Today, we’re going to talk about prayer. Not just prayer in general, but praying boldly. The piece of Scripture I’ve chosen for today will be familiar to many of you—it comes from the end of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. This is his grand conclusion, the part of the letter or the sermon in which a writer would encourage and exhort their listeners to do something about what they’ve just heard. As we hear from Paul, I encourage you to open your Bibles and read along with us, and keep it open to that page—we’ll come back to the passage in a bit and you’ll want to have it in front of you.
While you find your page, please also join me in prayer:
Almighty God, in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Open our eyes, so that we may see the wonders of your Word. Give us grace, so that we may clearly understand and freely choose the way of your wisdom; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Philippians 4:4-9: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Prayer, in general, is difficult to talk about without doing it. I think, in general, it’s something that cannot be explained, dissected, systematized. Prayer itself is a diverse and wide-ranging practice: it can be silent or boisterous, courageous and demanding or quiet and timid. It can be physical—I pray best when I’m walking or drawing or writing, or it can be stillness and meditation. There is no one prayer that works in every time or circumstance.
I’m not going to ask anyone to raise a hand, but I’m going to guess that more than a few of us struggle with prayer when we’re on our own. We’re not sure we have the right words, we’re never quite sure what to do with our hands, and we wonder if maybe we should wait until after we’ve calmed down from that argument with a friend or a spouse or a child to pray.
But the key to prayer is not in using the right words or doing the right movements or being in the right physical or emotional space.
The key to prayer is in our own hearts—and Paul knows that. When he says “rejoice always!”, he doesn’t necessarily mean “YOU HAVE TO BE HAPPY AND SMILING ALL THE TIME NOW.” Paul is not the most emotionally intelligent person I’ve ever read, but even he knows that’s not how that works.
Our rejoicing is not a perma-smile. It is, instead, a steadiness—a hope, a light that shines forth into the darkness of our world. Our peace does not come from an easy and happy life; it comes from God, and sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense.
Dr. Susan Eastman, a New Testament scholar who focuses on Paul, says it much better than I can. This is a bit of a long quote, but it’s very worth it:
“Paul tells us to focus our minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. Is this just an exercise in positive thinking? Is it a Pollyanna denial of reality? Apart from the resurrection, such would indeed be the case. But Paul is holding two realities in view at the same time.
Yes, there is the immediate reality of a world in which human beings are constantly at war somewhere, betraying one another, brutally suppressing each other in order to get ahead, and so forth. This was true of the Roman Empire, and it is true today. Every day we hear and see a culture that focuses on what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and shameful. We begin to think that to act hopefully in such a world is unrealistic.
But Paul also sees another reality, and it is the reality that holds the future. That is the reality of God’s redemption, already here and still drawing near. Training our minds to think of this reality, and thereby to act with hope, is a daily mental discipline. For such a discipline, we need to experience the counter reality of God’s rule in the midst of tangible human relationships. Paul offers his own relationship with the Philippians as just such a tangible counterweight to the temptation of despair and futile thinking.
Finally, once again Paul promises that the outcome of these habits of heart and mind is “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Written from jail, by a man under threat of capital punishment at the hands of a brutal and corrupt regime, these are extraordinary promises. Rome was always at war somewhere on its borders. The so-called Pax Romana was anything but [peaceful] for Rome’s subject peoples.
But Paul sees a different reality alongside the violence and duplicity of Rome. The small and struggling Christian congregation in the Roman colony of Philippi is itself a kind of “colony,” a separate polis with a more powerful Lord who alone has defeated death. Confident, therefore, in the ultimate victory of the God of peace, he encourages us to have quiet minds and hopeful hearts.”
When we pray, we re-narrate the story of our lives and our world in the light of God’s world and Christ’s resurrection. Whether we are praying with gratitude for the good, true, and beautiful things God is doing, or we’re naming the injustices, the heartaches, the hopes of our lives, we are telling our stories in a new way.
It’s not a lack of understanding that holds us back from that sort of bold, faithful prayer—it’s despair, apathy, and fear. We believe, even if we don’t say it out loud, that either God isn’t powerful enough to do something, God doesn’t care enough to do something, or God can’t be trusted to respond to us with compassion and kindness and action.
The antidote to despair and fear and apathy is not just more prayer, but prayer that reminds us of God’s power, God’s presence, and God’s love.
So I’m going to take a minute to teach us a specific way of praying that I think helps us do that really well, and then we’re going to pray our way through it.
This is a sort of shortcut, a fill-in-the-blank formula for thinking through a prayer. You can make it as simple or as complicated as you want to—think of this format like a prayer jungle gym, which you can simply run through, or you can do backflips off of. It’s up to you.
The liturgical studies folks call this a “collect.” It has four parts, each summed up in a single word: You, Who, Do, So.
You: This is the address; a name for God, or an adjective. You may have noticed that my prayers tend to begin with “Good and Gracious God.” If you like, you can choose any of the names or adjectives in Scripture: God Who Sees Me, Loving God, Compassionate Christ…the list is nearly infinite.
Who: Who is this God to whom you are praying? What is God like? This is the point when you expand a little on your address—remind yourself and remind God of the wondrous and miraculous things God has done. This is the point in a prayer where the people of Israel would recall the Exodus, the return from exile, the building of the Temple. They would remind God of all the things God had already said to them. This is not about buttering God up, but about remembering who God is and what God has already done, so that our prayers are all the more bold—because we know they are aligned with God’s character and God’s future.
Do: This is the easy part—the part we’re usually anxious to get to. What do you want God to do? This is the request, or the string of requests, or the litany of thanksgivings.
So: This is probably the most difficult. Why do you want God to do this? For the sake of a person? For the sake of God’s glory? So that God’s love might be known? So that you can rest? So that you can do the work you’re called to? This “so that” moment is your chance to remind God and remind yourself why you’re praying at all—and it also helps keep us in check. If we find ourselves praying for something “so that I’ll look good,” or “so that my enemy would suffer,” that’s a little bit of a red flag.
You, Who, Do, So. Let’s put it in context, and write our own prayer based on this passage—if it helps, think of this like Prayer Mad Libs.
In the full assurance of Christ’s resurrection and the joy it brings us, then, let us pray boldly:
“Compassionate and Holy Father, Lord and Savior:
You have blessed us with salvation, you have blessed us with the sky above us and family and friends among us. You have forgiven us and welcomed us. Lord, heal the sick. Help the weak. Open our hearts to receive your goodness and guide us. Help us to see, and displace our worry–so that we may have peace, so that we may fulfill the call you have placed on each of our lives, so so that we may be more like Jesus. It’s in his name that we pray; Amen.”