If we have heard the New Testament lesson at all, our attention has been grasped.
“Do not be anxious.” Can the speaker be serious? We live in what W.H. Auden, the poet, has characterized as the “Age of Anxiety.” We live in an age of domestic violence, cancer, atomic threat. To say “don’t be anxious” sounds like “don’t breathe.”
This same passage, however, promises us peace; how can we not be interested? We long for peace: being at home with ourselves, others and God. But is it possible?
Norman Cousins, former editor of Saturday Review, said, “It is a squinting, sprinting, shoving age … silence, already the nation’s most critical shortage, is almost a nasty word.” Even when outer turmoil does not press in on us, there is more than enough inner confusion.
The Christian is not immune when it comes to a frenetic, at times frenzied, life style. We may call Jesus “Savior,” “Prince of Peace,” but this beautiful passage concerning “the peace of God” sounds like a foreign language far removed from our common experience.
Nonetheless, the Christian gospel could not be more clear in proclaiming that peace comes from God. Peace means being in right relationship within families, between nations, in ourselves, and with God. All are examples of God’s shalom (wholeness, well-being).
Today, our focus is on the deep calm within the individual that is not blown away by all the squalls and tempests of life. It is faith tried by storm.
Vacationing for a week every year on the shores of Lake Michigan, I marvel at the suddenness and ferocity of summer storms. Yet, what is even more amazing is this deep calm within the lake that is not disturbed by the violence on the surface. That’s the peace we want.
Not long ago, on another lake, I noticed a boat that was named “Tranquility.” It sounded to me like a prayer. But where is it found? An even bigger, fancier boat in the same marina was named “Not Too Shabby” … and it wasn’t.
Is that where peace, tranquility, come from: from what we have? Or does it come from knowing that God loves us in Jesus Christ, forgives us and is with us until the end of the age?
This sounds good, but how does that peace flow into our anxious, fretful lives? Paul’s answer to his beloved friends is prayer. The heart of any relationship is communication. Is it different in our relationship with God?
Thanking, asking, crying, listening; prayer is the soul’s communication with God and through it travels the peace only God can give. Yet we feel so inadequate in prayer. Shakespeare’s lines could have been spoken by most of us at one time or other:
Words fly up, my thoughts remain below,
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Realizing the truth expressed in such a confession, Paul speaks here of an important form of prayer which is often forgotten. He said, “Think on these things.” (He is speaking of all that is worth contemplating: the just, the pure, the true, the lovely.) “Think on” means to meditate, to recognize in these things the peace that God has already given us.
Peace — deep, abiding peace — is always a gift of God. However, that gift grows in us as we meditate on and recognize all that is a part of God’s peace.
For you who know, as I do, the “downpull” of anxiety, I want to suggest four steps in opening up to God in prayer. Before I mention these four steps that have been helpful to me, a reminder is in order. All prayer must be honest, so do not be afraid to release the tension that is in you. Jeremiah could cry out to God, “I sat alone because of thy hand, for thou has filled me with indignation.” David poured his heart out, “I am as a man who hath no help.” Jesus, the Messiah, cried, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Do not suppress honest cries of the heart when they rise up within you.
Yet don’t stop there. God is more than a cosmic dumping ground. So let us begin with even five minutes a day of recognizing the peace that God wants us to have through meditative prayer. Four short, figurative phrases have been helpful to me as I visualize the steps of thinking on those things that make for peace.
I. Close the Door
Jesus told us to pray in our closet. Perhaps we’ll never fully know what He meant, but a part of it could be that we should attempt to close the door for a few moments on the clutter inside and outside. To pray in secret is to shut off all that we can for a moment of the “squinting, sprinting, shoving world” and rediscover the secret power of prayer in a silent place.
Pascal said, “All the evils of life have fallen upon us because we will not sit alone, quietly in a room.”
Think of a regular time and place to meet God. A chief executive of a large corporation moves from his desk, blocks all calls for a few minutes every morning for silent prayer. A woman who is working outside the home and has two young children at home has a small kneeling bench in a corner of her room and she goes there when she can. Where is your place, your time to close the door?
II. Take Off Your Shoes
Now remember, don’t take these steps literally, just seriously. This phrase reminds me of a most important reality no matter where we pray, we are on holy ground. We don’t need a burning bush to be reminded that God is present.
If you do nothing else in prayer, recognize God’s presence. The God of peace, the God who created all that is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely; that God is not only high and lifted up, but nearer than hands and feet. He is nearer than your own breathing. Hear His assurance in your breathing.
What can separate you from the love of God: loss of job, illness, death? Nothing. Prayer is, above all else, recognizing the presence of God. “It is thee we want, not thy gifts.” We get that reversed.
Nancy, kneeling by her bed in prayer, says, “I’ve been asking for a bicycle for two months and it hasn’t arrived yet … please connect me with your shipping department.”
“It is thee we want.” God is near. Take off your shoes.
III. Open the Windows
Frank Laubach, a real man of action because he was a real man of prayer, said, “I do nothing but open the windows. God does all the rest.”
If we are to see the Peace of God coming into our lives in fresh ways, we must open the windows of our soul to thoughts and glimpses of the eternal. This is to pray meditatively: to think on a single phrase of Scripture, an attribute of God, a line from a hymn, a song, a spiritual saying. Think on it until God speaks what He wills to you.
Many years ago, when we were moving to California, we had one of those days — all went wrong, tempers flared to match the Arizona heat and we took a detour to Oak Creek Canyon.
I will never forget it. Away from everything, the murmur of the mountain stream saying over and over again, “He restoreth my soul”! God broke through! I was restored, we were restored.
This week, a friend sent me a written prayer that God used. Don’t ignore a fragment of scripture, a line from an old hymn; they are means of opening the windows.
IV. Fold Your Hands
This dawned on me as I watched a child learning to pray, folding hands that had been active all day. There are times when people of action need to relax and let go. That’s a part of prayer we often forget.
Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, once said that, “Hurry is not of the devil, it is the devil.”
Be still and know. Relax, let go, and let God. One youngster was reminded by his mother, “When you pray, do not so much give God instruction as report for duty.” It’s hard to let go.
Once I was watching a woman teach her daughter how to float and I thought of the phrase “underneath are the everlasting arms,” for her arms were there, beneath her daughter, just under the surface. Relax, fold your hands, God is still in charge.
Think on these things: close the door … take off your shoes … open the windows … fold your hands … be still … God is near … meditate on His goodness … relax and receive His peace. Amen.