Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Grace: Holy Conversation (Ephesians 4:29-5:2)

29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. 30 Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.

Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. 2 Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God.

Today we are wrapping up a series of messages we’ve been in for several weeks, called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Grace.”  Just as a hitchhiker is dependent on the generosity of someone else to make a journey, so too are we spiritual hitchhikers, dependent on God’s generosity for our spiritual journey.  Over and over, the thing that God gives us is grace.

Over the last several weeks, we have talked about practical, proven ways that we experience God’s grace - where God’s love and God’s presence are made tangibly real in our lives. The image I’ve asked all of us to keep in our minds is of God driving around in a great big bus just overflowing with grace, making periodic stops along the way where we can get on the bus and make the journey with God.  The stops are places where we receive grace from God, so long as we do two things, the first is to----show up, and the second is to----have an open and willing heart.

So far we have made stops at Communion, Baptism, healing, prayer, and worship.  Today, we make one final stop, and even though we’re looking at this one last, it might be the most important one of all.  Today we talk about how we experience God’s grace through holy conversation.  May we pray.

Holy Conversation Applies to Everyone
Question for you this morning  - if you never speak to, listen to, or otherwise interact with other people, would you please raise your hand?  Raise it high and leave it up, if you would!  If your hand is raised, you are free to check out right now, because today’s message is only applicable to those who do speak to, listen to, and otherwise interact with other people.

Today we’re looking at how we experience God’s grace through holy conversation.  It sounds like something Robin might have exclaimed - “Holy Conversation, Batman!”  Or, perhaps it sounds like conversation between two nuns, maybe it sounds like the content of conversation taking place in or about church, or maybe some special way of speaking where we say “Thee” and “Thou” all the time.  Yet, holy conversation is less about the content of our conversation and more about the spirit in which we converse, and we are called to practice it every time we open our mouths.

Today’s Scripture reading couldn’t be clearer in this regard.  Verse 29 - “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth.  “Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.”  If ever there was a blueprint for holy conversation, for the type of speaking and interacting that gives grace, this text is it.

Stinky Words
When the Scripture tells us not to let “foul words” come out of our mouths, perhaps we think of those four-letter words, those naughty words - words we didn’t even know existed, much less knew were bad - until we were told not to say them.  Yet, this reference to “foul words” is more like what happens when you go on vacation and your fridge breaks down while you’re gone and everything in it spoils, and you walk back into the house and the only word to describe the odor is “foul.”  “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth” - in other words, don’t say things that stink up the place.

Easier said than done - especially less than two months before a national election.  We are a divided and polarized people.  Have you seen the image: “I desperately need a ‘hide political posts’ button on Facebook so I can still like my friends after the election is over”?  It is fine to have disagreements and genuine difference of opinion - that’s just part of life and being connected to other people - we need to remember that just because we disagree doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable.

Our civilization lacks basic civility, filled with labels that we use as weapons to demonize people who are different from ourselves: conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, fundamentalist or radical.  These labels allow us to marginalize people as “out,” rather than “in,” as “against us” rather than “with us” - and then we hear the Scripture - “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth [Don’t say things that stink up the place].  Only say what is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.”

What we say can give grace or give grief, our words can build up, or they can tear down.  Foul words - those that stink up the place - are those that grieve others, that tear them down, that destroy others, that pridefully exalt ourselves and belittle others; such speech has no place in the life of a Christian.  The text makes it even clearer in verse 31: “Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil.”

None of us has any control over what other people say, but each of us is responsible for our own words.  When I was a kid in Sunday School, Mrs. Jasper hung a sign in our room that said, “Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind?  Is it true?  Is it necessary?”  If the answer to any of those was “no,” the most appropriate thing to do with whatever you were thinking was to keep it to yourself.  Don’t say things that stink up the place.

Dorothy Neville says, “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”  My wife always has the perfect comeback an hour too late.  I have the opposite problem - a snappy retort is sometimes past my lips before my brain can say “WAAAAIT!” and in the end, neither is particularly desirable.  It’s not only saying the right thing at the right place, it’s leaving unsaid the wrong thing when tempted (bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander).

Rubber and Glue
What we say is a major reflection on who we are.  When someone said something bad about us or insulted us when we were kids, what did we say - “I am rubber and you are glue.  What you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.”  It’s just something we used to deflect whatever they said, but there’s a lot of truth in this playground comeback line.  What we say, particularly what we say about others, reflects more on us than it does on the person we’re speaking about.  Just as the odor of spoiled food indicates a broken refrigerator, so too does the odor of foul words - words that tear down rather than build up - indicate a broken person.

Who we are on the inside will make itself known in the words that come out of our mouths.  The question I would like each of us to consider this morning is this: what do our words smell like?  When we open our mouths to speak, are our words foul or sweet?  Do our words build up, are they helpful, do they benefit those who hear them, do they give grace - or do our words tear down, are they hurtful, do they grieve those who hear them?  When we open our mouths to speak, what smell are we making?

Putting it Into Practice
I have prepared some cards for each of you to take with you today.  They say, “Guidelines for Holy Conferencing,” and when they are practiced, can help us sweeten our conversation with God’s love, that our words might give grace to all who hear them.  I’d like everyone here to take one of these cards home, and put it in a place where you will see it every day, and every time you go to speak, think about these guidelines and how they can shape your conversation.  I guarantee that if you follow them for everything you say, those around you will find grace in you and your words.

“Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth” - don’t let them come out of your email, either, or your Facebook feed, or your phone line.  Don’t let them be exchanged in the parking lot before church or after the meeting, in your yard, at your party, at home, at work, at school, or wherever else you find yourself this week.  Why?  Because you’re better than that.  That’s not who you are - you and I are members of the body of Christ, and as such we are called - commanded, even - to make sure that our words never tear down but always build up, that our words are never giving people grief but always giving them grace - and to the extent that grace is experienced through what we say, then our conversation is holy.

Paul spells it out even further in verses 32 and following: “Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.  Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children.  Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us.  He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2).  The cure for words that stink up the place is the self-sacrificing agape love of God in Christ, a love lavished upon us not because we deserve it, but simply because that’s who God is and that’s what God chooses to do.  Holy conversation is a means of grace because its source is grace.  We call it holy conversation because through our words, people can see beyond us and glimpse the holiness of God, the love of Christ, and the breath of the Spirit that shapes and forms our words so they give grace.

The Answer is Always Grace
And when it all comes down to it, for followers of Jesus, those who are trying to imitate God and follow the example of Christ, it really is all about grace - receiving God’s grace, using God’s grace, giving God’s grace to others.  Our theology, our practices, our understanding, our relationships, our way of being followers of Jesus in the world - all of that is rooted in our experience of God’s grace.

Every message in this series - every stop along the route of our grace bus - is a means of grace.  These are basic practices given by God to the church in order to lead people to Christ and keep them connected with him.  The means of grace are foundational gifts from God intended to be practiced frequently in order to help us be the best we can be.

From now on for the rest of your lives, my hope is that every time you have an opportunity to practice these means of grace, you do.  I hope some lightbulb goes off in your head around these things that makes you say, “Grace!  I need grace!  I want grace, and I know where to go to get it.”  I hope you remember that all of these are places you can go get some grace - in the frequent celebration of Communion, in frequently remembering the covenant made at our Baptism, in seeking healing, in prayer that involves as much listening as speaking, and in joining together with others in the public worship of God - that you will seek out these opportunities frequently, and find God’s grace made real in your life because of it.  If you do, then this whole series of messages will have been worth it.

For today, may you fulfill the Scripture, to “be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:32).  May the fragrance of the words you say and the spirit in which you say them be sweet.  May what you speak build up and give grace.  May all your conversation be holy.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Grace: Worship (James 1:1-17)

Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above.  These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.  He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.
Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.  This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.  Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you--the very word that is able to save you.
You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves.  Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror.  They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like.  But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it.  They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives.  They will be blessed in whatever they do.
If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves.  Their devotion is worthless.  True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.

Today we are continuing in a series of messages we’ve been in for the last several weeks, called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Grace.”  Just as a hitchhiker is dependent on the goodness of someone else to make a journey, so too are we all spiritual hitchhikers, dependent on the generosity and grace of God to make our spiritual journey.

I have asked all of us to keep an image in our mind, of God driving around in a great big bus full of grace, making periodic stops along the way where people can hop on board.  Each of these stops is a place where we know we can meet God, where we know God shows up, where we know grace is available.  Yet, in order to receive the grace that’s available, we’ve said there are two things that each of us needs to do - the first is to-----show up, and the second is to-----have an open and willing heart.

Over the past several weeks, we have experienced God’s grace in the following ways: Communion, Baptism, Healing, and Prayer.  Today, whether you’ve been here for the whole series or this is your first Sunday back from the summer, let’s all prepare to experience grace as the bus pulls into its next stop: Worship.  May we pray.

The Real Thing
One of the shows I enjoy watching from time to time is Pawn Stars on the History Channel.  It’s a show about a pawn shop in Las Vegas, where people are bringing in all sorts of items to sell to the shop to make a little cash for themselves.  In every episode, Rick, the owner, calls in the help of an expert who will help appraise and value about half the items in question.  He always says, “Let me call a buddy of mine who’s an expert in [insert obscure category here] to come down and tell us a little more about what you’ve got here.”  Watching that show has convinced me of two things: 1.) there are a lot of people out there trying to pass off fake items as the real thing, and 2.) Rick is buddies with about half of Clark County.

If you have a choice between something that’s the real thing and something that’s fake, which one are you going to take?  Between the genuine article and a reproduction, which one do you want?  Between something that’s authentic, and an impostor, what’s it gonna be?

There’s no substitute for the real thing.  In today’s Scripture from the letter of James, we are given guidelines about sorting false worship from the real thing, from worship that serves only to deceive ourselves, and worship that truly brings glory and honor to God.

The letter of James makes a clear case when it tells us, “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves” (James 1:22).  This verse is a favorite of Missions Committees the world over, reminding us that authentic worship is less a matter of what happens in this room during one hour on Sunday and more a matter of what takes place during the other 167 hours in a week.

And yet, the letter of James seems to be written to a church where week after week, the community gathered  and sang some songs, they prayed some prayers, some Scripture was read, a message was heard, some Communion was shared - and everyone went back home unchanged, they walked out more-or-less the same people they were when they walked in.

The letter of James wants us to know that worship moves us from spectators in the stands to the starting lineup on the field, that worship gets us off of these benches and sends us into the world to put our faith into action.  Worship makes us active participants in the reconciling ministry of Christ, worship sends us out as Christ’s ambassadors into the world, thus fulfilling the teaching from the Scripture to be doers of the word, and not only hearers.

The Service
No doubt you’ve heard the story of Reverend Jenkins who was walking down the memorial hallway at church, and came across a young boy who was intently studying a large plaque.  “Reverend Jenkins,” he said, “What’s this?”  “This plaque lists the names of all the people from this church who died in the service.”  “Oh, I see,” said the boy.  The two stood there quietly for a moment, when the boy, with all sincerity, said, “Which one - 8:30 or 11?”

When we use the term “service” in relation to church, 99% of the time we’re talking about this thing we do on Sunday morning.  Friends, can I let you in on a secret?  This thing we do on Sunday mornings - this isn’t our service.  If we take the Scripture seriously, if we hear the call to be not just hearers of the word but doers, then our service doesn’t take place here and at this time.

With that framework in mind, we might say, “Our church has service once-a-month on Sunday nights when we volunteer at the Men’s Shelter” or “on Saturdays when we participate in a Habitat build” or “every Monday, Tuesday, and Friday night when 12-step support groups meet at our facility,” or “on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons when we mentor children from Sedgefield School,” or “when we collect food for the food pantry,” or “when we  take up a love offering for victims of natural disaster,” or “when we are ‘quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry’ (James 1:19).”

So, does that mean that what we do on Sunday morning becomes unimportant?  Obsolete?  Irrelevant?  Far from it.  In fact, gathering together for worship as a community – in our case every Sunday morning at 10:30 – becomes all the more important.  Taking the scripture to heart, to be doers of the word and not hearers only, we might come to realize the relationship between how we worship and how we serve.  They are not two separate things, they are not even two sides of the same coin, but worship and service flow in and out of each other, they inform each other.  Every act of service becomes an act of worship, and we worship as people who are constantly called to service.

So then, our community gathering for worship on Sunday morning becomes the place to share and celebrate where we have seen God at work, to simply glorify and praise and thank God, to open ourselves up to God working in our hearts and changing us through the very words we sing, the prayers we pray, the offering we give, the Communion we share.  What we do on Sunday morning becomes a place for us to give our full attention to God, orienting ever fiber of our being toward God, being hearers of the word and subsequent doers of the word, as verse 25 says, that we do not “listen and forget, but put it into practice in our lives, and we will be blessed in whatever we do.” 

Grace is made real when we gather together in worship, and when we show up, when our hearts are open and willing, we receive the benefit of that grace.  The worship gathering recharges our spiritual batteries, re-grounds us, re-centers us, challenges us and empowers us for faithful living as we leave this place.  In this we realize that we are not called to go to church; we are called to be the church.

True Devotion
To borrow from cooking, the proof is in the pudding.  Every Sunday, as we conclude this gathering, I say, “Our service of worship has ended; now our worship through service begins.”  I say that to remind all of us that worship is not over – rather, the genuineness of our worship will be reflected in the quality of our serve. 

This is what the letter of James calls us to in a life of authentic worship.  Hearing and doing the word – that’s the real thing.  Lest we should miss the point, today’s text spells it out even further.  Verse 27: “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties” (James 1:27).

There is a story about St. Francis of Assisi that he was praying in an ancient church that was badly in need of repair.  He heard a voice from above the altar that said, “Francis, go and repair my church which you see falling into ruin.”  Francis went to get his tools, but the divine voice spoke to him again and said, “Not the bricks, Francis.  The people are in need of repair.”  Then Francis went out and ministered to orphans and widows.

Orphans and widows represented the most vulnerable members of society.  They were utterly helpless, they had no one to protect them, no one to advocate on their behalf.  They represent the worst in terms of both poverty and vulnerability in society.

The letter of James couldn’t be clearer in this regard.  Caring for the poor and vulnerable is the real mark of true devotion; it is the true test of the authenticity of our worship.  Even so, I am struck, personally convicted even, of the distance that so often exists between what we do on Sunday morning and how we treat others.  I can’t help but wonder how many churches, how many Christians, how many of us – have focused our attention in the wrong places.  I can’t help but wonder how often we have been more concerned with the register of the organ than the cries of the orphan, and more worked up about the beauty of the window than the upholding the dignity of the widow. It is too easy for us to spend our time, effort, and money on things that are primarily about our comfort - physical, preferential, or otherwise - while the needs of those on the periphery go unnoticed.

When James tells us to “care for orphans and widows,” we should hear that as a call to look out for all those who are marginalized, who are vulnerable, who are helpless and neglected and forgotten and abused and scorned by the rest of society.  We hear this as a call to help those who have no opportunities of their own, those who have neither the boots let alone the bootstraps by which to pull themselves up.  True devotion is linked to loving service, for the Gospel we believe tells us that we are all in this together.

“You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves.  Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror.  They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like” (James 1:22-24).

Make no mistake, we are worshiping creatures.  We are hard-wired to worship.  The letter of James wants us to be clear that our worship is genuine, that we are worshiping at the right altar.  We worship all the time – the question for all of us to consider is who or what are we worshipping.  If worship is like a mirror, what we see and how we respond is determined, in large part, by the altar over which our mirror is hung.  Hung over the false altar of self, of man-made things, then our worship will be false.

But, when we worship God, when our mirror is hung over the altar of God rather than some false altar, when we show up with an open and willing heart, we receive grace; that’s true worship.  That’s the kind of worship that shapes and forms us in the love of God and the character of Christ and sustains us with the Holy Spirit.  That grace is a gift, but it is not an exclusive gift just to us.  It’s meant to come to us and keep right on flowing through us.  Worship gives us the grace that can transform even the hardest of hearts, so we might transform this heartless world.  The genuineness of our worship will be reflected in the quality of our serve.

As we look at the mirror of our hearts in light of God’s call upon us, let our worship and our service, our religion and our relationships, our devotion and our behavior, be so seamlessly woven that we can’t even tell where one ends and the other begins.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Grace: Prayer (Luke 11:1-13)

Jesus was praying in a certain place.  When he finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus told them, “When you pray, say:
‘Father, uphold the holiness of your name.
Bring in your kingdom.
Give us the bread we need for today.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who was wronged us.
And don’t lead us into temptation.’”
He also said to them, “Imagine that one of you has a friend and you go to that friend in the middle of the night.  Imagine saying, ‘Friend, loan me three loaves of bread because a friend of mind on a journey has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’ Imagine further that he answers from within the house, ‘Don’t bother me.  The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed.  I can’t get up to give you anything.’  I assure you, even if he wouldn’t get up and help because of his friendship, he will get up and give his friend whatever he needs because of his friend’s brashness.  And I tell you: Ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.  Knock and the door will be opened to you.  Everyone who asks, receives.  Whoever seeks, finds.  To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.
“Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish?  If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion?  If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

Today we are continuing in a series of messages called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Grace.”  Each week, we are thinking of ourselves as spiritual hitchhikers - dependent on God’s grace to make our spiritual journey - trusting God to meet us and provide us with what we need.

I have asked you to keep an image in your mind of God driving around in a bus full of grace, making periodic stops along the way where people can hop on - where we can experience God’s grace in our lives.  We’ve said that there are two things people need to do in order to experience the grace in each of those places - the first is to----show up, and the second is to----have an open and willing heart.

The grace bus has already made several stops along its route, and we have experienced God’s grace  in Holy Communion, baptism, and healing.  Today, we pull into the next stop: prayer.  May we pray.

Today’s text opens when Jesus is off praying somewhere, and his disciples come to him and say, “Lord, teach us to pray” (v. 1).  It would seem the disciples of Jesus are still asking this question.

What I would like you to consider this morning is this: prayer has more to do with who God is than it has to do with what we say.  Our text opens by telling us that Jesus addresses God as a loving parent, with both intimacy and familiarity.  Jesus’ prayer assumes a parent who is not remote, but accessible, not violent and overbearing, but supportive and caring.  Our text ends in the same place - verses 9-13 tell us what this loving, responsive God is like: giving when asked, opening the door when it is knocked upon, not deceiving us or harming us, but always looking out for our own good.  Jesus is telling us that we are praying to the God who shamelessly loves us like a parent, who loves us better than even the best earthly parent loves their child.

I find a great deal of comfort in this.  Prayer is, first and foremost, about a relationship with a God who forgives our shortcomings, and who loves us with an indescribable love.  Prayer doesn’t require a specific formula, the incantation of certain words, or a vending machine that only accepts correct change, because prayer has more to do with who God is than it has to do with what we say.

Further, you can’t really mess up when it comes to prayer because all prayer is basically one of three expressions.  When you boil it down and strip away the fancy words, all prayers are either saying, “Help,” “Thanks,” or “Wow!”  There may be some other sentiments that get mixed in there, some other versions and variations of these basic three responses.  Lord, teach us to pray.

Our text today is Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, or more appropriately, the Disciples’ Prayer.  Luke’s version of this prayer is briefer than the more familiar version of this prayer found in the 6th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  One of the things I love about this prayer is that it finds a way to say, “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow” several times over in just a few lines.

Let’s start with “Wow.”  This prayer begins with Jesus saying, “Father, uphold the holiness of your name” (Luke 11:2 CEB).  More familiar translations might say, “Father, hallowed be your name” (NRSV).  The English word “hallow” means “to sanctify, make holy, make sacred, to set apart.” The way it is used in this text is more a sense of revealing or upholding what is already there.  In this case, our prayer does not bestow holiness upon God, for God is already holy.  We’re asking God to show us God’s holiness, not because we need God to prove it or because God owes us, just because we know God is holy, and we’d love to catch a glimpse of it.

To say, “hallowed be your name” is us saying, “God, you are holy.  You are powerful and majestic, you are beautiful and creative, you transcend time and space and human understanding.  You are Grace, you are Love, you are more Wonderful than our minds can comprehend; You are Holy, whether we acknowledge you or not.  Even so, hallowed be your name.  Grant us grace that we might have eyes and hearts that can see the glory of your holiness which is all around us, even now.”

It’s sort of like God puts on the most spectacular show every day, and when we say “hallowed be your name,” we’re saying, “Please God, give us tickets to the show.”  Every evening, it’s like God puts on the grandest event you’ve ever seen - I’m talking Cirque de Solei meets NCAA Final Four meets CATS on Broadway meets the Daytona 500 meets the Disney Laser Light Show meets the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.  When we pray, “Hallowed be your name,” we are saying, “God, we’d like tickets to the show, VIP back-stage passes, invitations to the after-party.”

To our amazement, God says, “OK.  Done.  You’re on the list.”  And we respond by saying, “Wow.”

Who God is and what God does is more than enough to take our breath away, but the real kicker is that God graciously invites us to see the show.  God who is holy has not only invited us to see and participate in the splendor unfolding around us, but has even invited us into a relationship, the intimate and nurturing relationship of a parent and child, not because we are deserving, but simply because God loves us.  And we say, “Wow.”  Our lives, both here and in the world to come, become a symphony of constant praise, and we realize that everything around us, having encountered the holiness of God, is constantly telling the glory of God.

(Dave - “Holy, Holy Holy” v. 4 response)

Sometimes, our prayers are an opportunity to say “Help.”  Help-type prayers are probably the most common and familiar to most of us.  Help prayers are when we ask God, beg God, or even demand that God do something, either on our behalf or on behalf of someone else.

Often in our help-type prayers, we find some other feelings mixed in, as well.  There may be feelings of sorrow or lament, there may be feelings of desperation and exasperation, there may be feelings of numbness or indecision or completely being overwhelmed.  We offer a help prayer because we need help; we’ve come to a point where we realize that we can’t do it on our own or through our own faculties, and we need some assistance, which is why we’re asking God for help.

One thing I’ve come to realize is that help prayers are more effective if we offer them first rather than as a last resort.  Starting the day by saying, “Lord, help me through this day” puts us in a place where we start out recognizing our dependence on God and our constant need for God’s presence in our lives.  Starting out with this recognition helps us keep God at the center, keep the conversation open constantly, and live as if we really are dependent on God’s grace, rather than only inviting God into our lives in the midst of life’s crises and desperate situations.  Make no mistake, God is still there with us in those crises - yet God doesn’t want to be called in only on special teams, but would really like playing time through the entire game.

The more often we ask God for help, the more we keep the conversation open, and the more we open ourselves up to the constant movement of God’s Holy Spirit within us.  God’s help becomes something that is not a desperate play in our book, rather, it becomes our entire life’s gameplan.  Prayer is about nurturing our relationship with God, and God’s line is always open when we call.

(Dave - “O Lord Hear My Prayer” response)

There is one more basic type of prayer in addition to “Wow” or “Help.”  That’s when we say, “Thanks.”  This one should be an easy one.  When someone does something nice for you, or helps you out, how  do you respond?  You say, “Thank you.”  Saying “Thank you” is a simple way to say, “Hey, you’ve done something for me, and I appreciate it!”  More than just a polite thing to do, it acknowledges that person and keeps us from taking them or their gift for granted.

We were taught to write Thank-you notes as kids, and we sent them for gifts we received at birthdays, holidays, and graduations.  When we’re at a restaurant, and the server refills our water, we say, “Thank you.”  Ashley and I have spent the last 11 months writing Thank-you notes for gifts at our wedding, and panic mode has set in as we’ve realized that we only have a month left to get them all completed within, at least according to the etiquette guides, a socially-acceptable timetable before everyone gets to start gossiping behind our backs about how rude and ungrateful we are.

When someone does something for us, we say “Thank you.”  Question for you this morning: Has God ever done anything for anyone here?  Raise your hand if God has ever done anything for you.  Truth is, God does stuff for us all the time, even more than we could ask or imagine, God is doing.  The creative gift of life, reconciliation through Christ, the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit - God has done, is doing, and continues to do for us all the time, and we respond by saying, “Thanks.”

Have you ever noticed that some of the most joyful people are those who know how to say “Thank you”?  They say it frequently, constantly acknowledging those around them and letting them know that they are not taken for granted.  Likewise, have you ever noticed that some of the most joyful Christians are those who know how to say “Thank you” - not only to other people, but to God?  When we realize that all of life is a gift, and that God has given freely, generously, and abundantly to each of us, in infinitely greater measure than we deserve, what else can we say but “Thanks”?  I don’t know about you, but I want to be a person who lives my life in such gratitude that everything I think, say, or do gives acknowledgment and thanksgiving to God.

(Dave - “For all that you’ve done” response)

One last thing about how we experience God’s grace through prayer.  Obviously the three basic types of prayer - “Wow,” “Help,” and “Thanks” - help us experience God’s presence, whether we are overcome by God’s holiness, asking for God’s assistance, or expressing our gratitude to God.  Yet, we’ve already said that prayer is the conversation of a relationship, and every relationship involves both give and take, speaking and listening.  Prayer, therefore, is just as much about listening to God as it about having God listen to us.

My first grade teacher, who will turn 90 this week, taught our class about the importance of listening.  “You have two ears and one mouth,” she said.  “So you need to spend at least twice as much time listening as you do speaking.”  Given my love for talking, I was reminded of this lesson with greater frequency than were others in the class.

Every relationship, every conversation, involves both speaking and listening.  Listening necessarily requires that we give our attention to the other, as well as an openness to what they are saying and a willingness to be changed by what they share.  This is true in our human relationships, and this is especially true in our relationship with God.  Effective prayer, that truly nourishes and responds to our relationship with God, will devote twice as much time to listening to God as it does speaking to God.  It requires the intentional setting aside of our distractions and giving God our full attention, so that everything about us - internally and externally - says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.  Not only am I listening, but I am open to what you will reveal to me, and I am willing to be changed by this time with you.”

When we listen, when our hearts are open to hearing from God and being transformed by what we hear, then we have made room for the active grace of God in our lives.

The disciples of Jesus said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Teach us who God is.  Teach us to listen.  Teach us to respond as we say, “Thanks,” “Help,” and “Wow.”