“Scenes from the passion” Lent devotion for Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Photo by nrd on Unsplash.
And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And [Jesus] said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:32-39)
This must have been such a hard moment. Jesus is distressed, troubled and filled with sorrow. He throws himself on the ground in prayer, asking, “Is there some way I can get out of this?” In other words, “I don’t want to do this, Father!”
How do you feel about Jesus’ prayer? Are you surprised that Jesus had second thoughts about his mission? Or can you empathize with him? When’s the last time you just wanted it all to go away?
Have you every prayed that God would do something terrible to someone? I haven’t. Not ever. I didn’t think you were supposed to do that. But a few months ago, I was reading Psalm 109 and the author is asking God to do unthinkable things to folks who have lied, accused and attacked him:
Kill him, so his wife is a widow and his his kids to wander around begging for food!
Curse his ancestors and don’t let there be any future generations!
Let the banks and even strangers help themselves to everything he owns!
Make sure no one remembers that he even existed!
It’s one thing to pray and ask God to protect you from your enemies or make them go away. It’s another to petition Him to not only end his life, but make his family miserable, too!
Other prayer requests in the psalms call for horrible things to happen to bad people:
“Break the arm of the evildoer” (Psalm 10:15)
“Break the teeth in their mouth!” (Psalm 58:6)
“Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime” (Psalm 58:8)
“Terrify them with your hurricane!” (Psalm 83:15)
“Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire.” (Psalm 140:10)
I don’t remember ever learning about this in classes on prayer. Nor do I teach anyone to do that. But these imprecations pour from the hearts of those who brought their petitions or sang songs to the Lord. That is why they are referred to as “imprecatory psalms,” which call for misfortune to happen to an enemy.
I don’t think these psalms show up very often in the propers of the day. Yet they are still very much a part of the inspired Word of God. They are also songs, lyrics that express the emotions and yearnings of God’s people. The authors are laying open their hearts in difficult times, turning to the one who declares, “Vengeance is mine” (Deuteronomy 32:35).
These kinds of psalms reveal our very human, very sinful nature. Sometimes we don’t feel like loving our neighbor, much less our enemy. We cry out for justice. We may not cry out to God, but we expect it from the governing authorities. So much is wrong in this world and we want a fix.
The “fix” isn’t always punishment, though. Sometimes the fix is mercy. Or forgiveness. Or kindness. Or sacrifice. Or redemption. When Jesus came, he brought with him some other options that aren’t as violent. He will take care of our enemies one day. Maybe not today, but one day. Just remember that the real enemy isn’t flesh and blood. The real enemy is spiritual. And He’s already won that victory.
And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:44)
Just hours before his arrest, Jesus pauses to think and pray about everything that is going to happen to him. The physical suffering has not yet started. But the mental and emotional struggle has already begun. He prays in agony. He is covered in sweat which falls to the ground like drops of blood.
Have you ever prayed with such intensity? Have you ever prayed yourself to exhaustion, drenched in perspiration? Me neither. Most of the time, I’m pretty comfortable when I pray. I may have some worries or concerns on my mind, but I don’t break a sweat.
Why not? Well, for one thing, I’m not Jesus. I’m not the one who will be bruised and crushed for the sins of many. And I never know what that feels like. Because he stood in and did it all for me and for you.
I suppose there may be a day when my prayer exhausts me. But I don’t think that’s what God wants. He doesn’t want me to be anxious about anything. He’ll take care of me. He doesn’t want me to wear myself out. He offers a yoke that is light and easy. He wants me to rest, assured that he’ll be awake all night to take care of things. He offers perfect peace to replace my fears. He turns my mourning into dancing.
Instead of tears, he wants my prayers to be filled with joy, thankfulness and trust.
Lord, I am amazed at your prayers. I’m even more amazed by your love. Amen.
If at all possible, I try to there when church members are scheduled to arrive for surgery. More often than not, their assigned arrival time is 6:00 am.
Not a problem. I am a morning person. I’m up at that time most days anyway. Most recently though, I and my parishioners (and a few other folks) arrived before the registration person! No problem. We had a few minutes to pray for the doctor and nurses, for the procedure and for the patient. “The prayer of a righteous person has great power” (James 5:16).
I know from experience that things happen quickly. Small talk can wait. We get to the prayer, seek the Lord and call on His name, and then we can converse about the day, the recovery and the future afterwards. Before you know it, you will hear their name called, and they will disappear behind a door with a nurse into the preparation area.
Over the years, I haven’t seen a lot of other clergy at the same-day surgery waiting area. All I know is that those are some of the best moments for ministry. No one pretends to have it all together. We all humbly kneel at the throne of the king, who also happens to be the Great Physician.
I hope someone will be there to pray with me. If nothing else, just to remind me that I’m in good hands.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.