Concerning Prayer

September 9, 2012                Mt. 6:5-15

Christine and I have found a new show that we really like to watch.  We don’t have cable, so we don’t have a way of watching regular TV…but from time to time we discover shows that we like, and so we check the seasons out from from the library.

That way, we don’t have to wait a whole week between episodes, and we get to skip the commercials!  The only downside is trying to get through the season before you max out your renewals!

So we recently found a British show we really like called “From Lark Rise to Candleford.”

It’s a show that takes place in the late 1800’s somewhere in England, and basically it follows the life and the interactions of a girl who grew up in Lark Rise, which is a very poor, rural community where the people do what they can to get by.

She gets a job at the post office in nearby Candleford, where the people are better off financially, and where they tend to look down on her and the people who live in neighboring Lark Rise.

Anyways, in an episode we saw recently, her brother was interested in making something out of egg shells, something like a necklace.  They would take an egg from a nest, prick it on both ends, and then blow out the insides to keep the shell intact for whatever craft he was making.

The scene that stuck with me was the father talking to his son, explaining that he should take no more than one egg from any nest as he was working on this thing.

“Not for what it does to the bird”, the father says to his son, “but rather for what it does to you”.  

Moments like that are what I love about the show.

The father is a hard working man who seeks to instill in his child a sense of integrity and honest work.  He wants him to learn the value of leaving something behind, even if you have a reason to take it all.

It’s just so rare to hear a message of self-restraint outside of church…that my ears kind of perk up when I hear it, so it stuck with me.

I like this show.

I like it because I think it does a good job at teaching some important lessons, and I like to imagine what life was like a hundred or more years ago.

I’m biased towards simpler times, even though I’d never choose to give up my modern conveniences.

I like this type of show, and it’s especially good when the actors do such a good job at playing their roles.

You can come up with the best storyline in the world, but if an actor can’t pull it off, it’s going to fall flat, right?

(Have you ever suffered through a show or a movie with really bad acting?)

…Well, did you know that in ancient times, the greek word for “actor” was hypocrite?

It’s a word that referred to actors on a stage, not unlike actors in a television show.

The word didn’t always have the negative connotations that it does for us today.

A good Hypocrite was someone who could really stage a performance…someone who could really put themselves into their role and convince the audience that they were the character they were presenting.
It was a pretty neutral word for much of its history, kind of like the word ‘actor’ is for us.

You could be a good hypocrite, or a bad hypocrite.

But at some point the word started to carry more negative connotations…and it should come as no surprise that politics were involved in the transformation of the word!

Around the 4th century before Christ, a guy named Demosthenes ridiculed his political opponent Aeschines because before he got into politics, he had enjoyed a career in acting.

He was a hypocrite.

And the accusation that Demosthenes made was that because he was successful at impersonating characters on stage, he could not be trusted as a politician.

In other words, he made the argument that his opponent had the ability to present a story that wasn’t his own, in order to reap a personal reward.  He couldn’t necessarily be trusted, because you couldn’t be sure it was really him talking.

The Greeks valued integrity in their politicians.  I don’t know if it was the first ‘smear’ campaign…but it’s a tactic that’s been in play for thousands of years.

The Greeks knew that the place for acting out a story was in the theater, where the audience knew the difference between fact and fiction, where the people knew what they were getting into, and where the motive of the actor was clear.

Now, I don’t want to blow my own horn too loud this morning, but I did some acting in high school.  I was pretty good at it, I was a pretty good hypocrite…(or at least that’s what I was told).

Acting gave me something that was worth more to me than money at that point in my life.

I got affirmation.

I got encouragement.

I was told “good job” hundreds of times after a performance, from people who knew me and from complete strangers.

And I’d be flat-out lying if I said that wasn’t a big part of why I did it.   Looking back, it was clear what my motivation was…to tell a story, and to get this affirmation for doing it.

You could say I received my reward in full, after putting on a performance.
Good hypocrites, Good Actors, are so convincing at what they do, that when the show is over they receive their reward.

…Now, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray in the passage we’ve heard today, he told them not to be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.

That’s their reward.

That’s what any actor longs for.

To be seen and heard, and to convince people that their character can be trusted.

Public recognition is an intoxicating thing.

But if your performance never ends, you can quickly start to lose your sense of self.

I still remember my sixth grade teacher saying something to our class about the difference between our public selves and our private selves.

The point he was getting at was that there are appropriate ways to act in public, even if you don’t want to act in those ways.

Waiting in line, for example, or showing courtesy to a stranger.

These are small performances we put on when we want to be thought well of.

They’re not bad…but if you’re having a bad day, chances are you need to find some time to yourself, some time where the performance ends, and you can remember your true self.   (Otherwise, you can start to forget who you are).
Acting, or Hypocrisy…is a seductive way of life, because it’s so easy to show people what they want to see.

So the first thing Jesus is saying about prayer, is not to do it like the hypocrites, the people who never stop performing.

God is more interested in who we’re becoming than he is in how well we perform.

Prayer is more about choosing not to rob the nest, than it is about getting all the eggs you need.

Go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret.
If you’re not able to just “Be”…in solitude with God, it’s easy to start forgetting who you are.

Just read up on almost any really well known celebrity, and you’ll know what I mean.

The “who” of who we are…The Truth of Who We Are…comes out in secret.

The truth of who we are isn’t what we do, it’s who we are when the show is over.  It’s who we are and who we’re becoming when we’re alone.

We pray in secret, not so much because our prayers will change the world, though they might.

Rather, we pray in secret because we need our prayers to change us!
Jesus is teaching his disciples a way of life…not simply a method for manipulating God to do as they would like God to do.

Go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret.

Then your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.

He goes on to say later that God knows what you need before you even ask Him!

So why ask if there are no secrets with God?

Why ask if He already knows?

Jesus goes on, teaching his disciples not to pile up empty phrases when they pray, like the Gentiles are in the habit of doing.

The image makes us remember the story of Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal on the mountain…how each one would pray to their God to light the offering on fire, and the God who would light the offering on fire with no help from his prophets…that would be the true God.

Do you remember how the prophets of Baal prayed loudly, passionately, all day long trying to call down fire for the offering?

That’s the image that’s at work here.

They shouted to their god to send fire…they even cut themselves with swords, thinking that if they just made enough of a scene and put themselves into it enough…eventually their god would answer.

They piled up phrase after phrase in the hopes that Baal would do as they asked.

And of course he didn’t.

The True God will not be manipulated to answer us.  He is not there to serve us, or to prove a point we want to make.

I have a feeling that sometimes God wants us to ask for things, so that we become aware of what it is we’re asking for.

If I’m praying every day for a new car…(if not in so many words, at least in how I’m living my life)…then maybe it’s good to be made aware of that, and then to let God speak to me…in secret…about the desires of my heart and the formation that needs to happen.

What is it you’re asking God for?

Is it the kingdom come?  Is it for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven?

Sometimes we get our roles reversed.  We think God is there to make the world more to our liking, or to clean up our lives…we think God is there to serve us through prayer, when actually it’s the other way around.

There’s a reason Jesus ends this teaching with the theme of forgiveness.  

Prayer puts us in the posture of recognizing our own brokenness, recognizing the pain we’ve caused others, as well as the pain they’ve caused to us.

And then it moves us towards the mystery of forgiveness.

For in the kingdom of God there are no enemies, there is instead forgiveness and reconciliation.

These are important themes; central themes; in the Christian life, not just nice ideas.

But they’re easy to leave out of the equation if all we’re doing is acting, if we never get to that secret place.

I invite you to find some time this week, every day, not just once, to go to a secret place and listen for the voice of God.  If all that’s there is silence, then listen to yourself and find a good listener to talk to about what comes up.

Would you pray with me as I close, using “sins”

“Our Father, …”

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