The Promise of Prayer

It’s good to be back with you this morning, Friends. I wish I could tell you exactly what I did on my very-relaxing-and-wonderful vacation last week, but I have to admit it’s a bit of a blur now. The main thing I remember is that there was a lot of quiet, a lot of peace, a lot of time. I left the television off. I read. I prayed. I journaled. And mostly, I guess, I gardened. I was able to finish every outside project on my list—miraculously—and added a few flowers and trellises here and there besides. I do know it was lovely. And that I was grateful. And also that I felt close to God. Or that God felt close to me. Or I suppose, both.

On my last day of vacation, I went to the used bookstore looking for a copy of the Gospel of Thomas. I’d been doing some deep studying on what it means to sow and reap and what Jesus said and taught about it. I learned that there was an interesting slant on that in the Gospel of Thomas, which is an extra-canonical book found among the Dead Sea Scrolls that scholars think was written between the year 60 and 250 AD. I’m sure that what I was studying will show up sometime in a future message. But I was pleased that I found not only the bookstore’s only copy of the Gospel of Thomas but also a book by Australian Quaker David Johnson with the title, A Quaker Prayer Life. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was meant for me. Before I even left the store with it under my arm (I paid for it first, of course), I saw in my mind that I would be doing a three-week series on prayer, inspired somehow by this little book.

That was a bit surprising to me because as you probably know, that’s not how I plan or write our messages. Typically, on Monday or Tuesday an idea bubbles up that I recognize as the topic of the next Sunday’s message. Then through the week, scriptures and stories come and attach themselves to the theme. And on Saturday, I just sit down with whatever sources I have and write the message. Usually it goes pretty smoothly, although it does tend to take me all day and into the evening to do it. The whole process feels very Spirit-led, very peaceful.

But in the almost five years I’ve been your pastor, I’ve never felt led to do any kind of sermon series, until now. And not only was I inspired with the idea that it would be a three-week series, but when I sat down at my computer later that day, the titles, topics, and scripture for all three weeks just poured out. And with just a little looking through our hymnal, I found our songs, too. So with about 10 minutes worth of inspiration, God laid the groundwork for the deeper look at prayer we’ll be taking together over the next few weeks. I pray that our hearts and minds will be open to all that God has for us during this new adventure.

You may wonder why we’d need three weeks on something as common and mundane as prayer. After all everyone can do it, right? And basically do it any way they want, and it will still count. (You may remember a message I gave a few years back when I told the story of a man named George who said he didn’t know how to pray and in fact never had before. The only prayer he could think of was, “Help me, God!” and it was the most honest and earnest prayer I’d ever heard. And God listened and did help him in a perfect and loving way.)

 In 2014, the Pew Research Center did a study on prayer and more than 35,000 adults in the U.S. participated. The study found that 55% of those surveyed pray at least daily, with 16% praying weekly, 6% praying monthly, 23% praying rarely (or never praying), and 1% said they didn’t know whether they prayed or not (I’m not sure how you wouldn’t know, but okay). The results included people of all traditions—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, mainline Protestant, evangelical, Hindu, and more.

Doesn’t it make you wonder how all that prayer might be shaping our world even today—and how much worse things might be right now without it? How is prayer contributing to a sense of peace and well-being in our lives, opening our hearts to the wonder of the universe, making us care about and act with more compassion toward our fellow humans and our planet? There is evidence that prayer does all those things and more, and I will post the link to the Pew research on our blog so you can explore the report more fully for yourselves.

Prayer is to our spiritual lives what breath is to our physical lives—a process so profound and important that nothing else can work without it. If what we hope for is deeper lives of faith, the comfort of knowing God is with us and leading us, the security that we always have a guide, a shepherd, who helps us find our way, we need to have a trusting, two-way relationship with God. And that happens—beautifully and intimately and without fail—through prayer.

Here at Noblesville Friends, we are big believers in prayer and our Praying Friends prayer chain is a vibrant ministry that supports dozens of people each year through all kinds of needs, large and small. We usually see good results, too, as people heal, comfort comes, jobs are found, friends and family members are protected, way opens. This happens not because of what we do (although as Sherry says, “Quaker prayers are powerful”), but because of who God is and how much God yearns truly to be in our lives, caring for us.

In his booklet on Meditative Prayer, Quaker Richard Foster makes the point that throughout all recorded scripture, God has been communicating with us, telling us of His love and care, trying to show us the way back to loving relationship with Him. God started talking with the first people of Old Testament times—Adam and Eve, Moses, Samuel, Daniel, and all the prophets—and continued speaking, and showed up himself, in the person and presence of Jesus. And in the book of Acts, Foster says, we learn that even though Jesus is no longer physically present with us, the Light of Christ continues to teach and guide his children in all sorts of ways. Foster writes,

“This, in brief, forms the biblical foundation for (meditative prayer), and the wonderful news is that Jesus has not stopped acting and speaking. He is resurrected and at work in our world. He is not idle, nor has he developed laryngitis. He is alive and among us as our Priest to forgive us, our Prophet to teach us, our King to rule us, our Shepherd to guide us.”

This is of course the heart of our Quaker tradition, the core belief that was opened to young George Fox on the English hillside that day in 1647 when he was so tempted to despair. As he wrote on page 11 of his Journal:

“As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people, for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell me what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”

Christ was the one, the only one, who could speak to Fox’s condition of restlessness, despair, dis-ease, and disillusionment. Christ did and does speak to the daily conditions of our lives, whatever our need—peace, wholeness, understanding, comfort, companionship, direction—because Christ, as God’s living prayer, walked among us in the flesh two thousand years ago and continues to guide us today.

When we pray, we press pause on our busy, frantic minds and let the sweet presence of Christ’s peace be our companion for a while. There may or may not be words. We might sense only stillness. Whatever comes is a gift and a balm to the soul as we take our hands off of the reins of our lives for a moment. That is why silence is so much at the heart of our Friends tradition. We don’t have to know what to say or do; in fact, our internal words and plans and strivings can crowd out the patient, gentle voice of spirit and make it hard for us to hear. A lovely and promising starting point for prayer is to simply quiet our minds and turn toward the One who has the real answer, the farthest view, the wisdom to lead us in the most truthful, the most loving, the most blessed way. He is always faithful to respond. Try it and see.

This is the greatest and most easily demonstrated promise God gives us about prayer, that no call to God ever goes unanswered. And the more our fumbling, imperfect prayers are met by God’s grace and caring, the more they bring a sense of familiarity, a growing feeling that we are getting to know the One we’re praying to. Trust develops. Honesty blooms. We begin to see glimpses of evidence of God at work in our lives and that encourages us to pray more. Our doubts begin to lessen. Our faith grows.

The psalmist wrote of this simple and profound promise in our Old Testament scripture today: “I call on you, My God, for you will answer me; turn your ear to me and hear my prayer.”

What an amazing thing it is that our God—the maker of heaven and earth—loves all his children so much that he turns a divine ear in each of our directions and wants to know and walk with and care for each one of us personally, through all the ups and downs of our normal days. And our part is so simple: Just turn God’s way, invite God in, and listen. If we let our hearts be soft, we let our minds be quiet, if we can wait with gentle reverence, we will hear—or feel—or think—or just know—that God is near.

The Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse said, “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you.” What a lovely way to put it. We do believe that the Christ’s light is always truly with us—when we forget, when we leave that knowing, it is us, not God, who leaves. The present presence is also part of Richard Foster’s idea that, “What happens in …prayer is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart.” The Light of Christ is already here, within us, shining softly, awaiting our noticing. When we turn toward that sacred place in our hearts, Christ will speak to our condition, whatever it may be. It doesn’t have to be any more difficult than that.

We live in an age drawn toward extremes, and taking quiet steps with God or toward God—especially if you haven’t had much spiritual experience and aren’t too sure that faith isn’t a pipe dream—may not seem very attractive to people at first. Folks find it easier to be cynical and skeptical and distrusting these days, and there is a reason for that, because peoples’ trust in authority has been undermined and they have been sick and hurting, scared and badly treated. But no matter what the outside world does—and you heard echoes of this in George Fox’s experience—no book, no sermon, and no teacher will ever be able to convince anyone else that God cares for them or God even exists. Nothing external to us can speak to the condition of our souls: Christ has to do that himself. A personal experience of God is the only thing that can bring real and transformative change, real peace—and before we can have the experience, we need to be willing to try it and see. If we let ourselves turn inward and look toward God, and listen, we may feel something that will encourage us to try again. As we do, and find a glimmer of light, a sense of peace, a timely answer, trust begins to grow. Over time, if we’ll keep at it, we’ll realize that God always meets us more than halfway—the Father of the prodigal, running down the path toward us—and one day we’ll realize that we aren’t walking alone through these lives. We have more help than we know.

Foster says that two important things begin to happen in our lives when we begin praying more regularly. First, our inward sense of the light of Christ begins to transform us from the inside out. We see how some ideas and patterns in our lives have gotten in the way of our faith or caused doubt and hopelessness to rise up. We start to let go of things that aren’t good for us; we don’t get caught up in things that used to upset and distract us. And we gradually find a greater sense of perspective and balance in our day-to-day lives. The Light travels with us and we feel more steady, more secure, as time goes on. As William Penn once wrote, “True godliness does not turn [people] out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.” It is this that gives us the ability, as Paul wrote, to “be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer.”

God’s promise to us is the gift of His presence, something God’s been trying to share with us all along. This week, let’s do our best to accept that gift, setting aside the busyness of our outer lives, clearing out the cobwebs in the sanctuary of our hearts, moving the old boxes of memories and flaws we’ve been storing there. Let’s create a lovely space within for God to visit with us in the stillness of our souls. We can invite Him in and make Him comfortable. And then celebrate the beauty, the wisdom, and the peace that He brings.

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