pray on

pray without ceasing…for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:17, 18b

To be told to pray without ceasing seems pretty unrealistic. To be sure, we can’t be praying every moment of the day. Maybe the idea is that along with actual praying, we’re in an attitude of prayer all of our waking hours. Or that it is to be a habit of life that fills our days. For me, I take it to mean that I’m to be much in prayer which includes not only talking to God, but listening and seeking to hear God’s voice, and discern God’s will in it all.

This is addressed to Christians together, so there needs to be an emphasis on corporate prayer, that we’re all in this together. But that includes individual practice, that each of us are involved in playing our part.

I find that two practices are vital for me: being in Scripture with an emphasis on application and personal growth and being in prayer. I honestly think a missing link, all too true in my own life is that insofar as this is possible, we need to be joined together in this.

In my own experience I find that the attitude and practice of ongoing, persevering prayer is so important to keep my head afloat, out of the deep waters in which I lack the breath, light, the perspective and life of God. It is almost like the necessity of applying a magnet so that another piece of metal doesn’t fall to the ground.

The only way I seem to be able to really stay grounded and centered on God and on God’s will is to remain in Scripture, but with persistent, ongoing prayer. When I let up on that, it’s not long before I’ve lost focus and perspective. And what comes out of that is not good. We’re not in a Sunday School picnic. At the same time what also needs to be remembered is that much good comes out of this practice. Not only to help center us, but in actual benefit for others.

As we’re told in the Scripture passage quoted above, part of God’s will for us. In and through Jesus.

the difference maker

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed, it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, then the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

So then, brothers and sisters, we are obligated, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs: heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if we in fact suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:1-17; NRSVue

In and through Christ, God meets us right where we live. Of course, we’re to be active and alert and try to understand how we’re supposed to think, what we should do. Indeed dwelling within us to help us individually and together get through life in a way that is pleasing to God, even pleasing to ourselves and to each other in Christ (Romans 12:2), and ultimately for the good of all.

When we depend on our own spirit, our own thoughts, whatnot, then we’re going to find ourselves lost and burdened, definitely weighed down, because we’ll want to live up to God’s just standards of love in all things, something we’ll not do well enough, or have the discernment to know what really matters to God in the first place, what we should be concerned about or do in any given situation.

The Spirit is the difference maker for us. Otherwise, we’ll likely be in something like a religious mentality in which we’re trying to figure things out on our own. Yes, the Spirit helps us, and often through others in Christ, and at times even through those who make no profession of faith in Christ. The important thing for us to remember is that in this life we’re not left on our own. The Spirit is our needed difference maker, ever present, giving us the assurance that we’re indeed God’s children. And with that assurance giving us all that we need to navigate life. Yes, with our individual situations of course, often through each other, as well as through scripture, in answer to prayer, listening for that “still small voice,” and intent on doing and living in God’s will. In and through Jesus.

listen well

You must understand this, my beloved brothers and sisters: let everyone be quick to listen…

James 1:19a; NRSVue

I’m not sure why we think we have to say something all the time. We can chalk up many reasons for that actually, but considering everything, we can begin to see that this often is not the better part of wisdom. It is so much better to hear someone out, put it on pause, perhaps ask some questions, and then maybe offer a humble thought which might lend some help.

But what if our posture was simply one of listening; not speaking, but listening? We’re letting someone get something off their chest. And what better thing can we do then pray about it? Why do we think we either should or actually even can have a good answer, Johnny on the spot?

The best pastors learn to listen to their congregations well, to each one in the church. A good pastor needs to know not only the Lord and scripture, but the people of their flock also. Maybe God will give a pastor the wisdom to offer something helpful right away. But the best thing a pastor can do, as I think Eugene Peterson said or might say is to pray with and for them and teach them to pray.

Listen, listen, and keep listening. Maybe offer advice only if asked to do so rather than doing it, often even before the person is finished sharing their thoughts. May God give us the ears to hear not only God, but also others. And a heart to listen and listen well. In and through Jesus.

Jesus’s teaching ministry

With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4:33-34; NRSVue

The teaching ministry of Jesus is often relegated to a secondary status maybe behind his miracles, but definitely so when considering especially his death and resurrection. So much of the gospel accounts are hardly considered gospel, oftentimes even considered law with the only gospel, Jesus dying on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins and being raised to life to bring us the new, eternal life. But we need Christ’s teaching as well, to try to begin to understand what forgiveness of sins and new life really means, that there is a vision we’re to live in, different from all the many visions and dreams out there in the world. One prime example is “the American dream,” not necessarily bad depending on context, but I think can get in the way of what is being spoken about here.

It’s interesting that Jesus used parables. Some scripture seems to indicate that it was to hide truth, but I think that pertains only to those whose hearts were not open or ready to truly receive it, but would inevitably misunderstand and misapply it, something like was occurring to a significant extent in Israel during Jesus’s time. I think the parables are primed to reach those who are struggling to understand, whose hearts are being opened to understand.

And Jesus taught the crowd, speaking the word as they were able to hear it. I think this makes an important connection between taking in scripture, seeking to hear God’s word from it, but all of that correlating with our experience. I frankly write most of the posts I write out of my experience, or seeking to make sense of experience, or find a better experience. But none of it is grounded in my experience, but only in faith and in trying to discern truth from God’s word for life.

But we must never forget that it’s out of compassion that Jesus taught the multitudes (Mark 6:34). And we want to do the same. To teach others what God is teaching us with patience, remembering that we most often are slow to learn it well ourselves. In and through Jesus.

trying to see the big picture

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light,
as if someone fled from a lion
and was met by a bear
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like water
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:18-24; NRSVue

Trying to see the big picture, things as they really are will require both an openness and sustained effort on our part. Amos is a prophet who certainly saw, something inherent within prophets, earlier called seers, receiving a vision from God. And often that vision had everything to do with the times in which they lived, seeing the current situation in light of God’s revealed will, eventually in light of the kingdom of God which was and is meant to bring flourishing to all of humanity, to all of creation.

Amos’s words, indeed his calling was not an easy one, certainly true of all the Hebrew prophets. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed Amos’s words in the most difficult task he undertook of seeking racial justice, equality, and reconciliation. King’s passion was rooted in the gospel, the good news of Christ, and the vision cast through that, calling America to the best in its tradition, though it’s not certain that the US Constitution advocated for individual liberty for all, but that’s another topic, and well beyond what I could address (interesting article on this). But after decades and decades, not to mention centuries of wrongdoing to the Africans enslaved in America, the United States went through the upheaval it did hitting against the climax of the Civil War. Yet not ending with that as more was in the works given that much was not healed and made right. True to a significant extent right up to the present day, in fact becoming most evident in recent times.

There’s no question that just like during Amos’s time, we are up against what seems to be intractable forces, or to try to make it clearer, it seems like the fallout is here, that we are going through a perfect storm as it were, that the result of our ways (I include myself in that, too) has pressed in on us. That people on both sides have had enough. During Amos’s time the poor and oppressed could do little. During our time there is both the sense in which they think they can do more, but those who give up are often tempted to despair with a few giving into violence. And those whites who feel their lives are needlessly threatened by all of this, a few of them are ready for violence as well.

Both Amos and Dr. Martin Luther King’s call is entirely different. It is about stepping back and trying to see the big picture both in terms of what actually is, and what God would have be. That comes through being in scripture (Hebrew scripture and the New Testament- considering the Apocrypha with that) and prayer. And doing so in community, but all of this with an eye to try to see the current reality. Listening to everyone, especially those who are marginalized or feel that way. The poor, the stranger, and in this time where I live, first of all the people of color beginning with African Americans and the indigenous, and along with them all others: refugees, Muslims, Chinese, etc.

Unless we do this, we’re not actually seeing as either the prophets or Jesus saw. With the goal of acting in the love of God which Jesus brought with the willingness to suffer in love and out of that same love, for others. Knowing that the good news in Jesus is one of reconciliation of all, involving working through everything that means. In and through Jesus.

the unexpected, the new road, a new goal

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

Job 1:1; NRSVue

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.

Job 1:20-22; NRSVue

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive good from God and not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Job 2:9-10; NRSVue

After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.

Job 3:1; NRSV

And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends, and the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.

After this Job lived one hundred and forty years and saw his children and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.

Job 42:10, 16-17; NRSVue

The wisdom story of Job is as profound in the wisdom we might gain from it, as it is difficult and even perplexing in the story it tells. We who grew up in church and were taught this story as children became inoculated to the problem of the story. And to some extent I still seem to be. After all, God brags about God’s servant Job to Satan. Satan attacks Job’s character, and then God takes up Satan’s wager, and lets Satan take Job’s wealth then his children and after that Job’s health? Job first responds as one would expect since he is after all a righteous person. But when left alone and before three friends initially present with him and seemingly empathetic, but otherwise all alone, Job begins what amounts to a long dialog, more like monologue since he and his friends eventually enter into something more like a debate. And Job ends up not only debating them, but God as well, though God is not yet speaking. After all the bottom has fallen out of Job’s world. And when you think about it, how can you blame him? It is hard for us to put ourselves into the story.

What was Job’s perspective and view before that? I think we at least can see the influences afoot through the remarks and charges of his three friends. God steps in at the end and gives Job a perspective Job had never dreamed of, somewhat prepared just before that by a young man who had spoken, misspoken to some extent I think, but had pointed in the direction in which God would go. And in the end, it ended well. But was all really well that ended well? After all, Job’s first seven children were gone, all the love, hopes and dreams with them. Seven in the end with more and more children to come, but a hole, nevertheless. But for me this is simply a wisdom story, and not an actual event. And much, much wisdom for us in this book, a different kind complementary wisdom to the other wisdom literature in scripture, especially in the Hebrew Bible.

All of that said to try to say something like this. What about when new and unexpected events shake our world from the outside in, to the inside out? When we’re at a loss and are having a hard time coming to grips with what we see in front of us, what we’re experiencing.

I think that’s when we want to praise and thank God, but also come to God with our own honest thoughts. And then try to listen. And for us listening means plumbing the depths insofar as we can through going through a book like Job, as well as the rest of scripture. That is a lifetime endeavor, not something we can do in a day or a weekend or even in a year. But we start that journey and stay on it, even as Job blessedly does throughout this book.

We can be sure that there is a good ending, even if we never completely understand it. Part of our life now. In and through Jesus.

who are we the sheep following?

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

John 10:1-5

We sadly hear and read about “sheep” leaving churches. In biblical language, God and Jesus are called “my shepherd” (Psalm 23) and “the good shepherd” (John 10). There are women and men gifted to be what has been called “under shepherds” commonly called pastors. And the rest of us are called sheep, though in a certain sense that designation includes everyone.

The question today is simply: Why is there the scattering and division of God’s flock? If the sheep were all listening to and hearing the voice of the good shepherd, they would be together, one flock with Jesus. And under shepherds as we take in the rest of the New Testament are in the mix and arrangement as well. Of course the under shepherds themselves, that is the pastors need to be listening and hearing the good shepherd, Jesus, so that they might lead their flocks and be examples to them. But alas, today we have a crisis of sheep being scattered.

And why? Unfortunately we sheep are too often not animated by just the Lord’s voice, if by the Lord’s voice at all. But there are a cacophony of voices causing discord and confusion, along with division. The consensus is gone which can only be present when everyone is intent in following the Lord’s voice only.

What is the cure for this? Simple yet profound, and not easy once we’ve gotten off track. We need to get back to the basics, assess just what we’re hearing, what’s influencing us, and repent of whatever is interfering with the Lord’s voice, so that we can’t even hear him, or are not properly understanding what he is saying.

Not one of us is exempt from this. We need to pay attention to those who are over us in the Lord, as they commit themselves to hearing our Lord’s voice. As we too seek to hear that same voice day after day, and find our way back into safe, verdant pastures. Now and forever with, in and through our good shepherd, Jesus.

get back to what you’re supposed to do, what you’re to be focused on

And say to Archippus, “See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord.”

Colossians 4:17

This is Paul’s last word in this letter before his closing greeting or salutation. Archippus was evidently someone in the fellowship of those who received this letter who may have been older, or had some specific task assigned to him. It really doesn’t matter. Since we don’t know, we certainly can apply it to ourselves in various ways.

Oftentimes we get lost because we’ve gone adrift and we get washed up somewhere, ending up out of sorts. And that’s when we need to get back to how God is directing us. We’re almost certainly in such cases off track. What is our assignment now? What are we supposed to be doing?

This recently happened to me. I was sad and just not myself for over a day. Then it dawned on me, I need to get back into what the Lord seemed to want me to focus on to put into life. The book of James. In my case that doesn’t mean I can’t dither into this and that on the side. But whatever else I find to do, this needs to be a focus the entire time. And there’s plenty to that book. And as you might expect, it speaks to me in some important ways for my life. A relief and release to get back into that. Something I must keep doing right now.

In and through Jesus.

when do we really “get it”?

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

James 1:22-25

It’s interesting, the wonderful experience we can have when some light of truth among the many truths found in Scripture, dawns on us. It’s just as interesting how short-lived most experiences are. That doesn’t mean they don’t have value, but that in and of themselves they are only a good means to the good end.

We must act on what we see from Scripture, from God’s word to us. We have to put it into practice to really “get it” in having the understanding God wants to give us. That is where the rubber meets the road, when we not only understand an insight given, whether as in like a light shining in our hearts or just rationally in our heads, but when we also prayerfully determine to act on it, so that our lives can begin to be changed.

In and through Jesus.

what is needed in this wilderness

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.[a]

Deuteronomy 8:2-3

Remember every road that God led you on for those forty years in the wilderness, pushing you to your limits, testing you so that he would know what you were made of, whether you would keep his commandments or not. He put you through hard times. He made you go hungry. Then he fed you with manna, something neither you nor your parents knew anything about, so you would learn that men and women don’t live by bread only; we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth.

Deuteronomy 8:2-3; MSG

We live in a wilderness in this life. We’ve not reached the Promised Land yet. In Christ we’ve stepped into something of the experience of God’s promise, but certainly not into its fullness and completion.

So what are we left with here, yes in this wilderness? Nothing less than God’s word. What do I mean by God’s word? Certainly Scripture is included in this thought, both in general, and specifically all that is meant. Again God’s promises along with God’s directives, commands, warnings, encouragements, blessing, etc., etc., etc. Karl Barth surely had a point that God’s word to us is how God actually speaks to us through the pages of Scripture (if I’m understanding that correctly).

So we have to hold on to God’s word. We live in the wilderness, and as the passage above makes clear, it isn’t easy. But God wants to help us through, to teach us a lot, all of that from our complete dependence on God. Of course we have to learn complete dependence as well, more and more living in that, deepening ourselves in it.

Again this doesn’t come easy. Just consider the story of God’s children under Moses’s leadership, Moses’s own struggles. But God offer’s God’s presence and all that we need as we remain in prayer, seeking to hear God speak to us especially through the words of Scripture. In and through Jesus.