just begun.  While the world prepares for presents and parties, we are preparing for the coming of God.  And when the world turns off the Christmas music and packs up the tinsel on the 26th, we will still be celebrating Christmas, and the presence of God with us.

We live now in the between-times.  Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ was born as a child in Bethlehem, in Judea.  And Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, creating a new heaven and a new earth.  Advent is a time of preparation both for celebrating Christ’s coming, both as a child and at the end of the ages.  This is not just a time for remembering and singing beloved favorite songs.  This is a time for looking forward and preparing for the day of the LORD.  As Isaiah and John the Baptist thundered, “Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight!”

Being a Christian is not easy.  We live in the in-between times.  The first Christians expected Jesus to return soon, within months or years of his resurrection and ascension.  And yet, here we are, two thousand years later, still waiting, still caught between the already and the not yet.  Our salvation has been accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ, and yet the fullness of that salvation will not be known until Christ comes again.  “In accordance with Christ’s promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”  The first Christians that St. Peter wrote to needed to know how to live in the in-between times, and so do we.  The question is not what must we do to be saved.  We are saved.  The question Peter wants us to ask is this: now that we have been saved, how should we live?

And that’s the question we face today.  We are saved by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  So how should we live?  Should we retreat into our homes and our churches to wait?  Should we go with the flow of what the world around us does, forgetting that Christ will come again when we least expect him?

No, says Peter.  No, say John the Baptist and Isaiah.  Now that we are saved, we are called to action!  We are called to live in the knowledge that Christ will come.  We are called to let God guide us in doing his will. Comfort my people!  Prepare the way of the LORD!  Make a highway for our God!  Straighten the things that are crooked and level the obstacles, within ourselves and throughout the world.  Open up to the possibility that God wants to use us.  We are called to be God’s hands in the world.  We are called to be Christ’s body, working together for the building up of God’s kingdom.  We wait, but we know the glory of the LORD is coming, and that we are God’s people.

So how do we open ourselves up to God so that he can use us to prepare his way?  Anyone who’s driven the turnpike through the Alleghenies knows that making a straight and level path is no easy task.  There was a lot of rock moved, filled in, and tunneled through to make that road.  It didn’t happen by accident, it took a lot of work and a lot of people working together.  Making a straight road isn’t any easier on a spiritual level.  Physical roads are made with bulldozers, jackhammers, dump trucks, rollers, and a whole host of other tools.  And the crew has a map that tells them where to go and what to do.  If a road crew came out to work with no tools and no map, they wouldn’t get very far and would almost certainly end up in the wrong place.  So what tools and maps has God given us for our spiritual road-building?

You probably know what most of them are already.  And yet, particularly in today’s busy world we so often choose to fill our time and our attention with other things that distract us from the work God has called us to do.  The tools of the Christian trade—the foundations of Christian life—are sometimes called spiritual disciplines, because they’re not always the easiest or most entertaining thing to do.  They are a habit or regular pattern in your life that repeatedly brings you back to God and opens you up to what God is saying to you so that you can follow God’s call.  Spiritual disciplines take time and attention, which is hard to find in today’s busy world.  But without them, we’re like a road crew standing empty-handed on the side of the road.

Prayer is the first of the tools God has given us.  Regular prayer, every day, in good times and in bad.  St. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing.  And scientists tell us that regular prayer can reshape our brain and the way we think.  Through regular prayer we lift our concerns to God and receive God’s inspiration and guidance.  What are the obstacles in our lives?  What are the things in the world around us that we should be aware of?  Who around us needs prayer?  Where does God want us to build his road?  Who does God want us to comfort?  Prayer can be closely linked to meditation, a focused attention on communing with God.  Without regular prayer, any roads we build will only be of our own making.

Study is another important spiritual discipline, and a foundation of many others.  God gave us our brains for a reason.  God gave us the Scriptures for a reason.  I know this may come as a shock to quite a number of people in America today, but God did not give us the Scriptures so that they could sit on a shelf and look important.  The Bible is the story of God’s work in the world and in his people from the creation of this world to the beginning of the next.  When we read the Bible, together in groups and on our own, God uses the stories of our ancestors to speak to us today.

Worship is our response to who God is.  Worship is how we come together to respond to God’s blessings.  Worship is coming together to remember who we are, and whose we are.  In worship we come together as a community, and remember that we aren’t alone, that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  Then we hear God’s word preached, and are fed with Christ’s body and blood and strengthened for the work to which we have been called.  Then we are sent out into the world again, renewed and refreshed for the new week.  Through worship, God helps us to hear what he calls us to do and equips us to go out and do it.

Fasting is probably the least practiced spiritual discipline in America.  It doesn’t mean punishing yourself or deprivation.  Fasting is about simplicity.  What in your life is adding to the clutter and minutia that fills your days?  What in your life do you take for granted?  What in your life is distracting you from God?  It seems we are so hungry these days, for money, for attractiveness, for the latest gadget and gizmo. Fasting is about renewing our hunger for God.  When we fast, whether from food or television or cell phones or watches, we take a break from the normal everyday world.  When we fast, we take time to go back to the essentials, filling time and money we would waste with time for building our relationship with God and one another.

Service is another important spiritual discipline.  Americans volunteer a lot, more than most people in the world.  And yet, as Christians we are called to a special kind of volunteering.  We are called to be Christ’s body in the world.  In fact, the ELCA motto is “God’s work, our hands.”  Service is faith in action.  Christian service is about connecting the Gospel with our actions, and letting God use us to do God’s will.

We are waiting for the day of the LORD, for the coming of Christ.  We have been saved, and yet we are still waiting.  But while we wait God has called us to live lives that show that salvation to the world.  We are called to comfort God’s children.  We are called to prepare God’s way, to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ in our words and in our actions.  We don’t do this on our own, but with the tools and guidance God gives us.  May we hear and follow God’s Word.

Amen.