The Mystery of Prayer

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So much of this kingdom-living life is mystifying.
We are given a magnificent vision of being made priests and kings. We are told to go out into the world and live in a way that brings God’s rule to earth and creation’s praise to heaven.
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So much of the time we wander around, having no earthly idea what to do.
Yet here we are.
This is our mission whether or not we understand it completely.
This is our goal whether or not we can perceive the next step.
This is our purpose and we may not set it aside every time we fail to discern the way forward.
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Part of the answer to finding our way is in prayer.
Prayer itself is a mystery, however central to our lives as Christ followers. Perhaps it wouldn’t be prayer without also being a mystery.
Yet it is a mystery we can, in our own fumbling way, find the shape of. This mystery of prayer has the shape of heaven and earth joining together in Jesus and our sharing in that joining through the Spirit.
The very act of prayer says that we stand in the space between heaven and earth. Prayer says that, in some mysterious way, we are called to stand for God on earth and to stand for creation in heaven.
But again the very practice of prayer, before we even begin to think about the content, says in and of itself: we are people who live at the interface between God’s world and the life of this present world. We are people who belong in that uncomfortable borderland. We are called to stay at this post even when we have no idea what’s actually going on. ~ N.T. Wright, After You Believe
Remaining at our post even when we have no idea what’s actually going on takes humility and patience. It takes faith and hope. It takes the living out of virtue, as I discussed recently.
Yet doing this, remaining at our post, continuing to pray even when you don’t understand how any of it works or what on earth you are supposed to say, trains our hearts.
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Even if we gain no clarity at all, our hearts are being trained in humility and patience, in faith and hope.
Prayer changes us. It is a piece of what transforms us into the people God created us to be.
Prayer is one of the disciplines which, when practiced regularly both in public and in private, builds our character, habit by habit and virtue by virtue, into the royal priesthood through which God will restore the world.
But it means that we come to prayer knowing that we’re to reinforce the heart habits that make us, by second nature, who we are. And we rise from prayer with the heart formed that bit more securely in its settled second nature of trust and obedience. ~ N.T. Wright, After You Believe

 

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Slinging Mashed Potatoes

My eldest has had trouble loving her sister lately.


When she gets angry, even if it is with herself, her first instinct is to lash out and hurt Little Sister. We’ve been working on this, trying to teach her other ways of expressing her anger, but it is a long and difficult road. She seems to lose all common sense when her emotions run high.

Sadly, this reminds me all too much of the adults in our country this time of year.

Ah, election season.


Time for everyone to lose logic and common sense and to begin slinging hateful words around like mashed potatoes in a junior high camp cafeteria.

I have been wondering how we got to this place. How did we get to the place where it seems impossible to have a compassionate discussion of ideas?

In my most recent Mars Hill Audio Journal, it was suggested that this has become part of our culture because of the direction that our public schools have taken.  When we emphasize math and science to the exclusion of teaching ethics and civics and philosophy, our citizens grow up without knowing about logic, without knowing how to follow an idea through to its logical conclusion.


Here is a clip of one of my favorite authors, N.T. Wright, speaking about the problem that we don’t even have the debate but rather have bits and pieces of a shouting match (if you are viewing this via email/in a reader, click here to view this video):

 

I can see, having been a teacher myself, how cutting logic and philosophy out of schools would appeal. It is much easier to control the flow of ideas than to teach people to think for themselves. (I am not proposing that this has been a deliberate conspiracy against free thinking in our country, rather that this has been the unintended consequence of placing a higher value on sciences than humanities. It simply helps the cause that the things that are cut out are subjects that tend to make governing more difficult.)

As I thought about how we got to this place, though, and as I listened to respected leaders speak about this issue, I realized that this is not a new problem, this problem of not teaching young people to think for themselves, of not teaching children how to think logically about an idea and spot the fallacies contained within.


In the 14th century, John Wycliffe was one of the first advocates for translating the Bible from Latin, a language that only priests and rulers could read, into the common language, accessible to all. The leaders of his day violently opposed him, wanting to keep the power of ideas to themselves. Wycliffe’s opponents cried out, “The jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity”. In the end, Wycliffe was declared to be a heretic and his body was exhumed and burned, and the ashes were scattered.

As much as I would like to swell with indignation at the thought of trying to control ideas, if I am honest with myself, I can relate. It is difficult for me to trust my own children. I want to control the flow of ideas, to control what they know and understand. This would be much easier than teaching them to think critically and then dealing with the inevitable hard questions that will come.

Thankfully, I know better. God has instructed me to trust. Not other people, but Him. I must trust His Spirit inside my children.


So I will continually ask for help in relinquishing control. I will trust my girls to the care of God’s Spirit and trust that He will show them what is good.

As for our country, our election season, let us be the first to use logic and common sense, to show compassion to those with whom we disagree, and trust in God’s plan and His Spirit working rather than taking the easier route of slinging mashed potatoes all over their faces.

Art Credits: Vote photo by woodsy; photos of N.T. Wright and Wycliffe stained glass from Wikipedia images

A Lasting Character

I was writing last week about discipleship, about how we form our character. N.T. Wright says that we form our character by a long, slow change of deep, heart-level habits. Hard work up front to make small deliberate choices. These choices feel awkward and unnatural at first, but they allow the Holy Spirit to form our character.  This week, I want to write about why our character matters so much. 


Of course, if you believe that after we die is that we leave this earth and rest and relax with Jesus for all of eternity, then there is not much reason to develop our character. If, however, you believe (as I believe the Bible teaches) that God will give creation a complete makeover so that it is filled with the glory of God and that we will be given new bodies to live with delight and power in God’s new world, well, then the development of our character becomes very important indeed.


Jesus talks often of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, implying that it is already here. That the transformation of our world and of ourselves has already begun in Jesus! This is huge. This is why what I do, what my character is, matters: because my character, the virtues that I practice and choose, every moment of every day, is permanent. It does not only last for this life, but for all of eternity. 

Let me repeat the C.S. Lewis quote from last week:

every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.

We are preparing ourselves for the day we become truly human.

As I have written about before, here and here, our ultimate goal is a dual one: to be stewards of God’s rule and care of creation and to reflect creation’s praise and worship back to God. This is achieved by having a character of holiness brought about by the Holy Spirit and our choices (Romans 8.12-17) and by prayer, as the Spirit helps us intercede for the whole world (Romans 8.26-27). 




We begin this now, and it is the permanence of virtue, lasting not just for this age but into the age to come, that makes character worthwhile to work at. These virtues will last: In I Corinthians 13 it says:

…where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears…And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Some things will not last, but others will. 

Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. ~ I Corinthians 15.58

This is why working at forming our character, working at developing virtues, is worthwhile. Because this is what will last. This is what prepares us for all of eternity.

Virtue is…part of the life of the future breaking in to the present. That is why it is both hard and glorious work. ~ N.T. Wright

One last reason why building our character is so important: When the Christian community, the Church, is truly striving after virtues (faith, hope and love) and working hard to produce fruit of the Spirit, it has a huge apologetic value. It shows the watching world a new way of being human. A Church that looks like this is a missionary body which puts forward the purpose of God to the world. 



Discipleship is hard. It is well worth the effort and sacrifice! So I will try to keep making those small, daily choices, those choices that now seem so awkward and false. Will you keep going too? It will get easier.


And someday, who knows? You might be mistaken for a native of God’s kingdom.


art credit: New Earth photograph by “King David”

Character for God’s Country

Discipleship is hard.



Sometimes I think that it should be easier. If the Holy Spirit was truly in control of my heart, I would be much more able to obey Jesus. If the Holy Spirit had changed my heart, I should want to live by God’s will at all times. It should be easy. Sometimes, because it isn’t easy when I think that it should be, I pretend. I put on a holy face and pretend that obeying is easy.



Sometimes it is difficult to know what to do as a Christ-follower. What, exactly, is it that we are supposed to do between our decision to follow Jesus and our death when we go to live with Him? Is it only that we are supposed to walk around telling people about Him? 

These are hard things. Too many Christ-followers, too many churches struggle with these ideas.




Recently, as I have been thinking about these sorts of things, I have been reading After You Believe by N.T. Wright. He is writing about the formation of character, what that means and how it is formed, and is also writing about how forming our character is the answer to many of my thoughts.

Wright describes our moral transformation as “a long, slow change of deep, heart-level habits”. Hard work up front to make small deliberate choices. These choices feel awkward and unnatural at first, but they allow the Holy Spirit to form our character.




This only follows what humanity seems to have always known, from Aristotle to modern neuroscience. That the very small, daily choices that you make forms who you are, it physically changes your brain. Some think that if they act before they “mean it”, they are being hypocritical. Rather, as we struggle to follow Christ, authenticity will follow. If you wait to practice virtue, to make character-choices, until you mean it, you will wait a very long time and will mess up a lot of lives in the process. 




Wright compares this idea of character formation to learning a second language. At first, it is awkward, uncomfortable, unnatural. Yet the more you work at it, the more you practice, the easier it gets. The goal? To be at home in the place where that language is spoken, to enable you to function here and now as a competent citizen of that country. The biggest compliment you could receive is to be mistaken for a native.




Isn’t that what we want? To be at home in a world that has been made perfect, that has been filled with the glory of God? To be mistaken for a native of God’s kingdom?

The habits of character is all about learning in advance the language of God’s new world. C.S. Lewis says that 

every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.

To be clear, the Bible is emphatic that we cannot form a Christ-like character on our own. We cannot work hard enough and practice long enough in our own strength to be able to become perfect. Instead, we are like members of a really awful choir. When we welcome God as our new choir director, we suddenly can hear our out of tune singing and ragged rhythms and we find a new desire to learn how to sing in tune. We can’t sing in tune immediately, simply because we have a new choir director, but the Holy Spirit gives us direction and guidance to help us acquire the right habits to replace the wrong ones. 

                                  


None of this would even be possible without the death of Christ and the Holy Spirit in us. We wouldn’t have even known that we sang horribly had we not accepted the rescuing grace of our Director.

Why, though? Why does this all matter so much? I think I’ll leave that until next week. 


art credit: bust of Aristotle, original by Lysippos; Cantoria by Luca della Robbia

Don’t Follow Your Heart














When my grandparents were young, during World War II, during the age of Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire, people were told that they should have the courage to stand up for what is right.


These days, I hear a lot of people say that we should all have the courage to follow our hearts.

After all, something done spontaneously has more validity, right? Something that comes from the heart means more than something that took a lot of effort?

I hear this from Christians, as well as from the secular world. We are told to take a risk, to have the courage to follow our hearts, our passions, our dreams. We are told that God uses our passions for His glory, so we should take financial and emotional risks, even risks to our family, to do what we are passionate about.

This is what many are taught to believe that Jesus came to model and teach: that “to thine own self be true” is the central goal and task of every man.



This actually sounds a bit like Gnosticism, a philosophy that John spoke out against in the New Testament. 

Although an ancient philosophy, see if this sounds familiar today: There is a spark of light hidden in us underneath layers of social and cultural conditioning. Whatever we most truly find within ourselves is right. My heart tells me how things truly are and I must go with my heart.

May I please decry the idea that something done spontaneously has automatic validation while something that is done while following orders or after careful reflection is less valuable or even hypocritical? Thinking carefully about a course of action does not mean that you are being false to yourself. 

This all reminds me of the romantic idea of art vs what art really is. The romantic says that art should be effortless, that it should just flow from your heart and soul. The true artist, whether visual arts, music, dance, writing, or any other genre, knows how much hard work and practice it takes to get to the point of seeming effortless. 



Perhaps it takes more courage to stick with the hard task, to continue working to provide for your family, to practice patience and self-control every single day than it does to just throw it all away and follow your heart’s desire.

Then He said to them all: “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” ~ Luke 9.23

In After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (you will be hearing more from this book in coming weeks!), N.T. Wright says that following your heart

tries to get in advance, and without paying the true price, what virtue offers further down the road, and at the cost of genuine moral thought, decision, and effort.

I am not suggesting that what you do only has merit if it is dull and drudging work or that doing what you love is wrong. Yes, God does use our gifts and talents. Yes, sometimes God does call us to do something crazy, something that our world would call foolish.



What I am suggesting is that we should test what is in our hearts before we blindly follow. We should spend time with God, seeking to know what He wants rather than assuming that what is in our hearts is right. 



I don’t know about you, but my own heart can be incredibly fickle.

A person may think their own ways are right, but the LORD weighs the heart. ~ Prov. 21.2

Perhaps doing only what we love is not always the godly path. More often than not, it seems that the godly path is the harder road to follow.

I promise you, though, it is well worth the work and effort. 

Just like a beautiful piece of art.



art credit: Shakespeare playbill; Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night

Saving the Earth

I’ve never been a “SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT!!!!” sort of girl.
Save the world
Not because I want to actively destroy our planet or because I am particularly opposed to saving it, but simply because I haven’t thought much about it.

I love spending time outdoors, love seeing and being in the beauty that God has given us, but not until recently has my mind made the connection between our earth being created by and loved by God, and my own responsibility to take care of our world.

Love our world

I know. There are a lot of you who are rolling your eyes right now and thinking, “Wow. You are some kind of dense not to have understood that before now.”

Perhaps, though, there are at least one or two of you who are like me and have simply not thought about this idea of being stewards of God’s creation. These thoughts, then, are for you.

Surprised By Hope

This idea first started bouncing around in my mind when I read N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope.  One of the themes that Wright discusses is the concept that this world is going to be restored someday, is going to be made whole and perfect, and we are asked by God to begin now to work towards that restoration. He even suggests that we are part of God’s plan to perfect our world, that perhaps He will accomplish this restoration (at least partially) through humanity.

This is a staggering idea, especially in the implication that if we are not working to care for our world then we are delaying the restoration of creation.

My first reaction to this idea was that God would never entrust such an important task to such frail humans. Yet there is, however, that whole “go into the world and teach people to be My disciples” task that He gave us. Perhaps God is just crazy enough to put such big things into our little hands.

Biology Through the Eyes of Faith
My next recent encounter with this idea of stewardship (I was starting to feel as though perhaps, just perhaps, God was giving me a little nudge) was when I read Richard T. Wright’s book, Biology Through the Eyes of Faith. (I was also starting to feel as though perhaps, just perhaps, I was reading too many books by authors with the last name of Wright.)
When I wrote an essay about the book, about how Christians should not fear what science can do to God, I was struck by something that I quoted from this book at the end:
Over the years, I have realized that even though it is necessary to look at these origins issues and problems, the more important problems are those that are facing us today as we try to learn how to take care of the creation and how best to use its gifts. (If God were to ask us a question about His Creation,) would He ask us what we thought about how He made the world, or would He ask us what we did with it
Caring for Our World
What does God want us to do with this creation He has entrusted to us? I started searching Scripture and was surprised by what I found. Here are just a few:
God saw all that He had made, and it was very good. ~ Genesis 1.31
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it…So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. ~ Genesis 2.15, 20
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. ~ Romans 8.19-21
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare … But in keeping with His promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth (emphasis mine), the home of righteousness. ~ II Peter 3.10, 13
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

As I searched the Word for wisdom, I was also reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It is the story of how her family spent one year eating only what they could obtain locally. The book gave me a myriad of ideas about how our family could begin paying attention, how we could be deliberate about how we use this creation that God called “very good”.

And so I’ve started exploring. Perhaps we will start loving our neighbors by purchasing as much as possible from farmers who live nearby, from businesses owned by local people. Perhaps we will start loving this world by eating meat and eggs from animals that have been well cared for and that have been fed foods they were created to eat, by recycling and reusing as much as possible. 

 

Recycling Our World
 
I’m probably still not going to start marching in environmental protests or throwing paint on people who wear fur coats. 
I will, however, begin to pray, to think, to be aware and deliberate about how our family can be responsible stewards of this very good earth that has been graciously loaned to us by God. I will try to understand how to make sacred these choices about food and how we live on this planet.

What do you think about these things? What does your family do to care for our world? Do you have any advice for our family as we begin to explore this: advice about using a co-op or a CSA, recycling, etc.?