Just Trying to Make a Point…

Last Sunday was Easter Sunday. I thought I had a pretty good sermon. I had three points (which some folks argue is two too many!), and I thought I was well prepared to make all three points. I was wrong. I did a terrible job making my third point (judge for yourself by clicking here), so I figured I’d use this space to make the point I wanted to make Sunday.

I should have known it was not going to be a good day for preaching when I mysteriously turned a six foot white rabbit into a six foot white monkey in my opening illustration. It was pretty much down hill from there. Oh, the rabbit that mysteriously became a monkey was the pooka from the movie Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd. The premise of the sermon was a play off one line in the film–“the evening wore on” (See the clip here). Mark in his gospel uses a turn of phrase that is (to me) equally compelling–“just at sunrise” (Mark 16: 1-8).

The point? The sunrise (the resurrection) overcomes the darkness…of sin with the promise of forgiveness, of death with the promise of our resurrection, and of fear with the promise of eternal life. It was the last point where I failed to make my point (not counting the whole rabbit/monkey affair).

Here is what I said:

As the evening wore on, the darkness of death would also shadow the promise of eternal life, but just at sunrise the joy comes. The 24-hour news cycle is killing us. We hear the news, see the Facebook feeds and watch in amazement as the culture continues its steep decline. The evening appears to go on endlessly. We long for the sunrise. We wonder when will the night be over.

Are you looking for a sunrise? Turn off CNN and Fox News. Take a break from scrolling your Facebook feed, and pick up a bible. Open its pages and pray. There you’ll meet the risen Jesus, and you’ll experience the sunrise, and you’ll know a hope that never disappoints.

James Moore tells the story when The Saturday Evening Post ran a cartoon showing a man about to be rescued after he had spent a long time ship-wrecked on a tiny deserted island. The sailor in charge of the rescue team stepped onto the beach and handed the man a stack of newspapers.

“Compliments of the Captain,” the sailor said. “He would like you to glance at the headlines to see if you’d still like to be rescued!”     

Sometimes the headlines do scare us. There are times we feel evil is winning, but then along comes Easter, to remind us that there is no grave deep enough, no seal imposing enough, no stone heavy enough, no evil strong enough to keep Christ in the grave. God keeps his promises. We can’t always see it until the sunrise.

Maybe it wasn’t a bad point, but the point I really wanted to make is that the darkness of fear has overshadowed our deep theology surrounding death itself. If nothing else, the past year has shown that the church’s theology of death doesn’t extend much past the point of dying. I do have to be careful how I say this. It could too easily be politicized, and that is not my intention, at all.

It’s just that I’ve watched with some amazement over the past year as many “followers of Christ” acted as though death was absolutely the worst thing that could happen. Death, for a believer, is not the end. This life…this earthly life…isn’t all there is. The resurrection (Easter) is our reminder of the promise of eternal life.

We say in the Apostle’s Creed that we believe “…in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” The doctrine of eternal life is historic, orthodox Christian theology. Because of Easter we do not face death with fear, but with peace and with an assurance that Christ waits for us just beyond the veil that separates this life from the next one. Or, so the Apostle Paul taught the Corinthian church that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).

It was also the Apostle Paul who shared his own inner conflict with the church at Philippi:

20 For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. 21 For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. 22 But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. 23 I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. 24 But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live.

25 Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith. 

Philippians 1: 20 – 25

Yes, I know that “eternal life” is more quality of life than quantity of life. I know eternal life is living a Christ-centered life now, but even acknowledging that fact should never diminish our understanding of the glory we shall one day share with Jesus Christ, Himself.

Embracing a broader theology of death doesn’t compel us to seek to become martyrs, nor does it cause us to take foolish chances with the gift that is this life, but it should free us from cowering in fear of death’s approach. The reality is that the death rate is 100%. If we live long enough everyone of us will die. And, we all know there are times when death does, in fact, come as a friend. The question becomes will we face death with confidence, hope and faith, or will we do so in the darkness of fear?

If we live long enough everyone of us will die.

Me? I’m going to chose to live in the confident expectation of eternal life because “just at sunrise,” hope dawned. Yes, I’m going to live today for Jesus. I’m going to love Him, and I’m going to love my neighbor, and by God’s grace, I’m going to love my enemy. I’m not going to hasten death (at least not intentionally), but I’m not going to live in fear of it, either.

It was April Fool’s Day 2007 and Vanessa and I had just dropped our daughters off for youth group at the church. We decided we needed our favorite indulgence, so we headed to the local Dairy Queen for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard. We had made our turn onto the Main Street of our town and as we slowed to turn into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a car quickly approaching. I shouted to Vanessa, “Hold on, they’re going to hit us!”

Hit us, they did. I’m told by folks who witnessed the event that my truck flipped four times into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen. Thankfully, Vanessa and I escaped relatively unscathed with the exception of a few scrapes and bruises, but I told Vanessa later that as we were making those flips the only thought I had was, “Death ain’t no big deal.” I’ve since thought, “That’s the most expensive ice cream I never had!”

I share that story not arrogantly, but confidently…confident in the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in whom I believe. That’s the point I was trying to make. I’ll not say it’s the whole point of Easter, but it is certainly one of the main points of it. And, it’s not to say that death is not a big deal. It is a big deal, but for the believer, it’s not the only deal, nor is it necessarily the worst deal.

I’m still not sure why I didn’t make the point better on Sunday. Maybe it was the rabbit that threw me off my game…or the monkey. Hopefully, I’ve made the point better here, but if not, there’s always next Easter.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Spiritual Seeking…

There is a phenomenon happening in the West that has been given the name “spiritual seeking.” The focus of spiritual seeking is on personal experience, the sacred and the soul. There is little doubt in my mind as I reflect on the religious landscape of our nation that spiritual seeking, with its emphasis on individualism, choice, and quest for meaning is exerting profound changes on traditional religion. The Gallup Organization says that 80% of all Americans believe that an individual should arrive at his or her own beliefs independent of any church. That’s spiritual seeking with an emphasis on individualism. 

I mention spiritual seeking because we think it’s something we came up with. Long before we were spiritually seeking, God was seeking us. We who follow the tradition of John Wesley know that (or, at least we should). When we, as Wesleyans, talk about God’s grace, we see His grace made real in our lives in different ways at different stages. But, all grace is rooted in a relationship–the relationship that God desires to have with us through Jesus Christ. As Methodists in the Wesleyan tradition, we believe that God in His grace came seeking for us, and we know it as God’s prevenient grace.

Just as a reminder, grace is God’s saving acts toward us–His precious, unmerited favor. We don’t deserve it and we can’t earn it, yet God, in love, extends His mercy toward us to reconcile us to Himself–to have a relationship with Him.

That’s as it should be, right? Right! Because relationships are important to us. Vanessa and I are coming up on 40 years of marriage this year (it seems like only yesterday!). You may find this hard to believe, but Vanessa and I didn’t hit it off when we first met. We met in high school. I was the home-grown boy, and she was the new girl. Came from somewhere up north is all we knew, and she talked funny, too. She thought I was a jerk, and I probably was. After all, I was fifteen years old, and most—no, all—fifteen-year-old boys are prone to being jerks. It’s called testosterone, and it’s part of the male condition.

Ours was a relationship that started off from a distance, hard to understand with little effort put into it. But it was a relationship, nonetheless. Everyone from Oprah to Dr. Phil spend time dishing out advice on how to handle our relationships because we spend so much time trying to figure out relationships. First with our parents, then with that special someone we grow to love, then our children (especially if they are teen-agers!). Then there are neighbors, co-workers, friends and extended family.

We have so many relationships to keep straight that we almost overlook one relationship that is the most important one of all, our relationship with God. Our relationship with God often goes unnoticed until the day we come to faith in Jesus Christ, and then we go to work reading our Bible, attending church, praying and serving God. We think our relationship with God began the day we came to faith. And you might be right. Our relationship with God did begin the day we came to faith, but God’s relationship with us, now that is another matter altogether. Listen to what the prophet Isaiah said long ago as he communicates his understanding of the depth of God’s knowledge of who Isaiah was:


“Listen to me, all of you in far-off lands! The Lord called me before my birth; from within the womb he called me by name.” (Isaiah 49:1)

And the prophet Jeremiah, announcing his ministry to the nation of Israel could proclaim:


“The Lord gave me a message. He said, [5] "I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my spokesman to the world.” (Jeremiah 1:4-5)

Both of these Old Testament prophets understood that God had a relationship with them long before they were aware of it, and that fact, in its bare essence, communicates the idea of prevenient grace. Let me illustrate.

The Bible is God’s story. The earliest chapters of the Bible reveal a God who is seeking a relationship with humanity. In chapter three of Genesis, after Adam and Eve had sinned by eating of the forbidden fruit, God appeared toward evening and called out to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” Yes, the story begins with a seeking God. God seeking humanity to reconcile us to Himself.

God’s story finds Him offering this relationship with Noah (Gen. 9: 8-13), with a nomadic livestock trader named Abram (Gen. 12: 1-3). God renewed his covenant search for the redemption of humanity with Moses after God delivered the Israelites from their Egyptian slavery (Exodus 19:3-6). God sought a man after His own heart in King David, and it was David who said, “It is my family God has chosen! Yes He has made an everlasting covenant with me. His agreement is eternal, final, sealed” (2 Sam. 23:5).

Humanity broke God’s covenant, but He continued to search. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied:


“The day will come,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the old one I made with their ancestors...They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord. “But this is the covenant I will make with them...I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people...And I will forgive their wickedness and will never again remember their sins.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

God’s new covenant was made real for us in Jesus Christ. On the night Jesus was arrested he was gathered with his disciples. There he took the bread, blessed it, and told his disciples to eat it for it was his body. Then he took the cup of wine, and blessed it, and with the cup said to his disciples, “Drink this cup, for this is my blood, which seals the covenant between God and His people. It is poured out to forgive the sins of many” (Matt. 26:28).

That’s right, God took the initiative in the relationship with His creation, and He, through His Son, Jesus Christ, takes the initiative in His relationship with us. When we were powerless, God moved in His Son Jesus Christ so we could experience what the Apostle Paul calls “friendship with God.” It is through a wonderful thing called grace that we experience God’s friendship. And we thought it all started when we “got saved.”

The idea of prevenient grace can be summed up by saying, “God has been busy searching for us in order to have a relationship with us.” One of my seminary professors defined “prevenient grace” as “grace that goes before.” In other words, prevenient grace is God reaching out to us even before we know it. It is a grace that prevents us from moving so far from God that we cannot respond to God’s offer of love.

Prevenient grace is seen in the most quoted verse of the Bible–John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosever would believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus himself said, “I come to seek and save that which is lost” (Luke 19:10). Our response to God’s seeking is our response of faith. Prevenient grace is God working in our lives from the moment we are conceived until that special moment when we, by faith, receive God’s free gift of salvation.

The experience of God’s prevenient grace may be different for all of us. The experience of prevenient grace can come through friends, family members, parents or grandparents, even events may serve as vessels of God’s grace. Prevenient grace is also made real through the church as the church faithfully administers the Word and the Sacraments. Every sermon preached, every song sung, every time the elements of communion are received, every time a person is baptized, it is a testimony to the fact that God is seeking a relationship with us. The Holy Spirit is active in and through all these elements to make God real in our lives. 

There is a profound reason we Methodists baptize infants. The sacrament of baptism is our acknowledgement, our assent of faith that we believe in prevenient grace. We proclaim that God is at work in this child’s life even before he/she is aware. It is not an acknowledgement of salvation. No, we must respond in faith to God’s call, but we affirm the presence of God’s grace.

The Holy Spirit also speaks directly to our own hearts and minds as we face life every day. Even our conscience becomes a tool of the Holy Spirit in making us aware of God’s presence and calling. The Holy Spirit courts us, woos us, encourages us, calls us, but never forces us, to repent, turn to God and receive eternal life.

Max Lucado, in No Wonder They Call Him the Savior, tells the story of Maria and her daughter Christina. Longing to leave her poor Brazilian neighborhood, Christina wanted to see the world. Discontent living at home having only a pallet on the floor, a washbasin, and a wood-burning stove, she dreamed of a better life in the city. 

One morning she ran away, breaking her mother’s heart. Her mother knew what life on the streets would be like for her young, attractive daughter, so Maria quickly packed to go find her daughter. On her way to the bus stop, she went to a drugstore to get one last thing—pictures. She sat in the photograph booth, closed the curtain, and spent all the money she could on pictures of herself. With her purse full of small black-and-white photos, she got on the next bus to Rio de Janeiro. 

Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up. Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with the reputation for street walkers or prostitutes. At each place she left her picture–taped on a bathroom mirror, tacked to a hotel bulletin board, or fastened to a corner phone booth. On the back of each photo she wrote a note. It wasn’t too long before Maria’s money and pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. The tired mother cried as the bus began its long journey back to her small village. 

A few weeks later, Christina was coming down the stairs in a seedy hotel. Her young face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. A thousand times she had longed to trade all those countless beds for her secure pallet. And yet the little village seemed too far away. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back Maria had written this: “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.” 

And Christina went home.

God is the same way. He wants us to come home. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what we’ve become. We can always come home to Him. It is like Maria, reaching out for her daughter even when her daughter didn’t realize it. 

It is like God reaching out to us while we are living a life of sin and we are lost and yet, Christ is there, reaching, longing, desiring to bring us home.

It is prevenient grace. Like Vanessa and I began a courtship over 40 years ago, so God began a courtship with us long before we were aware. Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, even from our mother’s womb, He called us. Are you “spiritually seeking”? Good, there is a God who loves you who is spiritually seeking you, too!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Life’s Greatest Challenge…

I’ve spent the past few weeks learning to love again. I say again. It may be for the first time, but I rather hope that it’s simply a reset of love. I have learned that love from the biblical perspective—that sacrificial, self-denying love—is first, the greatest characteristic that is displayed by those called disciples of Christ. I’ve also learned that love is also the greatest commandment as Jesus himself affirmed that we are to love God and love others. What I’m learning more and more is that love—transformative, life-giving love—is also the greatest challenge I will face as a disciple of Jesus.

Jesus tells me as much in the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5 – 7. Most times, it’s enough to let scripture speak for itself:

43 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. 47 If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. 48 But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Matthew 5: 43 – 48 (New Living Translation)

The Transformative Power of Love

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has called his disciples together and said, “Come here and sit down. Let me tell you what life will look like as my disciples.” Jesus is seeking to give his disciples a new worldview—not so much new as corrected because Jesus wasn’t making new laws for his disciples but correcting some false assumptions about the law as it had evolved through the years.

Jesus would say to them, “You’ve heard it said…,” yet it’s like Jesus was recalling other parts of the law—parts like Leviticus 19:18–“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Or, perhaps Exodus 23: 4 -5–“If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey that has strayed away, take it back to its owner. If you see that the donkey of someone who hates you has collapsed under its load, do not walk by. Instead, stop and help.” Jesus was saying, “Let’s remember what the Law really says, and I remind you that we love everyone—even our enemies.”

Hard words, indeed! Love God? Sure. Love our neighbors? Working on that one. But, love our enemy? How do we do that? More importantly, why would we do that? Because Jesus knew that love–biblical love–is the most transformative force in the universe.

A little girl was given candy by her friend. She got home to show her mother, and mother said, “Your friend was really sweet.”

“Yes,” said the little girl, “she gave me more, but I gave some away.”

Mom said, “Who did you give it too?”

The daughter said, “I gave it to a girl who pushes me off the sidewalk and makes faces at me.”

“Why in the world would you do that,” the mother asked?

“Because I thought it would help her know I want to be kind to her, and maybe then she won’t be so unkind to me,” the daughter replied.

Perhaps Solomon knew something about the transformative power of love when he wrote “If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25: 21 – 22).

I’ve learned that love–any love–requires an emotional engagement. If I love God with all my heart and soul, that requires emotional engagement. If I would love my neighbor, I must be moved with compassion (or pity), and that’s an emotions. If I would love my enemies, it’s really no different. It’s likely only to be that I hate them, but guess what? Hate is an emotion! The truth is our engagement may not necessarily be a positive one, but at least it’s a starting place.

Love is a Decision

Beyond connecting on the emotional level, I’ve also learned that love is a decision of the will. It is a decision of the will that transforms the heart. It is a victory of over our rational and our natural instincts. In Jesus’ day, the natural and rational had taken over the law. The Law was used for revenge and retribution. If we were to read the surrounding passages of scripture we’d hear all that “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth” talk. That’s our natural inclination. Jesus wants to elevate us to a different level. He wants to elevate his disciples to God’s level, and he knew our love for even our enemies would do just that.

Corrie ten Boom shares this true story:

     “It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, a former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.

     He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” He said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!” His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

     Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him. I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I prayed, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

     As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me. And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”

Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place

The love that loves our enemies is not a natural thing. It is a supernatural thing. It comes only from God, yet it comes when we act in obedience to his call on our lives. See, we don’t have to like it to be faithful, we just have to do it.

If love is a decision of the will, I have to make three decisions to be obedient to Jesus. First, I must decide to bless my enemies. That’s how Luke’s gospel records this account of the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke 6: 27 – 28 (NIV), Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” In this same sermon, Jesus talks about “turning the other cheek,” and he introduces the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do to you. That’s what we do when we decide to bless our enemies.

Robert E. Lee was asked what he thought of a fellow Confederate officer who had made derogatory remarks about Lee. General Lee rated him to be a rather satisfactory fellow. Perplexed, the man who asked Lee the question said, “General, I guess you don’t know what he’s been saying about you?”

“I know,” Lee responded, “but, you asked my opinion of him, not his opinion of me.”

The second decision I need to make is to pray for my enemies. I am thoroughly convinced that I can’t pray for a person and hate them at the same time. It’s impossible. William Barclay says, “The surest way of killing bitterness is to pray for the man we are tempted to hate.” While we think prayer changes things, more times than not the thing it changes is us. I must decide to bless my enemies, and pray for my enemies.

Finally, I need to decide to forgive my enemies. Forgiveness, like love itself, is a choice. As Corrie Ten Boom gave testimony, forgiveness was transformative, not only for the relationship between her and the guard, but inside herself. Why is that so? Because forgiveness is what makes us “perfect.” The word Matthew uses for perfect is teleios, and it doesn’t mean without flaw or blemish, as we so often use it in English.

While we think prayer changes things, more times than not the thing it changes is us.

The word Matthew uses means “brought to completion, mature, full-grown.” We are made in God’s image. We are made to be like God, and when we love our enemies we are acting like children of God.  The Bible teaches that we realize our full humanity only by becoming more and more like Christ. The one thing that distinguishes us and makes us like God is the love which never ceases to care for people, no matter what they do to us. We realize our humanity, we become perfect, when we learn to forgive as God forgives and love as God loves.

Bambalang

That’s exactly what the people in the village of Bambalang, in Cameroon, Africa discovered. Pastor Pius Mbahlegue tells the story in March, 2011, the village had a dispute with a neighboring village over traditional burial rights. The rival village attacked. 300 homes were burned, and 3,000 people were displaced. The residents of Bambalang were unable to return to their village until the Cameroon military came and drove the rival villagers out.

The Bambalang residents returned and found nothing left. Even their rice field had been burned. The attack began on a Sunday and lasted through the following Thursday. As the villagers returned to worship the following Sunday, it was the very day planned to dedicate the Gospel of Luke which had been translated into their native language. As the residents read from Luke’s Gospel, they came to chapter 6:27 and read of loving your enemies.

One resident, upon reading the words in her own language said it was like a dream, that the words were for her and for her village, and with that the villagers made the decision to overcome hate with love, and to love the rival villagers with the love of Christ. Thus, began a transformation in them, and in their relationship with the rival village. As one villager said, “I can’t hate them and not forgive them because I would want people to forgive me.” 

I’ve learned a lot as I’ve sought to reset the love in my life. I’ve learned that love is, indeed, hard work. It’s hard work to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. And, it’s hard work to love my neighbor as myself. As hard work as those two loves are, there is no harder work than loving my enemy. It is, perhaps, this life’s greatest challenge.

Until next time, keep looking up…

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…