A Cure for Our Distress

“Don’t get upset over evildoers; don’t be jealous of those who do wrong, because they will fade fast, like grass; they will wither like green vegetables.”
Psalm 37:1, 2 (Common English Bible)
            I received an email this week from a dear friend and member of this church. With considerable distress he wrote that it now appeared that the faith he holds so dear – the Christian faith – has been “high jacked” by an intolerant segment of the larger Christian Church in our nation. I know this man’s heart. He does not disparage those who hold a different view of scripture – or the faith – from him. In fact, he has shared his conviction that the local church is the richer due to different theological positions held by the membership; that is, the church is the richer if we are humble enough to truly listen to one another. The cause of his current distress is that there seems to be a segment of people who vilify those who disagree with them. They are absolutely convinced that their viewpoint is the correct one and humility has not been invited to the conversation.
            The author of Psalm 37 offers a cure for this man’s distress: “Trust the Lord and do good.”[i]The instruction offered here is considerably richer than a cursory glance may offer. Throughout the Old Testament the word which is here translated “trust” is translated “careless.” Insert this translation and what is heard is, “Be careless in the Lord!” Rather than carrying a weight of concern for what intolerant, fundamentalist Christians may say to us, let our “care” be absent. As J. H. Jowett so cleverly expresses it, we are to be as careless little children running about the house in the assurance of their father’s care and love.[ii]The responsibility for the intolerance that causes us distress belongs to God, not us. What is our responsibility, according to this third verse, is that we are to continue living as faithfully as we know how: to “do good.”
            That closing instruction, “do good,” is not offered as a soft, cheerful ending to the weightier encouragement to “Trust the Lord.” The author of this Psalm has been where we are; has experienced our distress and anxiety over those who would distort our Christian witness with an intolerant view. It is precisely because we experience distress and anxiety that we are cautioned to be intentional with our response: “do good.” That is because distress and anxiety easily moves toward anger. And the natural result of anger is weakness rather than strength. Perhaps you have used the expression that someone is “hot under the collar” as I have. At such moments, unwise and irrational decisions can be made. It is then that our cause – our sense of justice – is not advanced. Our behavior does not vindicate us. The occasion is made worse than it was before.
            Today, faithful Christians are under considerable pressure from groups who are intolerant and, sometimes, hateful toward those who hold a different position. The certain risk is that we join them in their hatred by our unmeasured response. Psalm 37 is a call to “cool the heat” and trust that God remains Lord. We may temporarily experience distress – even alarm – by the behavior of others. That is a signal that we care deeply about our faith and wish for an authentic witness to others. Yet, what an authentic witness requires at such moments is an unwavering confidence in God’s faithfulness and capacity to move all of us toward healing and wholeness. “Trust the Lord!” Assume that the river of God’s redemptive purposes is flowing even on the darkest day. It is this that will provide a cure for our distress.

[i] Psalm 37:3 (Common English Bible)
[ii] J. H. Jowett, The Silver Lining: Messages of Hope and Cheer (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1907), 33.


Prayer and Responsibility

“Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord. 
Then Isaiah said, ‘Prepare a bandage made of figs.’ 
They did so and put it on the swelling, at which point Hezekiah started getting better.”
2 Kings 20:2, 7 (Common English Bible)
            Theodore Roosevelt, our nation’s 26th president, was born a frail, sickly child with debilitating asthma. At seventeen, Roosevelt was as tall as he would grow, five feet eight inches, and was just shy of 125 pounds. His health, a continual concern of his parents, prompted Theodore Senior to decide that the time had come to “present a major challenge to his son.”[i]At the age of twelve, Theodore – nicknamed as a child, Teedie – was told by his father that he had a great mind, but not the body. Without the help of the body, the mind could not go as far as it should. “You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.”[ii]Teedie made the commitment to his father that he would do so. The promise was adhered to with bulldog tenacity. The young Theodore Roosevelt took personal responsibility for his physical health and development.
            Hezekiah, king of Judah, became a very sick man during his leadership. He had a wound that had become so serious that his spiritual counselor, a prophet named Isaiah, informed him that he should put his affairs in order because he was dying. That diagnosis came like a bolt of lightning to Hezekiah. In desperation, Hezekiah “turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord.” He pled with the Lord to reward his faithfulness as a man of God and to spare his life. Then, the scriptures tell us, Hezekiah cried and cried. Before Isaiah had left the courtyard of the king’s residence, God sent him back to Hezekiah with another and more hopeful message: “I have heard your prayers and have seen your tears. So now I’m going to heal you. I will add fifteen years to your life.”[iii]Then follows something that is most curious: Isaiah orders a bandage made of figs be placed on the swelling. Hezekiah prayed and Isaiah prepared a bandage: prayer and responsibility.
            With powerful clarity, this passage of scripture teaches us that two things were responsible for Hezekiah’s rapid recovery: prayer and a bandage, faith and personal responsibility. If the king was to recover his health, both were required. The Bible refuses to indicate which of the two was the more important. We cannot know which was the most effectual. The message is that without either of them Hezekiah would have died in the prime of his life and at a time when his country most needed his leadership. The power of the Assyian king, and his armies, threatened the peace Judah. The death of Hezekiah would have made Judah most vulnerable to their enemies. With his health restored, Hezekiah was able to defend his nation from the Assyian threat. This story provides an important lesson for God’s people: While prayer is essential it must never be made a substitute for personal responsibility.
            There are people who make the mistake of choosing between the two, prayer and responsibility. We have seen in the news recently where parents of a particular Christian sect refused medical treatment for their young son because they chose the avenue of prayer alone. A choice between faith and medicine is simply not supported by this Bible lesson. Each is a gift of God and each has its own power. Faith and medicine are both means of healing. They belong together. Both are agents of a compassionate God. Prayer and personal responsibility cooperate closely in effecting the highest well-being of those who struggle with illness. This story from 2 Kings reminds us not to neglect either. The sixteenth century French physician, Paré, reminds us of this truth when he wrote, “I dressed the wound and God healed it.”

[i] Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: Random House, 1979), 32.
[ii] Morris, 32.
[iii] Portions of 2 Kings 20:5, 6.


The Great Wisdom of Prayer

“Early in the morning, well before sunrise, 
Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.”
Mark 1:35 (Common English Bible)
            It was said of the disciples long ago that people held them in wonder and awe that they had been with Jesus. To be with one of the disciples was to experience one degree of separation from our Lord. That close proximity to Christ resulted in an experience of spiritual vitality and power. God’s love, and wisdom, and strength were no longer limited to one’s imagination as stories of Jesus’ life and ministry were shared. In the company of a disciple – or disciples – God’s presence seemed to come near. The vision of God’s glory grew more expansive in the heart as a result of being in the presence of one of the disciples. Perhaps that same fascination is what drives each of us to be photographed with those we admire. There is an unmistakable attraction and thrill to standing in the presence of those who have acquired a larger-than-life persona.
            In this passage from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had just finished a hard, grueling day. A similar day would follow. How could he be ready for it? What would be the spring of fresh physical, emotion, and spiritual strength from which he would drink? Mark gives us the answer and with it the key to Jesus’ vitality and stamina, “Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.” This one verse suggests the great wisdom of prayer: Every morning, draw from the inexhaustible power of God by drawing near to God’s presence. That is done in prayer. Once when a man was asked what he was doing each day sitting alone in a church, gazing upon a picture of Jesus, he answered, “I am simply looking at him and he is looking at me.” Prayer is time with God.
            The weakest, humblest life can be made stronger when placed before God. As we pray, the Bible promises that God will be there. There will be days when God seems absent. The Psalms tells us this. Pray anyway. Know that God is present. Day after day the eyes of the soul become more sensitive to God, the heart more aware of God’s still small voice speaking. Eventually, prayer becomes that daily practice by which the individual soul becomes intertwined with the presence and strength of God. The fact of intimate communion with God is the great reality of true, regular prayer. In prayer we come to see ourselves surrounded by God’s love and concern for us as we begin each new day.
            How strange, how foolish it must seem to God that we should be content with so little prayer. This particular occasion, mentioned in this one verse of scripture from Mark’s Gospel, was no unusual occurrence for Jesus. Jesus prayed often; Jesus prayed for himself and for others. Jesus took time for prayer before each day and before every difficult challenge that drew near to him. Jesus teaches prayer to us by example, for he knew from his own experience that prayer was a vital part of navigating the inevitable difficulties that each one of us must face. Today, many Christians are troubled by weakness, doubt, and fear, largely because they miss the help that prayer might provide. The greater wisdom of prayer is simply discovering – and experiencing – that we never have to face a day alone. 


Praying As Jesus Prayed

“Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said, 
‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’”
Luke 11:1 (Common English Bible)
            Some years ago I returned home from a business meeting in South Carolina. After claiming my baggage at the Tampa International Airport I proceeded to my car parked in the short-term parking garage. I found a flat tire. Only once in my life had I ever changed a flat tire. That was before I was married. That one time it took me nearly forty minutes. I remember my father once telling me that I wasn’t worth much with my hands. I never disappointed. Exhausted from my trip and staring down at a flat tire I made the decision to call my father-in-law who lived near the airport. He giggled – he giggled at me often, wondering what kind of man his daughter married – and said he would be there in ten minutes. In about the same amount of time it took him to arrive, my tire was changed and I was ready to go. I thanked him, we hugged and each of us said “I love you” to the other. On my drive home I realized that it had been nearly a month since the last time I spoke with my father-in-law.
            Often, this is what our prayer life looks like. Life is moving forward in a pleasant manner, we are happy, and our needs are few. Conversation with God – in prayer – is virtually non-existent. Suddenly we look down at a flat tire and a phone call is made to God. For many, it completely escapes them that there is anything deficient in their practice of prayer. All that has been understood about prayer is that God is the great giver who shows-up when we make the call. Some of you reading this will recall the major home appliance manufacturer, Maytag, and their television commercials of the Maytag repairman sitting by the phone waiting for a call. When our flat tire is not resolved quickly we question, “Where is God?” Our confidence in the power of prayer wanes. Perhaps even more tragic is that some may begin to question the very existence of God.
            Jesus’ practice of prayer astonished the disciples. Such was their amazement at Jesus’ prayers that they asked him to teach them to pray. As far as we know from the Gospels, this is the only thing the disciples explicitly asked Jesus to teach them. Notice that this fresh interest in prayer does not arise from the study of an apprentice manual for discipleship or from a conversation with Jesus on the topic. It followed immediately after observing Jesus at prayer. There was something about Jesus’ prayer life that was different from their own practice of prayer; something that evidenced a greater sense of intimacy with God, and something that gave release to more power. As Harry Emerson Fosdick so clearly expressed it, Jesus went into prayer in one mood and came out in another. Praying was not a form but a force.[i]          
            Fortunately for the church today, the Gospels have captured many of Jesus’ prayers. A close examination of those prayers reveals a surprise for many: absent is any hint of begging. Jesus does not approach his heavenly father with pleas for his personal welfare, as though a disinterested God must be cajoled or convinced to offer a blessing. What becomes startling clear is an affirmative tone to Jesus’ prayers. Jesus turns his back on any doubt of God’s goodness and stretches out his hand to appropriate the inexhaustible resources available to any one of us. Such prayer retires for a moment from the swirling darkness that may surround us from time to time and affirms that God is present and active in our life. Such prayer, Fosdick affirms, “does not so much asks as take; it does not so much beg for living water as sink shafts into it and draw from it.”[ii]That is praying as Jesus’ prayed.

[i] Harry Emerson Fosdick, “On Learning How to Pray”, Riverside Sermons(New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 112.
[ii] Fosdick, 116.


Recovering the Adventure of Faith

The following meditation is from Doug Hood\’s book,
Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ.
“Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ,
and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.”
Romans 13:14 (Common English Bible)
For some, the experience of the Christian faith lacks the heroic and adventurous texture of the lives of great biblical personalities. Safe, comfortable boredom is more often presented today in the life of those who follow Christ. Absent are uncalculated risks, the thrill of battling difficulties and the appetite for conflict and victory. The faith has become soft, the individual life one of self-indulgent behavior. The demands of scripture go unnoticed, perhaps on purpose, and everything is made too easy. The casualty is a faith without power or interest.
In more honest moments, such people will often confess to a desire for something more, something deeper.  A world of risk and adventure is preferred over the predictable routines that our lives fall into. The zest of struggle and conquest teases our minds and the ever-present possibility of calamity and pain doesn’t diminish the lure. Rather, these are the factors which make possible human happiness; joy the product of discipline and effort.
Such a faith remains within the reach of anyone who desires it. It arrives along the route of spiritual discipline. Unlike military discipline, a discipline that is imposed from without, spiritual discipline emerges from within. It is self-imposed.  It builds spiritual muscle that is revealed in unquestionable character and contagious personalities. Discipline may seem, for a time, to be a thing of pain and not joy, but those who are trained by it are quick to demonstrate a life that is stronger, healthier and marked by joyful anticipation. Faith, properly experienced, becomes life’s grandest adventure.
Those who endeavor to claim such an experience of faith are addressed in these few words from Romans, “dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ.” The daily discipline of arising from bed and dressing our bodies with clothes appropriate for the day is purposely chosen. Dress the spiritual body each morning, as the physical body is dressed. Strive to eliminate unchristian attitudes and thoughts and consider how to be more loving of others. Remain alert to the needs of others and less preoccupied with your own. And do not neglect the regular reading and reflection upon God’s Word in the Bible. Think of how to please Christ throughout the day and such strength of faith as never known before will be given to you.