Monday, February 6, 2012

Prayer as...

But Moses said to God
Exodus 3:10, 4:10-13
            I was at the funeral for a family friend’s father this week when my father poked me and pointed across the church aisle to an elder lady he identified as my kindergarten teacher. Following the service there was a reception for the family and sure enough I recognized her and she said she recognized me. Picture. I attended kindergarten at the Baptist church my grandmother and former kindergarten teacher still attend. She remembered me because I when I started kindergarten I was months removed from open heart surgery. Turns out my kindergarten teacher’s granddaughter had the same condition I did, but it went undiagnosed in her though she too had successful surgery. Also at my family friend’s father’s funeral, the family friend told a few stories about my dad’s younger days that were somewhat embarrassing which was fun. It was interesting watching my dad, my mom and some former classmates reminisce. So despite the tears and sadness there was also joy and even a strange sense of home for me. It is interesting how we can experience feelings of home in such strange places. Here I was surrounded by an atmosphere of grief yet celebration for a life well lived; a group of mostly strangers I had never met with a few who knew me and my family well; in a church I had never been in, and yet there was comfort and reunions. Home can found in the strangest of places.
            Moses. I wonder if you asked him where his home was what his answer would have been. You remember the story. Moses was born a Hebrew at a time when the Pharaoh had decreed all Hebrew babies to be killed. Moses’ name means drawn out. Moses was drawn up out of the water by Pharaoh’s daughter but then nursed by his own mother. Decades later, Moses a man of compassion, saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew ended up killing and trying to cover up his murder. Seeing two Hebrews fighting and again trying to help, they called Moses on his cover up. Moses then fled as the Pharaoh was seeking to kill Moses. And I mean fled to Midian. We can see on this map how far Midian is from Egypt. Moses had to go far away from home to be safe from Pharaoh’s reach.
Though safe from Pharaoh, Moses received a dangerous call from God. Again Moses’ compassion comes out as he helps the daughters of a priest. This priest, Jethro, became his father in law. When Moses had a son, he named him Gershom which means “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.” Moses recognizes he is not home. His family might be here now, his career his in Midian, but this isn’t home.
            Moses becomes a shepherd for Jethro. One day Moses passed a bush that was burning but not burning up. Turning aside to see this spectacle, God speaks to Moses. Up until this point in the story God has been in the background of the plot. The people are suffering and it is not until the end of chapter two that we hear of God’s compassion, The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.Exodus 2:23-25 Earlier in the story God did deal favorably with the midwives who feared God by not killing the Hebrew children, but other than that God has been a bit absent from the story. But now God and Moses come face to face on top of Mount Horeb. God tells Moses that God has come down to deliver up His people. And the way God will go about doing this is through Moses. It might make some sense for Moses to be humbled by this or even overwhelmed by this call. Moses takes it to a new level.
            In fact, I imagine that if Moses were running for say presidential office of the United States he wouldn’t get very far. Today’s candidates are bold and brash. They put down their opponents, they mock contrary opinions, and most of them have confidence in excess to say it nicely. Moses was far down the confidence scale. Confidence was not a strong point of Moses. With the invention of television to cover political debates, our politicians have also had to become skilled debaters. Moses would have failed on this qualification as well by his own admission.
            When God tells Moses that he is to go to Pharaoh to demand the release of the Hebrew slaves, Moses’ first question is “Who am I?” (Exodus 3:11). Who am I to do such a thing Moses protested. God’s response is to take the burden and focus off of Moses by stating, “I will be with you.” Moses then responded with this second question, “Who are you?” (Exodus 3:13) God then reveals to Moses the divine name, “Yahweh,” normally mistranslated to “Jehovah” which means “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” I favor this later interpretation because it calls for act of faith. If you want to know who I am, God is saying to Moses, just watch what I can do.
Now Moses really begins to back pedal protesting, “It Won’t Work” (Exodus 4:1). “They won’t believe me.” God points out the shepherd’s staff in Moses’ hand. The staff was the symbol of his current career, his current residency, all which Egyptians mocked. This was a symbol of Moses temporary comfort zone. Moses could simply be this forever. Moses could ignore God. There is a rabbinical story that notes that the bush was burning every day and God was waiting for Moses to notice it. I like the story because it reminds me that God is always calling, it’s just a matter of us having the eyes to see it? And once we see it, how will we respond? God asked Moses to throw the staff down. Moses does so and it becomes a snake. God commands Moses to pick up the snake by the tail and it becomes a staff again. God then tells Moses to put his hand in his coat. When Moses pulls it out, it has a skin disease on it, leprosy, that was incurable at the time. God commands Moses to put his hand back in his jacket and when Moses does and then pulls it out it is healed. Moses has proof that what God is asking, God can achieve. This leads to Moses fourth response, “I Can’t!” (Exodus 4:10) Moses reveals that he has a speech impediment. God gets a little testy at this point and questions Moses, “Who gives speech to mortals?” (Exodus 4:11). “Did you forget who created you? Did you forget that I knew that already? Do you really think there is anything I can’t accomplish even through you?” If we’re honest, we’ve had those moments of self-doubt. We’ve had those moments where we have a pity party and wonder if we can ever do anything right. We’re in good company. Moses certainly wondered and doubted. Moses doubted directly toward God. That leads us to Moses fifth response, “I Won’t!” (Exodus 4:13) Actually, Moses puts it this way, But he said, ‘O my Lord, please send someone else.’ Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, ‘What of your brother Aaron, the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad.’Exodus 4:13-14 In loving and angry words, God convinces Moses, that it is not a matter if Moses is up to the task, God is. God stays with Moses, they wrestle together over God’s desire.
            We begin this week a three week exploration of prayer. It may seem really odd to begin with this passage, but I think we can learn a lot about prayer from this interchange between Moses and God. Too often, we settled for a version of prayer that makes God out to be like a gumball machine. I drop in a pray for this, God shoots down an answer. Perhaps a broken gumball machine might be a better analogy because we drop in some prayers and all too often our prayers go unanswered. But really, that's a warped understanding of prayer. Technically when we ask for something in prayer it is a petition. We are petitioning, asking, requesting of God for a certain action like healing or forgiveness. It is petitionary because we can't make God do anything. If we could, we would be practicing magic and not praying before Almighty God. God is free and beyond whatever best intentions we have. We can only petition. But as important as petitionary prayer is, it is not the only way to pray and prayer itself is about much more than simply asking for answers and hoping for solutions.
            Prayer is intentionally being in the presence of God. We tend to be rather pragmatic and utilitarian people. We desire to do something if it works. That’s why people engage in debates about whether prayer works or how it works. If prayer is intentionally being in the presence of God, it is fundamentally about being in God’s presence and not getting answers to our requests. I’m not saying prayer doesn’t work. On the contrary, I absolutely believe it does, but what pray is about primarily is being in the presence of God. I’ve probably used this quote before, but it is worth repeating, “Love loves to be told what it knows already…It wants to be asked for what it longs to give.”[i] P. T. Forsyth. 
A few months ago, following children’s church, one of the workers told me how one of my sons was requesting prayer for their football team or their fantasy football team. My initial response was, honesty, a bit embarrassed. Here I am a pastor and the pastor’s kids are praying for football. Were these really worthy of prayer request? What kind of role model have I been? The more I have thought about though and if we take seriously that prayer is about being in the presence of God with all that we are and all that is concerning us, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world that their prayer request is about football. The more important notion to learn is to present God all that is within us. C. S. Lewis said about prayer that we should “lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.”[ii] Perhaps my over serious side should take a chill pill and instead of focusing on what I think is worthy or not worthy, to continue to cultivate my child’s willingness to bring all His concerns about God so that the point isn’t about getting what we ask for, but about being who we are in the presence of God. Even when that means truly wrestling with God with our doubts, fears, questions, trivialities, all of it.          
We see this with Moses. Moses' prayer seems odd to us. So much so we might not even acknowledge it as prayer. Moses’ dialogues with God, questions God, even argues with God. That's entirely appropriate if prayer is intentionally being who are in the presence of God. God can handle our emotions and doubts. I would even say God welcomes it. God desires that we be honest with Him in prayer. In fact it is rather silly that we aren't honest with God. God is well God and knows anyway whether we verbalize our frustration or anger or whatever feeling it is we think we are holding back with God.
            What we learn from Moses, is that prayer as a place of home. We are home whenever we are in God’s presence. We can experience this home whether we are at a funeral or fleeing for our lives in a foreign land. The early church father Gregory of Nyssa wrote a biography of Moses called The Life of Moses. In the book he notes that our goal is to be in the presence of God like a good friend and the worst state of life is not being a friend of God. “We regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire. This…is the perfection of life.”[iii] I would say that being God’s friend, being intentionally in God’s presence is a life worth living.
            Whether our prayer is answered or not, in God’s presence we are at home. In fact if it is not answered, we’re in good company. In many of the Psalms we read where the Psalmist is crying out for God to answer their prayers as God seems especially absent. “But I, O LORD, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O LORD, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?Psalm 88:13-14 I say to God, my rock, "Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?"Psalm 42:9 We could cite many more. George Buttrick expressed prayer as sometimes like “beating heaven’s door with bruised knuckles in the dark.”[iv] In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed three times for the cup to pass and it doesn’t. Jesus cried out from the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
            Moses cried out to send someone else. God sent Moses. In the beginning of the book of Exodus, we noted how God seemed distant, even absent. By the end of the book of Exodus, God has delivered the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, defeated Pharaoh and his army, as well as becoming radically present with the people of God. This is a new world, a new home for Moses and the people. The most amazing thing about prayer to me, is that God desires to be with us and hear the concerns of our heart. Not simply a god of our making or a god we can manipulate, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Moses and the Father of Jesus Christ desires we make room, find our home, in God’s presence. In this presence, God can change us and do remarkable events through us beyond what we can imagine.
            How do we make time to be intentionally in God’s presence? Are you willing to give God all that you in prayer?

[i] Prayer p. 181
[ii]Prayer 12
[iii] Prayer 150
[iv] Prayer 17

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