Life in the Spirit: Sermon #04 - Why Pray?
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Nov. 06, 2016 • Anna Hillaker,
This is our fourth week in the Life in the Spirit sermon series. We are taking some time this fall to explore what it means to live a life reflective of the path that Jesus calls us to, what is often called discipleship. Discipleship isn’t about adding more things to your to-do list, and it certainly isn’t about earning God’s grace and mercy. Instead, it is about being transformed into the image of Jesus, it is about our lives becoming reflective of the love we have received. The tools we are exploring in this series are just that— resources for growth. Through our Spirit-filled lives, we begin to lean into the reality that God is indeed making all things new, and that we are enabled to participate in that transformation, beginning with our own lives. And this path is one that often feels strange and counter-intuitive. We follow the example of Jesus in letting go of our self-centeredness to serve others, by giving generously because we know that all of life is a gift, and through our boundary-breaking care for those around us. This is the disciple’s path, a path of transformation that starts with our learning to lose ourselves that we might find ourselves.
24Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul? (Matthew 16:24–27)
Why Do We Pray?
This week, we will be exploring one of the most beautiful and challenging aspects of our life of faith: prayer. As I say that, some of you are probably feeling excited. Others perhaps a little nervous. Still others a little guilty, or wondering “when was the last time I prayed?” Prayer is one of the most wonderful and yet mysterious gifts of the life of faith. I find it almost impossible to describe in precise terms. For that, we might ask our resident engineer, Pastor Donnell. But I find myself more at home with metaphors and mystery. If that’s not where you are comfortable, bear with me. I’ll get to more concrete stuff later on. So instead of a definition, I will turn to a piece of poetry by George Herbert, who was a poet and a pastor, and who uses a gorgeous range of metaphors to describe prayer:
Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
So instead of simply insisting on the necessity of prayer for the life and transformation of those who follow Christ, or trying to pin down a definition of what exactly it is, I am going to ask a simple question: why do we pray? What does it have to offer us? To enter into this question, we will turn to the Psalms, the prayerbook of the Bible. Psalm 139 offers us some insight into these questions.
We Pray Because We are Fully Known
Psalm 139 begins with a gorgeous expositions of God’s intimate and personal knowledge of us:
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
One of our basic human fears is being unknown. We loathe the thought of being misunderstood. So why do we pray? Because prayer invites us into the presence of the living God who knows us fully. We don’t need to explain ourselves before God. There is no need to fear that our motivations will be misunderstood or misconstrued. The psalmist describes in detail how profoundly we are known by God. Yahweh has “searched” us, and knows our actions, our thoughts, and our emotions. And this isn’t just a removed gathering of information. One commentator noted that God isn’t like a satellite, simply disinterestedly collecting information, this is personal, loving knowledge rooted in relationship. This isn’t static knowledge. It is dynamic, it is “knowledge in communion.”
I think we sometimes read these verses like God is a kind of voyeuristic Big Brother keeping tabs on us. We maybe feel like all this knowledge is an invasion of privacy, or that it will be used against us. But here’s the thing, we have become so distrustful, so afraid, that we are unable to recognize the loving safety that can be found in God’s presence. Our Creator already knows anything we have to tell. We don’t have to worry that we will be misunderstood, or that we won’t be heard. We find this reassuring message reiterated in Hebrew 4:14-16:
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Being known like this is probably just about as scary as it is comforting. But the Lord we serve sympathizes with our weakness. We are reassured that we can be bold in our prayers, knowing that we can approach the God who knows us fully and find mercy, grace, and help. We pray because we are fully known.
We Pray Because God is With Us
I think that the next few verses hilariously describe the reaction that many of us have when faced with being radically known, even if it is by a loving and compassionate God. We run. Here are verses 7-12:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
The psalmist now lists a range of hypothetical hiding spots. But this isn’t some sort of removed thought exercise. The psalmist isn’t just ruminating on the reach of God’s presence. It sounds like he is considering an attempted escape. The psalmist doesn’t just say “Where can I go,” he also says “where can I flee?” Fleeing isn’t thought exercise language. It is fear language. God’s presence can be deeply comforting. But it can also be kind of terrifying. Remember that we are told that Yhwh is familiar with all our ways. All of our ways. Let’s just sit with that for a minute. So the psalmist considers fleeing, as I’m sure some of us might. So he lists the places he might hide: the highest heights, the deepest depths. Here, he is actually referring to Sheol— the place of the dead, where in the ancient understanding God would never go. Next he lists the farthest east, where the sun rises, and the farthest west (since the ocean is west of Israel). But “even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” Yahweh is with the psalmist, no matter how far he runs. With the kind of knowledge that God has about each of us, we fear rejection, we fear confrontation, we expect chastisement and rebuke. But here’s the thing— Yhwh is there to guide us, Yhwh is there to hold us fast.
Next the psalmist considers hiding in the obscurity of darkness. Darkness which connotes hiddenness, but also perhaps even wickedness. Surely there the psalmist will be hidden from God! But no, for “even the darkness is not dark to you.” I find these words profoundly comforting. There is no place that we can go that God is not with us— loving us, guiding us, and yes, also confronting us when we need it. Even if we openly embrace wickedness, we will be not hidden from God, and our Lord will not stop seeking to guide us.
[Story of my first silent retreat. Journal, walk, Bible, all this activity. Then God stilling me. “Just be with me.” That’s when the real work started.]
This part of Psalm 139 brings to mind another passage from Romans 8 (v. 35, 37-39)
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We pray because God is with us.
We Pray to Learn that Our Lives Have Meaning
And now the psalmist, having apparently let go of his fantasy of running away, presses in to the intimacy of God’s knowledge:
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.
Each of us is carefully crafted, each detail lovingly woven together by the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. Verse 14 tells us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Earlier in verse 6, the psalmist is praising God’s knowledge as wonderful and too high to understand or attain. Now we are the ones who are wonderful. In God’s presence, in this beautiful prayer, the psalmist is able to realize his own worth. Each of us is astonishingly intricate and unique. We come to God in prayer to learn that each of our lives has meaning. You are here on purpose. Verse 16 tells us that each of our days on earth are intentional and full of purpose. It is in God’s presence that we we awake to the meaning that each of our lives have. It is in God’s presence that we are reminded how intimately and fully we are loved and embraced. This is why we pray.
We Pray to be Guided on the Path of Life
The next section of the psalm is tough. But hang in there with me. I think it’s worth it! After the beautiful verses that we’ve just read, there is what feels like a pretty major shift in tone. Suddenly the psalmist is spewing hatred, calling people wicked, and calling on God to destroy them:
If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
O-kay. What happened to all that love, guidance, and God-is-always-with-us stuff? Are we supposed to pray to sic God on all of our enemies? I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. But as modern readers, we have a hard time understanding this kind of language. I think a little background will help. In the Old Testament world, life was often conceived of as a choice between two “ways.” The way of life or the way of death. The way of goodness or the way of evil. Clean or unclean. Wisdom or folly. Let’s look at Jeremiah 6:16 for a helpful parallel:
Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, “We will not walk in it.”
Jeremiah is a prophetic book. It is the story of God trying to call his people back to “the ancient path,” and “the good way.” In this verse he is asking Israel to choose which direction to take, not because God wants to punish, not to be manipulative or mean, but so that they may find rest for their souls. This puts these verses of Psalm 139 in a new light. The psalmist is dramatically rejecting the way of the wicked and those who are in rebellion against God. To put it in language that you will often hear Pastor Donnell use, the psalmist is rejecting the way of the Empire. By vehemently separating himself from the way of the wicked, the psalmist is implicitly asking for guidance along “the ancient path” and “the way of life.” In fact, the very last line of the psalm asks that God would guide the psalmist “in the way everlasting.” So, why do we pray? We pray to be guided on the good way. We pray in order to be lead away from the path that the Empire tempts us to and toward the path of life, where we will find rest for our souls. One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 16, which says “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” We pray to be guided down the path of life.
We Pray to be Transformed
And finally, we pray in order to experience transformation. After those difficult few verses, our Psalm ends with these final words:
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
After the psalmist’s dramatic rejection of evil, his tone softens, and he asks the God of knowledge, who knows each of us better than we know ourselves, to reveal “any offensive way” in him. “Know my heart, know my thoughts, search it all Lord,” the psalmist asks. I think the psalmist recognizes here his inability to judge by himself whether he is in fact on the right path. He wants to be, that much is clear, so he asks for guidance. He asks for an increase in self-knowledge. Dr. Jim Houston, one of the founders of my alma mater Regent College and a truly amazing human, wrote the following: “self-defense only shuts the door upon God’s mercy, whereas humility opens us to deeper self-knowledge, leading in turn to greater intimacy with the Lover of our souls.” By seeking God in prayer, the psalmist hopes to better understand himself— his own anxious thoughts, his own motivations, his own mistakes. We aren’t able to assess ourselves accurately. We can’t see the whole picture like God can. So we pray. We pray because we know that by being vulnerable to our Creator, we open ourselves to incredible transformation through the power of the Spirit. And this transformation doesn’t just come from a transfer of knowledge. It isn’t just that Jesus teaches us, or reveals wisdom to us so that we can do better. Instead, it is through actually being in the presence of Jesus that we are transformed. As 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 says,
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
We pray, friends, so that we may be transformed into the image and likeness of Christ.
You may all be thinking, well that’s all great, but what do I actually do? So I have a couple of very simple practical tips for you today. The first is to try praying with the Psalms. In our prayers, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The Psalms have been a guide to prayer for a very, very long time, and there is good reason. They contain an enormous range of human emotion and experience. They also help to foster a sense of community and belonging, since these prayers have been prayed countless times, both now and throughout history. So this week, try using the Psalms to pray, in whatever way is helpful for you. That might be reading a new one every day, or it might be praying through one that is meaningful over and over. If you are looking for a place to start, I’d recommend trying the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134).
My second practical tip is to try visiting the prayer station. If you have never visited and feel a little nudge inside of yourself to try it, perhaps now is a great time to go. I know it can feel intimidating, but we have very lovely trained prayer ministers who will listen to you and pray with you. Feel free also to simply sit in that space in silence as a gesture to God that you wish to encounter the Spirit more fully.
Finally, if you feel like your prayer life is lagging, I’d recommend connecting with a Spiritual Director. They simply help you to set aside time to meet God, and they may be able to offer some new resources to try as you pray. If this sounds interesting to you, contact Rick Rykowski, who heads up our Spiritual Direction ministry here at the church. Another way to explore new avenues of prayer is to attend the Centering Prayer retreat coming up in December with Martha Balmer.