If and When You Pray

If and When You Pray     Ephesians 1:15-23        28 May 2017   Ascension Sunday

As we move to digital formats around the world, fewer of us are reading newspapers that are actually printed on paper. Here in Taiwan, in 1999 one of the larger Chinese language newspapers began printing an English edition to compete with two English newspapers that had been publishing in this land for decades. A few years later, one of the “original” English newspapers moved from a “broadsheet” to a “tabloid” format, and eventually went “ online only.” The other broadsheet ceased its print edition only earlier this month. It, too, is now “online-only”.  The surviving local (to Taiwan) English language print newspaper is the one that started in 1999. But it has shrunk from about 16 pages a day to only about 8. It steadily drops content, including the page to which I habitually turned first, the cartoons.

Sometimes newspaper cartoons mention religious things. I recall one of a little boy, dressed for bed, shouting to the other members of his family, “I’m about to say my prayers, does anybody want anything?” It was honest in a several ways: Many children are taught to say some form of prayer before going to bed. Many children conceive of prayer as mainly asking God for stuff, and many people of all ages primarily pray when we want to “get” something.

As a teenager and a young man, more than once I was told by youth leaders at church to keep a “prayer diary.” I should list the things that I was asking God for and review the list at the end of each month. It would demonstrate to me how faithful God was in hearing and answering my prayers, and would be an encouragement to me to pray about all things. The youth leaders encouraged me, but I didn’t follow through.  I was too lazy. Now I fear that if I had honestly kept a prayer diary, it would mainly include things about my academic, romantic and economic desires.  Things like, “O Lord, make me smart,”  “O Lord, make women want me,”  And  “O Lord, make me rich.” At my currently advanced age of 65, any such diary that I might keep would likely have more things about ‘O God, keep me from falling down,” or “O Lord, don’t let me get sick.”  A lot of our praying, when related to ourselves, is selfish. I don’t condemn that…, at LEAST we’re praying. And, hopefully while we pray, we take time to listen, too.  

Sometimes, like that little boy in the cartoon, we pray for other people, asking God to give them the kinds of things that we want for ourselves: health, comfort, strong faith, healing, etc.. Sometimes we report another person’s “defects” to God, asking that God guide that person to “know the right thing to do.” (At these times, we really mean we want God to tell that person to do what WE want that person to do, because we view ourselves as knowing what is best for others.)

Today we’re going to look at Ephesians 1:15-23, seeking guidance from one person who prayed long ago for how we might be praying in the 21st century.

I:  Pray for others’ Spiritual Growth. vv. 16-17

The letter to the Ephesians is assumed to have been written by St. Paul. Some doubt about his being its author was thrown into the mix in the last 200 years. Each argument: “Paul wrote it,” and “Paul didn’t write it,” has strong and weak points. But that makes no difference for what we’re doing this afternoon. The writer of Ephesians, whoever he or she was, cared about the people in the church or churches that it was sent to. Whoever wrote it had something to say to them. Whoever wrote it prayed for them. What I hope is that we can learn from THIS prayer for OUR praying. (And because we don’t know if the writer was St Paul,  or someone else, possibly female, I’ll try to alternate the pronouns.)

Starting at verse 16 we learn that in her praying, she was steady (“I have not stopped…”) I don’t know what this does for you, but it reminds me how un-systematic I am in my own praying. Though I have a set time each morning, I don’t have anything else “set” about my praying, and I become lazy in it. So, whether or not you have a set time and format for your own praying, I make one request of you, next time you do pray, ask God to fix me.

And again from verse 16, In his praying, he began by thanking God for the people he prayed for(“…giving thanks to God for you…”). How often do we start praying for ourselves or for anyone else with, “This is what I want.” We’re reminded here to pause and consider the things in ourselves and others for which we are thankful. That sets us in a different frame of mind as we go on to make requests.

From verse 17 we learn that she prayed to ALL of God. ( “…I ask the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, to give you the Spirit”)  Among the mysteries of Christian belief is that God is 3 in one. Not three Gods, just one God, but with a “threeness”. God is not a committee of three in which votes are taken, but a fellowship of love. Our prayers may be addressed to “God”, to “Heavenly Father”, to “Lord Jesus”, to “Holy Spirit”. It’s all OK. There’s no competition in the Trinity. Remembering the wholeness of God as we pray changes US for the better.

About 10 years ago I escorted a group of international students to Hsin-chu, in northern Taiwan for a service project with youth. The church where we served had organized a program run by a young man in training to be a church leader.  They even arranged for a translator… a Taiwanese woman who had spent a couple of years in Australia. She was an enthusiastic believer and a very good translator. Because she was there, I had it pretty easy. But on the first day, as I listened to her translate, I noticed that when the young man leading the project  led us in prayer, using Chinese, whenever he said “Lord Jesus”, she would translate it “Father God.” 

The leader’s way of dealing with the mystery of the trinity was to reduce everything to “Lord Jesus”. The translator’s method was to talk only to “Father God.” Though there was NO PROBLEM AT ALL in heaven where the prayers were heard,  there was a problem in each of these enthusiastic Christian praying persons. The pattern of St Paul in these verses, to pray consciously including Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is not a RULE for us, but it is a helpful guideline.  (When I mentioned the matter to the translator, I stayed out of the theology of the thing and mentioned only the translation part. If she was going to be a faithful translator, she should say “Jesus” wherever the guy speaking said “Jesus”, and “father” where he said “father”.

Verse 17 has ONE more thing for us: Purpose. The writer  prayed that God might give the people “the Spirit.” Not just to “have” the Spirit (like we might pray for God to give us a new motorbike or a good job), but so that they would, through being associated with the Holy Spirit, gain wisdom, revelation, and knowledge. We could spend the rest of the day, and into next week, talking about wisdom, revelation and knowledge, but let’s be brief. Start from the end. Knowledge is what we “learn” and “come to know”. We get that from experience, from school, from what our parents and others tell us, from Wikipedia, and from any online or in-print newspapers that we might read.  Revelation is what God shows us directly. Wisdom is the ability to use what we know, whether that came from learning or revelation, correctly.

In sum, then, verses 16 and 17 guide us to pray regularly, thankfully, “wholly” and “purposefully”.

II: Pray for others’ intellectual growth (vv18-20)

Remember that little boy about to say his prayers before going to bed? He asked whether anybody wanted anything that he could pray for. We get a few suggestions in verses 18-20 about what to pray for. The list is not comprehensive, but it offers a good starting point. Part of its pattern is that we pray for others’ intellectual growth. That might surprise you a bit, because, talking about prayer, you might assume it’s all about spiritual stuff. But prayer is not so limited.

Verse 18 indicates that the writer, thinking of the folks to whom the letter was addressed, prayed, “…that they may see God’s light.” In Western history there is a period known as “the dark ages.” It’s mainly about “Christian Europe” from the end of the Roman Empire to the time of the Renaissance: 500 to 1400 CE. Though a lot was going on during those 900 or so years, in “Christian Europe” it moved very slowly. Outside of that area, though, classical knowledge, arts and sciences flourished in the Islamic Middle East and North Africa, and science galloped along in China.

To see God’s light means to see things in the light of God’s presence in all things, all places and all times. During a time of my own intellectual and spiritual struggles about 20 years ago a good friend once told me,  “all truth is God’s truth”. Perhaps that’s a bit simplistic, but it really helped me when I needed it.  

“Seeing God’s light” gets more specific as we look a bit further in verse 18. God’s light will help people, including we who pray, to “…know the hope and blessings that are present” for all of us. In an environment like a university, in which many of us toil, sometimes “hope” often seems almost impossible, and “blessings” seem seem to be postponed until after we receive our diplomas. But both of these are “present” to us. In God’s light, we see them.

Moving further along, we pray for people anticipating that they might “know and experience the power of God available to them.” This is not just about “knowing things in our hearts” or “believing things to be so in our heads”, but about EXPERIENCING! What would it mean for someone about whom you care, for whom you pray, to EXPERIENCE the power of God? That’s something to ask God to do for them in whatever situation they may be in. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask God to do it in a selfish way, for yourself, either. We need EXPERIENCE as much as, perhaps even more than, we need knowledge.

So, in prayer,  be regular, thankful, “whole” and “purposeful”. When we pray, seek intellectual growth, hope, blessings and the experience of God’s presence.

III: Pray In an Orderly Way (vv 21-23)

Verses: 21-23 are not part of the author’s prayer. In this place, they are not even ABOUT prayer, but they show us something that may be useful when we pray: the sense of orderliness.

The verses speak of a “heavenly hierarchy” in which Christ is above all other heavenly beings, and above the church. This “order” exists in the world beyond our own.  God is at the top. Heavenly beings (the ones mentioned here are rulers, authorities, powers and lords) are next, and the church, a human thing, is below them.

Orderliness might also help us in prayer. The people who tried to get me to keep a prayer diary when I was a teenager failed in that pursuit, but they did give me an “order” for prayer that has stuck with me. It only works in English, so you’ll have to find a different one if you prefer a different language.  It goes: A.C.T.S.  The recommended order for prayer is to start with “Adoring”(praising) God, then, having noticed that you’re not very good compared to God, “Confessing” your sin, followed by Thanking God, and then “Supplication” (which is a fancy word for asking for what you want and need”.

Is it the only way or the best way?  Certainly it’s not the only way. Maybe it’s far from the best way.  Whatever word you choose in your own language to help you remember orderly prayer might put these things in a different order. The point is to have an order, NOT because it changes how God hears or responds to your prayers, but because it changes your own awareness of what you’re up to if and when you pray.

When I come to church on Sunday afternoons, I carry my “Tainan International Community Church” bag. It’s just a bag without special compartments.  Things get mixed up in there. I’ve learned not to carry too many different things in it because I can lose them. Keeping it simple means that the bag works for me. But this is “too simple” to use as an example for prayer. The bag works for church, but prayer, for me, needs something with separate places. In that way, it guards against my my personal selfishness.

CONCLUSION

Like engineers who read about engineering, scientists who read about science, and managers who keep current on the literature of management, I try to keep current in reading about education. Recently I read an article about a new system being tried in community colleges (2 year schools) in America. Data had revealed that many students who were unable to either take a diploma from their college or to transfer to a university and enter at the 3rd year dropped out. The problem was that at the community college, though they had taken enough credits to graduate, they hadn’t studied enough in any particular area to fulfill the requirements for a degree OR for a university to accept them as 3rd year students on transfer. By assigning students an advisor who could guide them to make more orderly selections based on career plans, graduation rates and acceptance into good universities increased. The difference was the structure and order by which students took classes in the overflowing cafeteria atmosphere offered by the community college.  

Though it might seem strange to compare prayer to community college, there’s a parallel. If and when any of us prays, a bit of structure from the moment we begin speaking to God is helpful. God hears any and all prayers we offer up. But when we choose better; when we order things better; then we understand better, ask better, and find that ordered prayer enriches and grows our spirits.  If the result we are seeking is to grow, then we “grow better.” If it’s only about “getting stuff”, then probably it doesn’t matter.

May your prayers, and mine (such as they are), benefit from the guidance of the writer, and the pray-er, whose words we read today in Ephesians.  AMEN

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