A House With No Foundation

I am simultaneously amazed and saddened as I observe what seems to be an inexorable decline in civility and in productivity in both the American political system and in the American church. Although I am not a specialist in either field, I do have my own observations, and for the most part what I see happening in the secular world is being duplicated in the church. I’ve tried to put words to my thoughts, and although the following is preliminary, I sincerely believe my observations to be valid.

In summary, what I see happening is that in both our secular world and in the church we have ceased to be thoughtful and creative, and instead have become perpetually reactive. We do not respond to any issue with reason and deliberation. We view every movement as a threat to our existence and react in both fear and anger. Our response then prompts an equal, or perhaps even exaggerated response from our opponents, and the cycle not only continues, but descends into further chaos.

Part of this condition revolves around our technology. Not only do we have the ability to see and hear everything that occurs the instant it happens, but we also have the ability to comment just as quickly. There was a blessing in only being able to see the nightly news at 6 and 10, and having to wait for the morning paper. There is no buffer time now. It is instant see, instant hear, instant react. We have ceased to be a rational people – reason is quickly becoming extinct.

This development has deeply infected the church as well. A sermon or quote is posted on-line, and within minutes, not even hours, the reaction becomes “viral.” We do not pause to digest lessons or messages – we simply regurgitate what we agree with (or more likely, the musings of the one with whom we agree) or we counter-attack with vitriol. In one of the greatest, and most damning, ironies of our time, we quote Acts 17:11 with the zeal of an evangelist and at the same time we crucify anyone who dares to make us think.

During what had to be one of his most emotionally draining times, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, and preached, and argued with both the German church and the world-wide ecumenical movement that before anything could be done about the deteriorating political situation in Germany, a firm theological foundation had to be built that could withstand what he knew would be a furious Nazi response. In his usual clear and precise thought, he knew the church had to make up its mind whether it was going to be the church or the handmaid of any and every political regime. He resisted making meaningless declarations and mere postulations. He knew that if a conference only resulted in some formal resolution, the conscience of the attendees would be salved but the underlying issues would not be solved, or sometimes barely even addressed.

I fear that so much activity that I see in the church today can only be described as “a blind man searching in a dark room for a black cat that does not exist.” We are wasting valuable time and energy, tilting at every windmill that we see, imagining that they are fire-breathing dragons. What was gallant for Don Quixote is a fools errand for the church. We must do better.

A house with no foundation cannot stand. It will eventually crumble, no matter how impressive it might appear from the outside. If we are to continue to exist as a church we are going to have to stop chasing phantoms and start laying a solid, biblical and theological foundation on which to build a house that cannot be shaken.

Our ultimate foundation, of course, is Jesus the Messiah. I am not suggesting we can lay another, or a better, foundation than that which is already given to us. I am saying, as clearly as I can, that Jesus speaks to this world, this culture, as clearly as he spoke to Jerusalem in the first century. If we do not firmly establish his life and teaching as both the primary and the ultimate meaning for our generation, then the house that we call the “church” will crumble.

Brothers and sisters, let us cease and desist from this mindless and meaningless habit of reacting with knee-jerk responses and shallow epithets. The world has enough of that. What the world does not see are people who are deeply rooted, firmly anchored in both thoughts and actions that are healthy and restorative. We must be that people, or we have no right to tell the world that it is sick.

For my part, I am trying to identify and root out this reactionary tendency in my own life. Looking back I see it only too clearly – and I also see where that tendency has left so much of my work inconsequential. You must know that I am attempting to confront the man in the mirror first before addressing anyone else. I make no claim to perfection here, only what I believe to be an increasing clarity of vision. I pray I am right, and surrender these words to him who judges righteously.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

My “Perfect” Worship Experience

On another forum a good friend (that I have never met) suggested I provide what would be my “perfect” worship service (I forget his exact words). I thought, “what a splendiferous idea!” (And I had no idea that such a word as ‘splendiferous’ even existed, but my computer even spell checked it for me!) So, here goes, with a few comments here and there:

  • It would be called a gathering, and not a “service.” The word we translate into “church” simply means an assembly, a gathering, a community. Let’s stick with Bible names.
  • It would begin approximately around 9:00 am – early enough for us to be fresh, but not so late as to make everyone lazy. I say “approximately” as there would be plenty of time for early gatherers to meet and possibly share a breakfast meal without feeling like they were “early.”
  • There would be no end time. People could stay as long as they wished, or leave when they felt they had to. Communal meals would be the rule, not the exception. Everyone would be well nourished, physically and spiritually. Last one out turn out the lights.
  • Except for a few remarks, most of the service would not be scripted or planned. I make exceptions for a lesson from the Bible, and a well thought-out comment immediately preceding the Lord’s Supper. Beyond that – let’s let the Spirit move and encourage us. The experience would be charismatic, but not chaotic.
  • There would be lots of time for just silence – showing a little of my Quaker leanings here. Words can only be heard if there are moments of silence in between them. Consider the average worship service. When is there silence? In most situations, only during the Lord’s Supper, and even in some congregations that is changing. We need silence to hear the Word of God. Lots of silence for me.
  • There would be many prayers, and songs – lots of songs. Songs dating back to the earliest English hymnals and songs that were written by church members throughout the week.
  • There would be equal amounts of praise and confession. One thing I learned in my D.Min. studies is that Churches of Christ do not confess much. Oh, we confess that we have “sinned,” but we do a really poor job of confessing sins. I think in an ideal situation there would be group confession, and individual confession, and lots of forgiveness, and lots of silence as we ponder our sinfulness.
  • There would be a lot of shepherding. The shepherds, or elders, would run their stubby little legs off moving from person to person, group to group, taking care of shepherding issues. No smoke-filled, back-room decision making CEOs here – just pure shepherds of the flock.
  • Sermons, or Biblical lessons, would be brief, and might be given by more than one individual – and would be directed to helping the flock follow in the steps of the Good Shepherd. The lessons would be followed by periods of discussion, and would then be followed by periods of silence as the sheep considered the words that were presented.
  • There would be a time for the meeting of physical needs as well as spiritual needs. No one would go away hungry, or in need of shelter. Discipline, when needed, would be administered “on the spot.” Ditto with forgiveness and absolution.
  • Finally, people would arrive haggard and worn out from fighting the battles against the “powers and principalities,” and would leave equipped, renewed and rejuvenated, ready to go forth and conquer the beast.

I just realized, in re-reading what I would characterize as the “perfect” worship experience, that I have described the actual worship gathering in many of what we would call “third-world” countries. Maybe in terms of spiritual worship, we as Americans are third-world.

Okay – perhaps its a pipe dream, and might could be added onto. Thanks, Ted, for the splendiferous idea!

In Defense of the Pharisees (Sort of)

In my post entitled “No Strength to Answer” I wrote a paragraph the gist of which was that the Pharisees were in a better position to defend their view of the Sabbath than we are to defend some of our cherished traditions. I want to expand on that thought.

The Pharisees are our favorite whipping boy(s). If we need a villain to preach against, we never have to look farther than the Pharisees. In our common understanding they were vain, pompous, hypocritical, obnoxious – all the things we love about hating others. And, to be sure, some of those characteristics can be deciphered from the many mentions of conflicts that Jesus had with the Pharisees as a general group.

But, I want to step back a little and try to view the world from the perspective of the Pharisees, hopefully without becoming Pharisaical.

No one knows for sure exactly when and how the Pharisees as a religious group came into existence. For sure it had to have been at some point during the Babylonian exile – or perhaps shortly after the return from that exile. They were not referenced in the Old Testament, and by the time of the New Testament their influence is unmistakable. So, this much is fairly certain – they were “born” during a time of extreme spiritual hardship and questioning. Without a doubt, the number one question that would have given birth to such a spiritually elite group would have been, “What caused this catastrophe upon our people, and what can we do to avoid it in the future?”

The Pharisees would not have had far to look to find an answer. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (not to mention a number of the “minor” prophets) addressed that very question. The answer was clear and unambiguous. The answer was spiritual compromise and moral laxity. Ergo, the solution was spiritual rigorism and moral perfectionism. The links from cause to effect are not that difficult to see in the formation of the sect of the Pharisees.

Where I want to crawl out on a limb (metaphorically speaking) and offer a defense of the Pharisees is in regard to their “rigorism” regarding Sabbath keeping. There is no way you can read Jeremiah and Ezekiel without coming away with the realization that one issue that burned in the prophets’ hearts was the manner in which the Jews were profaning the Sabbath. For evidence, simply read Ezekiel 20 – but that is not the last, or only, word on the subject. It really does not take a Ph.D. to realize that the honoring of the Sabbath was really an important issue to the exilic, and post-exilic, prophets.

So, let us look at Jesus’s actions through the eyes of the Pharisees. He was, in the most strictest sense, violating the Sabbath by performing “works.” They did not have to depend on oral tradition in order to be horrified by this. The Jews had been devastated and thrown into foreign captivity for, among other things, profaning the Sabbath. They had numerous “thus saith the LORD” passages to back them up. They had not one, but many, “book, chapter, and verses” to point to.

And, yet, they were utterly, completely, and totally wrong.

They were perfectly accurate and correct readers of Scripture, and entirely erroneous in interpretation. They believed with all their heart, and with good technical reason, that Jesus was doing the very thing that God punished their fathers for doing. In their day they were the good, “Bible toting, Scripture quoting” conservative believers, and Jesus was the wild eyed, long haired, hippie progressive.

Okay – let’s move on to today. One of the things that terrifies me as I ponder this situation is how might I be a Pharisee – someone who is perfectly correct and without spot or blemish in my reading of Scripture, and yet someone who is utterly bereft of understanding how to interpret it. The example of the Pharisees is instructive on many different levels – certainly we do not want to miss the surface level where Jesus warns us repeatedly not to follow their hypocrisy and pomposity. Yet, is there not another level, a deeper level, that we completely miss? Are we not the great-grandchildren of these Pharisees when we quote “book, chapter and verse” and utterly, totally, and completely miss the point?

As I said – it scares me. On one level I do want to be spiritually rigorous and as morally perfect as I can. Those are NOT inappropriate goals. But, along the way, I never want to fall into the trap of becoming so technically perfect that I miss the heart of God revealed in the Scriptures. Jesus was NOT  violating the Sabbath. In God’s eyes he was fulfilling the Sabbath – note Isaiah 58:1-7 (although the word “Sabbath” does not appear here, the passage defines true fasting and “rigorous” spirituality).

It all goes back to the question of whether we are standing above Scripture, trying to fit it into our ideas of perfection, or whether we are standing under Scripture, and allowing it to shape our lives.

We ascend by climbing lower.

Ezra’s Prayer (Ezra 9)

I’ve been preaching on prayer (if you do not get the irony of that, let me know) and I’m finally getting around to examining some of the prayers in Scripture. This past Sunday I started with Ezra’s great prayer of confession. Some passages just preach themselves without any comment from preachers like me – but I went ahead and added my thoughts on this great chapter. Probably ruined the sermon. Here are some highlights (or low lights, depending on your perspective.)

I wrote my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry on the topic of confession, so I guess you could say I’m kind of nerdy about the topic. Having worked for about 2 years in general, and several months intensively, on this subject, there are passages regarding confession that just jump out at me. It should be obvious that Ezra 9 relates to confession, but there are some aspects of this prayer that stand out to me as being unique – or at the very least – instructive regarding the practice of confession. Here are just a few (and you may discover others!).

First, this prayer is pure confession! There are no dodges, no excuses, no explanations, no sniveling. One of the major hindrances to our prayers of confession is the word “but.” We may have the intention of confessing, but that little three letter word sneaks in and blows the whole process up. We say things like, “God, you know I sinned today, BUT you know I am just a human.” Or this, “God, I sinned today, BUT honestly, the situation I was in was just too much for me to handle.” You will search in vain for anything resembling a “but” in Ezra’s prayer. It is pure confession, from beginning to end.

Second, Ezra owned the sins of his ancestors. He did not try to excuse the behavior of his generation by making his contemporaries look better than their fathers – in fact it was the exact opposite. He owned the sin of his ancestors, and therefore admitted to the sin of his own generation. In a common figure of speech, he admitted that the nuts did not fall very far from the diseased tree. But, look even deeper – by admitting the sin of his fathers, he actually compounded the contemporary sin of his generation. He is saying that instead of being more likely to sin the same sin, his generation should have known better, therefore are guilty of a greater sin – sin upon sin. It takes courage to admit our parents – or grandparents – were wrong. It takes monumental courage to admit that we have compounded the sins of our parents and grandparents.

In Ezra’s specific situation the sin was intermarriage with the pagan peoples surrounding Jerusalem – and therefore opening up the possibility (and even reality) that their worship of idols would soon follow. Ezra confessed the sins of his fathers, and then the sin of his compatriots. I am not suggesting here that every public prayer should include every single sin of every member – there is a clear line between confession and voyeurism. But in our private (or family) prayers I believe specificity is absolutely necessary. Don’t just say, “God, I sinned today.” Be specific. “God, you know I lost my temper and used profane language.” “God, you know I had impure thoughts and sinned with my eyes today.” “God, you know that story I told today was pure gossip, and damaged the reputation of another person.” I do believe that it is possible for a congregation to sin (read Revelation 2-3), and when that sin is realized it must be confessed as well. The point is let us be done with salving our consciences with generic prayers of confession when specificity is demanded.

Third, and this is what I  find very interesting about this prayer, there is not a single word asking God for forgiveness. There is no seeking of absolution here – just pure confession (see point #1). I have been in church services ever since I was just days, or maybe weeks, old. I cannot remember a single prayer that was simply, pure, and unmotivated confession. In fact, except for the generic “Lord, forgive us of our many sins” I have not heard that many prayers of confession at all. Shame on us.

Our culture today teaches us not to make confession – it punishes those who confess and rewards those who dodge confession. Consider the most common form of apology today – “I apologize if I have hurt or offended anyone.” Did you catch what we did there – we put the blame of offense on the other person. In effect what we are saying is, “I don’t think I did anything wrong, but if you do, well, I am so sorry that you have this issue and I deeply regret your thin skin and your hyper sensitivity.” It’s what I call the “Bill Clinton Apology.” Or we could call it the “Donald Trump Apology.” (And, if you are offended that I used the name of Bill Clinton or Donald Trump, I am sorry that you are so thin skinned and hyper-sensitive.)

Just try that with God. “God, I did not do anything wrong, but I am very sorry that you were offended.”

Ezra is frequently seen as a second Moses. Just as Moses led his people out of Egypt and brought them to the mountain of Sinai, so Ezra leads his people out of Babylonian captivity and supervises the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. There are striking parallels. Just one of those parallels is the manner in which Ezra “stands in the breach” here to intercede for the people of Israel. It is a beautiful prayer, a powerful prayer, a dangerous prayer if we fully comprehend it’s import.

What we see in this prayer is the essence of confession. It is pure, it is specific, and there is no begging or cajoling of God to wheedle out a statement of pardon.

It’s what I call ascending by descending lower.

The Christian Response to Racism (Part 2 of 2)

In my first part, I attempted to point out how pervasive and systemic racism is in our American culture, and how it has been so from the very founding our our nation. In this part I want to address how it might be possible for us as a nation to move on, past our historic past.

In a sentence: the only way we as a culture will move past racism is to full admit that every race and people can be, and are, racist in our thinking and in our actions. Yes, in America that racism is predominately skewed toward the white race – but it is far from limited to the white race.

In my last post I stressed how critical it is for the white majority to admit our systemic, pervasive racist views. In no way am I suggesting that every white person alive today is guilty of being racist – or for personal guilt in our racist past, for that matter. What I am suggesting is that until we admit that racism can be, and often is, systemic, we will never be able to move to a truly “color neutral” society.

The flip side of that coin is that every person who falls into the “minority” category must admit that their race can be, and almost without exception is, equally racist. It does not take a sociologist to recognize the hatred espoused by the Nation of Islam toward Jews, to mention just one example, or the racism that I see and hear regarding one local tribe of Native Americans to their neighboring tribe. The blatant racism preached by many elected officials in Washington is repugnant, to be honest, but the prevailing culture among the “main stream media” is that it cannot be labeled as “racism” because it originates from an ethnic minority.

So, to be brief, racism is chiefly a human condition, and that condition is sin. Racism in the United States will always be a part of our culture so long as it is only addressed from one side. This is the “dirty little secret” that is rarely, if ever, discussed in conversations regarding racism. But I hold no hope for Martin Luther King’s dream of a nation where a person is judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, as long as every action, every word, every thought, is viewed through the lens of the color of the skin of the actor, speaker, or writer.

It is at this point that I feel we as a people have failed the vision of Dr. King. Instead of attacking the concept of racism itself, we have simply shifted what it means to be racist – and I will probably be called a racist for writing that. As much as I recognize the guilt of white Americans in establishing what can only be described as systemic racism, I simply refuse to accept the accusation – either expressed or implied – that only whites can be racist.

I repeat – racism is a part of the human condition, and that is sin. Racism is a theological problem, not just a political or sociological problem. Until racism is attacked from the point of view of the cross and the gospel, it will never be adequately addressed. And it is exactly at this point that I believe so many religious leaders have failed. We think that if we can write a couple of new laws, or hold some “unity” meetings, or have a couple of marches, all will be well. Well, it is not ever going to be “well” unless and until preachers start preaching on the sin of racism – in every possible way, shape, and form. In predominately white churches those sermons are going to sound different than sermons preached in minority churches (because the visible forms of that racism are different), but it is only at the foot of the cross that we are going to be able to move into a truly color neutral society.

[By the way, I never want to live in a “color blind” society. I do not want African-Americans to give up their African roots, nor do I want to Latin Americans to give up their Latin roots, or Asians to give up their Oriental roots, or Irish Americans to give up their Irish roots. That is not what the American dream is all about – for me it is about maintaining those ethnic and social connections while at the same time blending in with every other culture. When it works, it is a beautiful thing, and I believe it is the highest of aspirations for every American.]

I must also address a phenomenon that repulses me as much as overt racism – and that is the false or pseudo guilt promoted by so many white politicians. They “claim” to be genuinely concerned for the plights of minorities, and yet with every law that is passed and every speech that is uttered, those to whom they claim sympathy are further degraded. Consider the results of programs such as welfare. What was thought to be assistance to mothers with dependent children, has instead created a permanent under-class of families with no father in the picture. Every study ever conducted has proven that children in fatherless homes fare far poorer than families in the same socio-economic class where there is a father present. Yet, to challenge the idea of welfare is considered to be the greatest of racist “sins.” Here again we see how racist whites can be – all in the guise of helping to overcome racism.

A personally vexing related question for me is this: what action, or series of actions, will constitute an adequate confession of our racist past? How many times, and in what ways, will the white majority have to admit to our sinful past? I ask this because I am honestly ignorant as to the answer. It is clear to me that a significant minority – if not a majority – of white Americans still have not come to grips with the enormity of the problem of racism. So, if that is true, what is the goal to which we should be moving? And how will we know when we get there?

I titled these couple of posts a “Christian Response to Racism” and I fear I have not proposed much of a solution. For me, the only answer is to preach Christ and him crucified. When we stand at the foot of the cross and realize the depth of our sin, we in no way will be able to judge another person simply based on the color of their skin or their nation of origin. It is because we refuse to accept the Lordship of Christ that we are racist – and to deny that is to reject the Holy Spirit who makes us all one in Christ. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, we are all “miserable offenders.” We can all be “blessed forgiven,” but we are all going to have to confess our guilt first.

Lord, save us from our miserable failure!

The Christian Response to Racism (Part 1 of 2)

I have often thought of broaching the subject of racism and Christianity, but I have always ultimately shied away. This was not because of a lack of interest, or because I thought the subject unimportant, but I never really felt like I had an adequate entry point to fully express my thoughts. That changed recently, and so I want to express some thoughts that I know will offend just about everyone – and I know that because these thoughts first offended me.

First, I need to acknowledge that this opening thought is not my original thinking. It was brought to my attention by an old colleague, one whose insights I trust greatly. I will personalize it, however.

It has always been somewhat of a mystery to me how the German people (as a whole, I’m generalizing) can either deny or minimize the horror of the holocaust. This is not true of every German citizen, to be sure, but even today the account of what happened to Jews, Gypsies, Poles, and other “undesirables” is largely muted in German culture. Like I said, I have always wondered about this, as it seems to me that (a) the Nazi regime was such a deviation from the norms of German society, and that (b) the present German culture is so different from that time period, that it would be cathartic for Germans to acknowledge the atrocities of that one decade and vow that it would never happen again. I can totally understand the fear that making such acknowledgment would foster copy-cats who want to defend Hitler (and this is exactly what happens!), but I have felt that once the enormity of the evil is squarely admitted, it would simply be unthinkable that any subsequent culture would want to replicate Hitler and his minions. As a whole, I think most Americans would agree. Admit the horror, recognize that Nazism was an abhorrent aberration to German culture, create the appropriate safeguards that would prevent such atrocities from occurring again, and move on.

Now that we are all on the same page, substitute “Jew” with “Black” or “African” or “Native Indian” and see how your expression changes. You see, in America the white majority has no problem admitting to the sin of Germany. But, when confronted with the reprehensible treatment of our ancestors toward ethnic minorities, all such confessionalism flies out the window. We become defensive, belligerent, dismissive, and even delusional in denying the racism that was, and in some quarters remains, systemic in our culture.

This parallel between Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 and our own American “holocaust” (the term is not perfectly identical, but comes close) is what is particularly troubling to me. If the white majority in America cannot admit to the sins of our fathers, we will never be able to admit to our own sins in regard to racism, and therefore the scourge will never be adequately removed. It is not so much that whites deny the reality of slavery, it is that the concept that whites are superior to blacks (and other ethnic minorities) is so enshrined in our legal system and in our public theology. It is, as I said, systemic, not anecdotal. The beast is not a symptom, but it is the root cause, of so much of what afflicts America today.

Consider this: there is a pining today for America to return to the glory days of the  1950s (or there-about) when God was welcome in the schools and the Pledge of Allegiance was recited with passion. Well, God may have been welcome in most white schools, but blacks were forcefully kept out of the classrooms, sometimes at the point of a rifle! We were not “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” We were divided legally by race, and justice was only for whites. But it did not stop there. Blacks were not welcome in most white churches, either. It was not just lunch counters and bathrooms that were segregated, but God’s covenant people were clearly divided along lines of color.

I cannot stress this fact enough: this was not just a matter of public opinion. This segregation had the force of law – it was enshrined in the very fabric of our legal system. Blacks could be, and were, lynched for the “crime” of following too closely or inappropriately staring at a white woman. Blacks who were arrested were tried by all white juries. It is not just that the laws were written to protect white privilege, but the implementation of those laws was so skewed to white privilege that a black person (or Indian, for that matter) had no effective recourse. It was this pervasive, systemic inequality that reformers such as Martin Luther King Jr. reacted to so passionately.

And, just as with so many Germans who choose to look past their Nazi past, it is this pervasive, systemic racism that so many white Americans choose to blithely ignore or actively seek to repress.

A common sentiment expressed today is, “Well, that may have been true 100 years ago, but I do not own any slaves, so I cannot be held responsible for my ancestors.” On one level this may be true, but who among us can honestly deny the the effects of this skewed legal system do not continue to affect American culture? Consider the inequality of inner-city schools with the same level of school in the affluent (largely white) suburbs. We excuse our behavior with the suburbs have a higher tax base, so therefore the schools have a deeper revenue source. So, who created the inequality of the tax base? Our tax tables are just another way in which white privilege is enshrined in our legal system. Scoff if you will, but the idea that “all men are created equal” in this culture is just a myth. We may be “created” equal, but the location of one’s birth – even by just a few city blocks – can have enormous consequences for how two babies are housed, educated, and treated in regard to health care and even the legal system.

I was genuinely repulsed as I sat and listened to a dear friend of mine recount how he was pulled over by a white police officer for the crime of “driving while black.” He was in the wrong neighborhood, driving a nice car, so he had to be up to no good. Why is it that black men have to tell their sons (and daughters) how to respond to police officers in ways that I will never have to explain to my daughter? That reality sickens me.

Until this reality is squarely admitted, and permanently and forcefully changed, America will never be a Christian nation. It never has been. And to argue otherwise is plain heresy.

That having been said, we in America have a foundation that will allow us to overcome our past, and to safeguard our future. It is the same safeguard that provided Germany with the strength to overcome the Nazi propaganda, had they chosen to implement it. It is the power of the gospel – the power to fully and totally submit to the grace of our Creator God. It is the power of the crucified and risen Christ. And as far as humans are concerned, it begins with an honest confession that our forefathers have sinned, and we share in that sin to the extent that we perpetuate the systemic sin that they created. The question is, will we have the courage to allow that power to change us?

In part 2, I will examine a corollary issue related to this post. But, I think I have said enough for today.

Lord, Deliver Me From Little Prayers

Have you noticed how prayer has been cheapened, belittled, trivialized? And that from those who should be holding it in the highest honor? I mean, in the Bible when people entered into God’s throne room with a request or a challenge, things happened. Mighty things. The dead were raised, nations fell, the waters parted, and enemies died. Prayer was awesome, and changed individual lives as well as the course of history.

Now, we use prayer to start football games. Really? How many of you have heard the language or the epithets being spewed on the field, or from the sidelines? Or we start some meeting in which God’s will doesn’t stand a chance of being heard – let alone of being obeyed. Or really big things like starting and stopping our “worship services.” I remember the first time someone dismissed a service with a song instead of a prayer. It took a full fifteen or more seconds before it dawned on people that he actually said, “we are dismissed.” It felt like we were cheated. Not that a closing prayer changed anything really, its just that if nobody prayed for God to “guide, guard and direct us until we meet again,” would we really be guided, guarded and protected until we met again?

All of this came flooding into my thoughts this week. I am preaching a series on (of all things) prayer. This week’s lesson crystalized into a topic I titled, “When Prayer Seems to Fail.” When everything was all thought out, I realized that the biggest reason why it seems that prayer fails is that we have utterly and totally gutted what it means to pray.

We pray to a god that is really, in the long run, just too small to do anything about what we are praying for – if he even cared. We mouth the words, but our heart is saying, “I know this is futile, but Christians are told to pray, so here goes.” In my work as a hospice chaplain I heard on many, many occasions the wonderfully faithful saying, “well, we’ve done all we can do – all that’s left is prayer.” How many times have you heard it? How many times have you said it? All we can do is pray – as a form of resignation to the inevitable, not as an entry into the palace of the one who created the world from nothing.

Or, we use prayer as a bully stick. We have no intention of changing our thoughts or actions, but our little god sure needs to straighten out our relative, or friend, or spouse, or child. So we whip out the ol’ “put ’em on the straight and narrow” prayer and then if our relative, friend, spouse, or child doesn’t change – well its that little god’s fault, not mine, because I prayed.

Or we put our little god in a Republican or Democrat or American or conservative or liberal box, and every prayer is viewed as a way for that special interest group to achieve power and prestige. I know many may tire of my Dietrich Bonhoeffer stories, but there is one anecdote that always puts a lump in my throat. He was asked, on at least one, but apparently several occasions, what would happen if the world were to fall into another world war. He said that if that event were to happen, he would pray for Germany to be defeated so that Christianity could survive. I don’t know about you, but I do not know many Americans who could, and would, pray for a foreign nation to defeat us in a war so that Christianity could survive. For many of us, Americanism is Christianity, and we cannot see any difference.

I can’t even begin to identify the irony of that concept.

Or, we pray perhaps what has become my default prayer – the complaint. This year I started keeping a record of my prayers, and after a couple of months I went back and reviewed them. It was the pathetic record of a whiny little toddler. “God, this is not right, fix this, stop this, make that happen, give me this, and give it to me now.” It was nothing but pure, unadulterated narcissism. I had completely rewritten Scripture – “Lord, not thy will, but mine be done.”

I’m sick, I’m tired, I want to be done with little prayers.

In no way do I want to suggest we should not take our cares and concerns to God – he tells us to take our cares and concert to him, and to do so relentlessly. But I just want to be done with the whiny little narcissistic, vindictive prayers that has become the staple of so much of our common culture. I want to have the faith of the psalmists who were so utterly and totally convinced of the righteousness of their position that they could honestly demand God to hear them – and to act on His promises. I want to be a part of a church that when it prays, the walls shake and everyone is empowered by the Holy Spirit to go out and speak the word of God – after having been specifically told by the legal authorities not to do so! (Acts 4:23f)

Have you ever stopped to consider that our prayers could be repugnant to God? Three times in the book of Jeremiah, God specifically tells the prophet not to pray for his people. “Just stop – don’t do it, because I won’t listen anyway.” (see Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, 14:11) Repeatedly in the other prophetic books God tells his people that their worship – specifically commanded by God – is repugnant to him and he has ceased to pay any attention to their sacrifices or prayers.  (Isa. 1:10-17; Hosea 8:11-13; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Malachi 2:13-17; by no means a complete list)

I have heard the statement that America needs to turn back to God so many times it has become a cliche. While it would be wonderful if America turned to God (the word “back” is problematic, seeing as how for so much of our history we have rejected his basic ethical requirements), I am more concerned that the church turn to God. And maybe the first step in transforming the church into what Christ intended it is for its members to regain the sense of praying big prayers.

I confess – I am so guilty. But I am just tired of praying and hearing little prayers to a little god that are focused on my petty little wants and temper tantrums.

Lord, deliver me from little prayers!