Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lent Is Closing In

Lent is bearing down on us. February 13th is Ash Wednesday and that’s two weeks from today. Most of us know something about Lent. We know it seems to start with Fat Tuesday, which is literally what Mardi Gras means. Then on the next day, Ash Wednesday, many of us will have a cross of ashes stroked on our foreheads sometime during a painfully penitential service. Lots of us will “give up something,” that is, deprive ourselves of something we enjoy for forty days. Some of us will “take on a Lenten discipline,” that is, we’ll begin doing something that is good for us and/or for others. But, as I’ve thought about it and observed others, I’ve come to the conclusion that Lent isn’t a very important part of spirituality for many of us.

If I’m right about this, I think I know what’s going on and it’s not just one thing. Here are just two factors that occur to me. The first is that the whole idea of being penitent is a tough sell. I think most Christians think they are not that wicked in the first place. Our sense of what sin consists of seems limited to the “really bad stuff” which, of course, we don’t do. Consequently, if one doesn’t think of oneself as especially bad or sinful, then forty days of focus on being penitent seems pretty overblown. It probably seems as something left over from the more superstitious Middle Ages when demons lurked around every corner tempting us into sin.

Second, whether one gives up something or takes on something, discipline is required. Again, the notion of living a disciplined Christian life, for many people, is about fairly regular worship attendance. Maybe we read some kind of devotional literature like Forward Day by Day or the Upper Room, but I wonder how many of us do that every day. Never mind the discipline of regular Bible reading, frequent prayer, or service to others. We’re busy. We’re tired. We’re distracted. We can’t even make it to Christian formation classes where someone else is doing the heavy lifting for us, so being in charge of our own discipline is quite the challenge.

Okay, I could be completely wrong about all this. And the odds are, if you’re reading this blog, you are serious about your spiritual life and will take Lent pretty seriously. But just in case, may I suggest a simple, short discipline?  Between now and Ash Wednesday, set aside fifteen minutes in which you are going to do some self examination. Just ask this question: “Am I the kind of Christian I’d really like to be?” If the answer is “yes,” then relax and keep on keeping on. If the answer is “I’m not sure” or “no,” then consider making this year the year you “keep a holy Lent,” that is, that you make the effort during these forty days to consider what you need to keep doing, what you need to do more of, what you need to stop doing and what you need to start doing that will help you feel as if you, like Paul, “ on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Peace, Jerry 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

By The Rivers of Babylon

Some of the darkest days of the Jews were those spent in exile in Babylon. Listen to the opening verses of Psalm 137 which was written during these bleak days:

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down 
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, 
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, 
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

In 538 BCE, Cyrus the Persian, conquered Babylon and set the Jews free--free to return to their homeland. What exactly they found when they arrived isn’t well known. Almost two generations had passed since Jerusalem was destroyed and they were taken captive. Were they remembered by those who were allow to stay in Israel? Were they welcomed back? And how were they changed by their years of captivity?

The Old Testament lesson this coming Sunday is a part of the story of ancient Israel’s rebuilding after this return. The Temple had been destroyed and Ezra, a priest and scribe, and Nehemiah the governor, set about rebuilding it along with the city walls. Nehemiah, and perhaps Ezra, believed all the evil that had befallen the people of God could be traced to their infidelity to the Law. When the work was complete, the time had come to educate the people and reestablish the worship practices of their ancestors. Ezra called together all the people who could understand what was about to happen. Then he opened the scroll of the Law and began to read. Exactly what was read is unclear. Perhaps all of the Torah, or some scholars think it was only Deuteronomy. Whatever it was, it was powerful.

The impact on the people hearing it was astonishing. The people fell to the ground and began to worship God. They began to weep, perhaps because they understood how far from keeping the Law they had drifted. Apparently, it had been a long while since they had heard these words read and their eyes were opened to how far they had drifted from faithfulness and they were contrite.  Ezra and the Levites who were with him responded to this display by saying: This day is holy to your Lord. Do not mourn or weep. The people were encouraged to indulge in fine food and wine, and very importantly, were commanded to share with those who had no food or wine to enjoy.

So, why is story included in the season of Epiphany? I bet you’ve figured it out. Hearing the Law was equivalent to the light of Epiphany for us. Once that light has shone on us (and them) we cannot be the same as we were before--if we understand the significance of the light. Perhaps in the run up to Lent, it is a fitting piece of Scripture on which to reflect.

Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Prayer Part 3: Prayer and Science

Is there any scientific reason to suppose prayers are answered, or to put it more colloquially, that prayer works?  Might be.

David Hodge, an assistant professor at the College of Human Services at Arizona State University reported on his work in 2007. He performed a comprehensive analysis of seventeen major studies on the effects of intercessory prayer offered for people with psychological or medical problems. Of the seventeen studies, some indicated positive outcomes; some negative outcomes, i.e., some indicated prayer made a difference, some that it didn’t. This sort of meta-analysis averages the results of all seventeen studies, controlling for differences in sample size and other variables. It’s a highly acceptable approach to studying a subject.

The result was a net positive effect for the groups for whom people prayed. “Overall, the meta-analysis indicates that prayer is effective,” he wrote. However, he went on to indicate that prayer falls into the realm of a supplemental “treatment.”  All the people in all the studies were receiving standard, traditional medical treatment while prayer was offered for them. He flatly stated that research could not support prayer as a solo intervention.

This was the only meta-analysis I could find in my limited research. From reading specific studies of the effects of prayer, it seemed the results indicated that those prayed for fared better on a variety of measures, such as how much antibiotic they required, or how many cardiac events they experienced. No study reported that anyone was “cured” due to prayer, even prayer and medicine.

So where does that leave us? As I indicated in the last post, one’s definition of prayer is important and in the post prior to that, that there are many definitions of prayer. I can attest that a huge number of books have been written about prayer, extolling its power and necessity and that a number of websites exist that argue that prayer is a waste of time. I wish I knew what was true.

For me, I have journeyed in my understanding of prayer. I began with “Now I lay be down to sleep…” in which I included prayers for my parents, my brothers, and a very ill aunt. I was taught to do this. I never questioned if it “worked” or not. Over time, I had experiences in which I would have said that a prayer was answered, but I had many more in which I concluded that if God knew best, God needed to clue me in pretty quickly. I was praying for something I was sure aligned with God’s will only to discover I must have been wrong. In my modestly advanced age, I have tended to believe that “prayer changes the one who prays.” Still, if you ask me to pray for you or someone, I will. I’m clear when I do it that what will come of the prayer is outside of my ability to know. But, can it ever hurt to talk to God?

Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Prayer Part 2: Unanswered Prayer

Last week I laid some foundation for a discussion about prayer. With this small amount of background, let’s turn our attention to what seems to be the most troublesome aspect of prayer: “getting answers.” When I was a pastor, grieving folks commonly asked me, “Why didn’t God answer my prayer?” At the same time, others would thank God for answering their prayer that a loved one would recover from an illness. Was God answering some prayers while leaving others unanswered? This was not a new question. Over the years, the Church has tried to make sense of what seems to some to be a kind of capriciousness on God’s part or an approach by God that seems to ignore several of Jesus' sayings. On the whole, the Church doesn't do ambiguity well and so its theologians have gotten busy trying to firm up what's going on.

Here are three of the “answers” that have been offered to answer such questions.

First, Matthew 21:22, And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith, has been offered as the key. Since the final clause is about the faith of the person who prayed, if a prayer is unanswered, then it follows that the person who prayed lacked enough faith. This can become a huge problem for the person who prays, say for the healing of one who ultimately dies. The one who prayed can feel terrible guilt; I know—I’ve counseled with people who had exactly this experience. “If only I had more faith, then my loved one wouldn’t have died.” Here, the issue isn’t God’s unwillingness or inability to answer, but our lack of faith somehow didn't measure up and God is not compelled to give what we ask. This is the “It’s all my fault” solution.

Second, what we prayed for was not in alignment with what God believes we truly need. The text example that supports this is Matthew 6:8, Your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. We pray for some apparently good thing and we do not receive it. But, the argument goes, God knew what was best for the one who prayed and it wasn’t that for which he/she prayed. God chose not to give us what was not in alignment with his best interest or will for us. This idea has taught us to emulate Jesus and end our prayers with, “Not my will but yours be done.” This is what we might call the “Father knows best” solution. When we don't receive that for which we asked, we can say, "But God knows what best even if I don't and don't understand."

Third, the argument goes, our prayers were answered, just not in the way we had wished. This is another example “Father knows best” solution and has several other ways it can be cast; I'm including four. One is that if God has answered the prayer the way we wished, it would bring us harm we didn’t foresee, even though we prayed for something good. We prayed that there would be a seat available on a flight we were desperate to take, but there wasn’t. Then the plane crashed. [This creates an entirely different kind of dilemmas we’ll save for another day.] 

A second is, our prayer wasn’t answered, but it was because God has something greater in store for us. Had Jesus been on time and healed Lazarus, his sisters wouldn’t have witnessed Jesus’ power when Lazarus was resurrected from the dead.

A third is, we prayed for things where a “yes” is impossible. Another believer prayed for the opposite good thing creating an impossible situation for God.

Finally, a fourth,and a particularly common one, is that God has said “wait” rather than “yes” or “no.” The prayer was answered, it's just that God’s sense of time, it is often said, is not like ours. [Again, this creates an entirely different problem for a later discussion.] 

These “solutions” for apparently unanswered prayer essentially seem to have as their purpose to protect the notion of God as one who always answers prayers in a benevolent way, even if the benevolence isn’t clear to us.

The basic dilemma then, is what does it mean to have a prayer answered? These solutions may be helpful, but they don't seem to square with John’s report of Jesus saying “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” Though Jesus taught us by example to add “Your will be done,” when he taught the Lord’s Prayer, you will notice that phrase isn’t present and he indeed, asks for specifics, i.e., daily bread, forgiveness of sin, protection from evil.

Perhaps now you can see why last week I posted some definitions of prayer. Depending on which you select, you have more or fewer dilemmas about God’s response to prayer. If you select “Prayer changes the one who prays,” then your prayer may be less for specific “things” from God, such as healing, or good grades, or your daily bread, and more for a sense of peace with what comes or a sense of strength or courage to face what comes.  If we have no universally agreed upon definition of what prayer is, it becomes difficult to assess what it means to have a prayer answered or believe it wasn’t answered.

I confess to not having the answers about this. I also confess that the shape of my own prayers has changed as I have struggled with what I think prayer “really” is. But, I’m not going to tell you which definition you should choose or which I choose. It does matter though.

More fun with prayer on the next post. 

Prayerfully, Jerry

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Prayer: Part 1

I was asked by a regular reader to post on the topic of prayer, even more specifically on the “power of prayer.”  The concerns raised were “do we really believe we can change God’s minds about things?” and, “Is it right to pray for some people but not others?” Both are very interesting questions, and I think, complex. I agreed to take a crack at the topic but with this disclaimer: these are just my thoughts and beliefs. I have a couple of religious titles: ordained minister, theologian-in-residence, seminary professor, but none of these means I KNOW what I’m talking about. They mean I have an informed opinion, but not a lock on certainty.

It will take more than one post to even scratch the surface, hence this is Part 1. So, here we go.

Definitions of Prayer
Being the kind of thinker I am, I need to start with a definition of prayer. Alas, there isn’t one; there are many. Below are a few I developed from a variety of sources. This is not an exhaustive list of definitions, but I think a pretty representative one. As you can see, there is some overlap between them, but they are also different. I grouped them under some headings because that is also the kind of thinker I am.

Prayer As Relational
1. Prayer is an expression of our relationship with God. The assumption is that God is parent and we are children OR God is Lord and we are subjects. Hence, in prayer, we acknowledge God’s power and goodness and our own need and dependence.

2. Prayer is like talking to your best friend who loves you unconditionally. Genuine prayer is a deeply meaningful conversation between two people: God and you. When praying, sometimes you talk; sometimes you listen.

3. Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God. [Especially true of contemplative prayer, for example.]

Prayer As A Statement About the One Who Prays
4. Prayer is about changing the one who prays rather than an attempt to influence the One to whom one prays.

5. Prayer is an activity that is the proof that one has faith.

Prayer As Request
6. Prayer is an offering of our desires to God for things agreeable to God’s revealed will. (See also 1 above.)

7. If God is our loving parent, it is natural to ask for those things we need. (See also 1 above)

This topic is actually about the nature or value of prayer, but it also raises a question some ask about how to pray.

The Form of Prayer
8. Prayer should contain four aspects: adoration or worship of God; confession or our specific sins; thanksgiving or expressions of gratitude; and supplication or making of specific requests.

9. All of life is a prayer for the believer. No special words or actions are required. (See for example Brother Lawrence at Here’s the relevant quotation: "Men invent means and methods of coming at God's love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God's presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?") and, finally,

10. There are no rules to prayer.

As Christians, we are always interested in what Scripture says about topics. Here are a few representative samples from the New Testament.

The New Testament and Prayer

Here are a a few verses from the New Testament about prayer. There are many others. Additionally, there are verses throughout the Old and New Testaments about men and women who prayed, including Jesus, himself.

Matthew 6:8  Your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. (Jesus)

Matthew 7:7  Ask, and it will be given to you seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  (Jesus)

Mark 11:24  Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.  (Jesus)

John 14:13-14 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.  (Jesus)

Matthew 21:22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”  (Jesus)

Philippians 4:6  Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.  (Paul)

I Thessalonians 5:17   Continually be prayerful. (Paul)

That’s enough background. Next time I’ll address what seems to be the essential problem regarding prayer: why don’t all of our prayers get answered--or do they?. Again, we’ll see a range of answers to that question.  In the meantime,

Happy New Year!  Jerry