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Sermon for July 18, 2010

The Prayer of the Empty Soul

We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies. So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you. But we continue to preach because we have the same kind of faith the psalmist had when he said, “I believed in God, so I spoke.” We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus and present us to himself together with you. All of this is for your benefit. And as God’s grace reaches more and more people, there will be great thanksgiving, and God will receive more and more glory. That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. -- 2 Corinthians 4:7-18

I once read an article in a men’s magazine entitled, “The 50 Skills Every Man Should Know.” Here are some life skills that every man should be able to do:
tell a joke, land a plane (but only if you really have to), cook with passion, roll a kayak, hit a three-point shot in basketball, spot a liar, grill a nice steak, nail a swan dive, teach his dog to fetch the paper, hold his breath underwater for a long time, listen to others, know one good fitness trick, give a compliment, and build a blazing campfire. So, men, how do you stack up?
Women, I don’t want you to feel left out. Blogger Shay Davidson offers her own survival tips that every modern woman needs to know if she wants her happy marriage to last while she remains sane.

1. Teach him to say, “Yes, dear.” In the spirit of fair is fair, women must learn to say, “Yes, dear,” as well. Smile, nod a lot; then do whatever the flip you want. Also, after smiling and nodding, don’t roll your eyes until you’ve turned your back to walk away. Nothing tics a guy off like rolling your eyes at his suggestions. Also, don’t use the phrase “As if!” out loud.

2.In an effort to keep the peace, do NOT take him shopping at the mall with you. Shopping with your husband is like taking your bowling ball along for a swim!

3. When you sign up for cable or satellite service, avoid any package that includes any channel that carries wrestling, boxing or “Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader Tryouts.” Don’t worry. He’ll get used to watching CSPAN.

4. Never, ever whine to your parents about your marital problems; they will hate him forever, even long after you’ve forgiven him. From the day on that you complain to mommy, she will refer to him as “that husband of yours…” This is why God made girlfriends to complain to.

5. Pick your battles. Leaving his socks on the bedroom floor is not cause for fight. However, using your brand new designer bathroom towels to wash his car with, might be. On that same note, if you’re annoyed about picking up his clothes from the bedroom floor, stop doing it! Eventually he will need clean clothes and he will need to pick up his own clothes. He will get the hang of it, and it will all happen without any argument at all!

6. When he wants to go camping in a tent on your vacation and you want to go to Paris, compromise; then go to Paris. If your definition of "fun" includes spending days at a time washing dishes under a spigot, shaking dirt out of your shoes and trying to keep the kids clean while he sits in a lawn chair with a drink commenting on how wonderful it is to be out in the wild, then go for it.

7. Sometimes you just have to shake your head and laugh. Relationships and partners can be pretty funny.

This all gets me thinking about the spiritual skills that Christians should possess for a fruitful life. What would you put on your list? Some ideas come to my mind. Christians should know how to pray, to serve, to love, to forgive, to study, and give sacrificially. Christians should also have one more skill. We should know how to survive in the desert. Listen to the words of the Psalmist . . .
As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and stand before him? Day and night I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours?” My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be:I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks amid the sound of a great celebration! Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! will praise him again— my Savior and my God! . . . Each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing his songs, praying to God who gives me life. “O God my rock,” I cry, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief, oppressed by my enemies?” Their taunts break my bones. They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?” Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again — my Savior and my God! --Psalm 42
Sure, we have times when we feel on top of the world. We can remember when we felt spiritually vibrant. But the psalmist expresses another experience. He travels through a spiritual desert. At one time he felt the presence and power of God, but now he thirsts for God in the midst of an arid faith. Enemies taunt him. His heart is discouraged. He feels forgotten. His spiritual life is empty. I can relate. I imagine you can, too. A couple of weeks ago, someone asked me for a good prayer when your soul is empty. What do we do when our lives are marked by feelings of loneliness, and separation from God? How do we go one when we don’t feel God’s presence? How do we cope with spiritual lives that feel arid and we thirst for God.

Where are the arid places in your spiritual life? How do you pray when your soul feels empty? I looked up a dozen or so Internet sites with tips on how to survive in a desert. Perhaps there is some wisdom in these survival tips that applies to our spiritual lives.

1. Don’t ration water. Drink it.
The experts agree that if you are in a desert and you save all your water for the hike home, you may die. If you are stuck in the desert, drink what you have as often as you can. The same is true in our spiritual lives. We need to drink, even when we aren’t thirsty. What is our water? What keeps us alive? Jesus says he is the Living Water who satisfies us and renews our lives. When we are in a spiritual drought, sometimes the last thing we want to do is seek the Lord. Reading the bible can feel dull and dreary. Prayer can feel monotonous. But if you want to survive the spiritual desert, don’t stop drinking from the well of Christ’s wisdom. It may feel like scripture study, prayer, and other acts of faith are useless, but they may actually be keeping you alive. Drink from wisdom of God. Drink from what you have, as often as you can.

2. Know the Danger.
Survival experts say that travelers need to know ahead of time when they are entering a dangerous place. Know the risks before you leave. There are heat-related dangers like heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. And by all means, leave the snakes alone. They can hurt or kill you if you stick your hand some place where it shouldn’t be. There is a parallel here to our spiritual journeys. When it comes to our faith, we like to talk about the blessings. We rarely mention the hard parts. If we are serious about walking in the footsteps of Jesus, we need to know the risks. When we follow Jesus, we become more aware of the evil and temptation around us. We will reach out and grab something and it will bite us. There will be times when we feel perplexed, crushed, persecuted, and cut down. Why do you think the Bible spends so much time describing God as a strong rock, a firm defense, a sure refuge and a help for the weak? It’s so that we remember that when we face the dangers of life, we have someone to lean on. If you want to survive the spiritual desert, follow the advice of the Psalmist: put your hope in God.

3. Stay Together.
Many rescues occur in situations where a group decided to split up to find help and someone ended up alone. People could avoid some disasters if they stayed together. So often in our spiritual deserts, we decide to go it alone -- to split off from the rest of the church. We decide we know the best route, that we don’t need the rest of “those people” to help us find the way. I believe we do so at our own peril.

The Discovery Channel once showed a film about wildebeests on the Serengeti plains in Africa. Herds of wildebeests migrate there each year to mate and birth their young. Among them roam vicious predators, including the hyena. A newborn wildebeest has about 15 minutes to get up and run with the adult herd. Slow starters risk becoming a hyena’s lunch. The baby barely has time to get used to breathing when the mother nudges it to stand. The newborn steadies itself on wobbly hind legs, forelegs bent beneath its bobbing head. The film shows a hyena approaching, stiff-legged with lowered head and bared teeth.The mother wildebeest bravely steps between the hyena and the baby. Before long, a circle of more hyenas distract the mother, while other hyenas take the baby. Meanwhile, there are thousands of wildebeests spread out nearby. As they graze, they lift their heads occasionally to watch the desperate mother. Any of them could rally to help save the newborn. Not a single one dies. It’s hard to survive spiritually without others to support you, encourage you, pray for you, and help you grow into a well-nourished spiritual person. Our habit is to live our lives as stoic individualists. We learn to stay out of each other’s affairs, to keep our distance. But that’s now God’s way. We are called to love each other, to care for one another, and to stick together.

4. Be prepared for some cold nights.
The desert is a place of extremes. Brutal heat by day gives way to icy coldness at night. If you aren’t prepared for the drastic differences, you will die in the desert. We should be prepared for some extremes in our faith journeys, too. There will be times when we feel cold-hearted and alone. Expect that extreme conditions will afflict us. The Apostle Paul puts it this way: We are treasures in clay pots. The gifts of God are contained in these ordinary, fragile human bodies. We are mortal vessels who face life’s challenges. We are surrounded by hardship and humility, even though Christ fills us with glory. So remember that both the hardship and the glory, the extremes of our faith, help us recognize our utter dependence on God. With this in mind, let me offer one more tip.

5. Don’t lose hope. Help is on the way.
God knows where we’ve come from. God knows our starting point, our destination, and every point in between. God knows when we’re ablaze with love and when we need to be rescued from arid faith. That’s why I cherish Paul’s words so much. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted, but not abandoned, struck down, but not destroyed. In fact, Jesus has already been there. He faced the desert. We put out hope in God because Jesus was in despair. He was abandoned. He was struck down. But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus was not destroyed. He lives on. For this reason, we know that our momentary journeys through the desert regions of life lead us to eternal glory in God’s presence. Don’t lose hope. Help is on the way.

God knows where we are, and God knows how to bring us to safety. No one plans on getting lost. So, when you find yourself in spiritual deserts, hang in there. There are no instant paths out. It takes time. Drink deeply, know the dangers, stay together, and be prepared for some cold nights. And most of all, never, ever give up hope. God is coming to help.

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