sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 10/07/2012
video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/milanvineyard/ondemand
The Hero’s journey and the integral role of prayer…
[Dinner table prayer clip from “Meet the Parents”]
You ever experienced prayer like that? Awkward. Mixed up with idea that somehow we’ve got to impress someone. Mixed up with the idea that there is some sort of formula, right words that get the response we’re looking for. Unsatisfying. A little contrived, maybe even ultimately silly.
You're not alone.
For some of us, we've only had two experiences of prayer in our lives. One is praying at the dinner table, and trying not to look like a fool, trying to come across halfway competent, make a good impression. The other is in some sort of crisis, where prayer is like our only hope, our last resort, and we're desperately trying to get it right, because if ever we needed prayer to work, this is it.
But Jesus' vision of prayer is much richer. For Jesus, prayer is as much a part of the fabric of life in response to the good news of the kingdom as eating delicious, nutritional food is a part of the fabric of biological life. And just like the nutritional value of food can get destroyed by preoccupation about image (bulimia, anorexia) or the joy of it can be taken away by preoccupation with achieving athletic performance, prayer can be robbed of its nutritional and joyful reward as well.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."
[Dave Schmelzer’s first prayer…]
Two big ideas about prayer in light of Jesus' good news of God's kingdom. The first is that ugly (but) naked always beats pretty (but) fake. Especially when it comes to prayer. The second is that love means never having to manipulate. You only have to show up. Especially when it comes to prayer.
Let's start with ugly (but) naked beating pretty (but) fake.
God is the God of truth, of reality.
God made the real world, and it seems like he's into it. Like he cares about it. Like he'd die for it rather than abandon it. Like he wants to make it his home.
No matter how ugly it might be.
After all, isn't that what Jesus is getting at when he says "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek..."? All those people live in the realest part of the real world, don't they? And Jesus says the God of the kingdom is coming to them right where they are, with blessing. With life.
But if something is fake, if it's not true in the sense of reality being distorted, masked, God's not involved in it, is he? The air is stale there, because the Spirit has left the building. That's why the enemy of God's good creation is called the father of lies. The enemy twists the truth into something that isn't true, isn't real, and death keeps company with him.
Here's how the enemy works, for example (and don't worry, this may feel like a rabbit trail, and maybe it is, but it will lead us back to Jesus in Matthew 6, have no fear...)
the enemy puts a fearful thought into your mind, a hypothetical terrible situation, say something happening to one of your kids. And it stinks of death, and fear starts to trouble your heart. And you try to imagine God there in that situation, but the enemy whispers, God's not there, he's abandoned you. And it feels true to you, the thought that God's not there, because you can't sense him there. And now the fear becomes terror, and now it's gripped your heart and won't let go.
The insidious thing the enemy has done is drawn you into a place of unreality, where God is in fact absent and never will be present. So it's true, in a sense, when the enemy whispers that “God's not there” in that hypothetical horrifying situation. But it's not because God has abandoned you; it's that you have listened to the lie of the enemy and left reality behind for the unreality he has beckoned you to join him in. That's how fear gets a chokehold on us.
The real truth is, if the terrible situation ever were to actually come to pass, God would be there. But he won't be there until there is real. Because he is the God of reality.
So it's far more fruitful to pull yourself out of the imagined horror enough to ask yourself, is God here with me now? And then ask the God who is with you now, in your present frightened reality, will you be with me always?
If you're like most, you'll want to ask, perhaps, if that imagined reality will ever come to pass. However, I suspect you are unlikely to get an answer. Because faith grows when it's rooted in our certainty of God himself, not on our certainty of future events.
And because God generally only gives us the grace we need for today's reality, no more, no less.
Grace is like manna, I think. Grace comes day by day, moment by moment. But the grace we need for tomorrow's reality, whatever it may be, will be present for us then, rest assured.
What's true of all untrue things (that God is absent from them), is even true of the prettiest untrue things. And what's true of all true things (that God desires to be present in them and to them) is even true of the ugliest true things. Which is why ugly but naked always beats pretty but fake. Even prayer - especially prayer - is absent of God if it's twisted enough to not be true prayer.
In Jesus' example, the prayer of the play actors, the hypocrites, is the pretty but fake. Their prayer is a pretty mask to help them play dress up in front of others. But it's fake because it isn't directed at God, it's directed at the crowd with God's name in front of it. It's all an act. So no matter what is said, God's not involved in it.
“Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”
The reward for the Pharisees, of course, is that they get everything they want but nothing they need. They get the praise of men, but it’s empty praise, based on deception. Worse, because they are living in a make believe world, they’re cut off from the God of the real world, and his kingdom, whose realness is breaking into and overwhelming and healing and restoring this world.
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.
Real prayer isn't about pretending to be someone else, it's about being who you really are before God. Naked faces, unmasked. Even if you think your face might be ugly.
Perhaps that's why Jesus describes normal prayer for his students as a private affair. In an inner room, door closed, secret. There we can be free to be ourselves before God. Faces naked.
[experience of being washed...]
When our faces are naked before God in prayer, our real selves are connected to the real God that undergirds reality. Pretty and ugly don't matter anymore, because glory radiates from the creator to the created, and is reflected back, magnifying beauty.
“When we pray we enter the real world, the substance of the kingdom, and our bodies and souls begin to function for the first time as they were created to function.”
-Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy
About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus…Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
It’s as Jesus was praying that the fullness of his glory becomes apparent. In prayer, who he truly is becomes visible.
Not only that, but the reality of the heavenly realm is opened up, Moses & Elijah are walking around talking. In prayer, Reality itself (Reality with a capital R), normally hidden, shrouded, inaccessible, but ultimately real, becomes clearer.
“Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
The reward for the one who prays with a naked face is the reward that comes from true communion with God. In prayer, we become aware of the reality of our selves, the reality of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Out of that awareness loving relationship is formed. From which flows the truest form of reward: The God of reality inhabits our reality, and we inhabit his. In which, and from which we experience comfort, confidence, joy, peace, hope, love. Not to mention answered prayers and participation with God in his saving, liberating activity in the world.
And we emerge from prayer equipped to enter into loving relationships with others – grounded in God’s kingdom and secure in his love, free to relate unmasked, free of the desire to manipulate or control others, free to be generous in love, free of neediness.
Part 2: Love means never having to manipulate. You only have to show up. Especially when it comes to prayer.
“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like the pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Prayer is relational before it is functional. No doubt that prayer has a major role to play in God’s kingdom in “getting things done”, in effecting change, in mercy triumphing over judgment. Indeed, prayer is the most important “work” we do as students of Jesus. But “being” in prayer comes before “doing” in prayer. If we get that turned around, prayer gets bent out of shape, useless for either relationship or function.
Pagan prayer typified this inversion – prayer was designed to get things from a deity not unlike the way Ali Baba got treasure from the cave. "Open, Sesame!" (Heaven forbid you forget the right words, because then you're in a heap of trouble. Like Cassim: "Open Barley...." ) Pagan prayer was destined to become ornate and complex, because it wasn't actually directed to real gods. So it always fell on deaf ears. [Priest of Baal & Elijah in 1 Kings 18...] In the end it was only so much babbling.
Now, we know God isn't a magical door. But sometimes we think he's like Baal, just waiting for us to get our prayer right before he'll act.
How many of us have experienced a pressure to “get it right” in prayer? To say the right words, with the right attitude, so God would do what we wanted. Performance anxiety, it might be called.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus addresses that anxiety this way:
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
All of that effort to get the words right is really an effort to manipulate God into doing what we want. Even if all we want is for him to approve of our prayer, to approve of us. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Jesus is suggesting to us, gently, that God loves us so much, that he's paying such close attention to us, that before we even get the words out, he knows what we need and his heart is inclined to give us his best.
We don't need to try to manipulate him because he's already where we want him to be.
All God is looking for from us is loving relationship. Us trusting him with our needs like a child trusts her dad. He entrusting us with the work of his kingdom, like a dad entrusts his son with the family business. And for that to happen, no manipulation is needed. The only thing that's needed is that we would show up. With naked faces presenting ourselves and our needs to him. And then he shows up, his naked face radiant with a love that meets our every need and transforms our broken selves into his image bearers in this broken world.
1. Let God under your mask.
· This is how I feel. Body. Emotions.
· This is how I feel about myself.
· This is how I feel about you.
· This is what I have been thinking about a lot.
· This is what some part of me wants.
· This is what I think I really want, deep down.
· This is what I think I need.
2. "Father, please help me pray."
3. Write your prayer down and then read it to God.
4. Try praying someone else's prayer & make it your own.