One well known building block or stepping stone for the Christian walk is prayer. But prayer is a multifaceted subject.
There are, of course, many Bible passages having to do with prayer any one of these texts would be appropriate for messages about prayer. But I want to direct our attention to a particular aspect of prayer … prayers that work.
You’ll see what I mean by “prayers that work” as my message continues.
But first, here’s an instructional passage of Scripture from Matthew’s gospel. This is the passage where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray.
The late Dr. James Glasse, long time president of Lancaster Theological Seminary, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania wrote:
I am reminded of a Sunday in one of the little churches in Greene County, Tennessee, where I had been sent by the Board of National Missions of the United Presbyterian Church.
The synod executive had given me an assignment: “Make Presbyterians out of those people. They’ve been Baptist long enough!” To me, that meant singing out of the Hymnal and praying out of the Book of Common Worship.
After the first service one of the elders met me at the door, looked me squarely in the eye, and said, “Young man, as far as I’m concerned a prayer read out of a book doesn’t get through the ceiling.”
Glasse writes in parentheses –
(Up to that point I had never thought about the ceiling-piercing power of my prayers.)
His story continues:
At the next meeting of the Session I called on that brother to pray. Under my breath I was saying, “Okay fella, you don’t like the way I do it, you do it.” Without a moment’s hesitation he rose to his feet, closed his eyes, threw back his head, and prayed:
“Lord, we thank you for bringing us here to do the work of the church. Guide us by your spirit to do all things according to thy will. Forgive us our sins for Jesus’ sake. Amen.”
Then he sat down. And I thought to myself: When I get to where I can pray like that, I won’t need a prayer book.
The good elder was concerned about prayer read from a book because it “doesn’t get through the ceiling”. Dr. Glasse admitted that he hadn’t given much thought to the “ceiling-piercing power” of his prayers.
This is the guiding question for today’s message.
Are our prayers getting through the ceiling?
How do we pray or what do we pray so that our prayers will reach the ear of God? Are they doing us or anyone any good?
And here’s another story: It was 9:00 in the morning. I was on the stage in the Anderson Auditorium in Montreat, NC. I was the preacher for the National Youth Conference. My “congregation” that morning consisted of 1000 teenagers, 150 chaperones, 200 church professionals and volunteers who were serving as small group leaders, and 30 conference staff. That was the “congregation”. The target audience, by design, was the 1000 teenagers.
Did I mention that it was 9:00 in the morning?
And the kids had been up most of the night before celebrating the excitement of Montreat.
Yeah. They had the “look”.
Half the kids were bleary-eyed but expectant…or maybe it was defiance. They were literally daring me to say something that would keep them awake. But the rest of them, the other 500 or so – God bless them. These kids weren’t bleary-eyed and dull-faced. They weren’t daring me to keep them awake – these kids were already gone. Their eyes were closed, their heads were back, and their mouths were open. It was a relief. At least half the kids did not have grand expectations of me. They let me off the hook. I didn’t have to worry if what I said would be helpful to them. They were already getting what they needed – a nap.
Now, this kind of situation puts the preacher in a bind. I was standing in the need of prayer. And so, I prayed: “Gracious God; thank you for this good day. Help us do good with it.”
That was over 20 years ago. And to this day, it is always my prayer before preaching.
Now, I want to suggest to you that this is a ceiling-piercing prayer. Why do I say that? It is not particularly eloquent. It’s not likely to find its way into someone’s collection of great prayers.
Prayer that gets through the ceiling; ceiling-piercing prayer is a prayer that stays with us. It lingers. It comes back to us at different times. That’s why we remember prayers; or certain phrases from prayers. That’s why we memorize prayers. They have a life beyond the initial praying. They work for us.
This kind of praying is marked by two things: Honesty and gratitude.
Honesty Gives Our Prayers Ceiling-Piercing Power
The first source of power for ceiling-piercing prayer is honesty.
The state of Kentucky is known for basketball, bourbon, and horses. Some say it’s a toss-up which of those three best defines the state. Most people say it’s not even close – the heart of Kentucky is UK basketball. The story is told about a prominent Lexington pastor who was invited to give the invocation before the start of an important game. He prayed: “Lord, thou knowest we did not come here to pray. Amen.”
This may not be a true story – but it would have been a true prayer. It would have been honest.
Our prayers have to reflect the true desires of our hearts. Prayer has to be personal. The problem with most of our praying is that we are just going through the motions. We haven’t really given it a lot of thought. Claudius, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet says:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Jim Glasse, whom I quoted earlier, wrote: “What I’ve learned in struggling to pray is that our words are for us, and not for God.” [God already knows and he doesn’t need us to inform him]
That’s what Jesus said as he taught the disciples to pray.
Dr. Glasse continues: “My words reveal something [about me] something of the meditations of my heart that I would not otherwise hear unless I speak the words. I struggle to turn outward something that is inward…” (p. 61)
“…in prayer, we seek to find words that speak the meaning of our lives.” (p.63)
Now, the prayers of others can be our prayers. A prayer we hear or share responsively can speak to us and for us.
When we own the words of others they become our words. And, contrary to the opinion of the elder from Middle Tennessee, prayers from the Worship Book or any other collection of written prayers can be very personal. They can reflect what we are thinking and feeling.
The key is – does the prayer I say, or read, or hear articulate what is in my heart.
Jesus said in Matthew 6: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases…”
The opposite of empty phrases is meaningful phrases. And the key to “meaningful” is honesty. And the only honest prayer we can pray is our prayer. Honest prayer is always personal. If it’s not your prayer, it won’t get through the ceiling.
Gratitude Gives Our Prayers Ceiling-Piercing Power
A second source of power for ceiling-piercing prayer is gratitude.
When the elder had his chance, he prayed: “Lord, thank you for bringing us here to do the work of the church.”
I want to suggest today that one of the first, and perhaps always the best, ceiling-piercing prayer is an expression of gratitude; thanksgiving for what we believe we have received at the hands of God; gratitude for our hope in the world; counting our blessings.
Every day. even in the darkest days, can, and should be seen as a good day. Always we can pull back the curtain of tragedy, or sadness, or fear, and see possibility. A silver lining behind every cloud may sound trite, but it’s true.
And one big expression of gratitude, one blessing that stands tall in the forest of blessings is thanking God for bringing us here. Thanking God for creating this fellowship of faith and causing us to be a part of it; Thanking God for bringing us to the church, and giving us this work to do.
Our children were encouraged to say grace at mealtime. Aaron was the leading pray-er. Early on he began to say a prayer that was a combination of prayer phrases he had heard. All the kids picked up on Aaron’s prayer and made it their own. It became the standard grace at the table.
But on one occasion, Merideth, our youngest, who was about 8 at the time, repeated Aaron’s prayer and then added: “Thank you for bringing me to church to learn about you.”
It was an honest prayer. It was a prayer of gratitude. It was a ceiling-piercing prayer.
Merideth was, of course, way too young to have any concept of the efficacy of prayer. She would not have known that in her prayer she was demonstrating the essence of ceiling-piercing payer. She had no idea that her prayer would live on beyond the moment of its praying.
And, I didn’t see it at the time.
I had no idea that her little prayer would actually become an outreach tool, a disciple-making tool. But her prayer has taken on a life far beyond its humble beginnings. Her prayer has gone from a table grace in our kitchen to a prayer I’ve used for the children’s sermon in 8 different churches.
And here’s the fun part. In 5 of those churches, within 2 or 3 months after I arrived, someone else had taken responsibility for the children’s sermons. And in all 5 of those churches the associate pastor or the layperson who did the children’s sermon adopted some form of Merideth’s prayer as their prayer at the close of their time with the children.
Merideth’s prayer was an honest prayer; it was a prayer of gratitude; and…best of all, this prayer of an 8-year-old had ceiling-piercing power.