Praying on the Hill: a book review.

The Reverend Barry C. Black has served as the 62nd Chaplain of the U.S. Senate since 2003. Prior to that, he spent 27 years in the Navy, achieving the rank of Rear Admiral (OF-7). In February 2017, he provided the address for the National Prayer Breakfast, Donald Trump’s inaugural prayer breakfast as president. His message was inspiring. Go ahead, google it. It is about 27 minutes long and worth your time. It is an inspiring message, powerfully delivered.

978-1-4964-2949-0Make Your Voice Heard in Heaven: How to Pray in Power is an expansion of the themes he explored in his 2017 National Prayer Breakfast address. Black commends a lifestyle of prayer—trusting in God and praying through every circumstance. He asserts that prayer changes things and as we pray, ‘we make our voice heard in heaven.’

Black opens his book with an appeal to pray with assistance, that is, noting that as we gather to pray, Jesus is in our midst (Matthew 18:18-20) and the Spirit of God intercedes for us (Romans 8:26-27). Next, Black points to the Lord’s prayer as our model prayer we should pray. In the remaining chapters of the book, Black exhorts us pray with the right spiritual posture and to pray in every circumstance (e.g. Pray with purity, and fearlessly, pray with effectiveness, pray to escape temptation, pray even when God is silent, when we don’t feel like being good, when we need patience, in times of celebration, pray with intimacy, fervency, perseverance, submission, and pray with a partner).

Black occasionally illustrates his chapters with his experiences praying on Capitol Hill, and sometimes from his daily life Occasionally he throws in a pop cultural reference or something from history. However, for the most part, this pretty straight teaching from the Bible. Black has helpful and encouraging words for us as we each seek to develop our own private prayer practice. Despite the self help-y, title (“Make Your Voice Heard!) and the exhortation to pray effectively, and with power, what Black says is solid, God-honoring and down to earth. He is no prosperity preacher but is confident that prayers do have an impact on our life and nation.

Black speaks against the partisan divide in Washington, and he holds regular bipartisan prayer and Bible study meetings with members from both sides of the political aisle. However, his privileged place in the Senate puts limits on the sort of prophetic witness he is allowed to have.  Chaplains are the custodians of civil religion and as a career naval officer, Black does not challenge the status quo. So, for example, when he recommends the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Galilean hill country—a region full of would-be-revolutionaries—Black depoliticizes the prayer. Praying for God’s coming kingdom by necessity challenges the established order. But Black writes:

Because I’m a member of God’s family, his promises become mine. I want my life to advance his Kingdom—not mine—and his Kingdom is not of this world. When my behavior  doesn’t adequately represent his Kingdom, I should desire to change what I’m doing. I make my decisions based on which choices better advances the priorities of my heavenly Father’s Kingdom (22-23, emphasis mine).

So while the Kingdom represents God’s priorities in the world, for Black, praying this prayer is fundamentally about challenging our own personal behavior and self-centeredness. For the first-century disciple praying this prayer, it meant the emperor was not the true king and that the political order was called into question. But Black is surrounded by powerful men and women. So Jesus’ most political prayer becomes primarily a tool for private devotion. Of course, because he exhorts political leaders to pray this prayer in this way, there are political implications. But this offers no systemic challenge.

On that score, this book is similar to a lot of other books on prayer. I am grateful for Black’s presence in the Senate, and the way he mediates God’s presence to our leaders, but I wish this book was more storied and offered a more prophetic challenge. I give this two stars. ★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from Tyndale in exchange for my honest  review

Praying Myself Awake

I was reading this past week JĂźrgen Moltmann’s eschatological musings that are In the End—the Beginning (Fortress Press, 2004). He has a section where he describes what it means to Pray wakefully. Moltmann has this to say:

. . . that is only possible if we don’t pray mystically with closed eyes, but messianically, with eyes wide open for God’s future in the world. Christian faith is not blind trust. It is the wakeful expectation of God which draws in all our senses.  The early Christians prayed standing, looking up, with arms outstretched and eyes wide-open, ready to walk or to leap forward. We can see this from the pictures in the catacombs in Rome. Their posture reflects tense expectation, not quiet heart-searching. It says: we are living in God’s Advent. We are on the watch, in expectation of the One who is coming, and with tense attentiveness we are going to meet the coming God. (83-84).

This Moltmann quote begins, in typical Protestant fashion, taking a swipe at the mystics for promoting interior navel gazing instead of open-eyed and incarnational awareness of the world around them. I kind of get tired of that critique. Certainly some mystics, some of the time have evidenced a spirituality of privatized preoccupation and platonic idealism, though attention, expectation and a cultivated awareness of God and the world is also the prevue of  the mystics. However, I do appreciate Moltmann’s larger point, of praying wakefully and watchfully—looking for signs of Christ’s in-breaking Kingdom—a sort of hopeful awareness of God’s coming.

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It is just the sort of reminder I need. As a pastor, I’ve preached about how the life of prayer primes our pump to see God at work in our lives. Praying expectantly for God to work in our situation, awakens our spiritual senses, allowing us to see the God who is always at work. Praying helps us take notice.  But I am mostly lousy at prayer.

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I circled back to Moltmann in spiritual direction. I had been speaking to my director about feeling vocationally stuck, my longing to be rooted in place and my hunger for deeper community. I have been in my current city less than a year, and feel the creative tension of wanting to do something beautiful for God but not having a clear sense of what next steps look like.

My director suggested journaling (something I’ve done in the past but got away), and contemplative walking in the neighborhood. Neither practice is magical, but both practices involve slowing down and taking notice of what is happening in my life and the world around me. It is a movement away from my attempts at strategizing next steps to a spirituality of taking notice what is.

Implicit in this call to take notice, is cultivating an awareness of God’s Spirit and the things I am being invited into. I want to attend to this. So with Moltmann and the mystics, I’m going walking.

Practicing Theolocal Spirituality: Prayer

In a previous post, I discussed our theolocal imagination and what it means for us to bear witness to the Spirit is already active in the world. I want to also describe some of the practices which shape us and enable our theolocal witness.  Prayer is fundamental to it all.

I say this as a lousy pray-er.  I would be the world’s worst mystic. I try to practice contemplative prayer, but am sabotaged by my frenetic ADHD. It’s your world and I’m just a squirrel trying to get a nut to move your butt, to the dance floor now your butt’s up. Wait what?

When I sit to pray. I am immediately distracted. This is doubly difficult because I am an extrovert who works at home. Alone. I crave interaction. Personal prayer is difficult for me and I suck at it. I need to admit this up front because as a faith blogger and erstwhile pastor,  it is easy for me to cast myself in the role of expert. Not in this post, I am describing a practice which is still a major growth edge for me. Below I am describing aspects of prayer and spirituality I believe and long to grow into.

If you want (as I want) to know the Theolocal Spirit—our God-come-near— we need to set aside time to explore and grow in prayer. As I see it, prayer is necessary to the theolocal practice because it changes who we attend to, our attitude in the moment, and awakens us to where the wind of the Spirt may be blowing.

Paying Attention to God

Have you heard of confirmation bias? It is a social psychological reality which describe how naturally, each of us tends to overvalue evidence which confirms our preexisting set of beliefs. It is the reason why those on the far Right are able to put a happy face on a Donald Trump’s presidency (for the way he drains the swamp, takes on the lying fake news, stands up for the little guy and promotes economic growth) and those on the Left see corruption, collusion with Russia, careless speech, misogyny, and treason. Both the Left and Right are looking at the same guy, but they pay attention to different things, emphasizing the facts (or alternative facts) which confirm their bias. Neither side sees the whole picture.

There is much more to be said about confirmation bias (such as the need for epistemological humility), but how does any of this relate to prayer? On a basic level, confirmation bias is paying attention to the truths which matter to us. I believe wholeheartedly that God is living and active in our communities, constantly at work—the wind blowing where it will—whether we mark His Presence or not; however those of us who carve out serious time for prayer, and prayerful activities (such as Lectio Divina) will see evidence of his Presence everywhere. Prayer primes the pump. Our prayer awakens a habit of mind where we see the Divine in daily life. This is the Confirmation bias of Prayer.

As a young adult, I was part of a faith community which emphasized personal evangelism. We used to pray for ‘divine appointments,’ opportunities to share our faith with others. When they happened we called this answered prayer. Perhaps, but if I am honest I also have gotten into many spiritual conversations without praying in advance (I also missed more than a few).  If we cultivate a life of prayer, we are more likely to see ways God is at work and make the most of the opportunities which come our way.

Do you see God at work in your neighborhood and in your community? What about in the lives of friends and neighbors? 

An Attitude of Openness

My guiding theolocal conviction is that wherever we are, God got there first and is already at work. When this conviction guides our prayer life, we parse our ecosystems differently. We don’t just look for the areas of distress (e.g. addictions, pollutants, destructive behaviors, isolation or whatever) but we look to others in our community with an expectancy to see the hand and face of God.

We come to a neighborhood, not with the hope of bringing the Kingdom of God but with the expectation that we will bear witness to the ways the Kingdom is already there. We don’t go into the world simply to seek and save the lost as the incarnate Christ once did (Luke 19:10) but we go expecting to identify the altar of the unknown God (Acts 17:23) and ways the Spirit of Christ is there calling out to human hearts.

As we pray, we pray for an attitude of openness to see how and where  God is at work.

Awakened to the Wind of the Spirit

In prayer, we cultivate attention and an openness to God, but we also are awakened to see the ways God’s Spirit is moving.  This is the fruit of learning to attend to God. We recognize where God is, and at work. We also see when God is on the move.  How do you reach a community with the love of Christ and bear witness to the reality of God’s Presence in our midst? What is the missional strategy that you should take with your neighbors? In your community?

The answer is different for different places and different people. There is no missional strategy or fancy acronym that will bring the world to Christ. The Spirit of Christ is already there, in the world. Get theolocal and learn to attend to the ways God-Came-Near is moving.

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Prayer: Confession I

Bringing Confession Home

My life is displayed when You drop by:

our shoes piled haphazard at the door, kids’ toys

and clothes on the floor, the paper unread but

spread across the coffee table, the shelves teem with debris,

and countertops covered with dishes—my sink overflows.

 

We are past pretense, You and I;

You know who I am, not what I pretend.

My detritus divulges an inner chaos—

a cluttered heart, a spirit stifled by stuff.

Gather these fragments and see

all I love and I long to be.

 

Create in me a clean heart, renew a right spirit in me.

So when You come to my door and knock

I may welcome You in without shame.

 


 

*Dirty dish picture from Wikimedia Commons: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2a/Dirty_dishes.jpg

 

Prayer: Adoration

My mother was the organist and choir director at our church, so I grew up somewhere near the third pew. During worship, my eyes followed my father’s finger through the hymnal. We sang: Crown Him with many crowns the Lamb upon the throne and Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty. I sat squirming through longwinded pastoral prayers. I stood for gospel readings, I endured the public shame of children’s sermons in the chancel. When the children were dismissed from the worship service, I went to children’s church where I sang songs, made crafts and listened to Bible stories. We learned about God, faith and prayer.

At some point I was taught to pray using the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. It was my formula for faithful discourse, and a way for checking off all the boxes so that I knew I was praying well.  Adoration meant praising God for who God is. When I felt I had sufficiently declared to God His own innate wonderfulness, then I could move onto the next item on the list. Adoration, Confession and Thanksgiving were all prerequisites to Supplication—when I finally got to bring my needs and the needs of others to God.

My childhood church taught that I ought to give glory to God and schooled me in the grammar of prayer. I doubt seriously that I was ever taught to go through the letters of ACTS, checking them off as boxes. But the order was held Sacred: Adoration was endued with significance, placed first, in emphasize that our adoration of God precedes all else in prayer.

Later, I discovered my prayers flowed in reverse. I knelt needy and thankful. I confessed. And then on some days, as I bowed my head in prayer, I caught a glimpse of God’s glory. Praise would pour out of me. Adoration for God was no longer something I conjured up to make sure I was performing rightly my religious duty. It was wonder—awe at God’s presence–calling my heart to worship. My own existential need would bring me to prayer, when I pressed upstream, Adoration is where my prayers led.


Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God records a similar movement in the Christian life.  He identifies four degrees to our love for God: loving God selfishly; loving God mindful and thankful of His care for us, loving God for his own sake, and finally loving ourselves solely in God alone (chapters VIII through X, XV).  Human love begins naturally self-referential and self-centered. We love the benefits the Other brings to us. Like babies crying for mother’s milk, we love others because they do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We approach God the same way, loving what we can get from God.

Then our heart enlarges. First we see our own persistent indebtedness, we love and trust God as our light and salvation (Ps. 27:1), and we are filled with joy because “the Lord has done great things for us” (Ps. 126:3) Then we start love God, not for his benefits but simply for who God is in Himself. I think it is significant that Bernard treats the second and third degrees of love together. The line between thankfulness and pure adoration is permeable. In our final phase, our love of self is transformed: we care for ourselves solely in God. Bernard notes our journey from needy supplicant, confessing and thankful to one adoring. Adoration may precede all true prayer, but this is not where we begin. In God, it is where we end.


I was twenty-three when I visited the People’s Republic of China.  It was my first trip out of North America. With typical nationalistic and ethnocentric blinders on, I regarded my hosts with suspicion, especially in the realm of spirituality. The official religion of the PRC is atheism. Temples and shrines still bear the scars of the Cultural revolution: broken statues, battered structures and bullet holes in the sculpted reliefs. I have heard of a growing and vibrant Christian presence in China, but at least on the face of things, the culture appeared thoroughly secular.

This bothered me.  Never before had I been jealous for the worship of God, but at every museum and historic site I was told the tale of the human triumph of Communism against the shallow religiosity of tradition. Of course there was plenty in my own culture that mitigated against the true worship of God, but I needed an outsider perspective to begin to see it.

I was musing on this while riding a bus through the grasslands of Inner Mongolia when I heard the bleat of sheep in the distance. The words of Jesus play in my mind, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would shout out” (Luke 19:40). I lifted my eyes to take in the great expanse of the rolling hills. I was given a beatific vision of our Creator. In a moment when all I could see was a culture trying to move past its gods, I was arrested by creation’s song of praise to its Creator. I was overcome, adoring, I worshipped.


Adoration is our appropriate response from us when we see God for who God is.  Prayer is where we meet God and our adoration bears witness to this encounter.  One who prays but doesn’t praise has yet to meet God. The worshipper enters the heart of true prayer.  My childhood lessons and my adult prayers are both right: Adoration precedes everything else; adoration is the culmination of our time in prayer.  Prayer was not a stream flowing one way or the other but meeting with God in a whirlwind where everything always circled back to praise.

I first learned to adore God somewhere near the third pew of my childhood church. I have grown since then and understand more what adoration means. I’ve been instructed by Scripture and the Christian tradition. I’ve met God in prayer and my heart has been drawn into praise. However, I have yet to mention my most important teachers: my children.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).  He praises a child for his humility and commends us to learn from children. In the Psalm 131 we are given a picture of what adoration looks like—a weaned child content to sit with her mother.

I am not a mother myself but I remember gathering each of my children as babies to comfort them from crying, only to be met with a look of disdain. I was the wrong one. I had no milk to offer.  I could change diapers, distract them with play and give them comfort, but I could not feed them.  There were moments when that was all that mattered.

But when my children were weaned and something different played in their eyes.  They no longer craved only mother’s milk. My daughters would look at me adoringly, smiles in their eyes.  They would come close and sit with me, just to enjoy being with me. My four-year-old son would interrupt stories, activities,  and even stern lectures just to say, “Dad. I really love you.” As I look in their eyes, enjoy their presence, and hear their wonderment in their voice., I understand more what adoration is, and what our adoration of God should look like.  

Of course this stage doesn’t last. My kids will soon see my faults and no longer be overawed by me. My eight-year-old daughter has now entered the stage where I begin to embarrass her in public (usually on purpose).  I am a poor substitute for God.  As they grow to adulthood, their wonder and sense of awe for me diminishes. Appropriately so. But I hope they grow as I am growing too, who sees God through the eyes of a child—in humility and wonder, in awe, adoring.

 


 

*painting above by  Albrecht Dßrer, The Adoration of the Trinity (or Landauer Altar), 1511.

A Litany for Father’s Day

A few years ago I posted a litany for Mother’s Day here as an offering for those who found that day hard.  I didn’t  post a prayer for Father’s Day. For me this has always been a good day.  Since I’ve been a pastor, I have stepped into the pain of others who have profound difficulty with their dads.  I offer this prayer up for anyone who finds today hard and struggles to connect with the God Jesus called Abba.


 

Holy One reigning in heaven and on the earth, Your will be done.

Have mercy on us.

Some of us do not know dads. We know abandonment, fear and insecurity. We feel our fathers’ absence in our lives. We can’t imagine what their presence might mean.

Lord have mercy on us.

Some of us are wounded, hurt by a man who should have protected us and provided for us. We’ve been abused and broken and so have steeled our hearts against pain and unlove. We’ve grown numb to tenderness. Our hearts rage.

Lord have mercy on us.

Some of us long for approval, to hear our dad say I love you.  We’ve struggled to earn his love and his respect.

Lord have mercy on us.

Others of us are the fathers who failed: failed to love, to nurture, to protect, and to care for our kids. We carry wounds, and we have wounded.

Have mercy on us.

Prodigal Father be Our Father.

Hold us safe and welcome us back when we wander.

Show us Your strength and mercy,

Your just love and tender care.

Heavenly Father father us and re-make us like You:

a loving father who nurtures and protects,

a dad who loves and provides refuge

a papa who hurts with the hurting—

bringing courage and peace.

Lord have Mercy. Amen.

 

 

Good News Lent: Wilderness Temptation, Part I

I am committed to hearing Good News this Lent. In a previous post I explored some of the ‘good news’ for Jesus and us in the wilderness Jesus was where the Holy Spirit wanted Him to be, it clarified and solidified His identity and mission, it was a place of preparation and purgation, and the place where Jesus back stories the gospel.

judean_wilderness1All this is true, but the best news about the wilderness is this: it doesn’t go on forever. Wildernesses are meant to be a stop on the way to somewhere else, . Israel’s forty-year wilderness wandering ended when they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land; Jesus forty days preceded three years of active ministry, later a cross and a grave gave way to resurrection and glory. A dry, desolate place may be large, it may stretch on for miles in all directions, you may have been here for years, and you may have no sense when this season will end. But dry, desolate places do not encompass all reality. This is a part of the journey, it is no destination.

Mark and Luke’s gospels tells us that Jesus was ‘in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan’ (Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-2). Matthew places Satan’s temptation at the end of the wilderness time, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.The tempter came to him. . .” (Matthew 4:2-3).  It is true that Jesus was in a vulnerable state after his forty-day-fast, but I think the significance of Matthew’s timeline because Jesus’ responses reveal the trajectory, tone and rules of engagement for His earthly ministry. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy (a wilderness textbook) three times On his lips, these words drip with good news and expose the devil’s dead-ends. ( Matthew 4:1-11). Let’s look at the first temptation:

“It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The accuser says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” The immediate context tells of Jesus’ hunger after forty days fasting.  Certainly this is part of it, but Henri Nouwen in In the Name of Jesus identifies this first temptation as a temptation toward relevance. How many hungry people could be fed if the stones would become bread? Nowen writes:

Aren’t we not called to do something that makes people realize that we do make a difference in their lives? Aren’t we called to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and alleviate the suffering of the poor? Jesus was faced with these same questions, but when he was asked to prove his power as the Son of God by the relevant behavior of changing stones to bread he clung to his mission to proclaim the word and said, “Human beings live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (18).

Rome was the oppressor. They had a wide expanse of land and resources at their disposal and ruled over diverse people groups, including Jesus’own people, the Jews. Throughout the empire they quashed rebellion through ‘bread and circuses’—people were feed just enough and distracted enough, so they didn’t organize for real change. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, to embody Israel’s hopes and to restore the world  to a right relationship with him. Bread from stones is a mere pittance, a cheap parlor trick, even if it fills an immediate need. God had a plan and an end he was moving toward—a new heaven and a new earth: humanity restored and Creation made perfect. If he set that aside for bread, he would have been choosing the quick fix over God the Father’s comprehensive vision for human flourishing. We choose the Word of God over bread because the wilderness doesn’t go on forever, and we have a hope to sustain us. Courage and commitment comes as we keep the end game in mind.


 

I am not trying to be trite. I know what the wilderness is like, both in life and in ministry. I know the constrictive stress of financial obligations—mounting bills which make you feel like you can’t do anything, the stress of not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, and the fear that when it comes it won’t be enough. I know what it is to lose something you care about and to hunger for something which lies just beyond your grasp. These are the moments I long for the stones to become bread so that I can move easily = to the next big thing. Somebody buy me a lottery ticket. Stones to bread, rags to riches, anything to help me traverse this wasteland back to where I’m supposed to be. 


 

Jesus does what Esau could not (the guy who sold his birthright for a  stomachful of stew).  When Satan gives Jesus away to satisfy his physical hungry, Jesus clung tenaciously to God’s plan—every word that fell from God’s mouth. He would not be seduced by technique, quick-fixes and short term gains. God’s Word doesn’t return void but accomplishes God’s desires and purposes (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus would not put his hope in material provision, or relevance, or magic. He trusted that what God said, God would do and He held with all his being to the promises of God.

Where is your hope? Who are you trusting in for your salvation? If we are to learn from Jesus how to not settle for bread of our own making, we need a hope and a vision big enough to sustain us through our vulnerability and weakness. Or we may sell out for a meal. Jesus knew the story and where it was headed. If we are to live by God’s Word we need to know the story. If you haven’t read the Bible cover-to-cover, you should. God’s Word orients us when we are in dangerous terrain.

But living by God’s Word instead of bread, also means prayer. Nouwen puts it like this,  “To live a life that is not dominated by the desire to be relevant but is instead safely anchored in the knowledge of God’s first love, we have to be mystics. A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love” (28). The mystic doesn’t chase bread because she knows herself to be cherished and cared for by the God of love. We will be sustained through the wilderness when we know whose we are.

Jesus would say on a different occasion that his food was to do the will of He who sent him (John 4:34). But it wasn’t as though He quit eating. The gospels are glutted with stories of Jesus lounging around a table, breaking bread with Pharisees, eating and drinking with tax collectors, sinners, lepers, and dirty-handed disciples. He would instruct his disciples to pray for daily bread. His best known miracle was, if not making bread from stones, multiplying it to feed thousands. His own life was broken as bread and given for the world. But this as ever bread for Himself. It was for the world and He remained rooted in God’s love, trusting Him wholeheartedly.

Wilderness God, You stood with lean frame and your belly distended, staring down Satan. Thank you for not quitting, but staying committed to Your  redemptive plan. Thank you for trusting the Father more than food. Help me to live with the same trust, and security that you had in the Judean Wilderness. Give me confidence that the desert doesn’t extend forever, and that at the end of it, You have good things. Help me to feed on Your Word, that I may live always in the love of God.  Amen