Part IV of “I Am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus.”
One of the exercises that I’ve been involved with over the years is the crafting of mission statements. Oh, yes, I can hear some of you groaning right now. If you’re in a company or some other organization, you’ve probably done this exercise of boiling down who you are and what you do into a short sentence—a process that usually involves several pads of butcher paper, a lot of markers, wrestling over words, some moments of frustration, and copious amounts of coffee. A little over a year ago, our Church Council commissioned a Vision Team to present a new mission statement and focus for Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church. It took us a few months (and quite a lot of butcher paper), but at the end of the process we presented what we think is a biblically sound and descriptive statement: “Building followers of Jesus Christ who love and serve God and neighbor.”
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Part III of “I Am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus”
Last Thursday I was doing some work in my study at home, preparing for this week’s sermon, actually, when my cell phone rang with a call from one of our sister churches saying that one of their members had just died suddenly—an elderly lady who was supposed to be picked up by some church members for an appointment today. They knocked on the door, got no answer, got suspicious and called the police. When they went in they found her in her bed. She had died unexpectedly during the night. The church’s pastor was out of town and not immediately available, so the church called to see if I could go be with the family. I dropped what I was doing and headed out.
I actually beat the coroner to the house, introduced myself to the family, and provided the pastoral presence that I’m trained and able to do. I’ve done this many times over the years, and working with families in the midst of deep, immediate crisis is always a mix of challenge and blessing. As the deputy coroner showed up to do her work, I listened to the family talk about their mom—a lady who was so faithful to God that, as Pastor Dave told me later, she prayed for her pastor every day. But one of the hard things you often hear in those moments of grief is regret: “I just talked to her last night,” said one. “I wish I had been here,” said another. “If only we could have gotten here in time.” I sat by as they began to call family—the shock of hearing about a sudden death, the expressions that there just wasn’t enough time.
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Part I of the series “I Am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus.”
One of the great laments of living in the 21st century is that it’s increasingly difficult to find a good bookstore. When I was in Nashville a couple of weeks ago I happened upon a lovely old used bookshop that I could’ve spent days in. Sure, we still have Barnes and Noble, but if you’ve spent much time in that large bookstore you notice that the books are all new and mostly very practical. Next to the fiction section, for example, some of the largest shelving units in the store are devoted to self-help and leadership/management books. We’ve got thousands of books out there on how to manage our lives better, how to get people to do what we want them to do, how to be more efficient and productive, how to live the good life we seem to want. It’s interesting to me how many of these books are written by Christians. You can have a purpose driven life, your best life now, or become the me you want to be.
But have you noticed that despite all this information there’s very little transformation? Plenty of experts and celebrity pastors are out there to tell us how we should live, but our culture is still among the most stressed out, unhealthy, broken down, and medicated up people in the world. Some say better leadership is the answer to the problem, but despite all those leadership books on the shelves, 70% of Americans still hate their jobs and most of their discontent comes from being led by poor managers. We have more information than ever available at our disposal, but it doesn’t seem to be making a difference. We keep grasping at straws to find a way to live that draws life together, and it’s not working.
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In our latest sermon series we’ve been talking about prayer, which is, as John Wesley called it, “the grand means of drawing near to God.” We’ve talked about praying big prayers, which is where the story of Honi the Circle Maker challenged us. We’ve talked about praying with persistence and about praying for the long haul, planting seeds in our prayers that may not be harvested in our lifetime.
But the question I want to deal with today is the practical application of all of what we’ve been talking about. That is, how do we pray? We know that prayer is a vital part of the Christian life, that God honors bold prayers, that God invites us to persistent prayer or, as Paul puts it in our New Testament reading today, to “pray without ceasing.” But the real question is, on a daily basis, how do we pray? What’s the structure for our prayers? What kinds of prayer can deepen our relationship and dependence on God and unleash God’s will and Spirit in us?
There are lots of techniques out there. When I was a youth I was taught the ACTS formula of prayer—Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, which we were to use whenever we prayed. On the flip side, I’ve gone to monasteries where the Benedictine pattern is to pray seven times a day using the Psalms as the primary content of the prayers. That was a marvelous, ancient way of praying, and I’ve used the Psalms in my own prayers (though not at 3:30am, like the monks do!). I’ve been to workshops on guided prayer and meditation, used the Book of Common Prayer and other prayer books, and lots of other techniques to try and deepen my own life of prayer. All of these methods have things to commend them and many Christians have used them to great effect throughout history.
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In ancient Israel there was a man named Honi, which later generations also knew as Onias. You won’t find his story in the Bible but in some of the history of Israel surrounding the Bible, like in the Mishnah (a first/second century AD piece of rabbinic literature that captures some of the extra-biblical stories of Israel) and in the writings of first century historian Flavius Josephus. Many of the stories told by these early historians is fascinating, and the story of Honi is one of the more interesting and powerful.
Honi was known as a man who prayed and had a special relationship with God. His prayers were full-bodied, long, and persistent. Josephus, who was always skeptical of miracle workers, called Honi a “righteous man” who was “beloved of God” and whose prayers God was always answering in powerful ways. In the first century BC, Israel experienced a severe drought and the people came to Honi pleading that he might pray to God for rain. Honi prayed as usual but, uncharacteristically, nothing happened; so, he decided to double down on his prayers. Honi took his staff and he drew a circle around himself in the sand and stood within it and then he prayed this prayer:
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