The Best Way to Pray

Good morning, Friends!

We’ve been reading the Psalms here at worship for the last few weeks. We got started when we found out at Wednesday night Bible study that most people had never even read the Psalms.

In some churches, they read one of the Psalms every week at worship. In fact, there are monasteries where the monks get together 8 or 9 times a day to pray. They start at 3:00 in the morning and they meet to pray every few hours right up till bed time. They pray 2 or 3 Psalms each time they meet.

I’ve visited one of these monasteries a number of times. It’s refreshing to be with a group of people who pray in such depth, who have made a lifestyle of prayer. They support themselves. They live in community. But mostly, they pray.

They’ve got a schedule, and they go through all 150 Psalms every two weeks. Then they start right in again. They’ve been doing this for more than a thousand years.

So, if we don’t know the Psalms very well, we’re really behind the game. The Psalms include some of the most important prayers in our whole tradition, and we really ought to get to know them better.

The Psalm I picked out for us to read this morning is Psalm 91. It’s about prayer, and trust. It’s about God protecting us, and lifting us up. Let’s read it together.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only observe with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.

If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
and you make the Most High your dwelling,
no harm will overtake you,
no disaster will come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
He will call on me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”

– Psalm 91

I want to talk with you about prayer this morning. The Psalms are prayers. People have been praying them for close to three thousand years. Even if we think we know how to pray already, we can always learn more.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about silent prayer. We talked about being still, and letting God speak inside us and letting God fight our battles. We talked about how anxiety isn’t the same thing as praying. About how fear isn’t faith, even though faithful people are afraid sometimes.

We talked about how important it is for us to make space, to wait for God in our lives, to be nourished by quiet prayer, and to cultivate not just outward silence, but inward stillness.

Silent prayer is only one kind of prayer, though. And different prayer styles suit different people at different times.

In our everyday lives, you know, there are kinds of different activities we do – working, resting, playing, studying, eating, cleaning, making love,, and so on. We can’t isolate just one of these activities, and say, “That’s all there is to living! Nothing else matters.” Our physical life is made up of all kinds of different activities.

In the same way, I want to suggest that there are many different ways that we pray. Prayer is an inward activity, and silent prayer is important, as we said a couple of weeks ago. But there are many different ways we pray.

If you start reading books about prayer, or if you start asking different people about their prayer lives and their prayer experiences, there’s a huge variety of ideas and images out there.

For some people, prayer is basically emptying – that’s what we talked about last a couple of weeks ago. Empty your mind, empty your thoughts. Be still, be silent, be at peace. That’s something Quakers emphasize. The whole point of having quiet time during worship is to make room inside so that God can enter.

For other people, prayer has more to do with filling – filling our thoughts with praise, filling our minds and hearts with God, filling up with words and phrases to bring us closer to God.

You see the difference? Emptying versus filling. Filling up. Emptying out. They’re both important ways to pray. Both can help. But what’s happening is very different.

That distinction between “emptying and filling” is a really basic one in the vocabulary of prayer. Just knowing what kind of prayer we’re drawn towards, or where our spiritual need is on that scale, is important. One’s not right, and the other isn’t wrong. It’s just asking what we need and where we are.

Another kind of difference is whether we’re asking or receiving. A whole lot of prayers are asking prayers:

“Give us this day our daily bread.”
“Lord, please help me, or help this person I’m praying for, in this specific way.”

Those are asking prayers. They’re asking God for something.

Receiving or accepting prayers are ones where we know or when we feel that God has given us an answer, where God has given us something, and we’re trying to take it in. We’re trying to accept, or to embrace the gift which God has given us.
Examples of a receiving prayer might be:

“Not my will, but thy will be done. . .” or, “God, this is the way you want it to be. . .” or, “Yes, Lord,” or just  “Thank you, Lord.”

You see the difference, don’t you? Asking versus receiving. And again, just being aware of which way we’re praying, or being aware of the inner shift, from asking to receiving, from wanting a blessing to being blessed, is important.

And when we pray, there’s an emotional side to it as well.

Prayer can be glum, or it can be happy. Sometimes thinking “this is God’s will” makes us feel depressed. If you’ve prayed for something a long time, if you’re desperate and you’ve prayed passionately, if you don’t get what you asked for, It can be a real let down. It’s hard to pray, “Thank you, Lord,” when you don’t feel thankful.

Happy prayers are more fun. It’s great to be joyful. It’s great to celebrate in prayer. Paul writes about being thankful in all times and places, about being thankful in everything. (Phillippians 4:11-13)

I’m not saying that being thankful is a more mature kind of prayer. Actually, it’s kind of at the kindergarten level. Learning to be thankful, all the time, is a basic lesson in our prayer life, and we all go back to kindergarten pretty often.

In the same way, prayer can be confident, or it can be full of doubts and fears. If Jesus were a coach, he’s say, “Just get in there, and do it. Don’t wait. Don’t hold back. Get in there and pray!

But like any good coach, Jesus would also say that our stance is important. Get your feet firmly planted on the ground. Don’t let yourself get thrown off balance. Don’t let yourself get distracted. Don’t look back when you pray. Keep your eye on the goal at the other end. All those things that coaches say.

Prayer is about practice. It’s about confidence. It’s about not giving up. It’s about all those skills and attitudes we learn in other areas of life.

Prayer not only has content. It has direction. A prayer that doesn’t have any direction at all is kind of unfocused.

A prayer that says, “God, I’m, you know, really, um, well, kind of, like, well, I don’t know, sort of, maybe, oh gosh, what happened to my train of thought. . .” That’s a lot less focused than a prayer which says, “Lord, I have lost my way. I need your help. And I don’t know where to begin. Please show me just one step to take.”

That first prayer, which I actually do more times than I like to admit, doesn’t have the clarity and the simplicity of the second one. Prayer #2 goes right to the heart of my problem, while Prayer #1 is just shuffling around.

Honesty in prayer is more important than prettiness. Being clear is much more helpful than beating around the bush. Prayer is supposed to be about where we really are, not where we want other people to think we are.

What I’d like to talk about now, and spend a little more time with you on, is a difference we’re not always aware of.

One style of prayer, which we tend to think of as more spiritual, says that when we pray, God lifts us out of our situation, whatever it is. God will deliver us. God will protect us. God will make sure that we’re never hurt. People who pray will be taken care of.

It’s the language which we hear in this morning’s scripture reading:

“You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
you will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust. . .

He will cover you with his feathers, under his wings you will find refuge. . .
You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day. . .

He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways;
on their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. . .”

That’s comforting. It expresses our faith, and our trust. When we’re in trouble, God lifts us up. When we are in danger, God rescues us.

This style of prayer basically asks God to lift us up, out of our present situation. It expresses the understanding that God’s love is stronger than any problems we may be facing.

The apostle Paul writes:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. The whole of creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. . .we know that in everything God works for good with those who love God. . .If God is for us, who can be against us? . .I am sure 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.” (Romans 8:18-19, 28, 31, 38-39)

Prayer like this is about transcending our present situation. To transcend means to climb over or beyond. “Transcendent” comes from trans, “over or beyond” and scendere, “to climb”. A lot of prayers are about asking God to help us transcend our troubles.

If this were the only kind of prayer around, then really “spiritual” people are the ones who ignore their physical and emotional needs. They’re above it all. They’re half-way to Heaven already. They see beyond the here and now, because God is the biggest reality, maybe the only reality, in their lives.

At the other end of the spectrum, over on the other end of the field, is the kind of prayer that says, “God, be here with me, right where I am.”

Instead of, “God, lift me up! God, get me out of here!” is the prayer that says, “God, come down and be right here beside me.” Instead of asking God to transcend our troubles, we ask God to be present, in the midst of them.

A good example of this other kind of prayer might be Psalm 62:

“Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help;
my throat is parched, my eyes fail looking for my God.
Those who hate me without reason
outnumber the hairs of my head;
many are my enemies without cause,
those who seek to destroy me.”

This guy’s not wimping out. He’s being real! This prayer expresses where the person is. He’s not pretending to be in some loftier, more spiritual place, where the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune can’t hurt him.

When we are in pain, that’s the place we are. It’s not honest to say, “God, your will be done.” It is honest to say, “God, be with me now; do not cast me away; remember me. I need you. . .”

This kind of prayer could be called immanent prayer. If transcendent prayer means “to climb up or beyond,” “Beam me aboard, Scottie!”, then immanent prayer means to pray right here. It comes from the Latin word immanere, “to remain.” And it expresses the Hebrew name, Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Part of what it means for us to be authentic people, is for us to be authentic in our prayer. We can pray both ways. I’m not saying we have to choose. But it’s important for us to recognize where we are when we’re praying.

One is not better than the other. It was Jesus who said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?. . .” Jesus was quoting Psalm 22, and Jesus was being honest.

When we pray, what’s important is that it’s a true expression of where we are. Whether we’re seeking, or whether we’re expressing the joy of having found. Whether we’re thankful, or whether we’re in agony.

God is able to deal with whatever our prayers are. If you read the Psalms, you’ll find people who are praying in anger as well as people who are praying in calm trust. Authentic prayer acknowledges where we are, and states it clearly and feelingly to God.

I talk with people all the time who tell me that they don’t know how to pray. I often share with them the Quaker Douglas Steere’s great words: “Begin where you are.”

Don’t get hung up on language; don’t sweat the grammar; don’t worry about making it pretty. Just begin to pray, from the place where you honestly find yourself.

If you’re feeling up, pray up there! If you’re feeling down, pray down in the valley. If your mind is searching for answers, then go ahead and ask your questions. If you think your questions are dangerous, just go for it and ask them anyway.

God has to be bigger than our doubts and questions. Otherwise our God is too small. God will not be diminished by any questions which you or I ask, or by any doubts we may have.

The important thing is to begin to pray, and to begin again, and again, and again. If it seems like we’re dumb, well, maybe we are. But wherever we are, God is there already.

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