Heart Change: Reviving Our Faith

Let me ask you to think for a minute or two about who has authority in your life. Who’s voice do you trust? Your doctor, a teacher, an employer? We trust different people for advice about different parts of our lives – for health, for education, for work. We trust some friends or advisors more than others because of their integrity and wisdom. We’re going to think a little today about what gives those voices authority and what effect a real voice of authority might have in our lives.
Let us place ourselves in the presence of the Creator and the real authority of our lives as we Listen for this authoritative word of scripture, of the voice of the Living God, has to say to us this morning from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 1: 21 -28.

Mark 1:21-28 They came to Capernaum, and on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and began to teach. The people were spellbound by the teaching, because Jesus taught with an authority that was unlike their religious scholars. Suddenly a person with an unclean spirit appeared in their synagogue. It shrieked. “What do you want from us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebuked the spirit sharply.  “Be quiet!  Come out of that person!” At that the unclean spirit convulsed the possessed one violently, and with a loud shriek it came out. All who looked on were amazed. They began to ask one another.  “What is this?  A new teaching and with such authority!  This person even gives orders to unclean spirits and they obey” Immediately news of Jesus spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Feb. 1, 2015        

Heart Change: Reviving Our Faith

In 1983 I decided to go to seminary. I had been a community organizer for 3 or 4 years. I thought of that as being a minister in the community, without a church. I was thinking I might really like to be a minister inside the church, instead of outside. It wasn’t that I had spent a lot of time in church. I was not confident of a calling to ministry, but I was really excited to study theology and to test out a calling.
When I went back to Cincinnati for Thanksgiving that year, we gathered around the family table with guests. My father turned to me and said, “Since you are going to seminary, let’s have you say the prayer tonight.” I gulped. I felt totally unprepared. This was the first time that I realized that if you take on the authority of being a pastor, people expect you to pray… out loud… so they can hear… right in front of them. A lot of times people don’t feel like they need to give you any warning, any time to think, or figure out what might actually be helpful to say in a prayer.
I choked down my protest – or maybe I didn’t, I don’t remember. I wasn’t shy about letting my dad know when I disagreed about him with something. I think I did figure out some words to say in prayer, and I started from then on to be ready for any sudden request, to speak these intimate words to God in a very public way. It was only later that I found out what musicians mostly know, “A wrong note played timidly is a wrong note. A wrong note played with authority is an interpretation.”

Public prayer is an art and a gift. When prayer comes from the heart, you can tell. Real prayer can move your soul and stir you up. Prayer with authority can bring a community together. Prayer with integrity and authority can be healing and soothing, or unsettling and afflicting. Sometimes public prayer can move from unsettling and healing and back again within a few minutes.
Anybody can pray. Anybody can pray for a family, or for a church, or for a group. I have probably let this congregation rely on me too much for public prayer. I let you get lazy in assuming that I’m the one who needs to pray over a delicious potluck, or to say a prayer of healing in our healing service.
I have heard people here say beautiful prayers. Noni Nash takes the authority to say grace with the women when I eat with them every Tuesday and it’s always a lovely and authentic prayer, just right for that time and place.
I’ve heard some people say some awkward prayers too, stumbling to put some words together, worried about what people might think. “Uh, God…. Thank you for this meeting. Thank for bringing us here. thank for getting us out of here. Amen.”
That works! That’s a perfectly fine prayer. Anybody can pray. God will give you the words. You can claim the time, the breath, the moment you need to say what needs to be said.
Jesus gets confronted in the synagogue toward the beginning of his ministry, not just by an awkward moment, but by a person with an unclean spirit. In the Gospel of Mark, more than in any of the other gospels, Jesus is portrayed as a healer, as an exorcist, as a miracle worker. It is not his followers who recognize his power and authority in these ways. It is the demons, or evil spirits. They are the ones who call out. “We know who you are! You have come to destroy us.”
We have no categories in which to put this kind of story, except horror movies like the Exorcist. Our prayer life is so meek and tame compared to this story. I think we underestimate the power that’s needed to take on the hurt and distress in the world when we think our feeble prayers are strong enough on their own. That’s why I risk looking a little ridiculous by having healing services here every month. Not because I think I can be an exorcist. Far from it. We are doing healing services because there is so much hurt and distress out there, that it would be irresponsible and sad not to challenge them aside from making an announcement about our prayer concerns.

I’m still learning to pray. Just this last year, my friend Hal suggested a way to pray that I hadn’t thought of before. He admitted that he noticed that sometimes he was telling people he would pray for them, but then forgot to actually do it. This practice seems to be somewhat acceptable in our churches. We say, “I’ll pray for you “ and that is the extent of it. That’s the prayer. That’s the good wish. “I’ll pray for you.”
Sometimes, people take it a step further to make sure their loved one gets on our prayer list at church, assuming that the people in authority here have a more direct line to God somehow, and our prayer will get heard more than yours. Or sometimes I know the assumption is that having more people praying will make the prayer more effective.
That may well be true. What I know, though, is that your own prayer has the biggest effect on yourself. Hal said that he decided that he would not tell people he would pray for them unless he really meant it. That meant that he would not wait to pray for them. He would take the time to pray for them right when he said it.
He stops what he’s doing and takes a little time to take the person with him in his mind to a safe and beautiful place, a healing and lovely place. So I’ve been taking up this practice for the last 6 months or so. I try not to tell people I’m going to pray for them. I pray for them and then let them know I did. Or let them know that I’m going to pray for them right now.
I close the computer or stop what I’m doing. I take a few deep breaths and I imagine the person in my mind. I take them with me to a beautiful place on the Appalachian Trail, up a mountain that I climbed with a friend 30 years ago. It’s a sunny beautiful day. To make it go quickly I’ve built an elevator of light up the mountain. I take the person in the elevator of light up to the top, looking out over a valley of autumn color. There’s a woodchuck who lives on the overlook and sometimes she has something to say about the whole situation as well.
This way of praying, as you can imagine, relaxes and calms my mind. It heals my worry and turmoil about the people I care about who are in a lot of pain. It helps me to be present for them and think about them and give them my full attention. It silences my frenzied unclean spirit so that I can be more fully in the world.