Monday, July 25, 2011

My Struggle with Prayer

I have always been a little jealous, but at the same time impressed, with folks who give a lot of time and effort toward praying. I am especially impressed by those who, without any hesitation, put so much faith in the act of prayer. These “prayer warriors” model for the rest of us a relentless belief that God hears our prayers and that God answers our prayers. Indeed, these folks will not only offer continual prayers for life’s challenges, they will see the outcome of those challenges directly related to their prayers.

But I have always struggled with prayer. I know how to pray; at least when it comes to the correct structure, the right language, and the exact tone of the voice. But these are merely surface issues that do not reveal what happens in my mind and heart when I am praying. I struggle to have any sense of assurance that God actually hears my prayers. I guess I am very much like the proverbial person who says that when he prays it feels as if his prayers are not even reaching the ceiling.

It is not for a lack of trying. In fact, at some points during each day I will stop and pray. More often these are short periods when I have moments to myself, but they can also be more extended sessions of prayer when something heavy is weighing on my mind. So, I do consider myself as giving an effort toward the activity of prayer.

But I still have this problem of not really feeling, as do some, as if my prayers really matter that much, either to me or to the people for whom I pray. This is probably the reason why I rarely tell folks that I will pray for them. I am certainly not one of those who when someone requests prayer on facebook, others will post the comment “praying” as if something magical is about to happen by my praying.

For one reason, I am not sure I will remember to pray for them. For another, I’m sort of doubtful that my prayers will do them any good. I am often tempted to say to those who ask me to pray for them, “I don’t think you want me to pray for you. You might be better off asking someone else.”

I don’t mean to be flippant, or cold, or faithless by thinking such thoughts about prayer and my own effectiveness or ineffectiveness at prayer, but this is the reality that I have faced for years in my own Christian journey. I am often unsure how to pray, and I am very often unsure as to whether or not God hears my prayers, and as to whether or not my prayers are that effective.

Perhaps many other folks struggle with prayer, at least at some point in their life. And, if we do struggle with prayer, we may need to be honest with ourselves that this is not only natural, but normative. Admitting this may actually be the first step to moving toward a more authentic prayer life.

But, why, if scripture commands us to pray, do we struggle with prayer?

The obvious answer to this question is that we are human, and prayer, at least as we understand it, does not mesh with our normal way of living as humans. This may be particularly true because we rely so much on science and technology to provide answers to life’s big questions and life’s big struggles.

The problem is also compounded by the fact that in our normal ways of living, interacting, and conversing with other beings, we experience their presence through one or more of our senses. We can see them, hear them, and touch them. There is in most cases a two way conversation, and at least most of the time we are pretty sure that the person with whom we are speaking hears us.

But this does not happen with God. We cannot see God, nor touch God, and although many people claim to have heard God, most of us have not heard the voice of God, at least in ways we hear the voices of others. Our nature as finite human beings who interact with other human beings through verbal and non-verbal communication hinders us from interacting in this way with an infinite being such as God.

I also think we struggle with prayer because we do not know for what we should pray. Of course, there are needs that we and others have, some of which are so great that we cannot help but pray. But even in these situations we really do not know how to pray, and we struggle with the words we should be expressing to God.

The problem here is that the tragic situations that we and our loved ones encounter are periods in which life seems to spin out of control. These times of suffering bring to the surface our doubts about life with God. We move from periods in our life when things are going well, to periods when it seems that our world is crashing in on us.

In these moments of disorientation we really do not know how to pray. May be this is why the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that in these times when we do not know how to pray, the spirit of God intercedes for us with sighs that are too deep for words.

What Paul is telling us is that the spirit intercedes for us because the spirit knows us and knows our life situations better than we do. The spirit is in tune with what is the heart of God for us and for our world. And, at the heart of God is the love of God that Paul so beautifully describes as never being separated from us. This means that no matter what we encounter in life, God is always on our side, even if we do not realize that God is there or that God hears our prayers.

But there is also something very important we should understand about prayer that we often do not consider. Prayer is not really about us.

Our prayers, whether we feel they are reaching God or not, have nothing to do with who we are, but have everything to do with who God is. In prayer, we are not saying to God that we are worthy of our requests. Rather, we are saying to God that we are helpless without the God who loves us and who has promised us hope and joy.

In this regard, prayer is not about what I want and need for my life; it is about where God is leading me in my life. I may struggle to believe that God hears my prayers or that God will answer my prayers, but the hope that all of us have is that God is with us, loving us, and moving us to places where God desires to use us, even if we do not understand.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What Would Jesus Say to Our Leaders?

One of the sad facts about American Christianity is that many Christians are ignorant of the political nature of Jesus’ message. Preferring to see Jesus in only spiritual terms, and his message as only about salvation and heaven, we often miss the significance of Jesus as a political figure. I don’t mean to suggest that we should see Jesus like we see politicians today. Rather, we should gain a better understanding of the historical reality that Jesus preached a political and prophetic message that constantly challenged the political leaders of his day.

In being a prophetic and political voice, Jesus was carrying forth the traditions of Israel’s prophets, who were called by God to confront the leaders of Israel with their injustices. These leaders, who were to be the shepherds and caretakers of God’s people, were charged by God to govern people with justice, to strengthen the weak, to feed the hungry, and to shelter the displaced and homeless. These leaders were charged by God to be generous in their leadership, and they were judged by God when they kept their positions through political compromises with the rich and powerful. When Israel’s leaders failed in their God ordained responsibilities, the prophets served as the voice of God’s judgment.

It is this same prophetic and political message that must continually challenge the politicians of our day. In many respects, our government leaders have failed in their faithful roles as shepherds of the people, for they have failed to feed the sheep, to strengthen the weak, and failed to heal the sick. Like the political leaders judged by Jesus, they have cared for themselves and their political agendas and friends.

At a time when our national leaders seem to be hesitating and playing political games over the debt ceiling, taxes, spending, and the budget we should be asking our leaders some very serious questions about their leadership. Why can’t the richest country in the world provide health care for all? Why do many of our leaders side with big companies instead of with those who need quality and affordable health care? Why do they listen to the lunatic fringe of the right wing misinformation machine, instead of standing firmly on what is right and just for the vulnerable of our nation? Why don’t these leaders work for creative and compassionate solutions to solve this crisis?

Many of our politicians like to talk about moral values. Abortion, gay marriage, and other issues are usually those that are at the forefront of the debate. While these are moral issues, the greatest moral crisis facing our nation is not abortion, and it is certainly not gay marriage. The greatest moral issue that faces us today, and one about which Jesus spoke the most, is poverty. Consider the following statistics related to the issue of poverty.

One in every six children in America lives in poverty; that’s 13 million children. Thirty-six million people live below the poverty line. About 4 million families exist in a chronic state of hunger. These are tragic statistics, but they do not even scratch the surface for they do not reveal the desperate problem of inadequate housing and a substandard education.

The scandal in all of this is that our political leaders are not solving these real problems because they spend their time blaming each other instead of working together to provide real leadership and permanent solutions to the problem of poverty. This is not a political issue, and it is neither a Democratic nor Republican issue. This is a humanitarian issue, and at stake are the lives of the most vulnerable of our society, and the middle-class families tying to make ends meet.

We have the power to change things, if we only will. Like Jesus, we need to have a sincere consciousness about the plight of people in our country, especially the poor. In developing such a consciousness, we must hold our leaders accountable until they make real progress in solving the poverty of this nation, and indeed, our world.

Poverty is not just a political issue. It is not just an economic issue. It is a moral and spiritual issue; the one about which Jesus and the prophets were most concerned. We have a moral responsibility to care about this issue and especially the people caught in the seemingly inescapable web of poverty. To do so is to live the real political message of Jesus.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jesus Wthout Borders

Borders are interesting concepts that have been around since the dawn of creation. Borders are those barriers that we construct to keep those we want out, out. Nations have borders, and in our current political climate, there is much discussion about keeping our borders more secure, making sure that not just anyone comes through them.

But nations are not the only entities that create borders. We as individuals create property borders that mark what is ours and what is not. Particularly in societies, like our own, that value personal property, we often build fences around those borders to ensure our privacy and to let those around us know that what is inside the wall belongs to us and not to them.

But societies often create borders within their social structures. We create borders and barriers to prevent us from community with others who are not like us. Race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, class and economics are all borders we have created that keep others at a distance from us.

Yet, perhaps the most entrenched borders that we find in human existence are the borders established by religions. These have a long history dating back to the ancient world when the sacred spaces of a temple represented the barrier between the profane and the sacred.

For example, the Jewish Temple is known for the walls that separated various courts. The court of the Gentiles, the outer most court, was designed for the Gentiles to worship Israel’s God, but they could go no further. The court of the women created places where the women could enter, but they could go no further into the temple. And those with infirmities and diseases were forbidden from any part of the temple due to their impurity.

We also know from reading the stories about Jesus’ encounter with those determined to be unclean, that he was often chastised by the religious leaders of Israel for his association with them. Whether he was in the company of a leper, a person under demonic possession, or a woman of disrepute, Jesus was always condemned by the religious leaders for crossing the religious and social borders that separated what they established as pure and impure.

Indeed, Jesus was confronted with a borders and barriers mentality wherever he went. A society structured on strict class systems, especially those based on religion, is so ingrained in keeping those barriers and restrictions that it finds troubling and threatening a person like Jesus who crosses those barriers to make contact with those on the outside.

Or to put it another way, Jesus faced a religious society in which there were insiders and outsiders, and it was those on the inside who determined not only who was inside the borders, but perhaps most tragically, who must remain outside the borders.

The Gospel of Mark picks up on this insider-outsider mentality that humans have toward others, especially when it comes to religion, and makes it an underlying theme. Mark takes this theme, however, and turns it on its head. In other words, Mark communicates through his narrative that those who think they are insiders are actually outsiders, and those who think they are only outsiders become insiders.

Of particular importance for this theme is the way the disciples are often portrayed as outsiders. These twelve men, who seem to be insiders who are privy to some private moments and private teachings of Jesus, appear, at times, not to understand Jesus fully. Though they believe they are insiders, they sometimes act more like outsiders, and at points they express attitudes or superiority and exclusion.

This attitude among the disciples is expressed by John in Mark 9, when he comes to Jesus enthusiastically telling Jesus that he has stopped a rogue exorcist from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He tells Jesus that he stopped this person because, “He was not following us.”

However, if we read John’s statement carefully, we may determine that John’s concern seems to be whether one can be a legitimate follower of Christ without being part of the group of twelve- the insiders. In other words, John wants a Jesus that has borders; a Jesus whose name and authority is only allowed to be used by those approved by the insiders. John wants a Jesus who prevents just anyone from serving in his name.

In our own Christian pilgrimages, we have all run across this kind of attitude, and perhaps we have occasionally played the role of John in our own relationships with others. It is very easy for us to take positions of theological certitude, construct our religious fences, and designate those on the outside as outsiders in order to make sure they remain outside the borders.

The fact is, however, if we continually draw the borders in such a way as to exclude others because they are not joined to our way of thinking and believing, then we have not truly sought to follow Jesus. Rather, we are seeking to be followed. When we exclude others because they are not following us, we fail just like John. Claiming to be insiders in the Jesus movement, we expose ourselves as outsiders.

John sought to place limits on Jesus in an effort to say who could serve him. By doing so, he drew borders around the community of faith as a way of stating who is inside and who remains outside. But Jesus, by being true to his example of welcoming the young child in this same context, and by declaring that the rule of God is a movement of welcome and embrace, was breaking down the walls and borders of separation that prevented those called outsiders from a life with God.

Friday, July 1, 2011

“Patriotism is Not Enough”

Here is a piece I wrote three years ago, but still has implications for how we view patriotism.

Several years ago, while on a family trip to London, we were making our way up from Trafalgar Square to St. Martin’s Place. As we headed toward the National Portrait Gallery, I glanced at one of the many statues that surround this area of Britain’s capital. My glance at the stone monument, however, quickly turned into an intense focus and reflection on the words below the figure carved there. The words read, “Patriotism is not enough.” The woman whose representation was situated atop that citation was Edith Cavell.

I later discovered that Edith Cavell had been a nurse in Brussels during WWI, and that she had been executed by the German army in 1915 for helping Allied troops escape German occupied Belgium. But I also discovered something about her that brought a sense of meaning to the words inscribed on her monument; words she apparently spoke to a minister on the night before her death. Edith Cavell had not only assisted Allied soldiers during the First World War, she had also given aid and comfort to German troops, the very enemy of her home country of Britain. And on the eve of her death, she expressed her rationale for doing so; “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."

While reflecting on these simple words, I have often felt that Christians have become too ingrained in American patriotism that we have lost a sense of identity and mission that views God as the God of all humanity and that witnesses to Jesus’ love for all, friends and enemies. There is a great danger to the church and its bold witness of the gospel to our world if we continue to blur the lines of division between patriotic loyalty to country and faithfulness to Christ. When we do so we run the grave risk of allowing American culture to influence, weaken, and indeed, supersede the church’s prophetic witness to the state.

This is why, as I have written before, we should not have symbols of our nation, including patriotic themes and songs, incorporated into our worship or our areas of sacred space. Doing so not only profanes the sacred time and sacred space of worship, it also brings into question and confuses our loyalties. The mixture of patriotic themes with Christian worship and witness reinforces beliefs that America and Christianity are inseparable, and that America is the Christian nation.

Moreover, if we celebrate patriotism within the context of Christian worship and practice, how does such a witness affect non-Americans? A pastor once shared with me that on a Sunday before Memorial Day, at the close of the worship service, the minister of worship lead the congregation in the singing of “God Bless America.” As the congregation sang this well known song, the pastor noticed many non-Americans in the audience and he noticed that they were not singing. They were not citizens of this country and this was not their song. The worship of God in Christian unity that had characterized the service to that point, ended on a patriotic note that excluded those who were not American.

We can certainly be good citizens of both the kingdom of God and America, for Christians are called to be salt and light in the world. And in a democracy where there is the free expression of religion, the church must participate in promoting just governmental policies for all. But our ultimate loyalty must be to the life and teachings of Christ, particularly his call for justice and peace for all people, especially toward the marginalized of our society.

If we are forced, as were early Christians, and as was Edith Cavell and Dietrich Bonheoffer, to choose between loyalty to Christ or loyalty to country, will we be able to distinguish between the two?

Loyalty to Christ means always choosing peace over war, love over hatred, poverty over wealth, forgiveness over revenge, and inclusion over nationalism. True freedom is found not in preserving security through power, war, or torture, but is discovered in being bound to Christ, his cross, and his gospel that extends beyond the boundaries of nation and culture to embrace the world.

As we celebrate Independence Day, let us do so with a sense of pride in what is good and right about America. But let us also witness boldly against America when policies and practices are put in place that are unjust and that ignore the gospel’s message of peace, justice, and life for all. We should always remember Nurse Cavell’s last words, and her life should cause us to consider the dangers inherent in uncritical and xenophobic patriotism. If we are to be faithful followers of the one who came to save the world, the words of Edith Cavell must become ours. “Patriotism is not enough.”