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

Getting hungry for God. Literally.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 January 2023
FAST fast verb. Go without food [for God].
2. noun. A period of going without food [for God].

Whenever I talk to people about fasting, their knee-jerk reaction is “No food? No food? No FOOD? You’re outa your [profane adjective] mind.” After all, this is the United States, where a 20-ounce soda is called a “small.” In this nation, the stomach rules.

This is why so many Christians are quick to redefine the word “fast.” My church, fr’instance, frequently does this 21-day “Daniel fast.” I’ll explain what that is elsewhere; for now I’ll just point out it’s not an actual fast. Nobody’s going without food. They’re going without certain kinds of food. No meat, no sweets. But no hunger pains either.

Fasting, actual fasting, is a hardcore Christian practice. The only things which go into our mouths are air and water. In an “absolute fast” you even skip the water. Now, we need food and water. If we don’t eat, we die. And that’s the point: Push this practice too far and we die. But God is more important than our lives. That’s the declaration we make when we fast: Our lives aren’t as important as God.

Why do we do such a thing? For the same reason Jesus did it, when he went to the desert for the devil to tempt him. Mt 4.1-2, Lk 4.1-2 Fasting makes people spiritually tough. It amplifies our prayer and meditation by a significant factor, which is why it’s a common prayer practice. When we deprive our physical parts, and shift our focus to the spiritual parts, those parts get exercised; they get stronger.

We reject our culture, which teaches us we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of anything. We recognize God, not food, is our source of life. Our minds get better attuned to God’s will. We hear him better, because our bodies physically feel our need for him. We detect spiritual things faster. We discern the difference between good and evil better.

Yeah, fasting does all that. That is, when we’re praying as well as fasting. If you’re fasting but not praying, it’s time wasted.

Don’t get me wrong. Other forms of self-deprivation do it too. Dieting for God, or going without certain beloved things and hobbies, because God’s more important than our desires, will also achieve the same things fasting can. Just not as quickly; not as intensely. The stakes just aren’t as high. Fasting is hardcore, remember? Going without bacon, as hard as that might be for you personally, isn’t life-threatening. (In fact it’s better for your health.) But though a small thing, it’s still a sacrifice, and part of the proper mindset: “God is more important than my palate.”

So you feel unclean. Pray anyway.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 October 2022

Probably the most common reason Christians don’t pray… is because we don’t feel clean enough.

I’m not talking about ritual cleanliness. (Most Christians don’t even know what that is anyway: It’s the idea of ritually washing yourself before worship. Since the Holy Spirit now dwells in us Christians, we don’t need to ritually wash before temple; we are his temple.) But it’s not that; it’s feeling clean, because we feel dirty, because we sinned. Maybe we sinned recently; maybe we didn’t, but we’re aware we sinned a lot over the past few weeks, so we figure we’re not worthy to approach God. He’s too holy, and we’re too gross.

Some Christians even claim God is repelled by our sins. If there’s any sin in our lives, there’s no point in approaching God ’cause he’ll just turn away from us and ignore our prayers. Or even leave, in offense and outrage, like a heavenly snowflake.

It’s because these Christians either don’t understand, or don’t truly believe, Jesus covers everything. They don’t recognize when God accepted us as his kids, he was entirely aware of every sin we were gonna commit in the future. Even sins we’re committing this very instant. (Cut that out, by the way.) But Jesus paid for everything. God doesn’t dole out grace on a sin-by-sin basis: You and he are good. You’re his kid. He’s happy to talk with you!

Now I can say this, and you might understand it and sorta believe it… but Christians still find this a really difficult hangup to get past. For three reasons.

  1. Partly it’s because other people don’t act this way at all, so it’s a wholly foreign mindset, and we’re not familiar with it.
  2. Mostly it’s because it’s our mindset. We’re so used to karma! We can’t fathom the idea of preemptive total forgiveness. We’d certainly never do it, so of course it’s hard to imagine God doing it.
  3. And, y’know, the devil. It’d prefer we never pray, and the longer it can keep us acting upon our unhealthy beliefs, the better.

The weepy person in the prayer group.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 October 2022

Decades ago, in my previous church, I led the prayer group for a few months. At that time we got a new regular attendee, who’d come pray with us every Wednesday. And every time she prayed, sang, or otherwise interacted with God, she cried.

A lot.

We’re not talking misty eyes, or a few tears rolling down her face. Lots of Christians pray with our eyes closed, and you’ll naturally get tears when you squeeze ’em tight, but nope, this wasn’t that either. We’re talking full-on snotty blubbering. Like her child just died or something.

That first prayer meeting she attended, the women of our prayer meeting gathered round her, hugged her, prayed for God to comfort her, asked God to help whatever had her so sorrowful, asked whether there was anything they could do. Took ’em the rest of the prayer meeting—and then some. (I had to stick around afterward as they tried to minister to her, ’cause I had to lock the building. I didn’t get home till 10PM.)

The next week: Same deal. We came to pray, and so did she… and the next thing you know, she’s bawling and moaning, and the women tried to comfort her again, and we again went overtime doing so.

The third week: One woman went over to pray with and comfort her. The rest were telling me, “Oh, she has some serious emotional issues. She needs therapy, not prayer.”

Fourth week, all the women just let her go off in a corner of the chapel to wail.

Some of you are reading this, and think this sounds just awful of us. Hey, if I were a newbie Christian, I’d think the very same thing: She’s coming to us for help, and we’re pushing her aside?

Except we didn’t. The women who realized she needed therapy, tried to get her therapy. Found her a therapist who’d see her. Tried to line up an appointment. The weepy person was having none of that. So the women were done—like exhausted parents who give up on trying to get their infant to sleep in her own bed, and just leave the baby in the room to cry it out. Soothing her wasn’t working. So they quit.

A psychologist friend explained it best: You know how some people feel much better after having a good cry? That’s largely what this woman was doing.

Here’s what’s wrong with her behavior. What also made her feel much better, was having a crowd of Christians try to make her feel better. And they totally succeeded. But it’s not our job to make her feel better! It’s God’s. It’s just neither she nor we realized that. We thought she needed our comfort, and she was so pleased to get it, and wanted more. Even if it meant sucking the life out of all her comforters.

I’ve seen this phenomenon a number of times since. No, such people don’t necessarily need therapy and medication. But what they’re doing is wholly inappropriate. We’re supposed to take our lamentation to God, and the Holy Spirit is supposed to do the comforting. Instead they take their emotions to us, have us comfort them, and parasitically drain our ministers of their emotions. Humans aren’t equipped to do this! We either cry along, and get just as ruined, or we clamp up and step away in self-defense… and get accused of being cold, unsympathetic, and compassionless.

Lamentation: Sad prayers.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 September 2022

When Christians believe we gotta evoke some form of prayer mood before we can talk with God, y’might notice Christians try to pick a mindset which reflects how they think they gotta approach him. Not boldness, like the writer of Hebrews suggests; He 4.16 more like awe at how amazing God is, or self-loathing at how amazing we’re not. Sometimes sadness because of just how much we suck; we’re rotten sinners, and how dare we approach the holy Almighty in our unclean state.

If we had to manufacture any mood before we could pray, it’s artificial; it’s hypocrisy. Don’t do that. Don’t make yourself sad just so you can approach God repentantly.

But if you’re legitimately sad, that’s fine! There’s nothing wrong with sad prayers. God’s totally cool with them. It’s called lamentation—and yeah, there’s a book Jeremiah wrote called Lamentations in your bible, which consists entirely of his sad prayers. You wanna learn how to pray sad prayers?—you got Jeremiah’s example right there in your bible.

You also have King David ben Jesse, who was an emotional guy, and didn’t hide it at all from the LORD when he got low. Didn’t hide it from anyone, which is why his lament psalms are included in the books of Psalms. He had no qualms about writing the Bronze Age equivalent of the blues.

Psalm 38.0-9 NET
0 A psalm of David, written to get God’s attention.
1 O LORD, do not continue to rebuke me in your anger.
Do not continue to punish me in your raging fury.
2 For your arrows pierce me,
and your hand presses me down.
3 My whole body is sick because of your judgment;
I am deprived of health because of my sin.
4 For my sins overwhelm me;
like a heavy load, they are too much for me to bear.
5 My wounds are infected and starting to smell,
because of my foolish sins.
6 I am dazed and completely humiliated;
all day long I walk around mourning.
7 For I am overcome with shame,
and my whole body is sick.
8 I am numb with pain and severely battered;
I groan loudly because of the anxiety I feel.
9 O Lord, you understand my heart’s desire;
my groaning is not hidden from you.

David goes on and on like this. Y’notice he even blames God for some of it. Yeah, various Christians will leap to the conclusion that because this is infallible scripture, God literally did do this stuff to David, and literally does stuff like this to sinners nowadays. But a more accurate interpretation is that David felt like God was behind some of his misery, and said so; not that God actually was or is. As Job reveals, sometimes he’s not. Since Jesus tells us not to worry, clearly David’s stress and anxiety is generated by David himself. Not God.

Notice as well: Even though David suspected the LORD was behind some of his suffering, he still turned to God for help and relief. Because he knew—and this part is entirely true—God is our comfort. 2Co 1.3 He comforts us so we can turn round and comfort others. 2Co 1.4 So because that’s who he is, that’s why we need to turn to him when we’re sad with our sad prayers. Lament to God. He’ll comfort the sorrowing.

Prayer, and the law of attraction.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 September 2022

The “law of attraction” is a popular pagan belief. Basically it’s that when you put positivity out into the universe, it attracts positivity. Whereas if you put negativity out into the universe, it attracts negativity. You know—the exact opposite of how magnets work.

It’s karmic thinking. It’s exactly how people imagine a fair and just universe should work. I put out all these good vibes, so I deserve to get some goodness back, right? Whereas that barista earlier today was such a dick to me, safes and pianos and anvils and air conditioners oughta fall on him. My goodness should be rewarded; his evil should be punished.

And one of the interesting things about this “law”—the part we read about in Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and dozens of other self-help books jumping on this bandwagon—is that we can use it to get whatever we want. All you gotta do is be a positive person, then declare your intentions and plans to the universe. And the universe will grant you these wishes.

This idea is so common and popular, Christians have regularly attempted to Christianize it, and claim they can actually find it in bible. No they can’t. Not without pulling various verses out of context, and really stretching their meaning. But they don’t mind bending the bible to fit the idea, then naming and claiming all the stuff they covet, in the hopes the universe (although Christians usually say “God”) will give ’em what they desire. ’Cause didn’t he say he’ll give us whatever we desire?

Mark 11.23-24 KJV
23 For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. 24 Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.

Like Jesus said: Believe! Don’t doubt. What things soever ye desire. Verily!

Hence you’ll find a lot of Christians who insist the “law of attraction” is a perfectly legitimate practice. They claim God built it into the universe; it’s a “law” just like Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, or John Locke’s laws of nature, or Adam Smith’s laws of economics. That’s why they do it: They’re just tapping a perfectly legitimate power of the universe. Why should only pagans get to do so?

The prayer mood.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 August 2022

As we know, prayer is talking with God. You have something to tell him? Start talking. You want him to talk to you? Ask him stuff. It’s not complicated; it is just that simple.

It’s just we overcomplicate things. We learned a bunch of prayer rituals, which we figure gotta happen every time we pray. Gotta get in the prayer closet. Gotta assume the right posture: Head to the ground, facing Jerusalem; or eyes closed and hands folded; or facing the sky, arms lifted high. Whatever your tradition dictates.

And just as we put our bodies in a posture, we put our mindset in a posture too. We figure the best way to get ready to receive God, the best way to submit to his will, is to assume a prayer mood, an emotional state which we imagine is best for prayer.

You might not even be aware you’re psyching yourself into that state. It’s just you always have. It’s what you’ve always seen other Christians do, and that’s how you picked it up. You feel you oughta be humble when you approach God, so you mentally lower, or even degrade yourself. You feel you oughta be open to stuff he wants to teach you, so you imagine your mind wide open, ready to accept anything. You feel if God’s gonna be present, it’s time to put on a display of loving him with all our mind, so you conjure up that feeling as best you can. And so on.

I was just reading something by E.M. Bounds, who’s full of bad advice when it comes to prayer… but unfortunately his books on prayer are really popular. He believed we should ask God for “a fervent spirit” when we pray, so we can be all intense and passionate and emotional and anxious. Wait, didn’t Jesus teach us not to be anxious?

Most of us know this prayer mood thingy isn’t mandatory. After all if we had to attain this mood before we could pray, the devil could easily keep us in any other mood but the prayerful one. So, thankfully, we never think of it as, “God’ll be displeased if I don’t feel this way when I pray.” But we wanna feel this way. It helps prayer feel good.

So, positive attitude. Clear mind. Loving, humble, focused thoughts. Emotions on the surface… yet more or less under control. Any stray thoughts, any unpleasant emotions—any pessimism, pride, or evil—has gotta be shoved aside. If we can’t do these things, it still totally counts as prayer; we just won’t consider it a good prayer. It’ll feel ineffective.

Yeah of course all this thinking is crap.

Prayer’s not about how we feel when we pray. As the psalms demonstrate, we can feel any which way. Sometimes the psalmists were psyched about talking to God… but sometimes they were distracted, agitated, irritated by all their enemies whom they wished God would curb-stomp. Sometimes their emotions were in check; sometimes they most definitely weren’t.

It’d be nice if prayer felt good. But it isn’t necessary that it has to. And since we can’t trust our emotions, who says it always has to?

Nondirectional prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 August 2022

I’ve written about unidirectional prayer—those prayers where people figure they’re talking to God, but he never responds, because he doesn’t do that sort of thing. Either he’s holding off till the End, and we have to learn to live with silence; or he only speaks through the bible, signs, and omens; or, as nontheists suspect, he’s been a figment of our imagination all along.

Regular readers of TXAB are fully aware I believe the whole God-doesn’t-speak-anymore idea is a steaming pile of crap. God responds, and if you’ve never heard him respond, you gotta learn to hear him. Stop doing all the talking, sit down, and listen. Concentrate on a passage of scripture for a few minutes, and see whether the Holy Spirit drops some thoughts into your head. Meditate. Make the time to do this frequently, and keep doing it till hearing him becomes natural.

But back to the people who believe God won’t talk back, won’t respond, isn’t interactive, and isn’t gonna make special exceptions during this dispensation. Who think prayer isn’t about speaking with God; it’s really about other things. Like learning how to pray for his will. Or learning to have empathy for the folks we pray for. Or continuing in religious exercises for their own sake. Or doing it to feel spiritual. Or whatever other excuses they use to keep up the practice, even though they’re not so sure God’s on the other end of the line.

They may be unaware of this, but really what they’re teaching people prayer is about, is learning to live without God.

Seriously. Because if prayer doesn’t work—if God is never gonna answer—then functionally he’s not here. Despite the scripture saying he’ll never leave nor forsake us, He 13.5 he has. He’s removed himself; he’s elsewhere; he’s not here. We live in a God-forsaken universe. May as well become Buddhist.

So technically these folks aren’t even practicing unidirectional prayer. If God’s not here anymore, they’re practicing nondirectional prayer: Their prayers go nowhere. Not up nor down; nowhere. They take the form of being addressed to God; they may even include “in Jesus’s name.” But they’re wasted breath. Dead religion.

“Why pray?”—a common question of those who don’t listen to God.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 August 2022

When you’re dealing with children or newbies, at some point they’re gonna have this question. (If they never do… well I’ll get to that in a moment.)

CHILD. “Got a question.”
ADULT. “Fire away.”
CHILD. “God can read my mind, right?”
ADULT. “Yep.”
CHILD. “Like everything in my mind? Everything I want? Everything I think I want, and everything I really, deep down, won’t even admit to myself I really want?”
ADULT. “Wow, that’s really astute of you to recognize you have secret inner desires.”
CHILD. “I’m young, not stupid. So he knows all that?”
ADULT. “Yep.”
CHILD. “So why do I need to tell him that?”

There’s also the related question of, “Why should I ask God for things to happen when he’s already set the future?” In general, the question is, “Why pray at all?”

Christians have come up with a number of answers to these questions. I’ve heard ’em all my life. We actually think they’re good answers. But all of them utterly miss something: Why is this child or newbie asking this question?

Does a child ever ask, “What’s the point in asking Mom for things?” Rarely. They might, if Mom is mentally ill and her only responses to requests are toxic and terrifying. If they gotta defend themselves every time they make the mistake of reaching out to their mother, they’re quickly gonna learn this is a bad idea. But clearly that’s not what’s happening with God! He doesn’t respond to our prayers by smiting us.

So… how is he responding to their prayers, if they’re now coming to us with the question, “Why pray at all?”

To me, the only reasonable explanation is they don’t think he is responding. That’s why they have questions about the purpose of prayer: They can’t hear God.

Let the church 𝘯𝘰𝘵 say amen.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 August 2022

Ever been in this situation? You’re at some Christian function, somebody’s leading the group in prayer, and whatever they’re praying is something you don’t agree with. Might be something you’re not all that sure about; might be something you really can’t abide.

No I don’t just mean they’re committing one of those annoying prayer practices, like praying too long, or preaching a big ol’ sermon disguised as a prayer, or saying “like” way too many times, or getting repetitive. You disagree with the content of the prayer. They’re praying for what they shouldn’t.

Sometimes it’s stuff which’ll rub our politics the wrong way. “Oh Lord, re-elect our mayor! She’s a good woman, and that other guy is an idiot.” Heck, it might even rub our politics the right way—that other guy is an idiot—but we know better than to turn our group prayers into political endorsements, because God’s church must promote God’s kingdom, not earthly kingdoms. So we gotta reject the political stuff, whether it’s candidates, party platforms, political pundits’ talking points, and anything which might unnecessarily alienate the opposition party. (If you’re not sure about the difference between an issue we really should pray about, or something intentionally divisive, talk with the Holy Spirit and other Christians about it beforehand.)

Sometimes it’s bad theology. Or ideas based on misinterpreted, out-of-context scriptures. “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 people’s 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.

The prayer journal: Keeping track of our conversations with God.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 July 2022
PRAYER JOURNAL 'pr(eɪ.)ər 'dʒər.nəl noun. A regular record of our interactions with God.
[Prayer journaling - 'dʒər.nəl.ɪŋ verb tense.]

Gotta admit: There’s a lot of old emails and texts I’ve never deleted. I have text chains going back decades now. I delete stuff from businesses and employers; I especially delete ads. But I wanna keep the family and friends stuff.

A prayer journal is as close as we can get to the same thing with God.

It’s sort of a diary. But rather than listing all the main things we did each day (or listing all of them, plus our innermost secret feelings about them, which’ll be a lot of embarrassing fun someday when someone finds and reads it, especially in a courtroom) it’s about what we prayed. We’re keeping track. God’s memory of our interactions is absolutely perfect; ours, not always so much.

Yeah, I realize not everyone keeps a diary. Sometimes because someone found and read it, and we realized such a thing is a great big embarrassment time bomb. Other times because we lack the self-discipline. Mostly because we never saw the point. Well this is the point: You kinda should keep track.

See, your average Christian doesn’t journal their prayers. Don’t see the point. They ask God a question and get an answer, then move on. They ask for stuff, get it, and move on. Or they don’t get what they want, give up, and move on. Or they ask God on behalf of others, but they don’t bother to follow up because they don’t entirely care; or they got some news about whether the prayer worked, then promptly forgot it and again moved on.

Lots of moving on. But no record of anything God’s done for them. No record other than their own personal, and often faulty, memories. And whenever people go through any kind of crisis, sometimes those memories immediately become irrelevant: Our panicking minds don’t recall, or even care, how God’s constantly come through for us in the past.

God answers our prayers all the time. And not just with “no”! But when we never keep track, we can’t always tell you when, how, and how often. When we’re feeling low, we too often forget every good thing God has done for us. You know, like the Hebrews did in the wilderness, every single time they hit a rough patch: “Aw man, we’re gonna die. Y’know, despite all the whippings and work and how they used to murder our babies, I remember Egypt was way better. Why’d we ever leave?” Ex 16.3, 17.3, Nu 11.18, etc. God forbid, but this kind of thing still happens with humans. All the time.

That’s why the prophets and apostles put together a written record of what God did do for ’em. And you oughta have one too. Your prayer journal is what God’s done for you. Keep track!

Especially if you’re involved (or getting involved) with your church’s prayer ministry. Or if you regularly pray for others. Or if you’re not entirely sure prayer works: Keep a journal for three months and see for yourself.

There are dozens of different prayer journal techniques. Today I’ll just start you off with a really simple method, which works for me.

When you gotta pray in public.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 July 2022

You might have an amazing, consistent prayer life. You might have regular deep, meaningful conversations with God.

Nah, who are we kidding? You might suck at it. All your prayers are short little “God, can I have [IMMEDIATE DESIRE]?” whenever your wallet can’t immediately answer your requests. And maybe you remember to say grace. And yeah, when someone else at church is praying, you agree with them. That’s about it.

Then, terror of terrors, it comes time to speak to God in front of other people. The small group leader tells you, “Hey, could you lead us in prayer?” and you quickly look behind yourself to confirm the leader was totally speaking to someone else… and when it turns out nope, it’s you, you outwardly say, “Yeah no problem,” and inwardly freak out a little.

Totally normal.

No, it doesn’t mean you suck as a Christian. (Being irreligious does.) You’re praying in front of others. That’s a form of public speaking—the number one fear of all Americans, in survey after survey. People are more afraid of public speaking than death. Than death. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that at a funeral, more people would rather be in the casket than give the eulogy.

So if you’re anxious about public speaking—you don’t know what to say, or you did but as soon as you stood up you blanked out, or you’re anxious about what people might think when you mess up, or you feel you might have an utter meltdown and collapse in tears and even your own pee: This is normal. Yeah, maybe we Christians in particular oughta have more courage than this, but it’s normal to not want to speak or pray to a crowd. You’re not a freak. Relax.

Okay, so how do we deal with this? Glad you asked.

Prayers of self-examination.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 July 2022

Likely you already know the “Rich Young Ruler Story”: It’s not a parable, ’cause it actually happened. Somebody—Matthew calls him a young man, Mt 19.20 Luke calls him a ruler, Lk 18.18 and all the synoptic gospels call him wealthy—came to Jesus, wanting to know how to receive eternal life. He was astute enough to realize following all of the LORD’s commands wasn’t gonna cut it. It took more than the very best karma, and maybe the rabbi knew what it was.

He didn’t like Jesus’s answer.

Mark 10.17-23 KJV
17 And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? 18 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. 19 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother. 20 And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. 21 Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. 22 And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions. 23 And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!

The teenager did have a deficiency. A few of them: A shortage of generosity. Too much dependence on his earthly possessions. True, at the end of this story he went away, and we don’t know what happened to him thereafter. I hope he repented, but the gospels don’t say.

His sad story aside, he reveals a form of prayer which we Christians oughta make from time to time. It’s a prayer of self-examination: We wanna know if there’s anything more God wants us to do. Are we missing something? Have we left anything undone? Any sins of omission? Do we have a blindspot? Maybe a bunch of blindspots. God, what are they?

In my experience it’s often basic stuff which we densely never realized we should also be doing. The rich young ruler didn’t realize he should’ve been giving to the poor. Which is weird, ’cause he claimed he totally followed the Law… but I guess he forgot this passage is in there:

Deuteronomy 15.11 KJV
For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.

Greedy people have invented all sorts of justifications for not helping the needy. Christians may not necessarily be greedy (though yeah, some of us are) but some of us have heard these justifications all our lives… and learned to agree with them, and likewise do nothing to help the needy. We don’t even think about all the teachings of Jesus, all the commands in the scriptures, in which God expects us to help the needy. It’s become this massive blindspot for plenty of Christians: “Jesus himself said ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ so what’s the point in trying to solve the problem of poverty?” The rich young ruler is hardly the only person who never noticed his blindspot till Jesus pointed it out.

But deep down, he knew it was there. The Holy Spirit was poking him in the conscience. Same as he’s poking us in the conscience: “Hey, you’re overlooking something.” So let’s ask him: What’d we forget? What more must we do?

Unless, like the rich young ruler, we don’t really wanna know.

When the heavens are brass?

by K.W. Leslie, 05 July 2022

Deuteronomy 28.23.

Depending on whether a Christian grew up with the King James Version or the New International Version, we’re sometimes gonna talk about how sometimes “the heavens are brass,” or “the heavens are bronze.” No we don’t mean the sky’s looking kinda gold or yellowish, like a nice sunset or a looming dust cloud. We’re talking about when we talk to God… and we feel like we’re getting back nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Deuteronomy 28.23 KJV
And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron.

But the actual context of this verse isn’t even about prayer. It’s part of a curse Moses spelled out for the Hebrews who were about to enter their promised land: If you dismiss what the LORD tells you, and do evil instead, he’s gonna withdraw his blessings and things are gonna suck. Hard.

Deuteronomy 28.20-24 NLT
20 “The LORD himself will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in everything you do, until at last you are completely destroyed for doing evil and abandoning me. 21 The LORD will afflict you with diseases until none of you are left in the land you are about to enter and occupy. 22 The LORD will strike you with wasting diseases, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, and with blight and mildew. These disasters will pursue you until you die. 23 The skies above will be as unyielding as bronze, and the earth beneath will be as hard as iron. 24 The LORD will change the rain that falls on your land into powder, and dust will pour down from the sky until you are destroyed.”

Sound familiar? Pandemics, climate change and freaky weather, massive drought? No? Well, this was a warning to Hebrews not Americans. But it wouldn’t hurt to shape up a little.

Anyway when Moses spoke of the “skies above will be as unyielding as bronze,” he meant a sky which produces no rain. In his day, the ancients believed the sky, or firmament, was a solid wall holding back the waters of heaven—but it was porous, so occasionally rain would get through. Well, a bronze shield isn’t porous… unless your opponents have iron arrowheads. But if you were hoping to dig wells in the ground, and get water thataway, guess what that’s gonna be like. Yep, iron.

So yeah, whenever you talk about not hearing back from God, do not make the mistake of saying, “Like when the bible says about heavens like brass.” The bible does refer to that, but it’s about literal drought, not a spiritual one.

Now if you wanna talk about unanswered prayer, the bible does actually have passages on the topic. Quote them. Not the “heavens are brass” part; this ain’t one of them. Capice?

Those who no longer think prayer works.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 June 2022

There’s a blog I follow. A few years ago, its author wrote a post about how he no longer believes prayer works—at least not the way we imagine it does.

He no longer believes prayer involves asking God for stuff. Nor asking questions of him, and getting answers. Nor calling on him for help. Forget about God meeting our needs and granting our wishes. Forget about asking this mountain to move over there, and it will.

Prayer, he states, is only about empathy. We pray for others because we love and care about them. It brings us closer to them. It expresses our love for them. It expresses our love for God too. It’s kind.

But otherwise prayer doesn’t do jack. And y’know, he says he’s okay with that.

I’ll take his word for it that he’s okay with that. But man alive, I sure wouldn’t be.

Back in my early twenties, I told God he needed to either do something, or I was gonna quit being Christian. Because I was tired of following a God who, according to my bible, does stuff… yet going to a church where, according to them, he doesn’t do stuff. They were cessationist, and believed God no longer answers prayer. Not for miracles, anyway.

Now, fortunate coincidences: He’d do those, from time to time. If a friend of yours had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy and you prayed real hard and the tumor shrank, they felt it was wholly legitimate to give God the credit… for permitting the chemo to work, I suppose. Or say a different friend got into a road accident, and a dozen friends coincidentally happened to be on the scene, and helped rescue her, call an ambulance, call the auto insurance company, call a tow truck—why, such coincidences have to be a “God-incidence,” as Christians I know tend to call it. Such things don’t just happen.

But that’s as far as they’d permit God to act. Anything more than that—like actually getting cured of cancer only minutes before the chemotherapy—and they’d doubt the person even had cancer to begin with. Any incident where God told a person in advance, “Hey, be at this intersection; I need to you help somebody; you’ll see it when you get there,” and they’d claim, “Well that can’t be God, ’cause he doesn’t do such things. But Satan does.” According to their worldview, God’s powerless—and Satan’s not. Seriously.

I’m not claiming this blogger is this kind of cessationist. I’m pretty sure he’s not; I suspect if you asked him about Satan, he’d say the devil’s more of a malevolent human attitude than a literal being. But he has determined God doesn’t answer prayer, doesn’t cure the sick, doesn’t act. So, same as the cessationists I grew up with, he thinks prayer’s only about training us to pursue God’s will. Not teaching us to depend on him. We can’t. He’s sitting things out. He’s abandoned us to our fates. Bye kids; see you in heaven!

You can probably tell I disagree with him. A lot.

And no, not because I’d like to imagine God as caring and interactive. It’s because he answered my twentysomething prayer: He did something. Still does. He answers my prayers. Therefore I see no reason he can’t answer yours.

The Pharisee and Taxman Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 June 2022

Luke 18.9-14.

Immediately after the Persistent Widow Story, Jesus tells this one. It likewise touches upon prayer… but it’s more about people who consider themselves devout, yet are jerks.

Luke 18.9-14 KWL
9 Jesus also says to certain hearers
who trust in themselves that they’re righteous
—and despise everyone else—this parable:
10 “Two people go up to temple to pray.
One’s a Pharisee, and the other a taxman.
11 The Pharisee, standing off by himself, is praying this:
‘God, thank you that I’m not like every other person!
those greedy, unjust fornicators!
Or even like this taxman!
12 I fast twice a week.
I tithe whatever I get.’
13 The taxman, who’d been standing way back,
didn’t even want to raise his eyes to heaven,
but beat his chest, saying,
‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 I tell you this taxman comes down from temple,
made righteous in his house, along with the other man.
For everyone who raises themselves will be lowered.
And those who lower themselves will be raised.”

Sometimes this is called the Pharisee and Publican story, ’cause “publican” is how the KJV translates τελώνης/telónis, “collector of tolls, customs, or taxes.” But “publican” is an anachronism at this point in history. Yep, it’s history lesson time, kids. Gather round and I’ll tell a story.

Before the Caesars took over, Rome was a republic. Not a democracy; it had democratic parts to it, but it was mostly an oligarchy run by patricians, the Roman nobility. At some uncertain point in their past, the patricians overthrew their king and ran Rome collectively. Every year, patricians elected two consuls to run things; the consuls picked senators, and these senators ruled for life. But senators weren’t permitted to collect taxes, so they hired lower-rank patricians to do it for ’em. These tax-gatherers were from the publicani rank, and over time, publicani became synonymous with taxmen.

The publicans practiced tax farming: Different companies applied for the job of collecting taxes in a certain town or county, by offering the government an advance—say, 𐆖10,000. (The 𐆖 stands for denarii; it’s like our dollar sign.) If they outbid everyone they got the contract—and had to pay the government the 𐆖10,000 advance. Now they had to make it back: Collect rent, charge tolls, demand a percentage of merchants’ profits. They shook everybody down to make back that 𐆖10,000.

And everything they made beyond that 𐆖10,000, they got to keep. So the more unscrupulous the publican, the higher taxes would be, and the richer they got.

Richer, and corrupt. They’d bribe government officials to get their contracts, bribe their way out of trouble if they were charged with over-taxing, and bribe their way out of trouble for any other crimes. When Augustus Caesar took over the senate in 30BC, he tried to eliminate tax farming, figuring it’d lower taxes and reduce bribery. He took it away from the publicans, who switched careers and got into banking and money-lending. He put government officials in charge… but lazy officials who didn’t want this job, simply hired other tax farmers to collect for them.

Since you no longer had to be of publicani rank to be a taxman, any wealthy person could bid for the job, and get it. And that’s what happened in first-century Israel: Rich Jews became tax farmers, and did the Romans’ dirty work for them. Their fellow Jews saw them as traitors—as greedy, exploitative sellouts. Which, to be fair, they totally were.

Prayer books: Prayers for every occasion.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 June 2022

If you’ve ever been to a church wedding (’cause pagans will do their weddings any which way), y’might’ve noticed whenever an actual member of the clergy officiating the ceremony, she or he held a little black book. Usually. Some clergy members have this stuff memorized; they’ve done so many. Others… well, they’re all over the place, same as pagans.

Most people assume this book is a bible. When I was a kid it’s what I assumed too. So I went poking around my bible for the wedding ceremony… and discovered it’s not in there. ’Cause there are no wedding ceremonies in the bible. Wedding parties, sure. But back in bible times, you hashed out the marriage and dowry details between the families, and that done, the bridegroom went and got the bride, took her home, and they were considered married. No ceremony. Didn’t need one.

I know; some of you are gonna say, “But there was a Jewish wedding ceremony; I saw a video.” Yes you did, and yes that’s a Jewish wedding ceremony. It dates from medeival times, not bible times. It’s got some customs which are uniquely Jewish, but medieval Jews simply copied the Christian wedding ceremony and Judaized it—just like when Christians swipe Jewish rituals and Christianize them. If you notice any parallels between the medieval Jewish ceremony and the second coming, it’s because we Christians put them there in our medieval ceremonies… and took ’em out in our modern ones.

But I digress. The western marriage ceremony ultimately originates with western pagans, not Jews. We Christianized it a bunch. So of course it’s not in the bible. So where do clergy members get the order and words of the wedding ceremony?—what’s this little black book then? Usually a prayer book.

Different denominations have official prayer books. Some don’t; mine doesn’t. So when it comes to baby dedications, baptisms, wedding ceremonies, funerals, and other rituals a pastor’s gonna be less familiar with, they get ahold of Minister’s Manuals, which tell ministers what to do and say and pray. Some are published by one’s denomination; the rest are nondenominational things which a denomination might officially recommend, but any Christian can buy and use ’em. You can find a copy on Amazon.

Back in college I picked up a Book of Common Prayer at a bookstore; that’d be the Episcopal Church’s prayer book, which is an American version of the Church of England’s prayer book. Most of the rote prayers I’d heard all my life are in there. A few weren’t; I’ve since found them in other prayer books. Some worship songs I knew, which had old-timey lyrics, or verses of the psalms which didn’t quite line up with the King James Version: Apparently they were extracted from the BCP’s prayers. Hey, if your music needs lyrics, why not?

The less formal a church, the less likely they’re gonna tap the prayer books. I grew up in churches where we didn’t even read the call-and-response prayers in our hymnals. So I’ve met many a Christian who’s totally unfamiliar with these books, and eye them with a little bit of suspicion: “What’re you trying to slip past me?” I wish they’d likewise apply some of that suspicion to the stuff their churches show ’em on the PowerPoint slides, but that’s another discussion.

For those of you who are familiar with them, or who wanna take a look at them, I’m gonna hook you up with a few. You don’t have to be clergy to read them. They’ll provide you some useful ideas which you can add to your prayer life.

The Persistent Widow Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 June 2022

Luke 18.1-8.

Last time I wrote about parables, I brought up the Midnight Friend Story. Well… same gospel, same idea, but whole different story. Comes in chapter 18 instead of 11. It’s also called the Unjust Judge, the Importunate Widow, the Persistent Woman, and the Unjust Judge and the Widow. All depends on which of them you wanna emphasize, but since the widow is meant to be our role model, I think the story oughta be named for her.

Luke 18.1-8 KWL
1 Jesus is speaking parabolically to his students
on the necessity of them always praying
and not becoming discouraged,
2 saying, “There’s some judge in some city
with no respect for God, no regard for people.
3 There’s a widow in that city;
she’s coming to him, saying,
‘Prosecute my opponent for me!’
4 For a time, he doesn’t want to.
Afterward, he said to himself,
‘Though I don’t respect God, nor have regard for the people,
5 because this widow keeps bugging me,
I’ll prosecute her opponent for her.
In the end, she may come give me a black eye!’ ”
6 The Master says, “Listen to what this unjust judge says.
7 Might God not prosecute on behalf of his elect,
who cry out to him day and night,
and have patience with them?
8 I tell you he will prosecute for them, quickly.
But at the Son of Man’s coming,
will he then find any faith on the earth?”

Some notes about my translation. The term the widow is using is ἐκδίκησόν με/ekdíkisón me, which the KJV translates “Avenge me.” That’s perhaps too literal of a translation. Ekdikéo means to carry out a punishment, and the word isn’t particular about whether it’s a judge sentencing a criminal, a vigilante murdering a criminal, or someone with a grudge taking out petty revenge upon a neighbor. Since Jesus is talking about a judge, he is talking about some level of due process.

Problem is, Jesus isn’t talking about a righteous judge. In his culture there were two kinds of judges:

  • Jewish judges followed and interpreted the Law, the commands the LORD handed down in the 15th century BC.
  • Roman judges followed and interpreted the laws decreed by the senate and people of Rome.

So when Jesus describes this judge as caring neither about God nor people, he describes a person who ignores the standards for both Jewish and Roman judges. He doesn’t base his rulings on law and legal precedent; he follows his conscience. He’s what we’d call an “activist judge”—the kind of judge people love when he shares their politics, ’cause he’ll rule their way, no matter what the law says! But they soon discover a lawless judge creates a lot of instability in society, no matter how moral these judges might imagine they are.

Prayer in the public schools.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 June 2022

The United States has a separation of church and state.

Yeah, there are plenty of Christian nationalists who insist we don’t. Or they claim the idea isn’t constitutional, because the specific words “separation of church and state” aren’t found in our Constitution. (Ugh, literalists.) But just as the word trinity isn’t in the bible, yet it’s an entirely orthodox idea, separation of church and state is totally in our Constitution. In two places.

First, Article 6 bans religious qualifications for office. You don’t have to be Christian; you don’t have to not be atheist. Whatever your religion (or non-religion), hopefully you’re no hypocrite, but it’s explicitly not a prerequisite.

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. Article 6, ¶3.

Other countries (i.e. the United Kingdom, from which the United States separated) do require a religious test for certain office. For obvious reasons: The UK’s parliament funds the Church of England, and appoints its bishops. So if Brits didn’t know the religious sentiments of their elected ministers, the worry is they might internally corrupt the Church of England. It’s not a worry now; the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, is nominally Roman Catholic. But back during the English Reformation, when church loyalty might get you killed, this was a big, big deal.

Whereas the United States’ founders wanted a government where no religious faction was banned; Catholics could run for office, same as Anglicans, because we wanted it clear England’s old religious wars were not happening here. So the Constitution bans religious tests. We’re not gonna ban Catholics—even though there were a lot of years where anti-Catholics fought tooth and nail to make sure we never elected any. And today, even though there are anti-Muslims and anti-atheists in the electorate, Muslims and atheists too can hold office.

Next, obviously, is our First Amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Amendment 1

That first clause—“respecting an establishment of religion”—bans Congress from creating an official, or established, religion of the United States. Many American colonists came here to specifically get away from state religions (though, in the case of Massachusetts and many other colonies, it was so they could set up their own state religions). Religious differences were a regular point of friction whenever the colonies tried to unite. Or go to war; our pacifist Quakers refued to even countenance the idea, and it took a lot of maneuvering to get ’em to at least not vote against our Revolution. So the goal was to keep the national government altogether out of it.

The Constitution makes the United States officially non-sectarian. Arguably it’s even secular… although that’s hard to argue when our national motto is “In God We Trust.”

So should a non-sectarian government, mandate prayer? Absolutely not. But that’s what school prayer is.

The Midnight Friend Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 June 2022

Luke 11.5-8.

Right after teaching his students the Lord’s prayer, Jesus told the Midnight Friend Story. Yeah, he meant it in context of prayer. Yeah, it’s an odd little story. Odd because the protagonist is so annoying—yet Jesus presents this as if it’s a good thing.

Luke 11.5-8 KWL
5 Jesus tells them, “Who among you has a friend like this?
He’ll go to another friend at midnight,
and might tell him, ‘Friend! Lend me three loaves!
6 Because a friend of mine comes off the road to visit me,
and I have nothing I’ll give him to eat.’
7 From within, this person may say in reply, ‘Don’t put your trouble on me!
The door was already shut, and my children are with me in bed.
I can’t get up to give you a thing.’
8 But I tell you, if he’ll not get up and give it
for the sake of being his friend,
he will indeed get up and give it
because of his rudeness,
and will give him as much as he needs.”

And this is why he tells us to ask, seek, and knock. That part comes immediately afterward.

This parable is phrased a little awkwardly, ’cause Jesus introduces it with “Who among you has a friend?”—and then proceeds to talk about two other guys. It’s not about you and your friend; it’s about two entirely different guys. It’s an awkward transition, and for this reason a number of translators try to insert “you” into the story. Like the NET starting, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight…” Lk 11.5 NET or the NIV’s ending, “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.” Lk 11.8 NIV But Jesus actually stops talking about “you” as soon as his one-liner introduction is over. This is why I inserted the words “like this”: He’s talking about the hypothetical friend. Not you. Don’t take it personally—the lesson is for you.

Jesus’s audience knew all about unexpected guests at night. Unlike our culture, it wasn’t at all easy to send word ahead: No phones, texts, emails, telegrams, nor postal service. Yep, no postal service: The way Paul sent letters all over the Roman Empire was to send someone with the letter, to deliver it personally. That person might be the one to unexpectedly show up at your house at 2AM… and need a place to sleep, and probably food.

Needing a saint to pray for you.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 June 2022

I know; the title might give you the idea I’m writing about praying to the saints in heaven. It’s an Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutheran, and Anglican practice—’cause they believe God resurrected the saints in heaven, so they’re alive. (So no, they’re not praying to dead people.) And same as prayer is talking with God, prayer to those saints is talking with those saints. So they figure, “Why not?” and bring their prayer needs to them—“Can you help me out with this?”

Jesus’s brother St. Jude, fr’instance. If you have a hopeless or desperate cause, popular belief is he’s the guy to go to; he specializes in prayers for hopeless causes.

This may be mighty Evangelical of me, but I still figure it makes way more sense to pray directly to Jesus. Nothing against his brother (or even his mom) but all Jude’s really gonna do is forward the prayer to his heavenly Father… and heck, I could talk to God. I already do.

Thing is, even good Evangelicals regularly go to saints with our prayer requests.

Yes we do. I’m talking about the saints here on earth. Living Christians. Like your pastor, or one of the elders in your church: “Can you pray for me about this?” We ask ’em to do the very same thing people ask of St. Jude. We have a really important request, feel it’s either a big ask or a hopeless cause, so we don’t trust our own prayers to work. So we figure we’d better go to someone who’s really good at prayer. Someone God is known to listen to.

Again, just like St. Jude. There is no difference between a Catholic praying to Jude, and a Baptist asking Pastor to keep her in his prayers. People who ask others to pray for them, on earth or in heaven, are attempting the very same thing: They want the prayers of a professional. An expert. Someone holier than them. You know, a saint.

God listens to saints, right? So their prayers oughta get better results than ours.