Into the Presence of Jesus
“Are You there God? It’s me, Margaret.”
How many of you have read it?
It is a junior novel over 50 years old and just was released this summer as a motion picture. Margaret is a twelve year old who has been uprooted from her childhood home in NYC and moved to the suburbs in New Jersey. She has a Jewish father and a Christian mother, but neither are religious and they have decided intentionally not to force any religious identity on Margaret but let her choose how she relates to religion when she is an adult.
The book explores her early adolescence experience, puberty, awareness of self and others, and her own spiritual development. Margaret has her own very special relationship with God. She can talk to God about everything—family, friends, even Moose Freed, her secret crush. It’s a beautiful picture of innocent prayer, unencumbered by religious conventions and expectations. She asks a question repeatedly that if I am honest, I often ask, too, not necessarily consciously, but deep in my soul: “Are you there God? It’s me, Marcy”
What a loaded word! If I said we were going to go around the room today and get everyone to share about your prayer life, chances are you would suddenly get very uncomfortable, perhaps even have a coughing fit and have to leave. Why, when we are taught that prayer is central to our faith, are we often so uncomfortable talking about our experiences with prayer?
On the one hand, parts of scripture encourage us to be very private in our prayers and not to puff ourselves up in front of others with our prayers. On the other hand, prayer is a central part of worship in our faith journey as individuals and as community. Prayer is our communication with God. It gives language to our relationship. It acknowledges that we are not alone. Prayer is love in action.
So why are we uncomfortable talking about our personal struggles and joys with prayer?
I think it is because we have more questions than answers. To share our questions and struggles with prayer makes us feel inadequate, less than. If I am a person of faith, then I should be very good at this prayer thing. Very few of us are what we consider to be prayer gurus. Sometimes we feel inadequate to pray, perhaps unworthy. Maybe we have feelings of anxiety or apathy. Sometimes we wonder if our little prayers make any difference or bring about any change.
Many of us have things we have prayed for that seem to get no answers. We struggle in a society where we can get things we want at a push of a button and a credit card transaction to grapple with prayer that doesn’t work that way. Our phones somehow hear us talking and offer us ads for what we want. But God is not Amazon or a vending machine. We struggle because our Heavenly Father hears what we think we need, but we don’t get what we want.
Sometimes, our prayers actually voice our own need to control. We tell God what we want and when that doesn’t happen, we allow our relationship with God to suffer because we feel abandoned or at least unheard. And what do we do with the prayers of a town for rain that are answered generously but result in deadly flash flooding in the town just downstream?
But then there are times when prayer takes our breath away—when we sense God’s presence in ways we can hardly express in words. I often feel that when I see a beautiful sunrise or hear the thunder roll across the mountains. I just want to give God applause.
How do we react when someone we have prayed for is indeed healed or given extended life beyond what medical professionals thought possible. We all know stories in people’s lives where they know that prayer has made a difference. We can all testify to God’s work in our own lives that defies all explanations other than answered prayer.
Prayer is a mystery. How does the God who created the universe know me and hear me? In our finite existence, it doesn’t make sense. Our prayers are affected by who we are, what we do, where we live, what our perspectives are, and how we feel. Yet in our faith that God loves us with an eternal love beyond our comprehension, prayer is a precious gift that connects us to our Creator.
Today, you will not leave here with all or even a few answers to questions about prayer that you may have asked. We ain’t got time for that! In fact, you may leave with more questions than you were willing to admit you have. And that’s okay. Our faith journey is about learning along the way, not being afraid to explore and question and doubt and wrestle and experiment and grow as we walk humbly with God.
Our theme for the day is Prayer Lifting. It is set in the context of a healthy practice of a Gospel Church. Think about what we have sung today. They are hymns of prayer. Their words have echoes of the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms. We give harmonious voice together of God’s holiness, love, mercy, and power. We commit to God as we sing to put into actions what Jesus taught us. We pray to participate in God’s kingdom. Through the church gathered for worship, whether in person or online, we actively participate in prayer as the body of Christ. Reggie’s song reminds us of our significance to God and reassures us of God’s presence in our lives. We do this together as a church in this place and time.
I want us to look together at this scripture passage Suzanne read for us in Mark 2:1-12.
If you took a look at it before we gathered since it was in the newsletter or as you listened to it, you perhaps are wondering, “what does this passage have to do with prayer?” The word prayer isn’t even in it. I want us to look at it more closely and see what we can glean from it regarding one form of prayer, one we practice a lot as the gathered church, intercessory prayer, prayer on behalf of others.
Let’s set the scene: Jesus is preaching in his home state. His reputation is drawing quite the crowd. We are only in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Mark and people already can’t get in the door to hear him. Some men come bringing a friend, a paralytic, to Jesus. He is being carried by four of them on some sort of mat or blanket or stretcher. When they arrive, they find that they cannot get into the house to approach Jesus. Surely, they have to be frustrated. They probably try to squeeze into the house. You can just imagine them jumping up and down to try to catch a glimpse of Jesus, to get his attention. They have made a tremendous effort to get their friend there, and an encounter with Jesus sadly seems unlikely.
Well, one of them probably uttered the words, “Watch this!” They access the roof and begin tearing it off above Jesus. The Greek literally says: “They unroofed the roof.” We can only imagine what that must have looked like to the crowd and especially the homeowner. They then lower the paralyzed man on his mat down in front of Jesus. The scripture tells us then, “When Jesus saw THEIR faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ “
It appears that the man is not healed at that point but Jesus’ proclamation ushers in a theological debate on whether he has the authority to forgive sins. For our purpose, we will not land there. Instead, let’s skip to verse 11. Jesus tells the man, “Get up, take your mat, go home.” And he does.
So, what do we notice here?
First, the man had no power to come to Jesus on his own. He was dependent on others to bring him before Jesus. Have you ever had that experience? Whatever situation you are in, you have no words to express in prayer. Sometimes we are numb. We have no faith to voice for ourselves. We find strength is the faith of others.
I have a friend whose infant was facing cranial surgery. She shared that while her little one was having surgery, she did not have the words to say anything to God, but what carried her through was knowing that others were praying for them.
What roles do the friends play? They are not able to heal their friend. They can care for him and carry him, but they recognize their own limitations. For his healing, they have to trust God.
In prayer and in ministry, we cannot heal or fix. We have to recognize our limitations. We must, in submission, leave the ultimate healing to Jesus. It is interesting that Jesus’ first response to the man is that his sins are forgiven. It is in Jesus’ second response that He heals the man’s paralysis so he can walk.
However, the friends are not passive, and they work together. They go out of their way to transport their friend. They unroof the roof. They persevere out of love.
Love is the true content of their efforts. Love is the true content of our prayers. We pray with others out of love for those we love. The friends faced obstacles. Between a crowd, a roof, and religious critics, they could have just taken the man back home in the same condition in which they brought him. But they didn’t. Jesus says THEIR faith is the impetus for the man’s healing. Their willingness to overcome the obstacles in the way give testimony to the faith they have in Jesus.
Here, we have a picture of intercessory prayer. The men could literally bring their friend before Jesus, but we cannot. We have to do so through prayer.
I want to lead you through a prayer exercise based on this story. I am indebted to a spiritual formations study entitled Companions in Christ for this exercise. It has been helpful to me in prayer lifting, and I hope it might give you a way to envision intercessory prayer that will be helpful to you and to our church.
I want you to trust me here as I guide you through prayer.
Know that God is with us. As we share in this exercise, trust God to lead you. There is no right or wrong way. Just let the experience take you where you feel led to go. We will have a few periods of silence as we journey together.
Let’s pause for silence as we begin.
Imagine yourself as one of four holding a corner of a stretcher. Take note of who God places on the stretcher for you to help carry. Who is God calling you to help care for, to carry into God’s presence in love?
Imagine carrying this person toward Jesus. What obstructions are present? In what ways are you frustrated in your efforts to care for this person? Who or what gets in the way?
Now imagine yourself persevering in your intent to care for this person, this friend as you bring this person to Jesus. Dig through the layers of the roof that separate your friend and you from Jesus. What are the layers?
Lower your friend into the presence of Jesus. Watch and see how Jesus receives your friend, what Jesus does and what he says. Imagine your friend being made whole through God’s love.
Release your friend to God’s care. Give thanks to God and return to your home. Amen.
I hope you will take some time later to reflect on this experience by yourself or with someone else. I know for many of you it is different than how you might normally pray, but I hope it gives you a taste of expanding ways we pray beyond words.
Friends I have done this exercise with previously now will call and say, “I need to be on your stretcher.” It is a way to pray for people or even our church or situations by bringing them into God’s presence and trusting God to do the hard work. It doesn’t involve telling God what to do but giving them to God in love and hope. You might discover obstacles or challenges that you in real life might be able to help address—perhaps an encouragement, a visit, a meal, a ride to the doctor, a listening ear, an opportunity to be an ally—you get the idea. We may not see ourselves as the greatest prayers in the world, but we can certainly hold people and things in our hearts and minds before Jesus, who intercedes for us. That is a precious gift and awe-inspiring connection to our God.
One of my seminary teachers, Bill Leonard, reminds us of why prayer lifting is so important. The quote is printed on the front of the bulletin:
“At its best, the church, the communion of saints, prays with us and for us, especially in times of present darkness, when we cannot pray ourselves. For sometimes life is so terrible that prayers won’t come, and we must hold on to the prayers that others can still offer. Some Sundays I can’t even utter the Lord’s Prayer, but the gathered church does it for me. Sometimes that’s all I’ve got; and it is enough.”
My prayer for you is that when you utter the words, “Are you there God, it’s me, _____?” that you will sense God’s presence in small or profound ways. And when you are in a dark place and struggling and wondering where God is, I pray you will lean on us, your brothers and sisters in Christ, to hold you tenderly before God and to let our faith give you strength and encouragement. We are stretcher bearers for each other—that’s what we call prayer lifting.