Transformational Disciplines: Prayer with Ears

SERMON 4 OF 5 IN A SERIES EXPLORING SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE, PREACHED 11 NOVEMBER 2012.  READ Ecc 5:1-3; MATT 6:1, 5-8

Of late we’ve been exploring Spiritual Disciplines: 

Discipline does seem to be an unpopular word yet it is a word that conveys an approach to walking with Jesus that is lacking in the Church today.

I am reminded that as Christians we are called to mature in faith – to put our roots down deep so that the character of Christ grows ever stronger within us.

There is nothing haphazard about this growth – it is a consequence of dwelling in the presence of God; of being intentional about knowing God and being known by God.

In general Christians do not take a disciplined approach to developing their relationship with Jesus. Whereas an earlier generation majored on daily devotions, prayer, and scripture reading we have largely replaced this with sound bites off Radio Rhema and snippets of wisdom from the Word for Today and while these both have their place they are not a full and sustaining diet.

If we are to live in the presence of God’s power; and experience the power of God’s presence then we must put ourselves in the way of God on a regular basis.

We must be disciplined about taking the time, and with the right attitude, to dwell in God’s presence.

Over the last few weeks I have talked about Thankfulness and how we can cultivate an attitude of thankfulness within ourselves and within our church fellowships. Thanksgiving should be a regular feature of our conversation, of our worship, and of our prayers. Last week I touched on the discipline of fasting and learning to wait upon the God who waits for us.

And this week we turn to prayer.

In particular prayer that is sometimes called contemplative prayer.

Just for a moment reflect on that word ‘contemplative’. What comes to mind?

It’s such a rich word – it conveys…

thoughtfulness, reflectiveness, meditative, adsorbed, a thorough survey with the eyes or the mind, deep observation, listening

I’ve titled this sermon ‘prayers with ears’. But contemplation is more than ears, in contemplation we attune all our senses to God, we dwell in God’s presence and we come back to that place again and again.

What do our prayers typically look like?

Some prayers can be compared to a shopping list – ah yes what do I need today…

  1. Confession
  2. Forgiveness, um next aisle, ah yes I should throw in some
  3. thankfulness
  4. must not forget Aunt Mary – her bunions are playing up
  5. talking about playing up, I should pray for our neighbours, their brats are really playing up.
  6. and my backs a bit sore
  7. and the church could do with new curtains
  8. and I’d like a holiday sometime Lord
  9. and do bless the pastor – I note he’s been a bit grumpy of late – help him to get a good nights rest.
  10. and
  11. and
  12. and
  13. ok got to go, busy day!

Amen.

We’re quite good at prayers like this; hardly surprising really for in general that’s been the model, we simply have not learnt another way.

Better is the A.C.T.S model. We use it here, so you will know what I mean.

A = adoration

C = confession

T = Thanksgiving

S = Supplication

It is a good model, but it tends again to be about us making lot’s of noise, and not once stopping to listen, or simply to linger in God’s presence and to enjoy God.

Prayer is a conversation, at times we talk, at times we listen, and at times we both fall silent – as in any close relationship and simply breathe in the pleasure of one another’s company.

Does that sound like your prayer life?

No – nor mine at times if I am honest.

A quote from a child’s letter to God.

Dear God, is the minister a friend of yours, or do you just know him through business?

Often that’s about all the relationship amounts to.

We’re in business together – but we don’t want to confuse business and pleasure so let’s not get too friendly.

And it’s not just ministers who fall into this trap.

Even those amongst us who pray a lot often get trapped in the business model of prayer.

Always intent to move on to the next item of business and out of here as quick as possible – after all there’s no more for emotion in the board room, and seemingly there’s no room for emotion in many of our prayer lives.

This I am sure is also part of the reason we don’t linger in God’s presence and why we tend to fill our prayers with our words – first it’s because we simply don’t know any other way, but second it’s that we simply don’t want to hear God’s Word. Deep down we’re all too aware of what God might be saying – and while we may know it we don’t want to hear it.

In Matthew Jesus reminds us that prayer is not a show – the quality of our prayer life is not about how often we pray, nor about how many words we pray, nor about the tone of voice when we pray.

Ecclesiastes 5 picks up the same ideas:

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.  v1

Take care when you go to prayer, go to that place to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools.

What is the Sacrifice of fools? Thoughtless words poured out before God, hear this from the following verses.

 Do not be quick with your mouth,

    do not be hasty in your heart
to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few.
A dream comes when there are many cares,
and many words mark the speech of a fool. v2-3

The answer is to come to God in humility.

COMPLETE THIS SENTENCE:

If my people … who are called by my name …

… humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land. … 2 Chronicles 7:14

We must approach God humbly, we must approach God in such a way that we seek God: seeking to listen so that God may guide our prayers; seeking to listen so that we might hear what God is saying to us; and seeking to know God – in contemplative prayer as we seek God’s face, we develop our awareness of and love for God.

How then should we pray?

Humbly should be the attitude

Expectantly also because as we come humbly to listen and know God I believe God will meet us, speak to us, reveal himself to us, and surprise us with love for us.

Quietly so that God’s voice is not drowned out by ours.

I suggest we should add 

with Scripture.

Why?

Simply because we need the authority and surety of God’s written Word to be our guide as we seek God.

In our Prayers with Ears there are two obvious dangers as we seek to listen to God.

First is that we struggle to hear God – we fail to recognise when God is trying to get our attention, we assume the thoughts coming to mind are simply generated from within ourselves.

The other difficulty is the opposite. In this we take any thought coming to prominence as being God speaking to us – whereas it is often just the demands of our own desires that dominates.

Scripture helps us to discern the difference – God’s Word in Scripture is objective and is the standard we judge everything else by.

So it is good to keep Scripture close. Know it so that it is in our mind and keep it handy and refer to it as we listen to God.

Then with that security we are free to really listen.

Whether alone or in a group spend time in silence as you come to prayer. In my previous church the ministry team meet once a week – after a while we developed the habit of praying together, often for about 30 minutes before dealing with any business.

We were not always disciplined in this; but we did learn to spend most of the 30 minutes in silence – and while that was uncomfortable for us at times – simply because we are not trained for silence – those quiet times became a great source of strength and inspiration for in the quiet we were able to hear the ‘still small voice of God’ (1 Kings 19:12).

In the silence be aware of your imagination. God seldom speaks with an audible voice but often God speaks in pictures, feelings, sensations, images. I’ve said this to some of you before but I well remember once watching a seagull lazily circling a lonely Macrocarpa by the beach. At the time I was praying and as I watched I had the distant impression that God was trying to tell me something.

So I listened and I understood that God was saying ‘you Ian are that bird and I am the unseen wind that carries you.’

God speaks in diverse ways.

One way of approaching Prayer with Ears is something that we did earlier in the service when we came to God in confession.

That style of prayer actually has a name, it is called Examen. 

It goes like this:

Preparation

Get yourself comfortable – not so comfortable that you fall asleep but comfortable enough that you can stay in the same position for an extended time. Put your feet flat on the ground, and take a few slow deep breaths. As you breathe in, imagine that you are inhaling God’s Spirit as you would a pleasant aroma. Savour the sensation of God’s loving presence with you. As you exhale, imagine that your breath (spirit) cooperates with God the Holy Spirit so that God’s love permeates the space around you. The aim now is to allow God the Holy Spirit to guide you so that you can see your life in the light of God’s grace.

Examen

Review the events of your life over the past day, week or even month. Look for moments of grace. How was grace infused into the words or actions of each memorable event? Rest in gratitude. Receive life again from the memory of each grace-filled moment.

Then allow God to search your heart as you recall moments in which you sensed the absence of grace. When were you least able to give and receive love this week? Ask yourself what was said or done in that moment that made it so troublesome. Be with whatever you feel without trying to change or fix it in any way. Take a deep breath and acknowledge God’s love for you—warts and all!

Give thanks to God for granting this self-awareness and examination of conscience.

Consider where God is calling you to grow in this? Form your prayers of confession, petition, and praise.

There is so much more that could be said, but in essence contemplative prayer is quiet and opens you to the presence of God. It enables you to hear and know God.

It helps us live in the presence of God’s power; and experience the power of God’s presence.

I encourage you in your private devotions, in your small groups and at worship to practise, prayer with ears!

Arohanui Ian