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

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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.

 

 

 

 

Taking another bag of idols to the curb

neonbrand-441844-unsplashI think I would do anything for the approval of others.

And I know I’m not alone. We Christians like to say we fear, love and trust God above all things. We think the first commandment “You shall have no other gods” is a piece of cake. The reality is that the god of approval has taken up residence and occupies a large space in our hearts.

Jacob, Joshua and Samuel had to tell God’s people to get rid of all their idols. Their tents were full of them. If they were going to be serious about God, everything has to go. I always imagine it’s bulk trash day, and piles of wood and metallic statues sit on the curb in front of everyone’s home.

I’ve never had anything like that. But the idol in my heart is much harder to extricate. It’s so much a part of who I am. I’m an oldest child, so I’m a follow the rules, color inside the lines, arrive on time, drive the speed limit, think inside the box kind of person. I thrive on being praised for being a good boy. I even like it when I’m teased for being too law-abiding.

Every “good sermon,” “great job,” and “thanks for doing that,” is another push on the bicycle tire pump that inflates my head a little bit more. It’s a shot of emotional adrenaline that I’ve come to crave. I don’t care if you’re just being polite or just telling me what you think I want to hear. I’ll consume whatever your serving. It all tastes delicious, and yes, I’ll have seconds, thank you.

There is a down side to this god that isn’t the true God. They have a way of consuming you. You don’t reveal your struggles. You pretend you can handle everything. You rarely ask for help. You withdraw, lest someone see you not at your best. You exaggerate — not a lot, just a little bit – to get more mileage out of a compliment. “Vulnerable” and “transparent” aren’t part of your vocabulary. Are you nuts?

Like any idol, this god can obscure the approval of God. His approval is so different. His approval has nothing to do with my performance. His approval comes despite my performance. His approval is solely based on his love for me, a love revealed in Christ. No pressure, no pretending, no manipulation. Just the real thing.

Thank goodness God called me to be a preacher. Each week as I prepare to proclaim Christ and him crucified, I am reminded of his love, and I take another bag of idols out to the curb. His approval eclipses anything they promise or give, so why keep them around? It’s my spiritual version of minimalism. I only need one God, the real one.

Every week before I preach, I pray. I kneel during the last verse of the sermon hymn, take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and thank God for the opportunity to preach. I ask him to open hearts to hear exactly what he wants to tell them. And I picture two things. First, I imagine a cooler of water dumped on my head, a reminder of my baptism. I’m already a child of God. I don’t have to impress anyone. Second, I imagine having blood spattered on me, just like Moses sprinkled blood on the altar and then on the people, a reminder of God’s covenant with them. His blood covers me, and I don’t have to prove anything. I make the sign of the cross, and I’m ready to go. There’s just one God in the room and I’m not him. And just wait till you hear what he has to say!

 

 

 

 

How about a few new prayers?

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Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

Every week, the prayer of the church includes petitions based on the readings for the day, for pastors and missionaries, for our nation and leaders, for the sick and sorrowing, and for those who will receive the sacrament. Then, I ask, “Are there any other prayers you would like to include?” As hands are raised, I make my way around the sanctuary to pray for other individual concerns. The vast majority of the requests are for those who are sick, having surgery soon, or at the end of life.

That’s OK. Scripture tells us that if someone is sick, pray for them. But aren’t there any other things we can pray about? What about praying for someone’s salvation? Or for a church just getting started? Or for some new ministry opportunity? Or for the community? How about thanks? Or praise?

Just mix it up a little. Otherwise people start to tune out. Let’s push the boundaries a bit, stretch our comfort zone, explore new territory. What do you think?

 

Go to your room!

ben-blennerhassett-336485One of the last minute additions to my Ash Wednesday sermon on Matthew 6:1,5-6 was Jesus’ admonition, “Go to your room!” when you are praying. (When’s the last time someone told you to “go to your room?”)

Praying in seclusion certainly has its merits. You can say whatever you want, in whatever tone of voice you want, and not worry about what anyone else might think. You can yell, cry, laugh, swear, spit, whatever. No one’s going to hear. It’s just you and God. You can wear whatever you want, anything from PJs to workout gear or nothing at all if that’s your favorite flavor. No one’s going to say a thing. No one will know. Your posture? Sit, stand, lie down, fetal position or downward dog. It’s up to you.

On top of that there are lots of rooms in which you might pray in seclusion. Like Jonah in a fish, Elijah in a desert, or Moses on a mountain. On a walk, taking a bike ride, In the backyard, shower, empty church sanctuary, office, garage, man cave, workshop, a closet, driving a car, up on the roof, in a journal, or actually in your room. My favorite: on a run. That when my thoughts really flow. A close second: at my church office desk, imagining Jesus sitting in the side chair.

Don’t overanalyze it. Just talk to him and listen.

 

 

Give him the credit.

ruben-hutabarat-321378You don’t have to be on Facebook very long before you’ll read of someone requesting prayer for themselves or someone they know. It’s often for healing, sometimes for reconciliation, and other times for comfort. Many friends will respond with the assurance of their prayers. Good stuff.

However I’ve noticed that when someone feels better or a situation improves, you’ll read the comment, “Prayer worked.” As a firm believer in prayer, I don’t want to take anything away from it’s power, but in such a situation, isn’t it God who did the work? Shouldn’t he get the credit rather than the prayers or the pray-ers?

What happens when someone doesn’t get better? Prayer didn’t work? Or there wasn’t enough prayer? Or enough pray-ers? Hmm. I don’t like to talk about that stuff.

Abram’s prayer didn’t work. God still destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. David’s prayer didn’t work. His illegitimate son still died. Job’s prayer didn’t work. He never did get an answer from God. Elijah’s prayer didn’t work. God wouldn’t end his life. Jesus’ prayer didn’t work. He still had to drink from that “cup” of suffering.

But God was still at work in and through their lives. For better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, God faithfully hangs in there with us. Even if you don’t get what you ask for, God’s at work comforting, strengthening, redirecting and teaching you. The most important part of prayer is connecting with him, not getting what you want. Effective prayer is always about his will being done, not mine.

Just give him the thanks. The honor. And the glory.

 

“You had me at ‘Father.'”

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

As I was reading from the book of Daniel this morning, these words really caught my attention: “The moment you began praying, the command was given” (Daniel 9:23 NLT).

Prior to this, Daniel is praying for forgiveness, acknowledging his own sin, the sins of the nation and the sins of their ancestors. It is Gabriel who assures Daniel that an answer to his prayer was already underway. God didn’t wait until he prayed long enough or said the right things. God’s response was at the front end of his prayers.

Now I don’t want to take this too far, but I do find it fascinating that the most important part of a prayer may very well be the beginning. After all, the salutation doesn’t get as much attention as the body of a letter. The first words of a prayer, though, speak volumes.

It means you’ve been listening, for God always initiates our conversations with him.

It acknowledges who you are and who he is. He’s God. You’re not. He’s the Father. You’re the child. He’s the Almighty. You’re his creation. He loves you. You’re the beloved.

It is bold. Who are we to be speaking to God? Yet we approach his throne of grace with confidence.

It breaks the silence of my heart, my soul, my mind, and my world. I may not know exactly what to say, but now there’s a conversation. I may not even know what the next word will be, but that’s OK. If you’re at a loss for words, the Spirit will take it from there, right?

Jesus urged his disciples not to pray like those who were all about word count. That’s not what counts. What counts is the who. Who you are praying to. The one who hears even before we call out to him, according to Isaiah.

So, this is one of my newest favorite verses. In my mind it’s like God saying, “You had me at ‘Father.”

“After prayerful consideration…”

umit-bulut-143016It’s certainly not a new way to begin a thought or statement, but lately I’ve been reflecting on the phrase, “After prayerful consideration…” I’ve heard it a lot of times and have always given credit to those who pray about whatever it is they are considering. However, I want to share a few reactions to those words.  Continue reading