Sometimes what you don’t like when you’re 15 years old, you do like when you get old like I am. When I was 15, I had to go to Sunday evening church because my mother made me go. I didn’t like Sunday evening church. Sunday morning was okay; the sermon had some structure to it. Three points and a poem and you were out of there.
And I would come in on Sunday evening and I would sit with my arms folded and my body slouched and we’d have to sing 211 in the Tabernacle hymnal. A tough kid doesn’t like that song. It goes “I come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses.” I hated to sing that. I mean it was even worse, the second verse: “He speaks and the sound of His voice is so sweet the birds, the little birds hush their singing.” I hated that song. But that’s because I was 15. The older I get, the older I get, the more I love to sing 211 in the Tabernacle hymnal. The more I love to sing “And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own. And the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.” Do you go to the garden with Jesus?
Prayer for me is my time alone with Jesus. I wake up in the morning and I spend time in prayer. I go to bed and I spend time in prayer. Prayer does a lot for me. First of all, in prayer, I get affirmation from God. I get the affirmation that I need, the affirmation that assures me that God loves me. I have a friend Brennan; he was in Korea during the Korean War. He was in a fox hole with his best friend Steven. They had a little fire going, they were eating Snickers candy bars when out of the darkness came a hand grenade, landed right between them. Brennan said Steven looked at me, winked, threw his Snickers candy bar over his shoulder and then threw himself on the hand grenade. It tore him to pieces, but he saved me life.
When Brennan came back to the states, he went up to Scranton Pennsylvania to see Steven’s parents and visit with them, and he had never met them before. He talked with them and as they talked, he said, “Did Steven write to you about me?” The mother said, “Yes.”
“Did he ever mention that he loved me?” The woman stood with her cup and saucer in hand and smashed them to the floor and screamed at Brennan and said, “Curse you, Brennan. Curse you. The man died for you and you’re asking does he love you?” People never doubt that God loves you. The man died for you and “greater love hath no man than this that he would lay down his life for you.” That’s what the cross is all about.
The second thing that happens to me when I pray is not only do I get the affirmation, and I not only feel the love of God envelope me, in quietude and stillness I wait to feel God’s love. Do you ever do that? You know that passage from the 40th chapter of Isaiah: “They who wait upon the Lord.” But how many of us wait? I wait ten, fifteen minutes in quiet, in stillness waiting until I begin to feel myself enveloped by Christ. And I feel Christ penetrating flowing into me, energizing me. I feel the love of God. I need that. But the second thing that happens to me in my prayer time, after I’ve waited for that sense of being loved, I examine myself.
St. Ignatius, one of the great Catholic saints says, that whatever you do in praying, at the end of the day you should always pray the prayer of examine. That’s what he called it, the prayer of examine. And as Ignatius laid it out, there are two parts to the prayer of examine. One’s a positive and one’s a negative. And he is quick to point out that you dare not deal with the negative things, the sins that you’ve committed without first doing the affirmation of yourself, examining the good things.
I was in church as a boy and my father was next to me and it was Holy Communion Sunday and they were giving out the bread and the wine and the pastor had preached this very, very harsh sermon. But this young woman in front of us was just overwhelmed with guilt. She started to cry uncontrollably. I don’t know what she had done, I don’t know what was going on in her life, all I know is she was crying and shaking. When you come, don’t come condemning yourself alone, I mean let me just say this, Paul writes in the 4th chapter of Philippians, the 8th and 9th verse, “Finally brothers and sisters, at the end of the day, brothers and sisters, whatsoever things are true and noble and just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there’s any virtue, if there’s any praiseworthiness, think on these things.”
You know we often are accused of being too positive, thinking always but that’s what Paul tells us to do, doesn’t he? Think on these things. Let me put that in language that you might understand. At the end of the day, what you need to do is close your eyes and go over the day and think of all the good things you did. Did you spread the truth of the gospel? Did you commit acts of sacrificial love? Did you stand up for justice against oppressors? Did you resist temptation and embrace purity? Did you do something lovely and kind today? Did you affirm the good that you’ve heard about other people? Do you say good things about people? In short, says Paul, did you do anything that was pleasing to God that day?
Go over the day, that’s what I do. Before I go over the negatives, I think of all the ways God used me, all the ways God blessed people through me, all the good things that I did for others, the loving things I’ve done for others. You dare not look at the dark side of your personality until you’ve first, by the grace of God, affirmed the good things. Why would you do to yourself what you know you should never do to a child? If you’re going to correct a child, you have to let that child know in no uncertain terms before you correct all the good things: son, you’re a good boy, I love you. You’ve done so many wonderful things, but son, you did something today and you correct. You correct in the context of affirmation.
And Ignatius asks why would you do to yourself what you never do to a child. You’ve got to in fact, affirm yourself. And see and rehearse with God under the direction of the Holy Spirit all the positive and wonderful things you did that day. Only then are you equipped and ready to examine the day a second time and the second time you name all the things that you did, that you know were hard on people, mean to people, all the failures, all the shortcomings, I name them one by one.
And here’s what it says in 1st John, the first chapter, “and if you confess your sins, He is faithful and He is just and He will not only forgive you, but He will cleanse you.” And in the stillness of the morning, I surrender to Christ and let Him reach out from Calvary across time and space because I believe that when Jesus hung on the cross, He was timeless, and I let Him reach forward and touch me, and absorb out of me all that I find that is ugly and dark and negative about me. The dark things in my life I let Him cleanse me, cleanse me.
Let me tell you this: Jesus on the cross is the only thing that will cleanse your soul and make you whole again. Just yield to Him and that’s what I do in prayer. I do what Ignatius says, I affirm the positives and then I confess the negatives and let Christ cleanse me, “For though my sins be as scarlet, He makes them white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, He makes them like wool.”
Nelson Mandela was released from prison. A friend of mine, President Clinton, got his daughter up at two in the morning to see this historic event as he left the cell block and was walking towards the gate of the prison after being in prison for 29 years, standing against apartheid. President Clinton said the cameras focused on Mandela’s face and I’d never seen such anger and such hatred on anybody’s face, and I asked him, that’s not the Nelson Mandela I know today. What happened? And Mandela said halfway across the courtyard, I examined myself and I said Nelson, for 29 years you were their prisoner, but you were always a free man. Don’t let them turn you into a free man only to make you into their prisoner. And I changed.
The last thing: prayer for me is a time of dedication. And dedication, I commit myself to becoming the kind of person that Jesus wants me to be. You say aren’t you there? Of course not. Whenever I sign a book, I always use my verses that are my favorites: Philippians 3:13 and 14, “Not as though I have already achieved, not as though I have already apprehended, I’m still pressing towards the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” Every once in a while, somebody says to me, Gandhi was a better person than you are. He was. But if he was so wonderful without Jesus, imagine what he would have been like with Jesus. And if you think I’m so rotten with Jesus, can you imagine what I would be like without Jesus? People, it hath not yet appeared what I shall be! I’m on my way, but one day, someday when I see Him face to face, I shall be like Him. But between now and then, I’m pressing towards that mark. And I am striving to become what Jesus wants me to be. I know what He wants me to be, I’m not there yet.
A friend of mine, Mike Yaconelli told me the story about a church where they had a deacon that didn’t “deac.” Every church has a deacon that doesn’t “deac.” He said to this deacon, look you don’t do much around here, the youth group goes to the old folk’s home and they do that once a month and we need somebody to drive the van. Will you do it? So he did. He went. He stood in the back as the young people did the worship service up front. This old guy in a wheelchair rolled the wheelchair over and grabbed the deacon’s hand and held it tightly. This old man held the deacon’s hand all through the service. And the next month when they went back, the same thing happened. The month after that, it happened again, and the month after that it happened again.
And then when they went the next time, the old man wasn’t there. The deacon asked the nurse and she said oh he’s dying; he’s third room down on your right. You can go and see him, but he’s unconscious. And the deacon went down, took the man’s hand, prayed that the Lord would give him the eternal life through Calvary, prayed that the sins would be forgiven and that he would make his transition to glory with Jesus’ arms around him.
When he finished the prayer, this old man lying in the bed, squeezed the deacon’s hand three times intensely, making sure that the deacon understand that though he looked unconscious, he had heard the prayer. The deacon was so moved, that he stumbled out of the room and he bumped into this middle aged woman and she said he’s been waiting for you. That’s my father. He said he didn’t want to die until he had a chance to hold the hand of Jesus one more time. I tried to tell my father that in the next life, he would have a chance to hold the hand of Jesus, but not in this life, but my father kept saying oh no, once a month, Jesus comes and holds my hand and I would just like to hold His hand one more time before I die.
I don’t know what you think, but please get this: Jesus wants you to become Jesus for other people. Jesus wants to take your life and do through you what He would do if He was in your place. That’s your calling. Will you become Jesus for somebody because you’ve been cleansed of sin and the Holy Spirit has filled you and He is using you to connect with other people in the name of Jesus Christ?
And then, not only to be what Jesus would be, but to do what Jesus would do. I have a friend, Guy Doud; he won the award as teacher of the year several years ago, of the whole country. He talks about when he was in the 8th grade. He hated himself. He was significantly overweight. And the thing that he hated most was phys ed on Friday’s when they would all get naked in the dressing room and the other boys would laugh at him. He sat in the back of the room; he hurt every moment of every day that he was in school.
Guy said, one day, one day his class was dismissed, my teacher said, Guy, I want you to remain behind. He handed me a book. He said I want you to read this poem. Guy said I’ll never forget the poem. It was the poem Casey at the Bat. Said now go back to the back of the room and read it. And Guy Doud read the poem Casey at the Bat. And when he finished, he said the teacher just sat there for a long moment, stroking his chin and said Guy, I knew it. I knew it. You are a poet. Guy Doud said I walked out of that classroom and leaned against the wall and with tears streaming down my cheeks I said, I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be an English teacher. A boy’s life was changed because a teacher did for a boy what Jesus would do if Jesus had been in that teacher’s place.
Are you willing to become Jesus for somebody? Are you willing to let Him take hold of you and use me, Lord, use me, God, use me, take me, fill me, break me, change me, cleanse me, use me. Let me tell you this: you can’t do what Jesus expects you to do because you simply will to do it. Jesus said, “Without Me, you can do nothing.” So do you want to feel the love of God? Do you want to go through that process of affirmation and self examination that I was talking about? And most of all, do you want to become what Jesus wants you to be? And do what Jesus wants you to be and do and do in the world what He would have you do? Then you have to invite Him into your life. And in the prayer that I pray now, I want you to do that. Pray with me. Pray with me.
Father God, there are people here that believe in You. That’s why they’ve come. But they need more than just believing in You. I pray that this morning these in the church and those that are out in the listening audience might say I not only want to believe in Jesus, I want to go to that still place, that quiet place alone, and I want to surrender myself and feel His love. And allow Him to examine the life that I’m living. And then empower me to be and to do His good pleasure. With your heads bowed, and eyes closed, would you surrender to Jesus? In His name we pray, amen.