Sunday’s sermon: Livin’ on a Prayer

praying woman

Texts used – Psalm 130 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2

  • The year was 1986. Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States. The Chicago Bears were the Super Bowl champs, the Mets were the World Series champs, and the Celtics were the NBA champs. Halley’s Comet was passing by Earth’s orbit again, and the world was still reeling from historical events that had been splashed across the headlines: the major nuclear accident at the Chernobyl power plant in what was then the Soviet Union as well as the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. In 1986, hair was big, jeans were acid washed, and rock and roll music was good and loud. Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” was the top of the Billboard Music Chart, and a recently-popular band called Bon Jovi released a new song on Halloween Day: [play part of “Livin’ on a Prayer”]
    • Story of “Livin’ on a Prayer”: working-class couple, Tommy and Gina, who struggle to make ends meet → According to the song, they were living on a prayer, constantly without security, stability, or financial well-being. They were endlessly striving just to keep their heads above water, fighting against those forces – social, financial, internal – that threatened to drag them down. And what got them through? A prayer. Livin’ on a prayer.
      • Timeless and universal message – need for something/someone stronger than ourselves in those times when our own strength fails
        • E.g. – 15 yrs later: acoustic version performed at “The Concert for New York City” and during the televised benefit concert “America: A Tribute to Heroes” shortly following the attacks on 9/11[1] → Again, a time in which our own strength, our own fortitude, our own patience and human stick-to-it-iveness couldn’t measure up to the overwhelming nature of what we were facing. Livin’ on a prayer.
      • Our Scriptures this morning speak to times like that – times of lostness and uncertainty, times of personal struggle and mistakes, times when we realize that we need God, times when we find ourselves livin’ on a prayer.
  • Benefits of prayer
    • Scientifically-supported[2]Despite the fact that the fastest growing “religious affiliation” group in the United States is the “nones” (those who don’t associate with any particular religion), a 2013 Pew Research poll found that more than half of Americans pray in some way every day with more than 75% of the population professing a belief that prayer is an important part of daily life. → in study after study, scientifically found to …
      • Improves self-control
      • Reduce anger and aggression (article: “make you nicer”)
      • Make you more forgiving
      • Increase trust – help build close relationships
      • Offsets negative health effects of stress (when focus is praying for others) → This last one is especially relevant to our passages this morning because it is in those moments of stress – those moments of fear, of struggle, of anxiety, of pain – that we often feel we can’t pray or shouldn’t pray. We’re afraid of what we might say to God. We’re reluctant to express our deepest, most raw feelings to God because we have this strange idea in our heads that Christians don’t act that way. Christians don’t …
        • Get angry
        • Get frustrated
        • Get disappointed
        • Get depressed
        • We’re all supposed to love each other, so that means that when we get upset or irritated – by someone else or even by God – we’re just supposed to swallow that in the face of love, right? Wrong.
          • Ps acknowledges those “down” places – text: Help, God – the bottom has fallen out of my life! [God], hear my cry for help! Listen hard! Open your ears! Listen to my cries for mercy. If you, God, kept records on wrongdoings, who would stand a chance?[3] → How many times have we been there? How many times have we woken up to the bottom falling out of our careers, our relationships, our lives? How many times have we felt ourselves dropping and all we can grab onto is the anger, the hurt, the heartache. All we can grab onto are the things that make us want to lash out. So that’s what we want to do – lash out. We want to take out all that hurt and aggravation on someone or something.
            • Sometimes person/people at the heart of our struggle
            • Sometimes ourselves
            • Sometimes first unfortunate person we happen to cross – new checkout person at store (going to slow!), driver in the car in front of you, girl/guy making your coffee
            • “Look out, world! I am upset. I am wounded. I am loaded for bear, and I am ready to burst! You better not cross me, because you’re going to regret it.”
    • Paul speaks to this in Ephesians – text: Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift. … Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk.[4] → I don’t know about you, but when I’m backed into a corner – when I feel the bottom falling out – the colorful tends to come out, you know? And it happens. We’re human.
      • But as one of the scholars that I read this week said: The text does not say, “Do not be angry; anger is not Christian.” Rather, it warns against the dangers that tend to accompany anger.[5] → Remember what a few of those scientifically-supported benefits of prayer are? Improving self-control … reducing anger and aggression. Friends, sometimes life gets messy. Sometimes life gets ugly. And we’re going to react to those situations because one of the blessings and curses of being human is our emotions. And Paul isn’t saying that we shouldn’t get worked up about things. He is suggesting, however, that we need to be careful about releasing that anger on the people around us.
    • But as our psalm shows this morning, and as many other psalms show, we can always release those emotions with God. → whole psalm = outpouring of all that fear, grief, frustration
      • Cry out to God
      • Shake our fist at God
      • Voice our frustrations, misunderstandings
      • Time and time again throughout Scripture, God shows us just how much God can take. We see God’s strength in the face of our own weakness. We see God’s wisdom in the face of our own misunderstanding. We see God’s patience in the face of our own anxiety. We see God’s love in the face of our own hindrances. And this capacity that God has to absorb all of our worst moments should instill in us not a reservation about bringing those moments to God but a confidence and a level of trust.
        • Scholar: [Paul] insists that we need to speak truth because we actually are all part of one another. … Without truth, authentic community fails.[6]
          • “Speaking truth and seeking authentic relationships” – applies to our relationship with God just as readily as it applies to our relationships with other people
          • Being truthful with God = sharing our whole selves – the good, the bad, and the ugly → Through the grace of God, we have the forgiveness and freedom to express our whole selves to God in prayer. That’s the beauty. That’s the blessing. That’s the power of prayer.
  • Which brings us to the pivotal verse in our psalm this morning: I pray to God – my life a prayer – and wait for what [God will] say and do.[7] → Easier said than done, right? I mean, in 1 Thessalonians, Paul talks about praying without ceasing. Without ceasing. Day in. Day out. With the psalmist, we say, “May my life be a prayer, O God.” But man, that’s tough. That’s really tough. We’re busy. We’re scattered. We’re increasingly overstimulated and under-connected. Some days, we’re lucky to get a couple of quick minute prayers in between breakfast and bedtime. Pray without ceasing?? Seriously??
    • Important note: Paul doesn’t say “be perfect in prayer” → always something to be working at
      • Bon Jovi said it to!: “We’re halfway there … livin’ on a prayer”
    • In an attempt → expanding what we think of as prayer
      • Verbal forms of prayer – what we’re familiar with
        • Praying out loud (alone or with others)
        • Praying silently but speaking to God
      • Similar – praying in the written word
        • Journaling as prayer
        • Praying through Scripture – using the Word of God as your prayer (can be done with any Scripture but Psalms especially suited to this)
      • Less familiar forms
        • Physical prayer – prayer walk, walking a labyrinth, yoga or other body-movement spiritual practice
        • Listening prayer – sitting in silence (another tough one – not one we’re great at)
        • Visual prayer – coloring prayer, visio divina
          • Share about class at Synod School
        • The point is that there are so many ways that we can turn different aspects of our lives into prayer – things that we already do and already love to do can take on incredible meaning and depth when we approach them with an attitude of communicating with God through them.
          • Do you like to sing? Let your song be your prayer.
          • Do you like to run? Let your breathing as you run be your prayer.
          • Do you like to paint? Let your brush strokes be your prayer.
          • Do you like to garden? Let the time you spent pruning and harvesting and weeding on your knees be your prayer.
          • Do you like to fish? Let the sound of your hook sinking into the water be your prayer.
          • Any aspect of our lives can become our prayers to God because there is no part of our lives that is out of God’s reach. God hears all kinds of prayers – even the ones that we speak with our hearts instead of our voices.
            • Reassurance from the ps: As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit, and that’s why you’re worshiped.[8]
            • Paul’s description in today’s text: [God’s] Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life … Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with [God] and learn a life of love.[9]
  • Friends, our prayers before God can take all forms. They can cover every conceivable facet of emotion from joy to sorrow to uncertainty to silliness. There is nothing – not a single thing in our lives, in our hearts, in our souls – that we cannot bring to God in prayer. Know this: God loves you. God hears you. And most importantly, God yearns to hear you. Amen.

[1] “Livin’ on a Prayer” from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Livin%27_on_a_Prayer, last edited 5 Aug. 2015, accessed 6 Aug. 2015.

[2] Clay Routledge, Ph.D. “5 Scientifically-Supported Benefits of Prayer” on Psychology Today website, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/more-mortal/201406/5-scientifically-supported-benefits-prayer. Written 23 June 2014, accessed 6 Aug. 2015.

[3] Ps 130:1-3.

[4] Eph 4:29, 31.

[5] Jaime Clark-Soles. “Proper 14 (Sunday between August 7 and August 13 inclusive) – Ephesians 4:25-5:2, Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 329.

[6] Clark-Soles, 327.

[7] Ps 130:5.

[8] Ps 130:4.

[9] Eph 4:30; 5:2.

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