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Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

O Come All Ye Faithful, Joyful and triumphant . . .

Come and behold him, Born the King of Angels . . .

All Hail! Lord, we greet Thee, Born this happy morning

Those words from a traditional hymn are on my mind this Christmas morning. Today the world celebrates Jesus, the Son of God who became human about 2000 years ago. Remembering his birth fills hearts with joy and mouths with song. People give gifts and feast with family and friends.

Venice - The Adoration of Magi in Santa Maria dei Frari.But not everyone is so happy this Christmas morning. Some miss loved ones from whom they’re separated by death or conflict. Some remember painful Christmas experiences. Some are alone. Some wonder if they really believe what they’ve been taught to rejoice about on December 25.

Life is not all “joyful and triumphant.” Sometimes we don’t want to greet the Lord because we feel that the Lord has abandoned us. We may feel forgotten, forsaken, far from faith.

If you haven’t experienced such darkness, expect it. Prepare for it. Bolster your faith in advance. Ask hard questions. Pursue truth no matter what it might do to what you’ve been taught. Befriend experienced, wise Christians who can mentor you through faith and doubt. Pray now for strength to persevere when you feel like you can’t pray.

If you have experienced such darkness, share it. Use that experience to bless people who are currently going through it. Let them know that they are not alone. Assure them that their doubt does not kick them out of heaven. Gently come alongside them. Be present for them. Be patient when they’re not ready to talk. Be willing to wait, to listen. Pray for them.

If you are experiencing such darkness right now, know that you’re in good company. Read through the Psalms to find words to express your experience in uncensored prayer to God who understands and expects our cries and questions and can handle whatever pain we spew out. Find words of lament from Psalm 22 arising in agony from the lips of the Son of God on the cross and know that questioning God’s presence is part of faith.

“Come all ye faithful, and all ye who would like to be faithful if only you could, all ye who walk in darkness and hunger for light” (Frederick Buechner).

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Conflicts between groups of people plague us. Nations wage war. Neighboring cities compete. Allegiances to political and religious institutions divide.

I’m already beginning to see the havoc in the first weeks of a history class about early and medieval Christianity. Of course Christianity is not the only religion to experience conflicts. Just glance through a good introduction to the major religions (something like Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World), and you’ll see what I’m saying. And of course we see intergroup conflict between other kinds of establishments.

Group of People Standing Holding Culture

Christianity isn’t the only conflicted religion, but its story certainly has its fair share of the mess. And I get to learn about it this semester.

(Although I haven’t always appreciated church history, I’m enjoying this course. Over the last 15 years, as I’ve seen history explain contemporary experiences and even provide some possible responses, I’ve grown to value it. For example, why do Churches of Christ typically worship with voices unaccompanied by other musical instruments? How should church leadership be done? What do I pray when my life is falling apart? Church history addresses all of these and more.)

There’s a lot of positive in the story of this religion. There’s also plenty of negative. But I want us all to understand that the negative doesn’t discredit Christianity in relation to alternative worldviews. All the options have imperfections.

Questions of Culture

One of the imperfections in Christianity (but not just here) is conflict between cultural groups. In the early church, we see this between Jews and non-Jews. (Nothing against Jews here! Jesus is a Jew.) There also was conflict in the church between Jews who wanted to welcome non-Jews and Jews who weren’t so open to that. (Remember that this kind of thing happens everywhere. If the church had started in my home state of Texas instead of Israel, I’m sure there would have been cultural conflicts between the Mexicans and the white folk and between people open to intergroup relations and those preferring monoculturalism.)

This is a struggle in the early life of the church. How can we worship and work together if we’re so different from each other in our talking and thinking and eating and other cultural practices? We still ask similar questions today. What worship songs can connect with all the cultural groups represented in our communities? Where can we find preaching styles that connect cross-culturally? How can we get past the excessive whiteness of our traditional worship styles? (Not to ignore churches that deal with other cultural limitations or have learned to worship and minister in more diverse ways.)

In response to all these questions, we need to hear two answers. One is beautiful but theoretical, and the other is more practical but not as easy as you might want.

Answer One: Jesus

The first answer is that Jesus is our peace and has broken down the dividing wall of cultural hostility (Ephesians 2:14). Some people joke that, when you’re asked in a church Bible class a question to which you don’t know the answer, the answer probably is Jesus. In a sense Jesus is the answer, but in many cases other answers might better respond to the questions. Here, however, the answer is Jesus, who has destroyed the dividing wall between people groups. The people addressed in Ephesians 2 are cultural groups. In the struggle to worship and work together as members of Jesus’ church, we should remember that Jesus “is our peace,” a peace that we are to embody and enact.

Answer Two: Ministry

The second answer responds to questions of how we live out that peace. Should we worship and work in separate communities of Jesus followers, with people of one culture in one congregation and people of another culture in another congregation? Should we strive to incorporate people of diverse cultures in the same congregation? If so, how should we navigate cultural differences? The answer is neither singular nor simple. Church leaders must wrestle with these questions, praying for divine direction, in their respective cultural contexts. What works in Memphis, where I live, might or might not work in Los Angeles or Singapore.

A Needed Conversation

Congregations of Jesus’ followers must proceed through these issues prayerfully and carefully but intentionally and actively. Choosing not to wrestle with matters of cultural reconciliation is choosing not to participate in the peace that is Jesus. When we move forward, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, in efforts to bring diverse cultural groups together in the church, we live out God’s mission of reconciliation (Ephesians 1:9-10).

This was not easy in the early church, and it’s not easy today. Not all cultural groups connect well with all styles of preaching, music, and leadership. One cultural group might benefit from sitting on pews and listening to a lecture, while another might worship more meaningfully when sitting in a circle and engaging in a conversation. One group might experience God through slow, meditative hymns. Another group might more likely encounter the Divine through energetic praise songs. A group might function well with hierarchical leadership, and another might function better with more egalitarian leadership.

And these differences exist not only along cultural lines but also along lines of age, sex, economics, education, and other demographics. There is no single answer that fits every context. I encourage church leaders to study their respective cultural contexts as they study scripture and theology. The best course of action in any situation arises from a conversation between these voices. The point here is to have the conversation, to pray about what needs to be done, and to take action in partnership with God who is reconciling the world through Jesus, our peace who has knocked down the wall.

Churches need such conversations in every generation. If a church had this kind of conversation decades ago, that’s great; but the church needs to regularly ask the questions in order to faithfully and responsibly embrace changing cultures with God’s love.

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God calls us to participate in God’s mission, and we should respond in worship and obedience. However, we can get distracted by concerns that hinder our right responses to God.

In Jonah 1:1-16, God comissions Jonah to carry a message to a city called Nineveh. Jonah travels by ship in the opposite direction because he doesn’t want to preach to people he doesn’t like. God responds, and people on the ship respond, but Jonah ignores. The people on the ship cast lots and question Jonah, who admits his identity and responsibility and tells them to throw him into the sea. They try to avoid that by taking other actions. After praying to God, they reluctantly toss him. Then they fear, worship, and vow to God. (Note that the sailors are not members of Jonah’s religious community.)

God wants us to worship. When we lose focus on God and worship our own desires instead, God is not without worship. Others can worship God. Our preferences for our own groups and our prejudices against other groups can blind us to that beautiful truth, which calls us to embrace diverse people who worship God.

Instead of focusing on our own desires or worrying about who is or is not worthy to worship God, let’s just worship and obey God! Worship and obedience lead us to recognize and live out God’s love for all people groups in the spirit of Jesus, who died for the whole world.

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Hurting with GodGlenn Pemberton was one of my professors at at Abilene Christian University and has been a preacher for decades. He recently wrote a book called Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms. It is informed and relevant, and it arises from the author’s personal experiences with pain and loss.

Dr. Pemberton points out the church’s lack of lament, and the reasons vary: “the wishful optimism of our culture, discomfort with ambiguity, impatient need for quick solutions, and… well-intended but misguided theology.” Some researchers have studied the lament psalms; others have written on the use of lament psalms in preaching, prayer, and public life. In the midst of this literary expansion, however, “the practical translation of this work has yet to take much hold in our churches.” Pemberton’s goals, therefore, are “to make a complete and persuasive case for the restoration of the language of lament in the life of the church and in the lives of believers” and “to teach the language of lament by careful examination of the lament psalms.” He hopes that “this volume brings further attention to the loss of lament in our churches, exposes what this loss is costing us, and stirs our minds to imagine what might happen if we spoke and prayed the full spectrum of the biblical faith languages,” whether used “for personal reading,” “in church Bible classes and small groups,” or as an academic textbook.

The first chapter establishes that humans share a story of “unpredictable, unstable, and life-threatening seas and storms… chaotic forces that stand against human life and well-being.” The author anchors this claim in Genesis, the Psalms, and Job, which provides “good news… that the sea/chaos does not have free reign in this world” and “bad news… that the sea still exists and works chaos in our world.” Such observation leads to the following questions: “How do we live with and relate to God when the waters pound and choke us? What do we say to the God who has the power to restrain the storm but chooses instead to let it pour?” Instead of seeking an explanation for the storm, the author proceeds in an attempt to find a way “to swim” when “this storm is flooding my life.”

Chapter Two teaches about biblical lament language, highlighting the diverse forms’ “commonality: deep faith in God in the midst of pain.” The Book of Psalms contains more lament psalms than any other kind, but the church has largely lost this language of lament. The author documents this loss through the research of his student, T. Austin Holt IV, who analyzes three contemporary hymnals that heavily voice thanksgiving and praise to the neglect of lament.

The third chapter establishes lament as a practice of Jesus and the early church. Chapter Four explores the details and dynamics of lament language. The next seven chapters investigate the problems that give rise to such language: sin, discouragement, health, opponents, and God. The twelfth chapter shows the relationship between lament and thanksgiving, and Chapter Thirteen suggests practical ways to restore lament language in the life of the church. There Pemberton wisely prescribes incremental changes instead of pendulum swings, and he encourages us to practice lament in a “healthy balance of faith languages modeled for us by the Psalms.”

The primary strength of Pemberton’s work arises from his background in both academics and ministry, combined with his personal experience of loss and pain. His scholarly competence provides intellectual substance that more devotional works avoid. His pastoral heart leads to suggestions for ministerial improvement that more academic texts miss. His experience of lament gives his writing a tone of authenticity that compels readers to finish the book and to find points of connection with their own lives. The textual analysis and ministerial suggestions cooperate to “help us regain the wholeness of expression to our God and include the hurting more fully in our worship” (Lowe), and the relevance to everyday life gives readers a reason to recommend the book to a broad and diverse readership. (I gave a copy to my mother when she visited me last week.)

This strength can be a weakness, too. Scholars may prefer more academic texts; Pemberton minimizes his references to scholarly literature. Church leaders may prefer less academic books; the author connects his study to ministry but largely provides textual and theological insights. The blending of approaches, however, exemplifies ministry-related scholarship that empowers theologically informed worship.

Pemberton’s approach from a “low church” experience can be a weakness for readers in more liturgical traditions. Some large portions of Christianity still maintain a substantial place for lament psalms in worship (Wagner-Wassen). While those churches might benefit more from books with other approaches, this one speaks meaningfully to the author’s own and similar heritages; it “provides refreshing corrective for churches inundated with a thin, borrowed and Evangelical liturgy” (Fleer).

Especially helpful is the author’s application of his study to issues of justice, most notably in Chapter Nine. Churches in cultural contexts of affluence and power, even when they fail to recognize their privileges, need this call to speak for and with the oppressed and hurting. We in worship leadership must ask what the lament psalms say to us, to people experiencing lives drastically different from our own, and to our responsibilities as God’s people in and for the world.

I highly recommend Dr. Pemberton’s book to anyone seeking to swim life’s stormy seas, needing permission and place to voice raw emotions to God, or simply wishing to learn more about the Bible, specifically its lament psalms. In the words of Mike Cope on the back cover, “For its biblical insight, this book will sit proudly on my shelf next to Brueggemann’s works on the Psalms; for its pastoral care, I’ll be handing it out to many friends… and church leaders.” The work’s integration of scholarship, ministry, and personal struggle makes it well worth the sticker price and reading time.

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This review is modified from one I wrote for a course at Harding School of Theology.

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I grew up in a good home. My parents were Christians. They prayed, read scripture, taught my brothers and me to do those things, and regularly took us to church gatherings.

As a teenager, I started questioning some of our church’s teachings. Biblical and important ideas became unbiblical and unimportant. My religious tradition had taught me the value of studying for oneself, and that’s what I was doing.

For the most part, I stayed quiet about my questions. I didn’t try to cause trouble, didn’t leave my heritage, didn’t start a new one. After high school, I served as a youth ministry intern, preached for a small church, and took a few mission trips.

The questions were maturing and increasing.

Then I spent a few months in England studying philosophy of religion and the development of doctrine (teaching) in the early church. It was, academically, the most difficult time of my life. It also was the hardest spiritually. I finally reached a point at which I knew I had no faith.

The death of my faith was not because of my education. It was not the fault of any professor or assignment. In fact, my philosophy of religion professor was a minister who, upon hearing my confession of faithlessness, smoothly shifted from academic guidance to pastoral care.

Maybe in another post I’ll tell you about my return to faith, but here I want to highlight the precise moment in which I knew my faith had vanished. I had researched and rejected the major philosophical arguments for God’s existence. One night, however, sitting on my bed in a small basement room, I prayed, “God, I don’t even know if you’re there… much less if you’re listening… but for some reason I’m praying anyway.”

Why did I pray? Why do you pray? Why have people prayed for thousands of years?

Perhaps it’s when our prayers seem pointless that they have the greatest impact. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “the most important time to pray is when your prayers seem meaningless.”

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Closing quotation from Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way (Boston: Cowley, 1999).

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“Pray continually” (1 Thess 5:17). I first learned that short verse in the KJV: “Pray without ceasing.”

How can we pray unceasingly? Should we always keep our heads bowed, eyes closed, and knees bent? Should we walk around talking audibly to God every minute? Should we neglect all other obligations so we can spend our lives in prayer? Those options might be right for some people but are wrong for most of us. I should not pray so much that I fail to hug my wife and play with my son and wash dishes and diapers.

Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century monk in France, has taught countless Christians to remain in prayerful thought while engaged in other activities. Prayer doesn’t always include words. Sometimes it’s silent communing with God in the midst of moving, making, mowing, etc.

That perspective makes continual prayer more reachable. Will we ever completely arrive? Maybe. Probably not before what we now call death. But we can keep trying and improving, growing through the process. Prayer and other spiritual disciplines are not ends in themselves. They’re ways of opening ourselves to God’s transforming work in and through us.

(Day 346: First Thessalonians 1-5)

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Jesus prays in three parts in today’s story.

He knows that a difficult time is coming, and he prays for himself and the impact his life and ministry will have on people.

Then he prays for his followers. The coming difficulty will be hard on them, too. They’ll feel like giving up. They’ll fear the cause is lost. Jesus prays, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name” (or “keep them faithful to your name”). He prays for their unity, their joy, their protection from evil, and their sanctification (being set apart by and for God).

Finally, Jesus prays for his future followers. He prays that they also will experience unity so that “the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

This prayer shows us two reasons that Jesus-followers should live, worship, and serve in unity. First, we need to be united because God is united: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” Second, our unity helps the world to know and experience God’s love.

(Day 314: John 16-18)

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