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Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer: A Praying Church

September 30, 2007

Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 6:9-13

Just after I had graduated from high school, when I was seventeen years old, I traveled to the country of Southern Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. I spent about five or six weeks with an aunt and uncle who were serving as missionaries in that southern part of Africa. I bought a split ticket, which allowed me to break up the trip. I spent five days in Switzerland, another five in Greece, and then went on to Africa. On the way back home, I traveled through Kenya, Egypt, Rome, and England.

My first stop in Switzerland was to see the Swiss Alps. I caught a train in Zurich, traveled to Lucerne, then to Interlaken. There, I caught a cog railway that went to the highest railroad station in the world at the top of a mountain known as the Jungfrau. As I rode up the side of that mountain, we passed two other very tall mountains in the Swiss Alps: the Mönch and the Eiger, which has a sheer rock north face. The manufacturing company that produces outdoor equipment has taken the name North Face from Mount Eiger. As the train passed Mount Eiger, I noticed people climbing its face. I asked some of my fellow passengers about how those mountain climbers could scale that vertical rock wall. They told me that it is one of the most challenging mountains in the world. People attempt this climb, sometimes to their peril. A number of people have died. The ascent up the north face of the Eiger takes two to three days. As I looked in disbelief at these very small figures climbing that rock face, I noticed that a rope connected them. Mountain climbers ordinarily travel in groups, using ropes to bind themselves to each other. They know that the footing is not always sure. The hope is that if one slips, those connected by ropes above and below will have enough of a sure footing to hold them in place.

That illustration is a good way to understand the function of prayer in the life of the church. Most of the sermons in this series about prayer have focused on our praying as individuals. A balance here is essential. Praying corporately as a church body is also very important. We are the body of Christ. We are the family of God. We are the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is the vital lifeline that connects us with each other. Every single person in this congregation has at one time or another felt as if their footing was slipping. If you know that the body of Christ is praying for you, you have the sense that a lifeline is holding you, connecting you, to other Christians.

Think about the best of all fairytales in American literature, The Wizard of Oz, written by Frank Baum. Dorothy, who has lost her way, wants to get back to her family in Kansas. Along her journey, she meets others who also have needs: a scarecrow, looking for a mind of his own, a tin man, wanting to know what it is like to have a heart of compassion, a heart of love; and a lion, desiring renewed courage. These four travel together, trying to reach a wizard that can supposedly grant all of their wishes. When they finally arrive, they discover that the wizard is just as deficient as they are. He is guilty of deceiving the community of Oz with presumed power. By the end of the journey, they all acquire the missing parts they desire. Dorothy returns to Kansas. The scarecrow receives a brain. The tin man gets a heart. The lion regains his courage. The wizard gets his comeuppance. In our faith, the wizard has no parallel. God is sovereign. He is the One who grants our needs.

The journey of prayer is similar to that story. We journey together. In our church community, we find that all of us have deficits in our lives. Everybody here has some missing parts. We all have some pain, some heartache, or some sorrow that needs attention. We are likely to find the fulfillment of those deficits in the context of our common journey in the life of prayer.

I call your attention to one passage of Scripture from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11, Verses 1-4. This rendition of the Lord’s Prayer is more condensed than the one found in the Gospel of Matthew. Hear now the Word of God.

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of this disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples to pray.”

He said to them, “When you pray, say:

‘Father, hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins,

for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

And lead us not into temptation.’

We could have a whole series of sermons focusing on the Lord’s Prayer, but I want you to notice just one aspect today. Consider the version of the Lord’s Prayer that appears in Matthew 6:9-13.

“Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name,
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our
debtors,
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”

This version from Matthew begins with the word Our, a first-person plural pronoun. Lines three and four contain the words us, our, and we. All of those pronouns are plural. Jesus taught his disciples to pray this prayer together, as a unit, as a group. He is teaching them about corporate prayer in this model prayer. Certainly, prayer has a strong individual side. Jesus himself prayed as an individual. He went away and prayed alone. It is entirely possibly that we cannot pray together as a church until we learn to pray as individuals. Corporate prayer completes the balance in the life of prayer.

Imagine a nurse coming into a hospital room to take a patient’s vital signs, usually identified as temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and general responsiveness. The heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature are fine. The patient certainly seems responsive, agitated, but unable to breathe. Will the nurse say, “Four out of five is not bad”? No, a nurse would do whatever necessary to help. A patient that is not breathing is not long for this world.

Prayer is the very breath of the church. If the church is not praying – no matter what other signs indicate, no matter the amount of activity, no matter the number of people crowded into these buildings – it is not going to survive long. We must be people of prayer if we are to be a vital church. The life of prayer is the single most important aspect in the life of a church. Because prayer can become easy to neglect, I often preach about this topic.

When you pray with another person, you engage in corporate prayer. It does not require a massive crowd. Jesus made an incredible promise in Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be there.” We ordinarily think of corporate prayer as just part of the worship service on Sunday morning, but we have so many opportunities to pray together.

I want you to consider how the events of yesterday stress the importance of prayer in our life together. The first corporate prayer I had was with Clare. Yesterday, I officiated at a wedding that included three prayers: an invocation, a wedding prayer, and a benediction. We prayed together as a group of people, not in a sanctuary, but in a place on holy ground. God’s presence was there as we prayed together for that couple. Tomorrow, I will conduct a funeral service at Greenlawn and include prayers of a different kind at that time of worship. As we pray together then, we will sense the presence of God. We will seek His comfort and the blessing of His Holy Spirit who is the Divine Comforter.

Yesterday, I also went to the hospital. Standing in a room and praying with a patient is a rare privilege. It is a frequent privilege, but still rare. The patient probably did not know I was there, but I prayed with her because I know that hearing is often the last sense a patient may have. Whether she could hear me or not, it was important that I pray with her. I then went to Hospice House where two very important people in the life of our church are patients. I prayed with two families, then went to the home of Morningside members who are grieving. I talked with the parents about their son’s funeral service tomorrow. At the end of my visit, we stood, held hands, and prayed together. Last night, the last corporate prayer I had was again with Clare. We do not have to go out of our way to find opportunities to pray with other people. Opportunities are all around us.

Worship, coming to this place, is important. George Buttrick made an amazing statement in his wonderful book entitled Prayer. He said that the worst sin that we can commit in worship is to assume that prayer is a preliminary. He said that it may be that the prayers we offer in worship are more important than the music or the sermon. Gathering for prayer is central to our worship. What are you supposed to do as you sit in the pew while I preach or while the choir sings an anthem? Let me read one verse of a hymn: “Brethren, we have met to worship and adore the Lord our God; Will you pray with all your power, while we try to preach the Word? All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down. Brethren, pray, and holy manna will be showered all around.” The worship of God is not a spectator sport; it is an active participation of every person in the Sanctuary. As I listen to the beautiful music during each service, part of my worship is to pray to receive our musicians’ gift. When others pray here, they lead me in worship. It is not just that some are leaders and some are listeners. We are all active participants in the life of prayer.

We have many opportunities to pray together as a family. Husbands and wives need to pray together. Families need to pray together. How do children learn to pray? They learn in the same way they learn everything else, by paying attention to the adults in their world. They learn to pray by hearing their mother, their father, their grandparents, and their aunts and uncles pray. Children need a time to pray. I can sit down at that piano and play the bottom half of “Chopsticks.” That is just about all I can play. Though I had piano lessons at one time, I did not practice. The thought of praying immobilizes some people because they have not had any practice. How do you practice the life of prayer? You pray together in the context of your home. Corporate prayer begins at home. We find the greatest avenue for evangelism in the home. More people are won to Christ there than anywhere else.

We have many opportunities for group praying, certainly in church. Every time a committee meets, we ought to make prayer a part of that experience. In a Sunday School class, prayer and study prompt us to outreach. We are not there just for ourselves. We are there because God’s Spirit wants to work in our lives in a way that we reach out to others. Think of what happened on the Day of Pentecost. The disciples prayed while gathered in an upper room. The Scripture says they were praying as a unit, in one accord. God’s Spirit empowered them, not just to have a wonderful time of fellowship together but also to leave the room and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to others in Jerusalem. The Scripture tells us that 3,000 additional people came to know Christ that day. Praying moves us to action.

Wednesday night Prayer Meeting is important. It is not just an afterthought, not just a time-filler. Staff members have tried to think of ways to increase attendance, but I have decided that we should let those who believe that prayer is important come and be a part of that service. Other programs on Wednesday certainly include a time of prayer. Groups such as The Parent Connection include parents who want to pray for their children. We sometimes talk about a concert of prayer. Prayer is like a symphony, where everybody can take part – some silently, some verbally.

Morningside’s Prayer Chain allows for a quick response in prayer. I am sad to say that our Prayer Room, located across the hall, is vacant much of the time. Some of our faithful members use it often. A group called Prayer Warriors, which meets here Friday mornings, offers the concerns of the church body and individuals to God. Women’s organizations here have prayer circles. We have a ministry of prayer at this church.

Jesus went into the temple and cleaned house. Activity was happening in the temple, but much of it had fallen to commerce. When Jesus cleansed the temple, his words were, “My house shall be a house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13). Jesus wants the same for Morningside. He wants this church to be a place of prayer, not just a meeting place with a lot of activity. Prayer is the most important thing we can do. It is more important than building a gymnasium, more important than eating meals, more important than generating activities and programs. When we pray, we can expect Jesus himself to be a part of the group, as he has promised in Matthew 18:20.

A man was having a big event at his store downtown with balloons, streamers, free hot dogs, popcorn, and ice cream. People were flocking in and out of his place of business. His pastor went by and commented, “My goodness, it looks like you have a booming business here.” The man replied, “Pastor, this is a going-out-of-business sale.”

Just having activity does not mean that we are at the business God has called us to do. Just generating activity is not what is most important. We must be people of prayer.

In the seventeenth century, Jonathan Edwards wrote a short work with a long title: A Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of All God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth Pursuant to Scripture Promises and Prophesies Concerning the Last Time. Would you pick up and read a book with that title? Just reading the title is enough. Edwards claims in that work that if you desire something significant to happen, you must pray. You must pray together. Every great spiritual revival in the history of the world started with prayer. If we want God to do something special in this community, we have to be people of prayer.

Years ago, people decided to help ships and their crew along the coast of the Southeast during storms. Lighthouses helped some, but these concerned people wanted to establish a lifesaving station, a place to congregate during a storm and rescue any sailors in distress. Seven or eight men worked hard to build the lifesaving station and to prepare themselves for future rescues. The next season during a terrible storm, a ship began breaking apart on the shoals off shore. These men who had been so earnest in their preparations rowed out to sea in lifeboats and successfully rescued twenty stranded sailors. News about this station traveled along the coast. Others came and said, “We would like to be a part of this effort. This is a great idea.” The membership of the lifesaving station grew immediately. More people went through a training program and became qualified to do this type of work.

Before long, another shipwreck occurred, requiring several boats to go into the sea and bring everyone back to safety. Again, news of this lifesaving station traveled up and down the coast. Others wanted to be a part of this group, but not all wanted to receive training. Some said, “We don’t really like going out in the ocean, so we’ll keep the place clean and tidy. We don’t need training for that.” These individuals did not train, but they did enjoy a wonderful time, fellowshipping together at their regular meetings, planning covered dish dinners, and sponsoring fundraisers. They raised quite a bit of money and in time said, “We really need to renovate this place.” They put in new carpet, paneling, and a widescreen television set.

Soon after the renovations, a terrible storm trapped two ships on the shoals. Those who had received training rescued thirty-seven sailors in the lifeboats. The rescued men changed clothes in the newly refurbished room and enjoyed watching television as they rested. After the sailors had left, those who had worked on the renovations of the lifesaving station called an emergency meeting. Some said, “We spent our good money to fix up this place. It is not right to bring those wet, dirty sailors in here. We ought to build a barracks out back, where the sailors can stay. Let’s keep this place looking nice for us.” That is what they did. After the next rescue, they required the rescued sailors to stay in the crude barracks. As time continued, fewer and fewer people trained for rescues.

One day when the alarm sounded, several of the old timers responded, but so few answered the call that they could not operate a lifeboat. All sailors drowned. After that, those who had first started the lifesaving station built a new rescue building down the coast. Everybody else stayed in the original shelter and changed it to a beach club.

The same experience can happen to the church. We can completely lose our way if we merely generate all kinds of activity. We cannot forget the reason for our existence. God has called us to be His people. He has given us a great commission to go into the entire world with the message of salvation. We dare not neglect prayer in the life of the church. Earnest prayer is its lifeblood. If we forsake prayer, we abandon our calling and lose God’s trust in us. Prayer helps us be the church.

If you have never accepted Christ as your Savior, we extend to you an invitation. Acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died on the cross for you, and that you accept him as the Lord of your life. Some of you have other decisions to make, decisions perhaps regarding church membership. We extend these invitations on behalf of God as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Take My Life, Lead Me Lord.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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