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“Do you want to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”

For most of my life, a personal relationship with Jesus was the center of my faith. The Biblical story was summed up in a personal exchange of my sins for God’s salvation. I’d never heard of “corporate” worship let alone collective guilt or confession. Social justice didn’t seem to matter as long as I wasn’t the one who was racist or going astray.

Today, my notion of a personal relationship with Jesus has been deconstructed, it lies like a thousand Lego pieces across the table of my spirituality. Embracing my role in the world beyond a one-to-one relationship with the Divine has been difficult. It’s led me into tension: the tension of seeing systematic injustice as my problem; the tension of holding numerous theological traditions in balance; the tension of faith that is nuanced and debated because it is witnessed by more than my own eyes. I’ve found what I didn’t know I wanted: faith that exists well beyond my personal status on the divine grade sheet.

But the pendulum has swung the other way.

My struggles with some of the problems that come from a heavy focus on one’s personal relationship with God has resulted in me neglecting mine altogether. It’s like I helped plan the prom but forgot to ask my SO to go with me. My rejection of an ego-centric faith has become a hall-pass for holding God at arms-length.

Take, for instance, confession. I’ve become rather comfortable with confessing my role in oppressive and systematic injustice. Which is good. The world needs more straight, white, men who point to their towers of privilege and declare that they’re feats not of architecture brilliance but of oppression.

But I can (and do) hold such sin at arms-length. While corporate confession should involve personal grief, it’s all-too-easy for me to bypass it. I confess the oppressive nature of my white privilege on my Facebook feed, close the computer and then go on with my evening. But confessing arrogance, gluttony, and excessive drinking? Those require that I shut up then pass-up on the second taco and margarita, even if its Tuesday. It requires energy and humility; it requires that rather than face confession as a “we” I face it as just a “me.” It requires that I stand before God, alone, just me, waiting in the isolation of what I’ve done to hurt others, waiting for grace to intercede on my behalf; waiting because some fires we start together, but other times I’m the only one holding the match.

All of this feels like a drift into legalism and shame. And it goes back to the root of my frustrations with an isolated emphasis on the personal. I wish that half the time I’d spent as a teenager confessing lustful thoughts to my ‘accountability partner’ had gone toward advocating against the police brutality that took place in my hometown. I wish that I’d cared more about how gay kids in my high school were treated than whether or not I was ‘saved.’ I wish that the core teaching of Jesus dying for all my sins had been corrected prior to planting a cavity of shame deep within my own being.

But if I live in the regret of these errors, I’ll only perpetuate others. You can’t hike a trail backward, wishing you’d taken a different turn, without wandering off the path altogether.

I may vote for generous policies for the marginalized but how many vacation days do I spend in a soup kitchen?

I may call for racial reconciliation, but do I have the humility to develop deep enough relationships with people of color that my own racist tendencies might come to light?

Do I berate misogyny but value my own recognition in the workplace above that of others?

I may advocate for sexual minorities, but do I honestly wrestle with the dark corners of my sex life?

I don’t believe that my calls for reform in the church are unfounded. But I’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater while calling myself an advocate for adoption. Neglecting my personal relationship with God quickly leads me to a faith that is directionless at best, blindly hypocritical at worst.

Grace is tension; it demands that I acknowledge the darkness around me enough to know when I’ve been liberated from it. It demands that I live in the tension of personal culpability alongside corporate confession and systematic advocacy.

I want to live in that tension; Christ calls me to that tension. It’s time to take two steps forward in terms of advocacy, but also find a way to take one step back, back to me and God, back to personal.

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These Stories We Tell

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I’m sitting in church and trying to listen to the sermon. It’s raining outside; the water falls against the window like sheets on a bed someone’s making in the morning. Inside the pews are packed. A baby cries; the couple in the next seat over whispers back and forth. There’s a teenage girl in front of us, her dress matches her nail polish; her hair pulled up in a bun with hormonal precision.

And there’s my pastor. A good preacher, really. He’s finishing a series on the story of Esther.

But a spark of movement beneath the pew in front of me catches my eye. It darts around the wooden leg of the pew. Is that a spider? I can’t be sure. But it is something, something tiny; ten of them could fit on the head of a needle. The only reason I know it’s even alive-even something- is because it’s moving so fast; I see blurs and imagine eight little legs rushing like blades on a helicopter.

“While the tale of how we suffer,” James Baldwin writes, “and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.” I read this in the memoir of a man who overdosed on heroin, and thought of it on hearing Esther’s story. Baldwin adds: “There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

No one has ever heard silence. No one except God in the beginning. But then he spoke and something happened, existence happened, noise happened, we happened. And all these happeneds, all the stuff of legends, religion, wars, romance and life itself, they all find their way into one word: stories. Heavens and the earth, an apple, snake, and the only permissible naked pictures in Sunday school; Israelites, a temple-tabernacle-whatchamacallit, slaughtered animals, a baby in a manger, a cross and a tomb. And now this sermon, this room, men dressed in suits, teenagers slouching and texting out of sight; a spider dashing between the pew.

What are any of these without words? Consider the following counter to Mr. Baldwin: “a light shines in the darkness.”

Plato once commiserated that when people started writing they began forgetting. A startling observation. Stories have always existed. But our means of conveying them -blogs, pop-up books, foreclosure notices and song lyrics scrawled on diner napkins- the words we use to pin these stories on paper were once just as novel as the microwave or internet. And they were, to Plato, as ridiculous a means of existence as Facebook to my grandparents.

The spidersomething darts back under the pew. Is it a spider? A tiny bug? A delusion? I am learning something just by asking the question. It disappears again, around the time of my pastor’s fourth point (it’s a Presbyterian church).

That’s the remarkable thing about stories, the way they dart to and fro, like tiny somethings beneath a Sunday pew. They never stop but sometimes disappear. They are part of our world and then they are gone, almost as soon as we hear them. And with stories that our minds wander, weaving the the tapestry of time. Until the story leads us from our need for a verdict; “only those who believe obey,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “and only those who obey believe.”

The story of Jesus is not that of a masochistic bloke who just happened to be God. It’s the story of a God who entered the story because he’s fascinated with the narrative and- befuddlingly so- the characters themselves. That takes a kind of desire that words- regardless of how inspired, conveyed, or regarded- cannot capture.

We’ve forgotten how to tell this story; we took the apple, wrote it down; we’re distracted in the pew and forgetful too. These stories we tell are nothing more than reality roped and noosed onto a few stubborn, fallible words. They are not the end of the matter; you do not train a stallion by getting a rope around its neck and hanging on for dear life. We are not God. We’ve no ability to hear them not told.

And so these stories we tell are themselves a confession, a confession to the power of the first word, the light in darkness, the God of the silent whirlwind. These stories we tell in our sermons, emails, love notes, sitcoms and mortgage papers- these stories are something miraculous and mysterious; if only we catch a glimpse as they dart back under the pew.

So we press on, we live on, we search on, and we move on.

And someday maybe we’ll remember; we’ll hear the reality behind the words. We’ll see the spider, confess our belief, and these stories we tell will become quaint recollections of when we didn’t know better.

And oh, the stories we’ll tell.

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On Learning (Trying, Really) To Pray

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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.