You CAN Pray [Part 1]

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If you ever want to terrify someone, ask them to pray.

Sometimes someone will come up to me since I am a pastor, drag me across a room, introduce me to someone, and say something like, “This is Mark. Mark has this problem. Can you pray for them?”

I look at Mark’s friend, smile, and say, “I could. But, no. You can pray for Mark. I’ll pray with you both.”

Mark’s friend expected a pat-on-the back; instead he is simultaneously wrestling regret, fear, and the sudden urge to run.

Sometimes I will be in a small group and everyone is having a great time since the conversation hasn’t gotten too personal or practical yet. Everyone loves theory in a small group. Theory is safe. But some brave soul breaks the unspoken rule and says something real – a real issue that needs real prayer. I look at the circle of friends sitting around our honest friend and ask, “Will someone pray for our sister, Katerina?”

Katerina suddenly finds herself in a circle of frozen, deaf zombies that failed to understand any words that left my mouth.

You can play this game too if you want. It is kind of fun.

Ever share a need with a friend and they look at you like they are only half-listening? They nod and murmur something like, “Sure. I’ll be praying for you.” Next time that happens, you can drop this bomb on them.

“Great. Would you mind praying for me right now?”

Be prepared to get any number of looks, excuses, and weird body contortions.

In each of these situations, if you press these friends about their hesitancy, you will hear all sorts of reasons for this prayer phobia.

But the most common response I hear is this: I don’t know how to pray.

People who have been in church for thirty years will tell you this. People who went to 36 weeks of Vacation Bible School as children. People who serve on ministry committees. People who haven’t missed a Sunday morning service since Ronald Reagan was in office. People who meticulously share their own personal prayer requests with anyone who will listen.

Somehow, when you ask them to pray, almost no one knows how.

The Lord’s Pattern

This shouldn’t be the case. On a broad level, God gave pastors to equip the saints, to enable them to do the work, to empower them to obey God’s will for their lives. Surely this includes the expectation that the people will be equipped to pray.

At another level, God knew we would struggle here and included a manual for us in the Bible. One of Jesus’ twelve disciples specifically asks Jesus how to pray.

Jesus shares with his disciple what we call The Lord’s Prayer.

As Tim Keller says in his must-read book regarding prayer,  our relationship to The Lord’s Prayer is like living next to a railroad.

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At the time I went to school, The University of Memphis main campus was split by a set of train tracks. This caused all kinds of headaches when you parked on the south side and had class on the north side or when you lived on one side and wanted to work out at the gym on the other.

At the beginning of my senior year, I moved into an apartment that sat right next to the track. When my roommate and I first moved in to the apartment, sleep was near impossible. Every time a train rolled through campus and blared its horn at a pedestrian or a car trying to beat the train to the intersection, my windows and bed frame would shake.

But an amazing thing happened.

By Fall Break, I never heard the train.

I had heard the train so much, I stopped hearing it at all.

As Keller writes, we do the same thing with The Lord’s Prayer.

We recite it at church, at weddings, at funerals, and at pregame huddles. We say it so much we no longer hear the words we say. It means nothing to us now.

We have taken Jesus’ teaching prompt and turned it into a mindless pool of words.

We have taken his grace to help us pray and built it into an obstacle of communion.

The Lord’s Prayer is not a dictated ritual to be thoughtlessly repeated verbatim ad nauseam. Jesus meant for it to be used as a guide to influence our own personal talks with God.

It is not so much The Lord’s Prayer as much as it is The Lord’s Pattern.

Adapting the Pattern

When you examine his pattern for prayer, you can boil it down to a few essential elements. There are numerous prayer tools that have been created to help you pray in light of the Lord’s Prayer. One of the most popular is the ACTS method of prayer.

When you pray, think ACTS.

 ADORATION – Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name…

Jesus’ pattern helps us see we should start our prayers by honoring God for who He is. Our prayers should start with a vertical dimension.

Practically, you can pray about one of God’s names (King of Kings, Prince of Peace, Jehovah, etc). You can pray about one God’s attributes (God, you are holy… loving… wise). You can pray about one of his works (God you created all things… revealed yourself through the Bible… saved me by your grace).

God cannot be exhausted. So when you start your prayer by praying about God, you start off with an endless supply of material.

CONFESSION – Forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors

Confession simply means to agree with God about your sin. You do not need a priest. You do not need to do a good deed to even up the score of your heart. You simply need to recognize where you have fallen short.

Practically, you should confess specifically. Resist the urge to brush your prayers with broad strokes. Instead of confessing your anger, confess the ugly words you spit at your spouse. Instead of confessing your pride, confess your condescending thoughts towards your coworker. Get specific.

THANKSGIVING – This aspect of prayer is not found in The Lord’s Prayer, but Scripture tells us many times to show thanks. For example, Philippians 4:6 says,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer… with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Usually when we pray, we immediately jump to what we need. The ACTS method helpfully reverses that urge. Pastor H.B. Charles, Jr. says, “Before you ask God for something you need, thank Him for what He has already done.”

Practically, continue to be specific with your thanksgiving. A good rule of thumb to get started is for every one thing you ask of God, offer thanks for one thing He has done.

SUPPLICATION – Give us this day our daily bread… Your will be done… 

We probably need the least amount of help here. Supplication is a fancy way of saying request or petition. If we are good at anything in prayer, we are good at supplication. The Lord’s Pattern gives us two important reminders. First we ask for daily needs. Like the Manna in the wilderness, God wants to give us just enough for today so that we return to Him again with our needs tomorrow. Second, we should recognize that all of our needs are subject to His will and not our own.

Practically, think necessity not extravagance. As you bring your requests to God, explicitly recognize God has the right to answer as He pleases. Voice your willingness to submit to His call on your requests.

 

As with the pattern given to us by Jesus himself, the ACTS method is simply a guide. It is meant to help us pray; it should never constrain us as we seek to meet with God.

If you struggle with knowing how to pray, use a tool like this to get more comfortable. Certainly, reading works on prayer like the one from Keller or studies on the Sermon on the Mount like this one by Daniel Doriani will surely help us grow as prayers.

But the best way to grow in prayer is by actually praying.

Your prayer life is not solely an individual matter. Your friends, family, and church need you. The next time someone asks you to pray for them or to pray out loud in a small group, you have an opportunity. Do not be content with sheepishly backing away from it by saying you do not know how. Jesus has shown us how; He’s given us a pattern. ACTS or no ACTS, be bold and pray.

In an upcoming post, we will look at how the doctrine of the Trinity empowers us to pray. God Himself enables us to pray to Him.

For now, listen to the train rolling past. Hear it once again. It was sent down the track to remind you. You can pray.

Click here for You CAN Pray [Part 2]

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White America in a Black Church

The preacher gives it all he’s got, but the congregation looks half-empty and half-asleep.

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Book Review: Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

Book in a Nutshell: Writing according to the form of a worship service in lieu of the traditional chapter approach, Dyson compels his congregation to consider the volatile issue of race in America. Dyson pulls no punches as he addresses both the long history of racism in our country as well as modern-day manifestations including police brutality, appropriation, the N-word, and the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump.

Reaction: [Note: Since Dyson wrote this as a preacher and the book comes to the reader as a worship service, I respond here as a pastor in the same way I reflect and assess sermons and worship services in the church.]

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Rev. Michael E. Dyson

As a preacher, Dyson cannot be chided for lacking clarity and conviction; by the end of the book, he leaves no room for questions on where he stands or how he expects the reader to respond.

Dyson’s main exposition, which includes three sections directed toward white America and three sections depicting the black experience in America, stands out from the rest of the book. Here, the preacher calls out sin, reveals some of the buried heart-level issues, and shares hard-to-hear truths. The explanation of the stages of white guilt which includes a most helpful look at appropriation and his defense of hot-button topics like affirmative action show Dyson at his best even when church members might disagree.

But like any good preacher, Dyson does not just inform. He expertly uses haunting illustrations from his personal life and closes his address with concrete applications for his white congregation. This section of action steps one can take to begin to bridge the racial gap might have been the most helpful aspect of the entire worship service.

When thinking about a worship service, many since the time of the Reformation operate under this principle: Nothing should distract from the sermon.  The sermon is the part of the sermon where the people of God hear the word of God. Everything else should augment this experience. This is where Tears We Cannot Stop gets in its own way: not in the sermon but in the extras.

In his Call to Worship, Dyson reveals, “It will make you squirm in your seat with discomfort, before, hopefully pointing a way to relief.” He achieves this if nothing else. Before the choir is done singing, many in his congregation will be tempted to squirm their way home as the Hymns of Praise depict police brutality through the lyrics of contemporary R&B songs and hip-hop tracks. In the midst of the corporate singing, Dyson dissects an etymology of the F-word that adds little to his message. Before Scripture is even read and the opening prayer is said, the preacher runs the risk of losing half his audience.

The closing of the worship service hinders the impact of the sermon as well. As any preacher will tell you, there’s not much worse than putting everything you have into a sermon and watching the person giving the Benediction undo your entire sermon. Having already addressed the issue with precision and power, Dyson revisits the election of Donald Trump in The Prelude to Service which precedes only the closing prayer. As shown in the prior quote, the preacher’s stated goal was to end on a high note. The sermon and benediction succeeds in doing just that and the passing of the offering plate only solidifies this higher tone, but the president-elect characteristically drags the service into the sewers.

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Instead of a high note, the service fails to avoid the presidential black hole of race relations.

As both issues of police brutality and the presidency are covered in detail during the sermon, Dyson’s order of service would have supplemented his main address more faithfully if he had opened and closed his service in a different fashion.

Dyson’s sermon needs to be preached, but it also needs to be heard. While commending the ministry of Martin Luther King for being able to communicate to a white audience in a way they could receive, Dyson faces an uphill battle to do the same. His own recognition that white congregants have no problem getting up and walking out of a service might come back to haunt the preacher as the gut-punching, guilt-producing work of Dyson comes packaged blunt, explicit, and often combative.

The preacher gives it everything he’s got. The message needs to be proclaimed. But by the end of the service, the people still need to be in the room and they need to be awake. The question this book leaves unanswered, is will they?

Quote: There is a paradox that many of you refuse to see: to get to a point where race won’t make a difference, we have to wrestle, first, with the difference that race makes.

Ranking: 3 out of 5 stars

Your Kids Are Not Your Kids

When the child grew older, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son.
Exodus 2:10

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Your kids are not your kids.

One of the lessons I learned alongside the parents in our student ministry when we read Alex Cheiak’s Preparing Your Teen for College is that to be a parent is to be a steward.

Steward isn’t a word we use in everyday life.

Chediak defines steward this way:

someone entrusted with another’s wealth or property and charged with the responsibility of managing it in the owner’s best interest.

According to the Bible, all parents are stewards.

We have been entrusted.

They belong to another.

We have been charged with the responsibility.

 

But at any point, God has the right to call us to give them back to him. After all, they belong to him.

In a way that can sneak up on you, it shows up throughout Scripture.

Abraham is told to send off Ishmael and his mom.

Then he is told to kill Isaac, the son of promise.

Jacob and Rachel didn’t even know it, but God sends their favorite boy Joseph to Egypt.

The angel of the Lord tells Samson’s parents he must take the Nazarite vow.

Hannah gives Samuel to God to live in the temple forever.

Elizabeth’s son John becomes a hermit who survives on locusts and wild honey.

And a woman named Mary watches her son hang from a Roman cross before the sky goes black.

Abraham and Sarah. Jacob and Rachel. Zorah and Manoah. Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary.

Moms and dads throughout Scripture had to learn.

Your kids are not your kids.

 

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This truth snuck up on me in the midst of the numbingly familiar story of Moses. Whether by Charlton Heston or an animated feature on Netflix, you’ve surely seen this story played out plenty of times.

But did you know? Moses’ mom had to learn this lesson twice.

First, she places him in that basket and pushes him off into the Nile. We are scared to let our kids cross the street or hang out at the mall, yet this woman sends her son to the crocodiles and hippos.

And you know the story. Pharaoh’s daughter finds him and raises him as a prince of Egypt.

Except that’s not how it ends for Moses’ mom.

Pharaoh’s daughter cannot nurse, and Egypt is all out of baby formula. Fortunately for her, Miriam, the baby’s older sister, is watching the whole thing. With quick wits, Miriam suggests to the princess that she find a woman who can nurse the boy.

That’s how Moses gets to go back home, and he gets to stay. In Ancient Egypt, young children nursed until they were about four years old.

Moses belongs to Pharaoh’s daughter now. By God’s grace, Moses’ mom gets to be his nurse and caregiver.

Then, she gets to learn the lesson all over again.

Your kids are not your kids.

After four years of feeding and caring for her biological son, Moses’ mom gives him away once more.

She wakes up one morning and realizes Moses has been eating solid food for a week. This game is not going to last forever. Someone is going to notice.

So she gets Moses dressed. She tries to nurse him one last time. Maybe he will latch and she can postpone this another day. She throws all of Moses’ things into the same basket she pushed into the Nile, and she leads him out of her house for the last time. She enters the gates to the royal palace. She kneels to hug the boy who is trying to pry loose and run and play. She says the few words of Egyptian she knows to the princess. She stands and watches as the princess and her boy walk into the palace. The palace doors close.

Her four year old boy is gone.

But that’s the thing.

He’s not her four year old boy.

He belongs to God.

 

Moses’ mom has been a steward given an extra season of responsibility, but that time has passed. Now, her responsibility is to let her boy go and to trust God’s plan.

This is what it means to be a parent.

You have been entrusted with a child that belongs to another. You have been charged with the responsibility of caring and leading the child.

But at the end of the day, you are still only a steward.

Are you ready to send your graduating student to college?

Are you ready to watch your adult child move across the country to pursue a career?

Are you ready to kick your non-growing-up 35 year-old jobless son out of the basement?

Are you prepared now or preparing for the day when God will do as he pleases and calls your kids out for his purpose and glory?

Because that’s the thing.

Your kids are not your kids.

 

 

 

 

 

Numb to Good News

A Poem and Reflection on Feeling Nothing

And his heart became numb, for he did not believe them.
Genesis 45:26b

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Your boy lived here.

Running around the house

Arguing back and forth with his brothers

Wearing that polychrome tunic you made just for him.

This boy dreamed.

 

You wake to word that your boy is gone.

Running around the house

Searching among his brothers

Dreaming, surely you must be dreaming

No. Your boy. Your boy.

Your boy is dead.

 

His brothers arrive with that polychrome tunic.

No, not polychrome.

Crimson. Only crimson.

One color and only one smell.

Your boy’s blood.

 

Years and years pass.

Eleven other sons refuse time its rest.

Running around the house.

Arguing back and forth with one another.

No boys look you in your eye.

 

The earth dry as your soul.

Cracked dirt and empty fields,

the other side of the mirror

to your bitter scars and stripped faith.

You send your boys to Egypt,

the enemy will feed you now.

 

Miles away a caravan treks the wasteland

The sounds do not fade

The procession pivots on the path to your home.

Your sons ride wagons not mules.

Your sons carry treasure not seed.

Your sons bring news you do not believe.

 

Dad…

Joseph is still alive

He is ruler over all the land of Egypt.

No memories invade your mind.

No relief penetrates your soul.

You feel nothing.

You believe nothing.

 

Your boy is dead.

 


 

REFLECTION

In Genesis 45, Jacob receives the greatest news he could imagine. His son is alive!

Notice what the text says. “His heart was numb, for he did not believe them.”

It does not say that Jacob refused to believe because he was numb.

Jacob was numb because he did not believe.

 

This happens to us all the time. Many of us receive the greatest news one could imagine. The Son is alive!

Like Joseph, Jesus’ brothers sold him and left him for dead.

Unlike Joseph, Jesus of Nazareth actually died. But the grave that held him for three days is empty. And we hear this news the same way Jacob did.

Numb.

We are not moved. We have heard it before. We do not see it change anything.

Nothing. We feel nothing.

 

We get it backwards. We do not feel anything and we make that the reason for why we do not believe. In our minds, our numbness is the ground for our unbelief.

But Jacob shows us otherwise. We do not believe. We reject the good news, and in turn, we become numb. In reality, our unbelief is the ground for our numbness.

Do you feel numb? Do you lack passion? Are you missing excitement and conviction?

Quit trying to change how you feel. Change how you believe.

The Son is alive.

Review: When Harlem Nearly Killed King

When Harlem Nearly Killed King
When Harlem Nearly Killed King by Hugh Pearson

Book in a Nutshell: Forgotten in the midst of MLK’s service and speeches, one September week in New York City could have altered the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Visiting Harlem to promote his first book, King deals with tribalism among other black leaders, attempts to take advantage of the fall’s election season to garner support for his cause, and lands in the operating room after a shocking attack.

Reaction: In only 144 pages, this book exposes many events and issues surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr. and the broader civil rights movement that are underrepresented in many other works. The initial chapters that reveal King’s struggles in his own ministry as a public figure provide a number of helpful lessons for those in leadership and ministry today. Pearson also provides just enough context regarding the various camps of black leadership, the political contests in New York City, and America’s ongoing fascination and fear with Russian Communism to enable the reader to grasp how the attack on King’s life could take place in the way that it did.

While already a short a read, the book seems to lose it’s steady rhythm in the twelfth chapter as Pearson gets bogged down in discussing the backgrounds of the medical staff at Harlem Hospital. This focus on medicine does present a unique window into the everyday racial discrimination in the late 1950’s, but this section feels alien to the rest of the book. All of the other chapters are of similar length and offer a helpful amount of context while keeping an enjoyable pace. But when the hospital staff emerges the pace shuts down. This lack of uniformity and the cumbersome interruption of the book’s swift movement keeps me from giving it a higher ranking.

Quote: “Had he sneezed violently enough, there’s a good chance he would have drowned in his own blood.”

Ranking: 3 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Review: Black Like Me

Black Like Me
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

Book in a Nutshell: In 1959, author John Howard Griffin, with the help of a second-guessing dermatologist, transforms his skin color so that he can discover what it is like to live in the Deep South as a black man. For about six weeks, Griffin struggles to keep his basic needs met, hears things from other men unlike anything he’s ever heard, and wrestles with an internal, psychological turmoil he doesn’t quite anticipate. This book details these experiences and includes some of his conclusions and reflections about the race “question” in America.

Reaction: Howard’s work from nearly 60 years ago produced some complex responses from me, both emotionally and philosophically.

As a sociology major in undergrad, I relished the idea of someone literally trying to live in another person’s shoes. It is a little mind-blowing that this experiment even worked and that Howard wasn’t caught by more people. Because of the nature of his experiment much of the book reads like a thriller as the reader constantly wonders what is John going to face next.

At one level, even as he writes to push for social justice and peace, Howard’s observations can come across as offensive. He makes some fairly broad assertions about how African-Americans feel about certain issues, and he often uses the “we” pronoun as he does it. I kept saying to myself, “Umm, John, you’re still white. How do you really know?” I am sure Howard learned a great ordeal in his experiment, but he seems condescending at times even towards the people he is trying to understand and defend. Using more direct quotes from some of his friends in the black community might have fixed this; however, I do understand that at the time of his writing this, Howard’s goal was for a white audience to receive the message and doing so might have hindered his success there.

On another level, Howard’s experience often provoked me to consider just how much of this has not changed at all. Blatant attacks seem to be on the rise lately and need to be confronted, but I was convicted by some of the more subtle expressions of racism that Howard’s book brings to light. One of these expressions is the tendency of the white man to loosen his tongue and talk more freely around men of color. Whereas we might tighten up our language around white company to maintain a level of decency, whites can knowingly or unknowingly settle into a rougher vernacular that can give the impression that the person talking to us is not worth the same conversational dignity. Because of this helpful observation, I believe I will have more awareness not just in what I say but how I say it.

What resonates the loudest even today are Howard’s calls to the white community to do three things: Be Informed, Listen, and Relate. The whites in Howard’s day and often in ours do not truly know about life as a black man. To bridge the gap and build a more equal and just community, people of all races, but especially the white community, should seek to be learners. They should be better listeners. And they should build authentic, mutual relationships with people from other races. The book may have been written in 1960, but these lessons are timeless; and they are needed in America right now.

Quote: “I was the same man, whether white or black.”

Ranking: 4 out of 5 stars