Learning to Love (Part 2)…

There is a passage in 1 John that haunts me often: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). It haunts me in light of the second part of the “Great Commandment” that Jesus stated in response to a lawyer’s question in Mark 12:

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12: 28 – 31

I know that I love that which I’m passionate about, and as I’ve contemplated the first part of Jesus’s great commandment, I pray that I’m passionate about God, and that to love Him passionately is to desire Him, to devote ourselves to Him, and to discipline our lives to be with him through windows of grace like prayer, fasting, bible study, worship and others.

There is, then, this second part that troubles me–love my neighbor as myself. As Jesus gives the commandment, it seems as though the two are eternally woven together, that there cannot be the one without the other. It seems as the Apostle John views them the same way.

The starting place, perhaps, is to love myself. That seems a bit selfish on its face. Love myself? That seems too deep a subject to delve into in this blog. There would be too much navel gazing that would, in fact, become self-centered. Regardless, we are commanded to love our neighbor. Let me focus on that one…

Jesus Tells a Story

The thought makes me like another lawyer Jesus encountered. We read that story in Luke’s gospel. You can read the encounter here, but let me offer the Lynn paraphrase. We know it as the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the story to a lawyer who wanted to know how to receive eternal life, and he answered his own question with a reciting of the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6—“love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.” Then, he adds, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Luke adds in verse 29 that the lawyer wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

He wanted to justify himself. After all, you really don’t expect me to love everyone, do you? If we want to justify what we do, we can simply define people and circumstances using our own definition and thereby absolve ourselves from any guilt for not doing what we knew we should do, or for doing something we knew we shouldn’t. We’ve all got a little bit of lawyer in us, don’t we?

In response, Jesus tells the story: A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and was attacked by bandits. They beat him up, stripped him and left him for dead beside the road. We could stop right there and say the man had no business going from Jerusalem to Jericho alone. It was a road known to be frequented by bandits. See, it was the man’s own fault. He should have been smarter. He took a risk and the risk didn’t pay off. Certainly, that’s what those who stood around Jesus listening that day would have thought initially. It’s the man’s own fault. How often have we seen someone broken and beat up by life, and we thought, “Well, they made an unwise decision. They made their bed, now they have to sleep in it?” Probably, much too often.

Jesus continues by saying a Jewish priest came along, but saw the man and passed by on the other side of the road. Next, a Levite (or Temple assistant) came by, and likewise went around the man on the other side of the road. The good Jews listening to the story would have said, “Yup. That’s what I would have done.”

Neither a priest nor a Levite could sully themselves with the blood of a beaten man. It would have rendered them unclean and they would not be fit for service in the Temple. They would have to go through a drawn-out cleansing process, and it simply was not worth the effort. They made a prioritized decision. They had more pressing business to which to attend.

Then, Jesus says, a dreaded (Jesus’s word–not mine) Samaritan came by. Jesus is setting his listeners up, and he’s also setting up this lawyer. Samaritan’s were hated by Jews, and no good Jew, would want a Samaritan to help even if they were lying in a ditch dying. That’s exactly what the listeners and the lawyer are thinking, but Jesus’ story reminds us our neighbor isn’t necessarily who we think it is.

So, this Samaritan sees the man, and Jesus says, “he felt deep pity.” So, the Samaritan kneels, soothes and bandages the wounds. He puts the man on his donkey, takes him to an inn and cares for him. The next day, he offers the innkeeper money to take care of the man. He does, after all, have to go on about his business, but he tells the innkeeper, “if you have any other expenses beyond what I’ve paid you, when I come back, I’ll settle up with you.”

Jesus asks the lawyer, “Now who was a neighbor to the man attacked by bandits?”

The lawyer replied, “The one who showed mercy.”

Jesus said, “Yup. Now, go and do the same.”

Love IS Emotional

So, what can I learn from this encounter about showing love to my neighbor? First, I can acknowledge that love engages me on an emotional level. Certainly, that’s true with romantic love, but I’m reminded that we’re not talking about romantic love. We’re talking about “agape” love—that sacrificial, self-denying kind of love. Yet, even agape love engages us on an emotional level.

The Samaritan, Jesus said, “felt deep pity.” In other words, he felt compassion. Pity and compassion are both emotions, so love is emotional, but it isn’t ONLY emotional. It is the emotion, the compassion that motivates us to act, so even though it may be emotional, it becomes tangible. Compassion was the Samaritan’s motivation, and it had nothing to do with the fact the man should not have ventured down the Jericho road alone. We think, for some reason, that because a person has made a decision that led to bad consequences that we should have less compassion for them. Nothing could be further from the truth. If a person is broken and battered, we have a responsibility to love them the more. 

We should have compassion because Jesus had compassion on the crowds who sought him:

Jesus traveled through all the cities and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And wherever he went, he healed people of every sort of disease and illness. He felt great pity for the crowds, because their problems were so great and they didn’t know where to go for help. They were like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 9: 35-36

The NIV says, “he was moved with compassion.” Jesus, moved with compassion, healed, restored, forgave and died. He did it all for us because he loved us. What started in the heart of God as compassion, mercy and pity ended at the cross in deep love and grace, and from that came the forgiveness of our sins and the restoration of our souls.

Love IS Tangible

So, love is rooted on the emotional level, but quickly becomes tangible. If we love others, it will begin as we connect on an emotional level with others. We must remove ourselves from the center of life and feel compassion and concern for others. Else, we’ll be like the priest and the Levite. We’ll say, “I’ve got other things that demand my attention. I have my agenda. You’re not a priority right now.” To love others is to see a need and to be moved with compassion so that we desire to see lives different, better, more whole.

Emotion sustains us as we move to action. Without emotional engagement, the commitment to act will wane. Love is both emotional commitment and tangible action—the action is like that we see in the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan knelt, bandaged the wounds and carried the man to safety. The tangible act confirmed his compassion.

Love IS Sacrificial

But, this love was also sacrificial. The Samaritan had already invested his time by stopping, bandaging and carrying the man to the inn, and yes, even he took the risk of being rejected. Some Jews would rather die than have a Samaritan help them, much less touch them. It’s possible that the beaten man could have said, “Get away from me. I’ll die first!” I think, though, that only healthy people are quite so stubborn. When we’re desperately clinging to life, we’ll grasp at any straw, accept any help. The prospect of terminal circumstances changes our perspective rather quickly. Yet, rejection remains a real possibility. The lesson? We should never let our fear of rejection keep us from loving others.

We should never let our fear of rejection keep us from loving others.

The Samaritan not only sacrificed his time and energy, but he sacrificed his money, as well. He paid the innkeeper to care for the man. His money became a tool he used to demonstrate his love for others. Money is amoral. Our morals determine how we utilize the resources entrusted to us. If we ever get to the point that we see money as anything other than a tool for promoting life-transforming ministry, that’s the day our discipleship begins to die because that’s the day we turn inward and become selfish. 

Financial resources can be blessing, or they can be curse. Giving generously is a core value of a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is a means of showing our love in tangible ways. If we utilize money as a means of glorifying God, we’ll discover His blessings in ways we can only begin to imagine. But, if we grasp tightly to money in fear of losing it, we’ll discover that it will soon vanish, and we’ll be left wondering what happened, and why God seems so far away.     

One more thing I see, and that is that love is on-going. Loving others is not a one-time endeavor. Love is lived in relationship, and the Samaritan said to the inn keeper, “When I come back…” He gave money to the inn-keeper, and he had every intention of returning to check on things.

Life transformation happens in relationship. That’s why a church’s mission outreach must be more deep than broad. We can do a little good in a lot of places, but little transformation takes place, either for others or for us. Or, we can do a lot in a few places, and thereby build relationships that begin to transform the world, one relationship at a time.

I’m not sure that I’ve really learned anything about loving my neighbor as myself or not. Most days, I don’t even really know where to start, but if I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned maybe I need to start with the person in front of me.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Learning How to Love (Part 1)…

I suppose it’s appropriate that I’m thinking a lot about love this week. After all, yesterday was Valentine’s Day, and I shared a message with the folks at Beulah Community Church on the biblical understanding of love (watch it here). As much as I think I understand the concept of love, I find that I struggle greatly with the actual act of loving. That’s the rub for me.

Those of us who have grown up in church have heard these words all our lives: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12: 30-31, Lynn Paraphrase). We’ve heard them, and I, for one, have always asked, “What does it mean to love God?” Let’s not talk about loving others. I want to know what it looks like to love God? What does it feel like to love God? Sometimes I think it’s easier to love others than it is to love God. Of course, the Apostle John wonders, “if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:21). I assume if you’re reading this that you do, deep in your heart want to love God, too. Like me, you just want to know how.

An Encounter with Jesus

I think to know how to love God, we first need to understand the context in which Jesus made the statement. Jesus made the statement after his authority was challenged. The Pharisees were attempting to entrap him, so they had challenged him on the issue of Jews paying taxes. Pharisees didn’t like paying taxes to the occupying government, and worse, they hated the Jews who served as tax collectors for the Romans. Inhabitants were responsible for paying 1% of the income as an income tax, but in addition to that tax there were import and export taxes, crop taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, an emergency tax and others. Sounds familiar to me! Jesus said, “Pay your taxes.” He wasn’t going to be trapped.

Then, some Sadducees approached and asked a question about the resurrection. Hey? If the Pharisees couldn’t trap him, perhaps the Sadducees might. Sadducees and Pharisees were like political parties in the United States, except they were religious parties and they held differing opinions on theological issues. It might be more akin to Baptists and Methodists today. They’re both Christian, but with different understandings on certain issues. Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection from the dead, and to prove their point, they chose to challenge Jesus with an outrageous puzzle. We won’t go into what Jesus said to them. Suffice it to say, Jesus answered well.

One lawyer who had been witnessing the entire episode perceived that Jesus was a pretty smart fellow, so he thought he might give it a try. Now, think about this: a lawyer is steeped in the law—even the religious law. So, the lawyer asks a religious question, and if he was asking a religious question, he was expecting a religious answer. That’s exactly what Jesus gave him.

Jesus answered the Jewish lawyer with the Jewish “Shema.” It’s Deuteronomy 6:4 – 5, and every self-respecting Jewish male recited it every morning as part of his daily devotional. Listen to Deut. 6: 4 – 9: 

4 “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. 6 And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. 7 Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. 8 Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. 9 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Loving God, for the Jew, as it was meant to be, was about living in the constant awareness of God’s presence and grace. The purpose of the Shema was to incorporate God into daily life. Daily living was the context for teaching children about God. Daily living was the context for experiencing God. God was not just for one day a week. God was for every day. God IS for every day. If we don’t experience God somewhere, some way every day, we need to question whether we experience God at all.

Jesus told the lawyer, “Love God with all your life—heart and soul (the emotional & spiritual self), mind (the intellectual self), and strength (the physical self). Jesus was saying, “Employ all your energies—put your whole self into it. In one word—be passionate. I love the way Eugene Peterson says it in The Message: Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’

What are we passionate about? That’s a fair question, isn’t it? It’s fair because we know we invest in those things we’re passionate about. Here’s a list of passions. Where’s yours?

  • Movies
  • Clothes
  • Sports
  • Politics
  • Music
  • Food (my personal favorite)

We can even be passionate about faith, but that’s usually only one day a week. If we’re not careful, we can let life steal our passion. That’s what happens to most of us in our relationship with God.

Passion Killers

Pastor Rick Warren has a list of what he calls passion killers. He says these things are what kill our passion for Christ. First is an unbalanced schedule. Life is about balance. Too much of anything, even a good thing can be bad. Work is a great thing, but too much work can kill our passion for our spouse, our hobby, our children, or our relationship with God. 

Second is an unused talent. I know when I was a DS, and I wasn’t preaching every week, I could feel myself losing that passion. I’m passionate about preaching. I may not be very good at it, but I love to do it. You pay me to be your pastor, but I preach for free. 

A third passion killer Warren identifies is unconfessed sin. Guilt is a great passion killer. Warren says that, “We don’t walk around thinking, ‘I have a sin in my life. I am a guilty person’.” Rather, we rationalize it. Consciously we think, “It’s no big deal,” but subconsciously it gnaws at us. We don’t have to carry that guilt, though. Christ died for our sin. Confess it, and move on. Don’t let guilt kill your passion for God.

A fourth passion killer is unresolved conflict. Conflict divides us from one another. If there’s conflict at work, you don’t want to go to work. If there’s conflict at home, you don’t want to go home. If there’s conflict at church, you don’t want to go to church. Conflict will kill our passion for anything, and that includes God.

A fifth passion killer Warren notes is an unsupported lifestyle. He says we’re created for relationship, and if we live in loneliness, we find our passion for most all life diminished. God created us for relationship with himself, and with each other.

Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength is about rediscovering that passion. How do we restore the passion in our lives? Three words: desire, devotion and discipline.

Three D’s

Desire is the first characteristic of loving God. We’ll never love God unless we first desire Him. We pursue the passions of our lives –whatever they are—yet, they too often leave us unfulfilled. It might just be because our hearts are made for God. I love how the wisdom writer says it in Ecclesiastes 3:11: Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.

Devotion is the next characteristic of loving God. There is no better picture of absolute devotion than a man and woman standing at the altar on their wedding day. The smiles, the endearing gazes into each other’s eyes, the little wink as the vows are spoken to each other, and the anticipation of the coming night.

I get a good view of this every time I perform a wedding, and even the worst couple, in that moment, are carried away in heart, soul, mind and strength. The great A. W. Tozer said, “We are called to an everlasting preoccupation with God.” That is devotion, and as husband and wife stand at the altar hopelessly devoted to each other, I am reminded that we are the bride of Christ.

The final word is discipline. I don’t like that word mainly because I have little self-will. It makes me cringe and think I have to do legalistic things to meet God’s approval. I think it’s being “obedient.” Obedience is not how we love God. Obedience is a response to love. Obedience is evidence of our love. Discipline is not law, but is a means of experiencing God’s grace. Spiritual disciplines like fasting, confession, Bible reading, solitude, worship and prayer are tangible ways we incorporate God in the every day.

As I write this morning, I am reminded that Lent begins Wednesday, and Lent is the perfect time to practice the spiritual disciplines more intentionally so that I can love God more meaningfully. Oh, and there’s one more discipline—the sacrament of Holy communion—it, too, is a way to incorporate God in the everyday. That’s what it means to love God—experiencing Him every day!

How will you experience God today…and everyday?

Until next time, keep looking up…

All I See is Trees…

Helen Keller said, “It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.” Those of us who follow Jesus often have this problem. We just can’t seem to see what Jesus is doing in us, or what he wants to do through us.

Jesus’ first disciples were that way, too. They could see all that Jesus had done, but they could not see the greater vision Jesus was casting among them. So, what does Jesus do? Jesus uses a man with a vision problem to demonstrate to his disciples (and, I might add, the Pharisees) that they had a vision problem. Maybe I can use their experience to correct my vision. Their encounter with Jesus is recorded in Mark 8:

14 But the disciples had forgotten to bring any food. They had only one loaf of bread with them in the boat. 15 As they were crossing the lake, Jesus warned them, “Watch out! Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod.”

16 At this they began to argue with each other because they hadn’t brought any bread. 17 Jesus knew what they were saying, so he said, “Why are you arguing about having no bread? Don’t you know or understand even yet? Are your hearts too hard to take it in? 18 ‘You have eyes—can’t you see? You have ears—can’t you hear?’ Don’t you remember anything at all? 19 When I fed the 5,000 with five loaves of bread, how many baskets of leftovers did you pick up afterward?”

“Twelve,” they said.

20 “And when I fed the 4,000 with seven loaves, how many large baskets of leftovers did you pick up?”

“Seven,” they said.

21 “Don’t you understand yet?” he asked them.

22 When they arrived at Bethsaida, some people brought a blind man to Jesus, and they begged him to touch the man and heal him. 23 Jesus took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village. Then, spitting on the man’s eyes, he laid his hands on him and asked, “Can you see anything now?”

24 The man looked around. “Yes,” he said, “I see people, but I can’t see them very clearly. They look like trees walking around.”

25 Then Jesus placed his hands on the man’s eyes again, and his eyes were opened. His sight was completely restored, and he could see everything clearly. 26 Jesus sent him away, saying, “Don’t go back into the village on your way home.”

Mark 8:14-26 (New Living Translation)

Seeing Without Seeing

The Gospel of Mark is unique in that it is not a biography of Jesus, like Matthew or Luke. It does not dwell on the family history with all the begets and genealogy. Mark’s Gospel is a record of Jesus’ actions. Mark’s action-packed Gospel is the only one that records the healing of this blind man, and it is the only recorded miracle in the Bible where progressive healing was used.

The background for the encounter is important to understand. At the end of chapter seven, Jesus and the disciples are in the region of the 10 cities, and while there he heals (instantaneously) a deaf mute man.

While still in the region, a large crowd gathered. It reached dinner time, and just as on another occasion when a crowd was gathered at dinner time, Jesus tells his disciples to feed the crowd. This time, the disciples take their seven loaves of bread, Jesus blesses it and commences to feed 4,000 men…not counting women and children…so roughly 8,000. When the meal is done, the disciples pick up seven baskets full of left overs. They all get in a boat and head over to a place called Dalmanutha.

In Dalmanutha a group of Pharisees come to argue with Jesus, demanding that he give them a sign from heaven. Jesus told them he wasn’t going to give them a sign, got back in the boat and headed back across the Sea of Galilee. It’s then the disciples discover they’ve only got one loaf of bread. Who knows what happened to the seven baskets of left overs, but they only have one loaf of bread between them.

Jesus overhears their conversation and tells them, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod.”

Well, the disciples think Jesus is talking about them not having any bread, so they start arguing among themselves. Jesus just looks at them and says, “Seriously, guys! Don’t you get it? You can see, but you don’t have vision? You have ears, but you can’t hear? I fed 5,000 men and 4,000 men with a few loaves and a couple of fish. Don’t you think I can feed you?” The disciples could see, but they lacked vision. They could see, but only partially.

It’s then that the blind man is brought to Jesus. Going into great detail, Mark describes how Jesus whisks the blind man out of the village, spits into his eyes and meets with only partial success. For the first time, Jesus asks an afflicted person about the success of his healing attempt. The man replies, “Well, I think I see people, but they look like trees.” Jesus touches the man’s eyes again, and then his sight is fully restored. It’s a two-stage miracle, but with immense significance. The miracle is significant because it is a paradigm for the spiritual healing of the disciples’ sight which, as Mark gives evidence, comes gradually and with some difficulty.

We find Mark’s evidence in what follows the healing. While walking along the road with his disciples, Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say I am?”

The disciples answer, “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say one of the other prophets.”

Jesus changes the question, “Who do YOU say I am?”

Peter answers, “You are the Messiah!”

With Peter’s declaration, the eyes of the disciples were opened more to the vision of who Jesus was, but as we read the rest of Mark’s Gospel, we discover they still had some healing to do as they caught the vision of Jesus’ mission. They saw something, even if there weren’t quite sure what it was.

Seeing Without Vision

I, too, often have a vision problem. I have eyes yet I can’t always see the vision God is laying out before me. I catch glimpses of what God is doing in the world, but I don’t always recognize the totality of its scope. Being able to see what God is doing and where it will all lead is like being able to visualize the building of a church (or any building, really). An architect can step on to a piece of property and can see where the sanctuary will be, and in it, the choir loft and pulpit. It’s just there in the architect’s mind. The person who is just tagging along with the architect only sees bushes and rocks and trees.

Jesus had a vision of what the kingdom of God looks like. The disciples, no matter how hard they strained, could only see a barren landscape. They couldn’t see the people for the trees, yet Jesus doesn’t give up on them, and he calls them to continue to trust him. They may doubt because their resources seem so slim (after all, we’ve only got one loaf of bread), even while forgetting God’s bounteous provision they enjoyed only a short time before. They may even become like the Pharisees who wanted a sign and will hold back any commitment until they get the sign they seek. “Let me see the evidence and then I’ll believe.”

That’s the way I am, too! My prayer is forever and always, “Lord, don’t let me become a Pharisee.” In praying that prayer, I fear already have.

Instead of simply seeing trees, I want desperately to trust Jesus so much that I follow Him anywhere. I want to see the vision of His Kingdom fulfilled, and I want to trust Him enough to abandon everything to participate with Him in its coming. I want to trust Him enough to risk failure for doing what is right rather than succeeding greatly accepting what I know is wrong. I wonder if my lack of vision is rooted in my lack of trust?

Belief is not trust, friends. Belief can exist and not affect our conduct. We can believe the statistical evidence that says flying is far safer than traveling in a car, but fear of flying still prevents us from ever booking a flight. Trust, however, issues forth in action because trust is a voluntary act of the will.

I know I need to trust Jesus more, even when all I see is trees.

I’ve said as long as I’ve been in ministry that I’m not afraid to fail (I’ve said it, but I haven’t always lived it). What I am is afraid not to try. I’ll try some things that won’t work. Hopefully, I’ll learn and move on. And, I’ll keep looking for the Lord’s vision, trusting he will reveal it to me, and the trees I see now will become the people in need…in need of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Lessons in Prayer…

Life has taught me a lot of lessons. Some of those lessons I learned the hard way, and some came rather easy. As I’ve reflected on prayer over the past four weeks, I discovered there were a number of lessons concerning prayer that I’ve learned that I thought if I wrote them down they would become more tangible to me. I want to share seven lessons on prayer that seem rather profound for me at this time in my faith journey.

Lesson #1

We are hard-wired to pray. When I say “we,” I don’t simply mean Christians. I mean people are hard-wired for prayer. God made us that way. I love what the writer of Ecclesiastes says in 3: 11, “He has planted eternity in the human heart…” With eternity in our hearts we long for a connection to something/someone beyond ourselves. There is a deep longing for the Divine which lies within us, and prayer is the language that connects us to God. No matter where we may go in the world, we will find praying people, whether those people be Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish or some other obscure faith. Prayer is at the core of what people of faith do. 

We all pray. No, we may not all have that set time each day that we consciously focus on matters of prayer, but we pray. Even if we don’t consider ourselves a praying person, when there’s a crisis, we treat prayer like a fire extinguisher. We run to it when we need it. While some of us my treat prayer like a fire extinguisher, others are prayer warriors that have learned to pray, as the Apostle Paul counsels, without ceasing. No matter. We are hard-wired to pray.

Lesson #2

No one feels they are very good at prayer. Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Think of the profound nature of the disciple’s request. Most of Jesus’ disciples were Jewish men who were taught to pray from a very early age, and most of them had done it twice daily since around the age of 12. These were praying people, and yet, when they saw Jesus praying, had the awareness that they weren’t very good at it.

We, too, (perhaps I should only speak for myself) feel inadequate to pray, and the reality of most of life is if we’re not good at something, we don’t do it. We get frustrated because we can’t develop a habit of prayer. We feel insecure in our knowledge of prayer. We are sometimes confused because we don’t see answers to prayer. Let me say all that makes us is normal.

I’m reminded of the words of Thomas Merton, one of the greatest men of prayer to ever live. Merton said, “But let us be convinced of the fact that (when it comes to prayer) we will never be anything else but beginners all our life!” We may go all our lives feeling we’re not very good at prayer, but let that not stop us from trying.

“But let us be convinced of the fact that (when it comes to prayer) we will never be anything else but beginners all our life!”

Thomas Merton

Lesson #3

Prayer is communion with God. If we feel confused in our prayer life, it may be because we are trying to make prayer something that it isn’t. Prayer is conversation with God, meant to keep us in communion with God.

Do you have a person you call your best friend yet never talk to them? Can I tell you about Bill? Bill was my best friend. My family and I moved to Kentucky for me to attend seminary. We didn’t know anyone in Kentucky. Sure, we’d get to know the church folks, and eventually some of the students from the seminary, but one day shortly after we moved, I looked out the back window of the parsonage and I saw someone mowing my yard—a two acre yard, I might add (I don’t know why anyone would leave a pastor responsible for a two acre yard, but that’s for another blog). I met Bill. Bill was not a church member (he did eventually become one, and I had the honor of baptizing him), he was just a neighbor. We became best friends who saw each other almost every day. We went fishing together, to flea markets, to gospel singings. 

We eventually moved back to Louisiana. When we first moved I would talk to Bill on the phone once a week. Over time, it became once a month. It wasn’t long before it became every other month. As more time passed, it became once a year. Now, twenty years later, we keep up with each other on Facebook. We lost our communion because we stopped talking. Why would it be different with God?

Lesson #4

Prayer deepens our relationship with God. The Apostle James says in James 4:8—“Come close to God, and God will come close to you.” Prayer is the primary thing that makes us more like Jesus. That’s why the disciples would ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. If we want to be more like Jesus, we must pray. Service is great, but serving more will not transform us to be more like Jesus. Prayer transforms us. We pray hoping to change circumstances, but prayer is meant first to change us, and we are changed when our relationship to God is deepened.

Lesson #5

Prayer is not just an event, it’s an attitude. Oswald Chambers says, “Prayer is not only asking, but an attitude of mind which produces the atmosphere in which asking is perfectly natural.” The Apostle Paul counsels the believers in Thessalonica, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The Apostle Paul doesn’t mean that we are to constantly remain in our prayer closet, but we are to have an attitude and mind that we are always aware of the Person and the needs around us…to know that God is always present and always listening and always ready to hear. Prayer is not just an event, but an attitude.

Lesson #6

Prayer is simple, but not simplistic. Jesus gave his disciples the “model” prayer when he was asked to teach them to pray. The model Jesus gave is not a long, eloquent prayer, but rather a short, to-the-point statement, yet that short statement encompasses all that is necessary to nurture a life of prayer.

In “The Lord’s Prayer” (which really should be called “The Disciple’s Prayer) there is adoration—“Hallowed be Thy name.” There is confession—“Forgive us our trespasses…” There is supplication—“as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There is provision—“Give us today the bread we need.” There is a request for strength—“do not lead us into temptation.” That’s all deep stuff.

I’m going to paraphrase an early church mystic by the name of John Climacus. Climacus, in essence said, flowery and abundant words fill our minds with images and distracts us, while a single word can focus us in reflection. The more simple the prayer, the more potential for power, and that is not a simplistic idea.

Lesson #7

Prayer is far more significant than we realize. It is significant because it can release God’s power and provision in our lives, or I should say, prayer is the means whereby God’s power and provision is released in our lives, and that is significant. If we want to see God’s power and provision in our lives, then we must be persistent in prayer. That’s why Jesus would use the examples he gave his disciples.

Prayer is not a one and done thing. We must be like the persistent friend at the door. We must continue to ask, seek and knock. We must P. U. S. H. through in prayer. PUSH is an acronym that stands for Pray Until Something Happens. Power and provision come through our persistence. No, we don’t wear God down. Persistent prayer reflects our faith in the One to whom we pray, and faith can move mountains.

The profound nature of this particular lesson is visited upon me over and over again. Over a period of three years, Vanessa and I spent time in deep prayer seeking to discern where God was calling us in ministry and in life. He was calling us away from the United Methodist Church, and at that time, away from vocational ministry.

I learned the significance of prayer yet again as we entered into a period of prayer and discernment concerning planting a house church. That was at a time when I had no real desire to be in ministry leadership, but prayer reveals some really significant things!

There has yet been one more significant development as a result of a season of prayer, and that development has been to step back into the pulpit as a “pastor,” which is something I NEVER believed I would do. I believed my time in vocational ministry was done (I wanted it to be done). I was content to work, attend worship and fill the occasional pulpit. That could be satisfying, indeed. The Lord had other plans.

In September of last year, I was asked to “fill in” for three weeks at Beulah Methodist Church beginning in October. They were without a pastor and I couldn’t think of a good reason to tell them, “No.” At the end of the three weeks, no pastor had been appointed and they asked if I would stay on until the end of the year. Saying “No,” seemed a bit selfish since I had no other commitments, so I committed the congregation. I met with the congregation and stated in no uncertain terms that I was NOT their pastor. I was simply their guest preacher for this time. My commitment was to establishing and growing The House Church Movement. The Lord had other plans.

The Beulah Methodist Church congregation, long a United Methodist congregation, through their own time of discernment voted to become affiliated with the Evangelical Methodist Church, and to withdraw from the United Methodist Church (we’ll see how all that works out). On January 31, 2021, the Evangelical Methodist Church chartered a congregation named the Beulah Evangelical Methodist Church, and I was appointed its pastor by Rev. Kevin Brouillette, the District Superintendent for the area that includes the state of Louisiana. Prayer pervaded the entire experience, and that is significant.

The decision did not come hastily, or without persistence in prayer. Vanessa and I have been patiently listening over the three months we were preaching at Beulah to hear God’s voice and learn His direction for our lives.

We have been like the man who lived alone in a cabin by the lake. There was a large rock in front of the cabin. One night while he was sleeping, his cabin filled with light and the Lord appeared to him telling him he had work for the man to do. The Lord showed the man the large rock and told him, “I want you to push against that rock with all your might.”

The man undertook the mission, and day after day for years, the man went and with all his strength pushed against the rock. For years the rock never moved. Frustrated and weary from the struggle, he took the matter to the Lord in prayer. “Why would you have me push that rock for all these years with no hope of ever moving it?”

The Lord replied, “I didn’t ask you to move it. I asked you to push it, but in the pushing you became stronger. Look at your hands, your shoulders, your back. They’re all stronger because you were obedient. Now, I’ll move the rock.”

Vanessa and I believe the Lord is calling us to take this step of faith. We will serve the church as a bi-vocational pastor. That simply means I’ll continue my “day job” in the banking industry and serve the congregation, too.

Life and ministry have taught me a lot of lessons. None are more powerful than these practical lessons I’ve learned about prayer. I suspect that many of you are seeking clarity concerning God’s call on your life. My encouragement is to keep praying simple, persistent prayers. The Lord will eventually show you the way.

Until next time, keep looking up…

My Constant Prayer…

If you’ve been around the church at all, you’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing.” It comes from Paul’s instruction to the church at a place called Thessolinica, and it follows right after he told them to rejoice always and right before he tells them give thanks in everything. I don’t know about you, but there are a few times that I find it hard to rejoice, and there are probably a lot more times that I fail to give thanks, so that little “pray without ceasing” thing that falls in the middle finds me coming up short, too.

Paul wasn’t the only person to commend constant prayer to us. Jesus pointed out the necessity of constant prayer to his disciples before Paul ever showed up. Luke records this in his gospel:

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought.And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Luke 18: 1 – 8 (NIV)

Jesus, as he was prone to doing, told his disciples a story to illustrate his point. He tells the story of a godless judge who was always put upon by a widow seeking justice for some wrong done to her. In the story, the judge granted her request because she was constantly brining her petition to him. Don’t think for a moment that Jesus was comparing God the Father to the wicked judge. He was rather saying, “If wicked men can do justice, how much more can God do justice.” He was saying to his disciples, “If you want to see God work among His people, keep praying.”

If we want to see Jesus work among us, if we want to see answers, and see lives changed, and see OUR lives changed, we must learn this discipline of constant prayer. We should pray always. I have learned, however, that constant prayer is a hard thing.

When We Pray

We all pray (see last week’s blog). Many, if not all, of us pray in the crisis times of our lives. In a time of desperation, prayer becomes the last resort, and let me say—it’s okay! Even that prayer is better than no prayer!

Jesus prayed in the crisis. On the night he was arrested, Luke tells us Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, and he told his disciples to pray that they might not be overcome by temptation. Gives me the indication that temptation might, in fact, be a moment of crisis for us, you think? But then, he went further on, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done.” Luke says an angel appeared and ministered to him, and as Jesus continued praying great sweat drops of blood dripped from his brow. For Jesus, the cross lay just ahead of him. It was a crisis moment, and Jesus prayed. The great difference in Jesus and us? Jesus prayed before the crisis of the cross. We usually wait until the crisis hits.

We pray at other times, too. Many of us pray when we’re facing a major decision in our lives. Job opportunities open us for us, and many of us pray about those opportunities. We pray for guidance and wisdom to make the correct choice. Or marriage. How many of you reading this actually prayed before you got married? I’d be interested to know (share your story in the comments section below). I’ll confess. I didn’t. Or at least, I don’t remember doing it.

How about praying before we purchase a new car? Major decisions offer an excellent opportunity to pray. It raises an interesting question. Does God really care what type of car we buy? Probably not, but prayer before major decisions of life show trust and dependence on God, and that’s one of the things prayer is meant to develop.

Buying a new car can change our lives completely, though. That new car might mean extra hours at work in order to afford the payment, and that means less time with our family. It may mean less expendable income to use when we do get that time away with family to develop those relationships that will last far longer than material possessions. It may also mean the difference in being able to support the work of the Kingdom of God, which, in turn, affects our spiritual lives. Major decisions are life-changing. Why would we ever consider changing our lives without first praying about those decisions?

Finding Time to Pray

We don’t face major decisions every day, and by God’s grace, we don’t face a crisis every day, so what about this constant prayer thing? Time has been called the greatest currency and the greatest commodity of contemporary culture. In this world moving at breakneck speed, we have come to value time more than anything else. You know how it is?

The daily schedule looks like this:

  • 6:00 a.m. – Alarm goes off. Wonder why it takes so long for Saturday to get here.
  • 6:05 a.m. – Drag self out of bed. Look in mirror for signs of life.
  • 6:10 a.m. – Wake kids up, make coffee, get Pop-Tarts in toaster and cereal on table.
  • 6:15 a.m. – Shout at kids!
  • 6:16 a.m. – Get first cup of coffee. Survival looking possible.
  • 6:20 a.m. – Shot at kids!
  • 6:30 a.m. – Get in shower, while shouting at kids!
  • 6:40 a.m. – Get dressed, while shouting at kids!
  • 7:00 a.m. – Get kids loaded for school.
  • 7:05 a.m. – Get stuck in traffic (now shouting at other drivers and traffic signals)
  • 7:25 a.m. – Drop kids off at school, head to the office, while continuing to shout at traffic
  • 8:00 a.m. – Get to work, wondering why I keep this job

That’s just two hours out of our schedule. Most of the rest of our day continues that same way. We start early and we don’t slow down until our heads hit the pillow, and then we realize we haven’t really prayed. Sound familiar? Uh, huh! Me, too, and I’m a preacher. With the schedules we keep, when do we pray? How do I fit prayer into my schedule?

How We Pray

Let me first offer a word of advice on what NOT to do: Do not put prayer on your “To-do” list. When we put things on our “to-do” list, we feel guilty when we get to the end of the day, and we haven’t checked those boxes off. Prayer, or lack thereof, is never meant to make us feel guilty. Prayer is meant to usher us into God’s presence, and God wants us to know his presence in the “to-do’s” of life. Home, school, family and work are all legitimate concerns that conspire to make life a blur, but we cannot adore life unless we adore the one who gives us life. Prayer helps us adore Him. So, how? Tell me how, please?

How about starting right where we are? Rather than trying to pray in some fanciful isolation that we almost never find, we need to discover God in our times. What do I mean? Mothers, especially mothers of infants, discover God in your times with your baby. God will become real to you through your infant. Times of play with your baby are your prayer. When you are feeding your baby, sing your prayer to God.

When we’re driving down the road, instead of listening to the endless drones of another news program, turn off the radio and listen for God amidst the honking horns. Here’s my growing edge: Instead of shouting at the person who cuts you off in traffic, pray for him or her in that moment. I said that was my growing edge.

Or, how about this? Let your favorite color become a prompt for an instant of prayer. When you see purple, pray a prayer of thanksgiving.

When you hear your favorite song, let it remind you to say a prayer for your family.

When you pass a person you know on the road, pray a prayer of safety for them.

These are called breath prayers.

There are countless more ways to be in prayer. Prayer is not stopping at a specified time and saying a specified set of words. Prayer is living in God’s presence in the midst of what is happening around us. God invites us to see and hear what is around us, and through it all, to discern the footprints of the Holy.

Just Do It!

We develop the capacity for constant prayer by doing it. We can’t assume that time will magically appear for us to pray. We’ll never HAVE time for prayer—we have to make time. Don’t feel guilty because you don’t have time for prayer on a daily basis. Rather, find a time that you do have for prayer, and do it.

John Dalrymple said, “The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere.” Constant prayer produces the miracle we are looking for in life. The miracle of constant prayer is the daily realization of God’s power, presence, and purpose in us, and ultimately, through us.

There was a man who would pass the church every day on his way home from work. He would stop, and go in and sit on the pew for an hour. This happened for several months. Finally, the pastor approached the man and asked what he did in those quiet times.

“Oh, I just look up at Him, and He looks back at me.”

When we look up at Him, and He looks back at us, when to pray will never be a problem. Whether at work, or on the street, or in the church, or at home, we know that prayer is a continuing experience, and an ever-present comfort.

Until next time, keep looking up…oh, and keep praying 😉

Three Reasons to Pray…

We all pray. Admittedly, it may only be in times of crisis when we have no other option, or even before we realize that’s what we’ve done, but we all still pray. Carrie Underwood sang a song that illustrates the point—Jesus Take the Wheel. The song is about a women driving on Christmas Eve when she loses control and she cries out, “Jesus take the wheel.” She is spared a horrible accident and thanks the Lord. She then tells Jesus to take the wheel of her life. It is a powerful song, and it illustrates that we are more prone to praying than not. There is, however, a great difference in that momentary crisis prayer, and the prayer that changes the world. That’s the type of prayer Jesus prayed, and that’s the type of prayer the disciples wanted to pray when they asked Jesus to teach them to pray. Jesus prayed earth-shattering, life-changing prayers, and we can, too.

That raises the question, “Why pray?” Why should we, as disciples of Jesus, make prayer a regular part of our lives? If I see prayer as another duty to add to an already overcommitted schedule, then I won’t pray? If I see prayer as a waste of time because we see so few answers to prayer, then I won’t pray? If I see prayer as something for other, more religious people, then I will never pray. If I see prayer as something to be done only in emergencies, then I’ll only pray in emergencies, and I’ll never know the power of life-changing prayer. Prayer is more than a duty. Prayer is more than looking for answers to problems and struggles, and prayer is more than being religious.

I know of three reasons (there are many more, but in the interest of time…). I see the three reasons exemplified in the life of Jesus in an encounter recorded in Luke’s Gospel called the “transfiguration:”

28 About eight days later Jesus took Peter, John, and James up on a mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. 31 They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem. 32 Peter and the others had fallen asleep. When they woke up, they saw Jesus’ glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As Moses and Elijah were starting to leave, Peter, not even knowing what he was saying, blurted out, “Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 34 But even as he was saying this, a cloud overshadowed them, and terror gripped them as the cloud covered them. 35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.” 36 When the voice finished, Jesus was there alone. They didn’t tell anyone at that time what they had seen.

Jesus is on Mt. Hermon with his inner circle of Peter, James and John, and there on the smoke-covered mountain, they entered the presence of God. This encounter reminds us of the time in the Old Testament when a prophet named Moses (who appeared here with Jesus) went up to the mountain to see a bush that was not consumed and there he discovered he was on holy ground in the presence of God.

Elijah, likewise, was whisked away into heaven on a whirlwind by a flaming chariot to stand in the presence of God. We could get lost in the symbolism of God and the mountain. It is rich symbolism, indeed. Lost in the symbolism would be the detail that is so important in understanding why we pray. The first reason why we pray is because prayer brings us into the presence of God.

Into God’s Presence

God wants an intimate relationship with us. God wants with us the type of relationship he shared with Jesus—a parent/child relationship. He wants to watch us grow, and he wants to give us the best that he has to offer, but we have to embrace that relationship, and we can only do that as we enter into his presence, and prayer brings us into his presence.

God invites us deeper in and higher up. Like our relationship with our children, we love it when they ask us for things. The very fact that our children ask us for things enhances and deepens our relationship with them because it shows their trust in us and their dependence on us. P. T. Forsythe said it this way, “Love loves to be told what it already knows…it wants to be asked for what it longs to give.” Prayer takes us deeper in and higher up in our relationship with the Father.

Prayer places us on the mountain of God’s presence even in the midst of the daily, ordinary circumstances of our lives. The discovery of God lies in the daily and the ordinary because that is where we live most of our lives. We don’t live on the mountain, and though Jesus went to the mountain, and was on the mountain when he entered God’s presence, it was Jesus’ prayer that brought him into God’s presence, not his position. Our prayer brings us into God’s presence. Our prayer takes us to the mountain in the midst of daily and ordinary struggles.

Jacqueline was an elderly woman who lived to take care of her daughter, who was wheelchair bound. When her daughter died, Jacqueline lost her purpose in life and her living companion. Most of her time was spent in oppressive solitude because all her friends were also dead, and her own health was failing, too.

One day, Jaqueline opened her bible to Philippians 4:5, and four words stuck in her mind: “The Lord is near.” Jaqueline thought, “If that is true, then I should be more aware of it.”

“Lord,” she prayed, “I’m going to pretend you’re here all the time. No, forgive me. There is no pretending to be done. I’m going to visualize you really are here. Help me remind myself of the reality of your presence.”

Jaqueline began to pray that very night. “Lord, I’m going to bed now. Will you watch over me as I sleep?” When she would sit down for a cup of tea, she would read through Philippians 4 again, underlining verse 5, and she would pray. At noon, she said, “Lord, let’s watch the news so you can show me what to pray for. They watched the news and she prayed for flood victims, and a new African president, and a man sentenced to life in prison. At supper, she prayed and thanked the Lord for her food, but she wasn’t praying to someone distant. She was talking to someone sitting across the table from her. Little by little, her attitude was transformed. The loneliness lessened, her joy increased, her fears diminished, and she never again felt she was alone in the house. Her prayers kept her in the presence of God. 

Why pray? Because prayer brings us into the presence of God.

A Change in Us

A second reason we pray? Prayer changes us. As Jesus prayed, his countenance was changed. He was transfigured in the presence of God the Father, and in the sight of Peter, James and John (even though they almost slept through it). The glory of God shone all around him and was reflected in him as he prayed. Now, I’m not suggesting that our prayers will reveal the divine nature within us the way it did Jesus that day, but in prayer we catch a glimpse of God’s glory, and God’s glory will be reflected through us to the lives of those around us.

One reason we don’t pray like we should is because we’re simply not prepared to change. How does prayer change us? First, prayer changes us in our relationship to God. We view God in different ways. Sometimes we have no relationship with God. God is just someone or something out there somewhere, but that knowledge has no impact on how we live our lives. God is simply the philosophical first cause, but little more. Yeah, He’s God, but so what?

Others may see God in a relationship of fear. We project our understanding of humanity onto God. Like, God is the big score-keeper in the sky, or judge on the bench. We are limited in our ability to be in a relationship with God because we’re afraid of Him. Who dares confess to the judge? He might condemn us. Or, who would tell the score-keeper we committed an error? That might cost us a run, or a basket, and we’d lose the game. Prayer allows God, through His Word and Holy Spirit to bring us into a deeper understanding of His true nature. Prayer confirms that God is love, and that God really does love us.

But, prayer also changes us in relation to ourselves. Like Carrie Underwood’s song reminds us, there are times we learn to depend on God, and we can do nothing else. Here are the words:

Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can’t do this on my own
I’m letting go
So give me one more chance
Save me from this road I’m on…

We learn our true nature in prayer. We learn of our need for forgiveness. We learn self-denial. We learn God’s will, and we are able, through the Holy Spirit, to adjust our lives to God’s truth. Prayer changes us in relation to ourselves, and sometimes that’s just not a change we’re willing to make.

We also see that prayer changes us in relation to others. Prayer brings an awareness of the great need for salvation and redemption throughout God’s creation. If we don’t see the needs around us, it might be because we’re not praying. We pray because prayer changes us.

Blessed Assurance

Finally, a third reason we should pray? Prayer brings assurance. Jesus was beginning the final leg on a long journey toward the cross. This time of prayer confirmed for Jesus that he was in the Father’s will, and brought assurance that God was with him on the journey.

You and I need assurance, too. We face the uncertainty of life, and we all know that life can pose questions that are unanswerable, but in prayer, we hear God say to us that hope is not found in the temporal circumstances that overwhelm us, but in the eternal love and grace of God.

The reasons we should pray are as limitless as God’s love and grace, and with these three reasons to pray we have only scratched the surface of the benefits and joys that come through prayer, so it leads to the question, “Why don’t we pray?”

Evangelist John Rice tells a dream he once had. He said, “I once imagined I was in heaven. Walking along with the Angel Gabriel, I said, ‘Gabe, what is the big building over there?’”

“You’ll be disappointed,” he answered. “I don’t think you want to see it.”

Rice said he was insistent until Gabriel relented, and proceeded to show him floor after floor of beautiful gifts, all wrapped and ready to be sent.

“Gabriel,” Rice asked, “What are all these gifts?”

Gabriel replied, “We wrapped all the beautiful gifts for people, but they were never delivered because they were never requested.”

We don’t live in God’s presence because we don’t ask. We don’t change because we don’t ask. We don’t have assurance of hope and life because we don’t ask.

God’s presence, transformation and assurance. I can’t think of three better reasons to pray.

If you’d like to watch the message from which this blog was taken, you can do so by clicking here.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Prayer is…

If 2020 showed me nothing else, it showed me of my desperate need to pray more. I like to think I know all there is to know about prayer, but try as I might, I can’t seem to nail prayer down to a singular definition? I am supposed to be a person of prayer, and I know when I see someone praying, and I know what I do when (or if) I pray. I know the preacher does it, if for no other reason than that is says so right in the bulletin—the Pastoral Prayer. So, prayer is something done at a particular time and usually in a particular way, or a particular place for a particular reason. Prayer is all that, but that seems like such an inadequate understanding as I desire to go deeper in prayer in 2021. 

I take some comfort in knowing the Bible doesn’t define prayer anywhere. I know the Bible commands it. People like Jesus, Paul, Moses, David and Hannah exemplified it. I am invited through the pages of scripture to pray, and God commends it to us as a way to communion and wholeness. The Bible even describes prayer, but never once do I find a verse that says, “Prayer is…” If the Bible doesn’t define prayer, I wonder if I can?

The Lord’s Prayer

Though the Bible doesn’t specifically define prayer, its examples of prayer give me a clue in (at least) understanding what prayer is. For more than defining prayer, I want to learn how to do it. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what Jesus was doing one day with his disciples. I’m not sure if we can definitively answer the question by looking at that encounter between Jesus and his disciples, but I believe we can get far down the road. Jesus taught his disciples to pray:

11 Once Jesus was in a certain place praying. As he finished, one of his disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

Jesus said, “This is how you should pray: “Father, may your name be kept holy.
    May your Kingdom come soon.
Give us each day the food we need,
and forgive us our sins,
    as we forgive those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation.”

Jesus would, in the verses following these, continue to teach his disciples more about prayer, but first, it was Jesus’ own example that made his disciples want to know more about prayer. I remind us they were Jewish men who were steeped in the traditions of their elders. They likely spent every morning and evening repeating the prayers of their fathers, yet when they saw Jesus pray, there was something that moved heaven and earth and made them want to pray that way. I’m not sure what that was, but I see three things that begin to help me understand a meaningful definition of prayer.

Upward Focus

Let’s start where Jesus started: First, prayer is upward focused. In verse 2, Jesus begins with the “Father.” As we learned the prayer from the King James Version, it begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Richard Foster says, “Simple prayer is ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate father.” The upward focus of prayer is our acknowledgment that God is our Father, that God is the source of truth outside ourselves. After all, we don’t pray to ourselves–“Oh, help me, Me!” We look to God for understanding in this confusing world. This upward focus is our confession of dependence on the One who is abundantly more than we can even think or imagine.

This understanding is insufficient in and of itself, for how can we have an upward focus unless we have first been called to turn our eyes toward heaven? When we turn our thoughts upward, we acknowledge it is God who acts first in prayer. Our prayers are a reaction to God’s first seeking us. In Psalm 27:7 – 8, David sings these words:

Hear me as I pray, O Lord.
    Be merciful and answer me!
My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
    And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.”

The key is that God said, “Come and talk with me.” Without God first calling to us we cannot seek Him, and we can never experience the kind of prayer that ends in answers. We Wesleyans call that God’s prevenient grace—the grace of God reaching out to us before we even realize it. Prayer that is upward focused will move the hand of God because we have first been moved by the hand of God, and it will draw us deeper into a growing, on-going love relationship with the Lord.

Inward Focus

Yes, prayer is upward focused, but prayer is also inward focused. Verses 3 and 4 say, “Give us each day the food we need, and forgive us our sins…” In prayer, we do focus on our needs, but not in some selfish, prideful way. Actually, if we look up the words “pray” and “prayer” in Webster’s dictionary—although no one looks up words in a dictionary anymore—we find these definitions: “to implore, an entreaty, supplication.”

The words the Bible uses which are translated for us as pray and prayer in both the Old and New Testaments mean “to request,” and “to make a petition,” so prayer is asking God for something, and it is never selfish or sinful to concern God with the circumstances of our lives, and the needs we face. As a matter of fact, God desires that we should ask. Our asking is yet another way we confess our dependence on and our need for God.

The inward focus is not totally selfish when we understand that this prayer is consistent with the way Jesus lived. He was always occupied with the trivial things in people’s lives. He turned water into wine (and good wine, I might add) at a wedding. He fed hungry crowds, and he offered rest to weary souls. He ate with Pharisees and tax collectors. He stopped to talk to a woman drawing water from a well, and he healed a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. It is appropriate that he invites us to pray for our daily bread because all of our little daily concerns are important to him.

We must be careful, though, that this not become a shopping list we bring to God. It is a petition for survival. It is not, “Lord, let me win the lottery, then all my needs will be met.” Such a prayer would never strengthen our faith or draw us deeper into a relationship with him. Prayer is designed to strengthen the bond between us and the Father. Only as we call to God for daily provision, and only as God meets us at our point of need, will our trust grow. When trust grows, love grows. When love grows, the relationship grows, and that is what God desires.

There is more to this inward focus than daily provision to meet our needs. There is a spiritual aspect that must not escape our understanding. As we focus upward and God begins to reflect His love and holiness back into our lives, we begin to recognize our sinfulness, and our need for forgiveness. We pray for this deepest need of our lives. Deeper than the daily provision for our physical needs lies the need for God’s forgiveness.

Mark’s Gospel (Mark 2: 1 – 12) tells the story of a paralytic man who was lowered by his friends into a house where Jesus was teaching. The man obviously had a physical need, but Jesus saw a deeper spiritual need, the need for forgiveness. Jesus met both needs. As the crowd watched, Jesus looked at the man on the cot and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” The crowd, and especially the Pharisees, were stunned and asked, “Who can forgive sins but God?” Jesus, hearing their question, responded, “Well, just so you know I have power to do both, I say, ‘Take up your bed and walk’.” We, too, have both spiritual and physical needs, and prayer that is inward focused brings us an awareness of both. The greatest news in the world is that I am a sinner who can be saved from my sin.

Outward Focus

The Good News that we can be forgiven carries us deeper into the heart of prayer. Prayer that is first, upward focused that produces an inward change inevitably moves us to become outward focused. Jesus prays in verse 4, “just as we forgive those who sin against us.” Any prayer that is real prayer will touch our relationship with others. Jesus says we ask the Father to forgive us as we forgive others. It sounds almost conditional, doesn’t it? Well, it is! We cannot be in a right relationship with God and not have it affect our outward relations with others. How can we not forgive others if we have experienced God’s great forgiveness? God’s forgiveness renews and transforms us, and we then seek to be renewed in our relationship with others.

Richard Foster indicates that to forgive is the very nature of the created order. We must give in order to receive. We cannot receive love unless we give love. People may try to give us love, but if we are filled with resentment and vindictiveness, their offers will have no impact on us. We cannot receive anything as long as our fists are clenched. St. Augustine says, “God gives where he finds empty hands.”

God, The Pizza Man

Let me tell you about our love for pizza at our house. When the children were growing up it was our default food of choice (it’s become Mexican now). One of the greatest days of our lives as a family was moving to Junction City, Kentucky. It was great because Junction City had the luxury of pizza delivery. I know that doesn’t seem like much to most of you, but being raised in rural Jackson Parish, and serving my first pastorate in the same community, pizza delivery was something reserved for places like New York City and Chicago. It didn’t take us long to avail ourselves of pizza delivery in Junction City. Piping hot pizza a phone call away.

How many of you have ever ordered pizza delivery? Call the pizza place, the guy or girl answers and place your order, “Give me two large pizzas—one with pepperoni, one with double cheese. Malone is the name, and the address is 104 School St.” (that’s where we lived in Junction City). Hang up the phone and wait for pizza at your front door. Oh, we were in heaven!

Too often, that’s how we think of prayer. We treat God like the pizza guy. We call on God, place our order as though it was some shopping list, and we wait for an answer. When God doesn’t answer in a reasonable amount of time we get mad because he didn’t answer on our schedule. God didn’t meet our expectations. Forget the tip, buddy, I want a free pizza because it wasn’t here in thirty minutes or less.

God is not the pizza guy, and prayer is not akin to throwing out orders for someone to meet our expectations. What is prayer? Prayer is any intentional upward focus designed to bring an inward change that becomes reflected in outward relationships which produces an on-going, growing love relationship with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Not sure that any of that qualifies as an appropriate definition, but it’s the one I’m going to work with for 2021. I’ll check back in with you in 2022 and see how it went.

May I also invite you to pray more in 2021? Here is the “Daily Prayer” app that I’ve put on my phone and will be incorporating into my prayer time this year. It might be helpful to you, too. If you don’t like that one, try “The Daily Office” app. You can download it on your phone, or use it right from your desktop or laptop. If you don’t like either of those tools, simply do a Google search to find one that fits your need. As has been said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”

Until next time, keep looking up…

First Things First…

One great thing about celebrating the new year (other than the fact that it’s no longer 2020) is that every new year provides the opportunity to reassess and reprioritize those things in life that matter most. A new year provides a new opportunity to get right that which may not have been so right in the past. Every new year I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5: 17– “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

Hoping not to squander the opportunity the new year affords to begin again, it is helpful for me to reflect on the priorities of my life. When I think about priorities I can help but consider what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6: 25 – 34, NIV)

I am reminded that life is not so much about priorities, but about a priority, and that priority is to know God in all His fulness. Every other element of life will reorder itself around that priority and enable us to determine what is important.

Person

Because THE priority in life is to know God in all His fulness, it reminds me that I am first a person. I am a person made in the image of God, and if I am to experience the best that life has to offer, I must first and foremost nurture my relationship with Christ. My relationship to Christ is the most important relationship in my life. My personhood, my sanity, my success at any other endeavor depends upon how faithfully that relationship is maintained and allowed to grow.

It was Blaise Pascal, who in his seminal work Pensees, wrote, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

One of the ways I seek to fill this “infinite abyss” with God Himself is through the practice of writing a blog. It used to be called journaling back in the pre-internet days. Oh, I still journal. There are some things that are much too intimate to share on the internet, and there are moments that it’s as if I hear the Lord say, “Let’s keep this between you and me.” Journaling/blogging is one of the ways I pray, and prayer is the essential discipline by which we may know Christ and are known by Him.

Journaling as an exercise in prayer doesn’t work for everyone, but everyone must pray. I encourage you to find the way that best fits your personality so that you might nurture your relationship with Jesus. In this tech world in which we live, rather than allowing our smartphone to be a distraction, why not use it to help us learn to pray? Try loading a prayer app (here are twelve suggestions) on your phone as the new year begins.

You and I will never be our best without first deepening our relationship with the Lord. Seeking the Kingdom begins there, or it begins not at all.

Partner

Following closely behind my own personhood is the priority I define in being a partner in life with Vanessa. 2021 will mark 40 years of marriage for she and I, and behind my relationship with Jesus, this is the most important relationship of my life. This is as it should be since it is the relationship of a husband and wife that the Lord has chosen to demonstrate the relationship He has with His Church (Ephesians 5: 21 – 33). If the world will know how much Christ loves the Church, it will be because husbands and wives exhibit sacrificial, serving love toward one another. Might I suggest the world hasn’t seen quite enough of that in a long, long time.

That’s certainly not meant as a pat on the back to Vanessa and me. The Lord knows she’s endured a lot being married to me, for you see, I’ve not been the perfect husband, but we have been intentional in having date nights and sharing afternoon coffee together and praying together daily. Each of those activities nurture intimacy that allows the relationship to grow.

For the married folks among us, I challenge you to define ways in which you might give yourself more fully to deepening your relationship with your spouse. Plan a monthly date night. Plan a romantic weekend getaway once a year. Here’s a suggestion that will test the mettle of your relationship–do a family budget together (if you don’t already). More divorces occur because of fights about money than any other issue, but by planning a family budget together, you’ll open lines of communication that may not have been opened in years.

For the single folks who may be reading, may I encourage you to offer yourself and your time in service to the Lord and His church? That might be the very gift you have to give that brings you the most joy in life, and until such time as you feel led to marry (if ever), you can consider that Christ is your spouse.

Parent

Behind the relationship I have with Vanessa as a partner is my relationship with my children as a parent (and now a grandparent). May I encourage you to take a lesson from an old man who didn’t do things quite correctly the first time? I was a second-career pastor, and as such, always felt like I was behind my peers in the pursuit of ministry (and education and position), so that feeling only stoked my competitive nature to “catch up” on all that I was behind on. I needed to “get ahead” and be “successful” in ministry. That mentality led me to a season of pastoral burnout, and it also led me to neglect my children in the process. Those are years I can’t get back. I can only be intentional now in deepening those all too important relationships.

Oh, and grandchildren! If I had known grandchildren were going to be so much fun, I would have skipped the children and went straight to grandchildren. Okay, not really! But, if I had known grandchildren were this much fun, I’d have been nicer to their parents!

Seriously, though, these relationships are so vitally important because they are the means whereby we pass on the faith once entrusted to us. Seeking first the Kingdom of God is to nurture our children (and grandchildren) in the fear and the admonition of the Lord. When we, as Wesleyans, bring our children forward for baptism, we vow that by our teaching and example we will guide our children to accept God’s grace for themselves and to profess their faith openly and to lead a Christian life. We cannot expect the Church to do for our children (and grandchildren) what we are not doing for them at home.

Pastor

Finally, I order my life around my relationship as pastor to many. I am blessed to pastor a wonderful small group of people in The House Church Movement. We are a small group of folks who are intentionally seeking to live as deeper disciples of Jesus Christ, exploring a model that is rooted deeply in the New Testament and the early church.

The truth I have discovered over 30 years of vocational ministry is that I cannot be an effective pastor if I have neglected the other primary relationships in my life. I can’t be with them until I’ve been with Him. I can’t effectively share with a congregation what I have not personally experienced myself, and if those in a congregation are to know the love and power of God, it will be because I have experienced it in my own life, and am sharing out of an overflowing cup.

Congregations, give your pastors time away to be with the Lord. You’ll be the better for it. Give your pastors time away to be with their families. You’ll be the better for it. Insist your pastor takes his/her day off. Insist your pastor takes his/her vacation. Budget spiritual growth opportunities in the pastoral compensation package of the pastor. You’ll be the better for it. Give the pastor a love offering to take his/her family on vacation. You’ll be the better for it, AND you’ll be seeking the Kingdom of God first.

Author Stephen Covey wrote a fantastic book entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit #3 is “Put first things first.” In essence, this habit is about taking all the abstract beliefs and ideas we say we have and making them practical by ordering our lives around them. Saying that we seek the Kingdom of God first is an abstract. How we order our lives makes seeking the Kingdom concrete.

Covey would flesh out habit #3 in a follow up book entitled First Things First. In that book, Covey introduced the analogy of the rocks and jars (click here to watch the video) in which a person has a pile of sand and small rocks, a pile of big rocks, and a jar into which you must put both piles. The person filled the jar first with the sand/small rocks and discovered that they took up so much space that they ultimately didn’t have room for the big rocks. They discovered instead to first fill the jar with big rocks, and then put in the sand and small rocks; the sediment will settle in the cracks of the big rocks, allowing everything to fit in from both piles.

To seek the Kingdom of God first means we put that big, big rock in the jar first, and then everything else will fit in around it. As a person, as a partner, as a parent and as a pastor, my life must be ordered around the priority of the Kingdom.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other important parts of life. In the first century agrarian economy in which Jesus spoke the words above in the Sermon on the Mount, his listeners were deeply concerned with having their daily needs met. It (literally) was a matter of life and death. They didn’t have the Wal-Mart to run down to everyday to get dinner. Yet, Jesus could tell them, just as he tells us that our first priority in a Kingdom economy is to seek Him, and He will insure all of life’s needs are met.

So, that leaves only one question: How will you order your lives? Let me encourage you to put first things first.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Three Life Hacks for a Successful New Year…

“Life Hack” made its way into the English language around the turn of the century, and the definition made it into Merriam-Webster in 2004. A “life hack” is “a usually simple and clever tip or technique for accomplishing some familiar task more easily and efficiently.” As we transition into 2021, may I recommend three “life hacks” that will make for a successful 2021? I find them in the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah. Here is his prophecy from Jeremiah 29:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.

10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.[a] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

I’m done with making new year’s resolutions only to break them seven days (or seven minutes 😉) into the new year. So, I’ll swap resolutions for solutions, and these life hacks (simple as they are) offer a solution to all that might trip me up in the new year. I want to get to the end of 2021 and look back at a life well lived, rather than look back at a year full of regrets because I didn’t achieve all I’d hope, or resolved to accomplish when the year began. I don’t think anyone can look back at 2020 and say it’s been a good year, or that they accomplished everything they hoped when the year began. If you can, well you are incredibly blessed. Count those blessings!

The Commodity of Time

Everyone of us begins 2021 equal in at least one way–time. Everyone of us has 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes, 31,536,000 seconds. It’s what we do with the time that makes the difference. What do we do with all our time?

If the average person sleeps seven hours a night, we’ll spend 3 ½ months sleeping. We all have to eat, and if we eat three meals a day, we’ll spend 16 days eating. If we are active in church, we’ll spend 9 days in church. For work, an average 8-hour day, allowing for normal holidays, we’ll work 75 days. Five to ten days will be spent traveling (to work, to the bathroom, to the kitchen, to the store, etc.), and here’s an interesting one—we’ll spend 9-15 days in the bathroom [unless we’re sick, then it could be longer, or shorter depending on the sickness]. With all that moving, working, eating, sleeping, etc., the average person still has about 100 days that are unaccounted for. What we do with that 100 days can make all the difference in the world.

Life Hack #1–Seek God

The first hack that will make 2021 a successful year is to seek God. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong! There are two types of people in the world—planners and non-planners. Each of those types can be subdivided along a spectrum of good to bad planners, and good to bad non-planners, but basically you’re either a planner or a non-planner. What we too often do, whether we’re a planner or a non-planner is to make our plans and either ask God to bless them, or look back and ask God why He didn’t bless them, or if we’re a non-planner (me), fly by the seat of our pants and when something happens wonder where God is in all of it. We pretty much make our own excuses, justify the things we do, believe those who agree with us, and never once consider God. Every endeavor, every new year, every project should start with the question, “How will God be glorified in this?”

If we would be successful at anything, we must first seek God. If we’re a planner we will go into the new year with everything all planned out. We’ll have our job plans, our family plans, our vacation plans, or our educational plans, but, we’ll leave out the most important part of planning—God. Of course, for all you planners, if 2020 has shown us nothing else, it has show us that plans are made to be changed. Or, as the old joke goes: “Do you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans!”

I’m reminded that Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

It’s not much different if we’re a non-planner. We’ll wander (and wonder) through the entire year, without seeking God and the plans that He has for us. We’ll come to the end of another year trying to figure out what happened to the time.

Seeking God is simple, but never always easy. It begins with worship. Covid changed the way the Church worships, but worship is at the center of our life as disciples. Worship is an opportunity to experience the presence of the Holy, and without worship it is impossible (yes, I said “impossible”) to seek God.

We also must study if we are to seek God. Study the Bible and study the great thinkers of the Christian faith. Study is an opportunity to understand God’s will more.

Prayer is also a key to seeking God. Prayer is where real intimacy is developed. Do we want to distinguish between the the clamor and demands of the world around us and the authentic heart of God? Pray!  Seeking God is not about resolving to do one more thing. It’s about seeing prayer and worship and study as solutions to the issues facing our lives. The first life hack that will make 2021a successful year is to seek God.

Life Hack #2–Bloom Where We are Planted

The second hack that will make 2021 a successful year is to bloom where we’re planted. This is all about contentment in our lives. That’s the problem for a lot of us, we’re simply discontented with circumstances as they are. Granted, there are some things we should never be content with—like if we’re living with a persistent sin, or struggling with an addiction. But, most of us are looking for the next job, or the next spouse, or for graduation. We say, “If I were only married,” or “If I only had a different job,” or, “If I only made more money,” or “It I could just get out of school,” then things would be better. As if a change in circumstances would make a change in me.

God told the exiles in Jeremiah 29 to build houses, plant gardens and have children as foreigners. That was God’s way of saying, “You’re right where you’re supposed to be.” Understand, there is such a thing as holy discontent, a time when God puts it on our hearts to move on to the next phase of life, but that rarely comes until we’re content where we are. We also need to realize that sometimes, bad circumstances may be God’s tool of refinement in our lives.

Part of blooming where we’re planted includes working for peace in our relationships and in our community. Jeremiah tells the exiles to pray for the peace of Babylon. I am reminded of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God” (Matt. 5:9).

If we desire peace in our communities, we must work pursue it, primarily because WE are the community. The community won’t be better until we’re better.

If we don’t like the political climate, pray and work to change it. Enter the fray. Engage the community. If we don’t like the educational climate, pray and work to change it. If we don’t like the social climate, pray and work to change it. It we don’t like…well, you get the picture.

We must engage our community in ways that promote strong healthy relationships and pursues peace. That’s part of what it means to bloom where we’re planted.

Life Hack #3–Always Look Forward

The third hack that will make 2021 a successful year is to always look forward. We look forward because we know the best is yet to come. We are an expectant people, a resurrection people, and as God told the exiles in Jeremiah 29:11 that He had a plan for them with a future and a hope, so He has one for us.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the source of our hope, and it’s at the heart of God’s plan for our lives. The resurrection is the reason we gather weekly to worship. The resurrection is the foundation of our faith. As bad as 2020 may have been, 2021 can be better. As good as 2020 may have been (can anyone really say that?), 2021 can be so much better. We know that God’s best, God’s ultimate plan for us, for His Church, for His kingdom is yet to be realized.

There is a story about a woman who was diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. As she was getting her affairs in order, she contacted her pastor and asked him to come to her house to discuss some of her final wishes.

She told him which songs she wanted sung at her funeral service, what Scriptures she would like read, and what outfit she wanted to be buried in (talk about a planner!). She requested to be buried with her favorite Bible. As the pastor prepared to leave, the woman suddenly remembered something else. “There’s one more thing,” she said excitedly.

“What’s that?” said the pastor.

“This is important,” the woman said. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.”

The pastor stood looking at the woman, not knowing quite what to say.

The woman explained. “In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep your fork.’ It was my favorite part of the meal because I knew something better was coming, like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie.

“So, when people see me in that casket with a fork in my hand and they ask, ‘What’s with the fork?’ I want you to tell them: ‘Keep your fork. The best is yet to come!'”

My friends, we ought to live life with a fork in our hand. It’s our reminder that the best is yet to come.

Seeking God. Blooming where we’re planted. Always looking forward. Are these really life hacks? Well, they’re simple, but there’s nothing very clever about them, so I’m not sure they fit the classic definition. I do know, however, that if we do them, I can virtually guarantee a great year in 2021 no matter what happens.

Until next time, keep looking up…

A Different Kind of Christmas…

This Christmas promises to be different than any other in our memories. We can thank COVID-19 for that. For many people, there were no office Christmas parties (although some probably celebrated that!), and for others there will be no family gatherings for the first time…well, in forever. For so many churches, there will be no in-person Christmas Eve service, no Christmas Eve candlelight, no Silent Night, no lighting of the Christ candle. Sure, there will be on-line attempts, but those on-line attempts won’t capture the beauty or the atmosphere of God’s people gathered to worship on a high, holy occasion. It will just be a different kind of Christmas this year. I suppose that’s the very reason we need Christmas now more than ever!

We need Christmas now more than ever because this has just been such a year…such a few years, I should say. Let’s see…in 2020…there’s been a pandemic, and because of it, lots of death–physical death, to be sure, but also the death of businesses, jobs, livelihoods and families. Oh, and don’t forget the 2020 hurricane season was a record breaker, too. Here in Louisiana, we took the brunt of five named storms (a record), and damage from two of those storms were felt in parts of the state rarely impacted by hurricanes (yep, my house took a tree). We also can’t forget the 2020 election cycle, can we? Whether you like the outcome or not, you do have to like the fact that it’s finally behind us. As I reflect on both the pandemic and the election season, I’m reminded of the joke that Santa said he was no longer making a naughty and nice list because he can no longer tell the difference. Yeah, we need Christmas now more than ever!

An Old Testament Christmas

We need Christmas now more than ever because we need hope now more than ever. What is Christmas but hope? It was the hope of Christmas that the prophet Isaiah captured some 700 years before the birth of Jesus in a manger. The passage from his prophecy has become a classic Christmas passage:

The people who walk in darkness
    will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
    a light will shine.
You will enlarge the nation of Israel,
    and its people will rejoice.
They will rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest
    and like warriors dividing the plunder.
For you will break the yoke of their slavery
    and lift the heavy burden from their shoulders.
You will break the oppressor’s rod,
    just as you did when you destroyed the army of Midian.
The boots of the warrior
    and the uniforms bloodstained by war
will all be burned.
    They will be fuel for the fire.

For a child is born to us,
    a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
    And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
    will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
    for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
    will make this happen!
(Isaiah 9: 2 – 7 NLT)

Writing most likely from Jerusalem, Isaiah looked around at the nation and saw a world in darkness. He saw government and religious corruption. Sound familiar? He saw the poor and widows and orphans mistreated. Hmm? Sound familiar? He saw a general lack of respect of the people for one another. Sound really familiar? In short, Isaiah saw people who had turned their backs on God and were without hope, and that caused darkness. It was not a literal darkness, but a spiritual one. His promise (and hope) was that a light would shine, and all who lived in darkness would see it. The light would bring hope…the hope of God’s salvation.

I am reminded by the prophet’s words, and by Christmas itself, that my hope is not in the movers and shakers of this world, but in the promised Savior that is announced at Christmas…our Lord, Jesus Christ. We need Christmas because we need the light of Christ shining among us. Yes, it will be a different kind of Christmas, but a different kind of Christmas can’t diminish the light that comes because it is still Christmas.

The Light of the World

The Light will always be here. The Light will never go away. But people who are in sin or despair sit in darkness, and cannot see the Light. That’s why we need Christmas now more than ever, and that’s why we must be people of hope now more than ever.

John, in his gospel, tells us Jesus is the Light, and even Jesus said He was the light of the world (John 8:12). But, I remind us that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus told His disciples, “You are the light of the world.” Jesus is the true Light from heaven, but John reminds us that we are witnesses of the Light. And, we are, aren’t we? Even if we can’t gather as the body of Christ, we are still the light of the world, unless of course, we simply gathered because we wanted to feel good about ourselves. No, we gathered because we’re witnesses to the Light. The worst thing in the world (and for the world) that can happen is for us to not live in the hope of Christmas even though it will be a different kind of Christmas this year. This year of all years, we must carry the testimony of Christmas into a dark, hurting world.

The world is longing for light, like we long for that candle on a dark, stormy night. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 8:

19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. 20 Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, 21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. 22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. 24 We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. (Romans 8: 19-24 NLT)

Paul’s words remind us that we, too, are longing for the light. Yes, we’ve caught the glimpse…we’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel…but, our bones ache in different ways the older we get, and they remind us that all is not right just yet. We are reminded that we, too, struggle with sin and that darkness threatens us on a daily basis. Especially, this time of year, when we think everything should be perfect, and we strive for perfection, that something is bound to go wrong, and we are tempted to lose hope ourselves. But, the world needs us to live in hope because it’s still Christmas.

There was a youth group at a church that was performing a living nativity. Joseph and Mary and all the other characters were ready and in their places. They did their parts with seriousness and commitment, looking as pious as they possibly could. It came time for the shepherds to enter. Dressed in flannel bathrobes with towels for turbans, the shepherds proceeded to the altar steps where Mary and Joseph looked earnestly at the straw, which contained a single naked light bulb that played the part of the glowing newborn Jesus.

With his back to the congregation, one of the shepherds said to the little boy playing Joseph (in a very loud whisper for all the cast to hear), “Well, Joe, when are you gonna’ pass out cigars?”

The solemn moment was not simply broken by his remark, it exploded. Mary and Joseph’s cover was completely destroyed as it became impossible to hold back the bursts of laughter. The chief angel, standing on a chair behind them shook so hard in laughter that she fell off her chair and took the curtain back drop and all the rest of the props down with her. She just kept rolling around on the floor holding her stomach because she was laughing so hard. The whole set was in shambles.

Amazingly, the only thing that did not go to pieces was the light bulb in the manger. It never stopped shining. Friends, that baby in the manger is the light of our world, even when our world is in shambles, for in that light the divine and the human cross paths. Jesus is our living, breathing sign of hope, and the immeasurable love that God has had for all of us from the very beginning. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5: 16 KJV).

Yes, it will be a different kind of Christmas…but, it’s still Christmas!

Until next time, keep looking up…