Prayer for the Week, August 23

To You, Our Father, through the work of Your Son, Jesus the Christ, and by the strength and encouragement of Your Holy Spirit, we come to pray.

We pray because we lack wisdom for the decisions we make; we pray because we lack strength to live according to what wisdom we gain; we pray because we lack power to remove the obstacles in our path. We pray because we lack authority to forgive sins and thus find new life. Most of all we pray because You have invited us to come, to taste and see that You are good. 

We pray because we live in a darkened world. Even on a bright and beautiful Sunday morning of Your making, darkness infringes upon us. It keeps many, many people from presenting themselves before You in worship and thanksgiving for all the gifts this world has to offer. Shine, Lord Jesus, into such darkness.

In the darkness, wrong seems right and right seems wrong. Shine the light of true wisdom upon our pathways. In the darkness, we struggle with relationships, so easily broken, so inadequately mended. Shine You light of forgiving wholeness. In the darkness, the enemy comes in to kill and destroy, fostering hatred, envy, greed, despair, revenge, and terror. Shine, Lord Jesus, with Your powerful, redemptive love. 

Your light will shine to the measure that we allow it to shine through us. Forgive us, we pray, for keeping the light You have placed within us under all manner of shade. We do what we should not, and dampen the light; we fail to do what we should, and the light does not shine. Have mercy upon us; Lord have mercy. We have not offered the cup of cold water, the healing words, the extended hand of forgiveness. We have not sought first the kingdom of God, the rule of the Son, or the strength of the Spirit. So once again, we pray with Your fallen yet chosen and redeemed people of all times, Our Father . . . 

Prayer for the Week, August 16

Heavenly Father, the One who knows us and loves us, we bow our heads before You this day. We consider so little the wisdom that resides in You and You alone. The majestic creation, so intricately designed and fit together in ways the best of our efforts can only begin to understand, speaks of wisdom beyond comprehension. The complexities of human hearts, minds, and wills are all known to You as well; we cannot begin to truly assess ourselves and know even as we are known. Yet You do know us—and love us still. May our praise therefore arise daily.

Joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, insight and confusion are our constant companions in this world, combining in ways that move us and shape us. We know not what to ask or imagine; we struggle to know where to focus our energy, our time, our concerns. Make us wise, we pray.

We confess this day that we have worked hard for the wrong things, the unimportant things; we have given time to fruitless pursuits, to idle hours; we have stressed over insignificant things, over uncontrollable events. Forgive us, we pray; Lord have mercy.

Draw our minds to Your words, we ask this day. In Your written Word are all the instruction that we need in the way of wisdom; in Your living Word, even Your Son, our Savior and Lord, are all we can ever know about who You are, what You desire, and how to truly prosper in this world. Forgive us for looking elsewhere, we pray; Lord have mercy.

Even as Your own heart weeps for the poor, the needy, the despairing, the sick and infirm, soften our hearts, open our hands, increase our compassion for them all, so that we may be prepared to act in Your place when they come across our path. Then shall we become wise and truly live, even as we pray,

 Our Father . . .

Sunday Prayer for August 9, 2015

We have sung it innumerable times, O Lord, our God; we have repeated the words that still comfort, encourage, and inspire us: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.” It is sweet because we know our need and we know your provision.

We know inside the deepest recesses of our lives that we have not done all the things you have wanted us to do; we have done things we know we ought not to have done. These we confess before You now. … We recognize that we have not the power, the strength to overcome the sins that beset us; otherwise we would have ceased. Your grace comes in our need, to our aid, and stands for us in presenting our petitions before Your throne.

We live in a world so deeply in need of grace; You send us as Your emissaries. So often have we failed. Forgive us, we humbly pray. We are prone to responding to the pain and confusion of the world in the world’s own way; we’ve encountered the darkness, but have shed insufficient light. We talk about that darkness in many ways, but too seldom bring the light of grace to bear upon it, to dispel the blindness and bring wholeness to life by means of Your own word.

For the grace of forgiveness, we pray. We also pray that our hearts will be as forgiving as Yours. For the grace of second chances, third chances and many more, we give You humble thanks; teach us not to condemn as worthless those who need to know that their lives, too, still matter, regardless of what they have done.

For the grace of hope, the boundless future awaiting those You are redeeming, we offer joyful praise; teach to live in ways that communicate that hope is real, its dream secure, its way through love.

For the grace to bear the trials and tribulations, the disappointments and the pain that comes to all in a broken world, we pray. Teach us to live above the world, seated where Christ is seated, above the power of anything in this world. Then will people ask us about the hope that lies within.

And so for the sick, the poor, the homeless, the jobless, we pray. And for our faithfulness to Jesus we pray, even as the church has prayed for centuries,

Our Father . . .

Thoughts on Finding Our Place

I suppose I should know better by this time. There are more than enough opinions competing for market share in a ridiculously overcrowded blogosphere; why bother to add another to the cloud of unknowing, to borrow a phrase?

Perhaps that “unknowing” is a word that aptly fits where we find ourselves as confessing Christians in a world order we have not known. We don’t know what has happened to the world as we’ve known it in the west, and particularly in the USA. We don’t know what the ramifications will be, either for the church or for the society. We don’t know how to pray–at least it appears so in many quarters, especially those previously given to equating being American with being conservative Christian, or in some cases, vice versa.

I am, of course, referring to the Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex couples able to be legally married, with every pertinent right as enjoyed by opposite-sex couples. The present court, though deeply divided, does not appear to be of a mind to hear cases that would call the decision into further review. Before expressing my thoughts on how Christians might most redemptively respond to the ruling and the possible outfalls, it might be helpful to answer a question on the minds of many who do not pay particular attention to the Supreme Court, other than when warning sirens are sounded by certain interest groups.

What Just Happened?

The case was brought before the court on the grounds that laws prohibiting same-sex marriage violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. For the sake of convenience, I include the text of that amendment’s first and fifth sections here:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

. . .

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.[1]

The amendment itself was part of the Reconstruction period legislation in 1868. As can be seen, it covers a wide range of interests. The most relevant section, of course, is the first. It was enacted primarily to protect the interests of former slaves. Since then, it has been used many times in an ever-expanding array of cases in which an aggrieved party believes existing laws restrict in some meaningful way their liberty to do something the state has unreasonably forbidden. In the cases at hand, same-sex couples argued that the state unreasonably hindered their liberty by prohibiting their ability to participate in and benefit from the legal benefits enjoyed by married opposite-sex couples, asking that their unions be placed on the same footing.

As everyone is now aware, the court agreed. To do so, however, it had to argue a different definition and understanding of marriage from what many people, particularly religious people, had assumed to be unassailable. In what can only be described as question-begging logic, the court acknowledged that marriage has historically and universally been thought to be a union of one man and one woman. It then argued that since changes have been made to the institution of marriage in the past, such as the decline of arranged marriages, allowing imprisoned persons to marry, and prohibitions against interracial marriage, change itself regarding marriage is a good thing. It seems to acknowledge on one hand that all the changes cited have to do with the practice of marriage and not the nature of the union; but it then argues that change of any kind can be good, and that to refuse this particular change would make the children of same-sex couples stigmatized and inferior, along with a few other unpleasant entailments.

What also becomes clear is that marriage is far more than a building block of society, as it celebrates and legitimates personal choices of intimate association and life choices pertaining to how one will choose to live. It seems far more important to the court to enhance personal satisfaction than to consider the interests of society. Let’s stop here for just a moment. Throughout history, all cultures, universally, have protected the union out of which children arise; it is necessary for the continuation of society in a cohesive fashion. And it is with that in mind that governments, particularly in the west, have extended certain legal priorities, privileges, and protection to married couples. The raising of the next generation is important to the public interest. Marriage may well be more than that institution by which new generations arise; but it is difficult to understand what interest the government would have in any of those additional characteristics. Simply referring to an evolution of understandings of marriage does not answer that question. Nor does it answer how one moves from changes in the way marriages are arranged and which men and which women can enter into the union to what that union is.

The majority opinion also spends considerable time speaking about the benefits to personal happiness of intimate association such as exists in marriage. But love may or may not be present in a marriage and it may well be present in a relationship between two persons who are not married. Formal marriage cannot create the bond; nor can its absence prohibit the bond.

Nonetheless, it has become the law of the land. For those people who complain that Christians or other identifiable groups of people impose their morality on others, two things should be noted. The one-man, one-woman nature of marriage was cross-culturally held for centuries. It was not imposed on people who wanted it to be otherwise. Secondly, it is the Supreme Court that has imposed a new definition of marriage upon the nation. Much of the criticism in the dissenting opinions from Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito is centered on precisely this point.

Finding Our Place

Now what? For many people, the questions surrounding same-sex marriage have been given far too much attention. They wonder what the big deal has been all along and are happy to simply settle the question once and for all. Just move on and do what you’ve always done. After all, no one is telling anyone that they must marry someone of the same sex.

There is some wisdom in this approach.  It is particularly tempting to adopt it when listening to those who address the issue with palpable hatred and disgust for the persons on the other side of the matter. As Christians, we never serve the cause of Christ well with anger, name-calling, belittling, and censure. Letting our speech be seasoned with grace somehow escapes far too many people as a directive for our interactions. And Paul does tell us to be subject to the governing authorities, to live quiet and peaceful lives, and to be know as people of hope. We do not serve, and we certainly do not owe ourselves to any earthly power. Not even one with the Constitution of the United States of America. And we should not expect any earthly power to substitute for the rule of Christ in our hearts and in our communities of faith, much less expect a secular government to require other to follow a way we don’t do so well at obeying ourselves.

On the other hand, we believe that God’s expressed desires for human living are not arbitrary, but are good for the flourishing of people–all people. He designed us and knows us better than we know ourselves. Thus fearing, reverencing Him by accepting his ways, even when we don’t understand the reasons, is the beginning of wisdom. I have a strong suspicion that it is the loss of the very idea that God made us, intentionally, that lies at the heart of the present debate. If we are the product of a random evolutionary process, then nothing can be forbidden. Blind and dumb nature can only produce things, not “oughts” or “shoulds” to guide our moral lives. We are on our own.

In finding our place, Christians need to pay far greater attention to a robust theology of human nature as the deliberative and purposeful action of the God who finally revealed himself in the person of Jesus. Christian anthropology (the doctrine of mankind) has for too long started and and finished with Genesis 3, skipping over chapters 1 and 2.  We do read there of the creation in the image of God, an image which is born differently by male and female; and it is in their union that the image of God is more fully represented to the succeeding generation. This has much to say about issues of gender equality as well as of gender differences. If we are to have a meaningful contribution to make in the continuing public debate (and it will continue), we need to do more than recite verses from the Bible. We’ve thrown far too many pearls before many angry swine. Instead we need to reflect on the contextual meaning of the text and on the understanding of the present age to see where we fit and where we don’t. Or, more accurately, where the thought of the day does and does not reflect God’s design for human flourishing.

In finding our place we must also be honest about what the text does and does not approve, what it does and does not condemn. I’ve said virtually nothing about homosexuality itself to this point, and I won’t say a lot about it here, either (though I am open to talking more about it in a subsequent post). We cannot refashion the text to comport with contemporary sensitivities and thoughts. To put it bluntly, Matthew Vines’ hermeneutic is demonstrably flawed. Homosexuality is not God’s plan for human sexuality. That is abundantly clear on a responsible reading of the text, one which has not decided beforehand to neuter any passages that indicate such divine disapproval. That being said, we are not thereby authorized to go about the business of condemning homosexual person, or even of denying that there may be underlying causes or tendencies toward homosexual desire–most of which we do not fully understand.

Finally, finding our place must be done in full recognition that the place we will occupy is one of the alien and the outcast. And we must accept that as our lot if it comes to pass. We have a hard time fully believing Jesus when he told his followers that if they hated him, they would hate his followers; or Paul when he said that those who live godly lives will be persecuted. I am not sounding alarms here. I am suggesting possibilities. We have heard dire forecasts of what will come next on the agenda of those who believe they have won the day. Perhaps some of it will eventuate, perhaps not. Let those who know Christ be fully committed to him and his kingdom, come what may. Paul learned how to get along in all circumstances; so must we.

House for Prayer? Thoughts on the Third Sunday in Lent

Jesus cleansing the temple. Chasing out the bad guys, the ones who had turned into a place to make a fast denarius or two. And from that little tidbit we build sermons around what we perceive to be the parallel misuses of the buildings used for worship today. You’ve heard them, I’ve heard them; I’ve preached them.

Today, however, I’d like us to focus a little more attention on the first portion of Jesus’s objection to what was happening in Jerusalem. We can lay aside the reality that there are difficulties in identifying each of our respective houses of worship with the “my house” character of the Jerusalem temple. The reality is that any temple or church structure dedicated to the worship of God will encounter the same troublesome tendencies at some time or other. Lots of things happened in that temple on a regular basis; even more activities arguably take place in our buildings today. We play there, we worship there, we exercise there, we study together, we laugh, we cry, we talk about football and politics, we fellowship, we celebrate, we encourage one another, entertain guests and performers, raise funds, etc., etc. But how much do we pray there? Really pray?

The posts in this year’s somewhat shorter Lenten series have been focused on the kingdom of God and how we should make it more of a centering concern for our calling as the people of God. Nowhere can the commitment we have to the kingdom be better seen in our congregations than in the way we think about the places in which we gather as the body of believers. The question is simple–how much of what we do “at church” has prayer at its core, or as a natural outgrowth of the activity?

“My house shall be called a house of prayer.” Did this mean that any other activity was forbidden? No. The temple was a busy place; it was the symbolic center of communal life, where the reason for being was found, where purpose for moving ahead through difficult times was instilled, where hope was renewed, where children were reminded of their special identity in God’s desires for the world and its redemption. Faith was formed in concert between home and temple, and faith was never perceived as some private
decision to believe what one wanted; it was “the faith” before it ever became any particular one’s faith. And prayers both confessed that faith and wove it into the fabric of the lives of its people.

Hence the anger with which Jesus confronted the money changers. Their activities clouded rather than cleared the vision of life and godliness that prayer was to engender where the people of God gathered. They hindered prayer. We are stimulated by and alerted to the real intents and purposes of God for us through the teaching of the scriptures; we commit ourselves to it through prayer. And our very identity as the people of God depends upon it.

What is it in our congregations that cannot continue without prayer? To put it another way, would anything in our regular way of doing things really be different if prayer were removed from it? Is it there at all? Maybe for some of our congregations we don’t need to repent of not praying for the kingdom as much as we need to repent of not really praying at all. Our faith formation and our faith transmission to another generation will not take place without it. And if something is crowding it out of our corporate life, perhaps a few overturned tables are in order. Repentance surely is.

Kingdoms and Politics

“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

Granted. This post backs up one short phrase from last week’s thoughts on praying for the kingdom to come over all the earth, and not just over our tiny corner thereof. Those who are tracking with me joined in repenting of having such a narrow view of God’s interests. Perhaps we also need to ask what it is we are praying for, and what it is that we too readily accept as substitutes. And at times we lobby harder for the substitutes than we do for the kingdom of God.

There are, of course, many ideas about just how the kingdom of God relates to the kingdoms of this world, some of which are nearer or farther from exhibiting laws and policies that are consistent with the rule of God. Good Christians have long disagreed about the level of involvement in secular government that is appropriate for believers. Do we dig in and make the best of a messy situation, hoping to influence policies in God-honoring ways, or is the very activity of governing so steeped in corruption that we must stay out of it entirely if we are to maintain any sort of integrity as citizens of God’s kingdom? I’ve held both views at different times–and sometimes simultaneously!

But this post is not about finding the right theory of engagement for Christians. It is about thinking wrongly about the prospects of bringing God’s rule through governmental actions and policies; and it is about our apparent belief that getting the right party to control the halls of Congress or the various state houses is where our hopes should lie and toward which our energies should be expended. It is all too common for self-identified Christians to join in political rants that have far more to do with maintaining the power of a chosen party than they do with what measures are good for our common life. Often it is done with very bitter spirits, with venom toward any who disagree, and with an edge of anger and self-preservation unbefitting those who are not their own because they’ve been bought with a great price.

Neither the anger of people, not the policies of a government can achieve the righteousness of God. We look to the wrong places for the solutions to greed, corruption, theft, abuse, violence, and basic unrest and distrust if we think a party can accomplish it if only given its way. His will; His ways. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we focused our minds on the ways of our Lord, and then learned to make his ways more consistently our ways we would have the audience the gospel deserves. We might do well to repent of not making it so in our lives.

It Must Be So: Thoughts on the Second Sunday in Lent

“Get away from me, Satan!”

The gospel lesson for today is Mark 8:31-39, wherein Jesus announces his death and resurrection to his disciples. Peter’s response is not at all surprising: “No way!” To which, of course, Jesus replies with the words above. Matthew’s version of this account includes the stark contrast between the words to Peter after his recognition of the true identity of Jesus and the words after the same Peter’s objection to the very means by which his Lord would become his saviour.

The temptation to want a Christ without the messiness of the crucifixion is ever with us. We want a champion with whom to identify, one who captures the imagination with his incredibly insightful answers for all occasions, who confronts the powers that be, bringing them down to size and exposing their duplicity. We want to be on the winning side when the final buzzer sounds. We like the idea of siding with the weak, the poor, the marginalized, the victims. After all, somehow the world unfolds in such a way that we all tend to think that we have drawn the short straw in one way or another. Things are unjust; someone needs to answer for that, and we find it difficult to rest until we at least know who it is. The idea of a triumphal Christ, one who will bring justice in his arm, set the world to rights (in deference to N. T. Wright), and make the evil doers pay sits well with us. We might even be willing to put up with an inconvenience or two in order to remain on his side. It will all be worth it someday.

But somehow the very cross that makes the promised victory possible doesn’t seem quite so popular among some of his would-be followers. We want Jesus to win the day, but we want him to get on with it on our terms. We want him to fill our hopes, our expectations, our dreams of a utopian world, and we really don’t see the need to be talking about crosses along the way. Such is the implication, sometimes clear and sometimes subtle, when we want our side to win without cost. Jesus already paid it all, right? Let’s not speak of it any longer. And if we must, let us speak of it strictly as history.

The horrific persecution being visited upon our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world might give us pause to reconsider the words of Jesus in a different, more challenging light. Crucifixion was the way of God’s victory over sin. Resurrection completes the accomplishment. And those who come after him are encouraged to take up their cross. Middle East believers in the early twenty-first century are not the first or only ones to know fully how literal that directive from Jesus can sometimes be. And while their sacrifice, along with that of all who have gone before them in similar fashion, does not atone for sin, it does give witness to the way of God’s ultimate victory. Cross, then resurrection.

To demand or desire another way, to insist upon a more palatable way of using the name of Jesus will continue to draw the response that must have stung in Peter’s mind: get out of my way, Satan. Perhaps it’s because we really don’t grasp the depth of our sin problem that we think we can have this champion Jesus without his cross. It’s our problem, and it’s the world’s problem, and it is ours as much as it is the world’s. Whenever we prefer another Lord or kingdom, no matter how good and just it might seem, over the one that comes by way of crucifixion, we are in great peril. And we should repent.