"Beyond words ... and cynicism"
July 28, 1996 message
During a visit with a person whose self-esteem was pretty low, I shared a need for prayer on my part. When we joined hands and bowed our hearts, minds, and spirits together before the Lord, she also prayed for me. Though she later berated her spoken words, you know what? - her prayer was effective. Not only was I touched deeply in that moment, shedding a tear she misunderstood at the time, but God answered her request.
When the Bible says, "pray for one another," it is no small effort. Of course, too many of us do not think very highly of our God-given ability to do so. We can easily get caught up in the words, whether they flow easily from our minds and off our tongues or become tangled in the folds of our imaginations and jumbled in our mouths. When it comes right down to it, it's not really the words that matter. As the apostle Paul wrote, "we don't know how to pray as we ought."
Now that confession is not meant to be used for beating ourselves or others over the head - as if there is a perfect prayer out there which, if we were only spiritual enough to pray it, would be the answer to all our troubles. Even the "Lord's Prayer" is not such an invocation. Now, don't walk away saying that Pastor Pete bad-mouthed the "Lord's Prayer." Heaven forbid. What matters, though, is not the proper wording of the prayer, but the right orientation of the pray-er. What counts is not the spiritual "feel" of the expression, but the spirit of the one who expresses it.
We don't know how to pray as we ought because prayer is much deeper than the words we use. When we pray, we travel through territory which is always beyond our grasp. If anything, it grasps us. Sometimes we try to understand this by referring to "spirituality" rather than "prayer," when treading on this ground. I don't care what we call it, all I know is that it is really God who prays through us. It's a connection of that elusive thing called our "spirit" with God's "Spirit," that makes the difference.
Now, let's not get overly technical and try to separate out our individual "spirit" from the other aspects of our identity - you know: our body, mind, heart, etc. Actually, they are quite connected to one another, just like the aspects of God's identity (as much of it as we can comprehend, that is). The doctrine of the Trinity asserts that while we can discern three different expressions of who God is (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), these are very closely united. The Holy Spirit is intimately connected with Jesus Christ who himself once said, "The Father and I are one" (John 10:30). God is a unity, or a tri-unity: a trinity. As we are created in God's image, we are whole persons, not merely a collection of body, mind, heart, and spirit.
Furthermore, our spirits, yours and mine, are not fragmented apart, totally separate from one another. In reality, it is on this spiritual level that we are most deeply connected to one another. When we speak of God's Spirit connecting up with our own, searching us, interceding for us, we're not just talking individually. The Spirit helps us in our weakness.
Yesterday, we said goodbye to one of the pillars of this congregation, Carl Stephen. We tried to put into words, the best we could, our memories, thoughts, feelings. As much of a blessing as those moments were, pregnant with both sadness and joy, the words we spoke could only go so far.
Alot of who we've become as a congregation is tied to Carl's influence. On the side, let me first say that God has blessed us with many pillars, salt-of-the-earth persons whose character still upholds and flavors who we are as a family of faith. Secondly, I don't mean to imply that Carl was a perfect person, unless by that we mean what Jesus meant - complete, whole, in the process of being perfected by God. That's what a real "saint" is, not some high-falootin' holier-than-thou, committee established long-dead personality. Am I saying Carl is a saint? You better believe it. And so are you as you follow Jesus. The apostle Paul addressed his letter to the Romans, like most of his epistles: "to all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints." His words were addressed to a living congregation, just like y'all. You are God's beloved in Long Green, who are called to be saints.
Having established that this down-to-earth man we called Carl was but one of many pillars in this fellowship of saints, let me go on to speak of his influence. When such a pillar dies, we feel weaker. This man occupied a big space, often very quietly in behind-the-scenes ways. At key moments, even times of conflict, he calmly stepped in and, with God's help, provided the leadership we needed. I was so blessed to hear Mary speak her admiration for him as she remembered a difficult church situation which he handled with grace. How often do we, as spouses, as parents, as children, as fellow believers, as friends, share such words about those we love?
When a pillar of the church dies, we feel weaker. Know that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." God knows what we need, as individual "saints," and as a "fellowship of saints" tied together on a deep level, beyond words. In our loss, our weakness, God will provide.
This scripture meant so much to me during those months when communication became difficult with Carl. I hated that tracheotomy, and I'm sure he did. A letter board could only go so far. However, communication goes beyond words. The spiritual bond between believers, and between believers and God, runs very deep. Carl was connected (and so were we), complete, even as he lay seemingly helpless, and we watched seemingly helpless. In reality, though, we weren't helpless, just as we are not now. And God answered our prayers, spoken and unspoken, working for good in a rotten situation.
Carl was an inspiration in his suffering and dying, even as he was previosly a major influence in this church and his neighborhood. It didn't dawn on me until I was preparing the funeral and Mary shared with me one of his favorite poems, that this philosophy sounded like the unspoken mission statement of this congregation as I've come to know you. For those who couldn't make it yesterday, let me repeat the poem, with special emphasis on the last lines, memorized and repeated often by our departed brother.
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by;
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish - so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner's seat,
Or hurl the cynic's ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend of man.
Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911)
Of course, there's not alot of high theology in those words, references to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, God, salvation, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation etc. It's important that we speak those words of faith also, to convey the good news in a bad news world. Still, words are never fully adequate, are they? It's God who moves beyond them, touching human spirit with Holy Spirit; the "sighs too deep for words."
I like that favorite poem of Carl's because it reveals a side of this congregation I greatly appreciate. Perhaps Carl's influence helped build up this character in us. You see, one of the demons of our present age is cynicism. We are a nation of cynics, who have lost faith in one another. We don't really trust anybody anymore, contemptuously pessimistic of everyone motives. Now, I grant you, we have good reason to distrust, but a society cannot be built upon cynicism - even Christian cynicism, which seeks to place trust in God alone. At some point we need to see beyond the surface, and believe that God is at work for good, even through what appears bad. Human beings are good, as the poem says, "they are bad, they are weak, they are strong, wise, foolish - so am I." At some point we need to move beyond scorn and cynicism.
Just as a society cannot be built upon cynicism, neither can a church. We are a community of saints, of believers, not cynics. There are plenty of churches, let me assure you, that operate very cynically - frying each other, roasting pastors, distrusting one another - and ultimately God (for how we treat each other is connected to how we treat God). This congregation of saints is different, perhaps due to Carl's influence. Oh, we're not perfect, unless by that we mean what Jesus meant - complete, whole, in the process of being perfected by God. Yes, there are leaks in our spiritual roof, just like the leaks in the physical roof of this meetinghouse which Carl helped us build. But the structure is sound built upon the foundation of the saints who've come before us, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
It's my prayer that Carl's influence, as well as the positive influence of the other saints among us, those who've now gone on to glory, and those who still remain; it's my prayer that this non-cynical "spirit" of our church, this constructive character will continue, that God work for good in us, in all things - as we love him and answer his call to be salt for the earth. Will that be your prayer, also, whether in words or sighs too deep for words?
Let's affirm our faith, just now, by standing and reading those thrilling words of Paul from his letter to the believers and saints in Rome, as you find them printed in your bulletin. [Romans 8:31-39]
©1996Peter L. Haynes
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