Who Do You Think I Think God Is?

I am the first to admit that I don’t fully understand the concept of prayer. I do pray, and most of the time I feel better because I have prayed, but when I stop to consider what my praying implies about God, I am a combination of confused and embarrassed.

Do I really believe that the God who created the universe is not going to heal somebody or intervene in some situation or open some door of opportunity unless I ask God to do that? Or do I believe that God will allow a calamity to unfold unless a certain number of people beseech God to stop it? And if so, what is that number? At what point does the volume of prayer and the number of people praying about a particular matter reach “critical mass” so that God is required to respond by answering those prayers in the affirmative? Continue reading

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Help My Unbelief

I was twenty-eight, serving as pastor of a small, rural congregation in upstate New York, about 40 miles southeast of Buffalo. I had preached a dozen or more funerals by that time in my ministry, but I had never lost anyone really close to me. Then on a snowy Monday night in January, the phone rang, and I learned that one of the elders in my church, a man who, in less than a year, had become as dear to me as any member of my own family, had been killed in an automobile crash. It was the first time in my life I had ever felt the exquisite pain of grief so intense I could barely breathe. The anguish I felt was almost physical. My heart ached, but though my faith faltered, ultimately I did not lose hope. Continue reading

Arthur’s After-Dinner Speech

There are some days when I almost regret having given Arthur Lough my cell phone number. When he called me last Tuesday to ask if I would like to attend the annual dinner of our local ministerium, at which he was to be the featured speaker, I thought that might After dinner crowdbe one of those days. Turns out I was very, very wrong.

“How long have you known about this gig?” I asked him, before I responded to his request.

“They just called me about an hour ago,” he said. “Their scheduled speaker has fallen ill, and they are desperate for somebody to fill in. I think I was the third or fourth call they’ve made. Nobody is willing to take the assignment on such short notice.”

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Still Waiting

Forty-six years ago, when I was a senior in high school, (I’m 63, in case you were doing the math) God and I entered into a pact, a covenant, if you will.  More accurately, God set some terms, and I agreed to them.  He told me that, if I would use my gifts, talents, and abilities to advance the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and to help Christians “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” then He would take care of me.  He didn’t speak to me in an audible voice, but the reality of God’s call on my life would not have been greater nor more certain if He had.

My pilgrimage has been (to borrow the title of a Beatles’ song) a “long and winding road.”  I have been exposed to and influenced by a number of Christian traditions.  Each step of my pilgrimage has required me to jettison some elements which I determined to be inconsistent with authentic faith, but I never abandoned my commitment to orthodox doctrine or salvation through faith in the work of Jesus on the cross.

Along the way, I have come through some periods of time, some circumstances, where I notion du temps Headman conceptcould not clearly see what step I was supposed to take next. At those times, in those circumstances, I had no choice but to wait on God.

I’ve never been good at waiting. I get restless and fidgety. During those times, my prayers have probably sounded a lot like the guy who prayed, “Lord, I need patience, and I need it NOW!”

Until fairly recently, the periods of waiting were measured in days or weeks, and only very rarely, in a few months. I’m in another period of waiting right now, and this one is already nearly five years long… and counting.

Five years ago I was in my fourteenth year of teaching at a small Bible college in the free church tradition. I loved my job, and if the testimony of my former students and colleagues can be believed, I was pretty good at it.

About five years before that, my soul had begun to hunger for something which my pilgrimage up to that point had not provided.  I began to read the early church fathers and to explore the character of Christian worship in the first centuries of church history.  I gained a new awareness of the place of mystery and reverence in worship.  I found meaning in the Daily Office (morning and evening prayers), and in the seasons of the church calendar.  I gained a fresh appreciation for the importance of the Eucharist in the church’s worship, and I began seeking an experience of more holistic spirituality.

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I Heard The Voice Of God

Last Friday I published a blog post in which I announced that the Bishop of my diocese had granted my request to be released from my ordination vows. Although I remain, technically, a priest in God’s One, Holy, Catholic (i.e. “universal”), and Apostolic Church, I have been “laicized.” That is, I can no longer carry out sacramental duties—such as celebrating Eucharist—in any church which is part of the Anglican Church in North America.

I will, most likely, be saying more about the events and circumstances which produced this result, but not today. Today I want to share with you something of inestimable value which I came to appreciate more deeply as a result of this recent experience. God has blessed me with something so incredibly precious that I simply cannot keep it to myself.

I’m talking about friends, but not just any friends. Friends who know God and allow themselves to be the channel for a word from God to me. Friends through whom I hear the voice of God.

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A Desperate Plea And Bobby McGee

Have you ever been so discouraged about your circumstances that you went to bed thinking, “Maybe this will be the night when my sleep apnea kills me”? I was almost there last night. Disheartened when I went to sleep and disappointed when I awoke, or even that I awoke.

Don’t say it could never happen to you, that you could never become so despondent. I didn’t think it could happen to me either, but that was before I was fired from a job I loved because of the church I attended (or, more precisely, because of the church I didn’t attend). That was before I started my seventh decade of life already unemployed for two years, and now two more years have passed, and things have not really changed. That was before I spent two years and many thousands of dollars preparing for Holy Orders, only to conclude that there may very well be no place for me to serve in this new communion to which I have been drawn, to which I thought I had been led.

At 6:00 this morning, the last thing I wanted to do was Morning Prayers. Fortunately for me, the liturgical tradition (and this is one reason I love it so much) does not require a supplicant to achieve or exhibit any particular frame of mind or physical posture as a precondition for praying. So I fumbled around for my glasses, propped my not-yet-truly-awake body against a pile of pillows, and opened my Franciscan prayer book to the page appointed for this day, the Tuesday following the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. And this is the first thing I read.

Blessed are You, sovereign God of all. To You be praise and glory forever. In your tender compassion, the dawn from on high is breaking upon us to dispel the lingering shadows of night. As we look for Your coming among us this day, open our eyes to behold Your presence, and strengthen our hands to do Your will, that the world may rejoice and give You praise.

That prayer had the effect of a glass of cold water in the face. I read it… no, I fervently prayed it… three more times. And each time I sensed the presence of God more personally and more real.

Next I moved on to the psalm for the day, Psalm 123, and I read (and prayed) these words.

To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he has mercy upon us.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
    for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than enough
    of the scorn of those who are at ease,
    of the contempt of the proud.

That psalm was followed by this prayer.

Sovereign God, enthroned in the heavens, look upon us with Your eyes of mercy, as we look upon You with humility and love, and fill our souls with Your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

By this time, although no rules required it, I was on the floor with my face in the rug, fairly pleading with God. I prayed those words over and over. Fill my soul with Your peace. Look upon me with your eyes of mercy.

And then I closed the prayer book, veered away from the set prayer (although I had never prayed a more earnest prayer in my life), and began to improvise. No poetry. No flowery rhetoric. Just a simple prayer, but offered with an urgency akin to that of Peter when he found himself sinking in the waters of the Sea of Galilee: Lord, save me!

Lord, save me! I’m going under. I’m tired, I’m discouraged, and I’ve lost hope. Do something to let me know You are still there. Say something. Anything. Just please give me some sign that You have not abandoned me.

And He did. Perhaps the most immediate answer to any prayer I have ever prayed. He parted the clouds and loosed the bands that had fettered my spirit. My mind began to reel with possibilities where it had been stymied by the weight of my circumstances.

He reminded me that “all truth is God’s truth.” He assured me that He could use a wide variety of instruments to speak to me, in answer to my prayer, and He did. I’ll mention just two of them.

First, Wayne Dyer, known to PBS audiences as a dispenser of New Age wisdom who draws upon a syncretistic blend of resources as disparate as Taoism and the New Testament. Wayne Dyer would not normally be a source to whom I would turn to hear a word from God, but this morning God brought him to my mind. Or rather, He reminded me of something I had once heard Wayne Dyer say. And that was, “Don’t die with your music still in you.”

He made that comment, if I recall, just after he had summarized the story told by Leo Tolstoy in his classic tale, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Near the end of his life, on his death bed in fact, Tolstoy’s protagonist, almost blinded by pain, cries out, “What if my whole life has been wrong?” Wayne Dyer allowed as how, from the moment he read that story, he determined that his life would not be lived wrongly, that he would not die with his music still in him.

Think what you will of Wayne Dyer and his philosophy of life, but that concept is a genuine truth. Nobody, least of all a Christian, should live life in a way that we die with our “music” still in us. I needed to hear that this morning, and God brought it to my recollection in response to my earnest plea for some evidence of His presence with me.

Second, Kris Kristofferson. Specifically, his great song, “Me and Bobby McGee” in which the refrain begins with the line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” I heard God speaking to me in that line. He seemed to say, “You’ve got some music in you that you need to let out. You’ve got some truth in you which I’ve been teaching you over the past few years, and you need to share it. It probably won’t go down well with everybody who reads it or hears it, but what do you have to lose? You won’t be free until you share what I have given you to share.”

Or, to quote Wayne Dyer, “Don’t die with your music still in you.”

And so, through Wayne Dyer and Kris Kristofferson, I heard the voice of Jesus speaking to me today. In answer to my prayer. He touched me in my hour of need. And, if I am faithful, he may touch you through what I have to say, in this blog and through other channels, in the days ahead. Stay tuned.

Thank you, Lord, for answering my desperate prayer. Now, please help me to share, lovingly but boldly, the truth that You have implanted in me. Please don’t let me die with my music still in me. Amen.

My Prayer For You

It’s amazing how much it is possible to discern about the relationship between two people simply by listening to one side of a cell-phone conversation. Within a matter of a few sentences we can tell if the parties are friends or perhaps something more. We can tell if the relationship is strained or formal or hostile. We can tell if the parties know each other well, or if it is a conversation between people who have seldom, if ever, spoken to each other before.

The same thing is true of prayer. You can learn a lot about a person’s relationship with God by listening to him, or her, pray.

When I was pastor of a small, rural church near Buffalo, NY, just after my graduation from college, I led a Bible study on Saturday mornings which all the men of the church were invited to attend. Archie was a gruff old guy who surprised everybody by showing up at these Saturday sessions every week. He was very shy, something of a loner, but when I looked into his eyes, I sensed there was a depth of spiritual reality in him which didn’t often make it to the surface.

Several times I asked him if I could call on him to lead in prayer at the beginning of the meeting, and each time he declined. Every week, the session ended with an open, unstructured time of prayer, during which the men could (and did) pray publicly as they felt led. Archie, of course, sat quietly and never said a word.

Until about the fourth meeting. That morning, after a few men had led out in prayer, we heard a voice that was so unfamiliar in that setting that a few of us looked up to see if our ears had deceived us. They had not. Archie was praying, and as my Grandfather might have said, “that was the prayin’-est prayer you ever heard.” By the time he finished his prayer, with tears streaming down his face and ours, everybody in that room knew one thing for sure—Archie was a man who really knew the Lord. It had been a great privilege for the rest of us to be allowed to eavesdrop on Archie’s conversation with God.

The portion of New Testament scripture found in Ephesians 3:14-21 allows us to “eavesdrop” on the Apostle Paul as he prays, while under house arrest in Rome, for Christians in Asia Minor, many of whom had probably come to faith as a result of his preaching and teaching ministry.

The prayer in chapter three is actually the second prayer that Paul includes in the text of this letter to the believers in and around Ephesus. The first comes toward the end of chapter one, and there Paul prays for an increase in their knowledge. That prayer is then followed, in chapter two and the first part of three, by some of the most powerful and profound teaching in the New Testament on the nature of salvation—by grace, through faith—and the unity which is supposed to characterize those who have experienced God’s saving grace.

From the beginning of chapter four through the end of the letter, Paul will devote his attention to practical instructions about how these believers should apply this profound spiritual truth to their daily lives. Before he gets to that, however, he prays for them once again.

16 I pray that out of (the Father’s) glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge —that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

In chapter one he prayed for their knowledge to be increased. In chapter three he prays for an increase in their spiritual power and in their experience of God’s love so that they can be filled up (i.e. totally controlled) by the fullness of God.

Over the course of forty years of vocational ministry, I have been interviewed by search committees, who were considering me as a possible candidate for pastoral ministry, at least six or eight times. I have been asked a lot of questions… some pertinent, some probing, and some just plain intrusive. But there is one question I have never been asked by a search committee. “If you were called to be our pastor, how would you pray for us?”

If I ever go before another search committee, and if, perchance, they should ask me a question like that, here’s what I will say. “I will pray for you the way Paul prayed for these Christians in Ephesians, chapter three.”  And what I would pray on behalf of that congregation, I pray on behalf of everybody reading this blog post. And I pray the same thing for myself as well.

First of all, I pray that God would strengthen us with power through His Spirit in our inner being. I would pray that He would strengthen our intellect, so that we can comprehend more of His truth. I would pray that He would strengthen our emotions, so that we wouldn’t be overcome by doubt and discouragement. And I would pray that He would strengthen our will, so that we could make good decisions and right choices.

Second, I pray that Christ would dwell in our hearts by faith. That is, not that we would have an initial encounter with God in saving faith. We’ve had that. This is a prayer that Jesus Christ our Lord would feel at home in our lives and would relate to us like a member of the family and not like a guest who drops by, from time to time, for a visit.

Third, I pray that we all would come to grasp (or comprehend) the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, and to know (by actual life-changing experience) this love that surpasses mere intellectual awareness (and must be experienced in order to be understood).

The love of Christ is broad enough to encompass all of humanity; long enough to last for eternity; deep enough to reach out to the most degraded and self-loathing sinner; and high enough to lift that sinner out of the depths of despair and hopelessness and into the very presence of God.

And Paul prays that we would not only come to comprehend the truth about the immeasurable character of God’s love. He also prays that we would come to know it… and the word he uses there is a word that means to know by actual experience. It’s the difference between knowing that it is raining because we heard it on the TV weather report and knowing that it is raining because we walked outside and got wet!

That distinction is crucial for citizens of the Kingdom of God who genuinely want to be conduits of the love of God into our culture. We’ll never be able to love people with the love of God until we understand, both in our minds and in our experience, how intensely God, in the sacrifice of His Son, has loved us.

And fourth, I pray that we would all be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Actually, that’s not a separate request in Paul’s prayer. It’s the ultimate goal or purpose for which he has come into the presence of God on behalf of these believers. And it is the pinnacle of my prayer for you, as well… and for myself. This is the goal toward which all the other requests have been moving.

Every once in a while we need to ask ourselves: “How much do I require to provide fulfillment and satisfaction in my life besides God alone.”

What Paul is describing in Ephesians 3:14-19 is essential Christianity. And what drove him to pray this kind of prayer was a deep, consuming desire to see these Christians, his “spiritual children,” go to the well of God’s grace and drink, deeply and regularly, of living water. Further, he was convinced that, if they did, the benefits would be indescribable, beyond anything he, or we, could ask or even imagine. In fact, that is precisely what he said in the glorious doxology with which he closes his prayer in verses 20-21.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

This was Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian Christians. It is my prayer for you.