PRAYER

With the start up of the churches I pastor after the winter break, I am now back to leading another Bible study. This one has been looking at prayer. We have been using two Biblical prayers as our discussion starters. As we have worked through the Lord’s Prayer and begin looking at the prayer in Gethsemane, we have had ample opportunity to think about, discuss and speculate on prayer, as well as many other topics, some related and some that seem to come from nowhere anyone can identify.

The start up of this study has caused me to take another look at my prayers. Basically, I have two somewhat separate prayer lives. One is what I would call a professional prayer life. I am a pastor of active congregations which means I pray a lot: several times during each worship service, before and after Bible studies and meetings, during pastoral visits, over the phone and occasionally on the street. By any standard, I have a very active professional prayer life. That goes with the territory—anyone called to Christian ministry needs to expect that they will spend a lot of time praying for anything and everything.

My other prayer life is my own private and personal life. And while it isn’t always totally clear which category any given prayer fits, in general, I have a pretty good sense of when I am praying professionally and when I am praying personally. Well, actually, I have a really good sense of when I am praying professionally. I am not always clear when and even if I am praying personally.

Let me give an example. I am sitting in my work chair after finishing writing a sermon. That always leaves me with a sense of mental confusion and fatigue and a feeling that what I have spend so much time writing is worthless. I contemplate what I have written and mentally mutter, “What a pile of junk!”. My question is: When I say that, am I commenting on my sermon, expressing the mental fatigue that comes with having finished writing a sermon or actually praying?

Sometimes, I see that comment as an actual prayer. I have a somewhat warped sense of humor and tend to make comments that people who know me understand but which others might find quite strange. Since I work at being open to God’s leading when I am writing a sermon (mostly), if I am conscious of a hearer of my end of sermon comments, it would be God. Is it a valid prayer to call what he has (hopefully) helped me produce a pile of junk—or worse?

I mean, shouldn’t a pastor who has been in the business for many years and prayed enough to total up to months or years of time finish the sermon process with a heartfelt, “Thank you Lord for this wonderful expression of your grace”. Maybe that is what some would expect—and there may be some pastors who actually pray that prayer every time they finish a sermon. I have actually prayed it a few times, times when the sermon flows and even my writing fatigued brain can see the value of the sermon.

But mostly, when I finish, I am going to nudge God in the ribs, wink and comment on the junkiness of what I have produced. If I really thought it was junk, I wouldn’t have written it. But the stress of the writing process, the energy required to keep God, the congregation and myself in proper balance during the writing and the simple fatigue that results comes together to produce an offhanded, dry, somewhat negative comment on the whole thing. I am expressing my fatigue to myself and God, a fatigue that doesn’t allow me to actually objectively evaluate what I have produced—easier by far to semi-jokingly insult it because both God and I know I don’t really mean it. I am ultimately acknowledging that with his help, I produced something that he will use later as part of his and my ministry in the churches that will hear the sermon.

Would it be more reverent and spiritually mature to simple tell God thanks for the leading and help and the hint on the third point? Probably. I may get there someday but for now, God knows what I am doing and we are both comfortable with my end of writing prayer.

May the peace of God be with you.

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WHO IS LAUGHING?

Social media is a major force in our world. In general, I am not a great user of it, though. I know that there are some real possibilities for the church in social media and if I were at a different stage in my ministry, I might be more interested. But truthfully, beyond this blog, I don’t have a very large social media presence.

I am, however, a consumer of social media to some extent. There are a few blogs that I read regularly and many others that I check now and then. And, I have to confess to a growing addiction to YouTube, an addiction that began during the difficult time a few years ago when I was between jobs and somewhat depressed about being between jobs. It isn’t a debilitating addiction—I haven’t missed work because of it and don’t skimp on sermon preparation to watch but it has become a part of my life.

I have learned some things from YouTube—my attempt to put ceramic tile on a wall succeeded because of a YouTube video, with a little help from a TV home improvement program as well. But mostly, I watch because I find the videos funny or because they deal with stuff I am interested in. But I am also troubled by what I see, not because the videos reveal anything I didn’t know but because of something I do know but which seems heightened by the availability of social media.

We human beings are cruel and nasty and self-centered. And thanks to social media, we get to share our cruelty and nastiness and self-centeredness with the whole world, or at least that part of the world who chooses to go online. It may be just the videos that I choose to watch but it seems to me that a high proportion of social media videos involve people being put down or tricked or harmed—but since it is supposed to be a joke, they are not supposed to be upset.

What bothers me even more, I think, is the fact the people want to share the evidence of this cruelty, nastiness and self-centeredness so openly. It seems like we want attention so much that we will do anything to get it—and if that anything involves something that is less than flattering about someone else, no problem. Even worse, the victims of many of the cruel, nasty and self-centered stuff seem as happy to get the attention as the perpetrator.

I am probably showing my age and am probably sounding like a grumpy old man but I am troubled by the attitudes and actions I sometimes see. When attention comes at the cost of the dignity and value of an individual, it is really worth it? Is getting the social media spotlight on me worth degrading myself or others? As troubling as it seems to me, the answer appears to be yes for many people—getting views justifies whatever.

And truthfully, we can’t actually blame social media. People have always been willing to use others to get attention for themselves. The stories of what we did or said to so and so have always been told—over campfires, over coffee, over a beer, over a tea, in the kitchen, in the living room, in the church foyer. All social media has done is give us access to a larger audience, giving us more attention and making our cruelty, nastiness and self-centeredness evident to many more people. What might have gone no further than the kitchen table now circles the world endlessly.

I am not going to stop social media—truthfully, I am not even going to stop watching YouTube. I doubt very much if I can reform human nature enough to keep the cruel, nasty and self-centered out of social media. As human beings we are loving, caring and considerate—and we are also cruel, nasty and self-centered. All of us are a blend of both. But in the end, the more we feed and encourage the dark side of our natures, the worse it is for us, others and the world in general because “… those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.” (Job 4.8 NIV)

May the peace of God be with you.

THAT’S FUNNY

 

One of the interesting tasks I had one time was to be a reader for a doctoral thesis that was looking at the topic of humour in the Bible. Since I like humour, I was looking forward to the process—I was hoping to get a good laugh out of the thesis. Unfortunately, the thesis, although well written, well researched and well presented was no funnier than any other thesis I have read, which is to say it wasn’t very funny at all.

There seems to be within the faith a strong tendency to minimize the place of humour. I think that some feel that since our faith deals with big, important themes like eternal destiny, there isn’t much room for humour. We are engaged in serious stuff and laughter is frivolous and maybe even sacrilegious.

And yet, the Bible is a book shot through with humour. Of course, it seems that commentators and preachers and others have worked hard over the years to minimize and hide the humour that is present, almost as if there is a conspiracy to prevent faithful people from having a good laugh.

Take the comment Jesus makes in Matthew 19.24 for example: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (NIV). Most commentaries spend lots of time discussing the possible references Jesus in making here, drawing on possible nautical and cultural themes supposedly from that day and age. But very few highlight the absolute humour of this passage. The absurdity of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle conjurors up hilarious images that would not be out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Or take one of my personal favorites, found in Matthew 7.3, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (NIV) The essential humour in this passage is lost as we deal with heavy issues like hypocrisy and human sin and confession and all those other important themes that we can draw out of the passage.

But this is funny. The idea of a man with a 2×4 stuck in his eye trying to help another with a piece of sawdust in his eye is the premise for a skit worthy of the Three Stooges or some other great slapstick comedy team. Picture the chaos that accompanies a person with a 2×4 trying to help someone: there will be smashing and bashing and crashing and breaking glass and head bangs and gloriously funny mayhem.

And I am pretty sure that this humour isn’t some unintentional coincidence that crept in while the super serious God of all creation was distracted by the seriousness of human sin. I think the humour we find scattered through the Bible is intentional and deliberate and there because God also has a sense of humor. After all, he created us with the ability—and need—to laugh. When he relates to us, he shows flashes of marvelous humour. Having a donkey speak to a somewhat stubborn prophet (Numbers 22.28) is funny on a lot of levels, including the part where the prophet argues with the donkey oblivious to the weirdness of the situation.

Life is serious and heavy and often painful. In the faith, we deal with some pretty serious and heavy duty topics, like the point of life and eternal destiny. But we also need to balance this heaviness with the lightness provided by humour and laughter, a reality that God seeks to teach us in the Scripture. God created us with the need and ability to laugh—and then, he writes some pretty good material for us to laugh at.

Certainly, there is a serious side to God’s humour and there are deeper lessons in all the jokes and pratfalls—but they are also funny and the humour deserves to be given the laugh it deserves and that we also deserve. I think it adds to our ability to understand and relate to God when we realize that God, like most humans, appreciates a good joke now and then and he isn’t above sneaking a good one into the most serious of material.

May the peace of God be with you.