Focus is not what we think it is… Oglethorpe Presbyterian is a praying church. That is not a startling revelation all by itself. Many churches pray. We pray before meetings, when we meet for lunch, before worship, during worship, after worship…prayer is an important part of everything we do.
What I mean when I say that Oglethorpe is a praying church is that prayer has grown in what it means to us in the past few years. Our prayer list, once an opportunity to list members in need of prayer, has grown into a ministry of its own, with far more names of people outside than inside our congregation. Our practice of asking for prayers during the service has multiplied as well: from a trickle of a card here and there to a consistent flow of praise and concern. Since January, we have been working at developing a daily habit of prayer in our lives. When Lent began, we kicked things into overdrive, expressing our prayers in many ways: through words, silence, and even through song.
And today, as we turn our attention to Jesus and the blind man, our focus turns to…focus.
I am the last person in the world to talk about focus. I can be too easily distracted by bright, shiny objects. It is a gift when multitasking is required; but when I want to dedicate my energy to one thing, it is maddening. For me, focus takes discipline. Repetition. Habit. When I talk about developing a daily habit of prayer, the temptation to pay attention to more interesting things is great. And so, for me, daily prayer takes practice, because I am prone to want immediate results. It takes grace, because I will drop the ball more than once. It takes creativity, because what focuses me today will not be what focuses me tomorrow. And it takes God, because I cannot do this on my own.
So in an effort to focus my focus today, I want to suggest four thoughts about prayer. I am hoping that one or more of these will land with you, and give you focus in your prayer and practice.
First, prayer is a process.
Prayer is not something that comes to us naturally. It takes practice before it takes form. Think of learning to write. First, we have to learn how to hold a pen. Second, we have to develop the muscles in our hands. Third, we have to learn the motions required to make letters recognizable. It is only after years of practice that we can write without thinking carefully about each minute step.
You see, process is a part of the life of faith. Because faith lives in that world of the intangible, we tend to miss this point. But it’s an important one. When Jesus heals the blind man, we know that he could’ve said, “you are healed” and be done with it. Instead, he first makes mud out of spit and dirt. He then rubs it in the man’s eyes. And finally, he tells him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. When the man does, it is then that he is able to see. The process is crucial to the healing. The man’s faithful response, of trusting Jesus enough to go wash, is essential for the healing to be complete. I suspect that his role in finishing the healing is what makes him own it, what gives him the willingness to stand up to the crowds and the Pharisees and call them on their hypocrisy.
What is true about faith being a process is also true about prayer. It takes time and patience to develop the muscle memory to pray. And before we get there, our prayers are likely to be chunky, indecipherable. Since January, I have been encouraging you to use the template on the back of the white pew card. It’s not a magic formula, but if you find yourself still holding your prayer pen like it’s a murder weapon, this is as good a process as any to start building up those muscles.
Prayer is a process.
Second, prayer is personal.
The way you pray will be different from the way someone else prays. Cheryl mentioned last week how her most prayerful times can be on the tractor – no one can bother her, and she can run over anyone who tries. My prayers of late have been ones with eyes wide open, sitting in coffee shops and restaurants. My quiet refrain has been, “Who should I pray for?” There are days that nothing comes through clearly; but more often than not, I get some kind of clarity: I see someone that has been on my mind of late, and we end up in conversation; my wandering thoughts end up focusing on one of you and your life, and I lift that up in prayer. For me, and the way I am wired, the paradox is that distractions bring me focus.
Jesus knew the importance of personalized encounters. If playfulness was called for, he toyed with words. If bluntness was needed, he flipped over tables. If compassion was necessary, he wept. And with the man born blind, he saw the whole experience as an opportunity not just to heal, but also to call the Pharisees to account for their own blind spots. And through it all, the man isn’t simply an object lesson in the battle; he becomes an outspoken critic of the Pharisees and a powerful witness to the power of Jesus. His healing is much deeper than gaining his sense of sight; it is about gaining his sense of self as he understands his relationship with this Jesus.
What about you? Maybe you’re like me, looking for a way to hack your short attention span for prayer. Or perhaps you require utter silence…or a candle to stare into, or a phrase or song to run through your mind. Maybe drawing or journaling or doodling would help bring clarity. Or perhaps it’s a walk in the woods, or around the neighborhood that will give you the ability to free your spirit of what weighs it down, to bring your mind to focus on what God desires for you. My suggestion is that you experiment…play with different kinds of prayer until you find what fits you.
Because prayer is personal.
Third, prayer is about results.
What is it that prayer does for you? Is it measurable? Definable? If you read the literature about what prayer does to our brains, we are just beginning to understand the possibilities. But what we do know is that prayer matters. It is a practice that over time can rewire our brain. It increases our ability to concentrate and to have empathy toward others.
From my own experience, I can tell you that following this particular formula of prayer has definitively heightened my awareness of the world around me and where it is that God wants my attention. It is seeing these results that convinces me that we should grow our life of prayer here at Oglethorpe.
Results tend to speak for themselves. When the Pharisees grill the man born blind about his healing encounter with Jesus, he simply points to the results: I was blind, and now I see. What more proof do you need that he is a man of God? The Pharisees, religious gatekeepers of their day, are fixated on Jesus’ lack of regard for the religious rules. After all, he is a Sabbath breaker. How can a scofflaw be a healer? Surely, there must be something else at work here! Maybe it’s a different man? Maybe his parents would help us identify the issue?
But in the end, the Pharisees cannot argue with the results. He was born blind; but now he sees. End of story.
If this is the result of faith, can you imagine what Oglethorpe would look like if each of us spent our days attuned to God’s desires? Our ability to make faithful decisions, to shape ministries that serve the community, to invite, welcome, and encourage those not only who come through our doors, but with whom we come in contact – all would grow measurably, simply because we have spent five minutes a day asking God to make us more aware!
Prayer is about results.
And finally, prayer is unbelievable.
Since our story is about a blind man given sight, I’m not sure there’s much more to say about how outrageous the life of faith can be. The Pharisees can’t believe it; the crowds can’t believe it. Jesus’ healing is, quite clearly, unbelievable. And yet, it happens.
Oglethorpe is a praying church. And if we become a community focused on prayer, focused on asking God to move and attune and shape and stir us for what God desires, we won’t believe what will happen.
Because, in the end, focus is not what we think it is. In fact, focus is a Latin word that means “fireplace”. In other words, until very recently in human history, the focus was a literal place. It was where people would gather for warmth, huddling around the very sparks that kept them both safe and alive.
Can prayer be our focus? Can it be the very thing that gives us purpose, guidance, direction, life itself?