12th Sunday after Pentecost“Stay Put!”
 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  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.
We begin our prayer series today called “Can You Hear Me Now?” The focus is on the importance of a clear connection, of being able to hear God and utilize the Christian practice we call “prayer.”
Pastor Steve used a great example with me the other day of what happened if we tried to call someone with important news, life changing news and the connection began to break up. The wrong message could be sent or the information could fail to reach it’s audience. What if the connection is just plain bad and we get frustrated with the entire process. We’re left disenchanted and unsatisfied.
I’ve heard people who are frustrated with their faith say things like, “I just feel like every time I try and talk to God my prayers just bounce off the ceiling and hit the floor!” I want to help us today with the practice of prayer by changing our perspective on how we define it.
So, I’m going to cut to the chase with this story. Eugene Peterson is a writer and professor who also pastored the same church for 30 years in a Presbyterian denomination. Most of you may know him from being the author of The Message paraphrase of the Bible. I was fortunate enough to take a class with Eugene during my time in seminary. There came a time in the class for us to ask him serious questions, if you felt bold enough. He had blown most of us away and nobody wanted to just ask ANY question. But I had one burning inside me. Most of the answers he had given to others questions were complex and heavy. But his answer for me was different. I asked him, “What would you say is the GREATEST MISCONCEPTION in the Church today?” He paused, long enough to make me squirm, and then he pierced my heart as he answered, “That prayer is a consumer act.” It was silent in the room for a good 5 minutes and people had to let that sink in.
You see, for most of us, we see prayer as something to be answered rather something to be experienced. We ask someone when they seem to be lacking in some way, “Well, have you prayed about it?” And they might say, “Yeah, but it’s like God doesn’t hear me. I just can’t seem to get what I’m asking for.” This is because if we continue to see prayer as a consumer act, as something we shopped for and then tried to buy it with the time we spent with God, we will walk away more disappointed than satisfied.
In the act of prayer, God is more interested in giving us Himself than anything else. If we should ask something of God that has less to do with Him and more to do with ourselves, we will receive something short and temporal, if we are fortunate enough to receive that thing at all. But if we seek God in our prayers and in our praying, we are open to receive Him. God will provide Himself through prayer. And is there anything more satisfying, anything more sufficient, than receiving God Himself?
Most of us miss God in our prayer life because we are not setting ourselves up to receive God. I’ll use an example. My grandmother use to give me money just about every time I saw her. If I had begun to see my grandmother as a provider of money, where do you think our relationship would be? Think of it from both sides. Do you think my grandmother would enjoy our relationship or feel sad that all I was interested in was what she had to give? Now, for those of you who are married or in a loving relationship. Apply the same principle. Is it about receiving God or receiving gifts?
We lack in our relationships because we aren’t prepare to receive the person, only what the person has to offer. The person must be enough. They must be the object of love. God must be the object of prayer (and God alone). To receive God relationally, to receive peace and contentment in our hearts or in our own bodies, is that not far greater than anything temporal we could seek or ask for?
One of my favorite stories comes from the desert fathers. These holy people were a group from the 4th and 5th centuries who fled the cities where Christianity had been watered down and had traded true faith for convenience. This one story goes like this:
A fellow Christian went to see Father Moses and begged him for a saving word. And the old man said to him: Go and sit in your prayer room, and your room will teach you everything you need to know.
We learn from this that prayer isn’t just something that we do real fast and then move on to the next thing, for prayer isn’t a thing. Prayer is in fact the breath of the soul; it is the heart beat of our relationship with God. For us to go and to spend time in prayer is for us to go and to grow in and with God.
In that prayer room or that sacred space is the chance to meet God, free from distraction, free from temptation. Yes, there is the business of our life—our minds racing, our to-do lists screaming at us as we try to sit still—but we must stay put and let the quiet set in. Again with relationships, there is nothing worse than someone who desires to rest and another who just won’t slow down. My dad use to say, “Settle down, son. You’re making me nervous.”
This was especially true when I was younger and he was teaching me how to hunt. I wanted to be a good hunter just like my daddy. He was a great marksmen, a great tracker, and stealthy in the woods. He’d say when we were deer hunting that I had to be still and stay put. Both of those drove me nuts because as an ADHD child (and now even as an adult) that’s the last thing I want to hear is “don’t move.” But sure enough, after many years of hunting, I’ve scared off my share of game because I was spotted by the animals, or just as I had given up, I would get down to head back, only to scare away what I was hunting for as it was heading straight for me. Man, if I just would have stayed put and been still, I know I would have come back with my prize. But I was impatient and wanted to do things my way.
Our scripture tells us that apart from Jesus, we can do nothing. Our own faith, our own belief will seem hard and difficult if we are not breathing, in other words, if we are not praying. We must remain in the vine. We must stay put in this relationship with God.
And so, to abide in Christ, to remain in Jesus, is to surround yourself with God, to enjoy His presence that is here with us now and always. To look to Him in all things, for all things, is to depend upon Him, to trust Him, to exercise our faith and to have that constant breath that today we call prayer.
I’ll end with one more story. It comes from Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and professor. He wrote in a book I highly recommend, The Way of the Heart, the following:
It is not difficult to see that in this fearful and painful period of our history we who minister in parishes, schools, universities, hospitals and prisons are having a difficult time fulfilling our task of making the light of Christ shine into the darkness. Many of us have adapted ourselves too well to the general mood of lethargy. Others among us have become tired, exhausted, disappointed, bitter, resentful, or simply bored. Still others have remained active and involved—but have ended up living more in their own name than in the Name of Jesus Christ. This is not so strange. The pressures in the ministry are enormous, the demands are increasing, and the satisfactions diminishing. How can we expect to remain full of creative vitality, of zeal for the Word of God, of desire to serve, and of motivation to inspire our often numbed congregations? Where are we supposed to find nurture and strength? How can we alleviate our own spiritual hunger and thirst?
Nouwen spends the next 92 pages explaining in amazing clarity that it is through prayer. And so, we invite you to a life of prayer. We hope that you will see prayer as a life-giving, life-sustaining relationship with God, and not a spiritual vending machine. Join Pastor Steve’s Wednesday night study on prayer, beginning this Wednesday or me and the REACH group as I’ve volunteered to lead them through a similar study on Wednesdays as well. Be back here in service for the next 2 weeks as we continue to talk about this. But most importantly, go home…and pray.