Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
“Practice” is a familiar directive in our family. “Practice your scales,” a common phrase as our daughters prepared for NYSSMA judging, “Practice your lines,” as the annual musical was in production. “Practice your routine,” as cheerleading or marching band competition neared.
You may hear the encouragement to practice spelling words, swimming stroke, dance routine, a quilting stitch, a recipe, a golf swing, a maneuver on the boat, or parallel parking the car. Circle of Nails has “practiced” diligently for the upcoming Gathering and Boomwackers will practice when they can find some mutually agreed upon time together. For the most part, we all understand that to become accomplished at anything, we need to practice.
In this morning’s Epistle reading the Apostle Paul reminds us that we do not know how to pray, especially when we are in the midst of situations which leave us feeling hopeless. He reminds us that it is the Holy Spirit who helps us know how to pray, who is able to understand even those things we don’t understand and communicating them with God. From that we may come to the conclusion that prayer is not one of the actions we need to practice because the Spirit will handle everything anyway. Yet, Jesus prayed regularly and gave his disciples directions on how to pray.
The Disciples walked with Jesus, watched his example of regularly connecting to God through prayer, and they realized they needed instruction and practice. The Prayer Jesus encourages, and Paul is addressing here, is not just a series of sentences we memorize and recite at just the right time. Jesus specifically teaches us not to pray in vain repetitions as the heathen do because they think they will be heard for their many words. Jesus also teaches us not to make prayer something we do to draw attention to ourselves. Prayer is not just a list of solutions we want God to provide or people we want God to fix.
We are a praying congregation. The Prayer Chain is activated regularly and we share the news of prayers answered with joy. We acknowledge God’s presence among us and the power of joining together. We lift joys, praise, and petitions. We might think we are proficient and a call to practice prayer is misplaced.
I think Prayer, as described in the teachings of Jesus and as lifted by Paul, is about how we enter conversations with God, our Father, the one who has adopted us as children through Christ Jesus. It is multi-faceted communication which draws us closer and closer to God’s direction in our lives and our witness in the world, which reflects Christ in us. For me the prayer referred to in this passage is as much about sharing what is on my heart with God as it is about listening for what God needs me to hear and taking action reflective of that conversation.
Good communication always takes practice.
When you came in this morning I asked you to write down your favorite place to pray.
“With my husband,” “my friend’s house,” “Living Room,” “outside on the deck,” “throughout the day, whether it be driving, or making dinner, whenever I feel I need to,” “Any place I need to talk to God,” “the game room and the bedroom,” “The ‘throne’,” “In the woods,” “In a tractor going through the apple orchard. I always feel close to God while out I His creation.”
“Dining Room,” “Wherever I am,” “My favorite place to pray is in bed, especially when I can’t sleep, I think of all my friends and relatives who need prayers.” “In my kitchen (really everywhere!),” “I don’t have a ‘favorite’ place to pray.”
“Outdoors,” “On my swing overlooking the lake,” “Church and when I am in magnificent outdoor scenery,” “Morning, noon and night, wherever I may be,” “Anywhere or everywhere,” “Tree stand in the woods,” “Outside when I am going for a walk,” “In my car, on a long quiet trip, no busyness to get in the way,” “In my bedroom,”
A similar request by United Methodist Communications on Facebook had similar responses, highlighting places in an individual’s home, while engaged with activities such as running, hiking, gardening; in the midst of a setting in nature, while driving (one of my favorites), and in churches or chapels. Some noted in or by their bed.
We know Jesus often went away from the crowd, separated himself, if only for a short distance, from his followers, to spend time in conversation with God. His practice of seeking a place apart is one that helps us as we practice prayer.
Jesus moved away from the distractions. Paul names some of the distractions of his day: trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, oppression, life-threatening situations. We might name fear of the unknown, concern over violent crimes, alarm over terrorism, the inability to control one’s life and circumstances, finances, and health as distractions similar to those facing the early Christians.
No one is immune from hardship and suffering, but the noise of those things attempting to divert our attention from God, can distract us from feeling the presence of God as we pray. Only with practice can we begin to push those distractions aside and experience the Holy Spirit connecting us to our Creator in life-giving ways.
We can move away from those distractions by the time and place we regularly pray, by coming to prayer expecting God is already there through the Holy Spirit within us, by including gratitude, praise, and petitions and a time when we are still, confident that God is in the silence bringing us peace unlike anything this world has to offer.
Jesus showed us that even when the answer to prayer isn’t what we prefer, God is faithful and gets us through anything we face, even persecution and death. As Paul reminds us we can come to prayer knowing that God has it handled through Christ. That our relationship with God is stronger than anything that tries to make us believe it is more powerful, important, or influential than God.
As we practice prayer we become more and more in tune with God’s love and constant presence with us. We increasingly know that God is not the cause of all the dark places life may take us, but that there is no dark place where God refuses to go with us. More and more we come to understand that the worst that can happen to us cannot compare to the best God has already accomplished for is in Jesus Christ. If God is for us, we don’t have to care about who is against us?[1
There is discipline to prayer. It is God’s vehicle for spiritual maturity, however, too often prayer is reactive rather than pro-active and not part of all that we do. God is always present with us. We can pray anywhere, anytime, for any reason. It just takes consciously connecting with God in all areas of our day.
Those of you who “Facebook®” know that it can be a powerful place of prayer as friends around the country, sometimes the world, join together to meet God in conversation over specific situations. This week some members of our congregation had some rough spots and reached out with prayers and requests for prayers.
One prayer lifted:
“Lord, we need a window opened if you see fit…. Because…. well… See below… “Some people will like you only if you fit inside their box Don’t be afraid to shove it up their”
“Note: yes I’m prayin’ and hoping for others to pray with me…. And yes that prayer is coupled with a meme about shoving boxes in places where boxes shouldn’t be; but even if I didn’t attach it, God knows what’s in my mind and on my heart so I might as well share it!”
Looking beyond the distractions of a world that pushes against what it doesn’t understand about followers of Christ living differently, this prayer:
asks for God’s window, not a particular solution,
seeks the support of other prayer partners,
acknowledges God’s presence in all places
understands that God’s knows what is on the heart even when not spoken,
and shows confidence that nothing we face can separate us from the love of God.
I could not have written a better example of practicing prayer.
We are called to pray without ceasing. God knows what brings us joy, what causes us pain, and everything in between, and as the hymn suggests – we need to take everything to God in prayer.
If we are practicing prayer we Don’t box prayer into before meals, at church, and at bedtime. We Don’t save it for the hard times.
We Practice prayer, as we practice anything which we what to do with excellence, as often as possible, in every place possible, fully present and expecting it will change things.
 Christopher News Notes, August, 1993