Sunday, January 31, 2021

It's Possible to Live Experiencing God's Presence in Every Moment. Here's How It Happens.

Sheesh, it all got so daunting!   I used to have two single spaced pages of that daunting stuff, name after name, concern after concern.   But I kept it up.  I went through those names every day.   Did it get tedious?  You bet.  But I did it.   For years, I kept a huge prayer list. I’m talking hundreds of names.   

Today, I still have a list, but not as formal or nearly as big.  But here’s the strange thing.   I’m praying for more people now than I ever did.   And I’m praying for them more intently, more passionately, more constantly than I have ever before too.        

Last week, I talked about how powerfully prayer change things, how prayers changed history.   And that’s why you gotta do it.   If you really want to love someone, pray for them.  Pray for the people they love too.   But here’s the crucial point, it’s all too much.    What do I mean?

Sheesh, you watch the news.  Oh my goodness, there’s that crisis over there, and there’s that tragedy over here.   I gotta pray for that.  Then you’ve got the President to pray for.   And then, there are representatives in Congress, Senators, and sheesh the Governor, the state legislators, the county ones, the Mayor   And what about the folks to pray for in the church, in your family, among your friends.  And let’s not forget the neighbors having problems in their marriage or that person you know who’s so lost spiritually.  Oh how about teachers, doctors, nurses, first responders.  Oh my goodness.  It never ends.    That’s how my list grew and grew and grew. 

You could pray for three hours, heck 24 hours and not get through all the needs.  So, what do you do?   You still make a time for prayer, but you discover.  Prayer only begins there.  You realize.  Prayer can be something happening all the time in you.  Could this happen?   

Could your entire life become a sort of living prayer?  Could you experience Jesus so intimately that every moment, you and Jesus are praying together for the world.  Instead of prayer getting stuck off in some set aside holy moment of prayer, could your whole life become that holy moment?    What if that could happen, could really happen?   How would it change you?  How would it fill you and the world with more peace, more joy, more presence, more God?  But how does that even happen?   In these words, God points the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Psalm 62 

How can it happen?  How could you experience a life that becomes filled up with prayer?  St. Anthony of the Desert (who knew a whole lot about prayer) described it this way. He said.  “Perfect prayer is not to know that you are praying?”  Hold on…what?   Does that make any sense?  It does when you realize that prayer could become something in your life that comes as naturally to you as breathing.  After all, you’re breathing right now, but are you thinking about it?  No, you’re just doing it.    And your prayers can become like that.  In these words, God points the way. 

It all begins in that first line we heard.  “For God alone my soul waits in silence.”  When you wait like that, on God alone, then God comes.   God comes as your rock, your fortress, your salvation.  And as you wait, as that presence fills you, you start carrying it with you wherever you go.  You carry it so much that nothing, literally nothing can ever shake you.

But do you see how it happens?  It doesn’t happen with words.   Don’t get me wrong.  You still use words when you pray, but you don’t just use words.   You make space for the silence.  You wait in the quietness for God alone.  Not God and all my problems but God alone.   And when you do this, when you enter into that “God alone silence”, it opens you like nothing can to what prayer can be.   

That’s why psalm after psalm talks about quietness and silence.  Be still and know that I am God. Or another psalm says.  “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O God”   Sheesh, look at Jesus.   The Bible says that he spent whole nights praying.   Do you think he was talking that whole time, hours and hours?  No, Jesus was listening?   Jesus was waiting on God alone.   

Or let’s take Paul.   Paul talks about getting caught up into paradise.  Do you think he was talking when that happened?  He tells you he wasn’t.   He says: “I heard inexpressible things that no one is permitted to tell.”  In another letter he tells you. “Pray without ceasing.” How is that possible?  It’s possible if your prayer becomes like breathing.  And prayer like can happen, it really can.     But to get there, your prayers have to go into the silence, to wait there for God alone.      

But here’s the problem.   You probably don’t want to do it.  You wonder.  What the heck am I supposed to do?  Sit there and be quiet, really?   That doesn’t sound that exciting.  And you’re right.   It’s not all that exciting, until over time, you see it changing everything in your life.  Then it’s not just exciting, it’s breathtaking.  And, when you see that, you realize like never before.  Prayer is literally the most important thing ever.

So, let’s say, you give this a shot.  You try it.   Well, the first thing that will happen is your mind will get really loud.   In another religious tradition, they call this the “monkey mind.”   I love that image.  It so fits.   It feels like your thoughts are like monkeys bouncing through the trees.

What do I mean?  Well, you get quiet, and you’ll start thinking.  “Did I put that item on the grocery list?  How much time have I been sitting here?   Did I set my alarm to am or pm?   What’s going on with that guy at work?”  Do you get my point?  Your mind gets clogged up with all sorts of stuff that has been floating around up there, stuff you didn’t even know was floating around up there.  So, what do you do with it? 

You let it go.  Imagine to yourself.   All those thoughts, they’re like boats on a river.  So, I’m just going to let those boats go on by.   

And how do you do that?  You find a word or phrase to focus on like Jesus or God or Love or Be still or Wait and See or whatever.   It doesn’t matter what it is. You just use it to help you let go of the boats, those thoughts clogging up your mind.    And when you let go of those boats, you are letting go of something deeper. 

If you and I are honest, normally, without help, our lives have one central note.  Me, Me, Me, Me, Me.  And trust me, it’s going on and you don’t even notice it.   But when you get quiet, you do.   So, when you let go of the boats, you are letting go of that obsessive focus on you.   And then your life becomes not simply Me, but Me and God.  

You see.  When you let those boats go, you are letting them go to God.  Your letting go is a prayer.  You are turning all of that over to the One who holds it all anyway. 

But as these boats fade away, and they will, then your experience moves.  Now, it’s not just You and God.  It’s God and You.   You discover something amazing.  God is already contemplating you.  God is already seeing you, feeling you, understanding you.    And in the silence, you begin to sense that God’s love has been focusing on you all the time, your whole life.     And as that happens, then often the word or phrase you use will begin to fade away, maybe without you even noticing it.    

And then, it’ll be just God.   Have you ever watched a movie that just captured you?  You get so wrapped up in the story and the characters that time just flies.  Maybe it happens with a book or a certain activity.  Whatever it is, at some point you find yourself in the flow.   And that happens here with this silence, with this waiting on God.  You find yourself in the flow, in the flow of God’s very presence. 

It’s not magical, this prayer of waiting and seeing.   It’s not like you do this once, and boom, perfect peace, joy, total awesomeness.  No, it’s like a physical workout.   Do you go to the gym one time, and expect to wake up the next day, 20 lbs lighter, your body ready for a magazine cover?  No.  But over time, as you do the work, your body changes.   In the same way, this waiting in silence changes you.  It changes you in ways far deeper than anything a gym could.    And all you gotta do is just be quiet. Just set a clock or an alarm on your phone for five minutes and be quiet.  That’s it.

Why do this?  Here’s the truth.   You are right now a mashup of what you choose to let into your life.   If you’re contemplating your phone or the news or Netflix or your worries or your anxieties, your minds going to align with that stuff.   And that’s not good.  But when you let more of God into your life, just five minutes even, your mind begins to align with that.   Why? That five or ten minutes of you letting God into your life, of waiting alone in the silence, it starts to overflow, to overflow into every area of your life.   

And when it does, without you even realizing it, you’ll start bringing everything to God in prayer.  Sometimes, it’ll be words.  But a lot of times, your heart will just start connecting to God’s heart, in a way as natural as breathing.    And as that happens, you’ll experience a level of peace, of unshakability that you didn’t think possible.   You’ll find yourself trusting in God in all times as this psalm puts it.   And things that used to stress you won’t.   And people will start noticing. They’ll sense the peace, the confidence, the refuge you are finding in every moment in God.  And you’re start seeing God everywhere, even in the most broken of situations.   And prayer will have become not just something you do, but something you are becoming, you are living.   And this is possible for you, not just for Mother Teresa or some other saint, but for you.   And it all begins with just five minutes in quietness, five minutes that over time will change you, will change the world, will change everything.   So, how about you do it?  

Sunday, January 24, 2021

When It Comes to Prayer, Why Do You Gotta Ask? Doesn't God Already Know? Here's Why.

For years, decades even, I spent hours a week doing these.  But now I can’t do even one.   I don’t know when I’ll be able to do them again.   As a pastor, I’ve walked into hospital and nursing home rooms countless times.   I can’t remember most of them, but I remember one like it happened five minutes ago.   I remember the early evening darkness outside, the dim light inside and the desperate, heart-broken look on a young woman’s face.

You never know when you go through a hospital room door, what you will walk into, what family or friends will be there or not, what the person in the bed is facing.  That night, I walked into one of the most gut-wrenching moments of my entire ministry.  I didn’t know the woman in that room well.  She had connected to the congregation as a member of a large extended Trinidadian family. Her parents attended worship, but she and her husband not so much.  She had arrived in the hospital because of a difficult pregnancy, confined to bed rest until the baby came.  That I knew.   But I did not know what had occurred minutes before I walked into the room. 

Moments before, her doctor had told her grim news.  Her baby would not make it.  Due to many complications, he said.  “You have no chance of delivering your child.”   And now she sat, alone, in shock, as a pastor she barely knew walked through her door.   Devastated, she told me the news.   And moments later, I did the only thing I could do for her.  I prayed.   I asked for a miracle.  I prayed that what was medically a virtual certainty would not be the end of her story, of her child’s story.  

And why did I pray?  Why did I ask?  I asked because of the words you’re about to hear.  In these words, God shows you again why prayer is the most important thing ever.  Why?  Nothing else brings the changes that prayer can.  Prayers have not simply changed lives.  They have changed history.   And you, in your prayers, can be part of that wondrous work.  How?  Here, Jesus shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Luke 11:1-13

Too often, you can ignore it, not take it seriously, at least, not until desperation hits as it did for the young mother in that hospital room.   But in these words, Jesus shows you what your prayers need above all else.   Only when you grasp this, do you open yourself to the breath-taking power of what prayer can do.   What do you need to grasp? You need to grasp the power of the ask.

Yet, here’s the problem, lots of times, what Jesus tells us to do again and again, we don’t.  Yet, that’s literally what the word prayer means.  It means to ask, and not just ask, it literally means to ask earnestly.  In the Lord’s Prayer, one of the things that strikes me is how Jesus asks you to pray.  For Jesus asks you to pray rudely, at least by the standard with which I grew up.

I grew up in a culture, where if you asked anything, you did so with lots of pleases and if it doesn’t trouble you.   Heck, my mother would rarely ask us kids to wash the dishes.  She would say.  “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you kids did the dishes?”  And we know that meant.  “You better do the dishes.”  But Jesus tells you to go direct, no pleases necessary.   In these words in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus uses the imperative form, the form that signifies a command.  Give us our daily bread.  Forgive us our sins.   Jesus doesn’t include one please or would you mind in the entire prayer. 

And why?  It’s because Jesus wants you to know you’re talking to someone who won’t be offended by your demands, who comes to you with the intimacy of a father with his child.  

I was in Quebec recently with my family (my son and wife went there for school this year due to Covid).  And while there, I’d take our son, Patrick to school and pick him up.   And near the school, he’d rope me into climbing up this huge forty-foot pile of snow in the parking lot.   One day, a crisis occurred. The glove of one of Patrick’s friends got stranded on the roof of the building next door.  And Patrick commissioned me, sheesh, almost commanded me to join in the effort to get it down.   I didn’t find his command rude.  Honestly, I felt privileged that he looked to me, his dad, to help.   And I worked to make it happen.   It took us two days of after-school work, and many failed attempts, but finally with the help of a large branch (a technique Patrick had suggested), I got that glove off the roof, and back into the hands of that friend.

And exactly how Patrick approached me, with that confidence, that call to act, Jesus tells you.  Go to God that way.   You don’t go to God like a worker talking to a tough boss.  You go to God with the confidence of a daughter talking to her daddy, of a son asking his mama.  You go to ask not with fear, but with the certainty that you are going to someone who loves you more than you can comprehend. 

But you gotta ask.   Why, you might wonder.   If God knows what I need, why doesn’t God just give it?  Why does God want the ask?

God wants the ask, because the ask presumes the relationship. When you need something, you don’t typically just ask anyone.  You go to someone you know, who knows you.   And when you express your needs and the person helps, it strengthens the bond.  It builds the relationship.  

Yet asking goes deeper.  When you ask, it makes you vulnerable.  And that’s why I hate to ask.   I’ll ask for others, sure  I don’t have problems with that.  But asking for me?  I find that hard.   I’d like to tell you it’s because of my selflessness.  It’s not. .  It’s because I hate to be vulnerable like that, to risk rejection, to risk that level of trust.  And that reluctance gets in the way of my relationships.   One of the most important things, I’ve had to learn, is to be willing to ask for help, to be vulnerable like that.   And when you ask God, you are opening your heart. You are risking a deeper level of trust. And as you trust, your relationship with God goes deeper as well.

And God’s desire for you to ask tells you something about God’s respect for you.  God doesn’t want to barge into your life, answering requests you never made.  God respects you too much to ride roughshod over your life like that.  God waits for the ask.  And when you ask, God knows too that you’re invested, that you’re in the game.  When Patrick asked me to help with the glove on the roof, he joined with me in the work.  And when you ask God, you are doing the same.  You are joining God in the work.  You are opening the door for God to work in you.  

And when you ask, God will work, even when you ask for seemingly little things.  My mom taught me that.  It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

Growing up, our family took a trip to Disney World.  In the middle of it my dad’s sister, Mavis, quite suddenly, lost her husband, Earl.  My dad went to be by his sister’s side.  So, mom had to take on the role of Disney tour guide even joining us on the roller coaster, Space Mountain.  Merry go rounds were my mom’s speed, but she sat with us on Space Mountain as we rocked and rolled through the darkness, exclaiming the whole time; hold on, Hold on!    But as daunting as the roller coast was, a more daunting challenge rose before her.   To get out of Disney World, she had to back our station wagon and hook up our camper, something she had never done before, a task that intimidated her greatly.   So, what did she do?  She gathered us around the camper’s table and led us in praying for God to send help for that task the next day.   I thought it was a bit much.  But the next morning, when a charismatic Catholic with a dove pendant around his neck pulled his camper in right next to us just as we were preparing to leave, I realized how feeble my faith had been.  My mom taught me that night, that God answers prayer, even the simplest and seemingly least important because that’s how much God loves us.

But God does more than answer campground prayers in Disney World. God answers prayers that defeat death.   Some of you might know that my older brother has battled Crohn’s disease most of his life.  For decades, he has largely been in remission, but as a teenager, that disease brutally ravaged his body.  He lived for weeks at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, in a special NIH program that worked to save his life.  

And one Wednesday evening, my father received a call at his office.  Jesse’s doctor was calling to let him know that they saw no hope.   He told my father his teen-age son was going to die and better that he die at home among his family.  So, he asked my dad to come to Atlanta the next morning to pick Jesse up.   That Wednesday night was prayer meeting at our church, and my dad, that church’s pastor went downstairs as people gathered to eat.  And he asked them right then and there to pray for his son.   And they did.   The next morning my parents went to Atlanta to pick Jesse up.  As they got on the elevator, the doors opened on Jesse’s lead doctor.  Surprised and somewhat abashed, he told them.  “We don’t understand it, but overnight, Jesse turned around.  We want to keep him for more treatment.”   My brother still had many battles to fight against that disease, but we knew that he did not fight alone.  God fought with him, and God was helping him win the fight.

Now, not every story of prayer has that ending.   Two months ago, I attended the funeral of a man younger than me, the amazing father of two young kids, pastor of a small Pentecostal church that he led while holding a full-time job.   I had prayed daily, often many times a day, for my friend Calvin, to be healed, for his cancer to be defeated.   But that did not happen.  I don’t know why, but still I pray.  And I know too that cancer did not have the last word.  Even now, Calvin lives, even if it is not this side of heaven.  I know resurrection is God’s ultimate healing.

For when you join in prayer, what God can and will do change lives, even changes the world.   We face dark times in our world today, but May 1940 I would argue was darker still. The Nazi army had swept through France.  The Allied forces found themselves stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk.   There seemed no way to avoid a slaughter, the death of 300,000 troops, and the triumph of Nazism.   So, what did the monarch of Britain, King George do?   On Thursday, May 23rd, in a national address, he called the nation to prayer that coming Sunday.   And the people responded.  An entire nation sought deliverance from God.   The next day a little over 800 vessels, mostly civilian crossed the channel, hoping to rescue maybe 30,000 of the 300 thousand stranded there. 

All along the way, the boats faced devastation from above, from the forces of the Luftwaffe.   But unseasonal storms lashed Europe so violently, none of the planes could take to the air.   At the same time, in a move that baffles historians to this day, Hitler ordered his armies to stop, to stop for three days.   In those days, the boats filled to capacity and beyond. The time came for them to make it home.  And on that day, the storms stopped.  A calm came upon the channel, exactly what the vessels needed to make it home.  338,000 soldiers found rescue that week, not only British but French, Belgian, Dutch, Polish.

Now was it luck that made that happen, or was it the prayers of a nation, seeking to save the lives of thousands?   England decided the latter. They called a second day of prayer to give thanks for God’s deliverance.      

So, ask and never stop asking.   Ask with boldness and command.  God expects no less.  Ask with persistence, and don’t stop ever.   D.L. Moody, the evangelist, had a list of one hundred people, he prayed to come to Christ.  He prayed for years, decades.  By the time he died, 96 had come to faith.  The last four came to faith at his funeral.  Ask and don’t give up.  

And as for that young mother.  I prayed for her that night.  I stormed the ramparts of heaven for her.  And years after, every time, I saw that little boy run across the lawn or I celebrated a birthday at his house, I gave thanks for the wonders that God had done, that wondrous answer to prayer.     

 “So, I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.   For when you pray, when you ask, oh what God can do.   Let us pray.