We begin today a four-part series entitled “Practical Christianity 101,” the purpose of which is to consider the application, the “how-to,” of practicing our faith. To make the teachings of this series available to everyone, especially those who are unable to be in our worship service every Sunday, manuscripts of each week’s message will be posted on the church’s website http://www.fumcpecos.org and social media outlets. Those include our Tweeter feed @fumcpecos, our Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/fumcpecos, and my personal blogpost http://www.jamesbcarroll.com. It is my prayer that each of these messages will inform, enlighten, and challenge you in the daily practices of your faith.
Practical Christianity 101: Divine Conversation
The World Today
Who knows us better than anyone else? Genesis 1:27 describes our very creation by God, while in Matthew 10:30 Jesus tells us that from God’s perspective the hairs on our heads are numbered (of course, it is obvious that for some of us, that’s far fewer than others). Who cares about us more than anyone else? Jesus assures us in Luke 12:28 that if God clothes the wildflowers of the field that are here today and gone tomorrow with such beauty, his care for us must be far greater. Who loves us more than anyone else? “For God loved (you) the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, so that (you) everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
When we encounter family and friends who know us, who care about us, and who love us, it is expected that we willingly and confidently engage in conversation with them. Doesn’t it make sense that the One who knows us, who cares for us, and who loves us far more than these would likewise desire the same? Why, then, are we so reluctant to pray? After all, prayer is nothing more than conversation, divine conversation.
The Word Revealed
Conversation involves talking (speaking in order to give information, express ideas or feelings). Why are we reluctant to talk to God? Even the disciples weren’t comfortable with their ability to do so. They asked of Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray. . .” (Luke 11:1c). While we have a level of comfort in the thought of giving thanks to God for our blessings and praying for others, the idea of sharing with God requests for ourselves makes us much more uncomfortable. For that reason, I want us to keep in mind prayer that focuses on our concerns and needs for a moment. In our conversations with family and friends – those who know us, care about us, and love us – we have confidence that if we share a concern or need, they will do everything possible to help. Why would we expect anything less from God?
Let’s look at some assurances shared in Scripture. In the New International Version translation of Matthew 7:7 we read, “Ask and it will be given to you. . . .” I personally like the implication of persistence in the New Living Translation reading, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for.” But to be faithful to the context of Jesus’ words, this passage must be considered against the backdrop of several other passages. In Matthew 21:22, Jesus tells His disciples, “You can pray for anything, and if you have faith (italics mine), you will receive it.” To have faith is to be righteous, to be in a right relationship with God. James describes the rewards of that relationship with God: “The earnest prayer (italics mine) of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16b). Meanwhile, James also warns that sometimes our prayers are not answered because they are more about our wants instead of our needs: “. . .you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are wrong – you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:2c-3). It makes sense that when we have a true need, in faith and earnestness, we share it with God.
Conversation also involves more than talking; it involves listening [the active process of receiving and responding to spoken (and sometimes unspoken) messages]. More than the discomfort of talking to God is our apprehension that He might literally answer us. We do want to know His replies or answers to our requests, but we’re not that excited about acknowledging or sharing with others that we heard the voice of God. (It brings to mind those Old Testament accounts of those who encountered the very presence of God and didn’t live to tell about it.) If we did have a one-on-one conversation with God, our expectations would be of the dramatic or spectacular. However, Elijah’s encounter with God, as described in 1 Kings 19:11-12, paints a very different picture of what that encounter might truly look like. When Elijah was hiding in a cave on a hillside, God told him, “Go out and stand before me on the mountain.” As Elijah experienced the windstorm, the earthquake, and the firestorm that passed by, he fully expected in each of those to realize the presence of God. Much to his surprise, God’s presence was in none of these. Elijah would encounter the presence of God, and would literally hear God’s voice, in “the sound of a gentle whisper.”
Many of us know individuals who describe experiencing the “unmistakable voice of God.” A far more common description of one’s experiencing “the voice of God” – sensing His response to our requests, His desire for our lives, His calling and new directions in our lives – occurs in what we often refer to as random thoughts, inspiration, intuition, or “where did that thought come from?” reflections during our prayer time. That’s what conversation is all about: talking and listening. That’s what prayer is all about: talking openly, casually, and conversationally with God, listening actively to God, and expecting a response. Prayer is nothing more than conversation – conversation with God, divine conversation.
Most of us would agree with the Disciples when they asked of Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” While Jesus offered them the model of the Lord’s Prayer, there are specifics of the “how-to” that I would like to share with you that should make your time alone in conversation with God more comfortable and productive. I think that the most critical first step is the right attitude for prayer. You have heard pastors, including myself, preface prayer by referring to the need for heads to be bowed and eyes to be closed. In addition to the practical aspect of shutting out the outside world, minimizing distractions to better focus our attention on God, there is a more important reason for doing so. With heads bowed and eyes closed, we are showing awe, respect, and reverence for the One who created us, the One who redeemed us, and the One who sustains us. When you walk into a courtroom, you don’t stand before the judge and interact with him or her as you would a friend – you conduct yourself and speak with respect for their position, their authority over you. No less than the same should be true when we come into the presence of God and initiate conversation with Him.
The most important opportunity for prayer is our daily devotional time. It’s referred to as daily because it should be a daily routine, a time set aside every day to be in prayer. It’s referred to as devotional time because it is a time set apart to devote ourselves, our attention, our thoughts on nothing other than God. There are several details concerning our daily devotional time that we need to consider. The location should be a quiet place, a place without interruptions (quite unlike my home when the children are awake). The setting should be appropriate to time devoted or focused on God. In addition to the obvious act of conversing with God, it is a time that can also include the reading of Scripture and the singing (or reading) of hymns. Of greatest importance is time. While your devotional time should definitely be at your convenience, it should be practiced daily, consistently, and faithfully – a time of separation from the world, spent alone with God.
There are numerous helps that can make your devotional time more fruitful. While your Bible is a given, you can also use a hymnal (please don’t take one home with you) and printed devotional material. Devotional material is an excellent starting point for your devotional time. All such resources typically include a Scripture, an inspirational story related to the Scripture, and a related prayer. The Upper Room, a free publication which can be found in the foyer, is a resource our church makes available for just that purpose. For those of us who have smartphones (and who doesn’t – except for one or two in attendance this morning), there are devotional apps available for download and use on your phone. There are those that are free and some that cost, of course. My choice is one that is called Jesus Calling, a paid app that is also available in the printed format. While most devotional material includes a brief story contributed by several authors, Jesus Calling is written by a single author, in the first person, worded as if Jesus is speaking to you about life issues, all based upon the selected Scripture passages for that day. While there are numerous resources, what’s important is that you select one and use it!
There are times other than your daily devotional time to be in conversation with God. After all, Paul tells the Christians in Thessalonica to “Pray without ceasing.” The New Living Translation offers his words as “Never stop praying.” In the days of the early church, I can imagine that praying 24/7 was a little more than what Paul was expecting. If your schedule is like mine, that would be impossible. I feel that the point that Paul was trying to convey is that we should be engaged in prayer, in divine conversation, at every opportunity. While the locations, settings, and times of such prayer are flexible, the purpose – conversation with God – is unchanged.
What are some opportunities to engage in the offering of ongoing prayer? The first opportunity of each day is upon waking. A quick sentence prayer as you sit on the edge of your bed, giving God thanks for another day to love and serve Him would start your day off right. Bedtime is another excellent time – whether privately, with a spouse or child, or as a family. Bedtime has always been a special time in our family as it affords Barbara and I special time with each child, in conversation and in prayer. Another time is at mealtime. Irregardless of whether you are at home or in public, alone or with your family or in a larger group, it is a time appropriate for prayer, giving thanks for the food and asking His blessing upon it. An interesting way in which prayer can become a part of your entire day is in sentence prayers. I used to wear a watch that beeped on the hour. I used that beep to trigger a moment in which I uttered a sentence prayer, regardless of what I was doing. For me, the practice involved what is referred to as a breath prayer. On the exhale, I would say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Lamb of God,” while continuing as I inhaled, “sustain me by your Word and grace.” I’m confident that mine is probably far more wordy or “theological” than most of you would be comfortable with. The idea is to offer a phrase of addressing God as you exhale and offer a request for His blessing as you inhale.
The final special time that we can be in conversation with God is one of my personal favorites, the reason for which I’ll share with you in a moment. It is the time spent alone with God while driving down I-20 at 80 miles per hour (WITH BOTH EYES OPEN, of course)! I’m sure that this is one case in which we are in conversation with God that it would be understood and preferred by Him that our eyes remain open. From personal experience, during those days in which it took me more than two and a half hours to make a one-way 90 mile commute to seminary, some of the best conversations I enjoyed with God were with eyes wide open. The reason this time is one of my favorites is the letter I received as our family was preparing to move back to Texas. It was penned by a church member, a young mother who had a lengthy commute each day to work. In her letter she shared that one of the greatest blessings to her of my ministry was the day “you gave me permission to pray with my eyes open.”
Applying the Word to the World
We can appreciate that God knows us better than anyone else, that He cares about us more than anyone else, and that He loves us more than anyone else. We understand that He created us to be social creatures with the ability to interact and converse with those around us. What we must also understand is that He is anxious to hear our thoughts, our desires, our dreams, and our needs. God created us to be in conversation with Him; to engage in more than just conversation, to share with Him in divine conversation!