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Religious

The Deepest Form of Prayer

“ ‘Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves.’ ”

Matthew 11:28, 29 (Common English Bible)

In the deepest disquiet of the day I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s words in The Old Man And The Sea, “’ But man is not made for defeat,’ he said. ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’”[i] We live in an anxious time. Trouble and tumultuous trials capture the larger narrative of the present day. Jesus is correct that there seems to always be present some war or rumor of war – both wars of combat and wars of poverty, illness, disillusionment, and failure. A thousand-antagonist line-up to squash any optimism we once may have had about life. As I have written elsewhere, we may profess faith but that faith is hesitant, uncertain, and unsatisfactory. If Hemingway is correct, if men and women are not made for defeat, then some resource must be available to combat the destructive forces that rage all around us – something more sound and sturdy than the temporary escape various addictions provide.

The Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky captures the psychological and spiritual impact such anxiety, despair, and disillusionment can imprint upon our consciousness in his short story, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.[ii] The protagonist despairs of life, fails to find any meaning in life, and is convinced nothing in the whole world made any difference. One evening, a little girl desperate for help suddenly grasps him by the elbow. But he did not help her. On the contrary, something made him drive her away. If life is meaningless, if nothing really mattered anyway, then this little girl is nothing more than a distraction. Arriving at his small apartment he is resolved to take his own life. Before the decision is executed, he falls asleep. Through a startling and poignant dream, he is made to realize that as long as he is alive, life was not meaningless and that the world – in some way or other – now depended on him.

This invitation from Matthew’s Gospel is set in a larger teaching where we learn that God has chosen to reveal the same truth to the world. Life is not without meaning and each one of us is called – in one way or another – to make a difference. When life’s storms rage and swirl and we are disheartened and disillusioned Jesus offers himself – “come to me, all of you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Jesus becomes for each of us that inner resource that guarantees that we are not defeated. Here, Jesus is immensely practical, “Put on my yoke, and learn from me” (Matt. 29). In that culture, the yoke was a symbol of obedience to the wisdom of God. Similarly, Jesus’ yoke is obedience to all Jesus teaches and Jesus’ call to serve others, to recognize that the world is dependent upon us. To come to Jesus is to learn from Jesus and to join Jesus himself in serving the world in a manner that God’s Kingdom flourishes.

Each one of us is under a divine compulsion. We must go out and try to take a world that is upside down and set it right. That requires that we lay down our arms of rebellion and turn from seeking our own desires and ambitions and begin to be concerned with God’s own purposes in the world. It is accomplished by living in obedience to God’s will. It is God who can accomplish the inexplicable. God can bring to pass in our turbulent, confused, and frantic day a peace that is transformative – a peace that recognizes beauty where once we only saw brokenness and hears the cry of a little girl and realize that we cannot drive her away. Does that mean a life now lived with ease? Not at all! But it does mean that in those moments when we grow weary from life’s strains, moments when disillusionment seems as close as the next breath we take, we can find rest in a prayerful communion with Jesus. This is the deepest form of prayer that the disciples knew.

Joy,


[i] Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man And The Sea (Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1952), 96.

[ii] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (London: The Folio Society, 2021)

Categories
Religious

Life Without Shame

“‘I really thought that I ought to oppose the name of Jesus the Nazarene in every way possible. And that’s exactly what I did in Jerusalem. I locked up many of God’s holy people in prison under the authority of the chief priests. When they were condemned to death, I voted against them. In one synagogue after another – indeed, in all the synagogues – I would often torture them, compelling them to slander God. My rage bordered on the hysterical as I pursued them, even to foreign cities.’”

Acts 26: 9-11 (Common English Bible)

Snoopy, of Peanuts comic strip fame, was sitting on his doghouse writing another novel. No Ernest Hemingway, he begins his novel as he begins all his novels, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Lucy comes along, looks at Snoopy’s draft and begins to berate him. “How silly you are,” she says, “for such a beginning. Everyone knows that every great novel begins with, ‘Once upon a time.’” In the next frame, Snoopy starts again. “Once upon a time it was a dark and stormy night.” Perhaps you feel that way some days. In your heart it is a dark and stormy time. For many people, the inner storm is the result of guilt, guilt for failures that have hurt those we love. Lucy fails to understand that no turn of phrase can settle the storm.

It seems to me that most people today live with some guilt. For some, the burden of guilt diminishes their posture, shoulders pushed down and eyes that are heavy. Guilt is felt for what has been done and for what has been left undone. In one church that I served a man confessed that he cheated on his wife during a business trip. He asked that I tell her for him, “She will take it better from you. She respects you.” Naturally, that comment was code that he no longer carried any self-respect. He was ashamed of himself, knew that his wife deserved better. He continued that there remained nothing his wife could do to make him feel worse. The shame would remain on his back forever, he told me.

This story from Acts is the third account of Paul’s conversion to the Christian faith. As in the previous two times the story is told, Paul details his persecution of the church. Paul holds nothing back. Paul does not gloss over the details. Paul locked up many of God’s holy people. When they were condemned to death, Paul voted against them. In synagogue after synagogue, Paul tortured Christians for their belief in Jesus and compelled them to slander God. When Christians ran to foreign cities to flee Paul’s persecution, Paul pursued them, Paul’s behavior often becoming hysterical. What is striking to the reader is that Paul confesses his evil but never demonstrates any sense of shame. Not one word of dark remorse is spoken.

What is Paul’s secret to a life without shame? Well, according to the Bible, true guilt follows the judgment, not of others, but of God. It is our refusal to live in dependency upon God. That refusal results in behavior that harms our relationship with others. Shame is the felt condemnation of the brokenness that follows. Yet, pay attention to the moment Jesus confronts Paul with Paul’s sin – Jesus does not beat Paul down with shame. Jesus tells Paul to stand on his feet. It is only then that Paul can return to God. Jesus does not use Paul’s guilt to disgrace him but to change him. It is then that Paul learns that there is no condemnation for those in Christ. Without condemnation, without God’s judgment, there is no shame.

Joy,

Categories
Religious

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.

Joy,

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

ii Fosdick, 116.