Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Answers to Prayer

As mentioned in previous articles, much of my personal focus in prayer is about deepening my relationship with God.  I wish to cultivate an attitude of prayer that sustains me throughout the day, whether I am preaching or doing chores or sitting in an intentional time of prayer.  I don’t spend as much time as I used to asking for God’s action or attention.  I spend most of the time seeking to sit in that loving presence.

                Yet there are a number of different traditions around prayer that do involve seeking answers to problems and concerns.  People might think of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. ”(Matthew 7:7-8)  Another example is Abraham arguing with God about the demise of Sodom in Genesis 18.  Abraham questions God about the justice of destroying the good along with the evil in wiping out the whole city.  He gets God to agree to spare the city for the sake of fifty righteous people and eventually talks God down to ten.

                What, then, should be our expectations of the power of prayer?  Here I think we enter the realm of the anecdote.  I have heard stories of people who have seen God’s intervention in response to their prayer or the prayers of others.  I have heard stories of people who struggle when it seems that the answer to their prayer is, “No,” or “Not yet.”  There does not seem to be a definite rule where the answer to prayer comes as the one praying expects.

                Prayer should not be a matter of sending our wish list to God, assuming that we have some sort of power over God.  While Jesus does say, “Ask and it will be given to you,” he also seems to indicate in the Lord’s Prayer that a deeper faith might limit the things that we are asking for.  In Lord’s Prayer we don’t pray for healing or better relationships or world peace.  We pray that God’s will be done.  We pray for bread for the day (to have enough, not more than enough).  We pray for forgiveness and the avoidance of temptation.

                I would suggest that the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ other teaching on prayer are about challenging us to become God’s intervention in the world.  We pray for world peace so that we might be people who seek peace in the world.  We pray for an end to hunger so that we might work God’s will and share so that none would be hungry.  We pray for healing and reconciliation so that we might be a source of healing and reconciliation for the world.

                I do not write this to take away anyone’s hope in the miraculous.  However, it has been my experience that often the miraculous involves the miracle of other people open to being part of God’s miracle.  When we embrace our part in God’s will and our role in God’s kingdom, miracles happen.  The hungry are fed; the sick are healed; the poor receive good news. 

                In prayer God changes the world by changing who we are.  Every encounter with the love of God has an effect and we are not the same people as before.  Prayer helps us grow into our role as the children of God; as saints of God.  Prayer takes us into the depths of God’s love and sends us as God’s good news for the world.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - The Need to Pray

There was time when I wondered about the need to pray.  As I thought about the nature of God, prayer, as I understood it, seemed a superfluous.  If God knows everything about me, then God already knows my needs and concerns.  God knows about the people I am praying for at a much deeper level than I ever will.  Why not just trust God to handle the world as God sees fit rather than bothering God with information that God already knows.

                Some will argue that it is a matter of obedience.  We may not know why we pray but we certainly know that Jesus was an example of prayer.  In Matthew, he does not teach the Lord’s Prayer with an “if you pray” but “pray then this way…”  Jesus calls us to prayer.  The Psalms call us to prayer.  Paul calls us to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  Prayer can be listed as one of those activities of discipleship that Christians are just supposed to do.

                Some might argue that it is a matter affecting the will of God.  In my last article I talked about folks who attach power to the number of people who are praying for God’s intervention or the intensity of those prayers.  In the book of James, the author writes, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up…The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”(James  5: 15, 17)  For me personally, this can fall into somewhat magical thinking, seeking God to change the laws of matter and physics, almost treating God as a genie granting wishes.  At the same time, there is a long tradition of valuing intercessory prayer.

                In my own understanding of prayer, I would say that we need to pray more than God needs our prayers.  One purpose of prayer is to come into acceptance of the will of God.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God’s kingdom/reign would come and God’s will be done.  In this most basic form of prayer, we are not praying to change the will of God but to accept the will of God and become part of that will, participating in God’s reign.  In essence, we are praying that we might be part of the answer to our own prayer.  As Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechism, “In fact, God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and among us.”

                A second purpose for prayer is taking the time to encounter God’s presence.  In the contemplative view, we are never far from the love of God; God’s grace is constantly with us; peace is always near.  Yet we go about our lives distracted, always seeking that which we cannot quite find and thinking the next shiny object will make us whole and satisfied.  Prayer provides us with an opportunity to realize that we are already whole and complete in the love of God.  It is the celebration of the way things already are.  God already loves you.  Salvation has already happened.  Everything necessary has already been accomplished so that you can be acceptable to God.  This is the essence of the good news that is the story of Jesus.

                We need to pray because we are distracted and because there are many conflicting message in the world, voices that say we are not good enough or healthy enough or smart enough.  In prayer we turn down the volume of the voices around us, even the voice of our own self-doubt, and listen for the constant whisper of a loving God.  This kind of prayer is God’s gift to us.  It asks for nothing but our attention.   It reminds us only of what we already have:  God’s love, God’s promise and God’s peace.

                A helpful way to carry out this kind of prayer is through the use of a version of what is known as the Jesus Prayer.  Commit to sitting still for five to ten minutes.  Sit comfortably away from any distractions like televisions, computers or phones.  Each time you breath in, say in your head, “Lord Jesus Christ.”  As you breath out, say, “have mercy on me.”  As with any contemplative practice, you will have thoughts roaming around your mind.  Acknowledge them and then turn back toward the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”  As being still becomes more comfortable, you might try extending this time to twenty minutes.  It is a beautiful way of prayer to begin or end (or both) your day.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - The Attitude of Prayer

When I was a child, I was taught that prayer equaled words.  Specifically, I was taught official words of prayer: the Lord’s prayer, prayers at bedtime, prayers at mealtime.  As I grew older, I learned a couple of psalms, especially Psalm 23 and 121.  These were psalms of comfort and assurance, words that were and still are often helpful when other words fail.

                As helpful as these collections of words can be, they can also be limiting.  When prayer is taught as verbiage, there can be great discomfort in straying from the prescribed words.  Pity the council member who forgets that he or she has devotions and now feels obligated to make up a prayer on the spot.  Will the words be right?  Will they be holy and proper?  Am I worthy to do so without an advanced degree or letter of ordination?

                As a student of prayer I have come to find that, first and foremost, prayer is an attitude.  I often describe prayer as the simple act of paying attention to God.  The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing used the image of prayer as an arrow seeking to pierce the mystery, if only briefly, that separates God from the one who is praying.  Others have described prayer as gazing back lovingly at the loving gaze of Jesus.   Prayer becomes much more about focus and intent than finding proper words. 

                Various schools of prayer have encouraged as few words as possible, using a repeated phrase as a means to focus.  The author of The Cloud suggested simply, “God” or “love,” ideally something with one syllable.  There is a long and ancient tradition of focusing on the name of Jesus or, in the Eastern Church, what has become known as the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”   A longer version reads, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

                This line of thinking also gets into some differing ideas about the purpose of prayer.  For some, prayer is primarily about making things happen.  You may hear people talking about the number of people who are praying for something or the intensity at which they are praying for something to stop or something to happen.  In this type of prayer, we are often praying for things that haven’t happened yet but we wish could.

                The more ancient tradition of prayer is about connecting to God as God already is, accepting the world and our situation as it already is.  We don’t need to pray for God’s love to come into our lives.  When we pay attention, we will discover that it is already there.  We don’t need to pray for God’s attention, but instead need to practice turning our attention toward God who is always lovingly aware of us.

                This understanding is not meant to discourage you from praying for other people or being moved to prayer in reaction to tragedy.  Such intercessory prayer has a long tradition in the Christian faith.  Instead, I would encourage you to consider how and why you are praying for other people.   Are you looking to make God change the world?  Are you looking to bring God’s love into a difficult situation?  Are you looking to be empowered to be God’s answer to your own prayer?

                For this article I would ask, are the many words we pray allowing God to encounter us in prayer?  When you pray, take the time to focus on the God to whom you praying.  Offer God the space to speak to you so that you might listen.  Allow a sacred moment where you dwell in the love of God that is already around you.  Pray the prayers you learned as a child.  Pray a psalm or two.  Pray for others.  But always take time to be still; always take time to listen.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Worship Together and Worship Alone

Most of the time when we are talking about worship in the church, we are talking about communal worship, especially the gathering on Sunday morning.  In my Lutheran tradition this gathering will be a service that includes scripture, song, preaching (or some form of interpretation of the Word) and Holy Communion.  This is a pattern of worship around which people have gathered for centuries.

                There are many other forms of communal worship, some more focused on preaching, some more focused on silence, some more focused on prayer.  Whatever the format of group worship, there is something different about worshiping in a group than worshiping alone.  There is something important about gathering together and turning as a body to pay attention to God, pray to God and praise God.  Over the years, I have had many people tell that they don’t need to go to church because they can worship God on their own.  I am sometimes skeptical that this individual worship life is actually happening, but more than that, I am sad because they are missing the gift that is worship in community.

                As a pastor, one of the greatest gifts I receive is the opportunity to serve communion to the community; to place bread that is Jesus in outstretched hands; to say to each person, “The body of Christ, given for you.”  I get to bless each individual in that gathering.  It is a powerful moment of individual connection that happens in the context of the community.  In the background there is the motion of people coming forward or going back to their seats.  Some sit in silent prayer as they wait to come forward or reflect on what happened.  Some support the moment with song.  Then we stand together for the final words of blessing, “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen you and keep you in his grace.”

                To say that communal worship is different is not to say that individual worship is wrong or unimportant.  There is nothing wrong with encountering God in nature and being moved to praise.  The next time you go to watch a sunset or stargaze, take a copy of Psalm 19 and read it out loud, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims its maker’s handiwork.”  Try different physical positions of prayer.  Stand up and say the Lord’s Prayer with your arms to the side and palms up in the ancient orans position.  If you have a yoga mat (and some flexibility) try praying in a kneeling position of supplication.  If you have a favorite hymn, sing it as you go for a walk.  Simply to walk and observe all the little things that are happening around you is a brilliant form of worship.  All of these practices can help draw the worshiper closer to the presence of God.

                Both communal worship and personal worship deepen your relationship with God.  Any time that you allow yourself to be open and honest before God; any time you are moved to praise in awe and wonder; any time you pay attention to the story of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, you are at worship and you are participating in the depth that is God at work.  Such encounters should not be relegated to single hour on Sunday morning.  At the same time, in a culture that celebrates individuality, we need the gift of community, being together in worship, reminded that all are welcome and all are equal in the eyes of God.  May all your worship strengthen your faith and deepen your life.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Worship as a Centering Moment

Those who know me know that I have found great comfort and depth in silent contemplation as a way of worship.  In addition to daily times of meditation, I also try to take part in meditation with a local Soto Zen Buddhist community.  In Zen practice, the focus is about learning to be present right here and now.  We learn to sit silently and observe what is happening in our own minds without getting swept away, pulled down the current of consciousness by an especially important or interesting or disturbing thought.  Instead we watch the important thought arise and subside, always followed by another thought and another.  Unlike what I understood about meditation before practicing, Zen meditation is not the practice of clearing the mind, but observing and recognizing that you are not your thoughts, that your thoughts are one of many things that are arising in this present moment.

                My understanding of Christian worship and theology has been affected by my experience of contemplation and meditation.  In contemplative Christianity, the point of prayer is to step outside of day to day reality and recognize the abiding presence of God that is constant, that supports and surrounds your day to day life.  As we wait in silence, we become aware that the search for God need not take us far, for God is immediately with us.  The distractions of the day, the important thoughts and tasks and errands, keep us from full awareness of that divine presence.  The more we spend time intentionally slowing things down and paying attention, the easier it becomes over time to rediscover and connect to our God who is always near.

                Part of Jesus’ ministry and his many calls to “Keep awake!” is pointing to God.  He points to lilies in the field and birds of the air and says, “God is there.”  He points to himself and says, “God is here.”  He points to the cross and says, “God is here.”  He point to the church, alive in the Holy Spirit, and says, “God is there.”

                Our worship is an opportunity to pay attention to God.  God doesn’t need our praise and will continue to be great if another “Alleluia!” is never spoken.  God doesn’t need our offerings, as God is already infinite, already owning what we are offering.  God doesn’t need our prayers, as God already knows the depths of our hearts and minds.  We praise, we make offerings and we pray as ways to turn ourselves toward God, to reconnect to God’s divine and loving presence.

                Worship is a moment to center ourselves.  If life is a stream flowing around us, sometimes raging around us, God is the solid bottom of that stream.  God is the place where we can stand even when raging waters threaten to pull us away.  Worship is a time to center ourselves on that solid ground, to plant our feet, to put our weight over our heels and settle into that solid ground. 
                Then we will go out and the waters of life will continue to flow by, sometime babbling sweetly; sometimes roaring dangerously; sometimes strong enough to knock us off balance.  And again we can turn toward God in prayer and turn toward God in worship and rediscover the solid place to stand.  When we worship we can be centered on God who gives us the stability and strength to continue.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - Worship as Protest

                In 1999, the Christian theologian and author, Marva Dawn published a book entitled A Royal Waste of Time.  It was book that looked at emerging trends in worship as well as providing social commentary on worship and the Church.  Her title came from a common critique of worship given by folks who are not part of worshiping communities.  Worship is a waste of time.  Microsoft founder Bill Gates once said, Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.

                Dawn’s response was not to argue.  To the rest of the world, worship is a waste of time.  We gather together and accomplish nothing much.  Yet by adding the adjective, “royal” she was pointing out that worship is a different kind of losing time than watching funny YouTube videos.  From a Christian perspective we are not losing time so much as offering it back to God.  God has given us every second, every breath, and we choose to gather together to offer some of those seconds and breaths back to God in love, in hope and in celebration.

                Building on ideas previously written about the nature of Sabbath practice, we do not worship because it gets something done, but because, like God, it is good and beautiful.  In worship, we intentionally center ourselves in the divine, taking time to notice the One whose presence is constant and whose love is eternal. 

                In this way, worship becomes a form of protest.  As we go about our regular days, we receive messages that tell of our inadequacies, that our bodies are too flabby, that our teeth are too yellow, that our lives are not enough.  We hear messages of the need for productivity and making things happen.  We hear all sorts of messages that call us to be acquisitive, being more by getting more:  more stuff or more likes or more sex.  In worship we turn away, if only for an hour.  We say, “No” to productivity and waste time in the love of God.  We say, “No” to acquisition, and give of our resources and our time.  Most importantly, we say “No” to our imagined inadequacies and celebrate a God who receives us and loves us as we are.

                In the Gospel of Mark, the idea of repentance is not so much about changing your ways but changing how you look at the world.  Good worship is an opportunity to see how things could be and, at the end of things, will be.  We talk of the Eucharist as “a foretaste of the feast to come.”  We are sampling eternity together, an eternity shaped by compassion, abundance and kindness.

                Then we turn around and go out the door back into the world that tries to shame us as not good enough.   Hopefully we go out a little stronger and a little more convinced that the eternity we have sampled in worship is the real world, the real vision, the real place for hope.  Hopefully we go out a little more empowered to share that vision of compassion and kindness, love and abundance, with the world around us through our words and actions.  Hopefully we go out a little more prepared to stand in loving protest of messages of hate, division and greed.

                Sometimes we will stumble and forget the reality revealed in worship.  We will rediscover those inadequacies and pick them up (after all, we have carried them for such a long time).  Yet there will be another Sunday; another sample of eternity; another royal waste of time to lay such burdens down.  We will stand before God in praise and thanks and adoration, and once again God will nourish us with teaching and peace and nourishment.  God will send us once again with renewed vision and good news to share.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Path of Discipleship - On Worship

You wake up on Sunday and you come to a community of faith.  Maybe it is a traditional church building with a steeple on top designed for the specific purpose of worship and ministry.  Maybe it is a more modern worship space with stage lights and projection screens; a storefront in the city, just a large room with chairs and an overhead projector; a park or camp, where the outdoor space becomes worship space; in someone’s living room, where a small community gathers in simple worship.

                What happens in worship?  In many communities you might be handed a bulletin that serves as an instruction manual for the time.  You could point at the list of events from prelude to postlude and say, “Here is what happens.”  Yet I have been to communities where the order is less formal.  Songs are sung until it feels right to stop.  Preaching is a shared action, a discussion with a smaller group.  That is also worship.

                At a basic level, communal worship is an intentional turning toward God.  We carve out a time and place to be together and agree to dedicate that time and place to the living God.  Note that at this base level, I am not talking about praise or thanks because, while these are elements of most worship services, they may not be elements of all.  A funeral service for a child is a worship service but one that might ask for songs of lament rather than songs of praise.  Worship in the context of protest may call for songs and prayers of justice. 

                In many and various ways and styles and moods, we are turned toward God.  We listen to God speaking in scripture, preaching and discussion.  We speak to God in prayer.  We sing to God, often in praise, thanks and adoration.  We stand before the table and are fed, receiving Christ in bread and wine.  Through these actions we are reminded of the constant nature of God’s presence.  We are reminded that although we may pick and choose the times when we pay attention to God, God is constantly and lovingly aware of us.

                This is the grace of worship.  We may come to worship with the attitude that we are doing this action to please God only to discover that God is already pleased.  We may come to worship wanting to show our love for Jesus only to encounter the overwhelming love of Christ that is already present.  We come to do something for God and we encounter what God is doing for us, implanting us in the story of the good news.

                 Worship becomes an act of faithfulness, both a sign of our faith in God, but a reminder of God’s faithfulness toward us.  Worship is the opportunity to connect to this reality before we go out into a world where God’s presence is not always clear and God’s love in not always celebrated.  We are surrounded by the love of God in worship, and we respond with love, both in the act of worship itself and the acts of service that follow in our daily lives, sharing love with the world. 

                The measurement of true, faithful and good worship is not a matter of style or the feelings evoked as much as we like to talk about such things.  The measurement of faithful worship is how we meet God once we have entered and what sort of people we are when we leave.  It is fine if worship makes you feel happy or feel good about yourself for having done it.  It is faithful if worship sends you to live and share the good news in word and action.