The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
June 3, 2018
NPR science writer Robert Krulwich reported about a bird called the bar-tailed godwit. Godwits are born in the spring in northern Alaska; but in the fall even the newborns fly 7,000 miles across the Pacific to New Zealand. By an inexplicable power of perseverance, they make that long trip non-stop as land birds that cannot rest on the water or fish; and by a God-given homing signal, they find their way to New Zealand with next to no landmarks, and with many of them unfamiliar with the Pacific seas and the southern hemisphere stars.
We human beings also have a miraculous homing signal guiding us. It leads us to God. But will we trust it, take flight, cross an immense sea to a place we haven’t yet experienced, and find a home we didn’t before know we had? To pray is to do just that.
All four sermons last month spoke of God’s holiness, of the immense distance between God and us. With today’s sermon, we begin a ten-part, summer-long series about how praying helps us make contact, and conversation, with that otherwise distant God.
Praying brings about divine-human interaction, but praying takes no special spiritual ability. For God has built into every last one of us a homing signal to find Him and a drive to connect with Him. As Augustine said, we were made for the relationship, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.
The only thing required of us to be able to interact with God is a reorientation of ourselves from self-preoccupation to the pursuit of Him. This change of direction is the positive side of the 180 degree turnaround that is repentance. To repent is to turn from rebellious self-reliance and to turn to God in humble and hopeful awareness of our need of Him. Prayer is ignited by this change in the fundamental focus of our lives.
The Bible says often that, without this change in orientation, no one finds God; but that, with it, anyone may find Him and make contact with Him. For example, Jeremiah 29:13 promises, “When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.”
It is precisely this reorientation of ourselves that Paul in today’s lesson urges the Colossians to embrace. He implores them to change the direction of their lives by reminding them of the rite of passage by which they entered the Christian life: the sacrament of baptism. Their being “buried” under water symbolized their dying to an old way of living; and their being lifted up out of the water, their being resurrected into a new way of living. At the end of chapter two, Paul challenges them, saying, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why you do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” And here at the start of chapter three, Paul challenges them, saying, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above…set your minds on things that are above.”
Paul well understands how our focus impacts our engaging with God. So much hinges on whether we seek the “above” things of Christ and set our minds on them. We will enjoy dialogue with God if we make dialogue with God a goal to which we are committed.
If prayer is based upon this reorientation, it makes sense that the Bible urges us to “pray without ceasing”. We can’t always talk to God, or take in God’s words, but we can always have our souls leaning toward God, eager and expectant, open and receptive.
A transformative life of prayer both results from reorientation and results in reorientation. That is, our focus determines our prayerfulness; and our prayerfulness, our focus. We decide where we fix our gaze and pin our aspirations – and thereby we decide who we end up becoming.
John Stott, rector of All Souls Langham Place London, was one of the great spiritual leaders of the past century. Like Billy Graham he was revered for his humility, generosity, integrity and, most of all, focus. He was all about knowing and serving Christ.
Three weeks before his death, author Os Guinness paid him a last visit. They shared memories from a friendship that had lasted decades. Almost every one of those memories occasioned Stott’s pointing to the Lord’s goodness and giving Him thanks and praise. When it was time for Guinness to leave, Guinness asked Stott how he would like his old friend to pray for him. Still lying weakly on his back, and with nothing but a hoarse whisper with which to speak, Stott answered, “Pray that I will be faithful to Jesus until my last breath.”
Faithfulness to Jesus Christ was to the end Stott’s defining orientation and prayerful focus. Would that we would follow his example and make it our chief aim to set our aim on Christ as Stott did. Such a focus will drive us to prayer and develop in us even greater focus on Christ.
Of course, we moderns have reason to wonder about our ability to focus. With our dependence on smart phones, our capacity to pay attention to any one thing for any length of time has shrunk dramatically. One Madison Avenue ad agency has adopted the motto: “6.5 seconds”. That’s right. They operate on the premise that most folks can focus but 6.5 seconds before losing attention!
Maybe we can focus longer, but we still struggle to keep our minds from drifting at prayer. Most of us then would do well to set modest goals for our praying at first, in the hope that we can achieve small successes and build some spiritual momentum. Many of us would do well to attempt a regular time of daily prayer no longer than five minutes. We can ask a friend or two to pray for us and hold us accountable; create a time and place each day that is free from electronic and other distractions; and see what happens. If we persevere in the practice, we might be surprised by how much we hear from God and how eager we become to linger longer in prayer!
We might think of each time of prayer as a blank sheet of paper on which God might write messages. If we type everything that comes to us on the page, with single-line spacing, from edge to edge, we’ll be so overwhelmed with all that compacted verbiage that nothing will stand out and the most important stuff will be lost in an overload of words that hides much by including too much. If, however, we double-space and leave one inch margins, what really needs to be recorded and remembered can stand out, capture our attention and be found again when we need to be reminded of it.
In college I was taught to type with double-spacing and 1” margins. Believe it or not, when you do that, your page is over 50% empty space! But all that emptiness brings an advantage. It makes obvious, meaningful and memorable what is most significant.
We need to have the same empty spaces in our praying and our living that God might fill them with His messages from Scripture and the Spirit.
To hone in on the things above, we have to put to the side some other things. Let us then focus on first things first and be all eyes and ears for God – and so develop a rich and transformational relationship with the best Conversation Partner ever. Let us orient ourselves aright, and pray without ceasing!