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At a recent retreat for twelfth-grade students, I was asked whether God wanted us to spend time praying when we are really bored by it and prayer has become burdensome for us. Certainly Paul urges us to "pray without ceasing" and "to give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:17f). He tells the Christians in Rome that this is exactly what he does for them (Romans 1:9). And this is all echoed in today's reading from Timothy: "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone..."
As I talked with those students we became clear that as with most Christian practice, and as with love itself, prayer is sometimes a wonderful gift of grace and at other times is something we do because we made a commitment to do it. There are times when our prayer is rich and full; and there are times when we have to say things like, "Lord, all I can really offer today is the time I promised to spend in prayer." We talked about how many things get in the way of a prayer life--things like sleepiness or hunger, a lack of a routine and rhythm in life that supports regular prayer at a regular time of day. For me, however, there are three really things that do the devil's work in undermining my faith and so my prayer.
Boredom is the first and by itself pretty easy to deal with when it is simply a matter of routine becoming old and tired. I can vary the form or structure or resources that I am using to guide my prayer to a greater or lesser degree. But this doesn't help when there is something deeper at play. My two major temptations have been a wrong focus for my prayer and a failure to realize the might and majesty of the creator of the universe revealed in Scripture.
Some years ago I was in conversation with Paul Wessinger, a brother of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, which is a monastic order in the Episcopal Church. I was busy whining to him about how boring I was finding prayer and how it seemed to be a waste of time. After a while he looked at me and he asked whether I did not know that I was to look for the effects of prayer in my life and not in the prayer itself. He was spot on. I was hoping for an experience of the nearer presence of God. I was praying with the hope that I would somehow know the presence of Christ in a particular way. I was not so much praying in order to offer and open myself to God. I was praying in order to get something, almost to conjure up a gift. And you know what? It wasn't working. Those wonderful sublime foretastes of the Kingdom of God that we are sometimes granted in prayer are gifts of grace, sheer grace-nothing more, nothing less. We can no more manipulate a gift than we can fashion the divine will to be in accord with ours in any other way.
For me this was a stunning revelation that allowed my expectations of prayer to become once again about allowing God to work in my life rather than seeking a particular gift for my own gratification. Nowadays I am much more aware that when I am finding myself particularly anxious about work or money or some important relationship or other, I become particularly aware there is a good chance that I have not been paying attention to my prayers. I look for the effect of my prayer in life and that itself is a gift of grace for which I am especially grateful.
Talking this over with my twelfth-grade retreatants led them to want to talk about God and whether and how God answers prayer. I found myself recalling a particularly painful and difficult time in my life when I had a period of months where I could not bring myself to pray. I did not believe in it, or so I thought. I had tired of all the Christian rationalizations I had heard about why it was that prayer seemed to be so rarely answered if God was not to be understood as capricious and even cruel in dealing with humanity. I had been told, as many of us have been told, that our prayers, and here I am talking particular of prayers of petition and intercession--asking God for things on behalf of ourselves or others--if our prayers are not answered it is because we are not asking right; we are not asking for things that accord with God's purposes; that we do not have even the faith of a mustard seed or we would see mountains on the move; that if only we trusted that our prayers were answered we would begin to see how only in ways that we do not expect, or that they would be answered in God's time rather than ours, and so on and so on and so on--all these things that we've been told to explain why we do not get what we want when we pray.
If God is truly good, the God of Love revealed in scripture, there had to be something wrong with this understanding of prayer. If, on the other hand, I understood prayer perfectly well, then God was a capricious being hardly worthy of worship.
What I came to realize after some months is something that many Christians seem to know by intuition and that is that intercession and petition are not matters of cause and effect, not a straightforward mechanism, not a matter of putting in a request to God and having it answered depending on whether or not God is having a good day. In the economy of God these prayers are rather more like throwing a stone into a pond and watching the ripples affect the whole environment. I came to realize that things do not happen in the world because I pray. But things do happen in the world when I pray. I am changed as I discover the deepest desires of my heart and the world is changed in some way to do with the might and majesty and mystery of the One who made us, the source of light and life, the ground of our being, the lover of our souls who brings universes into being. This realization has allowed me to pray again such that today intercession and petition have become the heart of my own prayer life.
So we are urged to pray without ceasing to make supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings for this is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. This is my prayer for those twelfth graders who came on retreat with me. It's also my prayer for those of you who hear this sermon.
I offer it in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
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