Beginning to Pray

With the exception of the guttural, instinctive prayer of desperation, I generally find prayer to be excruciatingly difficult. I begin and instantly find myself wracked with doubt about the veracity of my prayer, the appropriateness of my prayer, and the true motivation for my prayer. I worry about my posture, I worry about worrying, and I wonder, again, if I’m praying correctly. In short order, my mind wanders to other, more “practical” endeavors such as demands of work, family, children and, oddly enough, church. Rarely have I ever felt that my prayers have connected with God in a way in which I knew He heard them in anything more than an intellectual way. It is within that context that Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom reached me in a powerful and unexpected way.

I think the power of Bloom’s book for those who struggle with prayer comes from the dawning awareness that prayer isn’t a way of doing, but a way of being. Yes, Bloom discusses the type of prayer that most of think of, that of the bended knees and folded hands. But he expands it to the way we approach the world and those around us and of course, to the way in which we relate to God. With regard to our lives Bloom writes, “God is prepared to be outside it, He is prepared to take it up completely as a cross, be He is not prepared to be simply part of our lives.” I have heard sermons along these lines so many times that it has almost become cliché. Bloom however, writes as a man who is too sincere to engage in cliché. Instead he elegantly illustrates how prayer allows God to be more than simply part of our lives. He explains that as our lives become prayer filled, our lives also become God filled. Bloom also makes the convicting observation that the absence of prayer in our lives necessarily also means the absence of God. That conviction is made all the more painful when we realize that the absence of God in our lives is our fault, even though we so often put the blame on God Himself.

The antidote to the absence of God in our lives, according to Bloom, comes down to weakness and humility. Many of us, Americans particularly, bristle as these concepts believing that we are too strong for either, but Bloom writes, “Weakness is not the kind of weakness which we show by sinning and forgetting God, but the kind of weakness which means being completely supple, completely transparent, completely abandoned in the hands of God. We usually try to be strong and we prevent God from manifesting His power.” He goes on to explain, “Humility is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed.”

In Anthony Bloom’s opinion these notions of weakness and humility are what is required for our lives to become prayer and for God to become more than part of our lives: suppleness, able to be moved by God; humility: willing to accept whatever God pours on, good or bad. When transposed over my struggles with prayer it becomes clear that I remain rigid and proud in my faith. Bloom provides an alternative perspective that is infinitely more consistent with who and what Christ is, suggesting that our reconciliation with God is probably dependent on approaching Him in weakness and humility.

As if his assault on my being wasn’t sufficient thus far, Anthony Bloom then discusses the obstacles that possessions and our relationships with them create between us and God. Here too, Bloom knocks me breathless by asking, “Have you never noticed that to be rich always means an impoverishment on another level?” For someone seeking a loophole in his weakness/humility argument, this pithy line is the death knell. Bloom’s unrelenting, impeccable argument continues, “We cannot live a life of prayer, we cannot go ahead Godwards, unless we are free from possession in order to have two hands to offer and a heart absolutely open – not like a purse which we are afraid of keeping open because our money will drop out of it, but like an open and empty purse – and an intelligence completely open to the unknown and the unexpected. This is the way in which we are rich and yet totally free from richness. And this is the point at which we can speak of being outside the Kingdom and yet be so rich inside and yet also so free.”

Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom is one of those rare books that upon reading it I felt a deeper understanding of the nature of our relationship with God and found that relationship enhanced. Prayer continues to be a struggle for me, but in Beginning to Pray Bloom has shown me a way to begin tearing down some of my own walls that prevent God from approaching me.

In Christ.

Matt

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Follow Me

This review was written as part of the discussion of David Platt’s new book, Follow Me, at the Patheos Book Club.

+

In his new book, Follow Me: A Call to Die. A Call to Live., David Platt has written another volume that is deliberately provocative. It’s a book that seeks to discomfort Christians for the good of the Kingdom and the good of their souls. Essentially, Platt argues that there’s a whole lot of us running around that think we’re Christians because we’ve “given our lives to Christ” or “accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord as Savior”, but in reality, we’ve deceived ourselves and are no different than (maybe worse than) unbelievers.

Platt writes, “With good intentions and sincere desires to reach as many people as possible for Jesus, we have subtly and deceptively minimized the magnitude of what it means to follow him. We’ve replaced challenging words from Christ with trite phrases in the church…Scores of people around the world culturally think that they are Christians when biblically they are not.”

What David Platt reminds us is true belief in Christ leaves us different. Transformed. True belief in Christ requires a change of heart that is evidenced through our lives. Repeating a prayer after someone “leading us to Christ” is worthless if we go right on being who we always have been.

The crux of Follow Me is that if we’re truly followers of Christ, then our primary, life altering call is the share the Gospel with those who do not know our Savior. Platt is careful to point out that we are saved by faith and not by works, but in the end our actions must follow our words.

Follow Me cut me to the quick because it forced me to think about my own life and actions. Do I walk the talk? Is my heart aligned with that of God? Can I say with unwavering certainty that I am a follower of Jesus? I think Platt’s intent is to force us to ask these questions and in that regard, the book is a success.

My one criticism of Follow Me is that like a sermon that should have ended 10 minutes ago, it drones on too long. Predictably, the book is about 225 pages so I suspect the publisher had a hand in it’s length; all Christian books seem about the same length these days. Unfortunately, David Platt’s message would have had more punch had it been presented in 100 pages. 2/3′s of the way through the book I found myself looking for something else to read.

In the end, I think Follow Me is an important book that should be read by Christians everywhere. It will force you to consider whether your life truly reflects the One you follow and ultimately, that’s a good thing.

In Christ.

Matt

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013

+ Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 + Isaiah 60:1-6 + Ephesians 3:1-12 + Matthew 2:1-12 +

In today’s Gospel reading we see the magi, traveling to visit and honor the King of the Jews, searching for His whereabouts asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to worship him.” (Matt 2:2)

Herod, always on the watch for someone or something that could threaten his power calls for the wise men, telling them, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and worship him.” (Matt 2:8)

It strikes me that on the one hand we have the magi, the real intent of whom was to honor and worship the King of the Jews. They have traveled untold miles, in inclement weather, to lay the most valuable things they had at the feet of someone they had never met, but who they knew to be a worthy, life-altering recipient of their gifts. On the other hand we have Herod, a man whose mouth uttered words of praise but whose heart was black and intent on preserving the status quo; intent on preserving the balance of power that elevated Herod to the level of near deity in the eyes of many of his people.

The reason I find this juxtaposition so fascinating is it’s the very struggle that takes place in the hearts of so many of us everyday. We want to be good. We want to lay our best gifts, indeed our lives, at the feet of Christ, and honor him with every fiber of our soul. And yet, there is a black place in each of our hearts that yearns for gifts to be laid at our own feet. We’re afraid that if we honor Christ with our lives that something will be missing from ours. Just like Herod, we’re afraid of losing control of our destiny, of upsetting the status quo.

But in Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

There can be no mistaking that Jesus is describing the path of the magi, but in describing the path as an acceptance of our own cross Jesus makes clear how challenging an invitation this really is. The issue at hand is that we’re all a lot more like Herod than we would like to admit. We hold on to our lives with white-knuckled petulance in the futile attempt to maintain control of something we could never hope to control, all the while talking about how we’re followers of Christ.

It’s a charade we could never hope to maintain, for Jesus tells us, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s, will save it.” (Mark 8:35)

The answer, of course, is in the little baby whom the magi wished so badly to see. In the birth of the Christ child we have the beginnings of the Easter story where the blackness in our hearts is vanquished once and for all, by the perfect and sinless baby in the manger. You see, we can never hope to honor Christ on our own. We share too much of Herod’s heart. But the seemingly helpless Child shows us that things in God’s Kingdom are not always as they seem, the rich and powerful are really the poor and powerless, and the broken and humble are the only ones who really know how powerless they are. But in the eyes of Jesus, that’s a better gift that is than all the frankincense and myrrh in the world.

May we all have humble spirits, simple lives, and loving hearts.

In Christ.

Matt

Posted in Gospel of Matthew | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Gift of Darkness

The last few days have been difficult for me and looking back, I’m not entirely sure why. Nothing in particular has gone wrong and yet I have been in as foul a mood as I can remember in some time. Everything and everyone seems to annoy me, even things from which I normally would derive joy; my children, for example. My wife. My garden. Things which normally annoy me, like my car, have become irritations of biblical proportions. And yet, if I view the past few days with an unbiased eye, my life is largely unchanged, at least from an outward perspective.

So the irritation, the annoyance, the darkness must be on the inside. In writing this it occurs to me that my spiritual disciplines have completely fallen away. Early in May I completed my first course through the Trinity School for Ministry and while on the whole I enjoyed and was enriched by the class, when it ended I felt the need for a break. Somehow it made sense to me at the time that it would be healthy and refreshing to abandon my devotional and prayer time, to back away from the theological readings I had been doing and relish in the secular. It seems that though my hand had grasped the plow, I felt that I would benefit from turning away from it and spending some time in my old places.

When I was in college a friend who knew me as well as anyone once called me “an angry person”. That was a true statement in those days and in some perverse way I took pride in it. But the saving blood of Christ has transformed me since then and I pray that I am “an angry person” no longer. I hope that those who know me well today would say that I am a peaceful, gentle, loving person. I hope that they consider me someone who is a positive influence in their lives. Dare I say I hope people see a little of Christ in me. Despite that I still have these dark periods, from time to time. The good news is that when they occur it feels like I’m wearing someone else’s clothes and they soon begin to chafe. Anger no longer becomes me and it forces me to step back and reflect on my state of affairs.

The gift of the darkness is that it allows me to see how broken I remain, how my soul is riddled with cracks. But as Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I think this is true because it is only during these dark and broken times when I realize how truly lost I am without Christ. These times make me aware that without Him I would be lost and so they are, as I say, a gift.

Writing these words has clarified for me when my steps began to stray from Christ’s path and have shown me that I need to resume my spiritual disciplines. I am not naïve enough to believe that my attendance in church or my prayer and devotional time will necessarily bring me closer to God. But for me it is part of the package. Without an alteration of my life and my will, then my submission to Christ is in word only and it is far too easy for me to profess my faith with a forked tongue.

In a way I am grateful for the dark times, at least once they’re over, because it is in the dark that Christ’s light shines brightest.

May we all have humble spirits, simple lives, and loving hearts.

In Christ.

Matt

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Doing God’s Work

In 2009 Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs said during an interview with the Financial Times that he was doing “God’s work”. The backlash within the media was instantaneous and unrelenting. Surely such a capitalist pig couldn’t really believe, doesn’t really think, didn’t really say he’s doing God’s work. The audacity of the man! Interestingly, I am unaware of a single Christian that defended Mr. Blankfein.

I have struggled with what I at times have perceived to be God calling me into ordained ministry for about eight years now. During that time my conviction about that call has waxed and waned and with it, my enthusiasm for my work has varied in indirect proportion; not my church work, but my capitalist pig work. I think, “If God has called me to ordained ministry then I am wasting both His time and mine continuing in this job. If this is what He wants, why doesn’t He straighten my path away from this place?” I have lived as if one is God’s work and the other one isn’t.

Brother Lawrence tells us that, “the time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”

If Brother Lawrence’s experience is available to all of us, then all work can be God’s work. All work should be God’s work. The question that is ringing in my ears is, if at all times I’m not doing God’s work, then whose work am I doing?

Lord, please give me a humble spirit, a simple life, and a loving heart.

In Christ.

Matt

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment