Friday, May 22, 2020

The Reward of Prayer

I’ve found myself praying a lot more than usual during the last few months, but the prayers have been different. Often my prayers are bold, brash, and pragmatic, asking God to provide something or do something or help me out in some specific way. Then I sit back and see if the prayer gets answered. And some of my prayers during this time have been like that—like “God, would you end this virus.” But most of my prayers during this period have been different: more simple, honest, and communal—like “God, I need you” or “God, please help” or “God, thank you” or “God, give me wisdom.” It’s as if the peculiarity of this time has stripped down my prayer life and named the truest parts of my relationship with God.

Our audible and/or conscious prayers can often be fairly selfish prayers of petition, where we’re asking God to provide something for us. And I think that’s because we don’t really know what else to talk to God about. But I think if we were able to acknowledge and name the truest prayers of our hearts—the true desires we wish to express to a power greater than ourselves—we would more often find ourselves praying these simple, beautiful, communal prayers. We would pray like the psalmist, saying, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts.” Deep in our inmost parts, we really just want to know God and be known.

Which is what Jesus says will happen when we pray sincerely.

In Matthew 6:6, Jesus offers us these instructions about prayer: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Now, at first glance, that sort of prayer still feels like a bold, brash, and pragmatic prayer of petition, where we ask God for something and then await our reward: the answer to our prayers. But that’s not exactly the picture the Greek word for “reward” (apodosei) is trying to convey. The word literally means “to give back” or “return.” So, the pray-er gives something…and then God gives it back or returns it. Which, what does the pray-er give? Nothing more than time, attention, dedication, and complete presence. So then, that is the ‘reward’ we get back from God; the thing he gives back or returns. Sometimes God responds to our prayers of petition with practical and tangible answers. But God always responds to the deepest, simplest prayers of our hearts with time, attention, dedication, and complete presence.

And the point I’m making about God’s “rewards” is only further confirmed through the next section of text about fasting, where Jesus uses the same Greek word to once again say that we will be rewarded for fasting—which the reward here is clearly not physical or practical, but can only be meant in terms of God’s time, attention, dedication, and complete presence. When we are present to God through fasting, He is present with us as well. And the same is true in prayer.

So, the point I’ve not-so-succinctly spent nearly 700 words to arrive at is simple: when you pray, especially in this time, allow your prayers to be simple, honest, and real, tapping into your deepest and inmost parts. Because the reward for these prayers is intimate community with the Creator of the universe, your Father in heaven. Yes, we should pray bold, brash, and pragmatic prayers for God to do the miraculous in our world. But Jesus’ wisdom for us in this time (and beyond) is to primarily be people who spend their prayer life in simple, honest, and communal time with God, because when we do, we will be rewarded with God’s very presence—including his comfort, peace, assurance, and hope. He rewards our prayer lives through giving back. When we lean into Him, He leans right back. He meets us in that place and rewards us with His very self.

So, may you lean into God’s presence during this time of uncertainty and stress, and truly sense God returning the favor.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Celebrating the Ascension

Today, in the church calendar, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus—which is an often-neglected holiday, but one worth considering.

Essentially, this is a day of empowerment. Jesus told his disciples—including us, as his present-day disciples—that they would do even greater things than him. But that can’t happen with him around. Time after time, the disciples turned to Jesus to teach, help, heal, and feed people, rather than doing it themselves. And nothing has changed. I want Jesus to do the miraculous, but often fail to step in and be the miracle people need.

Jesus leaving earth is liberating and enabling. He is still with us in spirit, but leaves the world in our hands to do the things he’s been doing, bless the people he’s been blessing, and form a community of love like he’s been forming. Jesus’ ascension is his bold declaration to us that “you’ve got this!” He believes in us to be the church, empowered to do the ministry he left behind. So, let’s get busy teaching, helping, healing, and feeding.

Friday, May 8, 2020

An Angry Run with Ahmaud

That was an angry run.

I love to keep active and stay in shape, but I hate going running! With a passion…always have, always will. But being unable to play basketball during the pandemic, I’ve resorted to running to stay in shape.

And tonight was the perfect night for a run. I was running for Ahmaud.

But nothing quite went as expected. My dog got sick of running and forced me to take her home mid-run. We ate dinner too late and I felt it in my stomach the whole time. I’m badly out of shape and 2.23 miles is a stretch for me right now. And then, of course, it rained on me for most of the run.

But you know what didn’t happen?! I didn’t get shot.

No one suspected me of burglary based on what I look like. No one chased me down with guns. And no one killed me. Nor did I even worry about any of that for one second. Because I don’t have to…especially where I live…because I’m white.

So, tonight I ran for Ahmaud…and for all the people in our country who face fear and danger simply because their skin is more colorful than mine.

And I ran angry…because it’s unjust and unfair and I simply can’t believe that in the year 2020 we still haven’t progressed to a point where a black man can go for a run in his neighborhood and not have to worry about whether he’ll make it home.

I ran committed to stand up against racism, bigotry, and violence when I see it. I ran to remind myself of the power and privilege I have as a white man in our country and committed to using my power and privilege for good and not evil. I ran to remember those who have been lost to the evil of racism.

Lord, deliver us from evil. For yours is the Kingdom…and it’s a kingdom of love and grace.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Jesus Wisdom on Patience

As I’ve pondered and preached on Jesus’ wisdom for us during this COVID season and beyond, one thing I’ve thought a lot about is patience. I know that patience is a fruit of the spirit, but it’s not a fruit that generally grows freely on my spiritual tree. This season is testing my patience, but also refining me into a more patient person.

While I’m certainly not a Type-A, go-getter personality, I’m also not good at waiting. And I’m probably no different than most. Our culture has bred us to expect immediate results—fast food, two-day shipping, curb-side delivery. We are used to expediency. We wait for nothing.

And, in fact, sometimes patience is treated more as a vice than a virtue. Don’t wait, push for results. Don’t delay, get it before it’s gone. Don’t save for tomorrow what could be accomplished today. Heck, I’ll even alter my route home from work in order to avoid being stuck at a stoplight. We just aren’t great at waiting…but should be. And Jesus can help.

Now, while Jesus does very little talking or teaching about patience in the gospels, he most-certainly demonstrates it. Like, for example, he waits thirty years to start his public ministry. And even once he gets started, he delays his grand ascension to notoriety by continually asking people to keep quiet about his ministry. Jesus feels no need or senses no hurry to accomplish everything and heal everyone. He patiently makes time to escape, reflect, and pray.

And Jesus is constantly patient with those in his life—those begging and pleading, desperate for his assistance and excited for his presence. He often made time for people when I might not have. I think of the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. It’s an exhausting day of ministry, so much so that Jesus puts his disciples in a boat and sends them across the Sea to get away. But not Jesus—the text says that he takes time to greet the people and dismiss them. All of them. Talk about patience. And then, perhaps his greatest show of patience is through how he handles his disciples—who constantly require his patience as they argue, misunderstand, and make mistakes. He never fails to make time for them, explain a parable to them, or help correct a misguided idea.

I don’t know about you, but in this slowed season of COVID, I want to learn to be a more patient person. I want to slow down, tune in, listen more, and be more present to my family, friends, world, and self. I want to remind myself, in moments I would typically be impatient, to take a deep breath and have greater perspective on how this patience-testing moment is really not as inconvenient as I think.

I’ve appreciated the natural rhythms of this season that are helping me take steps in building patience. I didn’t start building puzzles, during this quarantine, to help foster more patience; but it’s certainly helped. And I didn’t expect to have our kids home with us 24/7 during the months of April, May, and June; but it’s definitely helping me hone the discipline of patience.

I’m certainly not happy this pandemic has happened, but I’m trying to allow this unanticipated season of patience-building to shape me moving forward. May we all be better attuned to the work of the Spirit within us, so we increasingly witness the fruit of patience in our lives.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

As Many Blessings as It Takes

We have a nightly ritual in our family of singing a blessing over our girls as we tuck them in and say good night. It’s a beautiful part of our bedtime routine that I look forward to each evening. But, simultaneously, by that time in the day I’m ready for them to be asleep and anxious for some time to myself and with Mandy.

Which is why this time of blessing can also be obnoxious—because, in her tiredness, Peyton often forgets that we’ve already sang her blessing and begs us to sing it again. It’s been a long day, I too am tired, and I can’t wait to get out of that room. So, I often find myself annoyed and upset when this happens, reluctant to have to sing for a second time.

This happened again tonight. But this time, as I was frustratedly rushing through the song for the second time, I found myself thinking about what was actually happening: I was irritated about getting to sing God’s blessing over my daughter. How strange for a father to be annoyed about that!

And I found myself thinking about God—about our Father who sings blessings over us—who looks down upon us and declares the same thing He did about His son Jesus: this is my beloved child, with whom I am well-pleased. I found myself thinking about God the way Jesus depicts Him in the story of the Prodigal Son, as a Father who runs to his wayward son, embraces him wildly, and blesses him profusely, regardless of what he’s done.

Can you imagine God responding to us the way I often do to Peyton—with frustration over getting to re-bless her? Of course not! Our God created us in His image, sees us as very good, and is anxious to sing blessings over us…as many times as it takes.

So, may you truly know how God sees you—that he loves you dearly and cherishes you as his beloved child. May you hear his song of blessing over you. And may the Lord bless you and keep you, make his face shine upon you and give you peace.

[and God…please help me be more patient as a father…
and to cherish the opportunity to bless my children]

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Lost and Found

Over the last few weeks—and really all the time—I’ve been inviting our church to be aware of God’s presence in our lives. He’s there—scripture assures us of that—so we simply need eyes to see and ears to hear where God is and what He’s up to. I’ve been challenging us to recognize, remember, and share about those moments of divine encounter.

And this week…I most certainly have a story worth sharing.

On Saturday afternoon, my family loaded up the car and headed to the church for a few hours of final preparations for Sunday. And like we often do, we brought with us our dog, Annie. [#churchdog] When we arrived at the church and opened the car door, Annie ran over to the building. But somehow, in the process of carrying a load of things and getting all four humans inside the church, Annie must not have entered with us.

So then, an hour and a half later when we were preparing to leave, I asked everyone where Annie was…and no one knew…or had seen her in the church. She’d been left outside this whole time. At this point we’re freaking out and imagining the worst. We’re running all around the church, shouting Annie’s name as loudly as we can.

But nothing.

So, the girls and I jump in the car to check the neighborhood, while Mandy starts contacting the appropriate authorities.

Still nothing.

It’s been almost 2 hours since we’ve seen her—the girls are crying hysterically, Mandy and I are freaking out, and we’re all struggling to imagine our lives without our beloved dog—but we decided to scour the neighborhood once again. So, we gathered our things from the church and Mandy jumped in the car, but just as we’re about to pull away from the curb, her cell phone rings.

It’s Animal Control…and they think they’ve found our dog!

But that’s where the story takes a strange twist, where I can’t help but see God’s fingerprints. It turns out that the person who called in the missing dog was a woman named Amy and their house is just a block from First Baptist. Well, I happen to know an Amy who lives a block from our church: it was the pastor of the Methodist Church! It just so happens that our dog was found and lovingly cared for by our friends and colleagues from across the alley.

So, our tears instantly turned to smiles, our sadness to joy, and we drove down the street to collect our neglected pup—who was very excited to see us. I don’t know if God caused our friends to find Annie, but I certainly know we gave thanks to God that evening around our dinner table. And I’m confident that God was rejoicing with us as we found our dear pet, because He’s the type of Father who rejoices over lost things being found.

Monday, March 30, 2020

A Relational Flip

There’s an interesting thing that has happened over the last month—a fascinating transformation. The social hibernation we’ve found ourselves in as a result of the health risks of COVID19 has, in some ways, completely flipped a number of things about the way we communicate with one another. Let me explain what I mean.

[and to note, I’m painting with VERY broad brushstrokes here, so please understand that and take these ideas with a giant grain of salt, but here’s my take on what’s happening]

Before the coronavirus entered our world:
1.     Physical, in-person communication was the best form connection, but we took it for granted and didn’t prioritize making time and space to actually be together in physical community. There weren’t enough meals with friends, happy hours with co-workers, and playdates with other families. We could physically meet with one another anytime we’d like, but we didn’t do this nearly enough.
2.     We were all on social media A LOT, but we didn’t use this tool very well. Our social media usage was too often divisive and not unifying—used to gather information from our trusted sources, share that information and our opinions in hopes of swaying the other side, and argue with one another when the information and opinions didn’t instantly win the other side over.

Since being quarantined and left with only online community:
1.     We LONG for physical, in-person community and can’t have it. We fully understand it to be the best form of communication and can’t wait to be able to be in physical proximity with our loved ones again. We just want a hug!
2.     We are still on social media A LOT (probably more), but we are finally using it in its best capacity. Social media has always had a great ability to foster relationships, but we are finally using it as the wonderful resource it can be. We are checking in on, encouraging, being kind, and sharing with one another. We’re grieving with one another, helping each other cope, brightening each other’s days, and making each other smile. We are connecting with people, locally and afar, that we haven’t connected with in far too long. And since we are all united under the struggle of this pandemic, we have (for the most part) put aside the differences that so often divide us.

It’s been awesome to witness this transition in our online behavior as we are cloistered in our homes. It’s kind of a miracle. But the real miracle would be if we continued this trend long past the time we can once-again gather in person. I sincerely pray that when this COVID19 quarantine is over, that we re-emerge with a commitment to being better at community, both in person AND online.

Let’s not take for granted the gift it is to gather with family and friends, in person, for food, fun, and fellowship. Let’s take the initiative to create more community and pour into the lives of our friends. Let’s be better about loving and caring for our neighbors. Let’s carry over the compassionate spirit that this time of pandemic has brought forth in our everyday lives.

But let’s also be better at social media. Let’s continue to encourage and connect, not argue and belittle. Let’s continue to unify under our common humanity, and not be divided by our religious, political, and socio-economic camps.

This virus is awful—and the fallout has been heartbreaking for some and unfortunate for all. But one way to redeem this tragic time is to recommit to a better, more-loving, way of being in relationship. Let’s take the best of both forms of community—in person and online—and move forward as the best form of humanity.

Monday, March 16, 2020

A Chance to Practice Sabbath

We were already shutting down as a society, but the last few days have brought us to a grinding halt. With organizations (including churches) suspending their activities, schools shutting their doors, ski hills ending their seasons, and everyone practicing a little more social-distancing, we have found ourselves in a season of slowing down and staying home.

Which can be REALLY hard to do. It might get a little boring. We might get a little lonely.

But this is also a great opportunity to practice something we should be practicing with regularity anyway: SABBATH. It’s one of the main things we are commanded to do as people of faith, and yet we aren’t very good about actually making time and space to drop our normal work, be intentionally present with our loved ones, and do the things that bring us joy and rejuvenate our souls.

But the Coronavirus has given us this time to actually practice the Sabbath. So let’s do just that. Take time to play games and watch movies and read books. Take a nap. Slow down a little. Commit to family meals. Use this time of forced isolation as an opportunity to practice this discipline that we should already be practicing regularly. And maybe when the virus is gone and we emerge from our homes and get back to our lives, we’ll do so with a refreshed spirit and an increased commitment to being ‘sabbath people’ in all seasons.