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Baffled by prayer


Here’s a hint from a preacher: Petition God by spicing your prayers with imperatives

October 31, 2019

The Rev. David Maxwell, who leads Geneva Press for the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, preached a pithy sermon on prayer during chapel service at the Presbyterian Center Wednesday. (Photo by Rich Copley)

All his life, the Rev. David Maxwell has found prayer baffling.

Maxwell, who leads Presbyterian Publishing Corporation’s curriculum imprint, Geneva Press, said during a recent weekly chapel service at the Presbyterian Center that he often finds prayer “awkward, irrational and confusing — and I know I’m not alone in my discomfort.”

For example: Just ask for a volunteer to open a church meeting with prayer. Eyes immediately turn away, papers shuffle and blood pressure begins to rise, Maxwell said. “Oh, what a relief when someone volunteers!” he said with a smile.

Like their understanding of the internet, people of faith may not understand just how prayer works. Yet the Bible “is filled with prayer,” Maxwell noted, with the lectionary’s gospel text Luke 11:1–13, where Jesus teaches his disciples what to say when they pray. He follows that up with telling them exactly what to do to persevere in their prayer life.

Luke’s account “teaches us the way to pray and then assures us that God will listen to us and respond,” Maxwell said. Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. God promises us “a gracious response, not a cruel one,” akin to parents giving their children a fish or an egg rather than a snake or a scorpion.

Maxwell said that as he’s served the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation as an editor of such standout authors as Walter Brueggemann, he’s learned at least two lessons. The first, as Brueggemann has often said of liberal Christians, is, as Maxwell put it, “We are so afraid of upsetting God that we never ask God for anything.” But “God can bear anything that we give God,” Maxwell said. “Tell God what you think and want — and be bold.”

Maxwell’s second lesson has come to him after editing a large number of prayers, both great and bad: Presbyterians including the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell and the Rev. Kimberly Bracken Long have taught Maxwell to use imperative verbs when addressing God. Jesus himself used the same approach teaching his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.

“We need to tell God what we want,” Maxwell said. “Give us our food, forgive us our sins, do not lead us into temptation and rescue us from evil.”

We live in a time, Maxwell said, when the victims of racist, divisive and cruel leaders are calling out to God for justice. “Weeping mothers cry out to be reunited with their children,” he said. “All these people trust that God will hear their cries and respond.”

As a self-described “Snowflake,” a political insult for someone perceived to be too sensitive, “I may not understand just how prayer works, but I will do my best to add my demands to God along with theirs,” he said.

Then during the service’s closing prayer, Maxwell practiced what he preached, asking God to hold people in God’s care, wipe their tears away, give them food and drink, and “toothbrushes and soap right now.”

“Melt the hearts of leaders blinded by self-serving greed,” he prayed. “Take charge in a visible way and lead each of us to act with gifts you have given.”

During the service, Gambrell played his guitar and led worshipers to sing two hymns from “Glory to God” that dovetailed with both the Scripture and message: “Seek Ye First” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus:  Prayer

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Debra Jones, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)
Edgar Jones, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)

Let us pray:

Gracious God, we celebrate that you are in charge of our future. We are honored to be part of your amazing story of birth and new life. Allow us to be open to you and your guiding spirit. Amen.

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