What Is, What Isn’t, Prayer

“What Is, What Isn’t Prayer?” Some people seem to associate devout prayer with rewards from God. Did you hear of the five-year-old boy who announced to his parents that he never wanted to pray again? When she probed his remark, his mother got this explanation: “I prayed and prayed, and prayed for a new puppy, and all I got was a new baby brother.” Prayer is not only a question for young boys wanting puppies, but also for adults who struggle with the issues of life! I read this quote recently: “Faith is not about everything turning out OK; faith is about being OK no matter how things turn out.” “The purpose of prayer”, so says Author Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, “is not to influence God to grant you special favors, but rather to remind yourself that you are always connected to God.”
So “What Is, What Isn’t Prayer?” Is it something that requires a lot of our time? Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles, once said she couldn’t approve someone who spent less than four hours a day in prayer. But how many of us would be so disciplined? There is a place for highly directed, devoutly practiced, long-term prayer, of course. There is a vocation for deeply dedicated prayer.
Some 30 years ago, Dr. Spencer Johnson and Dr. Ken Blanchard published a breakthrough book titled The One-Minute Manager. The book became popular because the authors offered a simple, direct way to manage people in the workplace. The goal? To set people free to be all that they can be in their work, and to do it quickly, just a minute at a time. That’s the idea of a “one-minute manager”. So how about “one-minute faithfulness”, and finding even there the very presence of God?
I am rather intrigued by the “logo” on the automobile I acquired this past year. The Acura has this medallion representing accuracy in engineering, but if one can see symbolism, to me it resembles the famous “Praying hands”. So while driving, I have this constant reminder to be aware of God’s presence, even a mantle of protection, a call to drive carefully, to continually inquire of God’s will for my life, and the life of my family, the welfare of my congregation, and for all the people of the world.
So I believe it’s entirely possible, in the words of I Thessalonians 5:17, to “ . . . pray without ceasing.”

To remain constant in prayer does not really happen automatically though, or mere good intentions. It takes dedication, and yes, discipline! I heard about a particular African village, where each Christian would have his or her own private shrine for prayer, away from the noisy distractions of the village. If the African Christian was devoted in prayer, there would be a well-worn pathway from their hut to the place of prayer. However, if it was noticeable that the track had become overgrown with weeds and grass because it was not being used, another Christian would come and admonish his friend and say, “Friend, your prayer pathway is growing up with weeds.” Each of us might well ask ourselves, How is the pathway to my shrine of prayer? Has it become overgrown with weeds of neglect because I’ve not been spending time regularly with God?
My special friend, Rev. Elwain Mckeen, has some very inspirational writings, among them, “Spending Time With God”, in which he says,
Many people say that they believe in God, the Creator of all things,
And yet they ignore Him in their everyday life of pleasure and of work.
Yes, some might show some thankfulness to God for what He brings.
But when it comes to real worship – in this they tend to shirk. . . .
In this hectic life that we face with each new dawning day,
It is so easy to let ourselves be distracted – to forget to pray!
And then find ourselves out of orbit, like a star falling from the sky,
But if we will be trust the Savior, we can known where help will lie. . . .

Maybe you heard about the pastor who died and is waiting in line at the Pearly Gates. Ahead of him is this fellow in a loud shirt, leather jacket, and jeans. St. Pete asks the fellow, “Who are you, so that I may admit you to Heaven?” The chap replies, “I’m Fred Smedley, taxi driver, of Noo Yawk City.”Saint Peter consults his list. He smiles and says, “Take this silken robe and golden staff and enter Heaven.” The pastor steps up and booms out, “I am Joe H. Jones, Methodist pastor for the last 48 years.” St. Pete consults his list and says, “Pastor, take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter Heaven.” “Just a minute,” says pastor. “That man was a cab driver and he gets a silken robe and golden staff. How can this be?” “Up here, we work by results,” says St. Pete. “While you preached, people slept; while he drove, people prayed.”
And it’s possible that what we think is prayer can be misguided! Did you see the B.C. cartoon where one of the prehistoric characters says, “God, please grant me one request. Destroy my worst enemy.” The request barely got out of the guy’s mouth when a bolt of lightning strikes him and incinerates him on the spot. In the final frame, a voice comes from the ashes saying, “Let me rephrase that request.”
News reports often remind us that prayer sometimes must operate under emergency conditions! One minute prayers, or even split second prayers! Did you notice the item about the emergency landing of a small plane last Tuesday in England? It seems that the pilot suddenly became sick, called the control tower, and it became clear the passenger, who had never flown a plane before, would have to land the plane. Two flight instructors were called in to give an impromptu flying lesson over the radio. They instructed the man to fly over the runway to get familiar with it, then circle again, fly over again, then do it one more time, just to be safe. And on the fourth go ‘round, he managed, with no lights in the cockpit, a blind landing in darkness, to make a pretty good three-pointer with only a little bounce, after only an hour of circling. Unfortunately, the original pilot died a short time later. But can you imagine the plight of the pilot, deathly sick at the controls, and the anxiety of the passenger, who’d never piloted a plane before? Was there panic? Was there prayer?
I wouldn’t say that was a perfect analogy of the way prayer works. But perhaps it’s a description of “prayer under pressure”! We have this extremely great need. We pray, “Is anybody listening?” And a voice answers and calmly instructs us step by step until all of our needs are met and our problems are solved. If that happens, we are indeed fortunate. Most of the time, that does not happen.
There is a quite new book titled You Are Already Praying, by Cathy H. George, through the Episcopalian publishers, which helps us realize how we DO pray even if it’s not the way we were taught in church or Sunday School.
“What Is, What Isn’t Prayer?” For one thing, it isn’t something we should make into a complicated procedure, or a ritual too difficult to follow through with!

I read a story of two women friends who met each other in the parking lot of a bookstore. One had a great bundle of books in her arms. “What in the world are you doing,” her friend asked, “opening your own bookstore?” “Oh, no,” said the woman, “these are all books about prayer. All my life I have been hearing about the importance of prayer, so I finally decided to learn how to pray. I have these 14 books on the subject. And not only that, I have signed up for two courses in prayer, at my church and at a friend’s church. I’m really going to master the subject!” Several weeks later, the friends met again. “How is the prayer project going?” the friend asked. The woman hung her head in despair. “It was too complicated,” she said, “and I gave it up.” As an afterthought she added, “Now I’m taking a course in yoga.”

Prayer need not be complicated, but it is helpful to have some guidelines, some instructions in valuable ways to pray. Many years ago, someone taught me that prayer, whether formally spoken such as in church, or informally in the privacy of our heart, should involve at least four different components, using the letters of the word, “A-C-T-S”:
First, there is “A” – Adoration, a time when we are still and allow God to be God. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God” – which helps us to center our thoughts completely upon God and not upon ourselves. Adoration.

Then, there is Confession, a time when we are honest with God. I John 1:9 applies: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. One of the great prayers in Christian history says, “Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Confession.

Third, there is a time of Thanksgiving, a time for expressing gratitude for the many gifts of God’s love. I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart – Psalm 9:1. Take plenty of time to acknowledge God as the source of all good gifts. “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” Thanksgiving.

Finally, our Prayer should conclude with Supplication, that is, offering our concerns up to God, making requests of God. Psalm 6:9 says, The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.

There you have it: The “Acts” of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.
A remarkable example of God’s involvement in life occurred in the year 1932. A certain composer’s wife, Nettie by name, had died while she was giving birth, and a few days later the baby, a son, also died. This composer was broken hearted and sat at his piano, musing upon the hymn, “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone.” That song asks, “Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free? No, there’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.” As he modulated those chords, the Holy Spirit interceded. New chords and new words emerged. The composer’s grief began to yield to faith. And Thomas Andrew Dorsey (not the band leader, but the religious composer) went on to write,

“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”

Another of Mr. Dorsey’s compositions, which he wrote for Mahalia Jackson, was:

There’ll be peace in the valley for me some day.

There’ll be peace in the valley for me

I pray no more sorrow and sadness or trouble will be

There’ll be peace in the valley for me.

Mr. Dorsey witnessed to this truth: No matter our success, failure, joy or sorrow, God can be found in prayer.




Luke 8:26-39 Romans 8:28-39

This is the first post on my new blog, a kind of “trial run” to get the site going.  This is one of my sermons, presented a year or so ago. More later . . . .
“God’s Power in You.” Have you ever had a spiritual experience in your life, when you said to yourself – THERE is the power of God! THERE is the creativity of God fully demonstrated? Maybe you’ve stood before a high mountain, looked out at snow-capped peaks, and said to yourself, “My Savior God . . . How Great Thou Art!” Or you’ve seen that new-born baby, Your own first-born, or that of a niece or nephew, or even a “great-grand”, and looked at those tiny fingers, looked into that little creature’s eyes as they opened and looked back at yours, and you’ve said, “My Savior God . . . How Great Thou Art!”

There are so many ways in which you and I are made aware of the awesome, amazing power of God at work. In mountain grandeur, star-lit skies, in newly opened eyes, in record-setting achievements of Olympic athletes, or in a miraculous recovery from a devastating illness. There can be many ways, far more than we can possible think of in a few minutes.

Let me tell of an event I experienced personally. One night in January 2011, about a year and seven months ago, just after midnight, I was feeling very intense physical anxiety including pain in my chest, so much so that my wife Audrey said, “Do you need to go to the hospital?” My reply, “Yes, now!” Being the excellent driver that she is, and always calm under pressure, we arrived at the E.R. at St. Al’s just minutes later. When you come through that door with chest pains, those doctors and nurses literally leap into action! My own cardiologist providentially was also in the hospital, and arrived within minutes. Not a moment is wasted. Questions are asked. The required name-band is soon around my left wrist. No doubt you know the drill! Blood pressure is checked. Wires are attached and monitor screens light up. Tubes are inserted. Injections are made. X-rays are taken. Diagnoses are decided, all in rapid-fire sequence, and I am soon being swiftly transported, while fading off into deep sleep, down a long corridor to the Cath Lab where one of those new, modern “stents” is expertly installed. All of that, literally within 65 minutes! The sequence and efficiency was amazing. In another time or circumstance, the story might have required an entirely different outcome of faith. The next morning I woke up in the CCU, alive and doing well, realizing I am the fortunate and blessed recipient of an amazing gift of medical science, one of the many practical miracles and wonderful occurrences which dedicated medical professionals help to bring about, every day. Was it a supernatural act of God? It did require human cooperation of a very complex kind, yet I believe that particular event did have a spiritual, supernatural character as well, certainly in its positive outcome, certainly as an answer to Audrey’s and my prayers, thus contributing in a major way to the fact that I can serve today, in the ministry of Christ’s Church. That medically acquired gift from God has made it possible that I can come to Baker City to be your pastor. While my heart received an inner physical enhancement, bringing me back to health, in a real way it was an inner spiritual gift as well!

We United Methodists are sometimes called, “The people of the heart strangely warmed.” The church which I served at Meridian, Idaho, before retiring, has been known for many years as “The Church of the Warm Heart”. This pet name came from the experience of our founder John Wesley, who after a long struggle with a deep sense of guilt, gained an inner awareness of his sin being cancelled by Christ. He opened his heart in faith and later wrote in his Journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed”. It’s mentioned in the hymn, “O for A Thousand Tongues to Sing”, written by John’s brother Charles, in the stanza that says, “He breaks the power of cancelled sin, he sets the prisoner free.”

But the truth is, in our “day by day” normal lives, we do not easily recognize God’s transformative power, the experience of inner revolution. The story in Luke’s Gospel that we just heard, helps us to realize that God’s capacity to create, to control, is beyond our comprehension. Here we see Jesus claim power over nature, over demonic forces, over illness, and yes, even power over death. It’s a story of God’s influence, working through Jesus, to overcome demons. Notice several things here: How the demons were fearful of Jesus, how the neighbors could not understand Jesus’ power, and finally, how the man who was possessed, now healed, is sent forth to announce the power of God to others. Quite a scene!

The account in Luke chapter 8 starts out with the arrival of Jesus in the country of the “Gerasenes”, which is opposite Galilee, in the Decapolis region south and east of the Sea of Galilee. This is important mainly because it tells us Jesus is breaking out into new territory, “going into all the world” where he’d not ministered before, among Gentiles – non-believers, those who didn’t previously know of his ministry.

And the first person to greet Jesus as he stepped onto this foreign land was a man possessed by demons – a man in great torment. He was considered so “far gone” in his distress that he wore no clothes, and rampaged around, filthy dirty among the tombs, for no one would associate with him, an outcast of the outcasts. But deep within the man recognized Jesus, and it’s possible he had heard of Jesus before – in any event, this man drops down at the feet of Jesus, in hopes of tapping into His healing power. There’s no doubt that this man’s demons had full control of him. In Luke 8:30, Jesus asks, “What is your name?” And the reply is, “ ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him.” But their limitations are obvious as well. As verse 31 says, “And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss” – into nothingness. Note: The demons, pretending to have dominance, have no power at all! They had nothing, if they couldn’t cling to someone else, in this case, the deranged man.

So I’d like to speak about demons both in the New Testament, and as we might understand them today. Demons, in Biblical times, were considered a kind of perverse “spiritual being” that tried to get between God and the people. Another name was, “devil”. My devout Methodist Grandmother called this power “The Adversary”. In Bible times, people didn’t have the understanding of physical or mental illness we have today, and so anyone who suffered, either from physical deformities, or mental illness, was often simply labeled as having a “demon” – such demons also called “evil spirits”, or “unclean spirits”.

So in reading this particular story through our “twenty-first century eyes”, we could say that this demon-possessed man might have had some kind of severe mental disorder, but we actually do not know. In a more general sense, though, the people of that time were aware, just as today, that evil does exist, and presents itself in a variety of forms. Certainly we’ve seen dramatic events in recent weeks – in the Aurora, Colorado, theater mass-murder scene, and the killings at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, for example. So do we speak of demons, or evil, unclean spirits today? And if we arrive at a name, or names, and if we even impute a scientific explanation, will anything actually be explained? The evil is done, and it is little different from evil in any time in history, ancient or modern.

Have you heard the words of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism? When a youth or adult comes to be Baptized, certain questions are asked. First, the pastor says, “On behalf of the whole church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?” After a response of “I do”, the next question is asked, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” Again, the answer is “I do”, and then comes the central question: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?” Again, the response is, “I do”. So we declare, as Christians, that we expect to deal with our demons – whatever they may be – only we do so with the freedom and strength we have from God!

In our Baptism we are reminded that a demon, an unclean spirit, an evil spirit, is simply any influence, any power, that stands between, “over against”, or interferes with our relationship with God. But in our Christian faith we believe the power of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is the immediate victor over any and all such destructive, negative influences. In Romans 8 from which we read earlier, beginning at verse 35 it says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure (persuaded) that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, 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.”

In Luke 8:26-39 Jesus faced the demons that possessed that Gaderene Demoniac. The demons, a whole “legion” of them, controlled the man’s life. So we might ask, is our world filled with demons that want to own and possess us? I cannot answer these questions for you. Martin Luther’s 16th Century hymn verse says, “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.” If we observe what is served to us electronically in the 21st Century via television and computer screens, “tabs”, cell phones, “pods” and “pads” and all their cousin technologies, what conclusions do we have? Is this world “with devils filled?” We could well ask, what possesses us? Alcohol, tobacco, and recreational drugs possess some people’s lives, but that is only one area. What about the desire to possess “things”, the desire to live like a wealthy person? I have to confess that I have it. I’d like very much to own that lovely automobile with all of the latest technological advances built in! I am impressed with displays of new, wide, “high definition” television screens! I can even rationalize why it would be a great thing to have one – for it will be much easier to see my favorite football players in greater detail! Does gluttony or self-centeredness possess any of us? Well, maybe not in those words, and I don’t know about you, but I “depart from” a healthy diet far more often than I am obedient to it! While serving our own needs, how aware are we of the needs of others, especially the needy, the unfortunate, who are as equally children of God as ourselves? The reality of the spiritual world of evil, and its effects on people, is quite evident from the Scriptures, and it is something for us to take seriously. Rodney Buchanan, widely published pastor and preacher in Ohio, says, and I quote:

“The Christian world, by and large, does not understand that we are in a spiritual warfare — a cosmic struggle between good and evil . . . we have such a tame idea of Christianity that we think being a Christian means being a “nice” person. We are not alarmed at sin — we are fascinated by it. We look on it as an adventure, not as something dangerous. We want our children to be happy with no thought of their spiritual welfare. We are too comfortable and have life too good. Those before us did not have life as good and could sing with enthusiasm about another world which was coming. They sang things like: “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.” Or they lifted their voices to hymns that said:

Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wandering from the fold of God;
He to rescue me from danger, Interposed His precious blood.

Christians from other generations . . . knew there was a cosmic struggle going on for their souls and they prayed fervently that they would be delivered.” Martin Luther said it so beautifully in his powerful hymn, “A Mighty Fortress”: “The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.” Luther could say, as St. Paul said in the Romans 8 passage, that no power is strong enough to resist the word or command of Jesus. One little word from the mouth of Jesus shall fell him.

Let us thank God for giving us our Savior, Christ Jesus.

Let us thank God for showing us that one small word from Him and the power of evil crumbles into nothing.

Let us thank God for helping us know that we have nothing to fear from demons.

We live not by fear, but by our faith in Christ, who saves us to the uttermost.

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A sermon presented by Pastor Ralph Lawrence
Baker United Methodist Church, Baker City, Oregon
Sunday, August 12, 2012.
Copyright 2012 by Ralph A. Lawrence