“And since He bids me seek His face, believe His Word and trust His grace, I’ll cast on Him my every care, and wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!” Maybe you will recognize these lines from the well-known traditional hymn, “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” by William Walford. It’s not in our Presbyterian hymnal, nor is it often sung in congregations today that are seeking to incorporate more contemporary hymns into their worship services. But these mid-19th century lyrics set to music by the composer William Bradbury were sung often in the church that raised me. Like the best of contemporary hymns, today, “Sweet Hour of Prayer” teaches truths about our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. It calls us to step away for a time from the cares of the world, and to make our needs known to God. This daily communing with God both comforts us and strengthens us.
“In seasons of distress and grief, my soul has often found relief, and oft escaped the tempter’s snare, by thy return, sweet hour of prayer.” Walford describes our prayers to God as having “wings” that bear our petitions to the One who waits to bless us. What a beautiful way to think about our prayers! He envisions the end of a life spent in prayerful relationship with God as one that awards the true prize of entering into God’s presence for eternity.
“Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer! May I thy consolation share, till from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height, I view my home and take my flight. This robe of flesh I’ll drop and rise to seize the everlasting prize; and shout while passing through the air, ‘Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!’”
Each of us will someday drop our “robe of flesh” and enter into eternity. Someone has rightly said that we are not “bodies with souls,” but rather, we are “souls with bodies.” Most of us find it challenging while clothed in this flesh, to truly enter into the presence of God in prayer on a daily basis. The “tempter’s snare” is not just the bad things we think of as sin in our lives. The “tempter’s snare” is also the distractions of living that crowd out an intentional, daily time of communing with the God who loves us and who desires joy for us.
The truth is that prayer can be hard work. It calls for sacrifice from us, of an “hour” that we might desire or feel pressed to spend elsewhere. It requires our willingness to put ourselves before God and to become vulnerable to what God may want to show us. But even as God opens our eyes in prayer to our own weaknesses and wrong thoughts, God also opens our eyes to his glorious love for us, and to the strength that only he can give.
“Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer, that calls me from a world of care, and bids me at my Father’s throne, make all my wants and wishes known.”
With prayers for your journey,
One of my favorite books to read to my children when they were growing up was a book called Too Many Pumpkins by Linda White and Megan Lloyd. I’m not sure it was among my boys’ favorite books, though. They’d sometimes moan when I’d pull it out to read to them at bedtime. I considered that it was a fair tradeoff that they should tolerate it, however, after my multiple patient readings of their favorites about how helicopters work or about all the varieties of dump trucks and fire engines, and about frogs, snakes, and ticks.
The main character in Too Many Pumpkins is an older woman named Rebecca Estelle who lives alone with her cat, and who hates pumpkins. She hates pumpkins because at some point in her childhood when her family was poor, they subsisted for a time on not much more than pumpkins. She’d had all the pumpkin she cared to have, for the rest of her life. Pumpkins just reminded her of an unhappy, fearful time in her life that she’d prefer to forget.
So, Rebecca Estelle ignores pumpkins. Even when a stray pumpkin falls off a truck into her front yard, she manages to cover it up and forget about it. Maybe you can see where this story is going. The seeds from that broken pumpkin take root in the soil in Rebecca Estelle’s front yard, and before she knows it, she’s got the beginnings of a pumpkin patch on her front lawn. She rips up the vines and thinks she’s finished with these things that she hates so much, but the sturdy vines just grow back; and despite her best efforts to ignore them, by autumn, her yard is filled with vines and pumpkins.
Rebecca Estelle sits down on a big pumpkin and starts to remember how too many pumpkins fed her family when she was a child. So, she goes to work in her kitchen to produce all kinds of pumpkin treats, and then carves some Jack-o-Lanterns and lights them, to draw attention to what she has to share. Her neighbors start to come – they’re curious at first, because they know that Rebecca Estelle hates pumpkins! But before long, her kitchen is filled with children and their grown-ups, enjoying apple cider and pumpkin treats, and leaving with treats, seeds, and a Jack-o-Lantern of their own.
A thing that Rebecca Estelle hated, has become a blessing to her. It has drawn her neighbors together, and it has filled her home. This thing that Rebecca Estelle hated became a blessing to her because she stopped ignoring it and considered how her own experience might be made into a blessing for others. As the story closes, Rebecca Estelle is tucking the last of her pumpkin seeds away for her garden in the Spring.
I love this book and read it to my children, because it teaches an important principle about life. I’m not suggesting that every unpleasant experience you or I have needs to be embraced and treated as a blessing. But many of them do. God often works through experiences in our lives that we recall as unpleasant, to redeem those memories and to turn them into something good. What “seeds” is God allowing to grow in your life right now, that you’re trying to ignore? Maybe it’s time to tend to what God is planting.
With prayers for your journey,
The small devotional book by Sarah Young titled, Jesus Calling, has enjoyed phenomenal success. First published more than fifteen years ago, it remains a best-selling devotional book. The author wrote each day’s message as if it were coming from Jesus. Young’s stated purpose in writing the devotional was to help readers have a greater intimacy with God. I’ve had many people tell me over the years that it has brought them closer to Jesus. They’ve felt that he was talking directly to them, and that each day’s message seemed on-target for what they were experiencing.
Jesus Calling is not the devotional book I use each day, but I keep a copy close by at my office. I picked it up on a particular day recently, to see what it might have to say. The devotion for the day began, TRUST ME. I could have stopped right there and received a worthy message from Jesus for my day. But let me share the rest of the message with you, and see if it speaks to your heart as it did to mine:
"TRUST ME in the midst of a messy day. Your inner calm – your Peace in My Presence – need not be shaken by what is going on around you. Though you live in this temporal world, your innermost being is rooted and grounded in eternity. When you start to feel stressed, detach yourself from the disturbances around you. Instead of desperately striving to maintain order and control in your little world, relax and remember that circumstances cannot touch My Peace. Seek My Face, and I will share My mind with you, opening your eyes to see things from My perspective. Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not be afraid. The Peace I give is sufficient for you."
Does that feel like a message to you from Jesus, today? I hope so. There is truly no substitute for the peace we can find in our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. One of the Scripture verses Young references in this devotion is John 14:27. This verse is part of a conversation Jesus is having with his disciples, as he anticipates his betrayal and physical death. In John 14:1-7, Jesus assures his disciples that he going to prepare a place for them in eternity. In verses 15-17, Jesus promises the coming of the Holy Spirit as Advocate and Helper following his earthly death and resurrection. "I will not leave you orphaned," Jesus says. Those who show their love of God by keeping the commandments of Christ will see Jesus continually revealed in their lives by the teaching power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Then comes one of the greatest promises of all time, in verse 27: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Dot not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."
Through the risen Christ, you and I have the promise of spiritual peace while on this earth, as well as life eternal with God. We find this peace through our prayerful relationship with Christ. Jesus may sometimes prod us out of our comfort zones or away from sin, but it is always toward the end of bringing us greater peace in a life lived closer to the will of God.
With prayers for your journey,
I came across a photo recently of a gravestone for my great, great grandparents, located in a cemetery near Townsend, Tennessee. What is remarkable to me in remembering this gravestone is how long ago this couple was born. Absalom Abbott was born in 1804 and his wife, Annis Stillwell, was born in 1807. There is a reason for this wide span of years between my great, great grandparents and my own generation. They were in their 40’s when my great-grandfather, Pleasant, was born. My grandmother was born of a second marriage when Pleasant was middle-aged. My own father was among the youngest of my grandmother’s six children, born when she was in her mid-30’s. Thus, the span of more than 150 years between the births of Absalom and Annis, and my own.
There is very little I know about Annis and Absalom. Absalom was a teaching elder, a farmer and a mill wright. He and Annis had ten children, and the youngest, my great-grandfather, was a young teenager when Annis died from a snake bite. When I stand in front of a gravestone for relatives like these, who lived so long ago, I wonder if I would have liked them. I wonder if they were truly good people. I wonder if they would have been kind to a stranger. I will probably never know much more about Absalom and Annis than I know right now. Which causes me to wonder, “What will my great, great grandchildren know about me in another hundred years or so?” How do I sort through the detritus of all my “stuff” to leave some record of value to a future generation? If I could write a message to future descendants, what would I say?
I think that Annis and Absalom did leave a message for those of us who would never know them. When Absalom stood to preach in his Primitive Baptist congregation, he probably never imagined that a great, great granddaughter would one day stand to preach in a Presbyterian church. If he had, he likely would not have approved! And yet, I do what I do, partly because of his and Annis’ faithfulness. They may not have left a message for me, but they left “the Message” for any of their descendants who would care to hear it - the legacy of a knowledge and love for Jesus Christ.
There’s no doubt that their practice of their Christian faith would have looked somewhat different from my own, because as much as we may not like to admit it, the living out of our faith is embedded in our own time and culture. It has to be. But what doesn’t change is the essence of the Gospel; that God loves us, that God has come to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, and that God has made a way through Christ for us to be with him, forever. When we accept the good news of this Message, our response should be a grateful ordering of all the aspects of our lives around the celebration of this gift of grace.
We never know how the message of the Gospel will take root and grow in the generations who will come behind us. But we have the responsibility to make sure the Message is not lost to them. Our descendants in the family and in the faith will live as they will, partly as a result of what they see to be important in our own lives. What – or better, yet Who - is at the center of your life, today?
With prayers for your journey,