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Monday, June 24, 2019

Thoughts and Prayers

THOUGHTS Woman Doing Praying Hand Gesture are powerful things. Indeed, Jesus taught that our thoughts come out of our hearts, revealing who we really are. The Christian scriptures speak of "taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ." And those same scriptures are described as a two-edged sword, "able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart." Believers are challenged to "not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

Thoughts are powerful things... far from being meaningless or powerless, they reveal who we are, they can re-shape our way of seeing the world, and they can influence our actions and those of others. If I am truly* thinking about Hurricane victims, I am more inclined to grow in compassion and empathy, speak of their plight to others, and be moved to action myself.

PRAYERS are similarly powerful things, if truly* offered and practiced. As modeled in the Psalms, prayers cover the full gamut of human emotion and experience. Like music, they are a way to express the height and depth of pain, joy, sorrow, elation, gratitude, and more. Jesus further modeled and taught his followers to seek and pray for God's will to be done. Lest that seem pointless or without power, note that God is described as compassionate, just, merciful, wise, loving, and much more. To pray against racial injustice or for victims of natural disasters is to seek healing, justice, truth, mercy, relief, deliverance, and more. Like "thoughts" prayer aims us in a good and godly direction and releases us for action and ministry. Beyond "thoughts" prayer seeks to orient our wills towards the goodness of God, out of our own natural desires and self-focus toward loving, serving, and blessing the community and the world. True prayer re-orients us toward others as it re-orients us toward God.

So yes, I get as frustrated as the next person when "thoughts and prayers" are thrown out there as a seemingly meaningless phrase. But give me a person who takes thinking and praying seriously, and I am heartened for the influence and impact they will have for good on the world around them.

*Just as one can say "how are you?" in passing or "fine" in response, we do often throw out empty or near-empty phrases like "thoughts and prayers." My desire for myself and in this post is to lift up real "thoughts and prayers" that are sincerely offered and actually practiced as truly potent things in this world. (Similarly, an authentic inquiry of "How are you, really?" can open up significant conversation and interaction. That's a good thing, too!)

References: Matthew 15:19; 2 Corinthians 10:5; Hebrews 4:12; Romans 12:2

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Does the Church Have a Future?

Woman In Grey Shirt Holding Brown Cardboard Box

Recently I had lunch with a long-time church member and friend. Right after "You having the salad buffet?" he asked: "What do you think is the future of the Presbyterian Church?" He was talking about our particular branch (the PCUSA) and his question had been fueled by visiting more than one Presbyterian church that was down to a handful of elderly members as well as one historic church that had disappeared altogether. He also mentioned a report he had read about the overall membership decline of the PCUSA.

Now I didn't know all that when he asked. He just dropped the question and looked at me. But my mind kind of went in the same direction. I said, "It's struggling; that's for sure." I also mentioned aging congregations and difficulty reaching younger generations as well as retaining the members we already had.

I thought of the theological fights of the last generation, but I think those are neither or salvation nor our downfall. Or said another way, I think the whole enterprise that is "church" in the U.S. - Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, and more - we're all experiencing the reality of post-Christendom. That is, it is no longer an expectation that to be American is to be a church-going Christian. And I don't think that's a bad thing.

It's not new news that we are living in a post-Christendom reality. Europe has already preceded the U.S. by a generation or more, though because of church-state ties there it looks a little different. But why is it not a bad thing? It is not a bad thing because the Kingdom of God has always been other than the kingdoms of this world. It is not a bad thing because the Savior who became least and who sits on the eternal throne has always been other from the rulers in this world.

We have enjoyed the boost of a supporting culture for most of my lifetime (not to mention since the time of Constantine!), but that cultural support has come at a cost. It wraps raw Christianity in a coat of compromise and confusion... it becomes so easy to worship the cultural, what's entertaining, the flag, the President, our privilege, or the power of the country instead of the ONLY one to whom we owe complete worship, service, devotion, and love.

I am reminded of King Saul who heaped armor and his large sword onto the shepherd boy, David, in order to fight the giant Goliath. It was unnecessary, well-intentioned, but misguided. God's direction and power were what was needed.

The pews may be emptier, but we also now have the opportunity and clarity to empty the definition of "Christian" of all the add-ons and syncretism that have accumulated. That won't be automatic either; in fact, our default seems to be to long for the former days. But let's not miss the opportunity for God to shape our future more along the lines of "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done." That's a future I can look forward to!

Further reading: check out my "Hope" post from several years ago. 

Truth Landing: Speaking to Open Ears and Hearts


We are no longer to be children, tossed here and there…
but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up
in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ... 

~Ephesians 4:14a,15

Consider this recent online exchange I was following. Names are changed for privacy's sake
Timothy: Here's my newest hymn, written this afternoon and sung to [a familiar] tune!

Reggie: Will certainly not be timeless; destined to pass away and look very dated... Those who will be singing hymns in 100 years will not largely be [of your theological/political persuasion]. Experimental religion or radically political flashes like this lyric create almost nothing permanent, even though we can marvel at it for a few seconds, like a firework, before it disappears from sight and from mind.

Sheila: There is nothing wrong with writing hymns/songs/psalms for the moment and for a specific community... Reggie, please consider being more constructive rather than condescending. Also... only God knows what will be happening in 100 years!

Reggie: ...The fact is, critique is not condescending. I never said that writing for the moment is wrong. I said that it's bound to be forgotten.

Thomas: Reggie, brother, critique can be constructive or condescending. It is possible to say what you said in a constructive way (and perhaps have it 'land' in a more helpful way than it did) and I think you missed the mark.

What a real-world example of speaking (or not speaking) the truth in love... of the potential to build up or tear down. It may well be that what the critic had to say was legitimately true; he certainly thought it was. But it came across as condescending (AND an attack).

If we believe we have truth to speak, what a tragedy if the way in which we convey it actually drives people from that truth! We have done the opposite of what we intended. But if our words can 'land', truth has a soil in which to grow. In this exchange, Thomas could have piled on - "Reggie, you're a real jerk; leave Timothy alone!" But Thomas spoke truth to Reggie, about missing the mark... and Reggie was able to hear it; it landed.
Reggie: "Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others." That's from a prayer that I sometimes return to. In thinking about my comments, I think I've not acted in the spirit of this prayer. Asking Timothy to forgive me the offense I've caused.

Timothy: It is forgiven. Thank you for your apology!
Cross-posted from a blog post I wrote HERE for the Barnabas Center in Charlotte, NC

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Seeing What We Can't Yet See

Related image
I recently read an illustration by C.S. Lewis from his chapter on "Transposition" in The Weight of Glory. He is trying to explain the challenge of understanding (much less communicating!) spiritual things from the perspective of our physical/material world. (HT to Rebecca Reynolds for posting the Lewis chapter that prompted this reflection)
Let us picture a woman thrown into a dungeon. There she bears and rears a son. He grows up seeing nothing but the dungeon walls, the straw on the floor, and a little patch of the sky seen through the grating, which is too high up to show anything except sky. This unfortunate woman was an artist, and when they imprisoned her she managed to bring with her a drawing pad and a box of pencils. As she never loses the hope of deliverance, she is constantly teaching her son about that outer world which he has never seen. She does it very largely by drawing him pictures. With her pencil she attempts to show him what fields, rivers, mountains, cities, and waves on a beach are like.
He is a dutiful boy and he does his best to believe her when she tells him that that outer world is far more interesting and glorious than anything in the dungeon. At times he succeeds. On the whole he gets on tolerably well until, one day, he says something that gives his mother pause. For a minute or two they are at cross-purposes. Finally it dawns on her that he has, all these years, lived under a misconception. "But," she gasps, "you didn't think that the real world was full of lines drawn in lead pencil?" "What?" says the boy. "No pencil marks there?" And instantly his whole notion of the outer world becomes a blank. For the lines, by which alone he was imagining it, have now been denied of it.
He has no idea of that which will exclude and dispense with the lines, that of which the lines were merely a transposition - the waving treetops, the light dancing on the weir, the coloured three-dimensional realities which are not enclosed in lines but define their own shape at every moment with a delicacy and multiplicity which no drawing could ever achieve. The child will get the idea that the real world is somehow less visible than his mothers' pictures. In reality it lacks lines because it is incomparably more visible.

I find that it is something like that trying to raise children in the faith or share the faith with those who do not yet believe. We can teach all the stories and behavior and beliefs (and we should!), but until they have their own experience of the Triune God, it is something like that dutiful boy believing in his mother's artistic depictions of something greater... and also that feeling of 'blankness' - or sometimes anger - when a the faith of a parent (or pastor) cannot substitute, finally, for personal faith and experience.

Yet I also find infinite hope that one's experience of God is not, ultimately, up to my human effort. That final (or kindling) spark that is faith comes from God alone, and God is indeed faithful.

*The image above comes from "Flatland" by Edwin A. Abbott. It is an analogy-story exploring the limitations of seeing what we can't see using math and geometry. I read it in 5th grade and was taken with the (intended) application to spiritual matters. 

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Hard Hearts and Gracious Hope

Red Amazon Danbo on Brown Wooden Surface
This past Sunday I preached (LINK) on the need to balance truth and love. Then today I ran across a similar theme in 2 Timothy. In a chapter dealing with truth and error, the Apostle Paul holds out this gracious hope:
… perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth,
and they may come to their senses…
                                ~2 Timothy 2:25b-26a
God’s grace and His ability to transform the heart, mind, and soul of a person extends far beyond anything we can imagine. The hardest heart, the most stubborn spirit, the most entrenched position – it can all be changed if God is involved. This isn’t to say that MY persuasive words will change someone, but that I do not want to find myself working counter to what God would do.

It’s interesting also to note that what happens in this hopeful scenario is not that my opponent would become convinced of the truth, but that my opponent would be repentant. That is, the one to whom I am being kind, truthful, and patient, would turn toward God in faith. It is that broken and repentant heart that then leads someone to know God’s truth.

I see this scenario played out and subverted all the time, from the embattled positions held in theological and political fights to my years in youth ministry to my own parenting. Attacking an opponent, even if we are “in the right” usually just pushes them further from you and from the truth. Cultivating kindness and patience in a relationship opens hearts to hear the truth and change; it helps truth 'land' in fertile soil where it can grow. (And sometimes that soil is my own!)

*This reflection came from an extended series on truth and error in 2 Timothy 2, found HERE.

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