God’s intentions for human relationships and community

A man and his wife were having some problems at home and were giving each other the “silent treatment”.  Suddenly, the man realized that the next day, he would need his wife to wake him at 5:00am for an early morning business flight. Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and LOSE), he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5:00am.” He left it in a prominent place where he knew she would find it.

The next morning, the man woke up, only to discover it was 9:00am and he had missed his flight.  Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t wakened him, when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed. The paper said, “It is 5:00am. Wake up.”

Men are not equipped for these kinds of contests!!

Although that may be a funny illustration, for some people it may be a reality, a little close to home.  When we become dysfunctional in a relationship, it can be incredibly hard to get ourselves out of the rut we find ourselves in.  I recognise that not all of us are married, but even if that is the case we are all in a relationship of one form or another.  We all have relationships in common.

So what is “God’s intentions for human relationships and community.”  The two passages from Genesis that we have heard today speak firstly into how we as human beings are created to be in relationship with God, secondly how we called to relate to one another and in community, and thirdly into the nature of a loving relationship between a man and a woman.

I love the book of Genesis.  There is something about it that speaks into the very core of my being and somehow it restores in me a hope for humanity.  It speaks into where we are, and where in God’s grace we will be.  Every time I pick up the Bible and turn to it, I just see a loving God with such an incredible desire to bless us and be in relationship with us.  Genesis reminds us of how we are created to be.

Some things perhaps emerge from this.  As we were originally created, and before the Fall, we had no knowledge of good and evil.  That must be our starting point of understanding how we are called to be.  Being created in God’s image and likeness means that:

  1. We are created with the ability to do good, and to do the right things
  2. Within this, we have free will and the ability to make choices, our own choices
  3. Of all of God’s creation, we are unique and set apart with a specific purpose
  4. We are created to be in fellowship and relationship with God. That is the primary reason for our existence
  5. We are created to be in fellowship and relationship with one another. That is a consequence of the primary reason of our existence.  We are hard wired to be in community.
  6. It is God’s desire for us to be fruitful, to live our potential, to be all that we were created to be in Christ.
  7. We all share a common origin and a shared humanity.

It all began to go wrong as a consequence of the Fall, and after lengthy reflection I think there are two key causes that typically lie at the root of this. These causes are power (which is often linked to pride) and fear (which is often linked to shame).  I can probably count on one hand the number of people I have met in life who have been able to wield power and authority well and in a Godly way:

  1. We fail to see ourselves through God’s eyes; we don’t live in the knowledge that we are children of God, and loved unconditionally by God. You see this in the creation account when Adam and Eve experienced shame for the first time.
  2. We fail to see one another through God’s eyes; we are more caught up in me, me, me rather than God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Pride gets in the way of many things in life.
  3. We fail to acknowledge that all of us are created in God’s image and likeness. Even in the 21st century, it is abhorrent that we still live with slavery, oppression of women, and oppression of minorities – the list goes on.  These all have in common an abuse of power and often an unrealistic fear.
  4. We fail to even understand the implications of that and what it means to be in God’s image and likeness and with the responsibility that that imposes on us. It is almost as if we live in denial.
  5. We struggle to wield power and authority in a Godly way, and don’t properly understand what it means to have dominion over something. There is a fine line between leadership and coercion, between a right use of power and abuse.
  6. We live with fear; fear that we are good enough, fear that others are good enough and so on
  7. We live under the consequences of the Fall, rather than in the light of Christ and the New Life that he invites us into

All of these can result in broken and fragmented relationships – with God, with one another and in how we perceive ourselves.  The solution to this is love: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” And love involves sacrifice, leaving no space for pride and power struggles, instead opening the door for grace.  Love also involves accountability.  We have an accountability first and foremost to God, but we also have an accountability to one another.

I want you to think about some of the things that you might have said to someone you simply might not like or get along with, whether in anger, or frustration.  I would like to invite you to ask yourself three simple questions and be prepared to answer honestly.

  • When you said whatever it was that you said, did you look upon the person you were speaking to in the knowledge that they are created in God’s image and likeness?
  • Could you imagine Christ saying what you said and in the way that you said it?
  • After you had said it, did you give any consideration to the impact that what you said had on that other person or were you so focussed on getting your point across?

Sometimes we say something with little regard for the damage that those words might have. If you couldn’t imagine Christ saying what you said, and if the reality is that what you said left that other person upset, and distressed…do you think that you were looking upon that person through God’s eyes?  Did you see before you someone who is worthy of dignity and respect because they are created in God’s image and likeness and a child of God?  Or did you lose sight of this reality in the words that you said?

It might be that the root cause of this is because you are struggling with some unresolved issue and have a need for spiritual healing.  It might be that you struggle to deal with power and authority – neither of which are a right, but a privilege and a privilege to be used wisely and to the glory of God.  It might be that you hold a fear and that you subconsciously project that fear onto others.

If we lose sight of that, we often find that we abuse power and subconsciously appoint ourselves as judge, jury and executioner.  God’s truth does not cause people to become bound and in chains; God’s truth sets people free to be all that they are called to be in Christ.  We must live in the knowledge of God’s truth, secure in the reality of his love and grace.

All of us need to be honest about where we hide behind roles in a bid for security, to allay fear or hold onto them as a means of power and control. Neither does us credit.

Christ didn’t come simply to restore the balance.  Christ came to set us free from sin and death, to bring wholeness and healing, dignity and value and restore in us a vision of us being created in God’s image and likeness.  We may experience dysfunctionality in our relationships with one another – our friends, our loved ones, and our brothers and sisters in Christ; but also in our relationship with God.  If you are struggling with a relationship in whatever context, I invite you to bring it to the foot of the cross, bring it to the Lord in prayer.

Let’s take a few moments of silence as we think about these words.

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Teach us to pray

Prayer is a tremendous challenge for many people.  The reality is that many of us feel inadequate or even guilty when we think about prayer.  There are perhaps four key reasons for this:

a)    We don’t pray enough.

If you are a parent with young children, you will be all too familiar with how challenging it can be to have a quiet time at the beginning or end of the day – or even during the day!  The same applies if you work shifts or long hours.  It can be really hard to develop a pattern of spirituality that feeds us and sustains us.  I am sure we’re all familiar with the expression “the spirit is willing but the body is weak.” Even when we do sit down to pray, we so easily get distracted and find our mind starts to wander.  My friends sometimes calls me kangaroo brain because even at my best, my mind is jumping all over the place thinking about all sorts of different things at once.  For me, my mind needs no encouragement to get distracted or wander and so I have to try really hard to concentrate when I pray!  It can be very hard to sustain a disciplined routine of prayer.

b)   We don’t think we are very good at prayer.

We struggle to find the words, and we are constantly having little internal debates in our minds: can God really hear me? Is He there at all? Are my prayers simply bouncing back off the ceiling?  What will He think of my prayers, my fumbled words?  Are my prayers good enough? And if we are praying in a group, what will other people think of our prayers?  It is as if in our mind we can sometimes have a view of what prayer should be like, complete with big, flowery, complicated words and faced with that perceived gap we just give up.

c)    We give up when we don’t get immediate answers or the answers we want.

It has been said that there are three possible answers to prayer:

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Not yet

Why is it I wonder that we so often are only content when the answer is yes?  Jesus said “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)  When we ask for something in someone’s name, there is an implicit sense of intimacy, trust and respect.  If I am seeking to realise those qualities in prayer, it would hardly be fitting for me to pray for an Aston Martin or a Ferrari so hardly surprising that such prayers wouldn’t necessarily be answered.

Many years ago I knew an elderly lady at church who was really faithful in prayer.  She shared something of her faith journey with me one day, and spoke of praying for her husband.  She had been a Christadelphian for a big part of her life, and had been praying that her husband might become one too for over 20 years.  But then she had a personal encounter with Jesus and gave her life to him; she was released into a fullness of life and relationship with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Her prayer and the focus of her prayer shifted…she now prayed that her husband too would have that relationship with Jesus and spent the next 20 years thanking God that he hadn’t become a Christadelphian.  We must ask in Jesus’ name to the glory of the Father.  We must pray to the Father in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

d)   We find it all too easy to pray on our terms and not God’s.

I know there have been times in my life when I thought I knew better than God.  For the record: I don’t!  When Abraham interceded for the people of Sodom (Genesis 18:22-19:29), there was no arrogance in his heart and prayers.   He knew a poverty of Spirit and a willingness to “speak God’s heart to himself.”

So then we come to today’s Gospel reading which features the  Lord’s Prayer which is one of the most beautiful, complete and balanced prayers that we find anywhere in Scripture.  The first ‘half’ of the Lord’s Prayer is centred on the glorification of God. The second ‘half’ covers the physical and spiritual well-being of believers…there is a completeness to it.  It’s reminding ourselves of God’s character and what being in that relationship with a loving Father will be like.  It is a prayer of prompting…we are prompted by an awareness of the presence of God, Our Father in Heaven and our response is to bring Him praise.  There is a purpose and a hope, a recognition of His provision, a getting right with him and one another and a request for protection.

Let’s step back for one moment and think about this time and this place when Jesus was with his disciples.  We are told that Jesus was “praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”” (Luke 11: 1).  The disciples had heard Jesus praying to His Father; prayers of faith, prayers of hope and prayers of intimacy and love – not some formal, stuffy, high-minded, complicated prayers with lots of flowery words.  The disciples too were no strangers to prayer themselves; it will have been embedded in their culture, custom and practice.  And yet here they are, having heard Jesus’ prayers that were somehow different with their heartfelt request…“teach us to pray”, much as John’s followers had been taught by him.

I tend to think that when Jesus heard the disciple’s request “teach us to pray”, His heart must have rejoiced.  He must have had a huge smile on His face.  I sometimes wonder if in His response, with that huge smile, He might have said “Oh, alright then…if you insist!”  I also wonder what on earth the disciples expected Jesus to say, how did they expect Him to reply?  Is Jesus’ reply what YOU might have expected?

In reading the Lord’s Prayer, I really want us to be encouraged.  We would be deceiving ourselves if we didn’t think that Jesus sometimes has hard and testing things to say to us in the Gospels.  But on prayer, I am pretty sure that the last thing He wants for us are feelings of guilt or inadequacy.  God yearns for us to be in relationship with Him and the relationship we have with God is something that shapes our spirituality and approach to prayer.  The great theologian A.W. Tozer said “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.”  Our image of God should be based on his revelation of himself in his Word and in his Son, our Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ.  How do Jesus’ words of teaching on prayer shape our understanding of God, and therefore our spirituality and approach to prayer?

It seems pretty clear from Jesus’ words that he was encouraging his disciples – and us – to pray in a way that shows intimacy with and reliance on God.  Jesus tells us to use that very personal and intimate language “Father.”  Jesus using ‘Father’ as a title is highly distinctive; it is not a title given directly to God in the Hebrew Scriptures, although it is occasionally used as a metaphor. The Aramaic word for ‘Father’ is “Abba” which is a term of endearment and intimacy. St Paul writes in both Romans and Galatians that as sons and daughters of God, we cry out Abba, Father.  We pray because we have a good Father, who gives good gifts to his children.  Our asking is not a heavy pleading with, or an anguished persuading, but the natural response to a loving God who cares for us.  In its simplest form, prayer is chatting with God from our heart about the things of the day with humility and gratitude that a great, awesome and holy God yearns for us to enter into his presence.    I also believe that when we have courage to pray, coming before God just as we are, that he rejoices.  It is all about our attitude…our heart attitude, our head attitude and our attitude of spirit.  In prayer we “join our hearts with Gods”.  No wonder St Augustine said “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

Since the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, it suggests that prayer is something we can learn.  I think prayer is like a muscle we can “work out” and one of the power foods we can use to fuel that work out is God’s Word.  I don’t believe any sincere and heartfelt prayer is ever wasted.  I do believe even the shortest of prayers prayed in this way can move God’s heart – it’s about how we pray not how many words we use!  And you know, however weak and inadequate we feel, Jesus himself takes our poor, hesitant prayers, and perfects them by joining them to his own perfect and complete offering of prayer to the Father, which is why in the Christian tradition we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. No wonder one introduction to the Lord’s Prayer is “Uniting our prayers with the whole company of heaven, as our Saviour taught us, so we pray.” We do not pray alone.  And, as St Paul reminds us, the Holy Spirit – the good gift the Father gives us when we ask him, himself prayer deep within us, with inarticulate groans of desire.

Prayer is something that is active and dynamic – it implies action not inaction.  To pray, ‘hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come’ (11:2), is to hand over the sovereignty to God. To be able to continue, ‘Give us each day our daily bread … forgive us our sins … do not bring us to the time of trial’ (11:3–4), is to find that he then supplies all our need. The old life is shed, abandoned to him; then the new is received, and may be characterized as the new life in the Holy Spirit.

In our passage, immediately after his teaching on prayer Jesus presents his disciples with two parables.  The first one deals with the practice of prayer (11:5–10), and the last one speaks into the nature of prayer (11:11–13).  The first parable (the story of the friend’s request for loaves at midnight) teaches us to pray persistently…“because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” In other words, it is about the practice of prayer – our part in it.  The second parable is concerned with the basis of prayer, or God’s part in it, is the subject of the sayings about the father who naturally will not give his son a serpent or a scorpion if the boy has asked for a fish or an egg.  God listens, and understands.  He “perceives our thoughts from afar”…he is “familiar with all our ways”…there is nothing about us he does not know.  God knows our needs better than we know them ourselves.

When we seek to single-mindedly yield ourselves to him, what happens? We find that this great, holy and awesome God is also our heavenly Father, who meets our seeking with his giving. When we ask, seek, and knock, he gives the answer we need (11:9–10). As the response of a human father to his son’s need is not one of cynical disregard (11:11–12), neither is God’s response to our need anything less than the provision of ‘good gifts’, and what Luke sums up as the gift of the Holy Spirit (11:13).  God constantly sends himself, such is the enormity of his desire to be in relationship with us.

So trust in God, know that your prayers are heard and never ever wasted, that your prayers are like a beautiful fragrance to God no matter how short or fumbling and be persistent knowing that God really will provide your needs.  Amen

Teach us to Pray!

Many people struggle with prayer.  We may feel inadequate and clumsy, and even perhaps unworthy.  We may think that prayer is something that others do and we simply go along with them or that we don’t really understand prayer, or why we need to pray.  We are not alone in that.  In Luke’s gospel, we are told how the disciples encountered Jesus in prayer and when he had finished praying “one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”” (Luke 11:1)  The disciples had a growing awareness of the need to pray, and of their own inadequacy at prayer.  They realised that prayer was central to Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, and they knew they needed to learn how to pray to grow in their relationship with God.  Jesus’ wonderful response was to teach them the Lord’s prayer.

Prayer may be many things: a declaration of truth, the heart of relationship and intimacy with God, knowing God’s heart, a lifeline to the Lord, a vehicle for confession, worship & praise, a journey into humility, an opportunity to draw close to the Lord, a request for God to act from an open hand of need and hope, a time of intercession and joyful and continuous (1 Thessalonians 5:17)!   Prayer may be personal and intimate (“go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-8)) or corporate (“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you one earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them.”  (Matthew 18:19-20)).

Eugene Peterson shares a helpful insight in telling us that “Prayer has to be a response to what God has said.  The worshipping congregation—hearing the Word read and preached, and celebrating it in the sacraments—is the place where we may learn how to pray and where we may practice prayer.  It is the centre from which we might pray.  From it, we go to our ‘closet’ or mountains and continue to pray.

I think that God rejoices when we come before him in prayer; he yearns that we, the pinnacle of his creation, might be in intimate fellowship with him.  We can come before our heavenly father, Abba father, daddy, knowing that we are loved as we are because in Christ we are children of God.  And so I invite you to ask God with me, just as the disciples asked Jesus…“Teach us to pray.”