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Monday, February 9, 2015

The Praying Life

Sunday, February 8, 2015

            My grandmother is 92.  No one in our family has lived to that age.  When she was 86, she got really sick.  I began preparing for her death.  Most people don’t live into their 90’s.  It is happening more and more, but it is not a tragedy when someone over 85 dies.  I want to be careful with this.  I am not casual about anyone’s death.  We read in 1st Corinthians 15 that death is the enemy.  It is serious and whenever my grandmother does die whether is this year or when she is 100, we will grieve.  But it is not a tragedy.  It is a full life, lived well. 
            And that would have been true had she died a few years ago when she was sick at 86.  Even so, we prayed for her recovery.  Relative in 8 different states were praying.  In our family, Meme is a revered, saintly figure.  And she recovered. 
            Did she get well because we prayed so hard.  Maybe.  My grandmother was on the wrong medication and once it was changed, her depression was gone.  Her zeal for life, even at 86, returned and is still there now at 92. 
            So what do we see?  Meme recovered because of everyone’s prayers or Meme recovered because they finally got the medication right?  I don’t even try to know the answer.  I believe prayer helped.  I know my praying helped draw me to God.  God walked with me in a tense, uncertain time.  Life is full of tension and uncertainty.  If Meme had died, God would have helped me cope.  Someday she will die.  When it comes prayer will help us because prayer is conversation with God and God loves us.
            Christ followers live in prayer.  When we are right in our walk with God, our lives are prayer-filled lives.  If you think, Uh oh, my life is not prayer-filled, I may not be where I need to be, spiritually speaking, don’t worry.  God is not staring with arms angrily folded, glaring at us and thinking, you better get this right.  God loves us with mercy and grace.  God’s desire is to walk with us.  We are more aware of God when our lives are built on prayer and immersed in prayer.
            In the book Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster writes that the prayer-filled-life is defined the “steady gaze [or a person’s] soul [is] upon the God who loves us” (p.49).  The stead gaze of her soul is upon the God who loves her.  The steady gaze of your soul is upon the God who loves you.
            I don’t know about you, but that is kind of different from the way I normally think and talk.  We would suppose Christians – we – are praying people.  But when we say that, what exactly are we saying?  Again, consider Foster’s quote, “the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us.”  Do you picture an esoteric aesthetic who retreats to the mountains and sits in silent mediation?  Or the monk, cloistered in a cell, chanting for hours on end?  We can imagine the guy steadily gazing upon the soul of the God who loves him.  I can’t see myself being that guy.
            I imagine myself and it is a week before Christmas.  Christmas shopping needs to be done.  There is a Christmas event at church.  My older son is singing in school choir’s performance at Barnes and Noble.  My younger son has a basketball game.  I need to finish my sermon.  We have out-of-town company.  And both Candy and I are sick.   If someone is tempted to chalk that up to “Christmas stress,” there are numerous other times in the year that the schedule is that full.  And we know a lot of people, devoted Christian people, who are as busy as we are.  How are supposed to “maintain a steady gaze upon the God who loves us?”  We are so caught up jumping from one event to the next, we don’t have a steady gaze on anything. 
            But it is not just stress that interrupts us and gets in the way of living the praying life.  The problem of evil crops up. I read an interview just this week touching on this. A British actor, one I thoroughly enjoy in films, was asked about his atheism.  The interviewer said, ‘what if you died and found there is a God?  What would say to him?’  The actor replied, ‘I’d say to God, bone cancer in children.  What’s that about?’  He went on to name other dreadfully awful tragedies.  He blamed God for all of it.[i]  If there is God, that God is to blame for all the evil and suffering in the world.  The theological term for this is theodicy; the problem of evil. 
            It is a reasonable thing to consider when we talk about prayer.  Pondering evil, how do we pray at all?  We think about the suffering that is in the world and it gets heavy?  If we have a heart, we are wearied by the plight so many people face.

            Each of the four gospels offers examples of Jesus at prayer.  In Mark’s account we see Jesus, right in the midst of a very full life, making space to gaze upon God.  And, Jesus does surrounded by examples of the pain and suffering that the actor and many atheists cannot stomach.  No one hates the evil and the hurt humans endure more than Jesus.  This is why he came. 
In a Sabbath day service with Jesus preaching in the synagogue, a man interrupts everything.  His maniacal rants make it clear that he is possessed by a demon.  Today we see such a thing and chalk it up to severe mental illness.  I believe demons are real.  I believe demons are real.  I believe mental illness is real.  There is no way to determine what was up with this guy.  He came off as insane as he interrupted Jesus’ sermon with his crazed rants. 
            Then, the unexpected; the demons recognize Jesus.  “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are, Holy One of God.”  What was this demon saying?  Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, not God.
            Jesus sternly called out the demons and they obeyed.  The affair rocked that little Capernaum synagogue.  They had seen possessions, but never had they witness demons meekly submit to a man’s authority.  This was the carpenter’s son.  Jesus became the talk of the town.  Simon Peter’s mother-in-law had a debilitating fever.  Jesus touched her and she was back to full health. 
            Word spread.  There’s a miracle man at Simon Peter’s house.  Mobs of people descended on this out-of-the hamlet, and Jesus responded to every need.  He and his disciples walked from village to village, teaching the Kingdom and casting demons out of people. 
            Once, a leper came to him.  Lepers were supposed to stand at a distance and shout “unclean” so other would stay away.  One was so desperate, he violated convention and ran right up to kneel before Jesus.  Jesus was “moved with pity.”  He healed the man. 
            In Mark Jesus was always hurried and rushed by crowds.  The word that characterizes Mark’s gospel is “immediately.”  Every need was right now.  On one occasion, Jesus was so exhausted, he fell fast asleep in the bow of the boat.  Waves lifted the small craft high in the air and then slapped it down hard on the water again and again.  The 12 disciples held on for dear life.  I wonder if the tax collector got seasick.  I doubt he was an experienced sailor.
Jesus, also not a boatman, lay in bow and snoozed away.  The only time people gave him any space was when he was in the middle of the sea in weather not fit for man nor beast.  If ever someone did not have time to pause and cast a steady gaze of the soul upon the God who love us, it was Jesus.
Jesus knew busyness, yet he prayed.  His relationship with his Father-God deepened as he prayed in trying times.  Jesus could not be who he was without prayer.  Mark 1:35: “In the morning, while it was still dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  He prayed at meals.  He prayed with large crowds in the country side.  While he hung dying the cross, he talked to God.  Mark’s gospel shows how normal it was to see Jesus praying. 
As a guest in Simon’s home, he sacrificed sleep, rising pre-dawn so he could focus on God.  Everyone else was still in bed.  He was fully human and needed sleep as much as anyone.  Something he needed more than sleep was time with his Heavenly Father.
Other times, he went far into the wilderness, leaving crowds behind.  I know I sacrifice prayer time for tasks, sometimes very necessary things; sometimes not-so-necessary.  Jesus sacrificed tasks, and appointments because prayer took priority.  He built his life around it.  He did not fit prayer into the life he was building.  Everything else came after he had his time with God.
How does this look in your life or mine?  In 2015, with all the ways life gets filled, how do we live the praying life as Jesus lived it?
It begins with the development of our relationship with God.  No one can do this for you or for me.  We go to God together as a community.  Together, we sing.  Together we serve.  Together we pray.  We all have to be in it.  There is no surrogate faith.  Your mom, my friend, an elder – no one else can develop your life with God.  It is you and God.  It is God and me; we have to step toward the Father in prayer. 
God has stepped toward us.  Jesus came – God in flesh.  Jesus took the penalty of sin upon himself.  With death on the cross and his resurrection, sin no longer comes between us and God.  We repent, he forgives, and the relationship is right there to be lived.
We are made ready for stressful days through our prayers during the calm times.  We make daily prayer a top priority.   What I offer here are a few possible ways one might enter the praying life.
It could be every morning.  With that first cup of coffee, you read a few verses, write your thoughts and prayers in a daily notebook, and then spend at least five minutes in quiet, talking in your spirit to God and listening in your heart as God speaks to you. 
It could be a quiet meditation.  You make sure every day to arrive at work 5 minutes early, but you don’t go in right away.  You sit in your car for 5 minutes.  Read a passage in the Bible. Spend quiet moments asking God to prepare you for the day ahead. 
Perhaps you have young children.  As the school bus pulls away, you pull out your Bible and set it on your kitchen table.  The next 20 minutes will be you, God, the word, and your prayer notebook.  And nothing else gets that time.
Peter woke up.  No Jesus.  Where was he?  Peter, Mark says, “Hunted” for Jesus.  I don’t know if Jesus was done praying when Peter found him, but Jesus was ready to go. 
When shape our lives so that we get to those desert places alone God and daily, we linger there.  When those quiet moments become fixed in our lives and prayer is normal for us, then everything else falls in place.  It does not mean everything is easy or perfect.  It means we are in touch with God.  We sense God’s presence and hear when God speaks.  Like Jesus, from our times of prayer, living the prayer-filled life, we are ready to live the purposes and works God has for us. 
So, copy the master.  Carve out space so that life is filled up with prayer and thus filled up with God. 


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