Category Archives: prayer

Letter 47: To L- What I Cannot Say Sunday

I am writing you now ahead of our meeting because I doubt I will get a chance to say much to you privately, and much of what I want to say will not fit the sort of things I expect will be said at that time.  You will hear much about faith, and God’s promises, and God’s power, and God’s love, but very little of His mystery.

I have no idea what it’s like to have your disease, nor do I know you well enough to guess what you might be thinking.  I do know suffering, however.  I have battled what I now know to be Depression for much of my life.  It can manifest itself as bouts of fear and anxiety, but mostly it is just a slow dripping faucet of inner gloom.  There have been times when the sense of pain has been overwhelming.  I would like to say that I prayed and it ended, but it didn’t.  This appears to be something I am going to have to live with, and some days I do better with it than others.

I believe God can and does heal, but not always.  Too many people I’ve prayed for have not gotten well for me to say otherwise.

When I was a teenager, a girl in your youth group was diagnosed with cancer.  We prayed, hard.  We prayed in tongues as well as in English.  Within the fashions of the time, we did everything we were supposed to do, and yet she died.  That has stayed with me all these years.  Nothing was said about it afterwards.  The church had put in all this effort and energy, and when it did not yield the desired results, we dropped it and walked away as if nothing had happened.

It doesn’t fit with our message.  We want success, and success is healing.  We are told to pray in faith, to pray in tongues, to pray out loud– as an aside, have you ever noticed that most guides to prayer get down to “How to Get What You Want From God”?  Jesus Himself tells us to pray constantly, to batter Heaven with our request.  Yet He also tells us there is no need for endless repetition, and that faith the size of a mustard seed will prevail.  I’m not sure which one applies.

This is not a new problem, of course.  When you get to your required philosophy course in college, and I hope you take one, you will learn that it goes by the name, “The Problem of Evil.”  “If God is all-powerful and all-good, why does evil occur?”  This is one of the central questions of the Job.  If you re-read it, you’ll notice God never answers Job’s question about why all of this happened to him.  Yet Job ends the book satisfied.  He has seen God, and that was enough.

We’re supposed to be cheerful and confident under such trying circumstances, but I want to assure you that it’s okay if you’re not.  I can even understand if you want to tell off God.  I have, on occasion.  He’s big enough to handle it.  It’s interesting that for all his complaints to God, God does not rebuke Job.  God does, however, rebuke Job’s friends for their efforts to defend God.  Take comfort from this in the trying times.

All of this is a very long way of saying that I will be praying for your healing Sunday, as I have been for some time, but I will also be praying that He will strengthen you, and open you up to His mystery.

From your work in television, you know that the characters on screen are to carry on unaware that there is a soundstage enveloping them.  They are in the moment of their story, and the goings on outside of that are hidden from them.  So it is with us.

God means to build saints, and there is a whole story going on to achieve this that lies just outside our vision.  Much of it will make little sense until we reach our journey’s end.  We have Christ as our Guide and token, He who died to rise again and prepare a place for us where there shall be no more tears and no more night.

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Letter 43: A Prayer for Election Day

Almighty God-

We acknowledge that you alone are sovereign, that all power and authority are yours.  You have established governments here on earth to better order our public lives by upholding justice.

You have blessed us with the opportunity to choose our governors.  Guide us to choose wisely, seeking to do justice, not just to ourselves, but also to others.  May we consider our neighbors, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and those yet unborn.

Help us to see past the claims, to discern the truth about our circumstances and those who would see to lead us.  May we not be swayed by honeyed lips and silver tongues, speaking words we want to hear.

For our land struggles, the abundant riches You have given us.  Too often, we yearn for a King, a man on horseback to lead us, to solve our problems, to make us great.  We forsake You.

We pray, too, for those would will govern us.  Endow them with wisdom and courage to do justly, and to love mercy.  May they be humble, knowing the limits of their power.  May they seek to unite, for the public good.

Finally, we pray for each other, that we would see our fellow citizens as our fellows, and men and women made in your image, and dearly loved by you.  May we work together for the shalom of our city an our world, until such time as You come again and claim the kingdoms of the earth for thine own, that peace would reign in our streets, and want shall be no more.

Amen.

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Letter 40: Adventures in Combined Worship

Like many churches, our church has gone to a summer schedule of only one service.  This has brought some challenges, as we seek to combine elements of both a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service.  To my mind, the combined format has not worked very well.   While both services have their own flow and logic, as combined, the resulting service has a Frankenstein feel to it, with bits and pieces stuck together without much regard to how they function.

So, we start with two hymns, each sung singly, with a pause to move from one to the other, followed by a prayer, and then the worship set. The flow goes start-stop, start-stop, start, stop, then start, and continue on for the next fifteen to twenty minutes.  The rubric of the traditional service involves a series of discreet parts intentionally chosen (when done well), that are designed to focus and direct one’s mind.  The contemporary model seems to require broad bands of time, giving the Spirit room to work, chiefly on our spirit and emotions.

As we’ve worked with trying to combine the two styles, it has become clear to me that it is not the music necessarily, that separates the two.  Music is music, and one can perform it in virtually any manner imaginable, and I’ve seen hymns performed as worship songs, and worship songs sung as hymns.  Instead, the two styles have different flows and different foci that make it difficult to combine them, unless you wish to create something entirely different.

The traditional service has many individual components, which works to fulfill a checklist of sorts.  We come into God’s presence, express praise, worship, and awe.  We confess our sins, and offer up our prayers and petitions.  We then let God speak through His Word.  We may also partake of Him directly through His Supper.  We close in a statement of praise and purpose thence depart.  Each part is distinct, not unlike the singing, and few last long, except the sermon.

The contemporary service has far fewer parts, and most of them are of far longer duration.  It is unhurried, seeking, I think, to free the mind, and welcome the Spirit’s embrace.  It is intentionally unintentional from the standpoint of human thought and activity.  The discrete and rapid shifts of nearly every aspect of the traditional service jars with the contemporary worship experience.  Thus we are dropping the traditional hymn singing from the combined service, and we may not get to prayer.

The strength of the contemporary format is an openness to the workings of the Spirit (thought one is left in the lurch if the Spirit decides not to act).  The strength of the traditional format is a completeness in the range of worshipful activities offered, and the more conscious effort to ties the congregation together.  But the traditional approach can also be rote and stale.  How would a service that combines that openness to the Spirit with the fuller dialogue with God flow?

First, we are called to worship.  We hear God’s invitation to us, to turn out eyes and minds toward Him.  This is a communal act, and need not take much time.  Having drawn near, we engaged in praise and worship, and luxuriate in His presence.  Here, we can sing, dance, or remain in silence.  The challenge here is to draw everyone together.  The best way I can think of to accomplish this is to begin and end the set with strong congregational singing.

Following this, I know the hope is that people will spontaneously burst into prayer.  However, in my experience that tends to yield the same voices, often uttering the same prayers.  I think the prayer should be led and guided, making a point to address concerns of the congregation, hopefully submitted in advance, and other affairs of the moment, but also leaving space for people to pray as the Spirit leads.  Prayer is a time to speak to God in hope and faith, but also presenting our questions, fears, and doubts.  It comes from the time that we have spent in His presence.  Ideally, close with a few moments of silence, inviting God to speak to us individually.  This should then prepare us to hear God speak to us collectively through His Word preached.  Alternatively, one could place the corporate prayer after the message, placing it as a final response to God.

Close with one quick hymn or song, invite people up for further prayer if desired, and formally dismiss the congregation.  I did leave out a specific time for confession, something that has been a part of some traditional liturgies.  This can be incorporated into the time of prayer or the call to worship.

The time breakdown should probably run thirty minutes for worship, ten for prayer, thirty again for the message, and ten to close.  If one assumes a ninety minute block for the service, this breakdown leaves ten minutes as a cushion.  Obviously, if you have something like Communion or a baptism, everything needs to be shortened.

Part of the key to making this work and flow is to think about what each part is doing and how it relates to the whole of the service.  The Sunday worship should be a time for the people to come together before God, engage Him, and depart from thence into the world, renewed and reconnected.  Each part does its bit in that process, by drawing us in, uniting us, speaking to God, listening to God, finally going forth to do His will in the world. There should be movements and pauses as we make this journey.

That isn’t what my church doing, alas, but then I’m not sure they know what the various parts of a worship service are for, or that its significance is as a collective experience.  Something for you to add to your prayers for us.

Nov_ 29 combined

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The Helmholtz Resonance

Oh Lord, how true. I get so caught up on whether I am full or not. I am empty, and compared to You, always empty. Fill me, flow through me…..

The Jagged Word

By Ross Engel

It should be no surprise to you, our intrepid readers, that the authors here at Jagged Word do occasionally enjoy beverages that come out of bottles. Water, Wine, Whiskey, Beer. If it can be bottled, we tend to like it. And it is safe to say that we all have our favorites—our go to beverages of choice.

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Letter 37: What Does Scripture Say?

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“Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, ‘Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?’” Acts 8:30-31a NASB

  1. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
  2. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

VIII. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.

  1. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
  2. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

– Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1 (emphasis added)

We have been engaged in a heated discussion at church that I won’t bore you with.  However the argument behind the arguments has been fascinating.  A few have even brought it to the forefront:  What do the Scriptures say?  This question lies at the heart of Protestantism.  We all say that we are guided by Scripture and Scripture only, if we are true to the tradition of sola scriptura.  But that seems to only beg questions that we do not wish to address, hiding, as it were, behind the big book.

To help illustrate this, I want to step outside of a strictly religious context and venture into another world I am familiar with, the world of Law.  Reading judicial opinions it is always fascinating.  You are presented with a particular factual situation, and the judges choose what laws apply to that situation.  Where this gets truly fascinating is when the judges agree on what laws apply, but disagree on how.  This is exactly what we do when it comes to Scripture.  We have a text that we agree is authoritative, but we can read the same text and come to opposite conclusions.  “A government of laws, not of men,” we proudly proclaim, but of course, it is judges who decide what law governs and how.  We keep trying to remove human input to establish absolute authority, but we never can.

When Luther laid out the standard of sola scriptura, he did so with the expectation that he going to an authority that was authentic, unencumbered with decades of human detritus, utterly unassailable, and one that would be clearly understood by all.  While he never explicitly stated it, he also believed that anyone reading Scripture would come to the same conclusions as to its meaning and application, namely his.  He was surprised, hurt, and angry when things didn’t turn out that way, with the Anabaptists getting the worst of it.

Because we are dealing with what we deem Holy Writ, it is simultaneously important that we get it right and that its application and understanding be universal.  It makes disagreements tricky.  Presumably, someone must be wrong, and the consequences can be eternal.  But who?

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture…”

We certainly hope that this is true.  Some go so far as to formally ask for the Spirit’s guidance as they read or listen to Scripture.  I’m not sure if God is so interested in the formalities, but certainly we should enter into the Bible with the expectation that God will be there with us, impressing upon us what He wishes us to understand.

But…..

How are we to make sense of this process, and how do we know we’ve got it right?  More importantly, if we wish to engage our neighbor, how do they know we’ve got it right?

Entire books are written on this subject, and I hardly think I can add anything to them.  But even these texts falter on the question of handling differing understandings.

My first fight with my wife faced this problem squarely.  It was out first Christmas together.  I was driving down to her parents, and tuned in the most wonderful live performance of Handel’s Messiah by an early music ensemble from Montreal.  It was spellbinding, and I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my then girlfriend.  Meanwhile, she was preparing for my arrival by playing Christmas carols on her piano to greet me when I arrived.  I came in, greeted her, and started telling her about the Messiah performance, that she just had to hear.  She got upset, repaired to her room and slammed the door.  I was left staring at the dog, both of us wondering what had just happened.

Slowly, all too slowly, the idea dawned on me.  Maybe she was upset because she wanted me to listen to her playing, and took my enthusiasm for Handel as a criticism of her playing.  At almost the same time, I think the thought struck her that maybe I wasn’t thinking of her piano playing at all.  We talked.  I explained that I didn’t realize that she had planned a special “concert” for me, and that I was just looking to share an experience with her.  Two totally different understandings of the same experience, and each one valid, but so far apart in reaching mutual understanding….

So I conclude with some observations.

First, we are all selective in our use and understanding of Scripture.  Traditional Protestant teaching separates the Old Testament into the moral and the ceremonial Law.  We are to uphold the Ten Commandments, but pass lightly over the directive about preparing sacrifices.  Some wish to restrict themselves to only those things Jesus taught in the Gospels.  Traditional Christian readings of the Song of Songs treat the book as an allegory of God’s love of the Church, yet at the time it was written, there was no church.

Second, we must confess to our own limited understanding.  We “see through a glass but darkly,” and bear the stain of sin everywhere.  We can see this in the obtuseness of the Disciples, in Peter’s comment about the difficulty in understanding Paul’s letter, and indeed, in our own struggles.  If it were easy, we would have no need of the Spirit’s help.

Third, it can be very difficult to fully grasp what God may be saying to other people.   We can, and should go back to Scripture, but we must bear in mind that everything filters through our own understanding.  In practical experience, only rarely do we hear the same thing at the same time.  I am still called upon to evaluate what you report as coming from God, but I must admit that I cannot live inside your head or your heart.

No matter what we do, everything must pass through our minds.  There is no getting around this.  We can claim that Scripture is self-explanatory, but even then, it must pass through our understanding to become self-explanatory.  God promises to one day write the law in our hearts, and certainly we aspire to so unite our wills with God’s that we will will what He wills, without having to think about it.  But for now, I, at least am not there, and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have achieved that union.

So, approach Scripture with expectation, and humility.  Trust that God will guide you, but keep in mind that we may not understand Him aright.  Until we know as we are known, our understanding is provisional and imperfect.  Be respectful of others, and realize that they labor under the same limitations as you.  Pray, pray, pray, for understanding, wisdom and peace.  The good news is that God is more than able to look out for Himself.  Be patient, and let Him do His work.  “‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead  me home.”

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Letter 35: A Prayer for Penteost

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Come Holy Ghost,

Alight on us as a dove

And bring us peace.

For we are tempest-tossed

And would thy comfort seek.

 

Come Holy Ghost,

Singe us with your fire.

For we are cold and dark

And would thy better tongue

To speak.

 

Come Holy Ghost,

Free as the wind,

Fill us, propel us,

Drive us where you will.

Be ever-breathing still.

 

Come Holy Ghost,

Shaker of worlds,

Hold forth God’s power

That all the world, and we,

Would see, and believe.

 

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Letter 32: I Am One Acquainted with the Night

Night-Driving-Synchroblog

“I have been one acquainted with the night.”

-Robert Frost (1874-1963)

I am writing this as a part of Addie Zierman’s synchro-blog in support of her new book. I have not read it, but many pieces on her blog have resonated with me, including this challenge: “What have you learned from the dark?

Darkness is familiar to me. Not quite an old friend, perhaps, but certainly an acquaintance of long standing. Many days I wish it weren’t so, but thus far, God has been content to keep us close. I suffer from depression, and probably have for years. I have been on mediation for twenty years, and it did not go well when I tried to not take them.

Like many, I found the religious culture of my youth inadequate to address the darkness. I was told to pray more, to seek deliverance, or claim freedom from the spirit of depression, as if I were demon-possessed. I ended up at a Christian college on a scholarship for Christian leadership, not certain I believed in God.

Here, then, is the first lesson I learned in the dark: God is there, too. Far from a static object of our quest or adoration, or indeed, some great, divine, Sugar Daddy, God is present and at work always, in the dark, as much as in the light. Graham Greene’s semi-autobiographical novel, The End of the Affair, uses its title as a pun. It is about the end of an affair conducted by the narrator, but as the story unfolds, we see the second meaning: the narrator slowly becomes aware that he is being silently, but relentlessly pursued by a Divine Lover, who will not rest until He possesses him, body and soul. That is certainly the God I found, or rather that found me, in the dark.

My act of teenaged rebellion was becoming Presbyterian, for I found myself connecting more with the older liturgies of the church. Light and Dark play an important role, and we are beginning Holy Week, when this is played out in dramatic fashion. During the course of the Tenebrae service on either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, one by one the lights of the church go out until, with the loud cry of “It is finished!” the sanctuary goes completely dark.

The darkness continues until Easter. For three days Christ lay in the darkness of the tomb. Like the Disciples, we wait. The wait can seem long and hard. But even in the darkness, unseen and unfelt, Christ is at work. I am the grass. Let me work.

As the story of Christ “ends” in darkness, so it begins. In Advent, we start in darkness and silence. The minister strikes a match, it hisses and sizzles to life, piercing the darkness, as it moves to a candle, wavers and catches, spreading the light. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” the minister intones, quoting the words of Isaiah 9:2, “they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”

We need darkness to see the light. It is part of the cycle of life. In human terms, we rest when it’s dark. And perhaps in our darkness, God is calling us to rest, too. We find it so hard. We cannot see, and any action is as likely to end in a collision or a stumbling. We can only trust the God who hides in light as well as dark. We are at an end of ourselves, and it is terrifying.

Yet we are not alone. The other lesson I have learned is that there are others in the darkness. Some have passed before, others are with us now, and we need them. God connects us in the darkness in ways that He cannot in the light. We wrestle with God, and like Jacob, we bear the marks, and we can spot a fellow survivor. Those who have accompanied us into the darkness will stick with us in the light.

Our days consist of darkness and light. Any practice of faith that will only recognize one is incomplete at best, and false at worst. And there was evening, and there was morning, and so it goes.

I love old hymns. At their best, they hold a richness of faith and experience. And so, as I close, an evening hymn seems most apt.

All praise to thee, my God, this night, for all the blessings of the light! Keep me, O keep me, King of kings, beneath thine own almighty wings.

Forgive me, Lord, for thy dear Son, the ill that I this day have done, that with the world, myself, and thee, I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.

Teach me to live, that I may dread the grave as little as my bed. Teach me to die, that so I may rise glorious at the judgment day.

O may my soul on thee repose, and with sweet sleep mine eyelids close, sleep that may me more vigorous make to serve my God when I awake.

When in the night I sleepless lie, My soul with heavenly thoughts supply; Let no ill dreams disturb my rest, No powers of darkness me molest.

O when shall I, in endless day, For ever chase dark sleep away, And hymns divine with angels sing, All praise to thee, eternal King?

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; praise him, all creatures here below; praise him above, ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

-Thomas Ken (1637-1711)

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