Visual prayers

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Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Yesterday I made reference to a couple of things that I pictured in my mind as I was praying before preaching. I never thought much of it before, but some of my favorite prayers are visual prayers. Rather than words spoken out loud or in my mind or written on a page, some of my prayers are just images.

One from yesterday was being doused with a cooler full of ice water, like the winning coach after a football game. I used that image in a sermon about baptism, that that image reminds me that I’m a baptized child of God.

Another was having blood sprinkled on me. When announcing God’s covenant to the people, Moses slaughtered a bull, threw half the blood on the altar and the other half on the people. That was their way of shaking hands on a deal. I picture myself being spattered with blood, the blood of Christ the cleanses me from sin.

Sometimes I remember Nehemiah’s supervision of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem after God’s people returned from exile. Each person was given a part of the wall to work on. So I’ll picture a wall being repaired and ask, “What part of the wall do you want me to work on today, Lord?” In other words, what task should I focus on today? It’s also a good reminder that I don’t have to build the whole wall myself!

I also love the image of riding shotgun with Jesus. I shout, “Shotgun,” jump in the driver’s side and ask Jesus (who’s at the wheel), “So where are we going today?” It’s a question that makes perfect sense to me if I think of myself as a follower.

When I am praying with someone who is close to death, I picture Jesus just on the other side of this reality, waiting to welcome them. It makes my spine tingle just to think about that.

I’ll have to go back through my journals and dig up a few more. Who knows, maybe this will end up being one of the books I’ll write.

 

 

 

 

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Taking another bag of idols to the curb

neonbrand-441844-unsplashI think I would do anything for the approval of others.

And I know I’m not alone. We Christians like to say we fear, love and trust God above all things. We think the first commandment “You shall have no other gods” is a piece of cake. The reality is that the god of approval has taken up residence and occupies a large space in our hearts.

Jacob, Joshua and Samuel had to tell God’s people to get rid of all their idols. Their tents were full of them. If they were going to be serious about God, everything has to go. I always imagine it’s bulk trash day, and piles of wood and metallic statues sit on the curb in front of everyone’s home.

I’ve never had anything like that. But the idol in my heart is much harder to extricate. It’s so much a part of who I am. I’m an oldest child, so I’m a follow the rules, color inside the lines, arrive on time, drive the speed limit, think inside the box kind of person. I thrive on being praised for being a good boy. I even like it when I’m teased for being too law-abiding.

Every “good sermon,” “great job,” and “thanks for doing that,” is another push on the bicycle tire pump that inflates my head a little bit more. It’s a shot of emotional adrenaline that I’ve come to crave. I don’t care if you’re just being polite or just telling me what you think I want to hear. I’ll consume whatever your serving. It all tastes delicious, and yes, I’ll have seconds, thank you.

There is a down side to this god that isn’t the true God. They have a way of consuming you. You don’t reveal your struggles. You pretend you can handle everything. You rarely ask for help. You withdraw, lest someone see you not at your best. You exaggerate — not a lot, just a little bit – to get more mileage out of a compliment. “Vulnerable” and “transparent” aren’t part of your vocabulary. Are you nuts?

Like any idol, this god can obscure the approval of God. His approval is so different. His approval has nothing to do with my performance. His approval comes despite my performance. His approval is solely based on his love for me, a love revealed in Christ. No pressure, no pretending, no manipulation. Just the real thing.

Thank goodness God called me to be a preacher. Each week as I prepare to proclaim Christ and him crucified, I am reminded of his love, and I take another bag of idols out to the curb. His approval eclipses anything they promise or give, so why keep them around? It’s my spiritual version of minimalism. I only need one God, the real one.

Every week before I preach, I pray. I kneel during the last verse of the sermon hymn, take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and thank God for the opportunity to preach. I ask him to open hearts to hear exactly what he wants to tell them. And I picture two things. First, I imagine a cooler of water dumped on my head, a reminder of my baptism. I’m already a child of God. I don’t have to impress anyone. Second, I imagine having blood spattered on me, just like Moses sprinkled blood on the altar and then on the people, a reminder of God’s covenant with them. His blood covers me, and I don’t have to prove anything. I make the sign of the cross, and I’m ready to go. There’s just one God in the room and I’m not him. And just wait till you hear what he has to say!

 

 

 

 

How about a few new prayers?

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Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

Every week, the prayer of the church includes petitions based on the readings for the day, for pastors and missionaries, for our nation and leaders, for the sick and sorrowing, and for those who will receive the sacrament. Then, I ask, “Are there any other prayers you would like to include?” As hands are raised, I make my way around the sanctuary to pray for other individual concerns. The vast majority of the requests are for those who are sick, having surgery soon, or at the end of life.

That’s OK. Scripture tells us that if someone is sick, pray for them. But aren’t there any other things we can pray about? What about praying for someone’s salvation? Or for a church just getting started? Or for some new ministry opportunity? Or for the community? How about thanks? Or praise?

Just mix it up a little. Otherwise people start to tune out. Let’s push the boundaries a bit, stretch our comfort zone, explore new territory. What do you think?

 

Just pay attention

jordan-whitt-145327Here we are, reeling from another school shooting. Usual post-tragedy rants about what should be done is in full gear, at least for now. As more information about the shooter emerges, there are endless questions and debates about school safety, guns, mental health, thoughts and prayers, politics, rights and legislation.

As I was working on my sermon this past week, I found a disturbing connection between an ancient moment and current events. It seems that asking parents to drop their kids off at school isn’t much different than God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22. I know it’s a harsh comparison. But in that comparison, I found some things worth thinking about. Continue reading

Go to your room!

ben-blennerhassett-336485One of the last minute additions to my Ash Wednesday sermon on Matthew 6:1,5-6 was Jesus’ admonition, “Go to your room!” when you are praying. (When’s the last time someone told you to “go to your room?”)

Praying in seclusion certainly has its merits. You can say whatever you want, in whatever tone of voice you want, and not worry about what anyone else might think. You can yell, cry, laugh, swear, spit, whatever. No one’s going to hear. It’s just you and God. You can wear whatever you want, anything from PJs to workout gear or nothing at all if that’s your favorite flavor. No one’s going to say a thing. No one will know. Your posture? Sit, stand, lie down, fetal position or downward dog. It’s up to you.

On top of that there are lots of rooms in which you might pray in seclusion. Like Jonah in a fish, Elijah in a desert, or Moses on a mountain. On a walk, taking a bike ride, In the backyard, shower, empty church sanctuary, office, garage, man cave, workshop, a closet, driving a car, up on the roof, in a journal, or actually in your room. My favorite: on a run. That when my thoughts really flow. A close second: at my church office desk, imagining Jesus sitting in the side chair.

Don’t overanalyze it. Just talk to him and listen.

 

 

Ashes to go

24hy432Early this morning I took Ash Wednesday on the road. Two things prompted me to do this. One was this article. The other happened last year after our noon service. I joined one of our small groups for lunch, and the cashier at the restaurant saw me in my collar with ashes on my forehead and asked, “Do you have any more ashes?” Because of her job, she didn’t get to go to her church and get ashes. It made me wonder who else was like her?

So this year I got myself and my ashes together and I went to a Starbucks near us about 6 am. I had told the congregation I would be there, and it put it out on social media, too. I got myself a grande dark, found a nice corner and sat down to work and wait for the next two hours.

As I worked on sermons and devotions, a few church members wandered in to see me. Some on their way to work, some up before their caregiver duties began, one on the way to Mahjong, a few others on the way to school. All would not be able to attend worship today, so all appreciated the chance to talk for a moment, remembering with ashes both out mortality and the eternal life we have in Christ. Several hung out for a little, asking about me and how I was doing. Eight folks in all this time around.

The coffeeshop wasn’t as busy as I expected. About half of those who came in had placed online orders, grabbed their cup and were quickly out the door. A couple of folks who were there when I arrived were still there working on their computers when I left at 8 am.

I enjoyed the coffee and the conversation. I may try it again next year. Perhaps I’ll make a little sign (though it was pretty obvious what I was doing.) Or go a little bit later in the morning. It takes a few cycles for people to get used to something new. I like Starbucks better, but maybe I’ll give Dunkin Donuts a try.

Always get a consult.

tomas-gal-434717They “did not ask counsel from the Lord” (Joshua 9:14).

That turned out to be a big mistake. The Gibeonites had heard of how Israel had won great victories at Jericho and Ai and were shaking in their boots. They needed a plan, and they came up with a good one. We’ll dress up in old clothes and pretend we came from some distant country. Hopefully they’ll have mercy on us,  and we’ll save our lives.

It worked. Joshua didn’t consult the Lord, but made treaty with them. Three days later they discovered that these guys were locals. Too bad, so sad. They had already made a treaty, and now had to put up with them.

Lesson learned? Always get a consult.

Easier said than done. After all, why bring God in on every little decision that has to be made? Come on, I wasn’t born yesterday, I‘ve been around the block a few times and I like to believe I’m smarter than the average bear. I’ll definitely call God in on the big stuff. But I can handle the rest, right?

On the other hand, how hard is it to ask, “What do you think, God?” He knows what’s going to happen down the road. He knows the truth behind the masks people wear. He’s not fooled by those who set out to scam you. And he cares about what happens to you. He’s always around, always listens, promises wisdom to those who ask, and looks beyond appearances to the heart and motivations of people. What do you have to lose?

So that has become one of my mantras. Always get a consult. When someone asks you to do something, or when you have to make a decision, when you don’t know what to do, or when you are absolutely certain you know the right course of action. Just ask, “What do you think, God?”

He may not say anything and let you decide. He may bring to mind some scripture that speaks to that. He may use someone else to guide you. He may close a door. He may show you another option you never thought of. Who knows? But at least you kept him in the loop. And he is definitely a good one to have in the loop.

But no matter what, always get a consult.

“What is God going to do?”

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Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

It’s been three days. Three long days. People are starting to get thirsty. And grumpy. And panicky. We’re in the middle of the desert – when are we going to find some water?

Ironically, three days ago they had plenty of water. Actually, too much. They stood on the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptians on their tail and no where to go. But God made a way through the water, on dry ground, and they traversed safely to the other side. When the Egyptians tried to follow, there was plenty of water to swamp their chariots and kill them all.

Three days later, three days into the desert, there’s no water. How many times did they hear the update, “I’m thirsty”? And the first thing they wonder is, “What are we going to do?”

Typical. At least for me. Maybe you’re better at this than I am. But when there’s not enough help, not enough time, not enough money, not enough whatever, the first thing that comes to mind is, “What am I going to do?”

How come I hardly ever ask “What is God going to do?”

God’s the one who brought them out of Egypt. God’s the one who decimated the Egyptians with ten plagues. God’s the one who parted the waters of the Red Sea. God’s the one who caused the waters to return to destroy the Egyptian army. So far, all the people had to do was follow him. He led them with a pillar of cloud during the day and the pillar of fire during the night. He would provide water, food and protection along the way.

When I was listening the the sermon at the hispanic service a few nights ago, one of the small parts I understood was the reminder that it’s Christ’s church. He brings the people together to do his work. It will grow exactly the way he intends. It may decrease at times, just the way he wills. But if you need anything, you go to him. He doesn’t expect you to do the heavy lifting. He just wants you to follow, trust and obey.

Maybe it’s time to stop asking, “What are we going to do?” and start asking, “What are you going to do, God?” That question certainly takes a lot of pressure off of me. It’s not “my” church or congregation or ministry. It’s his. My job? Preach the word. Watch over the flock. Equip the saints. And maybe most importantly, “Be still and know that I am God.”

So that’s what I’ve been working on lately. I’m trying to catch myself when I want to ask, “What am I going to do?” and rephrase the question to, “What is God going to do?” I’ll let you know what I learn.

 

Feliz anniversario Vida de Fe

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Pastor Juan Boneta from Palm Coast (left) and his son Pastor Moises Boneta from Vineland, NJ

Tonight, I had the privilege of going to a fifth anniversary worship service of Vida de Fe, the Hispanic congregation that has used our chapel on Sunday afternoons for the past four-and-a-half years. Pastor Juan Boneta and I have been good friends that whole time, so it was an honor to be there for their celebration.

It was cross-cultural experience for me. First, the service was sung and spoken in Spanish. Pastor Juan and his son Moises, who preached, did provide some English translation, mostly for me. other than that, I only had Jesus, Senor, Dios, Cinco años, casa, and hallelujah to work with. It was kind of a Pentecost moment, where many heard the message in their own language.

The service lasted about three hours, longer than I, definitely an American worshiper, was used to. The sermon didn’t begin until the two-hour fifteen-minute mark. It was preceded by music, prayers, special presentations and guests who brought greetings.

I was warmly welcomed by all and got a certificate of thanks. In my comments, I shared how one of our members insisted that we build a chapel as part of our new sanctuary building thirteen years ago. It was designed and served well for smaller gatherings. When we built it, we had no idea that this mission would be using the space. But God did, and both churches were blessed in the process.

I’m glad I got to attend, and I am glad I got home for the second half of the Super Bowl, too. A pretty good Sunday.