Sunday, August 28, 2011

Putting yourself in the presence of God

By Karen DeWeese

The chicken or the egg?

The chicken or the egg?

The chicken or the egg?

There is an often heard old question that goes: Which came first? The chicken or the egg? The question is posed when we are confronted with a situation which calls for the determination of the causality or order of occurrence of two events or situations. So our question for today is: Which comes first? Being in God’s presence which prompts us to pray or praying and then feeling we are in God’s presence.

And what sorts of things will elicit the feelings of God’s presence? One would hope glorious music or stained glass or a lofty sermon. However equally moving can be an awesome sunrise, or a mountain’s grandeur, or even more mundane things that cross our paths in our everyday life : the smell of a fresh baked loaf of bread, a tiny, furry kitten, a pile of colorful fall leaves. In a novel by Jennifer Chiaverini, titled THE ALOHA QUILT, the main character, Bonnie, is having her first taste of taro. Her hostess says“ they’re delicious, a bit like sweet potatoes. “. Bonnie takes a small serving and samples a small bite. She wondered if she would be able to find taro in a grocery store back in Pennsylvania. She had never noticed them before but she had not been looking for them. A lot about life had escaped her notice because she had not been looking. In AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD, Barbara Brown Taylor says , “Prayer is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing. When I am fully alert to whatever or whoever is right in front of me; when I am electrically aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer. Prayer is happening and it is not necessarily something that I am doing, God is happening, and I am lucky enough to know that I am in THE MIDST.” At those moments it is not only as if we were suddenly perceiving something in reality we had not perceived before, but as if ourselves were being perceived. Prayer is more than my idea of prayer and some of what I actually do in my life may constitute genuine prayer.

Whether intentional, or simply by being in THE MOMENT, there are different prayers that are appropriate for the different times and stages in our lives. There is a prayer which I am certain we have all heard or perhaps even prayed as a child or taught to our children or grandchildren. I learned this, literally, at the knees of my grandmother. When we would stay with her in the summertime, at night before going to bed, we would kneel beside the bed and pray,: Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

If I should die before I wake

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

This was followed by bless mommy and daddy and grandma and grandpa and the list went on and on as long as we could think of people that we wanted God to bless, though I suspect it was the more people we could name for God to bless, the longer we would avoid the inevitability of having to go to bed: especially difficult during the summer when it was still light out.

There is a newer version of this children’s prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep

May God guard me through the night

And wake me with the morning light.

I suspect this newer version is in wider usage because it is considered less scary though I don’t think it has adversely affected the many of us who grew up on the older version.

As we grew a little older, prayers were learned in Sunday school, or a prayer thanking God for our daily food was prayed at the dinner table. Here at Shell Ridge, prayer and learning about the presence of God is an integral part of the Logos program for our children on Wednesday evenings.

Likewise, prayers and reverence to God are an important part of the scouting program. In Boy Scouts, one of the favorite prayers at mealtimes is called the Philmont Grace: named after the scouting ranch in New Mexico by that name.

For food, for raiment

For life, for opportunity

For friendship and fellowship

We thank thee, O Lord.

And lest we think that in a preteen’s mind prayers are only for meals, there is a very popular book by Judy Blume, published in 1970 titled ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET. Margaret, an 11 year old, has grown up in a non-religious home claiming to be non religious herself. She does not doubt nor question God’s presence but is innately aware of his existence and presence. She calls on God on a regular basis with the typical worries and concerns of a pre-teen girl. She is in the 6th grade and her family has recently relocated to New Jersey. She wants to fit in with her new contemporaries and talks to God about her new community and school. Throughout is a theme of asking God to let her be and develop normally for her age. Another theme that runs throughout is the conflict and choice of a religion. Raised with no religious training as her mother is Christian and her father is Jewish, they have left it up to her to decide when she is “older”. With family conflicts that erupt, she prays and wishes that she’d been born one or the other. Even amidst her struggles, she is constantly aware of God’s presence and grateful for all she has been given.

As we grow into adulthood, we become more aware of God’s presence as we explore the outdoor world of nature and all its wonders. Close your eyes for a minute and imagine you are sitting in the most beautiful or your most favorite out of doors spot. Now, listen to these words and envision the presence of God:

God of grave nights,

God of brave mornings,

God of silent noon,

Hear my salutation!

For where the rapids rage white and scornful,

I have passed safely, filled with wonder,

Where the sweet ponds dream under willows,

I have been swimming, filled with life.

God of round hills,

God of green valleys,

God of clean springs,

Hear my salutation!

Where the moose feeds, I have eaten berries,

Where the moose drinks, I have drunk deep,

When the storm crashed through broken heavens-

And under clear skies- I have known joy.

God of great trees,

God of wild grasses,

God of little flowers,

Hear my salutation!

For where the deer crops and the beaver plunges,

Near the river I have pitched my tent,

Where the pines cast aromatic needles

On a still floor, I have known peace.

God of grave nights,

God of brave mornings,

God of silent moon,

Hear my salutation! Marguerite Wilkinson

We must envision the finished whole from this small segment before us. Isn’t that how we all try to understand the glory of God? We glimpse only the material world, one small facet of His creation and from this alone we attempt to comprehend the eternal world of the spirit.

In the scripture readings today, we are urged to seek his presence continually (Psalm 105: 4) and be constant in prayer. Joy and perseverance grow out of the wresting and being rooted in and growing from prayer. Prayer is of crucial significance in a relationship with God from the transformed life. In prayer we must be persistent. We must ask for a response and expect that God will respond in a way above and beyond our human experience with one another. Our worship life centers, on this notion of prayer. Ask and it will be given to you. Search and you will find. If this is our way, we had better be confident that we believe this. The answers to life’s difficult questions come in the context of a community that is willing to stake its life on the belief that prayers are answered and that God does respond to human need and suffering. It means to let God have access to our own hands and feet when they’re needed.

Our worship life centers on this notion of prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is said in almost every house of Christian worship, every Sunday, all across our land. In each of these places worshippers believe that God will bring a kingdom that is peaceful, God will provide for our daily food, God will forgive our unbelief and God will shield us from trials that we can’t handle. Despite the diversity in our traditions and practices, this simple little prayer may be our most basic common denominator. Prayer isn’t for dummies. It’s for the faithful, who given power by the Spirit, and supported by their faith community, are willing to stake our lives on the belief that God will open the door when we knock.

Faithful prayer is habitual prayer, prayer that does not only occur during a crisis and does not end when a crisis is resolved. Faithful prayer is part and parcel of an ongoing relationship, a lifelong conversation, a prolonged attempt not to control God but to discern God’s presence and activity in all that befalls us- the good and the bad, the desired and the undesirable. Faithful prayer is first of all about finding and placing ourselves in God’s story, and God’s story is about the redemption of the world. My prayers are too small if they focus on me, though it is important that our prayers are about our personal, individual needs and desires. Faithful prayer certainly may ask for healing, but it does not ask only for healing. It seeks wisdom to see how Christ is reflected in circumstances- and not just a triumphal Christ but a suffering Christ, a Christ who underwent pain and want before he attained glory. Faithful prayer asks not merely for healing but for patience and discernment and continuing faithfulness. Faithful prayer is work and not always immediately satisfying. God give me- God give us- the strength continue in the work of true prayer, the very work for which we were made.

Intercessory prayer is intertwined with and the heartbeat of the Christian community. It is the way Christians consciously bring others into God’s presence along with themselves. In prayer we see others as creatures loved by God and in need of God’s grace. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, in intercessory prayer one sees other people “in all their need, hardship and distress” and grants them the “same right we have received, namely, the right to stand before Christ and to share in Christ’s mercy.” In prayer, we put others in God’s hands. He continues,” I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me. In intercessory prayer the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died.” Prayer does work- on the individuals and communities who pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor poses the question, “ Is it right for me to ask God for particular outcomes, when God alone knows what is right? Isn’t the point of prayers to sharpen my hearing, not God’s? Are words necessary at all? Is emptying the mind of all thought a surer path to God than trying to turn my thoughts to God? ““Most of the people I know hunger for some evidence that God hears their prayers. Plenty of them would settle for a divine “no” as long as it were a clear one. I once had a pastor who said that God answers prayer sin four ways: Yes, NO, Wait and “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Often we imagine and would like to think of a particular happening as an answer to prayer. When I was discerning my call to ministry, I had college prerequisites to be met before I could finish my bachelor’s program. One was passing the Junior English Placement Examination. As I drove home from the seminary one evening after a get acquainted meeting of the Conference on Ministry, I prayed that if I was meant to enter seminary and study for the ministry, that I would receive a passing grade on the exam as an indication that I was on the right path. When I arrived home, I found in the days mail, the card from San Francisco State that indicated I had received a passing grade. In a passage in Taylor’s book, she relates the following. I tell God what want. I’m not smart enough or strong enough to do anything else, and besides, there’s no time. So I tell God what I want and I trust God to sort it out. “The next day I returned to the seminary to continue the conference. During the lunch hour I was sitting and talking with the student body president. Suddenly I literally felt someone rap me on the head and I heard the words spoken in my ear, “You’ve come home, this is where you belong.” Talk about God’s presence and an answer to prayer!

In some of Taylor’s closing words she says,“ There are real things I can do, both in my body and in my mind, to put myself in the presence of God. God is not obliged to show up, but if God does, then I will be ready. At the same time, I am aware that prayer is more than something I do. The longer I practice prayer, the more I think it is something that is always happening, like a radio wave that carries music through the air whether I tune in to it or not. “

By opening ourselves to be willing to pray, we are giving ourselves the freedom to experience the presence of God. To be in the presence of God encourages and empowers us to pray. Prayer and presence go hand in hand and are very closely inseparable. Amen

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