Washed

Maundy Thursday is probably my favorite service of the year. The gravitas of that sacred night lends extra buoyancy to the joy of Easter. The darkness of the Upper Room makes the brightness of Easter more brilliant. The cup, the bread, the candles, singing “Where You There?” Hearing the scriptures about the prayer in Gethsemane, the kiss, the arrest. This is heavy stuff, made heavier with the knowledge that this machination of manipulation and betrayal will end in Jesus’ death. Even though we know Easter is coming, Maundy Thursday still makes my soul shudder.

 

Some Maundy Thursday services incorporate a footwashing, recalling Jesus’ radical act of servanthood from John’s gospel. I’ve never lead one of these services, thinking it might make people too uncomfortable. Of course, that’s my way of projecting my own anxiety and dis-ease with the practice onto my congregation. Feet are icky and dirty and ugly enough that we cover them up, which was exactly Jesus’ point in the first place. When we let Jesus touch the icky, dirty, ugly things in our lives, they are transformed. I’m working through my own hang-ups on this one.

As a compromise, at our Maundy Thursday service last evening we did a handwashing. There’s good justification for the Hand washing
adaptation. In Jesus’ day, the feet carried the bulk of the load, accumulating dust and sweat as sandal-wearing people trod their paths on dirt roads. Today, our feet are encased in socks and shoes, sheltered from the elements. Instead, it is our hands that do the dirty work, lifting and pulling and bending and clicking. Our hands work hard and deserve some attention.

But, if we’re willing to admit it, our hands do more than hard work. Our hands curl into fists when we are angry at someone. Our hands clutch tightly to our possessions or our pocketbooks. Our hands can strike at someone else, leaving physical and psychological scars. We can use our fingers to point the blame or let other drivers know what we think of that unsignaled turn they just made in front of us. Yes, our hands do a lot of work, but not all of it is good.

So last night, we cleansed our hands. I had the privilege of being the washer at one of the basins. Each person who came forward told a story with their hands. Some people thrust them forward, eager to have the water wash over them. Some offered only one hand, maybe wondering if they were worthy of such an act of grace. Some offered their hands palms-up, as if asking for a blessing, while others put them forward palms-down, as if the shame of their hands’ actions weighed heavily on them. One woman, a visitor whom I did not know, came forward with tears streaming down her face. She offered her hands and as I washed them, repeated, “Thank you. Thank you.” I can only imagine the pain those hands had seen, and I prayed for Jesus to use this healing water to bring her peace.

While I don’t know for sure, I believe we had in worship with us last night a recently paroled convict, a sex offender who served his time and was taking the first steps toward putting his life back together. He came forward and offered his hands, and I felt myself hesitate. Even him, Lord? I have to wash his hands, too? In John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me.” Yes, yes, his hands, too. Especially his hands. Either Jesus came for all of us, or Jesus came for none of us. “Not all of you are clean,” Jesus said. At that moment, I was filthy with judgment, sullied by my own version of justice that would deny the life-giving waters to a fellow sinner. I was this man’s hands, but I pray that I was the one who was cleansed.

Some of the hands were big, calloused, world-word and rough. Some of the hands were smooth, perfumed, blingy with jewelry. Several were shriveled, veiny, skeletal. I wonder all the things those hands have done: raked leaves, patted backs, struck cheeks, handed money, rubbed shoulders, pounded desks. Our hands can do such good, and such evil. But after they were washed, each pair of hands did something wondrous, something holy: they took a piece of bread, tore it off, and dipped it in the cup. Were you there? Jesus was in powerful ways. And I thank God I was, as well.

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So Long Lent

I don’t know about you, but this Lenten season has felt like the longest one EVER. It only lasts six weeks, but it’s felt like six months. I’m starting to question the justification for observing this gosh-darn season. Can’t it be more like Advent? You know, two weeks shorter, a lot less ashes and thorns, a lot more twinkly lights and presents. It would make Lent a much easier sell, that’s for sure.

One reason could be that Lent started so late this year. Usually by the time we get to April, we’re so close to Easter we can smell the lilies. But with Easter being so late this year, we’re into our third week of April and I’m still picking up palm branches. Or maybe Lent has felt so long this year because Spring has been so slow in arriving. When we lived in Chicago, it was not unusual to have snow in March. In fact, one year we had to cancel our Easter Egg Hunt because of a blizzard. But I was promised when I moved to Lexington that it NEVER snowed in March. Hmph. Winter has dragged on this year like a bad romantic comedy. Just when you thought it was over, there’s one more teary tirade brought on by falling temps. Winter, how can I miss you went you WON’T GO AWAY!?!

Another reason Lent might feel so long this year is the tough subject matter we’ve been tackling during our sermons. Our theme has been “Live Like You’re Dying,” and we’ve been listening to the stories of Hospice patients to see what lessons we can learn about making our lives count.  The lessons have been instructive and hopefully inspiring, but it’s not easy to be reminded on a regular basis that your life will end someday. Lent is meant to be a time of introspection and acknowledging our mortality, but six weeks’ worth of that can wear you down, emotionally and spiritually. It’s been a long Lent.

We have stretches in life like that, don’t we? We go through our own personal Lenten seasons, lasting six weeks or six months or even longer. These times can feel like perpetual winters with no signs of sunshine or the new life Spring brings. We can be mired in sadness, sorrow, and grief, constantly reminded of the pain and power of death and loss. Losing a loved one, ending a relationship, moving on from a job, battling an illness – all of these scenarios and more can thrust us into a season of never-ending Lent.

I expected to read a lot about that while I was preparing for the Lenten sermon series. I braced myself for the emotional descent that would be initiated by books about people who are dying. I assumed that spending time with Hospice patients, hearing their stories, and walking with them through their illnesses and treatments and, ultimately, their deaths would surely add to the heaviness Lent brings. Even the valuable lessons I learned – risk more, be present, forgive easily, stay connected, embrace your difficulties – all come with a cost.

But in the books I read, in the weather we experienced, in the scriptures we shared, a tiny blossom broke through the somber darkness to proclaim a life-changing word: Easter is coming. In the midst of our meteorological and emotional Polar Vortex, a ray of sunshine shone through. A promise was made to us that although weeping may last through the night, joy comes in the morning, and that winter, no matter how long it feels, can’t hold back the creative genesis of new life.

The most surprising place I saw signs of new life was in those facing death. The Hospice patients I read about were living examples of the power of God’s promises. Even though these patients knew they were going to die (and, really, don’t we all?) they didn’t let that stop them from incubating the seeds of new life – a restored relationship, a newly discovered artistic talent, a chance to say “I love you” one more time. For them, the proclamation had meaning on both sides of the grave: Easter is coming.

It’s been a long Lent, and we still have the darkest part of the road ahead of us. But God has been and is with us on the journey. And if you look to the horizon, you might start to see a glow penetrating through the pervasive darkness. Could it be? Yes! It’s the sun, rising once again, reminding us that winter doesn’t last forever, that death doesn’t have the final word, and that even our seasons of Lent, painful as they may be, end with a rolled-away stone and shouts of “He is risen indeed!”

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Live Like You’re Dying sermon series – #4: Stay Connected

SCRIPTURE – John 19:25-27 -  Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

SERMON
Live Like You’re Dying sermon series
#4 – Stay Connected
March 30, 2014

For our Lenten sermon series, we’ve been looking at the lessons to be learned from Hospice patients as they reflect back on their lives. Knowing their days are ending, what do the wish they would have done differently? So far, we’ve learned they would have taken more risks, they would have focused more on enjoying the present, and they would have forgiven more easily. Today, as we talk about the importance of staying connected, we’ll not only hear from the voices of the dying, we’ll also see this lesson played out from a most unlikely source: a goose.

I recently read an article about the migration patterns of geese. I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, when’s the movie coming out?” But it was actually very interesting. For example, do you know why they fly in a V pattern? It’s because as each bird flaps its wings, it provides uplift for the bird immediately following it. By flying in this pattern, the whole flock adds at least 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own. They’re like the Priuses of the waterfowl family.

The article also said that when the lead goose gets tired, it rotates to the back of the V and another goose takes the point. The geese are constantly honking as a way of encouraging those up front to keep up their speed, just like when we honk our car horns, it’s a sign of encouragement, as well. Did you know that when a goose gets sick or is wounded by a gun shot, two geese fall out of formation and follow him down to help protect him. They stay with the downed goose until he is able to fly or until he is dead; then they launch out to catch up with their group.

OK, so what’s with the “Animal Planet” episode? I think the behaviors of the geese teach us a very important lesson: we need each other for survival. From geese to humans, we were not created to be alone. Without each other, there’s no one to provide uplift or a honk of encouragement, and no one to take the lead for a while or to sit with you when you’ve been shot down. Even as he was dying on the cross, Jesus knew the importance of making sure his loved ones were connected to each other. We need our relationships with each other to survive.

The irony is that we live in a world that discourages deep, authentic relationships. Our methods of communication are growing more numerous and less substantial. Our technological push for convenience and instantaneous results doesn’t leave any time for actual relating to each other. We are less connected, even with those closest to us. For example, one day when I was home my cellphone rang, so I answered it. It was my wife Leigh, reminding me to give Molly her medicine. She was calling from the basement. Now, Leigh claims that she tried to holler up at me several times to get my attention, but if that were true, it wouldn’t make my point in this sermon, now would it?

So that’s the conundrum we face. We need relationships to survive, and yet we live in a world where making and nurturing those kinds of relationships is becoming increasing difficult. It takes time to do that, and that’s exactly the thing we seem to have less and less of. Painter Georgia O’Keefe once said, “Nobody sees a flower, really. It’s so small, it takes time, and we don’t have time. And to see takes time, like having a friend takes time.” Do we take the time to stay connected, or do we let others things we think are more important get in the way? The lesson the Hospice patients have to teach us is there is nothing more important than those relationships.

I’m a part of a Facebook group for baseball fans, and we spent much time analyzing and commiserating over our favorite team. There was man on the board I had never met, but felt a close connection to because of our fanaticism and our faith. He was a religion professor at Georgetown College and was a wise, calming presence in our group. I really wanted to meet him, so we set a lunch date this past January. The day before, I took a look at my schedule and just couldn’t justify taking a leisurely drive to Georgetown to spend time with him, so I wrote him and asked if we could reschedule for a time when I was less busy. He graciously agreed. Four weeks later, he died of a heart attack. And every day since then, I wonder what I missed out on by choosing my schedule over having lunch with him. Nothing is more important than relationships.

So what keeps us from starting new relationships or investing time in the ones we have? In Sermon Talkback with came up with a whole list of reasons, all of which I think are legitimate barriers to our connections. One reason is our fear of being hurt. To build a relationship, we have to be willing to vulnerable, to open ourselves up to the other person. And, as we all know, sometimes we will get hurt when we do that. The chapter in one of the books I read for this sermon series was titled, “Let your heart be broken.” In order to experience true love, we have to take the risk that love will end. Any pet owner knows this. When you get a pet, you are balancing the reward of owning the pet with the certainty that the death of that pet will be devastating. So, do you just never own a pet in order to protect yourself? Or do you take the risk in order to experience the benefits of love and companionship?

Another fear we named was the fear of not feeling good enough to be loved. What if I’m not able to make the other person happy? What if I’m not able to be the relationship partner they want me to be? What if they reject me? All of those are realistic fears. But they also give a lot of power to the other person to define our worth. And as long as we let someone else dictate our happiness, we’ll never be happy. I have never been in a relationship in which I was happy 100% of the time. If you have, please write a book, because a lot of people are looking for that magic elixir to fix their lives. What if love isn’t making someone happy? What if love is simply being there, during the happy times and the sad times and the I-want-to-wring-your-neck times? Love is not defined by a single event – an argument, a hurtful word, a moment of neglect. Love is patient and kind and all those other things Paul says in I Corinthians. Love is defined by a constant presence, a consistent connection through the mountain tops and valleys of our lives together.

Another fear we named is the cost of relationships. As Georgia O’Keefe noted, staying connected takes time, and that seems to be the scarcest commodity these days. Because of this, a couple things happen. First, we begin to see our relationships for their utilitarian function. What’s our return on the investment of connecting to someone? We often are loved for what we can do, not for who we are. So we put conditions on our relationships. If you have something to offer me, then I will stay connected with you. I have a number of friends in ministry who I only call when I need something, the name of a book or a curriculum suggestion. I so rarely call just to catch up. Why? In my task-driven mind, that’s a waste of precious time.

The other thing we do when we start counting the costs of our relationships is that we measure their value with the wrong criteria. One Hospice nurse wrote of visiting a man’s home as he was dying. He lived in a lavish house, filled with trinkets and collections from his worldly travels. When the Hospice nurse remarked about the man’s luxurious surroundings, he scoffed and said, “Who cares? Those things don’t mean anything. I chased them all my life, and now I have a house full of possessions and I’m dying alone. Those things don’t matter. Love matters.”

In the end, when we’re facing our death, the Hospice patients tell us what we do for a living doesn’t matter. What we earn doesn’t matter. The degrees on our wall don’t matter. The stuff we have amassed doesn’t matter. In the big picture, what matters are the connections we have made and the love we have nurtured. Because in the end, that is what we will leave this earth with, and nothing more.

In her book What Really Matters, Karen Wyatt tells this story: One of my most memorable patients was Vernon, a former Baptist minister who commanded great authority with is presence. He preached thunderous sermons from the pulpit until he was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 70. Even in his illness, he always wanted to talk theology with me when I visited, and I could see the fire in his eyes as he expounded upon this or that belief. His wife Lydia said Vernon kept a notebook by his chair, and he would often write sermon notes or devotional thoughts in his notebook.

As I visited with Vernon, I watched him grow steadily weaker. The fire in his eyes dimmed. He still tried to write in his notebook, and he would show it to me as soon as I arrived, but all I saw was page after page of indecipherable scribbles. I wondered what great sermons he was composing in his mind that he would never be able to share.

As Vernon’s end grew near, he become almost unresponsive. Lydia was always by his side, but he even stopped responded to her. On her last night with him, Lydia kissed him on the cheek and before she left, wrote in his notebook, “I love you, Vernon. Love, Lydia.” She placed the book on his chest and went to her room to sleep.

The next morning, she was awakened by the nurse, who let her know Vernon had passed peacefully during the night. She hugged him and kissed him, squeezing his hands and straightening his blanket. Then she noticed his notebook sitting on the bedside table. Underneath the note she wrote to him was line after line of Vernon’s scribbles that hadn’t been there the night before. Then, barely legible, were eight shaky chicken-scratched letters that Vernon had copied from Lydia’s note that said, “I love you.”

That’s all we leave this world with. And what a shame it would be if we let some petty argument or family disagreement or self-doubt keep us from being connected. What a shame it would be if we let ourselves think we weren’t worthy of being loved, or if we let our busy schedules or inconsequential distractions take precedence over making a new friend. Staying connected takes time. Real love can hurt. But when we get to the end of our lives, that’s all we will have. That’s all that matters.

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Live Like You’re Dying sermon series – #3: Forgive Easily

SCRIPTURE – 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-seven times.

SERMON
Live Like You’re Dying sermon series
#3 – Forgive Easily
March 23, 2014

            I love Peter, God bless his heart. He tries so hard, and yet he is so human. Walking on water one minute, sinking like stone the next. In today’s passage, I love how Peter offers what he figures to be a pretty generous number of times to offer forgiveness. Mr. Brown-Noser tries to show Jesus just how merciful he is by suggesting an amount of times to forgive someone that only a saint would consider. Seven! Whoa now, Peter, let’s not overdo it. Can you see his jaw drop at Jesus’ response? Some of translations of this passage have Jesus responding, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy times seven times.” I can hear the mental calculators out there clicking. That’s 490 times, if you’re keeping score. Which you shouldn’t be doing, a point this example makes. Jesus isn’t given us permission to get to our 491st moment of forgiveness and go, “Aha! Not THIS time!” Jesus is telling Peter that any number he thinks of is too low.

            Forget about the 491st time, or the seventh time. For some of us, it’s hard to forgive the first time. True forgiveness is very, very difficult to offer. So I’m not surprised that people who are actively dying listed the lack of forgiveness as one of the regrets they had about their lives. In this sermon series, we’ve been learning lessons from Hospice patients about what they would change about their lives if they could do it over again. So far, they’ve told us they would have taken more risks and they would have lived more in the present than worrying about the past or the future. Today, they tell us that they would have forgiven as easily in their lives as they were able to do at their deaths.

Why would forgiveness come so easily to those whose lives are ending? Because the dying have been given a unique perspective on the priorities of life, a perspective not driven by success or prominence or control. Those things don’t matter to them the way they matter to us. The things that are barriers to forgiveness for us – our pride, our fear of being hurt, or reputation – are trivial for those on their deathbed. The urgency of dying is a strong impetus toward forgiveness. So why do so many of us wait until then, if at all?

In all the reading I did for this sermon series, I was continually amazed at the level of peace the Hospice nurses saw in their patients. One nurse wrote, “The dying often find peace they lacked in life because dying and forgiving are both about letting go.” For them, it’s no longer about winning or holding a grudge or punishing someone. The dying do not think, “I have been so right, and in being so right, I can see how wrong you have been, so in my bigness I will forgive you.” Instead, they think, “You’ve made mistakes. I’ve made mistakes. But we’re both more than our mistakes.”

In order to understand the power of forgiveness that these patients have experienced and the peace that comes with it, we have to understand what it is and what it isn’t. First, forgiveness is not condoning the behavior of the other person. It doesn’t mean excusing the action or pretending it wasn’t bad. If someone wrongs you, it’s still wrong, even if you forgive them. We are called to be forgiving, not to be doormats.

Forgiving is also not forgetting. In some instances, that would be irresponsible. A lot of times we can’t forget what someone has done to us, which is exactly why we need to forgive. Forgiveness also doesn’t mean reconciliation. It’s great if it does, but sometimes the person we need to forgive is dead, or moved away, or no longer in our lives. Or maybe they’re not interested in reconciliation. Many folks who are dying have to give up hope of reconciliation with someone, but still need to forgive them to find peace.

Those are some things forgiveness isn’t; but what IS it? As I said earlier, forgiveness is essentially about letting go. Mainly, it’s about letting go of my right to hurt you back for what you’ve done to me. It’s about letting go of our desire for vengeance. That’s different than our desire for justice. In college, I worked for the school newspaper and once wrote an editorial questioning the need for our small school to have a baseball team when that funding could be used elsewhere, like for the school newspaper. The week that article came out, I was playing in an intramural basketball game, and the referee was one of the baseball players. The first time I contested a shot, I got called for a foul. The second time I contested a shot, I got called for a foul. The third time, I just stood there and let the other person shoot, and got called for a foul. When I protested, I got a technical foul. Finally, I said to the guy, “OK, you’re obviously going to call a foul on me no matter what I say. In that case, is it OK if I just think something?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “Good, because I think you stink!” I got a second technical foul, but at least I earned that one. At some point in that game, the referee moved from seeking justice to vengeance.

So forgiveness is letting go of our desire to see the other person suffer as much as they made us suffer. We might say that’s unfair, that they deserve to feel what we felt, but that’s exactly what we have to let go of. That’s the kind of “eye for an eye” thinking that Jesus reinterprets when he calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He didn’t say we should pray for them to get fired from their job or suddenly gain 50 pounds. We can’t let go if we’re still holding onto a desire for payback.

There’s something else forgiveness is – forgiveness is costly. It’s scary to lay down your arms, to trade in your pride and your power. After all, one of the great benefits of having an enemy is that you get to look good by comparison, right? Mary Gordon wrote, ““To forgive is to give up the exhilaration of one’s own assailable rightness.” In other words, to forgive is to admit that not all the mistakes that were made were by the other person. It means seeing the other person as more than their errors. It means admitting they are fallible human being. They make mistakes, at times they are weak, insensitive, confused, and in pain. They’re faulty, fragile, lonely, needy, and emotionally imperfect. In other words, it means admitting they’re just like us.

The consequences of not forgiving can be brutal, a lesson that some of the dying folks learned too late. They held onto their grudges so long that by the time they tried to unwrap their fingers, it was too late. Bitterness had hardened their heart to the point that forgiveness wasn’t possible, and they learned the hard lesson that the person who was most hurt by withholding forgiveness was themselves. Writer Anne Lamott said, “I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of the Christians who is heavily into forgiveness – that I’m one of the other kind. But even though it was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay that way. In fact, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”

In my reading, I was surprised to learn that forgiving others was not the hardest thing for people at the end of their lives to do. Like I said, in most cases it came relatively easy because there was nothing worth holding onto at that point. Several of the patients said they struggled more with forgiving themselves, and I believe that challenge is the same one many of us share, as well. And not being able to forgive ourselves can have serious ramifications for us.

I read a story once about the trick animal researchers used to trap chimpanzees in the wild. They would place a plexiglass box in a clearing. The box would have a small hole in its side, and inside of it would be a banana. Soon enough, a curious chimp would come and check out the box. After some investigation, the chimp would stick its hand in the box hole and grab the banana. But when he tried to take it out, the banana wouldn’t fit through the hole. The chimp would start jumping up and down, squealing and screeching. The researchers would then walk up to it and capture it. It would have been very easy for the chimp to escape capture. All he had to do was open his fist and let go of the banana.

This is tough stuff. We can be our own worst critic, setting expectations unreachably high, then beating ourselves up when we don’t attain them. We create voices that remind us of all the things we have done wrong, replaying them over and over again on a masochistic loop in our brains. I said a couple weeks ago that one of the greatest fears we have is the fear of not being good enough. If we feel we’re not good enough, we also can feel that don’t deserve forgiveness.

When we do that, we are usurping God’s role as merciful judge and putting ourselves in God’s place. We are taking a gift we have been given – God’s unmerited, unlimited grace – and rationing it out only when we feel as if we deserve it. We are forgetting the message we receive each week at this table that we are more than our mistakes, more than our bad decisions, more than our lapses in judgment. We can be so hard on ourselves, can’t we? Sometimes we need to forgive ourselves because we’ve done the best we can. Other times we need to forgive ourselves because we haven’t done the best we can. And all the time, we need to remember that we serve a forgiving God, who even forgives our failure to forgive. Lord, have mercy.

What’s your banana? What do you need to let go of that’s keeping you prisoner? It’s time to unload those rocks we’ve been carrying around in our knapsack. It’s time to make room for God’s peace before our impending death gives this task a sense of urgency. We are God’s child, loved and forgiven. No matter what you’ve done, if you sincerely ask, God will forgive you. Not just once or twice or seven times or seventy times seven times. We are so imperfect that God stopped keeping score a long time ago. So maybe we should do the same for ourselves and for each other. Maybe we should put down the score sheets and just take a walk, or make a phone call, or say a prayer. One of the Hospice patients told his nurse, “I mourn my dwindling time, but I cherish the chance it gives me to make things right.” Make it right – with others, with yourself, with God. We won’t always have that time.

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Live Like You’re Dying sermon series – #2: Be There

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 6:25-34 - “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

SERMON
Live Like You’re Dying sermon series
#2 – Be There
March 16, 2014

            Are you here? I mean, I can see you, so I know you are here physically. But are you really here? Maybe you’re thinking about how you wish you’d had that second cup of coffee this morning before you left the house. Or maybe you’re replaying a troubling conversation you had yesterday. Or maybe you’re thinking about what you have planned for the rest of the day. You’re here, I’m here, but are we really here?

            In our Lenten sermon series, we’re seeing what lessons we can learn from those whose days are numbered. As Hospice patients approach the end of their lives, what do they say they would have done differently? What would they change to make their lives more fulfilling and meaningful? Today, the lesson is about presence, about being here.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? To be present, all you have to do is…be present! Not much else too it, is there? But we know differently. Stacey Padrick, who wrote an article about attentiveness, defines “paying attention” as “being mentally, spiritually, and emotionally present with whomever we are physically present.” It involves making sure that our focus is fully on the other person instead of giving into all the distractions around us.

That’s hard to do, isn’t it? I find it so easy to let my mind wander away when talking with someone – formulating what I’m going to say next, daydreaming about an experience I had, adding things to my mental to-do list. My family makes fun of me because I do this all the time. “Dad, guess what happened at school today?” “What?” “Well, I was eating a banana…” “Ooo! I have to call my Nana.” This mental multi-tasking stuff is hard! And it keeps us from being fully present with the person right in front of us.

That’s one of the things the Hospice patients said they would change. Rather than dwelling in the past, rather than worrying about the future, they would have spent more time in the present, savoring the moment, enjoying the day God had given them. Because each day we have is a gift from God, and if we don’t acknowledge it as such, we are missing out on something beautiful.

I had a friend who visited the Grand Canyon with his family. I couldn’t wait for him to get back so I could hear all about the trip. When we sat down to lunch, I asked him, “So what was it like to be right there on the rim of the Grand Canyon?” He said, “Here let me show you the pictures,” and he pulled out an album full of snapshots. I looked through them and then asked him, “But how did it feel?” He paused and said, “Hmm. I don’t really know. I was too busy taking pictures.” Do we spend so much time trying to preserve a moment that we don’t stop and enjoy it? Our days are a gift to be enjoyed, not preserved.

In the very, very beginning of the Bible, the story tells us that God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Then God separated the light from the darkness, creating day and night. By doing this, God gave us a way to tell time. Before God made light, there was no way of knowing what time it was and existence must have just gone on and on and on, like the “Lord of the Rings” movies. But God created light and gave us the concept of a day, as a separate entity from the night. That was our first gift from God.

The psalmists understood that this creation of the day was an amazing thing to be celebrated. Psalm 84 says to God, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” Psalm 90 asks, “Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” And then there is the familiar passage from Psalm 119: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

I wish this verse read a bit differently, because not every day is easy to rejoice in. As Exhibit A, I give you Monday. Doesn’t matter which one, pick just about any Monday. But as Christian author Max Lucado points out, this verse says, “Let us rejoice and be glad IN it,” not “after it” or “in spite of it.” That would make life a lot easier. “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad when it’s over.” But no, says Lucado. This verse means rejoice in every day. Divorce days, final-exam days, surgery days, tax days. Every day is worthy of our joy and our attention. And so is every person.

You know, I don’t get the impression Jesus had this problem. I have a feeling that he enjoyed every day. The people speaking to Jesus had his full attention, and they felt it. The woman at the well, the Pharisees offering a challenge, the disciples yearning for guidance – Jesus stopped, he listened, he spent time with them, he gave them his full attention. “Don’t worry about tomorrow,” Jesus said. Easy for him to say, he didn’t even own a smart phone with a calendar app on it. Has he seen our tomorrows? Does he know what we went through during our yesterdays? How can we be fully present with others when our pasts and our futures take up so much of our attention? But if God has given us these gifts to enjoy, maybe the question really is: How can we NOT?

Mitch Albom, in his book “Tuesdays with Morrie,” wrote about the relationship he had with Morrie, his former professor who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Albom spend a lot of time in Morrie’s presence, learning from the dying man about the true meaning of life. Listen to what Albom wrote about Morrie, and imagine you were on the receiving end of Morrie’s attention.

“I came to love the way Morrie lit up when I entered the room. He did this for many people, I know, but it was his special talent to make each visitor feel that the smile was unique. And it didn’t stop with the greeting. When Morrie was with you, he was really with you. He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened to you as if you were the only person in the world. How much better would people get along if their first encounter of each day were like this – instead of a grumble from a waitress or bus driver or boss?

“‘I believe in being fully present,’ Morrie said. ‘That means you should be with the person you are with. When I’m talking to you now, Mitch, I try to keep focused only on what is going on between us. I am not thinking about something we said last week. I’m not thinking about what’s coming up this Friday. I am talking to you. I am thinking about you.’”

Albom writes, “I remembered how he used to teach this idea in the Group Process class back at Brandeis. I had scoffed back then, thinking this was hardly the lesson plan for a university course. Learning to pay attention? How important could that be? Now I know it is more important than almost everything they taught us in college.”

Paying attention to one another is one of the greatest gifts we have to give. It means seeing the other person for who they are, not for what they can do for us. I know I struggle with this sometimes. When life gets busy, we slip into relating to those around us in a utilitarian mode. I start valuing others based on what they can offer or do for me instead of for who they are. My relationships become purely functional.

Paul writes in Galatians 5, “Serve one another in love.” He writes in Philippians 2, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” In Romans 12 he writes, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” The Bible makes it clear that our relationships are not there to serve us, but that we are in them to serve each other. Paying attention to one another is a form of service; it’s an act of love.

And what a gift it is – putting down our device and turning toward our spouse or children when they ask a question, minimizing the computer screen when a friend calls, tuning out the distractions around us and focusing on the person in front of us. There is so much need around us, but I believe the greatest need people have is a need to be heard, a need to be acknowledged and accepted and validated as a valuable human being

I was counseling a person recently who was dealing with a lot of loneliness, and at one point she looked at me and said, “I feel invisible.” And my heart just broke for her. I can tell her God sees her until my face turns blue, but until someone actually takes time to pay attention to her, she has no reason to believe me. Are there people in our lives that we see, but don’t really see? Is there someone around us whose very existence is dependent upon us paying attention to them?

Julie Richardson Brown, who wrote our Lenten devotional, puts it this way: “What matters is that we pay attention. What really matters is that we have someone close by to grab hold of as we watch and listen for a glimpse of Christ among us. What matters is that we take off the blinders of the rat race and really see this world we live in. What matters is that we learn to be fully present in whatever moment we find ourselves, realizing that, if we don’t, all too soon we will have missed so much.”

We have only been given a certain number of days in this life. I’m on number 15,776. I wonder how many of them I’ve frittered away dwelling on yesterday or worrying about tomorrow. What have we missed that was right in front of us because we were too busy, too distracted, too worried to be present? We don’t know how many days we have. I hope it’s a lot more for all of us. But those days are limited. When I was much younger, I wished to be older – out of high school, old enough to drive, out on my own. Now that I’m older, I wish to be younger, to reclaim the time I’ve lost. But we don’t have yesterday anymore. And we have no guarantee of tomorrow. We simply have today, this day, the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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Live Like You’re Dying sermon series – #1: Get Out of the Boat

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 14:22-33 - Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

SERMON
Live Like You’re Dying sermon series
#1 – Risk: Get Out of the Boat
March 9, 2014

            Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I just read a scientific study that said people who breathe are at risk of dying. Apparently, the act of breathing air in and out repeatedly will, without a doubt, lead to death. For those of us who breathe, this is disturbing news. If this scientific study is to be believed, and I read it on the Internet so it must be true, then living has a 100% mortality rate. That’s pretty scary, especially if you share the same sentiment as Woody Allen, who said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying.” Well, too bad. For every single one of us, there will come a day that will be our last day.

            So the question is: What are we going to do with the days we have left? How will me make the most of this one life we’ve been given? How can we make sure that the breaths we have between the one we are taking now and the last one we’ll take will be used wisely? I think the best guidance for answering that question can come from those who are knowingly taking their last breaths. The inspiration for this sermon series came from an article I read recently written by a Hospice chaplain. In it, she talked about the most common regrets she heard expressed by her patients. If given the chance to do it over again, what would they have done differently?

One of the common themes shared by Hospice patients was that they wished they had taken more risks in life. Looking back, they realize that they worried too much about staying safe and being comfortable and didn’t take the chances in their lives that could have led to greater success, greater satisfaction, or greater significance. And now, at the end of their lives, when the really have no reason to fear, they recognize what they missed out on by not taking more risks.

But fear is an awfully powerful motivator, isn’t it? Fear can be healthy, but it can also keep us from doing a lot of things. Think about how the news preys on our fears: Why the food you eat may be dangerous! Why your clothes may not be safe! Why your choice of vacation spots my kill you! What’s next? Too many Reese’s Cups are bad for your health? Or think about how fear dictates what we drive. First there were lap belts. Then shoulder belts. Then both. Then anti-lock brakes. Then front airbags. Then side airbags. Then top and bottom airbags. Soon we’ll be driving around strapped into a giant marshmallow. Fear is a powerful motivator.

Author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross says that almost all the fears we experience in life can be boiled down to two basic, fundamental fears: the fear that we will not survive and the fear that we are not good enough. Afraid to take a lower-paying job that’s more fulfilling? Fear of not making enough money to survive. Afraid to go out on a date or take a new class? Fear of not being good enough. Afraid of visiting a sick relative? Fear of being reminded of your own mortality. That’s a question of survival. These two fears are the paralyzing forces that often keep us from taking risks.

That was certainly true for Peter in our story today. The disciples are out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, during the fourth watch of the night. That means the disciples had been rowing and bailing for up to nine hours, and had yet to make it across the sea. Why? Because the wind was against them. As a former Chicago resident, I understand the metaphorical force of that statement. Have you ever had that feeling, like the wind was against you? You work and work and work and get nowhere, you take one step forward and are blown two steps back.

So the disciples are battling the wind and the storm and the sea. Jesus comes to them, walking on the water, saying to them, “Take heart, it is I, don’t be afraid.”             Peter, always the most impulsive of the disciples, immediately asks to come to Jesus on the water. Some commentators scold Peter for putting Jesus to the test, but I don’t see it that way. Peter wanted to be where Jesus was. He wanted to be with his Savior. So Peter steps out onto the water and begins to walk toward Jesus.

I’ve come to learn that there are two kinds of people in this world: sinkers and floaters. My Uncle Pete was a floater. He could lie on his back all day in his swimming pool, arms outstretched, floating on the top of the water. He’d perch his drink on his belly and just float. I tried to do that, but I’m a sinker. I learned to swim by flailing my arms and legs until I either made it to the other side of the pool or splashed all the water out of it. But I never could float like Uncle Pete. When I tried, I always ended up at the bottom of the pool, which I found out wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the top.

The disciple Peter, as we learn in this story, is also a sinker. You know he floated for a second, right on top of the water. For a moment he was able to block out the howling winds around him and focus on Jesus. But just as quickly, he remembered the storm, he remembered the wind, he remembered that he was only human and couldn’t actually walk on water, and he began to sink. In that instant, he was overcome by two powerful realizations: I’m not good enough to walk on water, and I’m not going to survive.

Now, some may look at this story and say that Peter failed, that his faith wasn’t strong enough. “You know, if he had just kept his eye on Jesus, if he had just had more faith, he would have succeeded.” It’s that fear of failure that can keep us from taking steps to grow our own faith. What if I start reading the Bible but don’t understand it? What if I try to pray every day but can’t keep it up? What if I serve at church but don’t do well? What if I join the choir but miss a few notes? Sometimes it’s easier just to stay in the boat, isn’t it?

Some people would rather stay in the boat than meet Jesus out on the water. John Ortberg calls those kinds of people Boat Potatoes. Sure, it’s risky out there on the water, but it’s just as risky to stay in the boat. There’s a risk involved in everything, no matter how much we try to insulate ourselves. You could stay in bed all day, but you may be one of the half-million people who require emergency room treatment each year for injuries sustained while falling out of bed. You could shut your windows, but that may make you one of the ten people each year who accidentally hang themselves on the cords of their venetian blinds. If you’re looking for safety, you’ve picked the wrong species. Everything is risky. Our fears will never go away.

Fear of not being good enough and of not surviving are strong deterrents, aren’t they? No one likes to be a failure. But failure is not an event; it’s a judgment about an event. And we control that judgment. Ortberg tells the story that before Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio that finally worked, he tried two hundred unsuccessful ones. Somebody asked him, “How did it feel to fail 200 times?” Salk said, “I didn’t fail 200 times. I just discovered 200 ways not to vaccinate for polio.” Failure is how to choose to see something. When we contemplate taking the risk to grow and strengthen our faith, to make the most of the breaths we’ve been given, the worst failure is not to sink in the waves. The worst failure is never getting out of the boat. Jesus is not in the boat. Jesus is out on the water. To try and succeed, that is glorious. To try and not succeed, that is painful. But it is not failure. Failure is not trying at all.

The Hospice patients have a valuable lesson to teach us here. In many ways they have failed. Their bodies have failed, the medical treatments have failed, every effort to extend their lives have failed. One person who had previously survived cancer said, “If I survived that, what else was there to fear? I understand now that most of what I fear isn’t going to happen anyway. Our fears are usually not related to what really happens to us.” In other words, our fears don’t stop us from dying; they stop us from living.

There’s a cost to getting out of the boat. You have to risk something. As the saying goes, “No sense waiting for your ship to come in if you haven’t sent one out.” And there’s a chance that you will take a risk and it won’t pan out, that you’ll start to sink like Peter. And yet, when he did, there was Jesus, ready to pull him up, to save him from his own fears. There’s a reason that God or Jesus or the angels always greet people in the Bible by saying, “Do not be afraid.” That’s because fear is the number one reason people avoid doing what God calls them to do.

What’s keeping you in your boat? What’s your reason for not risking more, for not stepping out in faith? Being willing to take risks means we choose to believe that God is with us during the storms, and that we choose to live our lives free from fear. Yes, we will doubt. Yes, we may sink at times. But by choosing faith over fear, we are daring to put our trust in the God who stills all storms, the God who calls us out of the boat and into the risky life of faith put into action each and every day. If you get out of the boat, there’s a chance you’ll sink. But if you stay in the boat, there’s a 100% chance you won’t walk on water. Maybe the lesson to be learned from the Hospice patients can be best summarized by the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “Do not go where the path may be. Go instead where there is no path, and make a trail.”

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Christian Cliches Sermon Series – I’m Praying for You

SCRIPTURE – James 5:13-16 - Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

SERMON
Christian Cliches Sermon Series
#8 – I’m Praying for You
March 2, 2014

            Today we conclude our sermon series on Christian clichés. During this series we’ve taken a look at seven statements that Christians often say to see whether the sayings were theologically sound and helpful to the intended recipient. The statements we have examined are: Everything happens for a reason; Hate the sin, love the sinner; God helps those who help themselves; God doesn’t give us more than we can handle; The youth are the future of the church; God has a plan for you; and There, but for the grace of God, go I. If you’ve missed any of these and want to hear or read them, you can go to the Worship tab on our church website or click here.

            We conclude today with the cliché which, out of all of them, is probably said most often: I’m praying for you. This is something we say all the time and in a variety of situations. Because I knew I was preaching on this statement this week, I paid closer attention to how often I said it. Ten different times this past week I said, typed, or texted this statement to someone. Post any kind of bad news on Facebook and you will get a litany of responses with some variation of this statement. It is THE universal Christian response to any difficult situation.

So why am I preaching on it? Why is it on the list of Christian clichés? With several of the other clichés at which we’ve looked, we’ve concluded that saying them may be more harmful than helpful because they paint God into a corner by implicitly making God the cause of bad things that happen or creating a spiritual buffer zone between the speaker and the object of the cliché. So does that mean we shouldn’t say this to people?

Not at all! Misrepresenting God is not an issue with this statement. In fact, God isn’t even mentioned. The actor in this cliché is not God, but the speaker. And that’s why “I’m praying for you” made the list. This statement carries with it a promise on the part of the speaker to do something for the listener, something that I think most of us may take for granted. When we are faced with a situation where we don’t know the right thing to say, we will often default to this statement, turning it into the spiritual equivalent of “We should do lunch sometime” or “The check is in the mail.” The potential problem with “I’m praying for you” isn’t in the statement itself; it whether or not the speaker will actually follow through on the promise.

I was sitting with Mel Boyd’s family after he died, and they were telling all kinds of stories about Mel, and I’m sure Mel was laughing right along with us. Then it got quiet, and one of his children said, “But one thing Dad could do was he could pray. He was old school, using ‘Thy’ and ‘Thou.’ And he was LOUD. Dad prayed like he meant it.” I can’t think of a higher compliment that could be given. Would someone say of us, “When they pray, they MEAN it.”

To be blunt, I think we underestimate the power of prayer. We have lost our understanding of the magnitude of what we’re doing when we pray. In the time before Jesus, Jews didn’t usually pray directly to God. They would go to the temple and make sacrifices and petitions, and the priests would take those into the Holy of Holies, a small room in the interior part of the temple where God was thought to reside. The priests were the only ones allowed in the Holy of Holies, and they could only enter it once a year. When Jesus died on the cross, one of the things that happened is that the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple was torn in two, symbolizing that death and resurrection of Jesus bridges the gap between God and us. We no longer need an intermediary to pray to God. Through Jesus, we ourselves can go into the Holy of Holies with our prayers and petitions. In essence, when we pray, we are communicating directly with the Creator of the Cosmos, the Almighty God.

Prayer is a spiritual power tool. Jesus says in Mark’s gospel that if we have faith, we can pray that a mountain be thrown into the sea and it will happen. James tells us that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. So why do we often treat it as if it’s simply something to check off our spiritual to-do list? I was having lunch with someone the other day and when our food arrived, we kind of did that dance of shuffling our silverware and moving things around on our plates, waiting to see if one of us was going to offer a blessing. Finally, he looked at me and said, “OK, preacher, fire it up so we can get to eating.” How many times do we mumble a half-hearted blessing with a forkful of food already on its way to our mouths?

That’s often how we look at prayer, right? The perfunctory blessing before a meal, the stale litany before bed, the repetitive recitation of the Lord’s prayer each Sunday. Because prayer is such an essential part of a Christian’s life, we can easily forget the power and importance of what we’re doing, simply stumbling our way through the words on autopilot. I was reminded of this when I watched the movie, “The Campaign.” Will Farrell and Zach Galifianakis are political adversaries running for office. In one of the debates, Zach questions Will’s fake religiosity and challenges him to say the Lord’s Prayer right there on the spot. Farrell hems and haws a bit, then agrees. He says “Please bow your heads and turn off all recording devices,” and then he prays, “Our Father, Art, who is up in Heaven. Aloe Vera be thy name. Thy kingdom… come… the magic kingdom. As it is on Earth in a helicopter. Give us this day our daily… pizza. And let us digest it. Forgive us, forgive our passes we forget sometimes. That’s not part of it, I know that. Keep your heads bowed please. Forgive our trespasses. And lead us not into the Temptations for we are tired of their music and dancing. And deliver us from evil with your sword and mighty falcon. Forever and ever and ever. Amen.” That’s funny, right? Everybody knows the Lord’s prayer. But do we say it like we mean what we’re saying?

It’s important for us to pause right now and acknowledge that when we say we are going to pray for someone, we better know what we’re committing to do. We’re promising them that will we lift their name up to God, that will we speak their names directly to the One who is the Creator of us all. We are saying that we will include them in our most intimate moments with God, interceding with God on their behalf, asking God to be with them, to comfort them and heal them, to remind them they are loved. If we promise something so powerful to someone and then don’t follow through, we are devaluing the act itself and not taking seriously the fact that prayer can make a difference.

And it does, doesn’t it? If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of prayers, you know. I’m not a touchy-feely kind of guy, but in difficult times when I knew people were praying for me, I was uplifted. But when I knew I was being prayed for, I had this sense of peace and the strength to persevere. I can’t explain to you the mechanics of how, but prayer does make a difference.

Maybe that lack of a concrete explanation is what keeps us from following through on our promise. James tells us that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well,” which implies that when a person doesn’t get better after prayer, either something is wrong with the person doing the praying or God isn’t really who James says God is. What if I offer to pray for this person’s situation and it doesn’t get better? Does that mean God has failed? That my faith isn’t strong enough?

That’s not what we want when we pray. We want a God who does what we ask, for ourselves and for others. We want a God like the one I saw in a cartoon recently. The caption says, “What it would be like if God didn’t work in mysterious ways.” The picture shows a man on his knees in prayer, and a voice coming down from Heaven that says, “I’ll make a few calls.” That’s the kind of God we want, One who can make a few calls and make everything all right for us and those we love.

But notice James doesn’t say these prayers will cure the sick person. James says it will make them well, and there are a lot of ways to be made well other than physically. Our faith can be made well, our relationships can be made well, our souls can be made well. The gift of prayer isn’t meant to be used to make “or else” demands on God. Instead, it’s a way for us to connect with God, to reach out beyond ourselves to lift up someone else. God created us to be in relationship with others, and we live out that calling when we include others in our prayers.

Saying “I’m praying for you” not only invokes the power of prayer, but it also invokes the power of our connection to each other. Think about how you feel when someone tells you they are praying for you. When that happens to me, I feel loved, cared for, remembered. The irony is that I feel that way regardless of whether or not the other person will follow through. I don’t know if they will or not. So if we can make someone feel better by offering to pray for them, how much more can we help but actually doing what we have promised.

Our prayer doesn’t have to be eloquent. It certainly doesn’t have to be long-winded. God’s not going to stop you in the middle of it because you used the wrong verb tense. Our prayer for others can be something as simple as saying their name over and over again, saying as we breathe in “I pray for…” and as we breathe out, their name. We don’t have to know all the details of this struggle, we don’t have to know their whole names, we don’t even have to know what we’re actually praying for. Paul tells us in Romans that when our prayers are incomplete, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. The Spirit bridges the gap, filling in the holes and fixing the grammatical errors, but that only works if we make the effort.

This coming week, pay attention to how often you hear, “I’m praying for you” or something like it. Pay attention to have often you say it. And then pause to reflect on the power of what has just been said. Someone has just committed to taking this person’s name straight to the ear of God. That’s too important of a promise not to honor. People are counting on us to be their advocate, to speak their name in the presence of the Almighty. Don’t take that lightly. Don’t use this statement as a default response when you don’t know what else to say. Say it, and then pray like you mean it. For the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

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