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.
Lately I feel as if I am surrounded by noise. And I’m not talking about the loud rambling oilfield trucks that plague our suburban streets. I’m not even referencing the fact that there are four kids in my house who must all have inside voice issues. I’m actually making reference to the multitude of voices in our world today that feel the need to make sure that they are heard, they are understood, they are perceived as being right and that they solicit change. It’s exhausting. It doesn’t matter on which side of which issue someone is speaking about it all has begun to blend together and just become noise…and I’m afraid I have even been guilty of adding to the noise. And so today I say to you and to me…’shhhhhhh’.
Often when I am plagued with some seeming societal ill I try to look to the testimony of Jesus to see how best to address what is going on around me. There are a couple of interactions that Jesus has in the gospels that have always perplexed me. It comes after Jesus has spoken some very unpopular/polarizing words and it doesn’t go over so well (I’m sure none of us can relate to that as of late). The first is in Luke at the beginning of his ministry in Nazareth, “They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” – Luke 4:29-30 The other instance takes place in John 8 after Jesus is forced to stand in the way of the religious elite on behalf of a woman caught in adultery and then speaks about His being sent by the Father. “At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” – John 8:59 Notice what it doesn’t say here, “Jesus kept arguing the point with his opponents until they were forced to concede and admit defeat.” No, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. He realizes the crowd will no longer listen, has gotten past the point of listening and so He walks through their midst. Jesus just steps away.
Of course Jesus doesn’t walk away and have a pity party. No, Jesus gets back to doing what He does best…enacting the Kingdom of God. In Luke He begins casting out unclean spirits and in John He heals a blind man. Jesus realizes that His argument is best made in enacting that which He is speaking about. There is no greater defense of one’s position than positive Kingdom action that will at once pull you away from pointless arguments and eventually silence your naysayers. Jesus knew this and trusted His work to it. Why? Because He knew the value of silence and He trusted the mission. Here as well we must seek to model Christ of whom we read these words just a short time later in Luke, “ But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” – Luke 5:16 Maybe we need to pull away from the noise. Maybe we need to withdraw. We certainly don’t need to add to it. Maybe it’s time for a little more shhhhh and a lot more action for the Kingdom.
It amazes me sometimes how quickly a year passes. At one moment you find yourself in sweltering summer heat then you turn around and it’s the middle of November. November is special in its own right as it is a month, at least in America, that we set aside to be thankful. There is even a holiday we call Thanksgiving that is typified by overeating, football watching and the navigation of familial conflicts that have laid dormant for most of the year. Come to think of it, it’s kind of odd that we call this day Thanksgiving. Others sometimes take the opportunity afforded by this month of Thanksgiving to offer up things they are thankful for throughout the month. While this can be a good practice, and also one that yours truly is participating in, sometimes it tends to lean towards lip-service and I begin to wonder if it is a true expression of Thanksgiving at all.
Let me explain a bit further. According to Miriam Websters, thanksgiving is the act of giving thanks, a prayer expressing gratitude, or a public acknowledgment or celebration of divine goodness.I think the first part of that definition is a violation of all that I was taught in school, but the latter two pieces are a bit more important. Thanksgiving is a prayer or a public acknowledgement/celebration of Divine goodness. In other words Thanksgiving is a response. There is a parable Jesus tells in the gospel of Luke that I think might help to clarify this. He is addressing some of the piety he sees around him and he shares the story of two individuals praying in public. The first goes like this, “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get’.” The latter was just slightly different, “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ – Luke 18:11-13
I find it funny that the Pharisee “thanks” God that he is better off than those around him. But then again I wonder how often my “thanksgiving” is similar. I do appreciate the blessings in my life, but does that truly call out a response of thankfulness from me? Or am I simply thanking God that I am well off compared to others around me? The tax collector maybe understood what he truly needed to thank God for; mercy. Grace is that which we ultimately should be thankful for. It is grace that is the primacy of our thankfulness and brings about the only real response of thanksgiving we can make. We show our thankfulness by extending that grace, mercy and love to others. We don’t thank God that we are not in there position, but rather we show our thanks to God by extending compassion to those who aren’t as well off as us. This is thanksgiving. This is giving out of our spirit of thankfulness. And this is what it means to be truly thankful.
Just this last week I was part of a prayer retreat for the South Texas Nazarene pastors in Leakey, TX at the HEB Foundation Camp. The time away was incredible as we were surrounded by the beauty of nature and God’s presence was very real in our meetings. But I am always left thinking and pondering more by these times after the fact because I am not sure my response/intentions are always aligned correctly. Don’t get me wrong, time away and prayer are incredibly important, but I think the response and intentionality of why we pray/get away is even more important. I heard an African proverb last week from a podcast featuring Rep. John Lewis that I can’t seem to get away from. “When you pray, move your feet.” In other words, prayer requires action/engagement from our dialogue with God.
This is a bit of a paradox as most of the time, at least in Western culture we think of prayer as a solitary practice void of action, or at least mobility. We are to find a quiet place where we can have alone time with God. And I’m not saying this is a bad thing (in fact I do it daily), but what are our prayers for? And if we pray and fast, what are we praying and fasting for? Does it change the way we interact with the world around us? During the time of Isaiah the people of Judah, although faithful to their religious festivals, fasts, etc. were not faithful to the call these were meant to institute. God’s reply to their inaction, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
So my question to us today, are we praying and fasting in order to move or to be solitary expecting movement without us? Saint Augustine is credited with saying, ““Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.” Maybe this is what we are supposed to be reminded of. Our prayer and our movement, our fasting and our work are inexplicably related. We don’t pray in order to remove ourselves from the lives of those around us, we pray in order to weave ourselves into their world. We don’t fast in order to become separate from the world around us, we fast in order to move into the neighborhood. So today, when you pray, may your feet move. And when you fast, may your soul and spirit move for those around you. And maybe once our prayers and fasting are linked with action we might find ourselves praying for the right things as we embody the heart of God.
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.
I want to be a person of prayer. But not the typical definition of what you may be thinking of. Often times I think about a person of prayer as someone you want to bring your requests to. Someone who will get ahold of heaven until heaven answers back. But I am not sure this is the person of prayer I want to be.
I want to be a person of prayer. But not a person who prays selfish things or for the world to get easier or for life to get better. I want to be a person who prays for God’s Kingdom come in earnest. I think that if I pray for this then it changes the words I say and the way I look at the world. If my prayer for God’s Kingdom becomes my heart’s desire then I start to see it in action all around me.
I want to be a person of prayer. I want to learn to pray like Jesus did. He got away and prayed in solitude and I’m not sure what he prayed for but I imagine it was for people to understand that living life to the fullest is not the easiest life. Jesus came to give us life to the fullest but his life ended in death…and not just a death where you pass peacefully into the next life but a violent horrific death because his life lived to the fullest was misunderstood. And yet Jesus was a person of prayer.
I want to be a person of prayer. And I believe this requires action. But I also think it means inaction. Being a person of prayer may require me just to be quiet and think and listen because prayer is about hearing from God as much as talking to Him. I don’t think this will be easy, but I think it’s necessary.
I want to be a person of prayer. I want my life to be characterized by prayer and for it to be evident in how I live. I want prayer to be a defining characteristic of how I see the world and how I help others to see the world.
And as I become a person of prayer I want to pray like Jesus taught us to pray…
“ ‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one. ’ – Matthew 6:9-13