My Struggle With Prayer

I have to be honest. I have always struggled with prayer.

Maybe my struggle has been with the way in which our culture has always portrayed prayer, as this redundant and repetitive exercise before meals and before bed, in which we ask God for things and then thank God for what we have.

I am not pointing fingers here.

In many ways, my wife and I have this regular, repetitive rhythm with our kids when we pray with one another each day.

And insofar as it goes, there is really nothing wrong with offering our petitions and thanksgiving to God in a regular daily rhythm, as we will soon see.

However, the issue is when that is the final destination of our prayer lives.

When we only pray to God as a genie, of sorts, who we go to in order ask for those things we want.

When we only pray to God as a blessing machine who needs to be thanked for all of our material wealth.

When the depth of our prayer lives can only be measured in singular, finite moments before a meal or before bed.

That is not God’s intention with prayer- to be a genie who grants our every wish and desire, to be viewed as a blessing generator who only offers goods and services for our consumption, or to only be addressed at fixed times throughout the day.

God’s intention for prayer is so much more dynamic, so much more encompassing, so much more intimate, so much more fulfilling, and so much more purposeful than anything we could ever imagine.

But it starts in a very intimidating place.

Always be joyful and never stop praying.

Or, as another version says… pray without ceasing

Wait.

What?

How do we even do that?
How do we pray without ceasing?
How do we make movements from praying a couple of times a day to praying all the time?

Even more, how is that even humanly possible?

Believe me. I get it.

One significant limitation we have is that there is only one word for the word prayer in the English language… and that word is… prayer. So when a person mentions prayer, one immediately thinks of folded hands, bowed heads, and words spoken to God.

However, an interesting thing happens when you begin to look at the languages, Hebrew and Greek, in which the Bible was written. You begin to quickly find that there are dozens of words for prayer, each meaning something slightly different from the others.

The Greek word used in the pray without ceasing verse is actually the most all-encompassing word for prayer in the entire Bible. It is the big dog of all prayer words, if you will.

The word is proseuchomai and it doesn’t just capture one single element of prayer, it captures every element of prayer– submission, confession, petition, intercession, supplication, praise, and thanksgiving.

And with that understanding, think about what the verse is actually saying to us.

Submit to God without ceasing.
Confess to God without ceasing.
Petition to God without ceasing.
Supplicate to God without ceasing.
Intercede to God without ceasing.
Praise God without ceasing.
Give thanks to God without ceasing.

But it even goes beyond that.

Proseuchomai means to come toward, to come face to face with God.

In proseuchomai, we do not find a distant god removed from our lives or a god who only wants our prayer a couple of times a day or a god who simply wants our wish lists or a god who just wants to hand out blessings to us.

Instead, we find a God who wants us to come close to him, to come face to face with him, and to bring it all, everything we have, everything we are, as a constant and continual intimate conversation with him with every single breath we take.

Ancient cultures believed that there was a sacredness in breathing, a sacredness in each person’s inhaling and exhaling. Jewish sages and scholars intimated that the sacred name of God, YHWH, could be heard with every exhalation of breath. So it was, in our first breath of life, YHWH breathed life and his name into our lungs. And with every subsequent breath in each of our lives, as we exhale, the sacred name of God is spoken.

Whether this is true or not is inconsequential, but it speaks to an incredible intimacy between us and YHWH. And, it is interesting to consider the words of Paul in Ephesians when he says to, “proseuchomai” in the “pneuma.”

The Greek word pneuma means spirit, wind, or breath.

To me, this paints an absolutely beautiful picture of prayer and intimacy with the Divine.

That in our spirit, and in the sacredness of every breath we take, there is a sweet communion with YHWH as we breathe in and breathe out, and as YHWH invites us to come closer, intimately close, face-to-face close, in humility to share our heartaches, our struggles, our hardships, our burdens, our insecurities, our requests, our celebrations, our praises, and our thanksgiving.

This practice of prayer is a moment by moment, intimate communion with YHWH that never ceases, as YHWH continually invites us to come closer and closer in all things and with every breath.

Indeed, let everything that has breath…

Brandon

The Bible Says It. I Believe It. That Settles It (Except for Loving My Enemies)

I have found over the years that it is easy for Christians to disregard the teachings of Jesus that make them especially uneasy or that contradict what they believe to be right. There is no greater example of this than the Christian’s complete disregard for, and opposition to, Christ’s teachings on enemy-love and non-retaliation to evil.

For every time I have had a conversation with a Christian about how we are implored by Christ to be peacemakers, to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, and to not repay evil with evil, I am met with sharp disagreement and quick rebuttals. This is so much the case that I have found it easier to gain agreement from those who are NOT CHRISTIANS than those who have professed to be disciples of Jesus.

In many ways it seems as if those who have been invited to the banquet have refused to sit at the table and fully feast, while those on the street corners and in the alleyways are more eager for an invitation to taste and see.

It is a very, very bizarre phenomenon.

Despite clear and overwhelming evidence that Jesus wants his followers to be peacemakers, to be those who love our enemies, and to be those who do not repay evil with evil, the vast majority of Christians in the United States are pro-capital punishment and pro-war. Even more, the vast majority of Christians in the United States applaud and celebrate when young men and women in our churches go in to military service.

I realize that last paragraph may be confusing for you and maybe even hard to swallow. I remember my confusion when I was first confronted with the fact that much of what I believed and stood for actually contradicted and opposed the way of Jesus. For over three decades, I had somehow been able to compartmentalize my faith and justify my thinking so that my misaligned core beliefs never had to face the cross of Christ.

In my mind, I could follow Jesus on the things he and I already agreed upon, while keeping hidden those things that opposed him.

With that kind of division in my faith, I did not ever have to face the uncomfortable fact that my support of killing enemies contradicted and opposed the same Christ to whom I had given my life and to whom I had professed to follow. I was able to follow Jesus on my own terms without ever needing to change my heart toward those I opposed, or even hated. Even worse, there was not one single Christian I knew who would question or challenge my thinking on this, because they all believed the same exact thing.

And being that our country is so patriotic and so militarily-minded, very few outside of the Quaker, Mennonite, or Anabaptist traditions are brave enough to stand up and say that American churches have erroneously strayed and abandoned Christ’s teaching and example of loving our enemies. In fact, the position of many American churches more closely mirrors the position of the American government than that of Jesus.  These churches would rather have enemies killed than to love and pray for them.

While I don’t have any expectation of the American government to follow Jesus, it should not be too much to expect the Church to follow Jesus in how we love our enemies.  One has to wonder if Jesus would agree with Christian support for capital punishment and war, when it is so far from what he intended for his followers.

There is no question that there are assumptions we make about this life from the time we are born into it. Our hearts and minds are shaped and formed by the families in which we were born, the cultures in which we are shaped, and the countries in which we live. The ideas and beliefs we accumulate over the years can become so ingrained into our core being that they become our only reality, the only way we see the world. And we are all in the same boat. That is why there should never be an ounce of judgment among us.

But if we, as followers of Jesus, have fundamental beliefs and foundational positions that stand completely opposed, even antagonistic, to Jesus, ought we not wrestle with these apparent contradictions? 

Even if it challenges us to the very core of our being, is it not incumbent upon each of us, as his followers, to ask very simple questions as to why we can so easily ignore the great breadth of clear and unambiguous teachings of Jesus on loving our enemies and not retaliating to evil?

Maybe this outrageous point will demonstrate the degree to which Christians have ignored the enemy-loving, non-retaliatory message of Jesus.

The majority of Christians who are pro-capital punishment, pro-war, and pro-military also believe that homosexuality is a sin.

Please, please, please hang with me here.

While Jesus never directly mentions homosexuality as sinful, many Christians believe it is an absolute abomination, and as a result, actively and vocally oppose homosexuality.

Yet, when there is a GIANT MOUNTAIN of evidence from the mouth of Jesus instructing his followers to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to not resist an evil-doer, to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to give the shirt off our backs, to feed our enemies, to give drink to our enemies, to be peacemakers, to forgive and forgive and forgive, to pray for those who persecute us, to do good to those who hate us, those same Christians do not just ignore his words, they actively oppose them.*

Do you understand what I am saying?

This isn’t a post trying to change anyone’s position or view on homosexuality. I understand how each side has arrived at their position and that is not the intention of this particular post. Hopefully, we can talk about that issue another day.

But for the sake of today, and don’t miss this absolutely essential point- On an issue Jesus never directly mentions (homosexuality) many Christians stand so strongly and so resolutely. Yet, on the issue that is the very foundation of Jesus’ life, teaching, and ministry (loving our enemies), the same Christians completely ignore and oppose it in their support of capital punishment and war.

I hope you can see the problem here.

To me, it is mind-boggling.

I hear so many of my Christian brothers and sisters who are pro-capital punishment, pro-war, and pro-military say, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” But I am going to have to challenge you on that assertion.  The Bible says those who follow Christ should love their enemies, not repay evil with evil, and not resist the evil-doer, yet you actively support their killing. And if you truly believed those words, you would surely not oppose the enemy-loving words and non-violent way of Jesus.

I would like to make a reasonable proposition so that we, as followers of Christ, may begin to move forward differently than we have in the past. I would like to honor and thank each and every service man and woman for their past and present service.  For surely our churches and church leaders in both the past and present did nothing but present military service as your Christian duty and obligation. And to that end, we hold absolutely no ill-will toward anyone who served in the past, or who is serving presently.

But, beginning today, may we draw a line in the sand and move forward into a future where the followers of Christ are those who pursue peace, those who love our enemies, and those who never repay evil-for-evil?

Can we begin instructing our children that the killing of our enemies, or any life, is contradictory and oppositional to the teaching, life, and ministry of Jesus?

Can we not move forward differently in our churches as a movement of peacemakers who offer a continual invitation into the peaceable, loving, forgiving, and merciful kingdom of Christ to both friends and enemies?

We are the physical body of Christ in the world and we have been given the task of looking beyond lines of division, relinquishing all ideologies of hatred, and inviting all image-bearers of God (friends and enemies alike) into the saving, life-transforming kingdom of God.

Peace is the only way…

Brandon

You may want to challenge my position based on some of the arguments below. I have provided links for further consideration. If you are interested in further discussion, let’s have coffee.

*You may want to bring up the violent God imagery of the Old Testament, I already wrote about that in another post, Out of Context.

*You may want to bring up the justification for killing your enemies by Jesus clearing out the temple with whips and by Jesus telling his disciples to bring two knives with them when he was getting ready to be arrested. Those misunderstood arguments hardly overturn the mountains of teachings from the peaceful, enemy-loving, cross bearing Christ. Here is an article about clearing the temple and one about the two swords for further reflection on the issue.

*You may want to support the killing of enemies by using the Just War Theory. The problem is that the Just War Theory is a theory for countries and governments, but not a theory offered by Jesus to his followers. Governments will always act as governments will act, but we are citizens of a different kingdom with a leader whose law is love for friend and enemy alike. And it is this leader and this kingdom to whom we have pledged our allegiance. We will not support or partake in any action that forces us to do anything less than love every human being, even the vilest offender. For even the vilest offender is a son or daughter of God, made in God’s very own image, and worth redeeming to the very end. Here is a great article refuting the Christian justification for killing enemies by using the Just War Theory.

*If we needed to go beyond the words of Jesus to make the case for loving our enemies, we can look at the letters of Paul and the lives of the Early Church. Paul echoes all the words of Jesus throughout his letters to the Early Church. He even says that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers and principalities of evil. That means our battle isn’t against other humans. And the war we wage is one waged differently- not against flesh, but against the powers of evil. Killing people does not extinguish this evil power. Additionally, Paul says that evil is God’s “to avenge,” not ours.

*The Early Christians were so committed to the peaceable, enemy-loving way of Jesus that they were regularly martyred without any attempt at repaying evil for evil. It should also be noted that the biggest explosion of the Jesus movement occurred at a time when Christians were actively laying their lives down in love and in their commitment to non-retaliation to evil.

Mother

We are drawn to stories.  The heroes.  The villains.  The supporting characters.  The conflict.  The hurt.  The pain.  The bitterness.  The comfort.  The grace.  The mercy.  The forgiveness.  The climax.  The resolution.  The triumph and celebration.

I believe we are drawn to stories…because we always try to find ourselves in them.

Who am I?  What part do I play?  What is my role?  Am I the one causing hurt…or the one comforting?  Do I inflict pain…or do I grant mercy?  Have I become bitter…or do I forgive?  Do I continue to hate…or do I choose to love?

Of course there are choices throughout the story.

A character can be molded and shaped by situations and circumstances, or by the lessons learned as the story twists and turns.

But woven into the fabric of every situation, circumstance, and lesson learned, we find a supporting cast with their own unique stories that have, and will continue to, influence and shape our own stories.

While it is true that some of these individuals carve valleys into the landscape of our story, others work the fertile soil of our lives to show us heights we would have never seen otherwise.

They pass along their heart and sense of selflessness to their sons and daughters… and the sons and daughters of future generations.

But it is not by word alone…but by word and flesh.

This perfectly describes my mother.

For her daily example in word and flesh… I am eternally grateful.

Her uniqueness

Her influence

Her tender and gentle shaping

Her undying love for her children

Made me who I am today.

And she continues to work the fertile soil of my life so I might see greater heights.

It is because of her that I stand tall and see more clearly.

But my mom does more than simply nourish the soil of my life.

She is also a seed sower.

The school bus pulled up early on a cool fall morning.  A little man stood with his red satchel beside his mom in anticipation.  The doors opened wide.  The little man took the gifts from his mom and stepped onto the bus.  He handed a box of handkerchiefs and a Snickers bar to the bus driver.

I gave because my mother always gave selflessly.

She has always been a giver.

A giver to her family and to others.

Time, gifts, money, and instruction, she has never failed to give.

Even when we did not have much.  Even when she battled cancer.

She continued to give.

Not begrudgingly.  She did it without complaint.  She did not expect anything in return.

She gave of herself to others.

The seed of selfless giving was planted in me.  This seed took root in the fertile soil of my life.  This seed was watered by the Spirit.  And the shoot broke forth from the fertile ground.

The tree extended branches and produced an abundance of fruit.  The fruit fell to the ground and scattered more seeds.  The seeds of giving and selflessness were planted in me by my mom.

They grew to produce in me the fruit of giving and selflessness to others.

And that cycle continues.

From person to person.

From generation to generation.

My mother made me a fruit bearer and a seed sower.

A part of her will always live and carry on with me… as I continue to pass along what was given to me.

In and through my own children.

To my friends.

And even among my enemies.

I know who I am today and I know what role I play in this life because of my mother.

Happy Mother’s Day mom.  My words are insufficient… but it is the best I have.

I love you.

Brandon