Story of Two Men Praying in the Synagogue
10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.
12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
An older monk once asked a novice younger monk, “Do you understand the story of the two men praying in the temple?” the younger monk said, “Yes, God accepted the tax collector’s prayer because he was humble contrite and he did not accept the Pharisee’s prayer because he was arrogant, prideful and sought to exalt himself.”
The abbot said to the monk, “You are right that God accepted the humble, repentance of the tax collector but you see, God rejected the Pharisee’s prayer not because of the Pharisee’s pride but because God was bored.
Now, I can’t speak for God’s boredom with the Pharisee’s prayer, but if we are honest with ourselves I think we would say that we at least get bored when our prayers come from anywhere other than where we truly are – our deepest needs, desires and desperation.
Today we are Finishing up our series on Breaking Busy by talking about communication, specifically communication with God.
The most common words we see used to describe human communication with God in scripture is the phrase to Cry Out
In Hebrew it’s translated to shriek, to holler, to make a shrill sound and in the Greek to croak like a raven or to scream.
The first time we see to “cry out” is in Exodus 2:23.
“The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.”
First time God responds to our cry – Later in Exodus 3
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out…and now the cry of the Israelites has reached me”
Matt Woodley in his book The Folly of Prayer writes:
“Prayer involves coming to God in the mess of life, the confusion of life, the pain and agony of life, and crying out for life…God designed prayer for desperate human beings.
This should be a relief because we often assume that prayer requires a long series of prerequisites: Get in the right mood. Find the right place. Compose the correct words. Conjure up the right feelings. Banish distractions. Rid yourself of ugly emotions like hate and anger and lust. But in the biblical story the first rule about prayer or crying out to God is that “prayer begins where we are, not where we think we should be.” Pg. 43 The Folly of Prayer
I. Prayer begins where we are, not where we think we should be.
I mean, have you like me, ever not prayed because you felt you weren’t “where you should be?”
How many of us have resisted praying in a moment because we judged ourselves to be unworthy of talking to God?
How many of us seek to remove all distraction in order to create the perfect atmosphere for prayer? Or how many of us choose not to pray because we can’t dedicate an hour so we assume it would be better to not pray than to pray for less than an hour!
How many of us assume prayer requires absolute silence and solitude to achieve and since we never have that we rarely pray?
How many of us have used this logic: I haven’t prayed so I can’t pray because if I prayed I’d be ashamed at how little I pray.
How many of us view prayer as alternate spiritual reality we can only arrive at once we’ve conquered or removed ourselves from our currently physical reality, our distractions, or our less than acceptable emotions?
How many of us disqualify ourselves from prayer when we see hate, anger, lust or even irritability rise up in us.
I will tell you, the times I want to pray the least are the times I’ve picked a fight with Liz’s, overreached and snapped at Bina. Maybe the times I want to pray the least are when I’ve overreached because someone cut me off on 99 and yet those are incredible moments where communication with God, if I entered into it, could radically transform my life.
But here is the truth, we’ve been trained in our culture to know where prayer happens and what it should look like.
Our images of prayer are very ethereal, epic and otherworldly or they are very calm, focused and intimate. If you simply do a Google search of books on prayer you will see books with sailboats, people walking slo-mo through a wheat field, pristine waters next to a lake dock and a few of what seems to be the same man standing on a cliff at sunrise with hands lifted high.
If I put on my sociologist hat for a minute I would say that these images have a few messages that inform our cultural view of prayer. I believe they indicate that prayer happens in solitude, prayer is like vacation, prayer is carefree, prayer is silent and pristine and prayer is for our an appropriate amount of mess but not too much.
We have these images for a reason
Ultimately these images convey the message that prayer happens where we should be and not where we are.
We’ve talked before about the kingdom of God and how it is upside down from the kingdom of this world. What I want us to understand today is the same is true about prayer – The prayer God desires is upside down from what our culture and pop-Christian culture convey.
What we see in scripture is God hears the cries of the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, the tax collector, the slave, the lame, the blind and the stranger and foreigner.
If we want to commune and communicate with Jesus we must go out into the streets and the alleys of our heart and bring in the tax collectors, the poor, the crippled, the blind and lame within, who we don’t want to acknowledge or don’t even know how to acknowledge.
Prayer must begin in our need, our anger, our shame. Prayer must be born within our sadness, our loss, our despair. We must pray when we are numb and confused not only once we’ve regained our feeling and clarity.
Prayer must begin in the midst of feeling insecure not just when we are riding the wave of self-esteem and public opinion.
If life has hurt and broken us we must stop simply praying for a better life and let our sadness and anger cry out to God on behalf of all we’ve lost.
If we do not trust God to lead us into his plan for our lives let us stop the exhausting task of trying to trust him more and simply introduce our mistrust of Jesus to Jesus.
We’ve heard it said, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear.” But deep down I think many of us believe, because of our fear, that we’re the ones Perfect Love will cast out. So when we see Perfect Love coming down the road instead of giving him our fear so he can cast it out we stuff it in our pocket or hide it behind a half smile hoping he won’t see.
We do this because we fear that exposing our fear to Perfect Love will result in punishment.
But what if you were to show your fear to Perfect Love? See if Perfect Love does not invite your fear in, put a ring on your fear’s finger, kill the fattened calf and throw a party for your fear’s friends and show your fear that though he thought he was a slave and worthless he was in fact a son and everything the Perfect Love had was his.
You see, we often think that it is the strong parts of us that lead the weak parts of us to Jesus but actually it is the weak parts of us that have the courage to do whatever it takes to be with Jesus.
Prayer is for our weakness. Prayer is for our need. Prayer is for desperate humans beings.
II. Prayer is for desperate humans beings
I invite you to read these stories with your inner desperation.
Woman with the issue of blood
There once was a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years.
She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.
When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”
Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
“You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”
But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it.
Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth.
He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.
A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.
He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus was sitting by the roadside begging.
When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.”
Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
Each of these stories stands as an image of how we experience prayer. These stories all have a large crowd very interested to be around Jesus and they all have a single desperate individual longing to be with Jesus.
You and I may hear these stories and without thinking put ourselves in the place of Zaccheaus, or the unnamed woman, or Bartimaeus, and assume the crowd is everyone else but the truth is that within us lie both a blind desperate Bartimaues and a crowd that wants him to shut up and “cheer up.”
Within us lies the crowd happy enough to bump into Jesus and a desperate woman who hasn’t known rest, comfort, community or intimacy in years if ever.
Within us lies a crowd of cynical saints well enough to observe from a distance and a desperate inner child, about the size of Zacchaeus, that would do anything for God to finally look his direction and call out to him, “I’m coming to your house! I’m coming to your house.
Prayer is for desperate human beings so if we want to pray we must let our desperation, our places of deepest need cry out to God.
A few years ago Liz developed an autoimmune disease that created some disruption in our lives as she rhythmically got sick almost every three months. At this point we are quite used to the rhythm but we still call the advice nurse to have her communicate with the doctor and though the nurse is typically great they never will convey to the doctor with the same tone and urgency that we have when we first call. Though we’d love to talk with the doctor ourselves we rarely get the chance because we are represented by a less desperate, less connected professional. The nurse speaks to the doctor with a lack of desperation because the immune system is not hers; the patient is not her wife or her mom.
We do this to ourselves. We take the hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless and imprisoned within and we package their outcries into tidy prayer requests and use our inside voices, hoping God will answer us on account of our clear and polite demeanor.
But we must let our inner hunger grumble, our inner thirst ache, our inner nakedness shiver. We must let our inner stranger lament and let our inner slave cry out to God because what we find is that these are the prayers God hears, because these are the prayers that are also real to us.
When we let these parts of us pray we find that the hungry, thirsty, naked and imprisoned stranger within was not our obstacle to encountering Jesus but was in fact the very presence of Jesus within us.
III. To find our desperation we must break our busyness because busyness numbs us from our desperation
So how do we find our desperation in prayer?
Prayer has a lot of baggage for us. If I had to boil down into a single statement what that baggage is I would say that we generally believe prayer has a single formula.
Now we’d be here all day if we tried to unpack our baggage with prayer so I want to offer a few steps toward prayer we can take.
Steps Toward Prayer
Pray for Small Amounts of Time
Plan small amounts of time to pray.
Lunch, bathroom, commute, shower
Let little thoughts drift into a prayer
You’ll find that prayer will begin coming even when you aren’t conscious of it.
Larger amounts of Time
Put yourself in larger chunks of time,
Be ok with the outcome.
Experiment with how and where you pray
Enclosed spaces OR open spaces
Be active if you need to. Open your eyes.
Exercise before prayer, dance, move your body
Pray with someone
Jesus shows up when two or more gather to pray and I would add that we tend to show up when we gather with others to pray.
Genuine prayer with others can unlock stagnant areas in our lives.
Pray when you’re least acceptable
Invite Jesus into the moments of shame, embarrassment, and irritability. Let Jesus see you in your worst moments.
When you find yourself pushing everyone away or being tempted in anyway, at that moment, invite Jesus in, even if it feels like it’s going to kill you.
Here is the thing, Prayer requires rhythmic disconnection from our busyness so that we can learn to see God, to see ourselves and to see others. This Rhythm renews our relationships by pruning them down to what is most real and infusing them with the depth and breadth of the love of Jesus.
IV. Prayers of Desperate Human Beings Create Transformative Community
A few weeks ago Liz shared that when we Sabbath, when we rest, energy is redeployed into the neighborhood. I would add that when we allow others to see our desperation energy, grace and redemption are redeployed into the neighborhood as well.
Matt Woodley writes, “Crying out to God makes authentic community come alive…when I admit my desperation and you admit yours, when we lean hard into God, when we cry out to him from our places of trouble, suddenly community comes alive. It’s charged with reality. I need you, you need me, and together we need the living God, so we cry out for mercy.”
“…we become a compassionate community that reaches out to a broken world. True prayer isn’t a mere private piety; it changes us, and it changes the world around us.” Pg. 51.
Let us be people who see and are seen, not as we should be but as we are.