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.
I remember pretty vividly the day we brought our first born home. It’s not every day that you walk into an office building with an empty baby carrier and walk out with a baby. But here we were, at Bethany Christian Services, signing adoption paper work in order to become a mom and a dad for the first time. We walked in and we were ushered into a small meeting room and we signed so much paper work that it seemed like we were finalizing a mortgage. Then our case worker said those words that are forever written on my heart, “would you like to see your son”. We then walked into the room next door and met Jonas for the first time. We were in awe of how tiny he was and we even had to have help loading him into the baby carrier for the first time. I even remembered how slow I drove back to Donelson that day…and it had nothing to do with the traffic. And the one thought that kept repeating through my mind was, “man, I hope I don’t mess this up.”
It’s something that anyone that is a parent has said at one point or another. All of a sudden we find ourselves responsible for another human being and it is absolutely terrifying. It’s funny, but I think there is a verse in the Psalms that expresses this well, but is rarely used for this insight. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” – Psalm 139:13-14 We often pause to reflect on the wonderful part, but rarely give said due to the fearful part. The word in Hebrew is yare’ and is most often translated as ‘actual fear’. The psalmist praises God because he is made wonderfully and this is easy to see. We are incredibly complex beings. But the psalmist also praises God because he is made fearfully. What does it mean for God to make us fearfully…?
I think it might be a bit like that feeling all parents get when we realize we are responsible for another human life. There is a fear, a reverence, a holy trepidation that the actions we take and the way we care for another influences who they become. As parents of teens and children, this can sometimes become overwhelming as we seek to trust God as he guides us into this responsibility. And the crazy thing about all of this…God made us all this way. Even more astounding is the fact that as the church we have been given the charge to engage all of creation with this same reverence and responsibility. We are God’s plan for redemption of all creation. And sometimes I look at the church and the world and think to myself, “Man, I hope we don’t mess this up.” And yet, the beauty in all of this is that God created us all this way. With freewill that often leads to things that could be considered scary and terrifying, or beautiful and lovely. So today, let us praise God. For you and I and all creation have been fearfully and wonderfully made and we have a mission before us. May all those we come into contact with realize that they too are fearfully and wonderfully made by a loving God who trusts all of us with each other.
Many of you know this last year I became a science teacher. What many of you may not know is that I teach at a Middle school that is on a university campus. Not only that, but our school is even part of the university system and we are therefore connected to the university itself. That means sometimes we even have to handle things on the main campus. This really wouldn’t be such a big deal except for the fact that it always seems like the business I have to handle is on the fourth floor of the largest building on campus. To top it all off, I usually have a limited amount of time to handle said business so I find myself parking on the side of the building that doesn’t have the elevator and then hustling up three rather large flights of stairs. Take note; I’m a relatively in shape person, but I still feel winded almost every time I run up these stairs. Especially if it is a day like yesterday when I had just done squats at the gym that morning.
But one of the joys of being a science teacher has also been the opportunity to marvel at the complexity of creation once again. The fact that my brain tells my legs to move up and down, then my legs can do that action, then my lungs seek to compensate for their effort by pulling in more air to oxygenate my muscles in my legs, while my heart is picking up its rhythm in order to move that oxygen to those legs faster. It all really is an incredible feat. One might even call it a gift. The writer of the book of James has this to say about gifts, “Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.” – James 1:17 Our brains, our legs, our blood pumping, our lungs…even the breath in our lungs is a gift from God. I wonder if we would all be considered good stewards of those gifts?
A little bit later in that same letter James takes to task one of the gifts that we sometimes abuse; our tongue. Our ability to speak is an incredible gift. In fact, I’m amazed by it all the time. We push air in and out of our throat, it passes through our larynx, over our vocal folds and then somehow resonates enough to form sounds and then words and even sometimes notes of incredible beauty. We essentially take the breath of life, the gift that God has given us and transform it into something entirely new. But James actually has a word of warning for us here, “No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness.” – James 3:8-9 You could almost substitute the phrase, “breath use” for tongue in this passage. I realize that might be a little wordy and complex, but how often do we think about the breath we breathe as truly a gift of God i.e. the breath of life? And if it is a gift, are we wasting it? Are we using it for malice, gossip, evil? James himself said we praise God and yet speak ill, put down, judge and even curse those made in his likeness. Maybe some of us need to check our breathing. Maybe some of us should be careful for the day when we are left breathless and the gift and what we have done with it return to the creator. How will you sue your gift of breath today?
Do you ever find yourself doing something that you thought seemed totally coherent and well thought out and then milliseconds later it reveals itself to be completely stupid? Just me? Oh well; yesterday held one of those moments for me. For those of you who follow the Christian calendar, you know that yesterday was Ash Wednesday. And at Odessa First we hold a brief Ash Wednesday litany in the evening. That also means we need ashes prepared from last years palms. The last couple of years I have burned the palms in our backyard a few days prior. One year I even ruined one of our stock pots. So this year, I thought I could try something different and decided to burn the palms on some foil…on a cookie sheet…in the oven. Now everyone reading this, except for myself at 5:20 AM yesterday morning, knows what is about to take place. All of a sudden I am receiving texts from my wife in the back of the house in a panicked state because she thinks the house is on fire. I quickly realize how far south my experiment has turned and even this morning I find myself sitting in a house that has the vague aroma of burnt palm leaves…which, strangely enough, kind of smell like cheap cigars.
But this is kind of what the season of Lent is for; our stupidity. Lent is a season of repentance and preparation. It’s a season where we confess and reflect on the ways throughout the year we may not have fully lived up to all that God has called us to be. Sometimes the ways that we failed God are just dumb. Sometimes the ways we have failed our neighbor are more malicious and evil. But all the same, Lent is a time where we remember these things, we remember our mortality and dependence upon God and we recognize once again our need for Grace. Psalm 51 is a passage that is sometimes read near the beginning of Lent and one of my favorite verses reads like this, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.” – Psalm 51:10-11 This passage was thought to have been written by King David after he was confronted by the prophet Nathan. Now many of us don’t find ourselves in that same boat as David. But when we fail God or hurt our neighbor, the sentiment should be the same.
I can’t help but smile a little bit this morning as a I listen to the drone of an air filter doing its best to clean the smoke laden air in our house. I’m not sure it’s up to the task. But when it comes to us, God has no trouble creating a clean heart within us. He doesn’t long to take His Spirit from us, but rather seeks to abide with us. Lent is a season that reminds us that through repentance and humility that we are able to make space for God to work within us and create something new in our lives. May you find yourself being renewed this Lenten season. May you recapture the joy of your salvation. And may you be reminded that even for the incredibly stupid things we sometimes find ourselves caught up in with life, that there is grace.
I have a confession to make. I’m not a writer. Yes, I write a blog each week and I occasionally write for other online venues, but I’m not really a writer. In fact, I get kind of jealous of my friends who have that title in their Twitter or Facebook bios. I really don’t feel like I’m there. You see, I’ve never had any formal training outside of my high school writing classes. In fact, my wife always feels the need to point that out anytime she has to proof one of my papers. Evidently, I either love, commas, way too much, or not enough (see what I did there?). But regardless of my lack of qualifications or my experience or my title, there is one thing I sit down to do every week. I sit down at a blank computer screen and I write. And some days I really enjoy it. Some days it feels like a chore. But I feel like it is important for my soul that I keep doing it…why? Because it reminds me of Who I belong to.
We are told at the beginning of the Bible that at the beginning of all things that the first thing God ever did was create. And although the Genesis account is a pretty incredible piece of poetic interpretation of creation, I find myself more and more being drawn to John’s account. It goes like this, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being.” – John 1:1-3 The Word. Jesus himself. Through his being all life came to being. This is one of the reasons I believe that communication brought to life through art and creativity is so important. You see, Jesus as the word/logos brought life into the universe. He is a creating/creative God. And we are created in that image. So in bringing forth words/pictures/images/art into the world we are participating in something that reminds us that we are created by Him to become like Him. Paul reminds us of how important our actions are in terms of how we go about life [you could read art here too], “Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.” – Colossians 3:17 In the name of Jesus. The same name/word that gave life to all that is.
So today I want to encourage you to…write, even if you are not a writer. I want to encourage you to sing, even if you’re not a singer. To paint, even if you aren’t a painter. To capture images, even if you’re not a photographer. To dance, even if you’re not a dancer. I urge you to sculpt, compose, draw, chisel, play, tinker, choreograph, program, edit, or find any other form of incredible creative expression to bring life and communication into the world that wasn’t there before…even if you don’t feel like you are qualified. Because the Voice that spoke everything into existence created you and you are created in the Creative God’s image.
How many of us actually expect to keep them? I think the success rate, at least according to the internet (and everything out here is true), is roughly around 8%. Yet every time a New Year rolls around we find our selves resolving to be better. Whether it is kicking a bad habit, losing weight, becoming more healthy, etc., it is almost a rite of passage into a new year to resolve to augment our behavior in some way that will make us better. Somehow the idea of a fresh start is just the spark we need to radically alter who we were just yesterday…kind of sounds silly in print. And yet I find myself wanting to be a part of the crowd when it comes to self-improvement. But one resolution has always plagued me a bit. It goes like this; “I resolve to draw closer to God.”
Now at face value this is a great resolution. Who wouldn’t want to draw closer to God? I know I do. I think the problem is how we go about it. We think somehow that drawing closer to God is something that is achieved on an individual level. As if he can only be encountered in my resolve to be personally accountable to His presence. And although I realize that we need time alone with God I believe that if we want to draw closer to God it looks a little different. Frank Weston, the one time Bishop of Zanzibar in the Anglican church wrote the following more than a hundred years ago:
You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum. … It is folly, it is madness, to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacrament and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are sweating Him in the bodies and souls of His children. . . . You have your Mass, you have your altars, you have begun to get your tabernacles. Now go out into the highways and hedges, and look for Jesus in the ragged and the naked, in the oppressed and the sweated, in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them; and, when you have found Him, gird yourself with His towel of fellowship and wash His feet in the person of His brethren.
Here is what I think I am trying to say. If you really want to resolve to draw closer to God this year then resolve to draw closer to the people He died for. By sharing God’s love and life with others we find a way to encounter God like never before. Jesus himself put it this way in Matthew 25:38-40 “When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’.” So by all means resolve to draw closer to God this year. It could be the greatest resolution you make. But be certain, it can never be done within the walls of your own safety and security. Rather it is only through reaching out in Christ’ love to those who haven’t been encountered yet for the Kingdom. Here you will truly draw closer to God.
Recently there has been talk about making Christmas bigger and better than ever. And something about this just hasn’t set right with me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas and big family gatherings and all the festivities around the church. But bigger and better than ever? I’m not quite sure those are the values that should qualify Christmas. It almost seems like more and more this is how society is trying to shape what began as something very different. You need to buy this better gift or your friend, spouse, kid, coworker, etc. won’t have a Merry Christmas. You need to make sure your debt ratio is getting bigger and bigger or Christmas won’t be complete. We have to make sure we capitolize on this season in our churches with as many activities to draw people in because this may be the only time of year we get to see them (well at least until Easter). We need to make sure everyone around us knows how big and important this holiday is because otherwise they’ll never understand the true meaning of Christmas.
To me it just all feels a bit off. The idea of shopping and planning and stressing and exhausting schedules seems so far removed from Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. One of my favorite versions of the Christmas story in scripture was actually written by Paul to the church in Philippi. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human.” – Philippians 2:6-7 The Christmas story is best categorized by words like emptied, slave, less, weak, humility, frail, fragile, etc. Not words like bigger and better. When God stepped into our world He became less. God became small. In fact, if you weren’t a shepherd or a magi (I’m not sure if I ever got to be one in one of the kid’s Christmas pageants) you probably didn’t even know about the first Christmas.
You may ask yourself though, why am I taking such issue with this? Because Christmas should represent our values as Christ followers and not as economists. Perhaps we should seek to embody the shepherds and seek out those who appear to be weak, vulnerable, less, frail and fragile this season. And when we find them it might be an opportunity for us to practice a Christmas value as we seek to enter into their situation with them. Perhaps Christmas is more about becoming like the broken, outcast, unloved, untouched, smaller and weaker because that is what God did for us at Christmas. So maybe for a moment this holiday season we all might find a way to try something different. It doesn’t have to be a huge gesture or anything massive, but maybe the smallest thing might become the most Christ-like as we seek to emulate the God who emptied Himself and became smaller and less for our sake.