Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

Love and Laws

A comedian I really like tweeted the following:

Recognizing that this is a tweet and is therefore limited to 140 characters, also recognizing that she is an atheist and therefore probably doesn’t have a robust understanding of prayer, also that she is a comedian so this is a schtick, I’d still like to use her tweet as a springboard to engage this a bit.

First, I don’t know anyone who thinks prayer for shooting victims is all that needs to be done. It is a generalization that is unfair to “religion”. Many religions operate hospitals; have chaplains in hospitals, police forces, and prisons; and many people from many different stripes of religion are on different sides of the gun control debate.

Second, her assumption is that the answer to gun violence is gun laws. Gun laws, in and of themselves, are incapable of stopping gun violence. I’d just point to the tragic case of Chicago which has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation and some of the highest gun violence and deaths in the nation as well. The number of laws on the books has swollen over the past few decades and crime is not abated in the least.

Third, prayer is actually more effective than adding laws to laws. Christians (a subset of “religion”) believe that when we pray, we are asking the greatest Power in the universe to employ the greatest wisdom in the universe motivated by the greatest love in the universe to act on the situation we care deeply about but only understand a fraction of. It is not simply sending positive thoughts at the clouds. God is capable of changing human hearts and ruling over nations.

“So,” I can image her asking, “why doesn’t he do something about this? Either he is indifferent, incapable, or imaginary.” Not so fast. God has done things about this and we’re ignoring them. He has told us that humans are created in his image and therefore are sacred. Instead we have determined that humans are sophisticated animals and nothing more. When you degrade human life, don’t be surprised when it is treated and taken cheaply. If we were to understand humans the way God has made us, we might take human life much more serious.

The other thing we’ve done to ignore God’s method of restraining this kind of violence is that we’re getting rid of capital punishment. The non-religious opposition to this is very confusing to me. If, as atheists assume, humans are mere animals why shouldn’t we kill them if they become this dangerous?1There is a Christian opposition to capital punishment but that is beyond the point I’m trying to make here. Since we are made in God’s image, God doesn’t give us that kind of liberty in executing people. Because humans are created in his image, anyone who kills a human is to be killed (Gen. 9:6). The punishment must fit the crime. Instead we no long punish but seek to rehabilitate and therefore the punishment never ends. Executing murders is not meant to teach people who to not kill, it is intended to show how special human life is and remind people what the consequence is of taking it.

To be fair, the way we’re currently employing capital punishment needs very much to be reformed. It is not being applied fairly. But that doesn’t mean that we should throw it out instead of addressing it.

So two of the ways that God has given the nations to control violence are largely cast aside and then people complain about the results.

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1. There is a Christian opposition to capital punishment but that is beyond the point I’m trying to make here.

Why I’ve Remained Silent on the Situation in Ferguson, MO

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace. – Ecclesiastes 3:1,7-8

I read the following discussion on Twitter about the unrest in Ferguson, MO.

Thabiti Anyabwile wrote a blog post about evangelicals exercising theological and practical leadership on this. The twitter thread is a bit of a rebuke of evangelicals who’ve remained silent. I’m one of them and so it prompted me to ask myself why I have chosen to remain quite. Here are some of my reasons:

1) Privilege. I am a white, middle-class male in my 50s. The only reason employees in a store watch me closely when I walk in is because they are working on commission and want to make a sale. When/if I ever get pulled over it by the police they worst they will suspect me of is drunk driving. I cannot imagine what the situation on the ground is in Ferguson because of my privileged position in American society. This leads to:

2) Ignorance. I have never been to Ferguson, MO so I don’t know what the conditions are there. I don’t understand all that transpired between a white, well-armed cop and a large, unarmed black teenager and so I am profoundly unqualified to comment upon it. The only thing I can say that would be acceptable due to my privilege would be to condemn the shooting of yet another black man. I condemn that since every human life is precious. But which reason for the shooting shall I condemn? Systemic racism in the police force? Unyielding economic oppression of blacks in America? Generational un/underemployment and an American society that perpetuates huge obstacles to changing that situation? The militarization of local police forces? Yes, all of these but I have no idea what the mix of these factors and others are at play in Ferguson.

3) Room. Because of the above two factors, I believe it is best for me to keep my mouth shut and allow the protestors and the Missouri government to surface the real issues at play there. My voice, privileged and ignorant as it is, will not contribute to that process. My social-media-fueled opinions, if they were even to matter or be heard, cannot help. The protestors need to keep the pressure on the government and the police need to be allowed to complete their investigation. Twitter and Facebook will not help and may actually hurt. It would be good if Ferguson were not in the 24-hour news cycle but were only reported on when something important happens. The media need to be there to add pressure to what the protestors are already applying but the rampant speculation and knee-jerk commentary that fuel the news cycle won’t help. My feeble contribution won’t help either.

4) Prayer. Since I am ignorant and my opinion is slanted by my place in society, I am uniquely unable to help. But I know someone who knows the intimate details of what happened down to the thoughts and intentions of every heart involved. He is sovereign over the Ferguson police and mayor, even over the Justice Department and president. He holds sway even over the crowds of protesters and scandal-hungry media. And he commands me to pray to him, to ask him to grant us peace, and for him to give our elected officials, his ministers in all of this, wisdom. Prayer is not not doing anything. It is appealing to the greatest, wisest, most benevolent power in the universe to move in human affairs. My best course of action to do something that can actually help, is to pray that God will bring justice to our divided, conflicted, drifting nation. Including and especially Ferguson, Missouri. And so I am doing the best thing I can do.

All of this does not mean that I am not interested in racial justice in America. I am sorely aware of the twisted justice system and racist economic system in this nation. The problems confound me and the solutions elude me but I do long for justice and peace and freedom to come to this place. I long for the day when slavery and its ugly shadow will be lifted from out nation. I want everyone in this nation to be able to improve their lot in life by hard work and by enjoying the fruit of the labor of their hands. I want the police to once again “serve and protect” and not be a revenue stream for municipalities. Where I can see clearly, I will speak when I believe I have something to add. Wisdom in this case seems to be for me to hold my tongue and pray.

Preaching with Teeth

All are tempted to forget that preaching can do what it is supposed to do only if the preacher is a man of God. And they are tempted to forget that being a man of God means being a man of the Word and prayer. A sermon is not entertainment, nor a dump of information about God, nor a theological lecture. It is an encounter with the living God, and a preacher can fulfill his vocation well only if he knows that God…

As Eugene Peterson has often observed, pastors can camouflage their vocational failures under a frenzy of busyness—not least because church members notice busyness. A pastor devoted to prayer and the word looks like a withdrawn pastor, a pastor who doesn’t care much for his people, or any people for that matter. Parishioners may be more intrigued by a preacher who can speak in the latest slang, who quotes the hot bands, who jars them with obscenities from the pulpit than by a man who knows God deeply.

Preachers should believe that that God knows what people need better than people do. What builds the church is not a man who has acquired theological information, or a man who can keep the attention of a crowd. Theological information and rhetorical skill are important. But what a congregation finally needs is assurance that the man who speaks to them from the pulpit every week is capable of bringing God’s word because he is acquainted with the Father of Jesus Christ through the filling of their Spirit. – Peter Leithart, A Man of God, First Things blog

The Beauty of Hebrew Writing

Nehemiah 9 is a lengthy read but it is really an excellent prayer. Before I point out what is really cool about the prayer, we need some background. Israel has returned to the land after 70 years of exile in Babylon to find Jerusalem in rubble and themselves surrounded by their enemies. They begin rebuilding the temple and the wall. In the middle of this work, they stop to have a holy convocation. The prophet Ezra stands on a dais and reads and explains the Law to the people. They weep and confess their sins and then their leaders lead them in prayer. Having just heard redemptive history read to them, it naturally seeps into and informs their prayer.

The prayer breaks down into three movements: Creation to Abraham (6-8), The Exodus (9-21), The Promised Land (22-31) and then there is a response in 32-37 and an application in 38. In each movement, there is a statement about God. It is fascinating how Hebrew writing works these in this text. The first movement (6-8) it is about how God called Abraham out of Ur so the statement about God comes at the end as if it had been “called out” of the section. The second section (9-21) is about God’s covenant name and his commitment to his people to provide for them and dwell in their midst in the pillar of cloud and fire and in the tabernacle. This time the statement about God (a paraphrased of Exodus 34) comes in verse 17, right in the middle of the section just like the tabernacle in the middle of the camp. The final section (22-31) is about God’s repeated mercy to his people after their repeated failure of faithfulness. This time, the statement about God’s mercy is sprinkled throughout at many spots in the narrative, verses 27, 28, and 31. His mercy is repeated over and over again.

It is beautiful the way the text itself illustrates the meaning. The words state the truth, of course, but also the structure of the words is carefully done in order to illustrate the point as well. This shows the beauty of Hebrew poetry and the care they took in writing. The fact that it is poetry doesn’t diminish the truth, it decorates it so as to draw not only your attention but also your affection and appreciation for it.

Balancing Earthern Jars

But the unbelieving Jews [at Iconium] stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. – Acts 14:2-3

To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. – Ephesians 6:18-20

I can’t imagine Paul being any bolder with the gospel than he was in Iconium. Those who heard and rejected his message stirred up others against him so what did he do? He remained there for a long time speaking boldly. He didn’t know how to take “No!” for an answer.

So then, what’s up with the Ephesians’ quote? That was written years after his first trip to Iconium, did he start to wimp out in his later years? There’s no indication of that happening. As Acts progresses he seems to be just as bold, maybe even more so since he appealed to Caesar and to Caesar he went. So why does he ask the Ephesians to pray for him? Because he knew that his boldness and his success didn’t come from himself. He knew that any progress he was seeing was only because God was at work in and through him. More than once Paul mentioned how unworthy he was because he had persecuted the Church. That wasn’t cheap crape paper window dressing humility either. He really lived with the sense of his own worthlessness and great confidence in what God was doing through him. That’s a great balance to maintain, one I wish I could manage better. When things are going well, I begin to think I’ve done something to really impress God or that I’m just in a good grove. It’s about me. What I need, what we all need really, is to fight for that tension between our absolute uselessness and God’s mighty power at work in earthen vessels.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. – 2 Corinthians 4:7

I Think Paul Miller Has Been Stalking Me

The Kindle version of Paul Miller’s book A Praying Life: Connecting With God in a Distracting World is free right now so I picked it up. I’m hardly into the first chapter and I feel like Miller has been inside my head when I try to pray. He pretty accurately described my prayer life. And, unless I’ve missed something, I think he may have diagnosed my problem as well:

A Visit To A Prayer Therapist

Let’s image that you see a prayer therapist to get your prayer life straightened out. The therapist says, “Let’s begin by look at your relationship with your heavenly Father. God said, ‘I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me’ (2 Corinthians 6:18). What does it mean that you are a son or daughter of God?”

You reply that it means you have complete access to your heavenly Father through Jesus. You have true intimacy, based not on how good you are but on the goodness of Jesus. Not only that, Jesus is your brother. You are a fellow heir with him.

The therapist smiles and says, “That is right. You’ve done a wonderful job of describing the doctrine of Sonship. Now tell me what it is like for you to be with your Father? What is it like to talk with him?”

You cautiously tell the therapist how difficult it is to be in your Father’s presence, even for a couple of minutes. Your mind wanders. You aren’t sure what to say. You wonder, Does prayer make any difference? Is God even there? Then you feel guilty for your doubts and just give up.

Your therapist tells you what you already suspect. “Your relationship with your heavenly Father is dysfunctional. You talk as if you have an intimate relationship, but you don’t. Theoretically, it is close. Practically, it is distant. You need help.”

Pray until you pray. – D. A. CarsonOkay, maybe not that bad but prayer is a struggle more often than not for me. I suspect it might be for you as well. Since I’ve only started the book I can’t tell yet if Miller has any good answers but at the least he’s nailed the problem. Just before this quote he talked about how busy and noisy our lives are and how filled with electronic distractions. Again, he hit me right where I am. It is a little creepy, like he’s watching me or something. Or, and this is more likely, many of us share the same problems and struggles and temptations in prayer and closeness to God.

I’m going to keep reading. I just hope Miller can offer some real help. I am currently trying to tame the internet beast in my life by doing things like reading. Maybe he can provide some incentive along those lines!

The Shape of the Text

I recently got to preach on prayer. I chose Nehemiah 9 as the text. It is a lengthy read but it is really an excellent prayer. Israel has returned to the land after 70 years of exile to find Jerusalem in rubble and themselves surrounded by their enemies. They begin rebuilding the wall and the temple. In the middle of this work, they stop to have a holy convocation. The prophet Ezra stands on a dais and reads and explains the Law to the people. They weep and confess their sins and then their leaders lead them in prayer. Having just heard redemptive history read to them, it naturally seeps into and forms their prayer.

The prayer breaks down into three movements: Creation to Abraham (6-8), The Exodus (9-21), The Promised Land (22-31) and then there is a response in 32-37 and an application in 38. In each movement, there is a statement about God. In verse 8, since he kept his promise to Abraham, he is declared righteous. (Or, since he is righteous he kept his promise to Abraham.) In verse 17b, God’s name from Exodus 34 is paraphrased. This name is a statement of his character. The last movement has statements about God’s mercy sprinkled throughout it.

What I didn’t get to comment on in the sermon was how Hebrew writing works these into the text. In the first one, it is about God calling Abraham out and the statement about God comes at the end of the section, as if it had been called out of the section. The second one is about God’s covenant name and his commitment to his people, to provide for them and dwell in their midst in the pillar of cloud and fire and in the tabernacle. This one comes in verse 17, in the middle of the section just like the tabernacle in the middle of the camp. The final one is about God’s repeated mercy to his people after their repeated faith failure. This time, the statement about God’s mercy comes at many spots in the narrative, verses 27, 28, and 31. His mercy is repeated over and over again.

It is beautiful the way the text itself illustrates the meaning. The words do, yes, but also the placement of the words is carefully done in order to illustrate the point as well. This shows the beauty of Hebrew poetry and the care they took in writing.

More Manly Men

It is man’s business to pray; and it takes manly men to do it. It is godly business to pray and it takes godly men to do it. And it is godly men who give over themselves entirely to prayer. Prayer is far-reaching in its influence and in its gracious effects. It is intense and profound business which deals with God and His plans and purposes, and it takes whole-hearted men to do it. No half-hearted, half-brained, half-spirited effort will do for this serious, all-important, heavenly business. The whole heart, the whole brain, the whole spirit, must be in the matter of praying, which is so mightily to affect the characters and destinies of men. – E. M. Bounds, Essentials of Prayer