Yes, No, Not Now
(Matthew 6: 5-15)
Several years ago, when I was the Drug Court prosecutor, we had a young man in the program who had gotten caught stealing maple wood in order to support his methamphetamine addiction. Cutting down a maple tree, cutting it up into smaller pieces, and then taking it to a lumber yard to sell requires quite a bit of effort which should tell you just how powerful a methamphetamine addiction is. If I remember correctly, I don’t think he had any prior arrests or convictions and, if he did, they weren’t serious. I learned quite a bit about this young man as we sat around the table every week. I learned that he was very smart, grew up in a good family and was raised in the church. Because of his addiction, he was estranged from his family and was ashamed of how far he had fallen. To his family, those that loved him dearly, he appeared to be lost, beyond hope. Once we got him stabilized and on the road to recovery, he asked for permission to travel to Idaho for a family get together, his first one clean and sober in a long while. We approved his request after having him sign a Waiver of Extradition, just in case he decided not to come back, and off he went. The following Thursday we asked him how the visit went. He told us that when he got out of the car his tiny grandmother met him in the driveway, threw her arms around him, gave him a grandmother’s hug and said, “I’ve been praying for this day for a long time.” As a grandparent would, she prayed persistently for her grandson’s recovery. Her prayer wasn’t answered right away, God didn’t say yes, He didn’t say no, He just said, not now. And, he’s doing fine. He’s drug free, has a job and is in a great relationship with another Drug Court graduate. Teresa and I have even had him and his girlfriend over to our home for dinner.
Our scripture reading for this morning is what we’ve all come to know as The Lord’s Prayer. Jesus was using the opportunity to teach his disciples the correct way to pray, the way to pray with conviction and meaning. He tells them that when they pray, not to be like the hypocrites who love to pray standing in the synagogues and on street corners, so people will see them. He’s saying these people only pray in public for the recognition. They want everyone to think they are models of morality and righteousness. Jesus says, that’s fine, if that’s the reward they want then that’s the reward they get. Jesus is not saying that we shouldn’t pray in public. There definitely is a time and place, and when done, it should be done with sincerity and conviction.
He says that when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. Think about those times when you’ve really gotten the most out of your prayer. Where were you? Were you alone? Were you in a quiet place where you wouldn’t be disturbed? Did you make time to pray where you could really petition God? This was a common practice for Jesus as he would often rise early in the morning or spend all night in prayer. The garden in Gethsemane was one of his favorite spots to pray. I like my quiet time in the morning sitting in my chair by the fireplace where I might be working on my New Testament Challenge, or reviewing my sermon, or studying the Sunday School lesson for the coming week. I’ll go out to the mailbox to get the paper while it’s still dark and I’ll look up see all the stars and say a quiet thank you. I think that’s a prayer, a short prayer of gratitude. Sometimes, I’ll roll out of bed and say to myself, what are we going to do today, God? Just you and me, God. I think that’s a prayer, a prayer for direction and guidance in doing His work and will. I don’t think it has to be complicated. I call these little moments God shots. It’s like when you see a sunrise or a sunset, an eagle soaring on the currents, the mountains in the distance, the smile of a child, the gentle touch of a loved one. Those subtle reminders that God has done all of this for you. It’s God’s way of reminding us of what He has provided. The planet upon which we strive to live in harmony with nature and our fellow human beings.
Jesus continues by saying, when you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask. Pray like you mean it. Be straight forward and tell God what’s on your mind. He already knows, but He knows it will be helpful for you to put it into words to help you focus on what’s wrong.
In our Learning Circle class, we are currently taking the Wesley Challenge which involves studying and discussing the 21 questions John Wesley would routinely ask people. Chapter 2 is entitled, Am I Enjoying Prayer? Kind of an odd question when you consider that most of the time when we pray it is for help in some emergency, tragedy or upsetting event that has shaken us to our very core. We do have prayers of pain, panic and persistence, but we also have prayers of pleasure. The author, Chris Folmsbee, says that to enjoy prayer is to experience God through realizing and remembering God, self, others, and the world, and at the same time trust the direction God desires for our lives. He says to think of prayer as an experience, not a duty or a task. In regular, meaningful, searching prayer you will gain insight and have the experience of discovery in that you will learn more about yourself and your relationship with the world and God. In developing our prayer practice we seek a posture of listening and learning as God helps us work through whatever it is that’s on our mind. Jesus encourages persistent prayer as it keeps the issue on your mind, especially if it’s very serious.
Jesus gives them The Lord’s Prayer as a pattern to be imitated. Start out by praising God, Our Father who is in heaven, uphold the holiness of your name. Pray for his work in the world, bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. Pray for our daily needs, give us the bread we need for today. And pray for help in our daily struggle, forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us. The Apostle James, who is likely Jesus’ brother, says in James 5: 13-16, if any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing. If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve.
In the Wesley study, Folmsbee gives us five key practices to follow to enjoy our prayers. First, develop a routine and regular place to pray. Second, have scheduled times in the day to pray. Third, pray with and for others. Fourth, memorize one-sentence prayers. And, fifth, cultivate an attitude of humility.
Most importantly, as we learned through The Lord’s Prayer, is that above all else, we pray that His will be done. His will, not ours. By praying in earnest for God’s intervention we are willingly submitting ourselves to His will. God’s will, what God needs done, is largely accomplished by people like you and me who are willing to obey him and go where the Spirit leads. When we pray we offer ourselves as doers of God’s will, asking him to guide, lead, and give us the means to accomplish his purposes.
So, when we pray, we must be willing to accept God’s answer, whether it be yes, no or not now. And if our prayers go unanswered for a long time, like the tiny grandmother of my recovered drug addict, there may be more involved than we ever dreamed. We’ll just have to wait to see and experience God’s will in our lives.
Please pray with me.
Most gracious and loving God, hear the prayers of your people as we seek your understanding, mercy and compassion. Through prayer, we long to have that close relationship with you that brings us peace in times of turmoil. We pray for the kind of relationship that brings us the experience of a deep and lasting love, one that leads to the discovery of our true selves. We long to experience your presence in our lives that will give us the calm assurance that the direction in which you are leading us is one that will help us grow to our fullest potential in doing your work and your will here on earth. In the name of your son, our loving brother, we pray, Amen.