Back at the end of February—when I was asked to come and share with you guys here—I started wrestling with what we should talk about.
I was hearing that Grace Camp is this unique (and really cool!) experience where the Grace Church in all its diversity and all its ages comes together for a time of retreat, of rest, of friendship, of learning, of worship—
What does one explore with a group like this?
What does one talk about at Grace Camp?
We all come into these mountains as a bit of an escape—for a bit of a disconnect.
Because we live in a highly connected world.
We live in a world of WiFi and gadgets and social media that connect us—
with everyone and everything
and every bit of breaking news and every cat photo.
It all washes over us hour after hour, week after week, year after year,
until—if you’re anything like me—you start wondering
whether our highly connected world is actually tearing us apart.
In the world of instant-everything—
how many reports can we hear,
how many responsibilities can we manage,
how many relationships can we juggle,
how long can we go,
until our souls begin to smother,
until our families begin to fracture,
until our hearts become parched,
and we begin to yearn for fountains of living water?
So we look forward to a chance to unplug—to disconnect from that desert world of instant-everything for a handful of days—and breathe mountain air, bask in the beauty of nature and simply enjoy the people around us.
So as I thought about it, as I prayed about it,
I decided that this is what we need to talk about.
Our instant-everything world claims
to connect us with everyone and everything all the time,
but I think we recognize that for all its bandwidth, it can’t deliver on that promise.
And so we’re all quietly, desperately wondering what real connection looks like.
What does it look like to really be whole, integrated people in the world who are
connected with each other,
connected with the world around us,
connected with meaning,
with beauty, with rest,
with goodness, with satisfaction—
What does it look like to be connected with Life?
And we’re longing to connect with Life for just a weekend—
for some kind of mountaintop-experience.
It seems like events like this can sometimes become a sort of escape—
a kind of pause from “real world” where things are so frantic and fragmented.
But I think what we’re longing for is more than escape, more than a pause.
What if a weekend like this isn’t about escaping from the real world?
What if a weekend like this is about recognizing what the world is really like all the time?
Underneath the hustle and bustle and information and noise noise noise,
we still live in a world enchanted by the Presence of Something—of Someone—that
makes sense of all of our lives.
And what if up here in the mountains—away from all the “connectedness” that’s normally pulling us apart and distracting us into oblivion—we began seeing something that’s not only true in the mountains and the foothills but also in the woodlands and rivers, the streets and suburbs and even the valleys of the shadow of death?
So during our sessions this weekend,
I want us to explore what it might looks like for us to lead more whole and integrated lives, more connected with that enchanting and illuminating Presence in the world,
and more in rhythm with the beating Heart of Love that animates the entire universe.
All that is a way of saying that over the next few days,
I’d like for us to explore what it means to pray.
Prayer—now there’s a fascinating, frustrating subject.
Fascinating on the one hand because prayer is something
that every single one of us already does
in some shape or form
to some degree or another.
In heart-swelling moments of beauty and abundance,
(in the beauty of nature, a cup of coffee on a quiet evening, at the birth of child)
we want to breathe out a word of thanks… to someone.
And when our heart are shredded in seasons of pressure and pain,
(we get the diagnosis, the bills pile up, the career collapses, the relationship blows up)
we desperately want to ask for help… from someone.
And when we stop and begin to (really) consider human suffering across the globe,
(outbreaks of disease, natural disasters, violent uprisings,
corrupt governments and good old-fashioned starvation)
we pivot between despair and anger, asking the Someone somewhere in the universe:
“How long, how long?—do something!”
Prayer is fascinating because it’s an elemental impulse of what it means to be human.
Comb the earth, look through the animal kingdom—
human beings are the only animals that pray.
We’re the hominid that hungers for the holy.
Homo sapiens are ultimately homo orans.
To be human is to feel an urge to share our beauty and our brokenness,
with a force greater than ourselves, to nature, to the universe,
or to the mysterious Someone behind it all.
It may not be something we do often,
it may not be something we think about very often,
but the impulse to pray is something embedded within every single one of us.
And that’s where things get frustrating.
Because, on the one hand, while
every single one of us feels some kind of impulse to pray,
every single one of us also feels like we’re not doing it right.
I think prayer is often a muddy source of shame in us.
We’ve heard about prayer and sometimes recognize that impulse to pray within us,
but we don’t feel like we’re praying enough,
and we don’t know what to say when we pray,
and we feel like we’re just talking to the ceiling,
and we don’t know what good it does.
Am I alone? Are you guys with me?
Does anyone else feel frustrated with prayer?
So this weekend, it’s probably worth our time to talk and think and study and pray
through this fascinating and frustrating impulse at the core of all of us.
This evening I’d like to explore what prayer is. More specifically, I’d like for us to explore what we as Christians understand prayer to be.
THE PRAYING GOD
And to do that, I’d invite you to open your Bibles to Matthew 26.
What we call the Old Testament—
that long story beginning with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
that led to Moses bringing a people out of slavery
and then to David and sons of David ruling over those people as king,
and then to the prophets declaring their doom but also promising their restoration
—that long story has led to the moment we’re about to read.
And in the midst of this collection of ancient documents that we call the Bible,
we find four accounts of the life and death and resurrection
of a first-century Jew named Jesus.
It is this strange and marvelous story that the Christian church has
retold again and again throughout the last two thousand years.
At long last, the story goes, Yahweh (the ancient god of the Jewish people) has literally become one of his own people. And he’s done this to rescue them (and the entire world) from their self-inflicted darkness and death.
That’s what the gospels are about.
That’s what the story of Jesus is about.
And that’s the story we’re plunging headlong into when we read the story of Jesus in a garden called Gethsemane right before he’s about to be crucified.
Let’s read it—Matthew 26:36-46:
(v36) Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
There are endless books written on prayer, meditation and engagement with God,
so choosing where to begin to talking about prayer is a bit tricky.
But if we are to be people whose lives surrendered to Israel’s long-awaited king—
to Israel’s long-awaited “Messiah” or “Christ”—
if we want to approach prayer in a thoroughly Christ-ian way—
then we must start is here.
We must start with Jesus praying.
Eugene Peterson says that that small sentence,
those two words, that noun and that verb,
summarizes the truly Christian understanding of prayer.
We have to step back a little to see this:
This is a story that shouldn’t be in the Bible.
The early church wouldn’t have made this up.
It’s more-than-a-little shameful to have the story’s hero displaying such fear and agony as he approaches his death. A fearless and stoic death like Socrates would have been so much more compelling to an ancient audience.
If they weren’t committed to just telling the story truthfully, the early leaders of the church (the disciples) probably would have portrayed themselves in a more flattering way than this. They probably wouldn’t have embraced being labelled as willing but weak fools.
But here is the story. Recorded for us.
Jesus is the only one praying.
The disciples are sleeping off the Passover Seder’s four traditional cups of wine.
The conspiring Jewish authorities are sending Roman soldiers to lynch him.
And most of the rest of the ancient world is oblivious to turmoil taking place in Gethsemane.
Here we’ve stumbled across the strangest picture.
God the Son is praying.
He’s praying for some other way—praying to spared the cross.
But also willing to endure the this cup of pain and suffering
to reconcile the world back to God and bring resurrection to humanity.
(2 Cor 5:19, cf. Matt 27:51-53)
Hear the strangeness of this story:
God is praying.
God alone is praying.
The rest of the world is
or rebelliously conspiring
or stupidly sleeping
but Jesus. is. praying.
I grew up in church. I’m a pastor’s kid. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t hearing the story of Jesus—including his agonizing prayer before the cross.
“Jesus ate in the upper room,
prayed at Gethsemane,
died at Golgotha,
and rose on the third day.
“Check, check, check.”
I grew up hearing the story:
“Jesus was praying before he went the to the cross.
Big deal, I suppose.
“He was praying for the strength to do something on our behalf.
“But you’re acting like this is a big deal.
“I must be missing something.”
It’s only been in the last few years that the I’ve begun recognizing that “something.”
And it… well, if you begin to glimpse it—
I mean, really truly glimpse it and dare to actually believe—
it will begin to change your life.
You see: verb tenses were really important to the early church.
They weren’t simply proclaiming what had happened.
They were proclaiming what is happening.
Listen to the way one early Christian puts it:
Christ Jesus [or “Messiah Jesus” or “King Jesus”] who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is [there’s that present-tense verb] at the right hand of God and is [there it is again] also interceding for us. (Rom 8:34)
Another early Christian writer puts it this way:
Jesus lives forever [and] he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. (Heb 7:24-25)
The ancient and earliest Christians didn’t just think
that Jesus prayed for the world back then.
It wasn’t simply that God became a human being
who once upon time prayed for us on a Thursday night.
They were making the most astonishing and most absurd claims about what God is like.
What the beating Heart of the Universe is like—
what kind of Presence enchants the world.
They were claiming that God has become (and still is)
a real, living human being who is being faithful in every single way
that you and I and ancient Israel and all of the human race
fail to be faithful.
The ancient testimony of the church is that you look at Jesus to find out what God is like.
And the astonishing thing when we look at Jesus
is that Jesus is praying. For us.
Right now. Praying.
Jesus is ruling and reigning the universe (he is “at the right hand of God”)
and he “always lives” to pray for us.
Jesus didn’t wash his hands after the resurrection and say,
“Alright! I’m done! The rest is up to you guys.
You better work hard and pray hard. See you at the last judgment!”
That’s the way I feel a lot of times—that Jesus has just done so much
and put it all there for us… and I’m just screwing it up.
“Now we’re gonna talk about prayer
and I don’t do that well either—
just another way I’m screwing it up.”
But this is the liberating “something” that I we can glimpse this weekend:
Jesus reveals The Praying God to us.
Above and below and behind and before everything else,
God himself is praying for us.
And God will keep praying and keep working until the entire cosmos is healed.
This is extraordinarily good news.
It means that the universe is ultimately a friendly place.
Despite all evidence to the contrary,
life is not out to get you, the universe is not against you.
God is for you.
The Heart of the Universe is pumping love and Life into everything.
And we’re invited to believe this.
We’re invited to open ourselves up to this.
Prayer is God’s invitation to regularly allow
his enchanting presence to put us back together.
We’ll explore this a little more tomorrow.
But here are two ideas I’d like for us to be
asking each other, thinking about, and praying through:
1) What do imagine God looking like when you pray? Is he sitting? Standing? Arms crossed? Distant or near? What do you imagine God is like?
2) If Jesus is praying for you, what do you imagine he is praying for? Is he praying for the same things that you are? How do you think our prayers for us differ from Jesus’ prayers for us?
So as go tonight, listen to the words of Eugene Peterson:
“You don’t think you know how to pray? Yes, there is much to learn; meanwhile Jesus is praying for you. You don’t feel like praying? Relax, feelings come and go; meanwhile Jesus is praying for you. You don’t have time to pray? Jesus doesn’t mind waiting; meanwhile he has plenty of time to pray for you.”
May we have courage to trust our praying God.