Posts Tagged ‘prayer

16
Sep
19

Rubber, meet road

Attending churchWorship is weird.

What I mean is, for me these days the act of attending a service of worship in a local church is a bit of a strange, unsettling experience.

I feel a little bit like Will Ferrell’s character Ricky Bobby in that scene from Talladega Nights. You remember the scene: Ricky is videotaping a public service announcement and suddenly finds his hands floating up awkwardly in front of him. He stares at them in consternation and says, “I don’t know what to do with my HANDS!”

Before my retirement from pastoral ministry on July 1 of this year, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do in a service of worship. I had a clear list of tasks and responsibilities that had to be completed to ensure the effective execution of gathered Christian worship. I was the tone-setter, the ice-breaker, the chief cheerleader, the deliverer of the carefully-crafted message, the MC.

Yes, I usually had a team of people who helped make it all happen, but the buck always stopped right HERE… with me.

But now, Joan and I just ATTEND.

We walk in through the main doors, return the warm smile and greeting of the greeter(s), accept the proffered paper bulletin, and make our way to our seats. Not too close to the front, but not all the way in the back row either.

And then we just WORSHIP.

It is so weird.

But in a way, it is also incredibly freeing.

When the responsive reading time comes, I can just engage my heart and soul in my assigned part… not worrying about whether I am projecting my voice well enough for Olive there in the third row from the back to hear me, or when the last time the batteries in my microphone were replaced.

When it comes time to sing, I can freely bounce back and forth between the melody and the bass line, really reading and absorbing the text. I don’t have to fret about the accompanist’s pacing, or whether I should have chosen to sing all five verses instead of just three.

The pastoral prayer time offers an opportunity for… PRAYING, of all things!

And since discovering firsthand what a struggle and joy and deeply soul-searching journey it is to write and deliver some kind of coherent weekly message, I try to be sure to give my entire, undivided attention – including engaged eye contact – to the pastor as she (or he) teaches from the pulpit.

And yes, while I do have those occasional moments of, “I probably would have said that a little differently than that,” I keep those quietly tucked away in my back pocket.

But I will confess… the hardest part comes for me when the service concludes and we are on our way back out to the parking lot. No, I don’t have any trouble with the chit-chat time or finding the coffee and donut table. A homing device chip for that must have been implanted in my brain long ago.

No, the part that I now find most challenging is the, “OK… what do I now DO with this?” part.

Back then – B.R. (before retirement) – the answer to that question was simple: after this week’s worship service, you get busy crafting next week’s. There is music to choose, special bulletin inserts to design, a sermon to pray over and write, graphics to choose, and special worship elements to incorporate.

But now?

I have to go figure out how I will go live out what I just heard.

 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”(John 13:34-35, NRSV)

(GULP!) OK. Here goes…

08
Aug
19

In Defense of Thoughts and Prayers

Prayer-and-ActionLet’s be clear right off the bat; science has shown that 86% of the time when people respond to a tragedy by offering their “thoughts and prayers,” it is a hollow sentiment.

It sounds good. It sounds empathetic. It sounds compassionate.

But the sound quality is generally where it stops.

That is, of course, in 86% of the cases.

[Actually, there is no science behind this. I am just making this number up to make myself sound good. Sort of like those who send their “thoughts and prayers.”]

Some tragedies – such as the recent mass shootings in the U.S. – demand concrete, practical action in response. No one should be allowed to think that 15 seconds of silence with head bowed at the dining room table adequately addresses ANY of the issues connected with gun violence in this country.

As true as that is, let’s not throw out the whole prayer “baby” with the bathwater.

Prayer – authentically engaged – is so much more than silent moments or mumbled phrases. It is the practice of the presence of God. As Matt Slick – Christian apologist and writer – reminds us: “Prayer is the place of admitting our need, of adopting humility, and claiming dependence upon an all-seeing, all-knowing power that is greater than any of us.”

When faced with the reality of unspeakable heartbreak and senseless tragedy, it is helpful to begin by admitting our dependence and by stepping into a place of humility.

Prayer is my way of saying, “I don’t know how to respond to this stuff. It is beyond my pay grade. It frustrates me, it angers me, it makes me want to run away and hide.”

But when I begin my post-tragedy journey with the words, “Help me, God,” I am actively opening myself to receiving guidance from a source beyond my own abilities.

In that sense, prayer becomes something like “the action before the action,” as a friend of mine once called it.

For me, prayer is not about abrogating my responsibility. It is about better equipping myself to take responsibility. It is about trying to engage every resource – whether natural or supernatural – in pursuit of God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Prayer settles me… it centers me… it helps me take a deep breath and say, “OK, God… let’s do this.”

When the world goes mad and all hell breaks loose, thoughts and prayers are one leg of the stool; plans and strategies are the second; action is the third.

 

I believe all three have a place.

09
Mar
19

Repentance Muscle

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”(Matthew 4:17)

Muscle builderMost of us have muscles that can use a little strengthening.

Maybe it’s a bicep to allow you to do a little heavier lifting, or a deltoid for a little faster throwing of a baseball, or maybe you need a stronger glute for whatever it is glutes help you do.

Personally, I could stand some stronger hamstrings. Mainly because I keep pulling the ones I have now.

As I was preparing for the arrival of the season of Lent the other day, I encountered another muscle of mine that appears to be in EXTREMELY flabby condition.

This muscle needs some serious building up, starting right NOW.

It’s my REPENTANCE muscle.

I decided that building up the repentance muscle is exactly the purpose of the church’s observance of the season of Lent.

So what does that mean, exactly? And how does one do that?

REPENTANCE is a churchy-sound word for a very basic human practice. It is about stopping… recognizing that you have wandered off your chosen (or necessary) path… turning around… and heading back in a better direction.

For example, I was driving along a little two-lane country road the other day which had a posted speed limit of 55 mph. I glanced down at my speedometer and saw that it read 71. So my act of repentance was to ease off the accelerator and bring the little Prius down to a more reasonable 62.

Writing is another activity that involves a lot of repentance. We tap out some keys in a sequence that seems to make sense, step back, read it, and say, “EGAD! That’s a bunch of hogwash!” We then work to make the needed corrections. Or sometimes we repent by throwing out the work completely.

So how does one BUILD UP one’s repentance muscle?

I mean, what do you do with any of your other muscles if you want to strengthen them? You put extra STRESS on them for a limited time, right? You overload them in a measured way, under supervision, let them rest, and then do it again.

Then gradually, the exercise physiologists tell us, the muscle becomes stronger.

And so there I was… sitting there thinking about what Lent was really supposed to be about (because pastors do that kind of stuff), and the light bulb suddenly clicked on! Maybe THAT’S the real point of all this fasting, praying, meditating, journaling, and reflection we do during Lent!

Maybe Lent is the “spiritual gym” where we really focus on getting that repentance muscle whipped into shape.

And like any good exercise program, it doesn’t really work if you focus on it once and then ignore it for the next 364 days. It has to become a regular part of your life! It has to shape and re-energize the way you go about everything else you do.

I mean, sure, a handful of potato chips would really hit the spot about now. But (grunt!) do I really need it? (Sweat!)

(Ugh!) Naaa. Probably not.

24
Jan
19

Tree of Light

christmas treeYes, it’s true.

Today is January 24 and our Christmas tree is still up.

Fully decorated and lighted.

Know what else?

It will probably be up for another two days.

Every other scrap of indoor and outdoor Christmas décor has been carefully returned to its off-season storage place… waiting patiently for next year’s winter pageant.

But somehow we felt the need to hang on to the tree… for just a little while longer.

It might be because it has been a rougher-than-usual winter this year.

Part of that roughness is because it is snowier and colder here this year than the past six years combined. The childlike wonder with which I once greeted a snowstorm evaporated about the time I stopped celebrating school’s cancellation for a SNOW DAY.

For the past week, we have also been trying to cope with a sudden and heartbreaking end to the professional football season here in our hometown. I mean, sure… in the grand scheme of things, it is a trifling concern. But sometimes football fans forget to focus on “the grand scheme of things.”

I suspect there might be another reason we feel the need to hang on to the lights and shiny ornaments a little longer than usual.

I suspect it might have something to do with a shadow that fell onto our house about four months ago; a shadow that first showed up on a routine CAT scan that led to nine weeks of chemotherapy, a major surgery, and nine more weeks of chemotherapy; a shadow that caused both silent and out loud tears to be shed, but which also brought forth amazing outpourings of prayer, love, support, and hope.

So yes, we still kind of feel the need to have the tree here to twinkle and blink and light up the room.

But we are just about ready to pack it up and then try and see if we can find another source of light and joy.

I think I just might have an idea…

21
Jan
19

The Power of Commitment

mlk in prayerIt is admittedly a little odd to peer inside my head today and see the two things taking up most of the space there:

  • The Kansas City Chiefs football team, and…
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Chiefs are there because they lost a heartbreaking game to the New England Patriots last night. In so doing, they missed their chance to go to their first Super Bowl in 49 years.

I attended the game in person with my sons and was on my feet in the cold, yelling myself hoarse from beginning to end.

Dr. King is in my head because today is his day. It is the third Monday of January… the day set aside as a national holiday to honor the legacy of the slain civil rights leader.

I never imagined I would be saying this, but as I sat and listened to a radio documentary on Dr. King’s last march, it struck me that there just might be similar lessons to be gleaned from these two HUGELY dissimilar sources.

In each case, for example, we witness what can happen when a powerful and compelling VISION is raised before a group of people. Yes, of course, a vision of full civil rights and human dignity for African-Americans and a vision of a Super Bowl championship are as different as artichokes and bicycles.

Both quests – however – begin with a vision… a vividly clear picture of a preferred future that calls every person to work together to get there.

Visions excite. Visions motivate. Visions unify. Visions help people sort actions into “essential” and “non-essential.”

Major undertakings simply do not happen without a vision to kick-start them.

And then, once a vision has been raised and people rally behind it, steps are taken toward an OUTCOME. And so outcomes are the next place I see possible parallels between Dr. King and the Chiefs.

My Chiefs fell short of their desired outcome. They lost 37-31 in overtime to the *%#! New England Patriots. Despite a phenomenal regular season, they will not be participating in Super Bowl LIII. That is not to say the season was a total waste. Many great things happened to the Chiefs in the months since NFL play officially began on September 9, 2018.

At the time he was assassinated, Dr. King had a deep uncertainty about the state of racial justice in this country. Historians tell us that he was regularly plagued by self-doubt about his leadership and whether his efforts were making even a small dent in the toxic cloud of racism that spread over this country.

When he died, Dr. King was tired and despondent – especially about the state of the sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. He had traveled there to advocate on their behalf, to gain higher pay and improved working conditions. In fact, in his famous speech the night before his assassination on April 4, 1968, King told his audience that even though he had “been to the mountaintop” and gotten a glimpse of a bright and just future, he had to confess that, “… I might not get there with you.”

It reminded me that sometimes in life we can have visions, we can make plans, we can work hard, taking all of the necessary steps toward the desired outcome, leaving no stone unturned, rallying scores and scores of supporters… only to see our dream elude our hopefully grasping hands.

In our disappointment, it is frequently easy to overlook the value of the journey. When we notice we are not standing at the peak of that mountain it can be tempting to call our quest a failure. We look to find an external “villain” so we can point an accusing finger of blame at them and say, “If only…”

But if we allow ourselves to stay stuck in the trough of that disappointment, it is too easy to miss the golden moments that appear along the way.

The journey to Super Bowl victory is an arduous one… requiring much hard work and sacrifice. But it IS attainable. The journey to Dr. King’s mountaintop where people are judged, “… not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…” might – sadly – be everlastingly elusive.

But my prayer today is that the difficulty of any quest might never be the reason to avoid the journey.

I have no idea what the primary “driving energy” for professional football players really is. Money? Fame? Status? Pride of achievement? It probably varies from one player to the next.

As we know, Dr. King was motivated by the Good News of Jesus Christ and he stoked the fires of his daily energy with prayer. He took the words of the psalmist very much to heart and lived by this guidance, “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” (Psalm 37:5, NRSV).

Today may we each dare to embrace a bold vision of life, and join Dr. King in committing our work to God.

Abundant blessings;

20
Oct
18

Our unwelcome, uninvited visitor

uninvited visitorWe received the official word on the morning of September 21.

That was the day we found out that most of our attention and energy, for now, will focus on dealing with my wife’s cancer diagnosis.

It was the last thing either of us was prepared – or wanted – to hear from her doctor.

But there it was; unavoidably real… clinically stark… terrifying.

At first, it was like an explosion that knocked us both off of our feet.

It left us dazed, reeling, and with an intense ringing in our ears. For several minutes we just stumbled around the house blindly, saying, “Wait… what?” to each other.

Many of you have been on the receiving end of this exact hammer blow and know all too well what a game-changer this news really is.

Somewhere in your brain, you know that very soon there will be a mad flurry of activity. Phone calls will be made, research will be done, appointments will be set, references will be checked, schedules will be changed, tests will be run, and prayers will be said.

But right now, it is just the two of you and this 800-pound gorilla that appeared out of nowhere and took a crap in the middle of your living room.

It is all a little too much to process, and so you choose not to do what you really can’t.

But there, in the middle of all of the smoke and wreckage and feces, you look around and notice a few things.

And you start to wonder;

  • Was it purely coincidence that years earlier I had served alongside a pastor whose spouse just happens to be one of the pre-eminent gynecological oncologists in this area… someone whose name came up repeatedly when discussing specialists to see?

  • Was it purely by chance that three weeks earlier I made an appointment to meet with my counselor that very morning at 11:00 a.m.?

  • Was it total happenstance that we had tickets to go with our friends to the Billy Joel concert the exact same night as this diagnosis?

In another stage of my faith life, I might have said that the only acceptable evidence that God had actually intervened in a frightening, life-threatening situation was when people saw an unexpected and miraculous reversal of that situation.

For example,

  • The sea instantly becoming dry land…
  • The blind person suddenly regaining her sight…
  • The wheelchair-bound paraplegic jumping up and dancing for joy…
  • Cancerous tumors miraculously vanishing.

But age and experience have taught me that there are a whole host of other ways God intervenes in our lives… actively sending a continuous stream of little alerts to us, each designed to say, “I’m here. I’ve got you. You will never be alone for one second as you go through this… even during those times when you feel like you are.”

I know that lots of you have faced news like this in your lives and somehow found the means to cope with it. I take great strength from your examples… even the times when you just had to, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

I think I’ll be doing that a lot.

But it is also greatly reassuring to know that the One who made me and made my wife is right here with us, holding our hand and guiding us through.

“For I, the Lord your God,
hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear,
I will help you.’”

– Isaiah 41:13, NRSV

27
Jul
18

Daily Lifting

Weight liftingA couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were doing some landscaping.

There were some new bushes to plant, but in order to do so, holes first had to be dug.

Normally I don’t mind digging holes… especially if they are for the purpose of receiving a new, decorative plant.

On this occasion, however, my hole digging encountered an obstacle. There was a big rock buried about six inches below the surface that had to be removed before further digging was possible.

Did I mention the rock was big? It was actually capital B-I-G big!

I would have preferred to just go find another place to dig and leave the rock where it was, but in this case “another place” was not really an option. Symmetry demanded it go right THERE.

And so I dug around it as much as I could, but then had to try and reach under it and just pull it out with my bare hands.

It was danged heavy and required a lot of grunting, tugging, sweating, and praying. In the end, I was finally able to free the rock from its comfortable resting place.

Planting could now commence.

In the process of this effort, I noticed something very interesting. I noticed that the final effort to lift the rock out of the hole required some real strength. And because I am a guy who follows a regular regimen of exercise that includes resistance training (i.e., weight lifting), I had the strength necessary to lift out the rock.

On a day-to-day basis, however, my work doesn’t require me to lift a lot of rocks. (Pastors usually try to give jobs like that to church committees.)HOWEVER… without the routine of working out and steadily building up my strength, I would not have been prepared for that one, extraordinary moment.

I think it is safe to say that we can see the same principle at work in regard to the way we develop our connection with God.

Day in and day out we may not face situations that require an intense, concentrated, super-powerful connection with the Source of All That Is. We may not be faced with decisions that might alter the course of our – or someone else’s – lives… we may not be desperately in search of “the peace that passes understanding” in order to make it to and through the next moment.

But if we are not routinely and consistently engaging in the practices that habituate us to the sound of God’s voice and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we might be just as unprepared for that kind of spiritual “heavy lifting” as I would have been to physically lift that rock in my garden.

To clarify: I am not saying that God’s help and presence are conditional or that God ignores your cry if you aren’t a daily pray-er. I am merely trying to reiterate the insight we find in James 4:8 – “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”

I’d like to say more on the subject, but it’s a great day outside and lawn work awaits.

 

Abundant blessings;




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