Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 1, 2009

2009.03.1 “PoWeRSuRGe: “P” is for Pray”

Central United Methodist Church

“PoWeRSuRGe: “P” is for Pray”

Pastor David L. Haley

The 1st Sunday in Lent

March 1st, 2009

“Lord, teach us to pray” – Luke 11: 1


It was in 2007, that one of the biggest churches in the country – Willow Creek Community Church, out in Barrington, IL – realized that they had made a mistake.

Their philosophy of ministry — that church should be a big box with programs for people at every level of spiritual maturity to consume and engage — has impacted churches across the country, both evangelical and mainline.

        But then they did a multiyear quantitative study of their ministry, asking this question, “What programs and activities of the church actually helped people mature spiritually and which did not?”  The results were published in a book, Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek. The founder and Senior Pastor, Bill Hybels, called the findings “earthshaking,” “ground-breaking,” and “mind-blowing.”

Hybels summarized the findings this way: “Some of the stuff we put millions of dollars into, thinking it would help people grow and develop spiritually, wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much staff or money into, people were crying out for.”

Hybels confessed: “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

In other words, spiritual growth doesn’t happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs, but through tried-and-true age-old spiritual practices, such as prayer, bible reading, etc. Ironically, these basic disciplines do not require multi-million dollar facilities or hundreds of staff to manage. As Homer Simpson might say: “Doh!”

        Unfortunately, “mainline” or “small churches” (terms that unfortunately go together) haven’t done any better. Basically, we were doing the same thing — providing “programs”, just on a smaller scale and more poorly than Willow Creek. We Protestant churches were into membership and program, without doing much to nurture people into mature spirituality, discipleship, or leadership.

        Therefore, through these 6 Sundays in Lent – traditionally a time of spiritual growth – I would like to focus on the essential disciplines of Christian discipleship, which anyone can do, and every Christian disciple must do, in order to grow.

For a decade or so now, I have used in confirmation classes a helpful acronym developed by another megachurch, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, in Burnsville, MN. Developed by Pastor Michael Foss, the acronym is this: “PoWeRSuRGE.”  It stands for Prayer, Worship, Reading the Bible, Serving, Relationships, and Giving. Michael Foss calls them the six marks of Christian discipleship.  I prefer to call them the six essential disciplines for growth in spirituality and discipleship. 

        It is not the only formulation, nor is it new, by any means.  Most of these disciplines are ancient, and practiced – in distinctive forms – by most religions. Unfortunately, while these practices have long traditions in Christianity, much of that tradition has been lost, at least since the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and sometimes we have to learn about these ancient spiritual practices from traditions other than our own.   They are there in Christianity, but you have to search for them.

        Today, I would like to talk about first of these essential Christian practices, which is prayer.

Almost all of us believe that God hears our prayer.  It is the question of how God answers our prayer that is the most problematic, and, at any rate, not one I can solve in the short span of a sermon. 

Regardless of we might disgree about how God answers our prayer, one think I think we would all agree upon is this: “Prayer changes us.” In the movie Shadowlands, during a discussion about prayer, C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “It [prayer] doesn’t change God, it changes me.”

Real prayer is substantive, essential, transformative. And yet most of us (and I include myself in this category) are novices still wanting to learn more.  Like Jesus’ disciples in Luke 11: 1, we still say, “Lord, teach us how to pray.”  So, on the most practical level, let’s talk about how we can improve our practice of prayer.

The first thing we need is a “time” to pray. For most of us, time is the biggest obstacle, or at least, our favorite excuse. I would have to say, I progressed best in praying, when I was single and divorced.  Would I want to trade my family for better prayer? (I’m thinking . . . ) After all, in addition to work and family, we’ve got all that internet surfing, email, texting, Facebook, and Twitter to keep up with. (NOT) And then, of course, there is the rearrangement of my sock drawer . . .

Like most things of life, we make time for what’s important to us. Most of us, for example, never miss a meal. Frankly, there are some things we never “find” time for, that would bear much greater long term value than many of the things that we do spend our precious time on: healthy eating, exercise, and yes, prayer.  What might have a change of working best for you: in the morning when you arise?  At night, before you go to bed?  I have heard from some that their commute is the best time.  But if you’re going to drive while talking to God like you do when talking on the cell phone, I couldn’t recommend it.  We all need to find the best time that works for us.

The second thing we need to progress in praying is a “place.”  Did you ever notice in the Gospels how often Jesus sought a “deserted place,” a place where there was no WiFi or cell phone reception? Where would that be for you? Jesus said, “When you pray, go into your room, and close the door.”  For a mother with young children, that might be locked in the bathroom. (The mother, not the kids.) Or it might be a corner of the house, or a favorite comfortable (not too comfortable) chair. We are creatures of habit, and sometimes habits of prayer – including a favorite place to pray, can help put us in a prayerful mood.

My goal is to someday do what one of my spiritual “heros”, scholar of religion, Huston Smith, does.  Smith, author of the best-selling book The World’s Religions – who by the way is a practicing United Methodist – has a prayer room in his house decorated with religious art and objects: Muslim prayer rugs, Tibetan Buddhist “thangkas,” Eastern Orthodox icons, candles, a simple cross. What an inspirational place to pray, being reminded daily of how seriously people of faith – including Christians – consider prayer.  (By the way, last year while stuck at Heathrow, I found something similar – the Prayer Room: furnished with prayer shawls, prayer rugs, cushions, even a sign indicating with an arrow which direction is east.)

The third thing beneficial to praying is a “posture” of prayer. We Protestants have been slow to acknowledge this, but the attitude of our body does have an effect on the attitude of mind and spirit. 

As I said last week, the prayer of many of us Protestants often looks a lot like – and quickly slips into – sleeping. In the Jewish faith, prayer is with eyes open, arms up. (Try this).  Catholics and Anglicans like to pray while kneeling.  A few extreme form of this would be praying prostate; which was, of course, the posture of humility, necessary before royalty, which tells you what it meant in church. What about for Muslims, who bow in prayer before God 5 times a day? What about Hinduism, or Buddhism, who have prescribed postures for prayer, because they believe attitude of body reflects and affects attitude of spirit. There is the Lotus position, legs locked (not possible for me), or the modified Lotus position. Sometimes, with eyes closed, but most often, with eyes open.  Personally, this is my favorite way to pray; yes, for my Christian prayers.

Obviously, not everyone can pray in the Lotus position, even modified.  Try a straight-backed chair, feet on the ground, hands in the lap, instead.  Again, experiment, see what works best for you.  (And don’t tell me it’s this position, golf club in hand, at 11 A.M. on Sunday morning.)  The prone position in bed I couldn’t recommend either – First Church of the Inner Springs.

The fourth thing essential to praying is to find a “way” to pray. Obviously, what I’ve talking about is not “Gimme” prayer. (Oh Lord, won’t you buy me, a Mercedes Benz . . .)  Although writer Anne Lamott, a self-acknowledged alcoholic, says her two favorite and most-prayed prayers are “Help me, Help Me, Help Me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple.

So, in the school of prayer, start off simply.  Pray “ACTS”, for example:  Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.”

As you progress in prayer, you can blaze a trail on your own, or you can follow some very well worn paths tread by those of the past. For example, learn short repetitive prayers, forms of Christian mantras. One of the most ancient and famous ones is:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” I also like the modified Christian prayer taught and used by Marcus Borg: “Lord Jesus Christ, you are the Light of the world. Fill my mind with your peace and my heart with your love.”

        To repetitive prayers, add music. This is an ancient tradition, made contemporary by the community of Taize, which we experienced Wednesday night at our Ash Wednesday service.   

And then there is my favorite form of prayer, which I believe is the most substantial and transforming form of prayer, contemplative prayer: a combination of meditation and content.  Pray the Lord’s Prayer, or the Prayer of St. Francis, through slowly, from memory. If you mess up, return to the beginning and start again, until word by word, phrase by phrase, you get it right. My favorite book for this purpose is Timeless Wisdom, by Ecknath Easwaran. I’ve given a copy to my two older children, and also our District Superintendent James Preston and Bishop Jung.  Easwaran believes, and I agree, that as we meditatively pray these prayers, we drive them deep into our subconscious, where they work to transform us, from the inside out.

        Finally, just a word about what I believe is the highest but also the hardest form of prayer: silence.  All these other forms of prayer are steps along the way, as we train our mind to be still and silent, and discover ourselves at one with consciousness, and the Creator of Worlds.  (Yes, deep down I am a mystic, which I believe is the highest form of faith.)  The 12th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart put it this way:  “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me.”

        Why is silent prayer, and the calming of our mind as we pray, so difficult?  Because, as you will discover when you try it, of what the Hindus call, “monkey mind:” the mind at prayer is like a monkey in a tree, flitting all over the place.  Those who are able to train their minds, like for example Tibetan monks who pray for hours at a time, are sometimes able to achieve it:  actually engaging in forms of altered consciousness, which can be seen on CAT scan imagery of their brains during meditation.

        No wonder it’s appropriately named, as in the acronym, “PoWeRSuRGe.”  Most of us – including myself – are novices, and have more work to do.

        When I moved here, most of my routines were shattered.  Reading, which I dearly love, has suffered. For exercise, in time, I switched from running to swimming, which I do at the Leaning Tower Y.  I really enjoy it, and it has made a huge contribution to my physical and mental well-being. But what I’m most concerned about is recovering a serious, personal time of prayer: a time, a place, a posture, a way that works for me.  I miss it, I need it, and I’m still working on it.  Won’t you join me with me, as you seek your own?


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