Many people can quote the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” But did you know there is a tie for the shortest verse in the Bible? It is in Paul’s first letter to the people who lived in Thessalonica, “Pray continuously.” At first glance that seems impractical at best and impossible at worst.
I once heard a teacher unpack the word ‘continuously.’ He said that it didn’t mean walk around with eyes closed praying one ongoing run-on sentence to God. My friend said it was more in the line of a continuous cough or a cough that won’t quit. I’m currently very familiar with that analogy and I know it doesn’t mean one ongoing cooooooouuuuuuuuggggggggghhhhhhhh. No, it means your body is aware of the over abundance of phlegm and mucus and you react over and over as the need arises.
So to pray continuously would be to live in tune with your needs & gratitude and God’s nearness & provision, reacting every time a need arises each and every day.
While every change begins with decision, I don’t think you just flip a mental switch and start. For those of us who have lived most of our life handling things on our own or avoiding conversations with God praying without ceasing will take some practice. The good news is anyone is capable of learning to do this. The best news is that God desires this ongoing dialogue with us and will help us grow into it.
Yesterday I had a very small window between connecting flights and on top of that we were late. Really late. So sitting on the plane I texted a friend to pray with me that I’d make my next flight. As I literally ran from one end of Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport to the other I prayed, “God pleeeeeeze help me make my connection.” God must have been chuckling about the contrast between that simple urgent cry for help and my lofty last post. I don’t hear God audibly but I had a clear sense of God ‘saying’ “I thought you wanted more than that from prayer.”
I continued to run toward gate E11, but inside I began to slow down. If I didn’t make it – it would be ok. God was with me. God was near. If I had to wait for the next plane or make alternate arrangements He would be with me there. I don’t know if that sounds silly or simplistic to you but that was my experience Saturday.
The entire episode jogged my memory of something I read in Richard Foster’s book, Prayer. He described the prayer of petition not as a lower form of prayer but as “a staple in our diet.” I think God likes to be asked. I think asking brings us closer to Him. It’s like when children ask their parents for help and handouts, puppies and ponies. Who doesn’t love when their child climbs up on their lap and simply asks, no matter how outlandish the request.
I made my next flight and even ended up in an exit row. And think God chuckled some more as a 5 year old boy kicked the back of my seat for the next two hours.
I very rarely write in series unless it is a sequence of reflections on a trip, but today I want to begin some very honest posts about prayer. You may disagree – that’s ok. I just need to put some things out there…some are confession, some are conviction, some are concepts I’m trying to get a better handle on. I am certainly no expert. I’m not trying to fix you, so feel free to comment but refrain from trying to fix me. Rather…think with me…pray with me…consider what prayer is and isn’t with me.
This semester I have a course on prayer. Maybe that sounds strange, but it has come at a very good time for me. You see, I think I have an odd relationship with prayer. While I have drawn close to God through prayer and know I’ve been blessed by His activity through prayerful people, I get frustrated with what prayer can become.
Augustine said, “True whole prayer is nothing but love.” But there is a dark side to prayer. It can be used. Used as a coverup. (we don’t need to pray about whether to be forgiving or generous or compassionate – He’s already answered that) Used to keep things superficial. (how many times can we pray for aunt Bertha’s bunions) Used to distract from what’s going on at a deeper level. (remember Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector) Used to establish a pecking order. (long prayers filled with fancy language flourish as much today as they did in the 1st Century)
At a young age I was told to pray and I believed I should. Then when I got older I was told I should pray more and I believed I could. Now at middle age having been a Christian most of my life…I refuse to reduce prayer to a good luck charm; getting the things I want, having life go smoothly, and finding a parking place near the door. I recoil at the notion that the pinnacle of prayer is sitting in a circle repeating the list of requests again, only this time with our eyes closed and our voices sounding louder and more religious.
In Binding the Strong Man, Ched Meyers said, “To pray is to learn to believe in a transformation of self and world, which seems, empirically, impossible – as in moving mountains.” This is the type of prayer that I’m interested in. Something that transforms my life not simply something that is tagged onto the rest of my life.
Last Friday our day began with an urban experience. We met in our classroom with Deborah Lloyd. She and her husband Ken are very involved with the homeless population in Portland, though she never used the word homeless. She referred to the people they love and serve as “our friends without houses.” Deborah explained their ministry, gave us a brief primer on the people we would meet, and provided instructions for our morning activity. In a nut shell, we were to walk about downtown Portland with a $5 bill to give someone and engage them in conversation.
We were not there to give them information. We were not to advise or instruct. We were not to take on any posture or language that would position us as superior in any way. We were to look them in the eye, shake their hand, introduce ourselves, and hopefully hear their story.
My friend John and I left Pioneer Square and headed for the library. It was a dreary rainy day and “our friends without houses” were scarce. As John and I parted ways I spotted a young man selling newspapers on a corner. From the size of the stack he carried and the time of day, I suspected they were papers sold for fundraising purposes rather than an edition of The Oregonian. “Would you like to buy a paper?” “Sure, tell me about this.” I replied. The young (20 something) man explained that the proceeds go to support the needs of the homeless population in Portland, and by selling them he and his wife were eligible to sleep indoors that night.
I gave him my $5, shook his hand and introduced myself. He adjusted his inventory and with a firm grasp of my hand locked eyes and said, “My name is Sean. Nice to meet you.” I don’t know how to explain it but he changed right before my eyes. Sean seemed to stand taller, speak more confidently and relax all at the same time. “Did you grow up in Portland?” I asked. This question opened the door to hear his story. He was a construction worker from Connecticut who arrived less than two years ago. In the same week his initial project was completed he wrecked his car. That’s when the dominoes began to topple.
I’ll be honest, I’ve been shmoozed and scammed by a number of panhandlers but this was not one of them. Sean was articulate and self-aware. He uses the computer at the library to scour craigslist every day for job postings and to check his email for any responses. He knows he’s competing with others who have more education but he doesn’t give up. Sean spoke of his dependance upon God to meet the needs of he and his wife, who happened to be cleaning a house that morning. I affirmed his faith. We talked about how fragile we all are and the fact that many people are only one step away from his situation. He asked about me, where I was from and what I was doing there. “I’m here for school and had time to explore downtown.” Then the conversation ran it’s course and with a final shake of hands we parted ways.
Later our cohort met in groups to process our experiences. Sean lacked a social network. He and his wife were alone. I thought about how fortunate I am to have such a loving and large group of friends and family. For that is really the only difference I could see between the two of us.
One of the really cool things that my friend Larry does with the groups he takes to Toronto is the way he deals with food. He’ll give one person some money to buy our meal. This isn’t like, “Here’s enough for everyone to order off the menu.” Rather he’ll give us less than that, less than what you think you need. So after the concert Friday night, we headed to get shawarma. Entering Ali Babba’s at 12:42am, we see two young men working the counter and the negotiation begins. The result was we had more than enough money to buy more than enough food.
Saturday morning Larry got up early to go get breakfast for us. An hour later I heard the door of the sanctuary slam and peaked through my sleeping bag to see him carrying in juice, bagels, and donuts. It didn’t seem like much for eight people. We gathered in the kitchen housed in the basement of the church snacking on bagels and telling stories. Then came the infamous “donut circle.” He pulled the first of six donuts out of the box, took a bite and passed it to the next person in the circle. Everyone followed suit until it was gone. Then another. And another. etc. Once again, what seemed to be a small amount ended up being more than enough.
After packing up we went to the St. Lawrence Market. Each person was given a little money to buy something to contribute to our picnic lunch. While the participants who had traveled with Larry before said this was a generous stipend, it still didn’t seem like much. Off we went in separate directions to find a portion of our next meal uncertain of what others would buy. At the prescribed time we reunited to pool our groceries and discover a third time we had plenty.
What I think I’ll remember…
- You don’t need to eat as much as you think.
- You don’t need to spend as much as you think.
- A simple meal shared is better than an extravagant meal alone.
- Hospitality doesn’t hinge on your budget, circumstances, or location. Hospitality is a state of mind and a condition of the heart.
As I continue to think about my visit to Sanctuary I’m still wondering about the question I asked yesterday, “What if THE Church looked like this?” I quickly realize, if it did, my skill set may not be necessary.
The pastors in middle class America who are sought and valued can; speak with the conviction of Billy Graham, motivate like Vince Lombardy, resolve conflict like a professional arbitrator, lead meetings like Jack Welch, articulate mission and vision like John Maxwell, all the while demonstrating the compassion of Mother Theresa. I’m not saying that’s right or even possible. It just seems to be what search committees and review boards often evaluate.
In my experience with church, most of our energy and attention goes into a weekly event that lasts less than 90 minutes. Most of our money goes to support a physical plant to house the main event. Therefore, the preaching must be eloquent and the music inspiring enough to bring the masses in. But you still can’t justify such an ediface for an hour and a half a week no matter how “good” it is, so you have to think of other reasons to get people to use the building.
So here’s the million dollar question,
- “How much does self presevation play into the way 21st Century Americans do church?”
And here’s a couple thousand dollar questions,
- “Is it possible that what started out as good and necessary has now evolved into something that merely validates our gifts and existence?”
- “Have we created an organization to perpetuate rather than being the hands and feet of Jesus?”
I don’t know but I think it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.
Sanctuary – sanc-tu-ar-y [sangk-choo-er-ee]
- a sacred or holy place
- a church or other sacred place where fugitives were formerly entitled to immunity from arrest
- any place of refuge
This past weekend I took a road trip with some friends. We went to Toronto to hear some other friends play music. The concert would be at their church, Sanctuary Toronto. Sanctuary is in the heart of the city dwarfed by high rise condos, on the edge of the GLBT community and Its members are a unique mix of urban professionals, homeless people, addicts and middle class folks. Their name completely fits.
We arrived around 6:30pm giving the group a chance to catch up with the friends they made on previous visits and for me to get acquainted with a few. By 8pm most of the tables were taken as well as the chairs that circled the room. The place was filled with their congregants and neighbors.
In between fragmented visits with a handful of people who call that place home, I began to wonder…what if THE Church looked like this. I realize every church is located in a particular community with particular needs but what if churches truly existed for it’s nonmembers? What if mature Christians believed the best way to “be fed” is to be involved in “feeding others”? What if they understood the most affective way to learn is to get involved in teaching others? What if we really believed that how we treat the poor, lonely, and the marginalized is how we treat Jesus?
Spoiler Alert: It is going to take a while to process those 24 hours. I’ll be posting my reflections and more pictures the rest of this week.
It took me more than I thought to think about my last post’s closing questions, but here goes.
When do I tend to circle the wagons? How do I position my life, steer conversations, and use silence to cut off people who don’t agree with me? Who am I subtly but intentionally keeping away from the fire?
‘Circling the Wagons’ is essentially about ceasing to communicate and I’ve faced the fact I do…and unfortunately have learned to do it quite well. My key technique is to keep conversations on the surface. I do that because I know we don’t agree about ideas and beliefs that are important to each of us. This position may be convenient but it comes from a place that values information more than people. I’m basically saying, “I don’t want to invest the energy in you because I’m not going to convince you of anything.”
As I’ve thought about this since my last post I’ve also faced the fact that I don’t do this with everyone. I don’t do circle the wagons with people who disagree with me about the biggest issue to me: Jesus. I do not fear their questions or opinions or any scoffing they may bring to the conversation because I believe in an invisible God, who impregnated a girl, that had a son, that never sinned, who grew up to walk on water, heal diseases, and raised from the dead. I welcome their perspective. I love the discussion.
- That needs to stay the same.
I most often circle the wagons when it comes to the insiders, the people already at the campfire, and those who think I’m at the wrong one. I circle the wagons with people who argue about versions of the Bible. I circle the wagons with people who are certain about everything. I circle the wagons when it comes to folks who live by bumper sticker theology. I avoid people who casually throw the word “heretic” around.
This little exercise has revealed that I can be just as judgmental and ungracious as the people I rail against. It has also reminded me God doesn’t need my protection.
Random: I wonder if anybody has ever built a sanctuary with a fire pit in the middle.