Leftovers, Latecomers, and Lovely Things

This past Sunday, I finished a sermon series on prayer. I enjoyed sharing it, and enjoyed hearing how folks have responded to it. But, there is more to share. There is always more to share – stuff that came too late, stuff that didn’t fit, and stuff that I couldn’t work into the messages or the worship times. So, this week’s blog entry will be the catch-all for all the good stuff that got away – the leftovers, the latecomers, and the stuff I love but didn’t get to share.

I’ll start with a story I heard just today. A woman told me about a time several years ago she prayed with someone she didn’t know (taking the theme, pray now, seriously). She was at the eye doctor, and just had her eyes dilated. As she waited, a man started talking with her. At first, she wasn’t interested in talking, so she just gave him one-word answers. But he began to tell his life story, and discuss his hard-luck reality. She felt led to ask him if she could pray for him. He said okay. She prayed. Then he asked, Are you married? Sometimes we pray, and we get to watch for welcome answers. And sometimes we pray, and we get unwelcome questions.

And today – again, just today – I came across this video. It’s a pretty good introduction to the Book of Psalms. It’s 9 minutes long, but well worth it:

Then there’s this video. I really wanted to use it on the Sunday we looked at the 23rd Psalm, but it just didn’t fit. Well, it fits here.

And then there’s this powerful article about lament, prayer, praise, and hope. You need to read this. And then there’s this from Philip Yancey on unanswered prayer and Bono. Speaking of Bono, it turns out that he’s also a fan of my favorite writer on ministry – Eugene Peterson. And Fuller Seminary got the two of them together to talk about the Psalms. The result is an interesting conversation between a pop star and a pastor – plus a whole bunch of other cool resources.

If you’ve made it this far, you are, either: 1) my mom, if she had the internet (which she doesn’t); 2) bored with the Olympics (and thus surfing the internet for anything that’s not performance-enhanced); or, 3) a part of Fern Creek Christian. If you are #3, I hope you are planning to be a part of our 24 Hours of Prayer. If you’ve not yet signed up, you can do so here.

Let me end with one more latecomer: I was perusing the clearance shelf at Half Price Books, and came across a book of lament Psalms, ones where the writer takes a crack at writing her own personal Psalms of grief and anguish. Of course, I came across the book after I preached on laments; but, oh well. It does challenge me, though – and maybe you, too – to try my hand at writing my own psalms.

So, maybe, at the end of the day, the challenge isn’t simply to read the biblical Psalms, or even just pray them – but to so saturate myself in their language that I learn to pray them, in my words and in my way. Maybe I’ll try writing a psalm. Maybe you should, too. Now, nobody’s saying it will be Bible. But it might be Bible through me. And isn’t that, after all, the point?

A riddle (of sorts)

It’s something so simple a three-year-old child can do it. It’s something so daunting that someone who has done it her whole life feels like a three-year-old at it.

It’s as simple as opening your mouth. It’s as difficult as closing it.

You can do it with one word. Or a endless stream of words. Or even none.

It’s something you do when you’re happy. It’s something you do when you’re sad. And when you’re perplexed. Or angry. Or frustrated. Or just clueless.

It’s something many non-believers admit to doing. It’s something believers recognize they do far too little of.

It’s as basic as breathing, as essential as water, as necessary as having a good cry or scream, and it can be as refreshing as cool rainstorm on a muggy summer evening.

Have you figured out yet what I’m talking about? It’s prayer.

It’s something a child instinctively knows to do, but something so challenging that those who have been praying for decades still have days where praying something – anything – is a struggle.

Prayer involves opening your mouth and speaking your needs, your beliefs, even your un-beliefs, to God. But prayer also happens when we shut up long enough to hear God – through Scripture, or a friend, or the beauty of a foggy, spider-webbed morning.

Prayer is so central to life, that more than 1 in 3 “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) admit to praying at least monthly. There’s something innate in us that cries out in prayer. When someone we love is seriously ill, there’s something inside of us that wants to cry out in anguish to Someone. When that someone recovers, there’s something inside of us that wants to thank Someone. And if that person we we love doesn’t recover, there’s something inside us that wants to hurl our anger at Someone.

There’s a word for all of those reactions, for all of those voiced feelings and needs. It’s prayer.

Prayer isn’t just something we need to do; it’s something we must do. We were made to cry out at injustice. We were created to cry out in praise at the sight of beauty. We were made to cry out for help in our frailty. We were designed to cry out in gratitude for gifts of grace undeserved.

So, whether you are confident in your faith, confident in your “un-faith,” or somewhere in between – you were made to pray. And it really does start right where you are. With what you are feeling, questioning, experiencing – right where you are.

It doesn’t have to be fancy, or flowery, or even full of faith. It simply has to be honest, and real, and from the heart. With a hope, a trust, a longing for all of that to be heard by someone – by Someone, who hears our deepest cries, and sees our deepest needs.

So, what are you waiting for? Pray. Pray now.

Old Words, New Prayers

Last week, I had the opportunity to share with the staff of a nearby church about the subject of Spiritual Health. We talked about a bunch of things, but at one point I recommended something that might seem at odds with how prayer is supposed to work. I suggested that they pray someone else’s words, not just their own.

Huh? Who does that? Why would I pick up someone else’s prayer and pray it as if it were my own?

The answer: that’s exactly what most folks in the history of the Church have done. In fact, embedded right in the middle of our Bibles, we have a prayer book that believers have used for thousands of years. We call these prayers The Psalms.

There is a power in not simply praying your own words all the time. There is something expansive about a prayer life that isn’t dependent on what I can come up with to pray about. Now, to be sure, I always want to come to God with the thoughts of my heart, the concerns and needs that are front-and-center in my life. But if that is all I ever pray, my prayer life can become shallow, self-centered, simplistic.

But when I open the Psalms, I have words that have been prayed countless times by a variety of believers throughout the centuries and throughout the world. In the Psalms, I find words of praise, of doubt, of confession, of hope, of hopelessness, of longing, and longings fulfilled. I find words that cover the spectrum of emotion and experience — all there in the Bible, waiting for me not simply to read them, but find myself in them. And pray them.

In the Psalms, there are words that are difficult to pray. There are words I may not agree with. And in the Psalms there are words that are not the final word on a given subject. Just this morning I was reading/praying Psalm 5, which includes these words of prayer: “You hate all who do wrong.” Well, that’s certainly not all there is to say. God hates evil, but clearly if he hated all wrongdoers, none of us would have room for love or mercy. And so, when I work my way through the Psalms, I will encounter words difficult or even impossible to fully pray.

But what I do encounter is honesty. Openness to lay before God whatever I am experiencing, or struggling with, or questioning. The Psalms give me freedom to be honest before God, and to pray what’s real (not just what I feel like I am supposed to say). And the Psalms remind me that whatever I am experiencing (or not) with God, others — SO many others — have been down that road before. And they have marked out a path, one where I can join them, and pray with them.

So, my challenge is to pray a Psalm in the morning, and a Psalm in the evening. For the next month, as I preach through a series on prayer, I want to invite you to open your Bible to prayers that are as old as humanity, but can be as fresh as whatever you need, right now. Join me in praying the Psalms, and see what God might teach you through old words that become, on your lips and in your life, new prayers.