How prayer brings authority
What is it about prayer that links it to preaching? Why would a person like Martin Luther set down as a spiritual axiom that "he who has prayed well has studied well"? Why would E. M. Bounds, the great Methodist preacher and pray-er of a century ago, say, "The character of our praying will determine the character of our preaching. Light praying makes light preaching… . Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is greater still"?
In touch with God
Prayer gets us in touch with God, causing us to swing like a needle to the pole of the Spirit. It gives us focus, unity, purpose. We discover serenity, the unshakable firmness of life orientation. Prayer opens us to the subterranean sanctuary of the soul where we hear the Qol Yahweh, the voice of the Lord. It puts fire into our words and compassion into our spirits. It fills our walk and talk with new life and light. We begin to live out the demands of our day perpetually bowed in worship and adoration.
People can sense this life of the Spirit, though they may not know what it is they feel. It affects the feeling tones of our preaching. People can discern that our preaching is not the performance of thirty minutes but the outlook of a life. Without such praying, our exegesis may be impeccable, our rhetoric may be magnetic, but we will be dry, empty, hollow.
We are told that when the Sanhedrin saw the bold preaching of Peter and John they perceived them to be men who had been with Jesus. Why? Because they had a Galilean accent? Perhaps. But more likely it was because they carried themselves with such a new spirit of life and authority that even their enemies sensed it. So it is for us. If we have it, people will know it; if we don't, no homiletic skills will take up the void.
What does prayer of this kind look like? What do we do? Intercede for others? Perhaps, but primarily we are coming to enjoy his presence. We are relaxing in the light of Christ. We are worshiping, adoring. Most of all, we are listening. François Fénelon counseled, "Be still, and listen to God. Let your heart be in such a state of preparation that His spirit may impress upon you such virtues as will please Him. Let all within you listen to Him. This silence of all outward and earthly affection and of human thoughts within us is essential if we are to hear His voice."
Add to those words this perceptive observation of Sören Kierkegaard: "A man prayed and at first he thought prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet, until in the end he realized that prayer was listening."
Prayer involves centering down, becoming genuinely present where we are, what the devotional masters often called "recollection." It cultivates a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings. We do not do violence to our rational faculties, but we listen with more than the mind—we listen with the spirit, with the heart, with our whole being. Like the Virgin Mary, we ponder these things in our hearts.
Perhaps one meditation exercise will illustrate how we practice centered listening. I call it simply "palms down, palms up." Begin by placing your palms down as a symbolic indication of your desire to turn over any concerns you may have to God. Inwardly you may pray, "Lord, I give to you my anger toward John. I release my fear of the dentist appointment this morning. I surrender my anxiety over not having enough money to pay the bills this month. I release my frustration over trying to find a baby-sitter for tonight." Whatever it is that weighs on your mind, just say, "Palms down." Release it. You may even feel a certain sense of release in your hands.
After several moments of surrender, turn your palms up as a symbol of your desire to receive from the Lord. Perhaps you will pray silently, "Lord, I would like to receive your divine love for John, your peace about the dentist appointment, your patience, your joy." Whatever you need, you say, "Palms up." Having centered down, spend the remaining moments in complete silence. There is no need for hurry. There is no need for words, for like good friends you are just glad to be together, to enjoy one another's presence.
And as we grow accustomed to his company, slowly, almost imperceptibly, a miracle works its way into us. The feverish scramble that used to characterize our lives is replaced by serenity and steady vigor. Without the slightest sense of contradiction, we've become both tough with issues and tender with people. Authority and compassion become twins and infiltrate our preaching. Indeed, prayer permeates everything about us. It is winsome, life-giving, strong, and our people will know it.
In touch with people
Some of the richest times in my pastoral ministry came when I would go into the sanctuary during the week and walk through the pews praying for the people who sat there Sunday after Sunday. Our people tend to sit in the same pews week after week, and I would visualize them there and lift them into the light of Christ. I would pray the sermons on Friday that I would preach on Sunday. Praying for their hurts and fears and anxieties does something inside you. It puts you in touch with your people in a deep, intimate way. Through prayer our people become our friends in a whole new dimension.
In our congregation in Oregon was a little fellow who underwent two serious brain operations. The times of prayer we shared during those six weeks built a bond between us that was like steel. Twice I stayed in that hospital all day with his mom and dad waiting to see if Davey would live or die. Davey was only five years old, and he had Down's Syndrome, but I value him as one of my closest friends. And would he listen to me preach! No children's church for him; he would perch himself up on that pew, eager, attentive. I do not know if he ever understood a word I said, but I would preach my heart out because I knew Davey was listening. If we have prayed with our people—really prayed with them—they will listen to us preach because they know we love them.
People can touch us
Prayer gets our people in touch with us. I want my people to know they have a ministry of prayer to give me. My people know I want them to come into my office and pray for me.
People need to sense our confidence and spirit of authority, but they also need to know us in our frailty and fear. They need to know that we hurt too. We need their help. The religion of the stiff upper lip is not the way of Christ. Our Lord knew how to weep. In his hour of greatest trial he sought the comfort and support of the three, and he went through that night in unashamed agony. Many times our stiff-upper-lip religion is not a sign of piety but of arrogance.
Beyond that, it is important to help our people understand the ministry of prayer they can have for and in our worship services. I would meet every Sunday at 8 A.M. with all the platform people and remind them that perhaps the main ministry they would be having that morning would be to pray for the people. Sometimes I would have people sit on the platform for no other reason than to pray. One dear brother would sit through both worship services every Sunday bathing the people in prayer, praying for the power of Christ to conquer, praying for truth to prosper. When you know someone is doing that, you can really preach.
Prayer is an essential discipline for preaching because it gets us in touch with God, it helps get us in touch with our people, and it helps people get in touch with us. As John Wesley said: "Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergy or laity; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth. God does nothing but in answer to prayer."