Focused Prayer

My oldest child is almost four years old. He is a fairly stereotypical child in his personality. He is full of energy, and keeps me running constantly. Lately he has been trying to learn how to maintain eye contact when asking for something. The other day he was asking for a game. Like any parent I wanted to ensure he was asking politely and clearly. We had to repeat the process multiple times because every time he got the first word of the question out he would instinctively move his eyes to the game instead of looking at me. “Look at me.” He would jerk his head up, and begin the whole process over and over again.

My son was so focused on keeping his eye on the object of his request rather than the person he was requesting it from. It may seem like a simple or trivial thing, but it was important to me that he maintained eye contact with me specifically to make the request. It was incredibly difficult for him, but he finally did it.

At the end of the ordeal I was hit with a realization like a ton of bricks. I do this in my prayer life all the time. I find myself focusing on the object of my prayers rather than on the one I am bringing my pleas to. It’s a real problem. People always talk about how prayer often becomes a wish list. People groan about how prayer is a chore. Countless people have written countless books on the secrets to a revolutionary prayer life.

Prayer is a worship filled act designed to focus on the creator rather than creation. It seems to me like the beginning to a healthy prayer life can at least be summarized in this statement. If I have left a period of prayer without seeing Christ then I have done something wrong. When I focus on the object of what I am praying for I am robbing myself of an opportunity to be filled up by merely experiencing the presence of God as he listens to me.

I shake my head at myself when I think of all the times I have come to God in prayer intently focused on the prayer itself all the while my father is simply saying “Would you please look at me?” I could stop there, but I don’t think that’s enough. Why is it so important to look at God in prayer? If all we did was go into prayer and look at the object of our prayer we would at best walk away with what we asked.

God focused prayer provides so much more. It provides nourishment. It gives us a richness in our relationship with him. It instills a connection that carries through the day. If we look at God in prayer we may not be surprised to find that our original purpose to coming to Him ends up feeling insignificant next to the power, majesty, and holiness of a God who cares for us. This is a God who works all things for good. He is the creator who is reaching out to his creation in order for them to experience His prescence.

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What’s in a Name?

A couple of months ago I was working my way through the book of Ruth. It’s an interesting book. It is strategically placed after the book of Judges. It takes the gloom and despair of the end of Judges, and points to a solution to all the ugliness that Israel is facing.

It is a book of names. Names tell stories. They can tell an audience something about the person. The book of Ruth is full of names. The names themselves tell a story. This time I was drawn to Naomi. I went into the books remembering her story. This was a woman so discouraged by the way her story was turning out that she demanded her name be changed. “Call me Mara.” The name alone tells a story. This woman is bitter. Everything she cares about has been taken. She believes her story is coming to an end. The only details left are just more death, more depression, and more bitterness. The reader almost begins to wonder if the end we experienced in Judges is only destined to continue on a downward spiral.

If you have read the book of Ruth you will likely already remember everything up to this point. There was a detail I could not remember that pushed me to look at things from a different lens. Naomi requests to be call Mara in verse 20 of the first chapter. Two verses later she is referenced again by the narrator. He does not call her Mara. He still calls her Naomi.

That moment hit me. As I read through the book I realized that she is never again referenced as Mara. She is never referenced for the bitterness she experienced. It’s almost as if God was unwilling to acknowledge her change. This is His story, and He wasn’t finished yet. It may seem hard now, but God’s not done. It may seem like there is a wasteland, but it does not go on forever.

I have never tried to change my name. I have never demanded that I be called bitter, hate, anger, fear, depression, loneliness, or anxiety. There have been moments where I feel my story is defined by those words. We may not change our names, but we often do the same thing Naomi tried to do in those moments. We try and redefine our life. We try and determine our identity off of one part of our story rather than waiting to see what the next act brings.

I try and live my life differently. The world is bound to bring up opportunities to be bring us down. It can determined to convince us that we cannot focus on the beauty it brings. The ugly moments can so easily crowd out anything that is good and worthy of this world. I know this is a reality my kids will face to. This is how I want to live my life, and this is how I wish to raise them. I want them to understand that there is a key element to the moments we most desire to change our names. There is often a new act coming up where God reminds us why we have the name we do. Naomi called herself Mara for the bitterness she experienced. By the end God reminded her why her name was always meant to be Naomi. It was always meant to be what is lovely.

Teach Them Everything

I have been thinking back on the Great Commission lately. It is one of those passages where you hear it so often that everything just sort of bleeds together. Every now and then there is something that peaks your interest. A word that was always there, but you never really bothered to recognize before. Jesus tells his followers to go make disciples. He also tells them to teach these new believers. We are called to teach all that Jesus commanded. Everything. Leave nothing out. That little word “all” seems to get lost in the shuffle for me, and I genuinely believe this is a common occurrence for most people.

We see it most clearly in the love vs, truth debate. Jesus tells us to love sinners. Some focus so heavily on this aspect that they only use their own definition of love. Love in these situations apparently means we should never risk offending, changing, and preaching to the person.

Then you have the truth side to the argument. Some can fall so far on this side of the spectrum that they become like Paul writes about love. If we preach but have no love we are a clanging symbol. It is just noise. Noise without soul. Noise without purpose. It is just words without any effect on the person.

Christ says to follow all of it. It is this strange balance that Christ always represented in his ministry. A clear example is of the adulterous woman. To the Biblical scholars in the room, please hang in there with me despite the questions of whether or not this story was written in the original text. Too often we use that argument to try and take away the love focused crowds favorite passage when there is clearly no real reason to. All that needs to be done is point out that they stop the story short. We fail to see the big picture.

We have all heard the story. There is a woman caught in adultery. The men gathered around tell Jesus it is time to stone her. Jesus gives the famous line. “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” Everyone except Jesus leaves. He is left standing there in front of this woman. What a powerful message of love and tolerance some will say. What beauty to not condemn the woman in her vulnerability. Jesus then says these words after pointing out to the woman that her executioners are gone “Go and sin no more.” Truth. Jesus spoke truth in those moments.

This begs the question, why tell her to stop sinning? Jesus also taught about judgment. We see this tenderness, patience, and mercy in his ministry, but he acknowledges that there will come a point where judgment takes place. Take hold of the mercy provided to you now, and use it to follow me. Deny yourself. Deny your sin. Deny everything that is holding you back from being what I have created you to be, and follow me completely.

The problem with the accusers in the story is not that they acknowledged the woman was sinful. The problem was that they were prepared to cast out the sentencing on their own terms. Jesus says wait. Show love. Show compassion. Use this as an opportunity to change her life. She doesn’t have to live in adultery anymore. Yes, judgment will come. The tie is limited, but I pick and choose the time.

Here is the neat thing about love the way Jesus teaches it. It calls out to people to change their lives. It demands action. That is why it is so hard for some people to take. They know when they are experiencing genuine love from God’s people that it shows what is missing in their own life. Love taught by Christ will inherently demand there is truth spoken as well. It will require pointing out that there is sin out there. There are people who are rebelling against God, but it is not for the purpose to call out judgment. The purpose is to avoid receiving that judgment.

We rob ourselves and others of only teaching specific elements of what Christ taught. It is all well and good to love someone for who they are, but imagine how much more impactful you can be if you love them in a way that points them to the opportunity for change. God tends to use passionate people. He uses people who have been broken by their own sin. He uses people who are damaged. He uses people who have a past. This is because those passionate for themselves can be equally as passionate for him when they change. The broken can relate to the broken. Those with a past can be a testimony to God’s grace.

We teach them everything. All of it. We don’t leave any of it out. This isn’t a choose your own adventure. It is a packaged deal. It is all or nothing.

Reblogged: He Did Not Look Like a Savior

I originally posted this on April 3rd, 2015.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.”
Isaiah 3:5

Hanging on a cross. A man who is exposed, bleeding, and dying. A man who is facing a death of humiliation. A death of a criminal. A sign hangs above him full of sarcasm, “Jesus, King of the Jews”. A man who was chosen to be crucified while allowing the freedom of a murderer. A man who had to do everything he could just to take in another breath. A man who is completely helpless. Here hangs the savior of the world.

He didn’t look like much of a savior. He certainly did not look like any messiah the world expected. He was not a military leader. He did not possess the strength of a Samson. He did not lead Israel to freedom like a Moses. He did not reign over Israel into an era of prosperity like a David. Jesus appears to be the least of the bunch. Let’s face it, this man hanging on a cross does not seem to look like a savior.

What is a savior? Is a savior one who comes in the form his subjects demand? Does he simply try and meet the needs of those who ask? Maybe a savior is meant to be something more. Perhaps this savior hanging on a cross is more than He appears to be. There is a story behind this man’s life that you may not have known if you were simply passing by. This man claimed to be the son of God. He didn’t look like any son of God we would have imagined.

The greatest hope of the world did not look like any sort of hope at all. A helpless man hanging on a cross. A man destined to die a painfully excruciating death. Abandoned by his disciples, denied by his closest friends, and alone on a cross. No, wait, not entirely alone. Two men are being crucified with him. Two common criminals hang on crosses next to this savior of the world.

One criminal can only see what hangs in front of him. Jesus did not look like any kind of savior to this man. He looked like a helpless criminal on a cross. This common man mocked and ridiculed this “Savior of the world”. This common criminal played a crucial point in the telling of the story. He was pointing out the clear truth of the situation. Jesus did not look like any kind of savior this world needed.

The second man saw something different. He was another criminal who had earned his punishment on a cross. He recognized something in Jesus. Perhaps he looked past the mere image he saw before him. Perhaps he simply realized some innate truth residing inside the core of his being. The truth set him free. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

It is true Jesus did not have the strength of a Samson. He did not lead Israel into freedom like a Moses. He did not reign on a throne in an era of prosperity like a David. The only thing he had in common with these other men was death. This common criminal noticed the true diversion of the similarities though. He grasped that even in the one common thread between Jesus and these great men there was a huge difference. Samson, Moses, and David all died as sinners. They were some of the greatest heroes of Israel, but they each had huge flaws. Jesus was facing death, but he was facing death as an innocent man. He was facing death as a sinless man.

Jesus did not look like a savior, but he was the very kind of savior the world needed. A savior does not simply give what others think they want. A savior meets the core need. Jesus was the savior the world needed, but never realized. That was what this common criminal saw. A common criminal who realized the need for a true savior. The kind of savior that was required to look nothing like Samson, Moses, or David. He realized he needed a savior of souls.

You need to understand the need for a savior in order to realize that Jesus was a savior. Without knowing the need you will never fully see Jesus as the perfect savior. He was the perfect savior because he was the perfect sacrifice. He paid our debt for our sin. He brought peace between God and humankind.

Thank God Jesus did not look like a savior.

My Hill or His Mountain?

“And he said to all ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’” (Luke 9:23-24)

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Jesus disciples during the days leading up to the crucifixion, and the reaction of fear and terror that surrounded them. I’ve also been thinking a great deal on my personal commitment to Christ in every aspect. On top of all that I have begun to wonder how so many groups on various opposing sides can seem so willing to use the teachings of Christ that defend their view, but can also seem so blind to opposing opinions on other topics where Jesus also has a great deal to say. In other words, why do I and everyone else seem to cherry pick what we want out of Scripture?

I should preface that I write all of this about myself first and foremost. Some of the things I say may make people upset. It’s not my intention. I know it might bother some people. It bothered me as well. The truth can do that though. The truth can be uncomfortable.

Deny everything you are. That is the overall message here. We often look at this in the negative. Deny worldly pleasure, deny your sinful ways, and deny the things that would make you a “bad person.” This is definitely a primary view of what Jesus is saying. He is talking about dying to the old self. However, where things get complicated is the parts of our old self that still seem to be very good. There are parts of our old self that genuinely seem to mean well, and yet can still miss the big picture.

Everyone has that hill they are willing to die on. Many of these are good hills. Equality amongst sexes/races, the fight against poverty, love and tolerance towards opposing views, the safety of unborn children, freedom of religion, and a host of many others. Some might even have two or three hills they are willing to die on. Many of these hills can be supported through Scripture. We can have proclaiming Christians all standing on these different hills, and some willing to fight each other to protect their individual hill. This is how we get people so worked up over injustice through racism, and yet defend a woman’s right to abort her unborn child. This is why we can get people so willing to fight for the life of that unborn child, but hesitate to do anything for a young child living in incredibly poor circumstances. There are plenty of examples beyond this.

This problem does not encompass every single person of course. However, it has easily been true of me at times, and my guess is there are others who would be surprised to find it describes themselves as well. We mean well. The hills we are fighting on are a good hill to be a part of. They become a part of our identity. I am a Christian that fights for “fill in the blank.”

Jesus gives us a description. “You are my follower.” That’s it. I often say while defending my hill that I am a follower of Christ in those moments, but when I look around me I realize that I am not fighting on Christ’s hill. I am fighting on my own hill. My own little kingdom is what I am defending. Christ tells us to forget our own little hills. Instead we are called to come fight on His mountain. This mountain happens to include a lot of these hills we are fighting on. The problem is it also might include some hills that we are fighting against in favor of our own hill.

It is tempting to read verses like this while thinking of those other hills. It is easy to think Jesus is talking about those other people who have missed the things I fight for. When I do that I have missed the point. In this moment while reading these verses the only person Christ is speaking to is me. WHen I read these verses he is not calling those that come to my mind to deny themselves. He is calling me out. He is telling me to pick up my cross. He is telling me to die deny myself. He is telling me to die so that I can live.

He doesn’t want part of me. He wants everything. He doesn’t want my voice to speak out against one form of instance. He wants me to speak out against all injustice. He doesn’t want my hands to perform my work. He wants my hands to perform His work. He doesn’t want my feet to take my message. He wants my feet to take His Gospel.

When I fight on my own hill I fail to see the big picture. I fail to see the other problems in the world that Christ still cares about. I fail to be a follow of Christ. I fail to deny my own agenda in favor of His work. It doesn’t include everyone. Many do deny themselves to follow Him, but it does describe some. It described Peter in the past. A man so willing to speak out and die on his own hill only to run away while forgetting Jesus teaching when it seemed everything was lost. It has certainly described me at times. I’m going to hop off my hill. It’s time to go climb a mountain.

Enemy Confusion

“Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Philo of Alexandria.

My job necessitates speaking to lots of strangers every day. Some are pleasant experiences. Others are not so pleasant. Some are having a wonderful time with life, and others are going through an incredible difficult time. Some days I am easy to have a pleasant experience with. Other days it is harder. Some days I am experiencing a wonderful time in life, and other days I am going through an incredibly difficult time.

Some people call it “walking on eggshells.” With disdain in their voice. Other call it “politically correct.” Some people refer to it as being humble. Other might call it just being kind. Perhaps it is looking to see the best in someone, or maybe it is deeper. Perhaps it is searching deep down to bring out the best of you. Whatever you call it the message remains the same. Be kind. You never know what the person across form you is facing. You never know what hell they may be going through.

It is the nature of my job to occasionally (and I do mean occasionally in the grand scheme of things) to get people who are upset over things outside of my control. Sometimes it is over what someone else said or did. Sometimes it is over mistakes made. Sometimes it is over the chaotic life of the individual. It is also I the nature of my life to speak to family and friends who have a hard go of it sometimes. Once again I continually need to remind myself, “Be kind.” “Their fighting a battle.”

It’s a reminder. It’s a reminder that we aren’t fighting against mere flesh and blood. No person is the enemy. There is a greater threat out there. A threat with a far wider reach, and a far deadlier arsenal then we have witnessed against any mere human. He is stronger than any ruler. He wages war against humanity itself, and humanity is caught up in that war. People are hurt in the process. Hurt people hurt other people.

Maybe it’s time to stop focusing our energy on a mere mortal. Maybe it is time to stop thinking that if we just get that one person into the presidency our country will be saved. Maybe we should start considering that those people that hurt us are dealing with baggage we cannot see. Maybe we need to stop looking at the flesh with our eyes, and start have our souls look at the souls of others.

It will require long-suffering. It will require humility. It will take more than a president. It will take more than a few fancy words. It will take more than Facebook memes that guilt you into typing amen. It will take more than you expect it to. It’s time to level the playing field. The battle is not against those mere mortals. The battle is against something far great. The solution starts with kindness. It starts with mercy. That is how death is defeated. It was defeated through the mercy and grace of a cross. The sting is gone. The victory has been lost. Why in the world should we change up the strategy now?

What is Religion? James 1

I recently decided to go back through the book of James to refresh myself on the overall themes in preparation for a paper I am writing for a class. I went through the first chapter of James. All of it is very familiar to me. It is full of popular verses that are quoted often. I found myself gravitating towards the last few verses of this chapter today. Specifically verses 22, 26, and 27.

James is laying an important groundwork in this chapter. He will later discuss the importance of a partnership of faith and works. There is an incredible need from James message that pulls for his readers to live out a life worthy of the message they have received. I want to say before moving forward that I struggle with all of these themes. I don’t think it comes easy, and I think the balance that James calls for us is incredibly difficult to achieve, but I did want to share a few thoughts based off of some misconceptions some might have in these verses.

Verse 22 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” This is the point where most messages would start to talk about how we need to live out what Scripture says. This is all well and god, and is ultimately the main point James is making in this verse, but I want to pump the breaks here for a second. We need to be in the Word in order to follow its commands. I would also argue that we need to be around others who speak God’s truth to us in order to act on it. People will often tell me that they don’t like “Going to church. Church is not a building where we meet on Sundays.” I completely agree, but a local community of believers that actively worship, and study Scripture provides a necessary refuge for the life of the believer. We need to learn God’s Word together in order to act on it as one body. Not everyone is this way, but I have had people try and use this passage to tell me that living I community is not important. Saying that completely ignores the message and context of this verse. It was never an either/or it is a both/and.

Now we have verses 26 and 27. “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: To visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

It is popular to beat up on religion. A ridiculous amount of time and energy has gone from both sides writing about why religion is good or bad. Both sides do their absolute best to show why the other side doesn’t really know what they are talking about. I have contemplated over this issue, and this passage specifically in the past. Let’s start with the obvious. At no point does James say religion is bad or evil. He doesn’t say religion is wrong, or that Jesus hated religion without any clarifying statements is irresponsible. What James does say is that some people have a wrong idea of what religion is.

Here is what religion is not. It is not listening to God’s word and ignoring its application in your life. It is not fattening yourself up on church events and doing nothing for those in need. It is not being a hypocrite. It is not merely acting on traditions in order to try and appear religious for others.

Religion is about caring for those in need. We all like to get on board with that part. It is the often quoted element to this passage. It is a part that I think we often miss. The topic of abortion is a great example of this. Many Christians fight for the right of the unborn child, but many don’t stop to think about what they are doing to try and increase the quality of life for that child once it is born. This is not every single believer. Many parts of the Church are doing a fantastic job caring for those children who enter the world in broken homes, and taking the mother under their wing, but I realize that I personally need to do so much more. How am I living out God’s word in a way that makes this world a better place for children to live in?

There is a second half to this. It is the part that the section who dislikes religion often forget. “Keep oneself unstained from the world.” This is not saying we go into hiding. It is not saying that we treat those on the outside like dirt. It does not tell us to be legalistic. It does not tell us to never associate with unbelievers, but it is a blatant call that tells us to be different. Ironically, this second part looks an awful lot like the kind of religion that many people seem to be disagreeing with.

It is another situation of a both/and. I used to give all monasticism a rip for being so separate from the world, but recent personal research has shown me that there were actually some monastic movements that maintained a rigorous personal study of God’s Word and were what we might consider “religious.” They also remained incredible active in their communities by caring for the needy and spreading the Gospel. We should be different. We should be set apart. Sometimes this can be found through what many would call religious traditions. This is not a bad thing so long as those traditions have purpose in reminding us of who we are, where we come from, and what we are called to do. They can rejuvenate us. Those moments can remind us to remain in the world, but standout as something completely different from it as well.