Prayers For The Path: The Prayer of Gratitude

We have been conditioned to understand Lent as a season full of darkness.

After all, this is the time in the church year when we pay particular attention to the gaps our sin has created in our relationship with God. These are the days when we are invited to come to grips with the idols that have pulled us away from the path of Jesus. These are the nights when we contemplate how for all of us both our origins and our endings include dust.

But that’s not all God is up to during these forty days. If we do Lent right, our season of preparation will include much more than wallowing in hues of dark purple and black. Instead, Lent can be a great teacher of gratitude.

The season teaches us that confessing the sins that weigh us down reminds us of the depths of God’s mercy for us. Realizing the idolatries within us leads us to remember all the ways we depend on God’s forgiveness. Acknowledging the power of temptation invites us to give thanks for the God who is showing us a better way.

The practices of confession and penance don’t leave us trapped in a darkened room with no escape but instead open a door to gratitude that frees us receive the gifts God wants to give us.

That’s one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in praying The Examen. One of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, The Examen invites us to pay attention to the presence of God in the ordinary activities that make up our lives. By providing structure and guidance to my evening prayers, the Examen has directed me to consider all the places and ways I have experienced God’s grace and mercy. It has also revealed plenty of areas of sin to confess, but even those are opportunities for gratitude when contemplated and prayed in the light of God’s ongoing mercy and grace.

This season invites us to live with a particular type of prayer for an extended period of time. The prayer isn’t so much the point – instead it is about allowing the prayer to point us and redirect us back to God.  It’s really about the turning.

The particular turning I’ve been able to experience this Lent has been less about facing my own inadequacies and more about experiencing the generosity of the God who forgives them. I am becoming more grateful not just for isolated moments and encounters but for the consistent love and character of the God who is drawing me deeper into relationship through these prayers.

The closer we get to Jerusalem the more important this is. Because just like those early disciples I am not sure I like exactly where all this is headed. I have my own ideas about who Jesus should be and what he should be about. I have plenty of thoughts about what he should do and what redemption should look like for me – and particularly for those who aren’t me.

And yet living and praying with gratitude is what keeps me going. Thankfulness for all God has done for me is what keeps me from turning back – at least for now.

We need gratitude and thankfulness in order to trust the goodness of God who is taking us somewhere we don’t want to go.

Thank you. This is the prayer I’m praying today.

How about you?  What is is that you are thankful for?  How might you develop gratitude to live with trust in the God who is calling you to something different?  What do you need to return to God with all your heart?

 

Note: This is the second post in a series, Prayers for the Path, prayers that keep us rooted and close to Jesus as we follow him this season to Jerusalem.

Prayers For the Path: 

The Prayer of Silence 

 

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40 Days, 40 Ways: A Practical Guide For a Holy Lent

It’s more than weird to look forward to Lent. It is a theological contradiction.

But, as I like to say, people are complicated. I know I am.

The last few months have been a roller coaster, and not just in the ways we experience on television and online. My wife and I welcomed our first child in December and spent the first month of her life in the NICU. What I’ve discovered in returning back to the life I knew before – with work and access to opinions – is that I need this season of Lent.

Returning to relationships and trying to lead a community has reminded me that I need the gift of these forty days as much as I ever did. I need the intentionality that comes from giving something up or taking something on. I need the focus that comes when my own inadequacies and brokenness are revealed. I need the reminder that on my own I am powerless but in Jesus power doesn’t come from my strength but in my weakness.

Some people have a hard time appreciating Lent, with its brooding darkness, its emphasis on sinfulness and confession, its near constant reminder of our inability to stand on our own. But its essential. Not only is it impossible to appreciate the light of Christ’s Advent at Christmas or the glory of Resurrection at Easter without Lent, but these forty days teach us plenty about God and about ourselves, particularly the truths we would give anything to keep hidden.

We begin, a week from today, with a reminder and a charge. The priest leads us to recall how the wages of sin are death – “From dust we have come and to dust we shall return” – and invites us to the new life that comes by reorienting our lives – “Repent and Believe the Gospel”.

Law and Gospel. Truth and Grace. There’s plenty there, maybe all of it.

And so we embark on a journey to remember all the ways sin has carved out a wall between us and God. We go through these days coming to grips with the ways our idolatries, of various stripes and orientations, mar our relationship with one another. The disciplines remind us that the passions we allow to rule our hearts and minds might make us feel good for a minute but in the end do long term damage to our souls. We begin to come to grips, maybe for the first time, with the reality that we are powerless if we have to stand on our own. By the end of this journey into and out of the wilderness we hope we have learned, at least a little bit, how to find our hope in the help that comes in the surprising form of redeeming, renewing and restoring grace.

At its best, Lent isn’t a six week experience in self-loathing and confession. Instead, it’s an opportunity to pay attention to the cracks and to watch what happens when we let in the light of God’s grace. It’s not about making ourselves feel bad or thinking that somehow we can do something to make us more right with God. This season, instead, is about watching and paying attention, being reminded of the places we most desperately need God’s grace, and then taking on a practice or discipline that can help us reconnect with the God who still comes to us and for us.

Often Christians have either given something up for Lent or taken something on. Giving something up can produce gratitude and appreciation for our utter dependence on God. Taking something on can help us become intentional about reconnecting with the Source of our life and hope. However you fast or whatever practice you take on this year, my prayer is that this will for you a Holy Lent in which you come to know and appreciate how much and how deeply you are loved.

As for me, I’m going to commit to practicing the Examen more regularly and to explore the fullness of the Cross by reading Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God.

But in the meantime, here a few ideas that might help you leave your idols and rend your hearts this season.

1. The Psalms: Commit to reading the Psalms – every single one of them. The Psalms are one of the best ways we learn how to pray. This was my Lenten practice for a few years and I highly recommend it. Save Psalm 22 for Good Friday.

2. Dive in:  Maybe there’s a particular book or section of the Bible you’ve wanted to spend more time in. Maybe you’ve always wanted to read and understand Exodus or some of Paul’s letters. Lent is a good time to do just that.  A good commentary to read with the Scripture can help.

3, Let Luke 9 Be Your Guide:  We read in Luke 9:53 that Jesus set his face for Jerusalem. You might simply finish the Gospel from there, letting Jesus’ mission and ministry on the way to Jerusalem and the redemptive suffering he experienced for us once he got there order your days and devotional life.

4. Explore Holy Week: – Spend time preparing for Holy Week by reading the narratives from the Gospel that describe Jesus’ final week. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s The Last Week is a great companion.

5. Don’t Just Read About It: Commit to spending your Holy Week living through the story with a local church. If you are part of a local church participate in their services – maybe volunteer to read or serve as part of the worship services (Speaking from experience – pastors and worship teams are always looking to fill slots particularly on Thursday and Friday). If you don’t have a local church, commit to attending services to experience the depth of mercy of the Cross.

6. Begin Well: Mark out time next week to begin your journey through Lent by being marked with the ashes – from dust you have come and to dust you shall return.

7. Find Answers on the Atonement: Engage a good book to help you understand how Christians have historically made sense of the Cross. If you want to really nerd out, join me in reading The Crucified God. Other good resources include Christ the Center, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sign and Sacrifice, The Meaning of the Cross, by Rowan Williams, or God For Us. There are plenty others out there, these are just a few.

8. Walk With Others: Most churches offer a special class or small group during Lent. Check one out and see what happens.

9. Find Some New Companions: Sometimes we need to know that we aren’t the only ones who struggle with faith or discipleship and need to learn through the stories of others. There are a lot of good spiritual memoirs out there, stories of people who experienced grace in a new way. One of my favorites is Found, by Micha Boyett (It’s currently a little more than a dollar on Amazon.). Take This Bread by Sara Miles is a gift, as is Liturgy of the Ordinary, which just happens to be written by my friend, Tish.

10. Trade Talk Radio For a Podcast: Instead of spending your time listening to the latest sports controversy or diving into opinion on the latest political rant, download a podcast or two and spend your time in the car being nourished. A couple of my favorites are The Practice Podcast and On Being: With Krista Tippett.

Sometimes we need to know that we aren’t the only ones who struggle with faith or discipleship and need to learn through the stories of others.

11. Take a Spiritual Inventory: Lent is a great time to take stock of your life and faith, to see the ways your life reflects your faith and the ways it could reflect it a little more strongly. This is a great way for families to reorder their lives intentionally instead of living as our schedules dictate. Erin and I are reading Becoming and Belonging, but there are plenty of other books out there. Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton, is a great resource for learning and ordering your life through a rule of faith.

12. Read a Book With Your Spouse: My wife and I try to read a book together every year during Lent and Advent. We don’t always stick to it, but when we do we’ve found it a great way to reconnect, have conversations about things we care about and allow God to work in and through each of us to help us one another grow closer to God.

13. Fast, No Seriously, Fast: I’ve always fasted on Good Friday, a small way to attempt solidarity with Jesus. My friends, Katie, Andra and Mike taught me the power of fasting. I didn’t always love it, but it did always teach me something. Fasting has a weird ability to make you grateful and aware of all the ways God takes care of you.

14. But At Least Put Your Phone Down: One of the biggest obstacles to my relationships – with God and with other people – is my addiction to my phone. If you can’t give up your phone for a day, find time to put it away and focus on the gifts all around you. By actually enjoying life in front of you, instead of what other people are doing online, you might catch a glimpse of the beauty you have missed.

15. But When You Look At It Pray: When you get a text from someone, particularly someone you struggle with, pray for them. Invite God to bless them and for them to receive grace, wherever they are. If you want to get real brave, you might even text them back and ask them how you might pray for them.

16. Remember Your Baptism: Jesus’ march to the Cross began in the Jordan, when John baptized him and God blessed him. Our service flows from our baptism. You might begin each day in the shower simply remembering that you have been baptized and how that makes all the difference.

17. Write a Letter: People don’t write letters anymore but maybe we should. Write a letter to someone in your life who has made a difference. Share with them how God has used them to bless you.

18. Encourage Someone: This is a great thing to do for someone you don’t always see eye-to-eye with. We define ourselves so quickly based on what we think or particularly in 2017 how we voted. Find a way to encourage someone who sees the world differently than you do. Tell them how grateful you are for them, even if their bumper stickers or Facebook posts make you want to pull your hair out.

19. Tweet Love: I’ve never been one to give up Facebook for Lent – too much of the ministry I do happens there. And so if you must Facebook, Facebook with love. Commit to giving people the benefit of the doubt. Commit to encouraging someone else. Commit to remembering that you can count on one hand the number of people whose minds your political post changed, if that number even goes to one. But seriously, how might our witness be strengthened if we committed to loving one another well through how we interact online?

20. Give Something Up: I’m not talking about something trivial here. Give something up that makes you angry, that sends you off the deep end, that distracts you from becoming the person that God wants you to be. The Desert Mothers and Fathers taught that the passions were anything that pulled us away from God. So give up one of these passions in your life and celebrate how much better life becomes when you do.

21. Try Something New: Try a new spiritual practice, particularly if you are in a rut. There are plenty of practices out there – different ways to pray or read Scripture, new avenues to journal or use art, exciting approaches using the spoken word or silence. Pick something new and live into it for a season. You might be surprised how God can work through it.

22. End Your Day With the Examen: Part of the Spiritual Exercises, the Examen invites us to review our day, celebrate the good and the bad, and see all the places God was at work in our life even if we didn’t see it at the time.

23. Keep a Gratitude Journal: One of the best ways we can experience God’s grace in our lives is to commit to practicing gratitude. Take a moment at the end of the day to celebrate what you are grateful for and how you experienced God during these 24 hours. It will change your life.

24. Try Liturgical Prayer: Sometimes we feel like we will never have the right words when we pray. Fortunately the Church has prayers available to us. A great place to start is the Liturgy of the Hours. Many of my colleagues have been blessed by Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

25. Words of Life: Lectio Divina is a way of praying Scripture. It literally means divine reading. You can do it in about 20 minutes. It’s a great way to begin your day.

26. Commit to Something: Whatever practice you choose, commit and schedule it. Try to commit to doing something everyday. Even if it doesn’t seem like much you will notice a difference.

27. Challenge Yourself: We live in an echo chamber in which we can get the news and experience the world with our own slants. One thing you might do during Lent is commit to reading something that might help you understand the point of view of people you disagree with. It might be one of the most radical practices you could choose for this season.

28. Liberals, Read This: If you find yourself furious at your uncle who voted for President Trump, you might read Strangers in Their Own Land in which an academic from Berkeley travels to Louisiana to listen and learn from members of the Tea Party.

29. Conservatives, Listen Up: If you are fed up with all the protests and the anger and the rage from your liberal friends on Facebook, you might read Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. Or if fiction is more your style, try The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

30. You’ve Got To Move It: It’s amazing the difference exercise can make in your overall outlook and your connection with God. Commit to exercising and then to praying once you are finished. For some of us prayer is the natural response that we actually survived the experience.

Try to commit to doing something everyday. Even if it doesn’t seem like much you will notice a difference.

31. Neighborhood Prayer: One way to get exercise is to walk around your neighborhood. Pay attention to what you see, who lives there, maybe the people you’ve never noticed before. Pray for your neighborhood, asking for God to move in it, and how you might play a role in making it a better place for everyone to live, to raise their kids and experience the wholeness we were created for.

32. Shelf The Booze: Fast from or consume less alcohol and donate the proceeds to charities or ministries that work with people struggling with addiction like Celebrate Recovery.

33. Spread Your Wealth: Fasting can also help you save money to donate to charities or ministries that work for good in areas you are passionate about. One of the great kingdom efforts in Tennessee is Thistle Farms, a ministry that encourages and empowers women who have been victims of abuse. For those of us concerned and upset about the new restrictions on refugees, finding a way to support organizations that advocate for immigrants and refugees is a great idea as well.

34.Be a Neighbor: Connect with your neighbors, next door and across the street.  Find out what’s going on with their families and in their lives.  Know specifically what you can pray for them about. Good neighborhoods make good communities, and good communities are one way God’s mission goes forward.

35. Pray For Leaders: Most of us don’t agree with everyone who is in charge about everything, but they need all the help they can get.  Add the mayor, school principal, county commissioners, governor, members of Congress and President to your prayer list.

36. Lift Up The Lonely: Our church makes a special effort to connect with our homebound members and others who struggle to find community during Lent. Take the time to send a card. If you work with youth or other church groups, this is a great time to visit nursing homes or other long-term care facilities.

37. In Short, Invest in Relationships: We are so busy and despite having more ways to be connected we have become less connected in actual relationships than ever before. Take some time to take someone to lunch or coffee and sit with them and learn what’s really going on.

38. Get Informed Where You Live: We all seem to know more than we would like about national and global politics. But there is plenty in our neighborhoods to become informed about. Get informed about issues with education or health care in your local community. Pray for the leaders and ask for God’s wisdom about how you can make a difference.

39.Mentor: Believe it or not you have skills that could help another person. Commit to finding relationships and ways you can improve someone’s life with the skills and knowledge you already have.

40. Be Intentional: Above all, be intentional and have a holy Lent as God does work in you and through you. May this be a season that you long remember for the ways God transformed your life, the life of your family, the life of your community and the life of the world.

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More Than Work: Losing The Idol of Busy and Finding Grace in Rest

Fridays are the most difficult days of my week. Fridays are also my day off.

Sundays aren’t really days of rest for preachers – as friends in church are so kind to remind me, this is the only day I work all week.

And Saturdays, well between the Gunners, the Vols and the honey-do list that awaits, there’s not a lot of Spirit-infused rest happening then either.

And so Friday it is – the day of rest, the day of ease, the day of Sabbath, and the day of doing the mental gymnastics it takes to try to make myself avoid work.

I’ve read the books – HeschelDawnBarton. I can tell you why Sabbath matters, how it is one of the most important spiritual disciplines for us busy people, what it has to say to us achievers and why those of us tempted to self-validation require its correction that the world’s existence actually doesn’t depend on us.

And yet as I roll out of bed on Friday mornings, I know it won’t be long before I begin to hear work’s siren call.

There’s always more to be done – the phone call to be made, the essay to write, the place in that sermon that could be a lot better. There’s the theology book that’s been sitting on my shelf for months, if not years, that I need to read, and actually want to read.

I’m reminded of that visit that needs to be made, the person to be seen, lonely and desperate for connection, demanding the church, and by extension me, to provide it. There’s the community leader I’ve been trying to connect with, the planning crying out to begin and all the people whose expectations I would be a lot closer to meeting if I could put in just one more day.

Good, important and faithful things they all are. But on Fridays they are distractions from what matters, and they are more than that – invitations to idolatry and opportunities to ignore what God wants to do in and through me.

One of the most important things God wants to do with us on the Sabbath is to provide the space to help us deal with all the things that are keeping us disconnected with God and one another.  Work becomes a distraction and noble things become objects to faithfulness when we allow them to take up the space in our minds, souls and lives that God wants to use to transform us.

To avoid the call of work is to avoid the things that will prevent me from noticing and dealing with the anxieties and insecurities that are keeping me from becoming the person and living the life that God wants for me. It is only by avoiding these distractions that we can come to grips with the truth that all our attempts to build towers of self-justification and achievement have come crashing down.

When we live into the rest God gives us in Sabbath we come to more fully understand our own sin and the damage it is leveling in our lives. When we take the time to sit with ourselves and with God we begin, maybe for the first time, to realize who we really are, all the ways we are missing the life we really want and where in our lives we need to invite God’s grace in so we can discover a better way.

Serious Stuff

I am always stunned in reading Exodus at the seriousness with which God takes Sabbath – both the keeping of it and especially the breaking of it. While we find Sabbath optional, God finds it non-negotiable. To make sure none of us miss the point, when God is giving Moses the rules for life in the Covenant, right in the middle of them is that those who break Sabbath are subject to death.

Why is God so serious about Sabbath?  There are plenty of things to take serious – murder, theft, adultery, lying, racism, violence – and on and on we could go. That not resting would be a crime that gets you executed seems particularly odd to those of us who live in a culture that so effectively blurs the borders between work and non-work.

I can’t say for certain why this is.  After all, I wast there. But I think one of the reasons God is so serious about Sabbath is because transformation requires rest. We can’t repent and experience change without dealing with ourselves. And we can’t deal with ourselves unless we first stop to figure out just where and why we need grace in the first place.

It’s a crazy thing, but one I am finally beginning to learn – work, even the good and holy work of church, can be an idol. And the work of spiritual change begins with rest.

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Book Review: Elaine Heath at Englewood Review of Books

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I’m over at the Englewood Review of Books today, with a review of Elaine Heath’s book, God Unbound, on the wisdom of Galatians for the church in anxious times.

It’s an important book, because if there is one reality for those of us in the church and in leadership, that reality is that the church knows anxiety well.  We’re anxious about a lot of things, but mostly we’re anxious about the future – what the church is going to look like in five years, ten years, not to mention six months.

Elaine Heath is one of the most important and helpful thinkers in the UMC and her wisdom to find our footing by rooting ourselves in spiritual disciplines – like prayer, confession, honest Scripture reading and the Examen – feels not only wise but faithful to the Gospel to which we’ve been entrusted.  This is a book well worth your time.

You can find my review at ERB here.

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