I saw a post recently that was a bit disheartening. It revolved around the latest tragedy involving a mass shooting and it was making light of the idea of “thoughts and prayers” being offered up to change the inevitable reality that we live in a broken world. While I do think that in the wake of brokenness and hurt that the idea of “thoughts and prayers” being a simple offering of a solution isn’t adequate, I also don’t think it is easily dismissed. And I think it all has to do with the way I think about prayer. We sometimes think that prayer is a passive response. We think about prayer as that moment where we don’t know what to do or have no will to do and so we simply turn the “to do” over. But I’m not sure that this is what prayer is meant to be. A few years ago I stumbled across a West African proverb that sums it up for me and it’s where I think the discussion of prayer should always go and it simply states, “When you pray, move your feet.”
This proverb can have a multitude of connotations, but I think the more implicitly implied meaning revolves around giving action to our prayers. And this is a pretty sound Biblical thought. When Jesus is approached by his disciples about prayer his response is pretty familiar to us, “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” – Matthew 6:9-10. And we all know the rest of the prayer, but that beginning…man is it powerful! The word for Kingdom ‘come’ is best translated as, “to come into being, arise, come forth, show itself, find place or influence “. The word for will be “done” is best translated as, “to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be”. So much of what we pray/envision is for God’s Kingdom and Will to come into existence through us in the world around us. But how do we become a part of this?
When God became flesh He went around preaching one dominant theme, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” And then He brought it with Him. He saw those who society had cast aside and went to them and loved them. He was even quoted as saying that the well don’t need a doctor, but rather the sick. And maybe this is the type of prayer that we begin to offer up in the wake of something tragic. Maybe we begin to ask for God to help us see those who need love. Maybe we ask God to help us see those who need human contact. Maybe we begin to ask God how we can even begin to get involved in the lives of victims and perpetrators alike. These tragedies that seem to be growing in number won’t be solved through any kind of easy solution, but perhaps when we pray we don’t pray easy prayers. Maybe when we pray we don’t pray for passive responses. Maybe moving forward, when we pray we move our feet.
In William Shakespeare’s definitive work Hamlet we get to have a front row seat as the title character slips into madness. As his condition begins to take hold there is a poignant scene in Act II where the Danish prince is confronted by Polonius in his attempt to ascertain what is troubling the prince. “Polonius: What do you read, my lord? Hamlet: Words, words, words.” Sometimes I feel like I can relate to the young prince as it seems as if all of our society is slipping into madness. “What troubles you young pastor? What do you read?” “Words, Words, Words”. And that’s a lot of what seems to be wrong today. All around us we see print, posts, quotes, rants, etc. of careless and misused and misaligned words. And at the end of the day, what good is it doing?
Time and time again the writers of scripture warn us about the dangers of words and their usage. Paul in writing to his young protege Timothy says this, “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” – II Timothy 2:23 James in writing to the church has this to say, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” – James 3:9. Obviously the writers of the New Testament new the danger and the responsibility we have with our words and yet…this lesson seems to have fallen short on modern readers. All to quickly we jump into the fray on social media. All to quickly we have to make sure people know our opinion before we even get into a conversation. All to quickly we have to make sure people know what we are against before we actually take the time to get to know them. And all of this accomplished through words.
In late February my wife and I took in two foster boys. As is often the case with foster situations we have face some developmental challenges. The younger of the two is about to turn two and he still hasn’t developed the ability to speak words. He’s quite good at shrieking or even growling, but the cognition to form words isn’t really there yet. But just think about that with me for a minute. The gift of speech is quite incredible. We take breath into our lungs and then pass it over our vocal chords while forming our mouth in a certain fashion and it becomes spoken word. Our very ability to speak and even type or write words is nothing short of miraculous and yet it is a gift we so often take for granted. With this gift we have a responsibility. Do our words give life? Do our words bring the Kingdom of God? Or are the words we share, form, write, rant, etc. simply contributing to the madness around us? Today may you measure your words a bit more carefully. Today may you find the words you speak, the articles you share, the posts you engage with having eternal meaning in a world so fixed on the next temporary thought. And may it not simply be words, words, words.
Moving to Odessa has allowed me to reengage with one of my favorite activities; taking my son to school. I remember when he attended Pre-K right behind the youth building at our last church. Whenever the days were nice (so for about two weeks before school let out) we would walk to school. And then there were the car rides where we would pray and then rock out to something “heavy” like Mumford & Sons or Old Crow Medicine Show. Needless to say I have been thrilled to get this tradition added back into my daily routine. Since he has begun a new school, I have been walking him to class every day so far. And let’s be honest, I love this piece too. So on the drive in the other day, I asked him, “Hey buddy (that’s what I call him sometimes), do you want me to walk you in today?” “Yeah dad. I want you to walk me in all the time.” “All the time? Even when you are in High School?” “Yup. Because I love you dad.” Talk about a melt your heart moment.
Sometimes we refer to our Christian journey here on earth as a walk. And I think for the most part this is a pretty accurate analogy. I think the hard part for a lot of us is fathoming what it means to walk with/be in relationship with an infinite God as finite beings. Because of God being all around us, but not necessarily being physically tangible we have a hard time always being connected. But then I reflect on the words of the writer of Hebrews. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” – Hebrews 4:15-16. Jesus stepped into flesh in order to help us understand what it means to encounter the Divine. Not only that but He wants to walk with us in our trials and struggles in order for us to encounter grace and mercy at the throne of God.
I think about my son’s response before. I will always want to walk with him and help and assist him as much as I can. In fact, I am probably a breath away from being a helicopter parent. But I know that is not how love works. Love simply waits in the wings. Ready to be that hand to hold, that hug to give or that shoulder to cry on whenever it’s needed. God incarnate came to express that same love through humanity to us. He is ready to walk us through whatever life may throw at us. We just need to ask Him to walk us in and He will be right there with us. May you sense God’s presence walking you into life today as you never have before and may you be overwhelmed by the grace and mercy of our Heavenly Father.
Someone asked me tonight if I was happy to be moving to Texas. And I answered yes. But then I quickly followed it up with, “but I am sad to leave Michigan”. I honestly never thought I would say those words. But over the last seven years Michigan has been home to my family and I. We have seen our share of heartache and blessings. The loss of close friends. The birth of our daughter. New friendships formed and some lost. Four different homes and many different pastoral colleagues. So I am more than a bit sad about leaving this community.
And I am also excited as a look ahead to Texas. There is a community who has placed their trust in God and in us to lead them. There are new opportunities for service and a chance to stretch myself in ministry. There are new adventures to be had and a new community to be grafted into. So I am also happy about that.
But I do take joy in the fact that eventually we will all be one. One with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And there won’t be any more goodbyes. In fact, John puts I this way,
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 NIV) And so, befitting the destination I find myself heading to, I leave you with these immortal words by Dale Evans Rogers. Take comfort in our destination and the trail that leads us heavenward.
Some trails are happy ones,
Others are blue.
It’s the way you ride the trail that counts,
Here’s a happy one for you.
Happy trails to you, until we meet again.
Happy trails to you, keep smilin’ until then.
Who cares about the clouds when we’re together?
Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.
Happy trails to you, ’till we meet again.
There it was. In all it’s pristine glory. Okay, maybe most people would see a dingy closet door in the lower level of the downtown Flint YMCA. But to me, in a daze from finishing up my morning work out, it represented the entire world. There is nothing more fascinating to me than a locked closet door; okay, that may have been a bit of hyperbole. But don’t you just wander. I always have. My grandmother called me a meddler…I liked to think of it as a term of endearment. But I have always had this huge curiosity about what things lay behind locked doors, closed drawers and chests. In college this may or may not have even gotten me into a bit of trouble as I worked to perfect my skills at picking locks and getting where I obviously was not intended to go. I am just thankful that I am on this side of college without a criminal record. Although I am not sure I ever actually stole anything; I just wanted a look.
And I like to think that this approach to life isn’t altogether bad. I’ve always like J.R.R. Tolkein’s poem from Lord of the Rings in describing Strider, “All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost”. I find myself often wandering about the things about me. I am curious about what lies not only behind closed doors, but what is around the bend. I like to marvel at the make up of planets spinning and the way trees grow and mountains dominate the landscape. And I think this Spirit may be of God. Not a spirit that causes one to get into trouble or mischief, but one that brings someone into a sense of wanting to know more about the world around them. And I think this may have been what the Apostle Paul was alluding to in his letter to the Colossians as well, “My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” – Colossians 2:2-3.
The mystery of God. I love that concept. And this isn’t the only place this is mentioned in scripture. God is the great mystery to be searched. The great locked door to be opened. And the best part about it, God can never be fully known, at least in this life. The best avenue we have for exploring the nature of God is the person of Jesus Christ and we know Him more fully through the presence of the Holy Spirit. And in Christ is all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge. And so we are encouraged to explore, seek, ask, knock and fully relish in the spirit of curiosity put into us to seek out God in everything around us and in the revelation of Jesus Christ. And for a meddler like me, this is great encouragement. So wander…and wonder as the mystery of God is always before us.
I know what you’re thinking…well actually I don’t. This is kind of a weird title, but you will see how it fits in a bit; at least I hope so. A week or so ago we had an amazing service with our students and several of them went to the altar to pray. My wife and I both went and prayed with several students and afterwards she remarked about how awkward it sometimes seems afterward. You have had this amazingly intimate moment with someone, possibly even someone making the most important decision in their life and yet for some reason shortly after it becomes awkward. Not that either of us have ever experienced it, but it kind of sounds almost like a one night stand. Let’s all be honest for a minute…even though hopefully most of us have not experienced a one night stand we at least understand the concept. Guy meets girl or girl meets guy, intimacy ensues and then is shamefully broken off the next day. You can see how wrong and messed up that is without me even spelling it out. And yet for some reason I think that’s probably the same way I feel about those spiritual moments that somehow turn into a weird tension.
In his letter to the church in Galatia Paul puts this into a little better perspective. “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently…Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1a-2) Now granted, Paul is referring to walking in restoration with someone, but I think the same can be applied for those intimate spiritual moments we have with others. The word for “carry” each other’s burdens is bastazō and the connotation behind it is a sustained carrying. A continued laboring with. Often times we pray with someone and think the matter settled. Or because we all of a sudden have this intimate knowledge of someone’s spiritual journey we feel as if we can’t be normal around them anymore. But truth be told we should actually become more intimate with them.
In reference to the above analogy of one night stands the reason these are so broken is because of the lack of sustained intimacy…it’s just awkward. But you look at those healthy marriages and relationships of those who have enjoyed marital bliss for years and the key to the health in the relationship is sustained intimacy. They walk closely with each other and there ultimately is nothing in the way. If we could understand/model this behavior in our accountability with each other in the Kingdom perhaps there would be a lot less stumbling, falling or failing and a lot more community. I for one am trying to eliminate the one night stand and begin the whole life journey with those around me. May we be so courageous as to get up from the altar and walk with those whom we are called to bastazo life’s burdens with.
Once upon a time this morning…
At least that’s how I would like for it to begin. As is sometimes the case my daughter and I began the breaking of the day with the viewing of a Disney Princess movie. However today was unlike any other because she had made up her mind that she wanted to watch it differently. She did not want to watch all of the adversity and drama, but rather skip to the very end when the bad guy is beat (Mother Gothel) and Rapunzel and Eugene get to live happily ever after. She said the bad person would give her nightmares (although this has never happened) and she just wanted to see her “get beat”. And of course I found an excellent opportunity to argue with my 3-yr-old about the reward of seeing adversity overcome and the persistence to chase after your dreams whatever hardships come your way, but I got the feeling it was falling on deft ears. Yet I think we all kind of share my daughter’s sentiments. We all want a happy ending and if it’s all the same we would like a happy beginning and middle as well. The problem is this isn’t really life.
One of my favorite versus of scripture to see quoted is Jeremiah 29:11. And a lot of people quote it, “ For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” And this is great. It speaks of hope, “a future”…in essence a happy ending. But if you’ve ever read the rest of the book of Jeremiah you realize that this verse is the exception rather than the rule. You see, Jeremiah’s prophecy to Judah was of destruction. Babylon is coming and they are going to destroy you. Life for you will literally become hell on earth. And yet in the midst of all of this there is this silver lining. God promises that even though all of this tragedy is coming there way that he will never forsake them. So it kind of looks weird when we live off of the promise alone and don’t understand the circumstances out of which it was spoken.
Life is hard. Look around you. There are people dying from cancer, war, disease, hunger, etc. every day. There is poverty, violence, oppression, slavery, injustice like there has never been before. And yet, God has not abandoned us. He is actually with us in the midst of all of this. I read a quote today from Dr. King’s sermon A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart , “God is neither hardhearted nor soft-minded. He is tough-minded enough to transcend the world; He is tenderhearted enough to live in it. He does not leave us alone in our agonies and struggles. He seeks us in dark places and suffers with us and for us in our tragic prodigality.” That is the God in the midst with us. Powerful enough to give us a hope and a future and compassionate enough to walk through the tragic with us.
I hope for a happy ending. I hope for a happy beginning and middle as well. But I take comfort in the fact that even if the beginning and middle are rife with life’s difficulties that I have a God who walks with me in order to bring me into His glorious future.