Life Lessons I Didn’t Learn in Class

Overhearing the Gospel is a great title for a book on preaching by Fred Craddock. Craddock argues that an indirect and subtle approach to hearing the difficult truth of the Christian Gospel is often the most effective method of communication. It’s why Jesus relied so heavily on parables to share his truth. Stories have a way of bypassing prejudices and ideology by touching hearers at a deeper level than purely rational arguments can do. Stories personalize concepts and appeal to emotion and morality in a holistic way that is more persuasive than a more direct imperative approach.

That’s why listeners who first heard Jesus urge them to “love their enemies” or “turn the other cheek” probably said, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But when convicted by the truth of the Good Samaritan story, even the lawyer who started out planning to “test” Jesus had to admit the real neighbor in the story was not the religious leaders, as one would expect The surprise hero of that parable is the hated enemy from Samaria who showed compassion on the man who was mugged and left for dead by robbers on the road to Jericho. (See Luke 10:25-37).

I learned some great life lessons via the indirect approach 50 years ago in high school. Blessed with a good memory, I was always a “good” student, which simply means I knew how to play the education game well and regurgitate answers that teachers wanted to hear on tests. But I realized recently that some values I learned in “extra-curricular” activities were far more important than any quadratic equations I solved or verbs I learned to conjugate. The irony is that the lessons I value most from my high school education came from our choral music teacher, Walter Kehres. What makes it ironic is that I cannot and never have been able to carry a tune in a bucket. I am also not very technologically or mechanically gifted; so I don’t remember how I ended up as one of the students asked to run the light board in our school auditorium, but I’m very grateful I did.

As part of the stage crew I had a priceless opportunity to participate in two major musical productions. To explain the value of that experience I need to set some historical context. I attended high school in a small, conservative rural Ohio community from 1960-1964 during a time of great tension and change in American history. My wife and I recently saw the excellent movie, “The Butler,” that is yet another example of the power of narrative. The film covers the history of the Civil Rights Movement from Eisenhower to Obama, and was a painful reminder to me of how isolated and unaware of what was happening in our own country I was in my youth.

That isolation was a function of the culture and ideology that defined my community and my education. For racism to be addressed directly as part of our academic curriculum would have been met with strong opposition from the community. That’s why the indirect approach to controversial issues was necessary and effective. I will never know for sure if addressing social justice issues like racism and multiculturalism even factored into our music director’s decision when he was choosing the shows to be performed each year. I hope it was, but what I do know is that my junior year our big musical production for the year was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical “South Pacific.”

Here’s how Wikipedia describes “South Pacific:” “It centers on an American nurse stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II who falls in love with a middle-aged expatriate French plantation owner but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. A secondary romance, between a U.S. lieutenant and a young Tonkinese woman explores his fears of the social consequences should he marry his Asian sweetheart. The issue of racial prejudice is candidly explored throughout the musical, most controversially in the lieutenant’s song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”.”

Here are the lyrics to that prophetic song:
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a diff’rent shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

Had that message about racism and an inter-racial couple been preached from any pulpit or taught in any classroom in my hometown it would never have been tolerated by anyone, including me. But hearing those words sung dozens of time in rehearsals and performances in the context of a “story” sneaked them past the censors and filters in my head. The words and emotions of that great show are so memorable that 50 years later, I can still sing most of the score to this day (fear not, only in the shower).

I have no idea if that production affected anyone else the way it did me, and the message was so subtle, or I was so obtuse, that I didn’t realize until recently what am impact it had on me, even though I’ve quoted “Carefully Taught” in numerous sermons and classes over the years. In that high school auditorium when I thought I was just running a light board, seeds of tolerance and social justice were planted in my head and heart that slowly began to germinate. That made me open to more direct messages and experiences about racial equality in the very formative years of my formal and informal education that followed.

I don’t know if Walter Kehres, our music director, is still living or not, but wherever he is, I send a very belated thank you from one of the most non-musical students whose life you helped change forever.

“The Power of Persistence” Luke 18:1-8

I was reminded this week of the famous 1972 picture of Kim Phuc, a 9 year-old girl running naked from a Napalm explosion in Viet Nam. She was naked because she had ripped off her burning clothes and was fleeing for her life. She was badly burned, spent 14 months in the hospital and endured 17 surgeries over the next 12 years. Kim spoke in Columbus this week about her journey from that hell to the peace of forgiveness. Among other things, Kim says that it took her a very long time to forgive those responsible for the napalm burns she suffered as a child. She says it took a long time for the “black coffee cup” in her heart to clear. But she prayed every day and every day it became a little clearer. “And one day there was no more coffee left….My cup was empty. God helped me to refill it with light, peace, joy, compassion, understanding, love, patience and forgiveness.”

Kim Phuc’s witness sums up very well the theme of this third sermon in our series on prayer as making circles around God’s promises, i.e. praying hard and long through seasons of disappointment and pain. (This sermon is part of a series based on the book The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson.) In the legend of Honi the Circle Maker, his prayers for rain to end a drought in Israel are answered almost immediately, but what if it takes weeks or months or years for God’s promise of healing peace to become reality?

When prayers seem to be unanswered, many of us have had seasons in our lives when we would agree with the dying mother who told her son who is a pastor that she did not want the hymn “Sweet Hour of Prayer” sung at her funeral because the hour of prayer “is not always sweet.”

Another issue for me is what to pray for when the list of prayer concerns seems longer than the winter of 2014. I often feel selfish to pray for myself when there are so many other needs in the world – terrible suffering in places like Indonesia, Syria and Sudan or all the people without power in the frozen tundra from Georgia to Maine.
One big lesson of the Circle Maker book for me is that I often limit what I pray about for all the wrong reasons. Someone once said that God created humankind in God’s image, and we returned the favor. Because it’s hard to even imagine what God is truly like, we often think of God in human terms, and when we do that we fail to recognize the vastness of God’s power.

If God were like us trying to handle all our prayers it might look like a scene from the movie, “Bruce Almighty.” In the film, Bruce Nolan, played by Jim Carrey, complains that God is not treating him fairly and is given a chance to have God’s power and see if he can do a better job. Things are fine for Bruce when he uses his new powers to get his job back, romance his girlfriend and get revenge on some enemies. But then Bruce begins to get all the prayer requests that normally go to God. He is overwhelmed by hundreds of voices in his head, and God tells him that’s because the prayer requests are backing up on him because he is ignoring the needs of others. So Bruce tries several things to manage all the requests. First he imagines a filing system, but his whole apartment is quickly filled wall to wall with filing cabinets. Next he suggests putting all the prayer requests on post it notes, and immediately he, his dog, his girlfriend, and his entire home are covered in little yellow 3M sticky notes. Finally he creates a computer program to receive prayer requests and starts typing like a mad man to respond, but no matter how fast he types, he cannot keep up and still has over 3 million unanswered prayers in his in box. His solution is finally to just say “yes” to all the requests and make everybody happy. NOT.

The comical scene is a great reminder that God’s ways and God’s powers are not our ways. Our finite minds cannot comprehend the infinite and universal nature of God, and that means is that deciding if I should pray for either my own needs or for the needs of the entire world is a false choice. It’s not an either/or because God, unlike Bruce Almighty can handle any and all the prayers we can offer.

One thing we do know is that God, unlike Bruce, does not just says “yes” to all prayers. Persistent prayer doesn’t mean that all we have to do is ask what for we want and God will overnight it to us like! God knows better than that even if we don’t. A key premise of the Circle Maker is to draw circles around God’s promises, but to do that we must first discern what God truly promises. For example, we often misinterpret Jesus’ promise of an “abundant” life to mean material abundance. But anyone who looks carefully at how Jesus lived knows full well that the abundance he embodied and promised is not of this world at all. We wish Jesus promised us a Rose Garden, but the reality is that we all have to walk the lonesome valley of the Garden of Gethsemane just as he did. Jesus’ promise is not a bypass around suffering but his companionship and guidance with us every step of the way to eternal life.

We also need to be clear that persistence is not the same as stubbornness. If we fail to discern God’s true promises and keep praying for the wrong things our prayers become like wheels just spinning in the ice and snow going nowhere. The secret is listening to God so we know when the answer to a prayer is “no.” In II Corinthians 12 Paul prays three times for God to remove a “thorn in his flesh.” We never find out what the particular problem is, but what we do learn is that Paul clearly heard God’s response to his request and knew that God’s answer was a resounding “no.” So Paul moved on to much bigger things that God was calling him to devote his energies to– like taking the Gospel to Rome and to the rest of the world.

In our Scripture lesson today from Luke, we have a parable about a persistent woman who begs and pleads with an unjust judge so long that the judge finally grants her request just to get her off his back. A word of caution: if we read that text too quickly it might sound like all we have to do is nag God long enough and we’ll get whatever we want. We have to read the first and last lines of that passage carefully to understand what this parable tells us.

Luke says, ‘Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” He then tells the parable of the unjust judge and assures his listeners that God is far more just and compassionate than this judge. Verse 7 says, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will God delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.” God’s promise is justice. God is not like a vending machine that spits out whatever we ask for, but a God of justice. Like a loving parent God doesn’t grant every wish a child makes, but tempers requests with wisdom and love. A just God is concerned about what’s best for all of creation, and that means we can’t all have everything we want at the expense of others who also have needs.

There’s another reason we need to be persistent and patient when we pray: Luke tells us that God will QUICKLY grant justice. “Quickly” is a relative term, and we must remember that God’s time is not our time. If prayers for warmer weather were based on majority rule and granted quickly on our time frame, spring would have sprung weeks ago, right?

Luke saves the best line of that parable for the very end. After assuring us that God will grant justice, he says, “And yet, when the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Prayer is all about faith, and the persistent power of faith is what keeps us in prayer when things seem overwhelming and hopeless.
Will Jesus find faith when he looks at you and me? Will he find us praying just for little circles of selfish needs or for justice for all of creation? Praying hard and praying through times of discouragement are the true tests of faith. Anyone can have faith when things are going according to plan, but when we hit detours, pain, failure, that’s when faith alone will see us through.

There’s a Chinese proverb about persistence that says “If you fall down 7 times, just get up 8.” And that applies even when things are blatantly unfair and unjust as they were for the woman in the parable. She refused to give up and her persistence was rewarded.

I Thessalonians 5:17 says that we are to “Pray without ceasing.” That’s the key to persistent prayer because prayer really means staying in relationship with God. We all know that communication is essential to any relationship – open, honest, vulnerable, caring communication. I didn’t say it was easy – if it were easy the divorce rate in our country would be far less than it is. If open communication was easy we would not have wars and violence that happen when relationships between people and nations break down. Communication with God is no different. Like any relationship, we have to work at it, every day, persistently.

When Paul tells us to pray without ceasing, he isn’t saying we need to be on our knees 24/7. That kind of holiness is impressive but not practical. Prayers need legs and feet and hands to be put into action. One of the powerful reasons for praying is that God uses prayer to motivate us to reach out to those we pray for in acts of kindness and mercy. To pray without ceasing simply means we are constantly in touch with our creator as our guide and director.

God is available to everyone 24/7 everywhere and anywhere. How that is possible is way beyond my pay grade as well as Bruce Almighty’s, but it’s true, and it’s true not only of the quantity of prayers God’s In-box can handle, but for the size and scope of what we can and must pray for.

Persistence and patience are partners for powerful prayer. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “The Arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’ve done a lot of reflecting lately on issues of justice and the progress or lack thereof we’ve made toward a just world in my lifetime. I’m coming up this year on my 50th high school reunion, and that has a way of giving one pause. I also recently saw the movie “The Butler” which covers the history of the American Civil Rights Movement from the 1950’s to the present, which just happens to cover most of my lifetime. All of that makes me wonder about how slowly the arc of the universe bends toward justice, and I get impatient to the point of despair. But circle makers pray and work for justice in and out of season. We don’t rest on our laurels but keep a prophetic eye on any place where God’s justice needs to be proclaimed.

We sometimes forget that it is in our own self-interest to pray and work for a just world. Our good fortune to be able to live in a safe, comfortable community does not make us immune to the problems of those who live in other less fortunate zip codes. The economic welfare and safety of the suburbs do not exist in isolation from crime and other social problems in nearby cities. That means our prayer circles need to be large enough to include our neighbors in the broader community and world, not just those people we know by name.

An article in this week’s Columbus Dispatch listed some interesting facts about last year’s top 5 philanthropists in our country – a list of many of the usual suspects. I was troubled to read that Mark Zuckerberg who topped the list had given all of his millions in donations to local agencies in Silicon Valley where his Facebook empire resides. I’m sure there are legitimate needs in Silicon Valley, just as there are everywhere, but to limit the scope of one’s concern to that community seemed very parochial and short-sighted to me. When I commented to a friend about that, he said he had read that after some friendly persuasion was exerted on Mr. Zuckerberg he has donated a very generous amount of money to the Newark, NJ schools. That happened because someone circled that concern and persisted in prayer for a larger vision of justice.

Issues of justice are complex and seeing results is much slower than smaller things we circle in our prayers – but that is no reason not to include them in our prayers. Solving big problems like education and the environment seem hopeless at times, but in the long run unless they are addressed, nothing else will really matter. And so we pray harder and longer, without ceasing, confident that no problems are too small or too large for God.

Whether praying for a loved one who is ill or for a society that is fractured, our prayers are the same – for healing – not just for a simple cure, but for a holistic spiritual healing. That’s the promise of God we can circle in persistent prayer with confidence that our prayers will be heard because God finds faith in those kinds of prayers.

When we feel hopeless – about personal or universal problems – we pray anyway. The God of justice hears our prayers and in God’s infinite wisdom grants mercy and justice in God’s good time. It is not for us to ask when or why – our job is to pray without ceasing, especially when the hour of prayer is not short or sweet.

[Sermon preached at Jerome United Methodist Church, February 16, 2014]