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Revealed in Prayer

Revealed in Prayer

Ephesians 3:14-21

Epworth United Methodist Church; October 23, 2016

Ron Parker

I saw a bumper sticker. It said, "Don't believe everything you think."

Every sermon should start off with a scripture and a bumper sticker.

Don't believe everything you think.

Good advice for the election season.

And then from our scripture for the day:

"God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams—more than you could ask or think! The Spirit does it not by pushing us around but by working within us—deeply and gently within us."

Let me read that again. (Bumper stickers are designed to be comprehended in one reading on a busy freeway. Scriptures always have to be read more than once.)

"God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams—more than you could ask or think! The Spirit does it not by pushing us around but by working within us—deeply and gently within us."

"...more than we can ask or think...working deeply and gently within us."

More than we can ask or think.

As a congregation we are blessed with having more than our fair share of thinking power. If you take the aggregate average of years of higher education in this room and compare it to all the congregations worshipping across the country this morning, I'd be willing to bet that we're in the top one percent.

Didn't know you were part of the one percent, did you?

We are really good thinkers. That's a good thing. But one thing I learned in my four years as an undergraduate and my ten-plus years of graduate school, including a Ph.D. in philosophy, was that thinking has it's limits. Logic can only take you so far.

Sometime after the super-rational exercise of writing my dissertation, it began to dawn upon me that real innovation, truly creative thoughts, and certainly heroic deeds come from somewhere beyond our thinking.

This insight most likely came to me late on a Saturday night when I was working on my sermon and I couldn't think of anything to say. It was only after I gave up thinking that words and images began to flow and a sermon began to take shape. At first it was desperation, but later I learned to trust it.

When Clark found out that he was to be the liturgist on the day that I was preaching, he emailed me to ask if there was anything special I wanted from him. I emailed back saying that he should be prepared so that if at any time during the sermon I turned to him and said "OK Clark, take it," he could step in and finish the sermon."

Now Clark and I have been working together for a long time and I think that that collaboration has created some really interesting things, but what we really need to do if I run out of sermons or Clark runs out of art is to say, "OK God, take it;" although it's best if we don't wait until Sunday morning to do that.

There's a story that old preachers tell about a young preacher named Bill who came to church on Sunday morning without having prepared a sermon. When the time came for the sermon, he stepped into the pulpit, bowed his head and prayed, "Dear God, give me a message." Almost immediately he heard a clear voice say, "Next time be prepared, Bill."

Prayer and preparation—prayer and thinking—go hand in hand. Today we’re considering prayer.

Of course, if you’ve been paying attention, you know that we’re talking about prayer in the context of our capital campaign.

What's prayer got to do with it? It's about money isn't it? Spreadsheets and budgets, thinking hard about what we can afford, what's a fair share, and how that fits in with what other people are likely to give.

What prayer has to do with it is finding the true dimensions of your spirit, finding the height, depth, breadth and length of your possibilities.

Here are some words from Jack Kornfield,

“The spiritual path asks not a dismissal of the creative capacity of our mind to inquire, question, and analyze but an opening to another way of seeing that is not bound by the limitations of conditioning and second-hand information.” (Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield, Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart, p. 248)

Thinking and analysis are about drawing boundaries around things. Prayer is about breaking down those walls.

When we apply this to something like the capital campaign, thinking draws the line at how much we can give, prayer crosses the line.

What we can afford is a rational economic category. What we can give is a spiritual category.

I’ve recently been reading a bit about theoretical physics. About three hundred and fifty years ago Isaac Newton developed his laws of motion that pretty much set off the Scientific Revolution and determined how we thought about the scientific worldview until fairly recently. We settled into the idea that empirical investigation and human reason could pretty much nail everything down.

What was completely forgotten was the in the middle part of his life Newton was determined to find a way to include God in his theories. The problem was that the Church was freaked out by this project and basically told him to stick to science. So he spent the last part of his life editing the theology out of all his major writings. Science became the seeking out of things we could know for certain.

But in the early part of the twentieth century, that certainty began to crumble. Physicists began to say that there were things at the sub-atomic level that didn’t follow the rules of human reason. Physicists began to sound like mystics. Gradually the other so-called hard sciences began to follow suit.

Just a little later, the scientists who study human behavior began to realize that there was more to motivation and cognition than meets the eye.

Which brings me to economics. Now given that there is a good chance that there may be a couple of UC Berkeley economists in the congregation, I may be getting on shaky ground here, so let me get to my point.

Personal finance.

What about our personal budgets? Is that simply a rational matter? What I've discovered after extensive research based on a pool of one subject is, it depends. Do I use the same process to decide whether I can afford the latest iPhone that I use to decide how much I can give to the capital campaign? If you're like me, you're likely to decide what you want to do and come up with the rational justification after.

Let's consider another method--prayer.

I'd be willing to bet that in this room this morning, there are as many ideas about what prayer has to do with our capital campaign, as there are people. In fact, there are probably an equal number of ideas about what prayer actually is.

You might think of prayer as it is presented in the materials from our capital campaign consultant: simply asking, "God, what do you want to do through me?" What would it mean to listen for the answer to that question?

You might think like Mary Oliver, when she says:

Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me. Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to. What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude. Such interest nourishes me beyond the finest compendium of facts. In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose.

(Mary Oliver, Upstream: Selected Essays, "Winter Hours")

What happens when whatever you call prayer leads you to look past reason, past the provable to unproven but vivid intuitions?

Sometimes prayer comes upon you unasked for. Annie Dillard speaks of a moment of revelation while staring into a creek:

“Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin.” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 34.

Have you been broken open and found yourself in a new wineskin?

One of the hardest things about praying is getting everything else out of the way. We are so full of plans and regrets and fears and ideas that hearing an answer to prayer or letting prayer take us beyond thinking is almost impossible.

Here's something I learned from a Tibetan teacher Ruth and I've known for about 20 years. In order for your mind to be clear of thinking or, in his words, "pristine" he says:

"Don't think about the past. Don't think about the future. Just rest in the present. And leave your mind alone." (Orgyen Chowang, Our Pristine Mind: A Practical Guide to Unconditional Happiness, p. 93 ff.)

I think of this as putting myself in the place of prayer.

Or from the Sufi poet, Rumi:

Seek the wisdom that will untie your knot.

Seek the path that will demand your whole being.

Leave that which is not, but appears to be.

Seek that which is, but is not apparent.

However it is that we pray, the most important thing is that we create a space where we are open to guidance from beyond the narrow circle of our thinking.

That’s what Paul means when he says: “…more than you could ask or think.”

So before you get too caught up in your thinking about your contribution to the capital campaign, I want to ask you to pray about it. Not just once, but for several days in a row.

Be prepared for the possibility that it will lead you to “…more than you could ask or think.”

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