Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

Prayer pointsThis is a very nice book as far as its aesthetic value is concerned. I like very much the compact size and the faux leather appearance. The cover is also imprinted with a verse of Scripture (Psalm 145:18) and some trees along the spine. The copy I received also contains a small dust cover which covers about 2/3 of the book and repeats the title of the book and other important information. I like the dust cover and I am typically loathe to dispense with certain features of a book such as dust covers; however, if I am to use this book as I think it is intended to be used, I will have to dispense with the cover.

Inside there is a nice ribbon like book mark to give it an even deeper appearance of biblical spirituality. One might even mistake this small book for a Bible.

So much for appearances. Let's move on to the more important aspect of a book: content. First, the book is, to be sure, a collection of prayer points arranged topically so that seemingly whatever problem the reader is having, there is a prayer at her fingertips. So, are you feeling empty? There's a prayer for you. Are you feeling overwhelmed? There's a prayer for you. In a car accident? There's a prayer for you. Are you struggling with worldliness? There's a prayer for you. Just imagine you are having some sort of trouble in life and there's a prayer for you in this book: emotional, physical, relational, spiritual–they are all there. Sometimes the topics seem a bit contrived, but they are there.

Therein, however is the main problem with this book: it presupposes that the only times we will (or need to) pray are when life really, really sucks. There are no prayer points in the book for times of joy, blessing, gratefulness, for thankfulness, finding a job, for having friends, for good health. There are no prayers of thanksgiving for Jesus, for the cross, for resurrection, or for God's provision. Why is there an assumption that the only time we pray is when things are not going well?

Second, there is nothing terribly wrong with the prayers as such. They are thoughtful and worded well, generally refer the reader back to Scripture, and stay close to the topic being addressed. Sadly, this presents another point of criticism: the topical arrangement of the prayers and associated Scriptures. The Bible was not written topically. Don't get me wrong, because I understand well the point and I understand well that Christians 'use' the Scripture in this way far too often and far too comfortably. It's like we are afraid of the big picture/story the Bible is painting for readers so we break it up into small, seemingly comprehensible, pithy statements we can absorb in a single gulp.

But this is not how the Bible was written and I will continue to mark down every book I review that uses Scripture in this way. It's not even fair or right to do this to books of the Bible that lend themselves to this sort of game–say, for example, the Psalms or the Proverbs. Even those two books were written/edited with a singular purpose in mind and it seems to me that it is unfair to yank passages out of that context to make a point about to pray when you've been in a car accident. In my opinion, this does damage to Scripture and to the intentions of the authors who wrote the books we call Scripture. I have no problems with praying the Scripture and I think we should pray the Scripture, but what I have in mind is something substantially different from the manner in which most books use Scripture.

Third, if I recall correctly, nearly every single prayer in the book contains some version of the words 'Lord…I claim your promise…' I do not come from a tradition of Christianity that has embraced this way of praying so I'm not saying it is necessarily wrong to 'claim' a 'promise' that is in Scripture. (The editor used many different variations of this phrase such as 'seek,' 'claim,' 'embrace,' 'long for,' 'hold on to,' 'cherish,' and so on and so forth. Frankly it became kind of boring after a while.) It might just be me, but I think there is a better way to pray. I didn't see Jesus saying this was how we are to pray when we do. Again, this is not to say it's 'wrong', it's just to say that I have not been taught to pray in this way and it may sound awkward to some people who are learning to pray for the first time using this book. Which takes us back to point two which is the way we understand the point of Scripture. Are those promises we are 'claiming' promises in context? Are they in line with God's plans and purposes in this world? We must be very careful, in my opinion, when praying in such a way.

On the other hand, it's a book of prayers that someone wrote, collected, and published. It's terrible difficult to be critical of a book of prayers because prayers are not generally offered to other people for review purposes. Prayers are meant to be prayed, not reviewed, and as such they are offered to the Father. So my review here is of a 'book', not of the prayers per say. Whatever else may be said about these books, I say this: if they draw the reader into a meaningful prayer life with the Father, then who am I to criticize? If the out of context Scripture references draw someone into a meaningful reading of entire books of the Bible, then who am I to criticize? At the heart of this book is someone's thoughts and prayers written with the Lord in mind. This is a good thing.

Someone, somewhere is going to benefit from this collection of prayers. Of that I am sure. And with that in mind, I am glad Tyndale published a book of prayers. For this reason, I happily award the book three stars. One star is deducted for the way it 'uses' Scripture and another star is deducted because of the overall gloomy feel to the book, i.e., the lack of prayers for the good times. We do not always have to be in a funk in order to pray and that's what I think this book lacks the most.

3/5 stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Prayer Points: Praying God's Promises at Your Point of Need: Amazon (Imitation Leather, $13.99)
  • Author:
  • On the Web:
  • On Twitter:
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor: Ken Petersen, General Editor
  • Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
  • Pages:
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience: 324
  • Reading Level: High school
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.
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I preached a couple of weeks ago (again!) and I decided to use Matthew 13 as my text. I had been doing some light research on the chapter and taught a little of it in my Sunday school class so I took the next logical step and went ahead with a full blown manuscript. It preached fairly well although I would agree with anyone who said it's a bit long. It preached long too. Anyhow, here's the text of the sermon. Enjoy.

The Kingdom of God

Sermon Text: Matthew 13

One of the things we understand from Jesus, that is, things explicitly taught by Him, to us–about how to do something–is how to pray.

So, when Jesus, for example, said “I will make you fishers of men,” it’s not like he explicitly told you and me–and I assume the majority of us are not fishermen in the sense that Jesus’ first disciples were–how it is that we are to go about doing such a thing. For that matter, what does it mean to be a ‘fisher of men’?

But some will argue that he did in fact teach us how to make disciples at the end of Matthew 28 and thus we do, in actuality, have our blueprints for how to be fishers of men.

We might also take the idea of worshiping in Spirit and truth. We do not really gather from his conversation in John 4 what that means or exactly how such worship might look–and I assume it would look profoundly different in our culture than it would in Samaria in the first century, or in Africa in the 21st century.

But whatever else we may decide about such things as these, and they may be radically different from person to person while remaining profoundly orthodox, is that at the end of the day, Jesus did teach us how to pray. We know the sort of things he taught us to pray–things that are typically quite different from the things we pray for, safe travel, sunshine and safe travel–not that there’s anything wrong with these things but that they are different from what he specifically said to pray for.

And, to put a fine point on this, Jesus told us specifically to pray, “Your kingdom come.” I have heard a lot of people pray before that the Lord provide us with daily bread, and forgiveness of sins, and that his will be done. But I have heard few, very few, people–elders, deacons, preachers, prophets, or little old faithful ladies–pray that God’s kingdom come.

And why? What is it about this kingdom that prevents us from praying ‘your kingdom come’?

It seems that even in this context of Matthew 6, it’s not as odd as it might seem to find Jesus talking to his disciples about the Kingdom. Matthew has had the kingdom in mind from the beginning of his Gospel when he started with a genealogy of ‘Jesus Messiah, the son of King David, the son of Abraham.’ When you start a book by talking about kings, the reign of kings, and the sons of kings well, then I suppose we ought to assume that perhaps the idea is going to be featured in the rest of the book.

And so it is and so it goes. Over and over again in Matthew we see a clash of kingdoms: Jesus collides with Herod near his birth, he collides with the satan after his baptism and many other times too, at times he collides with his own disciples, and other times with the leadership of Israel. Finally, he collides with the kings of Rome.

Matthew’s Gospel is one telling you and me not so much about how to be saved–in some strange sense of going to heaven when we die–but about how God was once again becoming the King of this earth and thus bringing about to fulfillment his plan which he announced in creation–if He created this heavens and the earth, then the heavens and the earth and everything in them are his and he will rule them–and specified in the person of Abraham in Genesis 12–that is, his plan to bless all nations through Abraham and the promised Seed who would crush this earth’s kingdoms which are so masterfully under the control and direction of the serpent.

And in some way we see God becoming King in Jesus and we see Jesus reclaiming the heavens and the earth for God through his death and his resurrection: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, he said, now you go and tell this story and make disciples.

Scott McKnight writes, “I lay down an observation that alters the landscape if we embrace it–namely, we need to learn to tell the story that makes sense of Jesus. Not a story that we ask Jesus to fit into. No, we need to find the story that Jesus himself and the apostles told. To us common idiom, If Jesus was the answer, what was the question?’ Or, better, ‘If Jesus was the answer, and the answer was that Jesus was the Messiah/King, what was the question?’ (22) McKnight goes on to state, quite bluntly: “What is the kingdom story of the Bible? Until we can articulate the Bible’s kingdom story, we can’t do kingdom mission.’ (23)

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Read: Matthew 6

Let's be short today. Maybe.

Matthew six is a chapter that has been abused and misused by preachers throughout the ages. And by pew-sitters too. I'll be honest when I say that it is not a terribly complicated passage of Scripture to understand, but it's not necessarily easy to understand either. It's one of those passages that can be taken to extremes one way or the other. Or it can be ignored altogether.

I think Jesus assumes that Kingdom people will be practitioners of certain things like alms giving, prayer, and fasting. I don't think Jesus ever thought that these things were a mere means to an end–whatever end that might be in our minds. I do find it interesting, though, that we get a clue as to the point of these things when we read the so-called Lord's Prayer. Part of that prayer goes like this, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This goes along well with the themes we have already seen in the first several chapters: we are not about getting our own way, by our own means, in our time. We, like Jesus, are about doing God's things, God's way, and with God's methods.

Praying for God's kingdom is saying we are happy and content with the things of God, the means of God, and the ends of God. It means we are willing to put aside our own ways and means and ends because we see and believe in something quite a lot different than ourselves.

So I wondered…maybe the point of giving of alms and the fasting similar to that of prayer? Maybe we fast in order to hasten the kingdom. Maybe we give alms to others as a way of announcing the Kingdom. And we don't have to pray a lot at all–in the sense of saying a whole bunch of words: your Kingdom come, your will be done. What else need we say?

Here's where it gets really exciting–when we pray for his kingdom and will to be done–in our lives. When we do so, we need not worry about all that much. Jesus says at the end of this chapter: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. You hear it? He's saying the same thing: Your will be done, your kingdom come. Is this the content of our prayer life? Is this the purpose of our fasting life? Is this why we give? Are we practicing these things in order to hasten the kingdom's arrival?

I've been paying attention lately to the goings on in the world. There's a lot of worrying going on, and fear, and worry, and emotional output, and worry, and fear. Lately it seems like a lot of christians are being driven by fear and worry–which is an over concern for things over which we have no control. There is clamoring for more guns and more control and more violence. There's a lot rhetoric being bandied about by christians who think that we ought to act an behave in much the same way as the general population. We ought to exercise our constitutional rights and bear arms and kill people or wish and hope that others do the killing for us.

This is not a kingdom way of thinking. This is a satanic way of thinking, a Herod way of thinking. Herod uses the sword, and the satan says bow down before me. Yet neither of these are the quiet, unassuming way of hiding in a prayer closet asking for God simply to bring his will to bear on this earth. People who live in anxiety and fear are those who tend to think that God is not going to do anything. And you know what? He might decide to remain silent for a while. That's OK. Our responsibility is very simple: keep on praying, day in, day out, for God's will to be done on this earth.

Then go and live in faith that he will do so. Our simple life then becomes one free of anxiety, free of fear, and free of the need to resort to the ways of the satan or Herod to get things done. Let go and let God do what God is going to do in his time. Don't seek your own life or your own comfort. Seek first the Kingdom of God. His will.

That's all.

In a little book I have called Answering God, author Eugene Peterson writes,

"But the first requirement of language is not to make us nice but accurate. Prayer is not particularly 'nice.' There is a recognition in prayer of the fiercer aspects of God…Psalm language is not careful about offending our sensibilities; its genius is its complete disclosure of the human spirit as it makes response to the revealing God. Given the mess that things are in, it will not be surprising that some unpleasant matters have to be spoken, and spoken in the language of our sin-conditioned humanity, for the language of prayer is, most emphatically, human language. It is not angel talk." (41-42)

Sometimes we simply do not have the words though. Sometimes talking to God is difficult because perhaps we think what we have to say might be offensive or too caustic for God's ears. When I read through the Psalms–or the Bible in general–I am quickly disabused of that idea. Those who pray use real words and often rather salty language. It seems that God's ears are quite accustomed to our complaints and our verbal atrocities. He's been around a while; he can handle it.

But that's not how we pray. It really isn't. I have been involved in the church since I was born. I cannot remember a day when I haven't been involved with the church in some way. And I am one of those people who actually listens to everything that is said in church. I pay close attention because I want to hear the Scripture read and preached, I want to hear the prayers prayed and offered, and I want to hear the Spirit move among God's people. On the other hand, I'm also like Stanley Hauerwas who wrote,

"I do not trust prayer to spontaneity. Most 'spontaneous prayers' turn out, upon analysis, to be anything but spontaneous. Too often they conform to formulaic patterns that include ugly phrases such as, 'Lord, we just ask you…" Such phrases are gestures of false humility, suggesting that God should give us what we want because what we want is not all that much. I prayer that God will save us from 'just.' (Hannah's Child, 255)

Hauerwas goes on to note that because of his fear he took to writing out his prayers. I'm OK with that. Some folks need to do just such a thing. When I was younger I objected to such things, but the older I get and the more cut & paste prayers I hear from people leading worship or in small groups, the more I am fine with the practice. Nevertheless, I think there might also be another solution though and that solution has to do with the Scripture.

Part of the reason I think corporate prayers are so anemic is because our minds have not drank deeply enough of the Scripture to let it saturate the part of our brains that generates language. Or we are simply content with formulating our own nonsense. But if we trust that the Bible is the Word of God then why shouldn't we pray back his words to him? Why shouldn't we remind him of what he said? Why shouldn't we pray the very words he gave us and hurl back to him the words he hurled at us?

I'm not sure why we think our words are better than his words. But to my point: the prayers we offer in public worship, the prayers offered by our leaders (preachers, elders, deacons), those prayers are weak and speak nothing: "Thank you God for this day. We just pray for this or that. Bless the gift and the giver so that your message will go out in this community and around the world. Be with us."

There's nothing wrong with these words at all, but when these words are the meat and substance of our prayers, and when these are the same words repeated time and time again from pulpits and by leaders, it makes me stop and wonder if we are even in tune with what the Bible has to say about the work God has planned for us, through Jesus, in this world? Jesus said that the very gates of hell cannot count an offensive to stop the church or mount a defensive position that the church cannot conquer. Yet our prayers are prayers thanking God for the day. Again, nothing wrong with thanking God for the day, but don't you think our prayers could have a little more urgency? Don't you think our leaders should pray with a bit more expectancy? Don't you think our prayers should have a little more prophecy infused? 

I mean seriously: Why are all those prayers we read in the Bible there in the first place? Are we just supposed to read them? Are they there for decorative purposes? Are they there so we can marvel at how wonderful the saints of old prayed? Or are they there to guide and direct our own prayer life, to give us words to pray, directions for our journey, and/or language to fatten up our prayers? Think about Jesus on the cross and the prayers he prayed. Luke 23:46: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" is from Psalm 31:5. Mark 15:34: "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" is a quote from Psalm 22:1. Or think about Stephen in Acts 7 who was stoned to death because of Jesus. He prayed twice during his execution: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," and "Lord do not hold this sin against them." Well, it seems to me that these are both allusions to the words that Jesus prayed on the cross, words that Jesus quoted from Scripture.

Or think about Revelation 6:10: "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" This was prayed by the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. But here again is my point: How many times in the Older Testament, especially the Psalms, do we see these words or words similar to them? Look at Psalm 13:1, for example. Or Psalm 6:3. Or Habakkuk 1:2 for that matter. The point, of course, is that even these dead saints in Revelation are still praying the Scripture.

This post could go on for a while because I haven't really even laid out all of my reasons for believing these things or the reasons why I think we should pray the Scripture. And by 'pray the Scripture' I do not only mean using the language of Scripture but I mean literally praying through it. That is, opening up a book of the Bible and literally praying it's words back to the Father–kind of like we do when we recite the Lord's prayer. Like I said, this post could go on for a while and I want to end it for now. Suffice it to say, in conclusion, that I think perhaps it would do us well to dig deeper into the Scripture as congregations. Our lives as members of the church should be centered around the Scripture. Scripture should be read frequently from the pulpit. Scripture should be sung. Scripture should be read as part of the worship. Scripture should be prayed. Scripture should be preached. Scripture should be read privately and publicly.

I hear the words of Amos the prophet:

"The days are coming," declares the Lord, "When I will send a famine through the land–not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it" (8:11-12).

I get this. I think it's going on right now and is evidenced in the prayers we pray.

One of the last acts I performed as a member of Facebook was to follow a link to a blog post and read the blog post. It had something to do with Daniel 11 so I thought this would be a good thing–given that I am currently neck deep in a study of Daniel in preparation for weekly Bible school lessons and, further down the road, teaching it at a small undergraduate college nearby.

Then I got there.

I'm sure the blogger's intentions were good. Maybe not. Personally I think that if a person has to go to that much trouble to understand what Scripture is saying then the person probably has no idea what Scripture is saying. That's my opinion, but I'm pretty sure that the Bible can be understood on its own terms without the help of charts and graphs and overlays and all other such 'helpful' things. Take Daniel 11 for example which should be read closely on the heels of chapter 10 of Daniel.

Chapter 10 is a conversation between Daniel and one who 'looked like a man.' This one strengthens Daniel. Speaks to Daniel. And reveals things to Daniel. Chapter 10 is a prelude to what he says in chapter 11. It may well be helpful when reading Daniel 11 to think in big pictures instead of small pictures…that is, see the forest through the trees. There are trees and if we like it may prove a fun exercise to wander through the woods and attempt to identify all the different species of trees that we see, but there is a bigger picture in chapter 11 that the identity of one small tree cannot overshadow.

The cycle in chapter 11 goes something like this:

  • A king will rise up somewhere in the world.
  • This king will do as he pleases. He or she will do whatever necessary to gain and consolidate power for themselves.
  • This king will wreck the holy people of God.
  • This king will come to an end.

It is there. Over and over again it is there. 11:4. 11:6. 11:17-19. 11:20. 11:24. 11:26-27. 11:45. Everyone of these verses speaks to the downfall of some king who thought he was the cat's meow. Every single verse. Every king who has ever lived, every kingdom ever established on earth–all of them from the greatest to the least–comes to ruin.

It seems to me that this ought to give us pause for more than a moment. It seems to me that our reaction ought to be more in line with that of Daniel who 'trembled', who 'was overcome with anguish because of the vision,' and who 'mourned for three weeks, ate no choice food, drank no wine, and used no lotions.' I'm not sure this is our christian response when we see the world afire. Ours is typically not a response of repentance, but one of indifference. It starts with me.

I repent.

It seems to me it ought to give us pause to think about our own situation here in the United States because many Christians seem to think that somehow or other our kingdom is different. I think this is why we are fond of seeing the trees instead of the forest when we read Daniel. That is, if we can learn the true identity of the 'king of the North,' or the 'king of deception,' or the 'king of the South' as people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago then, well, think about it: if that is the only thing true about Daniel's prophecy then it must not apply to our kingdom here in the USA, right? I'm sure it's important to know about Antiochus and Alexander and Ptolemy and the rest. That's the trees.

But don't you think it's also important to know who these people are in our world? That's the forest. And it seems to me that it is far more important to see the forest just now than it is to see the trees since, of course, we are living now and not then. Don't you think it is important, right now, today, to understand the fate of every single kingdom that has ever arisen on this earth? Doesn't this help us understand why now, even now, the world is afire with death, destruction, and hatred?

I'm thinking about my allegiance to Jesus. I'm thinking about how being a citizen of the USA affects my counter-cultural identity as a citizen of heaven–a much better country (Hebrews 11:16). I'm thinking that during this Lenten season, I need to reorient my eyes, my mind, and my heart so I will be guided by three passages of Scripture.

First, Hebrews 12:2: "…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." My vision needs to be clarified. My focus needs to be fixed. If the world is afire, I need to have a steady gaze. There is a greater joy than the shame of suffering. Jesus is at the right hand of the throne of God. All the kings of the world will come and go, but Jesus remains. (Which is a key to understand the entire book of Daniel.)

Second, Romans 12:1-2: "Therefore I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to daily  offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is–his good, pleasing, and perfect will." My mind needs to be clear and sober. My body needs to be holy and pleasing. If the world is afire, I must be ready to endure. Giving my body and mind to Jesus every day is the best way to be ready.

Third, Mark 8:34-35: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and the gospel will save it." I think we have to make up our minds whether or not we want to be Jesus' disciple. If we want to then Jesus tells us what being a disciple entails. Give up your life. Deny what the world tries to tell us our body needs. Take up your cross–which does not mean to simply endure the burdens and drudgery of life, although it means that as well–taking up your cross means head to Calvary with Jesus. Daily. Make the sacrifice. Daily. Give your life for something more than yourself. Lose your life for Jesus as he gave his life for you.

If the world is afire, I had better make up my mind right now whether or not I want to be Jesus' disciple. And if I want to, then here's what I had best be prepared to do and how I best plan to live. Like Rick said in Sunday evening's episode of The Walking Dead, "we are the walking dead." We are.

So this Lenten season there is a lot of turmoil in the world. There's a lot of death. There's a lot of hatred. Kings are coming; kings are going. Empires are rising; empires are falling. Look at the forest…what looms on the horizon of our own nation? What preparations are you making should this great empire we live in here in the USA be the next kingdom to collapse under the weight of its own hubris?

Fix your eyes.

Offer yourselves.

Die with Jesus.

Daily.

God bless you on your Lenten journey. Come back often for more updates and reflections on this life with Jesus.

IndexTitle: Aloof

Author: Tony Kriz

Illustrator: Jonathan Case

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Year: 2014

Pages: 228

[Disclaimer: I was provided a reader's copy of Aloof through the Thomas Nelson BookLook Blogger program. I was not compensated for my review and I was not asked to write a positive review. My review is only to be fair and unbiased. And so it is.]

See also: The Parish Collective

I'm gonna be honest when I say that I really have no idea how I feel about this book. Kriz is about the same age as I am and, based on some of his anecdotes, has had some similar experiences in church and life as I have; although, while he seems to have grasped a theoretical atheism at some point in his life, I think I grasped a more practical atheism at some point. I don't say that lightly about myself because making such a confession might cast a negative light upon Jesus and I am not about that at all. As Kriz makes clear, this was more about himself than it was about God. Maybe what Kriz experienced was a practiced atheism and mine was simply an indifference towards God. I base that conclusion on the way I chose to conduct myself for a number of years after an incredibly difficult season of ministry that ended with my leaving local church ministry altogether and having no church home for the better part of 3 years. I'm not sure.

Whatever the case, Kriz belongs to an imaginary group of writers that I try really hard to understand and appreciate. Yet for some reason I cannot seem to fully do so. I say that in no small part because I have lived many of their experiences, I have suffered just as much if not more, I have wrestled equally with my doubts and fears, but for some reason I continue to wait upon the relief and peace they seem to have found after so many years of the same–a sort of rest and peace about where God has led me and a certain uncertainty about where the path may lead in the future. You can read that for what you want: jealousy? my own unresolved angst? my own sense of lostness–being 40something and caught between two generations and feeling the (sometimes misguided) compulsion to correct the generation that brought us up and the (equally strained) need to train up another generation correctly so they avoid all the missteps we have made? It's all so much a burden that people my age sense. Maybe the problem is that I see too much of myself in Kriz's book and I'm uncomfortable staring in that mirror too long.

All that aside, I will confess that I was immediately turned off when I opened the book and before I read anything else I was confronted with 6 pages worth of 'Praise for Aloof.' I'm all about praise and accolades for well written books, but 6 pages? Seems like overkill to me. OK. That's a small thing, but it's a thing nonetheless. If the book is good, slay with me with a couple of quotes and let it go. I'll find out for myself after I have read it.

So here's how this book went for me: By the time I arrived at page 96 I was still marking in the margins something like, "I'm still not sure what I'm reading about…" By the time I finished page 104, I was thinking, "Oh, another book by a well traveled, angst ridden, spoiled brat." I mean, seriously, by then I had read about his trips to the Philippines, to Bangkok, to Albania, and someplace in South America. It gets a bit tricky keeping track of the itinerary. He tries to help a few pages later, "Across the world, these buccaneer maps led up to places as exotic as the capital cities of the Middle East or as provincial as forgotten villages in Albania's rugged frontier. The destinations were always unexpected. The maps might even lead to the second floor of a Greek embassy" (111-112).  Here I'll own my jealousy because God's buccaneer map for my life hasn't moved me beyond the tri-state area of Ohio, West Virginia, and Michigan. I probably couldn't eat the food in those places anyhow. Maybe God has spoken to me after all.

But I still wonder why so many of these author who write these books feel so compelled to share all their travels to exotic places us mere mortals only dream in dreams we have in our dreams? I'd settle for a month long retreat at Lake Erie let alone the Cascades (p 144).

The first three parts of the book, and the fourth part to an extent, read like an autobiography of how a person came to something that might be called 'genuine faith.' I'm not sure what that means because the way he writes about his struggles only led me to believe he was never far off from God anyhow and I'm not sure that Kriz would use the word 'genuine' to describe where he ends the book because in his mind his faith was always genuine. So take that with a grain of salt. Or perhaps his quotation from A Grief Observed at the head of chapter 1 should have tipped me off as to the nature of the book. Kriz watched his nephew succumb to an inoperable tumor much like CS Lewis watched his wife also succumb to cancer. Maybe this is Kriz's version of A Grief Observed for another generation. Maybe it's both.

I didn't really 'get' the book until part 4 when Kriz started to think more 'theologically' about his story. The first three sections were too autobiographical for me because until I read this book I had never even heard of Tony Kriz. So his grief observed seemed too distant and I wasn't really able to attach myself to it quite the way I did when I first read Lewis' story (because I had read several other of Lewis' books by then). I wish it were different, but it's not. I'm not sure that's necessarily an indictment of the book as much as I think it might be a limitation to those Kriz may wish to read this story. Those who know him will undoubtedly be touched. Those who do not know him might not. I wasn't. I was simply unable to attach myself emotionally to this story–even though I share many of Kriz's experiences up to, and including, watching a loved member of my family succumb to a brain tumor at the age of 30, being terminated from a ministry position, near destitution, and wandering in and out of serious conversations with God for a long while.

Part 4, then, 'Reanimation', is the part I like the best because it was the only part of the book that left me with any hope. I speak for myself here and not a single other person who may read this book. I remember preaching a deep series of sermons one year–about a year or two before being asked to resign my ministry. The series was all about suffering for Jesus–something I took seriously when I was safely behind a pulpit; something I failed at miserably when I had to regroup after my security went to someone else. I went through all the hows and whys and questions about what I did or didn't do and second guessing and angry diatribes at God and shaking my fist and weeping and quoting Job and trusting and faithlessness–I went through it all. It's a lonely time when God is gone or feels gone and one just wants Jesus to hold them. It's a lonely thing to feel abandoned by the only person in the universe we thought would never, ever fail us or leave us or forsake us. It's a terrible thing to feel so forsaken. It's difficult to see clearly when blinded by so much anger, bitterness, and weeping. Tears cleanse and blind.

In the fourth part of the book, I think Kriz does a yeoman's work (I know that's a bit antiquated) bringing home all the angst and turmoil of the first three parts and showing, however quickly, that God isn't so quiet as we sometimes think him to be. And like Kriz, "…slowly I am learning to more fully submit…" (193). Which is another thing very difficult to do.

I come full circle and confess that I'm not sure what to do with this book. I relate to it in many ways; it aggravates me in a number of other ways. The main question for me is this: Does the value I find in the four part of the book outweigh the struggle I had with the first three parts of the book? Can the weight of hope vanquish the weight of despair, the angst of God's hiddenness? The short answer is…yes. I say yes because, if the truth be told, the first three sections can be the story of any person who reads the book. Change the names, change the places, change a little of this or that and what one ends up with his their own story. And all of us need the fourth part, the hope part, the part where the scales fall from our eyes and we experience the full weight of God's presence in 'ten-thousand places.'  Why? Because we all go through these things in life, because all of us have our own buccaneer map we are called to follow. And if I am honest with myself and those who read this review, then I have to confess that I have squandered most of the grace God has poured out on my life and then I have turned around and shook my fist at him wondering where he was or why he didn't give me more, more, more!

That's not God's fault; that's mine. Learning to own that is a long struggle.

In the end, I think Tony Kriz tells the truth: God hides, but that doesn't mean he is not there. Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear will do those very things. In the end I agree with Kriz that God has 'created a system of mostly silence' (218). There are times when God does speaks with deafening volume, as through a megaphone and yet as a whisper in the midst of a storm. We do well to tune our ears.

This is a helpful book that many people will enjoy. They might struggle a wee bit through the first three sections of the book, but for the hope that is found in the fourth section, I think the struggle is worth the effort.

4.5/5

PS–I enjoyed very much the illustrations by Jonathan Case. They were a great addition to the work and complimented the writing well. They were neither an intrusion nor unnecessary but rather well placed and well done.

Prayer scripturesTitle: Pray the Scriptures When Life Hurts

Author: Kevin Johnson

Publisher: Bethany House Publishers

Year: 2014

Pages: 128

[Disclaimer: I was provided an electronic preview copy of this book through NetGalley. I was not compensated in any way nor am I required to positively review the book. Thanks for reading.]

A few years ago I had a startling revelation while I was preparing a sermon or a Sunday school lesson or reading for devotional purposes that a great deal of the Scripture is actually prayers that were prayed by real people at some point in history. I think of people like Hannah, Mary, Miriam, Moses, David, and Jesus. John 17 is an entire prayer. Look at the words Jesus spoke on the cross and you will see that many of them are prayers lifted directly out of the Old Testament. Or look at the church praying in Acts 2 or 4 and see how they do it: the words of their prayers are lifted directly from the Old Testament.

So when I saw this book offered for review, I was actually very, very excited. I had actually started writing a series of Bible study lessons for my church at the time where we would learn to do just this: pray the Scriptures. By that I mean far more than looking to the Bible for ideas about what to pray and rather directly praying the words we find in the Scripture. Again, look at the prayers found in the Revelation and you will be surprised how many times the author of the Revelation quotes or alludes to Scripture and how often those words are in the form of prayer.

So, to reiterate, I was very excited about this book, so I started reading. Each chapter begins with a verse of Scripture followed by two or three pages of thoughts about the particular verse just quoted. The author also works this verse and his thoughts around a theme for each of the 9 verses explored. So, we learn, Psalm 22 is about agony; 1 Kings 19 is about loneliness; Psalm 73 is about resentment. I think you get the idea. At the end of each chapter there are prompts which the author gives us full leave to 'cross out and respond with [our] own thoughts.' These prompts are based on a more comprehensive quotation of the Scripture. So, on chapter 5 where the author talks about 'resentment' from Psalm 73, he begins by quoting verses 2-3. At the end of the chapter, he quotes the entire Psalm, bit by bit.

I use the same procedure every time I review a book that deals in any way at all with the Scripture: I look carefully to see how the author 'uses' Scripture. The way an author, or preacher for that matter, 'uses' Scripture tells me a lot about what they think of Scripture. Well, as it turns out there isn't anything necessarily wrong with the way Johnson uses Scripture in his book. And there isn't anything wrong, necessarily, with what he wrote. My only real grip with this book is that it is shallow.

Look again at the way the people of the New Testament pray Scripture. Look again at the way the people of the Old Testament wrote their prayers and what they prayed about when they prayed and when those prayers were written down for us. They are much deeper and far more revelatory about Jesus or about God's goings on than Johnson's book would lead us to believe. Now that's just my opinion. I'm not saying this is not a good book and I'm not saying it's not worth the time. I am saying it is shallow and that in my opinion he could have delved much, much deeper into the meaning of the passages than he did because I'm not quite so certain that what he says is what those passages are always about when context is taken into consideration.

Scripture is filled with a singular idea from the first verse to the last: God living in peace with his creation and his creation bearing his image and the work he did to restore that peace after humans made a mess of it. It's just my opinion, but I would like to have seen more of the revelatory power of praying the Scripture than the counselor side. Right now the world does not need counseling and Christians do not need therapy. What both need is revelation.

In that regard, this book fell short for me.

3.5/5 stars

Old Blackberry Pics 2008 2009 113Some parts of life are full of happiness. Other parts of life are full of sorrows. Life is kind of philosophical like that–never content with stasis it is always turning us this way and that, lifting us up and putting us down, patting us on the back one minute and shrugging its shoulders the next.

Life is so often full of so much noise and yelling  and chatter. Life is a cacophony of brutality, violence, and destruction. How can we find any sort of peace in the midst of so much noise? How can we find solace in the presence of so much savagery? Where on this volcanic surface can we find solid ground, a calm and stormless sanctuary?

Today's Daily Office readings are found in Psalm 20; Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Romans 10:14-21; Matthew 24:36-51. I will offer thoughts on a couple of them.

Psalm 20 I'm going to be honest: I crave attention. I like it when people talk to me or pay attention to me. In fact, there have been times when I was so starved for attention that my behavior would become reckless and fueled by ego in an attempt to attract the sort of attention I desired. Maybe this was why I so enjoyed preaching? I liked that everyone was looking and listening to me for 30 minutes. I'm making confession. I have repented and continue to repent daily that in so many ways I have sought attention from other people–attempting to be noticed, loved, or honored. Social media is a hangman's noose for such reckless behavior. Psalm 20 redirects those of us who suffer the malady of inattention. So look what he does when he repeats over and over again, "may the Lord…": answer you, protect you, send you help, grant you support, remember your sacrifices, accept your offerings, give you your desires, make your plans succeed, grant all your requests. Sowhat's he doing? He's saying give your attention to God and God will give his attention to you. I think what James says is that we do not have because we do not ask (James 4:1-3). In fact, I think James' thoughts here are apropos to this entire Psalm: "You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world means enmity with God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God."

So this Psalm gives me pause. "Some trust in Chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the lord our God." Who am I trusting? Whose attention am I seeking? Whose victory do I want? I am all loaded up on LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter. I do what I can to get my name out there because that's what the world says I have to do if I am to get ahead: fatten up the resume, fatten up the bank account, fatten up my investments. And the world says that it is imperative that we put our friendship and trust in these things if we are to be successful and prosperous and get all the attention we crave. Attention seeking behaviors will eventually pay dividends but they may also come at a price. But the Psalm says differently. Now I'm not suggesting that we seek God because we want success or anything of that sort. On the contrary, seeking God is the reward in itself. That's the whole point. We seek God, we give God our attention–when no one listens, God will; when no one protects, God will; when no one helps, God will; when people forget, God won't; when the world fails us, God will not.

All I am saying is that this Psalm presents us with two pictures. On the one hand we can seek the attention of the world which will invariably fail us and bring us to our knees. Or we can seek God's attention by giving him ours and we will 'rise up and stand firm.' It's a daily choice. I'm trying to get better at making the right choice.

Deuteronomy 34 The other day one of my sons said to Renee and me, "When I die, I don't want to be buried, I want to be melted." I'm not sure what that means, but it struck us as kind of amusing at the time. I've thought about it too–the whole death and dying thing. I've thought about it a lot more since my grandmother died last year and the buffer zone between the generations shrunk just a bit. Moses didn't have a chance. God said you are going to die. It's time. Take one last look. Then die. Then God buried him. Worse, Moses died outside of Promised Land. Moses was mighty in word and deed, so much so that no one had risen up in Israel like him–ever. The part that has always struck me as interesting is the part where the author wrote, "He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is" (34:6). So Moses' epitaph is that he was, more or less, forgotten. There's this grave in Paris at the Pere Lachaise cemetery where a man named Jim Morrison has been buried since his death in 1971. People flock to it and have made it a shrine where they have their picture taken and sit in vigil. I think the whole point of Moses' forgotten burial is found just there: God knew the hearts of people and kept the burial place of Moses a secret precisely so that it would not become a snare or a shrine. The last thing Moses heard from God was, "You will not…" Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it, what the last thing is that God will say to us.

Matthew 24:36-51 The short and long of this passage of Scripture is very simple: Be ready. We never know when Jesus is going to return. When you are going about your life, your day, be ready. When you are eating and drinking, be ready. When you are least expecting it, be ready. At all times, be ready–whatever you are doing, wherever you are doing it, do it with a heart of expectation.

In the Romans passage he says, "All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people." I think God is for us. I think he wants us to give our attention to him and to seek attention from him. I think all day long he pleads and weeps for us to trust him. I've learned a few things from these passages today.

Psalm, when we give our attention to God, he gives his to us. Deuteronomy, be willing to be forgotten in order that God may be remembered. Matthew, always be thinking about Jesus in whatever you do. Romans, receive what God is offering you with open hands. I close today with a prayer from the Committal Service found in the Book of Common Prayer:

"In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend ourselves to Almighty God and we commit our body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes; dust to dust. The Lord bless us and keep us, the Lord make his face to shine upon us and be gracious to us, the Lord life up his countenance upon us and give us peace. Amen."

Today is the Fourth of July which means a lot to many people here in the United States. It's a happy time to celebrate freedom and the glorious wonder that is the backyard BBQ. I like spending my freedom doing things that folks in other countries cannot do so freely. For example, reading my Bible is something I enjoy doing freely. Blogging is another way I like to enjoy my freedom because in some countries, like China for example, blogging is restricted greatly. Speaking is another way I enjoy my freedom.

In the USA I can say whatever I want, whenever I want, to whomever I wish to say it. They don't, of course, have to listen and I'm not always heard, but these truths in no way diminish my freedom to say whatever is on my mind.

So as I thought about today's readings (and yesterday's for that matter), I noticed a trend was taking place. So I offer some brief thoughts on readings from Matthew, Romans, Numbers, and the Psalms.

Romans 8 There is so much going on in this chapter that it is really difficult to get our heads around it in one sitting or in one lifetime. I'm not even certain I have any idea where to start, and if I started I'm not even sure where I would end–if I could end. But what I want to focus on in in this short climactic chapter of Romans is that there is a voice being heard here in this chapter. It is the voice of creation, the voice of our spirit, and the voice of the Spirit–all groaning. The world is full of pain and suffering, hurt and hell, disease and distress. It's ugly. We groan. There is something wrong with the world in which we live and even the earth knows there is something wrong. There is something out of place and our spirit knows it. So we groan. We tend to get down on folks who are carrying about a bit of melancholy, but sometimes I think what is happening is that the deep sorrow that lives inside all of us–the deep sorrow that knows there is something profoundly wrong with this world–simply makes its way to the surface of our lives. What we carry in our hearts sometimes shows up on our face. Some folks are better at concealing it, but others among us serve as signposts to the rest of the world that even though we have great things to look forward to we are not all that we will be just yet. We don't always hear the groaning, we don't always see it, but some of us always feel it and we refuse to conceal it because it is, nevertheless, a part of our testimony to the world. And it must not be that bad if this is the very same thing the Holy Spirit does, sometimes without words. You ever hear that low, dull roar coming from within? You ever feel a tremor in your heart? You ever feel a quake in your soul? You ever feel the weight of wordless sighing? I suspect it's the Holy Spirit himself uttering before God the very things we cannot say. If the Holy Spirit cannot find words to utter, how can we be expected to? So we groan. (Romans 8:26-27)

Matthew 22 At the end of chapter 21, we learned that the chief priests and Pharisees were looking for a way to end Jesus. We learn at the beginning of chapter 22 that Jesus did not relent. He keeps telling stories and baiting them. It's kind of ironic because they thought they were setting up Jesus, but it appears the truth is that it was the other way around. Jesus had said, "From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise" (21:16). Talk. So often when reading the Bible we think we are reading something like a textbook, but if we read it closely we see it is actually a book of stories–or, more precisely, a book of talk. People's voices are raised, others lowered, and over all of them we hear the mouth of Jesus uttering mysteries hidden from the beginning of time. But there are always some folks who seem discontent with what Jesus said. Even nowadays, people get really bent about the things that Jesus said–far more so than about the things he did. People love when Jesus heals a blind man or forgives a woman caught in adultery or makes bread from nothing. That Jesus we get and love. But let Jesus start talking about forgiving killers and rapists and loving our enemies and things take a southerly turn faster than hand slapping a pesky mosquito on a sweaty summer night. Jesus told some stories and the leaders started making their run: "Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words" (22:15). There it is. Actions are cool; words are dangerous. Later Jesus seemed to confirm this when the crowd came to arrest him in Gethsemane: "Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching and you didn't arrest me" (26:55). I suppose if Jesus had never said anything people would flock to him–as long as Jesus is making bread from stones and calming the storms–but let him say anything offensive. Will we follow then?

Psalms 140, 142; 134-135 I took a class on the Psalms when I was in Bible College 20 some years ago. It was one of the best classes I ever had not least because it opened my eyes to the utter harsh language of the Psalmists. I think if we read these Psalms thoughtfully and perhaps not so carefully or theologically, we will see that there is a depth of honesty that we never hear preachers utter from the pulpits of our churches. I mean the Psalmists were blatantly honest with God. Sometimes I think we are afraid of such honesty. I used to preach at a church and there were some people who would sit on their thrones on Sunday mornings absolutely appalled that I was so blatantly honest. As I was leaving the church, more than one person told me I needed to learn how to hide my emotions. My honesty and emotion were offensive to some because it demonstrated a lack of professionalism. The preacher is supposed to be cheerful and happy and fully of all sorts of fake joy even when deep inside he knows he is groaning along with the creation (see thoughts on Romans 8 above). The Psalmists are harsh with God. They are honest about their feelings and emotions. They let it all out with a gusto and grit that would make the true grit of John Wayne pale by comparison. I think we ought to be free to speak to God–I think that's why God was not unhappy with Job. Job was brutally honest with God. I also happen to believe that preachers have failed to tell us or demonstrate to us that we can be so honest with God and get away with it. God may let us end up in prison, we cry out for his rescue. People talk shit, we ask for 'disaster to hunt them down.' People cause us grief, we pray that 'burning coals fall on them.' Well, when was the last time you asked God to dismember someone who hurt you? Or when was the last time you simply praised God because he is God? If the Psalms teach us anything, and I think they teach us a lot, they teach us that people have pain, that everybody hurts sometimes (REM reference there). The Psalms teach us that it is, frankly, imperative that we be utterly honest with God. The Psalms teach us that we can be utterly honest with God.

Numbers 24 I think the key here is this: "When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not resort to divination as at other times, but turned his face to the wilderness." So here's what I think happened. I think early in these episodes (chapter 21) Balaam's motives were uncovered. The underlying current seems to be that there was something unsavory about Balaam's motives from the start–maybe he was greedy, maybe he was a people pleaser, maybe he liked being so heavily sought after. This opening verse in Numbers 24 tells us a lot, I believe, about what's going on in Balaam's mouth: he was no longer saying what the Lord told him to say, he was just saying whatever he wanted because he thought it would please the Lord. I believe Balaam's error was that he was trying to get the Lord's blessing for himself. He was using his position to get something from God rather than going forward in strict obedience to God. I could be wrong, but it seems that chapter 24 is kind of farcical precisely because it didn't come from God. No longer did the Lord 'put a word in Balaam's mouth' (23:5, 16). Now it was just Balaam talking, running off at the mouth because he hopes to manipulate the Lord. His words were not sincere, nor were they necessarily of God. (I also believe it helps to keep Genesis 12:1-3 in mind when reading these stories. I have a hard time with the Balaam stories being positive if only because he is spoken of negatively in 2 Peter 2:15-16.)

So, talking. In Romans we groan. In Matthew we plotted. In Psalms we cried out, we praise. In Numbers manipulated. In some way or other we do all these things unto the Lord. I think it is fair to say that each day we talk–we talk a lot. We say a lot of things. We utter a lot of mysteries and from whence they come we are often in the dark. There's a lot of talk going on in the world, coming forth from our mouths. Today I believe I will examine my speech a little more carefully.

Today we live in freedom. Let us be careful with our freedom and our talk. Or just ask yourself: what am I using my words for today? Am I blessing or cursing (Numbers)? Am I praising or crying out (Psalms)? Am I praising or plotting (Matthew)? Am I groaning  or hoping (Romans)? I think whatever we are doing, we must remember that it is God who is ultimately hearing and listening to our words. And not a single word escapes his notice.

The Daily Office readings for today, June 30, 2014 are as follows. I draw from the Book of Common Prayer, Year 2, Proper 8:

Psalm 106:1-18 (I just read the entire Psalm)

Numbers 22:1-21

Romans 6:12-23

Matthew 21:12-22

These were some wonderful readings and I'll briefly share just a few thoughts on them in order to get your mind moving in a Godward direction today. There is nothing necessarily scholarly about these reflections. These are mostly thoughts that come to mind while I read. The exercise of the mind upon Scripture and the meditation–the binding of the Word upon my heart–is the objective.

First, the Psalm: What I noticed in the Psalm is the story of Israel told from a single person within that story. Verse 4 was key for me: "remember me, Lord, when you show favor to your people." I think sometimes it is very easy to get lost in the shuffle and feel like God has somehow forgotten us. I have felt much the same way myself at times during the past 5 years. And so we cry out and talk louder hoping that maybe it's just that God hasn't heard us. As the Psalmist moves on, however, we start to see a pattern develop. So note verses 7, 13, and 21: 'they forgot.' God did this, and that, and this and that…and he rescued them. But they forgot. Periodically folks would stand in the gap in order to stay God's wrath (Moses v. 23 and Phinehas v. 30), but the people continued to push the boundaries of their wickedness and pursue sinful ways of those around them. Then near the end I noticed that God did something remarkable, something unthinkable: He heard their and remembered his covenant (45). So even when, as it turns out, it is actually we who are the ones doing the forgetting we can safely work on the premise that God does not forget. He remembers. It's kind of like that brigand hanging on the cross with Jesus who said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). I think that criminal was praying this Psalm. Lord, I know I am a sinner, but please remember me. And he did (Luke 23:43).

Second, Numbers 22. I will freely admit that this is one of those stories in the Bible that makes little sense to me. I have read it many, many times and I still struggle to understand why God got angry with Balaam even after he told Balaam it was OK to go as long as he only said what the Lord told him to say. It seems that perhaps what we are seeing is that Balaam's 'real intentions…were known to the Lord' (Allen, 889). So perhaps that's what we are dealing with here: intentions. Balaam was a strange character was was motivated by money, animated by greed. This is a good story, if Allen is right, which reminds us to stop and analyze our own intentions and think not that we can hide them from God. He knows the heart and we would be wise to remember that. (Pay close attention to verses 20-22.)

Third, Romans 6:12-23: Psalm 106 was a psalm dealing with sin. It seems that whoever wrote it was embroiled in some sort of sin and was concerned that perhaps this sin was egregious enough to cause God to forget him. So he rattles off the entire history of sinful Israel and points out at the end that even then God was not forgetful–He still remembered his covenant. So, God will you forget me too or in my sin will your grace prevail and will you remember me? So here in Romans 6 we see another thought about sin: What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? And here is what I think is the point: no, we shall not. Why? Because grace is not a license to do whatever we want. Grace according to Paul is a catalyst for persistence in righteousness. We have been set free from sin so why should be persist in wrong, in unrighteousness? We died to sin, why would be want to resurrect into a sinful life all over again? We have been raised up to life in Jesus. Be done with sin. Struggle against it. Wage war against it. Fight against it with all the power grace affords you. Remember Jesus Christ crucified who is your life. Remember you raised to walk in the newness of life not in the oldness of death.

Fourth, Matthew 21:12-22: I will focus rather narrowly on verses 12-15, and perhaps even more narrowly than that by looking at verse 14. It might be helpful to remember the story of David who conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital city (2 Samuel 5:6-10; 1 Chronicles 11:4-6). It may do well to remember that the owners of the city, at that time, told David the 'blind and the lame' had been set as a guard against him and that even they could ward off him and his army. It may be helpful to remember that David banned the blind and the lame from entering the courts. It may do well to remember that Jesus is the Davidic king. Now here is Jesus first entering Jerusalem (21:10) and second the Temple (21:12). And so look what happens: "The blind and the lame came to him at the temple and he healed them." But others, chief priests and teachers of the law, were indignant. How could they not be? Here was this Jesus welcoming those who were forbidden to be in the temple right into the temple. And not only was Jesus welcoming them into the temple, he was healing them which mean things like talking to and touching and pronouncing God's blessing. Now here is the King, Jesus, entering the courts of the temple and welcoming those that David had banned.

So it kind of makes me think about who we welcome and who we do not. Jesus welcomes anyone. Who do we welcome? What about your church? Do you welcome the blind? The lame? Those with Autism Spectrum Disorders? Those with AIDS? Those who are 'sinners'? Those who are alcoholics? Those whom the rest of the world rejects? Jesus is the King! The King welcomes all. Shouldn't his subjects be as gracious as he is? Well, think about yourself. "Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him" (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Think about it. And think about what so many churches are missing out on because churches are more interested in who can bring in the most dollars or the most influence–ask why people plant more new churches in posh suburbs instead of in poverty stricken urban centers. Just think about it. Then think about the folks King Jesus welcomed. Think about it.

These are my thoughts today. They are unfinished and incomplete. They are random. Nevertheless I pray they give you strength today in Jesus.

I will be honest: I struggle with prayer. Eugene Peterson wrote in one of his books that's quite OK if we struggle and that when we don't have words the Holy Spirit prays for us. Many people struggle, yet for some reason I find little comfort in that. For some reason this is the one area of my life where I take little comfort in the company that loves my misery. I wish, I wish I had the fortitude and strength to pray like David or Paul.

Luke's Gospel begins and ends with prayer–that is, if prayer is defined as talking to or responding to God. The first prayer (1:38) is Mary's: "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me according to your word." And the last prayer is either that of Jesus (24:30) and is simply a matter of giving thanks or it is that of the disciples and is a matter of worship (24:52). Maybe it's both.  Scattered throughout Luke's Gospel are other prayers–important prayers of people like Zechariah, Angels, Jesus. Prayers are sometimes rather long and drawn out (Luke 1:68-79) and other times prayers are short, simple phrases like, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me" (Luke 18:38). Sometimes they are utterly confessional (Luke 18:13; "God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), and other times utterly desperate, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42).

There's more. Sometimes when I think about it I realize that, given these examples, I pray a lot more than I think. Prayer need not be so formal–with all the hand folding, head bowing, and knee dropping. Prayer is not something we need to fear. I confess that I struggle because I'm not like those prayer warriors we read about in books on spiritual disciplines–you know the ones who say they wake up at four AM and pray for three hours before they eat breakfast, read the paper, shave, use the toilet, and go to work. Nah, that's not so much me.

I like these simple prayers I see in the Gospels–short little quiet prayers that demonstrate to God my minute by minute dependence or at least serve to remind me that I am no island. Even when Jesus taught his disciples to pray the prayer he used is a skeleton: basic, simple, and we have mostly memorized it (Luke 11:2-4). Jesus simply says for us to ask, seek, and knock. I find myself pounding on his door a lot–sometimes the hand is bloodied from so much rapping on the oak–yet like the mighty widow we persist (Luke 18:1-8).

I try not to be afraid of praying. I don't want to disappoint the Lord who wants us to pray. So the other day before I did my reading for the day, I wrote out my prayer. They are never long and this was true on that day. Yet I was feeling especially thankful for the simple things in life so I prayed: Dear Lord, thank you for this delicious Lender's Bagel I'm about to eat.

DownloadTitle: The Case for the Psalms

Author: N. T. Wright (Unofficial)

NT Wright: Amazon Page

Publisher: Harper Collins; HarperOne

Page Count: 200

Date: 2013

There are many preachers and theologians I admire to the point of buying anything they write and listening to anything they preach. Among them are Eugene Peterson, D.A. Carson, Frederick Buechner, David Wells, Tim Keller, and Eddie Vedder. I am, however, especially fond of N.T. Wright.

When I was in Bible college and especially after I started preaching in the church, there were always aspects of the Bible that bothered me: things didn't make chronological sense, this verse seemed to contradict that verse, and so on. Then one day I finally figured out that N.T. Wright was not the same person as H.N. Wright and I started reading. And I haven't stopped. His theology simply makes sense to me of all those verses I couldn't reconcile with one another and all those contradictory things are no longer contradictory. And while I still have several volumes I need to read, I have read a great deal of Wright's work and listened to countles lectures/sermons he has preached.

When I was given an amazon.com gift card for a Christmas gift, I knew some new N.T. Wright would soon be in my hands. The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential was the first volume I read (currently I'm reading How God Became King and after that will be Scripture and the Authority of God.) 

The Case for the Psalms is a small volume–an aspect that sort of bothered me–but it is a Wright's call for the church to return to the Hebrews Psalter. I agree. I think there is not enough use of the Psalms in the worship (except for a rather shallow use) or in the church in general. Jesus taught us the value–a terrible word–of the Psalms when he uttered in prayer Psalm 22 while was being crucified. Why don't we pray the Psalms in the church? Maybe we are afraid of the language of the psalmists who pray prayers about God destroying enemies and bashing the heads of babies against rocks. Maybe the Psalms are too personal for us in the West.

How does a Christian, not least a modern Christian who values our developed Western democracy, pray these lines? (44)

There is a reason the Psalms use this language–and worse–in prayer to God. It validates our experience, it confirms our pathos, and justifies our wailing, gut-wrenching pleas to God: is there anything we can say to God that is offensive when offered in the context of prayer?

That is why this book is not so much an invitation to study the Psalms–though that, too, is an immensely worthwhile exercise–but to pray and live the Psalms. (22)

The Psalms seem to think not, and if we do not have words of our own to express our deepest anger, grief, pain, or joy we have the Psalms. What better place can we go to find words to offer back to God?

Another important aspect of Wright's thoughts is that the Psalms are more than mere words on paper. The Psalms are transformative–when practiced continuously, carefully, and predictably, the Psalms change us:

And the Psalms are there to enable people not only to become aware of this possible change but actually to help bring it about. (158)

It is a matter for all of us to take seriously. I have begun this very thing: reading 5 Psalms per day, in order, throughout the day instead of all at one sitting.

Finally, as with everything Wright puts on paper or into the air, the Psalms are about showing us Jesus:

Here is the challenge for those who take the New Testament seriously: trying singing those Psalms christologically, thinking of Jesus as their ultimate fulfillment. See how they sound, what they do, hwere they take you. (110)

The book fits nicely with Wright's theology of God becoming king. In fact, it is an invitation for the reader of the Psalms, the pray-er of the Psalms, the singer of the Psalms to get in sync with God in space, time, and matter. The Psalms teach us how to 'offer ourselves as living sacrifices' (Romans 12). The Psalms teach us to number our days.

The aspect of this book that I enjoyed the most was the last chapter where Wright makes a connection between the Psalms and his life. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about his life and the things that have shaped him. Yet what I found is that he always tied his life to Scripture. Wright lets down the curtain for a minute or two and allows us to see his humanity–that side of him that has been shaped by Scripture, not just the side of him who has made understanding Scripture his life.

I actualy found myself doing this just yesterday when we found ourselves 'trapped' in the house due to frighteningly cold temperatures and a power outage. I had been reading through Psalms 8 through 12 during the day and shortly after the power went out, I found myself reading Psalm 11: "In the Lord I can take refuge" (v 1). It was cold. It was getting colder. The house was empty because my wife and sons had gone to warm houses. It was dark. Yet 'in the Lord I could take refuge.' It was a lot of comfort during a short period of physical discomfort ot hear those words at just the right time.

It made me wonder how many times I had missed hearing God's voice in other difficult, disastrous, or discomfitting times.

Only a couple of things bothered me about the book itself. One, I wish the book had been larger and longer. I read it in a day and wish it had taken me two. It felt rushed. Two, I wish the section dividers had been more than a mere double-space. Some headings would have made the text flow and connect better.

I rate this book 5/5 stars simply because if it did nothing else, it gave me the courage to start reading the Psalms all over again. And to pray them too. Which means I have started learning how to talk to the Father again.

 

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Remember the Setting
Blessed

Friends,

This is a sermon I preached from John 17:6-19 on May 24, 2009. My congregation has been going through some tough times lately and this sermon was a great way to put those issues in perspective. The battle we wage is not against the flesh; Jesus prayed for and prepared us for the battle that is being waged against us.

You can access the sermon manuscript from box.net in MS Word format. Below is an excerpt.

John 17:6-19: Jesus, the World, and Us

An important evening was about to conclude. The disciples had been introduced to the real Jesus. This was Jesus in the raw…the hardcore Jesus who takes off his clothes and washes feet. This was uncontrollable Jesus who quietly announces that his betrayer is among his throng. This is Jesus who says that his people will be defined by nothing less than their love for one another. This is Jesus who sat and listened and patiently, confidently answered all the questions the disciples put forth that evening.

This was the Jesus who decided that the conversation was over because the ‘hour had come’ and that it was time to close the evening’s conversation. So how else would Jesus conclude a conversation, but in prayer. So Eugene Peterson writes:

“The disciples are in the room, but they are no longer asking questions and making comments. They are listening to Jesus speaking with the Father. As Jesus’ followers, we are most definitely included as listening participants.” (Tell it Slant, 217)

Remember, this prayer became Scripture for us. We are not just reading a prayer or even listening to a prayer, but we are listening to the Very Word of God, prayed on and remembered from the night of his betrayal, the eve of his crucifixion. The very night before his death Jesus prayed. It is necessary, then, for us to hear and listen to this prayer—this prayer turned Scripture.

When we take the time to listen to the words of Jesus then we start to hear the voice of Jesus—praying for us, praying with us, praying to the Father. The book of Hebrews says he always lives to make intercession for us. We hear the voice of Jesus in the upper room, on the night he was betrayed, some two-thousand years ago praying a mighty prayer for his people. I want you to hear that prayer this morning.

Be blessed in the Lord.

I have posted new prayer thoughts and homiletical points at A Pastor’s Prayer Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

I have studied through Mark in depth five or six times and taught it in various situations at least four or five times. It is my favorite Gospel of the four perhaps because of it’s quick pace, literary value, and brutal honesty. The Gospel itself is marked (no pun) by the constant use of a small Greek phrase ‘kai euthus’, which means something like ‘and then’ or ‘immediately’ or ‘at once.’ The NIV, as do most translations, I noticed translates it differently so as to give the Gospel ‘flavor’ (although it appears that the NASB is fairly consistent in its use of ‘immediately’). This creates a sense of urgency in the Gospel as if Mark were always in a hurry to get us from one point to the next, never content to leave us lingering too long at one scene. In the overall picture, we know where Mark is in a hurry to get us and by the time we get to the crucifixion the pace has slowed (in my judgment) considerably. He wants us to drink deeply at this point.

The thoughts are from Mark 1 and 2.

Intercession for Sodomites and Gomorrahites
Genesis 18, Luke 15

Properly speaking, of course, a Sodomite is someone who lives in Sodom the ancient city that one afternoon Abraham, the father of our faith, stood interceding for. A Gomorrahite is someone who lived Gomorrah. I suspect we have clung to the former because it is much easier to pronounce.

Genesis 18. If the Old Testament had Comedy Central, this chapter would certain anchor the prime time line-up. This chapter runs some extreme ends which is probably one way to adequately demonstrate the intrusiveness of chapter and verse divisions.

At one end of the chapter we are confronted with the absurdity of 100 year-old people being informed of impending doom. Not only is it absurd for 100 year-old people to find themselves suddenly parents, but it seems equally absurd for a baby to find himself being raised by people whose diapers he should be changing—and could very well be changing in a few years’ time. Then again, by any standard it is absurd to think of people that age…well, you know.

At the other end of the chapter we see the absurdity of Abraham arguing with God about how many righteous people it would take to convince God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. I hear echoes of a tootsie pop commercial. Ironically, or not, when the angels go out later that evening to investigate whether there are ten righteous people between the two cities, they barely make it out of the first city alive. I think we have an insight into the depths of depravity in the cities since Abraham started with 50 and whittled that down to 10. He wasn’t expecting much. Chapter 18 is absurd and everyone reading it knows this to be true.

I’m not the only one who thinks this story is absurd. Even the characters within the story think the story is absurd: “Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?’” I have said before that sarcasm is one of God’s greatest gifts to us and Sarah’s response to the angel’s announcement surely ranks up there with some of the best sarcasm every uttered.

It might even be absurd that as the visitors were getting ready to leave Abraham goes with them to ‘see them on their way’. It might be absurd that they happen to glance down and see Sodom. It might be absurd that the Lord here, whoever that is, decides that Abraham is a worthy to know what he is about to do to Sodom and Gomorrah because an ‘outcry’ has gone up to the Lord against them.

So in the first half of the chapter we note that Abraham is told the news of Sarah’s impending pregnancy. He is informed that the long awaited heir is only a mere year or so away. This heir ‘story’ connects these two scenes because as they are leaving and accompanied by Abraham the Lord repeats the promise, “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (18-19).

That’s saying much; a lot, especially when it is considered what Abraham does next. He interceded on behalf of Sodom. I know his nephew lived there, but Abraham’s prayer was specifically for the entire city: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?” (23-24) And God assures him that he would not—all the way down to ten people.

The reality is that in our world Christians have feasted far too much on imprecatory prayers than we have intercessory prayers. What sort of ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ was Abraham going to teach his heir if not that we should pray for and intercede for the wicked as demonstrated in this chapter? Does anyone find it strange, or ironic, that there was an ‘outcry’ going up against Sodom and there stood Abraham interceding for the very people the Lord meant to destroy because of the outcry? As Abraham’s heirs, his household (Hebrews 2:16), I wonder if we learned the things of Abraham that the Lord said he would teach us? (18:19)

We like those imprecatory Psalms and prayers because we think we are justified in praying them. Abraham’s prayer wasn’t answered, right? Sodom was destroyed so we think we are right to pray against those modern Sodom’s and Gomorrah’s. All this proves is that we haven’t learned from Abraham. What I am saying, to make my language plain, is that Christians spend far too much time praying for God’s judgment on the wicked and not enough time interceding on their behalf. Abraham asked God to spare the entire city for 10 people.

Isn’t our intercession on behalf of the modern Sodom’s part of the way we as Abraham’s heirs continue being a blessing to every nation on earth? Which brings us back to God’s sermon to Sarah when she laughed: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

I suppose it is much easier to laugh at what we think impossible, you know, things like God rescuing the most wicked cities or the most unrighteous. I suppose it is much easier to simply pray God send a tsunami or a cyclone and just deal with those people than it is to actually stand toe to toe, face to face, with God (it seems that 18:22 might mean something like ‘God stood before Abraham’) and argue and debate and delay his judgment. But I think we are meant to answer the question: Is anything to hard for God?

If God can help two 100 year old people have a child, can he rescue a lost sheep? Can he find a lost coin? Can he wait patiently for a lost son to come home, and for a steady son to join the party? Can he drive a legion of demons from a man? Can he raise the dead, heal the blind, and cause the lame to walk? Can he rescue Sodom and Gomorrah? Who is it that limits God? Is there anything too hard for God?

And I think that’s what Abraham was thinking as he stood there that evening pleading with God for Sodom. Jesus said, “With human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Not only does this mean that all things are possible, but it also means that all things are possible. It means that perhaps we would do well to stop writing off so many we think God can’t save and open up our prayers to the possibility that perhaps God is just waiting for someone to intercede. Maybe we doubt too much what God can do and thus we never ask him.

So consider: Is anything too hard for God? It’s not so absurd to think that God can save anyone, is it?