The Rhythm of Prayer

This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

You can read the biblical text by clicking here.

I was speaking with Julie, our congregation’s organist, this week and she told me a story I hadn’t heard before. She said there was a Sunday, about twelve years ago, when she had a TIA during worship. For those (like me) who are uninitiated into the medical arts, a TIA is a very serious condition where the flow of blood is temporarily blocked to certain parts of the brain (I’ve heard it described as an “almost stroke”).

When the congregation realized what was happening, paramedics were called and came quickly. When they were finishing their work, Julie asked the congregation to sing ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ as she was carried out:

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.

I think that was a perfect choice. Good call, Julie!

There, in that moment of great crisis and confusion, the church’s attention was drawn to prayer. And I am happy to report that Julie recovered fully from her TIA and returned to lead our music for another twelve years (and counting).

In this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we read about another moment of crisis and confusion for the people of God. It was Sts. Paul and Silas in this case, who were on their way to prayer, when their day was interrupted by something unexpected.

An exploited woman (the text calls her a slave), who was forced to work as a fortune teller, crossed paths with Paul and Silas. She begins shouting about them to the crowd around her. We learn from the text that her fortune telling abilities were due to a demonic spirit that afflicted her.

After this went on for a while, Paul decided he needed to do something about the situation, so he turned around and performed an exorcism on the young woman.

That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. By freeing this young woman from the demon, Paul had disrupted the profit-making machinery used by her captors. He hit them right where it count: in the wallet. They were not happy.

They had Paul and Silas arrested and dragged into court for causing a disturbance. The judge sided with the business owners and ordered the two missionaries to be thrown into jail. And that’s exactly what happened to them… all because they were interrupted on their way to a worship service.

I think it’s safe to say that things couldn’t get much worse. They were locked up, for no good reason, in the most maximum-security part of the prison, with their feet in shackles. What was a Christian to do in such a situation?

Well, Paul and Silas show us exactly what to do by what they did next: the text tells us they were “praying and singing hymns to God.” That’s amazing.

Just like our friend Julie in her moment of need, they were singing:

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.

(NOTE: I realize it wasn’t that exact hymn, but it was probably something like it.)

When a more practically minded person would be planning an escape or a legal defense strategy, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.

And wait, there’s more!

There is a seldom-noticed detail in this text. Do you remember what Paul and Silas were doing before they were interrupted by the fortune teller? They were on their way to “the place of prayer.” For Paul and Silas, prayer was not just something they turned to in moments of desperation; it was a regular discipline that shaped the rhythm of their lives. They were on their way to prayer when disaster struck; after disaster struck, they returned to that same rhythm of prayer. I can understand now how Paul could write, in his letter to the Philippians:

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

That kind of confidence is the fruit of a disciplined prayer life. No matter what else happens, Paul and Silas have committed themselves to the work of prayer. And that commitment has shaped the rest of their lives.

But wait, there’s more!

As Paul and Silas were praying, their circumstances started to change. There was an earthquake, the doors of the prison flew open, and the prisoners’ chains fell off. A lot of people like to say that prayer opens doors, but in this story, it happened quite literally.

This dramatic shift in circumstances led to an encounter with the jailer, who ended up becoming a Christian and being baptized into the Church with his whole family. That never would have happened, if it hadn’t been for the disastrous crisis that led to Paul and Silas being wrongfully locked up in jail.

God works in all things and all circumstances; prayer gives us eyes to see that.

You and I live in a chaotic world where it seems like anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Sometimes, it’s easy to feel like we are all alone in this world, like nobody is looking out for us, like our whole lives are just one big accident after another, like our only hope for survival is in our own wits and will.

That’s what it feels like in this world, sometimes. But I don’t think it’s true.

Prayer gives us eyes to see that we are not alone and life is not random. Prayer, when practiced as a regular spiritual discipline, gives us eyes to see that the events of our lives are part of the unfolding plan of God in the world. That is the power and the purpose of prayer.

Prayer is not magic; it’s not like wishing on a star; and it’s certainly not like a cosmic vending machine, where we put in a dollar and get back whatever we want. In that same vein, prayer is also not a psychological trick we use to make ourselves feel better during moments of crisis.

Prayer is none of these things. I know this because, sometimes, I pray and I don’t feel better inside. Sometimes, I pray about a situation and it still doesn’t work out the way I’d hoped. But that doesn’t mean my prayer failed.

What prayer does for me, when I practice it day in and day out, is help me see my life through a new set of eyes. Prayer helps me believe that I am not alone and my life is not random or meaningless. Prayer helps me trust that my life is part of God’s plan for the world. Prayer helps me keep my eyes open for the opportunities that God brings my way in the course of a day: opportunities to love, share, give, and receive.

I have faith that prayer changes things because I know that prayer changes me.

And I believe it can do the same for you.

I hope you already have a regular practice of prayer and meditation in your life. If not, I would invite you start one today. It can take many forms, depending on your personal temperament: formal or informal, alone or in groups, in the morning or at night (or both).

If you feel like you need help getting started, there are lots of wonderful resources out there in the form of prayer books and devotionals. My personal favorite is The Book of Common Prayer. Over the past year, several of us at North Church have used the devotional, Seize the Day with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you go to any new or used book store, you can find rows and rows of devotional books to help you get started. Pick one that looks interesting to you and try it for a while.

Some people prefer to use just a Bible or a hymnal. Read a passage. Sing a hymn. Reflect on what it means to you. Sit in silence for a while. Keep a journal. Offer to God your joys and concerns each day. If you don’t know what to say, you can never go wrong with the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

These are all just suggestions. Whatever you do, do it daily and be faithful. Work it into your life slowly. Watch for the little ways in which your life starts to change, not because your circumstances are changing, but because you are changing, ever so gradually, and beginning to see your life differently. That’s what prayer is all about. That’s the difference prayer can make.

That’s difference prayer has made (and is still making) in my life, and I pray the same will be true for you as well.

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