Thursday, August 29, 2013

No More "Unanswered Prayers"

"Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers." Garth Brooks's sentiment makes for a good song. But anyone who's been at it for a while knows there really aren't "unanswered prayers." Some have said God answers all prayers with either a "yes" or a "no" or a "not yet." Simplistic? Yes. Inadequate? Very. I think there's another category--a whole other realm really--not just of God's answers, but of prayer itself.

We all want to pray prayers that God says "yes" to, prayers that make us feel like we're getting somewhere! But the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves. If we want a maturing prayer life, it's time for us to leave behind the "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" of an immature prayer life that seems mostly like screaming into the dark. It's time to step into that new realm that centers around a central question: "Who are you, God?"

In a maturing prayer life, we are seeking two primary things: 1) for God to reveal himself and his will; and 2) for our mind, heart, soul, and strength to be readied to respond, in humility and obedience, to that revelation.

All the rest seems mostly to be twisting God’s arm and hoping to bend his will to ours, which is to say, wasted time. (Not that any time sincerely spent with the Lord is completely wasted, but still…) Of course we go to the Lord with our hopes and wants, our sins and fears, our petitions for others’ well-being. And I’m sure God, our loving Father, wants to see our heart and all its contents.

But maturing prayer seems more to be about our seeking God’s heart and its contents, and simply readying our own for what we will find. This is a new world of intimacy, of experiencing God's power and love, of experiencing God himself. This is where we leave behind the idea of answered or unanswered prayers, not because God just starts saying "yes" to everything, but because it doesn't matter. We start saying "yes" to God. He said "yes" to us a long time ago.

Try it. Give it a week. Give it a month. Give it a lifetime. Begin asking God daily, maybe not just once but throughout the day, "Who are you, Lord?" Listen for his answer. Watch for the answer throughout the day. Search diligently and regularly through the Scriptures, in worship, in godly fellowship for his answer. Search in these same places to learn how to prepare your own life to obediently respond to God's answer...because he will answer. As God reveals who he is, his will also begins to be revealed. Are you ready for this? It's not for the faint of heart!

Step into this new realm...and leave the "unanswered prayers" to Garth.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dr. King, Jesus and the Least of These

I remember standing in the sanctuary of Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the “cradle of the civil rights movement.” I looked at the pulpit from which Martin Luther King, Jr., preached the transformational gospel to a people who were systematically oppressed and excluded solely because of the color of their skin and ethnic roots—in the middle of the most progressive and civilized and, simultaneously, the most oppressive and destructive century in human history. I couldn’t bring myself to stand at that pulpit, but I stood in the silence of the sanctuary and looked at it, imagining Dr. King thundering out the biblical call for justice.

A block up the street is the Civil Rights Memorial, where water pours over a black granite wall that has carved into it Dr. King’s famous quotation of the prophet Amos, through whom God commanded, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).

It’s why individual calls to justice so often lead to whole movements, because justice sweeps people into its flow. Justice—restorative justice—is what God is doing with the world. It’s his plan, his vision. And it has a cleansing power, washing away the filth of the oppressor and restoring the soul of the oppressed. It is the living water that flows from within those who drink from the fountain of becoming…those becoming children of God.

What if a tiny little woman hadn’t refused to sit at the back of the bus? What if children hadn’t shown up to school and students hadn’t sat at lunch counters where their “kind” weren’t allowed? What if a preacher hadn’t lived and shared his dream?

These people did not step out of history books. They stepped out of humble homes and jobs and everyday lives, and only stepped into history books because of their step-by-step journey toward justice. They could easily have been you and me—arms linked, police dogs snapping at our ankles, shielding our faces from fire hoses. 

Anyone looking for Jesus will find him on that bus, at that lunch counter, assaulted with dogs and firehoses, heralding a dream, being sold into sex slavery, losing his blue-collar job to help a CEO buy another vacation home, being raped because a man thinks he can get rid of his AIDS by having sex with a virgin, growing up without parents, without an education, without a vote, without medicine, never ever being told or shown “I love you”—there’s Jesus, one of the least just like he said, in case any of his so-called followers are looking.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Faith: Fit or Flabby?

Trials and temptations are like the length of a racetrack or weight on a barbell—they require and build endurance. “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing… Blessed is anyone who endures temptation” (James 1: 2-4, 12).

James emphasizes enduring trials and enduring temptations, as if we can build up our wind and strength as a result—we can build our endurance. So, moving with faith through one trial results in the ability to better withstand the next trial. Remaining faithful in the midst of this moment of temptation prepares us for faithfulness in the next temptation.

This certainly doesn’t mean we seek out sin so we can become strong. But this is the purpose of intentional spiritual disciplines like fasting, solitude, silence, etc. In every moment we must remember who we are in Christ, look at God’s bigger picture of redemption, and exercise the will to endure. All of it is part of training for maturity—our faith in and life with Christ becoming complete.

The corollary would be faithlessness in trials and temptations—hopelessness and joylessness and indulgence—which results in flabby faith. Flabby faith has no endurance, running out of breath quickly in trials and buckling under the weight of temptation. The result is immaturity.

Is it worth abandoning the race,
dropping the weight, 
exchanging fit faith for flabby faith?

A primary thing to keep in mind is the prize of it all, which is Christlikeness, including union with God. The race of faith is moving toward the finish line that Christ has already crossed. The weight of faith is nothing less than the weight of glory. The endurance built up through faithfulness in trials and temptations results in long strides toward Christlikeness, in strengthening from one degree of glory to another.

In each trial, in every temptation, we do well to ask the question: Is it worth it? Is it worth abandoning the race, dropping the weight, exchanging fit faith for flabby faith? Or is the prize worth far more than this present moment? And so, we fix our eyes on Jesus…and we run.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Toward the Letting Go

One of the reasons for learning to rest, starting with a regular Sabbath, is not just that God rested so we need to, but also because God made himself “weak” in a kind of passivity, and so should we.

We need to regularly practice—at least once/week—letting go and letting things happen. Far from an exercise in apathy or passivity for its own sake, we do this as a habitual reminder that life does not depend on our efforts. Taking hold and taking charge are not always the best option. Busyness and strategy and power are sometimes obstacles to the present moment.

We do this following the Master’s example as he allowed himself to fall into the foolishness and weakness of God, resulting in the cross and death, which is to say resulting in salvation and resurrection.

Here is the greatest demonstration of God’s strength in human history. Not the rise of kings, the ascendency of empires, the domination of armies. Not even the achievements of scientists, inventors, artists, or CEOs. The focal point of human history and greatest feat of strength is Jesus of Nazareth falling into the hands of worldly power, letting his own hands be nailed to wood, his naked body raised, exposed to the mocking masses…utterly helpless and weak. In doing this, the world’s notions of power were put to shame, if only we will learn the lesson.

This ultimate moment followed years of fixedness on the Father’s will and learning to let go. Such “weakness” actually came from an unfathomable place of inner strength, of inner rest. Certainly he didn’t walk through his days apathetically, robotically. He was a man of deep feeling, struggle, and passion. But the ability for the words “not my will, but yours, be done” to be sincere, to be lived, comes only from that place of rest.

Following the Master, we do well to cultivate such an inner rest. As practice makes perfect, we practice rest that we might be perfected in the Father, that we might grow to maturity in the life we were made to live. Outside forces will toss us around like rag dolls. Our Father calls us to lay it all down and rest in his care. The prophet says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation. In quietness and trust is your strength” (Is. 30:15).

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Pastoring: Blessing, Curse, Art

The blessing of pastoring is the people—hungry to connect with God, eager to learn of God’s riches, caught up in the sacrificial love and grace of God as they join the Trinitarian dance that moves outward with love to all the world and inward to rest and enjoyment, living a life of sacrificial praise and worship culminating in and propelled by the union of neighbors in the peaceful, blessed body called the Church.

The curse of pastoring is the people—angry as spoiled children fixated on getting their own way, even at the expense of the best interests of others and self, driven by division and one-upsmanship, burning with the world’s lust for power and entertainment and comfort, isolated in a self-made prison of fear and seeking to imprison others, standing outside the Trinitarian dance yet calling the dance steps to those inside.

The art of pastoring is to look past them—all of them—to the crucified, risen Good Shepherd who loves them—each of them—and to live and love and dance among them in the constant direction of his keeping.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Cashing In On Jesus' Promise

One of the profoundest promises in all of Scripture (and, thus, all of history) is, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:20). We cheat ourselves each moment we let pass without cashing in on those words. Every fear, every task, every mystery and turning corner, every long stretch of seemingly endless road under a burdensome sun, each trial and joy and calling and confrontation, all of life should be filtered through the lens of that divine treasure of a promise.

And it is especially held out to the disciple-makers, whether ordained servants of Word, order, and sacrament, or lay apprentices to the Master. Anyone committed to the work of disciple-making—in its myriad ordered and spontaneous incarnations—will find a palpable fulfillment of that precious promise, nothing less than the abiding presence of the Master himself.

“Do my work,” he says. “Live the life that I am making you to live. Do the work that I am equipping you to do. Step into the story that we are writing together. You will have enough—power, provision, peace—you will have all you need, because I am with you. Through struggles and doubts and wins and losses and the sheer pain of the mundane, I am with you. In the dark night of the soul and the new mercies of the morning, I wake and walk with you.

“When you fix yourself to your own formation as a true disciple, forsaking all else, and when you sacrifice yourself for the loving good of another’s growth into my likeness, that’s when you will find me most keenly present. Fill yourself and empty yourself and there I am, empowering you, catching you, restoring you, running ahead of you and urging you on, giving my life for you, raising you.

“But even when you give up, fall down, or just decide to hide until the day is done, you are mine and I am yours. Until the sun finally sets forever on this present, desperate age, and the dawn of the new in ribbons of pink and orange finally turns to the full light of day and you see face to face, even so, I am with you.”

That is surely a big enough promise to live into for all of our days. All humble thanks to our loving Lord, for his promise and, especially, for his presence. May we grow to be as present to him as he is to us.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Life On the Sun

There’s a speed involved in balance, and it is not fast. Fast is what happens from the outside, forces beyond us that push and prod and rush us along. All the more reason for us to, as Dallas Willard phrased it, “ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

The speed of the balanced life with God is unhurried, steady. It does not panic and push. What needs to happen will happen when and as it needs to happen. And, to the extent that we pace ourselves with God, we will play the part that we need to play, and experience and receive what we need…in the speed and manner with which we need. Just walk with God. Join Jesus in his work. Breathe with God's Spirit.

There is also, of course, an order involved in balance. God is like a sun around which revolve the planets of a balanced life—family and friends, worship, vocation, hobbies. If we are living in unity with God, the sun, then the different planets move in God’s order and balance around one’s life joined with God. Attention is given to the necessary degree based on the orbit and rhythm of life with God—natural, deliberate, unhurried, effective, joyful.

If, again, we get panicked and try to spin and move things faster, we get attached to one planet and we swing away from God, the sun and ordered center. Then our whole perspective is out of whack because a planet (an aspect of life) has become our sun, our center.

There is a time (and order) for everything under (and around) the sun.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

To Gather Up All Things

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:8b-10).

I can hear Christ say, “Come on, we must be going,” as he “gathers” his “things.” But I don’t think it’s a “we’re outta here!” sort of gathering as much as a “we’re not done” sort of gathering. It’s Christ journeying along the road and taking each outstretched hand to guide it—“gather” it—into his company and his journey.

But it’s so much more, for God’s mysterious will is to “gather up all things in him.” Christ is reaching out to all people and all creation—indeed, “all things…in heaven and on earth.”

We in his company should be gathering as we are gathered, taking hold of outstretched hands, bringing all within our reach into the Father’s mysterious will and good pleasure. His will and pleasure are redemption and forgiveness (v. 7), an inheritance as God’s people marked by the Holy Spirit (11-14), and participation in the church, the body of him who reigns above all and who is the fullness of all in all (22-3). This is an invitation to the profoundest of mysteries and most beautiful of promises.

Yet it’s such a simple image—gathering. This is the Lord of all taking what is rightfully and passionately his, collecting it to his own keeping, holding it to his heart. See him standing before you—before us—outstretched, nail-scarred hands, speaking the loving words of gathering: “Come, children, we must be going. We’re not done yet.”

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