Prayer is Personal
I drink a lot of green tea. On days when I am in the office, I will drink a pot of it. I started drinking hot tea in college when I saw one of those ads about the amazing weight loss people had drinking white tea, which is a lot like green tea. I really didn’t need the weight loss of it, but I felt like a lean, trim guy had a better shot at getting a girl than whatever I thought I was.
Well, the jury is still out on whether or not I lost any weight due to the white tea, but I did pick up the habit of drinking tea instead of coffee. I felt better drinking it. It took a little while to get over the bitter flavors from leaving the bags in too long, but once I learned the tricks, it became a favorite habit. I was methodical and moved slowly. I would take time to read in the mornings with my tea. It made my day start better.
I find that adding and taking away habits comes down to practice. It took me a while to learn how to drink tea. It took me a while to learn how to read a book for fun. It took me even longer to learn how to eat better and exercise. But all of those habits have helped shape me into who I am. Some I kept and some I need to get back, but overall, those healthy habits made me better.
Healthy habits are more than doing things for ourselves. We also must start practicing habits that help our relationships with others. One such practice I was reminded of a couple of weeks ago was to relearn how I listen to people. We sometimes have bad communication because we tend to listen in ways that help us respond rather than listening in ways that help us understand. If you and I get into an argument, it is up to both of us to listen to understand what the other person means and intends rather than looking for some way to tear their argument down.
This practice of listening to understand is also helpful in times when we aren’t in conflict. Listening to understand other people helps build rapport and respect. It also builds intimacy. We need intimacy and understanding, because good, healthy relationships feed our souls.
This practice of listening well takes patience. It takes silence, at least on our end. I see a lot of conversations where two people are talking at the same time. I’ve met people who say they understand each other that way, but I can’t help but think they still miss out on some details because our minds aren’t made to think and speak at the same time and do both at full capacity.
I am guilty of that tendency, too, but not in normal conversation. I was convicted a couple of weeks ago during a time of intentional prayer when my mind kept racing and daydreaming when I was trying my best to pray some serious prayers. If God was speaking, I surely wasn’t listening. Part of that is my personality – I think at a rapid pace. The other part of it is I have done a poor job of developing a habit of silence.
I know some of you are thinking, “well I think best when I am moving and doing,” and that may be true. On the other hand, how well do you listen when you are in the midst of doing something else? How well do you comprehend what is being said to you when your mind is on some other topic?
We lose clarity and detail when we allow our personal noise to be something we accept as normal. It means we aren’t willing to develop the good habits of silence and listening. I know it’s hard. I’m an extrovert who learns by doing. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t practice silence and listening when I am talking to my wife or to my friends. I especially shouldn’t do it when I am praying.
Prayer is a personal habit we rarely get right. We make our to-bless list for God, rattle off our problems, say Amen, and hope for the best. Even those of us who pause for a “moment of silence” still probably don’t hear the full message. Now, there are plenty of prayers that say a lot about us and about God and are great prayers. Today’s passage from Psalm 23 is a favorite. It speaks of God’s protection over us and love for us and our love for God.
The writer thanks God for deliverance from enemies and for the blessings of abundance. In the early kingdom, people often prayed prayers of protection, and through that, also gave thanks for the lives they did have.
Prayer is supposed to be a personal interaction. After we say what we need, we have to listen to see if God has anything to say in return that is especially for us. Prayer is how God can best hear our words, whether they are our own or ones we recite, and can respond to them, because God listens to understand. God is perfect at that.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew deals with another part of interacting – keeping it personally involved. When we speak to someone in hopes someone else notices, it is no longer a personal communication. It is instead another form of speaking over the other when they speak to you. We can’t have conversations in church that act as billboards.
I have witnessed moments when prayers become a method of speaking to someone through speaking to God. For example, if I really want to make a point to you as a congregation, I could do that by praying a passive-aggressive prayer in front of you and never dealing with the content in interactions with you. Or, I could pray awesome prayers in front of you to show you how holy I am and how unholy you are. Jesus often dealt with people who used their self-perceived sense of holiness in obstructive or damaging ways rather than working on their sense of mercy and compassion towards others. You’ve been there. Either at a public event or a family dinner, when someone slips in a “special request” prayer for someone in the room that was not requested.
When we use our platform to pray to make a point, we are neglecting that prayers are supposed to be conversations with God. When that happens, we are focused on someone or something else, so we don’t hear God speak back to us.
Like green tea and taking time to read, we have to hone our habits that affect our relationships. No relationship is more important that our relationship with God, and yet, I would guess, most of us don’t use our best practices to talk to God. We talk without listening, or we don’t think about what we are saying, or we are guilty of misusing that relationship to prove our own holiness.
The good news is, even when we aren’t trying very hard to communicate well, God is. God wants our relationship so badly that no amount of lazy calls, venting, taking all the time then hanging up, or just not speaking will make God give up on us. Isn’t that amazing? Our God loves us and wants to protect us as our shepherd. God wants our full attention and is willing to work on us until we give it.
It’s okay if you don’t get it right the first time. It takes practice to speak and listen well. I promise when you do, it’s better than any cup of tea you’ve ever had. It’ll transform your life.
In crafting our Vision, I push you to hone your prayer skills so God can speak to you about your role in the Vision. The goal is to affect one family greatly or 50 families in some memorable way this year. Some of you have already started thinking of how you can personally buy in to this vision, so that gives reason for all of us to be joyful, because we know God is speaking. Now for the rest, I ask you come to the Vision meeting for youth on the 26th. I ask you come to the churchwide vision meeting when it’s scheduled. In the meantime, pray for God to speak to you about who you are to be in this; take the time to listen to understand; and have faith that you are wanted and necessary in the growth of this church. No one is too old, too young, too poor, too busy, or unworthy. Everybody is welcome.
Next week, I will talk about communal prayer and how God often chooses to speak to us as a community, because community is how we grow best and serve to make more disciples and reach more people. Let us all see where God is leading us.