sermon summation: pondering prayer (2)

 

These words ran like a recurring refrain through her e-mail to me:

“Don’t you believe if I’m sincere enough in my heart when I pray then God will give me what I pray for?”

He was pouring his heart out to me about his frustration with some things at church and he said:

“What we need to do is to pray harder!”

Skimming through a magazine my eyes fell on a page that contained these words:

“If you can’t get worked up in your prayers, then don’t expect God to work with them.”

Now in her golden years she had approached me privately to talk about how she had some troubles with her faith. She began by hanging her head and saying in a very quiet voice:

“I just don’t feel my prayers like I used to.”

As I was surfing through some channels on television I happened to hear a preacher emphatically say:

“Passionate prayers are the prayers that claim God’s promises for prayer!”

Question: What do those five statements have in common, aside from the fact they all deal with prayer?

Answer: They wrongly make our emotions the heart and soul of, and the determining factor in, prayer.

Now it’s true that prayer that’s real will often engage, and make mention of, our emotions. Read the Psalms and you’ll find those prayers are packed with every conceivable kind of emotion. After all, how can a person get real in talking with God and not do so with some feeling?

But when our emotions become the sun, and not merely a planet in the solar system of our prayers, we shouldn’t be at all surprised if our faith becomes a black hole.

While we are emotional beings, it’s our actions, not our feelings, that must take the wheel in our journey of faith.

Take Jesus for example. He prayed often to his Father and he prayed with intense emotion. But it wasn’t because he “prayed hard” that he got heard by God. No, there was something else at the center. Something else was the the fulcrum of his faith.

“During his days on earth, Christ offered prayers and requests with loud cries and tears as his sacrifices to the one who was able to save him from death. He was heard because of his godly devotion.” (Hebrews 5.7)

Did you notice where the emphasis was put? Jesus’ prayers were heard by the Father not because he expressed great feeling to God, but because he lived out great following after God. “He was heard because of his godly devotion.”

The Bible is absolutely full of this teaching and the Psalms are saturated with it. Take Psalm 4.3 as one small example:

“Know this: the Lord takes personal care of the faithful. The Lord will hear me when I cry out to him.”

The matter is so clear you’d have to work to miss the point: the psalmist is confident the Lord will hear his prayers because he’s confident that he has been “faithful” to God.

Need more examples? Read the following in the Psalms for a sampling of the many that are there: Psalm 17.1-3; 66.18-20; 141.1-5. And it’s the same when we turn to the New Testament.

“The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve.” (James 5.16b)

It does not say “the passionate person.” It does not say that “emotionally intense” person. It does not say “the person who gets worked up into a frenzy of feelings.”

What it does say is “the righteous person” is the person who finds their prayers are promised to be powerful and effective. That is, prayer that is heard by God comes from the person who has been made right by God and who has built their life around living out what they’ve heard from God.

We won’t find a more precise example of this teaching of Scripture than what we find in 1 Peter 3.7:

“Husbands, likewise, submit by living with your wife in ways that honor her … Honor her all the more, as she is also a coheir of the gracious care of life. Do this so that your prayers won’t be hindered.”

As back up for what he says here, Peter then goes on to quote (in verse 12) the words of Psalm 34.15-16:

“The Lord’s eyes are on the righteous and his ears are open to their prayers. But the Lord cannot tolerate those who do evil.”

Husbands, do you want your prayers to ring through heaven? Then treat your wife right here on earth for it’s your ways that give weight to your words in the hands of God.

Emotions are elusive creatures; feelings are funny animals. God knows they’re not an accurate gauge of our faith by and they never were intended to be the engine for our prayers. And God knows whether we’re walking after him with the light he has revealed to us already. What he’s after is not the energy of our emotions so much as the efforts we’re making to be his in every way. Keep that in mind the next time to ask him for more light in your life as you pray.

10 things you can do to bless strangers

 

Learn to carry a slight smile on your face all of the time. You’ll brighten up the atmosphere wherever you go by doing so.

Make using your turn signal an unconscious habit. Not at the last minute, either. It just might save someone a lot of grief, or even a life. Similarly, don’t drive below the speed limit in the fast lane.

Be done with leaving 15-20% for a tip at the restaurant; bump it up to 50%. If it’s an outdoor/carhop, make it 100%. When they say, “I’ll be right back with your change,” drink in the look in their eyes when you shake your head and, with a smile, simply say, “Keep it. That’s for you.” For the person busing the table (who usually receives no tip), stack your plates and cups. Collect your silverware into a single pile, too.

Put the Boy Scouts to shame with the frequency and natural ease with which you open doors for others everywhere you go.

When you’re standing in a checkout line, give up your place in line for the person behind you. Do this for whoever happens to be there, not just for the little old ladies.

Strike up a positive conversation when you chit-chat with someone. Don’t complain about the weather, government, other people, or whatever. Instead, deliberately point out something good or praiseworthy and express gratitude for such. Set the conversation’s altitude on “high.”

When in public, either mute your cell phone or turn the ringer nearly off whenever possible. Similarly, avoid phone conversations in populated contexts such as restaurants, post offices, stores, etc. If you must converse on the phone in such a setting, keep your voice down, keep it brief, and consider taking it outside.

Invite a co-worker you don’t know to join you and your cadre for lunch together one day. Don’t consider inviting someone who appears they could be the life of the party, but take in someone who appears to be shouldering a bit of a burden of some kind these days. Who knows what future friend wears the mask of a stranger today.

When a friend mentions in passing they have a friend in the hospital (whom you don’t know), find out where they are and pay them a brief visit. Even pagans visit their friends. What do you do more than they?

Attend the funeral of service of someone unknown to you. If possible, choose a service that might not have a large attendance. Sign the guest registry. You need not say a word to anyone; your presence will say more than your words ever could. If anyone asks you why you’re there say: “I’m here simply to pray for all who grieve. Though I didn’t know ___ (the name of the deceased), I know we shared in the life of this community together and so, their passing diminishes me and surely many more.”

10 things you can do to bless your neighbors

 

Mow a neighbor’s yard. Sweep up after you finish. If at all possible, do it when they can’t possibly know who did it.

Do a “sneak attack” wash job of a neighbor’s vehicle when you know they’re away. Run the hose from your faucet, not their spigot.

Adopt that nearby vacant lot, picking up the trash that has slowly accumulated in it over time. Keep the weeds knocked down a bit, too.

Get to know the kids in the neighborhood a bit and join in with them in a friendly game of wiffle ball, frisbee, or PIG or HORSE. What? They haven’t even heard of PIG or HORSE? Teach ‘em.

Go for a walk or a bike ride around the neighborhood, silently praying for every person you see. Deliberately smile at and greet every person, no exceptions.

Systematically pray for every household in your neighborhood. Select a different house each day as you drive out to go to work, or wherever, and intercede with God for all of the people who make up that home.

Give a cold bottle of water or GatorAid to the folks who pick up your trash. Share it with a word of appreciation for the service they do. Remember the driver as well.

Stop by the meat department the next time you’re at the grocery store and ask for a big bone you can give to that neighbor’s dog that barks incessantly. Present it to the neighbor as a gift for Rover without mentioning the barking. It won’t just keep the dog’s trap shut more often, but will bless everyone who doesn’t have to listen to the barking for awhile.

Keep a stash of one dollar coins you can withdraw from to give to the wee ones in the neighborhood. Whether it’s a great report card, perfect attendance, or you just catch them doing something good, reward the good you see.

Leave your porch lights on at night, doing it not merely for your own benefit, but to deliberately share that light with others for the increased security of all.

what of the wisdom from above?

What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. (James 3:17 CEB)

James is thinking out loud here.

“What of the wisdom from above?”

With these words you can see the reflection and thought in his eyes. You can hear the gears turning; you can see the wheels moving. What will come of his thought work? Whatever, it will be authentic, clean, and holy.

“First, it is pure …”

And so James chooses his next words with great care. It is no random list. Each word is handpicked, carefully selected from the many available.

“… it is … peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.”

With these words James now sets my mind’s gears to turning. My thoughts begin to race; random questions fill my mind.

You see, this is passage is nothing if it isn’t focused practicality. It’s anything but abstract; it’s work. It casts a vision that calls us to consider again our ways and what could, indeed must, be. It’s a call to personal repentance and deliberate activity. It’s a calling down of heaven’s glory to permeate the spirit of his people.

And so then what will I do with it?

I have to wonder …

What change might be wrought in my life if I memorized this Scripture and recited it to myself throughout the day and throughout the rest of my days? What sort of things might God’s Spirit work into my spirit and what sort of person might I become?

What of the wisdom from above? First, it is pure, and then peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine. (James 3:17 CEB)

Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth-century abolitionist, often used this very passage in his speeches to critique Christian slave-holders. This is the word from God he used as he attempted to break the bonds that kept so many minds captive. He could hardly have chosen a better text for the task.

Me thinks this text remains up to the task today. The task, that is, of setting hearts and lives free. Free from the slavery of selfishness. Free from the imprisonment of living life “set on cruise.” Free from the restraint of merely doing what we think has always been done.

It’s all here in it’s purity, the pearl of heavenly wisdom. And it is here for us to behold and to become. Let us wisely do so. Let us bring heaven’s wisdom down to earth and live it out in our lives.

What of heaven’s wisdom? I tell you from its purity flows peacefulness, gentleness, obedience, fairness, a life filled with mercy and good doings. It is real. (James 3:17 DSV)

In the name of Jesus, Heavenly Father, let my life become these words. Amen.

a humble lifestyle

Are any of you wise and understanding? Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle that comes from wisdom. (James 3:13 CEB)

You need two legs to walk and anyone and everyone who would teach others of God needs two legs. One leg is about what you say and the other is about what you do.

The legs of the lame are unequal. They may talk a good game, but they don’t practice what they preach. They may do many good things, but their tongue is out of control.

Truly wise, humble people are the people fit to teach others of the Lord and are used by God to teach others about himself. They understand their servant-like place before God and others and they embody their understanding of God in their everyday actions.

Their wisdom doesn’t make them cocky or proud anymore than their humility prevents their engagement and involvement with life. They walk with God, inside and out. What they speak into creation with their words is what they sustain with their life’s ways – and both beat a path straight to the Lord.

Father in heaven, steer me down your right road and give me strength to walk it. I want to go the distance with you and walk it all well. All to your glory and praise. Amen.

If there are any who truly get it and know how to go with it among you, it will be obvious to all by the way they humbly live a thoroughly good life that finds its roots in God’s wisdom. (James 3:13 DSV)

God’s friend

So the scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and God regarded him as righteous. What is more, Abraham was called God’s friend. So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone. (James 2:23-24 CEB)

Today’s devotional consists of an exercise, some reflection, and a question.

The exercise
Brainstorm a list of what it means for you to be a truly close friend to someone. Then, having created that list, refine it by applying that list to what it means to be counted as a friend of God.

Some reflection
The friendship spoken of that Abraham enjoyed with God included, among other things, the fact that God had required of Abraham to slay his son as a sacrifice to him. True enough, God stayed Abraham’s mind and hand in the matter at the crucial moment, but nonetheless, the fact remains. Clearly, to be counted as God’s “friend” involves much, much more than warm, fuzzy feelings between the parties involved and doing a few good things on any given day of the week.

A question
Are you, like Abraham, “God’s friend?”

This is how Scripture itself was made complete when it said Abraham believed God and God considered him truly ‘righteous.’ Even more so, God called Abraham his ‘friend.’ Just having faith in God doesn’t do it. It’s obvious now that being right with God demands your follow-through with faith. (James 2:23-24 DSV)

In the name of Jesus, Father and Friend, may I come to truer and truer trust in, temperament toward, and tradition with you, without tremendous test and trial from you, I pray. But Father, do bring whatever is necessary. Your will be done. Amen.

his faith was made complete

What about Abraham, our father? Wasn’t he shown to be righteous through his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? See, his faith was at work along with his actions. In fact, his faith was made complete by his faithful actions. (James 2:21-22 CEB)

I’ve been thinking a bit about death of late. Specifically, about the power our life has on others and how we struggle to sum up and express that power with words. Several creeks feed this river in my mind right now.

The mother of a friend of mine from my teenage years died not that long ago. Looking back now I can see she was a woman who influenced me more than she would have ever imagined in her wildest dreams. It bothers me a bit that I didn’t fully realize that until it was too late to tell her myself. Words unspoken speak to me now and so I pray for my Father’s forgiveness in this.

The last of my parents’ siblings died a couple of weeks ago. Aunt Vera was a Christian in whom it was easy to see the fruit of God’s Spirit. However, her departure leaves my Dad, her “baby brother,” as the sole survivor of his generation and the words he shares with me in conversation now tell me he is feeling the weight of that these days. Heavenly Father, grant me the service of loving listening and few, but wise words.

I have a dear friend who is slowly dying of a rather rare, incurable disease. His daily experience of slow deterioration in mind and body isn’t made any easier by the fact that some of his closest kin remain entrenched in total denial about his situation. Their inability to deal with the reality of death themselves greatly complicates my friend’s difficult journey. It would only take a few words to make his journey much easier, but will those words ever come? Prayerful words again arise from my heart: Lord, open their eyes and break their misguided hardness.

Just yesterday I attended a memorial service for a person who was a stranger to me. The words spoken were carefully crafted ahead of time, written with reflection and care, not left simply to the spur of the moment. It was good to overhear these good words of love from family and friends spoken on the deceased’s behalf for the benefit of all. Not every family has such blessings. Thank you, Father in heaven, for every good thing you work through everyone.

And now as I read this passage in James, I encounter a father, a son, and a near death experience, all orchestrated by the living God who spoke his will to them. The Spirit of this same God, working through his servant James centuries later, summed this father’s relationship with the Father, in just a very few words. And as I consider these words, turning them over and over again in my mind, the thought comes to me that I want to live such a life here and now so that when my children and grandchildren someday view my lifeless body, these words of James will readily come to their mind and will ring true, not hollow:

“… his faith was made complete by his actions.”

Holy Father in heaven, help me to live so now that your name is honored and respected in all of my ways. May this be so clear and obvious to all that in the death of my death, what others will remember is not so much me, but you, and that you are the one to be trusted and lived after, always and in every way. Amen.

Consider our father, Abraham, won’t you? His ways revealed he was right in his relationship with God as he offered Isaac – his own son! – on the altar. Visualize his faith working itself out through his ways. Truly his trust was tendered by what he did. (James 2:21-22 DSV)