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Our Family Tree – Discovering Our Roots: The Family That Prays

November 17, 2013
Sermon:  Our Family Tree – Discovering Our Roots:  The Family That Prays
Text:  Matthew 6:5-8; Ephesians 3:14-21

Any time I hear the anthem “You Are My Hiding Place,” I think of Corrie ten Boom who wrote The Hiding Place.  Her book, which came out of the horrors of World War II, tells of her family providing a place of safety for a Jewish family.  When the Nazis discovered their actions, they sent the ten Boom family to concentration camps.  I believe Corrie was the only person in her family who survived the experience of the Nazi camp.

Corrie ten Boom was a remarkable person.  I met her one time when she came to Spartanburg.  This quiet, stately woman reminded me for all the world of my grandmother.  She was not very talkative; but her writings, especially her writings about forgiveness, are very powerful.  I learned many sound principles about Christian living from her prayers.

One principle she advocated was God’s desire to forgive and forget our sins, remembering them no more.  She offered the illustration of God dividing the seas as far as the east is from the west, burying our sins in the deepest part of the ocean, and putting up a sign that says, “No Fishing.”  We are not to drag up those sins again.  Corrie ten Boom also stressed that forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces in the world, comparing it with setting a prisoner free.  When you free the prisoner – when you grant forgiveness – you find out that you had actually been held as prisoner.  You were held captive by the grudge you were harboring. 

I would like to share the titles of some books on prayer that have been quite formative for me.  Most recently Clare has given me a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal, which I am thoroughly enjoying.  As I read part of the journal written in her own handwriting, I find satisfaction in the fact that O’Connor could not spell.  I have also been reading a prayer journal by C.S. Lewis that Carrie Veal gave me last Christmas.  One characteristic that stands out in my mind is the simplicity of these prayer journals from people of great devotion.

Perhaps my favorite book on prayer is Richard Foster’s Prayer:  Finding the Heart’s True Home.  In the first chapter Foster describes what he calls the Prayer of Beginning Again.  He says that we often make prayer too complicated.  At times in the life of prayer we need to go back to that very beginning stage and pray again as a little child prays.

I have been learning how to pray for most of seventy years now, but I am still very much a pupil.  Many of you have been praying for a long time; but you, too, are still learning.  We must return to this topic of prayer over and over again because of its many facets.  When the staff suggested that I preach this series on discovering our roots, I knew I had to include one session on the life of prayer in the family.  Learning to pray is indeed a lifelong task.

Jesus wanted to teach his disciples to pray, but it is evident that they were not ready at first.  We read in the first chapter of Mark that Jesus went to a hillside early one morning to pray.  His disciples approached, with Simon Peter speaking out to Jesus and interrupting him.  It is as if this time of prayer was not as important as the crowds.  Simon Peter said, “Look.  People are waiting for you.”  By the eighteenth chapter of Luke, however, the disciples finally understood the significance of prayer with God.  They allow Jesus to finish praying before speaking with him.  Then they ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  If prayer was important for the Lord, it must be just as important for us.

Today I want to give you what I hope are some very practical tips and some new techniques of incorporating prayer that will make a difference within your family.

Modeling prayer is the very first principle.  If you want your children to learn to pray, let them hear you pray.  If you want your grandchildren to learn to pray, let them hear you pray out loud.  We learn how to pray from people who model prayer for us.

When my grandmother told my grandfather that she wanted a small prayer parlor in the home he was building, he said, “I don’t think we’ll have room.”

She replied, “Then you can leave out something else.  We need a prayer parlor.”

Every night before bedtime, my grandparents and their children went into that room.  Pappy read the Bible, and everyone got down on their knees to pray.  It was in that parlor that they prayed four sons through World War II.  It was in that parlor that they prayed for me a number of times.

I have told you the story of hearing my own parents praying for me.  Our responsibility as their children was to report to my mother in her bedroom when we came home at night.  We sat in a chair there that we called the confessional.  One night when I came in a little late, I stopped at the door and saw my mother and father on their knees by the bed.  Hearing my dad call my name in prayer made a huge impact on me.  Seeing and hearing prayer modeled by the people you love and respect makes you know how special it is.  It makes you want to include prayer in your life.

Keep your prayers simple.  Think of prayer as a conversation with God.  We are not trying to be orators when we speak to God.  We should not heap up empty words.  In Matthew 6:5-8, Jesus gives these directions:


“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.

When I was in ROTC, the instructors tried to teach the officers the motto KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Since Clare and I are trying to teach one of our grandchildren not to call people stupid, we changed the motto, substituting the word Studebaker.  We allow them to say Keep It Simple, Studebaker.  If you ever get called a Studebaker while in our home, you now know what it means.  Keep the motto KISS in mind when you pray.

Prayer occurs at some logical times during the course of family living.  One of those is before meals.  My grandfather repeated one single prayer at every meal:  “Lord, make us thankful for this and all Thy many blessings.  For Christ’s sake.  Amen.”  I never heard him vary that prayer.

I asked my father one time, “Why do we have to ask God to make us thankful?”

My father answered, “Kirk, we are not naturally thankful.  We must ask God to help us remember to be grateful for all that He has done for us.”

Prayers for meals can be offered in a variety of ways.  We often sing the blessing with our grandchildren.  One song is called the Johnny Appleseed blessing, and another we often use goes, “Thank you, God.  Thank you, God for this food and for my friends.  Thank you, God.”  Children often recite the prayer that begins, “God is great.  God is good.”  Our daughter-in-law Patrice uses what she calls the Superman blessing with her children, and they love it.

I learned early with our children that a perfect time to pray is when we were all gathered at the table.  Everyone could sit around our table, which was made of old barn wood by a man named Mr. Wimbish in Pfafftown, North Carolina.  Sometimes I asked each member of the family to pray for the person on the left or on the right.  I could tell which children were having a tiff by the information they included.  Sometimes I arranged it so that those children had to pray for each other.  Those prayers can be a little awkward, but we are supposed to pray for the people who are at conflict with us.

Our family used a variety of other approaches to prayer.  Sometimes we used what we called popcorn prayers, which I have heard here in our church.  A participant in the prayer group offers a sentence prayer as a thought comes to mind.  Other individuals take random turns, adding their own thoughts.  Our boys enjoyed the hand-stack prayer.  Each child stacked a hand on the bat like a baseball team does.  The son in the bottom position prayed, then moved his hand to the top.  The next son whose hand was on the bottom of the stack would pray and move it to the top.  The process continued until everyone had offered their requests.

Keeping a prayer journal is an idea you might want to try with the adults and teenagers in your family.  Young children have a more difficult time with this technique.  Journaling involves writing down prayers and later making notes about how they are answered.

The media is an excellent source of prayer needs.  The newspaper can be a tremendous guide.  Ask family members to scan a particular section of the newspaper to find one item that deserves prayer.  Read the Police Blotter.  Read the obituaries.  These sections include the names of individuals and families dealing with difficulty and grief.

More recently I have realized that Facebook offers a source for prayers.  Facebook is not my favorite method of communication though I post comments about once a week.  I do try to respond to individual messages but rarely post comments for mass consumption.  If you pay attention to the statements made on Facebook, you can find topics that need prayer.

Supplemental materials such as prayer guides, devotional books, and hymnals are important tools that aid in prayer.  They are very much a part of my own devotional life.

Years ago for Christmas, I bought from National Geographic a huge map that covers the wall in our basement from ceiling to floor.  The other day I was in the basement with two of our grandchildren, Ben and Anne.  Ben looked at the map and said, “Do you know what P.K.?  There are a lot of important places on that map.”

Just think about his comment for a moment.  That observation sounds so self-evident to us, but it tells me that this little fellow is developing the concept of living in a big world.  A map and globe can call attention to places in this world where people need prayer.  If children are going to learn to pray for people with needs, like those in the Philippines right now, someone must show them the way.  Observing a prayer emphasis like the one coming up for international missions teaches our children about the prayers of others around the world.

At one point when our children were young, they tacked prayer requests to a piece of old corkboard stuck on the wall.  We called that area the wailing wall.  I discovered that their friends also pinned requests on the corkboard when they came to our house.  Sometimes we removed all of those requests and included them in our prayers at the table.

A child who has an exam would love for you to offer a prayer on the way to school.  One of my favorite quotes about prayer in school comes from Senator Sam Ervin who was born in Morganton, North Carolina.  Though he pretended to be uneducated on occasion, he was actually a Harvard graduate.  In a discussion about prayer, Ervin said, “As long as we have algebra exams, there will always be prayer in public schools.”  That comment is so true.

Some of the best prayers are not spoken at all.  They can be crafted into something that is creative, into art, into songs or poems.  The guardian angels that our son Kris paints started as a prayer for someone in distress.  Groups in our church offer prayers as they hand-crafted gifts.  Prayers accompany note cards created by Heart and Hand Crafters and shawls and scarves knitted and crocheted by the Prayer Shawl Ministry.

Allow items that we find in nature to serve as inspiration for prayer.  Leaves, flowers, birds, butterflies can call our attention to prayer.  These prayers are particularly appropriate when families vacation at the beach or take camping trips.

I heard about a family having what they call rock prayers.  Whenever that family is near a river in the mountains, they pick up some flat rocks, wash them, and let them dry.  Then they write a prayer request on the rock with a permanent marker.  At some point later the family looks at the requests and considers how God has been faithful through many different circumstances.  What an idea!

Bedtime prayers can really be a very tender time between family members.  Our children sometimes used it as a filibuster though, as a way of postponing going to sleep.  They wanted to pray for every cousin on the face of the earth.  Since we have many family members, those prayers lasted some time.  I would allow them to mention their relatives; but when they started praying for Mother Goose characters, it was time to end this time of prayer.  I told them, “You can keep praying as long as you like, but we are turning out the light now.  I am going to leave.”  A variation is allowing children to get under the covers with a flashlight during prayer time.

We need to respect the importance of silent prayer.  Prayer at its very best begins with silence, with listening, with paying attention.  God has said so much to us in the Bible.  We must listen to what He has said in Scripture.  If we allow the Word of God to penetrate our hearts, we will know better how to respond when we speak prayers using our own words.

It is important to remember that prayer is never a monologue.  It is a relationship in which we commune with God.  Prayer is never just sending a message to God.  Prayer is not giving God information He does not already have.  Prayer is not designed to change God’s mind.  More often than not I find that prayer changes my mind, not God’s.  It is a kind of spiritual front-end alignment for me.  The power of prayer brings my will into alignment.

Last night during a wedding here in this Sanctuary, I told the couple what I so often say, “Keep Christ at the center of your home.  Make prayer your constant companion.  Pray together so that you can consult the only One who can give you strength beyond your own.”  I encourage husbands and wives to pray together out loud.  If you have never done that with your marriage partner, you will feel somewhat awkward the first time.  I encourage you to hold hands with your spouse when you pray.

Conversational prayer offers another approach.  When Clare and I have a conversation with one of you, she might speak to you.  Then I may address you and then Clare.  After responding to me, she might speak to you again.  The conversation circulates around this triangle of three people, each interacting with the others at various intervals.

Clare sometimes edits my prayers by adding to or by or by disagreeing with what I have said.  If she disagrees with my comment, she says, “Lord, there are two opinions on that.”  Then she proceeds to provide her opinion.  The beauty of conversational prayer is that you can do it as a couple and as a family.  It is a conversation with the Lord who wants to hear you and be a part of your life.

Paul uses the phrase “the church in your house” several times.  The Christian home must be a sanctuary, a place where the Lord resides.  It must be a center for Christian education.  Most of what children learn about Christ Jesus and prayer occurs in the context of the home.

One particular instance stands out in my mind as a time of having church in our house.  Our family was living in Massachusetts while I was a student at Harvard.  Early one cold Easter Sunday morning we drove out to the end of Cape Cod and climbed the dunes to watch the sunrise.  We sang a song and watched a pod of seventy-five or so whales frolicking in the surf.  We sat there awhile, enjoying the view and having a time of prayer together.

Afterwards, we climbed down the dunes and drove into Provincetown.  At a great Portuguese bakery, we bought coffee and pastries and hot chocolate for the kids.  Everyone in the family remembers celebrating that Easter Sunday.  Though we had not attended a service in a church building and had not gathered with other people, it is one of those memorable experiences that we will always cherish.

I would like to share a pastoral prayer with your family, a prayer that comes from Ephesians 3, beginning at Verse 14:

For this reason, I kneel before the Father, for whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.  And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is in work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.

Do you know Christ Jesus as your Savior?  If you have never accepted him, we want to invite you to do so.  You know the decision that the Lord has laid on your heart.  You respond.

 Kirk H. Neely
© November 2013


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