Deep Cries Out – Lent 5

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1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
2 Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
7 O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
8 It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

John 11:1-45
11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

I thought about opening with something from The Walking Dead or World War Z about zombies or mummies because Lazarus comes out of the tomb wrapped as if he were a mummy, but I could not find one not gross and then you would remember that I played a clip from The Walking Dead instead of the sermon.
In the psalm text today, the voice waits for the Lord and cries out for the Lord, just like Mary and Martha hope that God answers their cries for their brother’s healing.

Sometimes we read these stories and think that’s just it, they’re mere stories. About characters, as are our tv shows or movies, not real people. I find myself talking about characters on tv shows like they’re real people. Blah Blah does this, feels this, she wouldn’t do that, he would definitely do that. There really was a Lazarus and a Mary and Martha, and there was this man called Jesus. He was fully human and fully divine. Meaning the God part of him could see the larger picture, but the fully human part of him, felt like we do, with real emotions. Jesus was not a drone or a robot. He was a living, breathing human being with moments of clarity and sureness of purpose as well as moments of doubt and wrestling. You read about his calmness in the face of his best friend being sick. Much is debated about whether he knew that Lazarus would die at the outset of our pericope today. It doesn’t say what he stayed two days longer for and it doesn’t say when he actually knew that Lazarus had died, but obviously he tells the disciples, who think that Lazarus’ just sleeping. In verses 14 and 15, “14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

And then we have a side conversation that the disciples had with one another saying the Jews were already riled up against you and if you go back there they’ll probably stone you, and Thomas answering in verse 16, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Let us go, that we die with him???!!! We all know the story has a happy ending, but if one of my brothers died, I would be devastated. And I would want a miracle. Knowing me, I would demand it! I would fight for it. Because that’s what big sisters do. We may torture them when they are younger, but no one outside of us can mess with them and if there’s a way to prevent them pain, I will certainly do whatever it takes. That’s basically what Martha does, but Jesus seems to be detached somewhat from the situation until Mary runs out to him weeping. Jesus fell apart at seeing Lazarus’ tomb. By the way, a bit of Bible trivia, this is the shortest verse in the Bible, verse 35, “Jesus wept.” Seeing Mary’s grief and her tears, made Jesus face his own grief. Jesus cries along with us. Jesus cries for the hurting in our world. Jesus cries when we each face our own particular “valleys of shadows of death.” We may not know we need a savior who feels, but we do. We may not comprehend how important it is to have a God that is both indeed part of the triune God and is God with us, Emmanuel, fully living breathing humanity, but we do.

I appreciate in verses 41 and 42, “So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” He’s modeling what we need to do. Come to God with our requests because God already knows our prayers and petitions. God hears. God answers. There’s a beauty in the prayers we actually articulate and those that the Spirit articulates as the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, when we cry out. God always hear you. You may not get the answer you seek or you don’t always see the miracle that you thought you would, but God is present with you every step of the way.

Through our Lenten journey as we make our way to the cross, we celebrate the defeating of death and we claim the words in verses 25 and 26, “Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” But may we not forget that it wasn’t easy for Jesus, he didn’t just snap his fingers and go to a place of acceptance. He had his own Garden of Gethsemane. We don’t go straight to acceptance either. We have to journey through all of the stages of grief. There’s real grief with a loss of a loved one and trite answers like “it happened for a reason” or “God needed another angel in heaven” bring little comfort. We can celebrate that “all things work together for good for those that love God,” but God doesn’t cause a girl to be sexually assaulted, a young father to be diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, or an accidental drowning. There’s a tension, a dance that comes through questions of theodicy and we sometimes wonder if God can work good. It’s okay to question God. It’s okay to yell at God. Aren’t we glad that we love a savior who knows, intimately, what it means to be human? To feel the full weight of the brokenness of our world?

So I’ll leave you with these words that mean a great deal to me and basically encapsulate what I’m getting at,

In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm

What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All
Here in the love of Christ I stand

In Christ alone, who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless Babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save

Til on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live, I live

There in the ground His body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain
Then bursting forth in glorious Day
Up from the grave He rose again

And as He stands in victory
Sins curse has lost its grip on me
For I am His and He is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ

No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From a lifes first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny

No power of hell, no scheme of man
Could ever pluck me from His hand
Til He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I stand

I will stand, I will stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground, all other ground
Is sinking sand, is sinking sand
So I stand

Martyr of the Holy Innocents

Isaiah 63:7-9

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

God’s Mercy Remembered

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
    in all their distress.
It was no messenger[a] or angel
but his presence that saved them;[b]
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Most pastors avoid this text I’m about to read you like the plague.  It’s even called the Holy Innocents or Martyrs in the Lectionary.  You see, we’re still decorated for Christmas.   Most people don’t know it’s even part of the Christmas story, and Lord knows we wouldn’t want it depicted in any way.  But my friend and colleague the Rev. Paul Shultz, had a way of wading into texts that still made you uncomfortable, still did not give you all the answers and didn’t tie up the loose ends.  He would act like he relished making you uncomfortable, but he let slip one too many times, his care for people.  He died this past week from flu complications.  We texted on New Year’s when he first started coming down with something.  He was only 50 years old and had three kids, 1 grandchild and a fiancé Jana.  I will travel tomorrow morning to represent the United Methodist Campus Ministry Association at the visitation and the funeral because he was my co-chair on UMCMA.  Prayers for his family, students at The University of Iowa Wesley Foundation, and all those that loved him

Hear now the word of God. 

Matthew 2:13-23

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Escape to Egypt

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”14 Then Joseph[a] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

The Massacre of the Infants

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[b] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[c] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

The Return from Egypt

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph[d] got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.

 

So how do you deal with the implications of an angel warning Mary and Joseph to flee with baby Jesus while hundreds of children, 2 years old and younger, were slaughtered?  This is my attempt to not gloss over and fast forward the 3 verses, but to deal with them, realizing that I have my own limited understanding of what it’s like to lose a child.

This is the journal of Divorah, daughter of Amos, of Beyt-Lechem.

Journal Entry 1

I am a young woman today, full of strength and life, and I’ve been blessed by God.  I am from, well, not a wealthy family, but a good one.  I have a good name, something that, among my people, is priceless.  The Lord led me to my love, my husband, Yoseph, and we have had three full years of joy together.  We have good lands that flourish with wheat and barley and honey, and I have praised God daily for it.  God even favored us enough to give us a child, a daughter, whom we’ve named Hannah.  She has been the most precious thing I have ever known.  Every movement, every sound, every new thing she learns or discovers – it has been overwhelming the amount of unconditional love I feel.  Her father and I would commission someone to paint her life, one day at a time, if we could.  That is how this journal came to be.  Yesterday, on Hannah’s first birthday, we bought this book of memories, with as many blank pages as we could afford, to begin to record her life.  And all of that, taken together, is an overflowing cup for any person.

But that was yesterday.  And today let no talk pass my lips of the Lord’s favor.  Let no one speak his name before me.  May no prayer to this “god” pass my lips or those of anyone in my household as long as I live.

Yesterday morning my Hannah turned a year old, and yesterday evening a Roman detachment arrived in town under Herod’s orders.  Yoseph and I could hear the crowds and shouting from here, and in only minutes they had come to our door.  They didn’t ask for the tax, or if we were harboring a fugitive, or if my husband was a member of the latest insurrection.  They demanded, of all things, our little girl.

And I cannot tell you how bitterly I fought them, four armed soldiers.  My husband was clubbed nearly to death, and these men murdered my Hannah.  Yoseph couldn’t protect her.  And no matter how loudly I screamed and scratched and hit, the soldiers just pushed me to the side.  They killed my sweet, precious Hannah and they might as well have killed me as well.   My husband keeps shaking me, asking me if I need anything, anything at all.  Doesn’t he know I can’t bear to go on?  Doesn’t he know that it’s all I can do to record every last thing I can remember in this journal?  For her short and brief life.  What made her smile and giggle……I can’t bear it.

Journal Entry 2

Almost thirty years to the day, I open up these pages again.  I’ll confess that I’ve read and re-read those last words many, many times since that day.  No birthday of my Hannah’s ever passes that I don’t come back here to remember.  On more than one occasion I even thought to record my feelings, to write to her, to tell her things I would’ve told her at 8 or 12 or 20 years old.  But it seemed wrong to change this book.  It seemed like moving on from her.

Nevertheless, I write today because new facts have come to light with regard to the history of Hannah’s life.  My husband and I’ve met again a young man named Yohanan, John, son of Zebediyah the fisherman from the Galilee.  John’s mother is my cousin, and he spent some time here on the farm as a boy.

Anyway, in the city, John had been invited to teach.  I thought it strange for the son of a fisherman, but the local Rabbi seemed to wish to almost interrogate him about the happenings of another wandering Rabbi that John has taken up with, one named Yeshua, or Jesus.  So my husband and I attended, and if I’m honest I was shocked and moved by John’s wisdom, and the “spirit” that was upon him.  We greeted him afterwards and he invited us to lunch and started to open up his heart to us.  And it was he who mentioned Hannah’s name to me.

He explained that this Jesus, whom he takes the foolish risk of calling “lord,” is none other than the Messiah.  And I told him that I’d heard all of that talk before but that I no longer have time for any of God’s Messiahs.  But he went on to say that it was because of this Jesus that the soldiers were sent to our village so many years ago, that it was this Jesus who threatened the evil rule of men like Herod, that it was this Jesus who is God’s great savior.  He spoke of the boy’s birth to a man and wife from Nazareth who had traveled to Bethlehem; he told me about Herod’s schemes and the appearance of angels in visions and dreams to deliver the child and his parents.  He started to describe the kingdom of God coming, and an age where even grief like mine would be no more.

Now that I think of it I can still remember the Roman census that year, and the rumors that were circulating in town at the time – a king was to come from the city of David, after all.  It was only a few months later that I became pregnant with Hannah, so we had taken it all as a good omen!  Our daughter, growing up to see the reign of Israel’s great king!

But that is when I remembered myself.  That is when I remembered the kind of faith that had left my home unguarded on that bloody night.  I remembered the kind of hope that naïve children cling to before they’ve grown up to see what life is like here and now, on earth.  I asked John why it is that our great God, the Lord of heaven and earth, had his son born to peasants in unsecured and unknown towns; or why this God speaks in fables and dreams while men like Herod give orders to armed legions?  Or why was it only God’s son who was warned to escape Bethlehem while Hannah was left alone to die?  And hundreds more with her?

I cannot even remember John’s reply, but my husband Yoseph had a few choice words for John that he had the audacity to bring up that terrible night as if this Jesus……    As Yoseph regained his temper, he thanked him for the lunch and sent him on his way without another word.  He wished him luck that he and his Jesus might somehow survive either Herod Antipas or Caesar or the Chief Priest, for that matter, but I feel none the better for our conversation.   There’s no way this Jesus being born could justify my Hannah being taken from me.  Here I sit, and thirty years have passed, but no words and no anger will bring Hannah to me.  I no longer know who I am or how to live.  I write, only, to keep record of what I now know of her story.  God have mercy on us.

Journal Entry 3

Today, Hannah’s story in this book comes to a close.  Very briefly I’ll say that, through John, in the past year I’ve been able to meet Jesus in person.  To follow him in the crowds, very skeptically at first.  Then, to eat with him and speak with him intimately a few times.  And the same wisdom and Spirit that I saw in John in that synagogue, I’ve felt in Jesus – as the source of it, like the sun sharing its light.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I first even entertained the idea that he could really be our Messiah.  It was gradual, as he answered many of my questions, and gave me new ones.  But something in his teaching, that the others usually overlooked or rebuked, started to call out to me.  He would occasionally speak of death, and of his own suffering.  He would hint at the need to shed his blood, and to tear down the Temple only to rebuild it again.  He spoke of a time of great personal sorrow to come, and of his own pain, and of his followers being prepared to carry a cross every single day.

And I don’t know what it was, but while the others murmured about these strange, off-hand comments of his, they rang in my heart.  While the crowds asked him not to say such things, but foamed at the mouth for the triumph of Israel over the Romans and all our enemies, it sounded to me like something deeper was at work.  So, yes, just weeks ago during the Passover when he was arrested, I was stirred to draw near to Jesus like never before.  What did I have left to lose?  What could the soldiers take from me now that they haven’t already ripped from me?

As some of his crowd fled in fear or others shouted out in their disappointment for him to be killed like a criminal, I prayed for him.  As I watched what they did to him, and how he endured, as he suffered, and felt unspeakable pain, at no fault of his own, in spite of his innocence, I thought of the innocence of my 1 year old, Hannah.  And I ached for his mother Mary, to witness the unspeakable ways they were treating him.  It was this final thought that confirmed in me that this was my Lord and my God.

I, who wasn’t one to look for a Messiah, who felt like no one on this earth knew my tragedy or could possibly feel my pain – I understood the injustice and cruelty, tyranny and evil, that was upon Jesus.  And I knew for certain that this was not God’s doing, but it was the fruit of what men and women had chosen to do, that day and since the beginning.  Then I remembered Jesus’ words about freedom.  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  It convicted me that, in all of the many ways that I’d hardened my heart these decades, some of his suffering was my own doing.  But Jesus’s way was to come and submit to such a thing, in order to finally set things right.  In his own words, he had become the Passover lamb for my sake and for the sake of his children, and for the sake of the man next to me that day shouting curses at him, and for the sake of his own weeping mother, and even for the sake of Pilate and Herod and Caesar.

I stayed that day until the end; I followed them out of the city, heard his final words, and watched him pass into death.  I grieved and mourned.  I wondered what could be next.  And then I received word about Jesus at my home in Bethlehem, a simple message from the believers:  “the grave could not hold him.”  And today I remember his words:  “Because I live, you shall live also.”    And though, more than 30 years ago, while his innocents were slaughtered in Bethlehem, God did not intervene in that moment to spare Hannah’s earthly life, I trust that, today, she lives also.  And I will.  So, as I said, today her story in this book comes to a close, because it continues elsewhere.

John 3:16-17 —

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

 

This was written by Josh McClendon and Narcie Jeter.

Sermon on Prayer

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DlNF_ukr0I

You see you don’t have to be nervous about prayer.  If Ben Stiller can do it when he is trying to impress his in-laws, how hard can it be to make it part of your daily routine?

The text from Luke obviously has to do with prayer, starting with the familiar words of what we now call the Lord’s prayer.  I played basketball in high school and at the beginning of every game while we were still in the locker room, we would say the Lord’s prayer together.  Don’t know if it was superstition or the fact that it was in the South, but it was a thing that united us.  We said the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm after the death of my grandfather with all 25 of us crammed in the hospital room holding hands.  There’s something about those familiar words lifted in corporate prayer that shifts our focus to what truly matters, and it’s not preseason rankings, even though we in the SEC may disagree. 

The Lord’s Prayer provides the basic framework.  And just as the memorized lyrics of a hymn or recalling a Bible verse can help us through the darkest valleys, so can the remembered words of a prayer. At the very least, they’re a good way to pierce the darkness toward the Source of light.

As we read Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, along with a parable and commentary from Jesus about persistence in prayer. Luke’s version of the prayer is shorter than the more familiar one from Matthew 6, containing only five petitions instead of the seven in Matthew. But the included five are all important petitions: the first two — “hallowed be your name” and “your kingdom come” — are spiritual, and the other three — for daily bread, for forgiveness of sins and being spared the “time of trial” — ask for help with daily life.

Another difference between the two passages is that in Matthew, Jesus gives the Lord’s Prayer as a model as a part of a larger discourse about praying in general, whereas in Luke, he gives it in direct response to a request from one of the disciples, who says, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” We have to wonder why the disciple made that request. After all, the disciples were all children of the synagogue. They had grown up going to worship and hearing public prayers. So didn’t they already know how to pray?  Maybe they wanted to hear it directly from the horse’s mouth.

Jesus starts his prayer with a surprising address to God. He says, Abba. The word typically is translated as “Father” and that bothers some people. Certainly the nature of God cannot be summarized in a purely male image. Let me suggest that Jesus does not use the word Abba to describe the nature of God so much as to describe our human relationship to God. Rather than as Father, Abba is better translated Papa or Daddy or Dad or like I call my father, Padre. It is an intimate, family form of address. When Jesus starts the Lord’s Prayer with “Abba,” he means we are to come to God in prayer as though we have an intimate, personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe.

“Hallowed be your name.” In Hebrew a person’s name was more than just how the person is identified. One’s name referred to the whole character of a person. The Psalmist writes, “And those who know your name put their trust in you.” That means more than knowing God’s name is Yahweh. As William Barclay observes: “It means that those who know the whole character and mind and heart of God will gladly put their trust in him.”

Then Jesus says, “Your kingdom come.” Jesus talks extensively about the kingdom of God. In the Gospel of Luke alone it shows up 38 times. These references are usually parables, metaphors, and analogies, not descriptive prose. Although Jesus refers to the “kingdom of God,” one never gets the sense it is a place.

In Romans 14:17 Paul offers a definition when he writes, “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy, in the Holy Spirit.” God reigns in this world where peace, joy, and righteousness prevail. As individuals, we experience the reign of God when we do what is right and when we experience the resulting inner peace and joy. 

Saints Origen and Jerome, early leaders of the church, translated this phrase, “Give us what is necessary for daily existence.” We might add, “And, Lord, help us understand the difference between what we really need and what we just want.” 

Maybe the prayers the disciples heard didn’t translate easily into meaningful personal conversation with God.  Indeed, in Matthew 6:5, Jesus referred to “hypocrites” who stood and prayed in the synagogues “so that they may be seen by others.”  The fact that Jesus responded by giving this prayer as a model suggests that he understood that praying is something with which people need help but it’s not something that is innately difficult.  Anyone can pray.  Not just the holy.  Not just Mrs. Smith who sings in the choir and is the most Godly person you know.  ANYONE can cry out to God.  Just because you’ve been going to the church you’re whole life, doesn’t mean your prayers count any more or less than someone that has never darkened a door of a church.  God judges the heart.

I admit that praying, for me, is one of the hardest parts of the Christian life. I’m not referring to public praying in worship, but to personal prayers, those that Jesus referred to when he said, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret …” (Matthew 6:6).   I love the old Cokesbury Hymn, “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” but it’s a challenge for me to put that amount of time in, I guess maybe I would make it if all of the times I prayed were added together.  I struggle with prayer.  My mind wanders.  I get sleepy.  I have a running to do list flashing through my head.  One of the students, BJ, challenged me with this, “Pray for us daily.  More than once.”  So I’ve got to set aside some time to pray, and be intentional about it.

It’s helpful to think about prayer in the context of spiritual gifts.  In more than one place in his letters, Paul talks about different Christians having different gifts — talents and abilities that can be put to work for the church. Paul lists such things as the gifts of prophecy, serving, teaching, preaching, giving aid, acts of mercy, discernment and others, and he says that they are given in different measure to different people. We suspect the same is true of prayer. Some people have the gift to be “prayer warriors” like Beth Keith.  She puts out a prayer chain email asking for prayer for members of this faith community.  Nonetheless, whether we’re “good” at prayer or not, the mere act of it draws us closer to God.

My Dad recently wrote a blog, questioning real prayer versus the phrase, “I’ll be praying for you!”  He writes, “This phrase sometimes comes across as a Southern way of saying, “Goodbye.” “I’ll be praying for you,” is it a greeting, prayer, or an unfulfilled intention? So how do I do better? I think one way is to personalize it. What I mean is that prayer is a relationship expressed in words, a give and take, with much more listening than me spouting off a list of what I or others need.  What’s really crazy is for us not to listen to God.  It’s the difference between a soliloquy for an audience of one and a divine-human dialogue.  Therefore, prayer is an art, practiced and spontaneous, speaking and listening to God, both/and, not one without the other. It is meant to be more than a conversation-ending pleasantry, “I’ll be praying for you.” It’s supposed to be a real conversation!”

I’ve mentioned to some of you, I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s book on prayer, “Help, Thanks, Wow.”  She says all prayer can be summed up in these words.  In a recent interview, she said about Help, “Well, I’ve heard people say that God is the gift of desperation, and there’s a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you’ve run out of anymore good ideas, or plans for everybody else’s behavior; or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation.  And when you’re done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, ‘Help.’ People say ‘help’ without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”

She says about Thanks, “Thanks is the prayer of relief that help was on the way. It can be [the] pettiest, dumbest thing, but it could also be that you get the phone call that the diagnosis was much, much, much better than you had been fearing. The full prayer, and its entirety, is: Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. But for reasons of brevity, I just refer to it as Thanks.  It’s amazement and relief that you caught a break; that your family caught a break; that you didn’t have any reason to believe that things were really going to be OK, and then they were and you just can’t help but say thank you.”

She says about Wow, “Wow is the praise prayer. The prayer where we’re finally speechless — which in my case is saying something. … When I don’t know what else to do I go outside, and I see the sky and the trees and a bird flies by, and my mouth drops open again with wonder at the just sheer beauty of creation. And I say, ‘Wow.’ … You say it when you see the fjords for the first time at dawn, or you say it when you first see the new baby, and you say, ‘Wow. This is great.’ Wow is the prayer of wonder.”

On the way she sees prayer, “Prayer is not about saying, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to pray now.’ Or, ‘Oh, I see I’ve made a notation here to pray at 2:15.’ It’s about getting outside of your own self and hooking into something greater than that very, very limited part of our experience here — the ticker tape of thoughts and solutions, and trying to figure out who to blame. It’s sort of like blinking your eyes open.  It’s sort of like in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy lands in Oz and the movie goes from black and white to color, and it’s like having a new pair of glasses, and you say, ‘Wow!’ “

I think of prayer as a turning towards God.  Or being in tune with God.  If we walk and talk with God, consistently with a mind on prayer, how much would we see the world around us differently?  It’s a turning towards God out of desperation, out of gratitude, at the awesome grandeur of God.  

This has been of help to me, the words of Romans 8:26-27, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

Augustine echoes this, “In affliction, then, we do not know what it is right to pray for. Because affliction is difficult, troublesome, and against the grain for us, weak as we are, we do what every human would do. We pray that it may be taken away from us. However, if he does not take it away, we must not imagine that he has forgotten us. In this way, power shines forth more perfectly in weakness.”

I often don’t know what to pray, but I can turn toward God and listen to worship music.  Some people walk outside in the garden.  Some people draw or do arts and crafts to get out of themselves.  To get out of their own way.  God will show up.  Prayer is not about a particular technique or some sort of magic words, but the means of nurturing our relationship with God.  The most important factor in praying is the recognition of the One to whom we pray.

I can’t talk about prayer without being thankful for all of yours.  When I had brain surgery on May 10th and woke up not being able to speak and unable to use my right hand or arm.  I remember writing Mike a note a week and a half after the surgery with my left hand asking how long would it be until I recovered.  You were some consistent and persistent pray-ers.

This is a clip from Bruce Almighty that’s self explanatory…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0cG11lTS1E

We don’t know how prayer works.  Why does God answer some prayers versus others?  How did I get a miracle when 45 year old Charlie Summey who was diagnosed after me with a brain tumor died last Saturday?  It seems as if there’s no rhyme or reason sometimes.  But like a friend said we mourn with his family just as we rejoice with yours.  It’s not about asking why so much as who?  If our God is a loving God and we believe in the power of prayer, than we can trust in the words ask and it will be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.  Just turning towards God with our hearts set on God and drawing nearer to God is enough.  I know that God is with us.  I feel that to the very core of my being.  God journeys with us through our seeming answered prayer and our seeming unanswered prayer alike.

 

Barbara Brown Taylor writes in an article in “Christian Century,” about some monks she encountered on her journeys, “Four times a day, a bell rang in the courtyard. As soon as it did, the brothers stopped to pray. The rest of us were welcome to join them, but it was not required. If we did not show up, then they would pray for us, as they prayed for everyone else in the world – for those who were present along with those who were absent, for those who were inclined toward God along with those who were not, for those who were in great need of prayer along with those who were not aware they needed anything at all. Prayer was their job, and they took it seriously. They prayed like men who were shoveling coal into the basement furnace of some great edifice. They did not seem to care whether anyone upstairs knew who they were or what they were doing. Their job was to keep the fire going so that people stayed warm, and they poured all their energy into doing just that.”

Persistent prayer is not so much for God, but for us.  For the strengthening of our faith, for the drawing closer to the One who created us and numbered our steps, for a lifting of our eyes to make the impossible possible.  May we live that out.  In Jesus name.

Let us pray…God we know there’s no magic words, but we know that we humbly come before you, seeking your will and your kingdom on earth.  Guard our hearts.  Guard our lips.  May we earnestly seek to draw closer to you.  Guide us and lead us in all that we do.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

 

Let us pray…Holy and Gracious God, we earnestly come before you seeking your will for our lives.  Even though we may not always understand it, we trust in you.  For those that are sick, please surround them with your healing power.  For those that are hurting, please surround them in your grace and comfort.  For those dealing with uncertainty, please surround them with your peace that surpasses all understanding. For those that it’s been a long time since coming to you in prayer, help them to know it’s a conversation.  Give them the words.  And reassure them there’s no pressure.  For all of us, spur us on that we make prayer an integral part of our personal lives and of the life of Gator Wesley.  We ask these things in your holy name and we pray as you taught your disciples to pray….

Jesus Teach Us to Pray

The Gospel text for this Sunday is on prayer.  Where one of the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”  The students will tell you that when the candy dish moves to the desk, it’s not a good sign.  You see, I’m struggling with what I’ll say about prayer.

The first part of the text is teaching them the prayer that we repeat every Sunday, the Lord’s Prayer, reminiscent of Matthew 6. Luke’s version of the prayer is shorter than the more familiar one from Matthew 6, containing only five petitions instead of the seven in Matthew. But the included five are all key petitions: “hallowed be your name,” “your kingdom come,” for daily bread, for forgiveness of sins and being spared the “time of trial.” So whether we pray Matthew or Luke’s version, we’re covering important theological ground and all the basics.

This is placed before a parable and explanation of the merits of persistent prayer.  All we have to do is ask and it will be given.

I was at a water park this summer, when the topic of prayer came up.  The guy was uneasy with prayer and how it works and he was questioning why God answers some prayers and not others.  He got this from a conversation he had listened to on the JOY FM (local Christian radio station) saying that God answers all prayer.  I listened.

A student came up to me after worship a couple weeks ago, questioning prayer too.  She said both of her roommates were Catholic and one of them had been raised by her aunt because her parents had passed away.  Anyway, she said that the aunt had been injured in a car accident and the roommate said she would pray for her.  But the Wesley student was uneasy with such a flippant response. Like the conversation was over because she was going to pray for her.  She asked me why would a loving God allow someone who already lost her parents to experience the accident of her aunt? I listened.

Both the students were well aware of my medical situation and it almost seemed that made me more approachable.

I cited Anne Lamott’s book on prayer, “Help, Thanks, Wow” in both conversations.  She says all prayer can be summed up in these words.  In a recent interview, she said about Help, “Well, I’ve heard people say that God is the gift of desperation, and there’s a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you’ve run out of anymore good ideas, or plans for everybody else’s behavior; or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation.  And when you’re done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, ‘Help.’ People say ‘help’ without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”

She says about Thanks, “Thanks is the prayer of relief that help was on the way. It can be [the] pettiest, dumbest thing, but it could also be that you get the phone call that the diagnosis was much, much, much better than you had been fearing. The full prayer, and its entirety, is: Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. But for reasons of brevity, I just refer to it as Thanks.  It’s amazement and relief that you caught a break; that your family caught a break; that you didn’t have any reason to believe that things were really going to be OK, and then they were and you just can’t help but say thank you.”

She says about Wow, “Wow is the praise prayer. The prayer where we’re finally speechless — which in my case is saying something. … When I don’t know what else to do I go outside, and I see the sky and the trees and a bird flies by, and my mouth drops open again with wonder at the just sheer beauty of creation. And I say, ‘Wow.’ … You say it when you see the fjords for the first time at dawn, or you say it when you first see the new baby, and you say, ‘Wow. This is great.’ Wow is the prayer of wonder.”

On the way she sees prayer, “Prayer is not about saying, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to pray now.’ Or, ‘Oh, I see I’ve made a notation here to pray at 2:15.’ It’s about getting outside of your own self and hooking into something greater than that very, very limited part of our experience here — the ticker tape of thoughts and solutions, and trying to figure out who to blame. It’s sort of like blinking your eyes open.  It’s sort of like in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy lands in Oz and the movie goes from black and white to color, and it’s like having a new pair of glasses, and you say, ‘Wow!’ ”

I think of prayer as a turning towards God.  Or being in tune with God.  Does that mean we’re always in tune with God as we pray?  Nope.  It’s a turning towards God out of desperation, out of gratitude, at the awesomeness grandeur of God.  When we have no options left.

Praying is not easy for me.  That’s why I rejoice in the verses from Romans 8:26-27.  “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

I don’t know why God answers some prayers and seemingly doesn’t answer others.

I’ve always been uneasy when people say they’re praying for me.  I don’t question that they’re sincere but prayer gives you a stake in the outcome.  Intercessory prayer certainly gives you a stake in the outcome.  I can’t control the outcome and that’s where the uneasiness lies.

But I don’t need to control the outcome.

And that’s hard for me.  To trust.  And not control.

It’s a mystery why God answers some prayers and not others.  It reminds me of the scene from “Bruce Almighty” when he’s acting like God and answering yes to everyone’s prayers.

But I know that God is with us.  I feel that to the very core of my being.  God journeys with us through the good times and bad.

There’s no concluding paragraph.  It’s left unresolved.  Because it’s a continuing conversation.

I’ll leave you with Matt Maher’s, “Lord, I Need You.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuvfMDhTyMA

I’m pushing the prayer sermon back to next week.

Are you there God, it’s us…

A beautiful picture by Robin Morren
When I was growing up there was a popular book called “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” by Judy Blume. It’s a classic. Seriously.

It’s been one of those days where you want to ask something along the lines of – is this ever going to be easy? Is there ever going to be a catch up day or a normal day? Why are we all here? What is this God-thing or Gospel that we believe and we’re to share with the world?

Two veins have been turning over in my mind. The first is that of theodicy (why bad things happen) and Providence and God’s will and the second is looking at the crud and muck of life and why sometimes we get so much flack and have to “battle” through to another day.

I wasn’t going to write a blog in the midst of this pondering, but when Casting Crowns “If We’ve Ever Needed You,” Natalie Grant’s “Held,” and Laura Story’s “Blessings,” come up in a row and you’re wrestling with these questions, you begin to feel a nudge saying maybe I should pay attention to this.

This summer I watched the Gamecocks win their second National Championship in baseball and I listened to them throughout the season and especially in that series say the word “battle” about a gazillion times. They talked about the battle that you have to go through to persevere and get through to the other side. They talked about all of the challenges and adversity they faced. They talked about the faith they had even in the midst of the really tough times. If you’re a Gamecock fan you know the battle of which they speak. If you’re not one, you probably think the rest of us are the most masochistic fans ever.

Sometimes it truly feels like one step forward and three steps back. Sometimes that one step forward is huge and it could have been the hardest thing you ever did. Sometimes it feels like you’re talking to God and you’re trying….praying, reading, listening, crying out, and it seems like no one’s there. It’s an “Are you there God, it’s me….” moment. It’s like – are you with me, God? Do you see this? Do you feel this? Do you know what’s happening? Do you know how hard, frustrating, angering, devastating, debilitating this is? Are you with us???

And there are days when we just don’t feel it. There are times when we may want to throw in the towel and say I’m done. There are times when I want to shut down and just not do or be or think or plan or respond to anything. There are times as a pastor and hearing people’s questions and doubts and worries and fears that even I’m gut checking to see what this whole faith thing is all about.

Because that’s the thing. No matter how much battle there is, no matter how much crud the world tosses at us, we have claim and know that God is there. God is here. God knows our heartache and our fears. God doesn’t just hover in a distance but God rejoices with us and also mourns with us. God is there in our suffering. God is there when we cry out. God is there when we’re tired and we’ve had enough. And God brings people and places and songs and sights and sounds and emails and telephone calls and shooting stars and silly jokes and lightning bolts into our lives when we need them so that we draw closer to God and we know for sure and for real that God is with us.

In a week where so many have experienced tragedy, where so many are struggling with friendships and classes and life questions and broken relationships, it’s sometimes hard for us to trust and to hope and to see any rhyme or reason. And sometimes it’s not yet the time or the place and we are shoving fingers in our ears because we don’t want to hear it. There’s such anger and grief and feelings of abandonment that a loving and merciful God could let such things happen. As there should be. The thing about the God we serve – the God of the scriptures is that God is a big God and can handle our anger, our tears, our crying out – all of the words or screaming that we want to use. The Psalms are chock full of people crying out. There aren’t too many Bible stories where someone didn’t question God somewhere along the way. Always in the midst even when we don’t feel it, God is faithful.

It’s not always the time or place to bring up verses about “beauty from ashes” and “for such a time as this” because that can sound trite and cliche and not helpful at all at the time. Sometimes the most loving and grace-filled thing to do is just sit and be present. To listen and love. To care and comfort. Not always with words but with love – tangible, real – prayers and presence. We may not understand why. We may not know the answers. We may not have the perfect thing to say. But we trust and pray and hope that God will continue even in the midst of the most terrible of circumstances to continue to bring mercies anew each day. We rest in the hope that we have someone we can always run to and someone we can always cry out to. We believe and feel the grace knowing that this life and this world is not the end but that the kingdom of God is alive and well in the already and not yet and that nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

May God answer us. May when we seek, we find; we knock, the doors opened; we ask, we receive. May we know and reach and grasp and cling to the love of God that is right there for each of us.

Romans 8:38-39 “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Update on that Spongy thing inside my Noggin’

  I am completely slacking on blogs right now which breaks all the rules of regular blogging.  Sorry about that!  I’ll catch up soon.  Right now I’m at a great conference and have tried to be as fully invested in it as possible, but there has been a part of me distracted.  Some of you that began following this blog when I started writing after finding out that I had a brain tumor and you walked with me through that journey and the recovery and even though the blog has become a little bit something different, I do still want to give you an update on that good ole brain of mine because I believe that this community of support has been invaluable and really a holy presence in my life and I can’t imagine my life without your prayer and support.

I have been doing 3 month MRI and neurosurgeon check ups over the past year.  For the most part, I try to keep moving with life and I give a sincere and concerted effort not to let these worries and fears rule over my life.  Then comes the time when I get the envelope from Carolina Spine and Neurosurgery in the mail with all of my appointment times and as Mike and I see it, I can feel the background stress and tension in me and those I love.  The unknown is so completely…humbling…scary…difficult.  There’s so much to unpack there but that would be an incredibly long blog and mine are already probably way too long.

Last week I went to my (I don’t really care to remember how many its been now) whatevereth MRI and the techs were asking how I was doing and what I was there for, all that good stuff and I told them my hope that maybe this was the visit where I could be increased to every 6 months or every year instead of every 3 months.

On Monday I met with the neurosurgeon and he said that it was the radiologist’s opinion that the part of the tumor still up there in brain/motor cortex land may have grown slightly but that it was very slight.  His opinion was that he didn’t see a change and disagreed with the radiologist.  We then had a lovely back and forth where I looked at the comparison MRI’s myself and tried to understand and that I got a chance to ask some hard questions.  Since Mike was not with me, I could ask some of the things that I want to know and would like to understand but that I don’t want to alarm, worry or hurt someone else by them hearing the questions or the answers.  Does that make sense?

So even though it was not my most favorite news in the world, I was okay.  My amazing doctor said he was going to take the tumor to the tumor board for them to decide if it had grown or not.  I called Mike and my parents on the way home and was okay.

Primarily I was okay because I was leaving the next morning for a conference and I just didn’t have the emotional energy or the whatever to process it.

Yesterday afternoon while I was in a workshop, the doctor left a message and when I hear him say his name I immediately get a little freaked out on the inside even though he’s a fabulous doctor – like fabulous – but it’s just anxiety producing.  But then he says an AMAZING thing – the tumor board doesn’t see any change.  AND because this place on my lovely brain has stayed consistent this year, I get to stretch the time between MRI’s to 6 months!!!!!!!!!!!!!  (I could probably mash exclamation points for a while on that one.)  That may seem like a little thing, but it’s such an act of hope and grace and peace to me.

And though I didn’t shed a tear on Monday, I couldn’t stop crying off and on yesterday evening.  Is that crazy?  The bad news – I take it and I’m like let’s do this thing.  The good news – I’m a basketcase.  In talking with a dear friend and colleague about this last night I told her as I was trying to process and express my layers of feelings that I really needed to blog about this.  For some odd, crazy reason this is how I started this journey – blogging.  And it has been such a healing and cathartic piece or even peace for me.  There’s something about putting it out there in writing and narrative that makes it something that I feel a little more grounded in.  I guess we each have our mediums – whether it’s walking outside or making pottery or playing baseball or journaling.  And I am thankful for this one.

In the midst of this I know that there are those walking incredibly hard and deep and heartbreaking journeys right now.  I think of the family members that are living this reality right now and the friends and loved ones who have faced challenges that I know not of.  Please do lift up in prayer those who are in the midst of the struggle of the unknown and in this thin place where anger and fear and sadness and grief and life and death and joy and pain are so close to the surface at times.  Each of us walks this journey at times.

And we’re not alone.

I have seen Christ in the colleagues that I’ve shared with here and that continue to uplift and inspire and challenge and hold me accountable.  I have seen Christ in my family who continue to battle for me.  I have seen Christ in the countless people that continue to tell me they’re praying for me or those that just give me space to be…and to feel…and to just cry or laugh or talk about it or not talk about it.  I have seen Christ when I’m by myself and I am vulnerable and just laid bare as a child of God.  Although there is no doubt that I would not have chosen for this piece of the puzzle of life, I have felt Christ’s Spirit and promise more tangibly and have felt the Body of Christ more profoundly and genuine than I have felt in my life.

I am grateful for a community of people that I can keep it real with on the sad days and the angry days and the joyous days and the rock and roll days.  I am grateful for a Savior who continues to be that Great Redeemer and Strong Protector and just that Amazing Grace who support us and girds us up in mighty, mighty ways.

So that’s my brain.

And one of the awesome things – 6 MONTHS!!!!!

Grace and peace to all of you.  I am gratefu for you all.