1Thessalonians 5:16-25; Mark 10:13-16
There’s something that happens between childhood and teenage years that’s peculiar to me about prayer. I noticed it most when I was a youth pastor, many years ago now, because when I’d help with Vacation Bible School all of the kids would argue over who got to pray and inevitably we’d end up with a kind of train prayer— you start, then you continue, then you go, then you add what you want… and it goes on and on, everyone getting a chance to pray. But as a youth pastor when I would ask who wanted to pray, the reaction was the opposite— everyone put their finger on their nose to say “not it,” and the slowest person would end up praying.
I find this curious because prayer is just talking with God. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. When we pray before dinner or before bed my kids don’t pray in the King James version of the Bible. They just say what’s on their heart.
In our Gospel this morning there are parents who come to Jesus so that Jesus will pray for their children, will give them a blessing. It seems like a simple request, something that no good pastor or teacher or even politician would turn down. But the disciples have other ideas. Children back then were not seen as the future, or the hope of the nation or even really as being full people yet. So the disciples tell those parents that Jesus is way too busy to pray for their children. But Jesus, in hearing his disciples, is indignant. And he calls out to all who are standing there, and says to them, “Let the children come to me.” but he doesn’t stop there. Then, he says, “for the Kingdom of God belong to them.” And then he continues, “Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”
Think of how children receive really good gifts. They open their arms, they open their faces in big smiles, they open their hands to to receive, they open their hearts. And just as you are getting a romantic picture of these children receiving this great gift, let me remind you— they are also brutally honest. My kids love to receive gifts, and they do so with joy without ever having me to coach them on that. But we have worked a bit on how to be polite if you don’t like the gift. Because they are honest.
That’s how we are to receive the Kingdom of God, and that is exactly how we are to pray— with open arms, with open hands, with open faces, with open hearts— and with great honesty.
But we we’ve learned to be great adults, haven’t we? Like those teenagers, trying to be adults, we learn to be self conscious about prayer. We begin to think that if there’s a right way to do everything else in life, there must be a right way to pray. And so often prayer becomes something else we think we should do once we learn more about it. Or prayer becomes one more thing on our checklist of “life would be better if I had time for these things.” Or prayer becomes a slot machine— we put in our prayer quarters and hope God gives us something in return.
But when we treat prayer like that— as a should— we ruin it. You see prayer is not meant to be painful or serious or a time to mind your p’s and q’s. Prayer is a gift— it is time with God— meant to open us up, to free us to let go of whatever is keeping us from receiving God’s gift of grace, and to approach it with wide open hearts. It’s a time for us to be brutally honest with God— and with ourselves. To let our hair down. To feel the things we need to feel. A few years ago we had the privilege of having Mette Kirsch in our congregation. And she stood up here and told us about a book she loved that reminded her that when we’re with God, we don’t have to be adults. We get to be children in God’s presence; we don’t have to adult! Because in our time of prayer, we aren’t in charge.
I think the number one mistake people make, myself included, when I really want to deepen my prayer life, is to begin by sitting down. This past week I got to hear about meditation from Steve Hoover, a retired professor from St. Cloud State, and he talked about how our anxiety is felt in our bodies before we ever name it as an emotion and then think about the reason for it. He said that when he first started meditation he couldn’t sit down. And I thought, yes. Exactly. When I have times in my life of anxiety and worry and I know I need to pray, those are often the times when I find it hardest to pray— if I start from a seated position. So I go walking instead. I go to yoga and pray my way through yoga. I go for a jog or walk the trails in our prairie out here. My body needs to move, so I move while I pray. Kids are perfect examples of this. They’re not going to sit still for a twenty minute prayer! Get up. Get moving. Get praying.
And don’t worry about your words. As Martin Luther once said, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.” This isn’t about whether you can articulate your problems, and it’s definitely not about whether you have the solutions. Prayer is a time to bring everything to God, and if you have no words for that everything, that’s just fine.
In our passage from Thessalonians, the author who wrote this letter to the church in Thessalonica, tells them to pray constantly. When I was a youth I wondered about this. I had read about John Wesley getting up to pray four hours before he did anything else; I knew the church fathers and mothers in the desert in 500’s prayed constantly. But I’ve got a life to live, so I was pretty sure this was impossible for me to follow, until one day I realized that prayer is something you can do while you do life.
Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite monk in the 1700’s and he took a different approach to prayer. He believed that in living every moment of every day, each one of us can practice having an awareness of God’s presence. You don’t have to say a thing— just take time to notice. I found the same philosophy years ago in a book called, My Monastery is a Mini-Van by a woman named Denise Roy. She basically tells funny stories of her life as a Mom, and in each one there is a time when in the midst of crisis or chaos or those rare moments of calm, she noticed God’s presence. Although living four hundred years apart, Brother Lawrence and Denise had the same idea— watch for God in your daily life and realize that that is prayer too.
And if you’re still intimidated by the idea of praying and you want some kind of checklist, some kind of resource of how to begin, here are a few ideas:
The first, is a simple pneumonic device called ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication (except no one uses the word supplication anymore, so I often say “Service.) 1) Start with Adoration: tell God how great God is! Nothing will get you out of your problems quicker than to tell God how amazing God is. This is a quick reminder of who God is and how much you can trust God. 2) Confess: There’s nothing better for the soul than just to admit we’ve messed up and tell God what’s not going right in our lives. 3) Thanksgiving: I often encourage my girls, even as they are trying to fall asleep, to think of one thing for each letter of the alphabet that they’re thankful for. Practicing gratitude to God is wonderful way to both connect with God and to find contentment. 4) Last but not least, bring to God all of the people and situations that are on your heart. Pray for your friends and family. Pray for yourself. Pray for your neighbors. Pray for the people you are afraid of. Pray for your enemies. Go through the church directory and pray for the names you don’t know and the people who aren’t here. God won’t get tired of hearing those you want to bring to God.
Most of all, just do it. You won’t regret it, and it will change your life. As Mother Theresa said, “Everything starts from prayer.”
Sources Consulted/Quoted: Stern, Anthony. Everything Starts From Prayer (Quotes from Mother Theresa) Weber, Adam.Talking with God