Many say we, Christians in the church, are the hands and feet of God. But, I think too often we fail to realize that we are also the ears and mouth of God. We fail to listen. And we fail to speak into the world, the Word that is Jesus Christ. We also fail to be the body incarnate, where God’s will is actualized in us through the Spirit of Christ.
We talk about hospitality frequently in the church. But I question whether we understand abundant generous hospitality. This morning as part of my daily reading program, I read Genesis 18. It is the story of Abraham, lodging by the oaks of Mamre, who is visited by three men. Abraham ran from his tent upon seeing them standing near by. How incredible is it that he “ran”? For that time very incredible , and maybe even some for today. How many of us run to greet guests these days?
He bows to the ground upon meeting them. I think we can understand that Abraham recognizes the LORD, YHWH, in this group of three men. Abraham invites all three of them to join him in some food and water and rest. After the invitation, Abraham “hastens” to have the best ingredients of the house made into fresh food for these strangers. Then he served them, standing “by them under the tree while they ate.”
This time of year around Christmas, we have many family members come and go. Some of us have some visitors that are non-family who join us. So I’m left wondering how generous are we? Do we recognize the LORD in the visitation? Do we “run” and “hasten” to attend to their needs, serving them, standing by as they eat, drink and rest, providing the best that the house has? I’m afraid such hospitality is not the norm these days. Homes have become castles of defense and exclusion, rather than places of invitation and of generous hospitality. I am sadden that I have not been more invitational and of generous hospitality this pass year. Could it be a new beginning I should seek in my prayers to the Lord? I think so.
Michael is here. He is a part-time counselor in the public school system. I was glad to see him today, as I had not seen him for some time. He has lyme’s disease, so sometimes it is difficult for him to get out. But we picked up our banter quickly with ease. Just the way that God and I do so often in prayer. It is almost as if there has not been a break.
Reported in the morning paper with this headline “Orlando gunman’s mosque set on fire”. According to the Associated Press article it was only the latest harassment and violence against the mosque where Omar Mateen attended. Lord have mercy. This is not the way forward. This is not walking in the light of Christ.
Last week a man by the name of Dallas Willard died of advance cancer at the age of 77. For many of you, the person and the name might not be one that you know. I can’t say I have met the man, but his life and his writings have had a tremendous influence on me as a Christian and as a pastor. Though he was a philosopher and not a theologian, his books on faith and spiritual discipline I think make up some of the best writing on the subject written in the past hundred years.
I first encountered Dallas Willard through the writing of another writer on spiritual discipline by the name of Richard Foster. The book to which I was pointed was one entitled The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Strangely enough, a few months ago I had picked up another book of his, The Divine Conspiracy, to read as I viewed a series of lectures on the book given by the author. So I was struck hard last week when I received that Dallas Willard was now in the arms of the Father.
In the book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dr. Willard gives a superb analogy of why we need to practice disciplines. The analogy is a baseball analogy, which you must know endeared me to the man immediately. Dr. Willard writes for us to think about how young people come to idolize an outstanding and talented baseball player. I thought about how I had my baseball heroes as a kid, and how I certainly would do all that I could be like them. For example, I was enamored for a while with Maury Wills, a talented runner of the bases. I remember I was at the ballpark on the day he broke the record for the most steals in a season. So whenever I was in a game, and having made it first base, I would think about my strategies on running the bases just like Maury Wills. (Only problem was that in Little League we had rules about staying on the bag until the ball was hit, which of course made it very difficult to steal bases.)
What Dr. Willard points out is that these heroes of ours worked hard to develop their skills. While some had extraordinary talents, they all had to give their lives to constant training and preparation of mind and body in order to automatically respond to any situation they would encounter on the field. They did not develop and build upon their talents in just playing on game day. It took discipline to become a star player, which meant hard work outside of the game itself.
So it is with our spiritual being and our relationship with God. Jesus calls disciples to follow, and to develop themselves much as a baseball player would be required to train and work out in order to play the game well. Dr. Willard writes: “A baseball player who expects to excel in the game without adequate exercise of his body is no more ridiculous than the Christian who hopes to be able to act in the manner of Christ when put to the test without the appropriate exercise in godly living.”
Jesus, even though he was divine, understood this himself. After his baptism by John, he spent 40 days in the wilderness, in solitude, fasting and prayer in order to prepare himself for his ministry. From this foundation Jesus was able to demonstrate through teaching and healing the coming of the kingdom of God. Throughout his ministry the gospel witnesses give us plenty of evidence of Jesus going off into a lonely place to pray and commune with the Father. As his ministry came to a close with his death so near, he prayed and prepared himself for the final obedience to the Father in the garden at Gethsemane. So “to live as Christ lived is to live as he did all his life.”
For us to be disciples as we journey with Jesus we need to live a life of preparation through daily prayer, Bible study, meditation, moments of solitude, and service to others. Such practice will prepare us for whatever the world and Satan throws at us, and will prepare us for living with joy under the gentle yoke of our Lord and Savior.
Have you ever prayed a prayer of adoration? Or do you include adoration in your daily prayers? Adoration is not a common word in today’s vocabulary. Like the word gratitude, adoration is a word that we do not hear often enough concerning our relationship with God. Adoration is best defined as an attitude of worship that is characterized by love and reverence. For the Christian that attitude of worship is to be expressed toward the triune God in the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Anything else usually leads to idolatry and false gods. Something that occurs to frequently in our post-modern culture.
Richard Foster devotes an entire chapter to the prayer of adoration in his 1992 book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. In the opening of this chapter Foster writes: “Prayer is the human response to the perpetual outpouring of love by which God lays siege to every soul. When our reply to God is most direct of all, it is called adoration. Adoration is the spontaneous yearning of the heart to worship, honor, magnify, and bless God.” [italics are author’s]
Foster writes that the prayer of adoration includes two parts, thanksgiving and praise. We give thanks to God for what God has accomplished as well as what God is accomplishing. And we praise God just for who God is. Thus, the prayer of adoration is a prayer where we come for no other purpose but to respond in gratitude to the magnificence of God.
This probably sounds like a right and good thing for all of us to do. And we might think that we do it to some degree or another. For me at least, it is not always an easy prayer to pray. The problem is that I get in the way. That is to say that I have a difficult time putting my worries and my concerns, and even my faults aside just to be grateful and adoring before God. Part of my morning devotion and prayer time includes using the Bible, especially the Psalms to encourage an attitude of worship of love and reverence for our divine Lord. At the end of these readings, I give pause to offer up my own words in adoration. And that is when I appear again. That is when I realize my own failings, when my concerns for the day appear, when I struggle to think only of our loving God that gives all glory to God.
And then Foster offers through C.S. Lewis in Letters to Malcom three obstacles to the prayer of adoration. First, is inattention. All of us are guilty as charged, for we live busy lives consumed by our rush of life at us. This is the trouble I wrote about above. The second obstacle is the wrong kind of attention. When we look at the world or the Word we immediately attempt to break it down into smaller parts, rather than to just observe and offer up a doxology of praise. Thirdly, greed is an obstacle to adoration. Our desire that can not be sated, focuses on wanting more of the same, rather than reflecting on what God has given.
Foster, rightly, writes that prayer of adoration must be learned. We, child and adult alike, need to be taught to stop asking for things, and to be grateful and adoring of our God’s unceasing love. The “stepping-stones” that lead us to the prayer of adoration begin with our daily lives. It begins when we pay attention, studying without analyzing, the natural environment right out your door. Do not evaluate it, but just notice it. Nothing more, nothing less – just stop a moment and notice. Another stepping-stone is the use of the Psalter, or Book of Psalms. In the Psalms you will find a great number of words of thanksgiving and praise to God, magnifying God with great sweeping descriptions of the magnificence of the Lord. The third stepping-stone recommended by Foster is to celebrate. He calls for an out right jubilant celebration that is “joyous, hilarious, foot-stomping.” It is something that is done both in community and alone.
So my prayer for you this week is that you find thanksgiving and praise in your heart and can begin the life-long journey towards a prayer of adoration that frames all of your other prayers. May you, celebrate with boldness God. Amen
This morning I was reading the Interpreter magazine published by United Methodist Communications, an arm for the United Methodist Church. The feature article is entitled “Teach Us To Pray” which is the request of the disciples to Jesus that he teach them to pray as he does (Luke 11:1). The disciples are responding to the importance of prayer in the life of Jesus. They realize that the power of his ministry is fed directly by daily prayers and communion with the Father. So they are seeking the same power for their lives and for their ministry. Something we all can learn from so that we may have the power of God in our daily living.
Among the stray thoughts that I was able to catch hold of as I reflected on the article was how too infrequently I and the church speak about prayer. This is particularly disturbing considering that prayer is the one spiritual discipline that can most impact our daily lives. Prayer not only frames our day and helps us realize God’s presence in our lives, but sustains us as we journey here on earth. So I am making it a priority to write about the spiritual disciplines in our lives, especially prayer more frequently in the weekly Pastor’s Desk.
For myself, I attempt to pray every day because I think that it is the most important thing I can do on any given day, but also because I think that it is one of my primary tasks as a pastor. And though I recognize its importance, prayer remains difficult for me. I find that I am too easily distracted by concern about the briars and thorns and weeds of the day to remain focused for very long. But I try, and rely on the Spirit to pull me through the mire of my thoughts whenever I get stuck.
My prayer consists of two parts. One is listening. The other is talking. Listening for me comes from praying the Bible. I do this in two ways, through daily reading of the Psalms, and through reading specific texts selected from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. As I read, usually out loud to myself, I try to listen to what God is saying. This is a bumpy and crooked road for me, and I find that I can go off the road very easy as I begin to think about this or that goal that I have for the particular day, or ruminate on some conversation or reading from the day before. Nevertheless, I make it through the listening, always for the betterment of my day.
After I have listened for a spell, I will talk awhile to God. One thing I talk about is what God is requiring of me, both as a follower of Jesus, and as a pastor. I will admit that I have protested at time in the manner of Moses before the burning bush. Or sometimes I protest in the manner of Jesus in the garden as he awaits the coming of the temple guards who will lead him to his death on the cross. Or sometimes I sound like a whinny kid being dragged into the bath. But most often I ask for strength to follow the Way of the Cross, though I know that it calls for sacrifice and suffering. Part of this talking is speaking out loud the covenant prayer offered by Wesley in centuries past, placing all I own and all I am in the service of God.
Also part of the talk is about praying for the condition of the world and in the lives of my family, friends, and you the people of Greenwood. I frequently throughout the week pray through the picture directory of Greenwood, stopping at each page to raise the names of members and family alike to God. I pray for God’s grace and mercy in your life, I pray for your health, and I pray that the light of Christ shines both on your path through a dark world, but also that the light of Christ shines broadly in and through you.
And finally, I end each prayer session with the Lord’s prayer. This anchors my day and I am able to get on to what lies ahead with joy and love in my heart. When our new Bishop for the Virginia Conference, Bishop Young Jin Cho took office he issued a prayer covenant to the clergy and the lay members of the Virginia Conference to devote themselves to a practice of an hour of prayer each morning for a 100 days. He recently has extended that offer encouraging clergy and laity to continue practicing spiritual disciplines daily, for at least an hour. He has also announced that the theme for the 2013 Annual Conference is “Teach Us How To Pray.”
So my prayer today is that each of you will devote more time to the spiritual disciplines each day for the glory of God in your life.
Part of my story is that as a young man, a teenager, I made the conscious decision that the church had failed me, and that I did not need the church to be a faithful Christian. I was wrong, and unfortunately it took years for me to realize that. But the point of telling this story on myself, is that prior to my decision, the church I attended, a small Baptist church in Wilmington, NC, had the responsibility of teaching me and leading me in the elements of the faith. While the pastor may had failed me, the church did not in its responsibility as God’s means of grace and truth. And that was huge.
It was only this week as I was preparing for Sunday’s message that it was pointed out to me that my own story fitted within in the biblical story of the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-29) Laurence Stookey in his book Baptism: Christ’s Act in the Church pointed out to me that in this story the young man was brought to his senses by this deplorable condition, and in his right mind saw that there was the hope that he could return to his father’s home, seek forgiveness, and be hired as a laborer in his father’s fields. Stookey asks the question why didn’t the young man go to a stranger and beg for mercy. And the answer is because he had lived in his father’s house, and knew from a personal relationship with his father that he could go back, though not on his own terms. This is huge, I think.
I read this and I saw my own story. Because I grew up in the faith, that is I had others to teach and lead me to faith, I could believe that I could come back to the church, not on my own terms, but come back and find forgiveness, and be lavishly welcomed at my return. This for me is another example why it is so important to know the Biblical stories, for they reveal to us many times what God is doing in our own lives.
To know the stories we have to have someone teach us, and at a young age. Faith is not something that we do on our own. Faith, which is about trust in God and knowing who God is, comes from God. And the church is the instrument by which God imparts both a place to come to trust in God and to learn who God is. The biblical story reveals God, so it must be foundational to our teaching. And how it is told is very important.
We can not do this by making our children a spectacle, or using them as entertainment. We can do it by giving them a suitable structure of teaching and activity that leads them to trust in God and to learn who God is through biblical story telling. This is the principle behind creating a stronger Children’s Church, where they first hear and learn the stories of the Bible, then through teachings and activities they grow in the faith of understanding in what God they give their trust. An important part of this to is that as they grow in their faith, they also participate in the worship of the community using their developing skills not to entertain us, but to give them voice in the worship of our God as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
This is huge and an important purpose given by God to the church. To accomplish it takes resources. It takes time given over to study, preparation, and teaching. It takes funds to provide the needed materials for teaching. It takes the support of parents and grandparents to bring their children every Sunday. It also takes prayer. Much prayer. In other words it takes sacrifices on our part in order to fulfill God’s desires for our children. So we ask that you sacrifice yourself to this purpose of God in giving faith to our young ones. It will be huge in their lives.
As I had my coffee with Jesus this morning, a regular routine for me, I once again dipped into a small book called The Gift of Presence: A Guide to Helping Those Who Suffer. This book is written by Joe E. Pennel, Jr. The author is also known as Bishop Pennel of the United Methodist Church. Some years ago he was the bishop of the Virginia Annual Conference.
The Gift of Presence was a gift to me just about the time that I had begun Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and was working as an associate chaplain at Winchester Medical Center (WMC). This was part of a year long training program. I kept the book in my pocket during the six hours that I spent at WMC each week. Whenever I had a few minutes I would open it and drink of it’s wisdom so soundly based on a strong biblical foundation.
I would like to share some of Bishop Pennel’s contemplation of the ministry of presence over the next few weeks starting with chapter one. In this chapter, the Bishop writes in the first sentence “The teachings of Jesus encourage us to reach out to those who suffer.” (p 15) Then he uses the story of the Good Samaritan as an example from Luke 10:30-37. (I invite you to take a moment and read this story again. Most of you have read the story, but I encourage you to revisit the story.)
Bishop Pennel reminds us that this story says we do not have “permission to pass by on the other side as did the priest and Levite.” Instead we are called to be the neighbor, the Samaritan neighbor, “who stops and cares for those who are wounded and broken down by life.” (p. 16)
We might ask, as the Bishop does, how do we become a neighbor like the Samaritan who stopped and cared for the desperate person stranded on a lonely road. The answer is in what we have been talking about over the past few Sundays as we explored chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. It is through the indwelling of Christ. That is to say in the terms of Jesus, “Abide in me as I abide in you…I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5). So in Christ, we can offer the presence of Christ, as the fruit of our faith, to those whom we meet along the road, and to whom we can be a neighbor.
Bishop Pennel also points out to us in this story that the Samaritan does not just feel sorry for the naked and beaten man lying on the side of the road. The Samaritan is moved to go to the side of the man, to offer real help to the man. Thus the Bishop writes: “So, a good Samaritan is anyone who offers the kind of embodied help that flows from a heart that is filled with the love of Christ. It is the kind of help that carries a price tag. It costs something.”
At the end of this chapter one, Bishop Pennel tells us that such caring is in two forms, organized and individual. At Greenwood we have examples of both. The prayer chain and the visitation team are two examples of organized caring. With the prayer chain we keep tabs on each other, and each others family, as well as our those to whom we are a neighbor. We then can offer up our prayers of intercession, as well as know who we need to visit, or to call, or to send a card or letter. The visitation team visits both the sick and ill as well as the home bound – some who are members of our church, some who are members of our community – it doesn’t make a difference. Some months the handful of faithful members of this team will offer sixty hours of visitation. But even that isn’t always enough. The harvest is plentiful and more help is needed in the fields of caring of our Lord.
We also have some who reach out as individuals. I praise God for their Christ-likeness and the good work that God does in their being present to others in their times of need. All of them do so out of having known their own suffering, and through that suffering Christ taught them how to use it for what they can offer to others who suffer too. Again the harvest is plentiful and more help is needed in the fields of caring.
So let Christ abide in you, and you abide in Christ. And as that happens, may God use you for his ministry to the suffering as good neighbors in Christ. If you are not already a part of our prayer chain let me know and we will see that you can participate. And if you would like to work with the visitation team contact Ed Lambert. And please continue to not bypass the wounded and beaten folks along your journey. Be the neighbor who will offer Christ to them.
God amazes me frequently, when I take the time to ponder it all. This week as I am looking forward to preparing for the Disciple I: Becoming Disciples Through Bible Study commencing in September, I am also reading, or more appropriately re-reading The Divine Conspiracy:Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, by Dallas Willard. It is an old favorite that I had not picked up for a number of years. As I was reading through it this weekend, I rediscovered one of the clearest definitions and discussions on discipleship that I have encountered in my years of reading on the subject.
Willard writes: “In summary, then, the disciple or apprentice of Jesus, as recognized by the New Testament, is one who has firmly decided to learn from [Jesus] how to lead his or her life, whatever that may be, as Jesus himself would do it.” (p 291)
And that according to Willard is for each and everyone of us who through our baptism is called into ministry for God in our place and time. It doesn’t matter whether you are a school teacher, an accountant, a car salesman, a computer programmer, a gardener, a sales associate, a farmer, a stay-at-home mom or dad, you have a call to follow Jesus. What matters is that you “work as Jesus would do it.” (p 286)
How would Jesus do it? The Gospel accounts are very clear on this: “he lives in the kingdom of God, and he applies that kingdom for the good of others and even makes it possible for them to enter it for themselves…It is what he calls us to by saying, “follow me.” (p 282,283) So, according to Willard, as disciples we are not learning how to do special religious things, but we bring our whole life into line with Christ.
And it is important to say that whether you have just begin your journey in the footsteps of Jesus, or if you have been following for many years, you are a disciple. There are no distinctions of experience or age or skills or talents in the kingdom of God, for we all are there by the grace of God through Christ Jesus.