A prayer for Paris

… and for Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burundi, Yemen, Pakistan, and Palestine — who have also endured evil, violence, and loss of life this week.

From Psalm 10, a prayer of deliverance from enemies:

1    Why, O LORD, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
2 In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

3    For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the LORD.
4 In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, “God will not seek it out”;
all their thoughts are, “There is no God.”

5    Their ways prosper at all times;
your judgments are on high, out of their sight;
as for their foes, they scoff at them.
6 They think in their heart, “We shall not be moved;
throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.”

7    Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.
8 They sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places they murder the innocent.

Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
9 they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.

10    They stoop, they crouch,
and the helpless fall by their might.
11 They think in their heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

12    Rise up, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand;
do not forget the oppressed.
13 Why do the wicked renounce God,
and say in their hearts, “You will not call us to account”?

14    But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief,
that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you;
you have been the helper of the orphan.

15    Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers;
seek out their wickedness until you find none.
16 The LORD is king forever and ever;
the nations shall perish from his land.

17    O LORD, you will hear the desire of the meek;
you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
18 to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.

[image by @jean_jullien]

Being and Doing

Skycroft Sunrise

Been reading a lot on the relationship between being and doing. Naturally, this was the passage that showed up in today’s devotional: Matthew 7:13-23 (from The Message).

Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention.

Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned.

Knowing the correct password—saying ‘Master, Master,’ for instance—isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills. I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’

How to Trust God

[Adapted from Sunday’s message at The District Church (Columbia Heights parish): “How to Trust God (or, How to Live in the Kingdom)”, based on Luke 11:37-12:34.]

Here’s what I think: in any given situation, you have a choice; and that choice is a matter of trust. The choice is whether you will trust God or whether you will trust something else. Every time you choose to trust God, you are demonstrating your citizenship, your residence in the kingdom of God. Every time you choose not to trust God, you are pledging your allegiance to some other kingdom and some other ruler. Most of the time, the choice doesn’t seem as clear as that and it’s hard to know what it looks like to trust God, but I’m convinced that most of the decisions we make can be traced back to this root choice.

Here are some ways we can trust God (more):

1. We trust God by trusting what he sees. 1 Samuel 16:7 says:

The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.

If the Lord looks at the heart, we may want to be working, first, on our hearts and not just on the outward appearance that people look at, and second, on the ways we look at the outward appearance rather than the heart. We live in a culture that glorifies the superficial, that celebrates the artificial, that idolizes physical attractiveness, even while things like character and maturity are undervalued and neglected. We look at the outside; God looks at the heart.

Jesus says, in Luke 12:2-3:

There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

This word is a challenge to me, a challenge to the way I live my life. Many people in our church just get to see me on Sundays, and hopefully whether I’m preaching or leading worship or just greeting you at the door, they’re left with a good impression. But my prayer is that my whole life is pleasing to God, not just the parts that people see. My prayer is that the way I speak to Carolyn when nobody else is around is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I treat the homeless guy on the corner who’s asking for help is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I browse the internet, when no one else is home, is pleasing to God; my prayer is that the way I spend every dollar I earn and every moment of every day is pleasing to God, whether anybody is there to see me or not, whether I post it to social media or not, whether I’m praised for it by another person or not.

If we trust God, we’ll trust what he sees—that the inside is far more important than external appearances.

2. We trust God by trusting what he says. Because what we say reflects where we place our trust, and where we place our trust impacts what we say. In Luke 12:6-7, Jesus says:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

You are valuable to God. One of the struggles I know many of you deal with is how to be a Christian in non-Christian, and even anti-Christian, environments—whether that’s at school or at work or even in your own family. This is the challenge that many of our brothers and sisters around the world are facing, persecuted, their very lives threatened—do we fear God or do we fear people? Do you care more about what your boss thinks or about what God thinks? Do you care more about your significant other’s approval or God’s approval? Are you more afraid of your friends turning their back on you or of you turning your back on God?

Now, please don’t hear me saying that this means you should go all gung-ho and start adding John 3:16 to your work email signature or spouting off religious screeds on social media or running roughshod over your loved ones and what they think.

But what would it look like if you were to accept the truth that God says to you, “I love you, you’re mine,” every morning, every night, every moment?

How would that truth—that the God of the universe loves you, that your heavenly Father has got your back, even when you have no idea what’s going on in your life!—change the way you live your life? How would trusting what God says change what you say and do—at work, at home, in your friendships, in your relationships, on social media?

We trust God by trusting what he says, no matter what anyone else says.

3. We trust God by trusting that he will provide and that what he provides will be enough.

In one of his greatest challenges, Jesus says, in Luke 12:22-23:

I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.

Jesus goes on to say, “God provides for the birds and for the flowers. How much more will he care for you? Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink; your Father knows that you need these things.”

A couple weeks ago, we looked at what Jesus said about prayer, about how prayer begins with our understanding of God as Father, as the one who loves us and cares for us and seeks our good and will give us what we need. I love what Jesus says in 12:32:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.

Your Father knows what you really need, and he is happy to provide it. “But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (12:31).

The antidote to fear and anxiety, to greed and worry, is to trust God, to trust that he will provide and that what he provides will be enough.

  • It may be healing … or it may be strength for the journey.
  • It may be that relationship … or it may be restoration when your heart is broken.
  • It may be the new job … or it may be a context in which to mature.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne said:

God will either give you what you ask, or something far better.

Because that’s the kind of God we serve. Because that’s what God is like.

At the heart of life in the kingdom of God, at the core of the eternal kind of life, at the center of the life Jesus desires for us to live is trust of God. Jesus lived this out in his own life. He loved others unconditionally because he trusted in God’s love for each and every person as created in the image of God. He was never defensive, never judgmental, and yet also never afraid to call out injustice and hypocrisy because he knew what God had said—about himself and about the way the world was meant to be. And he lived with few possessions, traveling among the poor, bouncing from house to house, trusting that God would provide, that his Father would give him whatever he needed to survive. He lived his life surrendered to the kingdom of God, submitted to the will of God, and gave his life on that cross, trusting that by his death he might win us life and trusting that God would vindicate him by raising him up from the dead. And God came through. God always comes through.

Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, a couple of pastors in California, wrote:

the gospel of the kingdom invites us to trust God in everything. Trust is demonstrated by our willingness to act as though what we claim to believe is true. Some will begin their journey with Christ by getting on their knees, praying a sinner’s prayer, and writing down the date, time and location in a journal. They will remember the experience for the rest of their lives. … Others will, by the grace of God, begin living as though they really do trust Jesus and their “decision” will be woven into their new actions and choices. They will simply begin to orient their lives around Jesus.

So where will you place your trust?

Prayer, the Kingdom of God, and Desperation

[Adapted from my sermon at The District Church: “How to Pray.”]

Georgia, in the 1940s. A young woman sits down at her kitchen table, opens up a notebook, and begins to write. Her hand moves slowly, hesitantly, across the page; you can tell she’s thinking as she’s writing, that her thoughts are running far faster than her hand can keep up, that she’s correcting herself in her head even before the words make it to the page. Eventually, she lets out a soft sigh and puts down her pen; she stares at the last words she’s written:

Can’t anyone teach me how to pray?

That young woman was the author Flannery O’Connor, and her question is one that, in some form or fashion, has been asked by millions of people in our time and for hundreds of years before us. It’s a question Jesus’ disciples directed to him as well—as we heard in our passage—and my hope and prayer is that this morning we’ll take a step toward answering that question.

Jesus prayed. He prayed after he was baptized, and the Holy Spirit came upon him; when crowds came looking for him, they often found him in deserted places, praying; he spent nights on mountains praying; he prayed on his own and he prayed in the presence of his disciples. Prayer was important—indispensable, in fact—to Jesus. It was at the core of his being; it was the source of his connection with God and his power.

But what is prayer?

There are two parts to the way I want us to think about prayer: Dallas Willard puts it this way—“Prayer is simply [1] talking to God about [2] what we’re doing together.” Tim Keller breaks it down into “[1] conversation and [2] encounter with God.”

Prayer is (1) asking things of God for our lives and (2) aligning our lives in the ways God asks of us.

See, the goal of prayer—this is John Ortberg, and this is key—“is not to get good at prayer, not to see who can spend the longest time in prayer. … The goal is not to pray with greater feelings of certainty, or greater eloquence, or even greater frequency. The goal of prayer is to live all my life and to do all my ministry [or work] in the joyful awareness that God is present, right here, right now.” The goal is to see more of God’s kingdom come on earth, to see more of what God wants to happen happening, to see more of up there come down here.

Kingdom Come Series

The way I like to define “the kingdom of God” is God’s rule and reign in every life and every sphere of life. God’s rule refers to the new way of living that God brings about and makes possible in every person’s life, and God’s reign refers to the realm where God is in charge, where what God wants to happen actually happens, where God’s will is done. It’s personal, it’s social, and it’s systemic; God’s kingdom is about all-encompassing transformation—God-filled, Jesus-shaped, Spirit-empowered transformation.

God’s been laying on my heart recently the necessity of desperation in the spiritual life. You may be pretty competent, pretty capable; you may have gotten where you are because you’ve worked hard or applied yourself or leveraged your abilities. And you should be thankful for the things God has given us. But let’s never allow those things to fool us into thinking we don’t need God. Jesus said, in John 15:5:

Apart from me, you can do nothing.

I heard a story recently about a boy who was watching a holy man praying by a river. When the man finished praying, the boy wandered over to him and said, “Will you teach me how to pray?” The holy man looked him deep in the eyes, then took his head, plunged it under water and held it there. When he let him back up, the boy was indignant. “What did you do that for?” he sputtered. The holy man shook the water from his hands and said, “I’ve just taught you the first lesson of prayer. When you want to pray as badly as you wanted to breathe when your head was under water, only then will I be able to teach you.

How desperate are you for the kingdom of God to come on earth as in heaven—the kingdom that Jesus said was so good and so desirable and so awesome that a person would sell everything he or she owned to have it?

Because here’s the thing: our ability to make space for God to move in the world and in our lives is directly proportional to our desperation for God. When I look back on the times in my life when I was most aware of God or felt most close to God or saw God’s power most tangibly, it was usually when I was broken, hurting, and helpless—after a break-up or when I had heart problems for no apparent reason or when my best friend from college was dying of cancer or when I realized I had absolutely no control over a particular person or situation in my life.

Desperation leads to honest prayer; desperation softens our hearts so that we can actually hear from God and be moved by God and be changed by God and be used by God.

And here’s the other thing: our desperation for God is directly proportional to our understanding of the reality of the condition of our lives and of our world—and to the complete inability we have to improve any of it apart from the power of God.

See, I think part of the challenge of praying for God’s kingdom to come is that we don’t know what that actually looks like—or maybe we haven’t taken the time to reflect on what that could look like. Because if we did, we’d be so captivated by what God wants to do and we’d be so cognizant of our absolute inability to make that happen, that our desperation quotient would be off the charts.

So let me start with this, from Revelation 21:1-4:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

There will be no more school shootings; there will be no more gun violence in our neighborhoods or bombs dropped on our brothers and sisters around the world; there will be no more kids losing their lives before they had a chance to grow up; there will be no more death.

There will be no more refugees without homes; there will be no more xenophobia or racism or fear-based politics; there will be no more kids waiting for families; there will be no more mourning.

There will be no more bodies ravaged by cancer; there will be no more marriages falling apart; there will be no more broken homes; there will be no more crying.

There will be no more addiction; there will be no more poverty; there will be no more hunger; there will be no more pain.

For the old order of things has passed away. I want that reality here on earth as it is in heaven.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re asking for justice to be found in our halls of government, for the poor and sick to be cared for, for the homeless to be housed, for our schools to be places where kids can grow and learn in safety, for marriages and families to be restored, and for every single person to have a place to call home.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re also asking for our own souls to be transformed, so that the sin and selfishness in our own lives, the ways we lash out at others or hurt other people, our own addictions, our own destructive habits, our own distracted half-lives—might pass away and that we might increasingly take on the likeness and the shape and the character of Christ.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re asking for our daily bread, trusting that God will provide not what we want but what we need.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re asking for our sins to be forgiven just as we forgive those who sin against us, we’re asking for the things we owe to be forgiven just as we forgive what was owed to us, we’re asking for grudges to be dropped and for scores to no longer need to be settled.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re praying that when we face times of trial or temptation—whether that’s losing a loved one or losing a job or not knowing how you’re going to break an addiction or not knowing where your next rent check is going to come from or whether you’re ever going to get married or whether your marriage is ever going to get better or whether you’ll ever be reconciled to your kids—we’re praying that we wouldn’t fall away, that we would remain faithful.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we’re asking for God’s grace and love and beauty and goodness to be found in every life and every sphere of life.

That’s what I want to see more of, and I don’t know about you but I can’t do any of that on my own; I need God to do that in me and through me and around me.

And thanks be to God, that’s exactly what God wants to do in me by the power of his Spirit living in me. That’s exactly what God wants to do in us by the power of his Spirit living in us.

I want to pray so that I can see the reality of things as they really are.

I want to pray so that I can catch a glimpse of God’s vision and God’s heart.

I want to pray because I have caught a glimpse of God’s vision and God’s heart.

And I want to pray because I acknowledge in absolute desperation my absolute inability to make any of that come to pass without God.

If you’re interested, you can also check out my “Prayer” blog series from 2012:

  1. Whom we’re asking
  2. What to ask
  3. How to ask
  4. What to expect

Celebrating — and mourning — change

ES Time Change

This Sunday, our East Side parish will move its regular service time to 10:30am!

It’s an exciting change — one we never had the volunteers, resources, or leadership to be able to pull off before, but one that I’d been hoping and praying for since we planted the parish. So I celebrate that we’re able to do it, and I’m tremendously grateful for Matthew Watson’s leadership in walking us through this transition.

But I realized this week that from this Sunday, I’ll no longer be able to worship in both parishes — and that’s actually kind of sad. The plan is for me to be in Columbia Heights on Sunday mornings if I have preaching or worship-leading duties, but otherwise I’ll be at East Side.

For the last five years, I’ve cultivated some deep friendships in Columbia Heights parish, and for the last two years, equally good friendships in the East Side parish. For five years, I’ve ministered every Sunday alongside (and in the same location as) Aaron and Amy and Jordan and others. Even though Carolyn and I live on the East Side and call it our home parish, for the last year (since I shifted to my churchwide role), I’ve tried to be at all three services in both parishes as much as possible — primarily because of all of these relationships. And so there’s some sadness as well.

Change can be good — and I give thanks to God for that. But change — even good change, even change for the better, even prayed-for change — also means loss, which means grief; and that too I carry to God.

Anyway … what started as an announcement about East Side’s time change turned into a meditation on change. Ah well …

Happy Friday night!