Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy.* When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ Then Jesus*stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’ Immediately the leprosy* left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. ‘Go’, he said, ‘and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.’ But now more than ever the word about Jesus* spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.
We know that we can pray in church. We also see that Jesus took time to pray on his own. We asked when we can we pray?
‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
Sermon / Discussion – Praying in different situations
The other week at training meeting on pastoral care, we were discussing whether visitors and elders should pray when making pastoral visits or after other pastoral care encounters. The general view, and one I am very happy to support personally, was that it depended on whether the visitor felt comfortable to do so.
As for me, I feel comfortable to offer to pray for people, either there and then, or subsequently, depending what they want. In fact, my experience is that even non-believers are very happy and comforted to know that you are praying for them.
But then somebody said something that both surprised me and got me thinking. They said, “well it’s okay for you, Nick, as you are good at praying.”
Oh that this were true, my friends!
Maybe I say a good prayer when leading worship? Well, it’s usually straight out of a book! The prayers we have had so far this morning have been, though we may go a bit more off-piste later in the service.
Maybe I pray well without something written when the elders and preachers pray before the service. Well, it’s usually heart-felt, but I often feel my prayers are shallow and I am tongue-tied, not knowing how to find the words (and I am dreading the off-piste bit later on!!)
I wonder what it was that made the person that said I was good at praying say that? For I certainly don’t agree. And, having spoken with many people on this subject over the last few weeks, I think that many others here don’t feel they are good at prayer. And I wonder why that is?
This morning, I have a few observations to bring based on our bible readings, based on reading about prayer, and based on my own experience. But I think each one of us is going to have something valuable to share, so I would like this to be more of a discussion and sharing time, so that we can all learn from each other.
Let’s start with a quick show of hands, and please don’t feel embarrassed about this – we are among friends:
- Who feels they are good at prayer? [NOBODY RAISED THEIR HANDS]
- And who feels they want to be better at praying? [MANY PEOPLE]
- How to structure prayer
- Prayers feel shallow
- Don’t know how to word prayers
- Remaining focussed
- Finding the time
Let’s look at our second reading
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
Remember earlier, I asked if my fellow elder felt I was a good pray-er because I can pray publicly. Well, if this were the case, I need to watch what I am doing – for I need to make sure I am not praying so that others can see me!
The next part of our reading says this:
Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
If we want to be a good pray-er, praying in public is not important. What matters more is that you pray in private.
We see this time and again with Jesus:
In our first reading today, he would withdraw to deserted places and pray. There are many more examples:
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.
After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.
And, of course, we have Gethsemane. Let’s hear from the Gospel of Mark:
32They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” 35And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 37He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
Jesus – the night he was betrayed – wanted to be on his own to pray. And his disciples couldn’t even stay awake!
So we see that, important as prayer is in public worship, it is praying privately is presented as a key model of prayer by Christ. And, if he felt it was so important, sure so should we.
Let me ask another question, and once again, please don’t feel embarrassed either to raise your hand or because you don’t feel you can raise it.:
- Who here, either currently or at some point in the past, has ever had regular times of personal prayer outside of church? [SOME HANDS]
Now I would like anyone who has regular times of personal prayer at the moment to out your hands down.
Are there any tips people have to help with personal prayer?
- Use something like a candle to give you something to focus on
- We need to listen to God. Be still, empty our minds and listen to what he has to say.
- Embrace our wondering mind and turn our thoughts back to God.
Here is a model some people find useful:
- Find somewhere quiet, where you can be on your own.
- Now, be quiet before the Lord. The Bible calls it waiting on God. You start by simply sitting down and shutting up. As you do this, you’ll find yourself revving your engine down and calming yourself. Maybe do a few breathing exercises.
- Now you are still, pray briefly. Just a short opening prayer. Ask God to open your mind and guide you. Ask him to cleanse your mind.
- Tell God how much you appreciate the things he has done for you. Maybe sing a hymn or worship song. Confess your sin before God and ask for assurance of his forgiveness.
- Read a portion of Scripture slowly. Maybe you can use Bible reading notes such as The Prayer Handbook to help you. Read slowly, so that you think about what you’re reading. Meditate on the passage, and see if God is saying anything to you through the reading. Maybe write down any thoughts you have.
- Pray once more, bringing all your concerns to God. Pray for others. Give thanks for answered prayer. Once again, many people find it useful to keep a prayer diary of things they have prayed for, and also answers to prayer.
- Finally, ask God to be with you through the rest of the day or night.
As we come to the end of our discussion this morning, I want to offer some encouragement to anyone who feels inhibited in prayer either privately or in public because you don’t know what to say or you don’t feel sufficiently elogquent.
And the way I want to do this is by recounting a typical conversation in the Savill household after church:
O Annette my wife,
Thou art the greatest wife of all,
O wife of wives.
Thou rulest and reigneth over my house and my family,
Everything you do fills me with awe and wonder and fear,
And I love you with all my heart.
And I bow down at thy and worship thee.
I confess I have done wrong,
I have not done what I was supposed to have done,
for the washing up was not done this morning,
and still it resteth upon the draining board.
I am truly sorry.
Forgive me for that which I did not do,
I thank thee that thou dost forgive mine iniquities.
I ask that thou, who who hast cooked so many meals before,
and who maketh many a splendid meal,
wilt cook the Sunday lunch today,
for I am weak with exhaustion after leading worship this morning.
In your name I ask this,
together with our sons, the gerbils and the cat,
Strangely enough, I don’t speak to her like that (though maybe she wishes I did). No, I say something like this:
I’m so sorry I didn’t do the washing up this morning.
I’m feeling a bit tired after leading worship this morning: would you mind making the lunch today please, and I’ll clear it up afterwards?
Thanks. I love you.
Here is the last part of our reading:
‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
So, when we pray, it is not about being formal with the way we talk to God. We do not need special phrases or magic words. We do not need great poetry. We do not need even to make our prayers particularly long. And we do not need to worry about getting tongue-tied.
Instead, we should just speak normally to God, telling him what’s on our heart. And he will hear us.
Practice it in your own prayer times.
And when you have done that, why not try praying publicly or in a small group with others. You do not need to worry about making grand prayers or saying the right words, for that is not what God wants.
I would like to thank all the members of the congregation for their participation in the discussion this morning. Forgive me if I omitted your contribution from these notes! We shared and learned a lot together, and several people have said how encouraged and challenged they were. — Nick