Prayer: Preparation

Life requires preparation. I’m preaching to the choir here, since you all probably set your clocks ahead an hour. Over the course of Lent, we are going to continue talking about and practicing prayer. Just like with so many other parts of life, prayer needs preparation.

But before we get into that, I want to give you an outline of our Lenten prayer practices:

  • Every Sunday morning at 10:45am, a group of us will gather at the back of the Sanctuary for prayer. It’s a chance for us to pray for our worship together – for those who will come, for our visitors, for those who are unable to be here in person.
  • Each Sunday during worship, we will hear from one of the members of our Invitation Team about what they have learned about prayer as they lead us in prayer.
  • The iTeam has also made prayer journals available for everyone who wants one. They are at the back of the Sanctuary.
  • The worship committee has also made daily Lenten devotionals available for everyone. They are also at the back of the Sanctuary.
  • And on the back of the white cards in the pew is an outline of the five minutes of daily prayer we still encourage you all toward.

Hopefully, some – or all – of these will help you with your prayer as you develop this helpful habit in your own lives. And the reason we are doing this is that if we are a people focused on prayer, then God will do something amazing in our lives – as individuals, and as a people of God.

So let’s get down to business and talk preparation. And friends, let’s be honest with each other: we know five minutes is not a whole lot of time. We spend more time than that watching TV we don’t like or playing games on our smart phones. It’s not that we don’t want to spend five minutes in prayer; but it is true that we can’t seem to find those five minutes once the day gets going. If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s probably because we haven’t planned it into our lives. So before we do anything else, let’s talk about how to prepare for prayer.

I want to use our two Scripture lessons as our guides today. Each of them speaks to temptations, the things that pull us away from any kind of relationship with or awareness of God. So part of preparing for prayer is cleaning away the mess that gets in the way. It’s kind of like cooking: before we make a meal, we need to make sure we’ve got enough clean dishes and cleared working space. If it helps, think of temptation as those things that pile up in the sink. And as the Sanders’ family dishwasher, I know of what I speak when it comes to sinks and counters cluttered with dishes.

Let’s begin with Jesus. That’s never a bad place to start in church, I guess: Jesus. In our lesson from Matthew, not much has happened yet. If this were a movie, we might still be ahead of the credits. Jesus is born, flees to Egypt, and returns to Nazareth. Suddenly, he’s an adult, is baptized by John in the River Jordan, and ends up in the wilderness where he fasts and prays.

It is then that he encounters the devil. And whether you believe in a personified Satan or a concept of a world that contains evil, the point is that I think we can all sympathize with the situation Jesus is in. He is physically weak and vulnerable, and thus prone to make some bad choices. And that’s the precise moment in which these temptations come along to distract him and pull him away from the goodness that lies ahead of him.

The first one deals with Jesus’ hunger: “Turn these stones into bread,” the Tempter says.

Jesus replies with Scripture’s wisdom: “We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Now, obviously, we need food. It’s one of the basic biological needs of human survival. And yet, the more we learn, the more we recognize how much more we need not only to survive, but to thrive and live healthy lives. Roger Walsh, a professor at the UC-Irvine College of Medicine argues that there are in fact nine lifestyle needs for health, and backs up those needs with data and research. Some are obvious, but some are surprising.

They are:

  • Exercise
  • Nutrition and Diet
  • Time in Nature
  • Recreation
  • Relationships
  • Relaxation and Stress Management
  • Religious and Spiritual Involvement
  • Contribution and Service

We often consider physical needs when it comes to health. But the more we learn about neuroscience and the way our brains are wired, the more that all of these things are tied into physical health in ways that we are just beginning to understand. And when I look at this list, the last four, at least, are ones that are directly tied to church involvement. Science is catching up with what Jesus said: we do not live with bread alone.

We tend not to make room for prayer, I’m guessing, because while we might consider it important in the abstract, in the concrete, it begins to feel like more of a luxury. The point is, I believe, that regular prayer is a necessary part of a healthy life. We should be just as concerned with it as we are with exercise and good eating habits.

Jesus’ second temptation deals with personal responsibility. “Throw yourself down from this cliff,” the Tempter says. And then, taking a page out of Jesus’ own book, adds Scripture’s wisdom: “The angels will catch you so that you will be safe.”

Jesus’ reply comes from Scripture as well: “Don’t tempt the Lord your God.” Quoting Scripture, apparently, is not enough of an argument to make you right. Context is everything. As Jesus says elsewhere, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” In other words, true faith requires a mix of naïveté and sophistication. Just as our brains need a balance of reason and emotion to make good decisions, so our lives of faith require both thought and feeling to be truly wise.

Jumping off of a cliff to prove that God can save us is just stupid. The point is that it’s not enough to have faith if we are not willing to lift a finger. God may provide the door, but we still have to turn the knob.

This past week, our Preschool family suffered a loss. Dee Dee Hill was a longtime teacher who retired a few years back. Everywhere she went, she loudly and proudly told people that she had taught at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. This past Thursday night she died from a sepsis that quickly and unexpectedly shut down her body.

One of the people that sat vigil in the ICU waiting room was another one of our former Preschool teachers, whom some of you know. Mr. Jeff now teaches at St. Martin’s, but was a fixture around our hallways for many years. Even if you know him, you probably don’t know much of his story and how important Ms. Dee Dee was to him. Jeff’s family of origin was, to put it kindly, pretty useless. He bounced around as a kid, ending up in a boys’ home. When he left that home, by his own admission, there was no one there for him. No one. And that’s when Dee Dee took him in. There was no blood relation, just a woman who saw a kid who needed love that she had to give. It made all of the difference in the world. As Jeff and I talked in the waiting room, he shared what Dee Dee meant to him: “Without her, I wouldn’t be here. I’m as good as dead.”

It’s one thing to ask God to intervene for others. It’s another thing, altogether, to be God’s instrument, Christ’s hands and feet, in a world that needs a healthy dose of love and compassion. One look around that ICU waiting room was evidence enough that he wasn’t the only one Dee Dee had saved from destruction. She lived what she believed.

Prayer matters. And the kind of prayer we have been talking about is the kind of prayer that connects the dots between faith and action. The simple act of carving our time makes us more aware of those moments each and every day where we can make a difference in the life of one of God’s beloved children. It may not be as dramatic as the story of Ms. Dee Dee and Mr. Jeff. And yet, we have no way of knowing until we are willing to open ourselves to these possibilities.

The third and final temptation was one of power and glory. The Tempter offers Jesus the treasures of the world in exchange for a little worship. Jesus rejects this offer out of hand, because it is God alone who deserves such attention and adoration. In many ways, this temptation echoes of the temptation of the Garden of Eden. God commands Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the one single tree in the middle of the garden. Like the appearance of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters, once they’ve been told what not to think about, it becomes all they can think about.

The point is simply this: we are not meant to be God! We are made in the image of God. We are called to be servants of God. We are beloved children of God. But we are not God. And thank God for that!

Prayer acknowledges the important distinction between being God and being of God. It’s the acknowledgement of something much greater than ourselves that frees us to live in the faith and trust so necessary to be healthy, responsible agents of God’s living and breathing mercy.

In short: are we ready? Because God is ready for us.