Prayer’s two questions

Be anxious about nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7

I memorized this scripture and others at the suggestion of my middle school youth director.  Walking up Springhill, down Longview, around Sheridan Drive on my paper route, I carried a little clear plastic pouch with the verse citation on one side and the words on the other. I paused under a porch light to check my recitation. Philippians 4:6 has stuck with me for 40 years. When I am anxious, the verse reminds me that I can bring everything to God. Nothing is off limits. Bring your fears, worries, cursing, doubts, shouts, lusts,and anger. Pray about everything. God “Knows what we need before we ask!. (Matthew 6)  God loves us! The Crucified One comes whispering, “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24)

What do you think that Jesus prayed about in the Garden of Gethsemane and the Wilderness?  Did Jesus seek peace, courage, or missional clarity? (Matthew 4 & 26) The Wilderness and Garden prayers seem to be about: What to do? Who will Jesus be?  Do you turn stones into bread to feed yourself or multiply a child’s lunch to feed a crowd?  Do you sit on the devil’s throne of pleasure, privilege and power?  Do you lead an armed rebellion with Judas or non-violently take up the cross? Not my will, but Your will be done?”   To pray, “Not My will” means we have spent some time clarifying who we want to be! 

Spiritual grown ups are not always asking God to do things. Mature Christians begin to ask: What can I do to build God’s kin-dom? Not my will, but Your will be done? Honest prayer wrestles with two questions: what do I want and what is the Will of God? Some think prayer is an otherworldly escape. It is not. Prayer makes us aware of the moment we are in: What is at stake? Who will I be? What do I want? What is God’s will? Will I use my power to serve myself or my neighbor? Will I ride into Jerusalem on a Warhorse with swords or on a colt with palm fronds?  Who will I be?  Will l be gentle, joyful, true, holy, just, pure, loving, excellent and honorable?  Prayer brings us into contact with God and ourselves.   

Expectations about family leave us with the deepest wounds. I once let  my wounds fester too long. One Monday, the Lectionary text confronted me.  “Forgive and you will be forgiven”.  Jesus’ red letters flashed like caution lights across my soul. What did I want? I could be phony, avoiding my disquiet by preaching the Psalm! I could linger over revenge, but what good would their pain bring me?  How could another person’s suffering bring peace, joy or release to my soul? Could I ask God to violate human freewill and force them into a confession? What did I want? What was the will of God? “Forgive and you will be…” I talked to Connie and prayed with a pastor colleague. I decided I did not want to live in unforgiveness. I wrote asking the offenders to forgive me. And by my sixth edit, Connie had banished most of my hidden accusations! I dropped my apology in the mailbox as I drove to church. Peace came after several letters and conversations, and my adoption of new boundaries and expectations.  I am not living with the burden of unforgiveness. Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good, lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great.” (Luke 6). The  reward might be the blessing of being a peace-maker. Systems theory might explain some of that newfound peace, but how wonderful to stop reheating the bitter flavors of our past woundedness.  Prayers, Scripture, and my spiritual partners helped me see new ways of being me. I want to be gentle, joyful, true, holy, just, pure, peaceful, lovely, excellent, and worthy of praise.

We may find God’s Will by asking: What is excellent, gentle, joyful, true, holy, just, pure, peace- giving,  loving, and admirable?”  Our striving for such attributes brings us a sense of peace. Because we are made in the image of God, our souls long to be gentle, joyful, true, holy, just, pure, peaceful, lovely, and excellent.  When we live outside of Our Designer’s Beatitudes, we feel a soul level dissonance. If we do not forgive, unforgiveness haunts us. If we curse others, blessings escape us. If we live for material goods, these possessions possess us. If we judge others, we replace God as the Judge, and trade the law for God’s mercy and grace.  Prayer realigns us. It reminds us: who we are created to be! Our seeking to align our living with God’s Nature and Will lets us taste freedom and peace. I can’t make you love me, forgive me, or help me. I can only control myself. That is enough. I can’t fix America but there is peace and release in knowing I have loved my neighbor, practiced forgiveness, made peace and stood up for justice!  

Laying my desires next to Christ’s attributes brings us a clarifying peace. However, knowing the will of God is not so simple. How do we know when to flip over the temple tables or peacefully pray? How do we ignore Biblical bans on pork or demands to kill Sabbath-breakers? At my first church on Easter Sunday, a middle aged guest wept throughout my Easter sermon. In middle school she felt called into ministry but before that Sunday had never heard a preacher tell how Jesus ordained Magdalene, Mary, Sussana, and Joanna! In our passage, the Apostle Paul affirms female leadership calling Euodia and Syntyche, trusted co-workers in ministry. Too often, we must unlearn the bad theology we grew up with before we can truly know the will of God for our lives. Ask our queer Christian friends how bad theology has done harm to them. Oh dear Queer friends, you are beloved and accepted by God just as I am. Paul, a Biblical innovator, calls us to think. Prayer is a kind of focused thinking.  You can’t pray without thinking. Paul encourages us to think about things that are  gentle, joyful, admirable, excellent, true, holy, just, pure, lovely, and worthy of praise. Leaving my childhood literalism was the hardest spiritual journey of my life. I feared Hell, but I could no longer accept an authoritative reading of Psalm 137, Numbers 15:35, 1 Corinthians 14:34, 1 Timothy 2:14, or Titus 2:9. No one can. What did I want? Ignore those passages? I decided to think, so I wrestled with the Bible and my understanding of inspiration. I now understand not only “that the letter kills, but (more significantly I discovered) that the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6)

So how can we uncover the Will of God after we let go of proof-texted or wooden interpretations of Scripture? The Greatest Commandment is a good test as is Paul’s guidance to the Philippians. What is helpful, gentle, joyful, admirable, excellent, true, holy, just, pure, peaceful, lovely, and worthy of praise? Our passage is not a simplistic magic formula.  It is longer than an incantation (pray and know peace)! It is a life-style prescription.

  1. My brothers, sisters (siblings) whom I love, loved ones, my joy and crown. Community!
  2. Stand firm in the Lord.  Stamina
  3. Help each other in the struggle.  Community
  4. Be gentle in your treatment of all people. Deeds! 
  5. Keep in mind that the Lord is near
  6. When you feel anxious about anything, take it to God in prayer. Paul speaks of three parts of prayer: “prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving”.
    1. Asking: What do we want and what is the will of God? How could we ask God to do something outside of God’s goodness, mercy, justice and love? 
    2. Pray the great prayers of the church. Matthew and Mark tell us Jesus prayed Psalm 22 on the cross. Luke mentions part of Psalm 31. Imagine Jesus strengthened by these ancient prayers as he struggled on the cross. How often has Psalm 23 or a prayer from our bulletin upheld you reminding us who God is and what God is calling us to be or do?  Spiritual grown ups are not always asking God to do something, they are offering to help! 
    3. And with thanksgiving (that word in Greek is eucharist). 

And that wrestling, thoughtful, self-awareness brings a deep peace that exceeds our understanding. It guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

  1. Think about things that are excellent and admirable. Focus your thoughts on things that are true, holy, just, pure, lovely, and worthy of praise. 
  2. Practice what you have heard in scripture, received in tradition, learned with reason, and experienced in the community of Christ-like people. Practice what is gentle, joyful, true, holy, just, pure, peace-giving, lovely, excellent and worthy of praise.

I have wrestled with three long seasons of Physical Therapy. I have 3 screws in my shoulder and an artificial hip. In each of the seasons of therapy, I hit a point when the pain was gone. However, I wanted to lift my arm up past my head. That stretching hurt, but I wanted to swim again.  Connie Purdue, physical therapist, says that physical therapy can not work in one session. “A person does not unlearn 40 years of improper lifting, twisting, and bending in one session. They will need to change the way they move for the rest of their life; you do not learn that in a day. Deep retraining will not happen in a few sessions.” 

A life of prayer realigns our living around the will of God.  It lays our  desires against God’s Will asking: Beloved, do you want to be gentle, joyful, honorable, excellent, true, holy, just, pure, peace-giving, lovely, and worthy of praise?  God created us to be helpful, gentle, joyful, admirable, excellent, true, holy, just, pure, peace-giving, lovely, and worthy of praise! May this prayerful striving become the pattern of living!  Amen. 

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