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There Are Plenty of Opportunities to Pray

There Are Plenty of Opportunities to Pray

School is starting, and so we have the regular drumbeat of comments about prayer in school. One of the most common, used at my church today, is the comment that as long as there are exams, there will always be prayer in public schools. Which is, of course, quite true. Also, largely irrelevant.

Opponents of public school prayer aren’t trying to prevent students from saying, “Jesus help me!” as they start a test. (Well, I should make the “nut” proviso — I’ve discovered that there is really no idea so stupid that there isn’t a nut somewhere who will support it.) No serious opponent of school prayer is concerned with prayer before tests. What they’re concerned with is publicly sponsored prayer. The child is required to be there. The teacher operates with the power of the government. The prayer is sponsored by political authority.

It’s not my intention, however, to discuss the politics, or to examine from the state’s side whether it’s a good idea for prayer to be prescribed or permitted when led by someone with official authority.

My concern is with prayer by Christians, or even more with talking about prayer and promotion of prayer by Christians. What we say about prayer and what we do about prayer is important. My observation is that there are a lot more people talking about prayer and advocating prayer than are actually praying. This makes me wonder about the issues we choose to make central.

During the course of a day I find that I can pray in my bedroom, my living room, my office, my car, walking on the sidewalk, sitting in a restaurant, meeting with a client … Hmmm! Come to think of it, there really are no places or times when I can’t pray in one way or another. The way in which I pray may be constrained. It might not be best to suggest a time of prayer with every client, though honestly most of them would say “yes” if I asked. Each circumstance may require a different approach to prayer, silent, aloud, head bowed, or not, brief, or longer, kneeling (rare for me), or lying down in my bed.

If I complain that I can’t pray in a public place, I’m really complaining that I cannot make it clear and public that I am praying in that public place. If I’m willing for my prayer to be between me and God, the only ones who can block it are God and me.

I’m leaving out of this discussion the question of whether it is good as public policy to allow some sort of officially sponsored prayer at public events. Personally, I prefer prayer to be individual or part of a voluntary community. But regardless of this issue, the opportunity exists.

If your child or grandchild is going to public school, let me ask a few questions:

  1. Will you be praying with that child (if they are in your house) before they leave for school?
  2. Will you be praying for that child irrespective of what anyone at school is doing?
  3. Will you and your church be praying for your children and those of the community?
  4. Will you be modeling a life of prayer for your child or grandchild that makes spirituality inviting?

I’m sure you can find many other opportunities and ways to proceed with prayer. Too often our underlying concern, as evidenced by our actions, is more with the public display of our spirituality than with the spirituality itself. This doesn’t mean that I believe that if you advocate for teacher led prayer in public schools you are somehow less spiritual. But if you do so without taking the opportunities that are available, it may be time for some self-examination.

Come to think of it, even if you, like me, advocated for only voluntary prayer, your (our!) primary concern should be what we’re doing with the opportunities we have to pray every moment of every day.

(Energion books on prayer.)

Acts of the Apostles and 21st Century Action

Acts of the Apostles and 21st Century Action

I publish a couple of books that use Acts of the Apostles as a source for principles to guide the 21st century church. I publish such books with a certain amount of trepidation, as it’s very easy to apply material piecemeal, which results in discovering that the biblical book in question tells us to do what we wanted to do in any case.

Two books that deal with this issue in the Energion catalog are Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel by Bruce Epperly and Seven Marks of a New Testament Church by David Alan Black. Now considering that the authors of these two books are some distance apart on the theological spectrum—Bruce is United Church of Christ and Dave is Southern Baptist—one might suspect that there is a wide gulf between what they see as most important or applicable in the New Testament church. In actuality, I found myself more surprised by the level of agreement involved. There are certainly differences, and yet there are themes that are clear to both authors.

I suspect the level of agreement results from greater care in studying the text. No, I don’t believe careful study will make us agree on everything. Careful study tends to do two things: 1) It discovers clear themes, and 2) it clarifies and outlines differences and the reasons for them. I will repeat what I have said before: Most of the heat in arguments between Christians results from not understanding the way in which we’re using our sources. If we did understand the source of an opponent’s beliefs, that wouldn’t mean we’d agree, but it would reduce frustration. There’s nothing like having two people look at a text and clearly see different things. There is a strong temptation to assume the other person is stupid, obtuse, ignorant, or perhaps demonically deceived.

Yet Christianity is a faith that is built on studying sources. We may differ on what those sources are, whether it’s the biblical canon, writers in the theological tradition, or authoritative institutions. The point is not to eliminate the inputs because they might be misunderstood or misapplied. Rather, I would suggest it is to study these sources with an awareness of the differences.

One of the ways to do this is to actually study pieces of biblical literature as they were written. If I get to make a selection of texts, I can definitely bias the results. That doesn’t mean that I will find that everything there applies to my everyday life now, but I do need to be aware of the things I’m not applying and why I’m not applying them.

I started re-reading Acts of the Apostles the other day, and was immediately struck by some of these kinds of issues. Let me note just a few.

  1. Acts 1:2-3 – Jesus teaches the disciples for some time following the resurrection. We don’t have a formal record of this teaching. Is this a plug for apostolic tradition? If it is, note that Paul wasn’t in on this, yet has provided us with much of New Testament theology.
  2. Acts 1:4-5 – Awaiting the promise of the Spirit. Acts was most likely written before John, but here we have that continuing teaching of the Holy Spirit, and when the Spirit does come upon the disciples, it seems to come upon the whole group. Is this a foundation for the belief that revelation continues and can come to each one of us?
  3. Acts 1:21-26 – Choosing a successor to Judas by lot. This one presents some interesting issues. I enjoyed teaching this to a class in a church that had just completed a search for a new pastor. I asked them if their procedure, much different from the one here, was biblical, which resulted in an energetic discussion. It’s interesting to me that we have no evidence here of prayerful discussion. Peter presents his interpretation of scripture, then two people are chosen that fill the requirements (we don’t hear the source of those requirements), and then one of the two is chosen by lot. God is invoked, but God is invited to choose between the two candidates selected by the apostles. At which point the chosen person disappears into history. Most of the book is about Paul, a person who does not fulfill the requirements and is chosen by a completely different method. So is God’s way casting lots or should we wait for the lightning bolt?
  4. Skipping Acts 2 and going to 3:1-10 – Is this the sort of thing that should characterize a modern church? If so, we’re largely too tame. And we should, of course, consider chapter 5 with Ananias and Sapphira. Church discipline, anyone?

My purpose in making this truncated list is to show that there are things here we do (baptism, preaching, even healing [in some sense]), and others that we don’t (casting lots), and it’s worthwhile to realize that something more than just grabbing sentences or paragraphs and applying what they “clearly teach” is going on. I’m not complaining about that extra stuff going on. That’s part of life and yes, part of faith. The problem comes in when we try to pretend that we’ve dumped everything extra. (Note that there are churches who use a form of lots in selecting leadership, so that is a valid item to list.)

The next question to ask yourself is just why you do certain things and not others. Why would you preach, baptize, accept into membership, but not heal? Why do you find it appropriate to await the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but not to choose all church leadership by casting lots? (Notice how I slipped “all” in there when it’s not in the text?) Understanding how we get wherever we are can help us understand one another. It might even help us with course corrections.

Praying for Our Leaders

Praying for Our Leaders

There has been some fuss recently about praying for political leaders, in particularly, regarding an image of folks praying for President Trump. I think that many prayers for and against leaders mistake the value that prayer has. Further, complaining about what other people pray is largely a waste of time, and again reflects a misunderstanding of the value of prayer.

I recall the quote that “most people want to serve God, but only in an advisory capacity.” (I looked it up and found this attribution to former SBC president Adrian Rogers.) When the majority of our prayers involve telling God what to do, what does that say about our believe in the omniscience, omnipotence, and indeed, the wisdom of God? Many of those who pray positively for President Trump, advising God to destroy his enemies and to prosper the president, also prayed quite negatively regarding President Obama. Just as happens in the broader American society, in Christianity we tend to exchange scripts when the party in power changes. About the same number of prayers get said, and the same number of complaints made. They are just made by different people.

My prayers for our leaders have not changed with the change of presidents. No, I do not deny having opinions, even strong ones, regarding various political issues. I have just chosen to spend my time on other things. But I prayed regularly that God would bless President Obama, and I continue to pray that God bless President Trump, according to his will.

How can I do this since I must disagree with substantial policy choices of one or the other? Very simply. I believe that God’s blessing is always a positive thing. Some people worry about prayers that they don’t like. I do not. I believe God can and does work, but I both believe that he doesn’t need advisors, and that he’s not going to let self-appointed advisors get in the way of his divine plan. Some are concerned about “prayers amiss,” but I think that idea is the result of a misapplication of James 4:3, which actually supports the idea that God is not going to respond to a prayer for evil.

So I welcome prayer, even ones I don’t like. I suspect that if I seek God, I may somehow get closer to him than I was before. The same thing applies even to those who advise God to do things I would disapprove. Opening yourself to God is both dangerous and wonderful.

Who Is Saved

Who Is Saved

I can believe someone else has a good relationship with God, is saved, or is going to heaven without also believing they are right in all their beliefs. I believe I’m in a good relationship with God and am doubtless wrong about many things.

Paul and the Law Tangle

Paul and the Law Tangle

I’m working through key elements of Galatians 3 & 4 tonight and drawing in some material from Romans and elsewhere. My main topic will be to look at Paul’s use of the word “law” in these passages. My main references other than the Bible text will be Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide pp. 43-47 and Meditations on the Letters of Paul, Chapter VIII, pp. 89-97

Here’s a sample:

No Jew would deny the wisdom of Torah, or disavow its validity. Neither did Paul. When arguing for the universality of God’s promise to Abraham, and that all those who like Abraham have faith in God are justified before God, Paul asks rhetorically, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom. 3:31). For that to be the case, Paul must have in mind more than one way of seeing the authority of the law, or the way it functions. (p. 92)

The chapter in Herold Weiss’s book (Meditations) is one of the most helpful presentations I’ve found on this subject.

Elgin Hushbeck on Apologetics

Elgin Hushbeck on Apologetics

One of the blessings in my life is the number of friends I have found (and I don’t always make friends easily) who are willing to have great discussions. By “great” I mean ones in which we challenge one another’s ideas with vigor but without anger or condemnation. If you seek only friends and associates who agree with you, you’re missing out on a great blessing.

Elgin Hushbeck is such a friend. I think I tend to emphasize the places where we don’t agree over those were we do simply because I find those discussions more useful and enjoyable. Elgin is a Christian apologist, which did not help me to warm up to him or his writing (this was before I was a publisher). Apologists often get a bad reputation for a number of reasons, including obsession that makes them narrow, a vigor in presentation that belies weakness of content, discourtesy, and some carelessness with factual accuracy in a good cause. And this is not to mention mistaking a catalog of facts for the good news of the gospel from time to time.

Elgin doesn’t do this. I want to call attention to his post yesterday on the Energion Discussion Network.  If we could get the “gently and respectfully” part taken care of, the rest would work much better.

I have found that the style is not a characteristic of one or another theological or political position. Whatever it is you’re advocating, gently and respectfully is going to accomplish more in terms of communicating your message, assuming that’s your goal. If you just want to stick it to the people who disagree with you, your strategy will obviously differ.

But with regard to the gospel, if your goal is to stick it to an opponent, don’t imagine that you are actually proclaiming the good news. The good news isn’t that you’re right and the other guy is wrong. Rather, it has something to do with God loving both of you, no matter how wrong you are. It depends on God and the Holy Spirit to fix that wrongness.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Are Sermons of Value?

Are Sermons of Value?

I have very frequently spoken disparagingly of sermons. I prefer more interactive activities in smaller groups as a way of learning and passing on information. It’s commonly said that a pastor is lucky if, on a Sunday, any congregants remember the topic of the previous week’s sermon, much less what was said about it.

On the other hand I remember stunning Dr. James Londis, who was pastor of the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church when I was an 18-year-old college student and a member. His first sermon there had to do with applying the Laodicean message to his new congregants. Accurately, I might add. I mentioned this memory to him about 40 years after he had preached that sermon. For some reason he was surprised!

Nonetheless, I publish one book on how to preach (Overcoming Sermon Block), and a number of sermon collections (So Much Older Then … [Bob LaRochelle], The Character of Our Discontent [Allan R. Bevere], A Positive Word for Christian Lamenting, The Forgotten Beatitude, and Holidays, Holy Days, and Special Days. Most of these books are by Dr. William Powell Tuck, who has a few others as well. One of my criteria for publishing a sermon collection is that it is useful for reading as an essay collection as well.

Bill Tuck, when I interviewed him on the topic, said very simply that a major reason that sermons are looked down on is that so many of them are so bad. They are often poorly prepared, poorly presented, lack evidence of thought and reflection, lack depth, and so forth. I’m going to put the video of my interview with him at the end of this post.

A problem behind the problems is the lack of time spent in preparation. There is, of course, preparation of the sermon. But there is also preparation of the person. Bill Tuck says this in Overcoming Sermon Block:

One of the most important disciplines a minister has to maintain is his spiritual or devotional life. If we are too busy for our own personal devotion, we are simply too busy. We have to keep our priorities right. Our personal spiritual nurture is absolutely essential. To fail here is not a  minor shortcoming but neglect in a critical point of our own relationship to God. How can we guide others to worship and serve Christ if we neglect our own spiritual development? Our spiritual development affects our preaching as well. As we “labor” at our spiritual nurture, the amazing thing is that we are not only fed spiritually, but often sermon ideas arise out of our own devotional study and reflection. That is not our main purpose but it happens nevertheless. (p. 18)

That contains some excellent advice for everyone. I am only rarely called to preach, but I find that when I am called to share, my devotional life is most critical. Sunday School teachers take note.

Here’s the interview:

No Paul Study Tonight

No Paul Study Tonight

Due to scheduling conflicts, or more precisely a wall-to-wall day, I will not be doing my video Bible study tonight. I’ll resume next week. In the meantime, you might enjoy my interview with Thomas Hudgins. You can read a text interview here (not a transcript, but a text version of the interview), or watch:

How Was Jesus Portrayed as Crucified to the Galatians?

How Was Jesus Portrayed as Crucified to the Galatians?

 You foolish Galatians! Who put you under a spell? Was not Jesus the Messiah clearly portrayed before your very eyes as having been crucified? I want to learn only one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the actions of the Law or by believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:1-2, ISV, from BibleGateway)

I only managed to discuss about the first five verses of Galatians during my Thursday night Bible study. Next week I’ll look some at the Spirit and the Law in Romans as well as in the rest of this chapter.

There are two key points I see in the two verses I quoted.

  1. Paul tells the Galatians that Jesus was “clearly portrayed” to them as crucified. How is that? They obviously didn’t all witness the actual crucifixion. The answer, I think, is that Paul, both in words and in life, portrayed a crucified savior. It’s worthwhile to think about how this might work and how we might each portray Christ crucified to others.
  2. The Galatians should know, according to Paul, by the fact that they received the Spirit. Now how do they know that they have received the Spirit? There are many ways in which people claim to be able to know. Pentecostals might pick speaking in tongues. Holiness Christians might look to the presence of holiness in the life. But I would suggest that this is primarily an internal experience. Yes, a genuine internal experience will bear fruit, but the question here is not whether someone else can tell, but what you know yourself. Paul had likely heard the testimonies of those impacted by his portrayal of Christ crucified, and having heard those, he was shocked that one could abandon such an experience for someone else.

I suspect, in fact, that for many of the readers/hearers of this letter, the reminder of that experience did, in fact, have a serious impact on their thinking. Why indeed am I looking for another way to receive something I already have? What do I think will be better about my life in the Spirit following circumcision.

Teachers and preachers might take a lesson here about trusting the experience of their hearers. Refresh their memory; remind them of their experience. Trust the Spirit.

Here’s my video.

Marketing Jesus

Marketing Jesus

Shortly after I separated from the Air Force I was chatting with a gentleman while waiting in line for something or other. On realizing that I was a veteran, and in fact had been somewhere that would qualify me as a veteran of a foreign war, he started a pitch to get me to join that fine organization (VFW).

His initial pitch was simply that I could. I asked him why I should. At this point he was somewhat at a loss and simply told me that they had a wonderful local VFW post where I could drink and swap war stories with other veterans. On short acquaintance he couldn’t possibly have know what a poor pitch that was for me.

Now please don’t imagine that I’m writing against the VFW, and more than I will be writing against Jesus when I talk about marketing approaches. The VFW does some fine work, which is my point. You can give a poor sales pitch for a good cause and drive people away.

Fast forward about 12 years to a time when I was looking at church congregations. I had not been a member of any church for those years and more, but as regular readers may know, I did have my MA in Religion (with that wonderful concentration in Biblical and Cognate Languages). This made life a bit difficult for pastors who discussed their churches with me.

In the end, I was considering two United Methodist congregations. I had attended church and some excellent studies at both, and I liked both organizations in many ways. At one of the churches I talked to the pastors at each church. At one of them the pastor said: “We don’t care what you believe. If you want to enjoy our fellowship, you’re welcome.” The other discussed my beliefs.

Now I’m very interested in openness and acceptance, and I advocate the maximum freedom of belief, but I do think an organization requires some sort of center to make it functional and useful. And a mission. That too.

Thus I joined the other congregation.

Over the course of my life I have experienced a variety of sales pitches to get me to accept Jesus Christ as my savior, most of them after I already had. Many of these came from people who felt I hadn’t quite gotten it right. Others came from people who presented their pitch so quickly they hadn’t had time to realize I was already a Christian. One came from someone who saw me reading my Greek New Testament while waiting for tires to be installed on my car, and was convinced that my Christianity must just be a thing of the intellect. He was truly concerned that I might mistakenly think that reading Greek was a means of salvation.

I’ll call it a means of grace. I didn’t think of saying that to him. It would doubtlessly have sent him ballistic. (Then I would have needed to repent, so perhaps it’s best I didn’t think of it.)

I would categorize approaches to selling Christianity in a few broad camps:

  1. The desperate. These are the people who are afraid that if you don’t accept Christ while in conversation with them, you will doubtless go to hell. One short prayer, and you’ll at least avoid that. Flames are usually involved in the conversation (pun absolutely intended). Conservative and charismatic Christians are susceptible to the use of this approach. Liberals and other mainliners might be susceptible, but they don’t believe in hell.
  2. The cultural. Christianity is a good society, sort of like Kiwanis or the Lions Clubs. Good people are Christians and attend church every so often. Come join our church and be socially acceptable to the good people. Mainline congregations are most susceptible to this, but conservatives may fall for it in the right cultural context.
  3. The upwardly mobile. This is the home of the prosperity gospel. The pitch goes that you’re in a lower economic and social class than you’d like to be, and Jesus wants you to have abundant life, so just follow Jesus to health, wealth, and satisfaction. (No, not the satisfaction theory of the atonement. Self satisfaction.)
  4. The apologetic approach. By this I don’t mean a person who defends elements of the Christian faith, but rather the person who desires to batter down your defenses with his or her command of data.

In fact, in all of these approaches there’s some truth. Being a part of a caring community can, in fact, improve your standard of living, your sense of joy, your peace, and many other things. Not quite in the way the prosperity preachers tell it, but it can help. Being part of the church can be a good cultural and social move. Considering your eternal state is likely worthwhile, and studying the data behind your religious faith is constructive.

There’s an effective temptation to attack every good intention or work. The desperate evangelist is driven by a desire to help. Believing that eternal hell fire is in your future if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior, he feels compelled to make you. This sense led to some theological support for the burning of heretics. What was a few moments of torment in this life compared to what God would do to them in the next? If the torturer could bring this eternal punishment to their minds forcefully enough, perhaps they’d repent and be saved. The temptation here is to take away from God the power of salvation and judgment. Most humans are susceptible to it in some way.

Then there is the Jesus way. I was hit by it this morning as I was reading texts for next Sunday’s lesson.

Jesus was saying to everyone: “If anyone wants to come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Now there’s an “ouch”! No promise of prosperity. No threat of hell. No social acceptability. In fact, if you read on through the end of the chapter, it gets even worse. The facts of the situation were present in the Person.

I wonder how a church growth program would work that called for people to lose their respectability, give up their comfort, become socially unacceptable, experience pain, and ignore ridicule would work. I’ve never seen one of those.

Other than in the gospels.

Let me look at some other texts from this week’s reading list.

9He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because strength is made complete in weakness.” I now gladly boast in my weaknesses because Christ’s strength is all over me. 10So I am pleased in weaknesses, when insulted, when in need, when persecuted, when in hardship, for Christ. For when I am weak, he is strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

I guess Paul wasn’t up on the latest pitches and methods of evangelism either. And just to add to our feeling of injury and annoyance:

If we suffer together with him, we will be glorified with him. (Romans 8:17b)

I was somewhat surprised after reading the scriptures to find that the lesson author managed to write the whole lesson without mentioning suffering. He had some good thoughts, but somehow avoided that one.

So just what is it we’re proclaiming (or selling)? Are we doing it right?


(Note: All translations are my own, and are sometimes intentionally loose. Featured image downloade from Pixabay.com, which doesn’t require attribution, but I’ll give it anyhow.)