Sermon for June 14th, 2020
A Prayer of David. 1 Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. 2 Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God; 3 be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long. 4 Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 5 For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you. 6 Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication. 7 In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me. 8 There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours. 9 All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name. 10 For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God. 11 Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. 12 I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. 13 For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. 14 O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them. 15 But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. 16 Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl. 17 Show me a sign of your favor, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.
Psummer of Psalms - Psalm 86
Two men both died on the same day and went to heaven. One was a pastor, and the other was a taxi driver. When the taxi driver reached the pearly gates, he introduced himself, and was immediately welcomed with great fanfare and loud cheers, then he was shown to his heavenly mansion. Next in line was the pastor--he introduced himself, and was greeted with...polite applause, and then was shown to his heavenly apartment. This clearly wasn't what he expected, and so at the earliest opportunity, he found St. Peter and asked if there had been some sort of mix up. "I served God faithfully for 50 years, preaching every Sunday and taking care of my flock. And that taxi driver--I knew him--he was the worst driver in the entire city! What's the deal?
St. Peter calmly replied, "Look Reverend--here in heaven we go by results. When you preached to your congregation, people fell asleep and thought about what was for lunch. But when that taxi driver drove people around the city, they cried out to Jesus Christ and prayed to God for mercy!"
We all, of course, want to be more effective in our prayers to God. How often do you find yourself saying things like, "my thoughts and prayers are with you," or "I'll pray about that" but when you actually take the time to pray, the right words just don't seem to come?
Like anything else, prayer is a skill that develops over time, with experience, a lot of practice, and a little study. In the gospels, Jesus gave his followers a model to use in the Lord's prayer, but in the Hebrew Scriptures God gave us about 150 different model prayers in the Book of Psalms. I want to use one of those Psalms today (Psalm 86) to give you a simple, easy-to-remember pattern to help shape your prayers, and to understand what it is we do when we pray to God.
I call this pattern "Caaat." Like the household pet, but with less fur and five letters instead of three. C-A-A-A-T. And when you use this pattern to pray, it's okay to use your five fingers to help you keep your place.
C is for calling upon God, or crying out to God. In the prayers we teach our children, this is the "Dear God" part of the prayer. In Psalm 86, it shows up in the first half of verse 1, "Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me," and then again in verses 6 and 7, "Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication. In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me."
It doesn't matter how elaborately or how simply you call out to God, whether it's a cry of anguish or a call to an old friend--but is important that you invoke God in your prayer. Without this part, you're essentially just talking to yourself. So that's "C"
The first "A" is for Acknowledging who you are, how you are, your circumstances. I don't mean like "Dear God, it's me Neal down here in El Paso." Of course God knows that. This is a reality check--you acknowledging, in words, what you're experiencing, good or bad, that led you to your knees in prayer. If you are praying for your community or someone else, that's okay: Prayer is always personal, so you are acknowledging your relationship to those people or things--your concern for world events, or your sorrow for a friend who is suffering. You can also acknowledge your lack of words, your sense of helplessness in the situation.
In Psalm 86, this happens in the second half of verse 1, where the Psalmist says, "for I am poor and needy." It doesn't get more real than that. And again in verse 14, where the Psalmist elaborates even more: "O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them."
Notice that these elements of prayer don't have to happen in sequence--you can go back and forth, in and out of them as much as needed.
C is for Calling out to God; the first A is for acknowledging who you are; and the second A is for acknowledging who God is, or the attributes of God that are relevant to your prayer. If your circumstances (the first acknowledgment) are what drove you to prayer, then this second acknowledgment is why you chose to pray to God instead of your kitchen sink. If the Psalmist acknowledges that he is "poor and needy" in verse 1, he then acknowledges in verse 5 that "you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you." Or verse 10, "For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God."
You can also acknowledge God's promises, God's history with you in the past. Verse 13: "For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol."
You might be asking, why do I need to remind God who God is, or who I am? Doesn't God already know these things? Yes, of course. But there is power in acknowledging things, saying them out loud, putting them into words. Grief and trauma counselors teach consistently that "there can be no lasting recovery from serious trauma unless the pain is named and lived through." In the same way, we cannot truly put faith or hope in our prayers, unless we have some inkling of who we are praying to. If you believe that God is good, or loving, or kind, or able to help in some way...then acknowledge that, and let that belief permeate and shape your prayer.
So. Calling on God; Acknowledging who or how you are; then Acknowledging who or how God is.
The third and final "A" is Asking God for help. For some people, this part is really hard--especially those who value strength and independence, who don't like to rely on anyone for help, not even God. For others, this part is really easy--in fact, for some, it's the only thing they ever pray, to the exclusion of everything else. Whichever side you fall on, using this pattern will help you maintain a good balance--to not get stuck in just asking for things, and not to neglect asking altogether.
In our model Psalm, the psalmist asks for help in several places and several different ways: Preserve my life; be gracious to me; gladden the soul of your servant (in other words, cheer me up!); Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give strength to your servant; Show me a sign of your favor, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame. I like that last request--it may sound a bit vindictive, but it's a reminder that the Psalms are very human prayers from very human people.
C is for calling upon God. A is for Acknowledging who and how you are. A is for Acknowledging who and how God is. A is for Asking God for help.
And finally, T is Thanking God for what God has done, or is doing, or will do. Or who God is. Gratitude is an important part of prayer, and life in general. A lot of times, I think we say in our hearts, I'll give thanks to God when God actually fixes my situation, or when God actually does what I want done. But that's kind of like telling someone who gives you a gift, "Hey, I'm only going to say thank you if I actually wear this, or if it's something I already really wanted, or if it proves to be useful at some point down the road. So, we'll see." True gratitude expresses appreciation for the giver, and the spirit in which a gift is given, above and beyond our perception of the gift itself.
We find exactly this kind of unconditional, no-strings-attached, gratitude in verse 12 of Psalm 86: "I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever." And the clear implication is that I will give that kind of thanks to you regardless of when, or how, or even if you answer my prayer.
So...one more time:
C is for calling upon God. A is for Acknowledging who and how you are. A is for Acknowledging who and how God is. A is for Asking God to help you. T is for Thanking God for what God does (and who God is).
Notice the back and forth in this pattern: God, you, God, you, God.
You know...kind of like, oh, I don't know...maybe...possibly...a conversation?