Prayer about a Father’s Hope

As I reviewed this post from two years ago, and the prayer with which I concluded it, I realized how relevant the words remain today. Please read, reflect, and share if  you will. On this Father’s Day, I realize how blessed I have been to have a loving father, and to have children to love.  I have great hopes for their future, but concern for the roads they may have to travel.  I pray that we, and they, may have the courage to love God and love our neighbor. Pray hard, my friends, and fix your eyes on Jesus, who has blazed the trail that we should follow.

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I preached about “A Father’s Hope” this past Sunday. Drawing from Isaiah chapters 7-9, I discussed how Isaiah’s sons participated in his ministry and became part of his message. As Isaiah proclaimed his message, he noted that he and his sons were signs from the Lord to a nation where “the heart of the people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isaiah 7:2). Fear permeated his society and his peers were prone to believe conspiracy theories. As they sought to untangle these theories and find the truth, they reached out to mediums, fortune tellers, and foreign religious ideologies for answers to their questions. Isaiah asks in horror, “Should not a nation enquire of their God?” He warned earlier,

“Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread, but the Lord of hosts, him…

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A Prayer for Vindication When Enemies Surround

He prays earnestly. He cries for justice. He insists that he is innocent:

“Though you probe my heart, though you examine me at night and test me, you will find that I have planned no evil; my mouth has not transgressed. Though people tried to bribe me, I have kept myself from the ways of the violent through what your lips have commanded” (Psalm 17:3-4).

We may approach this with skepticism. Innocent? Don’t “all sin, and fall short of the glory of God?” In fact, as I pointed out in another post, these words sound eerily like the prayer of the hypocritical Pharisee in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18. Here, however, in Psalm 17, the words rise from the lips, or from the pen, of a faithful worshiper of God who nonetheless realizes that his life is in danger. He craves God’s protection:

“I call on you, my God, for you will answer me; turn your ear to me and hear my prayer. Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes” (Psalm 17:6-7).

He is a worshiper of God, and he derives his confidence in God’s protection from his knowledge of God’s history with his people. His words in this prayer echo the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. As Moses had implored Israel to remain faithful, he reminded the nation that God had found their ancestors deserted, but had “shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.” Deuteronomy 32 describes God’s protection for and vindication of his people when they had been most vulnerable, but had realized that they had no other hope than in trusting the only real God. The faithful Psalmist confesses his confidence that God can deliver him by using this same language even as he admits also his terror and fear. He prays,

“Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings from the wicked who are out to destroy me, from my mortal enemies who surround me” (Psalm 17:9).

Did you notice the echoes from Deuteronomy 32? When he mentions the “apple of your eye,” he is not claiming to be God’s favorite. The psalmist is praying passionately that God will guard and protect as if the psalmist were the pupil of God’s own eye. We protect our eyes, don’t we? We guard them carefully, because we do not want to be blinded. He wants God to protect him like the eagle protects her brood so very carefully and even savagely. His fear is concrete. He describes the intent purpose of his enemies as they seek to kill him:

“They close up their callous hearts, and their mouths speak with arrogance, they have tracked me down, they now surround me, with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground. They are like a lion hungry for prey, like a fierce lion crouching in cover” (Psalm 17: 10-12).

As I have read Psalm 17 during the past few weeks, my mind has imagined how a young jogger in Brunswick, Georgia, might have prayed as two vehicles pursued him, and then a man with a shotgun jumped from one of them to confront him. That young man might have prayed the words of verses ten through twelve, if he knew them, even perhaps if he did not, in the last moments of his life. The Psalmist writes as one who is threated in a similar manner. He is confident that God can protect and that God can punish those torture and pursue him. He prays that God will confront the evil enemies and rescue him.
The prayer of Psalm 17 is vivid. I could feel the psalmist’s fear of his enemies, and the urgency of his pleas for rescue. Have we known such fear? Do we know people who have? Do we hear their cries? Do we believe their fears to be real? If God will answer their prayers, are we willing to be his agents in rescuing the endangered?
The prayer begins with a plea for vindication and an assurance that its composer speaks the truth. It ends with faith that God will hear, that he will vindicate, and that the endangered will know the safety of seeing God’s likeness when he awakens:

“As for me, I will be vindicated and will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness” (Psalm 17:15).

The Bible says that humans were created in the image of God. Christians believe that God’s spirit dwells within them. I have been reading and praying the words of this psalm for more than a month. I have reflected on its relevance to current events, but even more on its challenge to me to be able to pray with confident faith and to live with determination to do God’s will. Let us so live and act so that God may use us to save souls and to save lives. May the vulnerable and endangered pray a prayer of thanks when they see us.

  • Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.

 

O God, we pray with awareness of having failed. We have not spoken up when others were jeered or mocked. We have not stepped in when they were threatened. We pray because we too have been harmed. People have struck us even while we cried out to passive onlookers to intervene. We pray because we seek to grow in confidence that we have in you and your people. There are people in our world who either because they are evil, or because they are afraid, or because they misunderstand us, seek to hurt us or others. As people of faith, we want you to guard us and to hold us as we hold our children when they are afraid. But we also ask that we may have the courage to be the people whom you use to demonstrate your love and to achieve justice. If we do your will, and it results in others being rescued, we pray that they and we will awaken to the satisfaction of seeing your likeness. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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The Empty Pews Sing Softly

As local churches begin to assemble again in larger groups, church leaders contemplate how to assure safety for those assembled while still pleasing God and encouraging one another. If you have worshipped in different settings than normal in recent weeks, how have you done so? Have you watched a service online? Have you participated in the Lord’s Supper? If you did, did you use elements provided by your church or bake your own bread and buy your own grape juice or wine? Have you sung or only listened? Have you prayed? Do you think that your relationship with God has improved during this time of displacement, or has it declined? Have you missed the assembly of fellow Christians, the engaging in fellowship in worship with like-minded believers?
I posted this poem that I had written a few years ago, reflecting on how empty pews testify to believers’ priorities and choices. Now, some pews remain empty for different reasons, but they still command our attention. We still must assess our priorities, but also must examine how our love for God and one another are reflected in how we serve and worship together, what we consider most important. I believe that Christians must seize opportunities to serve and to seek reconciliation during this time of pandemic and civil unrest. Study the Bible carefully and pray vigorously for wisdom during a time when temptation to argue and act for division abounds. I begin Call for Fire seminars by examining Isaiah 59, where God observes injustice and sees to his chagrin that no one is stepping forward to act for what is right. God then puts on his armor, some parts of which are identical to the armor of God that Christians are to put on according to Ephesians chapter 6:10-18. I invite you to reflect on my poem and to pray with me that as “the empty pews sing sadly, [that God will] ignite again faith’s fire.” Pray hard, my friends

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The empty pews sing softly, echoing back melodic tones

Wafted by faithful worshipers scattered in erratic zones

Through a hall reserved for moments of joy and grief,

Exultation and lament, fervor and hopeful belief

In Messiah Jesus, Son of God, Messenger of the Most High,

Sent by you, O God, to expose Satan’s greatest lie,

A bald-faced assertion that we need never repent,

An insistence that we never request, that we need not

Your forgiveness, a denial of need for redemption bought

By your Son’s blood, a ghastly, obscene sacrifice

Decried as amateur stagecraft, a vain artifice

Meant to deceive, so we are told by the great Deceiver,

Who argues skillfully against one becoming a believer.

We still sing, and we still pray, so his wily lies to drown

With songs and calls for fire that you his quest will down.

The empty pews sing sadly of Christian faith surrendered,

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For Whom Do You Wrestle in Prayer?

“Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (Colossians 4:12).

For whom do you wrestle in prayer? By this, I do not mean, with whom do you wrestle in prayer? In that case you might be wrestling with God (Jacob was named Israel, because he had struggled, or wrestled, with God (See Genesis 32:28), or with Satan. No, I ask who you go to battle for when you pray. Who do you pray for and about emotionally?
Epaphras was a ministry colleague of the apostle Paul. He apparently was from the town of Colossae in what is now the nation of Turkey. As Paul ends his letter to Christians in that town, he passes on greetings from their friend Epaphras and tells them also that Epaphras wrestles (or agonizes) in prayer on their behalf. Specifically, Epaphras wants the Christians in Colossae to grow up in their faith and to be fully convinced. He wants them to stand firm in the face of opposition to Christian teaching.

 
I have wrestled in prayer at different times in my life about whom I would marry, whether I would be hired for a specific job, and what I should do next in my life. I have also wrestled in prayer for the health of my parents, my wife, and my children. Like Paul and Epaphras, I also have agonized in prayer for people whom I served as a chaplain or a preacher. I have prayed that they would grow in knowledge of God’s will, turn their life over to him, and be baptized into Christ. I have prayed that they would grow in maturity and assurance of the truth of what they believed. I prayed that somehow their actions and mine would reflect the heart and actions of Jesus himself.

 
Right now, I’m praying that last prayer for citizens of the United States of America, to include, again, myself. A pandemic (whose reality or seriousness some question) has killed over 100,000 in our nation alone, but steps taken to slow its progress have also affected our economy, our education system, and our groups with whom we worship. People have protested, and even killed, because they didn’t want to wear a mask in a public place. Others have worn their masks, even when they detested them, because they believed that they were protecting others by doing so. Both groups have criticized the other group harshly.

 
In the last weeks, Americans have learned how three unarmed African-Americans, two men and a woman, were killed by police officers or people claiming to attempt a citizen’s arrest. In two of the cases, the deaths were captured on video. In response, protests (some peaceful, some tainted by violence, looting, and arson) have begun to happen. Horror and indignation over the killings of Ahmaud Arberry, Brionna Taylor, and George Floyd have been balanced in the minds of many by damage done to a police station and businesses, by widespread looting, and by burning of businesses that in many cases are owned by African-Americans. I’m conscious of deeply seated desperation and fear in communities where these types of killings have happened far, far too many times with officials seeming not to care. Parents taught their children carefully how to interact with police in an effort to their dying at the hands of police needlessly. I’m aware that many of us did not experience learning “the talk” or having to teach it to our children. I personally, however, did have the experience of being put in handcuffs after trying to make it through a traffic signal before it turned red and being pushed into the back of a patrol car while a seminary student in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. But, while I was afraid at the time, I never feared that the policemen would kill me.

 
I’m wrestling in prayer because these circumstances have unveiled ugly attitudes and deeply ingrained prejudices among people who claim to be seeking to do the will of God. I’m also praying with emotion because the deaths have caused some to understand a horrible reality that they may have denied previously because it was not their experience.

 
I ask you join me on the figurative wrestling mat in struggling in prayer for the physical, mental, and spiritual health of the people of the United States. Join me in praying for the President, for state governors, for city mayors, and legislative assemblies, that they may speak, write, act, and legislate wisely and responsibly in treacherous times. Join me in a prayer of lament for unnecessary killing of our fellow citizens and for the sinful dereliction of duty by some policemen that has caused sections of our population to fear those who should protect us. I pray that we may overcome this virus that, because I have friends and relatives who have been affected by it, I take very seriously. Pray hard, wash your hands, wear a mask when you’re supposed to, and keep your distance. Pray that we all may grow together in love and unity. For whom are you wrestling in prayer?

  • Quotation from the Bible is from the New International Version, 2011.

God of healing and justice, Have mercy on our land. Spare us from this lethal virus. Heal those who are sick. Comfort those who grieve loved ones who have died from the virus or from unnecessary violent acts. May healing justice take place that will punish appropriately but also move to repentance not only the perpetrators but those who shared their worst fears and prejudices. Restore peace to our cities and help us find a way to rebuild trust as we repair ruined buildings and honor the dead. Instill within our political leaders and our law enforcement officers a burning awareness of the very real responsibility they have to act for the best outcome for all the people they serve. Forgive us when we hate and turn our hearts toward loving both our neighbor and the person we perceive to be a stranger. Help us to avoid cosmetic actions that assert concern; inspire us with the courage to take positive, helpful action to heal and restore. Help us to love one another. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

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Pray for the Survivors on Memorial Day

 

Memories of bereaved mothers, fathers, wives, and husbands me haunt me on Memorial Day.  I recall being a part of next-of-kin notifications after soldiers or family members died. As a Chaplain, I rarely told the grieving, often disbelieving widow, parent or child that they had lost one they had loved.  Another officer said those words.  Sometimes they didn’t need to speak.  Just the sight of two military officer in our dress uniforms at their door told them that the moment that they feared most had arrived.  On a few occasions, a spouse had suspected and was waiting outside for us so that the children could be told later.  I remember only one time when a young woman had no awareness of why we were walking up her driveway.  Sometimes, the family had moved and had not informed the unit.  We had to find them. Our goal was they would not learn about this from the news or from someone’s Facebook post, or from a friend who somehow had learned. The Army wanted us to be the ones who told them, who answered the questions we could, who thanked them. Even when they knew, we had to tell them. If the other officer was overcome with emotion, I told them. My usual role was to watch, to listen, to console, and if desired, to pray.  I saw and heard denial, but also rage, and at times, simply a numb shock. Most often their prayers might have been like this prayer from Lamentations:

“See, LORD, how distressed I am! I am in torment within, and in my heart I am disturbed, for I have been most rebellious. Outside, the sword bereaves; inside, there is only death. People have heard my groaning, but there is no one to comfort me” (Lamentations 1:20-21a).

They had not always had perfect relationships. Some had not approved of their loved one’s choosing to serve in the military. Some felt guilt because of past quarrels. Some parent/veterans had survived their own wars, and were broken when they imagined what their child had experienced. Some of them had worked hard in their Soldier’s absence, encouraging other families and sending packages to cheer up those who were deployed.  What they all shared besides loss, was that because of their relationship to the Soldier, they too had served our country.

Remember these people on Memorial Day.  As you look at rows of tombstones in a military cemetery or attend a Memorial Day event, imagine a family and friends alongside each name.  If you’re at the Vietnam Memorial Wall, you may read my uncle’s name – James F. Akins. He had just returned to the combat zone from a leave spent with his wife a few days earlier.  Their only child would be born as a result of that leave.  My aunt and my cousin lived very different lives without him than they would had he survived.  When Uncle Jimmie died, I did not know that I would serve in a combat zone.  I did not know that I would be part of a notification team that would tell families of their loss in several states, in Germany, and even in Afghanistan. Those memories haunt me, as I’m sure they do even more with the families and with the other officers who went with me.

Pray for the survivors as you honor the dead.

  • Quotation from the Bible is from the New International Version, 2011.

O God who sustains, We honor the dead, our military warriors who gave their lives on our behalf, on Memorial Day. Help us to remember the living who knew them and loved them.  Renew our energy that we may be alert when they need us to listen or when they ask us to help them.  Comfort and strengthen them.  Show them the path to peace. With some of them, Lord, it will be a more arduous trail to navigate. Give them hope and refresh their memories of love and laughter. Help them to know that others grieve with them, and thank them as our hearts are torn by imagining their grief.  Show our world the path to peace and to justice. Give our leaders the courage to know when to fight and the wisdom to know when to negotiate.  Thank you for our heroes who have fought for us. Protect and heal their survivors. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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A Prayer for Nurses and Other Essential Workers

emergency room 2020

Emily Milburn, a traveling nurse from the Kansas City area who often works in the aftermath of disasters, recently volunteered to work at a hospital in New York City to take care of COVID-19 patients. You can read a report about her experiences here.  She worked 12-14 hour shifts with few days off. The experience changed her perspective on the disease.  She is one of many who have shouldered a heavier load in the past four months as people around the world, not just in the United States, have had their lives turned upside down either by the disease itself or by their community’s attempts to slow down its spread. Some of the medical workers have contracted the disease themselves, as did the sister of a friend of mine.  While working as a nurse with sufferers from the virus, she tested positive for it and after being sent home from the hospital after days in intensive care, had to return for more time as a patient when her virus symptoms surged again. Friends of mine who are nurses have given so much even as they tried to adjust their responsibilities as parents in this time. Hospital chaplains have searched for ways to listen and care under new constraints that did not allow them to touch or be in the same room as the patient. Medical personnel have been quite essential, but others have performed critical roles as well, working to manufacture masks, ventilators, and other personal protective equipment. Educators, parents, and students have adapted to new venues and methods.  Preachers and churches have sought new ways to communicate, worship, and care for one another. Churches and other religious groups have, along with service organizations, restaurants owners (some who were at risk of losing their businesses), and the government provided food banks or pantries as well as other services that have been more needed than ever as millions have found themselves unemployed unexpectedly.

When I saw an update on Nurse Milburn’s story the other day, I had just read a passage from 2 Corinthians that struck me as applicable to her and the many others who have stepped up at great personal risk to serve during this time of crisis. In its original context, the Apostle Paul wrote these words to encourage Christians who had volunteered to send financial aid to churches in famine stricken Judea:

“This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hears will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you” (2 Corinthians 9:12-14).

While many who perform these essential roles may not yet confess faith in Christ, their service reflects his vision for his followers and (this is where the relevance comes in) their sacrificial efforts are causing those who benefit from their care to thank God for them and their generous work on the behalf of others. God has used them to bless those who desperately need their skills and training. Not all those have the virus.  This past week, I took my wife to an emergency room. Although I had to remain outside in the parking lot, I was quite thankful that a doctor was able to diagnose her quickly (I was glad that it was neither the virus nor a heart attack) and prescribe a course of treatment that seems to be working.

If you are a doctor, nurse, or other worker in a medical facility (to include custodial workers), thank you so very much for what you are doing! If you are another “essential worker,” thank you!  May God bless you for what you are doing to help others.

I encourage all of us to take time each day to pause and pray a prayer of deep gratitude for all these people who working harder, and in some cases, in different roles than usual, performing tasks that improve the health and safety of our communities.

  •  Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version, 2011.

O God of comfort and compassion, we have seen the evidence of your love and your grace in the sacrificial works of doctors, nurses, and so many others who have given so much their time and energy in recent weeks.  Their patience and their skill have impressed us; they have kept us going.  In some cases, they have become victims themselves.  We pray that you will comfort those who grieve over the deaths of those who died as a consequence of serving others. We pray that you will heal those who still suffer from the virus. In the midst of our personal changes and inconveniences, their work have brought light into our haze and darkness. Their sacrifices have reminded us of your son who gave his own life that we all might live. Bless them and bring healing to our world. I pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

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A Prayer on Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day brings memories of Mom, and also awareness of how not only my mother, but my grandmothers, and particularly one of my great-grandmothers, shaped my life. When I wrote “A Prayer on Mother’s Day” in 2014, my mother still lived; she died about two years later. I miss her love for learning and her beautiful alto voice. Even more, I would love to talk to her again. Her mother died shortly after Mom was born; Mom’s paternal grandmother saved the sickly newborn by feeding her Eagle Brand condensed milk. She and her husband then raised my mother, instilling in her a deep love for God, for Christ and his church, and the Bible, especially the book of James. Later my great-grandmother would live with us during my teenage years. A later wife of my Mom’s father became an early positive influence on me, teaching me to learn to read and modeling perseverance with love. My father’s mother taught me to pray with reverence and demonstrated how to cook with excellence. I love to read, I love to cook, I love to sing, and I am still learning to pray. Thank you for learning along with me. Pray hard, my friends.

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Isaiah the prophet said that God said concerning his people, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bodies shall flourish like the grass; and it shall be known that the hand of the LORD is with his servants, and his indignation is against his enemies” (Isaiah 66:13-14). God uses feminine imagery to describe his relationship with his faithful worshipers. Although the passage refers initially to a setting different than our own, we can infer two principles from it. God cares for his people as a good mother cares for her children and he will protect his people.

On this Mother’s Day, those of us who were blessed with good mothers thank God for the way that these women incarnated his love for us, giving us a visual image that…

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Prayer on the National Day of Prayer 2020

flagfiresky

 

“O God, do not remain silent; do not turn a deaf ear, do not stand aloof, O God. See how your enemies growl, how your foes rear their heads. With cunning they conspire against your people; they plot against those you cherish” (Psalm 83:1-3 NIV 2011).

On this National Day of Prayer, pray hard, my friends. Pray with courage and faith, but also with humility. Remember your personal sins and weaknesses. Remember the sins and weaknesses of our nation and its leaders. Pray that their moral and ethical strengths will be most evident in the days ahead. Pray about the challenges we face together as a nation – building respect for the value of life, loving one another during times of international, not just national, stress and crisis, and acting with integrity on a foundation of truth. Pray for our medical workers, our scientists, our public safety officers, our teachers, our preachers, the people in our churches, and our government leaders/civil service workers. Pray for spiritual, mental, and physical health. Pray that you may learn each day how better to love and to forgive. Pray, pray, and pray some more.

 

Psalm 83 is in some ways a prayer for a nation. The psalmist prays for retribution against its enemies and for protection of its national identity (verse 3).  The prayer is for ancient Israel, with its origins and identity based on acts of God and relationship with God.  Modern nations, including the United States of America, do not share those origins, although several of them have been influenced strongly by Jewish and Christian teaching.  We should be cautious in praying for our nation as if it were identical with the people of God for that reason.  However, the prophets of Israel and the apostles of the early church both proclaimed that God loved all ethnic groups and called them to follow him.  Both added their voices to that of the psalmists in urging prayer for national leaders.

 

Psalm 83 is also a prayer that God will be glorified in a time of crisis.  Not only Israel, but the name and character of God was under attack.  The psalmist prays that God will overcome his enemies and affirm his control of our world:

“Cover their faces with shame, LORD, so that they will seek your name. May they ever be ashamed and dismayed; may they perish in disgrace. Let them know that you, whose name is the LORD – that you alone are the Most High over all the earth” (Psalm 83:16-18).

Psalm 83 is a prayer that God will act.  As we pray together on this National Day of Prayer, let us pray that God will act to glorify his name and that he will act to heal our nation and our world.

O God who creates and who heals, As twin pandemics race around our globe, we implore that you will act to cleanse our world of disease and fear. The disease is new and we know so little about it, except that it has killed tens of thousands.  We pray that a cure may be found for it. We pray that those who mourn may be comforted. We pray that doctors and nurses who take care of the ailing may be protected from the disease. We pray that we too may overcome the fear that has rampaged alongside this virus. Fear so quickly mutates into hate, and divides people who should be working together for a common good. Conquer that fear and put to shame those who seek to promote it. We pray that those who call on your name may act as you want your people to act during this time of crisis, that we may fan into flame a spirit of loving action that will bring glory to your Name.  We pray that you will help the United States of America, with its vast resources and diverse collection of talented people, to grow in unity in love for others and in translating that love into concrete action that saves lives.  Guide our leaders, our doctors and researchers, our religious leaders to grow in wisdom, discernment, and boldness in doing good. May healing of mind and body cause more and more to fall on their knees and praise you in prayer and song.  In Jesus’ name, Amen

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Learning to Pray

How do we learn to pray?  Prayer is not an innate skill. Although you might argue that we are born with a desire to communicate with our Creator, even the disciples of Jesus had to ask him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1).  He responded with what various Christians call the Lord’s Prayer, the Model Prayer, or the “Our Father” or Paternoster. So we must learn how to pray.

Some of us may have learned to pray as the disciples did.  Someone intentionally taught us to pray and provided a template for us to use as we began, much as a small child learns to ride a bicycle that has training wheels attached.  A parent or grandparent may teach the child a poem of prayer or simple requests to God to say before eating a meal or before falling asleep.  The teacher may even say the words along with the child as he or she learns to pray, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep…”  Such prayers introduce the idea that a spiritual being, God, cares about us and has the power to protect us.  As Jesus taught about prayer, he spoke about the relationship between pride and humility when praying, as well as about the importance of perseverance.

We also learn to pray by watching and listening.  Whether at a family meal or in a worship assembly, we acquire impressions about proper posture, wording, and focus during prayer by observing others.  Perhaps, in your family, everyone held hands and repeated the same words for your prayer at each meal. Or, each one folded their hands and bowed his or her head with eyes shut as one person prayed on behalf of the group. I vividly remember while a small child learning from my grandmother not to look around the auditorium while someone else prayed during a worship service.  I glanced upward and saw her looking sternly at me. She shook her head and closed her eyes. I quickly bowed my head and closed my eyes, too.  In some worship settings, people kneel while praying. In moments of great sorrow or shock, we may even lie on the ground prostrate as we speak or cry to the Lord (see the description of David as he prayed on behalf of dying son in 2 Samuel 12). At meals and in worship services, we hear phrases repeated and concepts stressed.  We notice patterns like praying for the recovery of the sick or asking for wisdom to be given to political leaders or that the preacher will remember what he has prepared (sometimes even when preaching from a manuscript.   We learn those patterns and phrases; we repeat them later when we pray in similar settings. Because many grew up hearing prayers offered extemporaneously without notes, they may assume reading a prayer is inappropriate or even wrong in worship.  Others grew up hearing and reading printed prayers; those prayers come to their mind when praying.

We learn to pray by reading the prayers of other believers. The Bible has within it many prayers that were offered through the centuries by people who sought to follow God. Some of those prayers, especially those in the Psalms, obviously were meant to be used either in public worship or personal prayer.  Others describe how the person thought about God, what faith and obedience meant to them and affected how they spoke to him. Biblical prayers of lament and imprecation startle us, because in some church cultures we have shied away from such harsh and sorrowful expression in public prayer.  Other biblical prayers model how to confess sin or how to praise God.  This blog studies these biblical prayers in hope that that they will deepen our understanding of our God, increase our faith, and yes, teach us to pray.  The Call for Fire Seminar Facebook page posts excerpts from biblical prayers as well as quotes about prayer. Notice that these biblical prayers were written. Prayer does not lose authenticity just because it is written down or read.  However, what emerges from these prayers is that prayer that God hears is rooted in faith, or at the least, desire to believe.  Within many of my blog posts I also include my own prayer written along the line of thought from the biblical prayer. As we read prayers by others, we may notice that their words are what we want desperately to say to God ourselves.

I encourage you to learn to pray, and to think about what you are going to say when you speak to the Creator of the universe.  During my military career, I had to speak to officers or civilian leaders who outranked me significantly.  It was essential for me to prepare beforehand what I would say. As a child, I learned that requests made to my parents, whose love I never doubted, were heard better when I thought about why I wanted what I asked. When we speak to our God, our heavenly father, we likewise should know what we plan to say and why we need to say it then.  I invite you to learn along with me in this Call for Fire Seminar.

 

 

 

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Are We Praying to God or Ourselves Right Now?

COVID-19 has made an impact on lives around the world. For those who have been diagnosed with it and their families, even if the patients have recovered, stress levels have increased mightily. For those who knew those who died, an often unexpected time of grieving has accompanied adjusting to new normal of social distancing, a reordering of daily schedules, and the economic fallout of the disease or the measures put in place to mitigate its damage to society.

 
Fear and grieving have accompanied the disease. Throughout the world, prayers have increased in number and intensity both among those who feared the disease and those who feared more its economic impact or endangerment of valued freedom. In times of fear and grieving, we draw comfort and strength from the presence of people who love us or share our values. In this instance, that ministry of presence often has been restricted or displaced by measures to control the spread of the virus. Religious assemblies, support groups, and team sports have had to find new ways to function. Celebrations accompanying holidays like St. Patrick’s Day or Easter and milestones like anniversaries or birthdays have had to be cancelled or revised. I have realized that I may be more of an extrovert than I or the Myer-Briggs Personality Inventory had thought. We have had to evaluate what we do and why we do it. Our world has changed.

 
In Zechariah 7, political change has made an impact as well. Persian rulers have ended the deportation of Jews to Babylon and other locations. After returning to Palestine, Jews have rebuilt the temple. Zechariah and others among the returnees have begun to prophesy and explain the theological meaning of the return. During the captivity, new rituals had emerged among the worshippers of God, both those in captivity and those (whom I think we sometimes forget) who had remained in Palestine. Zechariah and the priests at the newly rebuilt temple get a request for information (RFI) from the town of Bethel: “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?”
Zechariah responds with a message from God that challenges the people and their practices. God wants to know whether they had been fasting and mourning for him, if they had been celebrating religious feasts as worship, or if their “religious” activities had simply been done for themselves.

 

In our own time, stay-at-home orders and social distancing recommendations have caused churches and other religious organizations to cancel assemblies. People have responded in a variety of ways. Some have cancelled meeting in person and replaced it with video presentations on YouTube or Facebook Live. Others have used telephone conference calls or radio broadcasts. Still others have assembled in cars in parking lots as if at a drive-in movie theater. Still others have insisted on meeting as usual (sometimes, but not always, employing social distancing, masks, and/or gloves). Some of those who continued to meet as usual have criticized those who did not. They also have lamented that constitutional rights are being violated, and have gone to court to protect their assemblies. As in the time of Zechariah, we need to ask, “Why are we doing this?”

Zechariah’s contemporaries and their parents had mourned and fasted about the destruction of the temple; they now longer could meet there for the major feasts of worship or offer sacrifices. They prayed for a return to normal. As seventy years had passed, their response to an emergency had become religious ritual. Now that the reason for their mourning and fasting had ceased, they still wondered if they need to continue mourning and fasting. So, again, why are we meeting? Are we doing it for God, or to make ourselves feel good? Admittedly, a major reason for Christian assembly is to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25). But in our assemblies, we also sing praises to God, pray, give, partake of the Lord’s Supper, and hear a message from the Lord. Are we doing these for God or just functioning as social work organization? When we pray, are we arguing with God as part of our relationship with him or just engaging in self-talk? Perhaps more importantly, what difference is it making in how we act, think, or relate? That is what God was asking through Zechariah.

 
God’s answer does not seem to answer the question from Bethel. He doesn’t address fasting or mourning or praying. Instead we read this,

“This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other” (Zechariah 7:9-10).

As we consider the challenges to our rituals and routines during this pandemic, we also need to hear this word from God through Zechariah. Why are we upset about changes? Are we thinking about pleasing God or pleasing ourselves? During this time of upheaval, what is happening to those on the fringes of society? To the weak, the vulnerable, and the elderly? To immigrants and tourists stranded away from home? To workers who have lost their jobs? While angry people have protested for re-opening of society, some have hoisted signs that acknowledged that the weak would die or that the elderly might suffer and seemed to argue that such was acceptable loss. Frankly, to me that attitude seems more Darwinian (survival of the fittest) than biblical. As God said through Zechariah, “Do not plot evil against one another.”

 
Zechariah’s contemporaries didn’t want to hear his message: “They …would not listen to the law or to the words that the LORD Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets” (Zechariah 7:12). The consequence was damage to themselves and to the land in which they lived. As we navigate through a time of change and upheaval, let’s act with love for God and for other people. Let’s find a way to help those who are losing jobs or facing medical bills they had not anticipated. Let’s think of the real suffering being experienced by people who were traveling and now find it difficult, if at all possible, to return home. We may have to wear masks (which I really don’t like), or refrain from hugs, handshakes, and kisses, or sit farther apart when we return to meeting together to worship. We may even have to stream our assemblies or study the Bible together by online conferencing video. Lets act and pray that justice and health may prevail, that people will remember after this crisis how the “people of God” acted to achieve good rather than just insisting on their rights.

 
When we pray, we ask for ourselves. That is not what prayer is all about. We also praise God in our prayers. We pray for justice, for health, and for prosperity for others. We pray that our prayers will result in our actions being godly so that our land will be beautiful, and not desolate. Pray hard, my friends.

 
*  Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.

 

O God: Turmoil in our times from the fear and the reality of disease causes us stress. We worry whether we will survive individually. We fear that our businesses will fail or that we will lose our jobs. We fear that those walking near us will infect us or otherwise harm us. We also want to do your will. We want to obey you. In times like these, we face confusing choices as we try to be faithful. Give us wisdom. Fill our hearts with compassion. Drive cynicism and hatred from our minds. When we examine our hearts to discern our motives, help us to evaluate with brutal honesty. Open our eyes that we may see opportunities to be your hands to help those around us. Give us courage, that we may continue to move forward. Help us to know the difference between ritual and relationship. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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