Prayer Postures

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Rev. Dean Snyder

Psalm 46:1-11

We are beginning a series about prayer.

We’ve done some new things to prepare for this series. One of our leaders called together a diverse group of people from the congregation to do a brainstorming session about the issues they’d like to hear talked about during a series on prayer. The leader provided me with an anonymous list of ideas, questions, personal reflections. It was fascinating. Fair warning, we are not going to be able to address every topic raised.

Then we did a little survey monkey this past week that we emailed out and posted to our Facebook pages that 100-some people responded to.

Here is one observation from this informal research we’ve done – Lots of us feel guilty about prayer. There are lots of guilty feelings connected –for many of us—with our prayer lives.

Some of us feel guilty because we don’t pray regularly or because we think we don’t pray enough. Some of us feel guilty because we pray but we worry that we are maybe praying for the wrong things. Some of us feel guilty because we can’t really bring ourselves to believe that prayer makes a difference. Some of us feel guilty because we are uncomfortable praying, especially praying publicly and out loud. Some of us feel guilty because we think we might not be doing it the right way. Some of us feel guilty because of who we pray to.

Here’s what I was thinking as I read this — If people had this much guilt about their relationship with me, I’d find it really depressing. I would.

If we are representative of most church people … if most Christians and seekers have this high a level of guilt about prayer, it must really be a bummer for God. God must really be bummed. If I were God I’d hire a new PR firm. I’d get me some new Madmen and women.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the clergy –people like Dawn, Theresa and Kevin, the clergy as a whole—we tend to talk about prayer very piously. We present an image that it is normal for people of faith to pray comfortable and easily and to connect with God, and to trust, and to get our prayers answered.

We clergy misrepresent our own prayer lives out of a desire for folk to think we are pious and holy. Then we make everyone else feel inferior and inadequate by comparison.

It happened to me once a few years ago. I had been serving a congregation where I was very, very happy, when the bishop called to say he wanted to send me to another church. It was, he said, an important and strategic congregation but it had been in decline in people and mission for a number of years and he believed I was just the one to turn the church around. He flattered me and I went.

It was a congregation that was hard work … the hardest work I have ever done in my life.

We had a preaching series similar to the outstanding preachers series at that church. One of the speakers I invited was the pastor of a brand new megachurch in that particular city. As we were socializing in the green room before the service, I asked him – “How do you manage to lead and administer a church with a couple of thousand people worshipping in it. I am giving it all I have and I can’t manage a church with less than a couple hundred people worshipping in it.”

This was his answer. He said to me, if I pray for an hour a day, my church is impossible to lead. If I pray for two hours a day, it gets easier. If I pray for three hours a day, it gets even easier. And (he said) if I pray four hours a day, the church runs itself.

I was very impressed. I thought about it. I decided to start praying four hours a day.

I told our secretary that I wasn’t going to be in the office until noon for the foreseeable future. I got up, had breakfast, read the newspaper, and went down to a little study in the parsonage basement at 7 AM. The first morning I did what I usually did. I read the Upper Room. I prayed about the things that I would usually pray about. Looked at my watch, and I had 3 hours and 56 minutes left to go. Filling that time was almost impossible. I could have easily sat and read theological books but that didn’t seem to me what the megachurch pastor was talking about.

So I prayed some Psalms from the Bible. I prayed the words to some hymns. I looked at my watch and I had three hours and 36 minutes to go. I tried to sit and listen. I started to write out my prayers like St. Augustine did. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I wrote out a 60-page single spaced prayer.

After three weeks of trying to pray four hours a day, Monday through Friday, weird, unpleasant things started happening in my head. I started having strange dreams. I did not sense myself becoming a better person or a more effective pastor. I went to talk to a pastoral counselor and he wisely advised me to cut back. He advised me to learn to walk before I tried to run. Maybe 10 minutes twice a day would enough to begin with.

Here’s the punch line to this story — Sometime later I was talking with one of the associate pastors on the staff of that megachurch. And I told him the story about my conversation with the pastor and trying to pray four hours a day. The associate pastor looked at me with a strange expression. He said, “You didn’t really believe Pastor prays four hours a day, did you? He spends most of his time in his office trying to figure out how to pay down the mortgage and dealing with unhappy parishioners and unhappy staff. That’s just a sermon illustration he uses to make a point about the importance of prayer. I’m sure he didn’t mean you to take it literally.”

I almost messed up my head because of a pious sermon illustration.

So this is part of the reason this series is called “Getting real about prayer.” Prayer is a difficult thing for a lot of us. Prayer comes naturally to some people. I love having those people in the churches I serve. I am not one of them.

I don’t want us to be pious as we think together and hopefully talk to each other about prayer during the next few weeks. I want us to be real.

I did not go into ordained ministry because prayer was easy for me. I went into ministry because I loved the Bible and I loved working with others for a biblical vision social justice … and I felt called. I loved to study and I loved to do. I did not love to pray. I’m not sure I still love it all that much. I love to pray the way sort of the way I love to go to the gym.

So I want to admit that I do not pray because it comes naturally to me. I do not pray because it makes sense to me. I do not pray because I understand prayer intellectually or theologically. I do not pray because I ordinarily feel a strong sense of intimacy with God.

Frankly, I pray for two main reasons. I pray because there are people and things I care about more than my intellectual doubts. And I pray because I have learned through trial and error that my life is better when I do.

Here is what I want to suggest this morning about prayer to start out this series. Prayer is as much an attitude or a posture toward life as it is an act.

Sometimes you will go to church and the person up front will say, Let us be in an attitude of prayer.

Prayer is an attitude or posture and it is an act. And the two reinforce one another.

Without the attitude, it is hard to practice the act. Without the act it is hard to maintain the attitude.

Prayer has lots of variations. There are many, many ways to pray… many, many prayerful activities … some very esoteric practices.

But behind prayer, I want to suggest today, there is one basic posture. But the posture has three aspects… three chords.

The basic posture of prayer is a posture or attitude that says: “I am not God.” Prayer is based on and develops within us the attitude or posture of living in the awareness that I am not God.

Psalm 46:10, speaking in the voice of God, says, “Be still and know that I am God.” This is the posture of prayer. Be still and know that God is God and I’m not.

Prayer is a posture of awareness that I am not God. The act of praying develops that awareness within us.

This awareness has three aspects or chords.

The first is this …. I am not God. I am not omnipotent. I am not almighty. I have limited capacity.

A few years ago an aphorism went viral in church circles. I don’t know who to credit it to. It suddenly just appeared and it seemed everyone was quoting it. The aphorism was: “Pray as though it all depends on God; work as though it all depends on you.” Cute. I get the point.

But to live as though it all depended on me would be hell.

I only have so much energy. I am not God. I cannot save the world. I am not the savior. It does not depend on me alone. I am not omnipotent. I am not almighty. I am not God. And I don’t need to be.

The second element is this – I am not God. I am not omniscient. I am not all-knowing. I am not all-wise. I have limited understanding. I have limited comprehension. I have limited wisdom.

Prayer is an attitude and act that honors mystery.

One of the reasons prayer has become more important to me is because I am a child of the age of modernity. The predominate metaphor during the age of modernity is the machine. The posture of prayer reminds me that I am not a machine. Nature is not a machine. The universe is not a machine. God is not a machine. We are not merely the sum of our parts. I am a soul. Nature is a soul. The universe is a soul. God is a soul. We are mystery.

I am not omniscient. I am not all-knowing. I am not all wise. I am not God. And I don’t need to be.

The third element. I am not God. I am not omni-present. I am limited by time and place. I have only one lifetime here.

Prayer is an attitude and act that says that I am part of something that transcends my time and place. Prayer is a posture and act of community … a community that spans space and time; distance and generations.

Let me put it this way – if my vision for the significance of my life were limited to what I could accomplish in one lifetime given my limited intelligence and energy, I would have a very small vision for my life.

I want to be part of a movement in human history that began before I was and will continue when I am not here anymore. The posture of prayer is a posture that recognizes that the vision for truth and justice and inclusion existed before I got here and will continue after I am gone, and my goal is to align myself as best I can with that movement of the Spirit of God. I am not God.

If my vision is limited to what I can accomplish in my lifetime that is a very small vision and likely to be a selfish one. Anything that we could completely accomplish in one lifetime might not really be worth doing.

Prayer is based on a posture that says “I am not God.” The act of praying reinforces and develops that posture. Without the act of prayer it is hard to maintain the posture of prayer. Without the posture of prayer it is hard to do the act of praying.

Be still and know that I am God, the Psalmist sings in God’s voice.

Next week we are going to talk about prayer as relational.

This week all I want to say is that I now find that it can be a great relief to pray … to know it is not all up to me by myself, that I can offer my life –inadequate as it is for something greater than me to use, that I am not alone.

In the midst of my self-centered business, it is good when I can stop and be still and know that I don’t need to be God.