Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

A defense of prayer in the wake of the Sutherland Springs massacre

November 7, 2017

I have exactly zero interest in wading into the politics of gun control and Second Amendment rights in America. This blog is not about politics. I recognize, however, that politics is at least the subtext of complaints on social media about the ineffectiveness of prayer in the wake of last Sunday’s massacre of 28 worshipers at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. Many politicians, including President Trump, urged Americans to pray for victims and their families.

In response, many critics said, in so many words, “These people were already praying! They were in church, after all. Fat lot of good it did them! We don’t need more prayer. We need action“–and, of course, the nature of this action is precisely what divides people on the left and right (which, again, I’m not talking about in this post or the comments section).

Actor and comedian Michael McKean, in one typical example, tweeted the following (which he has since been deleted):

His words, “They had the prayers shot right out of them,” were perceived by many as insensitive. He later clarified:

By “hypocrisy,” he likely means politicians who fail to do anything other than pray when it comes to dealing with mass shootings in America.

Regardless, one message from tweets such as this is, “Prayer doesn’t work. God’s not going to do anything. Let’s do something constructive instead.” Even an otherwise well-written, and heartbreaking, article in the New York Times on victims of the shooting included this headline:

Do you hear the message? “Even for people who were in church praying last Sunday, prayer doesn’t work.” Read the rest of this entry »

A prayer in the face of threatening storms

September 11, 2017

I prayed the following prayer in yesterday’s worship service.

Merciful God,

As we sang in the hymn a few moments ago, “All Thy works shall praise Thy name in earth and sky and sea.” Indeed, scripture teaches us that at least one reason—one reason—you have given us storms—even the hurricanes that have devastated the east coast of Texas and have now wrought destruction across the Caribbean, the Florida Keys, and, as I speak these words, Tampa—is to remind us of you and your awesome power. In fact, your Son Jesus tells us that when we witness events like this—and are either unaffected by them or escape them without harm—we ought to be reminded of the brevity of our lives and the vulnerability of our lives; we ought to remember our need to repent of our sins and be saved.[†] Because each of us one day could potentially face a disaster eternally, infinitely greater than any storm on this earth: when we face you on Judgment Day. And our only means of rescue is faith in your Son Jesus, who has made us righteous through his righteous life, his substitutionary death, and his resurrection: You promise we will be made ready for that Day because of your Son, for whom we give you thanks and praise this morning.

The weather, like all of your Creation,  glorifies you, and most of the time the same predictable physical forces that create devastating hurricanes are the same physical forces that give us mild, sunny, warm days. You have given us a world that—the vast majority of the time—sustains our lives remarkably well. And often when it fails to do so, it’s because of our human choices and our own human sin.

But we recognize that there’s another way that these storms can glorify you: through your miraculous intervention to save lives of people in harm’s way. We pray for that now: Work a miracle to save people’s lives! And let these storms glorify you as you send compassionate servants—like the good people who work for UMCOR, our United Methodist relief organization—into the lives of the storms’ victims. Enable these servants to show your love, care, and comfort. Keep them safe as they do your kingdom work.

We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus, who has rescued us from our sins.

Amen.

Luke 13:1-15

Do you want to be holy? Don’t neglect the life of the mind!

September 7, 2017

I did not arrange these books for this blog post. They were on a table in my office, in this order, completely randomly.

Facebook informed me that it’s been exactly five years today since my first trip to Kenya. I went there to teach theology and doctrine, church history, and polity to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

I love theology and doctrine, as readers of my blog know. I think about this stuff a lot; it’s important to me. Obviously, I get passionate writing about it, talking about it, arguing about it. I’m also sensitive to the charge—often put forward by United Methodist colleagues—that theology and doctrine are of far lesser importance than (to use a buzzword) “spiritual formation,” or spiritual disciplines, or the pursuit of holiness.

Several years ago, I blogged about a popular United Methodist pastor who “crossed the Tiber” and converted to Roman Catholicism. He did so in part, he said, because he met a group of nuns whose lives exuded a kind of holiness that he had never seen before. He wanted what they had, and he attributed this quality of life to their Catholicism.

Not that plenty of Protestants don’t cross the Tiber every week for any number of reasons (and they pass plenty of Catholics swimming the other way as they do so), but given the Methodist emphasis on holiness, sanctification, and personal experience—sometimes at the expense, at least unwittingly, of a more intellectual emphasis on theology and doctrine—it’s natural that a United Methodist would be susceptible to this kind conversion.

Not me! I “live in my head,” as one professor at Candler affectionately pointed out. No matter how appealing the spirituality of some Catholics, I can’t get past at least a half-dozen serious theological objections. For me, nothing less than the gospel is at stake.

But these are intellectual objections, of course. And in our Methodist tradition, when heart and mind compete with one another, we tend to side with the heart. (Isn’t this one reason our denomination is in crisis about our doctrines associated with marriage and sexuality?)

Regardless, the apostle Paul believed that for the sake of holiness, heart and mind must be in harmony. They need one another.

We saw this in last night’s Bible study in Galatians—in chapter 4, verses 17 to 20. The Galatians are in serious spiritual danger. Although they had gratefully received the gospel and were converted when Paul first preached to them a year or two earlier, Paul says he is “in the anguish of childbirth” all over again. From his perspective, nothing less than their salvation is at stake. It’s as if they need to be “born again” again, Paul says. Christ needs to be “formed in them” again. Whether they are, at that moment, still saved or not, they have at least “backslidden” enough to place their souls in jeopardy. (As a Wesleyan-Arminian, I believe in the possibility of losing one’s salvation.)

Is their problem related to sin and immorality? Are they acting like hypocrites? Are they failing to love God and neighbor sufficiently?

No. Their problem is that their theology is wrong.

They’re flirting with a seductive idea put forward by false teachers that they need to add just a few small “requirements” to the gospel in order to be saved. Paul has warned them that if they embrace a “gospel plus” anything else, they have lost the gospel entirely.

For the purpose of this blog post, however, the nature of their theological problem is less important than one principle that this problem illustrates: getting one’s theology right is, in Paul’s mind, an essential gospel issue. 

Last night, I challenged the class to consider how much value they place on the life of the mind versus the life of the spirit. They must go together! Paul implies that we should be as committed to theology and doctrine, to Bible study, and to scripture memorization as we are, for instance, to prayer, to worship, and to Christian service.

Are we? If not, why not?

Tom Wright on the priority of prayer (especially for pastors)

September 8, 2016

NT_WrightI’m preaching on Acts 6:1-7 this Sunday. I selected the scripture originally because I thought it something important to say about Christian service. And of course it does. But I’m more convicted at the moment about what it says about prayer. This bit of commentary from N.T. Wright got to me:

The fact that they mention prayer in the same breath [as teaching and preaching the word of God] in verse 4 is highly significant. Of course, all Christians are called to pray, to make time for it, to soak everything that they do in it. But the apostles cite it as a reason why they can’t get involved in the organization of daily distribution to those in need. That implies, not that those who do the distribution can do without prayer, but that the apostles must give themselves to far, far more prayer. Here, along with the challenge to a ministry of teaching and preaching, is a quiet but explosive hint to all leaders in today’s and tomorrow’s church.[†]

N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2008), 100-1.

A prayer for our nation in the wake of Dallas

July 12, 2016

Our church held a prayer service last Sunday at 10:00, in between worship services, for our nation in the wake of Dallas, and the shootings last week of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. We invited members of law enforcement to join us.

During the service, I offered the following prayer:

Almighty God, avenger of innocent lives cut down in senseless acts of violence; our righteous judge who condemns evil; the lover of our world who sent his Son into it to defeat evil, suffering, and death—and to save us from the wages of our own sin: We pray for the families and loved ones of Alton Sterling… and Philando Castile… We pray for the families and loved ones of Dallas police officers Brent Thompson… Lorne Ahrens… Patrick Zamarripa… Michael J. Smith… and Michael Krol… We pray for the protection of men and women in uniform throughout our country whom we ask to do the most difficult job of all: to lay down their very lives, if necessary, in order to protect and defend innocent lives. We are immensely grateful to you for the gift of their service. We grieve that five of them were asked to give the last full measure of their devotion to us last Thursday night in Dallas.

In their sacrifice we see, as through a dim mirror, the sacrifice of your Son Jesus for us, on the cross. In their sacrifice, we see Christ-like love lived out. Their example inspires us. Their deaths horrify us.

We pray that if there are others right now in our country who are contemplating murder—whose souls are so warped that they imagine that taking innocent life somehow avenges innocent life—that you would please stop them from inflicting harm!

In spite of the constant dangers that public safety personnel face as they go about their good work, we pray that you would continue to call people to this work. Give them courage. Give them strength. Give them wisdom. Protect them. Enable them to perform their duties with sound judgment.

Enable all of us Americans to work as peacemakers in this world—to work for a more just and peaceful world—so that the work of police, law enforcement, and public safety personal will become safer.

Melt our hearts with your love and the love of your Son Jesus. Root out within our own hearts everything that stands in opposition to the way of Christ our Lord. Empower us to follow our Lord’s courageous example of love at all times and in all places.

We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever. Amen.

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 15: Light Shining in Darkness

December 14, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: John 1:1-5, 14

A prayer for the season:

Almighty God, our light shining in the darkness: we give you our thanks and praise that the light of your love came into the world in the person of your Son Jesus—God from God, light from light, true God from true God. Through your Son you created everything that is, seen and unseen; through your Son you gave us life; and through your Son you gave eternal life to all who would believe in him. This is good news. Indeed, this is “good news of great joy,” the best news of all.

For those of us who have grown so familiar with this news that it begins to sound like old news, stir within our hearts a renewed sense of wonder. Astonish us with the gift of your love. Kindle hearts that have grown cold. Help us to feel within our innermost being these “good tidings of great joy,” that unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

Humble us, like those shepherds abiding in the field. We have nothing to offer you; we possess nothing that you need; we have no gift to give you that pays you back for the gift that you give us. We are poor beggars standing in need of your mercy, forgiveness, and grace. And yet, you brought your good news to us; you invited us to celebrate your coming; you made a way for us to become your children.

Receive now the gift of our gratitude. Enable us to share this news with others through word and deed, that the whole world may experience this good news for themselves and be transformed by it. We pray this in the name of the one whose coming we celebrate, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

My prayer for Paris from yesterday’s services

November 16, 2015

prayforparis

I prayed the following prayer during the services at my church. I also spoke at length about the attacks in my sermon, which I’ll post shortly.

Almighty God, our refuge and strength, our very present help in time of need: Our hearts are troubled once again by the brazen evil and violence of fanatical men, eager to die in their conspiracy to kill unarmed civilians—mothers, fathers, and children, the young and the old, the rich and the poor—people who share one thing in common: they did nothing whatsoever to provoke or harm the killers who aimed to harm them. We are heartbroken, indignant, filled with righteous anger at this affront to the decency of civilized people. We implore you, God, to ensure that everyone involved in this plot will be found and punished, according to the just authority that you ordained governments to have. Guide the French government, guide and protect its police, its intelligence personnel, and its military forces as they do their good and urgent work to protect innocent French people from further harm. Enable all nations of good will, including the United States, to join them in this just cause and redouble their efforts to eliminate the threat of terrorism wherever it exists.

We pray that justice will be done, even as we remember that vengeance belongs to you, and it is yours to repay. Remind us that you alone will ensure that justice is fully and finally done.

We pray for the families of all the victims: comfort them, strengthen them, give them the peace that surpasses all understanding. We pray for Muslims of good faith who also want peace and abhor the evil that’s been done in their name. Keep them safe. We pray that Muslims around the world will find the love and mercy of your Son Jesus. And we pray for our enemies: We know your grace has the power to soften the hardest heart. Please make it so. Enable them to repent and throw themselves at your mercy, O God.

Give us, who are far from this latest terror attack, the assurance of knowing that our lives are in your hand: that whether we live or die, nothing separates us from your great love; that our time is short and our mission urgent to spread the message of the good news of your Son Jesus.

Make Hampton United Methodist successful in this task.

We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus. Amen.

“When will I ever learn?” On over-spiritualizing our spiritual lives

September 9, 2015

Dwight rescues Jim from temptation.

Dwight ends up rescuing Jim from temptation.

One of my favorite episodes of my favorite television show, The Office, is called “After Hours,” from Season 8. In the episode, Jim and several employees from the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton office are in Tallahassee for a two-week business trip. One of these employees, Cathy, invites herself into Jim’s hotel room, telling him that her room’s thermostat is broken and can she hang out in his room while maintenance repairs it?

Reluctantly, Jim—made visibly uncomfortable at the prospect of being alone in a hotel room with a beautiful young woman—agrees. At first, he sits on the floor while Cathy lounges on the bed.

Throughout the episode, Jim tries to discern whether or not Cathy is coming on to him. When he decides that she is, he contrives a reason for Dwight to intrude on them, thereby rescuing him from temptation.

At one point, the lecherous Stanley, who is known to be cheating on his wife, enters Jim’s room, eyes Cathy on the bed, smiles knowingly, and says, “Careful, Jim. It gets easier and easier.”

Frightening words, and true: Any behavior, good or bad, becomes easier as it’s repeated, in part because of physical changes in our brain chemistry. New neural  pathways are carved out that facilitate the behavior, the way a riverbed facilitates the flow of water. Once these pathways are created, through habit, changing the flow becomes far more difficult. (I blogged about this a while back in relation to internet pornography.)

In After You Believe, N.T. Wright’s book on Christian sanctification—which is the formation of our character through our collaborative work with the Holy Spirit—Wright makes the same point:

Most people in today’s Western world, I suspect, think of their minds as more or less neutral machines that can be turned this way and that. When I drive down the road to London, and then when I drive up the road to Edinburgh, nothing changes in the structure  of the car. But supposing the car had a kind of internal memory, recording the journeys I’d made, so that when I set off in the general direction of London—a trip I make often—the car might click into “we’re going to London” mode and nudge me to take the London-bound road, even if in fact I had been intending this time to go to Birmingham? I would then have to make a more conscious choice to refuse the pathway the car had chosen and to compel it to do the things it hadn’t expected.

In the same way, supposing a decision to cheat on my tax return leaves an electronic pathway in the brain which makes it easier to cheat on other things—or people—as well? Or supposing the decision to restrain my irritation with a boring neighbor on the train, and to cultivate instead a calm patience, leaves a pathway which makes it easier to be patient when someone subsequently behaves in a  truly offensive manner?… [I]t seems as though the idea of developing “moral muscles” by analogy with people going to the gym to develop physical ones, may be closer than we imagined.[1]

In Wright’s book on the Psalms, which I read in preparation for my new sermon series, he refers back to this idea in After You Believe. In Psalm 23, for instance, when David speaks of God’s “restoring” his soul, we shouldn’t think of this restoration as merely a spiritual process; it’s also physical. Our soul, which exists independently of the body, is still shaped by the hard work of physical discipline.

Therefore, the more we read and meditate on the Psalms and the rest of scripture—the more we pray, the more we worship, the more we make time for devotional reading, etc., the easier it becomes to trust in the Lord and lean not on our own understanding; the easier it is to see that our cup overflows; the easier it is to find that, in God, we have everything we need.

Not surprisingly, the times in my life as a Christian when I’ve felt furthest from God are those times when I’ve most neglected the practices of the Christian life. I now see that I blamed God for this: I was waiting for him to make the first move—to strengthen my faith, to give me some new epiphany, to give me some new spiritual experience—after which I’d start “living it out” more faithfully. What a fool I was! I had it exactly backwards.

Wright continues:

If learning virtue is like learning a language it is also like acquiring a taste, or practicing a musical instrument. None of these “comes naturally” to begin with. When you work at them, though they begin to feel more and more “natural,” until that aspect of your “character” is formed so that, at last, you attain the hard-won freedom of fluency in the language, happy familiarity with the taste, competence on the on the instrument.[2]

The bottom line is this: God sanctifies us in part through physical changes in our body, which occur slowly and with practice, as we commit ourselves to the hard work of disciplined Christian living. The secret to “learning to live in God” is really no big secret: we learn it, in large part, on our knees.

1. N.T. Wright, After You Believe (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 39.

2. Ibid., 42.

I want to “feel God’s pleasure”

August 28, 2015

chariots-of-fire

One thing I took away from Tim Keller’s recent book on prayer, when I read it earlier this year, was to use the Lord’s Prayer as an outline to guide my own praying. Martin Luther, for one, did this. The point is not to recite the Lord’s Prayer by rote, rather, to ensure that my own prayers include these component parts, and in this particular order.

This doesn’t come naturally to me. My natural way of praying is to begin with confession of sin—as if I have to clear the air before I’m “worthy” for God to hear the rest of my prayers. But notice Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray this way. Confession doesn’t occur until nearly the end of the prayer—even after we’ve petitioned God to give us or others what we or they need. So we’re not asking God to do good things for us on the condition of promised future good behavior. Surely this communicates something important about grace! We who are God’s children by faith in his Son are already accepted by God; nothing—not even the sins for which we need to repent—changes that.

Be that as it may, here’s how following the outline of the Lord’s Prayer works out for me: My prayer begins with acknowledging God as Father. I consider the way that I, imperfect parent that I am, love my own kids. If God’s love is like that, but even more so since God loves us perfectly, then God must really love me. I reflect on that for a moment, which leads naturally to the next part of the prayer, praise and adoration.

To assist me with this, I think about things that have happened over the past day or two for which I can or should be grateful. I praise God for those things. Perhaps this is childish—perhaps we should praise God for being God himself, rather than for the things he does for us, but that’s too abstract for a 30-year prayer novice like me. Maybe when I ascend the heights of prayer I’ll be able to pull that off.

Next comes the petition, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What does this mean for my daily prayers?

First, I remind myself daily that Christ will return. I might say, “Father, if Jesus returns today, let me be ready. Let me be found doing the good work of your kingdom.” I next pray that I will be faithful in doing the tasks that God has appointed for me to do.

Finally, I ask God to help me accept that whatever happens to me today happens because God wants it to happen. Yes, this is my unfashionable, renewed belief in God’s sovereignty rearing its (beautiful) head. Indeed, as I’ve blogged about a lot recently, everything does happen for a reason, according to God’s providential timing and will. So I pray that I don’t resist it but accept it as a gift from God.

It is in relation to this part of the Lord’s Prayer, however, that I recently realized something about myself that needs to change: 

Mostly, I don’t believe that anything I can do will please God. Mostly, I believe that all I can do—at best—is to prevent God from being displeased with me. Mostly, I don’t experience God’s pleasure in me so much as the absence of God’s wrath toward me.

Believe me, I see how harmful these beliefs and feelings are. But I had never verbalized them until recently.

One of my favorite movies is Chariots of Fire. In one scene, the Scottish missionary Eric Liddell tries to help his sister understand why running is important to him. She believes that his running career distracts from his “true” purpose. He tells her, “I believe God made me for a purpose. For China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

When I run, I feel his pleasure.

Is it possible that I could feel God’s pleasure—in me—despite my past, despite my sin, despite my failures?

In other words, whether I “feel” it or not, is it possible that I can and do please God?

I had to consult scripture. Here are a few verses that convince me that it is possible: 2 Corinthians 5:9, Ephesians 5:10, Colossians 1:10, and 1 Thessalonians 4:1. There are probably a hundred others besides. After all, Jesus and Paul both talk about “treasures in heaven” based on our actions on earth. Why wouldn’t it bring God pleasure to reward us with these?

So how will I apply this to my life today?

Here’s one way: Being a pastor is more satisfying than any job I’ve ever had. But believe it or not, every moment of my job isn’t satisfying. I don’t always want to do everything I have to do. Being a pastor, as good as it is, still feels like a job much of the time.

But here’s some motivation for me: What if, when I’m doing something I don’t want to do but need to do, I tell myself the following: “Doing this thing brings God pleasure. God enjoys when I obey him. He likes to see me do the good work of his kingdom”?

Shame on me, but I’ve never thought of it like that before. Is it just me?

Face it, Reverend: you make prayer mostly about you

July 30, 2015

lewisMy prayer life is incredibly selfish. I’m either proud of myself for doing my “duty” of prayer; or I feel sorry for myself that God expects me to attend to prayer when there are more urgent demands impinging on my time; or I’m obsessed with whether prayer is “working,” by which I mean, is God doing anything in response to my petitions—or worse, is prayer producing the requisite feelings of “love” or “peace” or “holiness” that I’m supposed to feel when I pray? Then there’s the ever-present temptation to look over my shoulder: Is prayer working as well for me as it is for others? Why am I worse at it than others?

Plus, don’t get me started on the public prayers I must do as part of my day job: that devilish voice in the back of my head, praising myself: “You’re really nailing it, Brent—you’re perfectly expressing what the people are feeling!” Or: “You’re performing, Brent. You don’t really mean these words; you’re just trying to sound eloquent.” Or: “People can see through you, Brent. You’re such a phony. If they knew what was really in your heart, they wouldn’t stand to listen to you.”

Or don’t get me started on the prayers I offer for my church. I pray for lives to be changed. I pray for souls to saved. But what’s underneath these prayers? Too often, it’s a selfish concern for professional success. If my church “grows,” after all, I’ll look good to my colleagues, my district superintendent, my bishop; I’ll get ahead; I’ll secure a better appointment in the future! Or, I’ll be able to hold my head high and not be shamed by the success of colleagues whose churches are growing, whose stars seem to shine brightly. What about my star?

So you see I’m a mess. God help me!

All these sinful thoughts turn me away from the Object of prayer. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters, this is precisely what our Enemy wants; he’s as skilled as any magician in the art of misdirection. (Please note that when Lewis uses “Enemy,” writing from the perspective of Screwtape, a demon and senior tempter, he’s referring to our heavenly Father.)

Whenever they are attending to Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the actions of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.[†]

C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 195.