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Reflection August 25, 2019
"A Deserted Place" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Since we had a very sparse gathering of congregants this past Sunday (August 18), I’ve decided to place most of my sermon in this week’s Advance.
Let me start by stating what I believe is an obvious truth: ultimately prayer is not something we do, ultimately prayer is something we become.
We have in our preaching text today the first recorded account in the Gospels of Jesus praying. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he (Jesus) got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” (Mark 1:35) Some translations state the Gospel Greek as a “lonely place.”
As I’ve preached more than once, this account of Jesus praying is very important to our life as followers of Christ. We don’t pray to Jesus, we pray with Jesus. And we must remember that Jesus is the human incarnation of the Christ, who has existed eternally.
Why should we pray? One answer comes from the spiritual writer, Ronald Rolheiser, in his book, The Holy Longing. He writes: “If you do not pray, you will either be habitually depressed or obsessed with your own ego. This … is true, irrespective of whether you are religious or not.” So we pray to keep ourselves healthy spiritually and emotionally.
What are we trying to accomplish when we pray? I’m sure we have numerous answers. Prayer is primarily opening to God’s presence. The more we open to God’s presence, the more we become the person God created us to become.
Our prayers allow God to do what God does within each of God’s creatures. God desires to live in an intimate relationship with everyone and everything God has created.
Remember the name I gave to God last Sunday? Holy Guardian of the Sparrows! As I watch my many, many sparrows feeding at my bird feeder, I realized that it’s the flapping, the fluttering, of their wings that grabs me. I am not sure why this is so but the fluttering of birds’ wings resonates with something deep in my own soul. God bless the birds! Jesus was fond of the sparrows. I am fond of the sparrows. I hope everyone is fond of the sparrows!
None of us is able to run away or escape the love God has for each of us. God loves us no matter what. This is the truth. This is the good news. This is the message of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. God loves us all so much that God was willing to take on human flesh to be one with us.
I think Christians sometimes focus too much on the saving power of Christ’s crucifixion. The truth, if we can hear it, is that we are also saved in a very real way through Christ’s Incarnation. Jesus’ birth, life, death and Resurrection all comprise the saving plan God has given us and all creation. Jesus’ birth saves us. Jesus’ life saves us. Jesus’ death saves us. Jesus’ Resurrection saves us. All are redemptive. We forget this important truth at times.
We know our prayer begins with acknowledging God’s love for each of us. God does not create any creature who falls outside the range of God’s all-encompassing love. There is no place to be found in our cosmos that will not be swept up in the power and glory of God’s love.
We pray so we can allow this all-embracing love access to our hearts and access to our souls. What we ultimately wish to do in prayer is to allow God to do with us whatever God wishes to do with us. In other words, instead of always asking God for the things we want, we should at times pray for what God wants.
Now please understand, I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask God for what we need. But I am saying we should have so much trust in what God wants for us that we give God a free hand. A simple prayer to start each day would be: “Lord God, I know you love me. Do with me as your love decrees. Please give me this day what You WANT for me!
Prayer is as important to us, brothers and sisters, as we allow it to be. But our culture doesn’t place much value on prayer. Rohlhesier states that one of the major faith struggles of our age is “the struggle for interiority and prayer inside of a culture … that conspires against depth and serenity.” Is this not so?
I believe there are strong forces at work in our culture that want to keep us always agitated and frantic. Many of our news programs work to keep us perpetually disturbed. Our advertisers figure out the best ways to make us dissatisfied and unhappy. Calm and serene people don’t need to rush off to a shopping mall to feel better. Prayer helps us remain calm in our troubled and tumultuous world, instead of lurching from crisis to crisis.
1st Thessalonians 5:16 has our brother Paul writing this: “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (ASV) This simplifies it for us, doesn’t it? To do God’s will requires three things and three things alone: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks.”
As I’ve preached this summer, we know that to pray without ceasing doesn’t mean we keep reciting words all day long. What Paul has in mind for us must be an attitude, a way of living that keeps us open to God throughout the day. Prayer is a way of deeply listening to God as we make our way though each day.
And this way of listening, according to Paul, is intimately connected with rejoicing. When we rejoice, when we live with joy, praying without ceasing becomes a possibility for us. And when joy and prayer come together, gratitude is always the result.
Gratitude is an attitude of the heart, an uplifting of the heart. As you know, it’s hard for me to live with joy. It’s hard for me to rejoice. I see all the problems of our world, all the injustices and torments, all the wars and violence. I see the problems faced by the people I’m called to serve and joy seems superfluous – maybe even offensive.
Aren’t many of us overwhelmed with the manifold wounds of our world? Yet can we trust Paul when he tells us: “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks”? I want to trust Paul. I want to “rejoice always.” I want to “pray without ceasing.” I want to “in everything give thanks.” Brothers and sisters, is this not also what you want?
I wish with all my heart to stay faithful to Paul’s three admonitions, to Paul’s three keys for a full and fulfilling life in Christ. “Rejoice always; pray unceasingly; in everything give thanks.”
We pray to let God’s love pour over us. We pray to recognize the ever-present touch of our God, found when we gather to worship, found in so many simple ways each day, such as in the fluttering of sparrow wings.
We note, as Richard Foster notes, that “God is not our cosmic bellhop!” Does not God know what is best for all of us? Do we really possess the hubris to constantly tell God what God should be doing? God protect us!
I really like the 19th Century Danish theologian and philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. He’s the founder of the philosophical movement called Existentialism, which had a strong impact on me both in college and in my graduate studies. I fondly recall sitting in parks in Copenhagen where he was said to have strolled.
Kierkegaard wrote this: “A person prayed and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But as he became more and more quiet, he realized that prayer is listening.” Profound words for all of us to ponder!
The spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, who I had the pleasure of hearing, in his book, Compassion states: “We have become children of an impatient world to such an extent that our behavior expresses the view that prayer is a waste of time.” We are all living in the fast lane: the too-fast lane!
When, where, is the time was can waste with God, the Lover of Our Souls? Do we pencil prayer into our daily schedule, hoping to get a better invitation, something more exciting, something we can put on Facebook ?
So many things can turn our thoughts to our Creator. Just this past week, I watched two Nova programs on PBS. The first program was on “Pluto and Beyond.” The second program was on “The Ice Planets.” Both programs astonished me and helped me expand my notions of the awesome ability of God to hold our vast cosmos together. We see the hand of the Creator everywhere in creation.
The American Baptist pastor, Daniel Hansen, in his book, The Art of Pastoring: Ministry Without All the Answers, writes: “We believe in God because we pray. This contradicts the normal idea that we pray because we believe in God.”
This thought is an important one for us to contemplate. We often ask people to believe in God first. This is entirely the wrong approach. First, we pray and through our prayer we come to believe in God, not the other way around. This is what often happens when people are in crisis.
In my years as pastor and campus minister at Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana, I was asked to be the person to whom people in various 12-Step Programs could come and complete step #5: “Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” I was a designated another human being for northern Louisiana.
Over my years in Grambling, I listened to dozens of addicts admit what they had done wrong in their lives. Those sessions often lasted for hours. Kleenex boxes often got emptied. It was a grace-filled privilege to serve in such a capacity.
So, again, to sum up: we have our life-lesson plan from our brother Paul: 1) Rejoice always; 2) Pray without ceasing; 3) In everything give thanks! There we have it!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor