Prayer Requests

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jesus statue kneelingTwo or three times a week, I volunteer in our church office and type up the prayer requests from our weekend services. During that hour or so, I get a glimpse into the deepest, most vulnerable spaces in the hearts of men and women, young and old. I read of great joys – the birth of a baby, a son’s turning to Christ, a new job; and I feel the depths of despair – a miscarriage, a child diagnosed with cancer, a death too young.

Prayers are asked for job interviews, school exams, struggling marriages; for safety in war, peace with finances, release from fears, faith.

Only a few of the prayers come with a request for follow-up from a pastor or a volunteer. Some clearly want guidance in how to deal with the situation; some may just want to know that someone—anyone—has heard and prayed.

A number of weeks ago I came across a prayer request that spoke of violence in the home, abuse the writer didn’t know how to handle. They didn’t mark the “follow-up” box; I don’t remember if they even wrote their name or contact information, or if this was one of the several anonymous requests we receive each week.

It’s not my place to respond in those situations, and I trust our church’s pastors to act even when no action is requested. But that was one of the many times I’ve taken my hands away from the keyboard and lifted them to God in brokenness and empathy, and asked Him to intervene.

Other than the cries from deep pain, the hardest thing about these prayer requests is that there are so few, and so few seem to want anyone to come talk. On a typical Sunday, we receive maybe 20-30 prayer requests; that’s less than two for every hundred people in church. That’s staggering. Do we not believe in prayer, or that God answers? Do we not know that a team of people is waiting every week just to pray for those in our church? Or do we think that no one cares enough to want to read our burdens?

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, New Living Translation)

So many of our prayers are looking for peace – in families, in finances, in work situations. God tells us to pray about it and thank him for what he’s already done, and then peace will come. Peace that doesn’t make any sense. Peace in the midst of the struggles, the questions, the radiation treatments.

Jesus prays for us (John 17) and the Holy Spirit prays for us (Rom 8:26); God also says we ought to pray for others (James 5:14-16) and to let others pray for us (1 Thess 5:25, Heb 13:18).

Today, pray for the people in your church, in your neighborhood, at your school, in your family. Let someone know that you prayed for them. And let them pray for you.

Prayer is not reserved for the “professionals.” It is what we do. It is how we live as family, as community, as church.

Gratitude

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veggie-turkeyNow thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom His world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. —Martin Rinkart, 1586-1649

Gratitude is an interesting concept; expressing it even more so – especially if you look at it across different cultures.

In the West we tend toward over-politeness almost to a fault. It’s how we are raised, with “please” and “thank you” among the first words we are taught. Other cultures almost shun verbal expressions as artificial; gratitude is better shown through actions, such as gift-giving … which must then be reciprocated if one is to avoid offending the giver!

Our Western culture is also a highly intellectual one: we will study anything. Anything! Even gratitude. And then publish our findings. And that is just what Robert A. Emmons, PhD, did. The result is his book, Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).

Emmons identifies two keys to gratitude: recognizing and acknowledging. “First,” he writes, “gratitude is the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life. … Second, gratitude is recognizing that the source(s) of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self. The object of gratitude is other-directed; …to other people, to God, to animals, but never to oneself.”

I guess some of us just need more help then others. Like me. Especially today.

Thanksgiving—the holiday, not the act—is hard. I’m supposed to give thanks; that’s sort of the point. But feeling grateful isn’t an on-demand emotion. Or is it? Of the 70 times in the Bible the words “give thanks” appear, roughly half suggest an obligation or even a command. “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.”

Maybe what makes Thanksgiving hard isn’t my lack of gratitude, but our culture’s tendency toward over-politeness: we say thanks more because we’re supposed to than because we feel thankful – like when we opened that sweater from Grandma last Christmas!

Maybe Thanksgiving is hard because the words of thankfulness are sandwiched between over-filled dinner plates and Black Friday sales. (Like the internet meme I saw recently that said something like, “Only in America can we give thanks on Thursday for all we have, then wake up at 4:00am on Friday to buy more.“)

But maybe Emmons’ research can help me today when I gather with family around an abundant feast. I can acknowledge the abundance of goodness in my life—and on my plate—and recognize that the goodness didn’t come from me. (Well, except for the mashed potatoes.)

And I’ll give thanks. From the bottom of my heart.

(Psalm 136 is a good example of this acknowledge-and-recognize type of gratitude. Here’s a blog I wrote about that last year.)

 

Walking With God

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220px-hannah_whitall_smithMy knowledge of God … advanced slowly through many stages, and with a vast amount of useless conflict and wrestling, to the place where I … discovered to my amazement and delight His utter unselfishness, and saw it was safe to trust in Him. –Hannah Whitall Smith (emphasis mine)

I opened a new (to me) devotional book this morning and read these words from 19th-century Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith. Though I know very little of Smith’s life or spiritual journey, her description of that journey jumped out at me. How often have I wrestled with God? How often have I felt conflict in my relationship with Him, convinced God wanted nothing more than to squelch my enjoyment, my desires, my dreams?

Of course, none of those feelings of mine are rooted in the truth of Scripture that I have so long read and studied. My accusations fly in the face of such promises as “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4) and “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). Still, in the dark, discouraging days, it is too easy to blame God.

Learning that “it [is] safe to trust in Him” is a lifelong process. It is a journey of discovery that involves both pain and delight – just as we learn to love, know, and trust a husband or wife. Smith puts it this way:

“I simply mean becoming acquainted with Him as one becomes acquainted with a human friend; that is, finding out what is His nature, and His character, and coming to understand His ways.”

Learning to know and trust God can involve “useless conflict and wrestling” or it can begin by believing He is trustworthy, then proving it over the course of a journey taken with Him and “finding out His nature and His character, and coming to understand His ways.”

Fifth Grade

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fifth-gradeBeginning band (clarinet), soccer, and Mr. Dole. That’s about all I remember of fifth grade. Mostly Mr. Dole, whom we also called Mr. Banana or Dole Banana – and not necessarily with the respect due our teacher.

Mr. Dole was the teacher who told me I had bad handwriting. He may not have been that blunt about it, but it’s my enduring memory. For more than forty years, I’ve warned people: “I’ve had bad handwriting since 5th grade.” It’s why these days I type even the shortest note if at all possible.

Over the past couple months, I’ve spent several days substitute teaching in fifth grade and I think it may be my favorite grade. Younger kids are little too dependent; older kids are little too independent. Middle schoolers don’t know anything and don’t care; high schoolers know everything already and also don’t care.

Teaching fifth graders is good preparation for leading a church: they’re young enough to still love you just because you’re the teacher; old enough to think for themselves (sort of)—even if their thinking is a little sketchy, or if they choose not to think.

Some church people, like fifth graders, will love you just because you’re the pastor, but some won’t give you the time of day until you’ve shown you love them. Some church people will think for themselves; some want you to do all the thinking, so they don’t have to work too hard.

Fifth graders are very willing to let you know when a classmate isn’t doing the right thing—and what you should do about it. Kind of like some church people. (You’re voting for whom?!? I’m telling the pastor!) Fifth graders want justice (for the other kid) and mercy (for themselves). Kind of like some church people.

Fifth graders can be exhausting or exhilarating. They can be saints or satans, angels or demons.

Kind of like some church people.

Most of all, fifth graders need me to love them, lead them, challenge and encourage them. Kind of like church people.

Father, sometimes I’m like a fifth grader: still learning but too independent and inconsistent; loving but fickle, unfair but merciful. Help me to find in you unending grace, unfailing love, and uplifting correction. Even when my handwriting is bad.

Smart Minds & Big Words

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2016_annual_logoI spent a recent weekend with a 350 really smart people who use really big words. Most, it seems, are PhDs or in the process of earning a PhD. They come from and have ministered on every continent of the world, with the possible exception of Antarctica. They are pastors and missionaries and university professors; anthropologists, sociologists, linguists.

I felt … not out of place, but out of my league—like a weekend soccer player taking the field with  the likes of Lionel Messi, Rolandinho, Neymar, and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Evangelical Missiological Society gathers these academicians and missiologists each year to share research and practice around a central theme. This year’s theme was Missions and the Local Church — a matter close to my heart as a pastor, a missionary kid, and a missions practitioner and advocate.

Truth be told, I went for my own fifteen minutes of fame: I was invited to present a paper I had written about how a church I pastored sought to shift how and what we did in missions. But I have to confess: I also went with low expectations of the weekend; academic researchers are not always known to be dynamic presenters, and their papers are not always compelling subjects for guys like me who just want to lead a church to make disciples at home and somewhere around the world.

My low expectations were vastly exceeded. So much so, in fact, that I needed to take a break from the presentations that have greatly encouraged and challenged me in order to put some thoughts down on paper. (Or a computer.) A sampling:

In The Burden of Healing: How Pentecostal Believers Experience and Make Sense of Chronic Illness, Shelly Isaacs shared the stories of men and women suffering from chronic illnesses, whose burdens were made heavier by the unfulfilled promise and expectation of divine healing. The stories hit close to home, as I could relate each one to my own friends who also hoped, prayed, and had faith to be healed … yet never received the expected and desired answer.

Steven Weathers, a PhD student, shared research about ideologies that inform evangelical perceptions around Black Lives Matter. His words were often hard, and challenged me (as a white evangelical man) to again confront my own implicit biases—that is, those that I am not even aware of lurking sometimes deep in my heart and sometimes just under the surface. A couple statements worthy of noting:

Evangelicals are not countercultural, but call for personal change that leaves systemic cultural norms in place. [from Emerson & Smith; source unknown]

Black Lives Matter won’t matter to white evangelicals if we think individually; we need to think systemically. [Weathers]

These are particularly damning statements. They suggest we are willing to change ourselves just enough to be comfortable, but we won’t fight against the cultural realities that lie at the root of Black Lives Matter (or the civil rights fight of fifty years ago).

Some final thoughts from Ed Stetzer’s keynote address on Priorities for Churches in Missions: the decline of denominationalism and the rise of non-denominational churches has not been a neutral influence on cross-cultural missions. Historically, missions had a voice at the table with denominational leadership, and there was a clear and intentional pathway to missions through denominations. With the growth of non-denominational churches (400% since the 1980s—and now the largest evangelical bloc), “innovation is now a higher priority than missions awareness and engagement.”

Within evangelicalism, “missional” has grown while “missions” has declined; gospel demonstration has increased (a good thing), but gospel proclamation has taken a back seat (not so good).

We must no longer merely give lip service to balancing demonstration and proclamation; we must actively practice both.

In my own paper about engaging the local church in global missions, I included this statement from a book by three missiologists: “the center of gravity in missions has moved from the agency to the local church.” I think that’s a good thing; but Stetzer brought a tempering perspective: Churches are vexed about the nations, but don’t have the connections, training, or constructs to engage well and effectively.

The great charge to the Church is to make disciples of all peoples, everywhere. One of my great burdens is to help local churches do that well and effectively … whether it means engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, offering hope and healing to the chronically ill, serving refugees, rescuing victims of human trafficking, or preaching Jesus where His name has not yet been heard.