We believe, as Christians, in God’s wonderful gift of grace: that God offers us, as a gift, out of love for us, the chance to know God and God’s will in this life, through this life, and the opportunity to be with God forever, in eternal life, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God had done this, for us.
And we also believe that, in grateful response to what God has done for us, we Christians should try to live our lives the way God wants us to; it is our way of saying “thank you” for God’s wonderful gift. We do, in gratitude, particular things that are pleasing to God, and that help us become the kind of people God wants us to be. Like:
- We gather in worship.
- We help others, trying to love them as we love ourselves.
- We share our faith, our understanding of God’s gift, with others – with our own children, through our Sunday School classes, for example; and, when an opportunity presents itself, with friends or even strangers.
- We try to strengthen our own faith, including getting to know our Scriptures, our Bible.
- We serve our church, our congregation, contributing our time and the particular gifts God has blessed us with.
- And one other thing we do, as part of our grateful response . . . is we pray: we communicate with God, as part of our relationship with God, just as communication is part of any healthy relationship. We speak to God, we listen for God, our relationship involves prayer.
This understanding, that believers in God will engage in prayer, is something found through the whole history of the people of God, as told by the Bible. We see Abraham praying to God, in the very first book of the Bible, Genesis; and then people throughout the Old Testament: Moses, Samuel, David, Daniel . . . We see Jesus engaging in prayer from the very first chapters of the gospels, and encouraging the disciples to do so as well. When the disciples came to Jesus, in our first reading today, note their presumption that of course believers will be praying. Their only question for Jesus is how will we do it, not “if.” People of God are a people of prayer.
And so . . . prayer is part of our life at Paris Presbyterian Church, this particular branch of the people of God. We encourage our members to be in prayer individually, throughout the week. And we pray when we are together: we pray in our classes, and in our meetings, and in our groups like puppeteers and choir. Our Monday Bible study has looked at whole units on prayer, bringing our questions about prayer to one another and to Scripture, as the disciples brought theirs to Jesus. And prayer is always part of worship services Sunday mornings – and I imagine always has been here. Within the worship services, there are different styles of prayer:
- There are unison prayers, which we all speak together, including the Lord’s Prayer.
- There are pastoral prayers, when it is only me speaking aloud.
- There are times of silent prayer: silent confession, prayers for people on our minds, prayer during communion.
- Occasionally, in special worship services, there is the opportunity for individuals to come forward to say a soft spoken prayer for a particular need with the pastor.
There are different ways we can pray in a worship service; and different people find one particular way or another to be the most meaningful to them.
- Some like silent prayer the best, for example, when they can formulate their own words, or better listen for God’s voice.
- Others like the pastoral prayers the best, when someone else is formulating the words.
- Others have experienced being prayed for, one-on-one in worship, and find that to be extremely helpful.
Different people have different preferences; and as mature adults we, of course, know how to “take turns” amongst the various styles, to allow each of us to have some time with
Our current “plan” for prayer in worship in this congregation, then, is to continue with the mixture of these styles, in order to accommodate the mixture of preferences; and one of the styles we will be incorporating occasionally on Sunday mornings is called “guided prayer.” In guided prayer, a topic or subject is named by the person leading the prayer, and then a few seconds of silence are left for you to fill in the details. I may say, for example, “we pray for our families,” and then pause so each of you can picture or silently name each of your family members. This is much easier than me trying to say “We pray for (Susan’s family) Jim and Kevin and Amber and Karol and Chris; and (Jane and Steve’s family) Brian and Scott and Gwyneth and Logan; and (Terry and Barbara’s family) Lisa and Mellie and Todd and Stephanie”; and so on around the whole room.
Or I may say “we pray for those in need of your healing,” and you can silently name those you are aware of whom you would like God to heal. One thing this accomplishes, by the way, is that people who prefer not to announce out loud situations they would like to pray for during “Joys and Concerns” still get the chance to lift those up to God, specifically, privately. We will do the Guided Prayer form of prayer sometimes in worship, including today; how often will depend in part on your response: feel free to tell a Worship Committee member what you think of this style of prayer.
What do we pray for, in our guided prayers? Well, sometimes it will be specific individuals or programs.
- Sometimes when we’ve collected the Souper Bowl of Caring Offering for hunger programs, for example, we’ve named and prayed for particular efforts to feed the hungry.
- We’ll pray for our church – for this congregation, for the churches of Paris, for Presbyterian churches throughout the country, for the Christian Church worldwide.
- We’ll pray for particular individual needs we’re aware of – prayers for those who need healing, for example, then those who need comfort following the death of a loved one, then those who need strength, then those who need guidance.
- We’ll pray for our community – our schools, our political leaders, the particular issues of Paris.
- Sometimes we’ll pray to hear God’s will, to hear God speaking to us – and spend some time listening for God.
- We’ll pray for our nation.
- We’ll pray for our world – and for specific areas or problems internationally: places of war, of famine, of injustice.
And sometimes, we’ll pray for ourselves – leave a space for you to come to God with your own needs. It’s all right to do that, you know. It’s not selfish – or at least it isn’t if that’s not the only thing you’re praying for. Look how Jesus responded, in Luke 11, when the disciples asked him how to pray: His sample prayer included “give us the food we need. Forgive us. Do not bring us to the time of trial.” Prayer for ourselves. His examples following the model prayer are of people asking for something they need, and God’s willingness to give it to them, to us. So sometimes, yes, we will pray for ourselves.
Dr. Carol Bechtel is the Associate Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. She also wrote, for a while, the “Bible Explorations” column in our Presbyterian Church monthly magazine “Presbyterians Today.” One of those columns, reflecting on our Old Testament lesson this morning, related a time she had a little trouble saying a particular prayer for herself:
“I had a bad attitude that day as I slid into my customary pew in the seminary chapel. I had already heard seven student sermons that week, and it was only Wednesday. I wasn’t sure I had the strength for another.
“I should have been relieved, then, when the student who was slotted to lead that day’s service announced that there would be no sermon. ‘Today,’ he said enthusiastically, ‘we’re going to have a prayer and healing service!’
“My heart sank. Now, perhaps you are surprised that a seminary professor would have such a response. But it had been a difficult year—or, more accurate, a difficult decade. In my battle-scarred state I was inclined to become impatient with the simplistic way some of my young, fresh-faced students interpreted ‘ask, and it will be given you’ in Luke 11:9.
“Each of several ‘healing stations’ set up around the room was equipped with a kneeling bench and a person ready to pray with us for whatever healing we might need. As I knelt down at one of the stations the earnest young seminarian asked me if there were any special things I’d like to pray for. I smiled at her, shook my head, and indicated that something generic would be fine.
“I knew I was in trouble the moment she began. ‘Lord,’ she prayed, her hands gently enfolding my head, ‘we ask that you would give Carol JOY!’ No, no, my mind objected. You don’t understand my situation. Pray for patience; pray for endurance. But not joy. Joy is clearly out of the question. But she kept right on praying, each request more extravagant than the last. No matter how I raised my mental defenses, I could not seem to stem the exuberant tide.
“We see the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4 taking much the same psychological stance. The prophet Elisha has just offered her what she wants most in the world: a son. Yet she mentally raises her arms as if to fend off the blessing. ‘No, my lord, O man of God; do not deceive your servant.’”
“In a way, we can’t help but admire her for it. Her response indicates that her hospitality toward the itinerant prophet has not been for anything she might get out of it. When she convinced her elderly husband to remodel their house to accommodate Elisha and his servant, it must have been purely out of the goodness of her heart. That she went above and beyond the call of duty is obvious from Elisha’s reference to her taking ‘all this trouble for us’ (v. 13). But when he offers to put in a good word for her with the king or the commander of the army, she refuses.
“It must have seemed like Elisha was adding insult to injury when he then persisted with the promise: ‘At this time next season, in due time, you shall embrace a son.’
“We get the feeling she has been disappointed before. Why else would she immediately jump to the conclusion that this particular promise was too extravagant? Why else would she assume that the prophet was staging some cruel joke at her expense? No, no, we hear her thinking. You don’t understand my situation. Promise me patience; promise me endurance. But joy is clearly out of the question. “
“But sometimes God has more in mind for us than we have in mind for ourselves. One year later the Shunammite woman did indeed embrace a son. This wasn’t the end of her story, or of her struggle toward trust, as we see if we read the sequel to this story in verses 18-37. But she never again made the mistake of asking God for too little.
“It never occurred to me to pray for joy that day in the chapel. Perhaps I thought it would be too presumptuous. Or maybe, like the Shunammite woman, I didn’t want to run the risk of being disappointed. But my student wasn’t daunted by my depression. She just prayed. She prayed like I hadn’t done in years. She prayed with reckless abandon. And before she—and God—were done with me, I was weeping. Weeping for joy, I suppose, though I could not be sure what form it would take. One thing is sure, however: I would never again make the mistake of asking God for too little.” (Presbyterians Today, June 1999)
So, yes, we will, sometimes, pray for ourselves as well, trying not to make that mistake of asking God for too little. “Ask and it will be given you. Search and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened. How much more will the heavenly Father give to those who ask.” “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Let’s pray now:
God, thank you for encouraging us to come to you with all our joys, all our concerns, all our emotions, all our situations. Thank you for Jesus’ promise that you will hear our prayers, and for your willingness to give, sometimes even more than we have asked. Help us to be faithful, and confident, in our prayers, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.