Relationship Status

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rev. Dean Snyder

John 15:10-17

There are lots of spiritual practices. A spiritual practice is any activity that sustains and renews your spirit. Reading can be a spiritual practice. Listening to music can be a spiritual practice. Sleeping can be a spiritual practice.

Spiritual disciplines are spiritual practices done as a discipline with some pattern of regularity and intentionality. Reading through the Bible in a year’s time might be a spiritual discipline. Going on retreat once or twice a year might be a spiritual discipline. Going to bed every night at the same time and lying there emptying your mind until you fall asleep might be a spiritual discipline. Worship is a spiritual discipline for many of us. Spiritual disciplines are activities that sustain, strengthen and renew your spirit done with regularity and intentionality as a discipline.

All religions have many, many spiritual practices and disciplines. One of the failings of modern Christianity is that we have so intellectualized faith that we have done a poor job of teaching spiritual practices and disciplines although historically Christianity has had many of them. That’s why so many of us are supplementing our faith with yoga and transcendental meditation and disciplines we learn from Eastern religions that seem to be better at practices and disciplines than modern Christianity is.

Prayer is usually included in the list of spiritual practices and disciplines but it is really something else. It is something different from other spiritual disciplines.

Prayer may sustain and renew your spirit but that is not what prayer is primarily about; if it does sustain and renew your spirit that is a by-product, not the main purpose. And in my experience prayer sometimes does not renew my spirit at all but can sometimes deplete me.

Prayer, as I understand it biblically and within Christian teaching, is not primarily about self-care or self-improvement or mood management or attitude adjustment – although those kinds of things may or may not be byproducts of our prayer lives.

Prayer is primarily about relationship. Prayer is primarily relational within biblical and Christian teaching.

Prayer is what we do to maintain our relationship with someone else … namely God.

Almost all metaphors for our relationship with God in the Bible are based on relationships between people. There are a few metaphors that come from nature but most are based on human relationships.

Parent and child. King and subject. Teacher and student. Master and servant or slave. Employer and employee. Creditor and debtor. Judge and defendant. Business partners. Marriage – the church is the bride of Christ. Friends. Lovers. All of these are biblical metaphors for our relationship with god.

Every relationship has an appropriate means of communication and transaction between the people in relationship.

Prayer is the communication and transaction within our relationship with God and the purpose of praying is to maintain and strengthen the relationship. Everything else is incidental, ancillary. Prayer is all about the relationship.

When you have a Facebook account, Facebook provides certain categories of information that it invites you to share, like who you work for or where you went to school. One of the categories is Relationship Status. People would put things there like married to so-and-so or single or engaged.

At some point someone came with an answer that started spreading and you’ll see it on more and more Facebook pages.

It says—Relationship status: It’s complicated.

Relationships are complicated. And so the way we communicate within our relationships can be complicated as well.

First of all, what is the nature of the relationship? The way I communicate with the president of the United States is different from the way I communicate with my grandson. The way I communicate with Jane at home is different from the way I communicate with the guy from IRS who wants to audit my income tax return.

What do we believe is the nature of our relationship with God? Is it king and subject? Is it judge and defendant? Is it parent and child? Lovers?

What we believe the nature of our relationship with God is makes all the difference in what the communication and transactions between us are like.

It’s complicated.

Here are some more questions — What is it that we expect and want out of the relationship? What do we suppose the other person in the relationship expects and wants out of their relationship with us?

Does the relationship have any baggage? Are there any unaddressed or unresolved issues or secrets in the relationship?

Relationships really can be and usually are complicated between human beings. Think of our relationship with God.

Our prayer lives will be shaped by the nature and quality of our relationship with God and our relationship with God will be shaped by our theological assumptions about who God is and how God feels toward us and the unresolved baggage we have with God.

All week long as I’ve been thinking about this sermon I’ve been thinking about people in my life and who I would want to be like and who I would not want to be like in my relationship with God. It might be an interesting thing for you to think about.

There is a person in my life who will drop me a note or send me a poem from time to time and every time I see a letter from her, I cannot wait to open it because I know it will be the high point of my day.

Wouldn’t it be great if God looked forward to my prayers like I look forward to her notes?

Wouldn’t it be great if God looked forward to spending time with me the way I get hungry to see my grandson if it has been a few weeks?

Wouldn’t it be great if God got lonely for me the way I get lonely for Jane when she is traveling?

Then, of course, there are other people in my life as well.

There is a person I know. I only see him once a year, maybe or less. He usually shows up here and says he needs to talk with me during the coffee hour.

Every time he shows up I know he will ask me for money for a project he is involved in. It is the only time he shows up. The amount of money he will need for his project will be in the thousands and he will need to know then and there whether I will give it to him or else something dreadful will happen by 2 p.m. that afternoon.

So I’ve been thinking all week, what if God feels about hearing from me the way I feel about hearing from that guy?

Then there are all of the people out there who think they know me and what I think when they find out what my occupation is. They presume to know what I believe and value and think because I am a Methodist minister. I hate those conversation where I have to explain that I am not their superficial assumptions about what ministers are like.

What if God feels that way toward the assumptions I carry around about what God must think? What if God feels toward me like I do when a person sits next to me on a plane and asks me what I do?

If we understand that pray is primarily and first and foremost relational, there are four important ways this helps us with our prayer lives, I think, and I want to just rattle them off quickly.

First, I know it is not theologically correct these days according to the seminaries, but I believe in progressive revelation. I think God’s self-revelation becomes clearer and clearer over time from the beginning of the Bible to the end. I know whether that is because God gets better at revealing God’s self or whether we get better at understanding what God is trying to tell us but I think God’s revelation is progressively clearer over time in the Bible.

As a rule, the metaphors for God’s relationship to us become more and more intimate over time. The Bible starts in the early literature with metaphors that are distant and formal – king, sovereign, law-giver, and judge – and over time they become more and more intimate, culminating in Jesus’ abba – daddy, mommy, and Revelation’s image of the church as the bride of Christ.

I think God has been persistently trying to communicate that God wants an intimate relationship with us rather than one based on power or position.

When we pray our goal should be greater and greater intimacy.

There is a scene I like in the old movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. God appears to Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. They get off their horses and bow down with their heads on the ground. God says, “Oh, don’t grovel. If it is one thing I can’t stand its people groveling.”

I believe God’s purpose for God’s relationship with us is intimacy … friendship … companionship … knowing and being known.

Here’s what I think is an indication of a healthy prayer life – if you find yourself laughing during your prayers.

The second thing is this: In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, after God says to Arthur, stop groveling. Arthur says, “Sorry.’ God says: “And don’t apologize. Every time I try to talk to somebody its sorry this and forgive me that …” Stop apologizing.

I do not believe that God is as nearly obsessed with our sins and failings and shortcomings as we are.

I think the reason forgiveness is such a big emphasis in the Bible is because God doesn’t want to spend a lot of time listening to us reciting our sins and failings and shortcomings. I think God is much more interested in the future than the past. I think God is always ready to get on with it.

OK, you sinned. What’s new? Is there anything you can learn from it? Okay, what should we do together now?

The last thing God wants …I believe… is for our obsession with our own guilt and our unwilling to let it go get in the way of a relationship with her.

Say, “I’m sorry I hurt you. Thank you for forgiving me. Here’s what I’m thinking about doing. What do you think?”

Number 3. God wants to know you and God wants you to know her. God knows you but God doesn’t know what it is like to be you unless you tell her. We might know God theoretically but God wants us to know his inner heart and mind.

The reading from John for today is very interesting. Jesus says to his disciples that he is not going to call them servants anymore but friends. The way he defines friendship is the interesting part. Jesus says: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15)

Our greatest desire in praying is to know the heart of God and to share what is in our heart with God. God wants us to know her heart.

Number 4. Real relationships affect both persons in the relationship. Real relationships change both persons in the relationship. Our prayer lives … our relationship with God … changes us. Our prayers also change God. The reason prayer changes things is because prayer changes God’s heart and mind and, however you believe God acts in the world, God changes things.

Hear My Prayer, O Lord…

by Barbara Hamby

Hear my prayer, O Lord, though all I do all day is watch

old black-and-white movies on TV. Speak to me

through William Powell or Myrna Loy, solve the mystery

of my sloth. Show me the way to take a walk or catch

a cold, anything but read another exposé

of the Kennedys. Teach me to sing or at least play

the piano. For ten years I took lessons, and all

I learned was to hate Bach. Shake me up or down. Call

me names. Break my ears with AC/DC—I deserve far

worse. Rebuke me in front of my ersatz friends. Who cares?

They don’t like me much anyway. Make me fat in lieu

of thin. Give me a break or don’t. I’m a hundred million

molecules in search of an author. If that’s you, thank you

for my skin. Without it I’d be in worse shape than I’m in.