I have found this strange paradox in working in the church. Many Christians I find are concerned that prayer is being pushed out of public schools. At the same time many of these same Christians hesitate when they are asked to prayer in church or church meetings. Indeed, if I was to ask any of you to turn to your neighbor during prayer time and pray out loud for their request, my guess is you would feel very uncomfortable and perhaps would even turn down my request. Now you may say well Pastor that’s your job, that’s what you get paid the big bucks for, to pray. That’s why you went to school, got a Master of Divinity, got ordained. You got education, you got spiritual maturity, you are far more articulate than us when we pray. So you should do it. We may deny that is what we think. But in the way we structure our service, by the way we structure our prayer time, that is what we imply to those who are visiting, who are not raised in the church. We are saying that prayer is complicated so leave it to the professionals.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
What does this verse have to say about public prayer? Prayer in public school? Prayer in worship? Prayer in general? I think these are vital questions. Because I believe a movement of prayer is rising up in this nation and will rise up in this church. I know you don’t see it yet but I speak the vision to you that you may wait for its fulfillment with patience.
First, we must say that while the Bible calls us to pray in secret, the Bible does not call us to pray silently. Now I don’t think there is a wrong way to pray, but the fact that Jesus disciples in Luke asked Jesus to teach them about prayer, I think means there are certainly better ways to pray. If all you can do is ride a bike with training wheels that is cool by God. But as far as prayer goes God desires that we enter a motor cross competition. He desires that we pray boldly and radically. But we can’t pray boldly till we pray simply. I am convinced from my study of the scriptures and my understanding of ancient cultures that silent prayer was not the norm and that is not what is being commanded of us here. Indeed, Jesus’ command to go into a room where no one will hear you, suggests that he is assuming you will pray out loud, because if he was commanding you to pray silently, why would you need to go to a secret room where no one could hear you? If Jesus was commanding us to pray silently we could just pray where we are because no one would know the difference. But that is not what he is commanding us to do though we may like that to be the case. In the scriptures there is what I would call almost an obsession with vocalizing our faith. That is why Paul says in Romans 10:9, if you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that he rose from the dead, you shall be saved. Now it is not as if the Bible is promoting witchcraft or pagan religion, that if I recite some prayer, or incantation, that will save me, or change God’s mind and cause God to do something God would otherwise not do. It is instead by opening our mouths we release that which is in our hearts. By opening our mouths we express our faith that God does hear us.
The question of whether Jesus would be for or against prayer in public school really misses the point. Jesus is not teaching against public prayer here. There are many times in the Bible where believers gather together publicly to pray and pray very loudly. In the Book of Acts chapter 3 the new born Church suffers a great persecution after Peter heals the lame man at the beautiful gate. The believers gather together and cry out to the Lord for strength to witness, and the Bible tells us the place they gathered was shaken. God so approved of their prayers there was an earthquake. Nor, is the Bible necessarily against long prayers. We are told before his crucifixion Jesus prayed all night that the Father might let the cup pass from him. What this scripture is against is praying in order that we might be seen and applauded by others. So if we want prayer in schools to change the hearts of students Jesus would be for that. But if we want prayer in public schools to show the world that we are more moral and more Godly than them, I think Jesus would be against that. The hypocrites in this passage are in denial. They won’t admit that they are white washed tombs, on the outside they look awesome, but on the inside they are dead. Perhaps many of us who are afraid to open our mouths in prayer have the opposite problem. Because we know who we are in public is not who we are in private. And being asked to pray in public brings that contrast before us and we feel shame. Church and religion becomes a show, a performance, we hire the Pastor to run the show, but when the show is interrupted we become very uncomfortable because we don’t want people to see who we really are. I know I try to bring energy, passion, and laughter to this pulpit. I know this is pulpit is not the place for spewing all my issues, for bullying people into doing what I want, or believing everything I believe. This pulpit I pray is a place for good news. And I hope and pray at the end of the day that is what you hear when you come to this church. But I have to be honest. In public I put on a happy face. But often in secret I am barely holding it together. I don’t think I am alone as a Pastor in that predicament. I don’t think as a human being I am the only one that wears a pretty mask in public but doesn’t have the energy to keep it on in private. I don’t think I am the only one here that fills my life with distraction because I fear being alone. I don’t think I am the only one who fears that if people knew me in secret they might think less of me, they might reject me, they might cast me out.
But this passage tells us that not only does God see us in secret, God is in Secret. When I am most alone, when I am most abandoned, when I have suffered the most loss, when no one gives a damn about me, the scriptures tell us that God is most present to me and to you, even though we may not feel it. And our Father is more than willing to hear us if we would simply pray. But it is so easy to find complicated excuses not to simply pray. To quote Richard Foster, author of Prayer: Finding The Heart’s True Home, on why we don’t pray “We are not quite sure what holds us back. Of course, we are busy with work and family obligations, but that is only a smoke screen. Our busyness seldom keeps us from eating or sleeping or making love. No, there is something deeper, more profound keeping us in check. In reality, there are any number of “somethings” that needs immediate attention. It is the almost universal notion among us modern high achievers- that we have to have everything “just right” in order to pray.” ( Foster, 7) And to quote Joyce Meyer on her journey towards simple prayer, “ AS God began to teach me to pray, I was surprised to learn that He has not made prayer complicated, but that it really is simple. Sometimes people make prayer dry and difficult; sometimes our religious mind sets, and “systems” present prayer in such a way that it seems out of reach for many of us. I tell you the truth when I say that God desires our prayer lives to be natural and enjoyable. He wants our prayers to be honest and heartfelt, and He wants our communication with Him unencumbered by rules, regulations, legalism, and obligation. He intends prayer to be an integral part of our everyday lives- the easiest thing we do each day (Meyer, VII).
When I was back in Richmond, VA I attended a Ramadan dinner with some friends from church who’s Muslim friends had invited them to partake in what they consider to be a Holy ritual. AS we were partaking in the braking of the fast I got into a discussion with one of our Muslim friends about prayer. This man knowing that I had gone to seminary and was looking to be a pastor, asked me about how Christians prayed. As you may know the word Quran in Arabic means the recitations. And indeed, in Islam prayer is considered to mainly entail the recitation of the Quran. So he asked me if Christians recited the Bible as Muslims recited the Quran. I told him that sometimes we do use the Psalms or the Lord’s prayer in worship but for the most part we just talk to God who we consider to be our Father. But no matter how I tried to explain it to my Muslim friend he just looked at me as if I was speaking babble and jibberish. The concept was so far removed from his concept of prayer. And to be Frank what Jesus teaches us about prayer is somewhat foreign to how many Christians conduct themselves and how we structure our worship. When I talk to Christians about prayer I don’t get a blank expression but I do get looks of hesitation and downright fear. But it is my prayer for you my people that will not be so. For prayer is simple. And our Father asks that you simply come.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit Amen.