Deep Waters

The older I get, the more I love (and perhaps need) this story about fishing (Luke 5:3—8). Peter, James, and John had been fishing all night with no luck. They had taken their nets out of the boats and spread them out to dry. Jesus hopped into Peter’s boat and used it as a pulpit, perhaps taking advantage to the natural amphitheater of the shoreline and the way sound travels across water.

We need to be careful about who we let into our boat. Jesus can change everything. Before this day ends, Peter will be leaving his nets and his boat to follow Jesus around for the next three years. Peter will see the glory of God on the Mount of Transfiguration, deny Christ three times, preach to, and convert, thousands on the day of Pentecost, face persecution, go to jail, and eventually, history tells us, get crucified upside down in Rome. Peter did not merely let in few theological propositions; he let the living Christ, the Son of God, come into every part of his life. Nothing was ever the same.

This also a story about letting Jesus speak to us in our weariness. Jesus tells Peter to push out into the deep water and let his nets down. Peter explains that they had worked hard all night and caught nothing. And Peter had just sat through the sermon Jesus had given to the people. Peter had every reason not to do what Jesus asks.

Sometimes our weariness makes it hard to obey. We often feel, perhaps justly, that we have earned the right to rest. Regarding those we are called to love and serve, we can feel we have done more than our fair share of giving and serving. We, after all, have earned retirement. We grow tired of hoping and helping.

Sometimes we grow weary praying for wayward sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and friends. We may labor for years, hoping to see their hearts soften and their lives healed.  We do the hard work of loving the hard to love. For some of us, pushing into the deep water means obedience even when we have lost hope. It means loving and serving those whose grow harder and move farther, not nearer to God. It is often obeying when we have lost all hope of catching anything.  

Not only did Peter have to push past his tiredness, he had to push past his reason and expertise.  Peter, John, and James were, after all, professional fishermen. They knew when to fish and where to fish. If the fish in the Sea of Galilee, called today St. Peter’s fish, behave like many fish in our lakes, they usually aren’t found out in the deep water.

Today we certainly have a vast array of academics that argue for the foolishness or even toxicity of the Christian faith. In a sense, every person who puts their faith in Jesus is pushing into deep waters intellectually. The current of our culture is certainly working against faithfully following of Jesus. Many Christians have reasoned their way out of faith and out of following Jesus.

And Peter’s own immediate experience, fishing all night and catching nothing, argues powerfully against what Jesus is asking him to do. Like Peter we all have our own story and set of experiences. Every Christian must resist the temptation to make an idol of their experiences. The older we are as believers, the more we are tempted to obey our experience instead of the voice of Jesus. When I teach students how to argue for a solution to a problem, I warn them to be ready for the old geezer objection: “we tried that in 78; it didn’t work then and won’t work now”. I don’t know how old or experienced Peter was at this time, but he was experienced enough to know when to fish.

I often pray for the sick to be healed. I do this because I think it is something Jesus asks his disciples to do. I have seen only few people immediately healed. I have seen some who weren’t healed experience the tangible presence of God when I prayed, but if I based my theology of healing on my experience, or lack of it, I would stop praying for the sick. It is just too disappointing when I pray and nothing happens. I keep doing it because not doing it feels like disobedience. Praying for the sick with some expectation of them getting better is, for me, deep water.

The third, and most important point, is that Peter also said, “but at Your bidding, I will let down the nets.”  This isn’t a story about working hard even when exhausted. It is about listening to the voice of the Master even when our expertise, experience, and weariness might shut our ears. It is about always having our heart tuned to His voice. In our discouragement and exhaustion, do we still have ears to hear his bidding?

This story is mostly about obedience. A while back when I was bone-tired of loving someone who was completely unresponsive to my love and seemed unable to exit a cycle of self-destructive behavior, I read John 13.  As Jesus is getting ready to wash the feet of the disciples, John comments that Jesus “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” This included Judas, who Jesus knew was going to betray him. This slapped me up the side of the head as a call to love the hardest to love, all the way to the end, even though I was weary beyond words. I am waiting for the full net.

All obedience without hope pushes us into deep water.   I have good friends who have lost children to fatal accidents. They have no answers to the hard questions they still carry in their hearts, but they have loved and served God faithfully. They have weathered storms, and at the Master’s bidding let down their nets in deep waters.

Since I preached this sermon at the local Presbyterian church, our son, Peter, died. Teckla and I had many promises from God about how He desired to bless and use Peter. Despite years of prayers and love, Peter said no to these promises. Or perhaps we did not hear what God was saying and put words in God’s mouth? Regarding Peter, we fished all night and caught nothing—or at least it seems. These are deep waters, and our weariness is deeper than our bones.

In the days before Peter died, we did all we could to help him battle his diabetic keto acidosis. He had gotten back from the emergency room but was still unable to keep anything down. We cleaned up his vomit and brought him drink after drink to help him stay hydrated and to flush out ketones. The night before he died, I checked to make certain he had everything he needed and then left his room. I took about four steps and came back into the room and stood at the foot of his bed. Broken and weeping, I prayed aloud desperately, “Jesus, help Peter. Pour out your grace and mercy. Save him. Heal his body and soul. Come help Peter.” The next morning, I found him on his bed struggling to breathe. I called the ambulance, but it was too late. He was so thin, nearly skeletal, that the EMTs easily carried him to the gurney.  He died of heart failure on the way to the hospital.

I do not know if any of my prayers for Peter were answered that night. I don’t know if that last cast of the net caught any part of Peter’s heart. I don’t know. These waters are dark and cold. I do not know why God asked us to adopt Peter—in too many ways it seems like we failed him. There is so much I don’t know. And not knowing too easily becomes not caring—growing numb with grief and unbelief. We loved Peter to the end.    

But no matter how long the night and how empty the nets, I must obey the master’s bidding. I must cast nets in deep waters and try not to drown.

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Heaven and High School

As we age, I think we not only go through a second childhood, we also experience a second high-school. I suppose I am thinking mainly about those who found high school difficult and depressing.

My four years of high school seemed like they would never end or never get better. My grades were terrible, and I felt on the outside looking in. And there was always a swirl of drama about who liked who, who was cool and who wasn’t. A kid could only rise to fame with a touchdown or game-winning shot in a basketball game.

Although I knew it would end, I couldn’t really imagine life after high school. College was an abstraction. I had been a lazy student with low grades, so college was something I would try but was not a grand dream. High school, even my senior year, was my whole boring world.

Old age, with talons of cancer and memory loss, have swept down upon us. Teckla and I have both had surgery for cancer. Our calendars are filled with doctors’ appointments. We live in a swirl of drama about the results of this blood test or that MRI. We see no end in sight, no hope of things getting better. Age and disease have laid a long siege on our bodies. Heaven and resurrection seem like abstractions.

Most of my students at the college are freshmen, and many are away from home for the first time. After the winter break, I ask them what it was like to go home. They always comment on how different everything was even though they had been gone only a few months. Many experience what I did. Almost immediately after graduation, all the drama and misery and cliques of high school ceased to matter.

I remember walking through the streets of Myrtle Point on my first winter break from college and hearing someone call out my name. Rod, who in all our years together in high school had never talked to me, wanted to know how I was doing. It was clear that the cliques and divisions of high school no longer mattered. In fact, lots of things got turned upside town. Suddenly, nerdy kids completing college degrees were celebrated while state champion athletes quietly went to work in the lumber mills.

I know that a moment after my death, my graduation from this present misery, all this drama, fretting, and hopelessness will be turned upside down. The pointless will be woven into purpose. The low, neglected, and forgotten will be exalted. Misery will become glory. My trudging faithfulness and endurance will be treasured. All that seemed endless will be an interlude of hardship before an eternity of blessing.

Recognizing all this should help me more than it does. It is, nonetheless, good to say out loud again and again. Right now, I want my headache to go away.

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An Experiment

What I don’t know about WordPress could fill a black hole.

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Washing Paws

It rains a lot here in the winter. Our Doberman, Pharaoh, is a long-legged, big-pawed horse of a dog, so when he runs through the backyard and skids to a stop, he tears up the grass. Most of the backyard is now mud. He also has dug a deep hole under the azalea bush and thrown dirt everywhere.

He sleeps on the back porch which has dog-door to the backyard. The porch needs to be swept and then mopped almost every day. He spends most of the day indoors when we are home. We tried letting him stay in the house at night, but he left too much to clean up in the morning. He also chewed-up about anything he could reach—including the books from the many bookcases. He chewed my Bible and ate some of Psalm 18 (which did not improve his behavior). He now has a nice bed on the back porch, but tracks in a lot mud.

So most mornings I must carefully wash his paws. In fact, it is often the first thing I do. I take him a short walk to the telephone poles and fire hydrants. We then walk through the wet grass to get some of the mud from his feet. On the porch, I have a paw-washing jar with warm water and a little soap. I wash and then dry each paw before letting him in the house. We have been doing this long enough that he stands still and lets me scrub each paw.

Paw washing has become a small sacrament for me. It is a spoonful of grace that sweetens the morning. Tending to Pharaoh first pulls me out of myself and is a gentle reminder that the day is not about what I get but what I can give.

And perhaps there is a distant echo of Eden and the work of tending the garden. In serving animals before ourselves we get something right about our purpose and calling. We discover we are most ourselves when least focused on ourselves. Farmers who get up in the dark to feed their animals experience this grace when they finally sit down for breakfast. Mothers who take the worst pieces of chicken so the kids can have best know this. Tired grandparents who bend stiff joints to play with the grand kids on the floor know this. Jesus too.

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The Nazarene Thing and Melted Butter

I didn’t know my grandfather well. As the youngest of my three brothers, I got to know grandpa mostly while a college student at NNC. He and Grandma Jewel live on Ivy street—a short walk from the campus. Even so, I didn’t hang out much at their house except when my parents came to visit. I could have learned much.

My Nazarene roots go deep. Grandpa’s Mallalieu’s Dad was William Columbus Wilson who had started some Nazarene churches in California, worked with Phineas Bresee, and briefly was the fifth general superintendent in the newly formed denomination. Grandpa had pastored and worked as a dean, registrar, and speech teacher at Nazarene colleges. My own father was a third generation ordained Nazarene pastor.

I only listened to or understood a few of Grandpa’s stories. Grandpa Mallalieu had seen the good, bad, ugly of the church over the years. He had no illusions and many stories about battles with legalists within the denomination. Although growing up in a new denomination that preached heart holiness, grandpa had many stories about the ugly behavior of some leaders.

There is one story, however, that has always stuck with me even though the details are fuzzy. Grandpa had a wonderfully wrinkled face—not the small wrinkles of a prune but something more like a plowed field. And when he told this story, his wrinkles came to life. The story was about an evangelist coming to his church to preach two weeks of revival services. The first week attendance was low and the people wooden. On Saturday, my grandfather and the evangelist were discouraged. Together they walked out to the center of a vacant lot near the church. One of them picked up a stick and made circle in the dirt. They told God they would not leave the circle until God gave them a fresh outpouring of His Spirit.

Together they prayed in this vacant lot—taking turns crying out to God for more of His presence and power in their lives. Suddenly, Grandpa said, the heavens opened and God poured out His Holy Spirit on them like melted butter. I remember Grandpa’s glistening eyes, the catch in his voice, and the tears in the creases around his eyes as he spoke. The second week of revival services, the Holy Spirit moved powerfully—with many seeking salvation or rededicating their lives.

Perhaps this story resonates with me because of my own experience in high school. It was the height of the Jesus movement and the local Methodist pastor had brought a Christian rock band that played at the high school and at the local church. The pastor had opened her home to the kids after the concert. God’s spirit was moving and kids were getting saved. One of the members of the band, The Brethren, asked me if I would like to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I had been saved as a kid in a Nazarene Church in Walla Walla, and I had made many trips to the altar to get that second blessing, sometimes called sanctification, but I was always open to more of God. The young guy with shaggy hair put a hand on me and prayed. Immediately, a warm electric cloud settled upon me. Electricity seemed to dance on my face. The band member said, “You can speak in tongues if you like.” I did, but it was the burst of joy coming out of me that I remember most. I could not stop smiling.

Although serving in the Nazarene church here in Myrtle Point for the last 30 years, Teckla and I have not been members of the denomination since the 80’s. We both, however, deeply value that the Church of the Nazarene has called people to live holy lives and has nourished a hunger for God that makes us cry out for more of His Spirit. As an outsider that loves the denomination, I hope Nazarenes never forsake or crowd out their defining emphasis on seeking and a deeper cleansing and a closer walk with God. I hope their is always room for melted butter.

My life has punctuated with four or five “melted butter” and “electric cloud” moments full of holy joy. To be honest this is not just a Nazarene, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, or charismatic thing. It is a longing for something more than an intellectual consent to a collection of theological propositions.

It is a God thing—a hunger for God himself upon us, in us, moving and working through us.

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Humble Pie

I have scratched humility off the list of virtues I need. Growing old is humbling enough. I, of course, have many other areas that need attention. But aging is doing a fine job of keeping me humble.

Earlier this school year, I couldn’t find my briefcase. I was quite certain that I had left it at school in my office. After looking for it everywhere, I remembered that the last time I used it, I had moved it from a chair and put it on the trash can next to my desk. I am certain the new janitor assumed it was part of the trash and disposed of it.

My briefcase, like me, was a wreck. The stitching had unraveled, and latches were loose.  I had backed over it once in the driveway. I never asked the janitor about it because I had, after all, put it on the trash can, and it did look ready for the dump. I just took it as a sign that my decision to retire this spring was right.

The surgery to remove my prostate was also humbling. The whole industry built around prostate problems moves patients through the process quickly and without much concern for their dignity. The catheter was uncomfortable and embarrassing. I have been teaching in sweatpants. I taught one class with urine bag strapped to my leg, and I have traded my briefcase for a diaper bag until everything heals. I am too often like a pitcher adjusting his “cup” before a pitch—but without a fast ball. None of this is terrible compared to what many go through regularly. But it is all humbling. Post-surgery, a good bowel movement and good day are the same thing.  

American culture and its obsession with youth has also humbled me. I can barely keep up with technological innovations even though I teach online courses. In my attempts to connect literature to popular culture, I quickly realize all my references to The Beatles or Simon and Garfunkel are useless. My mention of Cardi B. only brings embarrassed giggles from my students.  

In academia, fads sweep through so quickly that a teacher is out of date a few years out of graduate school. After a three decades, one feels like a dinosaur. If one does learn the current passwords of academic respectability, it is nearly impossible, at my age, to use them without irony. Pride in my wealth of experience and wisdom is no temptation. The longer I live, the less I know and the less certain I am about what I know.  

Yesterday as we were driving down the hill to the Presbyterian church, my grandson, Ari, declared, “Pa is famous!” My name was on the reader board as the guest speaker. This was both funny and humbling. It is wonderful that the pinnacle of my fame is a reader board in front of little church in Myrtle Point.

Pride has always been regarded, rightly, as one of the deadliest sins. So I suppose, I should be careful not to be proud of my humility—if that is even possible. Nevertheless, not having to work on humility will give me time to work on the discipline of joy—lest I become an old man humbly mumbling and grumbling into his beard.

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The Grammar of Faith

I am an English teacher, so I notice grammar even when reading the Scripture. I have found the  grammar of the Psalms especially encouraging when facing difficult times. A number of psalms possess a grammatical structure that expresses the essence of faith in the midst trials.  

The grammar of Psalms 13 swings on “but”, the coordinating conjunction in verse five:

            (1) How long, O Lord? Wilt Thou forget me forever?
                   How long wilt Thou hide Thy face from me?

             (2) How long shall I counsel in my soul,
                   Having sorrow in my heart all the day?
                   How long will my enemy be exalted over me?

            (3) Consider and answer me, O Lord, my God;
                  Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,

            (4) Lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,”

                  Lest my adversaries rejoice when I am shaken

            (5) But I have trusted in Thy lovingkindness;
                   My heart shall rejoice in Thy salvation.

             (6) I will sing to the Lord,
                   Because He has dealt bountifully with me.

The “but” connects his trust in the God’s kindness to all the complaints, fears, and doubts in the preceding verses. The difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions is that coordinating conjunctions present what comes before and after them as equally important. One truth is not subordinate to the other.  It is also true that they seldom make any explanatory claims like subordinate conjunctions such as “because” or “since”.

When I was younger, I rushed through the first part of Psalm 13 to get to verse five. The “how longs” sounded whiny. During my sojourn with charismatic triumphalism, I wondered if the psalmist was wrong to recognize the strength of his enemies. His claim to be near death seemed melodramatic. I was glad when David snapped out of it and celebrated God’s goodness and bounty.  

I now believe the first four verses are as important as the last two. Here, and in other psalms, we encounter honesty about the psalmist’s experience and reality. David tells us the truth about what is in his life and his heart. Such honesty is often not celebrated in Christian communities. Many declarations before the conjunction would receive a rebuke or correction. The “how longs”, for instance, might be met with an exhortation to trust in God’s sovereign timing. Complaints about enemies would be met with exhortations to love and pray for them.

But we should not diminish the power of Christian realism. When we dress up our trials in the trite rags of Christian cliches, we fail to let our light shine in the darkness. Honesty about ourselves, our failures, doubts, and fears gives power to our faith when we declare, “But as for me, I trust in Thee, O Lord” (Psalm 31:14). The world is looking to the church for spiritual reality and authenticity—but often not finding it. Faith declared the midst of the darkness and the pain of our brokenness makes the Word flesh, dwelling among us in our day to day lives.

As mentioned already, these coordinating conjunctions (and, yet, but), don’t explain much. The first four verses are not offered as a reason for trusting. The next two verses don’t explain God’s delay or absence. David simply says, “This is true, but this also is true.” This where many of us live. For instance, I am having surgery for cancer, but I believe God heals the sick. I am putting my body in the hands of a surgeon, and my surgeon in the hands of God.

Realism, however, that never gets to the “but”, isn’t realism.  God has entered history and entered our lives.We must be honest about the faithfulness of God, the fact of resurrection, our hope of glory.The “but” or “but for me” expresses our choice to believe. It is where we take a stand and stake our tent. Our experience, or lack of it, is not the final authority or last word.

This conjunction, “but”, is the hinge upon which all our faith swings. Jesus died but rose again. With man there is little hope, but with God all things are possible. Evil seems to reign, but Jesus is coming again. In this world we face many tribulations, but we should be of good cheer because Jesus has overcome the world.

The hinge can get rusty, stubborn, and squeaky. Singing Christmas carols at the Presbyterian church last night gave my hinge a needed shot of oil. I found my heart swinging open to God’s love. Israel had waited long, but her king was born in Bethlehem. “How long, O Lord,” was answered on Christmas with “Now!”

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Why Pray? (Part Two)

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication

 with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension,

 shall guard your hearts and your mind. Philippians 4:6

In part one, I addressed a couple theological ideas that challenge the wisdom or usefulness of petitionary prayer. First, if God has already determined everything that will happen, why pray? If God in His meticulous providence is in control of all things, whatever happens is His will. Thus, petitionary prayer is pointless. Second, if God is love and is already doing every loving thing for every person, why should we think that our prayers will move God to be more loving than He already is? Third, some assert that simple communion with God is a higher form of prayer than prayer that asks Him to do something. Seeking just the Giver, and not His gifts is more noble. Last, we are uncomfortable with the idea that some things, things God wants to do, might not happen if God’s people do not pray.

As persuasive as all these arguments may be, they all argue with Scripture and contradict the teachings of Jesus. The Lord’s prayer, after all, is 90% petitionary prayer. Whatever theological difficulties arise when we believe God hears and answers prayer, we must live with them and agree with Scripture that God responds to the prayers of people. Because God desires relationship with us, He calls us to pray. His kingdom advances on the prayers of His children.

Although we must put God and those for whom we pray first in prayer, it is true that prayer doesn’t just change “things”, it also changes us. Paul, in Philippians, presents prayer as the answer to anxiety. He challenges us to be anxious for nothing. In this Paul echoes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where He says, “For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body as to what you shall put on.” Jesus concludes this exhortation by urging His disciples to seek first the kingdom of God, and trust God to take care of all their physical needs.

We should notice that Paul begins his exhortation to pray with “in everything”. I think this is perhaps the first key to prayer giving us peace. We can easily conclude some things too small to deserve God’s attention or we can wrongly divide our lives in secular and sacred realms. It can be tempting to leave God out business decisions. I have known Christian professors who separated their faith in God from their academic life. Bringing all areas of our life under the rule of God, brings the peace of God.

I think a second key to prayer producing peace in us is the phrase “with thanksgiving.” Some Christians have said this means we ought to be thanking God that He has answered our prayers. I see how this can be an expression of faith if done in response to some inner assurance from God about our request. But I think we should always be thanking God for all that He has already done and already given. As memories of God’s goodness flow into our prayers for current concerns, our soul begins to trust and rest in His faithfulness.

We also thank God that He hears our prayers and that He is with us. Honestly, God’s Word doesn’t promise us much this side of heaven. We have no promises that God will spare us from tragedy, sickness, accident, or injury. We are not promised that those we love will never suffer or die. But we are promised that God will never leave us or forsake us. We most easily enter the peace of His presence brings by wrapping our prayers in thanksgiving.

There are concerns and worries that God invites us into instead of out of. These are the concerns we have for those we love. Paul was afraid, for instance, that the church of Galatia was going to exchange salvation by grace for a salvation of works. In II Corinthians after listing many hardships he had endured, Paul adds, “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the church.” In Romans Paul says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart” because of love for the Jews, his kinsmen according to the flesh. This is the guy who right before this passage on prayer exhorts us to “rejoice always.” God has called us out of anxiety for ourselves into a loving concern for others. As we pray for those we love, we are given no promise that we will avoid heartbreak. We are given the peace of knowing God is with us and His heart is broken too. We are freed from anxiety about ourselves so we can enter the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. In that fellowship, we find a measure of peace even as carry God’s concerns in our hearts.

Another benefit of surrounding our requests with thanksgiving is that it makes us see. Gratitude opens our eyes to all that is around us. We may see, and love, those whom we have taken for granted. We can find each sunrise and sunset something to celebrate—maybe each breath. When we see and give thanks to all that is around us, we are more alive. We avoid the narrowing of vision caused by anxiety. Teckla and I once got lost along a beautiful creek in Ozark National Forest. But I only know its beauty from memory. At the time, the anxiety of being lost blinded us to the beauty of the creek, the limestone cliffs, and the canopy of hickories and oaks. A peaceful heart beholds the beauty of the moment.

Paul promises in verse seven that the peace of God will guard our hearts and our minds. We should notice that Paul uses the word guard—the Greek word Phroureo—which refers to a sentinel or posted guard. God’s peace is something more than a good mood, something more than the absence of worry. It is the active presence of God protecting us from fear and anxiety. The need for such a guard argues that our hearts and minds have an enemy which seeks to harm us. God’s peace is vigilant.

Because I tend to be overly analytical, I have often taken comfort that Paul says the peace of God passes all understanding. I can come up with a hundred and one realistic reasons I should worry. I can point out theological reasons why we should not expect God to carry the burdens we seek to place upon him. Sometimes I, perhaps all of us, just need to quiet our souls and listen to God.

Once our heart is settled into the peace of God, we discover that in the quiet God speaks to us. When all our anxious prayers are presented to God and the noise of worry stops, we often have ears to hear His voice. We may hear how God is calling us to become a part of His answer to our prayer. We may, like Isaiah, hear God ask, “Whom shall I send?” We may come out of our time of prayer energized and directed by God. Like Isaiah, we may say, “Here I am. Send me!”

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High Noon Atheist

My spiritual crisis is usually a “bright day of the soul” rather than the “dark night of the soul” described so well by St. John of the Cross. It comes at noon in the dry days of August or early September. We have had a hot and dry end to the summer in Myrtle Point. We have had days without a cloud in the pale blue sky. At noon even the crows and jays are quiet. The grasshoppers are still too until my steps in the dry grass open their wings.

In this dry silence, I wonder if this is all there is: light, hard surfaces, matter. What if the hard material world explained by physics is all there is? What if there is no spirit in me—just tissue. And no spirit in or beyond the world—just matter and energy forever. The thought invites relief. I could cease striving and know there is no God. Yes, it makes all meaningless. But it would bring a rest from trying to make sense of God, suffering, and Scripture.

In these moments, the silence of an August noon can feel like the silence of the cosmos. I look over the edge of a bright and sunny abyss. My spiritual vertigo fades as the sun sets and the day cools. Shadows begin to reclaim the land as the sun angles green through the forests. The green radiance of the filtered sun sings in the trees.

Autumn brings the shadows sooner and the alders, maples, and poison oak streak the evergreens with red and yellow. The cooler, damper mornings bring the smell of fallen leaves and musky blend of smoke and decay. Mortality and change are everywhere. Eternity is closer, no matter what the reports from the doctor say.

I sometimes think that as I hang my chin over the edge and stare into the abyss, there is someone beside me. Perhaps God, looking with me. He says, “It is a long way down!” I say, “Yep. Let’s go home.” And we rise.

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Why Pray?

Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective fervent prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. James 5:16

This may seem like an odd question to ask, especially from a pulpit, and perhaps one with a terribly obvious answer.  Nonetheless, I think it is a question with which every believer wrestles. We struggle with this question even though answer is obvious: the Bible tells us to pray. However, without a clear understanding of why we ought to pray, our prayers are feeble, perfunctory, and sparse—a rotten mustard seed.

Of course, not all prayer is asking God for something. Prayer includes praise and thanksgiving, but biblically understood prayer almost always includes petitioning God for something—asking for His kingdom to come, asking for our daily bread, asking for forgiveness. So, when we ask, “Why pray?” we are seeking to understand why we ought to be asking God for things. At the risk, of raising questions some have never considered, let me present some reasons for not praying.

First, if the sovereignty of God is understood as Him ordering all events according to His will, it is hard to understand how praying is going change anything God does. If God has from the beginning of time determined everything that happens, then our prayers are not going to change anything. Some have said that “Prayer does not change God, it changes us.” Indeed, we can be changed by prayer. Of course, to be consistent with this idea of sovereignty, we would have to admit that our prayers can’t really change us unless God in His sovereignty has already decided to change us. This therapeutic view of prayer changing us is popular because it avoids the uncomfortable idea that God’s will may not be accomplished because His people have not prayed.

To be fair, even though Augustine and Calvin uphold God’s absolute control over all events, both say prayer remains important because God has sovereignly decided to do some things in response to our prayers. But this raises the question of whether we freely choose to pray or if we simply wait for God to cause us to pray. Calvin and Augustine, to be consistent, must regard a decision not to pray as the result of God’s sovereign will and providence. Nonetheless, I think few believers can grasp or explain how meaningful prayer and God’s absolute control are compatible.

A second reason for not praying is the assertion that God is love and is always acting in love toward everyone to the fullest measure. Some see the idea that God will do more for someone because of our prayers as denying God’s loving character. Is God going to heal someone just because we prayed? Doesn’t God already love them enough to heal them? Do we really need to persuade God to love others more? God is, after all, love. It seems reasonable to trust God to do what is best for those we love without us nagging Him with our prayers and intercession.

Third, isn’t simple communion with God, without us asking Him for things, a higher form of prayer? Isn’t it more spiritual, some say, to seek the Giver instead of the gifts? Combined with a fatalistic resignation to God’s sovereign will, this approach to prayer can appear spiritually superior to petitionary prayer. This higher form of prayer stops at “Our Father, hallowed be Thy name.” It skips, “Give us our daily bread.” It seems like a less selfish and more spiritual way of praying.

So why pray? The answer really is, “Because the Bible says so”. But to pray with purpose, energy, and faith we must believe all the other things the Bible says about prayer even if it challenges our theology.

First, we must believe God acts in response to our prayers. We can admit He may not act when we want or how we want, but we must believe God acts. This is certainly the point James makes in chapter five when he urges the elders to pray for the sick. His claim that the “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” is followed up by the example of God answering Elijah’s prayer for rain. Psalm after psalm celebrates a God who hears the cries of His people and responds with salvation, deliverance, protection, and redemption. We should believe that prayer, especially the prayers of the weak and oppressed, change history.

If we argue that asking God to do things is unspiritual or less spiritual, we are arguing with Jesus. In Luke 18 Jesus exhorts us to pray without losing heart by telling the story of widow who persistently demanded justice from an unjust judge. Luke presents the purpose of the parable as being “to show that all times they ought to pray and not lose heart.” No matter how much it may trouble our theology, the parable clearly teaches that some things happen and don’t happen because of our persistence in prayer.

If this parable is not clear enough, in John 14 we find Jesus telling His disciples, “And whatsoever you may ask in my name, that will I do that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” Again, in Chapter 15, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.” And again. in the next chapter, “Until now you have asked nothing in My name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.” No one can be a “red-letter Christian” and deny that Jesus urges us to ask.

We should pray because we belong to a king and a kingdom that is invading the kingdom of darkness. Think about it, if God is in absolute control of all things in the world, why would Jesus teach us to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” The Lord’s prayer only makes sense if there are things on earth that are not His will and places where His kingdom has not yet come.

Saying, “Thy will be done” is not passive resignation to God’s will. It is not saying “Whatever” to God. It is flying a banner welcoming King Jesus. It is blowing a trumpet announcing a new king! Is throwing open the gates of hearts, families, and lives to the rule of God! If Adam and Eve’s faith in the words of the serpent could bring about the fall of humankind, the corruption of creation, and death, what will our prayers bring when we place our faith in God’s Word and son Jesus? After Paul’s detailed description of spiritual warfare and putting on the armor of God, he concludes with an exhortation to pray:

With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and prayer for the saints. Ephesians 6:18

Even though there is no doubt that God has called us to pray, and to pray with the expectation that God acts in response to our prayers, we still haven’t answered the question as to why God has called us to pray or why He advances His kingdom through the prayers of His people. Jesus, after all, in the Sermon on Mount declares that our Father in heaven already knows what we need before we ask him. So why ask?

The answer to this question is not found in any one verse, but rather in the whole sweep of Biblical revelation. God desires relationship with his creation. He long for us to rule with Him, not just under him. It is not control that is at heart of God’s glory! It is love and relationship. The result of this is that God has ordained to work through His people. In I Corinthians 3:9, Paul speaks of being a fellow worker with God. In I Thessalonians 3:2 Paul refers to Timothy as “our brother and God’s co-worker in the gospel of Christ.

We are part of God’s project, and his project is centered on relationship. It is not that God needs us; it is that He wants us. He has called His people, the church, to become a bride for His Son. The whole of history marches to a Wedding. So, relationship with God is central to all God’s purposes. Prayer matters because it keeps us in relationship.

My last reason for praying is more personal, even though Biblical. I am greatly encouraged by the story of the Roman centurion Cornelius who becomes the first Gentile in Acts to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 10 we are told that he gave alms to the people and “prayed continually. One day an angel appears to him and tells him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” He is instructed to send for Peter who comes and preaches about Jesus. In the middle of his sermon the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius and his whole household.

Because of this story, I pray to build-up memorials of prayer before God. I have built them for my children, for churches, and for cities, especially Myrtle Point. I do not know how this works, but I believe at the right time my prayers combined with your prayers will release the power of God to make the hearts of people in our town tender toward God.

I also believe my prayers raise up a shield of protection over my children and friends.   When the accuser of the brethren demands his rights to those who have strayed into his territory, I believe my prayers give God just reason to show mercy and pour out grace. I have no wealth or land to give my children and grandchildren. But I can give my heart. I can pray.  

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