In the Name...
Archbishop Michael Ramsey was once asked, “How long do you pray each day?” Without hesitation, he replied, “About two minutes. But, it takes me about two hours to prepare.”
In 1989, Stephen Covey shook up the business world when he published his book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." Basically, the book says that people who are effective live by a set of common principles which are universal and timeless. The third principle or habit that he presented was the idea that we should be putting First Things First in our lives.
Sounds simple enough, but, it is not always that easy. For example, when I ask people what they consider to be the most important aspect of their spiritual life they nearly always answer “prayer.” Nine out of ten people report on surveys that they pray regularly. Three out of four claim to pray every day. But, when asked how long they pray, very few report that they pray for more than five or ten minutes and even fewer find their prayer life satisfying.
That is one of many incongruities in our spiritual life. We say that prayer is important, but, the needs and time constraints of the secular world impinge upon us. This happened to the theologian Hans Kung when he wrote his book, "On Being a Christian." I had to read this book in theological college. It's 720 pages long, but, does not have one chapter on prayer. Kung said that this was a very regrettable oversight, but, the publisher's deadlines put so much pressure on him that he simply forgot.
I do not condemn Kung. There are too many days when I also forget to pray as I should. I just do not put first things first.
Fortunately, St. Luke makes sure that he puts first things first when he tells us about the baptism of Jesus. While the event is recorded in all four gospels, only Luke mentions that Jesus was praying at the time. Actually, Luke brings up the topic of prayer more than any of the other gospel writers and each time is when Jesus is at some sort of crossroads in his life or ministry.
And, in addition to making sure we know that Jesus himself prayed Luke records several parables about prayer, including the friend at midnight, the persistent widow, and the tax collector in the Temple. Also, in the Book of Acts, he makes a point to tell us, as we heard this morning in the second lesson, that the Holy Spirit comes when the disciples gather for prayer; that Peter was in prayer when he saw the vision to take the Gospel to the Gentiles; and, that the church was praying for Peter the night that he miraculously escaped from prison.
You see, associating the act of prayer with supernatural events is important for Luke In other words, dramatic things happen when people put prayer first in their lives. As in the case of Jesus at his baptism, prayer opens heaven.
And, why not? The problem, though, that a lot of us, myself included, have is the way we approach prayer. We tend to think of prayer as informing God about our problems as if he didn’t have a clue about what’s going on in our lives. Or, we plead with him as if we were trying to make him do something he really doesn't want to do. The problem with that approach, though, is that it sets up a spiritual conflict. If things don't go our way, we can get angry and wonder why he's mad at us.
That's why in approaching prayer we might want to consider a view from above, as it were. We need to realize that God already knows about the school teacher with the broken leg, the friend with Parkinson's, the rebellious teenager, the family who is losing their home and the single mom who is unemployed.
And, I do not mean that we should not mention them in our prayers, but, that might not be where we should begin. Before we tell God what we want him to do, maybe we should first ask God what part he wants us to play in the things we're about to bring before him.
For example, the story is told of an African farmer who asked his family to pray that God would help the poor man down the road. "But, Father," his son piped up, "We don't need to bother God about that. We can help him ourselves."
You see. But, taking this view from above is not always easy to put into practice.
Now, there are a lot of books out there which offer ways to improve our prayer lives. I’m sure most of us have found some to be very helpful. But, there’s one which has been around for a very long time and may be so familiar to us that we have forgotten it. It's called the Book of Psalms. And, not only is it found in every Bible, it's been considered so important to our daily life and spiritual growth that it's always been printed in our Book of Common Prayer.
We tend to think of the Bible as God’s words to us. The Psalms, however, are different because they are our words to God. In the Psalms we find words of prayer in all its forms. Sometimes words of praise and adoration; sometimes words of petition; sometimes words of complaint and sorrow; even, sometimes, words of anger and frustration.
Because, the essence of prayer is talking to God - just as we do with anybody else. Yes, God knows our thoughts, but, he gave us vocal cords; he gave us voice; and he likes to hear us use it because, when we use it, it means we think he's listening. “Our Father who art in heaven” likes to hear our voices say those words because verbal prayer isn’t just an act of faith - it’s an act of relationship.
Throughout the history of the church, the Psalms have been regarded as the basic prayer resource for God's people. By allowing them to shape our prayers our thoughts are shaped by words and wisdom that has withstood the ebb and flow of time and trends. We are elevated to higher ground and into the very mind of God. Therefore, before we rush to ask God to fix some problem on which he is already working, maybe we should take a few moments to read the Psalms and find, in them, the words to help us find our place in the things we bring before him.
Was Jesus praying a psalm on the day he saw heaven opened? Who knows? But, we do know he would have prayed the psalms throughout his life. We may not be able to open the heavens simply by reading a psalm, but, at least doing that can be a start to shifting our prayer vision from below to above and putting first things first.
In the Name...