"Learning How To Connect With God"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 10, 2001
Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
If the issues we discuss with God go unresolved, we recite the familiar teaching that God always responds to prayer but it may not be with the answer we want. While this may be true, such an answer is not very satisfying. Perhaps there is something more fundamental that we are missing that may help us improve our relationship with God.
Last Sunday Sixty Minutes covered the growing ministry of Billy Graham's daughter. According to Dr. Graham, Ann has the gift of spreading the Gospel more effectively than anyone else in his family. During the interview with Mike Wallace, Ann said something that was very interesting. She said, "For people who live in the southern Bible Belt, Christianity has become a part of their cultural life. Church attendance is something many of them never question. Families are in church every Sunday." Then she went on to say, "Many of them know their Bible extremely well and can quote Scriptures from memory, but they may not know Jesus Christ."
Her point was that we may have many teachings of our faith well-defined and still be left feeling alone and detached from God. In fact, there are some of us who find ourselves stuck with a faith that produces few lasting results in our lives. To understand how this can happen, we need look no further than what frequently takes place within many American families.
When young adults begin to have children, a number of them readily admit that they know very little about parenting. They quickly learn that libraries and bookstores are filled with resource material that offers a lot of time-tested, step-by-step, result-oriented insights into how to rear children.
Yet many of these highly informed parents often face the same challenges with their children as parents who never opened their first book. Most of us have listened to stories of children who grew up, left home, and never looked back. What happens within such families? The same issue that prevents parents and children from connecting is identical to the one that creates our sense of detachment from God.
Books, including the Scriptures, can only provide us with information and insights. They cannot give us the skill of spirit. Wisdom can never be a substitute for the inner work that is required by all of us.
For example, what good is it to know how important it is to talk with a child if the reader never learned how to communicate effectively? What good is it to know how important it is to allow children to experience disappointment and failure if the reader is a parent who does not know how to let go? What good is it to know that it is imperative for children to experience the trust of their parents if the adult reader never learned how to trust?
People fail to connect with each other when they do not share common values. When we find people who communicate well with others, their values bleed through because that is who they are. When we connect with God, we experience a harmony that seekers who chase after something else will not find.
In case you have not noticed, God does not remove the hurdles in our path. God does not clarify our alternatives for us in our decision making. God does not make our choices for us. God does not spare us from experiencing failure as part of the mix of our experiences. Because of this, it is very easy to feel we do not connect with God. We want God to be what God does not choose to be.
How would we grow if God became like an over-protective parent? How would we ever learn problem-solving if God responded with answers every time we felt hopelessly frustrated with our circumstances? How would we learn to walk and run if God never allowed us first to crawl?
We have to remember that feeling lost is not a bad place to be. We do not like it, but feeling lost is an excellent way for us to discover that our behavior and thought patterns are not working for us. Feeling lost is one of the greatest motivators in the world. Rather than reaching out to God, we would be better served if we looked within ourselves and began changing what we think about God.
It was the feeling of being lost that caused the Prodigal Son to awaken. He had run down a number of blind alleys. He was in financial ruin. Please notice that in this parable the son's father did absolutely nothing to save him. To his father, his son was not permanently lost. The young man was only experiencing what does not work in life. From time to time, we learn about life in the same way. To us this seems cruel. Further, we may believe that any responsible parent should do everything in their power to prevent their child from failing. Does God do this for us?
The Prodigal Son's father loved him very much but the decision to come home would have to originate from within the son. This is what makes this such a great story. The separation of power between a parent and a child is very clear in this story. The son had to live with the consequences of his decisions but connecting with his Dad was only one choice away.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus is full of information but he decided not to share it with his disciples. Exposing people to great truth has never equipped them for anything. Jesus said, "I have much more to tell you, but now it would be too much for you to understand." Jesus decided to tell them that growth in the spirit is a process. He said, "When you experience the spirit, the spirit will lead you into all the truth." In other words, we travel at our own pace. Jesus was saying, "When the student is ready, the teacher will come." We have to admit that sometimes we are not ready.
Don Meeker was brought up in a wonderful, loving Jewish home. His parents knew how to mirror a faith that worked for them. The spirit of the home was light-hearted. Mutual cooperation insured that the family functioned with love at its center. The garden into which Don's seed had been planted was natural, warm, and supportive. The rules of the home were firm, clear, and understood.
Don's college days were spent stretching his wings. He found that his good looks attracted a number of women, yet he found it almost impossible to develop any substantive relationships. Don's personal style did not include others. He was an excellent student. His creative, self-initiating enthusiasm readily opened many doors.
He read constantly and found inspirational material very stimulating, yet he could not generate in his own life what others claimed to have accomplished in theirs. He was stalled and, of course, God was nowhere to be found. He repeatedly asked himself, "Just where is this mysterious God whose presence my parents had found so compelling?" God was an unknowable abstraction.
His emptiness increasingly dominated his life. What he really enjoyed doing began to lose its attractiveness. His face no longer wore its glowing, contagious smile. His sense of humor was no longer the fun-loving ingredient in his conversations with others. He felt lost. And as I mentioned before, being lost is not such a bad place to be.
Fortunately his professor was Dr. Leo Buscaglia, that wonderful author and teacher from the University of Southern California. This gifted young man visited his favorite teacher and told him about his overwhelming sense that life had become meaningless. Leo went right to work.
He said, "Go over to the senior living-facility near the campus and start visiting people." Don said, "I can't do that. I don't feel like it." Leo said, "I don't care whether you feel like doing it or not; just do it! Start learning how to get involved in someone else's world. When you have learned how to do that, you will escape being trapped by your own."
Leo had not seen Don for months. And one day near the end of the second semester, he noticed Don getting ready to board a mini-van. Leo said, "Where are you going, Don?" He said, "I'm taking a group of folks to a baseball game and I've recruited some other students to help. Thanks, Dr. Leo. I've found the answer you were always pointing to in class. I owe you one."
Jesus said, "When the spirit comes, the spirit will lead you into experiencing the truth." There is a difference between being told the truth and experiencing it for ourselves. This is the pivotal place where our "beliefs" become "knowings." Beliefs can always be set aside because uncertainty is at its core. Knowings are never shaken regardless of our circumstances.
Connecting with God really begins when we stop treating God as an external being who will come into our lives like a new car. If we continue to look for God, a being who will come and rescue us from ourselves, we will have a long and empty search. Our expectations of God will cloud our ability to connect. However, when we begin to give away the qualities of God, just like Don Meeker started doing, we connect with the spirit that will lead us to greater truth. Our lives change.
Think about this: We are the only living organism on the planet that believes we will be more complete if we find the right "soul mate," become hired by a certain employer, buy the winning lottery ticket, retire in the proper setting, or find God. We can add to this list according to our more specific, imagined needs.
Oak trees never waste a moment wanting to be as flexible as a Willow. Only people manage to think this way and we wonder why we do not connect with God. We are so busy searching, that we forget how to be in any given moment. When we give away God's qualities, we cannot help but connect with the source of life. This is a sure thing! That is the lesson God would have us learn. God is saying, "Make me visible in what you do and you will experience me everyday."
We need to notice where this process starts. Our connection with God begins when we change our thinking. Rather than seeking something in our world or universe that will make us whole, we must begin giving away the qualities of God. When we find ourselves extending God's presence, connecting with God will no longer be a need; it will automatically happen.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you God for your presence in our lives. We are sorry that our day-to-day drama prevents being closer to you. In seeking greater control over our life, we often miss your guidance. In equating happiness and success with your love of us, we wonder where you are when life appears unjust and cruel. In pursuing the outcomes we want, we mistakenly assume that such is your will for us. We confess that "being the light in darkness" is not easy. Being the bridge over troubled waters is a task we often leave to others. Living with patience, trust, and peace is more our hope than our reality. Lead us to a greater understanding of "Not my will but thine be done." Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and always faithful God, how often we have sought your presence and could not find it. We have great expectations of you. We have wanted and even demanded miracles from you. We have prayed for deliverance from painful experiences. We have wanted talents and abilities as though you give them only to those who seek them. We have felt the pain of unanswered prayer.
When our lives appear controlled by unforeseen circumstances, how easily we forget that your Son was not spared the pain of the abandonment by his closest friends just before his death. How easily we fail to remember the confusion of Mary as she stood at the foot of the cross recalling promises made at her son's conception. We marvel at the apostle Paul's ability not to hold you accountable when he was shipwrecked, stoned, and severely beaten.
O God, there is so much more we need to learn about how we might better connect with you. We have discovered that the more we choose to become like you, the more the tensions and the stressful agents of our world lose their powers. In spite of what our senses behold, teach us how to guard and protect our trust in you; that your Spirit might always guide us in our decision making. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .