Message Road Map: September 5, 2021
Last weekend was one of the busiest of my career, and on Sunday I was at church from 8:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. The only time I left was to run across the street to Taco Bell to grab some lunch. When I got to the drive through window to pay, I saw a young man who looked pretty stressed out. I felt a nudge to offer words of encouragement, and, to my surprise, he began to explain that it was just him and the manager running the whole place. He also told me that he used to have a good paying job with benefits until he was laid off due to COVID, and now he trying to work several part-time jobs to make ends meet.
I felt bad for him and said, “I’m going to pray for you today, that God bless you and take care of your family,” and upon hearing these words, his facial expression changed, and he said, “I really appreciate that. I need to remember that I am blessed just to have this job and to be alive today.” By acting on the nudge and offering prayer, God was able to bless this guy through me and make his day a little better, even if just for moment.
Sometimes, if we are paying attention, God prompts or nudges us to do something or say something that will bless another person. Someone’s name might pop into your head, prompting you to think, “Maybe I should call him,” or “Maybe I should pray for her.” You might feel led to invite a friend out for coffee or feel a nudge to ask if a stranger if she needs help. Has something like this ever happen to you? Recently, a friend came to my mind who was having a hard time, and I felt a nudge to text him and say, “I prayed for you today. If you need a listening ear, give me a call.” Shortly after clicking the send button, he called me on the phone, and we talked for a long time. At the end of our conversation, he said, “Man, I really needed to talk about this stuff, and I feel better now. Thanks for listening.” I then felt led to pray for this person on the phone, which he deeply appreciated. We often forget that God is always already working in the life of every person around you, trying to move them toward more healing, more freedom, more peace, and more joy. And if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, if we are awake to God’s presence in our everyday lives, then God empowers us to join in what he is already doing in their lives by blessing them. Isn’t that incredible?
But we must be tuned-in to what God is doing, and we must pay attention to God promptings. So, how do we do that? Well, the most important way is through prayer. Prayer is simply an ongoing conversation with God in which we both speak and listen. We can talk to God just like we talk to anyone else, and he wants us to pour out hearts. But we can also listen by meditating on scripture. God speaks to us as we read the Bible, and when we hear God’s still small voice nudging, prompting, convicting, or encouraging, we can ponder it in our hearts and reflect on it with our minds. While there are many different ways to pray, we teach the ancient practice of lectio divina. You can learn about this by picking up my free booklet on the welcome center, “New Life in Christ,” or by going to our website and checking out the page, “Connect Online.” However, you chose to pray, the important thing is that you actually do it, because it’s the lifeblood of our relationship with God.
It’s so important, Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing” and to “rejoice in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Jesus Christ.” As you may know, I try to go to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit every year for spiritual retreat. The monks who live there take this call to pray without ceasing seriously, and they use the analogy of breathing. They say that speaking to God is like breathing out, and listening to God by meditating on scripture is like breathing in. And like breath, it is a necessity for spiritual life. This can be seen in their practice of “breath prayers.” For example, as they slowly breath in they say in their mind, “Lord” and as they exhale, they silently say, “have mercy.” Then, following the same pattern, “Christ / have mercy, Lord / have mercy.” The idea it to synchronize their breath with this prayer so that it becomes so natural they unconsciously do it even while they’re sleeping—they are learning to pray without ceasing. The main idea is that prayer is to the soul as breathing is to the body. And this is what keeps us awake, alert, paying attention to spiritual things; it’s what gives us eyes to see and ears to hear, as Jesus would say.
In the context of this message, the principle is simple: when you want to love people, when you want to live a life that regularly manifests the blessings of God in ways that help others, Jesus invites us to begin with prayer, which is precisely what HE does. Before Jesus even starts his earthly ministry around 30 years old, it says in Luke 4:1 that “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” Why did the Holy Spirit lead him into the wilderness? To fast and PRAY.
Furthermore, when he had to make one of the most important decisions of his life regarding who to choose as his followers, it says in Luke 6 that “[Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.” It was only after praying all night that Jesus felt ready to choose the twelve disciples, not only to follow him as their rabbi, but to carry his message of salvation to the whole world after he ascended to heaven (vv. 12-16).
Every time Jesus made important decisions, regarding what to do, who to call, who to engage, who to disengage, how to reach people, and how to bless people, he started with prayer. In fact, Jesus didn’t just pray on occasion, he lived a life saturated in prayer, awake and responsive to the presence of God. And this is what he wants for us too because this is how we discover God’s will and find the wisdom, courage, and strength to carry it out.
Let’s look at all the things God does in prayer to help us bless others. First, God uses prayer to OPEN our hearts us to the leading of His Spirit, allowing us to tune into what He is already doing, and helping us to recognize the promptings to join Him in blessing others. This is our starting point, and why we are not just called to pray, but to BEGIN with prayer.
Second, as we continue in prayer, God will show us WHO to bless. He will bring people to mind and give us a desire to pray for them (reminding us that we need to pray for someone other than ourselves). And as you pray for someone, you start to see them differently—you start to see them as God sees them. And this gives you deeper understanding of their hurts, habits, and hang-ups, and, consequently, a better understanding of their needs. This evokes compassion and empowers us to listen to them without judgement (which is our topic for next week). As we see them from God’s perspective through the eyes of compassion, God cultivates a desire to want to bless them. (As a side note, this is why Jesus tells us to pray from our enemies. We often get tethered to an enemy in anger, resentment, and even hatred, all of which compels us to see him/her in a particularly bad light that makes compassion difficult if not impossible. This creates a kind of slavery that destroys us from the inside out. But if we obey Jesus and pray for our enemies, it can change the way we see them, and when anger gives way to compassion we are finally set free to live again.)
Third, when we pray, God show us HOW to bless the people. After opening us to the leading of the Holy Spirit, showing us who to bless, and helping us to see them through the eyes of compassion, God directs us in prayer regarding what to do. As I mentioned earlier, it could be as easy as sending a text message to say, “I am praying for you,” or inviting someone to lunch. The main point is that God directs us regarding when we should approach them, how we should engage them, and the ways we can bless them.
Finally, prayer connects us to the POWER of God that makes all this possible. We must always remember that blessing someone means being a conduit of GOD’S grace. In other words, I’m not the one blessing people, God is blessing them through me. And without this power, without this divine grace, our efforts will fall flat. Furthermore, the BIGGEST blessing that people experience through us, is not the specific thing we do like sending a message or listening without judgement, but the experience of drawing close to the presence of God. God works through our specific actions to give them the most transformative and life-giving blessing a person can receive—God gives them Himself. It’s important to remember that while we can do something to make someone’s day better, God can heal their heart and save their soul.
Notice how all the work of prayer happens in us for the benefit of others! I’m gonna say that again and I want you to let it sink in: All the work of prayer happens in us, and it’s for the benefit of others. [Which helps us to understand why Jesus said that if you try to save your life by focusing on yourself you lose it, but if you are willing to lose your life in service to others you gain it. Prayer is the tool that leads to this discovery, which is the secret of a happy life . . . but that’s for another message.] God uses prayer to change us so that we can bless others and change the world. Without prayer, none of these things are likely to happen, especially since God sometimes asks us to bless others in ways that make us uncomfortable. Again, it all hinges on our willingness to begin with prayer.
So how do we do it? How do we begin with prayer? Notice I didn’t ask: How should we pray? I have done various sermon series devoted to this topic that you can find on my YouTube channel, and there are many good books and devotionals on the topic too. Furthermore, I’ve already pointed you to the ancient practice of lectio divina. But what I want to focus on this morning is how to BEGIN with prayer. And to help you, I’ve provided a tool in your bulletin. For those watching online, I have posted the handout on our church Facebook page. It’s called, “The Art of Neighboring,” and it’s a great tool to get you thinking about who God may be calling you to bless.
You can start with your own neighborhood. The house in the center represents where you live, and the eight empty boxes represent the people who live around you. Write the names of those people in the empty boxes. If you don’t know their names, then you might want to find out. Go knock on their door and introduce yourself. Say something like, “We are neighbors and I just want to take a minute to introduce myself and let you know that I’m willing to help if you ever need anything.” If this suggestion makes you nervous, you can also Google them. But don’t get hung-up on geographical location. The goal is simply to write the names of 8 people that live close to you in the empty boxes. You can also use this tool in other areas of life, for example, at work with 8 of your closest co-workers, or in your basketball league, or in your civic club. Once you get these names written down, start praying for them every day.
Since this may be a challenge for you, I want to share three things that can help.
First, plan. I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, “If you fail to plan, then you are planning to fail.” So, plan time every day to pray for the people on your neighbor map by setting a reminder in your phone or putting it on your calendar. Then pray for them by name. You may be thinking, “What if I don’t know them? How can I pray for someone I don’t know? Well, you can start by asking God to bless them.
Second, prepare: As you pray, ask God to prepare you to bless them. Ask God to help you notice them, to see them as he sees them. Ask God to make you sensitive to his promptings.
Third, ask God to show you how to bless them, to show you their needs, and to help you know when and how to offer acts of kindness.
In closing, I want to remind you of two things. The first is something that holocaust survivor, Corrie ten Boom said: “We never know how God will answer our prayers, but we can expect that He will get us involved in his plan for the answers.” In other words, God intends prayer to mobilize you so you can join him in blessing the world. If your prayer doesn’t lead to action, something is wrong. Second, remember that following Jesus isn’t meant to be comfortable, it’s meant to be life changing. So, when you start praying and God shows you who to bless and how to bless them, you must be willing to step out of your comfort zone. And that is the good news of the gospel today. Amen.