By Pastor Tracey Leslie
There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God...
O Jesus, blest Redeemer, sent from the heart of God,
hold us who wait before thee near to the heart of God.[i]
Those lyrics written by Cleland McAfee in 1903 are found in our hymnal under the heading “Prayer, Trust, Hope.” So, what is prayer? What is prayer? If I were to define prayer myself, I would say (like McAfee) that prayer is that which brings us near to the heart of God. Prayer is not talk about God, or even simply talking to God. Prayer is about being in fellowship with God through words and silence. Prayer is a natural response to the God who longs to be in relationship with us. Even so, all that being said, prayer (for me personally) is still a mysterious and challenging spiritual discipline.
As a congregation we have identified prayer as one of our Core Spiritual Practices. A couple of weeks ago, about a dozen Trinity members came together in the parlor to pray for our church, our community, one another and our world. And you’re all invited to join us the next time we gather on August 30. As a congregation we’ve affirmed the value of prayer and yet, as we look at the world around us, we might at times question if our prayers are making a difference. If people are praying for peace, why does the world seem to be growing more violent? Non-believers may criticize us and tell us to open our eyes, get off our bottoms, and get to work; don’t just sit there; do something.
Of the four gospels included in our bible, none is more focused on prayer than Luke. This morning’s parable about prayer needs to be considered in its broader context. Chapter 10 closes with the story of Mary and Martha. As Jesus visits their home, Martha is busy doing the important work of hospitality. In Mediterranean culture, hospitality – especially hosting a rabbi like Jesus – would have been of huge importance. Yet her sister, Mary, is sitting on her bottom just listening to Jesus talk. When Martha expresses her frustration with this arrangement, Jesus comes to the defense of Mary, saying, “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.”[ii]
As chapter 11 of the gospel opens – the chapter containing this morning’s parable – our narrator tells us that the disciples, observing Jesus in prayer, request that he teach them a prayer. In response, Jesus teaches an abbreviated form of what we today refer to as “The Lord’s Prayer.”[iii] But the brevity of the prayer is illuminated by the parable that follows; a parable that communicates that prayer is more than formula; it is fellowship with a God who offers us so much more than anyone else ever could.
Now, I confess to you that – although I’ve only been at Trinity a little over two years – I’ve already preached about this parable here. But, in light of the current violence in the world, I thought this parable merited another look. I say that, however, to let you know that there are cultural values and interpretations that impact the understanding of this parable and – because I elaborated on those last time – I won’t do so this morning. This morning, I’ll touch on them more briefly and succinctly. Here we go:
So, what happens when we put those three values together in the parable? We get a story of a man who – despite the inconvenience and annoyance of getting up in the middle of the night and waking the wife and kids – will gladly do so to provide hospitality for his neighbor’s guest. It doesn’t matter whose doorbell this wayfaring stranger rang, fresh bread is needed and this guy is under obligation to provide it because, if he fails to do so, he will bring shame and embarrassment to his entire village and no one is gonna let that slide. This man will get out of bed not because of any warm, fuzzy feelings for the next door neighbor. He will bring that bread to the door to avoid shame, to save face.
At the parable’s conclusion, Jesus elaborates on the message. People may not always do what’s right because they want to. But, they can generally be counted on to do what’s right if societal pressure and expectations compel them. So, Jesus concludes, “If you then, who are bad, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”[iv] “How much more” may just be the most important phrase in this whole passage. For human creatures, the right behaviors often spring from motivations like shame and fear. Not so with God who is ready and happy to give to us simply because of who God is: a consistent, reliably compassionate and caring heavenly parent.
Now, as I already mentioned, I’ve preached this parable here before. So, this morning, I’d like to do something a little different with it. I am no psychologist; but as a pastor, I spend a lot of time observing human behavior and the effect that social pressure and shame and fear have on us. And if how we see ourselves through the eyes of others has as great an impact on us as the parable and life seem to affirm, possibly prayer has something to do with a change in our view of God, ourselves and others.
Perhaps you have heard of the Marshmallow Test. In the 1960’s, a young Harvard psychologist Walter Mischel, zealously preparing to teach his first course on personality, made an interesting discovery. Leading researchers in his field claimed that our personality traits are stable throughout life and in varying situations. But in fact, their research was proving the opposite. So Mischel conducted the Marshmallow Test… which you can still find videos of on You Tube. It tested the self-control of children ages 4-6 by giving them a marshmallow or cookie and telling them that, if they could keep from eating it for 15 minutes, they would get an extra cookie or marshmallow. Most children couldn’t because… well, they were children and 15 minutes is a long time for a child to sit and stare at a mouth-watering cookie or marshmallow. But, when Mischel encouraged the children to imagine that the marshmallow wasn’t really there, many were able to delay their gratification for 15 minutes. Nothing had changed but perception. Apparently what we perceive can exercise an enormous impact on our behavior.
So how do you perceive God? Do you imagine God to be like a neighbor who will be annoyed if you disturb him in the dead of night? Do you imagine God like a judge? Or, do you perceive God like a faithful, compassionate father who desires to give good gifts to his children? Friends, how we imagine God and how we imagine ourselves in his presence has an enormous impact on the way that we pray and the way that we live. When we pray from a place of relational trust in God, it breaks down fear because trust and fear can’t co-exist. When we pray perceiving God as a loving, reliable and compassionate parent, prayer cultivates attitudes of trust and mercy that also impact our perceptions and interactions with others. When I trust fully in God, I have less reason to be suspicious and fearful of others. When I believe that God will show me mercy, I am better able to extend his mercy to others.
If you are a Sci-Fi fan, you may remember the 2006 Sci-Fi sensation “Heroes.” The premise of the show was that certain people had special powers and how their powers were exercised could have enormous impact on the world, even potentially jeopardizing the planet. Those who used their powers for good had the potential to be heroes. One such hero was of utmost importance, Claire the cheerleader. Claire had the power to regenerate. The villain of the show, Sylar, wanted to destroy Claire and take her power. If he became invincible, as the evil villain, he would destroy the world. So Claire’s life was to be preserved at all costs. The tagline of the show became “save the cheerleader; save the world.”
Well friends, none of us have super powers but we can bring change to the world by beginning with ourselves. “Change you; change the world.” When you change, you can change the world… or at least the world around you. If you’ve ever perceived God as anything other than a loving and reliable parent who desires more than anything else to share his presence and his gifts with you; well, then I invite you to change your perception because how we imagine God and how we imagine ourselves in God’s presence has an enormous impact on the way that we pray and the way that we live. When you perceive God as one who can be fully trusted to care for you; when you perceive God as one who desires to show you his mercy; it will change you. It will not only change how you see God; it will change how you see others. You will see them and respond to them with less suspicion and less fear; you will see them less in need of correction and judgment and more deserving of God’s mercy. Prayer does change things. Most of all, it changes us. And when you change, you can change the world.
[i] Near to the Heart of God. From The United Methodist Hymnal; 1989; the United Methodist Publishing House. Hymn #472: words and music by Cleland B. McAfee.
[ii] Luke 10:42. NRSV.
[iii] See Luke 11:3-4 and Matthew 6:9-13.
[iv] Luke 11:13.
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