No more prayer? Plenty of prayer!

Our county school board recently opened a meeting with an invocation by one of the local clergy. From what I’ve read, this was the first time a prayer was spoken at such a meeting since the early 1970’s. After much conversation and conflict, they decided not to continue that practice.

I remember being asked to give the opening invocation at a high school graduation in Coventry, CT in about 1989 or 1990. Another local pastor spoke a benediction. It was the only time I was ever invited to pray at such a school function. It was certainly a different time and place. I’m not aware of any non-Christian religious organizations in Coventry at the time. Any prayers offered from representatives of the local churches would be from a Christian perspective. Today, you might get a prayer from any of a wide range of faiths in the community that you may or may not be comfortable with.

I also had the opportunity to give the opening convocation at a session of the Iowa state legislature in the mid-90s, when I lived in Des Moines. the senior pastor of our church handed it over to me, and I thought it would be a great experience. It was. Afterwards, I received an impressive certificate signed by the governor of Iowa and my representative. The only comment I received that day was, “Thank you for keeping it short.” Apparently, not everyone invited to pray got to the point as quickly as I did.

I was also invited to pray before an after a special gathering of a garden club in our town last year. They were planting a tree in memory of some members who had passed, one of whom had been a member of our church. My words were overtly Christian, cause that’s what I do, but no one seemed to mind.

I’ve heard invocations at a variety of university and government functions. Unfortunately, they are so watered down in order to include every belief that I don’t think God Himself would even know we were talking to Him. So why even bother?

I believe it is much better for us to pray for our nation and government each week when we gather for worship. I believe it is important to thank God for our leaders in our own personal devotional prayer. I believe it is much more important to teach our children to pray and be good citizens of both heaven and the United States. It has been a privilege to gather with teachers and students around school flagpoles for prayer. I am thankful for the chance to teach children about prayer in the school at Good News Club each week.

If we are taking advantage of the many opportunities we have to talk to God, we won’t have to worry about trying to wedge one into a community meeting. Plenty of them will have already risen before Him like incense.

Siddurim at the Western Wall

While at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I was fascinated by the sight of these bookshelves and tables filled with what I believe are Jewish prayer books. So many shapes and sizes. Some look brand new. Others are well worn. I wanted to pick one up and page through it, but I felt super conscious of not doing anything touristy or offensive.

On the men’s side at David’s tomb, a room full of men were bowed over their prayer books. I assume these were also siddurim. Again, I tried not to offend and didn’t get all the pictures I wanted.

As I thought back to that moment, I wondered if I could buy a siddur, a Jewish prayer book. And sure enough, you can order one on Amazon. They have all sorts of sizes and shapes, new and used, many with parallel Hebrew and English pages for people like me.

I came across an interesting article on How to Choose a Siddur, or Jewish Prayer Book, and it’s not as simple as I thought. They have digital versions, and a variety of apps. There are versions that appeal to Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed traditions. There are versions that include commentary and devotions. There are gender-inclusive versions. There are some published specifically for the high holy days. There are very small print pocket versions, so I assume there’s large print, too. It’s not unlike trying to figure out what bible to buy in a store with a sea of different versions and publications!

I need to ask some of my Jewish friends. Did they get one as a gift at their Bar Mitzvah? Or have one handed down in the family? They would no doubt be surprised that I know just enough Hebrew to awkwardly find my way around a Siddur.

Watch for a future post after I get one and see what they are all about.

Expressing your faith

One of the places we really enjoyed visiting recently in Jerusalem was the Western wall of the temple. As i am sure it is everyday, the space in front of the wall was filled with people praying. Many were Hasidic Jews. Some were bowing in rhythm. Some were bowed over prayer books, prayer shawls over their heads. Some were leaning against the wall. Many tried to find some microscopic niche in which to slip a tiny slip of paper filled with prayers.

And no one blinked an eye. Business as usual. Overt expressions of worship and devotion from any and every religious tradition were simply business as usual.

My wife commented, “If we did this back home, everyone would think we were strange.” How true. Even though we live in a nation of unprecedented religious freedom, we are pressured to keep the expression of our faith to ourselves. We might get away with bowing our heads over a meal at a restaurant. Or a fish magnet on a car. Perhaps some religious jewelry. Just don’t get carried away.

On the streets of Jerusalem Muslims roll our their prayer mats in public at the call the prayer. Many businesses shut down for Sabbath. Souvenir vendors and art dealers blatantly cater to Christian tourists. Orthodox Christians, Hasidic Jews, and many in Islamic garb walk the streets together in plain sight. They live, worship and work together, free to express their faith.

Interesting.

Why was I so surprised?

Why are we so surprised when God answers our prayer in just the way we wanted? OK, why am I so surprised?

It wasn’t a complicated request. It wasn’t even for me. It was for a friend of mine who needed a medical procedure, but couldn’t get scheduled for three months. I told them I’d put in a request for them, and simply prayed that God would bump up their appointment.

A few days later, I got a call, and they let me know that an appointment opened up just three weeks from then. They were so tickled that they called me right away to let me know. I was pretty tickled, too. Amazed, actually.

But why be amazed? Why doubt for a moment that God knows and deeply cares about the things that weigh on our hearts and minds? I guess there are many possible answers to that question.

I guess a part of us feels like it’s a long shot to ask God for something. Why would he do anything for us? After all, what have we done for him lately? He’s got to wade through a lot of prayer requests from a lot of faithful people who have much bigger issues than a doctor’s appointment.

Either that, or a part of me feels like I don’t deserve any favors from God. Which is entirely true. I know what I deserve, and it certainly isn’t good. But we ask anyway, because scripture tells us over and over again that God is merciful, that God hears and that God cares deeply about my worries, concerns, fears and desires.

Even though I pray for a lot of people and about a lot of issues, I rarely find out how those prayers were answered. We should share these blessings more often. It’s good to be reminded of and tickled by God’s grace. It’s awesome to be surprised by his love and goodness.

And I like to believe he’s tickled when he surprises us with a blessing, too!

I’m listening

Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

Lately my prayers have been more listening than speaking.

Does that sentence surprise you? It surprises me. Most of the time I’ve spent learning about prayer and teaching about prayer focused on figuring out what to say, when to say it and how often to say it. But I’ve also always taught that prayer is a conversation with God. Which means you’ll listen as well as speak. You might even listen a lot more than you speak.

My devotional time is typically early morning. It’s nothing profound or fancy. I just read through the bible. Chapter by chapter. From Genesis through Revelation. Right now I am mostly through Mark. I read till something grabs my interest or I have a question or I gain some insight. I usually read just a chapter or two. I’ve actually started listening to the scriptures being read on an iPhone app (biblegateway.com) as I follow along.

I always used to think of this as study, which would be followed by some prayer. Then one morning I realized that this whole process was prayer. God was doing most of the talking. My response wasn’t nearly as much as he had to say, which is no doubt a good thing. I know he’ll listen and I know I can say anything, but it usually turns out better when my words are fewer than his.

Realizing this has been freeing and refreshing.

  • I never have to wonder what to say. All I need to add is, “Amen!” (Yes, he’s that good!)
  • Other times, his words become my response. He never minds if I use his words to form my prayers.
  • Sometimes I just ask a question. “What do you mean by that?” “What does that have to do with me?” “So what am I supposed to do?”
  • His words have a way of bringing to mind people I can pray for. Or a blessing I am thankful for. Or a problem that’s nagging me. Or a sin that’s haunting
  • And then there are those times when I say nothing at all. Grace will do that to you. Grace will silence your excuses, denials, explanations, blame and guilt. Grace is always the final word. All you can really say to grace is, “Thanks.”

So it turns out that even though it’s mostly listening, I’ve been doing more praying than ever.

Prayers for life

Cindy Johanson, director of Central Florida Pregnancy Center, Deland, FL

This morning (January 22) I attended a prayer breakfast hosted by Alpha Women’s Center, a ministry the congregation and I have supported for over seventeen years in Flagler County, FL. I had been invited to say a prayer for the center as well, something I readily agreed to do.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, since I don’t believe they have had an event like this before. But under the leadership of the current director, Wilma Williams, they are working hard to encourage and expand their footprint in the county.

The event was held in a very small church cafe in Flagler Beach, just barely big enough to hold the thirty folks who attended. At least four other pastors attended, plus representative from a number of other congregations. The meal of quiche, fruit, muffins and oatmeal was just right and delicious.

The guest speaker was Cindy Johanson, the executive director of the Central Florida Pregnancy Center in Deltona, FL. The occasion of her talk was a sober reminder of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade was handed down on January 22, 1973, lifting restrictions on abortion in the United States. Since then, the lives of over 60,000,000 children have been ended by abortion.

Her words were also encouraging. Currently, there are over 3,000 pregnancy centers in the United States. There are 800 abortion clinics. The work of so many for life has increased dramatically.

She pointed out that when someone is dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, all they see is a life or death issue. The birth of a child often threatens plans for education, career, and relationships. Those who work to protect and preserve life know that there are many more options, and are glad to speak about the possibilities with any who seek out help. While those who end life make a profit, those who work to save it do not make a penny. Rather, we make great sacrifices to provide these services.

None of what Alpha does would be possible had not God placed a burden for life in each heart who lifted up prayers today. We pray to the God who gives us life and breath and everything else, that he would continue to bring life to our families and communities. We pray to the God who came to sacrifice his own life for us so that we could live. We pray to the God who accompanies us through the valley of the shadow of death to life.

As I was about to leave, I overheard a conversation between a college student and her pastor. She had used her wonderful musical talents to play a few songs for the meeting. But I heard her say, “Remind me again what Roe v. Wade is.” What an important reminder to keep talking about the issues, the history, and our part in it. We cannot assume that all have heard or understand the issues. We cannot assume they know what is at stake. Communication and information are powerful and essential. The opposing side works hard at this. So must we.

In secret

In Matthew 6, right in the middle of the sermon on the mount, Jesus commends private rather than public giving, praying and fasting. If you do these things to be seen by others, that will be your only reward — being seen by others. However, when you do these things without any fanfare or recognition, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4,6, and 18).

I suppose I’d prefer to be secretly rewarded by God rather than a few seconds of approval from the public. But what kind of rewards are we talking about here? What is the benefit of doing these three spiritual activities?

I’m going to tackle each one individually. First up: giving. Don’t do it to be seen, appreciated or praised. Instead, don’t even let your right hand know what your left is doing. Keep it strictly confidential. That’s how you’ll get the most bang for the buck when giving.

Greed is a tough attitude to break. We always want more, and that desire for more can easily control us or consume us. When we give, we demonstrate control over that desire, responding to God’s desire that we be merciful. It’s not my resources I trust, but him. It’s not money I worship, but him. The reward I most often gain after secret giving is a new heart and a right spirit, created by God.

Next, secret prayer brings a secret reward, too. Prayer always changes my focus from the world around me to him. In that moment, I am focused on heavenly things, which last forever, rather than this world which is all too quickly gone. Prayer means I’m actually talking with God, the Creator and my Savior. He’s not far away, he’s not ignoring me, he’s not too busy. We have time for each other. This can change my who perspective on a moment, a day or my life. That’s rewarding.

Secret fasting? Not as common as the first two. I guess that means you’d never want to let the public know via social media that you were fasting! I learned a few years ago that fasting isn’t always complete abstention from food. It might be not eating a meal or not eating as much. In any event, it is taking thoughtful control of a necessary part of your life. They say that if you can control one little part of your life, you get a better handle on the rest of it too. Mindfully choosing not to eat reminds you that you are walking by the Spirit, not according to the flesh. You aren’t controlled by your body, your desires, or the world around you. You’ve got a handle on those things. If your life is spinning out of control, one little intentional act can stop the momentum long enough to give you a better perspective. Your life isn’t spinning out of control. You’ve got this one thing…and then another…and then another.

Perhaps the best secret reward is intentionally relating to God. You are responding to him, not anything else inside of you or outside of you. It think it’s interesting that if you want to do something to improve your spiritual life, you don’t do something spiritual. You do something physical. Give. Kneel. Fast. And your spirit follows.

You couldn’t wait for me to get to “amen.”

caleb-woods-182648-unsplashThis hasn’t happened just once. I’d say it happens about once a month. I’ll be out visiting someone in their home or the hospital, and as I wrap up a prayer, they begin speaking less than one second after I say, “Amen.”

“Amen.” “Pastor, I have a question…”

“Amen.” “I’ve always wondered…”

“Amen.” “There was this guy…”

“Amen.” “I just don’t understand…”

So, you really weren’t praying along with me, were you? You were somewhere else, having boarded a different train of thought, impatiently waiting for me to get to “amen.” Anyone who knows me knows I do not say long prayers. It’s not that I lost you in a vast sea of petitions. You had just fast-forwarded through whatever I would say, biding your time until I finally finished.

I’m not really upset by this. It just surprises me. You’d be surprised if I didn’t pray with you, and yet your mind was wandering.

Good listening means you aren’t formulating a response when the other person is talking. You’ve set that aside, so you can pay attention to what the other person is saying. This is very hard to do. Listening is hard. I guess it’s hard to focus when someone’s praying for you, too.

Here are a few tips for the next time your pastor comes to visit and prays with you

  • Keep your eyes closed (if you pray with closed eyes) for just a moment after “amen.” Savor the blessing of a God who listens to and responds to your prayers. Just like a fine wine, prayers have a finish worth enjoying.
  • Take a couple of breaths after “amen.” Let the petitions echo in the room and in your mind for a moment. Let the dust settle before you speak.
  • Add your own prayer after “amen.” Keep the conversation going. Ask and seek and knock.
  • Embrace a few seconds of silence. It’s a noisy world and quiet moments are at a premium. Make the most of them.

I find great comfort and inspiration in knowing that a moment of prayer can turn an ordinary home, hospital room, nursing home or park bench into the holy ground of God’s presence. I know he loves those moments, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visual prayers

rodion-kutsaev-57037-unsplash

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Yesterday I made reference to a couple of things that I pictured in my mind as I was praying before preaching. I never thought much of it before, but some of my favorite prayers are visual prayers. Rather than words spoken out loud or in my mind or written on a page, some of my prayers are just images.

One from yesterday was being doused with a cooler full of ice water, like the winning coach after a football game. I used that image in a sermon about baptism, that that image reminds me that I’m a baptized child of God.

Another was having blood sprinkled on me. When announcing God’s covenant to the people, Moses slaughtered a bull, threw half the blood on the altar and the other half on the people. That was their way of shaking hands on a deal. I picture myself being spattered with blood, the blood of Christ the cleanses me from sin.

Sometimes I remember Nehemiah’s supervision of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem after God’s people returned from exile. Each person was given a part of the wall to work on. So I’ll picture a wall being repaired and ask, “What part of the wall do you want me to work on today, Lord?” In other words, what task should I focus on today? It’s also a good reminder that I don’t have to build the whole wall myself!

I also love the image of riding shotgun with Jesus. I shout, “Shotgun,” jump in the driver’s side and ask Jesus (who’s at the wheel), “So where are we going today?” It’s a question that makes perfect sense to me if I think of myself as a follower.

When I am praying with someone who is close to death, I picture Jesus just on the other side of this reality, waiting to welcome them. It makes my spine tingle just to think about that.

I’ll have to go back through my journals and dig up a few more. Who knows, maybe this will end up being one of the books I’ll write.