Friday, March 29, 2013

A Prayer for Good Friday

     Lord, I am checking my watch all day today.  When I wake up, I remember that at 6am, Jesus faced a mock trial, was treated cruelly, yet took it all peacefully.  By mid-morning, Jesus’ wrists and ankles were gashed and shattered by iron nails, the cross slammed into the ground; the snide snickering of onlookers began.  Lord, we cannot even imagine the pain, or his mother’s grief.  At noon the sky grew eerily dark; then at 3pm Jesus breathed his last.

     We ponder that old hymn, “What wondrous love is this?” – and the profound words of the prophet Isaiah: He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Surely he has borne our grief, and carried our sorrows.  He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, with his stripes we are healed.  He was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter; they made his grave with the wicked, although he had done no violence (Isaiah 53).

     Help me, Lord, to comprehend your glory in the crucifixion.  Forgive me for my rebellious spirit, and my failure to live as someone Jesus died for.  We praise you for entering into our mortality, so we never suffer alone. 

     Keep my eyes fixed on the cross, all day today – and every day.  “Beneath the cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand… O safe and happy shelter… From my stricken heart with tears two wonder I confess: the wonders of redeeming love, and my unworthiness.  Content to let the world go by, to know no gain or loss, my sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.”  In the holy name of our crucified Lord Jesus, Amen.

Monday, March 25, 2013

a prayer for Holy Monday

Lord, it is Monday: back to work, back to making money, back to the business of living in this world. And so it is jarring to pause and recall what you were doing on that Monday. I can only imagine t...he shock, and the offense taken, when you strode boldly into the temple precincts and shouted at them, even got physical with them, hoisting the tables onto their sides, money clattering on the stone floor, birds flapping and squawking away, men gasping, pushing back. What was that like for you? What on earth were you trying to accomplish?

I think I can see that you were not just angry but also hurt that they had turned the sacred, simple, holy place into a market – the way we in our society make everything into a market. Lord I was raised to be a consumer; I was taught that money and market forces really determine everything. You judged all that, and tried to clean it up.

And not just our consumer culture, but also our vapid, twisted religiosity that thinks a few prayers will get you to do our bidding and otherwise you will leave us be. I am as weary as you were with a thin, self-indulgent faith. Clean up my soul, and your church.

Lord, this Monday is a hard day, but I would not live it without your righteous frustration with the way we get it all wrong. Your house, and my house, shall be called a house of prayer. Amen.See More

A Prayer for Palm Sunday

A Prayer for Palm Sunday

Lord, for a moment I can feel myself caught up in the excitement of the crowd, stirred by the sight of a hero entering the city in triumph: branches waving, pushing and straining to get a better view, hoping at... last for a decisive win.

But now I notice you are on a donkey, not a war stallion. You are not armed, no sword - armed with nothing but humility, clothed not in armor but in determined love. I want to warn you to watch out for the authorities, Pilate, Herod and their henchmen - but I know you know. I see courage in your face, a passion to do God's will no matter the cost.

So with the throng I can shout "Hosanna!" - and then I also want to whisper in your ear, Thank you for coming, thank you for your courage, your determination, your mission, for showing us the divine heart. Help me to follow - but I'll need you to give me some courage, and strength, and mostly love to be close to you, to do whatever God asks, to be a humble, fearless servant in Your kingdom that thankfully doesn't look like Pilate's or the culture I live in today.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.See More

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Obituary - worshipful...

When I was in graduate school I read The Denial of Death, the Pulitzer-prize winning book of cultural anthropology by Ernest Becker. His thesis is that all of civilization, and in fact most of our labor throughout life, is an elaborate defense mechanism against the awareness of our mortality. It would be too terrifying, to think about nothingness, and so valiantly we live as if death is somewhere else, some other time.
But then we have daily reminders: the dreaded obituary page. No wonder people stop getting the paper! They are there, old and too young, from every sort of background, whole lives jammed into as few words as contained in this email you're reading.

Worship reminds us of our mortality - and without blushing. Church is the one place we do not shrink from talking about death. Yes, there's that ultimate flatline in the hospital, a doctor signs a death certificate, and it's over - but we believe death is not the final word. Defiantly we believe Jesus' gruesome death wasn't his final ruin, and so there is hope for us. We believe God made you, or me, as such a complex, robust creature that the end of such a wonder is difficult to conceive - and the reason is the horror of death is not the end. We believe God's love is so immense, so unrattleable, that God can laugh off death and just continue to love us. That's what eternal life is about: not some inherent immortality in me, but the astonishing gift of God's relationship with us that thankfully will never die.

So we can look at death, and not avert our gaze. We can calm down, and actually we can live more wisely, not panicked to cram it all in, but with a holy urgency.

The axis around which all our worship revolves is the worship of Holy Week, which begins in 3 days. It's a saga of death and great sorrow, culminating in a miracle - the miracle - and gasping delight. Each day of this sacred week, I will email you a prayer for the day. Block it out now: time to be still, to ask What wondrous love is this? - and to shake off all denial of death, and embrace our Lord who came to Jerusalem to show us his inner heart, and ultimate designs for the world.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Waiting Room - as a Sanctuary

     Stuck in a waiting room. You could, at any time, voluntarily go and sit in some waiting room - let's say at the doctor's office, or the car repair place. You don't have to prove you're supposed to be there! But who would choose to spend time in a waiting room?

   In recent years they have snazzed up waiting rooms so you hopefully won't mind waiting so much. The one I'm sitting in as I type this has 5 wide screen TVs, a snack bar, free coffee, an aquarium, and little work stations with free internet access.

   But a waiting room still makes me grimace. If it's the doctor's office, I whine (silently, in my head) about why physicians keep you waiting so long; I'm a professional, I see people in a timely manner... Or if I'm in the auto repair place, I strum my knuckles and wish I'd paid attention when my dad taught me to change the oil. I bring work, and sometimes get more done in a waiting room where there are no interruptions.

   I may get carried away by my fantasies, but I imagine Jesus chooses to hang out in waiting rooms. He's not staring idly at the TVs or checking his email. He notices the people. They don't sit next to each other, do they? You pick a seat comfortably distant from the other guy. But what's his story? Especially outside the doctor's office: that woman, that couple, that child? Is it cancer? If he's in a waiting room, he may not know himself.

   So maybe you just shut down the computer or close your book, and say a prayer. You have a lot in common with that stranger. You're both waiting, you're both somewhere you wouldn't choose to be. You're both in a place Jesus chooses to be with you.

   Maybe you recall your guilt over not having enough time to pray or read the Bible (or these emails) - those worship things you forget to repeat between Sundays. You're waiting on the car, and you open a Bible. God's Word comes alive in an unlikely place - and inevitably somebody sees you doing so, and either rolls his eyes and moans, or smiles and even snuggles up to ask you about it. A gentle witness to the presence of God.

     The waiting room: in a way, our entire life is like a waiting room. You didn't choose to be here, and ultimately you aren't staying here either. What to do during the wait - or during this life! - to prepare to go where you're really headed?
     A lovely praxis: Transforming a waiting room into a sanctuary, a worshipful place.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


What's the forecast for tomorrow? or the rest of the week? or the rest of my life? Sunny? Clouds? Chance of storms? Severe weather?
The art of Praxis, of making our faith reality, is nowhere more tested than in the way we think about tomorrow. Some people seem naturally to be glib about tomorrows that are bound to be difficult: Franklin Roosevelt said that, during the Depression and World War II, at the end of the day he put on his pajamas and slept soundly.

Others of us are inventive in concocting reasons to be anxious. In our uneasy, dicey culture, most of us suffer at least mild and perhaps crippling anxiety. In Jesus' first sermon he said "Do not be anxious about tomorrow," and in Paul's last letter he echoed that thought. But telling myself not to be anxious only makes me more anxious!

The antidote to anxiety is... hope? Hope isn't mere optimism, that sunny disposition that everything will be better tomorrow. Tomorrow might actually be harder. Hope is about God, trusting that God has things well in hand, that maybe not tomorrow but ultimately God will bring everything to God's lovely conclusion, and all will be well.

Last year at the beginning of Lent, I shared Lauren Winner's quirky suggestion that we give up anxiety for Lent. For that to stand a chance, we have to be poised to substitute something for anxiety when it seeps into our heads. Her suggestion was to be armed with a prayer, or Bible verse or two. We printed little cards at the time, with this on one side:

O God of peace, who taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: by the might of your Spirit lift us up, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God.

and this on the other side:

Lord, Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner... Be pleased, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me.

If you are prone to anxiety, carry such a card, or something around, and try hope in God, a worshipful posture in the throes of the real bedeviling of daily life.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Earworm #2

Yesterday we thought together about the dreaded earworm, that song that gets stuck on replay in your head. You don't choose the tune, or even understand why it popped in there.
What's more explainable, and problematical, are the verbal messages that replay in your head - for they come from your parents, or a coach or teacher, or society's conventional wisdom, little tidbits of counsel, or dim prophecies: "You'll never amount to anything." "Look out for #1." "You're no good." "Why aren't you more like your big brother?" "I need a drink." "You deserve a break." You know your repeat messages.

What if the offstage directions, the cues whispered that define you, were actually God's words? In worship we read the Bible; without its words how could I be worshipful through the week?

Once upon a time, Christians placed high value on the memorization of Bible verses. Everybody seems to know John 3:16 - but what if, over the rest of 2013, you learned just one a week? You have way more brain capacity than that. By Christmas, you'd have more than 40 messages from God in your head, encouraging you throughout the day, handy to retrieve in a crisis, maybe even drowning out those other parental, societal, guilt-ridden messages you've let ramble around in there all these years.

The Bible isn't a repository of interesting religious information. It can be the script of your life, the definition of your soul. Allan Bloom could have been describing my own grandparents, whose piety I envy, when he wrote, "My grandparents were ignorant people by our standards; my grandfather held only lowly jobs. But their home was spiritually rich because all the things done in it...found their origin in the Bible's commandments, and their explanations in the Bible's stories. I do not believe that my generation, my cousins who have been educated in the American way, with M.D.s or Ph.D.s, have any comparable learning. When they talk about relationships or the human condition, I hear nothing but clichés, superficialities, the material of satire."

This sort of praxis delights God, and will make you better: memorize a Bible verse this week, and another next week, and don't stop. Some words will play in your head; maybe they'll be God's.

Monday, March 11, 2013


Earworm? Isn't that the term for a song that gets stuck in your head? Sometimes it's a favorite, more often (for me) it's some cutesy, annoying tune...

There's a quirkiness about a song's invasion of your head - but it's always something you know well. What if our worship supplied the tunes, and messages that linger, and define our destiny? John Wesley published a little hymnal for the first Methodists, with these words on page 1: "Learn these tunes before you learn any others. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep. Do not bawl. Sing in time, do not run before or behind. Sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself..."

Modern Christians squander energy debating styles of music that suit us, or attract people - but sacred music is all about content, the lyrics you might even know and treasure best of all, that supply you with courage, and fix your eyes upon God. Hymns, if they stick in our heads, shape us into worshipful people when we're not in worship. Charles Wesley, John's brother and history's most prolific hymn-writer, explained why he wrote 6,500 of them: "To arouse sinners, encourage saints, and to educate all in the mysteries of the Christian faith."

Can you get a hymn as your earworm? and wander around all day, sitting in meetings or at dinner, with "Fairest Lord Jesus," or "The Summons," or "How Great Thou Art" resounding in your soul?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Talk - worshipful?

      In worship, there’s talk; the preacher talks; hopefully we talk to each other, at least politely, hopefully frankly, fully aware of being in a holy place.  Worship may just be a school in how to talk during the week.
     You are about to open your mouth (or type the words…).  But why?  What’s about to pop out of there?  As one who blurts things out before thinking, I’ve longed to be like George Washington, who famously was thought to be quite wise simply because he didn’t say much.
     Can the simple act of talking (or not) help me (and others) toward (or away from) God?  “Let the words of my mouth be acceptable to you, O Lord” (Psalm 19:14).  I doubt God expects some pious, sugary, lilting niceness in our talk.  But can we think of talk as an exercise of our faith?
     Talk is cheap; we hear so much decadent, even vicious talk.  Words expose who we are; words wound; words heal and give life.  Can I be not just honest but encouraging, saying things that are excellent, helpful to others? 
     Can I learn when to refrain from talk?  Bonhoeffer suggested that "Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words."  Tell the truth; but sometimes just hush if the truth is harmful?
     If someone monitored your talk over a year or two, what would they conclude really matters to you?  Would they get a sense that God is in your life? or that you are kind? or compassionate? or virtuous (without being smug)?  What is the tone of my talk? and is my talk (over many years) becoming more? or less acceptable to God? and encouraging to others?
     We want to talk about God, but we may get tongue-tied.  Worship may just teach us how to talk about God out there.  Dorothy Day said, "If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God."

Conversation - Worshipful?

You're in a conversation. Mild chit-chat, normal stuff, work, the weather. Then you hear yourself, or someone, make a declaration of something at least semi-significant: Hard work pays off in the end. It's who you know. I'm sick of these Democrats.
Sometimes there's laughter - but what makes you (or them) laugh? What are you uncomfortable with, but chuckle any way to avoid making a scene, to fit in? Is someone degraded? To laugh or not to laugh, to nod or not to do: we declare who we are, and disclose our moral compass and priorities when we talk, and laugh.

Even gossip: yes, it's bad manners, and often downright mean to gossip. But surprisingly enough, in gossip we often declare our moral position. "I can't believe he had an affair!" "She bent the truth and it got her into trouble." "I would never leave my children." "If I cheated on taxes, I'd get caught, or feel like a schmuck."

In all these, what you value pops out - or you are schooled in the beliefs of others. In worship, we recite a creed. Some Christians don't like creeds... but somehow in worship we declare who we are, or at least who we wish to be in the light of God's grace. In worship, we name our truest self, our highest aspirations, our noblest beliefs. We believe God is "almighty," and that Jesus is "our Lord," that resurrection happens, that a judgment awaits us in the future, that forgiveness is hard but essential, and that this life is really a prelude to bigger things to come.

Maybe the creed, what we've named in worship that we say we believe, can linger into the week, and live in our minds and hearts as the most intriguing, and motivating of all our thoughts, the gyroscope that keeps me pointed in the right direction, the calming whisper that maintains focus. In mid-conversation, I remember that I believe in God...