Am I a “Picky” Pray-er?

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.

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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.

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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!

Sticks and Stones

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.

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  • 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. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 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!
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  • 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?
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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.

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Any One Who Is Without Sin…

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).

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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.”

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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.”
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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.

Where Can I Hide?

Psalm 139 New King James Version (NKJV)

For the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David.

139 O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You [a]comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word on my tongue,
But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether.
You have [b]hedged me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is high, I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in [c]hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall [d]fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
12 Indeed, the darkness [e]shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.

13 For You formed my inward parts;
You [f]covered me in my mother’s womb.
14 I will praise You, for [g]I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
15 My [h]frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.

17 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!
How great is the sum of them!
18 If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand;
When I awake, I am still with You.

19 Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God!
Depart from me, therefore, you [i]bloodthirsty men.
20 For they speak against You wickedly;
[j]Your enemies take Your name in vain.
21 Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?
22 I hate them with [k]perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me, and know my anxieties;
24 And see if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.

We can’t hide from God. We can ignore Him, deny His existence, even rage against Him. But we cannot escape His Spirit. We cannot hide who we are or what we think from Him. And we cannot flee from His goodness or mercy; we cannot run beyond His ability to restore us, heal us, or save us. He knows the worst about us, and He calls us to the very best we can be. Which begs the question– Why would we want to escape from God? Why do we try to hide from Him? What is it about God that would give us a reason to flee?

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There are many terrifying things in this world–right now, we are faced with a global pandemic; a plague that brings sickness and death. Now THAT is something worth hiding from! Many of us are “sheltering in place,” trying to hide out until it is safer to interact with others. The disease seems to be everywhere–but it really isn’t– it cannot go where there are no hosts to carry the virus. It can be spread wherever we find other people who are infected, or where the virus lingers on surfaces. The disease does not seek us out or come searching for us if we stay put. Unfortunately, “sheltering in place” comes with its own dangers. We cannot survive long in a bubble. We are interdependent. We need food, medicine, fresh air, and interaction with family and friends to survive and thrive. Hiding away from a tiny virus is only effective in the short term. And there are other diseases from which we cannot hide– cancer and heart disease, and even other viruses that are active, but haven’t been traced or identified.

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There are other terrors that we try to escape by fleeing– hurricanes, fires, floods, war, etc. And we may escape immediate danger from such terrors–if we have advance warning or if we have the means to escape. But there is no place of absolute safety: no place on earth where such dangers cannot exist. There is no Utopia– no earthly dwelling, community, or settlement where there is only goodness, harmony, peace, and plenty. There is no place to hide, and no place of escape.

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It is understandable that we should want to hide from danger or flee bad things, even if such escape is impossible in life. But why should we wish to hide from a loving and merciful God? Is He as bad as COVID-19? Is He as threatening as a hurricane or an air raid?

Certainly, He is as powerful (and even more) than any of the dangers we fear. God has the power, and the authority, to judge, punish, and destroy all who live on the planet. He has the power to obliterate all of His creation, and none of us could stop Him or challenge His right to do as He pleases. And if we should challenge God’s authority, we would be wise to want to run away, hide, or escape the consequences of such foolishness.

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Adam and Eve tried this long ago. After they sinned by eating the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they hid from God. And God’s response was not instant obliteration. He didn’t storm through Eden, destroying everything in His righteous anger before torturing Eve, making Adam watch in horror before He killed them both. Nor did God negate His Holiness by changing the consequences of sin. Death DID enter creation– along with disease, pain, guilt, envy, hatred, lying, greed, destruction– they all exist, persist, and continue to plague all of God’s creation to this day.

But God’s first act–His first words to Adam and Eve after their rebellion– was to seek their presence. God came to walk in the Garden; to meet with Adam and Eve. He called out to them, “Where are you?” He wasn’t asking because He didn’t know that they were hiding. He knew where they were, and why. And even in assigning their punishment, God did not throw extra guilt and recrimination at the fallen couple. He didn’t shout, “How could you do this to ME?!” “How dare you!” “I wish I’d never made you!” “You’re worthless. What a waste of time and energy. Get out of my garden! I never want to see you or hear from you again!”

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God’s Spirit is always seeking reconciliation, communion, restoration, and love. God is Holy, and God is Merciful. Holiness desires Whole-ness. Mercy desires Peace. God pursues us, not because He wants to infect us or devour us or destroy us– God wants to hold us, heal us, and give us Life.

The danger is not in God’s presence, but in our ability to reject it. God is everywhere, but not everyone will see Him, accept His authority, or welcome His mercy. Some will spend a lifetime hiding and fleeing, only to discover that God will, reluctantly, give them what they want– an eternity without Him. Without Grace, without Love, without Peace, without Wholeness, without Hope.

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That is a fate far worse than waking up to “shelter in place,” or even suffering through a virus that can separate us from loved ones for weeks, months, or even a short lifetime.

There are many things worth fleeing in life– But we can find joy, hope, and peace in the presence of a Loving and Omnipresent God.

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Christians, Christ-followers, and Jesus Freaks

I see a lot of articles, posts, and religious sites as I wander around the internet. And there has been a lot written and shared lately about the word Christian getting a “bad rap.” Many writers and church goers are no longer comfortable calling themselves Christians. They don’t want to be identified with “bad” Christians– hypocrites, political extremists, etc., who loudly and proudly use the label while treating others with contempt, and generally acting like bullies and/or clowns. The growing trend is to use the term “Christ-follower” to describe a lifestyle that seeks to mirror that of Jesus Christ during His life on earth.

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Proponents of this practice point out that Jesus never called His followers “Christians.” Instead, He consistently invited people to “Follow me.” The term “Christian” is associated with the earliest Gentile churches and with the scattering of the persecuted church across Judea, Samaria, and Asia Minor. The term originated in Antioch a few years after Jesus’ resurrection:

19 Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. 20 But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. 22 Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. 23 When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. 24 For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. 26 And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. (emphasis added)

Acts 11:19-26 (NKJV via biblegateway.com)

For a more detailed look, check out this link: http://www.bible.ca/ef/expository-acts-11-19-26.htm

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Christian was not a positive or honorable label for the early followers of Jesus Christ. There are still many places in the world where the label “Christian” invites arrests, beatings, and death threats. There are places where the name “Christian” invites scorn and derision. What has changed (or seems to have changed) in the intervening years is that we see and hear of more and more places in the world where the label “Christian” brings up images of sneering protesters condemning gays or smug white faces spouting self-righteous phrases to justify greed, racism, and/or injustice. “Christians” are not just unwanted or misunderstood by others–Christians are unwanted by their own; misunderstood and misrepresented, at odds and at war with one another.

So what can be gained by followers of Jesus Christ in re-branding themselves as “Christ-followers?” After all, it’s just a name. In the 1960s, many Christians were condescendingly labeled “Jesus Freaks.” Jesus Freaks were viewed much like Hippies. They spoke of Peace and Love and Acceptance. They taught about kindness and unity. They were often young, and generally disillusioned with the older generation and its way of life. They acted a lot like Hippies; they just didn’t do as much experimenting with drugs and free sex. Much like the early Christians, they were labeled by those who dismissed their message and their way of life. They rejected traditional or mainstream Christianity, and were dismissed by many who called themselves Christians. Some were openly critical of previous generations of Christians. Many of those who wish to be called “Christ-followers” now are the descendants (or remnants) of the Jesus Freaks of the 60s. The mind set is very similar– disillusionment with others who have misused or abused the name of Christ, and a desire to “rescue” the reputation of the church.

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There have been other groups across the centuries who have tried to re-brand and re-label their devotion to Jesus– God-fearers, Disciples, Reformers, Witnesses, Saints, Fellowships, etc.. And there is no command in Scripture that we must all call ourselves by a particular label.

But is seems odd to me that the very label, “Christian,” that came about because of persecution, that came about as a derisive, sneering, condescending term, was embraced by those it sought to shame and intimidate. Why didn’t the original “Christians” re-brand themselves to make their cause less offensive? Why has this term, “Christian,” endured over the centuries?

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I think there are a few very good reasons:

  1. “Christians” bear the name of Christ, whatever other name they give themselves. When I say I am a Christian, I know that there are people who will compare me to others who make this claim. But I am not just a member of a group that likes the idea of Christ; I’m not just a Facebook follower of Christ, or a fan of Christ, or a student of Christ. Christ is my Lord; my life; my identity. Christ– Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. Not Joe Smith down the road who also attends my church, or a famous evangelist or Bible teacher, or even one of the Apostles, or Saints. Jesus– son of Mary and Joseph; Son of God and Son of Man. This same Christ was arrested, given a sham trial, condemned to be crucified like a common criminal, and hung, naked and tortured before a mocking crowd. He was humiliated, misunderstood, and abandoned by those who claimed to care the most. THAT is the name I willingly bear.
  2. “Christian” is a label. I can label myself in any number of different ways– “Woman,” “American,” “Caucasian,” “College graduate.” But there are many others who can use those same labels. They may define what I am, but they don’t define who I am. I may be appalled (and I am, sometimes) at things other women do, at things other Americans say, at the history of Caucasians and their interactions with indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, at the snobbery of other college graduates…But I don’t say, “I’m no longer going be an American; I want to be known as a resident of the United States, but I have my own system of government and culture and language independent of those living in Missouri or Idaho or Chicago– they don’t represent who I am.” Of course they don’t represent who I am–they never did. We all, collectively, are Americans AND residents of the United States. I can’t decline to be a woman because I don’t like the way other women behave or speak. And I can’t choose to be “other than” a Christian…all I can do is give it another label.
  3. Finally, who I am is not found in a name or title or label. It is the sum total of my character and the way I live my life. Jesus didn’t tell His disciples that they would be known by any particular name, but He did say they would be known and identified by their love: 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NKJV). That doesn’t mean I have to approve of everything other “Christians” do– in fact, if they use the name Christian and do not have love for others, they prove they are liars– but it means that I must do everything in the name of Christ.
    I am a Christian first, before I am a woman or an American or any other label. That means that I am the co-heir and sister to a young man in India who has been rejected by his family and expelled from his school for being a Christian. I am an ambassador of Christ to the woman I meet in the grocery store whose children are taxing her patience and whose cart is blocking the aisle I want to enter. I am an example of Christ’s love to the young couple who have been victimized by other “Christians” because they are “different.” And I am a Christian in a world of “fake” Christians, and confused Christians, and faulty and very human Christians just like me, who need correction, mercy, justice, and wisdom to follow Christ, to die to self, and to bear the honor of His name. Ultimately, I can call myself a Christian, a Christ-follower, a Jesus Freak–any other label I want. Whether I AM a Christian or not will be determined by how I live, not what I call myself.
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If you are a Christian reading this– how are you bearing His name today?

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