At the bottom of many, many emails from businesses and organizations, you’re likely to see a notice that the email was “powered by Constant Contact.” Constant Contact is an email marketing company that was founded in 1995 in “a cramped attic in Brookline, MA,” according to its founders. Twenty years later, the company was acquired for 1.1 billion dollars. It now helps more than 600,000 companies and organizations fill the inboxes of their current or prospective customers or members. Personally, I could use a little less constant contact with most of them. But, there is one kind of contact we can’t ever get enough of, and that’s contact with God.
We long to feel close to God, to hear God’s voice, to sense God’s presence, and God has given us so many ways to do that. It’s as though God has placed before us a whole series of windows that we can look through to see God. Here is a window with the natural wonder that moves you most—mountains, oceans, rainbows, amber waves of grain, trees lit by the setting sun. Here is a window with a newborn baby, and one with hands clasped in friendship. Here is a window looking into a sanctuary, with a cross in the center. Here, even, is a hospital or hospice room. And, here is a window that shows God present even in our most mundane tasks and the routines we carry out every day.
God is present, in every place, at all times, in everything around us. Still, we may not feel connected to God in every place, at all times, through everything around us. That requires some intentionality. That’s the focus of Step 11 of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 Steps. Step 11 says that we are “to seek, through prayer and meditation, to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry it out.” Step 11 encourages us to become more conscious of our contact with God. I believe that more conscious contact with God can lead us to a more constant contact with God.
Our scripture passage for today speaks of conscious contact. The passage is best known for verse 11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” These are beautiful words of assurance, sorely needed by the people Jeremiah was writing to—and by us. Jeremiah written his letter to the first wave of exiles in Babylon. They had been hearing from various quarters that their exile would be short-lived—that they’d be back in Jerusalem in no time. But Jeremiah knew differently. Their exile would last a long time, outlasting the current generation.
Jeremiah advised them to bloom where they were planted—to build houses and make homes in them, plant gardens and eat from them, marry and give their children in marriage, become good citizens and neighbors where they were. This might have sounded like bad news to the homesick exiles. But God assures them that their exile will end, because God has plans for them. God details those plans: “I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”
But it’s the verses in-between those verses of hope and restoration that are our focus today, where the Lord says to the exiles, “When you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me.” Oddly, scholars don’t seem to have much interest in these verses. I think that they are a powerful reassurance that God is present and is waiting to hear from us. God wants to be in contact with us. But, we need to be intentional about making that contact with God.
Have you ever lost touch with a friend, not because you had a falling-out but just because you stopped paying attention to each other? Maybe they moved away, and over time the phone calls and letters became fewer and farther between. When I was in high school, I met a girl named Mary Ellen when we both attended music camp at Capital University. Mary Ellen’s sister Judy had been my camp counselor the year before. She was sure that Mary Ellen and I would hit it off, so when Mary Ellen came to camp the next year, Judy made sure we were roommates. Judy was right, and Mary Ellen and I became good friends.
Mary Ellen lived near Youngstown, hours away from my hometown. That was when long-distance phone calls were expensive and reserved for conversations that were way more important than a chat between teenage girls. So, we wrote letters—lots and lots of letters. We picked out special stationery to write our letters on, and we chose the prettiest stamps for the postage. As soon as we received a letter, we sat right down and answered it.
But, as the years went on, the letters got fewer and fewer. We still kept in touch a bit, through Christmas cards and so on. I visited her a couple times in whatever city she was living in, and she visited me occasionally when she returned to Ohio. We still considered each other friends, but we really weren’t in contact much.
Then, a news event happened that I felt I needed to talk with Mary Ellen about. We had a wonderful conversation, and we decided that we would “meet” in a phone call once a month. We’ve been doing that for several years now. At the end of each call, we set a specific time and date for the next one. That way, we know that when one of us places the call, the other will be available and ready to talk and listen. We’ve made “conscious contact” a priority.
Our passage today speaks of just such “conscious contact” between the exiles and God and, by extension, between us and God. Think of the words God spoke through Jeremiah: “Call upon me,” “come and pray to me,” “search for me,” “seek me with all your heart.” “Call,” “come,” “search,” “seek”: these are all words that scream “intention.” They are things we only do on purpose. Jeremiah’s Hebrew words convey a sense of urgency. They communicate diligence and demand and desire. These are the actions of people who are consciously making contact with God.
Of course, God is with us whether we’re seeking God or not. But we lose our sense of God’s presence if we’re not intentionally seeking it. Unfortunately, we often lose something long before we realize it’s missing. Have you ever lost your keys, or your credit card, or sunglasses, but didn’t realize it until the next time you needed them? Then the search is on. You look high and low. You retrace your steps. You try to remember what you were wearing, so that you can check every possible pocket. We’re like the shepherd looking for his lost sheep, or the woman looking in every corner for her lost coin, intent on finding what we’ve lost. When we stop being intentional about being in contact with God, we can lose our sense of God’s presence long before we realize we’ve lost it. When a crisis jolts us into needing to feel God close., we begin again to “seek…to improve our conscious contact with God.”
Step 11 tells how to do this: through prayer and meditation. We say these two words together so often that we may forget that they are two different things. In prayer, we have an active role to play in the process of communication with God. In meditation, we are passive. The Rev. Tom Albin of Upper Room Ministries says that, when we meditate, “we are not active. Instead, we are receptive and passive. We slow down and listen in order to be present with God. We try to quiet our heart and mind in order to perceive.”
Meditation may be an act we undertake on its own, or it may be the gateway into prayer. It helps us disconnect from all that’s going on around us so that we can focus on God. There are many ways to meditate. AA suggests imagining that you are in a place that brings peace to your heart. You can imagine a place that reminds you of the wonder and power of God. This imagined scene can be any place that opens you up to God. Then, we contemplate what that scene reveals about God through its mystery and beauty, allowing our hearts to open.
In the Christian tradition of meditation, we often use a passage of Scripture or a prayer written by someone else as our focal point. We linger with each word and phrase, allowing ourselves to savor their beauty and power. We place ourselves in the scene—hearing the voice of the prophet, walking along with Jesus, witnessing what God has done. AA reminds us that, whether we meditate as an entry into prayer or as a separate practice, “its object is always the same: to improve our conscious contact with God and God’s grace, wisdom, and love.” We give ourselves time to sit quietly with God, not talking but simply absorbing God’s presence and listening for God’s voice.
And then there’s prayer—our conversation with God, where we talk to God and God talks to us. Prayer can be spontaneous. We can use prayers that have been written by others. But our passage today and Step 11 from AA both point us, not so much to the mechanics of our prayer but to the attitude of our prayer.
It’s interesting that both Jeremiah and AA use the word “seek” to describe what we are to do in prayer. Prayer shouldn’t be simply a habit we unthinkingly start or end the day with, along with brushing our teeth and letting the dog out. But that doesn’t mean that the only prayers that count are the ones we set aside time for. We can seek God in all the everyday tasks that we do, like brushing our teeth and letting out the dog. The key is to earnestly look for Gd—indeed, to seek God with all our heart, as God says through Jeremiah. Whenever and however we pray, we are to make a conscious effort to be in conversation with God.
Jesus is our model for how and when to pray. He carved out time from his busy days to pray. After feeding the five thousand, Matthew tells us, Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray, Matthew tells us. Luke tells us that, as the crowds who gathered to listen and be healed grew, Jesus would withdraw to deserted places and pray. Luke also tells us that before Jesus designated the twelve as apostles, he spent the night on a mountain in prayer, and Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, where he had gone to pray.
Jesus also prayed spontaneously, often in thanks and blessing. Jesus rejoiced in the Spirit and prayed, “Thank you, Father!” after the seventy missionaries returned. “Father, I thank you for having heard me!” he prayed at Lazarus’ tomb. He blessed the bread and fish at the impromptu picnic that fed multitudes. He blessed the little children when they came to sit on his knee.
And what of the prayers in the upper room and in the Garden of Gethsemane, and even on the cross? Were they times of planned communion with God, or spontaneous prayers brought on by the unique circumstances that were unfolding?
Perhaps they were both. Perhaps Jesus had been thinking about what he wanted for his disciples before he offered his prayer for them in the upper room. Luke tells us that going to the Mount of Olives was a regular practice for Jesus. But, surely his anguished prayers in the garden were prompted by what he knew lay ahead and, later, from the cross, in response to the ordeal he endured.
But, his prayer in the garden also makes clear what the goal of every prayer should be—that we know God’s will and be willing to accept it. “Father, not my will but yours be done,” he prays, over and over. As Step 11 says, our ultimate goal in prayer is to know God’s will for us and to have power to carry it out. Sometimes the “carrying out” may involve taking action of some kind. At other times, it may mean simply accepting what we have discerned to be God’s will.
Our goal is to know God’s will, but there is more than one way of knowing. Sometimes we go to God in prayer seeking guidance. We need to make a choice. We need to have a plan. We need direction for what to do. We ask God to lead us, so that we can know what God would have us do.
But there is another kind of knowing—a knowing that is bone-deep, a knowing that forms the foundation of our relationship with God. It is knowing with a certainty that what God says through Jeremiah is true—that God’s plan is for our welfare, a plan that gives us a future with hope. It is knowing that when we call upon God—when we come to God in prayer—God will hear us. It is a confident knowing that, when we search for God—when we seek God with all our heart—we will find the God we seek, for God will allow that finding to happen.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Pray without ceasing.” He didn’t intend for his readers—then or now—to withdraw permanently to a mountain or a desert. Rather, he encourages us to make prayer the undercurrent of our entire lives. When we connect prayer with our activities throughout the day, as well as setting aside time for meditation and prayer, prayer begins to be more like the air we breathe than a thing we do.
Lent is a time that we set aside for deepening our devotional practices. It is a time for becoming more intentional about discerning God’s will. It’s a time when we strive for more conscious contact with God. As we do, our conscious contact will grow into constant contact, and we will be blessed with the knowledge of God’s love and presence and promise of a future with hope. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young