Struggling In Prayer

Unto My Words-sRGB“I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favorably received by the Lord’s people there.” -Romans 15:30-31

I have to be honest. After being a Christian for over 30 years, prayer is still a mystery to me. There are certain aspects I understand. For example, I know prayer is relational conversation with God. And in that conversation, I pour out my heart, be it praise, thanksgiving, remorse, confession, desperation, or petition.

But prayer is also more than that. So there are other aspects of prayer that are shrouded in mystery for me, even after all these years. The passage in Romans is one of them. How does one “fight the battle” for another in prayer? Is this just dramatic imagery for simply praying for a person’s needs? Or is there something more?

Throughout my Christian life, I’ve participated in groups that had their particular answer to these questions. I’ve been in some prayer meetings where praying was spiritual warfare performed by audibly “binding and loosing” spiritual powers influencing situations.

I’ve been in groups where lists of requests were gathered and a small group would pray over the various needs.

I’ve been in groups where the participants would physically lay their hands on a person and wait for the Spirit to bring specific prayers and prophetic messages to mind.

I’ve also been in groups where prayer is quietly whispering a liturgical prayer and lighting a candle for a person, requesting God’s mercy and presence in their life.

I suspect Paul and the early Christians understood something that is often missing in our modern concept of prayer. Too often we see prayer as petitioning God and expecting an answer. What if that isn’t necessarily the prayer’s primary purpose. What if prayer is more like training — learning to wait on God, sense his leading, praying appropriately, then rinse and repeat.

In most Christian traditions, the “Lord’s Prayer” is the model for prayer. But Jesus wasn’t giving us categories or words to pray. He was showing us how to become “mobile Temples,” how to become God’s presence where heaven and earth are stitched together through love.

What if prayer is like working out on an exercise machine at the gym. In this example, we don’t do a few reps and expect to have fully developed muscles. It takes months or years of training to hone our muscles.

So perhaps prayer transcends mere petition and answer. Perhaps prayer is working out in cooperation with God so our interior life is reshaped and renewed into the place where heaven and earth are joined and then expressed naturally through our exterior life.

So what if Paul’s request is similar to Jesus’ model prayer. Surely he needs their prayers on his behalf. And immediate answers would be greatly appreciated. But he’s a pastor. He knows there are tensions between between Christians and non-Christians. And there are tensions between the Roman Church and the Jerusalem Church.

So perhaps, Paul’s request gives the Roman Christians the opportunity to continually pray for both “unbelievers” and “God’s people” in Jerusalem so they may train into God’s love toward these people.

One of my earliest memories as a child was learning to swim. Every week, my mom would take us to Ms. Christie’s house for lessons. I remember clutching the side of the pool. Ms. Christie stood in the water several feet away, beckoning me. I would let go of the side, struggling with each stroke to reach her. But she always seemed just out of reach. With every few inches I achieved, she would move away from me. When I felt I couldn’t go any further, I was suddenly in her safe and secure arms as she quickly closed the distance between us and grabbed me. Over and over, we would do this. And I learned to swim.

Perhaps that’s what prayer is like. Perhaps our needs or our loved one’s needs force us to struggle toward God. But in love, he always remains slightly out of reach. By doing so, he’s helping us to grow into love, into the embodiment of his New Creation. And just when it seems like all is lost, we’re in his safe and secure arms. Perhaps we don’t have the answer we desired. But we have his presence and the transformation he intended all along.

So if love is the embodiment of God’s New Creation, then prayer is the exercise that develops it in our lives.

Not Chosen By God

PassionsThe other day I was reading Acts 1:21-26. This is the episode when the Apostles replace the fallen Judas as one of The Twelve.

Twelve is not just a nice round number. Twelve Apostles are necessary to continue Jesus’ work. Jesus is restoring Israel, God’s people, around himself. As the twelve tribes followed God’s presence in the pillar of fire, the twelve Apostles followed God’s presence in Jesus. They are embodying God’s renewed plan for Israel, so twelve Apostles are absolutely necessary to move forward.

So after a vetting process, the eleven Apostles find two qualified men — Mathias and Justus. And with a cast of lots, God chooses Mathias… and doesn’t choose Justus.

And the story quickly moves on. But I can’t.

My thoughts keep returning to Justus. Who was this man? What did he think and feel to be one of the two finalists to join The Twelve, only to watch God choose the other man?

Scripture provides us very little. He was known by three names — Joseph, Barsabbas and Justus.

Church tradition fills in some biographical gaps. Justus was a son of Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, from his first wife Salome. In other words, Justus was Jesus’ step-brother.

Now some people may be scratching their heads and asking, “Wait a minute. You’re saying Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph, was married to someone else before Mary?” Yes. The image of a young Joseph and Mary depicted in our modern Christmas story is incorrect.

According to Church tradition, Joseph was previously married to Salome. They had four sons and two daughters before she died and left Joseph a widower. These are Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” mentioned in the Gospels and include James (author of the Book of James), Jude (author of the Book of Jude), and Justus.

What about Mary?

Dedicated to God by her parents, Joachim and Anna, Mary grew up as a little girl in the Temple. Young women could not live in the Temple once they reached puberty. An elderly Joseph, now a widower, is selected by lots to become young Mary’s husband-caretaker. After birthing Jesus, Mary remains a virgin the entirety of her life. Joseph and Mary never had any children together.

So back to Justus.

Justus was among the original members of Jesus’ ministry. He was eventually chosen by Jesus to be among The Seventy, who were sent out as part of his ministry (Luke 10). Justus ultimately became the Bishop of Eleutheropolis and died a martyr. So we know that he faithfully served Jesus and his people his entire life.

Beyond the biographical information, Church tradition is as silent as Scripture regarding Justus’ thoughts and feelings at not being chosen by God.

At this point one can only speculate. I think it’s safe to assume that Justus was like any other person. So I wonder if he experienced disappointment, doubt or depression. What was going on in his head? One cannot be passed over by God without asking introspective questions. Was I not worthy enough? Did I do something wrong? Am I disqualified? Why him and not me? What now?

I also wonder if inactivity increased the volume of that inner voice. Jesus had instructed his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Father (Acts 1:4). And so they waited and prayed in the upper room. What did he feel when he saw Mathias now huddling with the other eleven Apostles? What were Justus’ prayers like? What was he saying to God? Was he repenting of envy over his friend’s new position? Was he praying for clarity over why he was passed over? Or was he praying for strength, safety and wisdom for his friend? From personal experience, I think his prayers were a mixture of everything.

Mere days later, God’s wind and fire would rest on Justus along with the other hundred-plus believers. In that moment, perhaps Justus’ thoughts and feelings of rejection are swept away in this amazing flurry of excitement and activity. Perhaps his questions are answered as he and the astounded community of believers realize they are now empowered to continue what Jesus had started. Regardless of position, there was new work to be done by all.

In a short reflection on Justus, NT Wright states, “Part of Christian obedience, right from the beginning, was the call to play (apparently) great parts without pride and (apparently) small parts without shame. There are, of course, no passengers in the kingdom of God, and actually no ‘great’ and ‘small’ parts either. The different tasks and roles to which God assigns us are his business, not ours.”

Knowing that Justus’ ultimate trajectory was to become Bishop and Martyr, I would like to think he quickly grasped that truth and found his fulfillment in whatever God placed before him. While God didn’t choose him to be one of The Twelve, he knew God had chosen him for service. And by embracing that vocation, he faithfully served God’s people and ultimately followed his Savior’s example, sacrificing his life in love.

And centuries later, Justus’ life still serves as a quiet example for all who feel they haven’t been chosen by God.

Father, some mornings I wake up wondering if I completely failed you and have been disqualified from your work. May Justus’ faithful life be an encouragement. There’s always work to be done in your kingdom. Keep my focus on that. And when necessary, remind me that whatever work you place before me, it is neither “great” nor “small”. It is work for which your Spirit has called and empowered me to do. May Justus remind me to be faithful to the end.

Being Before Behavior

Hands b&w-sRGB“A Christian is: a mind through which Christ thinks, a heart through which Christ loves, a voice through which Christ speaks, and a hand through which Christ helps.” -St Augustine

St Augustine’s quote is a beautiful expression of an incarnational life, a life that genuinely embodies Jesus so that he naturally lives through that person.

An incarnational life expresses itself in behaviors, habits, thoughts, attitudes and feelings that naturally reflect Christ. But it doesn’t originate there. The incarnational life first and foremost embodies Christ in our very being. The fancy theological word for this is “ontological.”

Fr Stephen Freeman has written an article on the ontological approach to understanding salvation that provides the proper context for discussing life in God. I would highly recommend reading his article. This ontological perspective is one of the primary theological perspectives that attracted me to Eastern Orthodoxy.

God is the only true Being. God gives us being and is the continual source of our being. His goal is for us to move toward “well-being” and ultimately to “eternal being” in communion with him.

Cluster of GrapesIn this light, right or wrong is either the path toward eternal being or non-being. Or to borrow Jesus’ imagery, it’s either remaining connected to the vine and naturally thriving or being cut off and naturally withering.

In contrast, the popular, yet distorted theology views right and wrong from a legal perspective of obedience and reward or disobedience and punishment — behavior and consequence. Sin is seen as immoral behavior and death its punishment while salvation is viewed as obedience and living forever its reward.

But from an ontological perspective, life or death are not the reward or punishment of our behavior. Life and death are about our being. In this light, salvation defines life — salvation is life and life is salvation. And death defines sin — sin is death and death is sin.

So life is well-being and ultimately eternal being as one remains in communion with God, the Source of Being and Life. Death is sub-being and ultimately non-being as one severs communion with God.

This is the framework for understanding Christian life. The incarnational life, a life that naturally embodies Jesus, is first and foremost God’s life in our being that naturally expresses itself through my will, mind and body into my relationships and world. From this perspective, St Augustine’s vision of incarnational life is an expression of life and well-being and not only behavior.

Too often, the discussion of Christ’s likeness centers only on behavior. In other words, a person is considered to be like Christ if he or she avoids certain negative behaviors like drinking, smoking and lying and adhering to positive behaviors like feeding the poor, attending church, acting lovingly, and praying for people. From this perspective, I expend my energy modifying my behavior to adhere to a list of appropriate behaviors, usually determined by the specific faith community in which I live and associate.

But as good as that behavior might be, by itself it isn’t necessarily Christ’s likeness. Again, the incarnational life that naturally embodies Jesus is ontological. The core issue is being, not behavior. From our being, and thus our well-being and eternal being, springs behavior.

So I should expend my energy cooperating with God in the transformation of my being — to choose the ongoing path of life and well-being in intimate communion with God.

Not Worthy Of Them

“The world was not worthy of them.” -Hebrews 11:38

What a wonderful epitaph to have proclaimed over one’s life. The writer of Hebrews declares this after a lengthy list of people popularly called the “Faith Hall of Fame.”

Cloud of WitnessesOne of the beautiful aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy are the icons of the saints. The saints are those whom the Church recognizes to have lived a full life of actually enduring to the likeness of Christ. Most are apostles, martyrs, church fathers, and monastics. But for every recognized saint, there are thousands upon thousands of unknown and unmentioned saints.

These unknown saints are the ordinary men and women who lived daily lives of faith, love and piety. They worked ordinary jobs and performed ordinary tasks. They are the “jars of clay” containing the unsurpassable treasure of God’s presence.

The other day, I heard a woman describe her 89-year old mother as a “saint” because she never drank, smoked or cussed. While I don’t doubt that her mom is a saint, I take issue with her measuring rod. A person is not a saint simply by adhering to a set of regulations or morality. A saint is someone who is set apart for God through his or her personal and loyal commitment to Jesus and his cause — to transform and renew this world into his Father’s New Creation.

Like a stubborn toddler resisting and fighting against bath-time, this world resists God’s renewal. Unfortunately, the world fights back with far more destructive and violent forces. And those committed to the world’s renewal suffer. They lose reputation, friends, jobs, homes, health and frequently, life.

But they endure. They endure with grief, sadness, pain and loss merged with an indescribable peace, joy and hope. They endure because the one who will transform and renew the world has already begun the process in them. And so, they carry in themselves the promise of God’s future here in the present. And so they trust him and follow him. It sets them apart. They are saints.

Saints aren’t perfect. They struggle, sin and suffer. They are real people. They have different color skin. They speak with different accents. They hold different values. They raise their kids differently. They attend different churches. They enjoy different movies and books. They prefer different genders. They have different life goals. They manage their money differently. They have different political views. They have different scientific views. They have different spiritual views.

But they have one thing in common. They love God. They’re loyal to Jesus and his cause. They are being renewed by God’s Spirit, tasting a bit of God’s future today. As such, they are beneficiaries and agents of God’s New Creation. And for this they struggle to live by the life of God’s future world here and now and suffer as the world around them resists.

Upon completing his “Faith Hall of Fame,” the writer of Hebrews makes direct application:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Certainly this vast cloud is filled with those who have gone before us. The extraordinary and ordinary men and women who drew close to God and lived a life of intimate and loyal faith.

But the cloud also contains the aspiring saints around us. The extraordinary and ordinary men and women we encounter daily. They are our spouses. They are our kids. They are our friends. They are our co-workers. They are the single man or woman living a life of purity. They are the mom who works long hours to support her family. They are the dad who comforts his sick child in the late hours of night. They are the grandma who quietly and consistently prays for the people on her street. They are the cashier at Walmart smiling at every person. They are the UPS driver faithfully delivering our packages. They are the policewoman on patrol. They are the waiter at our favorite restaurant. They are the guy that cut us off on the freeway. They are the kids playing Pokemon GO.

Because God’s family overlaps the past, present and future, the great cloud of witnesses includes those who have successfully endured the struggle of loyal faith to Jesus and his transformative project, those who still struggle and suffer in their endurance, and even those who will yet endure.

And you and I are surrounded by this great cloud, this awesome community. We’re surrounded, because we are part of it. So, let’s throw off everything that hinders and entangles and run that race marked out specifically for us, with a deeply intimate and loyal commitment to Jesus and his cause.

Waxing Nostalgic – My Kids’ Baptism

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 9.01.22 AMThis October marks the ten-year anniversary of one of the most remarkable moments of my life — the day I baptized my kids.

I posted my thoughts about the event HERE a few days after it happened. You can also watch the short video HERE. On that day I offered my children to God and to his family. And while it was a dream come true for me as their dad, it was also a frightening moment.

During the worship that morning, I realized that my children would face a painful world without me. I couldn’t be with them during most of the moments of their daily lives. And as they matured, they would face a harsh and painful world without their daddy’s protection. But God cut through all of this by reminding me that my children were his. And then I heard his voice whispering “I will be there.”

Ten years later, as I reflect on God’s faithfulness to that promise, my heart wells with incredible gratitude. Thank you, God, for being there with them.

God has both protected them and formed, for which I am deeply thankful.

Ten years ago, my children’s ages ranged from 7 to 14. I understood each was making a commitment to Jesus at their personal level and that their commitment to him that would continue to grow and take new expression as they matured.

I don’t come from a Christian family. My parents became Christians after me, so I don’t have the personal experience of a faith handed down through generations. Passing down my faith to my kids has been a learn “by the seat of my pants” endeavor. But one thing I know from watching the Faith passed down in other families, it looks different in each generation. One generation’s values and preferences differ from the prior’s. But at its core, the faith in Jesus, the loyal commitment to him and his cause, is the same.

It’s fascinating to see how each my kids’ personal relationships with God have developed. It’s also a little unsetting. Their faith development doesn’t parallel mine or Debbie’s. So they don’t hold all of the values we hold. I’m learning how to coach and advise them from the resources of my personal faith. But most importantly, I’m learning to be content with that.

The important thing is that they belong to God and to his family that stretches time and space.

From personal experience, I know God will continue to speak to them and work through every part of their lives. Their faith will continue to change and develop, influenced by God’s Spirit, people’s influences and life circumstances.

As I look out upon the unknown of the next ten years and beyond, God’s promise to me for my children still rings true, “I will be there.”

Why Are We Here?

The standing congregation sings the Cherubic Hymn. “Let us lay aside our earthly cares that we may receive the king of all.” The tune is accentuated by the chiming of each swing of the deacon’s censor. Fragrant incense fills the room. Icons of saints look on. This is a holy moment.

Then the harmonies are disrupted with the dissonant crying from a discontented child. This pulls my attention back to my surroundings. As I glance around, I notice people shuffling tired feet and stretching aching backs. Others, both children and adults, look distracted. One heads to grab a tissue. Another exits toward the bathrooms.

I wonder to myself, “Why are we here?” Why do we gather every week? What brings us together like this? Shouldn’t we ask that question before each service?

Maybe someone is here looking for absolution for a word or deed they regret. Or perhaps it’s to find the love of God. Maybe it’s to be embraced in the comfort of friends. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to serve God and others. Maybe it’s simply out of cultural obligation. Perhaps it’s to impress parents, friends or a potential suitor. Maybe it’s to express thankfulness for a joyful event this past week. Maybe it’s to soothe the pain of the past week or to prepare for the demands of the coming week. Maybe it’s to be a good example for ones children. Perhaps the fires of spiritual renewal need to be answered. The answers to the question are as varied as the people in the room.

Body & BloodAs the hymn draws to an end, the iconostasis doors open and the Great Procession begins. The priest carries Jesus’ body and blood into our midst. HE IS PRESENT RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW!

That’s why we’re here. The life and love of Jesus. His presence breathes onto all that we have carried into this place as he offers himself to us. Come. Eat and drink. My life for yours.

And we respond by offering him our lives with all of our joys and sadnesses, faith and fears, commitments and distractions.

In this holy moment he sweeps all of us and all we are and all we bring into a moment when heaven and earth kiss.

In the quiet, a mother near me hands her distracted toddler a graham cracker. She excitedly coos, “Coooookie!”

This is truly a holy moment.

A Tough Question

YouI want to ask a tough question. “What’s God doing in and saying to you right now in your life?” I told you it’s a tough question. I’m not sure I could provide a stellar answer right now.

Sometimes the phrase “personal relationship with God” can become sterile and abstract. But ultimately, that question is the rubber-meets-the-road reality of an intimate and personal relationship with God.

Having to pause and think when I’m asked that question is a symptom of something amiss in my relationship with God. It shows I’m not aware of his work and voice, which is a constant in our lives. It is an indicator that my personal relationship may not be so “personal.” And in those moments, I can either honestly admit that or fabricate an answer in the attempt to appear more spiritual.

It would be similar if you asked me, “So how’s Debbie doing?” As her husband and friend, I should know. Not knowing is an indicator that our relationship may not be very personal at that time. The same is true for God.

A person that influenced my spiritual formation was Jean Pierre de Caussade. Here are a few quotes from him:

“The soul, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responds to every movement of grace like a floating balloon.”

“The present moment is always full of infinite treasure. It contains far more than you can possibly grasp. Faith is the measure of its riches: what you find in the present moment is according to the measure of your faith. Love also is the measure: the more the heart loves, the more it rejoices in what God provides. The will of God presents itself at each moment like an immense ocean that the desire of your heart cannot empty; yet you will drink from that ocean according to your faith and love.”

“Those who have abandoned themselves to God always lead mysterious lives and receive from him exceptional and miraculous gifts by means of the most ordinary, natural and chance experiences in which there appears to be nothing unusual. The simplest sermon, the most banal conversations, the least erudite books become a source of knowledges and wisdom to these souls by virtue of God’s purpose. This is why they carefully pick up the crumbs which clever minds tread underfoot, for to them everything is precious and a source of enrichment.”

A personal relationship with God is living aware of what God is doing and saying in the present moment. This doesn’t come naturally and requires us to develop a few skills.

Observation — We must learn to look around. We must develop eyes that look for God in everything.

Attention — We must learn to pay attention. This goes deeper than just looking. It’s looking at the details. It’s looking at the big picture. It’s noticing what may not be immediately apparent.

Reflection — We must learn to ponder and pray about what we see and notice. Many times we may see things that require us to then look at our own heart and ask tough questions.

Observation. Attention. Reflection. I know this is corny, but we need to take up our O.A.R. if we want to properly guide the raft of our lives through the rapids. Otherwise, we remain adrift and at the mercy of any random or destructive current.

God is moving and speaking constantly to us. His voice may come through a sermon, a Scripture, a song, a conversation, a circumstance, a whisper in our heart. Or sometimes simply in the silence.

A good place to begin practicing these skills are with the major movements in one’s life. Have you just experienced or are ready to begin a significant event? What might God be saying? Are you experiencing depression, stress, loneliness, or other pain? What might be God be saying in the middle of it? Are you in a life-changing relationship? What might God be saying? Did you hear a sermon that grabbed your attention? Are the ideas in a particular book captivating you? Did someone say something to you that keeps banging around in your head? Is there a Scripture passage that keeps grabbing your attention?

God is present in every facet of our lives. There’s not a single part in which he is absent. As we learn to sense his movement in the major moments, then we hone our skills to sense his presence in the more minute and mundane areas.

In every life’s detail, O.A.R. are skills that enable us to become more aware of God’s gentle movements and voice.