Tag Archives: Public

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.

The Crazy Man in the Ox Yoke

This is what the Lord said to me: “Make a yoke out of straps and crossbars and put it on your neck.”
Jeremiah 27:2 (NIV)

The language of God is metaphor. Remember metaphor from middle school English class? A metaphor is something which represents something else without using “like” or “as” (which would then make it a simile).

Consider this:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Romans 1:20 (NIV)

In other words, all that God made is a metaphorical expression of who God is. We can find Him by simply looking at the universe and all that is.

When Jesus talked about Himself  He used metaphors:

  • “I am  the water of life.”
  • “I am the bread of life.”
  • “I am the light of the world.”
  • “I am the gate.”
  • “I am the good shepherd.”
  • “I am the vine.”
  • “I am the way, the truth, the life.”

Other metaphors are used in scripture for Jesus such as:

  • “Word” or “Living Word”
  • “Lamb of God”
  • “Righteous Branch”

When Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion He said:

“This is my body.”
“This
is my blood.”

God regularly gave the ancient prophets metaphors to convey His message. In today’s chapter, God tells Jeremiah to strap an ox yoke around his neck. An ox yoke is the crossbar placed around the neck of an ox to control it when using the ox for pulling a cart, a plow, or some other task. Jeremiah was then to tell the envoys of the neighboring kings who were visiting Jerusalem that if they will all become servants of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon they will be spared the humiliation of being defeated by him.

You have to imagine that for a second. A man standing there strapped to an ox yoke in front of these high-powered diplomatic envoys telling them that they are going to be oxen strapped to a yoke, so they would be strapped in servitude to Babylon. No wonder people thought him crazy.

Just yesterday Wendy and I were talking about a message I gave this past Sunday among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. She once again echoed what I have heard over and over and over again across the many years I’ve been a public speaker: “People love your stories.” I recall a client one time telling me “Just keep telling stories. You tell the best stories.” Stories are metaphors with a “moral” or a meaning larger than the story itself. That’s why Jesus told parables. When talking about God’s kingdom Jesus didn’t give dry lectures on systematic theology. He told stories about lost coins, scattered seed, lost sheep, a priceless pearl, and a runaway son.

Metaphors are powerful. Everything is metaphor. Metaphor is the language of God.

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about another message I have to give in a few weeks. I’m thinking about a training session I have to present to a client’s Customer Service team tomorrow. I’m not thinking about the truths I want to communicate as much as I am the metaphors, the word pictures, and the life stories that will best communicate those truths.

After 40 years of public speaking I can tell you that people will quickly forget a list of dry bullet points, but they never forget a good story or word picture that made them feel something. The diplomatic envoys in today’s chapter could easily have tuned out Jeremiah’s words, but they would never forget the crazy man strapped to a yoke. When they returned to their respective kings you know that they said, “Oh king, I have to tell you about this crazy man we saw strapped to an ox yoke.”

Exactly. I’m reminded again this morning that if I want to be an effective communicator I have to continually hone my craft at wrapping my message in stories, word pictures, and images.

The language of God is metaphor.

(FYI: Last Sunday’s message has been added to the Message page)

Something to Say

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.
1 John 1:1 (NIV)

My local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been doing something rather novel and exciting over the past couple of years. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.

God’s Message teaches that every follower of Jesus receives spiritual “gifts” from Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” These “manifestations” or “gifts” are specific yet diverse bents and abilities that are intended to help build up and encourage all the other believers. One of those gifts is teaching.

For the past several hundred years the prevailing paradigm in the institutional church has been that the pulpit and the Sunday morning message at my local neighborhood church is reserved for a person (typically a man) who has received a Masters Degree at a seminary approved by whatever denomination my church belongs to. This person has received a stamp of approval from the denominational board, administration, or tribunal authorizing them to teach from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

Along my journey, here’s what I’ve observed: any individual can attend seminary and get certified whether they have a teaching gift or not. And, I’ve heard some educated and approved teachers who definitely did not have the gift of teaching. By the same token, Holy Spirit can bestow the gift of teaching on any person of any age or gender despite that person never having jumped through the educational and ecclesiastical hoops dictated by  a given denominational institution.

So, our local gather of Jesus’ followers has been identifying fellow believers within our midst who may have a Holy Spirit given gift of teaching. We’re allowing them the opportunity to try out that gift on a Sunday morning in our church’s auditorium. We’re working with them to train them up and develop that gift. I’ve been asked to lead and mentor these individuals. There is, of course, a lot more to it than I have time to explain here. It’s a work in progress, but an exciting one.

As mentor of these inexperienced preachers, one of the common fears and anxieties that I hear from individuals when tasked with teaching a large group is “Who am I to teach these people?” This nagging doubt can be paralyzing during the preparation and presentation of a message.

Just last week while I was driving to Minneapolis I started listening to a series of talks called Something to Say by Rob Bell (available for download; name your own price). One of the things that Rob brings out is the fact that everyone has the authority to speak about what he or she has witnessed and experienced in their own lives. If you’ve lost a child, then you have the authority to speak about that experience. If you swam the English Channel then you’re an authority on that subject. If you’ve been a diesel mechanic your entire life then you have the authority to speak about diagnosing and fixing a diesel engine. If you were on upper Manhattan on 9/11 then you can authoritatively speak to what happened that day from your own experience.

This morning we begin a letter written by John, one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, who was writing what scholars believe was a “circular letter” intended to be copied and passed around to all believers. John begins his letter the same way he begins his biography of Jesus,  by stating clearly that he is speaking to what he heard with his own ears, saw with his own eyes, touched with his own hands. “I was there,” John says. “I was with Jesus. I saw the miracles. I heard the teaching. I witness Him die on the cross. I saw Him risen from the dead. I am a primary source witness to it all.”

As I lead and mentor our fledgling group of teachers, I try to instill within them the power of our stories. In my almost 40 years of teaching, preaching, training, and presentations I have rarely had a person tell me that they remember the arcane theological point I made in a message ten years ago. I continue to have, however, a steady stream of people who tell me that they have never forgotten the story that I told even when I’ve long forgotten what it was.

I’m reminded by John this morning that I may not have all the knowledge, education, or professional training this world offers me. Neither did he. I do, however, have my stories. I have seen things, heard things, touched things, and experienced things to which I can bear witness. That means that, like John, I have something to say.

Public Fear; Personal Assurance

It has been fascinating for me to watch the post-election panic and fearful protests on the streets of many American cities since the election. Fear leads us to behave in interesting ways, as it has throughout human history. People are people, and the fearful residents of Jerusalem c. 701 B.C. are also displaying their fear in public ways.

Look, their brave men cry aloud in the streets;
    the envoys of peace weep bitterly.
The highways are deserted,

    no travelers are on the roads.
The treaty is broken,
    its witnesses are despised,
    no one is respected.
Isaiah 33:7-8 (NIV)

The fear in Jerusalem is well justified. The dreaded army of the regional superpower, Assyria, has swept through the north and is now moving on Jerusalem. It is a large army well-trained, well-equipped, and battle hardened. It is an army unlike anything the people of Jerusalem have ever faced. The Assyrian army’s reputation for destruction, violence, and brutality has preceded them.  It is no wonder that order is giving way to fearful chaos on the streets of Jerusalem.

It is always darkest before the day dawns, it has been often said. That is the overarching theme of Isaiah’s message in today’s chapter. In darkness we tend to grasp for light. If the power goes out we seek flashlights and candles, when things get spiritually dark we reach for God. The ancient seer describes the fear of Assyria leading the people to repent and call on God for deliverance, and he then promises that deliverance.

Jerusalem will not fall to Assyria, Isaiah proclaims, though it will not be delivered by human effort:

Your rigging hangs loose:
    The mast is not held secure,
    the sail is not spread.
Then an abundance of spoils will be divided
    and even the lame will carry off plunder.

A wealth of plunder and spoils, but not from anything the people of Judah have traded for. The word picture is of a trade ship that has sailed no where. So where will the all the spoil and plunder come from? God is going to deliver it personally. God will deliver the people of Judah from the Assyrians.

This morning I am thinking about how Isaiah’s message was received by his family, friends and neighbors who were shaking in fear. I have a hard time believing that it was accepted heartily. I doubt that it provided many with comfort and assurance. Rampant fear is not so easily assuaged, as current events bear witness.

Nevertheless, I look back on my life’s journey and recall many times of corporate fear. As a child I learned to duck and cover from a Soviet nuclear strike, and as an adult I watched friends and family stockpile gold, guns and supplies for the apocalypse that was feared with the new millennium and the Y2K virus.

I understand that some threats are real and some fears are justified. Still, if I am truly a follower of Jesus, then my heart tells me that Jesus’ personal teaching should always trump public fear:

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” Matthew 6:33 (MSG)

chapter a day banner 2015

“YOU’RE GOING TO PEE YOUR PANTS!”

source: neratama via Flickr
source: neratama via Flickr

And when they ask you, ‘Why are you groaning?’ you shall say, ‘Because of the news that is coming. Every heart will melt with fear and every hand go limp; every spirit will become faint and every leg will be wet with urine.’ It is coming! It will surely take place, declares the Sovereign Lord.” Ezekiel 21:7 (NIV)

The prophets had to have been a strange lot. They were prone to do strange things and act out obscure (what we would, today, call “performance art”) productions in public places. Their personal lives were often metaphors for the messy spiritual condition of the culture. Their steady stream of public messages were not known for their tact or their propriety.

Take today’s chapter, for example. God tells Ezekiel to stand out in the public square and groan. Not just a little “I think the cream cheese on that bagel didn’t agree with me” groan. GROAN like your beloved mother just died. GROAN like a husband who just found out his wife was sleeping with his best friend. GROAN like you feel a hideous creature ready to burst out of your insides as in the movie Alien. Make a public spectacle of yourself so that people will circle around you in wonder and mothers shoo their young children away from you in fear.

Then, when people start asking Zeke what’s wrong, God tells him to say, “When I tell you YOU’RE GOING TO PEE YOUR PANTS!”

While I’m not sure they would make the most enjoyable dinner guests, there are times when I find the old prophets really refreshing. They remind me that, while there is a time for propriety, there are also times in life for saying things in a way that would make your Aunt Nita blush and shrink back in shame. There are moments for communication that smacks of brash, in-your-face impropriety.

Of course, wisdom is required in choosing the right moments. The key part is knowing when to speak and when to keep silent.

Responding to Speculation and False Accusations

Tabloids a Twitter
Tabloids a Twitter (Photo credit: noodlepie)

Let them know that it is your hand,
    that you, Lord, have done it.
While they curse, may you bless;
    may those who attack me be put to shame,
    but may your servant rejoice.
Psalm 109:27-28 (NIV)

Those who live life as public figures or in the spotlight of leadership are likely to find ourselves in the midst of a whirlwind of speculation and suspicion at some point in our lives. People are people, and whether you lived some 30 centuries ago in Jerusalem or live in rural Iowa today you will find that some experiences are common to humanity. There is a particular kind of insanity producing frustration that comes with finding yourself at the center of others’ misguided gossip and false accusations.

King David, who penned the lyrics of today’s psalm, was no stranger to the spotlight of popularity and leadership, nor was he a stranger to scandal and public ridicule. For certain, some of the public ridicule David brought on himself. Like all of us, David made his share of boneheaded mistakes. Yet, even in the tornado of gossip the truth often becomes distorted and inflated into crazy tabloid speculation.

In my experience, there are only a few things you can do when you find yourself the subject of local gossip and speculation:

  1. Plead your case in the right place. Vent your frustration to God. That’s what today’s psalm was all about for David. Psalm 109 is an ancient example of a screaming, venting, thrashing Metalcore anthem. Get it out. Express your feelings. Tell God what you’d really like to see happen to those lying gossips talking about you behind your back. It’s okay. God understands your emotion and isn’t surprised by your feelings of vengeance. It’ll be good for you.
  2. Let it go. Once you’ve vented your anger and frustration, take a deep breath and then let it go. Believe me, there is nothing you can do to chase down and confront every source of gossip and every false accusation that you hear on the streets and behind your back. You’ll ultimately fail, drive yourself crazy in the process, and your efforts will only fan the flames of speculation. Like David, don’t just plead your case to God but also relinquish your desire for justice to the only True Judge.
  3. Stay the course. When Wendy and I were married (Eight years ago this New Year’s Eve!), it created a fair amount of talk in our neck of the woods. I was recently divorced at the time and I admit that the timing of our quick courtship did not do anything to quell the rumors and idle gossip. We heard the whispers and felt the self-righteous judgment and disapproval of others. At that point in time, Wendy’s mom gave us a sage piece of advice: Make like a turtle. Toughen up the shell, let it bounce off, and keep plodding towards what you know is right. Slow and steady wins the race.
  4. Give it time. Just this past week I was told that a young adult, who has watched Wendy’s and my marriage for the past eight years, commented that they see our relationship as an example of the kind of marriage they want for themselves. Wendy and I talked about that last night and marveled at how far we’ve come from those days when it was whispered that ours was a flash-in-the-pan rebound relationship doomed to failure. If you find yourself falsely accused, remember that what is true about you will be revealed in the test of time as others observe your faith, love, life, actions, words, and relationships.

An Audience of One

audience of oneObviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant. Galatians 1:10 (NLT)

In the wee hours of this morning I was up praying for and responding to an e-mail from my daughter. Earlier this week she and her husband crafted a well articulated blog post about the journey of relational and behavioral they have been struggling through in the past three years. As happens whenever you offer up intimate details of your life for public consumption you are bound to receive diverse reactions and responses. The kids have been struggling through some particularly negative, personal feedback.

I thought of them as I read the opening of Paul’s letter to those following Jesus in Galatia. In the early years after Jesus’ resurrection, there were all sorts of quarrels and schisms between the growing number of believers around the known world. Paul was a fiercely independent person and I get the impression that he had a very strong, fiery personality. Because Paul was not one of the original group of disciples, because he had once hunted down and executed Jesus’ followers, and because he didn’t not easily fit into the organizational structure of the emerging group of believers, there was a lot of controversy surrounding him and his work to share the good news of Jesus with the Roman provinces in Greece and southern Europe.

In today’s chapter, Paul makes it clear that he is doing what God had called him to do. He did not seek nor solicit anyone’s permission. He did not beg anyone’s leave. He had an audience of one, and that was God alone. He did not care what anyone thought about him or his work. He was not answering to them nor responsible for their reactions to him. He was not out to please people. He was working to please God by being obedient to walk the path he’d been given.

Unlike Paul, God gave me the personality of a people pleaser. I want people to like me. It makes me uncomfortable when people take issue with me, my words, or my actions. Yet, I have learned along the journey to accept the criticism, harsh words, and negative reactions that sometimes come with public speaking, blogging, and performing. I can’t keep people from judging me, criticizing me, or condemning me. What I can do is continue to walk the path God has laid before me, step-by-step, to the best of my ability, and to keep my focus on the audience of One who ultimately is the only One who counts.

My daughter shared with me some of the outpouring of people who have been touched, encouraged, moved and motivated by their blog post. People who thought they were alone in their own pain now have someone with whom they can identify. Opportunities are opening for them to help others through the painful struggle of their own brokenness. Despite the criticism of a few, many are benefitting from their courageous honesty, openness, and transparency. They have no need to waste emotional energy on unimportant criticism and the judgment of others. They need that energy to be channeled in love, grace and encouragement towards the precious ones who are coming out of the wood work to say, “Help. Me too.”