Thursday, January 19, 2023

Stop Trying to Pray

Here is an excerpt from an article I recently wrote for Faith+Lead: 

....I don’t know when or why things changed for me, but prayer isn’t easy anymore. It’s become a “discipline.” It’s something I must remind myself to do and, when I do it, I rarely feel like I’m doing it well. I feel distracted and the time I give to prayer is often divided by thoughts about my fantasy baseball team, the latest Wordle (“APTLY”!? Really?!), or what I’m going to write in my next article about prayer (for example, this one). It’s no easier for me than it seems to be for the folks in my church family. But why is prayer so hard? Why do I have to try so hard to do something that used to come so easy?....

Read the whole article.


Thursday, January 05, 2023

Book Review: Wrestling With Rest

My review of Wrestling with Rest: Inviting Youth to Discover the Gift of Sabbath by Nathan T. Stucky was recently published in Theology Today

As a practice of the church and especially as a field of theological inquiry, youth ministry is largely characterized by a paroxysm of anxiety over the apparent decline of the church and the rise of the “nones” in our secular age. Therefore, it is both exciting and refreshing to discover a book that tends not to institutional trepidation in the youth ministry industrial complex but to the concrete and lived experience of actual young people. In Wrestling with Rest, Nathan T. Stucky fixes attention, as only a skilled practical theologian can, on how our age of anxiety has affected the lives of young people. Utilizing the tools of qualitative research, Stucky investigates young people's experience of rest (or lack thereof) in the midst of a society that frenetically pursues productivity. He then offers a theological anthropology that invites young people (and the reader as well) to discover their humanity and value not in development, productivity, or anxiety but in the grace of God disclosed in the gift of sabbath rest.

READ MORE

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Holy Breath

“There is no Islamic, Christian, or Jewish way of breathing. There is no American, African, or Asian way of breathing. There is no rich or poor way of breathing. The playing field is utterly leveled.” - Richard Rohr   

An interesting quirk about the ancient Hebrew and Greek languages in which the earliest manuscripts of the scriptures were written is that, in both of them, the word for “spirit” and “breath” are synonyms. In Hebrew, it’s רוּחַ (ruach) and in Greek, it’s πνεῦμα (pneuma)—both are translated either “spirit” or “breath”. You simply have to choose, from the context, which word is appropriate.  

 

For example, let’s say you come across Genesis 1:2, where it says,   

“And the earth was a formless chaos; and darkness was on the face of the abyss. And the ruach of God hovered over the surface of the waters.”  

When you see that word ruach, you just have to decide.... is it spirit or is it breath? Now, of course you can see why most translators would choose “spirit.” And that makes the most sense. It is the Spirit of God, present in creation, hovering over the chaotic void of pimeval existence, about to bring life and harmony forth from nothingness. But in the Hebrew mindset, maybe it’s a false dichotomy to assume that “breath” is necessarily the wrong choice. Perhaps this Spirit is a kind of breath after all—the breath of God about to fill the lungs of creation. (Indeed, in the very next chapter, God actually breathes into a pile of dust to create a human being).  


Fast forward to the New Testament, in John 20, when Jesus is standing before the disciples after the resurrection: 

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘receive Holy πνεῦμα (pneuma).’”  

Well, of course that’s going to be translated “The Holy Spirit” (even if you have to insert the definite article on your own). After all, we know from the rest of the book of John that the Spirit of God has been promised to the disciples and now they’re receiving her.... but what’s with the breathing?  

 

Jesus breathes on them.   


So, quite literally speaking, it’s a breath the disciples are receiving. Jesus breathes Holy Breath on his disciples—that same breath that filled the lungs of creation is going to fill the lungs of the disciples of Jesus who, until now, are without life. As the Apostle Paul would later put it, “When you were dead in your sins... God made you alive with Christ” (Colossians 2:13). The Holy Spirit is the breath of creation, the breath of salvation, and it is Spirit that fills our lungs whenever we breathe.

 

No wonder so many mystics and contemplative practices are so preoccupied with breathing. No wonder a deep breath can calm our souls. No wonder it has been said, “God is closer than your next breath.”

  

God’s presence isn’t dissimilar to breathing. We can so easily forget about it, not even realizing it’s happening, but if it were to be taken from us, we would cease to be. Focusing on your breathing isn’t just new age, hippy dippy yoga stuff (no offense to all my yogis out there!). It’s a spiritual practice that, when oriented to God, can center us and give us new life to be sent out as the Father sent Jesus (John:21). Focusing on our breathing can become a way of focusing on God, not because breath is God but because God is Spirit, God is breath.

  

In his book, The Naked Now, Richard Rohr points out that the name of God in the Old Testament, the Tetragrammaton, the word most often translated as LORD (all caps) in your bibles, is actually unspeakable. The four Hebrew consonants יהוה (“yod hey vav hey” or Yahweh), according to Rohr, “was not spoken at all, but breathed.”   


Rohr writes,  

“Many are convinced that its correct pronunciation is an attempt to replicate and imitate the sound of inhalation and exhalation. The one thing we do every moment of our lives is therefore to speak the name of God.... When considered in this way, God is suddenly as available and accessible as the very thing we all do constantly—breathe.”  

God is everywhere and God is in everyone. That means God is in you, whether you know it or not; whether you are awake to it or not; whether you like it or not! My prayer for you is that you may find peace in knowing this, and that your lungs will be filled anew with the Holy Spirit, the breath of God that creates harmony from chaos and life from death.    

 

Monday, July 11, 2022

Let's Not Be Neutral

In this age of ideology and political enmity and division, I think we have a craving for “neutrality.” If you’re like me, you’re sick of one “side” constantly being against another “side” in every conversation. I wish we could all just agree on SOMETHING! ANYTHING!!

Can we at least agree to root for Padres over the dodgers!? Come on!

If you google the word, “neutral,” the first definition you’ll probably see is, “not engaged on either side specifically.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Sounds refreshing, even. In this ideologically divided culture, “not engaged” might even feel virtuous. And in some ways, it is! It certainly doesn’t help to just throw gasoline on the fire by constantly pushing an agenda. It’s certainly not virtuous to hate our neighbors for their views and decisions.

But in another way, neutrality is anything but virtuous, especially for Christians.


According to the late Bishop Desmond Tutu,

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

When we choose to follow Jesus, we are choosing a side! We are choosing to be for Jesus in the way that Jesus is for us and for “the least of these” (Matthew 25). Jesus chooses sides! and calls us to follow him in choosing his side! There’s nothing neutral about being a Christian! We chose our side when we chose to follow Jesus.

The problem isn’t picking sides, the problem is which battles we choose to fight. We’re not called to the war of ideology that our culture keeps trying to fight. We’re not called to be “right” so that others can be “wrong.”

Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

As much as we may like to keep to ourselves clean, to disengage, and refuse to take sides…. we are called to take the sides that Jesus takes. We are called to take the side of the vulnerable, the poor, the oppressed, and the forgotten. We are called to take the side of the people who need our help, our kindness, our resources, our compassion, our love. We are called to stand with people against the ideologies of sin that struggle to destroy relationships. We are called to stand even for our enemies, not against them. We are called to stand with the least of these, for that is where Jesus stands.

Jesus has chosen the side of love and he calls us to follow him there. So let’s not be neutral. Instead, let’s be faithful.

Thursday, July 07, 2022

A Prayer of Confession

 God of mercy, forgive us for believing so many lies. We have bought into lies that tell us that your justice is at odd with your love. We have bought into lies that tell us that you are angry and disappointed in us. Because of these lies, we have rejected you. We have worshipped false gods—gods of greed and violence—and we have believed that we are worthless. Forgive us, Lord. Have mercy on us. Remind us who you really are. Remind us who we really are. Amen.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

We Can't Keep Doing Nothing

As a Pastor, I have to be careful (more careful than I used to be) when I address social issues. It's a source of a lot of inner-conflict for me actually, and I presume it's a major reason many pastors eventually burn-out. The inner turmoil of knowing that I need to respond to an issue but also knowing that my response might be received as "political" or alienating actually keeps me up at night. There are times where I have to risk being "political" in order to be moral... and it would be morally and vocationally wrong for me not to be clear on this:
We cannot, as a society (and especially as a church),continue to tolerate children being murdered at school. We CANNOT! There is one issue—the greatest common denominator in all the mass murders in American history—that our leaders have REFUSED to address in regards to gun violence, and it's guns. We keep blaming other things.... it's NOT about mental health. In fact, people with mental health challenges are far more at risk of being victims of violence than of being perpetrators of it. It's not unlocked doors at schools. It's not that there aren't enough guns in the world. It's that there are too many guns and they are too easy to acquire. It's currently easier to get a gun than it is to get health insurance. It's easier to get a gun than it is to get a driver's license. It's easier to get a gun than it is to find affordable housing. It's easier to get a gun than it is to apply for a credit card.

What kind of world is God creating among us? It's a world where swords are beat to plowshares (Isaiah 2:4). It's certainly a world where children don't have to have active shooter training and where they do not have to see the sight of a gun on a daily basis. It's got to be a world where human life is valued, where children's lives are defended over against the desire to own lethal weapons. God is calling the church to fight like hell for that world!

The church's mission should include ending gun violence. God is calling the church to put down its sword (Matthew 26:52) and to address the gun crisis in America.

God is with the parents with newly vacant bedrooms in their homes. God is with the children who witnessed their friends murdered before their eyes. God is with those whose lives have been cut short. I am truly sorry if you feel like I have alienated you or marginalized your perspective. As a Pastor, it is my desire not to merely pontificate or emote. I want to communicate, and I want to communicate in such a way that you feel heard and seen. But if you are supportive of the NRA; if you don't believe we should be regulating gun ownership, banning assault weapons, and legislating gun control, what I am begging you to do—not only as a Pastor but as a parent—is to change your mind. I am asking you to join the fight for the world God has promised us.

Action is the only moral and acceptable response. We can't keep doing nothing. We need to pray. We need to act.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Best You Can Do Might Be Nothing

was recently having coffee with a friend at the universal gathering space called Starbucks, and during our conversation they told about how busy their schedule is.

“When I am off work, there’s still work to be done. There’s never enough time in the day to get everything done.”

We compared calendars and joked about what we’d do if we didn’t have jobs. “We’d find another way to spend our time, I guess,” my friend said. “I mean, I wouldn’t even know how to do nothing with myself.”

I resonated with my friend’s remark. Indeed, it’s hard for me to imagine having nothing on my schedule. In fact, it seems then whenever I free up some time, I find another way to fill the slot. I don’t really know how to do nothing. And, to be honest, I’d probably feel ashamed of myself if I did nothing. I wonder if you can relate.

In his book Becoming Friends of Time, John Swinton talks about how we as a society have commodified time itself. We’ve turned time into a kind of currency we can spend or save or waste or invest. In fact, we use these economic terms to describe how we “use” our time… I mean, think for a second about the term, “our time”…. is it ours? Can we own it? We sure seem to live as if we should.

Swinton also talks about how we have come to see the use of time as a badge of honor. Busyness has become a virtue and to do “nothing” would be a “waste” of time. If my calendar isn’t full, I must not be using my time.

But when everything becomes “useful,” when our energy and our time is just an instrument, a utility, I think we can find ourselves feeling tired and “used.” We begin to see our own self worth in terms of expediency and usefulness, and so we spend our very selves.

What if the best thing you could actually do for the world is actually nothing at all?

In Genesis chapter 1, God created the world. This work of creation is poetically described as a seven day process, wherein each day God creates something from nothing (or at least from a kind of chaotic void, we can debate later). God creates light, and the sky, and plants, and animals…. and it’s not until the 6th day that God creates human beings. It seems that on the sixth day, God is finished. But it would be a mistake to think that this is the end of the story.

The true end (goal?) of creation is not the work of creation, but the rest that God takes in it. God actually stops and rests and delights in God’s creation.

“God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creating that God had done.” Genesis 2:3

When time is a commodity, work gets the last word. Every empty space is just a pause in the process that is otherwise all about getting stuff done and staying busy. We even start to think that the purpose of rest is to do more and better work. But Genesis teaches us that rest isn’t for work, work is for rest. The purpose of doing something is so that we can find peace in doing nothing. The best kind of time is useless time… time “wasted” with our friends and family… time “wasted” in prayer… time “wasted” by resting in God…. The best you can do might be nothing at all.

You are not a machine. Time is not money. “Work” does not have the last word. Consider wasting a little more of you time so that you can enjoy being human.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” -Jesus

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Church May Be Bigger Than You Think.

It is not permissible to designate as “unchurched” those who have become alienated from organized denominations and traditional creeds. In living among these groups for half a generation I learned how much of the latent Church there is within them. –Paul Tillich 

 Jesus doesn’t just live in the church.

...I hope we know that.  

I hope we know that when we call the church the “house of God” we really don’t mean that God is confined to the four walls of the church. For that matter, neither is God confined to the theology of the church–our rules, interpretations, and doctrines. God is bigger than us and no amount of knowledge about God can ever presume to possess God. So the church—the community that, by grace alone, can be called the “body of Christ”—cannot be possessed either. No church (small “c”) can make claim on the Church (big “C”). So none of us are an authority on who is “in” and who is “out.” 

I hope we know that.... but I am afraid we don’t.  

Too often I hear laments from “church people” about the institutional decline of the church as though the problem is with the people leaving it. It’s as though we think that God is with us and that when they leave our churches, they must be leaving God.  

Too often I hear of churches actually alienating people over theological disagreements as though they own the truth.... as though if someone doesn’t buy in to the trinity, or the virgin birth, or the authority of Scripture, or the existence of angels then they are not to be associated with... as though “heresy” is contagious.

Of course, as a religious person, I think it’s important to be part of a church—to have partners in ministry and learning. We need community and there’s no authentic expression of church without community. But as a religious person, it would be flat wrong for me to assume that God is closer to those who are inside the church than those who have been alienated from it.  

Of course, as a person of faith, I think theology and doctrine are extremely important. It matters that we continue to learn and be challenged. It matters that we hold ourselves up to the mirror of the bible and take an audit of our belief. Doctrines like the trinity and the divinity of Christ are of utmost importance and it matters that we continue to reflect on them, understand them, and encounter God in them. We might even be right to defend them. But as a person of faith, it would be flat wrong for me to assume that God is closer to those who think like me and share the holy texts I read than those who are not compelled or convinced by the traditional doctrines of Christianity.  

When we assume that God is with us and that they are far from God, we fool ourselves. And when we approach people as though we have what they need, we have succumbed to arrogance.  

God is alive and well outside the church and outside the borders of defined Christian dogma. So as Christians, we need to learn to expect to find God outside the church. We need to expect that when we come upon someone who has rejected our faith and is alienated from our religion, we will have something to learn from them.... indeed, even something to learn about God.  

Some people have left the church for the right reasons.  

As Christians, we need to engage the world not with judgmental arrogance but with humble curiosity. Whenever we encounter another person—whether they’re an atheist, a fundamentalist, a witch, or a heretic—we are encountering someone whom God loves, for whom God died on the cross, and with whom God is surely dwelling even now.

What if we saw people that way? What if we respected people enough to ask questions? What if we expected God to be outside the church? What if we rejected the idea that we’re in and they’re out.  

We might find that the church is actually much bigger than we think.  

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Name The Mystery

“In Jesus Christ God has given us a Revelation which is identical with himself. Jesus Christ is the Revelation of God.” -Thomas F. Torrance

I had a professor in Seminary who used to say that the work of theology (that is, the work of thinking about God) is “naming the mystery” of the divine and human encounter.

Over the years I have sorta latched on to that definition. Sometimes I will begin my morning just by sitting and meditating on that little phrase—“naming the mystery.”

As human beings, I think we shy away from mystery…..

Now, I do need to clarify that by mystery, I don’t mean something like a Sherlock Holmes story or an episode of CSI. In fact, we like that sort of “mystery,” don’t we? We like to be the detective, discover the evidence, and solve the riddle. But theology is really nothing like that. Theology isn’t a riddle or a puzzle that can be solved. We don’t discover God through detection or discovery, we can only encounter God through disclosure and relationship.

In a genuine relationship, it doesn’t really help to try to play detective…. ask my wife how well it goes over when my primary objective is just to “figure her out”… A relationship is not a Rubik's cube that you can solve and set aside. You can’t solve a relationship, you can only participate in it!

So when I say that I think we shy away from mystery, I am saying that we prefer to deal with things that can be measured, verified, replicated, and deciphered.

But a person cannot be contained in a riddle and neither can the God of the universe. A person is a mystery…. they can never be solved but they can be seen, heard, and named. To know a person is different from knowing a math problem. You can only know a person by being in relationship with them.

So because it is about knowing the God revealed in Jesus Christ, theology isn’t about “figuring it out.” It’s not about discovery. It’s about participating in the mystery of the person who loves, saves, and sustains us.

So the question is, how should we go about this relationship? How should we name the mystery? Well, if the biblical confession is true—that Jesus Christ is Lord, that “Jesus Christ is the Revelation of God”—then the way to name the mystery of God is through relationship with Jesus and participation in his ministry.

So when Jesus calls us to follow him and when God invites us to pray, it is not just some intellectual exercise or religious obligation. It is the way we draw closer to God.

Try this: spend a few minutes in prayer… like right now, if you can. And just speak to God as a person, as a friend you’re getting to know. Ask God, “what do you want to do today?” ….And be ready to join in.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Prayer and Unbelief


Prayer isn’t easy.  

I think some of us would be embarrassed to admit how seldom we actually stop and pray. Some of us are probably embarrassed to confess that we’re not sure we even know how to pray. The fact is, you’re not alone if you’re one of those people. Prayer is difficult.  

We have so many forces working against us. There’s not enough time, not enough energy. We don’t know the right words to say. We’re plagued by doubt, which, in a secular society, is just the water we swim in. And we’re plagued by the nagging suspicion that this prayer stuff might just be hocus pocus anyway.  In our modern way of thinking, it’s just not second nature to believe that reality is anything but what we can see and touch and measure and manipulate. The idea that we are subject to divine power is alien to our secular mindset and Christians are not immune to that.

But we wouldn’t want to admit that, right? What would our church friends think of us?  

It’s important to remember that faith and doubt are not opposites. In fact, sometimes the best place to start with faith is in doubt. There’s truly no better place to start than exactly where you are. Prayer is nothing if it’s not honesty. So maybe the best prayer is the one that begins with, “God, this is hard.” Or perhaps, “God, I want to pray, but I need your help. Help me pray.” Sometimes when we admit that belief is in contention, we can actually become more open and more receptive of God. If we leave our faith unchallenged, untested, and untethered, is it genuine faith at all?

In the gospel of Mark (chapter 9), there’s a story about a young boy who was having seizures of some kind. The boy’s father went to Jesus’ disciples for help, but they couldn’t fix the problem. So the father went straight to Jesus and explained. The seizures were becoming life threatening for the child and the father was scared. He came to Jesus and asked for help, “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus said, “Everything is possible for one who believes.” And then the father responded with one of the most profound prayers in history....  

“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” 

This somewhat paradoxical prayer is where a lot of us are right now. We believe, but we need help overcoming unbelief. We want to trust that God is here, that all the promises of scripture are true and that God loves us and hears us and wants to be in relationship with us. But we need God’s help.  Like the father in the story, we want to believe, we’re trying to believe but we need God to fill in where we’ve left off.

So start where you are. Start right where you are and just talk to God. If it’s hard to believe, then ask for help. If it’s hard to pray, then ask God to pray with you. Just be honest, because God already accepts you and loves you, even in your doubt.... even in your unbelief. Faith is not something you muster through your own strength, it’s something God gives us as a gift if we are honest enough to accept it just as we are.

Try simply praying this prayer....  

“God, I want pray, but I need your help. Show me how to be honest with you and with myself. Help me to love you and help me to believe that you are there and that you love me.”  

...Maybe try praying it again.... And remember that prayer was God’s idea in the first place. We didn’t come up with this! God invited us to pray before it ever a thought occurred to us. God wants to hear your prayers because God loves you. This is true, believe it or not.  

[This post was originally written for publication at www.fccramona.org/news]