By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Mark 4:35-41
Perhaps, you have heard these lines from an old Scottish prayer:
From ghoulies and ghosties
and long-leggedy beasties
and things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
I’m currently in the midst of a sermon series on prayer. It is based on a book called Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship With God Through Honest Prayer. The author, William Barry, contends that God wants a friendship with us, a premise supported in scripture. Now, like any healthy friendship, our friendship with God requires honest, authentic communication. A relationship built on pretense isn’t a friendship. In a genuine friendship, people know that the relationship can only flourish if both individuals sincerely share their thoughts and their feelings, no matter how uncomfortable and difficult that might be.
In his book, Barry defines prayer as our conscious awareness of God’s presence; an awareness that is cultivated through honest communication, that results in mutual self-revelation.[i] That means that what we “say” to God goes far beyond what we may have learned as children; that is, that prayer begins with a direct address to God (“Dear Lord,” “Dear heavenly Father’) and prayer concludes with the obligatory “amen.” But prayer is not limited to those formal structures or patterns.
Recently someone shared with me that there is a somewhat murky line between when she talks to herself and when she talks with God and that, I think, is a point Barry makes as well. Prayer happens anytime that we reflect; when we turn over our thoughts and ideas, our challenges, concerns and fears, while being conscious of the fact that we are doing so in the presence of God. In other words, as we reflect, we are aware that all of our thoughts, ideas, challenges, concerns and fears are being sifted through together with God.
This morning our focus is on “talking to God about our fears.” Fear is, perhaps, the most primitive of all emotions. As children, we fear the monster under the bed and those things that go bump in the night. As adults, we fear the call from the doctor’s office when our lab results have come back or a call from the police when our teenager has missed their curfew. We fear corporate downsizing and the loss of our jobs. We fear when the pediatrician tells us our toddler is not meeting appropriate developmental milestones. And often, when we voice our fears, others say, “Don’t worry; don’t be afraid.” Among Christians, we hear people say, “Don’t worry, I’ll pray for you” or “Just turn it over to Jesus.” Yet we feel what we feel and feelings don’t go away just because we try to ignore or suppress them.
If you struggle with fear, you’re in good company. Particularly in the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ disciples struggle continually with fear. This morning’s gospel story is a prime example. Jesus and his disciples are out on the Sea of Galilee. Galilee is a bit like our Great Lake Erie; it’s notorious for storms coming up quickly. In the ancient world, people had an incredible fear of water. After all, they had no submarines and no way of knowing what lurked deep beneath the surface. Monsters, like the mighty Leviathan[ii], lived in those waters. The sea was associated with chaos, death and destruction. And so, when a storm begins to swamp the boat the disciples are in, they cry out to Jesus in fear. They’re convinced that they’re going to die, to drown to death, and what is Jesus doing; just sleeping through the whole thing. They wake him up and cry out, I imagine somewhat indignantly, “Don’t you care; we’re going to be destroyed.” So Jesus speaks to the sea and the wind and it becomes a dead calm. And then how do the disciples feel? They’re afraid. Apparently even Jesus’ dramatic displays of power don’t put an end to their fear. They have seen so much already during their time with Jesus. I mean, they were with him 24/7. And again, especially in Mark, Jesus’ ministry moves at a fast and furious pace: he heals the sick, casts out demons, defeats the power of sin and evil. Mark, chapter 3 gives us a summary of Jesus’ ministry to date; verses 7-11 tell us:
Mark 3:7 Jesus departed with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; 8 hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers... 9 He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; 10 for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. 11 Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, "You are the Son of God!"[iii]
That’s some pretty impressive stuff. Jesus’ disciples have not been in any way lacking in evidence or demonstrations of his power but they still fear and they just don’t get it; they just don’t get Jesus.[iv] They are overwhelmed and frightened. They simply do not grasp the significance of what is happening. They do not learn from one experience to the next. Fear limits their ability to see; it limits their ability to see reality and it limits their ability to see possibility. Fear limits one’s ability to see current reality and it limits one’s ability to see future possibility.
And maybe we should cut those disciples a little slack. I mean, fear – we all know – can be paralyzing, debilitating. So what can we do? What should we do when a fear has paralyzed us, debilitated us, consumed us and blinded us to reality and to possibility?
Well, Barry tells us, we still need to be in communication with God. We need to tell God about our fear. Barry writes: “[T]ell God what you fear and tell it in detail. As you do this, you might find that you are more able to face your fears honestly and in the process become less fearful.”[v]
And here is what I would add: as we tell God about our fears, we need to call to remembrance, to recollect other times, experiences in the past involving threatening situations and our feelings of fear and remember how God has cared for us during those times. See; that’s what the disciples were missing. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, I’m sure you can recall times when God brought you through a terribly frightening experience. Now, that doesn’t mean everything came out perfectly. Life isn’t perfect. As I mentioned last week, it isn’t fair either. But you’re here this morning; so God got you through. God was with you and God did not abandon you. When you are afraid, tell God about your fears; but also reminiscence with God about past experiences of fear and how Jesus took care of you. Let’s not be like those disciples in Mark. Let us learn from our experiences with Jesus.
Secondly, don’t just recollect a past, imagine a future. Author Karen Thompson Walker, presented a TED Talk on fear entitled “What Fear Can Teach Us.” Walker contends that fear can also be something that sparks our imaginations to address the problems behind our fears. She speaks of “productive paranoia” and reminds us that some people can and do translate their fears into preparation and productive, transformative action.
In her book, The Way of Discernment, author Elizabeth Liebert, discusses the role that imagination can play in prayer and discernment. She writes, “Imagination’s… potential to facilitate creative breakthroughs make it an invaluable partner for [prayerful] discernment when it is set within a context of faith.” It can “form images of what is not immediately present, and thereby create visions of new possibilities… Through imagination we can project our future... Imagination can compose, decompose, and recompose the meaning of our life.”[vi]
Let me briefly share with you a story of my praying in this way. Someone I cared about had made a decision that really concerned me; in part because I felt it could have a negative impact on others and on me. I knew we had to talk about it. But I was also concerned about our relationship. I thought, “what if she hears this as an attack and it puts a wedge in our relationship that unravels over time?” If our relationship broke down, that would also have a significant impact. I felt myself becoming really anxious and fearful about how this might play out. So I engaged with this prayer of imagination. I played out, in my mind with God, different ways of initiating this critical, necessary conversation. And what I discovered amazed me. As I imagined the scenario unfolding, I could see and feel the other person’s tension when I broached the topic in certain ways. As I imaginatively considered others approaches, I discovered new ways of expressing myself. I can’t really explain to you why it worked – well, other than the fact that I had invited the Holy Spirit to guide me in this process – but at the conclusion of my prayer time, I had discovered a new way of expressing myself and communicating my concern that hadn’t occurred to me before. During my prayer, as I had imagined the conversation beginning with me saying something in particular, I could see the other person shut down and withdraw and I had a sudden insight about why my approach might be hurtful and not helpful. As I continued to pray with my imagination, I finally arrived at a “presentation style” that, as I imagined it, I saw and sensed the other person’s ease and receptivity. That was the approach I felt God wanted me to take and I did and I was amazed at how well the actual conversation played out.
Now imaginations can come up with some crazy stuff, right? So Liebert cautions, at the conclusion of your “imagination prayer” consider whether the new imagined possibility is life-affirming and likely to increase faith, hope and love. If not, then it may have been a product of your imagination, but God likely wasn’t present with you in that imagining. But, if yes, then this may well be God’s communication to you of how to manage or cope with this fearful situation in your life.
Prayer of imagination isn’t that difficult. It consists of sitting still with an awareness of God’s presence and considering a challenge or a problem and, with God, imagining – seeing in our mind’s eye – how different ways of responding or coping might create different potential outcomes. After all, who better to engage with, to converse with, when we are seeking a creative solution to our fears then the God of the universe who created everything seen and unseen. In her TED Talk, Walker proposes that “our fears are an amazing gift of the imagination… a way of glimpsing what might be the future when there’s still time to influence how that future will play out.”[vii]
Friends, fear is a real and natural feeling and it’s something we need to talk about with God. Sometimes it is something we need to talk about with a therapist or a spiritual director. Maybe you’ve been trying to run away from your fears or just stuff them down. But really, how’s that working? Probably not very well. So, let’s face our fears. Let’s acknowledge them, even describe them; let’s talk them through with God.
And as we do, let us remember how God has cared for us during other scary times and experiences. Let’s remember and learn from the past. And, let’s explore responses to our fears with God; talking it through with God, imagining possibilities and options, exploring together where we go from here and how best to cope and adapt. When we place our trust in God, he can calm our fears like he calmed that sea long ago and the creative mind of God can offer us ways to cope and adapt and transform our frightening circumstances into a new possibility. What is it that you fear? Why not talk to God about it today. Have an honest conversation with Jesus, your friend.
[i] Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer. By William A. Barry, SJ. Loyola Press; 2012. pp. 1, 7
[ii] See Job 41:1; Psalm 104:26.
[iii] New Revised Standard Version
[iv] See a detailed analysis of the characterization of the disciples in the gospel of Mark in Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel by David Rhoads and Donald Michie; 1982; Fortress Press; pp. 122-129.
[v] Praying the Truth; p. 31
[vi] The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert; Westminster John Knox Press; 2008; p. 98. In this book, Liebert provides more detailed direction/instruction for engaging with the imagination in prayer and discernment.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Job 3:3-5, 11, 20-26
Life is not fair; pure and simple. “Just deserts” are a myth. No matter who you are or how you behave, there will be – undoubtedly – days when, despite your most noble efforts, things go horribly wrong and you will want to rail against God and shake your fist toward the heavens. While on other days, you will humbly bow your head and give thanks that you got off so easy.
This morning marks the second week of a sermon series on prayer. It is based on a book I’ve been reading called Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer by Catholic priest William Barry. Last week I introduced the premise of Barry’s book that prayer can be understood as our conscious awareness of God’s presence; an awareness that is cultivated through honest communication that results in mutual self-revelation.[i] Last week I discussed the impact of communication on a relationship. First, communication builds or constructs a relationship. But secondly, communication reveals something about the nature or character of that relationship. Both of our biblical creation stories reveal that our God is a relational God and that God desires a friendship with the humans he creates. It is a desire voiced by Jesus to his disciples in the gospel of John when he tells them that he no longer identifies them as servants because servants are clueless about their master’s affairs; ignorant about the master’s business. But Jesus identifies his disciples as friends with whom he has shared intimate divine knowledge. To be in a real and authentic relationship with God, we must be in communication with God and that communication must be honest, not merely reverent and polite.
Now, while we might like to cling to clichés like “you reap what you sow” and “what goes around comes around,” the reality of everyday life betrays that myth of “just deserts.” And when life is not fair, we do no service to God, ourselves or others to pretend that we are not sad or angry or frightened. Times of sorrow and suffering should call forth honest communication with God, truthful prayer. As I’ve often told people, there is nothing you can say to God that will make God stop loving you. And, there is nothing you can say to God that God can’t handle. God can take it.
Within his book, in the chapter entitled “Telling God about Your Sadness,” Barry references many of the lament psalms in which the psalmists pour out their hearts to God. The lament psalms of our bible follow a clear 5-part structure that includes (1) appealing to God for help, (2) describing their trouble or affliction, (3) justifying why they should be heard by God, (4) affirming their confidence in God’s willingness and ability to do something about it, and (5) promising to praise God when the deliverance comes. Lament psalms are beautiful in their poetic form. Yet sometimes life is so messy, it defies all structure and form and it can get ugly. So, while Barry references many wonderful psalms of lament, this morning we will look at a messy, unorthodox lamenter by the name of Job.
The story of Job is well-known. It’s even spawned clichés like “the patience of Job…” though it’s a rather poor cliché since Job is anything but patient.
The book of Job begins by introducing us to its main character, a man whose life has, up to now, been picture perfect. Job is one of the shiny, happy people; righteous and abundantly blessed… That is until a satan, an adversary (that’s what the word “satan” means), offers up to God the possibility that Job is only righteous because he has been blessed. Would Job be so holy, the satan queries, if his life weren’t so easy? And so God permits the satan to strip away Job’s blessings to discover what lies beneath. Job’s children perish; his herds are decimated; his wealth and reputation evaporate and, finally, he is plagued with sickness. Thus the experiment begins and this biblical book of 42 chapters raises two existential questions: 1) why do the righteous suffer? And 2) what is the motivation for their righteousness? Are we good merely because we hope to earn God’s favor? To what degree is “righteousness” a strategy to ward off evil?
Struck by tragedy and stripped of all blessings, Job’s initial response is to profess faith in God regardless and resolutely cling to what is appropriate and orthodox. But eventually, Job sinks into a silent despair. Three “friends” arrive to console and comfort him. They weep and rend their robes and heap dust upon their heads. They sit in silence with Job. But after seven days and nights, Job seems to rouse from his numbed state of shock and finally gives voice to his despair. I shared a portion of this initial soliloquy as this morning’s scripture. Job goes so far as to curse the day of his birth, even the night of his conception and such words turn out to be more than his so-called friends can handle. In the ancient world, it was widely accepted that suffering came directly from the hand of God as punishment for people’s sins. That was the party line and – so long as you weren’t the one suffering – it was a good and comforting theory. But here’s the truth: our holy scripture (not to mention life itself) provides no single, uniform cause for suffering. In fact, even within our gospels, Jesus gives more than one rationale for suffering and, let’s be frank, there’s not much comfort in that. Job’s so-called friends want to cling to the party line and so they challenge Job’s self-proclaimed innocence. They refuse to entertain the possibility that he has done nothing to merit this unimaginable horror. As bible scholar William Brown puts it, “Job unleashes a barrage of questions and accusations against God that so perturbs [his friends] that they must brand him as an unrepentant sinner [in order] to maintain their [own] moral sensibilities, if not their sanity.”[ii]
Most of the book of Job then consists of this back and forth between Job and his three “friends.” In chapter 32, yet another character enters the story. A young man named Elihu. He is more forceful in condemning Job than Job’s friends and peers. He speaks boldly in God’s defense. I mean, if God ever needed a public defender, this would be the guy and he is determined to make a closing argument that cannot be rejected. The young Elihu, Job and his three friends have had a great deal to say about God; but after 35 chapters of people talking about God, God finally speaks on his own behalf when he answers Job from a whirlwind. But the answer is not nearly so clear-cut or comforting as one would hope. In fact, Job’s individual suffering is never really addressed. While Job has been complaining and accusing God, our gaze has been narrowly focused on Job; he has been the center of his own universe. But God zooms wide the lens to offer a cosmic perspective on life, a cosmic view of the universe. God reminds Job of how vast and intricately woven his creation is. How can we even begin to comprehend it all?
Now if the story of Job were to end there, it would be a very unsatisfactory story. But there is more. After God speaks to Job in poetic and cosmic terms, God turns his attention toward Job’s companions and here is what God pronounces: that they are the ones worthy of judgment. Job spoke to God sincerely, truthfully. But his friends spoke a bunch of nonsense. God is angry at Job’s so-called friends for what they said to Job about God. They have misrepresented God. And here’s what God requires of them: they are to take an animal to sacrifice and they’re to sacrifice it in the presence of Job while Job prays on their behalf. Wow. I bet they didn’t see that coming down the pike. I love the way Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message: God Almighty says: “My friend Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer. He will ask me not to treat you as you deserve for talking nonsense about me, and for not being honest with me, as he has.”[iii]
Now, if you read what Job said to God, it’s some pretty harsh stuff. But here’s the thing: there’s no pretending to it. Job is completely honest with God; he lets it all out. And at the end of it all, God calls him friend. Friend: not because Job was polite and reverent and orthodox; but because Job was honest. He didn’t try to hide his feelings or opinions. And Job’s brutal honesty means far more to God than his friends’ neat and tidy orthodoxy.
Job does pray to God for his friends. And God restores Job’s fortune. And here is one of the most fascinating parts of this story. At the end of the story, Job has seven sons and three daughters. But we’re not given the names of the sons; only the daughters and we’re told that Job gave them an equal share of his inheritance. That wasn’t supposed to happen back in those days. Inheritance was only for sons, for males. Something curious has happened to Job; he seems now to see everyone a little differently.
Author Dorothee Soelle wrote of stages of suffering. Often, in the earliest stages, the sufferer is mute and paralyzed as Job sat in silence for seven days and nights. But this stage can be followed by a crying out, an angry cry; a cry often discouraged in the church where – like Job’s friends – we may deem it heretical. But the sufferer knows that something is not right, is not just; and they are not afraid to say so. And if they can give voice to their raw suffering, they may arrive at a place in their journey where they see life a little differently and certainly see their sojourners differently. They may learn a new way of living and believing and being in relationship with God and with other people.
When I was in middle school, I recall a conversation I had with a group of girlfriends. We were discussing what life was like in our homes. I shared that my parents sometimes had heated arguments with raised voices and angry tones. One friend was shocked. She couldn’t imagine that the pastor and his wife would argue or be angry with one another. Her parents, she assured me, never raised their voices, never had so much as a disagreement. “Never?” I asked. “Never,” she declared firmly. Within the year, her parents were divorced. Years before their honest communication had ended; it had been reduced to social niceties. But there is nothing enduring about pretense and politeness.
Friends, if there is sorrow in your life, talk to God about your sadness. Don’t be afraid to let God have it. God can handle it. You may never find the answer to why bad things happen to good people; and perhaps such an answer does not even exist. But God will hear you out and God will continue to work within your life, to form and fashion something new. God will not leave you. He’ll draw near to you. And as you pass through that valley of suffering, you may find that you emerge with a different understanding of God, of yourself, and of others. God wants to hear the truth from you; God wants to be your friend.
[i] Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer. By William A. Barry, SJ. Loyola Press; 2012. pp. 1, 7
[ii] Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology; July, 1999; “Introducing Job” by William P. Brown; p. 231
[iii] The Message by Eugene Peterson; NavPress; 2002; p. 908
A True Friend
Scripture: John 15:12-17
Preached on June 11, 2017
@ Trinity U.M. Church, Lafayette
By Tracey Leslie
Near the last year of his life, when my dad was moved to the memory care unit of a Methodist retirement community, my sister and I took the brave step of clearing out his house. It was hard. Dad had always been the pack rat and mom (who preceded him in death by more than a decade) had been the organizer; so my dad's house became a daunting task for my sister and me. There were important items that had seemed to disappear in those last couple years. Had they been thrown away? Would we find them somewhere buried and unexpected? There were boxes of dryer lint. Were they concealing something of worth or simply a by-product of his disease? It was a painful and painstaking process. But there were also some rare joys amidst that stress and strain. Now I appreciate the modern convenience of email but I mourn the loss of something as enduring as a letter. When we cleared out dad's house we found several letters. And among them, tucked in the drawer of my dad’s nightstand were love letters exchanged between mom and dad during their teen dating years. Letters more than a half a century old. What a priceless gift to read of their young love. Notes that said things like: “I am sitting here in class but hardly able to concentrate. All I can think of is you and how happy I’ll be to see you this evening.” Those love letters were a window revealing the nature of their relationship that had deepened in intimacy over the course of decades. Mom was barely 16 when they met. To find those letters and to be able to remind ourselves that they’d had so many precious years together long before time and diseases had ravaged their minds and bodies. What a gift those letters were. Correspondence, written communication, capturing the character of their relationship.
Communication both actively constructs a relationship while also revealing the nature of that relationship.
So what if we were to think of prayer in that way: as communication between two lovers – so to speak – that both constructs and builds the relationship while also revealing its character?
I’ll be honest: I consider prayer the most mysterious of all spiritual practices and maybe that’s not unusual. After all; communication is complex. It goes beyond mere words; it encompasses our acute awareness of “the other” when we are in their presence… and, of course, we are always in the presence of God.
The sermon series I’m beginning this morning is based on a book I’ve been reading called Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer. In it, author William Barry says that prayer can be understood at its most basic level as our conscious awareness of God’s presence; an awareness that is cultivated through honest communication that results in mutual self-revelation.[i] Barry contends, as does the writer of John’s gospel, that God desires friendship with us.
But it’s important for us to understand what friendship meant in the ancient world. Because we don’t speak Greek – well, most of us don’t – we are not apt to detect how significantly friendship factors in John’s gospel. You see, the word used for “friend” in the scripture I shared this morning is philos which has only one letter that is different from the word used to describe Lazarus in chapter 11 of John’s gospel. Lazarus, you might recall, is the dead man Jesus restores to life. When the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus about their brother’s serious illness; in order to lend power to their appeal, they describe their brother as the loved one of Jesus. “He whom you love,” they say, “is ill.” And that word for “loved one” is phileo. Now if I’ve lost you in the Greek, don’t worry about it. The point here is, in the gospel of John, “friends” of Jesus are those whom Jesus loves; love in the sense of fondness or affection.
But far more than that was involved with friendship in the 1st century Mediterranean world. In that culture, the label “friend” could be used to describe two categories of friendships. That culture, as I’ve discussed in the past, was a patron-benefaction culture. There were a small number of wealthy, powerful individuals and many who belonged to the peasant class. There really wasn’t a middle class in ancient Palestine. Those in the peasant class could have their needs met by a wealthy patron who looked out for them. But this went beyond a professional relationship. There was fondness in this relationship and so the wealthy patron referred to the one they helped as a “friend.” The friendship was distinguished by generosity and kindness on the part of the wealthy patron and distinguished by loyalty and public praise on the part of the one being helped. This was a “friendship” among un-equals. But it was very much so, a relationship, a friendship. There was a second kind of friendship in that culture and it was a friendship among equals; probably more similar to what we would define as friendship in our culture today. In this kind of friendship there was a level of vulnerability and intimate knowledge of the other that resulted in trust.
Now why am I bothering to “school you” in ancient understandings of friendship? Because both of those are present in our relationship with Jesus when Jesus is our friend. I mean; let’s be frank. It is a relationship among un-equals. Jesus is the Son of God; according to John’s gospel, one and the same with God the heavenly Father. That’s not a power we can rival. And we rely on the heavenly Father’s provision when we pray in the name of Jesus, our friend. So Jesus tells his disciples, “The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.”[ii] Jesus meets our needs with resources – blessings, we call them – we could never conjure up by our own power. They are beyond us; yet God bestows those blessings upon us. And God’s blessings, his gifts toward us, ought to inspire loyalty on our part. In the ancient world, love was not an emotion in the way that we speak of love today. In the ancient world, love was expressed as loyalty and loyalty was displayed through obedience. So Jesus tells his disciples: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”[iii]
But that is not our only experience of God as friend. While our abilities and resources can never begin to match the resources and abilities of God; while this relationship is clearly a friendship among un-equals that is not all there is to our friendship with God. Notice what else Jesus says to his disciples, “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”[iv] Let me say that again and let’s pause for just a minute so that can really sink in. Jesus says to his disciples, to those whom he loves, “I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”[v] Jesus reminds his disciples, in relationships of un-equals, the lesser one doesn’t have intimate knowledge of the other. The servant doesn’t know what the master is all about. But Jesus puts it all out there for his disciples. This friendship involves intimacy and vulnerability. And I think this second kind of friendship – this one I’ve just described – is the one we have the most difficulty embracing in our relationship with God. It’s easy for us to understand our relationship with God as something unequal. It’s easy for us to understand our relationship with God as our being dependent on God’s help. But think about what it means that Jesus introduces the elements of intimacy and vulnerability – not as a one-way street, but as a two-way thing – into our relationship with God.
Friends, Jesus came to express to us what it is that God desires in a friendship with us. God desires to reveal himself to us in an intimate way and God, so clearly in Jesus, chooses to be vulnerable or open with us. And so, as Barry writes in his book, “for God friendship seems to come down to mutual self-revelation, to telling the truth about ourselves to each other.”[vi]
And so over the course of the next six weeks, we’re going to look together at what it means for us to be honest with God in our positive and negative experiences, feelings, and attitudes; to be honest with God about the things that make us mad, the things that make us sad; the things that bring us joy.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Are you saying I should describe to God something going on in my life right now that’s making me angry? Why do I need to do that? God knows everything. God knows what’s been happening to me and God knows I’m angry.” And that’s true. But here’s my question: Just because your spouse knows you love them, is that a good enough reason to never say it to them? Just because your son or daughter knows you’re proud of them is that a reason to never say it? Just because your best friend knows you appreciate them being there for you, does that mean you should never say it out loud?
Remember; communication reveals the nature of a relationship. But it also continues to construct and shape the relationship. When we take the time to communicate our experiences and thoughts and feelings, it impacts the relationship. It builds intimacy and it builds a rhythm of speaking and listening; it builds awareness of the other.
In his book, Barry writes of his own experience with prayer. He writes of a day when, during his time of prayer, he sensed God communicating to him. Barry describes what God communicated to him that day. It was as if God was saying to him [and I’m quoting from his book]: “Most of time when you ask me what I want from you, you’re looking for something to do for me. I don’t want you to do anything for me; I want you to be my friend, to let me reveal myself to you and for you to reveal yourself to me. [Then] The things-to-do will take care of themselves.”[vii] That was what Barry felt God communicate to him that day. Now, I don’t think Barry means to imply that God doesn’t care about our behavior or our Christian conduct. Rather, I think he means to remind us that it is through our relationship with God that we are truly changed. Relationships, authentic relationships marked by mutual self-revelation and truth-telling, cannot help but impact who we become at our core. Communication – honest, truthful communication – both reveals the nature of a relationship while also continuing to construct and shape that relationship.
I hope that this sermon series on prayer will help you to deepen your friendship with God and I want to invite you to begin by trying something out this week. At the end of each day, take a few minutes to consider if you experienced any intense emotions or thoughts that day. Did something really captivate your attention? Did something make you angry or deeply sad? Be honest. And if it did, describe not only your feelings but even your experience to God. Don’t worry that God already knows. Describe the experience in your own words and describe what it made you think or feel and then, take a few moments to breathe deeply and be still and listen. If it’s easier for you, you may want to write it out on paper and then, in those few moments of silence, fold the paper and hold it up with outstretched hands… as if you’re offering your experience, your thoughts and your feelings to God and simply listen. If that quiet time of silence feels awkward to you or you feel preoccupied with wondering how much time has passed, set a timer for 3-5 minutes and simply try to breath and rest and listen after you have poured out your words and your heart to the God who most certainly says to you, “I want to be your friend.”
[i] Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer. By William A. Barry, SJ. Loyola Press; 2012. pp. 1, 7
[ii] John 15:16b
[iii] John 15:14
[iv] John 15:15
[v] John 15:15
[vi] Ibid. p. 7
[vii] Ibid., p. 6
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