When: 07/14/2019 - 08/25/2019 12:00 am
Where: Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte NCView more details
Tuesday evening, we had a wonderful, moving time thinking together (and singing together!) about prayer. In case you weren’t able to come, you can catch the program on YouTube!
I also will take advantage of the days between now and Thanksgiving to send you a few short emails on the topic of prayer – to help us decipher what prayer isn’t, what prayer could be, how to get it to “work,” and what God actually wants on God’s side of things from prayer.
Enjoy! and grow.
The biggest problem about prayer is quite simply the fact that we don’t get around to it much; we dash off a quick petition to God – who must be pleased by this as much as a parent who never hears from a son away at college until the inevitable text arrives asking for an infusion of cash. But we also labor under some false illusions about prayer when we do pray. So let us clarify:
Prayer is not a machine. Prayer does not “work,” like a coin in a snack machine or slipping a powerful official a favor to get a favor – or a slot machine, with an awareness that some chance is in the mix. Prayer is a relationship, prayer is love – and love isn’t love if it’s only about asking for things. Much of the time we don’t merely pray for; we simply pray.
Prayer is not dependent on numbers. When many pray, God is pleased; but God wouldn’t be God if there is some threshold to be crossed. God hears the prayers of 10,000, but God hears the prayer of the one crying out alone in the dark.
Prayer is not talking God into caring. God already cares, loves, grieves, understands and feels more than we do when we pray, more than someone we might be praying for.
Prayer is not bowing to a chilly fate. “Thy will be done” does not mean God is in control, that some unalterable fate is being played out. God lets us get involved, it’s a real relationship; God prefers love to control, and wants our participation in how things unfold than simply manipulating everything.
Prayer is not manipulative. Sometimes religious leaders ask for prayer as a way to get somebody to give more money, or to behave. But prayer is not a means to some other end. Prayer is the end.
Prayer is not sanctified gossip. “Oh, let’s pray for Jane and John Doe; I heard he had an affair” – and the phones start buzzing. Gossip is gossip even if we paste a prayer on top.
Prayer is not the doctor’s helper. I know many doctors who believe strongly that prayer matters, and so do I; but why should more than 9 out of 10 prayers be about medical issues when we live in the healthiest place on earth and in history? Prayer is about holiness, wisdom, repentance, guidance – really everything God cares about.
Prayer is not proper technique, or a skill you must master. Is an infant “good at” crying out for food? When you hear your mother has died, are you “good at” grieving? Paul spoke of “sighs and groans” (Romans 8:23, 26) – and I suspect God welcomes a stammering cry more readily than slick eloquence.
Prayer is not primarily about me and my wishes. God is obsessed with you and your wishes, but God wants to invite you into a deeper relationship that is obsessed with things and people it would never occur to you to pray about.
Why bother praying? What is the purpose of prayer? Isn’t it to get some help? To help people I know and love to get well again? Isn’t prayer a way to get a grip on things when the world is spinning out of control?
In a way, to ask about the purpose of prayer is like having friends over, or going on a date with your wife, or pushing your children in the swing, and calculating “What is the purpose of this?” I have friends over to… well, to have friends over. I play with my child, not because the swing experience will help her get into Harvard one day; we swing to feel the breeze, to delight in the giggle. I order dessert with my wife, not so she’ll run an errand for me tomorrow, or because I want to jack up my cholesterol, but simply for the delight of the moment.
Prayer is not a means to an end. Prayer is the end. Or perhaps we should say Prayer is the means to the only end that matters, and that is a relationship with God. For centuries, Christians did not primarily think of prayer as a way to keep others healthy; we are the first people in history who have insisted that everything must “work,” or function properly, or achieve something. The saints of old, and even run of the mill Christians from only a few decades back, understood that the only real purpose of prayer is Union with God. Prayer is love, prayer is intimacy with God. I pray because I want to be close to God.
Prayer is union with God. And therefore, prayer is availability. This is the key, and the one we miss all the time. When we pray, as Richard Fragomeni put it, “We vow to surrender ourselves and our own identities to a Christlikeness… to make an unconditional commitment of availability to God and one another.” Is prayer hard? Is there something frustrating and exhausting about your life? Do you struggle to find fulfillment no matter how much you cram in? Does something like “intimacy with God” seem impossible? Could it be you simply aren’t available to God?
What God wants is our availability – and the one thing we’ve made sure we aren’t is “available.” We are quite unavailable – or maybe we are too available. We’ll answer any phone, text, Facebook message; we’ll work longer hours, we’ll sign up for soccer or a tee time; we flit off to dinner and a film, we drive to the mountains, we hurry to our next appointment. And God sighs, and grieves.
Prayer is availability, and we will never “get” prayer until we silence the phone, refuse to get sucked into the vortex of messaging, turn off the TV, and simply say No. If we could be available to God, and for others, imagine how rich, restful and fulfilling prayer might be! Imagine what the Church could actually get done if the Christians made themselves available to God?
What do we pray for? I discover inside my head a little clue even as I type What do we pray for? Some tiny, very proper little English teacher dwells inside me, and she shudders over the dangling preposition: James, you know sentences don’t end with for! Notice what’s nestled inside that little spasm of correctness: a judgmental, elitist spirit, yes – but also a noticeable twinge of guilt. Prayer might begin with a willingness to be attentive to little weirdness in ourselves, and ask God for some help God truly can and will give: mercy on my fears of failure and guilt, humbling for any trace of cocky smugness, and maybe even a determination to do what is right but for the right reasons.
For what do we pray? 🙂 Naturally we pray for our very personal concerns. Nothing is too small, nothing is dull to God. Blurt it out; there’s no use pretending. God knows; God wants to hear. Yes, God knows, and God may want you to grow beyond something petty – but God is like a parent who suspects a child has had a rotten day; God wants to hear all about it, give some hugs, and utter words of tender comfort. We pray what is in the heart.
We even pray our distractions. You probably are like me: my mind wanders when I pray. For years, I felt gloomy and defeated by this – but then read somewhere that, whatever your mind drifts toward when you are praying, that would be precisely what you need to talk with God about. So my focus drifts toward packing for a trip, or that report I’ve got to finish: lay it before God, ask for help, some wisdom in what’s going on, and the weight lightens, and sometimes you wind up not doing what felt urgent enough to jerk you away from your praying!
Tomorrow we will say a little more about what to pray for, and how.
What do we pray for? There’s that nagging for again… God must sigh and wonder, “Don’t they ever just want to be with me, and not always have to be asking for some favor?” I pray, I simply want to be near God – and even to be like God. I pray not for some thing I can grab, or just for some person I care for, but for spiritual goods. I pray for holiness (which I’m not adept at). I pray for wisdom (deeper than merely being smart). I pray for the Church and its mission.
I strive to pray for anything that is of concern to God – and realize that will take a while, and will be difficult. Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, said “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Pray over the morning paper, pray for the poor and hungry. If you hear an unemployment number or about political turmoil, pray. In the Church of England, prayers must be lifted daily for the queen. What if, instead of raging angrily about President Obama or Bush, we simply prayed for our leaders?
Perhaps we become like May, the young woman in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees whose twin sister died. They had been “like one soul sharing two bodies. If April got a toothache, May’s gum would plump up red and swollen.” After April’s death, “it seemed like the world itself became May’s twin sister.” Any word of anyone suffering struck agony into May’s heart. All her family could do was to build a “wailing wall” in the back yard; May would write down the hurts of the world and people she knew on scraps of paper and press them into the wall.
For nearly 2000 years, Christians were sure the primary purpose of prayer was correction. I pray because I have frittered away God-given opportunities, I pray because I tend to be ungrateful, I pray because I think too highly of myself, I pray because I get hooked on the glittery ways of the world, I pray because holiness doesn’t seem to come naturally to me, etc., etc., etc. Prayer is correction: I am not the person God longs for me to be; I suffer a terrible spiritual amnesia; I disappointed God just five minutes ago.
But suddenly, over the past generation, we have shelved this kind of prayer for personal reform. Maybe our culture’s celebration of self-esteem, or of rabid individualism is to blame; or it could be that churches have been manipulative, and have ground people down with guilt. But prayer is, always has been, and always should be about correction – and realizing our need for repair isn’t a negative. The hungry need food; a flat tire needs air; an artery blockage needs surgery. What did Jesus say (with his typical ironic twist)? “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31). We are ailing; we are not holy. Prayer is the way to health and goodness.
So every day we ask God to fix whatever is broken in our souls; we confess our waywardness; we apologize for breaking God’s heart; we plead the words of Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, wash me thoroughly from my sin” – but not just that but also “Create in me a clean heart; put a new spirit within me.” We want to clear the air for what is past, but we also want to be equipped by God to do better tomorrow. Only God’s gift of a corrected heart, and a renewed mind, will begin the process of transforming us into people who think God’s thoughts and act out God’s will.
Modern people are slow to get this, as we’ve been told by society that the only one who can judge me is myself. But God is our judge – and for 2000 years Christians have rightly dreaded but also been happily motivated by the prospect that there will be an accountability. And yet as we think of God as our judge, we need to see his face, and know his heart. “We may not imagine any other judge than the one who is our Savior, who bore our sin” (Hans Urs von Balthasar).
The season of Advent begins next week. Much as we like to make this zone between now and Christmas a frothy time of parties, gifts and revelry, the Church has always staked out Advent as a season of repentance. Do you want Christ to come to you? Then repent, and believe; or as we sing in one of our favorite carols, “Prepare him room.” Get out the broom (or shovel) and get the dirt and clutter out of your spiritual house. Prayer is correction, the kind we seek and receive with the joy of a mother welcoming her newborn into her drastically changed world.
Prayer isn’t only talking. Talkers grow and mature as they learn to be good listeners. Instead of prayer’s posture being “Hear our prayer,” we openly ask, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” – and then we give it more than a few nanoseconds. We wait. We ponder. We realize silence is a great gift. And we keep waiting and listening.
I am someone who has never, ever heard a voice I thought was God’s. There is a lot of racket in my head most of the time… but I do not believe I have ever heard even a whisper directly from God. So why keep listening? Or better: what might we hear other than a thundering voice or a gentle whisper?
Theologians have consistently suggested that we remember Jesus is the Word made flesh, and that the Bible is the Word of God. St. Francis prayed constantly in front of a wooden crucifix, framing his listening by looking into the loving face of Jesus. St. Benedict told his friends to listen to God by reading a story about Jesus, and then pondering what God might be saying. If I read that Jesus was unimpressed by the high and mighty but loved those nobody else wanted, it’s not hard for me to hear God’s voice. If I read that Jesus said not to lay up treasure on earth, I rather clearly hear God asking me why I’m obsessed with my retirement portfolio, or the gadget I’m craving. If I read that Jesus is the bread of life or the living water, the nagging hollowness inside me has just discovered fulfillment.
Prayer is remembering. Gratitude, thanksgiving, is nothing but recollection, recalling the goodness of God. To be grateful in prayer (and in life), I must abandon any sense of earning, achievement, or grasping, and become one who thinks back on the goods and graces God has freely given; I am an open hand, receiving happily the love and small instances of mercy and hope from a generous if invisible Hand.
None of this is easy in our busy, frenetic, high-tech world. I wrote a blog on the spiritual perils of the smart phone: if I am always “reachable,” perhaps then I am never “reachable” by God; meaning is always someplace else, or with somebody else, not where I am but on the other end of the phone; there is no reflection, no depth, no wisdom; and since all knowledge is at our fingertips, as close as a Google search, I don’t have to remember anything.
Prayer is remembering. Prayer is being reachable by God. Prayer is reflection, it runs deep, breaks your heart and yet fills your heart with immense joy. But we have to be still; we have to get away from the crazed pace, and still the clutter in our heads.
We need a picture of Jesus – perhaps on this very computer or smart phone where you are reading right now. The picture at the beginning of this email is of a painting that hangs in my living room, but it also is the wallpaper on my phone, reminding me wherever I am that Jesus is there also.
What we pray for – but not only what we pray for, but how we pray, and the very possibility of being heard, and the chance at union with God: all this is defined by “in Jesus’ name.”
“In Jesus’ name” is not a little formula you must add on at the end to make the prayer work. God doesn’t look down and say “You forgot to say ‘in Jesus’ name,’ so… your prayer is not accepted!” But it is the most wonderful reminder to us of what the whole enterprise of prayer is about, so much so that we might be wise to begin the prayer by saying “In Jesus’ name.”
Let us think about Jesus. He prayed – and evidently his intimacy with God was so alluring that his friends wanted in on it; they said, “Lord, teach us to pray” (11:1) – and he certainly didn’t unveil the mechanics of how to make your prayers “work.” The Lord’s prayer is a brief, eloquent example of what a holy conversation with God might look like.
Jesus must have had a long to-do list – but we read regularly that “Jesus went off to a quiet place to pray” (Mark 1:35), and “Jesus went up on a mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:23). Jesus didn’t stick praying in somewhere to his important things to do; prayer was the important thing, and his work, rest and play flowed from the praying.
Hebrews 4:14-16 portrays Jesus as our “high priest.” The priest, a mere human being, ushered the rest of the people into the presence of God; the priest (in Latin) is pontifex, a “bridge-builder.” We pray in Jesus’ name because Jesus is the bridge between human life and God. Jesus is God come down to us, and God gone back up to God; clinging close to him, never doing anything (especially praying!) apart from him is wisdom.
John 1:1-14 ponders the truth that Jesus is the Word of God. Prayer isn’t me doing all the talking; prayer begins, proceeds and ends with God speaking to us – and if we think God cannot be heard, we simply open the Bible and listen to him talk to us through the words of Jesus, and his behavior, action, love, compassion.
Tomorrow (if you’ll be patient and keep reading) we will say more about prayer in Jesus’ name.
Almost every time I pray in public (at a Panthers’ game, a citywide event, or at a university), somebody dings me for failing to pray in Jesus’ name. But many are there who pray but don’t love or believe in Jesus; God hears their prayers too.
Yesterday we began to think about Jesus and the way to pray, the very gift that prayer is. Today let us add that there may be a kind of beginner’s prayer that simply blurts out whatever is wished for – which is also similar to the poignant prayer that cries out in a crisis. God welcomes these tender pleas.
But there is a maturity in prayer, and its measure isn’t skill in praying, but an attentiveness to Jesus. We want to be close to the heart of God, and as we contemplate Jesus we pray not just what is on our hearts but what is on God’s heart, and we become more like Jesus – which is the goal of prayer in the first place!
What was Jesus about? We could study the prayer he taught (click here for my old email series on it!). We can read his story: Jesus relentlessly gravitated toward the people nobody else cared about, so perhaps our prayers do as well. Jesus told employed fishermen to put down their nets and follow, so perhaps our prayers are no-holds-barred offers of time, talent, resources and service to God. Jesus was unimpressed by wealth and standing, so perhaps our prayers are ultra-egalitarian. Jesus told a story about a smug one who thanked God he was not like others – but preferred the humble sinner who bowed his head and pleaded for mercy, so perhaps our prayer is a frank admission of how unlike Jesus we are, and so we cast ourselves on his mercy and ask for better hearts.
Jesus healed, but he didn’t heal everybody, and (as I pointed out in this YouTube on Jesus’ miracles you might watch) when Jesus healed, he didn’t heal so the person would feel better. He healed and then attached a sermon; the healing was a means to some other end – so if there is a healing, we don’t rush away from him to relish restored health, but we ask “How does God then want to us me in some radically fresh way?”
And if we pray in Jesus’ name, we can deal with hollowness and darkness, dryness and exasperation in prayer; we discover that God’s absence is part of prayer – something we never get if we don’t pray with, for, and alongside Jesus, as we will see on Monday.
The season of Advent is upon us. Interestingly, even when we “remember the reason for the season,” we twist it a bit. It isn’t that “it’s Jesus’ birthday” precisely – although I am fond of Mike Slaughter’s program called Christmas Is Not Your Birthday. We treat Christmas as if we all have December 25 birthdays, with snazzy presents to exchange, cakes and goodies. If it’s anybody’s birthday, it is Jesus’ – and that might change not merely to whom we give things, but how we pray.
Through history, Advent has been considered a penitential season, a time of repentance. Last thing we focus on in December is the reform of our lifestyle, or sorrow over our waywardness. And yet, Advent is about God showing up; and for us to cease and desist from our headlong flight away from God, we have to stop, turn around, change our minds, be regretful, and seek a new life.
The primal aspect of this turning, the very possibility of a new life, is at the heart of what prayer must be for it to be anything at all: availability. Prayer is availability – to God, and to the people God wants me to reach. If prayer is hard, or awkward, or numbing, it most likely is because we’re full, we are jammed up calendar-wise, not at all available. We want to squeeze God into our existing, frenetic rush – but God is looking for some availability. With technology, we can be so available that we are never available to God!
On Christmas Eve we will sing “Let every heart prepare him room.” That is, let us create some availability for God, some time, some openness, a willingness, a readiness to drop other things, even if they seem nice or fun. God wants to show up at your address, in your life, this Advent. It’s really a matter of prayer – prayer as availability to God.
Anyone who has done any praying knows dark stretches when God seems painfully distant, or just not there at all. If we pray in Jesus’ name, we are surprised by some surprising comfort: God’s absence is part of prayer, and we know this because of Jesus’ very last prayer. Gasping for a final breath, Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Feelings of Godforsakenness must be a part of prayer. There is no pressure to make constant, easy, flowing contact with God. All the great saints, and Jesus himself, suffered bouts of nothingness, feeling cut off, or unheard. If you want to reflect on “unanswered prayer,” try Jesus’ plea in Gethsemane: “Let this cup pass from me.” Imagine Jesus’ mother, unsure whether to look or not as her son died so gruesomely, hearing him pray the words to the Psalm she had taught him when he was a little boy: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). Did she understand that, unwittingly, she had taught him how to pray when God seemed utterly remote?
God’s relationship with us obviously isn’t in your face, swiftly responsive to whatever we wish. If we pray, moments come when we shiver, or doubt, or suspect there’s no point, or that we’ve been cruelly abandoned. God leaves us space down here, perhaps so we will grow, or persist, or know Jesus’ own struggles.
A few years ago I read a suggestion that Thomas Merton made – that coldness in prayer might be an unconscious defense against the grace of God. Coldness might be our unfamiliarity with praying, the fact that our prayers are last resort, 9-1-1 appeals, and we frankly haven’t cultivated a robust sense of conversation with God.
Hans Urs von Balthasar wonders if a sense of dryness in prayer “may be willed by the Lord to see whether we will make the effort to penetrate into his depths”; or it may be that aridity in prayer teaches us that we cannot force a relationship with or an answer from God by our own efforts.
I still love the comfort Oscar Romero offered us: “God is not failing us when we don’t feel his presence. God exists, and he exists even more, the farther you feel from him. When you feel the anguished desire for God to come near because you don’t feel him present, then God is very close to your anguish. When are we going to understand that God not only gives happiness, but also tests our faithfulness in moments of affliction? It is then that prayer and religion have most merit: when one is faithful in spite of not feeling the Lord’s presence. Let us learn from that cry of Christ that God is always our Father and never forsakes us, and that we are closer to him than we think.”
This is especially important to declare during this “season to be jolly,” as for so many people the round of parties and froth cannot dispel the sadness and grief, which are not better but more acute during Christmas. Jesus came to be with us, to share our hurts; and during this time God became utterly human, we realize God really is closer to us than we think.
As I began to prepare for this series on prayer, I invited questions; and one of the most common was “How can I be more effective at prayer?” – sometimes coupled with the sad admission, “I’m just no good at praying.”
We’ve spent the past three weeks exploring prayer, how to pray, why to pray, the importance of things like silence, or “in Jesus’ name” – and yet at the end of the day, prayer is an earnest desire for God, a blurting out of what I need, wish for, desperately require, or must get off my chest. To say “I am not skilled at prayer” may be like saying an infant is no good at crying. The child simply cries, the parent simply cares, and there is love.
In a way, fretting over our “effectiveness” in prayer might imply we are still stuck on the narrow question of whether prayer “works” or not – or even our society’s built-in pressure to be sure we use time efficiently and productively. Prayer may produce many lovely things, but prayer is also a waste of time – the way lovers waste time gazing at one another or simply recalling the lovely afternoon they just enjoyed. Time flies, and you don’t mind.
We strive to grow in our praying, our listening, our “availability” to God, hoping our praying becomes an echo of who Jesus was and is and could be as we follow him more closely – but we need always to consider the marvelous thought Paul shared: “We groan inwardly… The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:23, 26). Paul, the greatest of the Apostles, did not know how to pray. Much prayer is sighs and groans. Even when we struggle and cannot figure out what at all to pray, or even when we are numb or so rattled we can’t think to pray, God’s Spirit prays with sighs that echo our own.
Wow. Maybe we really can trust God more than we’d imagined. Maybe we can relax in our praying. Frederick Buechner once wrote that “everybody prays whether he thinks of it as praying or not. The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or bad. The ah-h-h! that sometimes floats up out of you, the stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain, the stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy. Whatever words or sounds you use for sighing with over your own life. These are all prayers in their way. These are spoken not just to yourself but to something more familiar than yourself…”
God hears. God knows. Prayer is “effective,” but not because we are good at it; rather, it is because God is good at the love.
We may have heard or even believe some pithy thoughts about prayer, like Prayer changes things, or Prayer works, or God answers prayer. But there is another kind of prayer that is simply the sharing of sorrow, the expression of grief, the pouring out of loss before the God who listens, and cares.
If our goal is Bob Pierce’s – to let our hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of God – then our praying might help or fix or set in motion a revolution regarding a few things. But the brokenness of the world will remain – as will the brokenness in our lives. Not all sorrows are to be repaired, or even cheered up. A parent who suffers the death of a child: is God’s job to put a smile on the parent’s face? Or to weep alongside the aching one in the dark? Much prayer is finding the way to God’s lap, burying your head in God’s holy, tender shoulder, and just letting the tears flow.
I mention this now because Christmas is an exceedingly painful time for so many of us – even people we cavort with at a party, and the stiff upper lip, the pasted on smile, might work for the duration of the punch and cookie affair. But later, in the dark, the pain brings a shiver – perhaps never more acutely than during these darkest, longest days of the year, when frivolity seems to abound. Maybe this is why Jesus came – as I suggest in a column I published in The Charlotte Observer very many years ago now, but still might offer some solidarity and solace: click here to read, and feel free to share.
Someone kindly asked me the other day to autograph this new book I have out now about preaching (The Beauty of the Word) – intending to give it to her pastor as a Christmas gift. Great idea! 🙂 …. but let me venture toward a couple of pertinent ideas in the book.
Sermons are not typed, or handwritten, but are something spoken, out loud – and so I suggest preachers begin not by writing sermons but by talking them, orally. Prayers, perhaps, might begin out loud. Somebody decades ago got the idea that we pray in an interior, silent way, thoughts rumbling in our heads without the lips moving; but for centuries, prayers – all prayers! – could be heard, were voiced, some decibels produced. When Jesus prayed, people heard his voice.
Preaching is about a Christian finding the language to say something about God – and even to God. Prayer is finding the language to speak with God. And the words really matter. Sometimes you hear about a parent who has died – and the surviving children say “I’m sure he loved me, although he never said so.” Actions of love are essential, and hollow words are cruel. But we need not just action but words. God didn’t just do things (like creating the world, making the crops grow, giving us breath), but God also spoke, and speaks; verbalizing is obviously important to God. If someone shows us love, we are grateful – but don’t we long for the words? God wants our devotion, service, and even holy behavior – but God also wants words, and not just words of requesting this or that, but words of love, of appreciation, of gratitude and wonder.
In my book I also suggest that we not shrink sermons down to topics that are small and trivial. The preacher should talk about what is large, enormously important – like God, or the revolution that Jesus was about, or that ultimate dawning of God’s eternal kingdom that will brook no rivals and allow no tears.
I also suggest that sermons are not just about the individual person hearing the sermon; sermons are directed to the Body of Christ, the Church, the people of God as a community. I am positive this is crucial for prayer. In prayer we stretch out to wrap out minds around what is huge, God’s universal activity and immense heart. And, we pray not merely for me and my issues, but for the larger people of God, the destiny of God’s Church, the community of the beloved we may not even be personally acquainted with – yet we know of God’s intense affection for them. And so we pray about quite large things, and to find our place in the Body of Christ, the movement that extends beyond me and my spirituality, and even my lifetime.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, and the celebrations, like the one involving the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury in Westminster Abbey, seem eager to make grand declarations about the translation’s profound impact on the development of the English language, and the Bible’s deep influence on the world. I suppose I am one who frets over what seems to me to be the demise of the Bible in society, that we may be familiar with little words, phrases, images or characters, but the rich texture of the biblical narrative, and the immense reach into the heart of God and the cunning delving into human life that the Bible offers is increasingly ignored.
Think about the Christmas story and the King James Version. We have countless modern translations, and many readers complain they can’t make sense of 17th century English. But at Christmas we resonate to the staid yet pulsating words that have been read aloud for centuries now: “There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus… And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field… and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid…” Prayer is perhaps at best an echo of such words we have heard and treasured about God’s coming to us.
Without the Scriptures, in whatever translation, prayer is constricted; we need to learn the lingo and grammar of the Word of God to us so we will then understand how to speaks words to God. And what about elevated language in prayer? In my devotional book, 40 Treasured Bible Verses, I thought about why we prefer the King James of Psalm 23, especially “For thou art with me” (instead of “For You are with me”): “The vast majority of the time we prefer modern translations of the Bible – but Christians cling to a 400 year old translation of Psalm 23. But why? Could it be that elevated language, words with some lineage and dignity, are appropriate to the grandeur, the majesty, the immeasurable grace of God who is indeed our shepherd?”
So it may be sigh and groans, nothing but stammering – but we might also reach for our best eloquence, offering to God the finest words we can muster, stretching our minds and verbal dexterity, reserving our most excellent speech for saying something to God.
I love the moment in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany when the congregation is singing “We Three Kings,” and they come to the phrase, “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying” – which prompts Owen to grumble, “Doesn’t sound very Christmasy to me.”
The least Christmasy character in the Bible stories of the birth of Jesus? Could be the cruel, paranoid King Herod – but I’d vote for John the Baptist. The Gospels don’t seem to be able to speak of the birth of Jesus, or his ministry, healing or teaching, without talking first about John the Baptist, who’s hairy, loud, bellowing and bellicose, a survivalist out in the wild, unkempt and unconcerned about it.
His preaching’s focus can be our prayer for December – and the rest of our lives: Repent! John would have hollered “Repent!” in Aramaic, and the verb he would have used means, quite simply, to make a 180° change, a literal U-turn. John doesn’t say “Be 7% nicer,” or “Give 4% more money,” or even “Feel some dark guilt.” Instead, he says “However well-intentioned you might be, you are going in the wrong direction” – and he says this to people who are quite religious, not swindlers or deviants. He says this, across the ages, to us. Repent, while you still have time to turn it all around.
The Gospels report his preaching in Greek – and their word for repentance, metanoia, means “a change of mind.” Think differently! View the world differently! Toss your old biases and pet perspectives; shed your self-indulgent viewpoints and judgmental attitudes toward what scares or differs from you. See what God sees; have Christ’s mind, and senses. Repent.
The world may advise you to live it up during December, and if you overdo things, go on a diet in January, or go to your therapist to figure out why your misery kept lurking just beneath the surface. But John the Baptist invites us, with scathing urgency, to turn to God today, to get still, assess, and construct a radically different life, one of feeling what God feels and acting on what God wants, with some renunciation, some sorrowing over our old, wayward life, perhaps with a sigh of two and we exhale in exhaustion, blowing out the stale air of our old life, and then breathing in the fresh air of life up close to Jesus, and to his mother, whose prayer we will consider on Monday.
Once upon a time, something true happened: in a backwater village where nobody mattered much, a teenage girl, with as bright a future as an impoverished nobody could have in those days, heard a voice, not from her mother or a neighbor, but from… was it an angel? What did she see? or smell? What did the voice sound like? If an angel shows up and says something, you don’t have enough experience with something so mind-boggling to make any kind of calm assessment of things.
This angel didn’t pledge to be a protective angel, to smooth out her difficulties, or bless her with wealth or long life. What the angel unveiled was devastatingly disruptive: You are with child, long before you dreamed of being ready, and not just any child, but one with a destiny that will be great but downright perilous. Your parents, your fiancée, your gossipy neighbors will surely think the worst, and you will be shamed.
This encounter is the epitome of what Elie Wiesel humorously suggested: “If an angel says ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.” What bigger assignment could there be than bearing, in your own body, the very life of God? Mary was special, to say the least – and yet she’s like the rest of us nobodies and somebodies: God wants to become flesh, to take on reality, in us, and it will be incredibly difficult, daunting, out of the box, incomprehensible – and wonderful.
Her response echoes across the centuries, and would actually make a stellar daily, or hourly, or constant prayer for us: to whatever God was asking, whether she felt ready or not, capable or not, whether she even understood it fully or not, she replied, “Let it be to me according to Your word.” Let it be: not c’est la vie, but Let it be, let it happen, I won’t get in the way, I will embrace my calling, I will live into my destiny, I do not know how it will turn out but I will follow because it is You, O Lord, who is doing the asking. I am available – to God, and to anyone God for whom God asks me to make room.
Can we pray this, together, right now? And maybe again in a little while, before setting out each morning, before walking into a meeting or sitting down for lunch, when you feel weary or under stress, when deciding some little thing or some huge thing, when hurting or giddy? Let it be to me according to Your word.
I wish we knew more about Joseph. Theological purists shove him aside, adamant that Jesus’ “real” father was God – but Joseph probably saw Jesus before Mary did, heard the crying, watched him grow. Joseph was the man Jesus knew best; they ate, rested, and even worked together. I imagine Jesus being at the bedside when Joseph breathed his last; I am moved to contemplate Jesus and Mary comforting one another.
We know nothing about Joseph’s faith – but he must have had a rich store of it. Engaged to be married, his modest but hopeful life in front of him, he hears shattering news of a pregnancy we might take for granted as divine – but in those days, before the Bible, before pageants, in a tiny hick town? Yet Joseph shows mercy – and is attentive to a dream in the middle of the night suggesting he hang in there and be the husband and father anyhow (Matthew 1:20).
His legacy? We see him on many greeting cards, and in all the Christmas pageants. No acting ability is required. He just stands sheepishly to the side, holding the reins of the donkey, gazing. Not a man about town, not a shrewd businessman about to dash off to make a deal, not even a player in his own drama.
But he was near Jesus. He is always gazing, watching, knowing, admiring. He did as the Lord commanded. He stuck with what he was stuck with: he was committed. For Joseph, proximity was everything. He saw the miracle, and lived his unspectacular life very near Jesus. He loved Jesus, probably more than anyone except Mary herself.
Perhaps his constant wish could be our constant prayer: Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray – or Let me be near you, Lord Jesus, or even some echo of what Thomas Merton prayed: “Let this be my one consolation – that wherever I am, You my Lord are loved.”
No sooner is Jesus born than the jokes begin – God’s humor at our expense, or for our enlightenment, I should say. Herod’s scholars, masters of Scripture, quite devout, totally missed the coming of the Messiah, God’s son, just a couple of miles from their studies – but astrologers (and foreign astrologers at that!) found their way across vast stretches of wilderness to worship at his birth. Our piety tends to be a bit laughable, as sometimes (even when we pray!) we so easily miss the wonder God perches right under our noses, while outsiders, the questioners, the beleaguered, the unlikely, see and understand. God is determined to be found, and what is required on our side is simply openness, a slack-jawed wonder that never stops inquiring, never thinks things are already figured out, and is willing to make a difficult trek. The prayer of the magi was simply to look, to be astonished, and to follow up on any and all leads.
The megalomaniac Herod was paranoid – so any hint of a rival for his throne would arouse his violent fury. For the magi to suggest Jesus is king was a subversive declaration that Herod wasn’t – just as when the first Christians sang Christ is Lord, the politicians had to clamp down on the obvious corollary that Caesar isn’t Lord.
But what a curious, unconventional, even hilarious kingship was Jesus’? His court was a band of poor fishermen, his regalia a cross, his rule not iron-fisted force but tender love. He washed feet, and gave up his life instead of killing. He asks for prayer, which isn’t a machine to get God to do our bidding, but the possibility of union with this king.
You wouldn’t need to be warned in a dream not to revisit nasty king Herod! But God lovingly warns them, and “they departed by another way” (Matthew 2:12) – which may mean nothing more than they looked on the map and took an alternate route. But don’t you wonder if Matthew is teasing us a bit, unveiling the wonderful truth that once you’ve met Jesus, nothing is ever the same. You don’t plod along the same old path. You find yourself going “another way.” Prayer does change things! Prayer changes where I’m headed.
T.S. Eliot ended his long poem about the magi, imagining their thoughts: “We returned to our places… but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” Jesus does not make my life more comfortable; Jesus doesn’t help me fit in and succeed. Someone said “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” We are no longer at ease in a world not committed to Jesus; we notice false gods all around. Nothing is the same; nothing comes easy. A strange, unfamiliar road is now our path – but the road is going somewhere.
We feel loss acutely during Christmas – and sometimes you hear about people hanging on to get through Christmas and then dying. I don’t know if the statistics back that up or not – but we don’t need a statistic to tell us that we Americans are not fond of death: talking about it, watching it, doing it, thinking of its possibility, its inevitability. The Denial of Death won a Pulitzer Prize, and captured in its title what we do every waking hour – if we can.
Paul once wrote that it didn’t really matter to him if he lived or died, although he might prefer death (Philippians 1:21) – and yet, while Christianity knows how to cope with death and to throw open a window into the wonder of life after death, it is not the case that we don’t therefore fight back against death. It is a celebration of the goodness of the life God has created when we wage a defiant battle against death. Our faith does not require us to submit meekly to our end; Dylan Thomas’s counsel is in sync with a holy posture for the dying: “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” We can rage, we fight to live, not in desperation or fear but because life is so good; God made it even better than we realize.
But it is a “good night.” The light isn’t dying, after all. Simeon, extremely old, especially in Bible times, saw the infant Jesus, and uttered a little prayer: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace – for I have seen the salvation you prepared” (Luke 2:29). He didn’t jump off a tall tower – but he was ready, peaceful about the possibility of life’s end, and all because he had seen Christ.
God’s greatest gift to us might just be time. What is our time for? Another year is drawing to a close; a new year is about to dawn. What has happened to the time? and what will happen? Has our time been full? Is it rushing by? What’s the point? God gives us time, not to cram it with busy diversions or to pile up this or that. God gives us time so we might know God, and serve God.
How long is enough? The length of time matters not so much as whether the truly important moments come or not. However long you have lived (so far), have you met up with Christ? Is the fulfillment of your time defined by seeing the salvation God has prepared? If so, there is a peace, a tranquil calm, no denials, no disregard for the loveliness of this life, but also no final terror over what is to come. Advent and Christmas are about the coming of Christ, and thus about our being able to pray with Simeon, and a holy host of God’s people, that he is enough, that the time is all good because of the goodness of the Christ we have the privilege of meeting in the time we have.
In 2012, if you don’t do anything else all year, even if everything else flops, be sure you meet Jesus, that you see the salvation God has prepared, and that you come to some peace.
JamesSee All Pastoral Series
When: 07/14/2019 - 08/25/2019 12:00 am
Where: Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte NCView more details
When: 08/01/2019 - 09/09/2019 All Day
Where: Myers Park UMC, CharlotteView more details
When: 08/01/2019 - 09/20/2019 All Day
Where: Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte NCView more details
When: 08/01/2019 - 09/20/2019 All Day
Where: Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte NCView more details