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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

September 6, 2015

The Comfort of Learning God’s Mathematics

Isaiah 58:6-11; James 2:14-26

            You may remember the story of Antoinette Tuff, the woman who saved a school filled with elementary school children and their teachers from harm at McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia. A man armed with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition entered the school and took her hostage.   Antoinette Tuff is an African-American middle-aged school bookkeeper who spoke to the young white man as if he were a member of her own family. When the gunman told her that his last name was “Hill,” she replied, “That’s my name, too. My mama was a Hill.” Antoinette offered opportunities for the gunman to see his connection with her and others in the school. She shared stories from her own life to help calm him, stories of her recent divorce and a son with disabilities. “We all go through something in life,” she told him. Antoinette promised that if he put down his weapons, she would stay with him until the police arrived and he would not be hurt. “It’s going to be all right, sweetie,” she said. “I just want you to know I love you … and I’m proud of you.” The man surrendered his weapons, and he was arrested by police. No one was physically harmed that day, not even the gunman.  

            What allowed Antoinette to make the choice to stay calm, peaceful and compassionate? She said she had never been so scared, but her actions did not reflect her fears. Antoinette used a practice she had learned in church. Her pastor had taught her to “pray on the inside” and “anchor” herself in God no matter what was happening around her. Antoinette prayed on the inside for the gunman as she spoke with him and the practice helped her to see him as a struggling human being and to respond to him with compassion.

            I hope we are teaching people, including our children, to “pray on the inside.” It is a way to unite our faith and our actions, and to seek God’s wisdom and peace for both the daily and the extraordinary challenges of life. This Labor Day weekend is an appropriate time to consider the way we approach our human labors, our vocations and even our volunteer opportunities, and all the people and challenges we encounter along life’s way. Praying on the inside is the best way I know to live the life that our scripture from the book of James encourages us to live.

            The writer of James tells us that if we have Christian faith, our lives will reflect our faith in what we do and what we say. Christian faith is not meant to be an intellectual exercise, and our lives are not meant to be a preparation for a great and final theology exam. Instead, we are to live our lives in a way that speaks, even without words of what we believe and whose we are. “Faith apart from works is dead,” the writer of James states, “as dead as a body without a spirit.” It is the message of the hymn, “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” Our relationships with others reflect our relationship with God. We cannot honestly say we love God if we are unkind and unloving toward others.

            This message is stated again and again in the Bible, Old and New Testament. In our text from Isaiah, the prophet tells the people of Israel that God does not desire fasting, but kindness and justice. Share your bread with the hungry, give the homeless a home and provide the poor with adequate clothing. This is the religious practice that God desires.

            The prophet Micah preaches the same message. “God has showed you what is good; what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

            The message of the Bible is clear and consistent, but the application is often difficult. Antoinette Tuff faced this dilemma when held captive by an armed gunman who threatened her life and the lives of a school full of children and their teachers. Antoinette found the answer through praying on the inside while she calmly talked and showed kindness to a mentally unstable person who held her life in his hands. Antoinette knew the comfort of what can be called “God’s lessons of mathematics.”

            The first lesson of God’s mathematics is this: God plus us is always enough. We are not wise enough or strong enough or gifted enough, but God is the source of all wisdom and strength, and God never lacks the resources that we need to face life as He leads us.   God will give us all that we need. God may not give us all that we want, but He certainly will give us all that we need for the task at hand. We just have to stay connected to God through prayer. The ideas, the opportunities, the words, the action plan will come if we stay alert.

            When we are asked to help another struggling person, we may be tempted to say we cannot. We feel we lack the time or the financial resources or we may believe we just do not have the abilities. We may feel overly committed and depleted in body, mind and pocketbook. In some cases, we may be right and we are not the best person to help. But praying on the inside can help us with the process of discernment. There may be someone else we know who can help. Or God may tell us, “You are the man or the woman.”      

            I recall the time I was working as a chaplain at the V.A. Hospital while a Divinity School student. I entered the room in the medical intensive care unit of a gentleman who had suffered a stroke and was left partially paralyzed on his right side. He was watching a TV evangelist who preached frequently about praying with perfect faith for healing and then receiving God’s healing of physical infirmities. The patient asked me one of those very difficult questions, “Do you believe that if I pray with perfect faith for healing that God will heal my body just like the preacher on TV said?” I paused to think for a few moments before answering. I can only imagine how very difficult it must be to suddenly find that your body will not respond to your mental commands, but I have never been paralyzed. I knew this patient wanted me to pray with him for his healing, and then he wanted to spring out of bed, get dressed and walk out of the hospital to return to the life he once knew.

            Yes, I believe in miracles, and yes, I believe that God answers our prayers for healing. But I also believe that healing can take many forms. Sometimes our prayers for healing lead to our physical healing and sometimes we receive an even greater gift. God’s healing may take the form of the healing of relationships, including our relationships with God and our loved ones. God’s healing may give us strength and peace in the midst of incredible challenges. Sometimes, God answers our prayers for healing in ways not readily visible to the human eye. How to answer the question asked so hopefully by this patient?

            I prayed one of those silent prayers for help in the form of wisdom and the words to offer this patient who so wanted to regain the use of his body. A story offered by the apostle Paul came suddenly to mind. I told the gentleman that Paul was a man of incredible faith in the power of God and Jesus Christ, and Paul had an infirmity that he referred to as a thorn in his flesh. Paul said he prayed three times to God for the thorn to be removed. God answered his prayer with these words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest in me … for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

            We began to discuss what Paul’s thorn in the flesh might have been and how God responded to the prayer of his faithful servant, Paul. We talked about how God’s healing might manifest itself in this gentleman’s life, and how his physical condition might improve in the days to come. But we also discussed how God could use his physical weakness, if any remained, for good beyond our imagining as God’s power shone in and through his physical weakness. We recalled Jesus’ prayer, earnestly prayed the night before His crucifixion: “My Father, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”  Then we prayed for God’s healing and waited to see how God would answer our heart-felt prayer, praying also that we might be open to all possibilities.  

            Of course, our prayers for help are one of our most natural prayers, and I believe it is pleasing to God to hear our urgent requests for help in a crisis. But our prayers can take other forms as well: prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of confession and prayers of dedicating our lives to God that God will use us for good in His world.   Prayers are the prelude to combining our faith and our action, and the way to open ourselves to receiving the wisdom, the resources and the opportunities to live a living faith. The glue that unites our prayer and our actions is love, the love that only God can give us. You know some people are just hard to love and some people even want to harm us. The prayer that God will help us to love others is the prayer that only God can help us to sincerely pray.

            We cannot live a living faith by ourselves. Thankfully, God plus us always equals: enough.

            The second lesson of God’s mathematics is that God is not a God of division which is good news for all of us, and not just those who struggled with elementary school mathematics. As the scripture from James teaches, we cannot divide our faith from our work or our work from our faith. At the very heart of our Christian faith is the work grounded in our faith and our love of God.

            One of my favorite spiritual writers is Evelyn Underhill. In her book, The Spiritual Life, she writes:

            For a spiritual life is simply a life in which all that we do comes from the centre, where we are anchored in God: a life soaked through and through by a sense of His reality and claim, and self-given to the great movement of His will. Most of our conflicts and difficulties come from trying to deal with the spiritual and practical aspects of our life separately instead of realizing them as parts of one whole…. Only when the conviction … that the demand of the Spirit, however inconvenient, comes first and IS first, rules the whole of it, will those objectionable noises [of our own self-interests and ambitions] die down….[1]

            When we can respond to God with a life anchored in our love of Him, then our response can be undivided, no longer in conflict with our sense of self-importance and longings for success.

            God’s rejection of division can be seen in other ways as well. The Christian community is united by the Holy Spirit, and the Christian church is referred to as the body of Christ. The apostle Paul beautifully describes the varieties of spiritual gifts each Christian is given in terms of the parts of the human body. When we unite our various gifts, resources and efforts, we become a whole functioning body, and we can accomplish far more than we can ever hope to do alone. Individuals do not dissolve and disappear into the community. Through the Holy Spirit, we and our gifts are blended. In fact, it seems that God is a God of multiplication: the multiplication of gifts brought together in community to serve Him. We may not agree on all topics, such as politics and even some aspects of our Christian beliefs. As we struggle to live in harmonious community with those with whom we disagree, we will need to pray on the inside for God’s love and spirit of harmony. Our efforts will be rewarded, for God is not a God of division but of the multiplication of the resources given to us and dedicated to Him. The resources dedicated to God will reflect the union of Christian faith and actions.

            Our church’s mission ministries reflect the uniting of church members’ gifts and talents so beautifully. We are presently building a home through Habitat for Humanity for a mother, Germanie Prophete, and her three children. We need volunteers on Saturdays and Sundays to help with building, painting, landscaping, making lunch, or, my personal specialty, sweeping, picking up trash, retrieving needed equipment and cheerleading. In November, we will offer to 13 homeless men a warm bed on our church campus, a delicious dinner and breakfast and sack lunch to go. We need volunteers to help drive our guests, spend the night with our guests, and assist with laundry and meal preparation. Other ministry opportunities abound. We are all needed. And best of all, these ministry opportunities are so much fun as you work with others to help someone else.  You experience the joy of feeling needed and appreciated.

            The third principle of God’s mathematics is an exercise in a more complex formula of addition and subtraction. To paraphrase the words of John the Baptist, “God must increase and we must decrease.” The formula results in more of God and less of us.

            Gregory Boyle illustrates this principle beautifully in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion.[2] Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention ministry located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, the gang capital of the world. Father Boyle writes that in his early, crazy days of the ministry, he was totally out of whack. He would ride his bike all hours, even in the middle of the night trying to save lives and keep gang members from killing one another. He compared his early life to the guy spinning multiple plates atop poles on the Ed Sullivan show, trying to keep them from all crashing to the floor, vigilant to find the wobblers and set them spinning again. Father Boyle said he came close to burning out completely in the delusion that his frantic activity was actually saving people.

            He was saved by a sabbatical break, and in the stillness of meditation and prayer, Father Boyle found a place of balance and perspective.   He found consolation in the apocryphal story of Pope John XXIII who at night would pray, “I’ve done everything I can today for your church. But it’s Your church, and I’m going to bed.”

            Not long after Father Boyle returned to his ministry, he found himself ministering to Pedro. Pedro later worked for Father Boyle as a case manager, but back then, Pedro was a troubled boy addicted to alcohol and crack cocaine. Father Boyle offered to Pedro the opportunity for rehab treatment. After repeated offers over many months, Pedro finally entered treatment for his addiction, and he began the slow, hard work of returning to live as the person that God created him to be. While Pedro was in rehab, his younger brother, who struggled with similar demons, took his own life. Father Boyle called Pedro to tell him of his brother’s death, and Pedro wanted to return for his brother’s service. Father Boyle traveled the road to pick up Pedro, feeling totally overwhelmed by his own inability to ease Pedro’s pain and inadequate to accompany Pedro as he dealt with his tremendous loss, a greater loss than Father Boyle had ever been asked to carry.

            Pedro was waiting for Father Boyle, anxious to tell him about his dream of the night before. In the dream, Pedro and Father Boyle are in a large, empty room that is totally dark. There are no lights, no windows, no illuminated exit signs. Pedro senses that Father Boyle is with him, but they do not speak. Suddenly, Father Boyle retrieves a flashlight from his pocket and with the light, he finds the light switch. Then Father Boyle shines the narrow beam of light on the light switch, steady and unwavering. Pedro knows that he is the only one who can turn this light on. No one else can turn the light on for him. Pedro thanks Father Boyle for having the flashlight, and then he makes his way to the switch guided by the beam of the flashlight. Pedro pauses and then flips the light switch on and the room is flooded with light. Pedro sobbed as he shared his dream with Father Boyle. With a voice that reflected his astonishing discovery, Pedro said, “And the light is better than the darkness. I guess my brother just never found the light switch.”

            Father Boyle concluded that possessing flashlights and sometimes knowing where to shine them has to be enough. We cannot save anyone, but we can aim the light. We can pray and hope and trust in the slow, patient work of God. We can allow God to increase in our lives as we decrease, knowing that if any good is to be done in and through us, it will be all God’s doing.

            The scripture from James teaches us that faith without works is dead. But works, inspired by our human insight and understanding of what is best and needed, are dead as well. We may pursue a project with the best of intentions, and despite our diligent efforts, find the project just fizzles. We may struggle to make it work and feel like we are pushing a large boulder up a steep hill. To use the analogy of an airplane, the project may never leave the runway, or if it takes off, it soon crashes and we are left with the damaged parts of our dream and vision. Works without God are dead as well.

            For faith and works to come together, we must set aside our human wisdom which is always imperfect and, unfortunately, often influenced by our limited experiences and own interests. When John the Baptist’s prayer becomes our prayer, we will ask God to increase in our lives as we decrease. If we conclude that the work entrusted to us is too daunting for us to complete alone, we are most definitely absolutely right. We need God and we will probably find God pulling us into community with other Christians to unite our gifts and resources. When God’s people become an instrument and a conduit for God’s work in the world, our work becomes truly alive.

            As we apply these three principles of God’s mathematics to our lives, we see time and time again that God plus us always equals: enough. We learn that God is not a God of division, and our faith cannot be divided from our work or our work from our faith. Work and faith are united by God’s love. Instead, God is a God of multiplication, as God draws us into community and multiplies the gifts brought together in community to serve Him. God encourages us to follow the examples of so many of those in our cloud of Christian witnesses and the pillars of our Christian faith, including John the Baptist. We must pray for both addition and subtraction: God must increase and we must decrease. As God answers our prayer, our lives will show others more of God and less of us.

            We offer ourselves to God, do all we can, with God’s help, then we can prayerfully entrust our lives, our loved ones, our life’s work to the care and keeping of our God. We can sleep peacefully through the darkest night, knowing that we will awake in the morning and find not only the light switch, but see the Light, the Light that has always been with us. This, my friends, is the comfort of God’s mathematics.

[1] Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1955), 32-34.

[2] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2010), 125-128.

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