The Simplest Prayer: Thank You

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One of my favorite lines about prayer comes from Meister Eckhart, and it says, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” The profound truth within that line is that gratitude is at the center of our life of prayer, one of the foundational ways that we relate to God.
Gratitude in the Christian tradition points us toward God’s identity as “the giver of all good things,” a phrase that distills a verse from the book of James, “Every good gift, every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
But also, embedded in the prayer of gratitude is recognition of our own identities as receivers. Although surrounded by brokenness and suffering—which we sometimes taste ourselves—there is much that is good, and it begins with the gift of life itself. We are receivers of the gift of life…this is fundamentally who we are.
And this brings us to this most essential prayer, which is simply, “Thank you.”
It is a great place to begin in prayer. In fact, it’s the prayer that I’m teaching my two-year old son…we simply say, in a little repeat after me game, “Dear God…Thank You…Amen”. I hope that this simple prayer will become the foundation for how he relates to God as he discovers the profound gift of life. I hope that as he learns to make this prayer his own, it will form within him a depth of gratitude.
The prayer is also a simple place to return to if you are in a moment when your prayer life as become clouded, either by complexity or confusion. So, today, whether you are a beginner in prayer or someone who has sought the way of prayer for many years, I want to encourage you to take a moment and allow the practice of this simplest prayer to be a step forward in your spiritual journey.
In concrete terms, when I want to have a very simple moment of prayer, here’s what I do:
Find somewhere where you sit comfortably, and take a couple of moments to just be, and breathe.  Nothing fancy here, but you want to become fully present to yourself, which is not our default mode of being. So be still, and for a moment, just breathe.
Dwell for a moment on the gift of life. Breathe it in.
And then, simply say to God, “Thank You.”
It is a simple prayer, but you may trust that the Lord hears it.
This moment of gratitude is a small step, but one that you can often return to as you seek a fuller connection to the Spirit of God. The path of the Spirit is made up of such steps, small moments which, over time, form us in the image of Jesus.

Worship in the Dark: John of the Cross, Emotional Worship, and Me

Worship in the Dark

In my own devotional time right now, I’m reading a few pages of the works of John of the Cross.

I’d read a little bit in John’s works before, but I recently heard Randy Harris make a comment about how going back to it can feel like it’s a totally different book, and so I’ve gone back in, and I’m finding that to be largely true. I’m reading a few pages most days, maybe a chapter or two, and slowly digesting it, turning it over. I started with The Ascent of Mount Carmel.

As John speaks in the early part of Ascent, it’s repeatedly felt like what he has to say about discursive meditation resonates with some feelings I have about worship, particularly that structured in so-called contemporary forms. Namely, these heavily sensory forms of corporate praise, designed to evoke emotion, simply don’t for me often. For a while, this was pretty frustrating, as I felt like I was losing a sort of capacity that the modern church equates heavily with spirituality—indeed, this often made me wonder if I was being hollowed out, and whether my heart was becoming disconnected from the Lord in a way that was leading me to become something like the trope of the hypocritical spiritual leader that doesn’t really believe what they’re selling that is often highlighted/parodied in our culture. Pretty scary stuff, particularly as I treasure and try to cultivate a sense of authenticity!

However, I don’t think that’s actually the case, because I did feel connected to the Lord in other ways—in the communal silences of the eucharist, or in times of shared prayer with our shepherds (or others, but particularly with our shepherds) or in certain friendship spaces, or in just times by myself. Over time, I just came to moments of worship, particularly singing times, as something that didn’t really do it for me (whatever that means), but that I generally saw as helpful for others. (Some forms of singing, I still really enjoy—particularly songs that proclaim God’s lordship. I feel like now, what I really like are songs that make proclamations. I think they feel like protest songs, and I do find that fruitful.)

Anyway, as I’ve read John, it’s often occurred to me that some of what he says about meditation feels similar to that. Like the sorts of worship that attempt to evoke a certain emotional intensity are sort of like the form of meditation that relies on the imagination, and I feel like it’s giving me further permission to let go of the desire to force that sort of emotion on myself, or work myself into that particular emotional place, and to allow myself some peace in that. I’m not quite sure how to describe the alternative path, but I do think that I’m coming to a place where I approach worship (aside from preaching!) as something that I passively receive or recognize God’s presence in, rather than working myself towards an emotional experience of that. Here’s a passage that seems to resonate with what I think the path forward may look like:

“When spiritual persons cannot meditate, they should learn to remain in God’s presence with a loving attention and a tranquil intellect, even though they seem to themselves to be idle. For little by little and very soon the divine calm and peace with a wondrous, sublime knowledge of God, enveloped in divine love, will be infused into their souls. They should not interfere with forms or discursive meditations and imaginations. Otherwise the soul will be disquieted and drawn out of its peaceful contentment to distaste and repugnance. And if, as we said, scruples about their inactivity arise, they should remember that pacification of the soul (making it calm and peaceful, native and desireless) is no small accomplishment. This, indeed, is what our Lord asks of us through David: Vacate and videte quondam ego sum Deus [Ps 46:10]. This would be like saying: Learn to be empty of all things—interiorly and exteriorly—and you will behold that I am God.” (Ascent 2.15.5)

That last line is pretty great. I’ll probably have more to post about this on another time, but if nothing else, I wanted to post it for those who may be feeling something similar, as though they’re not really sure how to make themselves feel the things in worship that it seems like they are supposed to. John writes about how sometimes seeking the Lord in faith feels like following in the dark—and sometimes everything around us that seems like light is really trying to lead us away from the dim light of faith. As I’ve reflected on that idea, I’ve come to believe that it’s important that we learn to worship in the dark—to give worship to God even when the faith that we are acting on doesn’t reward us emotionally like we expect. We give worship even when faith refuses to behave in such a way as to resolve all the ambiguities around us, or when it doesn’t trip the particular emotional triggers or imaginative experiences that we might expect. The road of faith does not always track with what we think or feel…sometimes it is just a matter of one step in front of another, seeking the Lord and being willing to keep seeking, following the sound of God’s call, even though we’re walking in the dark.

I think that it is okay if all of the emotions don’t sweep you away in passion-ate worship, and if you’re in a place where you feel distant from all of that, don’t allow it to discourage you too thoroughly. In some situations, that might even be good, a sign that some things that were helpful for you before are now giving way to another stage of your faith’s development and maturity, although I would resist elevating that in relation to somebody else’s more emotive experience—that may be just what they need, and their different experience may be different than yours in ways that you cannot perceive. Comparison in this sort of thing just isn’t our friend.

His Own Did Not Receive Him

Can you drink the cup that I drink?-2

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:9–13 TNIV)

“His own did not receive him.” It’s a sad little line from the beginning of John’s gospel, succinctly noting a reality that was true of Jesus in the time of Herod and that we see is still true today. The world doesn’t really want Jesus to rule it.

Now, this isn’t a cue to get your protest signs out or to start throwing rocks…this isn’t just about the secular world. John wouldn’t have been surprised by the pagan reluctance to trading Caesar for Jesus. The real disappointment was that the people of Israel weren’t ready to allow Jesus the sort of messiahship he intended. Particularly, the religious leaders of Israel became Jesus’s most vicious opponents. The insiders couldn’t allow Jesus to set the agenda for their kingdom, leading them to resent Jesus rather than respect him, to show him hostility rather than hospitality. Jesus’s intent to disarm the powers of the world wasn’t just a foreign policy, but a domestic one as well—the way of Jesus shakes the structures of the oppressive religious world just as thoroughly as it fractures the foundations of the oppressive empire.

Even his own disciples were repeatedly shaken, at the very places where they sought to establish their own thrones alongside his. In Mark 10, James and John begin with the sort of open-ended question everybody with wisdom resists: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” The whole exchange is tainted by the posture of this question, which requests (before their request) that Jesus kindly hand over control to them. They ask for permission to set up their thrones on either side of Jesus when he establishes his rule, but Jesus responds with a stunning reversal of their desires, capturing their misunderstanding of what it means to be a part of his kingdom. “Can you drink the cup that I drink? Can you be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” He is always doing this sort of thing to them; Jesus shakes every foundation on which a throne might be built, whether it be their own righteousness, their wisdom, or even their loyalty to him.

Jesus shakes every foundation on which a throne might be built. Click To Tweet

Jesus still shakes us, even in the religious orders and communities that bear the Lord’s name. Wearing the Christian label won’t shield us from our tendencies to build our own kingdoms. Participating in a Christian church doesn’t insulate us from the desire to retain control over our lives. Baptism alone won’t stave off the cravings of power and status that have driven so much of the evil in the world. Being a part of a Christian culture or subculture can’t protect us from that most basic and threatening of questions: will we submit to Jesus or not?

I’m sure that question will come up for you sometime today. I find it challenges me constantly, if I’m paying attention. Following the Lord isn’t a one-and-done decision, but one that has to be made over and over again. It isn’t something only determined in the moment before we’re washed in the baptistry. It may not be framed explicitly, rather, the question of Jesus’s lordship is posed in a thousand different ways, and in the most surprising contexts.

In my home, in the tumult of the bedtime hour.

In the office, when we negotiate tasks nobody wants to do.

In the community, when we meet rude, mean-spirited behavior.

Online, where thousands chime in and listen, anonymously.

In sport, while I play the roles of competitor, spectator, coach, and parent.

In the marketplace, where my choices affect unknown myriads. .

And yes, even in the church, where my sense of spirituality is challenged by flesh and blood.

In all of these places, and in every other one, I still face the question: Is Jesus Lord, or not?

Kingdom Come: A Sermon about Matthew's Genealogy

He was the “Son of God”, the “bringer of Good News”, the Lord, the Savior, the one who would restore order and justice to the earth—at least that was Rome’s official story about Caesar.  History also seems to look favorably on the Pax Romana, and in many ways, that version of reality isn’t that far off. The Roman Empire brought relative peace, wealth, and stability to many in the mediterranean world.

However, there was another side to life in Caesar’s world. Beneath the heel of the empire were whole peoples, exploited for the empire’s sake, hopeless to fight back against the efficient military machine of Rome’s storied army. In Palestine, a particularly dark cloud hung over the recipients of Caesar’s “good news”. The Jewish people living in Judea and Galilee lived in a world in which power was king—and they had none of it. They had always been a proud people, and once a powerful nation, but now lived under another flag. Over and over again they rose up to resist the Empire, trying to beat the empire at its own game by asserting their own power—and they failed miserably. Rome brutally asserted its power over what was, to them, a strategic territory filled with a stubborn, irritating, and irrational people. Religious leaders based in the temple used divine distinction to stoke the fires of resentment that justified bouts of armed revolution. Many a would-be leader rose to fame by resisting the Romans, claiming divine consent for their revolutionary attempts to throw the pagans out. Certainly not everyone joined in the violence, but everyone felt the force of Rome’s response to it. To some it was an empire of peace, but to others, it was an empire of violence.

Also, while it was an empire of wealth, it was also an empire of poverty, built on the backs of slaves and enslaved nations. Wealth drifted upward, and the few who controlled land or other means increased their assets while the poor became poorer with each generation. Some of the most recent historical work is trying to move beyond simple binary descriptions as elite/nonelite or haves/have-nots, but even still, the best estimate show that between 75-97 percent of the population in the roman world lived in poverty, if that is defined by living at or near subsistence level.

Beyond that violence and turbulence, the economic conditions were tough as well. Under  the empire and its elite accomplices, a small minority controlled land, food, and wealth. Although historians are working to get beyond simple distinctions like elite/poor, the best estimates now are that somewhere between 75% to 97% of the population across the empire lived in poverty—meaning at or below subsistence levels, with very few resources. Palestine, having been rocked by violence and dependent on agriculture, was worse off than most areas.  For many of the Jews of Palestine, life under the Roman empire was anything but a life of wealth—it was a life of poverty.

As far as stability goes, Rome knew that it needed local leaders who sought to keep the people in check, and found more than enough who were willing to become accomplices to the empire’s power in exchange for a few of the empire’s coins. These imperial elite played a dangerous game, negotiating the terms of the relationship between the people and the empire. When the people were pushed too far, revolution erupted. When the empire’s power was too openly challenged, the military convincingly crushed the opposition. The imperial elites danced between these two, trying to keep both parties reasonably content in the effort to maintain their own power, and often failing. Thus the people of Judea and Galilee faced a cycle of would-be revolution, followed by crackdowns, growing dissatisfaction, and new uprisings.

Caesar promised a world of peace, wealth, and stability. For many of the people living in Jerusalem, Judea, and Galilee in the first century, the reality was a life of violence, poverty, and turbulence. Is it any wonder that many of the people were anxious for a change? Caesar’s world was a world where power stood in the place of justice, where influence held more sway than righteousness, and where rich and the poor were nearly destined to become richer and poorer. Depending on who you were, you either hoped it would go on forever, or hoped and prayed that God would intervene, and remake the world into something else.

The book of Matthew grows out of the latter perspective, and is thoroughly subversive to the empire. It begins with the assumption that this is not Caesar’s world. It is God’s world, and God has been active in it a lot longer than Caesar could imagine. The book’s opening line, “The book of the generations of Jesus Christ” calls us back to Genesis, to the story of God creating the world and of God’s relationships and promises to the patriarchs. It points toward the language Genesis uses to introduce its own narrative (“The book of the generations of the heavens and the earth” Gen 2:4), and to move to new phases of the story. (5:1, 10:1, etc.). Matthew uses it here to let the reader know that he is about to tell about a new phase in that same story. He does all this because he wants us to know, from the very beginning, that this is not a narrative set in Caesar’s world—it is God’s world, and Caesar is just living in it. Beyond that, the genealogy is a substitute for a formula such as “in the days of Caesar Augustus…”, and gives the story of Jesus it’s primary context, which is not in the history of the Roman empire, but in the narrative of God’s covenant people. He is the son of Abraham and the son of David, being born in this moment of the story of God’s people.

Matthew marks the significance of the moment by structuring his genealogical list into three periods. There is the period from Abraham to David, one from David to the Exile, and from the exile to the moment of Jesus. Abraham, David, the Exile, represent critical moments in the story, and by noting the time, Matthew is underlining the importance of Jesus. Matthew 1:17 points out the symmetry of this for the reader, “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.” The only problem is, Matthew’s math is wrong. 

Most of the time, we don’t notice stuff like this because we read the Bible too quickly, but if you count up the named generations Matthew lists, the numbers should be fourteen, fourteen, and thirteen. Now, to be clear, I don’t think that’s a mistake—ancient authors loved to play with numbers in settings like this, and I feel certain that Matthew is doing this on purpose, somewhat playfully. I think he is setting us up to look at the story and ask, “Who comes after Jesus?” It’s a great way to open his book, because the rest of the gospel really teases out this question, as Jesus recruits disciples, teaches them about a new way of life, and then eventually charges them to do the exact same thing, replicating their experience of discipleship throughout the world. The genealogy is therefore connected with the rest of Matthew’s story, right up to the end, where Jesus gives the great commission, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew’s gospel, from the genealogy to the commission, points to the question, “Who comes after Jesus?” and, I think, to an answer.

The answer is “us.” We are the descendants of Jesus. Ultimately, Jesus’s work is producing a sustained community that lives consciously under the reign of God—a community of which we are now a part. In our living as disciples of Jesus we find ourselves in Jesus’s story, and the mission of his life become our mission. We continue his story. We are the fourteenth generation.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Some folks worry about who their ancestors were. I am more concerned with who my descendants will be.” Matthew’s story shares that concern, and even the genealogy, which seems to look back, looks forward to the fulfillment of Jesus’s mission. As we take our part in that mission, may we look forward to its fulfillment as well, and trust that to that end  we will be used by God, for God’s own glory.  Amen.

Elders Part 1: The Value of Growing, Caring Shepherds

(Note: My faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, are organized into autonomous churches governed by multiple elders. In this series, I’m going to write some of my observations about how those elderships work, or don’t. If your faith tradition has another organizational practice, don’t let my language freak you out too much. I would imagine much of what is written here about our leadership structure would be useful across other church leadership structures.)

Elderships have a bad reputation, and sometimes for good reason. Churches with dysfunctional leadership teams get burned by terrible decision making, the failure to spiritually care for hurting people, and harsh judgments. Beyond that, there is a thick layer of communication problems that have built up over time, and elderships that have made good and wise decisions have often struggled to nail the follow-up and communication elements of leadership, intensifying distrust and creating distance between themselves and the congregations with which they have been entrusted.

One of the reasons leaving Little Rock was a tough decision for us was that Kelly and I were aware of how common those problems are, and also extremely comfortable with the leadership team at Pleasant Valley. Perfect they most certainly are not, but they are largely functional, and are committed to fulfilling their role in that body as well as they can.  They are extremely prayerful and wise.

That made it hard for us to leave, because we were afraid to trade in the blessings of that highly functional group of shepherds for the unknown element of wherever we would land! Frankly, it was terrifying to walk away from that group of shepherds who had shown us much love and blessed us with much wise counsel over the years. So far, those fears have been misplaced, and we’ve found the eldership here at Cedar Lane to be extremely supportive and helpful. I see in these men the same dedication to spiritual care that I loved and admired at PV, and a commitment to growing in all the various ways they show leadership throughout the church.

Leaders committed to their own personal growth and development into caring shepherds model these things for their churches. They foster two extremely important cultural climates within the church. The first is a culture of personal compassion, where people actively seek to care for other people. In a community dominated by this culture, people extend hospitality to their brothers and sisters, making space for them in their lives. They seek ways to help others carry their burdens, and take initiative to get involved with people on the level of their broken and hurting hearts.  When elders take compassion on as their primary job, it helps everybody else understand that this is really the church’s job. We create a culture of compassion.

Secondly, eldership have a unique opportunity to model a culture of growth for the church. When elders commit to  growing and demonstrate that they are in full pursuit of what it means for them to live as disciples, they foster those kinds of attitudes within the church. On the other hand, how many eldership out there are communicating, intentionally or not, that their own lives as disciples is a fixed entity? How many are communicating that discipleship is about being stable and static? Growth is essential to our lives as disciples, it is a fundamental part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus—somebody that is learning from him what it means to live in the kingdom of God. Elders committed to their own growth as disciples create an expectation within the church that we are all growing, that discipleship is an active, ongoing process.

These two factors could make a tremendous difference in churches across the country. I’ve been in two churches where it already is making a difference. And I know that those two elderships are just getting started.

Unpolluted, Unstained

A metaphor for the ritual effect of cussing.

Growing up, I got the sense that when the church talked about being “different from the world”, that was more or less code for a fairly defined set of behaviors, things like cussing, drinking, and sexual activity.  (Maybe smoking, but that was on the fence, at least for anyone over 35 years old.)  Those things represented something like distinctive marks of christian nonbehavior, another layer in addition to the other marks of good people generally agreed upon by society at large: honesty, respect for other people’s property, etc. I don’t honestly know that anybody was really saying that, or if it was just the way my immature mind heard it all, but for a long while I felt like this was a pretty good summary of what people thought it meant be “different than the world” as a Christian. The back half of James 1:27 would have been given that idea words in my young mind—it was a text I often heard in church.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself  from being polluted by the world.

In my understanding, this text gave a kind of summary of faith, with two main ideas.  Do positive things (care for widows and orphans), and don’t do negative things (“keep oneself from being polluted by the world” Read: don’t drink, cuss, or have sex.). Such was my youthful understanding of holiness.  For a preadolescent kid, before fermented or sexual opportunity presented themselves, the bar was admittedly low.  Still, resisting the small amount of pressure I got from wanting to fit in with my friends in the neighborhood who skillfully cursed while we played basketball and kick the can generally made me feel like I was doing what God wanted me to do. As I grew older and was able to generally fend off the other two behaviors in the unholy trinity of worldly behavior, I reinforced within myself the idea that being a Christian person really wasn’t all that tough.  And truthfully, unless you have some addictions or at least some deeply grooved habits, that brand of christianity really isn’t that tough. I mean, when it really comes down to it, you can do whatever the heck you want, as long as you say heck instead of hell. I suppose I could have lived like that for a long time without much problem, except maybe boredom.

When I started really listening to the Bible, though, I started getting a radically different kind of idea about what God wanted me to be like.  Take that verse in James, for instance.  That earlier line of interpretation of what it means to be polluted by the world is pretty easy to understand in the context of our american church culture.  But it doesn’t really ask the important interpretive question, “What did James mean by polluted by the world?” And when you really ask that question, you don’t just get an ambiguous idea of what it means, because James spends a good part of his letter describing what he seems to see as the influence of the world.  Indeed, the section right after this verse, in James 2, rails against viewing rich people as more valuable than poor people.  At the end of chapter 3, he talks about wisdom that’s worldly as being marked by envy and selfishness.  That discussion that trails into the beginning of chapter 4 where being covetous about physical wealth (and perhaps the honor and respect that came with it) sparks James to ask, “Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God.”  His rant goes throughout that chapter, and in the back half of chapter four and the beginning of chapter five he uses some pretty flaming rhetoric to talk about the wealthy who presume to set their own agendas without concern for God’s authority over their existence or concern for the needs of the poor! (Seriously, that language in chapter 5 is smoking hot. No wonder it is probably the least publicly read part of James.) When you read all of that together, you can begin to put some content in James’s phrase “keep oneself from being polluted by the world”. It’s not just a few nitpicky behaviors that James is concerned about. James critiques the whole assumption of the world that we have no responsibility for other people, that our wealth is our own to do with as we please. To the extent that I adopt that mentality, I have allowed the world to pollute my faith.

James’s statement about true religion here isn’t a divided concept. Widows and orphans were an important group of “the poor” for the Jewish mind, people who were defenseless and vulnerable without the financial or legal help of other people. Caring for them is a specific expression of what people who are unpolluted by the world do. It is a way people show that they don’t think of their possessions as truly their own.

See, true religion is inconvenient.  Not because of all those church meetings that keep us from sleeping in on Sundays, or it might refine my beverage selection. It forces me to reevaluate the way I think about stuff, and my relationship with it.  It forces me to take responsibility for the poor and the way they are treated in my society. It keeps me from just doing whatever the heck I want. It challenges my “wants”, my desires, my greed, as motivations for my life.

It raises the bar.

There are certain behaviors that we have come to think of as producing something like a moral stain, a sin grease mark that has to be dealt with, and we often think about the biblical language of defilement in those terms almost exclusively. But we could take a significant step forward in understanding our faith if we can grasp that the real stains on our souls are not just behavioral slip-ups.  They are the deep stains of materialism, the deep stains of our thought patterns and habits, colored by the assumptions of the world around us. 

The opposite of being polluted by the world is precisely what James mentions in the first half of 1:27, the care for the widows and orphans. It’s what the Hebrew Bible refers to as “justice and righteousness”, a way of living in the world that respects the dignity of each of our neighbors as an image bearer of God. In the spirit of James, the practice of justice and righteousness is not just the maintaining the absence of evil—it is about the active love of our neighbors that goes beyond words and is fulfilled in action.