Reformation Series: Praying & Breathing – Matthew 7:7-11
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Here’s my pitch for an infomercial:
What if I told you that scientific research has proven there is something that can boost your brainpower in the areas responsible for willpower, focus, compassion, empathy, love, and language. You could have lower stress and blood pressure and find it more difficult to get angry.
Let me tell you friends, all of this can be yours for the low low price of praying and meditating on a loving God for just five minutes a day, six days a week. That’s only thirty minutes a week.
But wait, there’s more! Bump your prayer and meditation upwards of thirty minutes a day and you get all that, plus we’ll throw in even more scientifically verified proof that you will see effects of depression mitigated.
But beware of imitations and counterfeits. While praying and meditating on a loving God will give you all these benefits; spending the same time praying and meditating on a wrathful angry God will give you increased anger, stress, and reduce your ability to think analytically and logically.
After many weeks of prayer and meditation on a loving God, you will become a more empathetic, forgiving, and trusting person. If you are not completely satisfied with the results of your prayers; you can stop anytime and replace that time with binge-watching Netflix or wandering around in social media world – two activities research has proven have incredibly damaging effects on our emotional well-being.
The choice is yours. Don’t delay. This offer won’t be around forever. Well, that’s not true…it will be around forever; but why wait?
Maybe you're skeptical. Where’s the proof you ask? Just ask around. People have been doing this for literally thousands of years. If you want some solid data to support these stories, check out the book How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg, MD. (Also, check out this link)
Still skeptical? Take it from me. You see, I’m not just a salesman for Prayer, Inc. I’m also a member. I too was skeptical once. But I eventually started to develop a prayer life. It wasn’t always easy or straightforward, but after a while it became a part of my daily routine and a way of looking at and interacting with the world. I believe it helps me align with the creator God and appreciate the unity of all things.
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Sorry that was probably as uncomfortable for you as it was for me. I’ve never been much of a salesman. But I figure if I can’t peddle a product that doesn’t cost anything and is that important, then I’m probably in the wrong business.
Prayer is beneficial. This is not just a foundational tenant of faith, but a scientific consensus. Prayer, along with reading and physical exercise are three of the primary ways one can maintain a healthy brain.
Prayer is beneficial, but we could all use some help regarding the how and why of prayer. So let’s start at the beginning.
Perhaps the most important part of every prayer is the pause and the silence and the breath that precedes our words.
I remember watching my sons come into the world. In the case of my firstborn, I had not been told that the baby doesn’t immediately scream like they do on TV. Of all the emotions and thoughts running through my head in those seconds when I saw Nolan’s body for the first time, I remember being concerned that he wasn’t breathing. With the benefit of hindsight I can now appreciate those first seconds of his life as a pause – a moment when an entire universe of possibility was getting set to be unleashed.
The pause is pregnant with possibility based on nothing but hope that the breath will come.
I watched intently and then saw the flicker of the inflating lungs. And out of the mouth of a babe came the roar of life that brought tears to our eyes and smiles to our lips. It was a roar of life announcing the sacredness of life, the bond of love, and the limitless potential of creature and creator.
The pause before the prayer is the silence before the scream that announces we are a part of this world of limitless possibility.
If the breath doesn’t come, death is inevitable. The tragedy of death is both in the end of a relationship as well as the end of possibility. Therefore, each prayer, each breath, is an invitation to live into relationship and possibility. Each prayer acknowledges that the breath of God still courses through our bodies, giving us life and hope.
Think of the role prayer plays in your life. How do you pray? Where do you pray? When do you pray? How were you taught to pray? How comfortable and confident are you with your prayer practice?
Prayer can take many forms. The book One Hope: Re-Membering the Body of Christ, which we are using to frame this month’s sermon series, breaks down the following types of prayer:
– individual / communal
– words / silence
– intercession / thanksgiving
Beyond the simplistic definition of praying by one’s self or among a group of people, the categories of individual and communal prayers is a false dichotomy. All prayer in uniquely individual and yet points us towards unity with God and our neighbor.
Regardless of the style of, or intent behind, one’s prayer, our first move after the pause, after the breath, is a move inward to self-reflection and self-inspection. Recall what we do when we participate in the liturgy of confession and forgiveness. We look at our role in the situation for which we are praying, confess our negative roles, and trust that God will use us in ways to bring life, healing, forgiveness, and love.
A personal prayer of thanksgiving begins with an acknowledgment that every gift in our lives is unmerited and has no strings attached; and so, we are profoundly grateful.
A prayer of petition or intercession for someone else also begins with acknowledging our role in the triad relationship between the prayer, the Lord, and the one being prayed for.
In other words, if we pray for God to heal someone but we are not affected, inspired, or moved to act in a more loving and gracious way towards that person, then we have removed the proverbial third leg from the stool.
I believe this could be what is at the heart of the frustration you might have noticed this week about people offering their “thoughts and prayers” to the people murdered and otherwise horrendously impacted by the mass shooting in Las Vegas. The verbiage of “thoughts and prayers” has almost lost its meaning in our culture. It is now understood as a culturally appropriate idiom devoid of much meaning; much like “How are you?” (it is polite, but not necessarily an invitation to deeper conversation).
How often has every one of us said something like “my thoughts and prayers are with you,” but even if we remember to pray for that person or that situation, we often fail to go deep enough in the prayer to identify our role in the situation.
It’s like we put our prayers on a prayer train and wave goodbye as we watch our prayers disappear down the track, trusting they’ll end up in God’s capable hands. The problem is that we are supposed to get on board the prayer train! Otherwise, the prayer then skips past the first stop of self-reflection and goes right to the part about asking God to make everything better, preferably without our needing to address the situation in any meaningful way.
Again, back to science. While science proves the health benefits of a robust prayer life, I’m sorry to say it offers no proof as to the demonstrative benefit of intercessory prayer. Study after study fail to prove any difference between people who are being prayed for and people who are not. (Link to sources).
I don’t think this information is proof that prayer doesn’t work; rather, I think it proves that we have some work to do.
I wish I could stand here and recount for you a personal experience that demonstrates the miraculous power of intercessory prayer. But I’m not aware of one.
I know many people who do have stories of miraculous healing after being prayed for. I celebrate these stories and do not discount them. But I also know that I’ve prayed for recovery and healing for many dying people in my time as a pastor, and each one of them has died. I’m batting zero. A swing and a miss, every single time.
I’ve never managed to bend God’s ear or God’s arm to make something happen that I thought needed to happen.
And yet, to say God hasn’t intervened in my life is the most absurd statement I could make. To say God hasn’t intervened in my life is to make me the God of my own tiny universe. It assumes I am the rightful earner, ruler, and owner of everything in my life, which limits prayer’s effectiveness because it makes me both the subject of my prayer as well as my own God.
Which get us back to the idea that it is not the outcome of the prayer, rather, it is the alignment to unity with God and the person for whom you are praying that matters.
How would things be different if every time we said “I’ll pray for you” we understood that doing so would fundamentally change us in some meaningful, even if painful, way. I think it would be glorious.
Prayer calls us “to deeper awareness of the way that God’s Spirit is as near to us as our own breath, continually at work in our lives and in the world around us” (p. 23, One Hope). So consider this an invitation to pray in a way that you are letting go of control and opening yourself to the possibilities that only God can supply.