Bakker and Bolz-Weber (Book Reviews)

If you’ve been disillusioned by church and Christians, I’ve got two books that might help you.

First, Jay Bakker’s Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self and Society.  Bakker is the son of famous television evangelist James Bakker, whose large ministry fell into ruins after a scandal in the 1980s.  Bakker begins this book with a bit of this story and throughout reveals the path he took from the lows of alcoholism and drug abuse to starting his own church.  I was actually expecting more memoir in this book.  There is a lot of it there, but this book is really reflections on grace, chiefly from Paul’s letter to the Galatian church.  We need more books on grace.  At times this book reminded me of one of my favorites, Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace.  Grace is scandalous and Jay Bakker pulls back the curtain to remind us of the scandal.  That scandal, for many of us who have been well-behaved (more or less) Christians our whole life is that God loves those people too.  It was Jesus’ message and it is still a beautiful message today.

Second is Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint.  This book is brand new, unlike Bakker’s which came out in 2011, and has been getting a good deal of publicity.  Bolz-Weber’s book leans more to the memoir side.  She gives us glimpses into her own long journey out of a conservative church, into drugs and alcohol (and more) and then back to faith.  Today she pastors a Lutheran church in Denver that reaches all sorts of people who are often not comfortable in traditional church.  Her book may be difficult to read for some Christians as she writes from her heart, complete with a good bit of cussing.  That said, if all you see is the swearing then you miss the honesty and beauty in the story.  Grace shows up again.

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Spiritual Disciplines – Simplicity and Service

This past Thursday at CSF we continued our discussion of the spiritual disciplines.  Once again we tackled two of them – simplicity and service.

Luke 12:13-33 was our primary text.  Here Jesus warns against greed, telling the crowds to beware storing up things for yourself but not being rich towards God.  From this we see the challenge of simplicity.  Over and over the Bible warns against wealth, as Foster says in Celebration of Discipline, “The biblical injunctions against the exploitation of the poor and the accumulation of wealth are clear and straightforward” (82).  I have seen many stories of people who take a scissors and cut all the verses about money out of the Bible.  They are not left with much Bible.

Yet simplicity is not simply poverty.  It is not so much about what you have as to how tightly you hold on to it.  If anything, there is sometimes a false dichotomy built between helping the poor and creating beautiful architecture, for example.  I have been guilty of this in my life.  There have been times I have been very critical of churches who spend money on a beautiful building.  I now believe this attitude buys into a myth of scarcity, as if God only has enough money for one.

That said, some things are a waste of money.  A well-known creationist organization is building a replica of Noah’s Ark and asking for donations.  For $500 a month for 10 months you can have your very own beam!  This is a total waste of money.  If you had an extra $500 a month there are myriad better ways you could use it.  In the same way, if you are a pastor of a church that gets big and you have the choice between buying the biggest house in your community with 3-4 times as many bedrooms as people in your family, that too is just plain wrong.  The prophets in scripture spoke publicly against the greed of some and there is certainly a place for that in our world.

On another level though, things are not so simple.  It might be nice if the Bible had a chart for us so that we knew what amount of income was okay.  We humans want laws.  But we don’t get any.  When I analyze my own life I can say I am doing well in the discipline of simplicity compared to some people, while others may look at me as quite greedy.  So it is not sinful to have a house or to create a beautiful worship space (I admit, the cathedrals I saw in Spain, making me wonder if I am on earth or in heaven, influenced me in this).  And those who give the most to the poor are not automatically living the simple life.

Jesus says that when you give do not let your right hand know what your left is giving (Matt. 6:2-4).  Lest we turn this into a law, we need to remember that we can follow the letter and give in secret and still be proud.  These challenges of spiritual discipleship cannot be reduced to a few laws or rules.  I think it is more likely that as we live in relationship with God, surrounded by a community of Christians, and immersed in prayer and scripture, that we discern what it looks like for us to live simply.  Simplicity for one person may look different then for another.

Foster’s solution is to follow Jesus’ teaching – seek first God’s kingdom and everything else will be made known.  But again, beware reducing this to a law:

“Should a person get a suitable job in order to exert a virtuous influence? His answer: no, we must first seek God’s kingdom. Then should we give away all our money to feed the poor? Again the answer: no, we must first seek God’s kingdom. Well, then perhaps we are to go out and preach this truth to the world that people are to seek first God’s kingdom? Once again the answer is a resounding: no, we are first to seek the kingdom.”

Just as simplicity cannot be reduced to a chart, rule or graph, nor can service.  When we talk about service on campus we tend to talk about programs – go to the after-school program, ring bells for the Salvation Army, come on spring break mission trip.  These are good things, but they do not automatically show we are living a life of service.  Service as a discipline is a lifestyle.  For some of us, especially at the beginning, forcing ourselves to schedule the service may be necessary.  It is a first step to developing a lifestyle of service.

But it is so tempting for these programs to miss the point.  When we sign up for a program, it is public.  Perhaps we go on the mission trip because everyone else is.  As the leader there have been a few times, such as after Hurricane Katrina, where we got a bit of local publicity for the trip.  Admittedly, that feels nice.  If we start going down this road though, service becomes more about us then the other we are serving.

As Foster puts it:

“We must see the difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry a great deal about anyone stepping on us, that is, taking charge over us. But when we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be incharge. There is freedom in this” (132)

I think how well we are doing in service is more revealed by what we do when no one is looking.

How well do I tip my waiter?

Am I willing to assist someone when it would be easy to walk past?

When I get an email asking help for someone at church, and I know 30 other people probably got it, and I already have plans, am I willing to help?  Or do I find easy reasons not to: They don’t know I’m not busy!  Someone else will do it!

What kind of neighbor am I?

Am I serving when no one is looking?

Like all disciplines, who we are when no one is around reveals our true self.

Recent Reads – Horrible Advice to Soldiers, Beiber and Trafficking, Marriage, Guns and More!

Shameful, Ridiculous and Cruel

Why on earth do people listen to anything David Barton has to say?  Not only is his history totally shoddy, but he teaches awful theology and ethics.  Whether it is assuming America is some sort of Christian nation so our wars are always blessed by God, or telling soldiers with PTSD to get over it, he’s a someone the Christian church would do well to start ignoring.

An Open Letter to Justin Beiber

Apparently Justin Beiber visited a Brazilian brothel.  This open letter shows the connection of, what to most people, is harmless fun, to the life of horror and abuse most prostitutes live:

A few years ago, I watched an interview where your mom talked about her childhood. She opened up about the sexual abuse in her past, and the lack of worth she felt as a result. In her teen years, she caught herself thinking that prostitution would be an easy way to make money. She didn’t go down that road, but she came close. Your mom explained in the interview that she totally understood how young women in vulnerable situations consider prostitution as a viable option to survive. A disproportionate number of people in prostitution are there because of lack of choice, not because of choice.

My husband and I just released a new documentary on trafficking and prostitution, and we actually considered reaching out to your mom – she’s been an amazing example of someone who overcame amazing odds to create a good life for you – and we thought she’d be a great advocate for the film and our mission.

Now take a moment to imagine if your own mother had entered the life of prostitution. Can you even imagine it? Chances are you wouldn’t be where you are today. Really, really, think about it. Homelessness, drugs, constant danger, a ravaged mother, maybe an abusive pimp, who knows. Raised in that environment, you could have ended up, dare I say, exploiting women yourself.

Women like my new Brazilian friend are trafficked for one simple reason- men with money are willing to pay for them. Why would you ever want to do that to someone else’s mother? Or daughter, or sister, or friend? You’re bigger than that, aren’t you?

Marriage: Who is it Really For?

I skimmed the article “Marriage Isn’t For You,” a bit ago when it was making the rounds on social media.  I thought it was a pretty well-written article with good points – marriage is about making the other person happy.  My friend Grace Ji-Sun Kim responds to the article from a feminist and Asian perspective, with a glance at the history of marriage:

Women had to endure this for centuries and much of this point of view still lies in the shadows of marriage today.  Women are constantly told to sacrifice and give up themselves and their bodies to carry and deliver babies.  Because marriage really isn’t about a woman’s body, it is about the survival of the family into which you married.

Women are also told to give up their careers or education for the sake of raising their children.  Remember, marriage isn’t about you.

As middle-aged women go through mid-life crises, they are again reminded to stay in a loveless marriage, because marriage isn’t about you, it is about your children, your husband’s career and about your family’s position in society.

Women who are living in abusive relationships are constantly told by the church to stay in the marriage, because marriage isn’t about you.  It is about the family.  Women cannot break up the family.

Women have constantly been told that marriage isn’t about you, it is about the other.  In some ways, it is true. In marriage, we need to give in and give up.  We need to make sacrifices and compromises for each other.  So Seth, I think you got it half right.

The Women and the Thrones

I read Game of Thrones back before it was cool.  Now it is everywhere.  This article analyzes the series as serious literature and is both thoughtful and entertaining for fans of the series.

Open Carry Demonstration: Its Not My Gun, Its Free Speech

I support your right to own a gun to protect yourself and your family.  You lose my support when a bunch of you stand threateningly outside a diner where four women are eating lunch and talking about how to keep their kids safe.  How many men with guns does it take to intimidate four moms?  The words “fake tough guy” come to mind – if you are real tough guys, why not join the military and go fight on the front line with the real men.

Neil Gaiman on the Absolute Importance of Reading and Literacy

I came across this lecture by Neil Gaiman.  You should read the whole thing.  Then you should go read a book.  And maybe buy a book for a child.  Because reading is amazing!

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy. (Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, saying if you liked those you’ll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.)…

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers…

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access toebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.

Spiritual Disciplines – Study and Solitude

Last Thursday at CSF we continued our study of the Spiritual Disciplines, using Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline as our guide (along with the Bible, of course).  Here is a brief summary of what we talked about.

If you read through the book of Acts quickly you may miss that those 28 chapters cover a large period of time.  From one chapter to the next couple be a gap of years.  We see this in the story of Saul, the persecutor of Christians turned disciple of Jesus.  When we first meet him in Acts 8 he is holding the cloaks of the men executing Stephen.  Then in Acts 9 he is on his way to Damascus to persecute followers of Jesus, his fellow Jews who have bought into the heresy that Jesus is Messiah.  On the way he sees a vision of this very Jesus and soon finds himself among those on the wrong side of tradition.  We see him preach for a short time, but chapter 9 ends with him in his hometown of Tarsus.  Then at the end of Acts 11 we see that Barnabas travels to Tarsus and brings Saul back to Antioch to work with the church there.

What we might not realize is that there is about a 10 years span between these two events.  Saul, soon to be called Paul, spent ten years in his hometown.  I imagine he spent a lot of time reading and studying the Bible.  After all, as a Pharisee he was among the elite of Judaism of his day, knowing the scriptures backward and forward.  When he met Jesus it had to shake up his life.  Imagine you are taught one thing your whole life and then one moment, one experience, throws that all into question.

The Paul that emerges in Acts 11, the writer of amazing texts like Romans and Galatians, is a changed man.  His many years in Tarsus, where I imagine he spent time in solitude, praying and studying, were certainly a factor in this change.

Study is simply the transforming of your mind (I don’t feel I need to explain what studying is to a group of college students!).  A key text here, from Paul himself, would be Romans 12:2.  When we talk about scripture, or Bible study, it helps to contrast it with meditation or devotional reading.  Foster says:

“A vast difference exists between the study of Scripture and the devotional reading of Scripture.  In the study of Scripture a high priority is placed upon interpretation: what it means. In the devotional reading of scripture a high priority is placed upon application: what it means for me. All too often people rush to the application stage and bypass the interpretation stage: they want to know what it means for them before they know what it means!  Also, we are not seeking spiritual ecstasy in study; in fact, ecstasy can be a hindrance.  When we study a book of the Bible we are seeking to be controlled by the intent of the author.  We are determined to hear what he is saying, not what we want him to say.  We want life-transforming truth, not just good feelings.  We are willing to pay the price of barren day after  barren day until the meaning is clear.  This process revolutionizes our lives” (69)

A devotional reading starts with me and my needs and immediately applies the scripture, probably a verse or two, to them.  Study is broader, beginning not with my own needs but with what the author was trying to say to the original hearers.  Study looks at the big picture and emphasizes thinking about the text.  If you are interested, Bible Study Guide 2013.

What struck me about Foster’s chapter on study is that he did not limit it to Bible study.  Instead study of anything and everything can be a spiritual discipline if approached in the right way.  I say it all the time at CSF, but your study in class ought to be seen as an act of worship.  God is calling you into a career and your study is preparing you for God’s calling – as an engineer, teacher, lawyer, nurse, writer or whatever you may become.  It would be absurd to seek discipline in one area of life (Bible study) and miss the holiness of study in another area (your classes).  Study as a discipline also relates to studying the world around us.  Part of this would be observing how people interact, another part is questioning the assumptions of our culture.  For example, what is good and bad about being constantly connected to technology?  Finally, study yourself.  This one is troubling for me, but as yourself questions: why do you like certain people? Why do you say what you say?

From study we moved into solitude.  Solitude relates to all the disciplines so far – prayer, study, meditation, fasting.  These are things we do in solitude with God.  But solitude is only half of it, we can also do these things in community – praying together, studying together, etc.  Both are needed for a balanced life.

Solitude is closely related to silence.  As I reflected on what Foster wrote in his book and on scriptures related to silence (like James 1:19 -My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry) I was greatly convicted.  I was struck by how many of my words go into defending myself.  Instead of just acting and speaking in the way I believe is right, and within that trusting in God, I often try to sweet-talk people into liking me, agreeing with me or affirming me.  What I learned in this is that the disciplines of solitude and silence help you learn when to speak and when not to speak.

Finally, in talking about solitude Foster brought up the Dark Night of the Soul.  As we’ve been talking about these disciplines, it is easy to give the impression that if you begin doing these things – if you pray more and read the Bible and fast and so on – then you will become closer to God.  Perhaps this could be taken to mean you will go through life just feeling totally filled with the Spirit.  But what if that doesn’t happen?  What if you do these things and God feels distant?  What if as you begin living out God’s call in your life you have an experience like Mother Theresa who, we learned after our death, felt distant from God for 50 years!

Part of the answer is in Mother Theresa’s life – even in feeling distant she continued to do the work, serving those in need, she was called to.  Further, we are reminded that our faith, like anything in life, is not based on just a feeling.  Mature faith lives in the way of Jesus not in hopes of a nice feeling but out of a belief that living this way really is fulfilling.  In other words, we are not generous and forgiving in hopes of getting a warm fuzzy, deep down knowing we’d rather be greedy and hold grudges.  No, we realize that regardless of how we feel moment to moment, it ultimately is more fulfilling to give and to forgive.

If you want to read more on this, check out my post on John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul.

The End of Apologetics (Review)

As I grew up in the church I had a lot of questions about things of faith.  It wasn’t until I got to university that the need to find answers to such questions became much more pressing.  My discovery of “Christian apologetics” was incredibly helpful.  I was overjoyed to find books like Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ, William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith and Josh McDowell’s More than a Carpenter.  Such books gave me a confidence that my faith was something more than simply what I was taught or had always believed.  I could be a believer and still use my brain.

A funny thing happened on the way to…wherever I am now – I became a bit skeptical of apologetics.  The more I read and studied, the more I realized that the answers I had first discovered were not as cut-and-dried as I first thought.  Or at least, they seemed satisfying to me but not to other people just as smart (I mean, just plain smarter) then me.  I was looking for full-proof certainty, an answer to every question, and I was coming to believe this was elusive.

Another thing that made me skeptical was that apologetics was often very simplistic.  Some Christian apologists would talk and act as if their case had no holes or questionable points.  It was as if the costs were so high in the debate that to admit any weakness was to lose the whole thing.  This was obvious to me as I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Unbelievable.  In this podcast a Catholic and Protestant were debating sola scriptura.  While I would tend to agree with the Protestant, his refusal to see any of the legitimate challenges posed by his Catholic interlocutor was depressing.  As I listened, I wondered if he really believed his answers and if he realized he was not really answering the Catholic debaters questions.

This leads me to the book The End of Apologetics by Myron Penner.  Penner’s book put into words much of the cynicism I have developed with apologetics over the years.  At one point he tells a story of meeting two young, boisterous apologists.  Then these two learned that Penner’s friend was not a Christian.  They immediately launched into their newfound knowledge, pushing a case for the Christian faith.  The man did not convert in light of their air-tight presentation, no doubt feeling a bit dehumanized, as they failed to take into account his reasons for not being a Christian..  And this is one of the problems with modern apologetics – rather then listening to the individual person, entering into the relationship and specificity of life, it mows down people with claims of universal truth.

Penner argues that apologetics is a threat to Christians because, as it is often done today, it is totally influenced by the modern, Enlightenment worldview.  Many Christian apologists write and speak as if this view of the world, its use of logic primarily, is part and parcel of a Christian worldview.  The very idea that we can all leave our individual lives and enter into a neutral public space where we leave our biases behind and approach discussion objectively is swallowed uncritically by apologists.  Upon examination, informed by a post-modern view of the world, we see the flaws in this worldview and with it the flaws in apologetics.  Yet modern apologists are blinded to these flaws, even seeing them as part of the gospel to be defended (i.e., defending universal truth).   Anyway, Penner writes:

All of this paves the way for Moreland to draw his conclusion that Christian intellectuals have the moral and spiritual responsibility to defend not just the truths of the Christian faith but also the very philosophical systems and concepts that make it possible to assert them as knowledge (according to modern criteria). Penner, Myron B. (2013-07-01). End of Apologetics, The: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Kindle Locations 650-653). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In other words, the problem is that much Christian apologetics ends up defending a specific philosophy rather then the gospel.  And speaking of philosophy, this book is a bit academic and heavy on the philosophy.  (By the way, once Penner started quoting Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age he had me.)  It was more challenging then I expected.  The target is not Christians who have just read a Lee Strobel book or two and attended some apologetics conferences at their church.  Instead it targets pastors and seminary students.  I guess the goal is to reach such people, to help them change their view of apologetics and for this to work top-down in the church.

There were a few questions I was left with.  Penner critiques the modern, Enlightenment view from a post-modern view.  Certainly the modern view needs critiquing, but I wonder if Penner has uncritically accepted his own view?  Penner emphasizes that postmodernism is an ethos, not just a philosophical view (as many try to reduce it to).  He argues it is a condition of our culture.  How does his argument translate to another culture?  I can imagine someone in 20 years coming along and using the Bible (as Penner does) to say that both the modern and post-modern views are flawed.  Of course, perhaps Penner would be okay with this as I think part of his point is that we are trying to reach a post-modern culture with a modern apologetic.  Such misfiring is not working.

Also, I wish Penner had spent more time giving a picture of what positive use apologetics could have.  It is not like modern Christianity invented it.  What about the apologists in the early church?  What about the arguments of medieval philosophers?  Penner would agree that there is a place for reason and thinking in faith, I just wish he had spent more time showing what this would look like.  What role does answering questions have in his formulation?  How ought a Christian go about engaging a person with whom she disagrees?

Overall, this is a great book.  It deserves a reading from pastors and campus ministers.  Honestly, it probably deserves a second reading to fully grasp all the points.  But hey, that is part of what makes it a great book.

Spiritual Disciplines – Prayer and Fasting

Last Thursday at CSF we continued our look at Spiritual Disciplines, using Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline as our guide (and the Bible, of course).  We talked about two of the more well-known, thought not necessarily well-practiced, practices: prayer and fasting.

Just to share a couple key points:

 1. We must be taught how to pray.  On one hand, there is a religious impulse in all humanity that has led to every culture having some form of religion.  To some degree, reaching out to God or the gods is natural.  Yet in Jesus’ day it was common for rabbis to teach their disciples to pray.  Thus it is no surprise that Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1).  I don’t think this means that God only listens if we say good or the right words; the truth is God will listen to whatever we say and understand our needs better then we can ask.  But being taught how to pray is for our benefit.  My own frustrations with my mind wandering and my words rambling is often remedied when I use the Lord’s Prayer or one of the Psalms to help me pray.  We see then the connection of prayer to the Bible – we learn to pray by reading scripture;

2. People in the Bible pray as if there prayers really make a difference.  This could lead to all sorts of fun theological and philosophical questions.  That aside, when we read scripture it appears that prayer actually changed things.  In Exodus 32 God announces the Israelites will be destroyed.  Then Moses prays and then God relents.  Other examples could be offered, but the point is that we are wrong if we think our prayers are just going through the motions and God is going to do what God does anyway.  We are not mere pawns living in a deterministic world.  Somehow, someway, our prayers do make a difference. 

3. Prayer is entering into communion with God our Father.  When my daughter talks to me, I listen.  I love hearing her talk, especially as her babbling is growing into words, sentences and conversations.  In the same way, God listens to us.  Through prayer we enter relationship with God.  As we talk to, and listen, to God we learn more about God and are able to pray more in line with what God wants to give us anyway

4. Prayer transforms us.  As we live in prayerful relationship with God, we are changed.  Foster quotes PT Forsyth who says, “Prayer is to religion what original research is to science.”  As we embark on this “original research” we are changed.  As Foster says, “To pray real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after him: to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.”

 5. Prayer ought to be confident.  Foster points out in his book that when Jesus prayed for other people he never concluded by saying, “if it be thy will.”  Such a comment may be fine for a prayer of guidance, literally asking God to reveal God’s will for us.  But if we are praying for something we know God desires – reconciliation between friends, healing for cancer, etc – we can confidently ask God for these things.  For more on this one, look up Psalm 138:3 and 2 Chronicles 7:14. 

6. Prayer for others is intimately connected to compassion.  As we begin to pray for others, we need to think good thoughts and love toward them.  And if we want to learn to love our enemies, a good first step is praying for them.  Through praying, active love begins to look more possible. 

7. Prayer needs focus.  My mind wanders all the time.  I appreciate this from Teresa of Avila – “This was my method of prayer; as I could not make reflections with my understanding, I contrived to picture Christ within me…I did many simple things of this kind…I believe my soul gained very much in this way, because I began to practice prayer without knowing what it was.”  In the same way, it sometimes helps me to imagine Jesus sitting right there in the room with me as I pray.  In terms of focus, it also helps to journal – my mind does not wander as easily when I write my prayers. 

8. Pray not when you feel like it – pray because you know you need to.  This is a basic truth for all things in life.  Your feelings are over-rated.  Prayer, along with any good act, is done not just when we feel like it but any chance we get!  It is a lifestyle.  As Foster says, “We must never wait until we feel like praying before we pray for others. Prayer is like any other work; we may not feel like working, but once we have been at it for a bit, we begin to feel like working. We may not feel like practicing the piano, but once we play for a while, we feel like doing it. In the same way, our prayer muscles need to be limbered up a bit and once the blood-flow of intercession begins, we will find that we feel like praying” (45). 

9. Prayer is the Christian battlefield.  In Ephesians 6:12 it says our battle is not flesh and blood but against powers and principalities; our battle is in the spiritual realm.  I think of the early Christians who argued that their prayers did more for the success of the Roman military then the soldiers did.  Whatever is going on in the visible world, the world of prayer is where the real battles are.

10. Prayer is not just spiritual – it requires your whole body.  What this means is that our body matters, we are whole, complete people.  This leads into the discipline of fasting.

Fasting

Foster says a lot about fasting in his chapter on it.  For the most part fasting is to give up food, though there are a few times when only a type of food is given up (Daniel) or when both food and water are given up for a short time.  The point of fasting is to grow closer to God.  Though there are times of public, communal fasting, in general fasting is an individual and private act.   Basically, we are free to fast whenever we desire.  Which for most of us is never.

Jesus says “when you fast,” not, “if you fast.”  Yet in my 33 years in church I have heard little talk on or encouragement to fast.  Either everyone is doing a REALLY GOOD job of the whole keeping-it-secret thing or not many of us fast.

In the end then, I just challenge myself and the members of CSF to fast in the next week.  Here are some helps from Foster for this challenge:

  • Choose one day this week and commit to fasting from lunch till at least breakfast (if not lunch) the next day.
  • Drink fresh fruit juices only (or just water)
  • When you would normally eat, pray and read scripture.
  • Remember – your body has been trained to expect food; when you first feel hungry you are not really hungry, this is just your body reminding you that you usually eat at this time. Take control and rely on god.

All Saints Day – Can the Dead Pray for the Living?

Today is All Saints Day, a Christian celebration of remembrance of all those who have gone before us in the faith.  It tends to be a Catholic holiday, but many other Christians also see values in remembering days like this.

I was perusing a few All Saints Day prayers and posted this one on Facebook:

Father, All-Powerful and ever-living God,
today we rejoice in the holy men and women
of every time and place.
May their prayers bring us your forgiveness and love
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

I didn’t have much time to reflect on it; I just quickly copy and pasted it from this site.  Then Junia woke up and my day became consumed with toddler stuff.  Through this I began to reflect on the words “may their prayers bring us your forgiveness and love.”

Uh-oh…I hope none of my non-Catholic friends deem me some sort of heretic for posting a prayer that speaks of dead Christians praying for the living (so far, no problem).  But then, why wouldn’t dead Christians be praying for us?  The Bible speaks of living Christians being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 11:1), referring to those who have gone before.  And there is the hope that after death we will be with God, as Paul says he desires to depart and be with God (Philippians 1:23).  Christians pray for each other while living, why would separation from the body end this?

I actually find it quite beautiful to imagine not just my living friends praying for me, but the saints (and I guess as a non-Catholic I would say all Christians are saints) praying for me right now in heaven before God’s throne.

Happy All Saints Day!