On Learning (Trying, Really) To Pray

learning to pray

I close my eyes. I fold my hands. I bend my knees. I breathe, in, out, in, out. I clear my mind: did I schedule the dentist appointment yet? I wonder if I should have salad  or chicken parmesan for dinner. God, it’s so effing humid out. I can’t wait till football season; was it really a good idea taking Peyton again in my fantasy draft? I’m not sure I like these sandals. I breath again. And then I … then I … I …

I pray.

But okay, hold up. Let’s be honest. I don’t really know what prayer is.

Christ taught his inner circle to pray with a formula: “Lord,” said the disciples, “teach us how to pray.” And so he did. He gave a word-by-word guide: you don’t know how to appeal to God? Here take my hand and I’ll show you. Don’t know how to give due reverence to the Father? Let’s start with “hallowed be thy name.”

Jesus laid the foundations, the stepping stones with which we, mere humans, could converse with the Almighty. And then-most importantly- he paved this pathway with his death on the cross. “To pray in Jesus’ name,” Timothy Keller writes, ” [is] to reground our relationship with God in the saving work of Jesus over and over again.”

Which is fantastic, remarkable, unfathomable. But this still doesn’t answer the question at hand: what is prayer? Is a brute recitation of the Lord’s Prayer the only means by which we can talk to God?

The answer- thankfully, gratefully, wonderfully- is no. Prayer, though it should never be less, invites us to expand on the conversation with God which Christ began on our account. And across Church history we see the personality of the saints painting the portrait of prayer in a myriad of colors:

John Donne prayed through writing poems, tediously selecting words, phrases, rhymes and meter to compose something beautiful unto God. Martin Luther was in the habit of finding a quiet corner and reading to himself, word-for-word, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed and finally some selections from to gospels or the psalter. Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic runner turned missionary, infamously spoke of how he felt God’s pleasure while running- the the other side of this conversation we call “prayer.”

The problem with such examples of prayer (if “problem” is really the right word) is that they focus on the personal aspect of a relationship with Christ. Since the Reformation, Protestantism has been steadily but surely pushing back on the once-held notion that the clergy (pastors, priests, etc) exist as mediators for the laity, the common people, you and me. The reformers (with due credit allotted to the timely invention of the printing press) insisted that all believers can -and should- encounter God through the Scriptures, receive him in the sacraments and approach him in prayer. Faith- and with it prayer- became personal.

Which is good, wonderful, necessary, and Biblical.

But, as with all things, needs a dose of moderation.

Because when prayer becomes just a personal endeavor, when prayer is removed from the context of communal faith, we also lose our framework for how to actually pray.

For prayer brings the believer into the community of the saints. The words “Dear Lord,” “Our Father”, “Precious Jesus kind and good (…)”; these words unite us to the confessing Church, like a college’s fight song unites its alumni. Prayer is not a matter of enhancing a personal relationship with Christ, boxing out everyone and anything and focusing entirely on his relationship with you. Rather, prayer is the act of taking the hands of believers before and around you, of approaching God’s throne as a member of his bride, the Church. The words I mutter at church, the thoughts I think (intentionally, aimed towards God who- best as I can imagine- is somewhere in the sky) at night, the Psalms I read, the times I yell in anger, shout with joy, laugh, dance, run- the flutters of goodness, hope, gratitude and praise that lift from my inner being…these do not isolate me as a believer in a personal relationship but identify me as a member of the universal Church.

In other words: prayer is personal, but it is also something so much more than just the expression of a single bond between myself and Christ. Every member of the choir matters; but it’s the joining of their voices in harmony and unison that the bridegroom has come to hear.

And this is of great comfort to me as I’m learning (trying, really) to pray.

Because suddenly my conversation with Christ does not rely on me. When prayer is seen as something much greater than my own direct line to Christ, when prayer is understood as a joining of voices, my shouts of “hurrah!” rising with the thousands, then prayer does not end when I open my eyes, think about dinner, speed-read the Psalms or forget to mutter my grocery lists of requests and praises prior to going to bed. When prayer moves outside of something that I control and into something in which I participate, then the act of trying to pray is itself caught up grace.

Prayer is not a pre-paid phone line between myself and Christ; the conversation goes on even when I hang up, or perhaps cannot bring myself to call.

Which is why prayer is not a test. The Tabernacle, Levitical law, Old Testament sacrificial system… if anything was, these were the test between God and his people, a test no one can pass. Except Christ. And when he aced the test, when he died on the cross, he opened up a channel of accessibility between God and his people. Prayer- this conversation with God- is a reflection of our relationship to God; and so it hinges on his work, not ours.

Prayer, ultimately, is not something we do, but something we accept, and partake.

We accept God’s desire for a relationship with his bride, the Church. We accept our role in said Church, the community of saints, the gathering of sinners now redeemed. We accept the conversation occurring between the Creator and created of which we are a part. We accept and the acceptance, the acknowledgement, the bowed head, still moments, whispered Psalms, and shouts of “hallelujah!”, these actions are not our own but are Christ’s. They are Christ’s who works in grace and through the believer in very act of prayer itself.

And so I do want to pray. And I’m always learning different ways: reading the Psalms aloud, five every day, the entire Psalter each month; repeating liturgical phrases (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy”; “the Lord bless you and keep you”; “the word of the Lord, thanks be to God!”) every spare moment of every day; sitting in silence and awe of his creation: a park bench, a food court in the mall, a scenic overlook, a sandy beach; closing my eyes and thinking thoughts directed to a God who wants to be known but- at the same time- one could never comprehend.

I pray. I try.

And with every breath I’m all the more thankful that the prayer does not depend on my technique, effort, desire, or even purity of heart.

Instead it depends on Christ. And therefore it is heard.

Thanks be to God.

 

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Why I’m A Pacifist But I Still Celebrate Memorial Day

memorial day

I’m a Christian pacifist. In light of Christ’s death and resurrection, I do not believe that Christians should execute criminals, wage wars or even posses weapons for the purpose of self-defense. While I hold these views loosely- meaning I try to be humble in my assertions and in my own ability to ‘walk the talk’- I also hold them with great conviction.

That said, today I am celebrating a holiday of remembrance for all those men and women who have sacrificed their lives in service to the American nation. Today, I am celebrating Memorial Day.

There are a couple things about me that make my adherence to pacifism somewhat unique-the first being how many people I truly love and respect who have served in the military. My grandfather was a pilot in World War II. He flew 35 combat missions over Germany, carrying a Bible in his pocket on each flight. Likewise my father- probably the person I admire the most in life- was an Air Force fighter pilot. And I have many close friends who’ve been deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and some theaters the average American isn’t even aware we’re in.

Secondly- and this is the real kicker- I myself am a member of the military. I currently serve as an officer in the Army Reserves Medical Corps. I joined the military because I wanted to be an Army Ranger. But a change of heart toward pacifist convictions led me to serve my commitment in a non-combative role.

All of this goes to say that Memorial Day raises some interesting questions for me: should I celebrate those who not only gave their lives but also took the lives of others in service to this country? Can I- in good conscience- partake in the celebration of military veterans and members? Is such honoring also honoring to Christ?

The answer to these questions came from an unexpected source: a fairy tale. The Last Battle is the final book in CS Lewis’ famed Chronicles of Narnia series. It’s about the final feud between forces of good and evil and presents one of Lewis’ more vivid depictions of heaven.

It’s near the end of the book that the good servants of Aslan arrive in paradise where they encounter an unexpected character. His name is Emeth and he was a warrior and a foe in the previous life, a loyal servant of the god Tash, a god erected in opposition by enemies of Aslan.

The servants of Aslan are befuddled, and understandably so. All their lives they’d known servants of Tash to be the wicked counterparts to their service to Aslan; how could he have been accepted into paradise? Emeth understands their confusion, and tells them he himself was confused and terrified upon arriving to find that Aslan was the true God, and his life of loyalty had been horribly misplaced. He fell before Aslan, sure of his fate. But instead of smiting him, Aslan kissed him on the forehead and said:

“Son, thou art welcome… all of the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me…Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites…For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”

 The Last Battle (pg. 204-205)

I am a pacifist. But I do not believe soldiers who fight and die for America are evil. I believe that- on the whole- they are sincere, brave, dedicated and remarkably loyal individuals. I can only aspire to be so true.

I don’t believe that service to Christ can entail violence under the banner of the American flag, killing for the sake of a nation-state. All that said: the loyalty of soldiers to this country, misplaced though I may believe it to be, is still much greater than any cost I’ve had to pay for my allegiance to Christ.

There will always be discrepancies in the ways we show our dedication to Christ. No one lives a life in perfect service to Jesus and I am certainly not the exception. Shall I then judge those whose service to their country they sincerely believed to also be service to Christ?

Because ultimately it is not historians, politicians or even the clergy and religious leaders who decide which side of the spectrum a person falls; Nazi soldiers were not all evil and American soldiers are not all pure in heart. It is not the stories as we tell that decide the value of one’s service; such deeds are God’s to judge. And no one else’s.

Today, I remember and honor those who gave everything they had: their futures, hopes, homes with picket fences, the sound of their children’s laughter on Christmas morning, the touch of their spouse’s hand upon their skin; today, I remember the men and women who gave their lives in service to this country. I may not believe in the country they served but I do believe in a God who’s grace covers all our best and worst intentions. And I believe that- through the blood of the lamb- God turns all dedicated service into beautiful and willing sacrifice unto Christ himself.

And such a God is one worth celebrating.

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37 Signs That You Were a Christian Kid Born in the 90’s

Christian kid

Growing up in the Christian subculture was a unique experience. As was growing up in the 90’s. Those of us who emerged from a blend of these two backgrounds share common-experiences, cultural bonds and traits that make up who we are- and what we believe- today.

Here’s just a few of them:

1.) All you need to know you learned from:

2.) You seriously questioned whether or not you should read the Harry Potter books when they first came out…because witches.

3.) This was what you watched at every youth-group movie night for, oh- about sixteen years:4.) Most of the anxiety in your life can be traced back to the Left Behind series:

Will YOU be??

 

6.) Avalon, Steven Curtis Chapman, Plus One, OC Supertones and, lest we forget:

7.) Speaking of which: you know all the words to “Jesus Freak.”

8.) …and your first AOL screename was derived from the title (JSUSFreakgurl3599)

9.) Today, as an adult, you sometimes feel as though the faith of your youth propagated an us verses them mentality against the culture and ‘the world.’

10.) When you started dating you learned the meaning of a DTR

11.) But then you kissed dating goodbye:

 

    (…and that hat too, I hope.)

12.) You’re not sure what Jesus would do..but he sure as h-e-doublehockeysticks would wear this bracelet:

13.) …and ironically (though not until now) your entire conservative, non-denominational youth group all wore rainbow versions of the above-mentioned.

14.) You had a lot of great experiences at church as a child, but sometimes feel like God was missing from them; and now you struggle to see how that faith is relevant to this life.

15.) You weren’t allowed to watch the Simpsons…because they make fun of Christians!

(though it does justify your previously mentioned anxieties about Harry Potter).

16.) You didn’t shop at Abercrombie and Fitch but did buy:

17.) You wanted (and tried) to vote Republican– at age 9.

18.) You can finish this bridge: “Scanned the cafeteria for some good seating / I found a good spot by the cheerleaders eating…”

19.) The first time you went to Mexico was on a missions trip the second time was on an all-inclusive cruise…sometimes you get the two mixed up. 

20.) You didn’t date your first love, you courted them… and it’s about as awkward as it sounds.

21.) Sometimes you long for the days when faith (and life, really) was black-and-white.

22.) You think Nicholas Cage is a poser, because:

23.) The first rapper you listened to was Kirk Franklin.

24.) You remember visiting the Creation Museum for the first time- you wondered then (and wonder now) if faith always has to come at the cost of science.

25.) It’s not Christmas without Amy Grant and it’s not Christmas (evidently) unless you’re in Tennessee.

26.) Your first kiss was at the youth group lock-in.

27.) Your first broken bone was at youth group, during a game of red rover.

28.) So was your second.

29.) That youth pastor was fired.

30.) You’ve done communion with Surge and Cheese-Its.

31.) That youth pastor wasn’t fired.

32.) You got a purity ring on your 13th birthday:

33.) Today you are fearful that members of your church might find out what you did while wearing it.

34.) The phrase “Touched by an Angel” prompts nostalgia, and this never seemed weird to you….until now.

It’s like a face-off with the board of Planned Parenthood

 

35.) Harvest parties not Halloween. Done.

36.) You accepted Christ nine times- usually at church lock-ins. Today you often wonder about those in the world who don’t get a chance to accept Christ. “Is the Christianity orf my youth really the only hope?” You’re not entirely sure. And you’re not sure who to ask.

37.) But what cheers you up is when you read the Bible and encounter a story you’ve definitely heard before… on Veggie Tales:

In a research project titled Faith That Lasts the Barna Group looked to identify the reason why nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) walk away, either temporarily or permanently, from their faith after the age of 15. Their conclusion, after five years of interviews, surveys and case studies, was that

“No single reason dominated the break-up between church and young adults. Instead, a variety of reasons emerged.”

The most prevalent of these reasons being:

  1. Churches seem overprotective.
  2. Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
  3. Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
  4. Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
  5. They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
  6. The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

Christian heritage is a wonderful thing. But it comes with its share of baggage. One of the great challenges for those of us entering adulthood is rectifying the realities of faith with the questions of our world. How does Jesus matter outside of Vacation Bible School? Is the notion of ‘purity’ we learned as kids truly pertinent to faith? Is there room on the straight and narrow for our wide and over-bearing questions? Where do I belong? 

What we have to remember- what we’re coming to learn- is these 37 things are not the cornerstone of our faith. The foundation of Christian faith is not what we do, how we identify ourselves or the way we grew up- the foundation of Christian faith is grace. Grace that permeates our homes, childhood and new beginnings; grace that opens up the gates and invites all to enter; grace that answers our questions with a gentle smile; grace that confronts our doubt with outstretched hands; grace that reminds us that we are caught up in it every minute of every day.

Maybe we can come to see our upbringing with all its traits, flaws, debaucheries, guffaws, legalities and nuances– maybe we can come to see these, not as relics of our disillusionment but as the quirky means of ordinary grace.

If we can accomplish this then maybe, just maybe, our reasons for leaving the faith can become the transformative means of God’s grace in this ongoing journey. Maybe we can take the good and the bad, knowing that Christ sees all of it as somewhat peculiar (at best) and yet loves us anyway. Maybe we can reform our hearts instead of leaving our traditions. Maybe renewal is possible and redemption- even of the most idiotic aspects of our backgrounds- does have a chance.

Maybe. Just maybe.

If nothing else, it’s worth a try.