Well, Friends, unfortunately the light-hearted, easy message I had planned for us today (and already half finished) has been pre-empted by something else that felt more important to say this morning. If you’ve been following the news this week, you’re aware of the rising tensions and military action that resulted in the death of an Iranian general, and you know that fear in the world is high right now and conflict—on some level, in some arena–seems all but certain.
This broke into my awareness in an up-close way yesterday when I went to get my hair cut. The lady who cuts my hair is about 10 years younger than I am and she has three kids, two at home and her oldest overseas, on his first deployment with the U.S. military. Our conversation started out about Christmas and she shared that it was a bit hard this year because her son is so far away—stationed not far from the Syrian border. It was his first Christmas ever away from home and even though they were able to connect by phone—he wanted to stay on the phone to listen to his younger brother and sister open their presents—he was much more homesick than he expected to be. And they missed him greatly—Christmas just wasn’t the same without him. She talked about how hard it was and said they had tried to make the best of it. Then she shared that she’s trying not to overreact to the latest upsetting news but it is taking a toll on her family: her 14-year-old daughter was unable to eat dinner the night before; she just sat there looking at her food, feeling sick with anxiety over rumors of war, knowing her big brother is over there, possibly in harm’s way.
I asked her son’s name and whether it would be okay to add him to my prayers, and as she nodded, her tears spilled over. She is carrying this fear, this burden, this worry with her all day every day right now—I pray for her peace and God’s grace and protection on her family. And this is just a glimpse into the pain and fear and confusion of one family of five—but multiply that by the almost 200,000 service members we have deployed right now in 150 countries around the world. That’s a lot of heartache, a lot of worry, and a big, big need for prayer.
We are in a moment, Friends. This is a moment where people of good faith, all people who yearn for peace in the world, people of all countries everywhere are needed to contribute their energies, their hopes, their visions, and their prayers toward harmony on this planet. That’s why I feel I need to bring this message, this morning, just now. This is a moment. And all our prayers are truly needed—and can be truly helpful–in response.
So often when events of the world seem large and horrible—like the raging wildfires in Australia and the horrendous loss of wildlife there—we simply feel powerless to do anything about it. It is so far away; it is so outside our ability to control or change. Our prayers can feel small and ineffectual, and we are tempted to do nothing and just live through our days feeling hopeless, powerless, without options. I think this is why some people just shut down and stop caring, blocking out needs beyond their own. It’s not that they’re bad people, it’s that they feel hopeless, overwhelmed and they’ve given up believing that there’s something they can do.
But there is. We can pray. Pray in a real and powerful way, expecting real outcomes, contributing to the force for good that lifts us out of crisis and sets us on a road toward balance and harmony. There are a few fundamental ideas about who God is and how life works that can help keep us from getting stuck in a swamp of despair. First is the idea that God is truly bigger than any problem—any problem. God, as infinite unlimited intelligence, as universal love, as the presence that is within and among every living being on this planet is far bigger than the messes God’s children create. The second idea is that God is not limited by time or space and there is no one channel by which God’s answers must arrive. God can do anything, anywhere, anytime, unbound by the laws the govern us—gravity, time, three-dimensional space, lifespans. God is also not limited by our small human vision, as we look out at life through these two eyes, using vision that is always limited by our capacity to see and feel and understand. God knows the truth of it all—God is the Truth of it all—and whatever contributing factors there may be to human suffering, no one is hiding any of it from God. And God can work with that—and is working with that, even now.
Our Old Testament scripture today is one of those foundational ideas on which a solid life of faith is built. It establishes the intention God has in wanting a relationship with us at all. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
This establishes that God intends for us to have good in our lives. And not just our lives—good in the lives of the service people deployed overseas. Good in their families. Good in the homes of Iranian mothers now frightened by the rumors of war, good in the towns and outback of Australia in the wildfires’ paths. God intends good for his children everywhere. That’s something we can pray with, claiming God’s goodness for all his children. It’s God’s intention and our hope. Our prayers help us remember who God is and what God wants for us and then they shine out from there.
The next verse in this passage in Jeremiah reminds us that once we remember that God intends good for us, we will be heard when we pray. “When you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you,” God says. “When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.” This is a foundational promise, something we can claim and watch for and hold on to in our prayers.
God’s intention is goodness for his children.
When we remember and pray with that idea in mind, God hears and responds to our prayers.
It’s that simple.
It’s simple, but perhaps not easy. Our eyes, our world often shows us otherwise. What we find “out there” and can make us question what we feel “in here.” But when we let the outer experience dictate what’s possible and lose touch with our sense of who God is and what God wants for us, we limit the effectiveness of our prayers. We won’t watch hopefully for God’s answer or expect God to help if we don’t believe it’s possible.
A number of years ago, we started a prayer chain here at Noblesville Friends, and since then, we’ve prayed for members of our meeting and their families, for issues in the news, for friends of members, for our community, and more. And I can’t think of a single outcome that was at odds with the prayers we offered. People came through surgeries and healed well. Babies were delivered safely. Jobs were found, the right doctor took the case, folks were released from the hospital sooner than expected, situations that looked dire took a better turn. Struggling families found their footing, young adults going through a rough patch came through okay.
God hears our prayers. God loves his children. God’s intention for us is safety, goodness, a future with hope.
Another thing that can limit the effectiveness of our prayers is the idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to pray. In truth, each of our souls respond to God in unique ways. Some of us may pray with words; others prefer silence; some are inspired by beauty, others by movement. It’s all prayer if it draws your soul closer to God—more in touch with the eternal—as you do it. Some people meditate, some breathe, some journal, some play music, some paint. Find your prayer. Love whatever that is in you. And if you don’t know what prayer language God has planted in your soul, spend some time in the silence asking. That is a prayer I know God loves to answer because it means we’re opening our hearts to a closer walk with him.
The passage we heard from Mark is another version of this same idea from Jeremiah. Jesus is answering Peter, who has just pointed out that the fig tree Jesus cursed the day before had completely withered. Jesus begins with a statement about God. “Have faith in God,” he says. Whatever you say, believing—even sending a mountain into the sea—it will come to pass because of who God is and how God has set up the nature of life and faith. “Whatever you ask for in prayer,” the passage continues, “believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Whenever you stand praying, forgive…so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you.”
Jesus is pointing out our most common obstacles in prayer—first, that we forget to put our focus on God; next, that we have a hard time truly believing we will get what we are praying for; and finally, that there are unseen blocks or limiting ideas within us—things we need to forgive or be forgiven for—that get in the way of our praying most effectively.
The point is, no matter what the issue—threat of war, worry about the planet, concern about the wildfires, upset about injustice—our prayers, whatever form they take, should focus on God and God’s good and loving intention for us and our world. That’s what connects us to the source of our answer and perhaps—we hope—adds light and love to the force of good that flows toward the problem causing trouble in our world.
In 1647, at the age of 23, George Fox wrote this now-famous paragraph in his journal:
“I was under great temptations sometimes, and my inward sufferings were heavy; but I could find none to open my condition to but the Lord alone, unto whom I cried night and day. And I went back into Nottinghamshire, and there the Lord shewed me that the natures of those things which were hurtful without, were within in the hearts and minds of wicked men… And I cried to the Lord, saying, ‘Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils?’ And the Lord answered that it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else should I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings.”
Fox struggled with the question of why he felt bad, why he suffered, when he had never done the things that caused such hardships. God’s answer to him was that he needed to understand, to have a tender heart to these conditions so he could know how to heal them. Fox saw in that answer God’s infinite love for his children, the promise of Jeremiah 29:11, God’s intention of good for all.
What’s more, Fox was granted a vision that even though our trials and sufferings comprise a vast ocean of darkness, there is a bigger reality, an infinite ocean of light and love, which ultimately overcomes—flows over—the ocean of darkness. The light wins, the light is the point; in the light, all the pains and fears and worries of darkness are healed and resolved, dissolved to the native nothingness from which they came.
When we pray, and particularly when we pray with a sense of God’s overflowing love and good intention for all, we contribute our prayerful energy to that vast ocean of light, pouring over the darkness. That’s how our prayers touch the heart of a worried mom. That’s how we shift the winds and bring rain in Australia. This is how we tip the world away from the brink of war back toward a restored peace. God’s ocean of light will restore truth and light and love and heal of our planet, helped along by the prayers and reasonable and reverent actions of people of conscience and care.
In this precarious moment where we find ourselves, let’s ask God to teach us to pray powerfully once again, to re-energize our prayers lives and remove anything that keeps us from contributing to the spreading ocean of light. This is a moment, Friends. We’re all needed. Let’s pray, believing in the goodness of God.
- OT Jeremiah 29: 11-13
- NT Mark 11: 22-25
- Journal of George Fox: https://www.axiospress.com/wp-content/uploads/George-Fox.pdf