Friday, February 11, 2011

Back in the Saddle Again and a word on prayer

So, I can't really put a finger on why I have been so absent from the blog for the last two or three weeks.  Part mid-winter blues, part legitimate busyness, part I don't know what.  Anyway, I have missed the engagement (forced at times) with the scriptures in this way everyday.  So today I am posting last Sunday's message, given at Good Shepherd, and then making a pledge to be back to every weekday blogging starting next Monday.  
The message below is the first on a series on prayer.  Hope you hear in in God's call to actively be in relationship and conversation with him.  God bless.

Romans 8:26-27 (New International Version, ©2010)

 26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
Prayer: Lord, we trust in your grace and love and in the power of your Holy Spirit, guide us by that Spirit as week seek to know and do your will.  Open our ears to hear and our eyes to see that which you have put before us.  As we come to you now, hide me behind your cross so you are what is seen and speak through me so you are what is hear.  Amen.
Prayer is so central to what it means to be in relationship with God and it is intended to be such a simple act, but for many of us, it is a source of anxiety or confusion. 
One of my favorite illustrations of this is from the movie, Meet the Parents.  In the movie Ben Stiller stars, as a young man anxious to impress his soon to be father in law, Robert Di Niro, a very wary, over protective and suspicious Father.
Shortly after arriving, they all sit down to eat.  Just before dinner Di Niro takes the opportunity to put Stiller’s character on the spot asking him to say the prayer before they eat. 
This is a relatively simple task – or at least it should be.  But the combination of nerves and lack of experience combine to produce a truly funny and cringe worthy scene that ends with Ben Stiller’s character closing the prayer by quoting the song ‘Day by Day’ from the musical Godspell. 
As funny as it is, the scene resonates because there is a shared emotion or experience there – when we are asked to pray, especially in public and out loud, but really any time, for most of us there is real fear or anxiety that comes along.  Just like Ben Stiller’s character, I think we are really concerned about getting it right.  I think that somewhere along the line we picked up the idea that there was a right way and a wrong way to pray and none of us want to be caught praying the wrong way. 
Instead of scoffing or rebuking us for being unsure of how or what to pray, this morning’s Scripture passage agrees with the sentiment.  ‘A similar thing happens when we pray, we are weak and we don’t know how to pray, so the Spirit steps in and articulates prayers for us with groaning too profound for words.’ (Voice Romans 8:26)
Here, Paul – writer of 2/3rds of the New Testament doesn’t know how to pray either?  That sure seems to be what the passage says.
The verse begins with this phrase ‘ A similar thing happens when we pray’  Similar to what?  For that we have to go back and read a little earlier in chapter 8, starting at verse 19. 
19 Everything God made is waiting with excitement for God to show his children's glory completely.20 Everything God made was changed to become useless, not by its own wish but because God wanted it and because all along there was this hope:21 that everything God made would be set free from ruin to have the freedom and glory that belong to God's children. 22 We know that everything God made has been waiting until now in pain, like a woman ready to give birth.23 Not only the world, but we also have been waiting with pain inside us. We have the Spirit as the first part of God's promise. So we are waiting for God to finish making us his own children, which means our bodies will be made free.24 We were saved, and we have this hope. If we see what we are waiting for, that is not really hope. People do not hope for something they already have.25 But we are hoping for something we do not have yet, and we are waiting for it patiently.
The idea of hope is what is central to this passage.  God has created us – and all of creation, with a longing to be made complete in Him.  While we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are not yet fully made complete in Him – we have been fully freed from the bondage to sin by Christ’s life of love and act of sacrifice, but that freedom is not fully effective as we are still bound to our earthly bodies and living in this fallen world. 
It is in the promise of our salvation and our redemption that we place all our hope and trust.  Paul makes the clear – and obvious – point that hope is only involved for things that are yet to come.  And this is the direct tie in to prayer.  Just like we are hoping and trusting in God for our salvation – something that Christ has already won for us – but something that we have not yet fully and completely experienced.  In prayer we are asking for, looking for and hoping for something that has not yet fully come to pass. 
            Specifically we are looking and hoping to come into the will of God and the plan of God through opening ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit in and through us.  Simply, prayer allows us to get in line with God’s will through the power of the Holy Spirit – this is how we know what to do and when to do it in prayer.
This part is kind of hard for us, because it means that even prayer is not about us – it’s not about us saying the right things or saying them the right way or in the right place.  Prayer is about opening yourself to the Holy Spirit to the point that our words are not even necessary because the Holy Spirit literally prays for you.
While this seems to run counter to what we have all been taught about prayer, it really makes perfect sense.  God isn’t sitting around waiting for us to ask just the right question or to say our prayer ‘just so’ before he doles out his grace and love
Instead God is constantly pouring out his love and grace in the world – in us and through us, if only we will listen and respond.  So God isn’t just sitting around waiting to ‘answer our prayers’, because he has already answered all of our needs an all of our prayers in the way that is best for us and for the world, all that remains is  for us to pray them. 
It is in praying for God’s will, submitting to God and inviting the Holy Spirit into our lives to lead us in prayer that God is then able to direct us into His will for our lives and  to use us to complete his will for our lives and, in fact for the world.  This is why we read at the end of Romans 8 . . . verse 28
28 We are confident that God is able to orchestrate everything to create something good and beautiful when we love Him and accept His invitation to live according to His plan. 
In prayer we are submitting to God’s will and God’s plan for the world and for our lives.  We are also hoping and trusting in that will and the fulfillment that it brings to each and every one of us – each of our individual purposes and calls woven together into the fabric of God’s plan for this world. 
Prayer is faith and hope in action.  It isn’t about ‘doing it right’ or ‘getting it right’ or saying it the right way or even asking for the ‘right’ or correct things.  It is instead about the one that we pray to – the hope, trust and faith that we have in Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit that has been given to us by God the Father through the work of Jesus Christ.
And likewise prayer is not about getting something that we want or even really getting ‘answers’ to our questions.  Prayer is about seeking to be in God’s will and to know God’s plan and our role in it.  It is about being in relationship with God through the Holy Spirit and living in, dwelling in that relationship.
Two things happen when we pray: First, by praying for or about things we begin the process of giving them over to God.  And it is in surrendering our lives and our wants and even our hopes and dreams to God that we begin to see God working in our lives and begin to know, see and experience God’s will in our lives and in the world.  
The second thing that happens is related to the first.  Once we begin to see and know God’s will for our lives and for the world, we can begin to live into God’s will, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and begin to be transformed into the new creation God has called us to be.
So after we surrender our lives to God and allow ourselves to be governed by the work and will of the Holy Spirit we then begin to see that which we hoped for, realized within us and through us. 
When we truly surrender to God in prayer and open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit we begin to God’s plan for our world and the part that He would have us play in it. 
Praying, spending time in conversation with God, is central and essential to the life of a follower of Christ, and there is tremendous power in prayer – even if prayer ‘works’ differently than we might have believed.
Let me share a true story to illustrate the point: Arman is a young Iranian Christian.  He, his mother and his sister were converted to Christianity several years ago and as soon as they were converted began praying for their father who was a devout, strict Muslim.  After more than 2 years and 6 dreams where Jesus was calling him to accept and believe, Arman’s father joined the rest of the family and became a Christian. 
Once Arman’s father became a Christian, he realized that they could not keep their new faith from their neighbors and Iran was no longer a safe place for Arman and his family. 
With the help of the missionaries they were able to get visas to Tajikistan.  There was one major snag.  Arman was now 15 and once you turn 15 in Iran you must serve in the military before you are allowed to leave the country for any reason.  After much prayer they decided to try to go anyway.
Day of their trip comes: mother, father, sisters all make it through passport control.  They are now separated and there is the very real possibility that they will never see each other again, if they carefully inspect Arman’s papers and look into his record.  The whole family (not to mention the missionaries and their faith community) is in prayer.  Arman goes to the first station and the computer is down.  2nd computer, down.  Third computer, down.  Finally he is told to go through because he will miss his flight.
Prayer is powerful, but the events that led to Arman and his family getting safely out of Iran into Tajikistan didn’t happen because his family and their community prayed the right thing, prayed the right way with the right words and in the right style or even at the right time. 
No, Arman is safe and alive and free to worship God today because he, his family and their community were faithful to God’s call and through prayer opened themselves up to the working and will of the Holy Spirit.   And then, the Holy Spirit working in them allowed all things to work together for the good of Arman, his family and all of us who love God. 
Our lives our filled with choices, the important choice for us when it comes to prayer isn’t what to say or how to say it.  There is no ‘right way’.  The choice is simply whether or not to enter into that relationship and connection with God through prayer.
 In prayer we choose God.  In prayer we choose the Holy Spirit.  In prayer we choose the will and work of God for our lives. 

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