Monday, August 31, 2009

Man-Centered Worship: The Curse of Prayer Requests

Why must every corporate prayer begin with, "Are there any prayer requests"?  When did "prayer requests" become such an integral part of our Christian culture?  Whenever it was, I'm convinced it was the beginning of the death of God-centered prayer in our worship.

Certainly we should pray for what we need, and we should pray for one another.  But should this really occupy the central place we've learned to habitually assign it in our corporate prayer life?  It's almost as if we have rewritten the Lord's prayer like this:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread ... and healing from our hangnails and our Aunt Suzy's gout; and safe travel to Cleveland this weekend; and good grades at school; and a promotion at work; and money to complete our household repairs; and ... and ... and ...
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
This is precisely what the Lord specifically instructed us not to do immediately before giving us the above prayer as a model (minus the red text):  And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

The practice of "prayer requests" in corporate worship is a cultural device we've grown accustomed to, and which we probably assume was common among Christians ever since Jesus walked the earth, but they have become a huge distraction for us.  Our corporate prayers no longer resemble the Lord's model, because our myriad requests have come to so dominate them.  What's more, our individual prayers--learned in the corporate setting--follow a similar pattern.  They demonstrate our preoccupation with worldly things ... our refusal to give central place to the King:  infinite, eternal, almighty, holy, righteous, just, loving and gracious.  We nod in His direction before we get down to the "real" business of filling out our wish-list.

Frankly, our prayers may be directed to God, but they're mostly about us.

In the Jailer household, we've begun to recondition ourselves.  We now talk much more earnestly about God-centered prayers, beginning with an emphasis on praise.  We've had to relearn prayer, because it's apparent that we just don't know how to do it.  It's been remarkable and instructive to watch our kids struggle through what to say to God when requests are excluded.  We've all been conditioned to ask for stuff ... stuff that Jesus said the Father knows we need before we ask it. 

Our prayer-request culture has taught us that prayer is little more than a sanctified "Dear Santa" letter.  Moving toward God-centered prayer begins with actively constraining our preoccupation with prayer requests.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Pathetic Counterfeit

There are many good books published every year, far more mediocre ones, but just a few truly extraordinary ones.  For me, it doesn't seem too much to call Dr. Larry Crabb's "Inside Out" a landmark publication.  It certainly was life-altering for me.

I was first encouraged to pick this book up shortly after its publication in 1988.  It utterly dismantled me, forcing me to confront the reality that my sin problem was vastly more pervasive than I'd previously understood.  Of course, as a fairly orthodox young Christian man I had come to accept that I was imperfect and in need of grace, but for the first time I was compelled to face how insidiously selfish my motives could be.

Crabb's book laid bare my man-centered notions of "goodness", exposing how even in my "spiritual" moments my self-serving, self-protective thoughts and intentions lurk beneath the facade.

This comprehension is crucial to turning the corner from knowing about grace, to reliance on grace.  It's only when I clearly recognize the "dirty rags" that actually comprise my own righteousness that I can start the journey from self- to God-centeredness in earnest. 

The truth is, for as much as I speak as a Christian, at a certain level I continue to believe and behave like an atheist.  I paint my earthly treasure with a heavenly gild, so as to convince myself that I have actually abandoned self for God.  Yet, it takes surprisingly little to expose me as a fraud ... simply threaten to tear away some part of my carefully constructed little world and panic will begin to set in.  

Crabb paints this realization as necessary to true freedom in Christ:
"The illusion that life in a fallen world is really not too bad must be shattered. When even the best parts of life are exposed as pathetic counterfeits of how things should be, the reality drives us to a level of distress that threatens to utterly undo us. But it’s when we’re on the brink of personal collapse that we’re best able to shift the direction of our soul from self-protection to trusting love. The more deeply we enter into the reality that life without God is sheer desolation, the more fully we can turn toward Him...

"The richest love grows in the soil of an unbearable disappointment with life. When we realize life can’t give us what we want, we can better give up our foolish demand that it do so and get on with the noble task of loving as we should. We will no longer need to demand protection from further disappointment. The deepest change will occur in the life of a bold realist who clings to God with a passion only his realistic appraisal of life can generate."
The fact is, I'm a dying man living as a stranger in a temporary world.  I clean up nicely, however, and have mastered my public persona.  I have achieved a modicum of "victorious Christian living", which qualifies me to be ... a well-dressed dying man living as a stranger in a temporary world.  

Freedom begins with the fundamental understanding that God's grace is not a crutch--it's a stretcher. 

Friday, August 28, 2009

Trading the Scalding Nearness of God for the Lukewarm Comfort of Religion

Last night's Bible study focused on God's character. Eventually we were forced to discuss His justice (gulp), which led us into an examination of our sin (double gulp). That's when the gloves came off, and to her credit, our facilitator kept it real. Romans 7:15-8:2 came front and center:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.
It's not until we confront the depth and extent of our sin problem that we are able to break out of our dull religion and into real spiritual vibrancy. Yet moving in this direction runs directly counter to my bias toward worldly comfort.

Proverbs 20:5 says that "The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out." The deeper I swim into the purposes of my heart, the darker it becomes. In fact, the closer I get to God, the "dirtier" I see myself.

This is terrifying, and has the potential to crush me, or it can finally break me down to the point where I reconnect with the incredible grace of God. It must be done, or else I surrender my intimacy with God for the comfort of lukewarm religion. I don't want to do it ... I want to feel good about myself. But if I have the courage, it can lead me straight into the arms of my Savior.

It is sadly rare that we dwell on our continuing, intense, immediate need for grace. We generally talk a pretty good game and sing the right songs, but we mostly behave like we needed grace a little bit, a long time ago ... once upon a time when we were "lost". Now what we "need" is other stuff: healing for ourselves or our loved ones, money, a promotion, etc.

Very seldom do we act like we need the grace of our Lord today, just to stand before His throne of God and not be consumed. And thus we trade the scalding nearness of God for the lukewarm comfort of our religion.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The "Hard to Get" Jesus

This is a very nice rendition of one of Rich Mullins' final compositions, performed by former American Idol contestant Phil Stacey:

Rich didn't have the chance to professionally record this amazing song before his death in 1997, so his demo version was cleaned up and produced posthumously on "The Jesus Record". This recording was made on a boom box in an abandoned Illinois church just nine days before he died, and the amateur quality contributes to the haunting effect of Rich's words.

What's truly wonderful about Rich's music is the poetry, and the way his thirst for God defined his life. What I find convicting about the lyrics is the fact that I seldom, if ever, experience this kind of thirst. They have a Psalm 42 quality about them.

Rich no longer thirsts after God ... he is now fully quenched with Him in heaven, in radiance, in eternity ...

You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt

Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away
Well I memorized every word You said

Still I'm so scared I'm holding my breath
While You're up there just playing hard to get

You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that's not as patient as Yours was
Still we do love now and then

Did You ever know loneliness
Did You ever know need
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on
And Your friends fall asleep
And don't see the blood that's running in Your sweat

Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While You're up there just playing hard to get?

And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained

And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this somehow
All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can't see what's ahead
And we can not get free of what we've left behind
I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt blame and regret

I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here
Where I'm lost enough to let myself be led
And so You've been here all along I guess
It's just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Broken Spirit, The Bent Look

Jim Elliot, martyr of Ecuador, had the uncanny ability to find application on every page of God's Word. I keep a copy of his Journals on my shelf at work. They are very instructive, but perhaps even more humbling to read.

From his entry dated January 26, 1948:

God taught Jacob not to fear Esau, but to fear God. Esau could be appeased, and his face seen without hurt. God must be met with, and the crafty man must struggle with him. Jacob left Peniel with a new name and a new walk. No longer was it the walk of self-confident Jacob but the limp of humbled Israel who saw God face to face and lived. Fear not, Jacob, the face of man, but learn to fear the face of God.

Lord, I fear to ask for a (moonlight rendezvous) with you, but it must need be before I enter the land of blessing and promise. Will You meet me alone and deal with me as You did with the patriarch? His self-confidence hardly surpasses mine, and I hate myself for this, but I pray that You should give me the broken spirit, the bent look, before I proceed to deal with my brothers - whomever they may be.

God has been at work in me of late. I don't know where He's going with this, but I can only pray that He "should give me the broken spirit, the bent look" so coveted by Philip James Elliot.

Friday, August 14, 2009

You're Going to Need Some Empathy

I have a guest post up over at C. Beth's "happy mommy" blog (pause for snide remarks).

This post is very personal, and includes some extracts from a letter I wrote to an old friend, including the following:

You are right when you suggest I lack empathy. To be truthful, I have been
observing that I also have grown increasingly numb over the years. Perhaps for
me it has been the burden of responsibility or the seduction of ease rather than
the pain of a broken heart, yet it is real nonetheless.

You'll have to visit Beth's site to read the rest (Note: Beth refers to me as a Pastor, which is flattering but erroneous). Overall, the gist of the post is that there is something about greater responsibility and visibility that can slowly drain a man of that part of him that used to feel deeply.

I have watched it grow over the years; talked, prayed and fretted over it; and tried to somehow find my way to the other side of it ... but in the end I sense that I have traded my former immature empathy for a more "mature" callousness.

It reminds me a bit of an old Keith Green song:
My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
And I know how
I ought to be
Alive to you
and dead to me

But what can be done
For an old heart like mine
Soften it up
With oil and wine
The oil is you,
your spirit of love
Please wash me anew
With the wine of your blood

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Knowing God

Can any praise be worthy of the Lord’s majesty? How magnificent his strength! How inscrutable his wisdom! Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud. But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” (First paragraph of Augustine’s Confessions)

... then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.
” (Pr. 2:5)

He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Cor. 1:30)

This is the third in a series of posts, and the first two have been almost hyperbolic in their negative tone: The first looked at what Proverbs teaches to be the characteristic danger to the young, the “turning away of the simple”. The second followed this up with another lesson from Proverbs, namely that the young are surrounded by enemies, the “seed of the serpent”, who work at enticing them to turn away: They sow doubt. (“Did God actually say, ....”) They try to make sin attractive. (“Stolen water is sweet, ....”)

This picture is daunting enough so that one version or another of what is reported to be Mark Twain’s advice on raising boys may seem to be our only reasonable response. (In one version, he reportedly advised keeping them in a pickle barrel until the age of 12. In another version, he is supposed to have advised putting them in at age 13 for their teenage years.) A less humorous way of putting this would be to say that the proper response to the situation must be fearful and “prophylactic”. Or, trying humor again, perhaps the only way to raise our young is to guard them night and day, “until their brains grow in”. Certainly, many of the citations from Proverbs in the second post seem to lend support to this.

However, it would be very wrong to draw this conclusion, and, I think there are many who can attest that trying to raise children in this spirit can easily lead to disaster. And, looking again at Proverbs, this is not the message we find there. Indeed, the message we find in my favorite chapter of that book, Proverbs 2, is very different: In the first 5 verses, the young person is exhorted to seek wisdom ardently, disdaining the goods of this age, and a wonderful reward for this is held out in verse 5, "... then you will understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God.” So the chapter begins by recognizing what Augustine marks out at the beginning of his Confessions as our greatest need and deepest longing, to know God.

The chapter continues in verses 6 to 10 with the promise that, finding God, we will find wisdom, and, in particular, what is sometimes phrased as “wise dealing”: “Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; ....

Only then, does the promise come in verses 11 and following that we might be inclined to grasp at for its own sake: “... discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you, delivering you from the way of evil, from men of perverted speech, who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, ....

So the teaching of Proverbs 2 shows us that, were we to focus first on doing everything we can to keep our young safe, hoping that, later, when they are past the dangerous years, they will seek to know God and to love Him, we would be “180 degrees wrong”! Indeed, we would show ourselves to be valuing a gift of God before Him, and so, strange as it might seem at first, we would show ourselves to be idolaters! Moreover, by our values and example before our young, we would be teaching them to be the same. So it would hardly be surprising if the Lord did not bless this child-rearing paradigm.

As was pointed out above, Proverbs 2 begins with an exhortation to seek wisdom ardently. The citation from 1 Corinthians 1 at the top of this post makes it clear where we are to find wisdom (“and righteousness and sanctification and redemption”): It must be in Christ Jesus. And 2 Corinthians 4 makes it clear that, finding Him, we - and our children - will find “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”. In other words, while we are charged, of course, to guard our children and exhort them to wisdom and prudence, our primary charge must be to evangelize them, knowing that, if they truly find Christ, He will safeguard them. Because of this, the main question we must ask ourselves about our young ones is not, “How can I keep them safe?”, but, rather, “How can I share with them how desperately I need the Lord, and what a joy it has been to me to find Him?”

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Seed of the Serpent

You an’ me kin live dat high life in New York.
Come wid me, dere you can’t go wrong, sister.

(From Sport’n Life’s enticement of Bess)

... throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse.

(Gang-bangers’ recruitment spiel from Proverbs 1)

Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
let us delight ourselves with love
(Wayward wife’s seduction of a young man from Proverbs 7)

Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them." (Romans 1:32)

This is the second in a series of posts on the subject of a “Proverbial” character, “the Simple”. The first post dealt with his characteristic mindset - “turning away” - and the great spiritual danger he is in. This post deals with a fact of life that, in his turning away, he characteristically refuses to believe: There really are people out there - Satan’s agents - who are actively committed to destroying him spiritually.

Such people are introduced almost immediately in the first chapter of Proverbs, as a father implores his son not to join up with “sinners” who “entice” him with a life of bloodshed and booty. We may read the account and think their recruitment spiel can’t be very attractive, with pleas like, “let us lie in wait for blood”. But, if we think in terms of the attraction of a gang, we should be able to see the appeal: Joining them, the youth will become a “big man” and people will fear him. Together, the gang will take whatever they want, and they’ll do it as comrades. But, says the father, in the end, that’s not really what it will all be about. Instead, it really will be all about bloodshed and violence. In effect, the son will become - with the others - a monster, joining them in “setting an ambush for their own lives”. (vs. 18)

Another striking passage on the lure of evil - and the agents who do the luring - is the 7th chapter of Proverbs, where a father is warning his son to beware of the wayward wife and her attraction. Here, it’s easier to grasp at first glance why the young man might be enticed, as she is brazen and forward with him (vs. 13), and, in addition, there seems to be no immediate danger, since the woman’s husband is out of town for a long period (vs. 19,20). But, again, the danger is not so much in being caught (though Proverbs 6 does warn against that), but in being ensnared in a spiritually deadly bondage to sexual sin: “All at once, he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast till an arrow pierces his liver; as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life.” (vs. 22,23)

One aspect of Proverbs 7 that sheds some light on this is found in the descriptions in the Hebrew of the type of woman that is involved: “... to keep you from the strange woman, from the foreign woman with her smooth words.” (Pr. 7:5) The reason this sheds light on what is going on is that it echos what we find in Proverbs 5, where we have warnings about “the strange woman” (vs. 3); about a situation where “strangers take their fill of your strength and your labors go to the house of a foreigner” (vs. 10); about what is to become of the young man’s “streams” of life - “Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you.” (vs. 16,17). And then a last warning, “Why should you be seduced my son, by a strange woman and embrace the bosom of a foreign woman”.

So using the usual translations of what in Hebrew are “a strange woman” and “a foreign woman” obscures the message that a young man who yields to sexual lusts is entangling himself in a whole different culture, with people who, viewed from the point of view of the Kingdom of God, are “strangers and foreigners”. Instead of the nourishment of the Church, that is, of “the seed of the woman” (Gen. 3:15), he will have been taken captive by “the seed of the serpent”. Proverbs 5 warns him that the outcome will be hellish: “... at the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and body are consumed, and you say, ‘How I hated discipline, and my heart despised reproof!’” (vs. 11,12) “The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin. He dies for lack of disicpline, and because of his great folly he is led astray.” (vs. 22,23) And what is true of the spiritual ruin brought about about by sexual sin is equally true of that brought about by sins of violence, or greed, or deceit.

Is this overstating the dichotomy between the two groups? Are the “strangers and foreigners” who entice the young of the church really that bad, that far gone? Are they really that committed to promoting evil? (If you have seen the movie version of Porgy and Bess, think of Sport'n Life, crooning, "There's a boat dat's leav'n sooooooon for New York". Is he real?) Proverbs speaks uncompromisingly to the matter: “... men of perverted speech, who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil, ....” (Pr. 2:12-14) And again: “... the strange woman, the foreign woman with her smooth words, ..., her house sinks down to death, ....” (Pr. 2:16,18) And again: “... they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong; they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble. For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.” (Pr. 4:16,17) And again, “Her feet go down to death, and her steps lay hold of the path to Sheol; she does not ponder the path of life; her ways wander and she does not know it.” (Pr. 5:5,6)

Do we really believe the judgment of Scripture in this matter? Do we believe that our young people are the targets of Satan’s agents all around us (and, in some cases, among us)? Do we understand that our young people will resist these truths and, because of that, they will, unless we urgently exhort them to take the truths seriously, be “sitting ducks”? Or have we adopted the point of view of the world around us, and chosen to think that our unbelieving neighbors (and the hypocrites in our congregations) aren’t really all that bad?

The Energy and Arrogance of Youth

Because my current job leaves me with so little time and energy for blogging, I have had to change my approach. My current approach is to wait until I get a convergence of occasion and inspiration and then jump on it. It being Sunday evening, I have a little time, and the inspiration comes from Presbyter's last blog and today's Sunday school lesson: Paul's letter to the Corinthians and its applicability to young Christians as well as young Airmen.

In Chapter 4 of his first epistle, Paul admonishes the Corinthians for their arrogant self-righteousness, and for their ingratitude toward both God and the apostles:
For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did
not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did
As I told my class this morning, the Corinthian church has much in common with the Honor Guard: both share the enthusiasm and the immaturity of youth (most of our Airmen come directly from basic training). This enthusiasm brings great energy at the same time as it is prone to careening off course--the "all thrust, no vector" phenomenon, as we say in the Air Force.

At the same time, man's sinful inclination toward arrogance is clearly on display in the lives of these young professionals. Just as the spiritually young Corinthians boldy passed judgment on their elders, teachers, and even the Apostle Paul himself, so do young military men and women rapidly progress from trainee to trainer to expert, mastering their particular art and then looking down their noses on those who have not. Of course, this is not unique to any one community, but the preponderance of youth makes the Honor Guard a unique vantage point to watch it take hold.

Arrogance and ingratitude are endemic to our sinful condition, and the young are especially vulnerable, as they have not yet been chastised by the hard lessons of years. Most of us learned to despise the wisdom of our elders from an early age, and then had to unlearn that hubris the hard way. As a young believer, I quickly grew to be an "expert" in many things, and I have grown progressively "dumber" over the years, as the experience of those years has exposed me to my limitations. We naturally cling to our vanity and pride until God lets us follow them to their logical, humiliating conclusion.

Humility would be much easier to learn if we pursued it for its own sake, but we are instead generally forced to embrace it only when the humiliation of failure leaves us with no other option.