Answered Prayer

What happens in us after we pray? What is our heart attitude? What is our mental attitude? What about those things that still hover in our periphery but we no longer pray about? What do we do with seemingly unanswered prayer? What do we do with answered prayer, especially when it’s not answered the way we expected? What do we really believe about prayer? What do we really believe about God?

Put yourself in this scene: Zechariah has just learned from a heavenly messenger that after years and years of praying, his deep desire to have a son will happen, and not only that, his son is going to be appointed by God to prepare the way for the messiah. How did Zechariah respond to this news? Did he jump for joy? Nope. Quite the opposite in fact:

 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

 When his time of service was completed, he returned home.  (Luke 1:18-23)

As Pastor John was preaching on this passage, and as I was pondering Zechariah’s response,  I thought of researcher Brene Brown’s thoughts on joy. She says:

 

“If you ask me what’s the most terrifying, difficult emotion we feel as humans…I would say joy. (We fear) something bad’s going to happen’… we lose our tolerance for vulnerability. Joy becomes foreboding: ‘I’m scared it’s going to be taken away. The other shoe’s going to drop…’  we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.

I’ve been there. Have you? Zechariah most certainly was. He was not in a mental position or heart position to get his hopes up again. He knew the odds were stacked against him, that he and Elizabeth were too old to have a child, and he had experienced too much pain over their barrenness to let this angel, this messenger from God, erode the protective wall he’d built around his heart over this particular subject.

Since an angel appearing in the holiest place of the temple wasn’t proof enough that God was about to do the impossible, Zechariah asks “how can I be sure?” He then speaks his “I am” statement; his rational argument as to why the angel’s words can’t be true…”I am old; my wife is old…”

The messenger responds with his own “I am” statement: “I am Gabriel”.  Gabriel’s name would not have been unfamiliar to Zechariah the priest. Gabriel was the angel who visited Daniel in the Old Testament. Gabriel goes on to say: “I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to tell you this good news…”

What on earth went through Zechariah’s heart and mind at this revelation? I feel fairly certain that, had it been me, I would no longer be standing. Despite the fact that Gabriel’s first words to Zechariah were “Don’t be afraid”, I think at this point in the encounter I would have been terrified.

What follows for Zechariah’s doubt is the consequence of silence until John the Baptist’s birth; however, God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. That’s an important thing for us to remember. Yes, there was a consequence for Zechariah, but God’s kindness, God’s miracle, and God’s purpose were not thwarted by his doubt. Zechariah and Elizabeth were still going to have the son who would be the forerunner of the messiah.

What about us? What is our posture around prayer–especially over those things that come from the deepest parts of us? According to Sunday’s sermon:

  1. We can lose hope.
  2. We can hang on to a glimmer of hope.

I have definitely experienced both. I have lost hope on dark journeys. Hopelessness leads to despair, and in those dark places of despair, faith dies. Our perception of God’s character gets warped to the point that God seems cruel, distant, not worth pursuing. I’ve been there. What those seasons in my life have led to is self-destruction which spills over into others-destruction. None of us is an island.

Hanging on to a glimmer of hope is a better option. Henry Blackaby, in his classic Bible study “Experiencing God” reminds us that Truth is a person. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that he is the way, the truth, and the life. What does it mean for truth to be a person? The way I understand it is that no matter what we see–what seems obvious to our physical beings and our limited understanding–God always has the final word. In the gospels, when Jesus showed up, humanly impossible situations changed in an instant.  The incurable were cured. The dead were raised. The outcasts were embraced. God always has the final word, and in this case, an old barren husband and wife were going to bear a son.

Zechariah had lost hope in this dream. It would appear that he believed God listened to the prayers of the people, but had given up hope that God listened to his personal prayer…after all, years had passed.

What about you? Are you full of faith when you pray for others but when it comes to yourself do you struggle to believe that God even cares? Do you struggle to believe that some of the huge things you are praying about can change? Do you believe that you (and the deep desires of your heart) matter to God?

I’m not going to say that any of this is easy. We certainly don’t always get our prayers answered in the ways we desire; God is not Santa Clause, but what we do get is deep connection with God, the assurance of God’s “withness” even in the hard seasons. Is that enough for us? If so, no matter the outcome of our prayers, we can experience joy, and there is a secret to that joy…

Brene Brown states: “I have never interviewed a single person who talks about the capacity to really experience and soften into joy who does not actively practice gratitude.”

Can we muster up gratitude even in the dark? Can we thank God for being with us in the dark? Can we thank God for hearing us? Can we thank God because we know He himself is Truth, and therefore, there is always a glimmer of hope?

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2)

Zechariah’s son was the forerunner to that light who shone into our deep darkness . Zechariah’s son was impossible in human terms…but he was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth anyway, for nothing is impossible with God. Do we believe that?

Do we believe that The Light clothed himself in flesh and showed us what God really looks like? Is there enough of a glimmer of hope that we believe the message of the angels who said that Jesus’ birth brought peace and good will for all of us? Do we believe?

Practice gratitude. Hold on to hope. Your prayers have been heard, and our loving God, in His time and His way will respond.

–Luanne

On Sunday, as I listened to Pastor John talk about losing hope, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ephesians 2:14. The verse begins with the words, “For he himself is our peace…” (NIV) Paul is referring to Jesus here. In 1 Timothy 1:1, Paul writes about Jesus as “our hope”. Luanne wrote about God himself being truth. She referenced John 14:6, where Jesus (the visible image of the invisible God) states, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” These verses don’t say that Jesus gives us peace, or that he offers hope, or leads us to truth. They state that he IS our peace, our hope, the truth.

This is so significant to me. It has been years–going on a decade now–since I first discovered Ephesians 2:14. I remember how it felt to my heart to let those words wash over me. I had been married five or six years, was mommy to four littles (all born within five years), and life was chaos. We had just experienced a season in our marriage that wreaked havoc on my heart, we were adjusting to a new church family, and we were struggling with jobs, finances, and our own obvious lack. I was in my mid-twenties, and I was starving for a real, authentic relationship with God. Despite my lack of time, the chaos around and within me, and the exhaustion of mothering a baby and three toddlers largely on my own in that season, I was chasing after God. I got up early and stayed up late because I was desperate for him. I was trying so hard to be everything I thought I needed to be, and my mind was a land mine. Peace was seemingly out of reach. And then…

“For he himself is our peace…” 

This changed everything for me. I began to see Jesus differently, and I began to find freedom from trying to force a peace I craved, but couldn’t seem to muster up. The recognition that Jesus is our peace led me to understand that he is the embodiment of all that we are not. He is our joy when we are grieving, our hope when we are hopeless, our truth when lies spin our minds crazy, our way when we’re lost in the dark, our life when we feel dead inside. He is not simply the giver of these good things–he IS these things. And if we know him, regardless of the desperate state we may find ourselves in, we have access to all of it at all times. The glimmer of hope that Luanne wrote about that can keep us from despair, it doesn’t come from us. That hope that shines in the darkness is Jesus himself. 

Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet. I feel a lot of compassion for this man in his doubt… God had been silent for 400 years. For all we know, Elizabeth could have been all the way through menopause, making it physiologically impossible for her womb to be open and able to carry a baby. Perhaps they had prayed fervently for decades, maybe long after her body went through changes that rendered child-bearing an impossibility. It’s possible that for them, to stop praying for a child felt like a hard-fought surrender, like the death of a dream that they had to grieve. Maybe they thought that laying it down was their way of trusting God’s will for them in the wake of their despair. We don’t know the details. We do know from Luke’s account of this couple that they were righteous and blameless and followed all of God’s commandments. We know they, in their old age, continued to seek God, despite their disappointment and the presumed curse of barrenness that marked them culturally. And we know that, like Luanne wrote about, Zechariah faithfully lifted prayers for his people.

I can’t imagine what 400 years without a word from God felt like to the priests who continued to pray. That’s almost twice as long as our country has existed. The United States of America is 243 years old. Let that sink in. When I really pause and think about it, Zechariah’s doubt makes so much sense to me. I’d like to think that a visit from an angel would be more than enough to resurrect any lost hope in me… but I probably would have reacted in a similar way.

I’ll mention again here that Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet–not in the way that we do. He hadn’t yet come on the scene, and the people didn’t have the access to him that we have now.

But I can still doubt like he did… Even on the other side of the resurrection, with the Holy Spirit living within me, I can find it hard to access the glimmer of hope that is Jesus alive in me.

I’m so grateful that doubting doesn’t cause God to remove his good gifts from us. Luanne wrote, “God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. “ I wrote similar words in my notes on Sunday. Zechariah’s doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving from God. It did cost him the ability to speak for a while. Which was probably not a lot of fun. But you know what? I’m so thankful that scripture has this record of his humanity… his failure of faith, his doubting. And I’m even more thankful for the record of God’s faithfulness. I’m glad the story doesn’t record a perfect man reacting perfectly in a moment of shock and fear and disbelief. It makes the story relatable, believable, and it speaks to the heart of a good and loving God.

Because we all doubt. We all experience moments where hope seems out of reach, and the heaviness of despair settles in and stays a while. I wasn’t sure if I’d write about this or not, but I can’t seem to shake it (even though I’d like to)… So, I’ll tell you a bit about my own crisis of hope.

When my mom was dying, so many people prayed for her to be healed. Including her. She prayed with hope and expectation and she believed her God would answer. She never wavered, and there were many alongside us who lived out that same unshakable faith.

I wasn’t one of those people. I prayed faithfully for healing early on. But as her disease progressed–somewhere along the way–I stopped asking. I lost sight of any glimmer of hope.

It still grieves my heart to write those words, more than five years after losing her. I couldn’t pray for her healing because I couldn’t grab onto enough hope to say the words. What I was seeing with my eyes told me that we were approaching the end of her days with us. I had also experienced dreams and conversations with God during which I believed he was preparing my heart for the coming loss, but I still wish I could have prayed with hope and faith and believed for her healing. I believe that God can do the impossible. I’ve seen him work miracles in the lives of many–including myself. But I couldn’t find hope enough to believe it for my mom. I tried, but my heart couldn’t rise to pray. I prayed for mercy, for relief from her pain, for so many other things–but as she got sicker and sicker, I stopped praying with hope for her miracle.

There were those who, in the wake of her death, had the audacity to suggest that we didn’t have enough faith, and that’s why she died. Even though I know God doesn’t work that way, you can imagine the way that hit my heart. The questions that swirled… The what-ifs… I struggled with feeling responsible for her death–for so many reasons. One of those reasons was my own lack of hope, my failure to ask for a miracle I didn’t have the courage to believe God for.

I’m so grateful that I know we don’t have a transactional God. This is what the story of Zechariah reminds me of, and why I’m so grateful it’s recorded with all of the messy included. His doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving the gift of his son, just like my doubt didn’t cause my mom’s death. Our God is not an “if this/then that” God. He is a good Father and he gives good gifts. There is so much we’ll never understand about why things happen the way they do, but we can trust that our God, as he was revealed in Jesus, is good. He is our truth, our peace, our hope, our life. He is all that we are not, and we have access to all that he is--even when we can only see a glimmer. Even when we can’t see at all. He never ceases to be all of this and more, so we are never truly hopeless. Because he is always with us. 

As we approach Christmas Day and the celebration of the arrival of our God in human flesh, I pray that we’ll each be able to see the glimmer of light that is Jesus. I pray that as his light dawns, we’ll find the hope that we need to hold on and keep believing–even on the darkest nights–and that we’ll be assured by the gracious love of our Father that he does hear and answer our prayers, even when we doubt.

–Laura

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JOY II (Like Never Before)

Joy. We found it last week–unnamed as such, yet present in a story that connected fasting with a wedding celebration, fabric, and wineskins. We began looking at what joy is–and what it isn’t. Here’s an excerpt from last week’s post to remind you where we ended up:

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. JOY (Like Never Before)

Joy cannot be experienced apart from Jesus. Last week Pastor John laid the foundation for our understanding of joy, and this week Pastor Beau built upon it. Our exploration of joy took us away from the book of Mark for a week and into a story found only in the book of Luke. More than likely, you are familiar with this story in Luke 19:1-10. It is the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. If you don’t remember the actual story, maybe these lyrics will jog your memory:

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, And a wee little man was he… He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…”

Do you remember the song? Likely, many of us sang it as children. Pastor Beau pointed out that while the song serves its purpose to help us remember the story, we have sadly reduced this complex, beautiful story into a sing-along song. And we’ve probably missed some key points.

Take a moment to read the story the way Luke recorded it in his gospel:

Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way. When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.”  Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled. Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

There are so many directions to go in discussion of this story, but our focus this week is joy, so we’ll start there. The word joy shows up about midway through the story. In some translations, the word joy is replaced with words like gladness or excitement, but the original Greek word in this passage is “chairo”, which does mean “joy” or “rejoice”.  When does joy show up in the story? When Jesus shows up, sees Zacchaeus–the one who was desperate to see Him, calls him by name, and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Pastor Beau highlighted for us that “The joy didn’t come until Jesus showed up.” Zacchaeus had been living a joyless existence–we’ll look at why in a moment–but as soon as Jesus showed up, joy was present, too. In his presence there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11)–Wherever you find Jesus, you find joy also.

But what about the others who were with Jesus? Those in the crowd? Their response to Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus was not joyful. The text tells us that they were “displeased”, and that they “grumbled”. How is this possible if there is fullness of joy in Jesus’ presence? In another gospel, the book of Matthew, Jesus addresses a similar situation:

For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But                    blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:15-16 NIV)

The crowd was with Jesus physically, but they couldn’t see him or hear him the way Zacchaeus was able to. Because Zacchaeus was looking for him. He was desperate to see this One he had heard so much about. I imagine he had ideas about him, ponderings… But the crowd had expectations. We know this because the parable Jesus tells immediately after the story of Zacchaeus is told to address the crowd’s expectation that He would, in his power and glory, soon set up an earthly kingdom that would defeat their political and military enemies. Their expectations got in the way of them seeing and hearing him rightly. So when he spoke and acted in ways that were contrary to their expectations, their response was one of anger and confusion–not joy.

In this particular story, I think the peoples’ anger hinged not so much on Jesus choosing to stop to talk with Zacchaeus, but on one of the words Jesus chose to use. We have learned as we’ve studied the ministry of Jesus that nothing he says or does is by accident. His words are carefully chosen–always. In this story, Jesus uses a word that shows up as “must” in our English translations. This one tiny word packed a punch in the original language. When Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today”, he is saying, “it is necessary, right and proper, a necessity of duty and equity for me to come to your house today. 

Right? Proper? Did Jesus know who he was talking to? Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector. A filthy sinner guilty of grievous crimes. A thief among thieves. Certainly it’s not right or proper for Jesus to dine with his kind… I imagine they bristled. Maybe their mouths fell open and they took a step back. While these words may have agitated and confused them, I belief it was the sense of equity that the word carried that stirred the crowd’s anger most of all.

We haven’t written about equity in a while, but it is crucial that we understand what it is if we want to see the bigger picture of the upside-down kingdom of Jesus. Equity is the quality of being impartial, doing whatever it takes to set things right for each one individually. It is not equality. Equality treats every person the same regardless of circumstance. Equality can create further injustice, whereas equity is synonymous with biblical justice–the justice that is about wholeness and making things right, the restorative justice that is at the heart of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.

So when the crowd heard Jesus speak a word that implied the necessity of setting things right for Zacchaeus–the one who acted unjustly (and with impunity) toward their community, they were mad. They had in mind the kind of justice that we broken humans have a proclivity toward–the retributive kind. This desire for retributive justice is what fueled the people’s expectation of Jesus setting up a powerful, enemy-crushing kingdom rather than the one he actually brought with him.

Back to Zacchaeus… his joy was uncontainable. He hurried to the ground and hosted Jesus in his home. We even see Jesus’ equitable treatment of him extend through Zacchaeus as he changed his mind about how he’d been living and vowed to set things right with those he’d treated unjustly.

This is the power of the presence of Jesus.

An encounter with him changes everything. Zacchaeus had been living a life of marked by stealing from others. And it was stealing any sense of joy he may have had prior. Pastor Beau told us there are five “Joy Stealers” present in this story. Maybe some of these are familiar to us, too…

Secrets: What we think/say/do that no one else sees; what you decide isn’t necessary to share. Zacchaeus made up charges as he taxed his community. How he came up with each charge was hidden from them.

Separation: Being pushed out or isolated from your family, friends, community; a sense of being disconnected from what you were once connected to. It feels like rejection or abandonment, and once it happens, it can get historical when it happens again. Zacchaeus lived a life of isolation from everyone in his community. He lived among them, but was not included as one of them. He was more than disconnected–he was hated.

Shadows: Different than separation. You live in the shadows when you refuse to step in. This is a place of invisibility, a life of being unseen. It is hiding who you are, backing out of the picture and refusing to let others in. (Side note that Beau highlighted: Jesus is always willing to step into the shadows to find you. Always.)

Shame: This one is connected to all the others, and can cause you to move into the shadows. Shame is when you form a negative identity (who you are) based on your mistakes (what you’ve done). It’s complex, and it is brutal. It is trying to separate yourself from what God sees in you. Interestingly, Zacchaeus’ name means “pure”. Not a word that anyone would have chosen to describe the life he was living before he saw Jesus. But what he’d been doing didn’t define him–it wasn’t his identity. After meeting Jesus, he lived into the meaning of his name.

Status Quo: The antithesis of growth. Sameness. No change. Living in the status quo, holding tightly to “normal” can feel safer than changing. Change is hard. It’s scary. It means stepping out of our own neat and tidy boxes into a space where Jesus can reframe the picture we see. Sometimes, we can trick ourselves into thinking that there is joy in our static, unmoving, safe existence. But there can’t be. Because life with Jesus is ever-changing, always growing, and completely uncontainable. We simply cannot box him in. If we try, we end up following (and worshiping) our idea of him and the safety that we’ve slapped his name on as “blessing” or “favor” rather than following Jesus himself.

Zacchaeus sees Jesus. Hears him speak his name. And in a moment, he trades in all these joy-stealers for the fullness of joy found in Jesus alone.

It’s important to note that we don’t have evidence in these verses of Zacchaeus acknowledging his many sins and asking for forgiveness prior to his salvation. We do see that he changes his mind (repents) and decides to make amends, but that’s all we are given. Yet… Jesus says, “salvation has come to your house today”. This is one of many stories that Luke includes in his gospel that stands in opposition to a formulaic plan for forgiveness and salvation. And it’s interesting to ponder. We don’t have time to dive into theological debate here, but I think passages like this one challenge us to look outside of the theological structure we were handed and explore for ourselves what the often familiar words mean.

Jesus gives us one more thing to chew on in this story before he moves on. He says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” This is fascinating, because again, if we take a closer look, it challenges some of what we think we “know”. Pastor Beau asked us to remember the parables of the lost coin, lost sheep, lost son… In all of these stories, the word “lost” implies prior possession. These things belonged to the one who was looking for them. Before they were lost. While they were lost. After they were found. Being lost didn’t remove their belonging. I’m not going to walk that out further this week–I’ve already written a lot of words. But I hope all of us will think about it, pray about it, and read Jesus’ words with fresh eyes–eyes that are seeking him rather than focused on our expectations of him. 

Where have you lost your way? What is stealing your joy? Look up at Jesus. He’s already looking for you.

–Laura

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