Sunday, September 19, 2010

Praying for Everyone

1 Timothy 2:1-7
Ordinary 25
September 19, 2010
William G. Carter

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone...

Years ago, I visited a church and met an older lady with uncommon eyes. They were luminous, glowing, in a color that I could only describe as periwinkle. That’s not a color most of us would know. We would have to find it again in the crayon box. Periwinkle is a cross of blue and grey. Her eyes had a touch of grey, suggesting wisdom, and blue, signifying clarity and concern. She carried herself with an uncommon dignity and grace. There was some special quality to her character. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

The short conversation ended, and we moved on. I turned and looked over my shoulder at her again, and my host noticed this. He said, “She’s something, isn’t she?” What do you mean? And he said, “That’s Caroline. She’s always praying. In fact, she has probably been praying for you since she met you.”

There is a special quality of grace that gets lived out by people who pray. As we spoke last week, Paul is discussing grace, and the way it works itself in people’s lives. Grace is the power of God that changes us. Some of the change has to do with character, specifically in the concern we show for others. In the opening line of today’s text, a mature Christian says to a young church leader, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone.” Or as somebody else translates this, “Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know.”

We are talking together this fall about the riches of the Christian Gospel. God bequeaths certain treasures to those who love Jesus. It is a spiritual inheritance, passed from one generation to the next. The treasure for us today is prayer.

Now, we pray a lot on Sunday mornings. There’s a prayer of confession, where we name our human brokenness and ask for God’s healing. Before we hear the scriptures, we have a prayer for illumination, because we need God to turn on the lights and give us understanding. Right after the offering , there is a prayer of thanksgiving, as we offer our lives, our money, and our talents in response to God’s grace. And if you take a good look at the songs we sing, most of them are offered as prayers: we praise our Maker, we ask for guidance and help

But it’s a special kind of prayer that is commended to Timothy, the young Christian: it’s “praying for everyone.” Technically speaking, this is a kind of prayer called intercession. In our text, it is a noun unique to the First Letter of Timothy: enteuxis. It has to do with a “coming together.” Some would translate it as “an interview.” It’s the meeting of hearts, minds, and spirits as we express concern for other people to the God who hears us all.

When “enteuxis” becomes a verb, it is defined as the work of a priest. The priest is the one who oversees the meeting between God and all people. And the priest offers up prayers for everybody. The New Testament regards all of us as priests in this way. We offer up prayers for one another, as the priesthood of all believers. That’s what “intercession” is all about. That’s what it means to “intercede” for those around us. We do the priestly work of praying for one another.

Now, I don’t know what happens when we close our eyes. But the text today suggests that when we pray, we are undertaking a ministry that moves in two ways. First, prayer looks high toward God’s kingdom, looking for it to come to earth as God reigns in heaven. Second, prayer looks low. It is a primary way for us to perceive the needs, the hopes, and the possibilities of broken and unfinished human lives. We lift them before a God who lives in the future, knowing that God can step into the present, and bring the healing that his beloved children need.

Some think that, by praying, they can change God. Maybe so. There are a few places in the scriptures where it suggests this might happen. More frequently, however, prayer changes us. As we pray, it affects some kind of difference in our character. If we pray for the poor, sooner or later we start working for their behalf. If we pray with thanks for the people here, there, and around us, pretty soon we speak compliments to their faces. If we pray for direction, as time passes, the direction opens before us, and we trust this new path is God’s gift. It’s the praying that changes us.

This is one way that God works out grace within us: by calling us to pray, by inviting us to pray, not only for ourselves, but for others, whether we know them or not. The writer of this letter says, “Pray for the kings and queens, for the generals of the world, for the public officials and the presidents.” That strikes some as strange.

I remember somebody saying to me once, in no uncertain terms, that she wasn’t going to pray for our president. She didn’t like him. I’m not going to tell you which president it was. That doesn’t matter. We talked about it, and I decided to risk losing our friendship. “You know,” I said, “I’m not sure we can grow up in the Christian life unless we get to the point where we pray for everybody, even those we do not like.” She wasn’t convinced, at least not for a while.

The Bible lets us listen in on Jesus as he prays. He prays for the people who love him, then he prays for the people who hate him. On the cross, he even prays for the people who put him there. “Father, forgive them,” he prays, “for they are clueless.” Personally, let me say that gives me a great deal of hope.

Jesus commands us to pray for our enemies. This is a unique teaching of our Lord. What separates us should never define us. As we develop a concern for our sisters and brothers, we also lift that concern before God. If we pray only those we like, for those we admire, only those we love, what good will that do in moving ahead with God’s kingdom? So we pray for everybody. That’s the invitation. In a remarkable line from our text, “God has the desire to save everybody.” Not those who are like us, but those who are different. God’s grace is for every single person, each one made in the divine image.

So it is that regular prayer for other people, other situations, even for our enemies, expands our understanding of God’s work and God’s love. We should never play it safe when we pray, withholding those matters from God that we should trouble him with. Rather we lay our hearts completely open, and speak of the concerns that matter most. If we keep doing that, sometimes we have our eyes opened to see more of what God is doing in the world.

A woman named Courtney was angry with her ex-husband. Tom had dumped her for a younger woman, acting as impulsively as their own courtship had begun. Then his new relationship began to have troubles. The ex-wife found herself praying for him. She didn’t do it because she liked him or wanted him back. She prayed because they had once shared their lives for twenty-seven years. She knew him well enough to know his bad habits. She could also read his face when he was hurting. This gave her grave concern for him as a person, so she prayed for him. No one was around when she did it. Their grown children would have protested, “Mom, what are you doing? Let him clean up his own messes.”

But she prayed from a distance. Boundaries were still clear; she had no interested in dropping by to visit him with a kiss or a casserole. But she prayed for him, imagining that she was gently lifting Tom into the light of God’s presence. She didn’t have all the right words, and she didn’t need the words. In time, their grown kids took her cue. They showed some kindness to their wayward father. Tom softened, and calmed down. The new marriage had its troubles, and eventually it ended. But somehow another deeper kind of reconciliation began. God was using all of this prayer to make something fresh and new. When the dust settled, everybody had become different people.

Praying will change us. That’s not why we do it. Prayer is not a means of self-improvement. But it is a way of inviting the Spirit of God to work in somebody else’s life – and in our own. God can cleanse us. God can begin to mend what is broken. We gain a deeper sense of God’s justice, of how God can set some things right. This becomes clearer as we pray, as we push in the clutch and engage the gears in our souls.

This is one of the secret treasures of Christian faith, known only by those who keep praying. If we pray for other people, it will push us beyond our selfishness. Sometimes we get stuck, whining about our own needs, whimpering that God isn’t doing enough about us. When that happens, perhaps we should start praying for others around us, beginning with those who are most affected by the matters that causes us to whine. As we keep praying, we can begin to see the large scale map of human brokenness. And we also begin to see how we ourselves could contribute to some tangible, specific solutions.

Consistent prayer for other people will lift us out of our own isolation. It will push us beyond our cautious withdrawal from others and their troubles. It will build bridges. It will enlarge hearts. And others don’t even need to know that we are praying for them. But we know. And God keeps working in all of it.

This kind of prayer is not as complicated as some would think. You don’t need a lot of flowery language. Don’t need to worry about having the right words. Don’t even need any words at all.

In her book Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson suggests a process for praying for others, and words aren’t necessary:

First: relax and breathe gently. Become aware of God’s presence, and imagine it as light and warmth. Allow this glory to fill your consciousness.

Next, when we are in God’s presence we are not alone. We are there with all God’s children held in the divine embrace. Choose one of those children who has a need for healing of body, mind, or heart.

Next, lift this person into God’s light. Visualize God’s love bathing the person, and gently penetrating defenses, dissolving pain, cleansing wounds. Use any images that see appropriate: dark becoming light, ice melting, confusion ordered.

See the person in a state of wholeness in God’s light, newly created, fresh and beautiful as seen through the eyes of divine love.

Ask God that this beauty be fully realized according to God’s design for this person. Thank God for whatever gift of healing is given. Release the person into God’s care until you pray again.

As Marjorie says, this kind of prayer tutors us to use our imagination more actively. We begin to visualize restored relationships. We “see” old animosities dissolve. It’s not trying to manufacture results, as much as envisioning with God the restoration of creation. (from Soul Feast, Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)

“Here’s the first thing you need to do,” says old Paul to young Timothy. “Pray for everybody. There is one God. God wants everybody to be healed and filled with divine knowledge.” The day is coming when the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

And the first step for moving toward that day is to start praying. To start praying . . . for everybody.

(c) William G. Carter
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