Pastor Craig Carter
The start of a new year gives individuals and organizations an opportunity to review past performance, consider the present state of affairs, and make plans for the future.
As a pastor, I tend to see the start of a new year as an opportunity to realign our priorities and make sure we’re keeping the main thing the main thing. That’s why I am choosing to start the new year with a sermon series titled, How to Pray.
The priority of prayer is written on almost every page of the Bible and in every chapter of church history. It is not an optional activity for Christians.
But, if we’re honest, most of us have to admit that we’re not very good at it. And, if you’re like me, try as we may, prayer doesn’t seem to come naturally.
As I have assessed the state of our congregation today, I am convinced that it’s a pressing need. For a time, we made some good progress in becoming a praying congregation. We had dedicated prayer rooms on both campuses, we regularly met for group prayer, and prayer seemed to permeate most of what we did. But the hurricane and pandemic disrupted our routine and intentional prayer seemed to become a casualty (or at least was pushed into the background).
I’m declaring 2022 the year of prayer in the Lynn Haven UMC … and hopefully every year thereafter as it gets woven back into the fabric of our existence.
We’re going to begin our quest for learning how to pray where the first followers of Jesus began their search.
According to Luke 11:1, the disciples came to Jesus with a request, “Teach us to pray…” And Jesus said, “This is how you should pray…” (Luke 11:2a NLT)
Then He proceeded to give them what has become known as the Lord’s Prayer.
In case you’re not sure what the Lord’s Prayer is, it is found in two places in the Bible. One version is in Luke chapter 11 and a slightly different version is found in Matthew chapter six where it is mentioned in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Here is the traditional form found in the King James Version of the Bible:
Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13 KJV)
In the coming weeks, we’re going to explore the prayer in detail. But first I’d like us to look at what is needed in order to learn how to pray.
Learning how to pray requires…
The reason so many folks were in the gym this past week is because they got through the holidays, looked in the mirror or stepped on the scales, and didn’t like what they saw.
I don’t know about you, but when I look in the mirror and assess the condition of my spiritual life, I don’t always like what I see.
I tend to worry more than I pray.
I trust in my own abilities more than I rely on God’s power.
I do what I think is right more than I seek the Lord’s guidance.
And I have to admit, sometimes I am left wondering, “After all of these years of following Jesus, is this all there is to the Christian life? There has to be more.”
In particular, as I read scripture, I ask myself, “Where’s all the miracles? Why don’t I experience God’s power and presence in similar ways? How can I receive divine revelation and supernatural guidance?”
Could it be that the missing ingredient is that I really don’t know how to pray?
After all, Christianity is not a religion (as we tend to make it). It’s a relationship. Every relationship requires good communication.
As a friend likes to say, “There are three keys to a successful marriage – communication, communication, communication.” If you don’t know that, you’ve never been married or you haven’t stayed married.
But good communication is a learned behavior. After nearly 40 years of marriage, I’m still learning how to communicate with my wife.
Prayer is the language of God – it is how we speak to God and how we hear from God.
That being the case, I want to know how to pray and I’m willing to do whatever is necessary to become more proficient at it. How about you? Don’t you want to improve your communication skills so you can get to know God better and enjoy your relationship with Him more?
Will you join me in the school of prayer as we seek to learn how to pray?
Our quest for improvement in any area causes us to find a model to emulate. Basketball players want to be like Mike (or LeBron), investors study Warren Buffet’s strategies, and preachers listen to Billy Graham’s sermons.
Listen to why the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray:
Once Jesus was in a certain place praying. As he finished, one of his disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1 NLT)
The disciples saw something in Jesus they aspired to become – people of prayer. And there is no doubt Jesus was a man of prayer.
Before launching His public ministry, He prayed (and fasted) for 40 days.
Before choosing His twelve disciples, He prayed all night.
He regularly started each morning in prayer and concluded each evening in prayer.
When facing His own death in the Garden of Gethsemane, bleeding with fear and forsaken by His friends, He prayed.
Facing unspeakable torment and suffering on the cross, He cried out in prayer.
If anyone had an excuse not to pray, it was Jesus. After all, He was and is the eternal Son of God. But Jesus prayed and prayed and prayed and then prayed some more.
It’s interesting that the disciples didn’t ask Him how to preach, heal, or lead people. Instead, they only asked Him how to pray. Apparently, they saw its value. As a result, they became a people of prayer themselves. In the story of the Early Church, we read:
All the believers devoted themselves…to prayer. (Acts 2:42 NLT)
They were constantly united in prayer… (Acts 1:14a NLT)
It all began at a moment in time when they went to their role model for assistance. Today can be the turning point for us: “I need help in my prayer life…Lord, teach me to pray.”
I can hear Jesus reply, “I thought you’d never ask!”
In any field of endeavor, there are tricks to the trade – insider information that makes the task easier and better results more achievable.
It’s beneficial to have a pattern to follow. Jesus gave the inquiring disciples a model prayer to pray. It should not be seen as the only way to pray, but it provides us a starting point and a template for our own prayers.
Pete Greig is the co-founder of the 24-7 Prayer Movement that has impacted tens of thousands of Christians and churches over the past two decades. He says that the Lord’s Prayer teaches us three important prayer principles.
First, keep it simple.
The Lord’s Prayer teaches us that our focus should not be on how long we pray. Right before Jesus introduced the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, He said to His disciples, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:7 NIV)
Babbling can also be translated, “vain repetitions” (KJV) or “empty phrases” (NRSV).
Jesus issued two warnings. First, the Lord does not want us just to repeat the words of any prayer again and again. So even the Lord’s Prayer is not to be mouthed over and over without any thought. Second, our communication does not need to be long-winded.
So Jesus suggests that less is more when it comes to the words we use. To drive home this point, He continued, “You can pray very simply. Like this…” (Matthew 6:9 MSG)
In its original language spoken by Jesus, Aramaic, the Lord’s Prayer consists of only 31 words…and it rhymes! What could be simpler or easier to remember?!
The traditional English version we commonly recite is only 68 words total. Through its brevity, the Lord’s Prayer focuses our prayer life and makes it clear and concise.
In the classic hymn we sing about the “sweet hour of prayer.” While a noble ambition, that seems a bit far-fetched for most of us, doesn’t it?
But if we can’t pray for an hour, how about a minute? That’s how long it takes to pray the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a terrific starting point and then provides direction for the remainder of our prayer time. Keep it simple! Also, keep it real.
Another time Jesus was teaching about prayer He told the story of two men who went to the temple to pray. One of them, a Pharisee, piled up platitudes and checked off all the religious boxes. The other man, a despised tax collector, stayed in the shadows and simply said, “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” (Luke 18:13b NLT)
Jesus contended it was this man, because of his honest and down to earth prayer, who went home right with God.
That affirms a pattern that is found throughout Scripture – God loves real, authentic prayers that convey our true heart condition – whether it be good, bad, or even ugly.
In fact, you’ll find the Bible is far more real than we typically are in the church. Just read the psalms where anger is directed at God, hatred is expressed toward others, and disdain for one’s own life is verbalized.
Scripture also tells us that Jacob wrestled with God to the point of being injured.
Moses whined to God about the people he’d been called to lead.
Jeremiah ranted about the abuse he suffered and blamed it all on God.
Let me let you in on a little secret: God is big enough to take whatever we can dish out. And since He’s a loving Father who wants a personal, intimate relationship with His children, He wants us to be honest and sincere in our communication (while being respectful).
Like talking to a family member, there is no right or wrong language in prayer. It all depends on the nature of the relationship. It factors in personality type. And it takes into account the present circumstances.
How to pray? Just keep it real. And then, keep it up
As I mentioned earlier, less is more when it comes to verbiage in prayer. But more is more when it comes to persistence in prayer.
On one occasion, “Jesus told his disciples…that they should pray and never give up.” (Luke 18:1 NLT)
Another time, Jesus talked about being like a shameless neighbor who won’t take no for an answer and concluded, “Keep on asking… Keep on seeking… Keep on knocking…” (Luke 11:9 NLT)
Like getting in good physical shape, prayer requires time, energy, discipline, self-denial, probably even a little pain, and lots of practice, practice, practice.
In that regard, keep these things in mind:
Avoid too much, too soon. That’s why the Lord’s Prayer is a good place to start – one minute, then go from there.
Find a suitable place. Prior to giving the Lord’s Prayer, “Jesus was in a certain place praying.” (Luke 11:1 a NLT). Choose a place you can focus your undivided attention on the Lord – a chair, a room, park bench, kneeler, any place that reminds you why you’re there.
Set aside time for prayer and schedule it. We make time for what we value (e.g. work, relationships, hobbies). The Early Church “devoted themselves to prayer” because they knew how vital it was. First thing in the morning or last thing before bed works well for many people. Others find time to pray while commuting or waiting on the kids at practice. Remember this: God wants to spend time with us more than we want to spend time with Him. Imagine Him in your place of prayer, just waiting there with a smile.
Above all, like exercise, if you’re going to be consistent and keep it up, make it easy and enjoyable. At first it may be difficult, but soon it’ll become a much anticipated daily habit. You’ll find yourself saying, not “I’ve got to pray,” but “I get to pray!” and “I wonder what God’s gonna say to me today?!”
I’m excited about what we’re going to experience over the next eight weeks as we learn how to pray. We are going to be guided by an acronym, P.R.A.Y. Pause, Rejoice, Ask, Yield.
And I’m going to be drawing insights from an excellent book on the Lord’s Prayer titled, “How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People” by Pete Greig.
I highly recommend it, along with a free online prayer course he’s put together: prayercourse.org/home.
As we embark on this journey will you simply echo the sentiment of the disciples and say with me, “Lord, teach us to pray!”
I have a feeling He’s smiling in heaven and saying, “Sure, just listen and learn!”
This is going to be our text for the remainder of the series, so join me in praying the Lord has taught us to pray (using our traditional United Methodist version):
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.