Praying with Awareness of a Legacy of Sin

As in my last post, I will consider what the prayer of returned Jewish exiles to their parents’ homeland can teach us about prayer. In that previous post, we observed the prayer was offered to the God who created the universe and who continues to sustain his people. The exiles, as they continue their prayer, note the legacy of faith(lessness) that led to the praying of this prayer. They pray,

“You are the LORD, the God who chose Abraham and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous” (Neh. 9:7-8).

We pray to a God who takes initiative. God chose Abraham. God made a covenant with Abraham. God reached out to an individual intentionally and revealed to him a plan that would bless humanity. The plan would involve Abraham and his descendants living according to a formal agreement between God and his people whom he had chosen.
We pray to a God who remains faithful even when we do not. The prayer recounts the history of God’s relationship with Israel from Abraham through the Exodus to the exile of Judah to Babylon and the return of the children and grandchildren of those exiles to Palestine. The people pray, “And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea…,you divided the sea before them so they went through the midst of the sea on dry land… ,you led them…, you…gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments…,you gave them bread from heaven for their hunger.. their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell…you gave them kingdoms and peoples….you multiplied their children…, you gave them saviors…, when they turned and cried to you, you heard from heaven, and many time you delivered them according to your mercies…you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets…you are a gracious and merciful God” (From Neh. 9:9-31). God sustained and protected his people. He provided for both their physical and spiritual needs. He kept his promises.
They noted, however, that “our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their neck and did not obey your commandments. They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them…they rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them…” (From Neh. 9:16-30). They confessed the sins of their ancestors. Even though they themselves had resolved to turn from those sins, and in many cases had not committed those sins themselves individually, they recognized that the sins of their forefathers had created consequences that persisted in their generation. They prayed, “Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves” (Neh. 9:36). The sins of their ancestors still resonated through their society and caused them harm in their relationships with God and with one another.
We still pray to a God who remains faithful even when we do not. Consequences of sin by previous generations still persist and harm later generations. Almost certainly, some who joined in this prayer of Nehemiah 9 were descended from courageous servants of God who had remained faithful even as the society around them rebelled against the law of God. They still recognized that as part of a people, they shared responsibility for the consequences of sin committed by that people. When we reflect on the prayer of Nehemiah’s people, we learn what it means to be part of the people of God. We learn how to pray when a national legacy in which we share contains both elements that we cherish and elements that we find repulsive. Nehemiah, Ezra, and their contemporaries took pride in their ancestors’ historical relationship with God – God’s covenant with them, his sustaining of their ancestors, their conquest of a land and building of a great nation. They also recognized that many of their ancestors had acted shamefully. They suffered still from those sins of prior generations. Even when some of them did not, others did. I have struggled with praying about sins of previous generations when I have no evidence that I or my family had any part in committing that sin. This prayer made aware that I can pray the consequences of previous generations’ sins may end, even when I have no personal (or perhaps even familial) guilt for that sin. I realize that I share responsibility, if part of a group that sinned in the past, to correct aftereffects of that sin, even if I am not guilty of the sin myself.
The people prayed the prayer of confession in Nehemiah ended it by telling God that they were signing a written commitment to follow his commands. When we are baptized into Christ, we plead to God for a good conscience and we promise that we will follow his commands. When we partake the Lord’s Supper with other Christians, we confirm that we will follow God’s commands. We serve a God whose character does not change. He still creates, protects, and sustains. He still remains faithful even when we do not. Let us pray that, regardless of what previous generations have done or what our contemporaries may do, that we will remain faithful also.  Let us pray that we may recognize the shadows of sins from previous generations and bring light where darkness still reigns. Let us pray that peace will replace fear, and that every person will be treated as if his or her life matters. Let us pray that we will review the word of God as Nehemiah and his contemporaries did, then do as they did by confessing the sins whose shadows still darken our lives, and by choosing to live faithfully for God, even when those who have gone before us have not.

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Praying to the God who Creates and Sustains

The prayer of returned exiles in Nehemiah 9 gives us insight into the God to whom we pray.  As the prayer continues, its words remind us that we continue a legacy of faith that still informs our concept of God, that imposes consequences on both our practice of worship (including prayer) and our everyday lives.  In this post, I will focus on what this prayer tells us about the God to whom we pray.

The returned exiles, under the leadership of the priest Ezra and the governor Nehemiah, have rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem and the wall around the city.  They then have realized that despite their constructing these physical structures, they still have a spiritual void in their lives.  So, in Nehemiah 8, we read that the people requested that Ezra the scribe and priest bring the Law of God and read to them from it.  As he and other Levites both read and explained the will of God to them, they realized even more deeply the extent of their spiritual poverty. Led by the Levites, they turn to God in a prayer of repentance and confession in chapter 9. The Levites instruct them to “stand up and bless the LORD your God” (Nehemiah 9:5).  Then they begin to pray:

“Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (Nehemiah 9:5b-6)

They begin their prayer by recognizing the power and creativity of God. He created, they acknowledge, all that they survey. All life, and all that that life inhabits, owes its existence to the being to whom they, and we, pray. This aspect of prayer recognizes that God is not one of us. He is something quite different, and possesses a degree of power still far beyond our reach today.

They acknowledge that God the Creator is also God the Sustainer.  He not only created us and the universe in which we live, but he provided and continues to provide the means by which we survive: food, a tolerable climate, a breathable atmosphere, and companions for our journey.

We praise and thank God in our prayers because he is our Creator and Sustainer.  We humans, with the rest of Creation, worship God in humility that flows from our awareness of the gap between his power and our own.  We stumble in our faith at times because the concept that such a being would take interest in our survival and our affairs staggers our imagination. How could such a powerful entity care about me?

The remainder of the prayer in Nehemiah discusses God’s relationship with us and the implications of that relationship’s history.  That will be the subject of my next post. Pray hard, my friends.

God who created this universe in which we live, we praise you but also marvel at the extent of your power.  We gain more and more knowledge about the vastness of the universe and how small our world is in comparison to the whole.  We wonder how you take notice or care concerning our situation.  Help us to understand.  Help us to remember who you are and what you have done.  Help us to remember that respect and awe are our first responses to you who dwarf us in your power. You are the Lord of our lives; you alone sustain us. Thank you for life and a place to live. Thank you for a world in which we can survive because you provide what we must have to continue. I thank you through the name of Jesus,  Amen.

 

 

 

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A Prayer that We Will Find our Security in God

Fifteen years ago, the fabric of security in which Americans had wrapped themselves was ripped away as hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Our government responded with what the Attorney General at that time termed a more “authoritarian” approach to security and governance, restricting freedoms for the general public in order to attempt restraint of terrorism. The impact from the events of that day still resonate in our society, even for those who had not yet been born on September 11, 2001.
When we go to an airport today, we encounter procedures and security far different than what existed prior to the attacks. I miss saying “goodbye” to loved ones or friends at the gate and watching their plane take off. Now we bid farewell before they go through security unless a child or disabled person needs someone to accompany them to the plane. We also encounter greater security restrictions in other parts of our life as well. Some communities, including ours, have faced the possibility that captured terrorists will be housed in prisons near them. Video surveillance of public areas has increased exponentially. Life in America has changed.
Some things have not changed. Our nation survives. We still elect our officials and travel widely throughout our nation and around the world. As Christians, we still meet to worship in public places at publicly advertised times. Even as we ponder how our lives may change under a new President’s administration, we recognize that his or her influence eventually will wane. Psalm 146 reminds us of the short-term influence of human leaders and their actions:
“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish” (Psalm 146:3-4).
The psalm reminds us also that when we hope in God, the still faithful Creator, justice remains and trust flourishes for God “keeps faith forever; [he] executes justice for the oppressed; [he] gives food to the hungry.” It concludes with the promise, “The LORD will reign forever.” Even as terrorists exert influence on how we live our lives, even as we fret about the potential impact should a political candidate be elected, even as we mourn unexpected deaths, God remains in control. He will “bring to ruin” the way of the wicked. When we trust in our possessions, our leaders, or physical security, we risk disappointment. We don’t trust anyone. When we trust in God, hope and love endure.

O God, You are the faithful provider. You feed the hungry. You ensure justice for the oppressed.  You gave Jesus a mission to open blind eyes, to liberate prisoners, and to heal the broken. He acts now through us. We sometimes trust more what we can see and what we can touch. We have confidence in securely bolted doors and high walls.  Working for you means that we have to risk as we climb over walls that Jesus broke down to perform our ministry of reconciliation.  Even so, we grow faint when we realize the tenacity and anger of the forces arrayed against us.  Strengthen our resolve. Revive our spirits. Fill us with wisdom and discernment as we ponder how to engage as Christians in society. Help us to sort through lies and slander to discover life-giving truth.  Mold us into agents who bring life to a suffering world. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Prayer on Our Anniversary

Today I wish a happy anniversary to my partner in joy, my sidekick in suffering, and my catalyst for moving forward!  At our wedding, I promised her that I would keep her “safe, secure, and on the edge of adventure.” She chides me that I have done best at keeping her on the edge of adventure.  When I reflect on our relationship, I realize that although we have much in common, our differences have strengthened our marriage as each of us shores up the other’s weaker areas.  Both the book of Genesis and Jesus noted how two genders come together in marriage to form a stronger union. In Genesis 2, it is only after the woman’s creation that Adam has a helper fit, or suitable, for him.  So today, while I thank God for this woman who makes me stronger, I pray that we will continue to grow in love as we submit to one another out of reverence for Christ and sacrifice our selfish desires to serve our common interest and the will of God (Ephesians 5:21-33). Meanwhile, as we continue to teeter on the edge of adventure, I hope that Morrisa will  sense safety and security as we blaze our trail forward.

O God who unites, thank you for creating the concept of marriage. The idea that creatures so different may build on their commonalities a stable union staggers our imagination at times, but we learn through submission to you and to one another how we may prevail together. Grant us the humility to let our spouse care for us when we are weak. Give us courage and strength to step up and do our part when the other falters.  Open our eyes so that we may see the promise of joy in each adventure we share, until finally we sit safe and secure at your side. Thank you for my wife and the story we are writing together with our lives. In Jesus’ name, Amen.IMG_20130607_150426_056

 

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Prayer When We Overcommit

 

John to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. (Revelation 1:4-5)

 

I overcommit. I have read that this trait characterizes my personality type: People like me attempt more than others think we can achieve, and often surprise them by getting it done. As I get older, I find it harder to achieve everything I begin, perhaps because I attempt more. I also realize that less time remains for me to work. The temptation for me to is to forget context. I am not alone. Billions of other people live on this planet. My projects are a microscopic part of humanity’s work on a given day. Our planet itself is tiny in the context of the universe. The idea that God can encompass all of reality with his awareness is staggering. Many surrender their faith when they contemplate the scope of what it means for him to be the one “who is and who was and who is to come.” Our monuments and grand buildings will crumble. Memory of you and me will fade. God will endure and continue to sustain. I don’t have to do everything. God has many more who can do his will. However, he has entrusted me with skills and with awareness of what can be done with those skills. I have responsibility in my use of the time and skills God has given me. Later in Revelation 1, we learn that Christians are priests. All of us serve. God will hold us accountable for our work. However, I can have confidence rather than fear because God is. Because he has others who also serve him, I can focus on my role and how it complements their work in achieving God’s purpose. I can have peace because he is a God of grace.

O God who was, and who is, and who is to come,

Your presence endures throughout time. Because you are near, we have hope and confidence just as a child learning to ride a bicycle believes he or she can succeed when a parent stands nearby. Your continuing presence gives us perspective. We react to events in the moment with great urgency. You remind us that this moment exists in the context of millennia. Thousands of years have passed; we don’t know how many lie ahead. The actions of people in the past have contributed to what transpires today. What we do today will set the stage for implications and decisions tomorrow. Give us wisdom when the weight of responsibilities threatens to crush us. Help us to move with patience and purpose, aware of our spiritual and temporal context, so that we may act in harmony with your overarching purpose. May we remember your grace when we tremble in fear of this moment. May we know peace when stress saps us of energy. Help us to remember that you are here. Thank you for your love through Jesus. I pray in his name, Amen.

 

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A Prayer on the National Day of Prayer

Today, people prayed and sang across the nation as they observed the National Day of Prayer. The theme for this year, drawn from Isaiah 58:1, called for people to wake up and repent. Psalm 58 describes God as distressed by the hypocrisy of his worshipers. They pray and fast, then abuse and manipulate the weak and the poor in their society. God wonders why they think he will hear their prayer. He describes the type of prayer he wants to hear:

6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover him,

and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up speedily;

your righteousness shall go before you;

the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am. ‘

If you take away the yoke from your midst,

the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,

10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry

and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,

then shall your light rise in the darkness

and your gloom be as the noonday.

As then, so today people pray, then spread slander and falsehood on their social media pages. They hit their spouses or cheat their customers, then sing songs of praise. On this day of prayer, we too need to repent and accompany our prayer with acts that reflect the love of God. Psalm 58’s words speak a relevant message for our times.

Military and civilian employees voluntarily gathered today for the Georgia Department of Defense’s observance of the National Day of Prayer. A military veteran and high school coach called on us to realize that God pours so much love into our lives. It is our responsibility to pour it out into the lives of others. I welcomed the attendees by reading from Isaiah 58:1-10 and concluded the service, after beautiful singing and prayers by Christian and Jewish chaplains, with this prayer:

God of justice and love,

Buildings and bridges decay, creating hiding places for criminals in abandoned buildings and risky crossings for travelers. People sleep on streets on cold nights, vulnerable to assault or theft. Children go hungry. We treat both very young and the elderly badly. Many scoff at standards of morality. As in the days of biblical judges, many believe that only standard of ethics should be that everyone does as he or she thinks right in their own eyes. We have made idols o people we call celebrities; we celebrate them even as many of them delight in shocking us by their behavior. We ourselves sometimes do not evaluate own actions by your will for humanity; we criticize, gossip, and slander. We treat people as less than human when they do not agree with us.

And now we pray. Will you hear our prayer? Will you accept our worship when we do not care for the poor or seek justice for the vulnerable members of our society? Open our eyes that we may see what you see; soften our hearts that we may feel what you feel. Help us to see how we may be faithful and effective messengers for you in caring for the helpless and the victims in our society. With some fear and nervousness, we pray that you will wake us up. Help us to see the hurting. Help us to realize that reality exists, that what is true may not be what we feel or believe. Give us the courage to realize our hypocrisy when we pray, then turn to abuse others. Give us the strength to repent and seek justice while showing mercy to the helpless. Cheer us on as we protect our children and our elderly. Make us your agents of reconciliation. We pray that we may be known as repairers of the breach and the restorer of streets. Wake us up…if it is not too late. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

May we pray, and act, the prayers that God will hear.

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A Prayer that We May Listen

Calling for fire in a military context requires confidence that that the headquarters being called for assistance can and will provide what is needed. It also requires caution. The caller must communicate accurately the nature of the request, the correct location of the enemy to be attacked (if that is the nature of the call), and the type of fire needed. He or she may also want to note the location of friendly troops that must not be attacked. The person calling for fire also needs to coordinate with allies and plan his own movements so that the counterattack brought about by the call for fire will not kill friendly forces.

Psalm 85 is a prayer for restoration of God’s people. The psalmist prays, “Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us!” and “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation” (Ps. 85:4, 6-7). The latter part of the psalm reveals his confidence that God can restore his people: “Yes, the LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteous will go before him and make his footsteps a way” ((Ps. 85:12-13). God has capability to rescue his people.

In the midst of the prayer, the psalmist acknowledges his responsibility when the Lord acts in response to his call, “Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly. Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land” (Psalm 85:8-9). If he prays for God to rescue him, he must act faithfully toward God. He must cease acting as if there is no God will hold him accountable. He must not place himself in the area targeted for attack by his own prayer.

When we pray, we must assess ourselves and how we stand before God. If I pray with anger and pride a request that God will punish the angry and proud, I’m praying for judgment against myself. When we pray, we need to listen to what God has said as well.

O God who restores when we repent, Help us to see ourselves accurately. Cure the spiritual astigmatism that distorts how we see ourselves and our world. Your love and compassion give us hope. May we not waste that hope by ignoring your will. Give us courage to act for righteousness and justice; give us the humility to listen and learn. Revive us again, that we may rejoice in you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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