This morning I preached at my internship site, Bellevue United Presbyterian Church. My primary text was 1 Timothy 2:1-7.
"Faith" and "truth" are nice words, aren't they? They're the sort of words that we put on nick knacks and t-shirts and candles because they are just so danged inspirational and fuzzy.
In 1 Timothy 2, Paul says that he is writing "in faith and truth." But when Paul writes "in faith and truth" it is rarely fuzzy or warm. We can't tame big, wild words like faith and truth. These words have to do with God and we get into trouble when we try to boil them down to happy catchphrases.
At first glance, it looks like this morning's passage is going to be a nice little instruction on how to structure our prayers or something about the mechanics of a good prayer life. In fact, my Bible starts this with the heading, "Instructions on Prayer." But when we read past the first few sentences, we get to some stuff that doesn't quite seem to be totally connected to the beginning and that's where we're really going to find the heartbeat of this particular passage and get to the really fun part - the part where this passage stops being so warm and fuzzy and moves on to "wild and wonderful." It goes deeper than just a description of how to pray and points to the very heart of what prayer is.
There was a problem with prayer in the church that Timothy was at. They weren't praying for everyone. There were some groups of people that they were leaving out of their prayers because they didn't notice them or they just plain didn't like them.
When I pray with my younger kids, I often prompt them. I'll say, "Dear God, tonight we want to thank you for our day and all the great things that happened." Then I let them jump in with all the great things they experienced that day. We pray for things that are bothering them, as well as people they are thankful for and worried about. I'm never quite sure what's going to come out of their mouths, but when they pray for people, it's pretty consistent. They pray for their friends and family - the people that they love and care about- the people who are around them all the time and are on their minds. And that's great!! But I have to remind them to pray for the people they aren't so keen on like the kids at school who aren't nice or the people they just don't think about much like their bus driver or people they don't know at all like the homeless people we drive past every day or people in other places of the world.
We try to read news together to learn about some of the things that are going on and how we can be involved and pray for the world and the people near to us, but it's hard work. It takes a concerted effort. We have to really try to make sure we include everyone.
Kids aren't the only ones who struggle with praying for those who are hard to love or who are out of sight, out of mind. The prayers of the people in our Book of Common Worship carefully list a wide array of people groups and afflictions and situations because this is really hard. Listen carefully to the prayers of the people for the next couple weeks and pay attention to the wide range of petitions that are offered even when they don't seem directly linked to this congregation's life. Kids aren't the only ones who need reminders to pray for those who are unseen or unliked or simply forgotten.
Why does it matter that we pray for everyone?
It isn't some special hook that makes our prayers more effective. God desires salvation for everyone. Jesus Christ gave himself as a ransom for all and this church was only praying for the salvation of some. What they were praying was not in line with what God desires. If we are to truly turn over our hearts, minds and souls and all our might to God, that includes things like our desires, our priorities, and even our biases. It means transformation - changing our hearts so that our deepest desires are in line with God's!
John Chrysostom says that "no one can feel hatred toward those for whom he prays." You can replace the word "hatred" in that sentence with "ambiguity," "irritation" or any number of other negative feelings.
What is in our hearts can be changed by what we pray about. Even when we REALLY don't want to pray it.
Last week on the way home from church, the girls and I were in a minor car accident. We're all fine. My poor little minivan has seen better days, but it's fixable.
We were just sitting on Perrysville Ave. with the left blinker on waiting for the oncoming traffic to clear so I could turn and were slammed into from behind.
I. WAS. LIVID. I had already had a soapbox about how dangerously people drive on that road. Cars speed down that road like total maniacs paying no attention to the multitude of pedestrians and cyclists that use that road. It's near a major city park and many public and school bus stops. Not to mention it's technically a residential street to begin with. Gloria's pop exploded all over the place and she was shrieking. Alexis bumped her head and was crying. On top of all that, it's really annoying to be rear ended like that. It was chaos.
I stepped out of the car fully prepared to let out the mother of all tirades to this other driver who had had the nerve to run right into the back of my STOPPED CAR!
- and I suddenly noticed. . .
I was still dressed in my gray suit and giant pewter pulpit cross.
After I muttered a few angry things to myself under my breath, I prayed a quick prayer that I'd be able to hold my tongue and represent God well in that situation and to be an ambassador for Christ even at the moment I least felt like being nice.
I felt oddly peaceful about the whole thing, in spite of the paramedics who came to make sure Lexi's head was ok and the constant loud complaints of "I'M STILL STICKY" coming from the back seat and the police and it was nuts. But God was there.
God answered my prayer and shut my big fat mouth. In fact, by the end of the ordeal, I learned that the girl who ran into me was already upset before the accident because she was on the way to visit her mother's grave and I was able to offer to pray for her this week. I am relatively certain that had I screamed at her fifteen minutes before that, my offer of prayers would have seemed more than a little bit disingenuous.
Where did all that anger go?
I certainly didn't manage it on my own. I can tell you that much is certain.
God changed my heart.
Through that moment of prayer when I prayed for the exact opposite of what my entire being was screaming to do. . . God changed my heart.
If the prayers at Timothy's church been centered on God and what God desires, they would have been praying for the salvation of everyone whether they really felt like it or not. There would be no person or people left out of their prayers. Even kings and rulers, perhaps some of the least likable people in that day. They had been trying to force faith and truth into their own desires, but faith and truth demand that our prayers be shaped by God's desires. We can't shape things like faith and truth, rather we must allow them to shape us.
John Calvin tells us that when The Lord taught us to pray, "It was not so much for his sake as for ours." He writes that prayer is in our interest because it helps our heart to be "inflamed with a serious and ardent desire of seeking, loving and serving him." Prayer gets us used to anchoring to God in every situation that might arise. Prayer is what helps us to push out our own desires to make room for what God desires. And it's what helps point us to what God desires.
Just think about what the church would look like if God's desires were at the forefront of all of our prayers. If all of our hearts and minds were daily transformed to be more like the heart and mind of God!
This is part of that "running the race with endurance" that we looked at a few weeks ago when I last preached. Part of endurance is continually making room in our hearts for God's desires. Day after day after day being purposeful to put aside our own agenda so that we can really pray.
Friends, pray for everyone. Make intercession for people you don't even know and offer thanks for people you really don't like. Not because Paul says so. Not even because those people will know or because it's the "right way" to pray. Pray for them because when our prayers line up with God's desires rather than our own priorities, we are changed in ways that will in turn point to God. And isn't that what we're here for?