Saturday, March 03, 2018

The Voices of Prayer - Psalm 40

   Psalm 40:1-17

I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,[a]
    out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
    making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord.
Happy are those who make
    the Lord their trust,
who do not turn to the proud,
    to those who go astray after false gods.
You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
    your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
    none can compare with you.
Were I to proclaim and tell of them,
    they would be more than can be counted.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
    but you have given me an open ear.[b]
Burnt offering and sin offering
    you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am;
    in the scroll of the book it is written of me.[c]
I delight to do your will, O my God;
    your law is within my heart.”
I have told the glad news of deliverance
    in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
    as you know, O Lord.
10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
    I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
    from the great congregation.
11 Do not, O Lord, withhold
    your mercy from me;
let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
    keep me safe forever.
12 For evils have encompassed me
    without number;
my iniquities have overtaken me,
    until I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head,
    and my heart fails me.
13 Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me;
    O Lord, make haste to help me.
14 Let all those be put to shame and confusion
    who seek to snatch away my life;
let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
    who desire my hurt.
15 Let those be appalled because of their shame
    who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”
16 But may all who seek you
    rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
    say continually, “Great is the Lord!”
17 As for me, I am poor and needy,
    but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
    do not delay, O my God.

          How do you pray?
          How do you pray?
          By that I mean, what is your mood when you pray to the Lord?
          Well, hold that thought for a minute.  Before we talk about prayer, let me ask you about your school days. 
          How did you – or do you - study?
          What mood were you in when you approached tests?

          When I was in high school there was one kid, Tommy, who knew every answer to every question ever asked by teacher or test.  If a test was on Friday, he would not have to study at all, because his whole life was filled with academic pursuits, and when his test grade came back, he would receive his "A" with the mundane feeling that life never changes.  He approached every test with confidence, grace, and ease.

         Then there was Chuck, who struggled and studied and agonized over every test.  If a test was on Friday, he started studying on Monday -- TWO Weeks before the test, and when he got his grade, which was always a "C", he was always thankful.  Chuck approached every test with concern, carefulness and patience flavored with mild anxiety.

          Then there was this other fellow, whose name I will not repeat.  If a test was on Friday at high noon, he would not think about it until he walked into the classroom and would say with a panic, "Test?  There's a Test today?" 

         And he would rush to his desk and open his book and spend the next 45 to 55 seconds to study for the test. 

         And when he received his usual "D" his response would be, "Wow, I passed!"

         In your school days, how did you study?

         We study in different ways, and it just so happens that also pray in different ways.

         Some pray like Tommy studied -- with confidence, grace, and ease.

         Some pray like Chuck studied -- with concern, carefulness and patience flavored with mild anxiety.

         Others are like that other nameless person in my high school.  They pray with breathlessness and a pleading for quick mercy.

         In our reading from the Psalms, we read such a prayer that may well have been prayed by that nameless student in my high school as he yanked open the text book to study in the few remaining minutes before the test.

11     Do not withhold your mercy from me, O LORD; may your love and your truth always protect me.
12     For troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me.
13     Be pleased, O LORD, to save me; O LORD, come quickly to help me.

         Such a prayer is seen many times in the psalter.  In Psalm 70, the psalmist prays,

1       Hasten, O God, to save me; O LORD, come quickly to help me.
2       May those who seek my life be put to shame and confusion; may all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace.
3       May those who say to me, "Aha! Aha!" turn back because of their shame.
5       Yet I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay.
          This is the kind of prayer that a lot of people pray.

          Last minute prayer.
          Panic-button prayer.

          O God, help me, help me, Aha Aha.

          Most of us probably pray that prayer at some point in our lives.

         Word circulates through the office that someone is going to be fired, and just as you are settling into your desk, the boss calls you into his office.
          O LORD, come quickly to help me.

          You go out to the mail box and instead of greeting cards and letters from old friends, your credit card bill tells you your limit has been reached, the bank has notified you of a bounched check, and your power bill is twice what it usually is.
          O LORD, come quickly to help me.

         The telephone rings, and a policeman informs you there has been an accident.  Your son is being rushed to emergency surgery.
          O LORD, come quickly to help me.
         Some of us live our lives in a state free of any preparation, and some of us carefully and deliberately prepare and plan for every move.  But all of us sometimes pray the prayer that has had no preparation for the crisis of the moment, all of us sometimes pray the gut-wrenching prayer of Psalm 40, Be pleased, O LORD, to save me; O LORD, come quickly to help me.

          Now the interesting thing about this prayer is that this is not the way the psalm begins.  Rather than the anxiety filled, Be pleased, O LORD, to save me; O LORD, come quickly to help me, we find a more sedate, patient prayer of calmness.

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.

         In my high school, there was always one student who never panicked when walking into a classroom to find there was a test that day.  What others would have seen as a crisis of an academic career, this student would have seen as just one more very natural part of the day, nothing to get excited about.

         And for some, this is the approach that is taken in prayer.

         I heard someone tell a story once about a church he'd grown up in.

         Every Wednesday night, this elder, Mr McElroy, would stand and give the prayer.  The man who told me this story says the elder died at age 104. 

         Elder McElroy would stand and pray from his place in the pew and he would grab the pew in front of him, holding on with ancient, leathery hands.  He'd been a farmer most of his life.

         His prayer would always be something like, "Oh Lord, we need rain.  You know that it has not rained since June and we need rain.  We need it bad.  But we wait.  And we trust."

         There was a story that was told at this man's funeral that on the night when Orson Wells gave the broadcast about War of the Worlds, a war that -- during the broadcast --many believed was really happening.  Someone burst into the church while a Prayer service was going on and said, "The Martians have landed! They're invading."

          Strange call to worship!  To which Elder McElroy is said to have replied, "If it is true, then what better place to be than in a house of prayer."

          "I waited patiently for the Lord."

          Your business becomes more and more difficult, you spend more and more time and energy at it, but to no avail. The inevitable can be easily seen.  It may be a day or a month away, but the business cannot last long, and you will have to look for a new job.  But in the midst of this slow growing crisis, there is a gentle patience.  And slowly, things begin to turn around, and hope is restored.
I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.

         For months you feel the overwhelming burden of finances that seem beyond control.  Credit card bills you cannot pay, Utility bills that you cannot reduce, a check book you cannot balance.  But you work, and struggle, and month by month, things get slowly better.
I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.

         You rush to the hospital to find a loved one in the emergency room.  In an unexpected instant, the lifestyle of your family has changed.  Medication and therapy becomes the keystone of your family's daily routine.  As months and years go by, the family stays together in the living through this crisis.  And through it all, the quiet prayer...
I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.

         I find it so interesting that in this one single psalm, you find both extremes of these voices of prayer.  The psalm that begins, I waited patiently for the LORD;   ends with the anxiety filled, "Help me -- come quickly to my aid."

         A few years ago, while serving another congregation, I was approached by a parishioner.  She had 3 sons.  The first was about to enter college and his mother, an elder in my church, came to me to inquire about scholarship possibilities from the Presbyterian Church.  During our discussion, I asked her how much she'd managed to save in preparation for this event, and she said, $250.  Well let's see, in today's world that buys one chemistry book and 16 paper clips.

         Her prayer is found in the end of the Psalm, "Oh God come quickly to my aid."

          I remember visiting with an elder in the hospital.  His body was full of cancer.  I met with him as he was about to be taken into surgery and he said to me, "You know, the doctors tell me that after this surgery, there might not be a John Thompson anymore.  But I told those doctors I was not concerned.  I know the Savior I have served."

          His prayer is found at the opening of this Psalm, "I waited patiently on the Lord."

         There was another time I was in the hospital.  Just passing through, leaving a room, I was on my way to the parking lot and in that particular hospital, the walk would take me by the emergency room and I developed the habit of looking in the ER lobby.  And I noticed a parishioner.

         Her husband had been rushed to the hospital with a heart attack.  They were working on him now.  It was so sudden.  He was so healthy.  We had no idea.  There was a pain in his chest, he fell to the ground.

         Her prayer was not the knarled hands of a farmer like Elder McElroy praying patiently for rain, but the wringing of hands in lonely desperation, Oh God.  Oh God.  Come quickly.  I need you NOW.

         Psalm 40 is a great psalm to present these two voices of prayer and to affirm both as valid prayers.  There are times when we pray, that we pray with a heart full of patience; and there are times when we pray that we pray with a stomach that is churning with fear. 

What matters most is not what kind of voice we have in prayer, but what matters is that voice our prayers.

What matters is that we pray, and that we speak with an honesty to the God who hears either prayer.

         In the heart of Psalm 40, there is a benediction.  A blessing.  
         After the quiet prayer of "I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry;"
         And before the psalmist begins the anxiety filled prayer of  "O LORD, to save me; O LORD, come quickly to help me;"
         Comes this blessing found in verse 4...
Blessed is the one who trusts the LORD.
         This is the voice of God in our prayers.

Your prayer may be lifted up in your most anxiety filled voice, or the voice of patience and calm.  You may speak with the voice of doubt, or in the voice of deep faith.

What matters is that you voice your prayers, and that you listen to the voice of God in this Psalm:
Blessed is the one who trusts the LORD.

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
Copyright 2018. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday - It is OK to Grieve 1 Thessaolonians 4:14-5

1 Thessalonians 4:14-15

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord

My wife texted me the other day while she was at school.  One of her friends wanted to borrow anything we might have about pirates.  Hats, necklaces, toy swords, and such.  I figured someone was having a party, but no, they were planning a funeral.  They wanted everyone to come dressed like pirates.

In the past several years I have seen a growing discomfort with death.

It has always been with us, of course.  Woody Allen once said that he wasn’t afraid of death, he just didn’t want to be there when it happened to him. 

We hesitate to say that someone has “died.”  So instead we began saying things like “passed away.”  Lately we don’t even say that, we say, “he passed.”

Several times people have told me that someone has passed and my first thought, literally and honestly, is to think “Good, what kind of test did he pass?  The Bar Examination?  The Drivers License test?” 

Even the way we speak of funerals has been softened.  We used to gather together when people passed – or died, and have what was called a funeral.  Funerals are often called “celebrations of life.” 

Now on one hand it is good to have to encourage the sharing of good memories and I’m all for laughter at any occasion.  But we are more and more going to the extreme of disguising the purpose of these post-death gatherings.  But more and more this term “celebration of life” has become synonymous with a party, not a worship service. 

I walked into one such Celebration of Life recently and there was a sign at the entrance, “No grieving allowed.”  Below that it said, “This is not a funeral but a celebration and laughter is encouraged.  Anyone shedding tears will be asked to leave.”

But here’s the thing. 

You cannot live your life without death or grief or pain or hardship.
One of the most beautiful arias in opera comes from Pagliacci.  A clown has learned tragic news that hurts him to the core, but he is a clown and cannot allow himself to grieve.  So he sings this song, “Turn your distress and tears into jest, your pain and sobbing into a funny face, Ha!  Laugh clown at your broken love!  Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart!

Each one of us is going to die.  Each one of us will have many, many beloved friends and family members die. 

The secret that most people don’t know about living life, is that death will happen and it is OK to grieve.

Ernest Becker wrote a book back in 1973, The Denial of Death.  It was a profound book that claimed that people are too terrified of death to face it.

American writer William Saroyan said shortly before his own death in 1981, “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.”

In the place of an awareness of death, we nurture what one person has called, “a flippant air of invincibility that only gives a second thought to our mortality for the briefest of seasons when tragedy strikes.” (“Overcoming the Denial of Death” Matt Reagan, July 7, 2012 article in Desiring God).

In the book, Becker asserts, "To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything."

Are we really so naive that we will, like a child playing hide-and-seek, place our hands over our eyes and convince ourselves that death is no longer there? If we want to live, we need to face the reality that everyone of us will die. 

Death is both inevitable and terrifying, and denying it will accomplish nothing but emotional shallowness.

On the other hand, knowing that you will die liberates you.  Accepting that you will die, enhances your life.

          Early in my ministry, in fact it was while I was still in seminary, a professor sent me to the nursing home to visit some shut-ins there.  It was part of a class I was taking on ministry to the elderly.  I got to know one of the shut-ins pretty well.  Mentally, he was pretty alert, and we had a number of conversations.  Finally one day, I asked him, as one 23 year old to someone who was, in my mind, incredibly ancient, “What is it like to be old?”

          It’s the kind of question only a very young person would ask.

          He thought for a minute and said, “I now view everything in life from the point of view of my death.”

          Without thinking, I pitied him and said, “How sad.”

          “Not at all,” said the old man.  “We are all dieing, but for most people, death is a secret.  People hide if from themselves.  But I know the secret.  I know I’m going to die.  And that helps me to treasure life, and to enjoy it.  Even here in a nursing home.”

          I have remembered that man’s words for a long time now.  And I think he’s onto something.  There is something very liberating about knowing that we are all dieing.

          Garrison Keeler is a radio personality who is heard each week on Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion.  He’s a story teller and in one recent show he told this story.

          A man was tilling manure into a field in the Spring, using a tractor and a disc plow. 

It was a long field.  The tractor was moving at five miles an hour, and the man was bored.  It was a warm day and the man wished he could be anything other than a farmer.  He was tired of working for his father.  Out of sheer boredom, he dozed off and started to fall backwards off the tractor seat. 

He woke up falling and, because the tractor was an old model with the throttle lever that was notched into place, the tractor just kept moving.  The man fell in between the tractor and the discs and, as he hit the ground, he grabbed on to the tow bar.  He hauled himself up as far as he could, but he couldn’t pull himself all the way up.  He just hung onto the tow bar with both hands as the steel discs were moving behind him.

His body was literally being dragged through the dirt and the manure.  He held on as tightly as he could because, if he lost his grip, he would have been cut in two by the moving discs. 

He was just about to lose his grip.  He didn’t even have enough strength to cry out or to weep – he just kept hanging on. 

The tractor kept moving, ever so slowly, until it came to the end of the field.  It began moving up the incline of a hill, and then into the woods. 

Finally it hit a tree and stopped, although the wheels kept spinning. 

It took him about ten minutes before he could stand on his two feet, climb up into the seat, and turn off the engine.

That man lost his life and got it back again. 

As Garrison Keeler told this story, he made the observation that he would think that after an experience like that you would have the feeling of absolute freedom and liberty.  All the weight would be gone. You would feel the sort of liberty that you read about in the Epistles when a person has died and has been reborn.

The sunsets are lovelier.

The friendships are richer.

Life is savored more deeply.

The gift of Ash Wednesday is that we come forward and have ashes placed on our head, and as each person stands before the pastor he or she hears the words, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”
All of us are on a journey toward death.

Death is hard, it is not easy.  Denying its reality does not make it easier.  Grief his difficult, and you cannot rush it. 

I mentioned a few moments ago that I once went to one of those funerals that was billed as “A Celebration of Life.”  At the entrance was a sign that read, “No grieving allowed.”

But it is fine to grieve.  Jesus, himself, attended the funeral of his friend Lazarus, and even though he knew that he was about to bring Lazarus from the dead, he cried.  It is the shortest verse of the Bible: “Jesus wept.”

But allowing grief and acknowledging sadness and pain is not the same as giving up hope.

St. Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.

Later, when death was no longer an abstract of some distant future, but close at hand, Paul wrote the Philippians while in prison, saying, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.

Having hope is not the same as being in denial.  Having hope is what Christians do in the face of reality.

It is fine for us to fear death – that is a human thing for us to do.

It is fine for us to grieve – to lose someone dear to us is not something that should be painless. 

But in the midst of our fear and in the struggle with our tears, “What shall we say about these things?  If God is for us, who is against us?”  That question was asked by Paul in the New Testament book of Romans, and in that question he continued to ask questions, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”

“… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.