Part I of the series “I Am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus.”
One of the great laments of living in the 21st century is that it’s increasingly difficult to find a good bookstore. When I was in Nashville a couple of weeks ago I happened upon a lovely old used bookshop that I could’ve spent days in. Sure, we still have Barnes and Noble, but if you’ve spent much time in that large bookstore you notice that the books are all new and mostly very practical. Next to the fiction section, for example, some of the largest shelving units in the store are devoted to self-help and leadership/management books. We’ve got thousands of books out there on how to manage our lives better, how to get people to do what we want them to do, how to be more efficient and productive, how to live the good life we seem to want. It’s interesting to me how many of these books are written by Christians. You can have a purpose driven life, your best life now, or become the me you want to be.
But have you noticed that despite all this information there’s very little transformation? Plenty of experts and celebrity pastors are out there to tell us how we should live, but our culture is still among the most stressed out, unhealthy, broken down, and medicated up people in the world. Some say better leadership is the answer to the problem, but despite all those leadership books on the shelves, 70% of Americans still hate their jobs and most of their discontent comes from being led by poor managers. We have more information than ever available at our disposal, but it doesn’t seem to be making a difference. We keep grasping at straws to find a way to live that draws life together, and it’s not working.
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In our latest sermon series we’ve been talking about prayer, which is, as John Wesley called it, “the grand means of drawing near to God.” We’ve talked about praying big prayers, which is where the story of Honi the Circle Maker challenged us. We’ve talked about praying with persistence and about praying for the long haul, planting seeds in our prayers that may not be harvested in our lifetime.
But the question I want to deal with today is the practical application of all of what we’ve been talking about. That is, how do we pray? We know that prayer is a vital part of the Christian life, that God honors bold prayers, that God invites us to persistent prayer or, as Paul puts it in our New Testament reading today, to “pray without ceasing.” But the real question is, on a daily basis, how do we pray? What’s the structure for our prayers? What kinds of prayer can deepen our relationship and dependence on God and unleash God’s will and Spirit in us?
There are lots of techniques out there. When I was a youth I was taught the ACTS formula of prayer—Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, which we were to use whenever we prayed. On the flip side, I’ve gone to monasteries where the Benedictine pattern is to pray seven times a day using the Psalms as the primary content of the prayers. That was a marvelous, ancient way of praying, and I’ve used the Psalms in my own prayers (though not at 3:30am, like the monks do!). I’ve been to workshops on guided prayer and meditation, used the Book of Common Prayer and other prayer books, and lots of other techniques to try and deepen my own life of prayer. All of these methods have things to commend them and many Christians have used them to great effect throughout history.
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In ancient Israel there was a man named Honi, which later generations also knew as Onias. You won’t find his story in the Bible but in some of the history of Israel surrounding the Bible, like in the Mishnah (a first/second century AD piece of rabbinic literature that captures some of the extra-biblical stories of Israel) and in the writings of first century historian Flavius Josephus. Many of the stories told by these early historians is fascinating, and the story of Honi is one of the more interesting and powerful.
Honi was known as a man who prayed and had a special relationship with God. His prayers were full-bodied, long, and persistent. Josephus, who was always skeptical of miracle workers, called Honi a “righteous man” who was “beloved of God” and whose prayers God was always answering in powerful ways. In the first century BC, Israel experienced a severe drought and the people came to Honi pleading that he might pray to God for rain. Honi prayed as usual but, uncharacteristically, nothing happened; so, he decided to double down on his prayers. Honi took his staff and he drew a circle around himself in the sand and stood within it and then he prayed this prayer:
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This weekend marks a significant watershed moment in the life of the Kaylor family. Our daughter Hannah will be leaving with her mom on Sunday to fly from Denver to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she will begin her freshman year as a Film Production major at Calvin College. The bags are getting packed, the first semester bill has been paid, and the flights are booked. As Hannah’s favorite actor Benedict Cumberbatch puts in one of the Star Trek movies: “Now, shall we begin?”
I’ve actually been ambivalent about this moment since the day she was born. On the one hand (the most important hand), I’ve been looking forward to seeing her come to this point in her life. I think every parent has a sense of anticipation about the day that our work is largely done and we send the child we’ve nurtured for 18 years out on a great adventure of discovery and a new life of her own. On the other hand, it’s also heartbreaking in that she won’t be here to make me laugh with her hilariously sarcastic comments about dumb TV shows and to say goodnight to us in French in the easy and pleasant way she does so every evening. I already miss her.
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Two average pastors in a shameless selfie.
My ministry teammate Joe Iovino and I have started a new podcast we’re calling “The Average Pastor.” Since neither of us is a celebrity pastor and both us wrestle with ideas, issues, and insights for the local church, we thought it’d be great to have a podcast for regular preachers and church folk whose church are less “mega” and more neighborhood–a “festivus for the rest of us,” if you will (grievances may be aired but feats of strength will be minimized). These are the kinds of conversations that we often have here in the office basis, and we thought it would be great for our church (and anyone else who’s a pastor or a member of any church) to have access to our average-yet-maybe-inspirational thoughts. We’ll be doing our best to put out a new edition every week. So far we’ve talked about the nature and order of traditional worship, and about the devotional life. If you’re looking for something to listen to in the car on the way to work or consider while you’re taking a walk–and have always wanted to listen to the ramblings and rumblings of a couple of average pastors–this podcast is for you.
You can download the podcast from iTunes by searching “TLUMC Podcasts” (we’ll be setting up a separate podcast channel soon), or you can listen or download from our website. We hope this will spark some conversation and get you thinking about your own life in Christ!