Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Shameless in Prayer

"For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Written on the heels of the Lord’s Prayer, this famous passage is most commonly used in relationship with our prayer life. Often times, this scripture is translated, if you pray hard enough and long enough, God will answer your prayers.  Has anyone ever suggested to you that if you just pray hard enough, God will grant your request?
While I am a big believer in the power of prayer, I am forced to consider the implications of this type of reading when prayers are not granted.  What about the couple who prayed for years and years for a baby but never to any avail?  Do we just say, “It must not have been God’s will?” or “God must be punishing them for something”? 
What about the young mother, devoted to her church and family, who dies after a battle with cancer?  Were the prayers of her church family not enough?  Was her faith lacking?
For two years, I prayed every night for my father when he battled Major Depression. Every night for those two years I asked God to make him better.  And every night I felt as if my prayers fell on deaf ears.
After my dad lost the battle to this terrible illness, I was sure that my prayers did indeed fall on deaf ears.  Did I not pray hard enough and long enough?  Was I not pious enough in my asking?  I know you have a similar story to tell, too.
Episcopal priest and writer, the late Robert Capon comments on this famous passage saying, “Taken literally, as a program for conning God into catering to the needs of our lives, that is pure bunk: too many sincere, persistent prayers have simply gone unfulfilled.” 

So if this passage isn’t saying that God will eventually answer our prayers if we are persistent enough in asking, then what is this passage all about?
Scholars will tell you that a better reading of the Greek word for “persistent” in this passage is actually “shameless”—at least in our 21st century context.  So if we substitute persistent with shameless we would get, “At least because of the needy man’s shamelessness, the sleeper will get up and give the needy man whatever he seeks.” 
And the Greek word for “get up” implies that there some kind of resurrection going on here.  So the original readers would have understood that this mini-parable suggests that the answering of prayer has something to do with our shamelessness in asking and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Like the parable suggests, our prayers are not answered because our prayers are reasonable or justified.  Our prayers are not answered because we have a really good personal relationship with Jesus.  Our prayers are answered solely because ours is a God who is compassionate and chooses not to leave us for dead. 
I believe we grow more satisfied to this answer on prayer when we admit just how ignorant and blind we are in our asking, when we admit that God is doing for us far better things than we can ask or imagine, when we can shamelessly admit that the answer to prayer is solely dependent on a God whose property is always to have mercy – and not on our own righteousness or deservedness. 
As one preacher said, “If we knew what God knows, we would ask exactly for what he gives.”  But the truth is – we don’t know what God knows and we rarely ask for exactly what he gives.  And when we admit how limited our understanding of God is, then we can be shameless in asking because in the end all of our requests are absurd as it relates to God’s final plan of glory. 
Ultimately, this shameless approach to prayer calls us to be less concerned about telling God what to do and more open to how God is answering all our prayers through what Christ has done, through the One who is risen from the dead, through the One who points to life even from the grave.  Or as many have said, the aim of prayer is not about changing God.  The aim of prayer is about changing us into a people who trust that God's great mercy is enough.
When prayer is seen in this light, prayer ceases to be a formula that is to be mastered but as a way to enter into an authentic relationship with the One who takes care of our every need – even when we hear “no” or “not yet.”  When we stop seeing prayer as a vending machine, we can be at peace with a future that is uncertain because prayer is about growing in relationship with the God who makes certain our future.     
Only when we die to the illusion that we are in control, only when we die to our pedantic version of what life should look like, only when we die to our selfish needs can we claim a shamelessness and death that invites us to see that God’s way is the only way to life.  And as Christians, we are invited to know that the way of the cross – the way of suffering and death – is none other than the way of life and peace.
On my last night as Chaplain Resident at Baptist Princeton in Birmingham, I was called to the Emergency Department after someone died from a gunshot wound.  When I made it down to the ED, the Doctor on-call asked me if I would go with him to the parking lot to notify the family of the death.
I was hesitant.  I asked, “Why can’t the family come inside?”  You see if you come inside, then you have to go through metal detectors.  I remember thinking that it was a terrible idea to go outside.  I could get shot by a grieving family member.  But the Doctor insisted so we went outside.
About 40 family members gathered outside when the Doctor broke the news.  As you might imagine, there were lots of tears and lots of screams.  The son of the deceased, who was about my age, couldn’t believe the news and asked to see the body.  When the Doctor told the young man that he would have to wait because it was a coroner’s case, the young man went off the hinges.
At this point, I tried to calm the young man down but all I could seem to do was add fuel to the fire.  Eventually, the young man said that he was going to go back and get his gun and shoot up the place.  This was probably the most terrifying moment of my life. 
I tried to reason with him saying, “Now is not the time for guns.”  And to that he replied, “What do you know?  Don’t tell me what to do.  You don’t know what it is like to have a father who was shot.” 
I stood there paralyzed and the only thing I could muster were tears.  There I was, the Chaplain, the “non-anxious presence”, the one who was supposed to invoke the name of God in this time of chaos, reduced to tears.
At that moment, we both knew what it was like to feel dead inside.  There were no words left to say.  And the scene became silent.  And then someone from the crowd began to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” 
One by one, we all joined in saying the Lord’s Prayer.  Our prayers were answered – not because Jesus magically raised this young man’s father to life, not because the Chaplain-on-call whipped out the magic prayer for the particular occasion, but our prayers were answered because through our shamelessness – through our tears and anger – our fundamental hope in prayer was revealed – God with us.    
At the end of the day, prayer is about connecting with the God who promises to be with us even to the end of the ages.  Prayer is about finding sanctuary in the God who is with us through the valley of the shadow of death.  Prayer is about claiming a faith that believes death is not the end but the gateway to life.    
Beloved, be persistent in prayer – not like a three-year-old who doesn’t think her parents heard her the first time – trust me – God heard you the first time.  Instead, be persistent to the point where you become shameless in prayer, to the point where you are ready to give your prayer over to the God who lifts the dead to life. 

Keep knocking and searching and discover in Christ a life where sin and death are temporary and ultimately things of the past.  Keep knocking and searching and discover in God a life where Jesus, the Bread of Life, is most alive in you when you are ready to be shameless in your asking.  Amen.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Words are Necessary

          This week’s Article for the Week which appears in your weekly E-pistle is entitled “The Missing Theologians.”  A simple question is posed, “Society knows what politicians think, and what columnists, movie stars, bloggers and dinner party guests think.  So why don’t they know what theologians think?” 
            You might say that society is distracted by many things.  Like Martha in today’s gospel lesson, we as a society aren’t sitting at the feet of Jesus hanging on his every word.  Instead, we are consumed by many things that distract us from the eternal truth of God’s Word.  Like St. Paul warns in his letter to the Ephesians, we are like children who get tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine.
            We get distracted by a cacophony of sound bites from politicians and movie stars and athletes and journalists and experts on social media who seem to be speaking with some kind of authority on the subject of truth.  And things start to get really interesting when the people making these truth claims start talking about God.
            It seems that our country is experiencing a deep spiritual poverty.  Not only has society tuned out the voices of theologians but society is hearing claims about God and Christianity from people who really have no business making these claims - especially not in the public eye.
            And let me be clear - this isn’t simply of problem of fewer people attending church.  In fact, the staggering statistics of fewer people in church is due in large part because the church in the United States is, in many ways, responsible for this spiritual poverty.  Like society, the church in the United States, is distracted by many tasks and has neglected to sit at the feet of Jesus.
            I can’t speak for other churches, but I feel that Episcopalians have become a little too cozy with a quotation attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “preach the gospel at all times and use words when necessary.”  I am certainly one of those Episcopalians, but I realized pretty quickly in seminary that I needed to spend some time at the feet of Jesus if I really wanted to be a preacher and a pastor. 
            In essence, this popular posture in the Episcopal Church has left the door open for others to talk about the good news of Jesus.  Think about that.  A faith tradition that is rich with words about life with God (just look at our prayer book alone), a faith tradition that is built on the work of theological giants, a faith tradition that has the capacity to synthesize a wide variety of theological doctrine and philosophical thought has, in large part, remained silent in an increasingly pluralistic society.
            I went to a church planters conference a few years back in Minnesota and listened mostly to stories about how groups planted churches with little or no denominational loyalty.  And you know what I learned?  A lot of the stuff they were using came straight from the Episcopal/Anglican playbook - our prayers, our polity, our theology.
            Of course, a part of me is thankful that others have found our faith tradition to provide valuable tools to start news churches that proclaim the good news of Jesus.  But another part of me wonders, are we going to use the gifts that God has given the Episcopal Church?  As one theologian suggested (paraphrase), “This is the Episcopal hour, but will they ever stop getting distracted by many things and return to the feet of Jesus?”
            I know I am a bit biased but it is becoming more and more obvious to me that society needs our voice.  Even more, I believe God is itching to use our voice if we would just open our mouths.  As I am sure I have said before, the when necessary is upon us.  It is time to use our words again.  It is time to sit at the feet of Jesus again.
            I will share some good news now.  There is a movement in the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations to come back to the table and sit with Jesus.  Like Presiding-Bishop Curry often says, this is the Jesus Movement and we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. 
            I hear more and more voices coming out of the Episcopal Church and the Church in general that are shaping our national conversations.  And if you haven’t noticed, we desperately need to shape many of our national conversations in a different direction.  On a local level, this is a lot of thinking that led to the decision of One Selma: Unity and Faith hosting a Mayoral Debate later this month.   
            And the really cool thing about Jesus is that his words speak to people in all times and places.  I posted an article recently on social media that spoke to the core of the gospel.  Guess what?  The people who liked the article came from every political and social camp I know.
            In recent days, it is becoming abundantly clear that Jesus is the answer.  It is becoming abundantly clear that the core truths of the gospel - repentance, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, redemption, and justice for all - offer the only way forward in a polarized society that is accentuated and even exaggerated by national media.
            In the fall, the congregation is invited to sit at the feet of Jesus using a resource called The Story.  The Story takes the 31 most important stories in scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, and ties a string that shows how the narrative of scripture is pointing to the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
            I know this might sound like a novel idea but it is one that is a part of our Anglican tradition.  In fact, it is an idea that is a part of one of our core doctrine’s that says, “scripture contains all things necessary to salvation.”  In other words, scripture tells a story about how God is saving humanity from evil and death. 
            And once The Story comes alive in our lives and in our communities, the conversations begin to change, lives begin to change, communities are restored.  I’ve seen it happen.  I see it happening in the Episcopal Church.  I see it happening in Selma.  I see it happening at St. Paul’s. 
            Friends, join Mary and do the better part.  Move all those distractions to the background and sit at the feet of Jesus and be fed by his every word.  And may God’s eternal truth quiet all the background noise so we can focus on one thing: loving and serving the Lord with our actions and through our speech.  Amen.