The Practice of Prayer

prayerLast night at the Wednesday night Lenten service – which is much more like a class than a full-on service – we talked about prayer.  Not just how to do it, but how to have a real active prayer life.  We watched a quick clip from War Room (a fabulous movie- you should watch it!).

Prayer, at its basic level, is communicating with God.  It is two-way – that is, God talks to us too!  We need to listen.  So often, we tend to fold our hands and bow our heads and give a prayer from our hearts – and then immediately get thinking about other things right after the “Amen.”  In the West, we immediately migrate towards what is called kataphatic prayer – prayer of words and speech; us talking to God.  We need more apophatic – prayers of feelings and silence, where we listen for God’s voice in the stillness of our hearts and minds.

I suggest a beginning practice of prayer – if you’ve ever read or heard a class about Eastern Meditation, this will sound familiar.  Start with a place and a time – it doesn’t have to be complicated or for too long – but a place where you can focus on God.  Someplace where other things won’t distract you.  Pray at a time when other things won’t distract you.  Spend a minute or two in silence and just focus on the presence of God – He is always with you.  Think about Jesus; think about what He has done and continues to do for you.  Think about the Spirit; think about how the Spirit fills you and speaks to you.  Then…pray.

One way to pray is by using other people’s words – find yourself a prayer book.  We Protestants don’t have a lot of them that aren’t used as worship books – but there are plenty out there.  I love to use the prayers of the Desert Fathers, personally – when I can find them online.  [I’ve had real trouble finding a collection to just open up and read…]  I also like some of the collections of Celtic Prayers from the early church in Britain – Celtic Blessings: Prayers for Everyday Life by Ray Simpson is good.  There are LOTS of prayer books!  The wonderful thing about praying someone else’s prayer that has lasted so long is that they so often speak exactly what we would LOVE to say but don’t have the words.  The Fathers and Mothers so often can speak to the Lord in a way…that we just don’t know yet.

Start with these.  Start for just a few minutes – focus.  Read the words slowly – out loud if you don’t feel too silly.  Think about what you’re saying.  Focus.  Don’t lose heart – because you will lose your focus.  Stuff will intrude.  Be prepared to fight to talk to God!  The devil doesn’t like it when we get to know our Lord like this!

But stick with it.  Eventually, your time with the Lord will increase – and you will get to know Him better.  I like to say that in reading the Bible you learn about God – in prayer you meet Him.  [Not a perfect saying, because in learning the Bible you meet Him as well, but in a different way than you do in prayer…]  You’ll get past the words from the past – but hopefully you’ll still love them! – and you will start to communicate with not only your words but your feelings and thoughts; and you will commune with God in ways you never thought possible.

Prayer from the Darkness

jonah-beach-whale-168772-print.jpgThis Sunday, we’ll continue our series on Jonah through Lent….

When last we left out intrepid “hero” he had just been swallowed by a “fish” – in the past I have argued vociferously that it couldn’t have been a whale because the word is “fish”!  Rather pedantically, if I am forced to be honest!  However, after some thought and my recent reading (listening, actually) Moby Dick – I have come to the conclusion that most people in the real world thought whales were fish in the “olden days.”  Certainly in the 19th century – why not in the 7th BC?

The bulk of chapter two of Jonah is a prayer by Jonah, sitting in the belly of the whale.  He is giving thanks that even though he had gone “down to Sheol” he had been saved.  He describes the sensation of sinking, wrapped in seaweed, towards the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea…and being swallowed.  He was there for three days – a foretaste of Christ.  In fact, in Matthew, Jesus says that the only sign the people will get will be the “sign of Jonah.”

Jonah’s prayer, while honest and true – is only the beginning of his journey.  He had experienced a real near death experience.  The prayer reads like that – he died and came back (again, a reference to Jesus!).  From the depths of his despair and darkness, he prayed – and it was answered, after a fashion.  God didn’t let him die – but he made him wait in the darkness and horror for three days.  God made him wait until the fish “vomited” him up on the shore – probably near Joppa where he started.  [As we’ll see in the next chapter, God then starts over – He calls to Jonah and gives the EXACT same call.]

For us as well, sometimes we need to get to our lowest point before we’ll come back to God.  We get into the worst circumstances and only then can we face the despair before we can proceed.  God allows us that time.  One of my favorite bumper stickers of all time reads like this: “Going in the wrong direction?  Don’t worry, God allows U-turns!”  The unfortunate thing is that we so often don’t even realize that we’re going in the wrong direction until we hit rock-bottom – until we die, metaphorically speaking.  Perhaps not even so metaphorically, if we’re talking about our spirit.  Jonah shows us that God is there in the despair and the darkness. 

Regardless of what we have done – or what has been done to us – God is there.  For those who have suffered from depression, or anxiety, or any other number of psychological and physical ailments – God is there.  In the darkness, He waits.  He waits for us to call on Him.  And then we need to return. 

Jonah’s journey towards Nineveh begins again with the prayer – he gets to start over.  Just like the Prodigal, when he realizes that he has been caught by his own darkness; in the despair he returns to his father.  Sitting in the dark, not having anything to eat.  Sitting in the blackness, surrounded by the stink of his circumstances.  Both Jonah and the Prodigal decide to return to God…through their despair and depression, in the depths of their horror and pain, they grasp the one thing they hope might work, and begin the road to redemption and healing.  I know that almost makes it sound easier than it really is – I understand. But the road needs to start somewhere – and just like the Prodigal and Jonah, there will be more difficulties along the road. 

Lent is the boot camp of our spirit.  Here we find it at our darkest…when we realize just how broken we are.  From the bottom, there is no way out other than up.  We can’t get out alone – which is the beautiful thing about Christianity: it is the only faith in which God Himself comes in order to help us out of the whole we have dug for ourselves.  [and as far as depression and so on goes, I understand that it wasn’t our own decision…but it is still a part of ourselves and not God.] 

Christ Himself comes and waits in the Tomb, in the Darkness and in the Depths…proclaiming His Truth to the captives.  This is a necessary stop in the journey from our own darkness through the pain into the joy of redemption and the sunrise of Easter.  Please don’t neglect it.

Reading the Word

bibleTonight at our Lenten service we’ll continue our series on Christian practices – the spiritual disciplines.  Last week we talked about fasting; tonight we are exploring reading.  Specifically reading the Bible – God’s Word for us.

There are many many different reading plans out there – this is not one of them.  If you’d like, I’d be happy to discuss a plan with you personally, but not tonight.  Mainly what I’m talking about here is different methods to reading – philosophical pedagogical strands of thought about HOW to read the Bible.

But first a couple of preliminaries.  Translations.  Your translation is pretty important.  Unless you’re a serious scholar and read the original Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic, you’re going to be reading a translation of the Bible.  Which one do you pick?  One that is theologically accurate and reads well, that you can understand.  It all depends.  I have my favorites, other have theirs.  The King James is perhaps still the best known translation – some denominations would go so far as to say that it is THE translation; the only one that is real and true.  I love the way it sounds, but, as one of my friends has said – I speak King James English too.  If you’re not good at Shakespearean English, you won’t read the KJV very well.  The New International Version is today’s current best-selling translation; and it is pretty good.   I personally think it overly simplistic but that’s a personal reflection.  I personally use the New American Standard Bible.  It is a good translation that still has a majesty in the Psalms but can also be understood pretty well.

One place I look is Genesis 1.  “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth. And the Earth was formless and void….and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep.”  If the translation wavers too far from that I have problems with it. Especially where it says “the Spirit” – if it says “a wind” (because the Hebrew word can technically be translated either way) I would argue you don’t want that translation, because it moves away from the idea of the Trinity – a fundamental doctrine of Christianity.

Once you’ve gotten your translation that you want, how do you read?  Do you just skim and try to get through it as fast as you can?  That’s the way many people do – especially if you’ve never read much before.  If you’re aiming for spiritual growth, you might want to consider another way.

Lectio Divina – literally “Divine Reading” – is a way of reading where you read a short passage slowly (and if possible out loud!) several times.  You read it once, slowly, pondering and praying.  You read it again, and ask yourself a question – usually something like “what phrase speaks to me and why?”  You read it again and ask yourself “what is God calling me to DO or BE through this passage?”  You’ll never read through the Bible in a year doing this – but it is a useful and ancient method of reading.

Induction Method – a method that has been suggested relatively recently (like in the last 50 years).  The inductive method really aims at understanding; it requires several different highlighters and a period of time to go through the passage several times.  Often, the method asks you to highlight the subjects of the passage (which is usually a chapter of the book) in one color, highlight the verbs in another, and so on.  It will have you define who is doing what and why, where and how; and then ask you to arrive at a main point and message of the passage.

Either way, you get a great message and point from it.  Reading the Bible should always be approached with prayer for the Holy Spirit to guide you, and from a point of view of subordination.  I’ll say a lot more about this tonight – but for now, remember that the Bible is the Word of God – we don’t get to explain things away lightly or decide we don’t like something and ignore it.  Understanding is often difficult, but it is always worth the struggle!

Run!!

This last Sunday at the church, we heard the message of Sandra – a friend of mine who also happens to run marathons with Team World Vision. Last year Allen and I ran the Twin Cities Marathon and raised money for clean water for Africa – and this year we thought we’d try again to form a team here at our little church. The results, for me, were amazing!

Not only was Sandra warmly welcomed here, but as she preached I really felt that our congregation was with her on her journey from “non-runner” to three-time marathoner. She did a fantastic job. But when we ended our worship service and she had asked people who were interested in joining the Twin Cities Team World Vision – there were twelve people who came down and signed up!!! After the meeting, my wife and I talked and prayed – and we are signing up as well!! SO – as I count it, from our little church there are 14 runners. Not all of us are planning on doing the full marathon. My guess is that a couple of us might get hurt and have to withdraw, but I am so excited for what God is going to do through our witness. I also, as a pastor, am excited to see what happens in people’s lives as they train for a marathon with Jesus running at their side.

Because that’s what it’s like. It’s hard. In fact, on some days it’s absolutely horrible. Last year I hurt my knee and I had to take a few weeks off from running – the day I came back to join a group run we were supposed to run 12 miles (if I remember right, anyway…something like that.). I was hurting. But people ran the whole way with me – when I know that they could have run faster; yet they stuck it out with me and I finished the 12 miler. A couple months later – I took off too fast in the marathon (which, in case you didn’t know, is 26.2 miles) and I ran out of steam around mile 20. Allen caught me and we finished the race together. One of the best moments of my life. I am not ashamed to say that I cried a little when we crossed. The whole way – it was like Jesus was cheering me on; He was with me, saying to not forget what we could do together. Sometimes it was just Him and me, but much more often it was as part of a wonderful community of Christian runners. And that community just got bigger!

It’s not all about the running. The cause we run for is important – clean water for hurting communities in Africa. The average (one way!) walk to get water in much of Africa is about 6km. It’s about that. It’s also about community – because people NEED community in Christ. It’s about friendship. It’s about faith – because on a hard run after you’ve eaten too much the night before and not had enough water (like so many of us!) sometimes the only thing that keeps you going is faith that someday you’ll finish that run. And faith that He will never ever abandon you.

I have read – a LOT – that God will never ask you to do anything you can’t do. I disagree. With every fiber of my being I disagree. He purposefully asks you to do things that you can NOT do by yourself. He demands obedience and calls you to things that no one could do alone. He helps you. That’s the only way you do it. And that’s part of the point – to have faith that together…God and you can do anything. He agreed a long time ago to not speak to “the people” directly (Exodus 20:19ff). He always, ALWAYS uses someone else to speak for Him – and that’s you. God is calling you – YOU – to speak on His behalf. Do it with words. Do it with your feet. Do it any way you can. He will never let you go. Even when it hurts.

For those of us who signed up – I pray this post helps. For those of us who didn’t – I pray that this post encourages some other way to speak and do for Jesus. I’m excited to see what comes of it!

Jonah and Lent

This Sunday, we’ll be hearing from one of my friends and running partners talking about World Vision and raising money for clean water in Africa.  Sandra will be asking for volunteers to run the Twin Cities Marathon (the same one I ran last year) and raise money at the same time.  It will be a moving presentation and I hope you’ll look forward to it!

I’ll also be talking to the kids – and the adults – about Jonah.  Lent, as I said yesterday, is a time of training and spiritual thoughtfulness.   This year, I’ll be working through the entire book of Jonah.  You probably know the story by heart – the famous prophet being called by God to go out of Israel and preach to the Assyrians in Nineveh.  As you know, he runs away instead of following God, and he ends up being swallowed by a “great fish” and then praying for forgiveness – and being spat out on the shore and heading to Nineveh.  He preaches and the whole city repents.  Remember?  You’ve heard the story since you were a kid.  Most of us never really get past the children’s version of the story…but this year we will!

Jesus refers to the “sign of Jonah,” and many people look to the story of Jonah as a “type” of Christ – that is, the story foreshadows Jesus and what He does much much later.  That’s true, but I think it still falls short of the wonder that Jonah can add to the Lenten experience.  You see, Jonah’s story mirrors our story as Christians.    

Jonah gets called by God.  “The Word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai…” Jonah is referenced in Second Kings as a prophet of the Lord.  There is no mention of him getting into trouble with any kings – like so many of his brethren did throughout history.  It appears Jonah was relatively popular; as far as we know he did what God asked of him and preached well – the reference in Kings is to Jonah proclaiming a renewal of the territory of Israel.  Good stuff.  And once again, God calls Jonah. The standard prophetic phrase “the Word of the Lord came to…” has vast implications for us as Christians, knowing the pre-incarnate Christ is and always has been the Word.  Jonah is filled with Christ – and apparently His forgiveness. 

The next verse is “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”  Nineveh – the great city – was probably the largest and most dangerous city in the ancient near east.  It was the capital – or one of the capitals – of the Assyrians, a people who were so frightening other cities tended to surrender rather than fight when they showed up at the gates.  Assyrians had a habit of creating vast sculptures out of their enemies’ bones.  They had iron – which was at the very least rare in those days – and used chariots.  The Israelites were terrified of them, just like the rest of the world. 

But in this verse, God says that He is in charge of even them.  That His mercy extends even to the worst kind of people that Jonah could imagine.  It says that God is going to give them a chance. He won’t just destroy the city – which is probably what Jonah secretly would like. 

Isn’t that exactly what happens with us?  God calls us.  He calls us to repent like the Ninevites.  He calls us to preach like Jonah.  He calls us into relationship with the Trinity – He loves us.  We are called to respond.  He steps out – and we have the opportunity to say yes or no.  The call is on our lives – to do what the Word wants us to.  It involves doing things we may not like; it also suggests a mercy that we are not prepared to deal with.  Both for ourselves – because in our heart of hearts we know we aren’t worthy of God’s love – and others; because we secretly aren’t so happy about other people being forgiven either.  It doesn’t seem “fair,” whatever that means. 

We know what Jonah does.  The question is, what will we do when God calls?  For most of us, we behave just like Jonah.  We might not run physically, but we throw tantrums and refuse to do what He wants.  Next time, how will we respond? 

A Reflection on Ash Wednesday

Last night, we had our annual Ash Wednesday service. It really is one of my favorite services in the church calendar. It isn’t a…fun service (although as I told my wife last night, that was probably the funniest Ash Wednesday sermons I’ve ever given). Ash Wednesday begins our observance of Lent. Lent is the forty days leading up to Easter and the observance of the Resurrection.

I often hear, after the service, things like “We’re not Catholic!” from people who do not receive the ashes. Or, “why do we do this? It doesn’t make sense!” Last night I heard, for the first time (but didn’t get a chance to talk with this person) “Christ wasn’t burned – we don’t use ashes…” So I thought that I’d sort of address these things -and a few others – here.

Lent is a time – remembering and “celebrating,” the forty days in the wilderness in which Jesus, Our Lord, was tempted by the Devil. The word translated “tempt” and its variations also means “test,” and it is these days that we remember – the days where Our Lord was tested and tempted and suffered before He began His ministry. Like the last tempering of a sword, Jesus needed to be tested in order to make sure He was, in His humanity if not His deity, strong enough to perform the tasks He had been given.

Lent is a sort of training period. In the ancient church, Lent was often the last time of teaching catechists before they were baptized and admitted into the underground and illegal church. We, as followers of Christ, need to continually train and grow in our faith so we, too, may withstand the temptations and testing that occur in the world that does not fully realize to whom it belongs. Lent is the time to focus and grow spiritually in Christ – it is a time of growth and challenge. That is why people traditionally give something up – although in truth it seems that in many ways one would be better served by adding a spiritual discipline rather than legalistically swearing to NOT do something.

As with any period of training and difficulty, it is helpful to go through some sort of beginning ceremony (think of the Olympics without an opening ceremony!). For us in the West, that ceremony is Ash Wednesday. During the Ash Wednesday service, we recall that we are mortal and broken and sinful – we are the reason that Jesus HAD to come, HAD to suffer, HAD to die. Without our sin – all of humanity’s sin – there would be no reason for the Cross. We begin the training with a realization of why we need it. We start the journey to Easter in shame and mourning. Traditionally, throughout history as well as the Biblical witness, mourning and shame were marked with ashes. When Job lost everything, he covered himself in ashes and sat in an ash pit. When the Hebrews were faced with destruction, they fasted and put ashes upon themselves. When Esther was about to face death, she asked her people to do that same thing. To plead with God for mercy. The ashes have nothing to do with how Christ died, they have to do with our acceptance of our own culpability in His death. As many psychologists might comment, you cannot get better unless you realize that you are, in fact, sick. The ashes are a sign that we know we are sick.

If anything, Ash Wednesday reflects an older, Hebrew tradition more than a contemporary Roman Catholic one. It seems that the service is more common among Catholics, but many other denominations encourage its observance – Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists… it belongs to the tradition of the One Holy and Apostolic Church. The Hebrews covered themselves in ashes and sackcloth and fasted from food and water for periods of time in order to remind themselves that they needed God; in order to plead for His favor and love that they felt they had wandered away from.

Lastly, it might be argued that the wearing of a symbol goes against Scripture regarding not shouting your prayers or disfiguring one’s face in order to show how pious one is. While for some reason no one has ever argued with me against the observance of Ash Wednesday referring to this, the argument has weight. Jesus tells us to go into our inner closet and pray, and to not disfigure our faces to show how much we “love God” – He tells us rather to anoint ourselves with oil and pray the Lord’s Prayer in secret. The Bible also tells us to not observe the “moons and Sabbaths” of the Jews…and several other things that appear to argue against observing Ash Wednesday. However, the observance of “moons” etc were meant to separate Christians from observant Jews and have no place in separating Christians from one another. Ash Wednesday does not do that; on the contrary, it brings us together in common practice. The ash cross on our foreheads is not the same as standing on a street corner yelling at people while covered in ashes – it does not draw attention to our false faith and pride. On the contrary, it reminds us of our own shame. The ash cross also provides a quiet and intimate way to calmly and lovingly share our faith – if someone asks about it. If you go to the supermarket after the service and walk up to random people and tell them what a pious Christian you are and show off your cross, I would agree that is against what Jesus was saying. The simple wearing of a cross does not do the same thing. Symbols are powerful – and a wonderful, beautiful, meaningful way of remembering something powerful about God’s grace.

Because the ashes are not only a reminder of our mortality, our brokenness and shame, they are also a reminder of the grace of God in Christ. The shape they are in reminds us of the instrument of our salvation – the Cross of Christ. Being burned from the palms waved in the Triumphal entry last year, they remind us of Christ’s Kingship over our lives. The words spoken as they are “imposed” (remember that receiving the ashes is always completely voluntary) – “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” remind us not only of our mortality, but the call to immortality – the grace that God has shown us in Jesus that results in eternal life…we will die – but we won’t.

As with so many of the ancient services and ceremonies of the Church, Ash Wednesday is paradoxical – it is sad and solemn, but also joyous and wonderful. It reminds us of the reason for Christ – and of our joy in Him. Amen…

Giving

As we at the church are ramping up towards Stewardship Sunday (and what I affectionately call Stewardship Season…it’s not just one Sunday!), I’m working on a series of sermons called “Revolutionizing Church.” This particular Sunday I’m preaching from Deuteronomy 6, and I’m calling the sermon “Giving.” Yup. I’m gonna talk about money. I’m also gonna talk about lots of other things. a

You see, Deuteronomy 6 is about serving God and teaching His commandments. It’s about following God’s rules and teaching them to our children and our children’s children. In the church as a family, we are called to do this for each other and each other’s children as well. It’s about keeping His commands always before us (“wearing them as a frontlet” and “writing them on our doorposts”) and thinking about them so that they aren’t thought any more – they’ve become a habit.

And in the cultivation of that habit, worn like a familiar sweater, you give. You give away your money, your time, your talent, your thoughts and your joys and fears – you share.   The Shema – which begins “Hear O Israel…” in verse four is something that Orthodox Jews did and still recite three times a day, to remind them that living for God is the most important thing in life. “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and all of your might.”

“Love” is the difficult word, if you will. Love, to us, mostly means a short term hormonal or other imbalance that messes with what you think. We use the same word to describe how we “love” our spouse as how we “love” cheeseburgers. Love is a useless term in today’s America. It doesn’t really mean anything. If anything, the way most people use it today it means leaving people alone – if you love people then you’ll let them live the way they want no matter what. It doesn’t mean anything.

But for God, it means obedience and heartfelt following. It means doing your best no matter what. It means reading and thinking and talking and perhaps most of all – doing. It means actually DOING what He says. It means thinking and praying about what HE says and how it applies to you today. The rules haven’t changed. The world hasn’t really changed all that much – if there’s anything I’ve learned by studying the Bible and ancient societies as well as trying to pay attention to the society around me – it’s that we as humans haven’t changed that much. We’re still selfish and misguided and prone to taking things too far or not far enough. We’re still thinking about ourselves before we think about anyone else. But that’s not what God wants for us. God wants us to be our best and to be our real selves – which are better than who we normally think we are!

Giving – our money, our time, our talent – it is what we were made for. It is what we do when we are at our best. Remember who God made us to be. Remember who we are supposed to be. And then…give yourself away.