Monthly Archives

July 2019

How To Pray

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“How To Pray”

Denise Parr

July 28, 2019

 

Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

 

A minister and a cab driver died at exactly the same time but in two different places.  The two happened to appear at the pearly gates of heaven together.  It was the minister who first knocked on the door hoping to gain quick entrance.  St. Peter greeted him, and immediately told him that it would be a brief wait before the minister could get in to present his case before the Lord.  Next, the cab driver pounded on the door of the gates.  St. Peter answered, opened the door and immediately let the driver into heaven.  When the waiting minister saw what had happened he became furious.  He protested to St. Peter, “I should have gotten into heaven right away.  I have faithfully preached the gospel for over forty years.  What has that cab driver done?”  St. Peter answered him calmly, “I know about your preaching.  It has put everyone to sleep for forty years.  But everyone who has ever ridden in a cab driven by that man has always ended up praying!”

A man in great distress called his minister to get directions on how to pray.  It was a simple request yet such a profound one.  How do you teach someone to speak to God?  How can you prepare one’s ears to listen to the divine?  What do we do when we pray?  What are we supposed to ask for?  What do we say?  As they talked, the minister was very theological in her responses when all the man wanted was practical advice.  He wanted to learn the way to do it, the step-by-step process he needed to follow, so God would listen to his prayer.  This situation reminds me of the questions raised by a child captured in a children’s book on prayer.  The child asked of God, “Dear God, when is the best time I can talk with you?  I know that you are always listening, but when will you be listening especially hard in Ann Arbor, Michigan.”

In the White House, there is a permanent position for someone in protocol.  There is someone on the staff who decides such important things as who sits next to whom during state dinners.  This person decides how envelopes to dignitaries in foreign capitals should be addressed.   This person decides what kind of requests certain people in certain positions can respond to.  It is an important job, because through such proper channels the course of international relations can be changed.  I have a sense that we are all looking for that kind of protocol expert when it comes to prayer.  We would like to find a way, a style, a manner; just the right words so that we reach the correct source.

Unfortunately, prayer isn’t something that seems to come to most of us naturally.  We don’t think of prayer as an untutored outburst from the heart.  We want to be taught how to pray so we may do it right and feel good about doing it.

For some, prayer today has become little more than auto-suggestion or self-therapy.  In this view, prayer is mainly of value in helping us get our own heads straight about what we ought to want and what we ought to do.  Prayer is a time for quiet meditation so that we might enter more deeply into our own egos.  Many such prayers are addressed to the self, rather than to God.  God really doesn’t matter because the one who prays is really talking to him or her self.

For others, prayer is a magic formula through which one hopes to entice an apathetic God to act in a way that pleases us.  Someone once said, “What men usually ask of God when they pray is that two and two not make four.”  Some feel that prayer is the request for a quick fix.  It is natural, in a world where we get most of what we want with push-button speed, that we should assume that prayer is a technique for getting what we want.  We know that God is good and generous in many ways.  So we assume that God will do all that our hearts desire in the time frame in which we are seeking.

I am reminded of Huckleberry Finn’s monologue on prayer when he said, “Miss Watson, she took me in the closet and prayed but nothing happened.  She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get.  But it warn’t so…I set down one time back in the woods and had a long think about it.  I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork?  Why can’t the widow get back her silver snuffbox that was stole?… No, I says to myself, there ain’t noting in it!”

We might find ourselves agreeing with old Huck when we discover that prayer doesn’t change things.  It doesn’t give us what we want.  We can’t find God anywhere around when we pray.  All of which brings us back to the plea of the disciples in our Scripture lesson, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Jesus taught his disciples to pray by giving them a model prayer, the words we know as the Lord’s Prayer.  Clearly prayer was a vital part of Jesus’ ministry.  More than any other gospels, Luke’s account of Jesus’ life recalls a regular practice of prayer.  Here in these brief verses that were read for us this morning, Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer by his very example.

I don’t want to go into detail of each and every part of that prayer this morning.  I did that in a sermon I gave several years back.  But, some preachers have given a six or eight sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer.  Instead, I would like for us to consider the importance of some characteristics of prayer found in the words we repeat every Sunday.

First there is the simple but profound address of “Father.”  Jesus approaches God directly, simply, confidently, and affectionately.  “Hallowed be thy name,” is a stirring identification of God in the moment.  “May your Kingdom come,” is also a cry for God to act in that time.  The petition for daily bread is recognition that our lives are sustained by God’s everyday provision.  The call for forgiveness of our sins is a remembrance of God’s ability to forgive human sin.  There is also a statement that people who cannot or who will not forgive sin cannot experience God’s liberating forgiveness.  Finally, the petition concerning temptations recognizes that the present experience of grace is not a guarantee that life will be without difficulties in the future.  God alone, not we ourselves, has the power to direct us away from temptation into a life that God intends.

What does this mean for all of us who seek to learn how to pray?  I find it enlightening that Jesus did not teach by expounding some complicated series of lessons or outlines.  He did not produce a book entitled, “DIY Prayer.”  He did not recommend advanced study or an out-of-town seminar.  Rather he taught others to pray by praying himself.  He taught by praying like a family conversation, perhaps around a dinner table, praying in a manner where you express yourself with the confidence that you will be heard and understood.

He taught by using prayer as a way to get in touch with God.  Prayer is not a way to reach your inner self or a way to get what you want.  It is a way of opening up yourself to new possibilities that are provided by your loving Creator.  Yes, prayer is voicing your desire, but it is more placing your desires next to God’s desires.

He taught by using prayer as an acknowledgement of God’s righteousness, as a recognition of God as one who provides for daily needs, as a confession of our wrongs and our failures to live up to our God-given potential, and as a plea for God to bring to us wisdom, courage, and vision in our future challenges.  Jesus taught that through prayer, we become closer to the God who is already close to us.

How do we pray?  That is an appropriate question.  However when we ask it we must also recognize that each of us has this tendency to solidify anything we are taught into rules.  So it is with prayer.  Jesus’ example of the Lord’s Prayer was not supposed to teach us practical ways to answer the question of how to pray.  Jesus taught that lessons in prayer are not about content, words, technique, time of day, or even disposition.   Instead, his example of prayer teaches us an attitude of the heart.  Prayer is the confident expression of ourselves to God and the seeking of God’s desire for our life and our world.

How do we pray?  In his book Simply Sane: The Spirituality of Mental Health, Gerald May offers some simple advice.  He says:  “If you pray, pray.  Do your best, accept the whole situation, and watch with awe.  If you don’t pray, do your best, accept the whole situation and watch with awe.  If you can’t pray, do your best, accept the whole situation, watch with awe, and be still and listen.  We will understand, with a little smile, that prayer is happening in spite of us, no matter what.”

 

Think on These Things

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Think on These Things”

Laura Ritter

July 21, 2019

 

Philippians 4:4-9

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, 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 your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

I am going to start this morning by referencing how I used God’s word to write today’s message. Art, professional minister, and seminary trained, tells me that I find scripture to support what I want to say.  I suppose that is true. I love the word of God and I read it and apply it to how it makes sense for me in today’s day and age.  Art shared with me over the years that it is important to take into consideration who wrote those words and what the history was behind the author’s account of the facts.  I did not write about Paul speaking to the people of Philippi. Instead, I share personally, Philippians Chapter 4:4-9. It is powerful scripture that I committed to memory many years ago because it gives me peace of mind and self-assurance.

Vs. 8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.

As a registered dietitian, I am of the belief that you are what you eat…or you become what you eat.  Likewise, you are what you think…or your thoughts, attitudes, and actions become the byproduct of what you think. And that what you think is what expands.  Consider how much better you feel around people that are open, positive, uplifting, seeing the bright side of things. These people energize you, build you up and leave you better than what you were before they entered your space.  Now think of an individual that is usually negative, glass is always ½ empty, the worst case scenario is always anticipated, they complain and their presence leaves you drained and exhausted!  That which you spend your time thinking and internalizing is what you become.

Throughout my life as a young adult and up until now, I have had jobs requiring a lot of driving. I mean, I have covered some miles!  My job in UT was most of UT and ID up to Boise.  I would use the drive time to listen to self-help books, motivational books, and the like.  Some of those books were: Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Failing Forward by John Maxwell, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman…just to name a few.  It kept me positive and always forward thinking.  It was enjoyable because I would have never allowed myself the time to read all those books or listen to the tapes if I had not been driving. Some of the books or excerpts I read were from my very favorite motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar! Some of his famous quotes:” Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.  You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great. Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem…   Dreams don’t work unless you do.  Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right. People often say that motivation doesn’t last.  Well, neither does bathing…that’s why we recommend it daily.”  Zig Ziglar became one of the most renowned figures in the science of human potential. His works and the works of many were like life mentors for me.  And the information was good, wholesome, and strong value based.

Several years ago, Lisa Barry shared a book with me that changed my life. It is called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It is another book that falls into the Personal Growth/Self Help category.  This author was a medical doctor who later dedicated his life to the spiritual knowledge and practice of Toltec Wisdom… a culture of ancient southern Mexico.

The Four Agreements are a guide to practicing mindfulness and experiencing personal growth and self-awareness. 

The First Agreement is:   Be Impeccable With Your Word

Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.  This agreement reminds me that we should not beat ourselves up! Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or others. Trying not to gossip of speak ill of others is good common sense. However, think about how many times you may have made a mistake or did something goofy and you self-criticize.  Don’t let that negative communication about yourself get planted in your brain. A mistake, wrong decision, failure is an event…not a person. Remember, whatever is true, whatever is right, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure…think on these things.

 

The Second Agreement is:    Don’t Take Anything Personally

Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own thoughts. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering. This one is hard! You have to put on your tough exterior.  In other words, don’t let people live rent-free in your head.  When I experience someone challenging my self-worth and whole being, I think of the words of author, Wayne Dyer.  “Let them take your moment.  Don’t let them take your day!”   And definitely don’t let their negative comments define you in any way. Wise words from Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  Remember in Philippians, if anything is worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.

 

The Third Agreement is:   Don’t Make Assumptions

Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.  With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.  This is HUGE!  Think about how easily we jump to conclusions, form quick opinions, judge by first impressions.  Wayne Dyer shared a story about a man on a bus or subway. The man was in a daze, staring off and clearly not engaged in the immediate surroundings.  Another passenger breaks the concentration and says, “Excuse me sir, could you control your kids.  They are running the aisles and disrupting so many other passengers.”  The man looked up and appeared to enter the moment, after mentally being elsewhere. The man replied, “Oh, I am so sorry.  You see, their mother just died and I don’t know how I am going to tell them.”  Whoa.  Without that clarification, the passenger could only assume this man was irresponsible and ignoring his wild acting kids.  Now that the situation is better understood, the passenger can offer empathy and condolence. We don’t know what others are going through. What if we had to walk in their shoes?  Have you even been quick to judge and your first impression had it all wrong?

 

The Fourth Agreement is:   Always Do Your Best

Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

This reminds me of a recent event that Joe Mutone, our previous organist experienced.  Joe had a very important and challenging organ competition in Grand Rapids in April.  He was, of course, representing U of M and told me that a student had not secured First Place in this competition in a very, very long time.  He wanted to win first place for his own accomplishment but also for the University. When I finally spoke with Joe, he was disappointed that he took second place, but his comment was, “I did my very best and that is all I could do!”  I am sure this is true; I am certain he performed excellently.  I recall my own mother saying the exact words to me.  “Just do the best you can. That’s all you can do!”

Paul reminds the people of Philippi, they will have to “practice” the things they have learned in his preaching.  In practicing and learning, they would receive the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension.

Perhaps you will recall that I said the Four Agreements are a guide to practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of non-judgment, attention and awareness of your thoughts, actions, and your environment.  Sometimes described as “being present”, mindfulness combines focus on what is happening in the moment. Tools such as compassion, empathy, and gratitude are elements of mindfulness cultivated through the practice.  Doesn’t this sound like the Four Agreements?   Reflect on these things each day.  Doing it at the same time each day, such as on your way home from work, or before you eat dinner or before bed will help you create new habits or agreements with yourself. In that mindfulness remember we can do all things through God who strengthens us.

Go now and that which is worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.

Spirit Level

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Spirit Level”

Rev. Art Ritter

July 14, 2019

 

Amos 7:7-17

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has bear all his words. For thus Amos has said conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ “Now therefore hear the word of the Lord. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”

 

Every day a man used to walk by a clock shop, glance at a big clock in the display window, and then stop and set his own watch by that time.  One day the owner of the store happened to be standing in the doorway of the shop.  He recognized the man who walked by the store every day and said to him, “I see you set your watch by the large clock in our window.  What kind of work do you do that demands such accurate time?”  The man replied, “I’m the watchman at the factory just down the street.  Part of my job is to blow the five o’clock whistle at the daily closing of the plant.  I blow the whistle when my watch, set to your clock, tells me that it is five o’clock.”  The shop owner was rather startled.  “But you can’t do that!” he said.  “I set the large clock in the window each day when the five o’clock whistle goes off!”

I am always amazed at the reactions of certain politicians and elected officials who have found themselves in the midst of scandal.  The situation is not unique to any major political party or region of the country.  Individuals, even with their hands caught in the proverbial cookie jar, even admitting that they participated in an illegal or immoral action, refuse to be ashamed or remorseful about their deeds.  In fact is seems as if it weren’t for other people, like the media, these officials tell us that we would be much better off.  We wouldn’t have to live with the knowledge that our government servants had done something wrong.

To avoid current controversy, I will offer some example over 20 years ago.  Former mayor of New York City David Dinkins found himself in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service.  His response to the press, “I haven’t committed a crime.  What I did was fail to comply with the law.”  George H.W. Bush’s budget director Richard Darman was once asked why the president didn’t keep a campaign promise.  He replied, “The President didn’t say that.  He only read what was given to him in a speech.”  And we all remember Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington D.C.  When asked about the notoriously high crime in his city Barry said, “Outside of all of the killings, Washington D.C. has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.”

The Scripture lesson this morning is from the book of Amos.  In about 750 BC, Amos heard the word of the Lord to prophesy to the nation Israel, the northern kingdom of that then-divided land.  Amos left his home in the southern kingdom of Judah, and traveled north to deliver a tongue lashing message of honest criticism.  He predicted God’s judgement.  He announced that Israel would fall to another nation.  Needless to say, his message wasn’t a real popular one.

Nobody in Israel cared what Amos had to say.  He was an outsider whose opinion really didn’t matter.  Times were good.  Most people were making money and living comfortably.  Only the poor were suffering.  So what if God was being ignored.  The people were so selfish that they figured they didn’t need to take time or energy for God.  Not even the temple priests cared to listen.  They didn’t want to rock the boat.  And in the year 721, just as Amos predicted, the neighboring Assyrians conquered Israel.

Amos offered the Word of God to Israel in an object lesson.  He saw God standing beside a wall, holding a plumb line, a small weight tied to a piece of string.  When dropped from the top of a wall or building, gravity allowed the plumb line to set a straight and accurate measurement, perpendicular to the wall.  If a wall had been built out of plumb, the responsible thing to do was to tear it down otherwise it would soon fall from its own weakness.

I recall the home in which Laura and I lived in West Bloomfield years ago.  Whenever we tried our hand at a home improvement project-carpet, replacement windows, wallpaper- we discovered that all of the walls were crooked.  Whenever a contractor came into that home, he or she would stand back and scratch their heads as if they did not know what to do next.  What they did was to take more time, make special cuts, and charge us more!  Evidently, somewhere along the construction process, someone forgot the plumb line.

Amos used God’s expectation of justice and righteousness as a plumb line, as a level for how one’s spiritual life was reflected in decision making and personal behavior.  Amos’ vision of the plumb line symbolized God’s unchanging demands to which those who profess to follow God are expected to conform.  The plumb line was a series of not-so-subtle standards meant to convict.  It is a reminder to each of us to honestly examine the standards upon which we have built our lives, make our daily decisions, and promote our values.  In a commentary on the passage Dr. Arlene Nehring writes that Amos’ plumb line forces us to ask the questions:  How to be make our everyday decisions?  How do we establish our priorities?  What do we teach our children and grandchildren about their choices?  What do we expect from our leaders?  Do our words and our actions seem to match?

A plumb line is like a moral compass or a bubble level of the spiritual life.  There are some who prefer to live with absolute truth: black and white, right and wrong- and teach everyone these rules for following the truth.  But the complexity of life often doesn’t allow for simple and clear responses.  Amos wasn’t calling for the people of Israel to live by a strict sheet of answers.  He was calling for them to consider and measure their actions against the truth of God as it spoke to them that day and in that situation.

Noted preacher James Forbes said, “From my perspective, Jesus the Christ could be viewed as God’s plumb line, sent from heaven on a line to earth; and who he was, and what he did, and what he said, held up to a standard by which we were to measure the quality of our lives and by which we were to assess the righteousness of our nation.”  I think he is right.  While we may not be comfortable telling others exactly what they must believe, while we might sincerely acknowledge the complexities of our modern world, we still have a standard of spirit by which to measure our choices and our behavior.  We can hold up the plumb line of God’s intention for God’s people as we find it in the life and teachings of Jesus the Christ.  Jesus is the level by which we measure our faithfulness.  He is the plumb line we need.

 

 

Plan B

By | Sermons