This is an experiment–in my own pursuit of a deeper, richer prayer life, I want to share some of the struggles and triumphs I have had in and through prayer. I would also like to share (and gather) suggestions to enrich how we can grow closer to God, closer to others, and closer to becoming more Christlike in our daily walk.
When I was a child, I was something of a picky eater. I didn’t like peas, or beets, or spinach , I wasn’t fond of lumpy mashed potatoes, and I didn’t like peanut butter sandwiches, or mustard on my hamburger. Of course, my parents were not sympathetic– I had to at least try some of my vegetables or potatoes, and, like it or not, I often found a peanut butter sandwich in my school lunch bag. I didn’t have to add mustard to a hamburger at home, but if it came on my burger at the drive-in, I either had to eat it with mustard, try to scrape it off, or go without! I didn’t have to be enthusiastic about dinner, but I was taught to be grateful for it.
Now that I am an adult, I still am not fond of peas, though I have learned to like beets and spinach. I don’t eat mashed potatoes very often, lumpy or otherwise. I eat the occasional peanut butter sandwich, and I actually love mustard on my hamburgers. I have learned to like foods that I didn’t like as a child, and learned that certain foods (even peas) are good for me, whether I like them or not.
I also learned to pray as a child–we had grace at meals, family prayer time, corporate prayer at church, and bedtime prayers. I learned that sometimes prayer is spontaneous and filled with praise; other times, prayer is dragged out of pain, or anger, pride, or shame. Prayer isn’t always “palatable.” But, like eating, it is necessary and good.
Just as I needed to learn not to be a picky eater, I have to practice prayer in all its aspects. God doesn’t just want the sweet prayers of praise that I am eager to sing out. He doesn’t just want the earnest requests I set before Him. He wants the rotten, stringy, overripe confession that I’ve been hanging on to. He wants the tormented “Why?” when things are falling apart. He wants me to chew on the unanswered requests and unfulfilled longings, and swallow the pride that insists on having its own way. He wants to savor those prayers when I can’t even find the words, but I come to Him anyway, hungry for answers, but even more thirsty for His presence.
Prayer isn’t always easy. It isn’t always “satisfying” in its daily practice. But it gives life and nourishment for the soul.
So I ask myself today: What am I praying about? What do I need to bring to God in prayer? What have I held back? What have I stopped praying for (and why)? Who has been on my heart or mind, but not in my prayers? What have I been trying to do in my own way that I haven’t shared with God in prayer? What does God know about me that I haven’t acknowledged? What praise or thanks have I withheld today? What worries have I borrowed from tomorrow?
What prayer practice do I need to try, or try again? It may take some stretching, but in the end, it’ll be better than peas!
We just celebrated Memorial Day in the United States–a day when we remember all those who have given their lives in service to their fellow countrymen and women. People decorate the gravestones of soldiers who were killed in action, they march in patriotic parades, and they hold memorial services, with military rites, prayers, and speeches.
Not everyone celebrates in the same way. Some just use the day as an excuse to have a pre-summer cookout or swim-party. Some don’t commemorate the day at all. Some people use the day to honor veterans of the armed forces, or even those who risk their lives in emergency services– EMT’s, Firefighters, Police officers, and others. Others use the day to honor their ancestors, regardless of whether they served in the military.
My husband and I fall on this end of the spectrum. We like to pay tribute to those who came before us– to those who left everything behind to start a new life as “pioneers”; those who lived through wars and diseases and struggles; those who left a legacy to our grandparents and parents–a legacy we hope to pass on. But we don’t worship our ancestors; we don’t worship the soldiers who died. We honor them, we remember their sacrifice, but we recognize that they were human, just like us. They may have died in battle or as the result of battle, but they died, just as we will. Their sacrifices may have been heroic; their efforts may have preserved freedom for us, or brought freedom to those who were oppressed. And that is what we honor. That is what we remember.
Jesus Christ was not a soldier. Yet He sacrificed His life for a purpose much greater than the honor of a nation, or the freedom of family and friends. His sacrifice opened a way for us to be reconciled with God– to be declared righteous and Holy, in spite of what we have done (or failed to do). Our best efforts may end in tragic death on a battlefield– or in a hospital bed fighting cancer or AIDS. But our best efforts end in death. His best efforts destroyed the power of Death, and offered hope to all the world.
Memorial Day comes once a year in my country. Other nations have similar days. It is important to remember those who have come before– those who have made sacrifices, and paved the way for future generations to live free. But around the world, Christians have reason to celebrate every day– to remember the death AND resurrection of our Savior that gives us eternal freedom from the sting of Sin and Death.
Before His death, Jesus gave his disciples a rite– a ceremony– to remember His death, and what it would mean in light of His resurrection. We call it Communion or Eucharist– the “body” and “blood” of Christ–consumed and memorialized each time we take it. We don’t hold parades or play Taps or plant flowers. We don’t have pool parties and barbecues. But we reflect with solemnity and gratitude on the sacrifice that conquered the grave once and for all!
Last time Any One Who Is Without Sin…, I looked at a few verses in the gospel of John (8: 1-11), and wrote on four insights. Today, I’d like to look at some practical implications.
If I am “part of the crowd” following Jesus, how easily do I get distracted by the “Pharisees” and critics? How often do I wander off track, looking at fine points in the scriptures that fit a particular argument? How often do I get caught up in senseless debates, allowing myself to be offended or riled up? Over the past several weeks, I have seen arguments via FB , e-mail, or other social media sites where Christians are using Bible verses, Church traditions, the U.S. Constitution, and other teachings and documents to defend such things as wearing a face mask, defying executive orders, practicing (or not practicing) social distancing, and condemning family, friends, and neighbors for taking a different view. We live in a society that reacts– often instantly and with confidence in our own morality– instead of listening and contemplating. We like building strong arguments to defend…scripture? tradition? interpretation? Jesus did none of these things when confronted by this mob. He didn’t dismantle their argument with more argument– he simply got to the heart of the matter– how to deal with Sin.
How often do I come to Jesus “knowing” the answer before I ask the question? The Pharisees in the story were not really interested in Jesus’ thoughts or wisdom concerning the situation at hand. They assumed that Jesus would have to answer in only one of two ways, and that either way, he would look bad. I may not be trying to “trap” Jesus with my prayers, but often, I AM trying to seek his confirmation, rather than his wisdom and teaching. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.” (1 Corinthians 8:1b-3 NRSV) Many times, I am busier “loving” how much I know than learning how much God loves!
For me, one of the most amazing new insights about this passage is that once Jesus introduces the phrase, “Any one who is without sin…” everyone leaves– everyone except the one who has been caught in the act of sinning, and the One who has always been without sin. Dealing with Sin is a very personal thing– both confronting our own sinfulness, and acknowledging God’s perfect righteousness. Everyone in the original crowd came to hear Jesus teach. And they were comfortable letting someone else be humiliated and condemned for her sin. But when their own unrighteousness was introduced into the situation–secret sins, unconfessed sins, pride, prejudice, and more–they melted away. How often do I slink away, unwilling or ungrateful to see Jesus show mercy to someone I find “unworthy,” knowing that I am equally undeserving, knowing that I am not “without sin?” Yet the sinful woman in question is the only one who receives the full light of Jesus’ love and mercy. Dozens of others, eager to hear Jesus’ teaching, missed the greatest lesson of all. In the very next verse, at the very next opportunity to speak, Jesus makes one of the most amazing statements in the Gospels, “12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”(John 8:12 ESV) It’s not just showing up to hear him speak; it’s not just knowing the law–it’s following him that leads to light and life.
Finally, Jesus grants mercy. He doesn’t split hairs about the Law of Moses. He doesn’t dismiss the reality of Sin or guilt. He doesn’t give the woman a long list of do’s and don’ts for the future or a proscribed plan of atonement. He doesn’t give her a blank check to keep sinning. The Bible doesn’t give us an epilogue to the story. We don’t hear whether or not the woman gave up her life of adultery– we assume that she did. But why? Would she have given it up because she had “dodged a bullet” with the mob? Part of the reason she was brought to Jesus in the first place was that Roman law overruled Jewish law. The mob was not likely to stone this woman– especially within the city limits. ( In fact, in the book of Acts, we have the story of Stephen, who was stoned by a mob. He was dragged out of town, after facing trial by the Sanhedrin, and stoned because of his testimony against their unbelief. ) Would the woman’s life have changed because her guilty secret had been exposed, even though she had not been condemned? Or is it more likely that her life changed because she had an encounter with the “One who is without sin,” and found in Him a love greater than condemnation? She hadn’t planned to follow Jesus. She may not have taken his teaching seriously if she had been just “one of the crowd.” She wasn’t singled out because of her beauty or righteousness or knowledge or status. But Jesus poured out on her the fullness of His love and mercy. How would/does such an encounter change my life? Yours?
The Pharisees saw this woman as a pawn worthy of stoning; worthy of condemnation. They brought her, intending to throw “sticks and stones,” accusations, and painful, even fatal words. Jesus used words of healing and hope. May we do the same today– as we approach our neighbors and friends, and as we approach the Sinless one who died in our place.
I was re-reading a familiar passage in the gospel of John recently, and I was struck by a truth I had missed before. In the first part of John 8, there is a story about a woman caught in adultery https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+8%3A1-11&version=NIV I have read this story many times, and even heard sermons preached on this passage. What struck me this time wasn’t exactly new material, or a new reading, but a new understanding of a detail that was there all along.
The story begins with Jesus teaching a crowd of people in the temple courts in Jerusalem. His teaching is interrupted by a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law. They have a woman caught in the act of adultery, and they come to Jesus asking his opinion about stoning her. They obviously know the laws of Moses, because they cite them. But they cite only a certain portion of the law, and they want Jesus to weigh in (so they can use his own words to trap him).
Jesus turns the tables, and passively bends down to write letters in the sand. He says only, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the accusers and the crowd– everyone except Jesus–melts away. Finally, Jesus asks who is left to condemn the woman. There is no one. Jesus refuses to condemn her, and sends her on her way, telling her to “Go, and sin no more.”
Four details I want to highlight in this story:
There was already a crowd around Jesus before the Pharisees and teachers arrived. They did not bring this woman to Jesus to get an honest answer to a question, or to bring about justice (for that, they should have brought both her AND the man involved!); they brought her to a very public spot to humiliate her and trap Jesus. She was a pawn in a political and religious game, and she was guilty of a crime that was punishable by death. She was accused and forced to stand before a crowd to be condemned without a trial. So often, I read this passage, and my focus is on Jesus and the woman and the Pharisees– I forget that there is a crowd of ordinary people being “played” by the Pharisees for their own purposes.
Jesus never answers the question at hand. According to the laws of Moses, the woman should be stoned. That is the point the Pharisees want Jesus to address. They have set him up. If he agrees with their interpretation of the laws of Moses, he should insist that the woman be stoned. But this will be in violation of the Roman laws, and will lead to Jesus being arrested by the Romans. But if Jesus upholds the Roman law, he will be turning his back on centuries of Jewish tradition dating back to Moses. The problem is that the Pharisees have resorted to some half-truths. The laws of Moses DO speak of stoning; they speak of adultery being punishable by death– for both the man and the woman involved. However, the Priests and leaders of Israel have not followed this practice. King David committed adultery with Uriah’s wife. Neither one was stoned or condemned to death. There are no records of other adulterous couples being stoned throughout Israel’s history. So it is rather disingenuous for the Pharisees to bring this case to Jesus and ask him to speak judgment where they will not. Jesus knows this is not about actual justice; it isn’t really about the law of Moses– because they are not following it themselves! By turning the tables back on them, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy and failure in front of the very crowds they are trying to impress with their clever plans.
One by one, the woman’s accusers melt away. But it’s not just them, it’s the crowd of ordinary people– the ones who were likely riled up by the Pharisees and teachers. Think about the mob mentality–a guilty woman, caught in the act and brought before a teacher with moral authority–there is nothing like scandal to get a crowd of anonymous bystanders worked up and ready for blood. Yet, Jesus’ gentle reminder that any of us could be found “guilty” of something and condemned to shame and punishment puts out the flame of anger and resentment, and causes the mob to evaporate. No one is left to accuse, to curse, to insult, to humiliate, or condemn.
Finally, it’s down to Jesus and the sinful woman. There IS one person there who is without sin– one person who has the right to throw stones, to judge, to punish. Yet he reaches out with compassion and mercy. He is still righteous– he doesn’t shrug off the woman’s sin. He doesn’t say, “Well, that’s no big deal. Let’s just pretend that never happened.” or “I think you’ve learned a valuable lesson here today, young lady.” He simply says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Next time, I want to address each of these details from a practical standpoint in light of modern circumstances, and what lessons I am taking from Jesus’ actions.
We are living in dark days– days of death counts, and dire predictions; of fear and grief and chaos. Masks, social distancing, angry outbursts, collapsing economies, job loss, political unrest, disease, plague–we are in the grip of a global pandemic. “Bring out your dead.” It’s a phrase from hundreds of years ago, and the horrors of other plagues and other disasters. Tombs, graveyards, skulls and visions of death abound. And yet, as Christians, we celebrate an empty tomb…
It’s been over a month since many Christians celebrated Easter (and almost a month for Orthodox Christians). How soon many of us forget the power of the resurrection. Our world is gripped with fear and anger. But we should be gripped with hope and healing. We celebrate an empty tomb– a testament to the victory of life over death, and hope over chaos!
Even when we use the symbol of the cross, it is not about Christ’s death, but his ultimate victory that we celebrate. Jesus himself even referred to the cross in these terms in John 3:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and religious teacher. He is referring to an historic incident in the wilderness, when the Israelites had rebelled (once again), and the Lord sent venomous snakes among them. Nicodemus would have known about this incident, but Jesus presented it as more than just history– it was a foreshadowing of God’s perfect plan of salvation! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Numbers+21%3A4-9&version=NIV God had Moses make a bronze snake to be lifted up on a pole. When the people looked up and saw the bronze snake, they could live. In just such a way, when Jesus was “lifted up” on the cross, he didn’t just die. He battled death to bring life to anyone who “looks up” and believes.
That ancient symbol of a snake on a pole is used by physicians to represent healing. The ancient symbol of Christ on the cross is used to represent redemption and eternal life. Combined with the reality of an empty tomb, we can celebrate life in the midst of any circumstances.
These are difficult days–even with the hope of eternal life, we still have to face the sadness and grief of death, the confusion and hardship of economic chaos, and the uncertainty of what tomorrow will look like– socially, politically, economically, and physically. But we need only “look up” and beyond our circumstances to be reminded that this is not the whole story. There is an empty tomb– ours! There is victory–ours! Won for us by the perfect plan of God, and the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ.
Tomorrow, my mother will celebrate her 87th birthday. Her life spans an incredible period of history. She can remember times of poverty and hardship during the Great Depression. She remembers hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio, and worrying about her father in the Navy, and her mother working long hours in the factory. As a young wife, she sent a husband to fight in Korea, while she awaited the birth of their son. In her day, she cooked on a coal-fired stove, attended a one-room schoolhouse, wore poodle skirts and saddle shoes, and used outhouses. She has lived through the age of television and the internet– she watched a man walk on the moon (in black and white) and watched the World Trade Center towers burn and collapse (in color) on TV screens in real time. She learned to take shorthand in pencil, to type on a manual typewriter, and has done data-entry on a desktop computer.
Mom has seen a lot of changes in her life. But years ago, she developed habits that have not changed. Every day, she reads a passage of scripture, and every day, she spends time in prayer and meditation. That doesn’t mean she is perfect–some days she misses, due to illness or unexpected interruptions–and this practice, in itself, doesn’t make her a “better” person than anyone else. But daily habits do matter. When Mom lost her parents and her only sister in a matter of nine months, and then lost my Dad just three years later, her faith was tested. But it never wavered. When she had to undergo heart surgery a few years ago, her faithful habits made an impression on the hospital staff, as well as her friends and family. Throughout the recent COVID-19 lockdown, when Mom has lived alone and had to deal with cancelled doctor’s appointments, limited access to medicines, changing her routines, not being able to socialize, not being able to attend worship services, losing a close friend, etc., she has shown resilience, patience, and faith that set a marvelous example to anyone who knows her. Whether her day turns out to be momentous, boring, disastrous, or just ordinary, Mom determines to spend part of it connecting to, and worshiping, her Savior.
This seems like simple advice, but it takes practice and determination, and help from the Holy Spirit. It is tempting to look at our lives in hourly increments, trying to fill each moment and each day with meaningful activity. It is tempting to make prayer and Bible study “part of the plan,” two of the many activities in our busy schedule. And when things don’t go according to our plan, we wring our hands and lament the “waste.” Even when things go “as planned” we still consider worship and meditation one of many routine practices, like exercise, or dusting, or taking a shower. But each day is a gift– each moment is more than an opportunity to be busy “doing” and “making plans.” Each day– even the ones we think of as failures and wasted time–matters. Every day is a new opportunity to see God or to hear His voice–whether in the beauty of a sunrise, or the tears of our children; in the aftermath of a disaster, or an unexpected promotion at work; in stillness, or the noisy commute; in success and in setbacks.
Daily habits like prayer and Bible study won’t change the circumstances that come our way; they won’t necessarily help us make plans that make life easier or less frustrating. But they will teach us to place our focus where it truly belongs–on the One who is with us every day and every moment, through good times and bad–on the One who holds today (and tomorrow) in His hand. It doesn’t matter that we fill out a chart, or make a certain goal of pages read or half-hours spent on our knees– it DOES matter that we make it the cry of our heart to seek God every day that we can. Seek His wisdom, seek His mercy, seek His glory. Today.
Yesterday had 24 hours, the same as every other day. Yet it seemed to zoom past, leaving me “behind” in getting my blog ready for today. So here I am, writing “under the gun” so that I can publish today.
Blogs like this don’t have “deadlines” in the sense of print publications or broadcasts. I don’t have advertisers or managers demanding that I have content by a certain time or date. There are no editors to determine the length of any particular blog post. This one is likely to be shorter than most, in fact. And God isn’t standing by waiting to scold me for being late today. It is my own sense of expectation that gives me grief.
But God has placed all of us in time and space with a purpose. We do not have the power to “stretch” time, to reclaim it, or to bargain for more of it. Time “flies”–and what we do in the time we have flies, too. And He wants us to give our time to Him first of all.
Falling behind on a blog entry is not a life-or-death matter. Falling behind in life is another matter.
I pray that today will be a productive day, a restful day, even a challenging day– and that, as it flies by, we will fulfill God’s purpose in it. And He’ll take care of the timing!
I know many Christians who cite Philippians 4:13 as their favorite verse: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” And while this is a powerful verse, and holds great promise, I think it has been misused and taken out of context too often in recent years.
The Apostle Paul wrote this– from a prison cell as he awaited trial and a likely sentence of death! And this thought is a summary statement. It follows a list of circumstances in which Paul had experienced needs, and questions, and setbacks, and lack of provision.
In this season of “sheltering in place,” I have a new appreciation for Paul’s letter. I am not in jail, but there are many restrictions (temporary, but seemingly endless) on where I can go and what activities I can pursue in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I cannot “do all things” in any normal sense. My family could not gather for Mother’s Day this year. We cannot have friends over for a meal, or take our grandchildren to the movies, or meet together for a traditional church service on Sundays. I cannot open my little shop to customers. I can’t go and get a haircut or hang out at the bakery or coffee shop.
And there are others who are struggling, not just with restrictions, but with increased expectations. They cannot “do all things” to help a dying patient, or stop the spread of infection in their nursing home or hospital ward. They cannot answer frenzied questions about timelines and protocols. They cannot work effectively from home and still be available to their children as both parent and surrogate teacher. Or, they cannot meet the needs of their students without face-to-face interaction.
But Paul is not talking about the mere completion of a worldly task, or achieving a personal goal. Paul isn’t suggesting that he (or anyone else) can do anything and everything he might want to do or that others might wish him to do. He has just finished talking about times of lack, of wants and needs and facing uncertainties. Paul did not (even with Christ’s help) skip lightly around Asia Minor, making friends and influencing people.
So what DID he do? What did he mean by “all things?”
Paul speaks often throughout his letter of “running a race.” Paul learned that in all circumstances, with whatever resources, whatever restrictions, and whatever obstacles, he could “run” his race. Under persecution or in times of great success; in times of plenty, or in times of hunger; in prison or on the road (or seas); in Jewish synagogues or Greek amphitheaters; alone or in crowds– Paul could worship God. He could proclaim the Gospel. He could spread the love and grace of Christ Jesus. If he couldn’t travel, he could still speak. If he couldn’t speak, he could write. If he couldn’t write, he could pray. He could do “all things” that were necessary to accomplish his one goal– to run the race; to finish strong; to live a life of purpose and worship.
May we do the same today, through Christ, who gives us strength. I may not be able to gather with friends, but I have the blessing of being able to call, or e-mail, or IM, or send encouragement. I can still write this blog. I can still pray– in fact I have more time to do so! I can do “all things” that will fulfill my purpose and bring honor to God. And so can you. What a privilege–no matter where we are or what our circumstances!
In some ways, all days are the same. They are 24 hours long; they include a morning and an evening (though in some parts of the world one always seems to be shorter than the other as we go through a typical year); and they fall into predictable patterns of weeks, months, season, and years. So we can identify a particular day as Tuesday, the 4th of September, or the 73rd day of the year 2019, or even the first day of summer, but Wednesday will follow Tuesday, October will follow September, and the 73rd day of the year will follow the 72nd.
Lately, days seem to blend together and get lost, as predictable routines have been put “on hold” due to a global pandemic. People complain about having “too much time” on their hands, or getting confused about what day it is, because it seems more than ever just like the day before. But that is only perception. Each day still contains 24 hours, and still follows the patterns set up by God when He set the universe in motion. God’s incredible design means that we can find comfort and stability in knowing that there won’t suddenly be a day with 77 hours, or six Mondays in a row, or a year without a summer (though sometimes it may feel like it)! Seemingly endless winters or dry seasons may be discouraging and even deadly, and we need to be prepared and willing to adapt to the challenges they bring, but we don’t need to give in to panic or despair.
According to the prophet Jeremiah, in the book of Lamentations, God’s mercies are new every morning. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Lamentations+3%3A22-23&version=CSB God never gives us yesterday’s blessings, or tomorrow’s mercy. God gives us just what we need, when we need it (when we ask, and often even when we don’t)! God never loses track of what day it is, what season we are in, or what will come tomorrow. So if you’re stuck wondering if this is Sathursday, the 41st of Marprilmay, or if you missed summer because it was on Wednesday this year, know that God’s provision, His Mercy, and His timing are sufficient, perfect, and brand new for Today. You didn’t miss it; you won’t be locked out of tomorrow’s portion, and yesterday’s disappointments don’t have to follow you into next week.
God is ready to meet each of us in a new, pure, fresh way EVERY day. No expiration date; no appointment necessary. We don’t need to sign in, fill out paperwork, follow seventeen safety codes, show ID, or wait in line.
So whatever day it is–and whatever kind of day it has been so far–prayer brings us to a God of order and design, a God of renewal and refreshment, and a God of Mercy and Grace beyond all time and space.