- STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OCTOBER 27, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD
Numbers 11: 4 – 20; Romans 12: 12; Mark 11: 22 – 25
Today is Reformation Sunday. I didn’t realize how reformed I am, until I visited Israel. We were there with Christians from around the world. At the sites where it’s believed Jesus had been, people were quite demonstrative. They’d kiss the ground, shed tears, and wail while rubbing their crosses, rosaries and relics on the rock. Our awe was more restrained. In Bethlehem, at The Church of the Nativity, there’s a marker where Mary is believed to have given birth. We could hear the worshippers. When told there was a 2-hour line up to see this spot, our group decided, without a word of discussion that we were close enough. Some churches, such as The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, were ornately decorated in the Orthodox tradition. I found them beautiful yet overwhelming. In Bethesda, there is a church built by the Crusaders in a Romanesque style. I sensed the peace and had a positive gut reaction. Then I realized the walls were bare, the décor was minimal. It resonated with my Reformed roots. That same building has amazing acoustics and each group is permitted to stand in front of the Communion Table and sing. Our group formed a circle and sang. I was facing the back and noticed people looking critically at us. Baffled, I watched as other groups went forward. They faced the front and I realized I’d turned my back on the “altar” which was offensive to many. In our Tradition, the Spirit of Christ is alive among his people. We don’t locate Christ in a particular place. It was natural for us to face each other because together we were in the presence of God. In fact, God is always present, wherever we are.
A 4-year-old boy was asked to give thanks before Christmas dinner. The family bowed their heads in expectation. He began his prayer, thanking God for all his friends, naming them one by one. He thanked God for each family member – parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Then he began to thank God for the food. He gave thanks for the turkey, the dressing, the fruit salad, the cranberry sauce, the pies, the cookies, even the Cool Whip. Then he paused, and everyone waited. After a long silence, the child looked up at his mother and asked, “If I thank God for the broccoli, won’t he know I’m lying?”
Last week, we talked about being human; that is, being real with others about who we are as flawed, sinful people. Today, I want to talk about being real with God. If I asked you “How is your prayer life?” what would you say? Would you sink under the pew? Tell me it’s short, sporadic or non-existent? Do you measure “success” by how many people you pray for, the level of your faith or the answers you get? Is prayer only what happens when you gather with the “prayer warriors” on Wednesday mornings? Is prayer ritualized words, said at certain times of the day from a particular place? Are you a prayer failure? Richard Foster writes, “Countless people have such a ‘stained glass’ image of prayer they fail to recognize what they are experiencing, as prayer and so condemn themselves for not praying.” It’s not that we don’t pray, we just don’t recognize prayer when we do it. Most of us pray spontaneously throughout the day. When we’re in crisis or in a dire situation beyond our control. When we’re worried, stressed or desperate. When we’re excited or grateful. When we’re crushed by guilt. When we’re in emotional or physical pain. When we face a challenge. When we think of our family. Do you pray while driving your car? Taking a shower? Cutting the grass or folding the laundry? Then, you’re part of a vast club of closeted pray-ers who live their lives aware of God’s presence, in continual communion with him. That awareness of “God with us” and the inclusion of God in our daily lives may not have a “stained glass” quality, but it is prayer. It’s real, authentic prayer. In the flow of the Spirit, Christians tend to pray personal, heart-felt moment by moment prayers.
Prayer is an inter-personal exchange between us and God. Think about our interactions with other people. If we speak to or about someone in their presence, we’re mindful of what we’re saying. When we speak about someone behind their back, our words may be quite different. As a student, I worked in a bank. Our supervisor, Brenda, was not well liked. One lunch break, I entered a washroom, where the staff was having a heyday criticizing Brenda – it was great fun until Brenda came out of the stall! Although our words were unkind, they were honest; if we’d known Brenda was listening, we’d have hidden our true thoughts and feelings. Mark Twain was returning home by train from a successful fishing trip in Maine. Although fishing season was closed, he bragged about his huge, illegal catch to the only man in the club car. When he finished, Twain asked the man who he was. The stranger said, “I’m the state game warden. Who are you?” Twain responded, “I’m the biggest liar in the whole country.” When we speak to or in front of someone, we filter what we say. If we’re on a first date, in a job interview, in the principle’s office, or meeting potential in-laws, we guard our words carefully. This is stressful because we’re trying to manage the person’s impression of us. We prefer to be with friends where we can be our “real self”. When it comes to God, we find it difficult to be our “real self” because we’re always in God’s presence. As the Psalmist writes, “Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit or to be out of your sight? [Wherever I go] you’re already there waiting!” (Psalm 139: 7 – 10). We try to make a good impression on God, forgetting that he knows us through and through. Sometimes we forget that God knows and sees us. Have you ever been in a meeting when someone asked, ‘who would like to pray’? Everyone looks at the floor to avoid being “it”? Then the lest reluctant starts by praying, “Oh God, we love you so much…” Do we think God isn’t watching when we’re debating who will pray and wondering, “If you love me so much, why don’t you want to talk to me?” Or have you ever known someone to speak in one voice and pray with a different voice? Do you think God isn’t wondering what this saintly, erudite individual did with the real you? The goal of prayer isn’t eloquence, setting record lengths or fooling God with our piety. The goal of prayer is a living, lively authentic relationship between the real you and God.
A great example of authentic prayer is the discussion between Moses and God, regarding the Israelites who were sick of eating manna. Moses is angry and let’s God know, “Why are you treating me this way? What did I ever do to you to deserve this? Did I conceive them? Was I their mother? Why dump the responsibility of this people on me?” (Numbers 11:11f). Have you ever really had at it with God? If our prayers are always pretty, eloquent or spiritual sounding, we’re not being real with God. The truth is, sometimes, we’re frustrated and self-pitying. Sometimes, we blame God. Solid relationships can withstand the ups and downs of life and our responses to it. Every problem we face is an opportunity for prayer. An honest discussion with God gives us strength to, not “quit in hard times; pray all the harder” (Romans 12: 12). Moses continued expressing his sense of powerlessness, “Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people who are whining to me, ‘Give us meat; we want meat.’? I can’t do this by myself—it’s too much, all these people” (vs. 13f). When we’re at a point of despair, we stop relying on ourselves and call out to God. While it’s better to ask directly for what we need, sometimes we can’t. God heard Moses with compassion. When we turn to God for help, admitting we’re lost, God responds. Moses’ despair is so deep he’s ready to give up, “If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favor and kill me. I’ve seen enough; I’ve had enough. Let me out of here” (vs. 15) These are the thoughts and feelings we tend to filter out. Moses exposes his darkest, most vulnerable thoughts. We fool ourselves if we think we can hide the rawness of our souls from God. God knows us. Nothing shocks God – he’s heard it all. God knows Moses desperately needs hi support if he’s to deliver the Israelites from slavery to the promised land. We too have challenging jobs – raising kids; dealing with a difficult client; saving someone’s life; loving your obnoxious neighbour; volunteering; dealing with loneliness, poor health and tedium. You may feel you’ve seen enough, had enough, want to run away, or are ready to die. No one knows you better than God does. No one loves you more than God. God knows you’re tired, petty, jealous, selfish, foolish, as well as generous, loving, committed, joyful and gentle. We may filter our prayers, but God doesn’t. What matters to God is that we come to him, just as we are. Often, we don’t pray because our thoughts seem “unspiritual”. We think we should pray about: world peace, missionaries, global warming, persecuted Christians. So, we pray very devoutly until our minds drift back to the situations and people who are immediately on our hearts. Jesus encourages us to, “to pray for absolutely everything, ranging from small to large (Mark 11: 24). We pray what’s in us, not what we wish was in us.
When Moses prayed, God answered. He invited Moses to meet him. When we come to God in prayer, God draws closer to us. God engages us. God promised Moses he would speak with him. Listening to God is the essence and gift of prayer. Jesus reminds us that “when you assume the posture of prayer, remember that it’s not all asking” (Mark 11: 25). Prayer isn’t just asking for stuff, prayer is praise and confession, thanksgiving and forgiveness. Prayer is listening for God’s response and direction. God let’s Moses in on his plan. For Moses’ sake and to fulfill his own will, God stepped in giving Moses the support he needs. Yet, God is no happier with the Israelites than Moses is. Listen to God’s honesty, “[I] have heard your whining and am going to give you meat. You’re going to eat meat. And it’s not just for a day that you’ll eat meat, and not two days, or five or ten or twenty, but for a whole month. You’re going to eat meat until it’s coming out your nostrils. You’re going to be so sick of meat that you’ll throw up at the mere mention of it” (Numbers 11: 18f). When we’re real with God in prayer, God gets real with us.
Prayer isn’t something that happens apart from the rest of life. Prayer is living, aware that we’re in God’s presence. Prayer is living in genuine relationship with God. As people redeemed by Christ, the Spirit uses whatever we bring to God in prayer to change and sanctify us. In this way, God always answers our prayers. Life is an invitation to prayer, and prayer is life lived in Christ. Those who live with this awareness, live in the flow of the Spirit.