NOT KNOWING HOW

September 29, 2008

1.  Prayer Is Not Intended To Get The Results We Desire

There has been a lot of debate and a lot evangelical discussion about the purpose of prayer.  

  • Prayer is said to produce health benefits.
  • Prayer apparently reduces stress.
  • Prayer constitutes the social glue that holds us together in times of crisis.
  • Prayer may not help but it certainly couldn’t hurt.
  • And finally, my favorite:   prayer gets results.

 

Now clearly when Jesus is overheard saying things like “Ask, and it will be given you,” the idea of getting what we want doesn’t seem like a big stretch.  Psalm 37:4 would seem to reinforce this orientation when it says, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”   All this seems very pleasant… until we realize that we haven’t looked closely enough at the fine print. 

 

I have a vivid memory of test-driving a car with a sales representative.   I liked the way it handled.  I liked the price.   And I liked the fact that the owner of the dealership was a member of our church.    And then before getting out of the vehicle, Sheryl and I specifically asked the sales rep. if it had air-conditioning.   He flicked on the fan and it felt like cool air.   But after we bought the car, and after we experienced the first hot and humid day, driving around town, we realized that the A/C either did not function very well, or it was truly non-existent.   So we called our representative who told us that we agreed to purchase the car, in writing as the car is, and not as he claimed it to be.   We replied that he told us the car had air-conditioning, and that’s what we wanted.   And he told there was nothing he could do.   We then told him to hang on as we discussed the matter with the owner of the dealership, who attended our church.

 

Now, I wish that prayer worked this way.  I wish that when we have a problem we could badger God to get what we want.   But when I continue to read the fine print of Luke 11, Jesus has this weird way of putting what God finally give us: 

“If you then, who are evil,  know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

 

Today, I’d like to inject the topic of the Holy Spirit into a discussion of prayer—not that the Spirit hasn’t been there all along.   But I’d like to point out that the giving of the Holy Spirit as an answer to our desire is sort of like a parent re-directing a child’s demands for dessert before eating dinner.  You probably know already what it means to re-direct.   Sheryl has really mastered it as skill.   For example, if our teenage kids might want to watch a movie that’s rated R, she’ll suggest that we play a game of cards, which is not as violent and which certainly doesn’t include as many curse words.   Re-direction is actually an answer to the request, but it’s an answer that addresses our needs better than we understand them ourselves.

 

So, with that in mind, listen to Romans 8:26:

“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.”

 

2.  Paul and Job Represent Two Sides of the Honesty Coin

You see, what’s front and center in this passage is the sheer honesty of the apostle Paul’s prayer life.   He readily admits that he (along with the rest of the church) does not know how to talk to God or to listen for God’s voice.   And what we discover in this letter to the Christians in Rome is also what the book of Job portrays with the main character in the story.  If you haven’t read Job, let me encourage you to read it first as the recorded conversation of an honest man.   Job speaks with three friends, who are less than honest.   Eliphaz, Jophar and Bildad are extremely religious and filled to the brim with the religious formulae that states that God rewards the good and punishes the bad.   They are unquestioning voices of the status quo.   And yet, Job cannot stop asking questions.   He says things like, “how can a mortal be just before God?” and like

“Look, he passes by me and I do not see him; he moves on, but I do not perceive him.  He snatches away; who can stop him?  Who will say to God, ‘What are you doing?’”

 

Job, in other words, represents the flip side of Romans 8 and the apostle Paul.   Both Job and Romans acknowledge the suffering of all creation as well as the weakness of those who pray.   And yet, the thing that’s different about Paul’s honesty is that he offers up the despair he feels to the re-direction of the Holy Spirit.  

“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” (v. 27).

 

 

 

3.  God Defines The Good For Which “All Things Work Together”

 

You see, I didn’t necessarily ask for the Holy Spirit.   Not originally.  I originally wanted personal happiness and financial security for me and all my loved ones.   If the truth be told, my initial attempts at having a desire of the heart involved a national championship for any single Philadelphia sports franchise.   And God, you really delivered back in 1980 when the Phillies beat the Kansas City Royals to win the World Series.   But since then, I’d have to say, you’ve been a little slow on the uptake…   And then, wham!  By the power of the Holy Spirit, I begin to sense the unadulterated goodness for which “all things work together,”  and it has nothing to do with sports, or financial security or personal happiness.   The “good,” in Romans 8:28, is what God gets to define and what in prayer we have to discern.

 

On the throughway around Kingston, New York, Jim Loder and his family experience a traumatic car accident.   The injuries include a collapsed and bleeding lung, five broken ribs, lacerations on the back and a torn off thumb.   And yet, in the middle of it all, Loder tells his wife Arlene:  “Don’t worry; this has a purpose.”   She then calls her father in Chicago, who gathers his entire congregation to pray.  On his way to surgery, Loder sings, “Fairest Lord Jesus,” in the presence of a Jewish doctor.   They converse together about the Hebrew Scriptures, and together witness how Loder’s bluish skin turns pink.

4.  God’s Will Has Us All Wrapped Up and Unraveling

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose…”

 

And, you see, passages like that one actually invite us to ponder the most terrible experiences of our lives.   Do we dare?   And do we dare consider the most painful moments of our lives what God actually wills for us as a part of his purpose?  

 

Some have argued that God has a narrow, straight line plan for each person’s life and that when we stray from that path we suffer.   Others have said that when we stray from God’s perfect plan God moves on to plan B, which is less than perfect.   But, based upon the text in Romans 8, I’m wondering about two things:

1.  That God does indeed have perfect plan for our lives which actually includes and allows for our imperfect decision-making; and

 

2.   That when we are actually in sync with God’s purpose we won’t always be aware of it.   We may actually be wrapped up in a series of very painful circumstances.

 

Years ago, we had a dog named Zaccheaus, and he had been born to a long line of pure-breed Brittany Spaniel.   Anyway, we did not hunt with him and I always felt badly about that because this dog had an instinct for scaring birds into the air and he also liked to run.   He liked to run and run and run.   In fact, Zaccheaus like to run so much that we would often have to keep him roped up to post or to a tree.   And this is what would happen.   After hours of cavorting about with the leash hooked up to his collar, he would get all wrapped up.  

Now, obviously, we did not intend for Zaccheaus to be all wrapped up.  He simply made a series of decisions which got him intertwined with nearly every bush, boulder and deck post in the backyard.   And when I would notice his predicament, and when I heard him howling, this is what I did.   I went outside and would lead him by the collar back around and through every impediment.   Believe me.  I wanted him to romp freely, but as long as he resisted my attempts to lead him back, he hurt himself.   And heres’s the interesting dynamic.   If Zach wanted to lunge for me directly, I’d have to tell him No.   I wanted him to be still enough for me to grab a hold of his neck and lead him through and around and over and in and out…

 

5.   We Have Been Called To Pray For Latah Valley

So, if you don’t mind being the dog in this analogy, let me invite to consider Latah Valley as the backyard where God wants us to roam freely.   God wants us to stay with and to pray for Latah Valley.  But every so often we will become wrapped around a disease and an injury.   Every so often we will be inextricably linked with an emotional crisis or a financial situation.   And here’s what happens when we pray.   God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, leads us back, back through all those things.   Back through and around and under and over…  and then eventually we’re free.  

 

Amen.

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THE STILL POINT

September 22, 2008

 

1.   The Politics Of Prayer Will Divert Energy Away From God

 

A week ago, Friday, we attended the Ferris/Gonzaga Prep. Varsity Football and were treated to a prayer before the contest.  The words exploded out of the same sound system from which we had just listened to Queen sing, “We Will Rock You,” and Ozzie Osborn sing something I couldn’t make out above the din of the crowd.   And so, with my eardrums still ringing, I bowed my head and heard the announcer introduce the sacred moment with the classic blunder.  Instead of saying, “let us pray,” he made the Freudian slip of saying, “let us play,” and then launched into a discussion with God about sportsmanship and having no injuries, all the stuff we parents would approve of.  

 

Now, please don’t misunderstand.  As prayers before lopsided high school sporting events go, it was a pretty decent prayer.   And yet, I found myself wondering about the politics of it.   I found myself wondering if anybody had broken a sweat by listening to that pep-talk, I mean, prayer, which (parenthetically did not include one word of praise, confession, thanksgiving or even one genuine plea for help).   And, frankly, I found myself contemplating what Elijah, the prophet of Yahweh, says prior to his prayer contest with the prophets of Baal.   In 1 Kings 18:24, he announces,

“You call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.”

 

Ready.   Break.  

And so, here goes.  This morning, whenever we hear the word, politics, I’d like us to conjure up the image of white noise, or maybe the static that we hear in between radio stations, or maybe the feedback hits us when a high school football announcer gets too close to his microphone.   Are you with me?   The politics of prayer differ from the act of praying in a variety of crucial ways.   But my hunch is that you and I often fall victim to the politics of prayer, and therefore become so exhausted by that noise that we give up on hearing God speak to us.   We give up and assume that merely talking about God, or merely lobbying for a person’s right to believe in God is the equivalent to prayer, when it’s really not at all.

 

2.   The Loud Movements of History Are Not All That God Has To Say

Abraham Lincoln, among many others, knew about the politics of prayer.  As the Civil War came to a close in 1865, he noticed that “both (the confederacy and the union) read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other.”   And that’s the tragic irony that I’m afraid continues today.   Prayer itself may be a love letter.  But when the politics of prayer take over, the crowd makes it too hard to read.  

 

Believe it or not, I once had been asked to pray on a radio station.   They had about thirty minutes of air time dedicated to receiving people’s call-in requests and I prayed them as best I could.   But I also did one thing that the producers in the booth didn’t appreciate.   I left these large gaps of silence just hang over the airwaves.  

I would read a Bible passage, catch my breath, mention some big events in the news, for which I felt there were no easy answers, close my eyes and just wait quietly.   And when I finished, the guy who pressed the buttons called it “dead air.”   “We can’t have too much dead air,” he said.   “It’s not good for ratings.”

 

And, you see, the memory of that brief stint in Christian broadcasting could help us put the wild antics of Elijah in context.   Think about it.   In 1 Kings 18:37, Israel’s champion prays and by verse 38 it’s all over but the bonfire.   Moreover, by verse 40, the prophets of Ba’al have been slaughtered—literally!    So, what happens in chapter 19?   Why is Elijah so afraid and why does he have to flee for his life?  

 

My suggestion is that Elijah has been exhausted and overtaken by the politics of prayer.   My suggestion is that he was so impressed with the loudness of his prayer in chapter 18 that he forgot that God could also have more to say in the dead air of chapter 19.   The fact is—King Ahab and Queen Jezebel still control the spin machine.   The fact is—prophets like Elijah tend to rise and fall in the polls all the time.   But listen up.   Would we stick around and listen for God’s voice even if we couldn’t hear it argued on CNN, or Oprah, or Positive Life Radio?

 

“It is enough, O Lord, take away my life…”  

Dead Air.

 

3.   After… After… After…  How We Will Know

 

Madeline L’Engle tells the story of a picture of Jesus—something called an icon—that she had found in the crevice of a tree.  She walked the path to pray by the icon nearly every week, and every week she felt the presence of Christ and she felt his love for her and for the world.   She never told anyone about the icon.   She wanted to keep it to herself.   But then one day, Madeline L’Engle came to the clearing in the woods and found a bunch of shell casings strewn about the ground.  And then, to her great horror, she discovered that someone had used her image of Jesus for target practice.   His face had been completely mangled.  There was a hole in his left eye.   So, the woman who had prayed steadfastly in that place ran from it and promised never to return.   She felt violated.   She felt isolated in that no one could possibly understand her sense of loss.   And yet, after a year, almost in a trance, she did go back.  She returned to the place, and in the hole, through the face of Christ, there was this faint shadow of green growth.   And in the stillness of that vision, Madeline L’Engle realized that the conversations she had had with God were not over.  

 

They weren’t over then.  And they’re not over now.  Not yet.

“after the wind, an earthquake… and after the earthquake, a fire… and after the fire… a sound of sheer silence…”

 

Or, another way to translate that phrase is “a soft whisper.”  Or, the King James says, “a still, small voice.”

 

4.   The Sound of Sheer Silence Is The Still Point From Which We Act

 

Whatever we want to name that experience, however we’d like to translate the words, it breaks the biblical mold.   God had never done that before.   Previously, God had been in the wind and in the earthquake and in the fire.   Previously, God had spoken in the midst of all kinds of wild and wonderful phenomena.   And yet, here is the holy hush that Elijah had thought of as dead air.   Here is the still point from which he is free to act and not rely upon the politics of prayer.   “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

 

We might not be very impressed with that question, but coming, as it does after the wind, and after the earthquake and after the fire, Elijah is changed.   First of all, he delegates to others what he had previously attempted to do by himself.  In verse 19, for example, he throws the yoke of oxen over Elisha, which is highly symbolic.   And the second thing that Elijah begins to do (from this point on) is to wait for the stillness.

 

5.   Latah Valley Need Not Run and Hide, But Wait For The Stillness

 

Philip Yancey describes a friend who rode his bike across China in 1984, and who stayed with a couple who

had landed on a blacklist because of their education status.  Worse, Red Guards harangued children to turn in their parents if they showed any sign of religious faith.  Not wanting to put their children in an impossible position, the man and his wife decided for a time to remove all religious symbols from their house and to stop praying in public… They did agree to continue one practice, though.  At night, as they lay in bed, they held hands and repeated silently the Lord’s Prayer… Then they continued to hold hands for a time of silent prayer (Prayer; p. 292-3).”

 

Now, I don’t know exactly what kind of political pressure you may be experiencing at the moment.  Certainly, it’s nothing like that couple in China, who prayed silently for their children.   But it seems very likely that Latah Valley is a place where we can hold hands, a place where we need not run and hide, but wait.

 

Amen.   

MOVEMENTS ONE THROUGH FOUR

September 15, 2008

1.  The Prayer Muscles Must Be Carefully Trained

 

King Uzziah dies in the year 742 BCE.   And for the people of Israel, a loss like that could have been devastating.   It could have been like the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  It could have been like the traumatic morning of September 11th, 2001.   Loss is Loss is Loss.   And in the wake of our lifetime losses, some of the best men, women and children do not recover.   They wither like grass on a blazing afternoon.   And yet, I’m here today to commend the prophet Isaiah as someone who has received training.   Isaiah has been trained in the practice of the presence of God, and by the exercise of his prayers he and many others—even us—will survive and flourish. 

 

As you may recall, I have now engaged the support and wise counsel of a personal trainer—someone who basically lives at the OZ Fitness and who trains various muscle groups in my middle-aged body.   He’ll say, “Don’t arch your back…  Turn your hands the other way…  Close one of your eyes and stand on one foot for thirty seconds…   Concentrate on your form and not the amount of weight that you’re lifting.”   He instructs me in all these ways, and does an excellent job of it.   And yet, the other day, when we talked about prayer, and he asked me why we invited various responses—things like “the Peace of Christ be with you always” and “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”—my personal trainer couldn’t understand, or wouldn’t accept how specific, verbatim, words might be like training too.

 

And so, my hope this morning is to reinforce for you and for me the consistent movements that we must master as our prayers mature.    If we want to continue to say extemporaneous prayers, or prayers as a last resort, please continue to do that.   But for those who want to experience  something like what the prophet Isaiah says that he saw in Isaiah 6, the first move must be to hold in tension the holy nature of God with the hallowed nature of God’s name.  Let me explain.

 

2.  Hold The Holy And The Hallowed  In Tension

 

Last week I called out to someone that I recognized and shouted out his name.   He answered by calling me “Buddy.”   The fact is, I am not this person’s buddy.   Not yet.  Maybe I’d like to be.   But, as we all understand, true relationships take time and energy to develop.   There’s an element of risk and a season of give and take.   And, by calling me “Buddy” this person tried to circumvent all of that.   Of course the other end of the spectrum happens when we’re on the phone with a tech support person, someone who’s talking to you from a cubicle in downtown New Delhi, but who identifies himself as John or George.   And somehow that familiar American-sounding name makes communication even harder.  

 

Now, what does any of this have to do with God and with the way that Isaiah describes God as HOLY, HOLY, HOLY and with the way that Jesus encourages us to pray, HALLOWED BE YOUR NAME? 

Well, first of all, if God is truly holy and in heaven, we dare not allow ourselves the privilege of shouting Hey Buddy from across the parking lot.   This is why the ancient Hebrews stopped using the name, Yahweh, and replaced it with Adonay, or LORD.   On the hand, Jesus seemed to reverse that reverence somewhat by identifying God as Father.   He will even use the Aramaic baby-language of Abba.   And yet, what’s fascinating about this familiar reference to God is that Jesus immediately adds the phase, who is in heaven coupled with Hallowed be your name.   And, you see, it’s almost as if he’s training us to watch our form and to hold in tension the fierce holiness of God and the family love God.

 

 

3.  Bring Your Focus Back Down To Earth

 

We arrived for a mission trip in North Carolina.   It was hot and humid and the next day over thirty of us would scatter to various housing projects and special programs.   Anyway, after the ten hour trip, we settled into our dormitory accommodations when suddenly there came this knock at the door.   It was the mother of two teenagers, who spent the day arguing in the car.   They got their key, and the boy immediately clogged the toilet.   It overflowed and made a mess, and she wondered if they could get into a different room.   I told her that I didn’t know, but by the cracked look on her face I could tell she wasn’t just looking for a key.  

 

So, pay attention to this next move.  

As Isaiah hears the voices of angels, he immediately brings his focus back down to earth:

“Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips…”     

 

Likewise, with Jesus in Luke 11:2, notice how the prayer is not Take me away to heaven, or Please let me escape all of this crap, but rather, Your kingdom come on earth…  And Give us our daily bread.   Provide for our most basic needs.

 

And so, with this young woman and her family, that’s the way we talked to God.   We asked God to carve out a little sphere of his kingdom, a little pocket of protection that we could do what he asked us to do.   And then, just like that porcelain nemesis overflowing in the dorm room, we let loose with more words, with better words.

 

4.  Move Out With Forgiveness

 

Barbara Brown Taylor tells about visiting a nursing home.   And you know what happens sometimes at nursing homes.   At nursing homes, elderly men and women forget who they are, and occasionally they re-play old episodes in their lives.    Well, according to Taylor’s book, Gospel Medicine, the best thing to do in circumstances like that is for us to let words loose in the room.  Let loose with a loud, “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us…”   Simply, let those syllables launch from our lips.   Move out like Isaiah moves out, with his mouth burning from the live coal that even angels cannot handle.

 

5.  Latah Valley Will Confound The Hell Out Of Everyone For Whom We Pray

 

I once had two Spanish-speaking people pray for me.   We had just finished a meal with lots of hot and spicy food.   And as I told them what to pray for—about my father’s death—I could tell that they didn’t quite get it.   Then, as we bowed our heads, I listened to their words, not understanding a thing.   I didn’t understand one single sentence.   And yet, I’m telling you that I felt completely understood.   I felt like another time, when my parents had sent me to bed too early.   I complained and sneaked back downstairs and listened to their conversation.   They were talking about all kinds of things I couldn’t understand, but off and on, they would say my name, and based on that I knew that I was included.  I was involved in their plans.

 

Every so often I consider that prayer when I don’t feel like I have much to say.   When I don’t feel like I have much to say and I don’t feel as if I can hear what God is saying to me, I think about Isaiah 6:9 and the final movement in the prophet’s prayer regiment.   God says to him,

“Go and say to this people:  ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’”

 

This is a weird passage, and an even weirder way of ending a message.   But, when everything has been said and done, what if that’s Latah Valley’s special mission?  

 

What if our special mission is not to explain God and call him Buddy, but to confound the hell out of everyone for whom we pray?    And what if, as long as we live, the only true thing that we can do is keep listening, listening, listening… like a child ease-dropping on a parent’s caring, but complicated conversation.  

 

Amen.

 

THE PRIMAL INSTINCT

September 10, 2008

1.  Moses Turns Aside

 

Moses can’t help it.   When he notices a bush burning on the mountainside, he turns aside, which is to say that he becomes curious enough to stop what he’s doing and to explore further.   In fact, in verse three, he premeditates turning aside; he think to himself and actually says the words out loud:  “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.”   Then, in verse four, it’s important to note that “when the Lord saw that (Moses) had turned aside,” only then did God speak.   So, as we launch into this series on prayer, my hunch is that the simple act of turning aside might be something we want to learn, or re-learn.

 

It’s been several years since I have had the experience of watching The Lion King.   But one of the interesting scenes in that film takes place when Pumba, Timon and Simba have just finished gorging themselves on lots of juicy insects and other jungle fare.   They are lounging on their backs, staring up at the sky, when the wild boar wonders aloud about the flecks of light shining down from above.     Timon responds that he doesn’t “think,” he “knows” what they are for certain.   Those flecks of lights are nothing more than fireflies that got stuck up there in that bluish, black thing.   Not to be outdone, Pumba stipulates that they may be balls of gas, spinning billions and billions of miles away.  But then there’s Simba, the runaway son of the late King Mufasa.   Sheepishly, he says, “I was told that those stars are really the great kings of the past…”

In other words, I was told that I’m not alone.  I was told that none of us is alone, that life’s more than simply surviving in the jungle, or looking out for yourself above all else.   I was told there’s a purpose and a pattern that I can find out.   And, you see, like Simba in the Disney classic, Moses in the Exodus story has to relearn something that he’s instinctively already knew.   Think about it:  he’s been driven away from the only civilized society he has ever known.   He’s in the wilderness.   He’s landed a fantastic wife and a fantastic father-in-law and a fantastic family business.   But this little detail about him turning aside suggests that there’s something more. 

 

2.  God has Observed/Heard

 

“Watson, come here.  I want you.”  According to Alexander Graham Bell legend, those were the first words to be transmitted by the invention of the telephone.   And I suppose that’s a rather ironic first message, isn’t it?   It’s ironic because the very usefulness of the gadget is to make available those persons, like Bell’s protégé, who are physically not present.   And so, when Bell commands Watson to “come here,” he no longer needs the device to communicate and more importantly, all of us discover what we truly and most earnestly desire, and that is, the presence of another.   Is there somebody there?  Is there somebody who can come here?   

 

Well, Moses discovers that, in the burning bush, there is. 

“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Which is an interesting way of identifying yourself considering the fact that Moses has been raised in Pharoah’s court and therefore may not have a clue about any of those names.    We might even compare it to the first day of Sunday School, where the kids are so loaded up with the names of the Power Rangers and the Ninja Turtles and the Pokemon and the Star Wars action figures that there’s no room for anyone like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.   And so, when that lesson plan fails, God goes to Plan B:

 “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt.  I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians…”

 

You see, Moses gets this.  The suffering of the Hebrew people has made a huge impression upon him.   And this is why we might recommend prayer as a primal instinct.   It’s not that we have to know all the players and to buy into the whole religious program.   Instinctively, we all cry out.   “People pray whether they call it prayer or not,” claim Ann and Barry Ulanov.   And today’s passage takes us one step further when it invites us to believe that there is someone on the other end of the conversation who has “observed” and has “heard.” 

 

Now, that’s an aspect that’s not always emphasized.   In fact, for most people who pray I would say the predominant feeling is that what we say is most important.  

 

Philip Yancy notes that during the rise of the Soviet Union, when the communist regime wanted to wipe the slate clean of religion, they couldn’t figure out a way to quell the primal instinct.   And so, reducing prayer to mere monologue, Pravda, the state run newspaper, ran this advice column in 1950:

“If you meet with difficulties in your work, or suddenly doubt your abilities, think of him—of Stalin—and you will find the confidence you need.  If you feel tired in an hour when you should not, think of him—of Stalin—and your work will go well.  If you are seeking a correct decision, think of him—of Stalin—and you will find that decision” (Prayer, p. 13).

 

You see, the only way this kind of thinking of Stalin can replace genuine prayer is that we often assume that no one has “observed” and no one has “heard.”   In Exodus 3:7, God asserts otherwise and then has this to offer in verse eight:  “And I have come down to deliver…”

 

3.  God Comes Down and Enters Into Suffering and Even Smells Our Cries

 

Now, before venture any further, I’m going to make this giant leap and issue this major warning, and that is, if you turn aside, like Moses, and if you believe that God has observed and has heard all the cries of Israel and perhaps of many others who cry, if you turn aside and believe, prepare yourself if you can for the One who does not shy away from suffering.   In fact, praying will place us in the very midst of what God is already doing and if God is saving those who cry out to him, you and I may find ourselves in the midst of suffering.  

Revelation 5 says as much when it depicts Jesus as the Slaughtered Lamb, before whom the prayers of the saints are offered like bowls of incense.   And so, check it out:   not only are we to believe that God observes, hears and comes down into the mess, in Christ, he’s not afraid to smell the mess.

4.   The One to Whom We Pray Makes All the Difference

 

Gordon Atkinson tells about a time he spent with a wheel-chair bound person, named Robert.  Gordon had stopped by to pray, but with the paid-assistant gone for a few hours, he found himself taking care of Robert in ways he hadn’t expected.   And then came the bombshell:   “Gordon, I need you to help me go to the bathroom.”   And the next thing he knew, Robert’s prayer partner found himself putting his hands under the disabled man’s armpits.   He had to help him with his belt, his zipper.   He had to pull Robert’s underwear down to his ankles.   And just when Gordon had breathed a sigh of relief, from behind the closed bathroom door, there came this quivering cry, “Gordon, I need you to help me clean up” (RealLive Preacher, p. 35).   

 

You see, this is why the One to whom we pray make all the difference.   Prayers to yourself or prayers to Stalin lead no where.   Prayers to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob inevitably lead to Robert’s bathroom.  They lead to suffering, which is about to be relieved.   They lead to mess, which is about to be cleaned up.  And in Christ, according to Rev. 5, they lead to a kingdom of priests.

5.  Latah Valley Must Re-Learn What It Has Unlearned

 

In a book, called The Burnt Offering, by Albrecht Goes, there is a main character who grieves the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis.   Frau Walker is disgusted with what the world has become, and so, when her home is struck by a bombing raid, she resolves that she will crawl into the fire almost as if she could become a burnt offering to appease God.  But listen to the way her prayer is answered.  A Jewish man in the neighborhood rescues her.   He pulls her out of the flames.  Frau Walker survives, and later realizes that God doesn’t want human sacrifice.   God wants suffering servants, who become his hands, his feet, his heart, his mind.

 

I believe there’s a person right now, in the Latah Valley area, who has just prayed a prayer.   Maybe he’s on the golf course, or maybe she’s at the grocery store.   Wherever the prayer emanates, it doesn’t just lead to safety and security and a life without risk.   It leads to a community like this one, where we re-learn what we have un-learned, and where we turn aside and finally hear God speaking at last.   Amen.    

 

1.  I AM Sayings Keep The Conversation Going

 

Consider it an invitation.   When Jesus uses the phrase I Am in John’s Gospel, consider it an invitation.   Consider it his way of pulling back the curtains and opening the doors and windows, and allowing us to see the kind of pictures that God hangs on the wall.   And let’s review the images that have been brought to our attention: 

         I am the bread of life (Jn 6:35,48,51)

         I am the light of the world (8:12; 9:5)

         I am the gate for the sheep (10:7,9)

         I am the good shepherd (10:11,14)

         I am the resurrection and the life (11:25,26)

         I am the way, the truth and the life (14:6)

         I am the true vine (15:1,5).

 

Not too many months ago, we moved into our home and one of the first things we did was unpack the framed photographs of our family and painstakingly affix them to the wall near our kitchen table.   You see, that way we’re reminded of how skinny we were when we got married, or how Ian’s whole body could once fit on my forearm, or how Philip would kick a soccer ball.   And from the wall, next to our kitchen table, the eyes of grandparents and parents would watch over us as we buttered toast in the morning.   Brothers and sisters and assorted nieces and nephews and cousins would also spy on us as we slurped soup.   The smiling faces of old neighbors would peer over our shoulders as we’d say grace.  And when there happened to be a lull in the conversation, a visitor or a guest might say, “Who’s this little girl, squinting in the sunlight on that elderly man’s lap?”   And, you see, in that way it seems as if those still photographs keep the conversation going.  It seems as if they won’t let us alone—thank God they won’t let us alone—until we’ve said something or done something, until we’ve created another memory that we might add to the wall eventually.

 

This, I think, is the reason that Jesus uses the phrase I AM in connection with a series of vivid images.   He’s not boasting.   He’s not trying to shut down the conversation, but to keep it going.   And  this morning he wants us to picture him as the vine.   Picture that:  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…”   And where are we in the family photo gallery?   Well, according to John 15:5, we are “the branches.”    And moreover, branches, when they are pruned, “bear much fruit.”   Can you see that?   Can you see where we are or where we might be on the wall, near the kitchen table, inside the household of God?

 

2.  The Vine Is Intertwined With Specific Things, Places, People

 

Now, one of the most interesting features of a vine, and especially a cultivated grape vine, is that it typically grows best when it’s intertwined with something else.  It could be a fence post, a trellis or a tree.  It could be a piece of twine that the vinegrower stretches out between two sturdy wooden steaks.   And whatever that something else is—the vine attaches itself to it and wraps itself around it.

So, what if the Living Jesus always comes to us in a similar way?  Not directly.  But always intertwined with specific things, unique places and peculiar people.  

 

Brennan Manning tells the story of an elderly man, dying of cancer.   At the request of his daughter, the new priest came to visit him, and upon entering the room, the priest observed the man laying on his side with two pillows beneath his head and an empty chair along side the bed.   “I guess you were expecting me,” said the priest, pointing to the chair.   But the man then told him to close the door and he proceeded to explain confidentially how difficult he had praying to God.   Other priests had recommended books on the subject and seminars on the subject.   But when he had first been diagnosed with cancer, a friend simply told him that prayer was a conversation with Jesus.   And he then suggested the chair.   Talk to Jesus as he sits with you in the chair.    And so, in faith, Jesus became intertwined with the chair.   And, as the man would be embarrassed if his daughter saw him talking to a piece of furniture, he kept the practice a secret.   Manning then finishes the story by quoting the daughter:

“When I got back from the store… I found him dead.   But there was something strange, kinda weird.  Apparently just before Daddy died, he leaned over and rested his head on a chair beside the bed” (Abba’s Child, p. 125).

 

Of course, the chair is just one of many things around which Jesus might wrap himself.   I’d also like to submit the friend who suggested the idea in the first place.   As the true vine, Jesus is wrapped around him too.   But he’s also deeply intertwined with the Bible.  

Jesus is intertwined with the words, the stories and the images of the Bible, as it has been transmitted to us down through the ages.   Jesus is also intertwined with the rich history of the people of Israel as they are represented in the Bible.   But, given those two remarks, I’d like to offer a crucial distinction.   And that is this:  taken out of context, or interpreted as ammunition to win an argument, the Bible produces nothing.   In fact, the worship of the Bible alone, apart from a relationship with God, is tantamount to missing the whole point.   And the point of the Bible is the vine that grows through it.

 

The other thing that’s important for us to learn about the vine is that it’s wrapped around people who gather in a place.   I once read a bumper sticker that said something to the effect that you can’t become a Christian by going to church any more than you can become a car by going into a garage.    The problem with that saying, however, is that it neglects that core thing around which Jesus, as the true vine, has wrapped himself in this world.  People don’t come to Christ through osmosis, on their own, but through a community that gathers around a table, listens to the stories and looks at the picture on the wall.

3.  The Word Prunes—Ouch!

 

And this brings us to the verb that Jesus uses in John 15:2:   to prune.   He says that God, as the vinegrower, “removes every branch (in Christ) that bears no fruit” and that “every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  

Now, let me get this straight.   It’s important, I think, for all of us to get this passage straight.   Pruning is not punishment, but it is painful.   It’s painful because the kinds of things that God will probably cut out or cut back are the very things that have produced positive results in our lives.   For example—

         Schedules That Make Us More Efficient, but Overly Busy

         Relationships That Make Us Feel Comfortable, Too Comfortable

         Immature Ideas Which Are Challenged By People That Make Us Uncomfortable

         Misconceptions Due To The Way We’ve Been Raised or Indoctrinated

         Fruitful Ministries or Acts of Service Which God No Longer Wants Us To Do…

 

4.  Our Life Together Produces Local Fruit—Not Generic Flavors

 

Being pruned, or cut back, in these ways, will ultimately produce more fruit.   And that “more fruit,” we must emphasize, is the essence of starting new congregations like Latah Valley.   “More fruit” is synonymous with local fruit.   Verse eight says the Father is glorified, not with the mass production of generic fruit flavors, but with the actual fruit that comes about after a branch has been pruned.   And so, for people who join this community from more established churches, it’s like being pruned.   For people who experience Christ for the first time here, among us, it’s also like being pruned because suddenly priorities must change.   We say goodbye to one set of relationships and hello to others.   We say goodbye to one set of pictures on the wall, and we begin to make new ones.

5.  How Latah Valley Abides

 

So, consider this an invitation.  An invitation to bear much more fruit than we might ever bear on our own.  Latah Valley abides in Christ, as the vine, and therefore, I believe we will see an increasing number of people learn to pray in Threshold Groups.   We will see baptisms in Latah Creek.  We will see men and women and children use some of their vacation time to build homes for low-income families.   We will see those who used to spend their money on sheer entertainment begin to give themselves to worship over the long haul.

 

Because we abide in the vine, we will see all these images on the wall, near the kitchen table, in the household of God.

 

Amen.