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Lord, Teach Us to Pray: Daily Prayer

January 8, 2006

Mark 1:29-37

Do you know how to pray? I thought I knew how to pray until 1978. Early one morning before school that year, I was teaching our three sons how to “skin the cat.” Some of you know that you hang on a bar, pull your legs up through the bar, and drop them back over your head. Then you “skin the cat” by bringing your legs back through your arms and drop off the bar. I was hanging upside down with my legs over my head when the bar I was on broke. I did not have time to get my arms down to break my fall, and I landed on my head, fracturing the sixth cervical vertebra in my neck. I spent a long hot summer flat on my back in traction, with ten pounds of weight pulling from my chin and ten pounds of weight pulling from my feet. For a short time, my entire left side was paralyzed. Just being able to squeeze my hand was a miracle. I missed injuring my spinal cord by about a quarter of an inch.

At first, I was relieved to be flat on my back because the traction eased the pain. After about a week when the pain started to subside, I became stir crazy. I had a horrible case of cabin fever during the second week in traction because I realized I could do little to ease the boredom. I had to lie flat on my back with no pillow and look straight up at the ceiling. I could not read a book. I could not watch television.

I had plenty of time on my hands and knew that I had to do something that was meaningful. I was familiar with the hymn “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” I had sung it many times, but I doubt that I had ever prayed an hour at one time in my entire life. Five minutes was about my limit. That summer, I learned to pray for hours at a time.

I do not want you to break your neck, but I do want you to know that the desire of my heart is that you learn to pray. To some of you, that statement sounds very patronizing. You might say, “Kirk, we already know how to pray.” I understand that you pray, but prayer has many facets that most of us have not explored. Actually, every single one of us is a beginner.

I want to invite you to begin again to learn how to pray. I must hasten to say to you that I do not have anything new to tell you. If you have ever heard any of my teachings or sermons about prayer, you may hear some repetition. You might even say I sound like a broken record. A record is anachronistic. Maybe you would say that I sound like a CD. Some CD’s are worth listening to repeatedly. What I have to share with you is worth hearing again.

Did you hear the beautiful offertory this morning, “Be Thou My Vision”? It is one of my favorite hymns. This old Celtic hymn that dates back to the thirteenth century mentions God by a different name seventeen times. That hymn is itself a prayer. Even if we just begin by paying attention to the seventeen different names in that hymn, we would have insight into just how little we know about the life of prayer.

I took piano lessons for a while. I can play the bottom end of “Chopsticks” and the bottom end of “Heart and Soul.” I could probably pick out the correct notes for “Happy Birthday to You,” but I cannot play the piano like Gail Medlin can. Gail has practiced, and I have not.

If you want to learn how to pray, you have to practice. Otherwise, our prayers will remain as elementary as one of the first prayers we learned, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” or “God is great. God is good…” We will never move beyond that unless we practice. If you want to learn how to play chess, you can read all the books you can find on how to play the game. Until you actually sit down at a chessboard and start moving the pieces on the board, you will not learn. If you want to learn how to cook, you can read all the recipe books in the world. Until you actually get out the pots and pans, assemble the ingredients, and start mixing, you will never learn to cook. Prayer is very much the same way. You cannot learn to pray unless you practice praying. Our hope is to go to deeper levels of prayer; therefore, it only makes sense that after we practice for a while, we can see that our prayer life is improving.

Praying for an hour is probably beyond the scope of what most of us can do. Do not try for an hour. We might do well to get in fifteen minutes. Start with that amount of time. Accomplish that task first. Then you might add five minutes and then another five minutes. By this time next year, you might be able to pray for an hour. Prayer takes practice on a regular basis.

Prayer was a regular part of Jesus’ life. The scripture passage today said that one Sabbath, Jesus had been to worship. When he returned to Simon Peter’s house, he found that Simon’s mother-in-law was ill. Jesus healed her and then after sundown, a crowd came to the door of Simon Peter’s house. The scripture words it this way: “all of the sick and all of the demon-possessed” came. The whole town came to the door of Simon Peter’s house. Jesus took the time that was necessary after sundown to minister to all of those people. Then the scripture says that Jesus got up early the next morning before sunrise and went to a solitary place so that he could pray.

This scripture is referring to the Son of God, the One who had the greatest intimacy with the Father. I submit to you that if he needed that time of prayer, how much more do we need it? If the Lord needed to take time to go apart from the crowd and pray, it makes sense that we need that time as well. He would have us learn how to do that.

You notice that Simon Peter interrupted as if he had no clue about the importance of prayer in Jesus’ life, saying, “Everyone is looking for you.” Jesus had a busy life. We may also say that we have a busy life. Maybe we believe that we are too busy to pray. Being too busy to pray is omitting one of the most important aspects in the Christian life. Prayer is our greatest resource. I encourage you to set aside time to pray. Treat it as any other appointment. Respect it. Keep that appointment. If your telephone rings during your time of prayer, do not answer it. You already have a prior commitment, something more important than the telephone message. Pay attention to that time of prayer. Some say that you must have your quiet time as Jesus did early in the morning. One man said, “My quiet time is 5:30 in the morning.” His friend responded, “At 5:30 every morning, I am having a quiet time, too, right there on my pillow.” It does not have to be 5:30 in the morning. You can decide. Having a designated place, equipped with a pad of paper, a pencil, and a Bible helps. You may want other devotional resources, such as a hymnbook. Make the appointment and keep it.
Some people ask about posture. Three pastors were discussing the proper posture for prayer. One said, “We should be standing with our arms uplifted.”

The second one said, “No, we should be kneeling with our heads bowed.”

The third responded, “No, that is not enough. We must be prone with our face to the floor.

A Duke Power employee who overheard the conversation, said, “Excuse me, please. I am not a reverend, but I can tell you the most effective praying I have ever done. It has hanging forty feet in the air by my heels from a power pole.”

Prayer has no requirements concerning the posture of the body. What matters is the posture of the heart. Whatever is required for you to have an attitude of humility is the correct posture for prayer.

Walter Wangerin describes prayer as a recurring cycle. We pray. God speaks. We pray. God listens. God speaks. We listen. Prayer is not a monologue; it is not our talking to God. So often, we think of prayer as our message to God. We begin and end the conversation as if God Himself had nothing to say. We just hope He is listening. Prayer is not a monologue; instead, it is a conversation with somebody who loves you. God wants to hear from you in the same way that you want your children or grandchildren to come talk to you. God wants to hear from you, but He also wants you to listen to Him.

In my own life of prayer, I have discovered that for me, the most effective way to begin my time of prayer is in silence. I hear all kinds of external noises, like the air handler or maybe a siren; but the noise most distracting to me is the internal noise of my own heart. Those noises flood through my mind when I finally hold still and get quiet. Do not let it interfere with your time of prayer. Use the pad of paper for making a to-do list. Write down chores or errands that you forgot to do. Write down your ideas, your good intentions, or ideas that come to your mind. Then put it aside until later. You may actually want to come back to that list. Some of the items will actually become matters of prayer. Psalm 46 says, “Just be still and know that I am God.” If you listen, God will have something to say to you.

I know people say, “God never speaks to me.” Right now, we cannot hear the radio signals in this room. We must have a radio and tune in to a channel. God wants to speak to you. You will never hear Him until your receiver is tuned to what He has to say. Perhaps a better way to say this is that when we come to the time of prayer, we want to hear the heartbeat of God. Have you ever loved a person so much that as you held them, in silence, you could hear their heart beat? We must be silent and close to God so that we can hear His heart beat. Remember the words of the hymn we sang earlier, “There is a place of quiet rest Near to the heart of God.” If you want to have intimacy with the Almighty, you have to be still and quiet. Once you do that, your receiver can begin to pick up the divine signals that are the heartbeat of God.

As you listen, God may turn your attention to the scriptures. You may read something in His Word that is special word for you at that moment. Unless you get still and quiet, you will never hear what He has to say to you. After you give Him an opportunity to speak while you listen, then you speak, using simple language. Do not heap up long, elaborate phrases. Speak to Him as a child speaks to a parent. Share with Him the concerns on your heart. You can say to Him whatever you would like to say. Afterwards, fall silent. Be quiet, and give Him a chance to respond to what you have said. You will be surprised at the many ways He might respond.

Some people do not pray because they think prayer does not matter. Prayer changes things. Perhaps prayer change God’s mind. Perhaps God is simply waiting for us to ask so that He can respond by conforming to what we desire. Most often, God changes us through prayer. When we pray with this listening ear, we begin to understand what God is trying to do in our lives. Think of it as a kind of spiritual front-end alignment. Many times, I am trying to veer in my own direction. I am out of alignment. Through the life of prayer, my Father in heaven brings me back into alignment with His will.

Never neglect your designated time of prayer, but realize that prayer does not happen just once a day at one chosen time. The Apostle Paul refers to prayer without ceasing as a kind of stream of prayer, a flow of prayer that includes every part of our day. Frank Laubach talks about offering what he called “flash prayers,” quick little prayers to God.

This week I had an experience that is perhaps a good example of this type of prayer. I saw a red-tailed hawk. Something about seeing that magnificent bird of prey prompted me to say, “Thank you, Lord.” You might have that same response to a sunrise or sunset. Learning to pray means that we begin to pray throughout the course of our day. Breathing little prayers allow us to experience the presence of God throughout our day.

Brother Lawrence, an old monk about eighty years old, lived in a monastery all of his life. In his devotional classic entitled The Practice of the Presence of God, he stated that he had learned to pray just as effectively among the pots and pans of the monastery kitchen and among the stalls of the stable as he could pray when he went into the chapel for those designated times of prayer. Learning to practice the presence of God is one of the deeper levels of prayer.

During prayer, we are offering God our wish list, seeking His guidance, and interceding for other people. Prayer is certainly all of that. Above all else, though, remember that prayer is a relationship.

My favorite illustration of that point is the father who was relaxing in his La-Z-Boy recliner. The teenage son came to him and asked, “Dad, can I have the keys to the car? I have a date tonight.” The father flipped him the keys to the car.

His teenage daughter came in the room and said, “Dad, I want to go to the movie with my friends. Can I have ten dollars?”

He pulled out a ten-dollar bill and gave it to her. “Be careful, honey,” he said.

Then his little eight-year-old daughter came into the room and crawled up on his lap.

He asked, “Honey, what do you want?”

She answered, “Daddy, I just want to be with you.”

Above all else, prayer is a relationship, a desire to be with our Father in heaven who loves us very much.

Are you too busy for that? Francis De Sales said, “Every Christian ought to pray at least an hour a day unless he is especially busy. Then he ought to pray for two hours a day.” Martin Luther said that he was so busy that he had to pray three hours a day in order to get his work done. John Wesley started every day with two hours of prayer at 4:00 A.M. Learning to pray is my heart’s desire for all of us. I am a beginner. We are all beginners in the life of prayer. We must never use the excuse that we are too busy.

John Greenleaf Whittier’s comments about our busy lives in one of his poems: “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, Forgive our foolish ways; Reclothe us in our rightful mind; In purer lives Thy service find, In deeper reverence praise. Drop Thy still dews of quietness, Till all our strivings cease; Take from our souls the strain and stress, And let our ordered lives confess The beauty of Thy peace.”

Do you want the beauty and the peace of Christ to replace the strain and stress of your soul? It begins when we acknowledge Christ Jesus as our Savior, enter into a personal relationship with him, and begin our walk in the life of prayer. If you have never made a decision to accept Christ as your Savior, we invite you to make that decision today. Some of you have other decisions to make. You know that God has led you to Morningside, and that this is to be your church family. We invite you to make your decision public as we sing together our hymn of commitment, “Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak.” We will gladly receive you.

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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