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 17th sunday in ordinary time

July 24, 2005

Prayer: Bridges to the Divine

Romans 8:28-39

Bridges

We left the hotel just after breakfast and headed east. First visit on the agenda that morning was the Golden Gate Bridge. How can a tourist visit San Francisco without driving over the Golden Gate Bridge? It is neither the newest nor the longest suspension bridge in the world. That title goes to the Akashi-Kaikyo bridge in Japan which was built in 1998. It boasts a main span of 6,532 feet, almost four times the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, for example. It stretches 12,828 feet across the Akashi Strait to link the city of Kobe with Awaji-shima Island. Each cable is composed of 290 strands, each strand containing 127 wires. The length of the wire used totals 300,000 kilometers, enough to circle the earth 7.5 times. Its two towers, at 928 feet each, soar higher than any other bridge towers in the world.1

We build bridges to connect. We want to link one land mass to another. The modern bridges are imposing structures. They grab our attention. They have a certain allure. Standing over an expanse of water they present an impressive sight. The image of a bridge has often been used as a spiritual metaphor. The human heart tells us that a chasm separates us from God. Paul calls this sin and wrote in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Humanity has made numerous attempts to span this chasm but they have been no more successful than the infamous Tacoma Narrows Bridge that collapsed in 1940 under the strain of steady winds.

The apostle to the Gentiles takes five chapters of this letter to explain to the house churches in Rome that Jesus Christ is the ultimate bridge between God and humanity. He goes into great detail first explaining that Gentile, moralist and Jew are all separated from God by this chasm of sin. He then explains that while each has tried to connect with the divine, all have failed. God, knowing that humanity would fail, made his own provision by sending his Son. “Across the raging waters of our failures, our weaknesses and our acts of disobedience came Someone who links the human and the divine. We didn’t design this bridge. We didn’t finance it. We didn’t build it. We don’t deserve it.”2

While the Cross serves as the ultimate bridge to God, in the spiritual life we need to cross bridges daily Prayer serves as one of those bridges. Through prayer we are able to connect with the Creator of the heavens and the earth. Rather than stand on a distant shore and wave to this unknown divine, we are able to enjoy an intimate relationship by presenting the concerns of our heart and listening to God's voice speak to us.

God, Desire not Words

Communication with God is a imposing task. As soon as we bow our heads we recognize that we lack the wisdom to express into words the prayers that God deserves. Our sentences sound crudely constructed. We stumble over selecting that right word to express our ideas. These inadequacies produces self conscious feelings making us reluctant to approach God. The problem is with our attitude. We believe that the success of our prayer is in the elegance of our words.

Paul tells the churches in Rome that even in their weakness, they can be effective in praying. Why? Because the Spirit is praying through them. In these words Paul reveals that he understands prayer like everything else in the Christian life. Just as human effort can not justify a person before God neither can human intelligence make our prayers more effective. This is consistent with our Lord's teaching on prayer. We are not to pray like the Pharisees who try to create elegant public petitions, but our prayers are to be simple and in private. In his parables on prayer, Jesus used the example of a woman who kept coming to a judge to seek justice. The judge does not grant her request because of her impressive arguments but, because of her persistence. These two examples demonstrate that prayer is more about desire than it is about the words we use.

The author of Romans explains that in our weakness, the Holy Spirit is lifting our prayers heavenward. Richard Foster writes, “Often our best prayers feel like articulate groans.”3 We may struggling to find the words to speak. We may stumble over the petitions to offer, yet, even in all of our stuttering phrases the third person of the Trinity is accompanying us in our prayers. The Spirit reforms the syntax of our sentences. He purifies the prayers that we offer for selfish reasons and he adjusts our requests until they conform to the will of God. Answered prayer is not dependant on perfect grammar. “The Spirit reshapes, refines, and reinterprets our feeble, ego-driven prayers.”4

The Source of Power

At this point we must be careful that we do not lose a sense of our responsibility in prayer. While the Spirit compensates for our weaknesses, we must remember that God still expects us to be active participants. During our daily prayers, the Spirit of God does not overwhelm thereby taking control of our thoughts and words. Rather, the spirit serves more as a prompter that stands off stage to offer assistance to the actors. This was a valuable help during my high school acting career. My biggest role was in the play Tea House of the August Moon.  The play is:

A satire on America's very own drive of a world changer: One year after world war ii, Captain Fisby is sent to the village Tobiki in Okinawa to teach the people democracy. First step is to build a school - but the witty folks know what they really want. They tell him about their culture and traditions - and persuade him to build something they really want: a teahouse. Fisby has a hard time to break this to his superiors.5

I played the role of a detailed oriented Captain who was sent to find out why Captain Fisby was taking so long to build his school. I had less then 50 lines but knowing that a prompter was always standing in the wings if I stumbled boosted my confidence. In prayer the Holy Spirit prompts us when we lose our train of thought. He supplies ideas when we do not know that we should pray for someone or when we do not know specifically what we should say. When we grow weary the Spirit excites, inspires, and encourages us to continue.

The Spirit of God also serves to empower our prayers in much the same way that pulleys serve the archer's use of the modern bow. Few, if any archer, is strong enough to draw a modern bow but by threading the bow string around wheels and cams, the archer is allowed to draw the string with little effort until the target is in sight. Then when the string is released the power of the bow sends the arrow with maximum velocity.

In the presence of evil our words are powerless but in prayer they are empowered. How, because they are not our words but God's own word. We have already learned that Paul tells us that the Spirit speaks through our groanings by interpreting our sighs into heavenly petitions. God the Son is also interceding for us by telling the Father our petitions should be considered. In this dynamic mystery, God the Father, who sits upon his heavenly throne, hears our mindless babbling interpreted by God the Spirit and affirmed by God the Son. God is speaking to God.6 Our prayers are powerful not because they are our own, not because we are such wonderful people, not because we do so much for God, but because they are God's own words. God himself bridges the chasm between our thoughts and his.

Only The Best

Prayers serve as bridges to God when we recognize that the best prayers are not the elegant ones built by human wisdom but supplications that are constructed by God. Prayers serve as bridges when we realize that our prayers are empowered by the Holy Spirit. Prayers also serve best as bridges when their destination has been determined by God. The drive to control our own destiny is ingrained in the human heart and displayed though our determination to control God's will through our prayers.

Last week Carol and I finally rented the movie Bruce Almighty. For me the funniest scene came when Bruce grew tired of trying to figure how to answer the 3 million prayers that had been spoken and decided to simplify things by granting everyone’s request. The next day he learned that a record number of people won the state lottery. Everyone was elated until they discovered that the winnings had been reduced to less than $20.00. A riot broke out as people demanded that the lottery commission contribute additional money to the jackpot.

The limitation of human wisdom prevents us from understanding the full ramification of our prayers. Some of our prayers may be detrimental to others or may mean the denial of their prayers. Other petitions are motivated by selfishness and greed. Not everyone can win the lottery. Not everyone can receive a promotion. Not everyone will win the man or woman of their dreams. Not every soldier will be protected in battle.

Paul tells us that God grants our petitions according to his plan and purpose for our lives. We do not understand the ultimate consequences of our request just as we do not understand God's plan for history. God honors only those petitions that accomplish his purpose. Someone once said, “We shall come one day to a heaven where we shall gratefully know that God's great refusals were sometimes the true answers to our truest prayers.”7

The Invitation

We do ourselves a great disservice when we reduce God to a personal friend. The God of the heavens and earth is not our buddy. God is God, the one who is worthy to be worshiped. God stands on a distant shore. Without the work of the Cross, we would only be able to see glimpses of God. Without the bridge of prayer we would never hear his voice. But God invites us to join him. He invites us to cross the chasm of separation and connect with him. Let us do so remembering that God the Father has given us the Holy Spirit to form and shape our cumbersome phrases, our stuttering and our groaning in beautiful pleadings.

1“Hyper Nike,” Homiletics, Vol. 17, No. 4, p. 31.

2Ibid

3Richard Foster, Prayers: Finding the Hearts True Home, 98.

4Ibid.

5Tom Zoener, “Plot Summary for Tea House of the August Moon,” accessed [online] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049830/plotsummary available July 21, 2005.

6Foster, 100.

7Foster, Prayer, 181 quoting P. T. Forsyth, The Soul of Prayer, 14

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1445 Welch Rd
Walled Lake MI 48390


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