Tag Archives: Dependence

Popcorn Prayers

The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king…..”
Nehemiah 2:4-5a (NIV)

I was honored a few weeks ago when I was asked to pray for our meal at my high school reunion. In part, I was honored because it has become increasingly common for prayers at public events to be ignored our outright forbidden. I also realize that I and my classmates grew up in a time when public prayer was hotly debated along with questions regarding whether it was appropriate for public school choirs to sing sacred music at events such as commencement.

I can remember during some of these debates about “school prayer” that it was humorously acknowledged that the school building will always be the center of a million prayers during finals week. Of course, there is a difference between a public prayer at a school event and the silent prayer students staring at the test that has just been placed before them.

For those who are not regular readers, I have been blogging through what’s known as the exilic books of God’s Message in recent months. These are the writings of the ancient Hebrews who experienced being taken into captivity by the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Medo-Persian empires. They eventually returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and restore their homeland. Being an exile, in its very essence, means living away from home, and being in exile often means a loss of power, control, and public standing. My local gathering of Jesus’ followers is currently exploring the notion that the people of God are, by nature, exilic and what that means for us in the 21st century.

Nehemiah was a cupbearer for the Persian king, Artaxerxes. In today’s chapter, Nehemiah could not hide his grief while serving in the king and queen’s presence. It was, in those days, deemed inappropriate to show any kind of negative emotion in the presence of the king. On a whim, the king could have his servant executed for such an infraction. So when Artaxerxes notices the depressed look on his cupbearer’s face, Nehemiah’s immediate fear was warranted.

What I found interesting is that the phrase “Then I prayed to the God of heaven” is sandwiched in between the king’s question and Nehemiah’s response. There is no way that Nehemiah said, “Can you hang on a few minutes while I get on my knees and pray for a while?” Nehemiah’s prayer to the God of heaven had to have been what I call a “popcorn prayer.” A popcorn prayer is the silent, sudden, internal exclamation of my spirit to God’s Spirit in an instant. It’s exactly what I did as a student before every Biology test (science was not my thing).

According to a 2017 survey by the Barna, 79 percent of Americans said they had prayed in the previous three months. Barna found prayer to be the most common faith practice among American adults, but it was also the most multi-faceted. In fact, the researcher concluded that “the most common thing about people’s prayers is that they are different.”

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve discovered that my own prayer life is much like Barna’s research. It’s multi-faceted. I do, at times, spend set periods of time in prayer. Sometimes, I audibly talk to God while I’m alone in my car driving. Wendy and I pray together before meals, and often we will pray together when it is just the two of us traveling in the car. I’ve sometimes described my life journey itself as one long, uninterrupted conversation with God. I’m constantly aware of God’s presence, and my “popcorn prayers” are popping constantly in the heat of Life’s microwave oven.

Our culture has shifted in the 35 years since I graduated from high school. I know some who see this as a source of grief, anxiety, fear, and even anger. Sociologists and scholars are calling our current culture the “post-Christain” world. Frankly, I’m not that worried about it. In fact, I think it might just be a good thing. Throughout the Great Story, it’s clear that God’s people flourish, not when they are in power, but when they live in exile. It’s a paradox that Jesus said He came to model and that He told his followers to embrace:

“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.”

Jesus (Matthew 20:25-28 [MSG])

Paul, one of Jesus’ early followers, put it this way:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul of Tarsus (2nd Letter to the Corinthians 12:10 [NIV])

In the quiet this morning I find my head swimming in thoughts of culture, and power, and exile, and prayer. Nehemiah found himself a servant to the King of a foreign empire. Artaxerxes had the power to execute Nehemiah for having a frown on his face, and yet his precarious position of impotence led him to depend on his faith in the power and purposes of God. Isn’t that the very spiritual reality that Jesus wanted us to embrace?

As I finish this post I’m saying a popcorn prayer for any and all who read it. Hope you have a great day, my friend.

Work, Retirement, and “Enjoying Life”

Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more.
1 Thessalonians 4:1b (NIV)

Wendy and I have been recently discussing an article we read in the Wall Street Journal about a woman who zealously maintained a routine of intense frugality in order to meet her goal of saving enough money to retire at the age of 40. She lived alone in a 400 square-foot apartment, spent only $75 a month on food, and asked to borrow her friends Netflix passwords. I was not surprised when the article generated a host of letters to the Editor.

As Wendy and I discussed the article our conversation centered on the relationship between our western view of “retirement” and the concept of “living.” We are taught in our culture that we “work” our entire lives in order to get to a point in life when we no longer work, and can now “enjoy life.”  The further I get in my journey, the more I’ve observed that some individuals approach this view with an “either, or” mindset and end up making two false assumptions. One is the belief that you can’t or won’t really “enjoy life” as you work hard, establish a career, raise a family, experience the peaks and valleys of mid-life, and so on. The second false assumption is that “enjoying life” is equal to or dependent on “not working.”

As I journey through God’s Message over and over again I’ve discovered that it’s worthwhile to pay attention when things get repeated. In today’s chapter, Paul “urges” his friends and fellow believers to do something “more and more.” The first is to live in a way that pleases God. The second is to love each other. According to Jesus’ law of love the latter is the requisite way we achieve the former.

In the quiet this morning I find my heart and mind meditating on two, no let’s make that three, thoughts. The first is that, with regard to my faith, I find myself growing deeper, pushing further, and expanding more than I have my entire life journey. Rather than a feeling of contentment with the knowledge I’ve gained and the maturity I’ve developed, I am motivated with how little of the mystery I know, what incredible depth of wisdom I have yet to fathom, and how far it is I yet have to go in my spiritual journey. I can already see that there is no “retirement” in this Spirit journey (nor would I want there to be).

The second thing I’m mulling over is just how much Life I have experienced and enjoyed in each step of this journey, and how much I continue to do so. Like anyone I enjoy the occasional opportunity to add a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience to my “bucket list.” But chasing after adrenaline rushes endlessly is not “really living” for me. Really living is a daily routine of morning coffee, reading the news, and discussing the world with Wendy. Really living is receiving a phone call from our daughters, wherever they happen to be on the planet. Really living is FaceTime with my grandson. Really living is finding a small way to serve someone else and receiving the gift of his or her gratitude. Really living is a great meal and intimate conversation with dear friends with whom we are sharing this life journey. Really living is sliding into bed on a cold night and letting Wendy’s hot flash warm me up. I “enjoy life” every…single…day.

The third thing, then, is the concept of “retirement.” Paul writes in today’s chapter to be ambitious to lead a quiet life and “work with your hands.” I’ve been studying the life of Paul of late and have discovered that scholars agree most of his time was not spent teaching in synagogues and/or running a ministry. Most of Paul’s time was spent making tents. It was his family trade and he did it industriously, wherever he went, so that he would “not be dependent on anyone” just as he instructed the Thessalonians believers. It reminds me of Wendy’s 92 year-old grandmother who has been busy knitting scarves to be given to people who need them. While “retirement” may mean I get to cease working the same job that I’ve done for many years, I certainly don’t believe that my work is done.

Thanks for reading, my friend. May you be inspired to search deeper, reach further, and expand in Spirit. May you work at what you are purposed to do. May you recognize moments to “enjoy life” today.

Wise and Persuasive Words

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
1 Corinthians 2:4-5 (NIV)

Over the past couple of years our local gathering of Jesus followers has been engaged in an experiment of sorts that, in my experience, is rather unique. The weekly worship and message is not centered around a specific teacher or leader. Rather, a team of 10-15 individuals who are developing their gifts as communicators of God’s Message take turns. I have been asked to take on an informal role as mentor and acts as an anchor for the team.

There are some who felt this experiment would be an utter failure. The norm in our culture is to find people congregating around an individual leader with exceptional communication skills. Will people consistently gather to hear a broad spectrum of teachers who are diverse in their style, experience, and knowledge? The answer appears to be “yes.”

One of the things that I have been observing as I listen and interact with each of the teaching team members is that they each bring their own unique personality and style to their delivery. I want each of them to discover and develop the voice that God gave them. At the same time, there are simple rules and principles of communication from which we can all learn and develop our skills as communicators. I’m learning that there is wisdom required in knowing the difference.

One of the underlying themes that Paul is communicating in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth is predicated on a similar situation that was creating conflict. Apollos was a dynamic speaker in that day who travelled and taught about Jesus. The believers in Corinth had begun to split into factions behind their favorite teachers. Paul addressed this in yesterday’s chapter:

One of you says, “I follow Paul”;another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Now, Paul continues to address the situation. Compared to Apollos (and perhaps Peter [Cephas] too), Paul knew that he was not a dynamic teacher. There is a story in the book of Acts in which a young man fell asleep during Paul’s teaching and fell out of a second floor window to his death. I have to believe that an experience like that would stick with you as a teacher.

To the people of Corinth, therefore, he is makes it clear that the power of the teaching is not in the skills of the orator, but in Holy Spirit’s presence. A skilled communicator can affect the thoughts and emotions of the masses, but spiritual impact of an eternal nature happens only through the work of Holy Spirit.

The truth of the matter is that different individuals have different styles, personalities, and communication skills. Moses was not a great communicator on a human level, but God used him to great effect. Paul seems to be placing himself in a similar camp. Those who teach should always seek to improve the quality of their communication skills, while acknowledging that the greatest of communicators is dependent on the power and work of Holy Spirit for our words to have spiritual potency or eternal value.

Today, I’m thinking about a message I have to deliver among our gathering of believers this coming Sunday about the unmanageable power of Jesus. As always, I’m diligently trying to prepare to communicate the Message well. I am reminded this morning that my preparations are not complete without acknowledging my utter need of, and dependence on, Holy Spirit.

 

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Chapter-a-Day Judges 7

Give thanks. God said to Gideon, "You have too large an army with you. I can't turn Midian over to them like this—they'll take all the credit, saying, 'I did it all myself,' and forget about me." Judges 7:2 (MSG)

As I write this post, plans for Thanksgiving are in full swing. In just over two weeks we will gather with family and friends to share in a feast and to give thanks. I've always loved Thanksgiving. Unlike most holidays, there is something about Thanksgiving that still repels commercialism. Thanksgiving is a humble holiday. It is a simple holiday. It is one of the few holidays we celebrate that still lends itself to introspection.

In a culture steeped in rugged individualism, self-seeking, and the perpetual pursuit of 15 minutes of fame, I find the idea of stopping to give thanks is a welcome moment of sanity. Like Gideon's army, we are at constant risk of taking all the credit for what God has done to bless us.

Several centuries ago, Thomas a' Kempis wrote a wonderful treatise on the difference between nature and grace. "Nature willingly accepts honor and respect," he wrote, "while grace attributes all honor and glory to God."

Today, I'm mindful of the many ways my natural self seeks to hoard respect and glory for myself. I'm reminding myself that God deserves all respect, honor, glory…and thanks.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and soulrider