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    Entries in prayer (31)

    Friday
    Sep232016

    Distracted From What?

    Andrew Sullivan's "My Distraction Sickness--and Yours" has been widely noted this week on social media, though I haven't seen an abundance of comments. The most frequent response I have seen is an amen. The essay is lengthy and worth the time and attention it requires. Read it in one sitting, with no breaks for checking Facebook. Sullivan examines the consequences of life "in the internet," which includes the prospect of losing one's soul. (I think Sullivan means that metaphorically; I do not.)

    In one notable passage Sullivan turns his attention to churches. He has keenly observed that Christian communities have been eager adopters of the various forms of technology that have fueled our constant state of distraction. I would add that evangelical communities, because of their commitments to evangelism and outreach, are representative poster children. Pragmatic concerns have driven decision making in evangelical communities rather than sustained and principled conviction, particularly regarding technology, and the tools have remade the user in their own image. Sullivan says churches would have been better off by remaining committed to quiet places, silence, and contemplative prayer. He writes:

    If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.

    I agree, if only in part. I am one of the web-weary and digitally frazzled, and I have worked with those who are either fragmented because of their technological addictions or who are well on their way. I do think silence, meditation, and prayer are curative. But the effects of those practices must manifest themselves in the lives of disciples of Jesus. We need souls that are quiet and still, not just church buildings or meditative liturgies.

    We do have a distraction problem, and Sullivan is right to say that our souls suffer. But if we are distracted, we must answer from what, and the corrective must be both practical and curative. It must be restorative for the soul, not as metaphorical construct or literary referent for a scientific understanding of the self, but as a spiritual reality, classically understood. Christians have a robust theological tradition that suggests the self is willfully distracted from God because of sin, and therefore modern technology is only the latest avenue by which our hearts and minds are so easily seduced. Stated differently, this is an old problem in new packaging. Thankfully, there is an old solution that can be freshly applied: renewed attention to God that is passionate, thoughtful, and sustained. In Jesus, we find rest for our souls.

    Some might dismiss that as platitudinous and simplistic. I do not mean it that way. I understand that abstaining from social media, implementing wise practices in order to be present with friends and family, and giving time and focus to prayer, Bible reading, or Christian fellowship requires discipline. The present distractions are not small and seldom, they are immense and pervasive. To acknowledge they exist, however, is a turning point and a beginning, just as repentance is both a first and an ongoing step on the path of discipleship.

    Thursday
    Sep152016

    Teach Us to Pray

    I do not recall who taught me to pray.

    Somehow, some way, I learned. And I am learning.

    My family was a starting point. Church and Sunday school were secondary settings. Together, we prayed. Or, at least I listened. Through listening, I learned reliable words I could try for myself. I also learned there is a God who hears and who is actively engaged with this world, and there is nothing beyond the purview of that God’s care.

    In his essay “Teach Us to Care, and Not to Care,” Eugene Peterson writes:

    Teaching people to pray is teaching them to treat all the occasions of their lives as altars on which they receive his gifts. Teaching people to pray is teaching them that God is the one with whom they have to deal, not just ultimately, and not just generally, but now and in detail.

    Peterson also writes that teaching other people to pray is an expression of care and is “the most central thing,” claiming that access and intimacy with God is “our genius as Christians.” Most often, teaching opportunities emerge when there is need. When there is need, we care, and in caring we enter “a school of prayer.”

    During family gatherings we prayed for one another, for our neighbors, and our nation. We prayed that the will of God would be done. Hardship often led to an increase in letters received, as loved ones would write and offer advice and encouragement, but mostly prayer. Accomplishments and celebrations were given over to thanksgiving and gratitude. Needs were lifted up.

    The church would also pray, that we might know God more fully and completely, and be given the grace and strength needed for obedience and holiness and maturity. The church also taught the great prayers of Scripture. We would pray for the infirm and the dying, the poor and the anxious, who would often be no further away than the next pew. In praying, our hearts would become more attentive to God, and our eyes would be opened to the reality of our neighbor, whom we are called to love. God’s action--God’s response to prayer--often came through the body of Christ, the people called to care.

    In Luke 11:1, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. I am asking him still. As we practice what we have learned, we teach, not only in praying but through caring. Our needs are great, but as Christians we serve a God who is greater still. In praying we are taught not only how to speak to God but are given knowledge of the God to whom we are speaking. We are invited to address God “now and in detail,” whatever the circumstances, and to trust in his eternal care.

    Prayer is God’s great gift to us, indispensable for spiritual growth and maturity, and absolutely necessary for the practice of sustained care. But it must be taught, and learned.

    Lord, teach us to pray.

    Tuesday
    Sep132016

    Prayer: Making the Familiar Strange

    In The Work of Theology, Stanley Hauerwas argues “that a theological sentence that does its proper work does so just to the extent it makes the familiar strange.” Writing theological sentences that accomplish this aim is good but difficult work. Hauerwas writes, “I have the sense that few of us have thought about the conditions necessary to write a theological sentence that has the potential to make readers stop and rethink what they thought they think.”

    I recently completed Karl Barth’s brilliant lectures on the Lord’s Prayer, and I was struck by how his writings fit the criteria offered by Hauerwas. The familiar became strange, I stopped, and I rethought what I think. I concluded that Barth’s writing on prayer was compelling not only because it was theological, but because all too often the sentences became prayer. Barth moves seamlessly from addressing “we” and “us” to “Thee” and “Thou.” In doing so, I found my prayer joining with Barth’s prayer; his petition became my own.

    In Barth’s introductory remarks he offers several observations. His exploration of prayer will draw from the Reformers: Luther, Calvin, and the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism. Barth writes, “The Reformation appears to us as a great whole: a labor of research, thinking, preaching, polemic, and organization.” However, “it was more than all that.”

    Barth continues by claiming that the Reformation “was an act of continuous prayer, an invocation.” He adds that the Reformation was also “an act of human beings, of certain persons, and at the same time a response on the part of God.” The Reformation consisted in great action (research, thinking, preaching, etc.), but the fundamental action undergirding it all was the act of prayer.

    Barth warns that the weaknesses of any age may be the result of those failing to heed words like those of Luther, who wrote, “For we know that our defense lies in prayer alone. We are too weak to resist the Devil and his vassals...For what has carried off these great victories over the undertakings of our enemies which the Devil has used to put us in subjection, if not the prayers of certain pious people who rose up as a rampart to protect us?” With that one well chosen quotation, Barth convicts and challenges. Who, in our time, is our rampart? Who stands in the gap? Is it I? And who among us, outwardly seeking a gospel movement, is inwardly a true person of prayer?

    For those who feel “familiar” with prayer, Barth makes the familiar strange. He reminds us that prayer is a “problem,” for “How is it possible for me to have an encounter with God?” To pray, Barth says, “is a grace, an offer of God.” It is also an “altogether simple act by which we accept and use the divine offer; an act in which we obey this command of the majestic grace that identifies itself with the will of God.” Barth clearly reminds us that prayer is possible because of Jesus Christ, who has made us his brothers and sisters within the family of God.

    Barth writes:

    God is the Father of Jesus Christ, and that very man Jesus Christ has prayed, and he is praying still. Such is the foundation of our prayer in Jesus Christ. It is as if God himself has pledged to answer our request because all our prayers are summed up in Jesus Christ; God cannot fail to answer, since it is Jesus Christ who prays.

    What follows is an interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus invites us to pray. Prayer is not only a command, it is an invitation. Jesus has instructed us, and also accompanies us in the praying of this prayer. Barth writes, “Jesus Christ invites, permits, commands us to join him, especially in his intercession with the Father.”

    Barth examines the Invocation, the Six Petitions, and the Doxology of the Lord’s Prayer. At every turn he makes the familiar strange. He makes the reader rethink what they thought in praying the Lord’s Prayer. His sentences do the work.

    In the invocation, “Our Father,” Barth reminds us that we may address God as such because of Jesus Christ. Barth writes “We are his children, he is our Father, by virtue of this new birth realized at Christmas, on Good Friday, at Easter, and fulfilled at the moment of our baptism.” We petition our Father “who art in heaven.” Barth reminds us that God “is in heaven, on his throne,” and it is through him that we have freedom, which includes the freedom to enter God’s presence.

    When we pray for the hallowing of God’s name, for the kingdom to come, and for God’s will to be done, we seek to align ourselves with God’s action as it has been revealed in Jesus Christ. The world belongs to God, the cause of redemption is his, and the fulfillment of his purposes is the result of his initiative. We cannot accomplish this on our own. This is why we pray. Barth writes, “We pray so that we might receive the power to show this great joy and this great peace of which we so often speak. May this joy and this peace be noticeable. We pray in order that the Christian arrogance and ignorance and unbelief with which we daily dishonor thee may be a bit arrested, a little suppressed.”

    Our prayer for daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from temptation are admissions of dependence on God, as well as expressions of simple trust in God’s provision. Barth observes that in the Old and New Testaments “‘the word ‘bread’ is also the temporal sign of God’s eternal grace.” Barth goes further, saying “each meal, whether it be modest or sumptuous is something sacred, for it is the promise of an eternal banquet, of an everlasting feast.” To  ask for bread is to remind ourselves, again and again, that we are dependent creatures.

    Beyond our need for bread is our need for forgiveness. While we may be unsure of where our next meal may come from, our forgiveness is a certain, established fact. Barth writes, “What God’s forgiveness is must be clearly understood. Here it is not a question of an uncertain hope, of an ideal to be sought or imagined...Forgiveness is already given, and this is the reality in which we live.”

    We are forgiven because of what God has accomplished in and through Jesus Christ, the one who has reconciled us to God, atoned for our sin, and secured our hope. Barth writes, “In thy Son thou hast exchanged roles between thyself, the holy and just God, and us, perfidious and unjust human beings...Thou has obeyed and suffered for us; thou hast abolished our faults, the faults of all humankind. And thou hast done it once and for all.”

    Our petition for forgiveness leads us to forgive those who sin against us. We do so as those empowered by the Holy Spirit. And we ask for God’s help in resisting temptation. In the cross of Christ, the Devil has been defeated and his powers have been broken. Barth reminds us that we do not overcome the Devil through our own “moral and religious excursions,” but by the power of God. Because of this, glory be to God! Barth writes, “Thou hast loved us; thou still lovest us. And thy love is efficacious. It delivers once and for all.”

    Barth, by making the familiar strange, brings us into an encounter with the one commanding us to pray. For those so moved, those wishing to respond to God’s gracious action by the practice of prayer, new possibilities emerge, and not only for the individual but also for the church. And we may enter these new possibilities, not because we are determined, but because God has graciously sought and redeemed us through Jesus Christ. Prayer, thus, is the response of a glad heart joined to God. It is not a duty, but a delight. It is not only a privilege, but a service of the saints.

    We worship a God who hears, yet God is greater than our petitions. As Barth reminds us, “The most certain element of our prayer is not our requests, but what comes from God: his response.” Because of this we remain confident. We anticipate God’s redemptive future. We celebrate God’s salvation secured for us in Christ.

    And presently, we pray, “Our Father…”

    Wednesday
    Jul272016

    It's Hard to Check Yourself

    This morning I awoke, brewed coffee, cooked eggs, and sat down to read, pray, and journal.

    I often use The Divine Hours to give structure to my time of prayer, to further saturate my mind with the words of Scripture, and to use well-worn words as I pay attention to God.

    This week, there is an appointed prayer which reads:

    Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know my necessities before I ask and my ignorance in asking: Have compassion on my weakness, and mercifully forgive me those things which for my unworthiness I dare not, and for my blindness I cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

    Those things we need, God knows before we ask. Yet we sometimes fail to present our needs before God either because of pride or ignorance. Knowing ourselves well enough to discern how and why we do not trust God fully is rooted in an evasive impulse that is hard to pin down, though I am quite certain it has something to do with the human condition.

    Prayers like the one above help us humbly acknowledge that we do not always name or know our needs, yet God provides. In prayer we are wise to confess that because of sin we do not always bring our requests to God as we should, and because of our finitude we do not always share with God our deepest needs. The words unworthiness and ignorance, employed so well above, capture this perfectly. We are human.

    Thankfully, that is not held against us, for it is through the worthiness of Jesus Christ that we receive mercy and forgiveness of sin. Our unworthiness and ignorance are overcome by the one who alone is worthy to receive honor, glory, and praise, the one who came to reveal the wisdom of God. We are redeemed through Christ's cross and resurrection.

    When we do not succeed in checking ourselves, God is merciful. God extends mercy in sending the Holy Spirit, who inwardly convicts us of sin and brings to our awareness ways we are called to walk in holiness. While we are held accountable before God as individuals, we have been gathered collectively to the people of God, who exhort us to live as disciples of Jesus and encourage us to live a life of faithfulness. God calls us into a community to refine us. Not only is God merciful when we do not perceive our own shortcomings, God engages us personally and invites us into community to equip us with a deeper knowledge of ourselves. We are then sent forth to serve Jesus in light of that knowledge, loving God and loving neighbor.

    God's mercy is inexhaustible. God is "compassionate and gracious; slow to anger, abounding in love." Remember your finitude, rest in God, and rejoice in the good news that Christ died for you knowing those things about you which you do not even know about yourself, supplying for your every need, and equipping you for meaningful service.

    Tuesday
    Dec152015

    George Herbert: The Call

    Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
    Such a Way, as gives us breath:
    Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
    And such a Life, as killeth death.

    Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength;
    Such a Light, as shows a feast:
    Such a Feast, as mends in length:
    Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

    Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
    Such a Joy, as none can move:
    Such a Love, as none can part:
    Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

    - George Herbert, "The Call"

    George Herbert lived from 1593 to 1633. He was a Welsh born Englishman, and an Anglican priest. He is remembered best for his poetry. His little book, The Country Parson, should be read by all ministers. If you are not familiar with his poem "Love (III)," take the time to click and read.

    As for the poem above, the first stanza uses a familiar grouping of three words. It is in John 14:6 where Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Herbert composes a progression: by being the way, we are given breath, by being truth, strife ends. With breath bestowed and strife removed, death has died, and Life remains.

    My favorite line in the poem occurs in the second stanza. Here, Light, Feast, and Strength build one upon the other. The light reveals, the feast heals, and strength binds. The word "mend," as it appears here, means both to restore to health and to repair what has been worn and broken. Christ, displaying his strength through weakness, has brought us unto himself as those invited to his table. We are his guests. I have often joked that there are too many who think, "Of course Christ died for me! Why wouldn't he? I'm such a wonderful person!" The reality, however, is that he has made us his guests because of his great love for us, "while we were yet sinners."

    Which leads us nicely to our third stanza. Joy, Love, and Heart. Joy is often understood as a changing emotion rather than as a state, but Christian joy expresses itself as thanksgiving in times of plenty, and hope in times of want. The soul of the joyful person is unmoveable, because they are bound to God in an inexhaustible love. That person's heart, then, constantly bubbles forth joy upon joy, for the love that gives birth to such joy is a wellspring unending.

    Dallas Willard was correct in saying that God is the most joyous being in the universe, for God is love.

    In Ephesians 3:14-21, it is Paul who prays that we would know "how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ." He then says that this love "surpasses knowledge." But in this knowledge, we are "filled to the measure of all the fullness of God."

    It is in that love that we are called.