All posts in Spirituality

The Value of Doing Nothing

nothingI am back in the office today after taking two weeks off for vacation. A lot of people have been asking, “Where did you go?” and the answer is, well, nowhere. There are a couple of reasons for that, most notably an early June trip to take my daughter on college visits back east (including the subsequent realization that next year we will be paying for said college) and the successive recent financial hits of needing a new garage door opener, a new refrigerator, and new tires for my pickup. Well, at least my housing allowance will be happy!

But even if we did want to spend money on getting away, I’ve come to realize that there is great value in having a vacation that actually doesn’t involve going anywhere at all. Sometimes a getaway vacation can be so stressful to the body and the wallet that you actually need to plan a vacation from your vacation. Staying home, on the other hand, can be a real opportunity to actually do what vacation is intended to do: give you a period of rest.

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Prayer: The Base Camp of the Christian Life

2-everest-base-campA few years ago I was at a retreat for pastors where we were
asked to draw a timeline of our spiritual lives, charting the ups and downs of
all the things that we had experienced so far. When I looked at mine I noticed
some significant peaks and valleys—times when I felt that spiritual “high” when
I was at church camp, for example, or when I was being ordained, and times when
the valleys were deep, like dealing with grief or loss. Others in the group
showed similar kinds of timelines and we joked that they kind of looked like
EKGs—something useful for monitoring our spiritual health.

The other thing that this chart reminded me of, however, had
to do with mountain climbing, which is also all about peaks and valleys. I was
really into rock climbing a few years ago and so I read a ton of stuff on high
altitude climbing, like stories about climbing Mount Everest, for example. Jon
Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, which
was about a tragic 1996 expedition on the highest mountain in the world was
fascinating to me and a real reminder that failure to pay attention to
conditions and make good decisions on ascents and descents can have dire
consequences.

If you know anything about high altitude climbing, you know
that before any ascent can be made the climbers have to spend a considerable
amount of time at a base camp part-way up the mountain. Base camp is where you
rest, prepare your gear, and begin to get acclimated to the altitude because,
as we know out here in Colorado, you can’t just go from sea level to 14,000
feet without some serious physical issues, like altitude sickness.

Barr Camp on Pike’s Peak was established as a kind of base
camp rest stop for those going up and down the mountain. Flatlanders might
spend a night or two at Barr Camp before attempting to summit the peak.

People who climb Mount Everest at 29,029 feet need to spend
weeks at base camp before they can even think about summiting the world’s
tallest mountain. There, altitude sickness pales in comparison to hypoxia or a
serious deprivation of oxygen that kills a number of unprepared climbers on
Everest each year. Without significant time at base camp, the ups and downs are
just too severe.

It occurred to me that the same thing is true of our own
lives. If our lives over time are a series of ups and downs, sometimes very
steep ascents and descents, then we, too, are subject to a kind of spiritual
hypoxia. We may be unprepared for the sudden highs of success or mountain top
experiences, or the sudden lows of things like a devastating diagnosis of an
illness or the loss of someone we love or unexpected unemployment. Even the
regular pace of our lives these days can leave us breathless trying to figure
out how to manage our work, our relationships, and our faith on a daily basis.

How do we manage all that and how do we catch our breath?
Well, I think it’s about establishing a kind of spiritual base camp in our
lives—a place and space of time where we stop in the midst of the up and down
and breathe deeply of our relationship with God. I want to suggest this morning
that regular prayer is that base camp experience with God that we need in order
to live a balanced life.

When I look at Jesus’ own prayer life, I think it’s
interesting that he often withdrew and went up on a mountain to pray and
commune with God at the most critical times in his life and ministry. Today’s
text reveals that Jesus went out to a mountain and spent the night in prayer
before choosing his disciples and then leading them back down the mountain into
ministry. In Scripture, mountains are often the place where God’s revelation
takes place, and Jesus seems to retreat to the mountains often before a big up
or down in his life. Luke doesn’t tell us that Jesus went to the summit, just
out to the mountain—maybe as a base camp!

Jesus does this at other times as well. John tells us that
after the feeding of the five thousand, a peak experience, Jesus realized that
the crowd was “about to take him by force and make him king.” They wanted to
put him in the rarified air of royalty, but Jesus instead “withdrew again to
the mountain by himself.” He was not dazzled by what climbers call “summit
fever”—the desire to get to the top at all costs. Instead, he knew that his
strength and mission came into clear focus at base camp, where he could commune
with God in prayer.

Later, when Jesus is confronted with the specter of the
cross looming in front of him on Good Friday, he withdraws to the Garden of
Gethesemane, at the base of the Mount of Olives, to pray to God and wrestle
with the choice between his will and the Father’s will. It would have been very
easy for Jesus to have gotten up and walked down the Kidron Valley and escaped safely
into the desert, but the depth of his relationship with the Father, expressed
through the regular connection of prayer, enabled him to face the deepest
spiritual valley we can imagine.

For Jesus, prayer was the foundational practice that
connected him to the Father. He taught his disciples to pray so that they, too,
could have that same relationship with God. He understood prayer to be a
dialogue—not just a list of requests to God (because, after all, God already
knows what you need before you need it), but also listening to God and living
in God’s love. Prayer was then and is now the basic discipline of the Christian
life—our base camp practice, if you will.

John Wesley once wrote that prayer is “the grand means of
drawing near to God.”  He
understood the Christian faith at its core as a life lived in relationship with
God through Jesus Christ and the way that relationship is maintained is
primarily through prayer. Throughout Christian history, some of the wisest
spiritual leaders have often called prayer a kind of “spiritual breathing”—as
necessary and as vital to the life of the Spirit as our own breath is to our
physical lives. Without regular prayer, without that regular base camp
acclimatization that adjusts our spiritual breathing, we become hypoxic and our
spiritual lives become wheezy and weak. We might even go so far to say that
lack of prayer is the usual the cause of spiritual death!

We begin this series with the practice of prayer because it
is in many ways the most important and, yet, often the least practiced of the
spiritual disciplines. We know we need to pray, but we don’t often do it unless
we’re starving for breath as we plunge up and down on the timeline of life.

I know that my own life reflects this. When I have been
diligent in regular prayer, I am much better able to put the highs and lows in
perspective, knowing that God is with me regardless. I have seen others who are
regular in their prayer life who have weathered horrific circumstances with
great faith. At the same time, however, there have been long periods in my life
when I haven’t been praying because I’m too busy riding the ups and downs like
a rollercoaster. When that base camp discipline goes away, I feel more and more
out of control.

So, how do we maintain a regular base camp discipline of
prayer? I want to give you a couple of suggestions this morning that have been
helpful to me and, hopefully, will give you some ideas for establishing or
energizing your own daily life of prayer.

The first suggestion I have is to find a way that works for you. When I was a kid I was taught a
somewhat rigid way of praying, using a formula and a particular posture. Head
bowed, eyes closed, hands folded. 
I used to feel really guilty that my mind would wander when I closed my
eyes or that I’d get sleepy. I figured this was a sign of spiritual inadequacy,
so I tried to avoid it so I wouldn’t feel guilty!

But over the years I’ve learned that there are as many ways
to prayer as there are people. Each of us is wired differently. I am a reader
and writer, for example, so for me I know that prayers are most effective when
I can read them or write them. The psalms, for example, were the prayer book of
ancient Israel, and I read at least one every day. The psalms reveal people who
were praying at the highest highs and lowest lows of their lives, and the more
I read them and pray them, the more those words become part of me and express
my deepest feelings to God. I found that monastic spirituality is all about
praying the psalms, which fascinated me and gave me a whole new perspective on
prayer. I don’t have to come up with the words, some one already has.

In addition to reading the psalms and a Scripture for the
day (which we’ll turn to next week), I also read a devotional book. Right now
I’m using A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader,
which has daily readings of quotes from John Wesley on the topic of the week
(this week is the sovereignty of God, for example). I tend to switch them
around a lot. I’ve put some examples out in the Great Room to look over as
examples of the kinds of things you might consider using in your own base camp
time.

When I want to use my own words, however, that’s when I turn
to my journal. This is a discipline that I have engaged in off and on over the
years, but these days I’m finding it absolutely vital. When I write my prayers
and express to God my ups and downs, I find myself drawing closer to him. When
I write out what’s going on in my life I get the sense that God is right there
with me. When I start the day with a renewed awareness of God, I find it much
easier to “pray without ceasing” as Paul encourages us.

I have my base camp time in the morning after the kids have
gone to school. We have started a discipline, however, of praying together as a
family before they leave, using prayers in this book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. The closing prayer
is one we always say together in unison: “May the peace of the Lord Christ go
with you, wherever he may send you. May he guide you through the wilderness,
protect you through the storm. May he bring you home rejoicing at the wonders
he has shown you. May he bring you home rejoicing, once again into our doors.”
We all have it memorized now and use it as our benediction before starting the
day.

There are lots of ways you can pray. Some will like the
discipline of silence and meditation, others will gravitate toward other means.
We want to offer you a variety of resources that can help you get started,
including our online daily devotional that Joe is putting together. Whatever
you do, I want to invite you to make it a habit to build some base camp time with
God into your day.  What will you do this week to invest in your relationship with God?

The second suggestion I have for you today is to recognize
that prayer not only focuses us inward
with God but also outward toward others whom God loves
.. As we cultivate
our relationship with God, God will reveal to us those around us who are in
need–not only of our prayers but our love, support, and compassion. Like we
said last week, the primary fruit of Christian faith is agape love:
unconditional, sacrificial love for God and for others, even those with whom we
have difficulty.

Every week here in worship we gather prayer requests from
the congregation for people who are dealing with illness and grief, and rightly
so. The book of James tells us that “the prayer of faith will save the sick,
and the Lord will raise them up…the prayer of the righteous is powerful and
effective” (5:15-16). We pray over all those concerns and invite you to do so
as well.

I want to also add that we pray especially for those with
whom we are struggling. Think of those who may be your enemies, those who rub
you the wrong way, those who you would rather avoid. It’s virtually impossible
to continue to hate someone you are praying for! We are called not only to pray
for those we love, but those who are hard to love. The more we do so, the more
we begin to change our perspective. This week we saw how powerful hatred can be
as destruction took place at embassies around the world. What would happen if
instead of advocating for retaliation, we instead chose pray for those who do
these things. That’s a different perspective.

Indeed, that’s what prayer does. When we enter that base
camp with God, God changes our perspective. The closer we draw to him the more
we begin to see the world and our neighbors as he does. We begin to understand
that we are not the product of our highest highs and lowest lows, but rather
God’s beloved children with whom he will walk no matter the ups and downs of
circumstance. May we not be hypoxic Christians but rather faithful disciples
who breathe deep of God’s love every day!

You know I find it fascinating that the base camp on Mount
Everest is surrounded by Buddhist prayer flags. I obviously don’t see faith the
way that Buddhists do, but this says something about our human need to
pray—whether it is with a flag, or a book, or whatever. We know we cannot
manage the up and down of life without it. Jesus knew this and wants to show us
how we can be at prayer with God—not as an offering to some abstract deity, but
as a deep and abiding personal relationship.

 

 

 

The Rule of Prayer (Sermon on the Mount Series, part 9)

Preacher prayerMatthew 6:5-15

This week we move into a new section of the Sermon on the Mount. Remember where we’ve been. We started by looking at the nine beatitudes, saying that they outline the inward character of a disciple. Remember how those began—“Blessed are…” Those who have the character of a self-emptying meek, pure in heart, peacemaking disciple are blessed, even though they may be persecuted for embodying the character of Jesus. Then we moved into a section where Jesus addresses and intensifies the Law of Moses. Remember how those began—“You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” Jesus doesn’t abolish or replace the Law, but gets at the heart of the inner attitudes that lead to sin. That section is summed up by Matthew 5:48, which Joe so masterfully preached on last week—“be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus is not calling his disciples to focus on the relentless pursuit of perfection in terms of flawless performance, but rather to be perfected in love, having the law fulfilled and embodied in us in justice and mercy and faith.

And yet, as Joe pointed out last week, performance is still the thing that gets in our way—particularly the idea that our faith is really about performing for others, rather than pleasing God. We become inwardly divided between serving self and serving God. In this next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out nine different ways that self-interest, a need for approval and recognition, and a desire for security keep us from truly being perfect. If the Beatitudes are the nine markers of blessedness, these nine are the markers of failure—the result of trying to live life in two different directions. Today we look at the first three, which have to do with the inward division we have that prompts us to want to please or impress others, rather than pleasing God.

Go back to 6:1 and you’ll see how it begins. Jesus lays out the thesis statement for this section: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” The word translated “piety” here is actually the same word used for “righteousness” that we’ve been talking about throughout the series—“righteousness” being a word that encompasses right living and justice—covenant behavior. Remember the fourth beatitude – blessed are those who hunger and thirst for “righteousness”—God’s righteousness, God’s justice, and not our own self-righteousness. Jesus, as he does throughout the sermon, loops back on to this theme again here and gives its antithesis. This section of the sermon is about being righteous toward God, rather than self-righteous. It’s about exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, rather than imitating them. It’s not about performance, but about perfection. It’s about the inner reality, more than the outer appearance.

Indeed, Jesus uses the word “hypocrite” a lot in this section to describe those who focus on performing for the crowd rather than for God. That’s what the word “hypocrite” really means—it comes from the Greek theater and literally means one who is an actor that plays a role on the stage. To be a hypocrite is to be one who is outwardly playing one role, while inwardly being someone completely different.

The first of these nine markers of failure, then, has to do with playing the role of a magnanimous person. Look at verse 2: “Whenever you give alms (give to the poor) do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets, so that they may be praised by others.” That’s playing the role of a generous, altruistic person, while the real internal goal is to be recognized by others. Offering time at the Temple was announced by blowing a trumpet, but the self-righteous were even more certainly blowing their own horn about their generosity, making sure everyone knew about it. They were about gaining applause from the stage, rather than gaining the quiet approval of God.

John Maxwell tells the story of a man in his church years ago who was a big giver to the church. Everyone knew that he was supporting the church in a big way, and he believed his money should buy him some influence. One day, the man came to John Maxwell right before worship and waved a check in front of the pastor, saying, “John, unless you do what I want, this will go away.” Maxwell, looked at him and just said to the man, “Will you kneel here at the altar and pray with me?” Stunned, the man did so, and John prayed, “Lord, Bill wants to rob you right now and I ask you to forgive him for doing so…”

Yes, Jesus certainly wants us to be generous givers, but the person who is concerned about perfection rather than performance will always give in ways that no one but God will know about, and they will expect nothing in return. God is spontaneously generous to us in ways that are often secret and subversive. To be perfect as God is perfect then means to match God’s generosity in ways that are quiet, secret, and subversive and known only to him. He is the only audience we should be seeking to please. The “reward” we receive for doing so is God’s own acceptance, which often runs counter to the acceptance of the crowd, as Jesus has made abundantly clear earlier in the sermon.

Performers are always looking for credit. The perfected are always looking at Christ.

The leads us to the second area where performance gets in the way of perfection—the area of prayer. “The hypocrites, the play-actors,” Jesus says, love to stand and pray in the synagogues (at church) and on the street corners so that they may be seen by others.” And then there are those that use a lot of extra words. That’s prayer as performance.

 As a pastor, I see this kind of prayer all the time. If you ever have a meal with a bunch of preachers, for example, you can count on the fact that the saying of grace is going to last a very long time because preachers feel they have to craft eloquent prayers in order to impress their peers. Sometimes I feel that God, just like everyone else in the room, is thinking “Get on with it, already!” Then there’s the “prayer voice” that we sometimes go into in public. When I was in seminary, I was in a worship class where we took turns doing the opening prayer, and one of the guys, who I knew was from somewhere like Tennessee, suddenly started praying with a British accent: “Oh Lord, we beseech thee…” Where did that come from?

A lot of Christians seem to be very concerned about making sure their prayers get heard by everyone. They want things like public prayer at school, public prayer at political events, even public prayer on the field of play.

Have you been keeping up with the big trend that’s been sweeping the Denver area and the nation in the past couple of weeks? It’s called “Tebowing!” People are spontaneously dropping to one knee and putting their hand to their forehead to mimic the Bronco QB, Tim Tebow, who kneels on the field after a touchdown (which he has not had that much opportunity to do). Last Sunday, one of the Detroit Lions “Tebowed” over Tebow after he sacked him. You would think that the football field was an even more likely place to pray than in church! Actually, this has been going on a long time in sports, and while it’s certainly great that athletes want to express their faith, Jesus seems to be implying here that there are better ways of doing so. Interestingly, though, players never seem to pray after something bad happens. Dropping to their knees like, “Oh Lord, thank you that that 350 lb. defensive end didn’t completely separate my head from my body on that last play…” or “Lord, thanks for allowing me to strike out with the bases loaded. You’re awesome!”

Jesus makes it clear here that prayer isn’t about speaking with eloquence to impress the crowd or about making a statement in a football stadium. That’s performance. It’s not what we do in public that matters as much as what’s going on inside of us. What you are in private is what you really are. Go to the inner room, go to the quiet place, be secret and subversive about it, and God will meet you there. It’s not the performance that God wants, it’s simply us.

So, Jesus offers his disciples a framework for prayer that tells them how to regularly approach God from the secret, quiet place. We most often refer to it as the “Lord’s Prayer,” and we pray it every week, but if you look close at the text Jesus is saying that this is the “way” we should pray and not necessarily the particular prayer we should pray every time. I’ve had people get very angry if the prayer gets left out of worship on occasion, but that’s missing the point. This prayer isn’t designed to be a mantra or a rote recitation, but rather a way of prayer that orients our inner lives to the way of discipleship. When we pray this way daily, we’re being shaped for perfection, shaped to be and do what God has called us to be and to do.

We begin by calling God “Father”—that’s a relational term. God is not the Force or a distant deity, but a person. This is a title for God that goes all the way back to Exodus and the story of God rescuing Israel from slavery. God says, in Exodus 4:22, “Israel is my son, my firstborn.” Now, Father isn’t the only name we use for God, but we use it here as a reminder that God is the one whose name we hallow and take upon ourselves. Over and over again, the Bible gives us the marriage image of Israel and later the church as God’s cherished bride, and God’s people as God’s children. We begin our prayer by praising God and living into our relationship as his children. We also recognize that the Father is not far from us, but very close. “Heaven” in biblical terms is not faraway, but is God’s space that is quite near to us.

Indeed, the next part of the prayer acknowledges that fact. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The Father longs to see the sovereign and saving rule of heaven be made real on earth, his good creation. The kingdom of heaven is not something we long to go to, but something we long to see come here in fullness. When that happens, “God’s name—his character, his reputation, his very presence—will be held in high honor everywhere” (Wright ). The first half of the prayer is thus all about God, and when we pray this way we’re putting ourselves firmly at his feet. We recognize up front that it’s God’s performance, God’s kingdom that matters and not our own.

Next we pray for daily bread, which is a way of acknowledging that because God is the creator who loves the world and his people, we can ask him for what we need—and not just what we need for ourselves, but for the needs of the whole world. It’s not just “my” daily bread, but “ours.” When we pray this prayer, we’re remembering that it’s also a call to action—to make sure that everyone has the bread they need by sharing it together. We are, in other words, to work for what we pray for.

Then we pray for forgiveness. Jesus assumes here that we’ll need to do that often, recognizing that our performance isn’t perfect. This is a sobering thought, but the good news is that forgiveness is freely available as often as we need it. The caveat, however, is that God’s forgiveness of us is contingent upon our forgiving others. The forgiven must be willing to forgive. We can’t really play the role of the self-righteous is we remember we need to forgive in order to be forgiven. This kind prayer exposes us for who we really are, which is why we should pray it often.

The framework of prayer then closes by reminding us of the difficult time of testing that will inevitably come upon us as we follow Jesus. Jesus has already alluded to that in the beatitudes. “If we follow a crucified Messiah, we shouldn’t expect to be spared the darkness ourselves.” But we can and must pray that we be kept from and ultimately delivered from evil in all its forms and functions.

Anyone who prays in this way, shut up in the quiet of a daily conversation with God, will very soon realize that God is not as impressed as others may be with our outward performance, but only desires the inward orientation of our hearts to him and the work of his kingdom. This is not a system of words we repeat, but a way of life. In fact, we might say that the Lord’s Prayer summarizes the entire Sermon on the Mount because it continually, daily, orients us to the way of God, the way of perfection in love.

Jesus then turns to fasting, the third way in which performance gets in the way. Of these nine markers of failure, fasting is probably the lesser problem for most of us because we simply don’t do it. But I would argue that when we are willing to fast, we find that denying ourselves something allows us to be filled with something else– a better dependence upon him. There’s no better way to remember that you’re dependent upon God than to go without something you take for granted every day. When your stomach rumbles, you can’t help but remember those who are always hungry. Fasting isn’t a performance for others, but a sign of radical dependence upon God.

What Jesus is giving us here is a rule of life that gets to the heart of who we really are, and not simply who we pretend to be. In a culture that idolizes actors, Jesus calls us to be real people who are radically in love with and dependent upon God. It’s in him that we find our true identity and true purpose. We need to cultivate our relationship with God daily, and that involves a disciplined rule of life that includes generosity, prayer, and fasting among other disciplines that we’ll be talking about in the next couple of weeks. It’s about cultivating the inner life, and if we do that well we won’t need to make a show of our faith—it will be naturally evident!

I want to challenge you, as I continue to challenge myself, to begin developing those daily disciplines that will begin to shape you as a disciple of Jesus Christ. (Talk about Rule of Life cards)

 

You can’t make this up | The Christian Century

via www.christiancentury.org

Excellent treatise on why being “spiritual” vs. “religious” is a way of making God in our consumeristic, individualistic image.

A Prayer from Thomas Merton

Primary-merton I picked up a copy of this prayer while at Gethsemani Abbey in August. It's one I keep in my Bible and has been leading me lately. It's also one that I think is perfect as we begin this series on the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' call to the way of discipleship: 

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right roadthough I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. 

Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude