Risks

Winston Churchill was rather quotable, probably because he talked a lot, but also, because he was well spoken. One of my favorites came out from a radio broadcast in 1939 when he said, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Mark chapter five isn’t quite a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, but it does have has a story that is a double feature: a story told inside another story. The two stories capture a similar idea which is why, I believe, they are told together, perhaps so that one reiterates the other and helps us to see the bigger point.

The story starts off with Jairus a man on a mission. That mission is saving his daughter’s life since she has fallen ill—near to death—and the physicians can’t seem to figure out why. Jairus decides to try a last-ditch attempt to save her by seeking Jesus. Maybe the prophet from Galilee, the one who is known as a miracle worker, can work the miracle of saving his daughter. Jairus tracks down Jesus and begs his to save the girl, which Jesus agrees to, and the disciples along with a crowd follow. Within the crowd is the second story, one of equal desperation to the first. A woman is among the crowd whose last hope seems to be Jesus as well. She trails along behind the Galilean with one thing on her mind, “If I can just touch the fabric of his robe, just get close enough to brush against it, maybe I can be healed.”

While narrated as two different things, this is same story twice told. Both are stories of desperation, of last hope, of dreams that may never be. Jairus faces the loss of his daughter, a child whose life has not yet truly begun. Any parent can see how you would do anything or everything to save your child if you faced those circumstances. The woman within the crowd suffered from a hemorrhage, a constant physical suffering that led to emotional and social suffering. The bleeding she dealt with made her ‘unclean’ in the eyes of the Jewish community and therefore outside the community as one who many may have thought was being punished by God (look up retribution theology for a detailed explanation). In both cases, the desire to be healed drives the woman and Jairus to do whatever is necessary.

That makes me wonder. When it comes to our relationship with God how desperate are we? Are we desperate enough to seek healing from God for the emotional and spiritual damage of our lives? Are we desperate enough to put aside ego and pride to seek God no matter the cost? Are we willing to do the hard work of being attentive to the leading and teaching of the Spirit so that we can change to become more like Jesus, to step onto the Jesus Way in a fuller, more surrendered way? Are we willing to live the Way of Jesus no holds barred, no retreat, no regrets?

How much do we really want the Kingdom of God and how much do we want our own kingdoms?

Worship & Prayers This Week

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Daily Prayer
Monday: https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/331262961361504/
Tuesday: https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/909644269541697/
Wednesday: https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/290733492013782/
Thursday: https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/724087988444099/
Friday: https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/2703329273272001/

Lunch & Learn
The Bible: An Owners Manual – Overview of How the Bible Actually Works by Peter Enns: https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/785906712214144/

Sunday Service
The Ancient Ways: Tithing
https://www.facebook.com/147073089497/videos/210638440368639/

A Farewell to…

I’ve just finished reading a book by Brian Zahnd called A Farewell to Mars, a book about the author’s journey toward a biblical understand of the gospel of peace. Throughout the book the author makes his case for the church needing to separate itself from the politic of war and the economic ideals of the state and toward a biblical understanding of these things. In one part he says,

In political conversation these days, we hear a lot about “right” and “left.” People have a lot of passion bout these teams, but I have no allegiance to either the political right or the political left for this simple reason: Jesus has his own right and left! In the Jesus right-left divide, you definitely want to be on the right. (The goats on the left are sent away into hell prepared for the devil and his angels!)[1]

He, of course, goes on to reiterate the story of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25 where Jesus basically says that those who care for the poor (food, water, clothes), the sick, the prisoner, and the foreigner are those who will be at his right hand and those who don’t will hear,

Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me. – Matthew 25:41-43

Reading this, and other things of late (especially a lot of church history), I have found a personal need to examine the idea of what puts us in a right relationship with God or what does it mean to experience salvation. A lot of people talk about salvation as a transaction: say the prayer, believe a few ideas about Jesus, and punch your heavenly ticket. As I look at the New Testament, particularly the words of Jesus, I find that there is always something said about how we treat others in connection with those who face judgment. Believe in Jesus—that is the Jesus Way of living—and you will be judged by God as being sheep. Live otherwise—regardless of what ideas you subscribe to—and you endanger yourself before God.

I think Martin Luther did some great things for Christendom, but I think his most famous ideas ‘only faith’ and ‘only scripture’ have been misinterpreted and re-misinterpreted to make the church a rather lazy institution. It’s created what some people in my seminary referred to as Jesus, the bible, and me in rowboat theology—all I need for this life is Jesus and a bible and a quiet place to get away from the big, bad, terrible world. By using the mantra ‘only faith’ as a rallying cry, the revivalists of the nineteenth century (1800s) were able to offer a fire insurance version of salvation to a scared people in a scary world. In the process, American Christians learned to lean into the idea of ‘believing for salvation’ without realizing that believing calls for something other than sitting in a pew. Believing requires acting on the ideas that Jesus taught—and the Holy Spirit reteaches to us—in everyday life. This version of Christianity is still prevalent if not predominant today in most American circles.

The Jesus Way of salvation calls for a complete and total lifestyle overhaul with the goal of becoming a living imitation of Jesus and his Way. This living imitation has its core in passages like the one above, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, the Farewell Discourse of John 14-17, the living way of Jesus presented in Mark and Luke where the poor and disenfranchised are center-stage with Jesus as those whom Jesus spent his time teaching and healing. His criticisms were almost exclusively leveled at the religious authorities, the greedy rich, and the Roman governmental systems who abused those that Jesus championed.

The current political climate has politicized faith on both sides of the divide and quite honestly, I think to the detriment of historic Christianity. We have traded in the true Way for an easy way in order to fit into the society of comfort that we live in. The Jesus Way calls for the imitation of love and sacrifice that our namesake lived into during his life and ministry. It is time to change.

When we choose the Jesus Way, right and left don’t matter—except for sheep and goats.


[1] Brain Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars, p. 165-166

Ghost Army

In 1944, the 23rd Army Special Headquarters landed in Britain after training in Tennessee and New York. The 23rd was made up of 1,100 men who came from unusual backgrounds for your average soldier of the war: art school students, advertising executives, stage technicians, set designers, and audio/visual engineers. They started off with borrowed equipment from the British and used whatever they could get their hands on. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, this ragtag army developed some of the most ingenious ‘weapons’ and helped the Allied forces win the war in Europe. Oddly enough, most of them never used a weapon to do it.

The 23rd Army was also known as the Ghost Army. They were the army that wasn’t really there. The 23rd used inflatable tanks borrowed from the British and loudspeakers blasting the sounds of troops, equipment, and gunfire recorded at Fort Knox to mimic troops moving around the German positions. With this setup, they were capable of creating the illusion of thousands of troops moving through the countryside. They created dummy airfields, artillery positions, and troop bivouacs to make the German army think the Allies had set up bases in places where there actually no troops. They faked crossings of the Ruhr and Rhine rivers and staged positions along the Maginot Line and Hürtgen Forest, drawing German troops away from the actual troops and creating opportunities for other units to attack. At one point, they convinced part of the German army that a larger force of 30,000 men was surrounding them, creating fear and confusion that helped drive a German occupation force out one French town.

This is a really neat story (in fact I thought it was so cool I bought a t-shirt with the Ghost Army insignia on it) but sometimes I think that we might be part of a Ghost Army called the Church. If you look around there are buildings all over the place that bear the name church but are there really forces of and for good—Jesus style good—in them? I sometimes hear people talk about the ideas of church from time to time or get fired up about some religious based caused when a politician says the wrong or right thing, but other than voting or complaining on social media, are they doing anything? I have a hard time seeing the things that Jesus advocated for in his ministry and taught his disciples visibly in the world. For instance, if there is a large force of Jesus followers, why is so much hate in the world and why does so much of it come from religious leaders and religious people—especially on social media? If there is a large force of Jesus followers, why are there so many people left hungry, thirsty, clothesless, homeless? If there is a large force of Jesus followers, why are so many people so turned off by the church and the way they have been treated by the church? I could go on but I think you get the picture.

I realize that this little indictment is not a you guys should have done this but a we should have done this sort of thing. We have failed to be the church. We have gotten good at hiding behind the ideas of the church but we have failed—miserably at times—to live into the ideas. I think the greater Church has chosen to be a clearinghouse for arguing over doctrine rather than a sending house for missionaries of the Jesus Way into the world.

I can’t speak for you, but I can’t be a part of that kind of church anymore. I also can’t see leaving the church either. That leaves one option—reformation. I think it is time for a new reformation, a reforming of the Church from what we turned it into back to what Jesus called it to be—a place where the needs of people both spiritual and physical are met, a place where anyone and everyone is welcome to explore the possibilities of what it means to follow the Jesus Way, a place where no one is left out, behind, or beside the way. It should be a place where love of the person and the needs of the person is the deciding factor in ministry decisions. It should be a place where people look to as the example of who Jesus was and what he stood for and not a warning for what not to do with Jesus’ message or the Jesus Way.

Fanciful, unrealistic pipe dream? For some, maybe. For others it may just be a haven, a place to work towards and from to share the true gospel—the real good news— of Jesus. Otherwise, we may well lose the greater war against the darkness that we have created in this world and become a true ghost army—invisible, ineffective, nonexistent.

Catching up

For those who would like to catch up with the services or daily prayers from the Zion UMC Facebook page, you can click below and find all our most recent videos and services…

https://m.facebook.com/Zion-United-Methodist-Church-Lancaster-SC-147073089497/videos/?ref=bookmarks&mt_nav=0

The GIGO Principle

I was first introduced to the GIGO principle by one of my oldest friends when we were kids. He was considerably smarter than I was and exceptionally gifted when it came to working with computers. He explained to me that the GIGO principle was ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ What he meant was that if you put in bad coding instructions, the computer will give you nonsense or garbage output. I tried for a while to learn about programming when I was younger and realized I was creating more garbage than program but the phrase never left me. It popped up again later in life as I began to work in graphic design. People would ask us to design things but not really give us an idea of what they really wanted. They got whatever we could dream up with limited instruction, usually something they didn’t like. Again, garbage in, garbage out.

Discipleship can be a bit like this or have certain similarities to the GIGO principle. If you listen to teaching from questionable sources, hear sermons with faulty theology, practice things that originate from ideas that are not in line with the Way of Jesus, you may be practicing GIGO Christianity. It looks good until you really try to run the program, that is, until you get outside the confines of your personal group and start practicing in the real world. God doesn’t bless, the program doesn’t work, things fall apart.

You might wonder how a person can check the programming. For Methodists, we consider our method for checking the program the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. The firs three of these things, Wesley borrowed from his Anglican tradition and the final was his own addition. These four things are the starting place for checking the programming to avoid practicing GIGO Christianity.

The way you do it is to take an idea and ask yourself these questions:

(1) Is the idea found and explained clearly in Scripture?

(2) Is the idea discussed and explained by church throughout its history? How much and mow long?

(3) Is the idea one that makes sense?

(4) Is the idea one that resonates with your personal experience and the experience of others who are practicing non-GIGO Christianity?

(5) and I’ll add a fifth one to this, is the Holy Spirit teaching this to you through these other means?

This little exercise is a starting place, a way of dipping your toes in the water and learning to examine the ideas that are thrown at us day in, day out by a world that seems to be speaking constantly. It is also a way to avoid the echo chambers (places where everyone is saying the same thing without thought or question) that are so prevalent in our world today. May we all seek to clean up our systems and check our programming so it aligns with the Way of Jesus.

The Pain of Change

I recently read a quote from Richard Rohr who said, “Hurt people, hurt people.” When you first look at this it looks kind of strange. It almost seems like he’s saying we should hurt people. But if you pay close attention, I think you’ll realize that he’s saying people who are hurt will hurt other people because they’re hurting. The pain they feel—a lot of which is horrific and unbearable—becomes the driving force for why some people cause the harm they do to others and why some cause harm to themselves. Alcoholism, physical abuse, addictions, I see all these things coming out from the pain of the things people experience. I am in no way excusing negative behavior. I believe we must be responsible for our actions and try to act accordingly but I think we can have a better perspective on why people hurt others if we see past what they are doing to see why they do it.

But pain is not the only reason people hurt each other. I think the other big reason is fear. When people are afraid, they try to protect themselves by going into fight or flight mode. People who chose the fight response lash out at those around them, quite often causing damage in their relationships and sometimes to others without meaning to. People who chose the flight option when afraid run away from or avoid those things that cause them pain or make them uncomfortable. I think recognizing what we are afraid of and moving beyond fight or flight to a place of seeing the situation as it is without letting our emotions get the better of us is the better option. It’s harder to do but in the long run, I see it as a more Jesus like perspective.

Why am I talking about what seems to be a lesson in pop psychology? Right now, the world is changing. People are speaking out about injustice. People are dividing up along political lines. People are protesting, counter protesting, meeting violence with violence whether in the body or the spirit. People are not only at war with one another but with themselves. People are hurt, scared, and acting out accordingly. They are turning to escapisms (alcohol, drugs, social media, binge watching TV, etc.) to avoid the troubles of the world. People are withdrawing into their homes and away from their friends and families to avoid confrontation. People are running out or running to their smartphones and computers to protest and counter protest, attack and counterattack. In the process, no one is hearing the pain and fear behind the voices being raised. We are just fighting what we think is the good fight for our side, whatever side that is.

But what if we stopped? What if we turned off the news, put away social media? What if we listened to those we disagree with—actively and without a spirit of defensiveness? What if we quit thinking about what we might win or lose an argument, or get hurt? What if we stopped looking at who was on whose side and assumed for the sake of argument that were all on the same side, that the goal was to create a world where everyone had what they needed no one went without what they needed for their mind, soul, or spirit? What if we lived for each other instead of against each other’s ideas? Sound a little too utopian, a little too pie in the sky? Already thinking of exceptions for why it won’t work? Consider this:

  • Paul says where the gospel is concerned there is no Jew or Greek only those who believe in the Way of Jesus (Romans 10).
  • Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount illustrated the kingdom of God as a place that was socially and economically topsy turvy to the Roman world (and the modern Western world). (Matthew 5-7)
  • The Prophet Micah says that true worshipers do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6)

What am I saying? I’m saying that we are doing life wrong. We are doing faith wrong. We are acting out of our hurt and our fear and we are hurting people and creating a fearful world around us. It is time to stop. For the follower of Jesus, there is no political party, there is the Kingdom; there is no them, there is all of us; there is no way forward unless we choose to go together. How do we start? Start by learning to let go of hate, fear, division, and pain and embrace love, courage, unity, and healing.

Easy to do? No.

The right thing to do? I believe so.

Worth it? For the sake of the kingdom, absolutely.

The Ancient Ways – Part 3

An unintentional fast
There have been a few times in my life I have considered the idea of fasting with some seriousness. I first read about it in a serious sense in college and again sometime later in seminary. In seminary, I tried a few times to fast just to get an idea of what it might be like while taking classes on spiritual formation and the like. I usually lasted for about eight or ten hours before I was ready to ransack the kitchen and eat everything I could find up to and including things I had no taste for at all like artichokes or rutabagas.


Back in February however, when Covid-19 was just beginning to make its presence felt here, I started to notice a weird tickle in my throat and an occasional cough. It was not the Sars-Cov2 virus, but without a doubt, something was bothering me. I tried to ignore it and largely succeeded until I was eating dinner at a restaurant for our anniversary. Dinner was great. The restaurant was annoyingly loud, but the food was excellent. The only problem was I couldn’t enjoy it. It was like every bite was causing its own acid volcano, stopping in my throat to soak my voice box. By the time dinner was over, I felt hoarse, like I had been coughing all evening. After an appointment at the doctor’s office, I found out what the problem was or at least what they thought it was: laryngopharyngeal or silent reflux. It’s a form of acid reflux that doesn’t seem to show any effects on your throat until it gets to your voice box. When it acts up, it causes you to have a dry cough and leaves you feeling like someone scratched your throat with a nail file. So, its uncomfortable. But it is treatable.


I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “The treatment is worse than the cure.” Since I’m reluctant to take medication and my wife happens to be a dietitian, I decided to try a dietary method of treating silent reflux. It’s called the FODMAP diet and it takes everything fun out of your diet. Fat? Gone. Bread? Out the door. Dairy? Nope. Caffeine? Only if you can take it and I couldn’t at the time. I could chew gum and that helps a lot but it’s not filling. Even some of the vegetables I enjoy eating were off-limits. For the better part of two months, I tried to treat reflux with diet and exercise only. For part of that time, I was successful. I lost some weight that needed to go, was more energetic and felt overall healthier. I hated it. Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but do you have any idea how much I really like mint chocolate chip ice cream and egg salad sandwiches? Okay so I did hate it some, but it was good for me overall. After getting used to it, I managed to develop a little more discipline when it came to my eating and some discipline with some other things in my life too. It seems this kind of discipline rubs off on other areas of your life.


What is fasting and why do we do it?
Fasting is in its simplest expression, a spiritual discipline. It is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function—usually eating food—for the sake of intense spiritual activity. In other words, it is replacing something you do day in, day out with a spiritual practice. The biblical concept of fasting usually referred to the act of abstaining from food and/or fluids except for water, though there are examples, such as Daniel 10:3, where people fast from something more specific. Though there are no laws or commands about fasting in the bible , it was a common practice throughout biblical literature—Jacob, Moses, Daniel, Elijah, and of course Jesus and his disciples all fasted at various times. Their fasting was centered on God, initiated by God, and ordained by God.


Fasting as a discipline, also shows us how the things of our lives control us when they surface during our times of disciplining our bodies and spirits to abstain from certain things. Think about Lent and how hard it is to avoid chocolate if you’ve given it up. You’re thinking about it right now; a Reese’s peanut cup; broken up in a Blizzard and—no wait that’s me. But you get my point. When we deny ourselves certain things, we have to face the level of control they have over our lives and how entrenched they have become in our being.

Our Judeo-Christian heritage is filled with commentary on the art and practice of fasting. But the how of it has varied and continues to vary. In the Psalms, David saw the fast as a whole-body activity, where we mixed prayer and mourning together with an act of self-denial. According to Isaiah, the fast was for the benefit of others, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isa. 58:6–7). And of course, Jesus sets the example of fasting while in the desert and qualifies the proper attitude for fasting in The Sermon on the Mount. For many of the early church fathers and mothers, fasting was an act of sacred rhythm and discipline. Athanasius said, “Sometimes the call is made to fasting, and sometimes to a feast,” and Augustine saw it as a means of overcoming temptation. Many others in ancient times saw it as a Lenten observance or an act of penance—something that led to extravagant expressions of false contrition and abuse—which was seen later in a negative light. Church reformers like John Calvin, Martin Luther, and John Wesley made regular practice of it and modern writers like Dallas Willard and John Piper extol its virtues. Yet, even with all this encouragement from such a long and storied history of writers, theologians, and practitioners of the faith, fasting is one of the most misunderstood and loathed practices of the church. We simply do not like denying ourselves anything, seemingly more so today than any other time.

Through the history of the Jewish-Christian faith, there have been a number of reasons people have fasted, but according to Scot McKnight, “Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life.” He sees fasting as a response to something happening, (A) that leads us to respond (B) and this leads to a result (C). In this case, it has the potential to become an abuse of grace, if you intend to move from A to B in order to get to C. An example is you have sinned (A) and you fast (B) to get forgiveness (C). McKnight sees the appropriate response as you have sinned (A) so you fast as an act of contrition (B) not to get forgiveness but because it reveals their being attuned to God. McKnight says, “…when the grievous sacred moment is neglected and instead, we focus on the results, fasting becomes a manipulative device instead of a genuine, Christian spiritual discipline.”

These are all great historical expressions of fasting, what it is, and why we do it, but on a personal level, I see it a little differently. To me, fasting is the chance to overcome the things that keep us from the presence of God. We all have those things that we indulge in which are detrimental to our relationship with God. Fasting is a way to recognize the damage these things do to our relationship with God. Each person has a unique reason, a specific set of things that might lead them to fast. Sometimes a food fast will lead you to develop the discipline necessary to fast from or give up certain things. Sometimes it is simply a discipline to help you into the presence of God. Sometimes it is specific. If you have issues with certain foods—things that cause you harm or things you eat uncontrollably—fast or abstain from them. If watching the news or being on your phone is an issue, turn it off and put it away. In all these cases, the idea is that we are slowly but steadily putting away the things that hurt us and our relationship with God.


And while you are fasting from these things, embrace the time spent on those things for other spiritual practices: prayer, scripture reading, reading religious books and biographies, times of worship, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and imprisoned. We do not give up for the sake of emptiness but use the space vacated as space to be filled with the things of God that deepen our relationship with God and others.

How do we fast safely?
Fasting safely looks differently depending on what you are fasting from. If you are strictly speaking of a food fast, do a little at a time. Start with preparing to fast by eating smaller amounts for a few days and then on the day you decide to fast, go from lunch one day to lunch the next. This will mean skipping dinner one night and breakfast the next morning before eating lunch. And then doing that once a week and then after a while perhaps an entire day without food. Always be careful to drink plenty of water while you do this to keep from dehydrating. When it comes to other kinds of fasts, the same is true. We give up things for short periods of time (hours) and work our way to longer periods (weeks or months) and if necessary, give them up completely.


Fasting is, in short, denying ourselves for the sake of God’s presence. We give up something we don’t really need for something much greater and worth much more. Ask yourself, what is between me and God? What could I give up that would bring me closer to God? What spiritual joys might I find if I embraced new practices or old practices forgotten?

References
Bradshaw, Paul F. Reconstructing Early Christian Worship. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2009.
Foster, Richard J. A Celebration of Discipline. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.
—. Spiritual Classics. Edited by Richard J. Foster, & Emilie Griffin. New York: HarperOne, 2000.
Hall, Christopher A. Worshiping with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
Hippo, Augustine of. “The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.” In The Spiritual Classics, edited by Richard J. Foster, & Emilie Griffin, 67-69. New York: HarperOne, 2000.
Marshall, Catherine. “A Closer Walk.” In Spiritual Classics, edited by Richard J. Foster, & Emilie Griffin, 57-59. New York: HarperOne, 2000.
McKnight, Scot. Fasting: The Ancient Practices Series. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.
McLaren, Brian. Finding Our Way Again. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.

The Ancient Ways – Part 2

Analysis of a prayer

This week, we will be engaging with the first of our ancient practices, fixed-hour prayer. But I want to start by giving us a prayer to consider and see what we can learn. The prayer was prayed in a Krystal Restaurant some years ago. It has stuck in my head and remained an example of what honest prayer looks like. It goes something like this,

Dear Lord, we thank you these here gut buster hamburgers. We know they’re not good for us, but we thank you for providing them anyway. Bless them so maybe we don’t feel too bad after we eat. Amen.

If you have had the privilege—and some may see the use of that word as an exaggeration—of eating Krystal hamburgers, you understand the reality of this prayer. I have rarely eaten at Krystal that I did not enjoy it going down and regretted a few hours later, though I would probably eat there frequently if I lived near one. Apparently, as I have gotten older, God is trying to safeguard my health by having me live in places that are two to three hours away from the nearest Krystal.

All that aside, there is something to be said for the prayer above. It recognizes the situation for what it is, speaks to God directly and with reverence. It is honest, especially about the intent of the one praying and the circumstances they are about to put themselves in. It also speaks with the familiarity of a close friend, a loved one, someone for whom this kind of language is appropriate. But let’s look a little deeper into this idea of prayer and see how we can not only engage in prayer, specifically the idea of fixed-hour prayers.

What is prayer?

Here is a comforting quote from Christopher Hall on prayer,

What a strange way God has designed and ordained for us to communicate and commune with him. I speak to God, yet I don’t see God. I’ve never heard God respond audibly to my prayers. On my worst days I wonder, is God really there? Is God listening? Can God make any sense of my babblings? Am I talking too much? Does the Lord wish I would just quiet down a bit? Isn’t prayer supposed to be a two-way conversation? If it is a dialogue, how do I know when God is speaking to me? How can I discern God’s voice and distinguish it from the lingering effects of last night’s pizza? And my goodness am I distracted. The moment I sit down to pray I feel as though 10,000 bumblebees are flying through the atmosphere of my brain. So much interference. So much static. Things I haven’t thought about in years suddenly bubbled to the surface of my consciousness. The to do list for today that I’ve been ignoring for hours suddenly becomes a high priority. What is one to do?

I say this is comforting because I know that I have felt that way and I have talked to others who felt that way as well. Prayer is not always an easy thing to nail down when it comes to practice or definition. Through the centuries—there have been various ideas and definitions of what prayer is or should be. Some of these things involve very technical terms like supplication or intercession. Some of these things are much simpler like gratitude or presence. The early church father, Clement of Alexandria, said prayer is a conversation, a definition that I use most often when describing prayer. It is a time to speak to God about the things that are on our minds and a time to listen to God in response.

You might wonder, “If God already knows what I’m going to say, why say it?” Clement and Augustine and others considered this question light of the idea of an all-knowing God. The answer: because love likes to be asked. God, like a loving parent, already knows what is in our hearts—our hurts, our desires, our thoughts on anything—and likes for us to share it with him. It does two things when we do. It strengthens our relationship and the bonds of love between ourselves and God and it acts—when we are honest—as a sort of self-confessional, a way to admit to ourselves as we admit to God what we are actually feeling. Prayer is in short, a way to be open and honest with God.

What do we mean by fixed hour prayer?

Fixed hour prayers are prayer times—four each day at morning, noon, evening, and night—that are made up of psalms, scriptures, and prayers, known also as an office. The idea of fixed hour prayer was born with our Jewish forebearers. It is rooted in the Psalms, specifically Psalm 119:164 which says, “I praise you seven times a day for your righteous rules.” While the Christian community has adopted a slightly different version of this, it is nonetheless, rooted in the practice of praying throughout the day. “For thousands of years, the daily office has been a primary way to hold ourselves in closer communion with the one who made us. It is a way to sanctify our days and our hours, our work and our love, our very life itself.”[1]

Fixed-hour prayer starts at the time that you wake up in the morning. You would simply take a few moments to begin your day with the office or prayer vigil—reading Psalms and scriptures and praying either ‘off the cuff’ or using written prayers that others have written. Some people shy away from the idea of written prayers as inauthentic or not personal enough. But consider this, every week, we pray together with millions of the faithful over the world, the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6:5-13, one of the oldest written prayers in Christendom and comfort to many in times of trouble and crisis.

After you pray first thing in the morning, you take time to pray again around noon. For most people, if they get up around 6:00am, this means praying at six in the morning, noon, six in the evening, and before bed. At first, this may look like a Herculean task and may seem like a chore. But like all things in life, it is a matter of perspective, not a have to, but a get to; not a chore to be done and checked off, but an ongoing conversation with a friend throughout the day.

Putting things into practice

When it comes to starting out with the process, I think a good way is to use a some of the tools that we already have. For instance, there is an order for the daily office in the UM Book of Worship and the website umcdiscipleship.org has a version of the daily office you can download and print. The Upper Room is a version of the hours, though most people only use it once it once a day. You can even put together your own version. Perhaps when you start your practice of praying the hours, pick a section from a Psalm, a section from the rest of scripture (maybe something you really like), a few of your favorite songs, and a few prayers that you are comfortable with either reading or memorizing. Some of my favorites to use are prayers I have used on our morning prayer time online from people like St. Francis, St. Augustine, the Book of Worship, the Book of Common Prayer, methodistprayer.org, and many others that people have found to be comforting, challenging, and Spirit filled. Alternate prayers and scriptures with songs and you have a basic order for a prayer time.

“When our churches are schools of practice, they make—and change—history. Otherwise, they simply write history and argue about it, and of course, in so doing they tend to repeat it.”[2] “The purpose of the ancient way and the ancient practices is not to make us more religious. It is to make us more alive.”[3] I plan on reading these quotes several times during this series as reminders of what we are hoping to accomplish with this series. When it comes to the practice of fixed-hour prayer, it is a matter of doing it until it becomes part of who we are. Praying several times daily is an act of illumination where God speaks through the Holy Spirit to reorient us to the Way of Jesus. This is a way of making recognizing the working of the Spirit in our lives in every moment of every day, not just on Sunday and not just at a gathering.

And it is a practice, you must do it day in, day out to get the benefit of it. It is in the doing that you find yourself drawn deeper and deeper into the presence of God until at last, you simply want nothing more than to get from one prayer time to another.

References

Benson, Robert. In Constant Prayer. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.

Hall, Christopher A. Worshiping with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

McLaren, Brian. Finding Our Way Again. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.


[1] (Benson 2008, 9)

[2] (McLaren 2008, 145)

[3] (McLaren 2008, 182)