March 1, 2023
It is the season we call Lent. The countdown to Easter 2023 has begun.
There are a number of traditions associated with this period. Some involve sacrifice or giving up something. For the most part, the purpose of all these traditions is to try to inspire us to cleanse our mind and life of distractions that limit our ability to focus on the things of God. This year, some in our congregation are using Lent as a time to strengthen our understanding and attention to, what the Rev. Dale Edwards might call, the classic Christian discipline of prayer. As I reflected on this pursuit, I was reminded of a song my wife and I used to sing. A couple of years after we moved back to Vermont, my wife and I began to host a weekly Bible study in our home, that ultimately continued for over seven years. We adopted what some books call a cell group structure.
We began with "food fellowship" - a half hour of socializing over coffee, tea, lemonade, and an ever-changing plate of snacks and desserts. We then gathered around my electronic piano, which had recordings of praise hymns and choruses from the so-called Maranatha Green Book. This was followed by an interactive discussion and application sharing, centered on our weekly selection of Bible verses. Finally, we ended our evening with, what some might call, an old-fashioned prayer meeting. After sharing some prayer concerns for the week, we all sat in a circle and prayed, each in turn, each as he or she was led, until we came full circle. Some were short, others long; some were eloquent complete sentences, others were just heart-felt cries; all were a part of our conversation with our heavenly father. Clearly, these weekly meetings, were more than just a class on the meaning of a portion of Scripture. They were in their own way a small cell church - a body of mutually supportive believers. It was from this context that I remembered one of the praise songs we used to sing from the Maranatha Green Book. (But it was also in the Maranatha Red Book, that Jessica Christian sometimes plays from in our Sunday Worship services.) The song was entitled, Create In Me A Clean Heart, based on Psalm 51: 10-12. I believe, that one of the prerequisites for a strong prayer life, is to come to it with what this song calls a Clean Heart, or a Right Spirit, or what David, the Psalmist calls a Broken Spirit, and a Contrite Heart. The key verses from Psalm 51 are:
Psalm 51: 10, 17 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me ... The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart; O God, thou wilt not despise.
At the most basic level, we understand this to mean, that we are to remove the sin from our life, that can hinder our communication and fellowship with God. Some traditions would have us confess these sins. Others recommend we follow Paul's advice in his epistle to the Corinthians regarding communion.
I Corinthians 11: 28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.
Most of us kind of get these verses in the context of what we might call obvious sins - where we did something God has commanded us not to do in some form or other. We usually freely admit, that these can be obstacles in developing a close relationship with God, and that we really ought to get rid of them. But what about those not so obvious obstacles?
The ones, that come first to my mind, are those hurts, those resentments, those ill feelings that build up whenever someone else "did us wrong." The other party was clearly in the wrong, and we were just an innocent victim, if you will. Judith Viorst writes in her book, Necessary Losses, this example
And take a nice lady like me, the year that a twelve year old bully was picking on one of my children, sending him home in great distress. On many occasions, I have to confess, I solved the problem by mentally shoving him in front of a truck.
The trouble is, these hurts, slights, and outright attacks, do not always come from nasty strangers. Many times the source is a loved one - a sibling, a spouse, a friend, a co-worker, or even a pastor, when they did not meet our needs, or live up to our expectations in some way. Sometimes these arise because there is a mis-understanding, sometimes because we see things differently, and others because they are simply imperfect human beings. Depending on how significant the hurt was, we, the innocent party, can feel justified in our hurt, anger, and resentment. Allowed to fester, it becomes an obstacle to all our relationships, including the one we have with God.
Jesus was so concerned about these types of situations and their impact on the body, he instructed the disciples,
Matthew 5: 22 - 24 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment ... Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them, then come and offer your gift.
And again he answered Peter's direct question,
Matthew 18: 21 - 22 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister, who sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven."
You see, there is nothing more fundamental to Christianity than grace and mercy. The idea is that we do not "get what we deserve," but rather receive a free gift of what we do not deserve - mercy! After all, Jesus set the example, as he was being crucified,
Luke 23: 34 Jesus said, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
What does this have to do with praying you ask?
Well, every Sunday in our morning worship service, we pray what has become known as the Lord's Prayer together. It comes from Jesus' answer to his disciples, when they asked him to teach them how to pray.
Matthew 6: 9 - 13 This then is how you should pray: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one."
Samuel Clemens, who you may know better by his pen-name, Mark Twain, once observed that "the only Bible verses that bothered him were the ones that he understood." This is one of those I think he was talking about. Its meaning is perfectly clear. It is just that it is one of those "hard" sayings. Its hardness arises from the pesky little word, "as." Jesus suggested that we pray and ask forgiveness, but only insofar, and limited by the extent to which, we have been able to forgive others. That little "as" is the one-word summary of the so-called Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor in Matthew 18: 23 - 35. Lest there be any remaining confusion as to how we are to interpret these verses, they are again summarized in two verses in:
Matthew 6: 14 - 15 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Whole volumes have been written on the theological implications of these verses. But, for the purposes of this little note on how we should prepare ourselves to come before the throne of grace in prayer, I think it is clear, we should be cleansing our hearts of all resentments, un-resolved anger, and other hurts, and showing forth God's grace in us towards others. The full song, Create In Me A Clean Heart, based on Psalm 51: 10-12 is as follows:
Create in me a clean heart, O God
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence, O Lord;
and take not thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Amen. I invite each of you to leave a comment below or share a related story of your own. Your Brother in Christ, Warren Warren J. Ayer, Jr. Chairperson, Board of Deacons, United Church of Colchester