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Showing posts with label #Pray. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Pray. Show all posts

30 August 2018

“In Jesus name” and why it doesn’t always work.

We don’t use his name to get whatever we want. We us it to seek what he wants.

Jesus told us we can use his name whenever we ask the Father for things.

John 14.12-15 KWL
12 “Amen amen! I promise you believers in me will do the same works I’ve done.
And they’ll do greater things, because I’m going to the Father.
13 And whatever you might ask in my name,
I’ll do it so it can glorify the Father by the Son.
14 Whatever you might ask me in my name, I’ll do!
15 When you love me, keep my commands!”

He told us as much more than once. Jn 15.16, 16.23-24 And we want stuff from him. So that’s precisely what we do: We pray for stuff in Jesus’s name.

Well, we pray for stuff “in Jesus name.” That’s usually the way Christians phrase it. Often it legitimately does mean “the name of Jesus.” But too often it means the magic name of Jesus. Because just like “please” and “thank you” are “magic words” we use to be polite and get our way, “Jesus name” is considered the magic word to get Jesus to give us what we want.

Hence we don’t just hear “in Jesus name” at the end of Christian prayers: “In Jesus name, amen.” We sometimes hear it repeated time and again in certain prayers: “We ask for these things in Jesus name! In Jesus name! I command these things to take place in Jesus name!” Oh, they’ll get loud about it too. Kinda like they wanna make sure Jesus heard them invoke his name.

Obviously “in Jesus name” is not a magic spell we use to get whatever we want. Certainly it’s not a successful magic spell, anyway. ’Cause if it had any power on its own, it should’ve worked for certain Judean exorcists in Acts.

Acts 19.13-17 KWL
13 Certain traveling Judean exorcists tried to cite Master Jesus’s name
when they dealt with an evil spirit, saying, “I compel you by Jesus!—whom Paul proclaims.”
14 There was a certain Judean head priest, Skeva. His seven children were doing this.
15 In reply the evil spirit told them, “I know Jesus and know of Paul. Who are you?
16 The man in whom the evil spirit was, was strong enough to jump and defeat them all.
They escaped that house naked and wounded.
17 This became known by all the Judean and Grecian inhabitants of Ephesus.
Fear fell upon all of them, and Master Jesus’s name was exalted.

Many Christians’ll claim Jesus’s name unlocks every door, but here it wasn’t. Skeva’s kids didn’t personally know Jesus, and this evil spirit somehow knew it—and beat the clothes off them. They didn’t get what they sought “in Jesus name.”

Because it’s not about the name, and never really was. It’s about the relationship. If you know Jesus, know his character, and want what he does, feel free to invoke his name every time you pray. That’s why he’s cool with us using it.

But if you don’t know Jesus, and your assumptions about what he wants are based on projecting your own bad attitudes or desires upon him, I really don’t expect him to answer your prayers. If he does, it won’t have anything to do with you; you just happened to ask for something he wants to do regardless, for his own motives.

We’re not meant to use Jesus’s name unless we know Jesus and share his motives. If we use his name for any other reason, we’re like a kid who stole Dad’s credit card without permission, and Dad found out and cancelled the card immediately: It ain’t gonna work!

31 May 2018

Gossip, prayer, and trustworthiness.

Sometimes it’s not a prayer request; it’s gossip.

The gossipy prayer request. High school likely wasn’t the first place I encountered it, but certainly the first time I became aware of it. We were in a youth group meeting, the pastor was taking prayer requests, and one kid raised her hand and proceeded to give us way too much detail about a girl most of us knew.

Definitely gossip. But that’s how gossips have discovered a loophole: Gossip may be bad, but praying for one another is good! So now they can gossip freely, on the grounds it’s all stuff we need to know. Right?

Wrong; rubbish. We don’t need to know a thing. All we need to know is someone needs God’s help, and that God can help. If your friend (let’s call him Vasko) needs prayer, all you gotta tell the prayer leader is, “Please pray for my friend Vasko; he’s having a rough time, and that’s all I can tell you.” A gossipy prayer leader will pry, but a wise prayer leader will say “Okay,” and respect it as an unspoken prayer request.

Yeah, you could try to leave Vasko’s name off it, but too many prayer leaders kinda prefer a name. They find it a little awkward to pray for “Jamillah’s friend,” or whatever your name is. But if you wanna conceal the name too, that’s fine; God knows who you’re praying about; tell the prayer leader, “Let’s call him [made-up name],” and that tends to work.

And yeah, if you’re in a roomful of immature Christians (namely kids) you might get someone who blurts out, “I know who you’re talking about.” Shut them up quickly: “Maybe you do, but I didn’t say who it is because I’m trying to respect their privacy.” Most times that’s enough of a rebuke to keep people quiet. Most times.

30 May 2018

Praying for ordinary stuff.

Seriously. You can pray for anything.

There’s this mindset people get into: Spiritual things take up one segment of our lives, and secular things the rest.

  • Going to church and reading bible: Spiritual.
  • Going to the coffehouse and reading the news: Secular.
  • Going to a restaurant: Secular. Except for the bit at the beginning where we say grace. But once that bit of diligence is over, we needn’t think about God any longer.

Problem is, that’s entirely wrong. Everything is spiritual. Not just ’cause we carry the Holy Spirit with us, and we need to stay mindful of his presence and instruction. But because we’re meant to be light in a dark world, and bless everyone around us. (Not just our food!)

And one of the ways we get over that artificial secular/spiritual divide is by praying for ordinary stuff. What do I mean by “ordinary”? Glad you asked: Anything and everything. There’s no subject off-limits to God. Anything you can talk about with your friends, you can talk about with God. Anything you can’t discuss with friends (’cause it’s private, uncomfortable, or they’re gonna make fun), you can still talk about with God.

Seriously, anything. Even taboos, like toilet stuff and sex. If you can discuss it with your doctor (and should!) you can talk about it with God. Now, kids will talk about this stuff for shock and giggles, and parents will try to clamp down on it: My grandparents objected to stuff you don’t discuss “in polite company,” and Mom used to object, “Would you say those things if Pastor were here?” (As if your pastor hasn’t said worse. I went to seminary; I know better.) But again: You can talk about everything with God. And should. Hold nothing back. He’s heard it all; he knows it all; he’s seen worse. You won’t shock him.

Oh, you’ll definitely shock other Christians. I still do. One of ’em still hasn’t gotten over the fact I used the word “horny” in a prayer. She was raised to believe there are unfit subjects for church, prayer, and other Christians. Which, I pointed out, isn’t just false; it’s heresy. If Jesus is Lord over all, that’s part of the “all.” If Christians can’t discuss real problems, and bring ’em to God, it interferes with our relationships with Jesus.

So we have to fight this secular/sacred mindset: There can’t be taboo subjects in God’s kingdom. True, there are subjects we might consider profane, and they’ll have to be handled sensitively for others’ sake. But nothing’s outside of God’s realm. Nothing’s out-of-bounds to share with him. NOTHING.

15 May 2018

Prayer techniques that get God over a barrel?

They don’t exist. But Christians are nonetheless looking for ’em, and frequently claim they have one.

Years ago one of our prayer team leaders was talking about how she discovered the power of praying the scriptures.

By which she simply meant she quoted a lot of bible as she prayed. This was nothing new to me; I grew up among people who did this all the time. They liked to pray in King James Version English. So, direct quotes from the KJV came in handy. “Lord, we pray thee for our meat this day, for thou hast told us to pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ Mt 6.11 and so we do.” Sometimes they’d even include verse addresses, if they really wanted to show off. But that wasn’t common.

Our prayer leader wanted to emphasize praying the scriptures because there was, she insisted, power in praying the scriptures. If we wanna tap that power, we need to pray the scriptures too.

Um… what power’s she talking about?

Well, whenever Christians talk about powerful prayers, we nearly always mean one thing: We get we ask for. Every time. Every request. God always, always answers our prayers with yes.

Yeah, sometimes we also mean powerful-sounding prayers, which is why we’ll use the KJV language and proof-text everything we declare in our prayers. But if all you want is an impressive-sounding prayer, we wonder if there isn’t a little bit of hypocrisy behind that desire. Nah; what we want is a prayer which gets stuff done, son.

So Christians are always sharing techniques which guarantee God’ll never ever tell us no. We want the magic formula to tap God’s power. Quoting his own bible back at him sounds really good to a lot of Christians, which is why we pray the psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. Once we use his own holy word on him, we’ve got God by his divine short hairs and he simply has to grant us our three wishes answer our prayer requests.

When I phrase it that way, Christians balk: “That is not what I mean.”

Yeah it is. Bad enough you’re fooling yourself; don’t try to fool the rest of us.

Not that they don’t try. “I’m fully aware God has free will; he can say no whenever he wants; he can say no to unworthy, self-centered prayer requests. But what I’m doing is righteous…” and then they try to explain why they’re fully justified in reducing the holy scriptures to a magic incantation which bends God to our will.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t quote bible in our prayers. It’s actually a good idea—provided we’re quoting bible in context, and not trying to bend it till it sounds like God might let us have our way. Jm 4.3 If we accurately quote the scriptures, we’re more likely to pray as God wants us to, and pray for stuff God approves of.

But the attitude behind trying to make God do as we want, instead of praying as Jesus did, “Thy will be done,” Mt 6.10 is just greed disguised as piety. Let’s not.

01 May 2018

Facing Jerusalem.

It’s a really old custom which you might not know about.

Before Solomon ben David, the fourth king of Israel, the LORD’s worship site had consisted of a tent in Jerusalem. Solomon personally supervised the construction of a gold-plated cedar temple, and the day he dedicated it to the LORD, here’s some of what he prayed:

1 Kings 8.28-30 KWL
28 “Turn to your slave’s prayer. To show him grace, my LORD God. To hear his shout of joy.
To the prayer which your slave prays to your face today.
29 May your eyes be open towards this house night and day,
to the place of which you said, ‘My name is there.’
To hear the prayer which your slave prays towards this place.
30 You will hear your slave’s petition, your people Israel, who pray towards this place.
As you sit in the heavens, you’ll hear and forgive.”

More than once in his prayer, Solomon mentions the idea of praying in the direction of the new temple. 1Ki 8.35, 38, 42, 44, 48 And towards Jerusalem, towards Israel, towards the homeland God gave the Hebrews.

Thus it wound up becoming Hebrew practice to pray in the direction of the temple, or of Jerusalem. ’Cause we see Daniel doing it in Babylon.

Daniel 6.10 KWL
Daniel, who knew what was recorded in the writing, entered his house.
The windows in his upper room facing Jerusalem were opened for him.
Three times a day, he knelt on his knees and prayed thanksgiving before God,
just like before, which he used to do previous times.

“Okay,” you might argue, as Christians will: “That’s something Jews practice. They pray to Jerusalem. Gentiles like me don’t have to.”

Nah; Solomon had you covered.

1 Kings 8.41-43 KWL
41 Also to a foreigner, who isn’t of your people Israel, who comes from a faraway land:
Due to your name— 42 when they hear of your great name, strong hand, stretched-out arm—
when a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, 43 you hear in the heavenly place you dwell,
and do everything which was requested of you by the foreigner.
Thus every people on earth can know your name and respect you like your people Israel;
thus they know your name can be called via this house which I built.”

After all, Solomon knew the LORD isn’t only Israel’s God, but everyone’s.

As a result, whenever Pharisees built synagogues in Jerusalem, they made sure their buildings faced temple. And whenever they built synagogues in other parts of Palestine and the world, they made sure their buildings faced Jerusalem. ’Cause while Solomon’s prayer isn’t a biblical command or anything, it was a custom which they sorta saw the value in.

14 March 2018

The “Not what I want” prayer.

Sometimes we don’t pray for what we want.

The “Not what I want” prayer isn’t a popular prayer. Downright rare sometimes. Because when we pray, we’re intentionally asking God for what we want. Why would we tell him to not give us what we want? Did we suddenly forget the point of prayer?

Why pray “Not what I want”? ’Cause we’re mimicking Jesus. When he has us pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done,” Mt 6.10 and when he himself prayed this at Gethsemane:

Mark 14.35-36 KWL
35 Jesus went a little ahead, fell to the ground, and was praying this:
“If it’s possible, have this hour pass by!”
36 He said, Abbá! Father, you can do anything: Take this cup from me.
But not what I want. What you want.”

Y’notice Jesus did tell the Father what he wanted: He didn’t want to suffer. He wanted “the cup” to pass him by. He didn’t wanna be crucified; what kind of madman would wanna be crucified? Yet at the same time he knew his purpose in this world was to do as the Father sent him to do. Jn 5.19, 8.28 At the time his will didn’t match the Father’s, but he determined he would make his will match the Father’s. Even if it meant suffering.

There’s our example.

That’s why it’s not a popular prayer. Few of us Christians are willing to commit ourselves to God so radically. Of the few who do, we’re totally willing to die for God… not realizing when it really does come time to die for him, perfect fear will cast out zeal. Note Simon Peter. At 9 p.m., totally ready to die for Jesus; Lk 22.23 and 3 a.m., totally lying about him to slave girls. Lk 22.56 Who, as slaves and as girls in that culture, couldn’t even testify against him in court! A few hours can change an awful lot.

But this is why our willingness to follow God absolutely anywhere, can’t be based on zeal. It’s gotta be based on our regular surrender and submission to God’s will. We gotta regularly pray, along with Jesus, “Not what I want. What you want.”

07 March 2018

Saying grace… and a little bit more.

When you don’t have time to pray, but do have time to eat, multitask.

Whenever I write about taking time out from every day to pray, I hear the excuse, “But I’m so busy.”

This, from people who always manage to find time to keep up with certain TV shows and movies, to play their favorite video games for hours, to comment on Facebook about an hour wasted in some other recreational activity. Yeah right you’re so busy.

But I accept there are plenty of people out there who are legitimately busy. Every once in a while I have to work a shift, rush home for an eight-hour break (and in that time squeeze out six hours of sleep), then go right back and work another shift. Certainly doesn’t happen often, but I know people whose jobs regularly require that and more. I’ve had such jobs. I get it. Life gets crazy busy, and who has time for “me time”—much less God time?

When my life got busy like that, I discovered the one spot of time I could spare for prayer: Saying grace before meals.

Yep. In grad school I was trying to juggle classes, fieldwork, and two jobs. Not impossible if you’ve got the time-management skills, but not easy either. But prayer time kept getting hijacked. Prayer was after breakfast, but my students might deliberately track me down at the end of breakfast time, and I’d deal with them instead of talk with God. Or I’d have to go someplace early. Or I’d otherwise get the time interrupted—and I’d find myself praying on my commute, which was tricky but not impossible.

I’m not one of those fools who insist on praying first thing in the morning. I learned better the hard way. I’m still sleepy first thing in the morning, and God isn’t gonna get my best, and he should. Besides, as self-disciplined as I can be, that snooze button is a huge temptation. Some mornings I’d pick sleep over breakfast. So picking sleep over prayer?—that’s a no-brainer. I’d make a terrible monk.

One of my college roommates was really big on morning prayer meetings. (Morning people. You know how they can be.) I’d skip his meetings all the time, no matter how much he tried to guilt me about it. The alarm would wake me; I’d reset it for an hour later, tell God, “You can speak in dreams; do that,” and roll over. Yeah, I know; bad Christian.

But long ago I got into the habit of grace before meals. And when my prayer life was getting spotty like this, I realized some of these prayers before meals were starting to get extra long. ’Cause I was playing catch-up: “Hi God. We didn’t speak earlier. I gotta ask you about this…” and suddenly I was praying 5 minutes over lunch, my sandwich was getting cold, and the other people at the table were wondering what’s with me. Nothing; just praying.

Anyway. When I tell this story, people tend to laugh. But some of ’em respond, “What a good idea.”

Um… I don’t actually mean it as a good idea. But y’know, if it helps your prayer life—and you’re eating cold food anyway!—by all means start praying longer before, or during, your meals.

07 February 2018

Can’t hear God? Read your bible!

’Cause sometimes God holds back his answers when he’s already given them in the scriptures.

So I’ve written on how prayer is simply talking with God. It’s not a one way-monologue where we do all the speaking, but God communicates back through omens, signs, coincidences, and other natural revelations which we can easily misinterpret. We talk; he talks back. Once we get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy to hear his responses whenever we pray.

That is, till we don’t.

’Cause sometimes we can’t seem to hear him. Much as we try, we can’t detect what he tells us. Maybe he’s talking and we’re too stubborn to listen; maybe he’s not, ’cause he’s waiting for us to finally act upon the last thing he told us to do. (Oho, didn’t think of that one, did you?)

Or maybe it’s time we stop putting off reading our bibles.

’Cause once we learn how to hear God, too many of us Christians get into the bad habit of not reading the bible. We figure why bother?—God already tells us everything we need to know! So we don’t read the scriptures and find out what else we might need to know. If it really is a need-to-know deal, God’ll tell us. Right?

Yeah, it’s immature behavior. And God’s training us to be better than that. You think Jesus, just because he is God, has godly wisdom and character in abundance, figured it was okay to give the scriptures a pass? Nuh-uh. He made darned sure he knew ’em better than everyone. Jesus read his bible, and we’re to be like Jesus.

So from time to time, when he feels we need to crack our bibles and get back into ’em, God stops talking. Or he straight-up tells us (as he has me, many times), “I already answered that in the scriptures; read your bible.”

Hence that’s become my go-to response whenever somebody tells me, “I haven’t heard from God lately,” or otherwise complains God feels so distant, or the heavens feel like brass when they pray. Dt 28.23 My usual advice: “Read your bible.”

Okay, maybe you already do read your bible. Good. Keep it up. I’ll explain why.

06 February 2018

Power through prayer.

Power’s a byproduct, not the goal—contrary to some Christians’ wishes.

Humans covet power. So I fully expect by titling this article “Power through prayer,” I’m gonna get a few people who read it thinking, “Well I would like some power, and this fella claims I can get it through prayer; let’s see whether he has anything I could use.” (More accurately, “Let’s see whether he tells me something I’m willing to do.” If it takes too much effort, or takes us too far out of our comfort zones, people prefer alternative routes. True of prayer too.)

There are three types of Christians who wanna know about getting power through prayer. Most of them are the Christians who wanna be “strong in the Lord, and the power of his might.” Ep 6.10 KJV These are the Christians who like to imagine themselves “prayer warriors,” who wanna be able to pray for anything and everything, and have their prayers regularly answered with yes. If prayer gets ’em what they want every single time, that’s mighty power. That’s what they want: Their wishes are… well, not God’s commands, for they’d never put it that way. But essentially yeah: God does as they want.

The second group wants supernatural power. They wanna see miracles. They wanna do miracles. Same as the Christians who want God to do as they want, they want the Holy Spirit to empower them to do every mighty act they can think of. They wanna be able to touch sick people and instantly cure them. Or part seas, make axheads float, make sundials go backward, turn fillings into gold, and even call down fire. Anything that demonstrates God’s really among us. (Or, more selfishly, anything that demonstrates God endorses us. Which miracles don’t actually do; note Samson. But since people aren’t really aware of this, they’re hoping to milk this misbelief for a while.)

And the third group wants temporal power. They might want to be in charge of a church, or a ministry, or a nonprofit. They might want political gain, for all the issues they care about God cares about, to become law. They might want to do really well financially—have a nice house, own a nice car, pay off their mortgage, take all the vacations they want missions trips God wants. And they’re figuring prayer might be the key to this: Do a little praying, earn a few karmic points with God for the time they put in, and he’ll pay them back with victories over their environment.

Is there power to be gained through prayer? Of course there is. Otherwise Christians wouldn’t write piles of books on the subject.

So what’s the secret? Um… it’s hardly a secret.

11 January 2018

Sock-puppet theology: Meditation gone bad.

Or as I call it, sock-puppet meditation.

Beginning with the frequently-misunderstood passage:

Hebrews 12.1-2 KWL
1 Consequently we, having a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us,
putting aside every weight and easily-distracting sin—
we run the contest set before us through patient endurance,
looking to the start and finish of faith: Jesus.
2 He endured in joy, instead of on what was set before him—
despising the dishonorable cross—and sits at the right of God’s throne.

It’s a sports metaphor, and since we do track and field events a little differently than they did in the Roman Empire, stands to reason Christians will miss, and misinterpret, some of the ideas.

The “cloud of witnesses” among them. Nefós/“cloud” is an odd wording, and Christian tradition has borrowed the pagan idea of dead relatives looking down from the heavens upon the living, and interpreted it to mean departed saints who once witnessed about Jesus, who watch present-day saints as spectators. Cheering us on, we hope. (Cringing at how we repeat all their old mistakes, more likely.)

It’s not at all what the author of Hebrews meant. She meant fellow runners.

See, the ancients didn’t run on the rubber or polyurethane surface we put on our running tracks today: They ran on dirt. And what do you get when a bunch of runners are racing through dirt? Clouds. That’s your cloud of witnesses: Fellow runners. Active co-participants. Not spectators, who usually can’t see through the clouds, which is why we switched to asphalt tracks, and eventually the stuff we use now. Modern technology made it so we can’t recognize the context anymore, and now the CEV, GNB, and NLT strait-up translate nefós as “crowd.” Meaning, most of us imagine, the crowd of spectators.

I bring this up ’cause the interpretation of a passage makes a really big difference when we meditate upon it. As we do; as we should. But if our mental image of a “cloud of witnesses” consists of spectators instead of co-laborers, we’re gonna get a very different mental image. One which can go all kinds of wrong.

13 December 2017

The prayer of Nehemiah.

And the need to seek God’s will in our prayer requests.

Back in the ’00s, the prayer of Jabez got a bit of attention with a popular book. Which was quickly followed up by other writers, covetous of The Prayer of Jabez’s success, whose books probably didn’t sell as well for that reason: Books on the Lord’s Prayer and the Jesus Prayer and other tricks to successful prayer.

The only real trick is remembering God can’t be reduced to formulas, and that he has every right to say no. These books don’t necessarily teach this fact. Instead, the idea is if we pray like Jabez, God’ll expand our territory. Pray the Jesus Prayer and receive peace. Pray the St. Christopher prayer and kids get protection; pray the St. Jude prayer and get a yes to your hopeless cause; pray the rosary and get special protection; do X and now God owes us Y.

Doesn’t work like that. And to help that idea sink in a little, I remind you of the Prayer of Nehemiah, offered by Nekhémya bar Khakálya right after he heard what a mess Jerusalem still was.

Nehemiah 1.5-11 KWL
5 I said, “Please LORD, God of heaven, great God,
scary covenant-keeper, lover of those who love you and keep your commands:
6 May your ear now be attentive, your eyes open, to hear your slave’s prayer,
which I pray to your face daily and nightly over Israel’s descendants, your slaves:
I confess the sins Israel’s descendants sinned against you. I and my father’s house sinned.
7 We hurt, hurt you, and didn’t keep the commands, decrees, and rulings you sent your slave Moses.
8 Now remember the word you sent your slave Moses, saying,
When you trespass, I’ll scatter you among the nations.
9 Return to me, keep my commands, do them, and if you’re exiled to the heavens’ edge,
I’ll gather you from there, and return you to the place I chose where my name dwells.’
10 They’re your slaves, your people whom you rescued with your great strength and strong hand.
11 Please Master, have a listening ear for your slave’s prayer,
for your slaves’ prayer—we who wish to respect your name.
Please grant your slave success today. Give me compassion before this man’s face”
for I was the Persian king’s butler.

And though Nehemiah didn’t neatly sum it up as did the author of Chronicles, 1Co 4.10 God went along with his request, and Nehemiah himself got to go to Jerusalem and fix its problems.

06 November 2017

“Be still and know that I am God.”

It’s not about being quiet.

Psalm 46.10

Most people shorten this verse to simply, “Be still and know that I am God.” But sometimes they actually do know the entire verse:

Psalm 46.10 KJV
Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

When people do remember the rest of this verse, they tend to recall (and prefer) a translation without that bothersome word “heathen” in it. The word goyím properly means “foreigners,” which we also translate “foreigners” or “nations”—the Amplified Bible, ESV, NASB, and NIV went with “I will be exalted among the nations,” which works better for them. Be still, know God is God, and if everybody can just chill out and meditate for a bit, God can be exalted by all the nations, round the world.

Yeah, this tends to be considered a meditation verse. I’ve been in prayer groups where Christians have talked about meditation, and they misquote Psalm 46.10 all the time. “Remember, we’re just trying to be still and know God is God.”

Other times Christians wanna encourage one another to relax. People get agitated, emotional, panicky, flustered, and once again Psalm 46.10 pops up: “You need to just be still and know God is God. God’s on the throne. He can solve every problem.” Or less patiently, “Can you be still for a minute, and know God is God?”

Actually, this less-than-patient last example, though still wrong, is closest to what Korah’s sons were talking about in this particular psalm.

31 October 2017

God reveals himself through prayer.

Why does God listen to our prayers? For the same reason he reveals himself to us.

Prayer is of course talking with God. We talk to him and he talks back. It’s not a complicated idea, though we might, and do, complicate it.

Prayer is therefore the most common, most usual way God communicates with his people. Yeah, we can…

Christians list all these things as forms of revelation, though I would object to the last two. But nearly all of us pray, and nearly all of us hear God when we pray, so that’s how nearly all of us get revelation.

Now yes, there are those Christians who insist they don’t hear anything. To their minds, prayer is unidirectional: We talk, God hears, but God says nothing, ’cause he doesn’t need to say anything, ’cause he said everything he cares to say in the scriptures. This belief is largely based on cessationism, the belief God turned off the miracles—and in so doing, functionally abandoned his people—till the End Times. If you’re surrounded by cessationists, you’re gonna get the idea most Christians think like that. You’d be entirely wrong. Most of us hear God. (Not necessarily well, but I’ll discuss that in the next several prayer articles.)

Hearing God is demonstrated all over the scriptures. ’Cause the scriptures were written by prophets, and how’d they get their information? Yes, some Christians imagine they opened their mouths and God’s words came out of them like they were meat puppets. But in more cases they went to God with questions—with prayers—and during those prayers God responded, and that became their prophecies.

This is why prayer and prophecy are so closely connected. That’s usually how God gives prophets his messages for other people: He’ll say, “Tell them this.” You wanna see more prophecy in our church? Then y’all need to pray more often. You don’t get one without the other. (And if you do, those “prophecies” are usually messed up.)

24 October 2017

“Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Don’t ever let this saying become a platitude.

When disaster strikes, whether natural or manmade, one of the most common platitudes we hear thereafter is, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

In the past several years the expression has seen a bit of backlash. Mainly because the people who say it have turned it into an empty, hypocritical saying. By their actions, they demonstrate they’re not really thinking of the disaster victims. And either they’re also not praying, or they’re praying in some manner that doesn’t change ’em whatsoever—contrary to how we all know prayer is supposed to work.

To be fair, some of the backlash comes from nontheists who are pretty sure prayer is bunk: Nobody’s listening, so we Christians are only talking to the sky; nobody’s interacting with us, so we Christians aren’t gonna change. Prayers are therefore just as useless as when some pagans attempt to send positive thoughts, vibes, and energy towards the needy: All they actually do is psyche themselves into feeling really happy things, then feel a little burst of euphoria which they figure is them “releasing” those thoughts into the universe—and then they’re back to life as usual. Unless the happy thoughts get ’em to deliberately behave in more positive, productive ways towards those around them, the universe is no different. Nor better.

Give you an example. One of the United States’ recent mass shootings might take out more masses than usual. The news media covers it like crazy; the public is horrified; the usual senators tweet that their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims and their families. And those who want gun restrictions object: These particular senators aren’t gonna change the gun laws whatsoever. If anything they’ll try all the harder to eliminate gun restrictions. Which means more mass shootings are inevitable. So what good are those senators’ thoughts and prayers?

I mean, functionally it’s the same as when James objected to “faith” which lacked works:

James 2.14-17 KWL
14 What’s the point, my fellow Christians, when anyone claims to have faith and takes no action?
This “faith” doesn’t save them.
15 When a Christian brother or sister becomes destitute, lacks daily food,
16 and one of you tells them, “Go in peace! May you be warm and fed,”
and doesn’t give them anything useful for their body, what’s the point?
17 This “faith,” when it takes no action, is dead to the core.

Our “thoughts and prayers” frequently aren’t any different than wishing the needy well, but doing nothing to make ’em less needy. Sometimes out of our own laziness, sometimes our own ill will. And the needy aren’t dense. They see the irreligiousness of it. They’re calling us on it. Rightly so.

If our thoughts and prayers do nothing, our faith is dead.

17 October 2017

Prayer walks.

’Cause walking and praying is super easy. Well, for most of us.

One of the few activities we can do, yet pray at the same time, is walk.

For this reason certain Christians take prayer walks. More than just pacing back in forth in our rooms while we pray, we take some time out of our day to just go for a walk. Not to any specific destination; we’re gonna loop around and come back home. Not for exercise, although we might do that too. (Turn it into kind of a prayer jog.) Walking’s not the purpose. Prayer is.

Although sometimes we Christians turn the prayer-walk route into something significant. Fr’instance at the beginning of every year, Christians in my town wanna pray for the town. So they take a prayer walk which is specifically mapped so they’ll reach certain important places. Like city hall, the town square, the civic center, certain parks and schools and fire departments, maybe the run-down or more criminal parts of town, maybe certain businesses Christians do and don’t approve of. But while we call these things “prayer walks,” I remind you a proper prayer walk isn’t about the physical destination. It’s about the spiritual destination. We’re not trying to go someplace; we’re trying to grow closer to God.

Hence certain Christians (and our churches) put together prayer walks which deliberately go nowhere. On the church property, you’ll find a “prayer walk” trail which goes round in a circle, and takes you right back to where you started. Or there’ll be a sidewalk which goes all the way around the building… and if you were wondering why it goes round the back when there’s nothing back there, now you know.

Other churches have labyrinths, a diagram on the floor, or on the ground outside, where Christians can walk through the diagram and pray. A lot of pagans imagine labyrinths are cool and “mystical,” and have tried to co-opt the idea (and as a result have weirded out a lot of Christians about their use). But relax; labyrinths are a Christian thing. A prayer walk when your church doesn’t really have the space for something larger.


Walking the labyrinth at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres. Wikimedia

And of course some churches have stations of the cross dioramas or paintings placed round the building for us to walk to and pray at.

10 October 2017

Te Deum.

One of Christendom’s better-known rote prayers.

Te Deum /teɪ 'deɪ.əm/ is a rote prayer. Really it’s a hymn which dates back to the late 300s. It’s named for its first words, Te Deum laudamus/“To God we praise.” Traditions say it was written by St. Ambrose when he baptized St. Augustine. Or St. Hiliary or St. Nicetas of Remesiana wrote it. Meh; who cares how we got it. It’s been a popular prayer for the past 17 centuries, and has been set to music many times in many ways.

The Presbyterian Church’s Book of Common Worship translates it like so.

We praise you, O God,
we acclaim you as Lord,
all creation worships you,
Father everlasting.
To you, all angels, all the powers of heaven,
the cherubim and seraphim, sing in endless praise:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
The glorious company of apostles praise you.
The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.
Throughout the world the holy church acclaims you;
Father, of majesty unbounded,
your true and only Son, worthy of all praise,
the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.
You, Christ, are the king of glory,
the eternal Son of the Father.
When you took our flesh to set us free
you humbly chose the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the sting of death
and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You are seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We believe that you will come, and be our judge.
Come then, Lord, and help your people,
bought with the price of your own blood,
and bring us with your saints
to glory everlasting. BCW 570-571

18 September 2017

Praying when we suck at prayer.

Hey, we’re not all experts.

Years ago I was reading Richard Foster’s Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, a useful book on prayer. In it he described the most basic, elementary form of prayer he could think of, which he calls Simple Prayer. Basically it’s just talking with God, which is all prayer really is.

But I believe there’s a form of prayer even more elementary than Simple Prayer: It’s what I call the I-Suck-At-Prayer prayer. It’s the prayer every new Christian prays. The prayer every pagan prays when they’re first giving prayer a test drive. The prayer even longtime Christians stammer when we’re asked to pray aloud, and suddenly we feel we’ve gotta perform… but not overtly. Christians might pray every day and rather often, yet we’ll still pray the I-Suck-At-Prayer Prayer from time to time.

It’s based on discomfort. It’s when we realize we need to pray in a manner we’re not used to. Maybe somebody else has been leading our prayers. Maybe we’ve been praying too many rote prayers—it’s easier to use the prayer book, or the pre-written prayers in our favorite devotional, and just got out of the habit of extemporaneous prayer—praying without a script, talking to God just like we’d talk to anyone. Some of us feel incapable of it, so we never do pray like that.

So we stammer. Stumble. Suffer stage fright. And our prayers become big ol’ apologies to God for how poorly we’re doing. “Forgive my hesitation; I need to pray more often.”

Foster described Simple Prayer as the starting point of prayer. But plenty of people don’t even make it to the starting block. We get too hung up on “I suck at prayer,” too busy apologizing for our inability to express ourselves, too busy flogging ourselves for not praying “properly.”

I put “properly” in quotes ’cause we Christians often have a screwy idea of what’s proper in prayer, and get way too hard on ourselves because we don’t meet our own unrealistic expectations. Usually we’ve picked up these ideas from “prayer warriors” who make their showy public prayers sound impressive—and people assume their prayers oughta sound like that.

Hence we wind up with Christians who…

As I’ve said, prayer is talking with God. Nothing more than that. If we can talk with our family members, we can definitely talk with God. (If you struggle to talk with them, or they’re distant instead of gracious, I get why God might be a problem.) We don’t have to sound formal. We don’t have to speak in bible language. We don’t even have to be articulate—though we should make an effort, ’cause we are trying to communicate after all. We just gotta go find some privacy, open our mouths, and talk with God.

12 September 2017

Sometimes you shouldn’t say amen.

It’s important to agree in prayer. It’s also important to know when not to.

Ever been in this situation?— You’re in a prayer meeting, church small group, or some other Christian function. And whoever’s praying at the moment is saying something you totally don’t agree with. Something you kinda can’t agree with.

Fr’instance someone who uses prayer time to go on long rants about stuff they don’t like, and disguise them as prayers. Sometimes it’s political stuff: “Oh holy Lord, knowest thou those liberals in Washington? Gettest thou them out of the White House!” Sometimes it’s social issues, or pet peeves, or whatever those radio talk show hosts have got ’em riled up about today.

Or it’s bad theology. “Lord, I know you’ll give us what we ask because your word won’t return void,” even though none of what they prayed was his word (and it doesn’t even mean that). Or assumptions about how some evil we’re praying against was part of God’s plan all along, or name-it-and-claim-it demands, or statements about God’s character which actually go against his character.

Or it’s bad fruit. Anger, hatred, separatism, envy, justification for evil behavior, self-righteousness. Sometimes they think an authentic God-experience needs to be an emotional one, so they’re unnecessarily whipping up their emotions into a lather. Sometimes they’re babbling like pagans. Stuff the prayer leader should clamp down on… except sometimes this is the prayer leader.

So at the end of this rant prayer, they’ll say “Amen.” Custom in most churches for everybody else to repeat the amen, ’cause their prayer is our prayer. Or we agree with what they prayed for. Amen, you might recall, means “true; we agree; let it be so; so say we all; let their prayer be ours.” We’re at least okay with them praying that.

But you’re not okay with it.

And y’know, that’s fine. If you object to the prayer, you don’t have to say amen. Say nothing.

And if you object strongly enough—if, start to finish, it was awful, and the exact opposite oughta’ve been prayed—you can even go with the word anathema. It’s an ancient Greek word which means dammit—and yes it’s in the bible six times, and tends to be translated “accursed.” 1Co 12.3, 16.22, Ga 1.9 Not every Christian knows it, so they may have no idea what you mean by it. Those who do, may be shocked by it, ’cause Christians aren’t (and shouldn’t be) in the habit of anathematizing prayers. I will say they’ll be a lot more shocked if you actually say “dammit,” but if the prayer was a particularly vile one, they’ll probably understand.

But then again you might be in a room full of particularly vile Christians, so they definitely won’t understand. Your call.

Just saying if amen isn’t the appropriate thing to say, don’t say it.

05 September 2017

“Devotions”: Times we especially focus on God.

And hopefully pray. Don’t forget to pray!

Devotions /di'voʊ.ʃənz/ n. Prayers, religious observances, or worship.
[Devotional /di'voʊ.ʃən.əl/ adj.]

It’s a really good idea for Christians to block off several minutes of time, every single day, solely for the purpose of connecting with God. A little bible, a little prayer, a little meditation or contemplation. Something which helps us focus our lives on God.

’Cause life is busy. Or it’s not really, but we just suck at time management, so we never make the time for God. You know how there are certain friends and family members you just never hear from?—they’re either way too busy, or time with you frankly isn’t one of their priorities? Well, for a lot of Christians, we’re in danger of having that kind of relationship with God. One where we sorta take him for granted in our lives, but when’s the last time we really sat down with him and talked?

So, devotional time.

Part of your average Christian’s struggle with devotions, comes from the fact they really don’t know what to do with themselves during this time. What should we pray? What should we read, and meditate on?

That was my struggle as a teenager and young adult: Nobody had properly taught me how to have my own devotional time. They talked about having one. “I sit down with my coffee and my bible, and read, and pray, and have my quiet time.” Okay; what d’you read? How many chapters?—or do you read a paragraph and spend the rest of the time meditating on it? What d’you pray?—and how do you pray for 15-minute stretches when you only have two minutes’ worth of material?

Whenever I was at youth functions, the youth pastors would lead the devotional times. But I’m gonna be blunt: Those weren’t proper devotional times. Those were mini-lectures disguised as worship. Pastor’d discuss the dumb things we kids did, or might do, and how we oughta think about such things, and lead us to pray, “Lord Jesus, help me behave like the pastor was talking about,” even if deep down we didn’t really care.

Some of the adults I knew were dependent on devotional books and magazines. (“Devotionals,” for short.) One of the more popular devotional magazines at my church was Our Daily Bread. I still know plenty of folks who make a point of reading through Oswald Chambers’ 365-day devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, every year. I own a few devotional books: Brief writings by clever Christian authors, arranged in 365 clips for my convenience, with a bible passage to read for edification, and a brief prayer in case I can’t think of anything to tell God.

I get why people use the canned material: They don’t know where to start. The problem? That’s not your relationship with God. That’s you reading about Oswald Chambers’s relationship with God; or about the relationship of whoever wrote the devotional you’re using this year. Praying their prayers instead of your own. Meditating on their ideas instead of the scriptures. Yeah, some of ’em have good ideas, but still: Ever call up a friend on the phone, then read somebody else’s letters to them? It’s kinda like that.

No, I’m not saying ditch the devotional books. Keep ’em if you like ’em. But don’t confuse them for proper devotions. It’s gotta consist of you and the Holy Spirit. Any facilitators have gotta be temporary, there till you get the hang of doing this on your own.

04 August 2017

Tongues and unfruitful minds.

Plus the unfruitful cessationist interpretations of this passage.

1 Corinthians 14.13-19.

This is a passage Christians like to quote. For different reasons.

For Pentecostals it’s to quote the apostles—specifically Paul—when they wrote, “I speak tongues more than all of you.” Then argue, “See? Paul did it. Why can’t we?” And then, more often than not, proceed to do it contrary to everything else Paul taught about building up the church.

For anti-Pentecostals, it’s to point to the statement, “Pray that you can interpret,” then loudly object, “People ought never speak in tongues tongues at church unless they follow up with an interpretation.” Then they proceed to ban even the tongues which might be followed up with interpretation, just to be on the safe side. If they’re full-bore cessationist, they’re pretty sure tongues are devilish anyway.

Well, let’s look at the passage in question.

1 Corinthians 14.13-19 KWL
13 So tongues-speakers: Pray that you can interpret.
14 When I pray tongues, my spirit prays. My mind isn’t fruitful.
15 Why is this? I’ll pray by my spirit; I’ll pray by my mind.
I’ll sing by my spirit; I’ll sing by my mind.
16 For when you praise in your spirit, and the place is full of newbies,
how will they say amen to your thanksgiving, since they don’t know what you said?
17 You did give thanks properly, but others weren’t built up.
18 I thank God—and I speak tongues more than all of you.
19 But in church, I want five words in my mind to speak so I can also instruct others.
(That, or tens of thousands of words in tongues.)

Yes, my translation reads a little different than others you might’ve read. That’s because we have different biases. When others translate this passage, they imagine the apostles were contrasting. To them this passage is about speaking tongues versus speaking ancient Greek—or English, or Spanish, or whatever the locals speak.

That’s not at all my attitude, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the apostles’ attitude either. They spoke tongues; they never forbade it; they ordered the Corinthians to not forbid it either. 1Co 14.19 The issue wasn’t tongues versus no tongues; it was proper versus improper. It was using tongues for personal worship, not group worship, nor to create a “spiritual” atmosphere.

If you’re convinced the apostles were trying to contrast between tongues and no tongues, it’s really easy to make it sound that way by slanting your translation. First of all, the word de/“and.” Ancient Greek used it to connect sentences which had a common theme, much like today’s English uses paragraphs. When you translate, you can drop every de entirely; it shouldn’t change the meaning of the translation any. But when you translate de as “but,” like the KJV and many other translations, you’ve introduced a contrast which isn’t in the original text. And here’s what you get. (I highlighted every word in the passage which translates de.)

1 Corinthians 14.13-15 NIV
13 For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.

Plus if you translate i/“or” as “than,” you get:

1 Corinthians 14.19 NIV
But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Those four little words make four big differences, ’cause now people have the idea tongues are negative and undesirable—that in our churches, people should speak English only.

Bias, man. It’s a sneaky little critter.