#PrayingforBoston

Did you find yourself praying for Boston this week? While you were praying for Boston, did you think of Newtown?  As you were thinking of Newtown, did you remember Virginia Tech?  When you were remembering Virginia Tech, did Aurora, Columbine or 9/11 come to mind?

If you found yourself praying, you were not alone. When the news comes that another death-filled event has occurred, instinctively we grieve and we pray for those who have been impacted by the tragic violence. When our prayers are finished and our tears have all been shed, the questions start. Why did this happen?  The explanations, many and varied as they are, are never enough to make what has happened make sense. Somehow someone became hateful enough, angry enough, or mentally deranged enough to think that violence was a good idea. Yes, we can all see that now, but why? As elusive as an answer to the why question is, the answer to the question of whether or not something like this will happen again is painfully obvious. Yes, it will happen.

Our question becomes more pressing once we acknowledge that it could happen again. Our question then becomes: “Could it happen to us? Could it happen to people we know and love?”  Of course, it can happen again and it can happen to us.

Can anything be done to prevent such violence? We would like to think so. We would like to think that law enforcement agencies could be more effective in their task. We would like to think that the people who work in the fields of security and intelligence could make us more secure and better identify potential threats. We would like to think that ordinary citizens would be more diligent in noticing out-of-place strangers doing the unexpected in places where they would not ordinarily be. We would like to think that our political leaders would make reasonable and good laws that would enhance our safety and security. We would like to think all these things and yet we know that a determined person meaning to do evil is not easy to stop.

In light of such sobering reality, what do we expect of people of faith? What do we expect of followers of Jesus Christ? What can we do in the face of evil? We can do what Christ has called us to do, we can love. When violence becomes more and more senseless, we love. When evil seems to surround us like the darkness of the darkest night, we love. When tragedy after tragedy pushes us toward despair, we love. We love because it is what Christ has called us to do.  We love not because it makes sense in a logical, pragmatic way. It does not. We love not because love works in a mechanical or formulaic way. It does not always consistently produce a desired outcome and at times it can seem to produce no results at all.

However, love does work. It works on us. When we love instead of hate we resist becoming the evil that so frightens us. When we forgive instead of letting retribution and revenge take root in our souls we resist becoming the despair and bitterness that nurtures so much of the violence we see in the world. When we show mercy instead of demanding an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, we resist becoming blind to the possibility of new day, a new heaven, and new earth.

We know that we are not living in the world God meant to create. The God who has saved us is the same God who is still reclaiming, reconciling, recreating and redeeming God’s creation. When we love, we join our lives with God who is making all things new.  The agony of the Jesus’ prayer in the garden the night before his crucifixion makes clear the difficulty of choosing to love. The empty tomb on Easter morning makes clear that love is our only hope.

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Troy Polamalu: Faith First

If you watched last week’s NFL playoff game between the Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers, you saw Tim Tebow lead his team to victory in overtime.  In doing so, he did what many said could not be done.  Tebow is not a prototypical NFL quarterback, yet he does a lot of things that the experts say he can’t do.  Watching Tebow do what the experts say he should not be able to do is one the reasons that he is so much fun to watch.  Another reason that Tebow is fun to watch is because he takes his relationship with the Lord seriously.  He expresses gratitude regularly, and he allows his faith to frame his outlook and his worldview.  Recently, a reporter was asking about his performance in a game, a game in which Tebow had played well. Tebow wanted to talk about the sick kid that he had visited in the hospital.  To him, what mattered about the game was that it might have given encouragement to the boy in the hospital.  Tebow takes a lot of heat for the public way he lives his faith and for the unorthodox way he plays the game.  What I like about him is that he seems to know the difference between a game and life.  A game is just a game, but his faith is his life.

What I did not realize while I was watching last week’s game was that there was another player on the opposite side of the ball who also takes his faith seriously.  Troy Polamalu, the Steeler’s All-Pro safety, is an Orthodox Christian.  Orthodoxy is the Eastern wing of the earliest Christian church, which split into the Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054.  In Knoxville, St. George Greek Orthodox Church on Kingston Pike is an expression of this tradition.

Here are some quotes from Troy Polamalu that give an indication of how his faith shapes and forms his life.

“Football is part of my life but not life itself,” he says. “Football doesn’t define me.  It’s what I do [and] how I carry out my faith.”

“When I got injured, I learned so much from it spiritually, just thanking God for the health that I had when I was healthy.”

“People have this idea that the more pious and devout I am, the more successful I am.  Which is very dangerous.  If you look at faith in that way, you’re bound to fail at both — spiritually and in your career.”

“First of all, I’m a Christian so my prayer life really comes first.  Second of all, I’m a husband so my wife comes before anything else.  If I have time to do anything else after that, I do it, but I don’t sacrifice any time with her.”

“It’s really easy for me.  I love my faith and I know that’s first. …. I really think I know what’s important in my life and that’s my faith and my wife.”

On  growing orchids“I’ve tried but I don’t have enough patience for orchids.  They’re so sensitive.  Here’s what happened recently: It’s funny, I spent all last year trying to nurse this orchid to health.  Finally spring comes along and I thought, I give up, I’m putting it outside.  A month later, I come back to Pittsburgh and guess what?  I look outside and it’s blooming like crazy!  I can’t do what only God can do.”

“. . . you cannot have an experience of God without humility.”

“I think talking is overrated.  Anybody in the world can talk about doing anything.  The hardest thing is to do it.  It’s important for my son to understand, for example, why we pray, why we go to church.  It’s important for him to grow up in an atmosphere of watching us do it.”

We are not alone.  We journey together with a host of believers, some who are famous and some who are unknown, toward the life to which God has called us.  May we strengthen one another as we go.

Less is More

As I am speaking to a small group gathered for midweek worship and a meal at an inner-city Baptist center, I can not help but notice the coughing of the woman sitting over to my left.  I immediately recognize her from the last time that I had gathered with this group.  She has pancreatic cancer.   Her coughing, like “groans that could not be expressed in words”, do not disturb the service, rather it is a part of the service.  It is a litany of sorts that speaks her deepest longing.

At the end of the service, she comes to me asking for prayer.  The weight of her burden is great.  Who knows what the cancer has done to her body?   She does not know, as she lacks the means for medical treatment and the feedback a doctor would give her.  Her only hope is prayer.  While she may not know exactly what the cancer is doing to her, she knows that it is surely taking life from her.   In a very real way, life now for her consists of that space between her and God.   If she lives, it will be because of God. If she does not, she will be with God.

After we pray, I cannot help but wonder what the days ahead will hold for her.  Will she suffer?  How much will she suffer?  Will a miracle happen?  How will it be between her and God?

Disease has a way of focusing our attention.  It causes us to see things that we had not seen, or had overlooked.  We think differently; our perspective changes when confronted by an invasion of our bodies that is likely to be our undoing.  Sometimes, it causes us to turn toward God and to move closer to God.  For some people, the effect is the opposite.  For them, there is anger and resentment toward God.  Still others respond with a mixture of emotions and thoughts in such trying times.

Yet, with or without disease, our lives share a common condition.  We all live in the time and the space that God gives to us.   A life threatening illness may cause us to be more aware of God and our dependence on and accountability to God.   However, good health does not mean that we are any less dependent on God for our lives, and we are certainly no less accountable for them.

Last week, we heard the prophet Isaiah plead for God to “…tear open the heavens and come down…” to us, to fill the time and the space of our living.  In essence, we asked God to be with us.  That is the heart of Christmas, Immanuel, “God with us.”   We know that God has been born, that God abides with us each day, and that God will come again.

Advent prepares us for all the ways that God has, does, and will come to us.  As we prepare, is there room in our lives for more of God?  Is there room for God to do with us what God wants to do with us?  When we put up the Christmas tree at our house, it almost always means something has to be moved to make room for the tree.  What do we need to rearrange in our lives in order to make more room for God, to make ourselves more available to God?  The radical commitment that God makes to us in taking on flesh and being born among us, calls us beyond rearranging.  God’s purpose for our lives is not that they be busier, heavier and more burdensome.  In being born, God makes a way for us to be liberated from all that would separate us from God.

What is it that keeps us from experiencing the presence and peace of God?  Whatever that is, that is what we need less of.  If we are too busy, then we need fewer commitments.  If we are too burdened by debt, then we need less spending.

This Advent season we are conspiring together because we believe that Christmas can still change the world.  The proposal is quite simple.  Start small by spending less.  Eliminate one gift– one fruitcake, one sweater, one gift that will probably not be missed, and use that money to do something that will make the birth of Christ a reality for someone who desperately needs to know Jesus.  It is a small step, but a good beginning as we seek to empty our lives of that which keeps us from experiencing the fullness and wonder of what God has done in Jesus Christ.

Who are we?

Who are we?  I Peter 2:9 says that we  “. . . are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  We are a people whose race is determined not by physical characteristics or ancestry, but by the call of God on our lives. As priests, we open the way for others to discover and to be embraced by the one who has brought us into the light.  We are a set-apart people or nation defined not by geographic boundaries, but by the love we demonstrate to others. 

In a world that is divided by race, gender, social and economic status, religion, and a host of other ways, what is significant about who we are?  If we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, what difference does that make in our lives?  It can make a huge difference.  If we embrace who we are, then every day becomes an opportunity for us to proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called us out of darkness.  We proclaim those deeds sometimes by telling the story of who Jesus was and what he did, but always by embodying his thoughts, his values and his actions in our lives.

As a  “. . . chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. . .” we are set apart — different from that which surrounds us and sometimes overwhelms us.  We, the church, find ourselves living in a nation and in a world that often bears little resemblance to the kingdom of God.  Nevertheless, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We live to proclaim another way.  In living as God has called us, we redeem this world so that politically, socially, spiritually, economically, and morally it looks and feels more like the kingdom of the one who sent out the twelve saying “…as you go, proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”   That is the mark toward which we ought to aim our lives, that those whom we encounter would experience the wonder of God’s grace, the depth of God’s mercy and the nearness of heaven from our actions and our words.

As the church, we are not always such a people.  In fact, in some ways the church has become an impediment to grace, mercy and the nearness of heaven for some people. Bad experiences, judgmental words and “holier than thou” attitudes have left them cut off from God and convinced that there is no good reason to do anything to remedy the situation.  They conclude confidently that if God is anything like those who so freely speak for him, then grace and mercy are not to be found.

Yet, we know that such is not the case.  We know God is gracious and that God’s mercy is deep and wide.  God has freely given that grace to us.  We know that God loves us.  So, it is all the more imperative for us to be the race, the priesthood, the nation, and the people that God has called us to be.  In darkness, we did not know God.  We did not know God’s love for us.  In knowing God and sharing God’s love and grace with others, we move further into that marvelous light. In denying others God’s mercy, failing to share God’s love with others, we not only push them back into the darkness, but we turn our own lives back toward the darkness as well.

Who are we?  We are the church, the body of Christ, living according to his call on our lives, to his teachings in our minds, and to his love in our hearts, so that the darkness of this world might be overcome by his marvelous light.

Seeing God in our Weakness

In spite of what you may have heard this week, we have not started an ark-building ministry at Ball Camp Baptist Church, though there were times on Monday when I wondered if some sort of watercraft might be necessary to get around, considering how much water was falling from the sky.  Who knew that so much rain could fall in such a short amount of time?  Fortunately, our facility stayed dry on the inside.  This is no small gift when we remember some of the problems we have dealt with in recent years.

Some of our neighbors were without electricity during Monday’s storm.  I had one friend in Chattanooga who was without power for 19 hours.  She was excited to have power again after going without it.  “We don’t realize what we take for granted!”  Electricity is one of the many aspects of 21st Century living that we have grown accustomed to experiencing without thinking about it.  We take for granted conveniences that caused eyes to pop and minds to swirl when they where first introduced.  Those conveniences have given us more control over lives, more time to do what we want to do, as well as what we need to, and in some cases to do those things better.  When they are taken away from us we are limited and vulnerable, no longer able to do and control the aspects of our living that we could with them.

Those moments that startle us and reveal to us our vulnerabilities do not come to us only when the electricity is not working.  We get reminders of the ways that life is beyond our control all the time.  As our children cross developmental milestones, we learn new ways where we are not in control.  When the company we work for closes its doors for the last time, we get reminded of our vulnerability.  Unexpected news from the doctor does the same thing to us.  We don’t like being vulnerable or out of control.  We seem programmed to respond to such situations by trying to minimize the ways that we are vulnerable.  We work to get some kind of control over whatever it is — our children, our career, or our health — that has disturbed our sense of being in charge of our lives.  We do our best to quickly move on and move beyond the situation and the uncomfortable feelings that came with it.

If we pause in the midst of our crisis, or take some time after it passes to reflect upon it, we might be surprised at what we see mingled in the reflection of our own vulnerability and weakness.  Is there anything more vulnerable than a newborn baby?   Who needs more help than a little baby needing to be bathed, fed and loved?  Yet, because of God’s great need to be in loving relationship with us, God became not just human, but the most vulnerable of humans needing to be fed, bathed and loved.   Henri Nouwen describes God coming to us this way:  “Who can be afraid of a little child that needs to be fed, to be cared for, to be taught, to be guided?  We usually talk about God as the all-powerful, almighty God on whom we depend completely.  But God wanted to become the all-powerless, all-vulnerable God who completely depends on us.  How can we be afraid of a God who wants to be ‘God-with-us’ and needs us to become ‘Us-with-God’?”

The mystery and wonder of God is that God wants to be loved by us as much as God loves us.  On the good days, we may take for granted the goodness of God’s provision in our lives.  On the days when we feel like we are not in control of our lives, we can recall that God has taken away the distance that once separated us from God, not with God’s great strength, but with God’s willingness to become a child laying in a manger.

An Evening Prayer

Almighty God, you who are eager to find and to hold each one us,

we call out to you as the darkness of night begins to surround us.

May the light you so freely give remain within us and before us

even in the deepest depths of the coming night.

 

You who reach for us and bend toward us as we grope around

the dim edges of life sustain us and keep us.

Hold us this night and every night ‘til the morning comes

and we find ourselves bathed in your glorious light forevermore.

Praying to Know Ourselves

The everyday living of life seems to have something built into it that causes us to forget who we are and who God is, or perhaps that God is.  Left unattended or unchecked, we steadily and surely find ourselves living in a world of our own making, where the resolution of every dilemma and the solution to every problem depends on ingenuity and effort.  Invariably, we cannot resolve all the dilemmas nor solve all the problems even though the unspoken message is that we should be able to.  We are left frustrated as we teeter towards despair.  Such is often the case in a world that depends on us to keep everything in order.

We get reminded in all sorts of ways that our lives are not what we expected them to be or what others think they are.  There are times when we are confronted with reality, and we realize that our lives are not what we need for them to be if we are going to be healthy and purposeful in our living.  Those moments when we catch a glimpse of ourselves and the lives we are living can lead us in new directions, or they can add fuel to our delusions. We do have a choice. We can be intentional about living a spiritually meaningful life in a world that, at times, seems to function in so many ways to draw us in exactly the opposite direction.

Prayer can help us to move toward a clearer picture of ourselves and the world in which we live, if we will let it.  At the same time, if we fill our time of prayer with our own words, our own perspectives, and our own explanations in our search to find our solutions, the result will most likely be a deluded picture of not only ourselves but the world in which we live. Years ago, Martin Luther, speaking about prayer said, “the fewer the words, the better the prayer.”  His words echo the Hebrew proverb, “If a word be worth one shekel, silence is worth two.”  The noise that surrounds our lives is so loud and so shrill that we have grown so accustomed to it.  We may not be able to wrap our minds around the notion that silence can speak to us.  More importantly, if we have offered that silence to God, then the voice we hear in the silence is that of God.  No, we do not hear it all the time or even most of the time.  Yet, if we never find the time and the space to be silent in the presence of God, how will we ever hear?

We begin where we are simply because it is impossible to begin anywhere else. We can only pray the prayer that we are able to pray.  Wherever we are, we trust that God is with us listening, speaking, and loving.

Jesus tells a story about two men praying in Luke’s gospel.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”

The Pharisee’s prayer is filled with his own words.  It is defined by his perspective of the world and who he thinks he is. There are no questions, empty spaces, or blank pages in his prayer.  In short, there is no room for God to speak.   There is no silence in which God might help this Pharisee gain a deeper awareness of himself, his life, and the world in which he is living.   In sharp contrast, the tax collector cannot even raise his head to look toward heaven.  His plea for mercy opens wide a huge door and creates much room for God to speak and to move, for God is nothing if not merciful.  The tax collector has an awareness of who he is and he offers that to God.  Jesus says that he returns home justified, made right.  The Pharisee prays a prayer filled with self delusions, and when he finishes, he is no more aware of himself or of what God might want to do in his life.

The truth that the tax collector’s prayer reveals to us is that if we are ever going to grow in our spiritual lives, we have to have an awareness of who we are and what we really need.  That sort of awareness can be, and often is painful.  Why do we need mercy?  We need mercy because we are hurting, or we have hurt someone.  Why do we need grace? We need grace because we have sinned against God, ourselves, or someone else.

To grow spiritually and be alive to the presence of God in our lives means that we cannot hide from the hurting places within us.  If we are to become more than we already are, we cannot hide from ourselves or from God.   The more honest we can be about who we are the more fully God’s freedom can embrace us, fill us, and carry us deeper into the heart of God’s great love for us.