Posts Tagged ‘God’

Such as I pray

trail sunset summer sky

So, how do you pray? he’d asked her once.

She’d thought about it a long moment. She always listened, always took his questions seriously. Say what you believe, she said. Say what you’re thankful for. Say what you love.

—Julia Spencer-Fleming, I Shall Not Want

I don’t find myself doing a lot of praying these days.

For a person raised, as I was, in the Southern Baptist church, where we toss around phrases like a little talk with Jesus and you can ask God anything and prayer is a conversation, this is (nearly) tantamount to heresy.

I don’t know when it began to slow down, exactly: maybe somewhere between the heart-cracking headlines (which are still getting worse all the time) and the many smaller, quieter griefs of the last few years. I’d never really understood about prayer, anyway, never quite been sure what it did, what it was supposed to do. I was tired of asking and pleading, hearing only silence.

So I slowed down, until I almost stopped altogether.

It’s not that I have stopped believing, exactly. I can’t quite seem to quit God, even when I think life might be easier or at least make a little more sense if I could.

I have, however, stopped believing in many of the platitudes I used to hear about prayer, because who really knows how it works, anyway? Like most conversations, it does not have a guaranteed outcome. Like most things we do, it is not formulaic. Like most of our attempts to be honest and faithful, it does not always make a lot of sense.

I have (mostly) stopped saying I’m praying for you to people, because sometimes it is a lie anyway, and I also (see above) have lots of questions about what that means. I have (mostly) stopped asking my friends and family to pray for me, though I know and appreciate that some of them do. I have more faith in their prayers, sometimes, than my own.

The irony here is that I still, most Sundays, lead the public prayer at our tiny church, taking requests from the handful of souls in the pews and offering them up to God or whoever is listening. I am perhaps not the best person to do this, at the moment, but it is my job and I love this community, so I get up, pen and bulletin in hand, and stand in front of these faces, familiar and unknown.

I usually begin with a line borrowed from my friend Amy, who can often be found in the front pew with her husband and twelve-year-old twins: we are so grateful for all that we have been given. I continue with a paraphrase of an old song I sang as a child: we know that you see and love the whole world.

And then, usually when my voice starts to crack under the strain of it all, I invite everyone to join me in the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t have to think of the words for this part, and the community’s voices often help carry mine. Depending on the week, certain lines can make me break into tears: on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our trespasses. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.

Such as I pray, then, it can look like that: coming together with my community to follow Clare Fergusson’s advice in the Spencer-Fleming quote above. We say what we believe, what we’re thankful for, what we love. And I suspect I have not stopped believing in prayer altogether, or those lines – from the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere – would not move me the way they sometimes do.

Such as I pray outside of church, though, it looks different.

It can look like texting a friend who lost a loved one recently, or checking in on another friend who’s going through a lot. It can look like sharing joys with loved ones, via text or in person, because prayer isn’t only sadness and asking; it is praise, too, or at least it can be.

It can look like the tasks I do around the house that ground me: folding piles of laundry, standing at the kitchen sink washing stacks of dishes. Sometimes, as I stand there scrubbing and rinsing, I end up humming one of the hymns that have lived in my bones since I was a little girl.

Sometimes I pray one of Anne Lamott’s few essential prayers: help or thanks or simply wow. Often I run right out of words altogether. I don’t know when they will come back. But then I remember Clare’s simple, solid advice, and I think: I can usually find something I love.

I don’t know if prayer moves the world, or even tilts it forward. I don’t know much about it at all, these days. But maybe it, too, is a form of love.

Maybe that’s all it needs to be.


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Our names for God

brookline church of christ

On a recent Sunday night, we gathered around the long wooden table at Ryan and Amy’s, the kids squirming, everyone holding hands for a brief pause in the chaos of our evening together. It was Amy’s turn to pray, and she began as she always does: “Almighty God, we are so grateful for all that we have been given.”

I’m fascinated by the different ways people address God, especially since most people tend (consciously or not) to pick one and stick with it. I wonder if a person’s name for God, the way they address him (or her), reveals how they see God, the kind of deity they picture when they pray.

Amy’s prayers always begin at that place of reverence and gratitude, the place of acknowledging our blessings. She is one of the most honest and realistic people I know, but she is also good at being amazed, and good at being thankful.

Ryan, Amy’s husband and a chemistry professor, always begins with “Our Creator God.” Ryan spends his days teaching undergraduates about the tiny building blocks of our universe, and has spent a fair amount of time over the years thinking about science and faith. He deals with creation all day, every day, but what I love about his form of address is the “our”: for Ryan, the “our” is inextricably linked to the “Creator.”

My friend Julie, a warm and lovely soul who grew up with a cold and abusive father, addresses God as “Holy Father.” Her phrase reveals the twin aspects of God’s character that she holds most dear: his vast, mysterious holiness, and his closeness as the kind of father she desperately needed. My own dad also addresses God as “Father.” He learned early on, as I did, what it meant to have a loving human father, and he believes simply and completely in God as that same kind of Father.

My dad’s parents prayed the same table prayer for many years, the one that began, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.” They were humble people, who worked hard and lived simply and raised their three boys to love God and love others, and they acknowledged Jesus both as Lord and guest.

My other grandpa, my mother’s dad, prays his own table prayer before every meal, usually with the same words and always with the same inflections. I can chart the words by the rise and fall of his deep voice, and he, too, begins from a place of gratitude: “Heavenly Father, we thank you for this day.”

I learned the Lord’s Prayer as a little girl, but rarely prayed it (either alone or with others) until I found my way to Highland as a college student. At that church (in West Texas), at the big Anglican church I attended in Oxford, and at our tiny church here in Boston, the congregations recite the Lord’s Prayer together every week. We pray the ancient, resonant phrases of gratitude and praise and supplication, and we always start the same way: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

When I pray alone, sometimes I call him Father. Sometimes I repeat the “Come, Lord Jesus” prayer; sometimes I borrow a line from Shane & Shane and pray, “Be near, O God.” Sometimes I begin a prayer from the Compline service: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch or weep this night.”

Most often, it’s simply “Dear God,” the way I learned to address God as a child. He is holy, mysterious and infinite, a big God whom I can’t define or explain. But he is also dear, an entity I have known all my life.

These days, I usually begin there, and then I often borrow Amy’s phrase: I am so grateful for all that I have been given.

If you are a person who talks to God, what names do you use?

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We were lucky

boston public garden tree lake autumn fall

The Public Garden, still intact after the storm

I keep hearing the same phrase, in conversations on the street, on Facebook, in text message exchanges with friends. I used it myself, to reassure my parents and my sister, my aunts and my grandmother, about the minimal fallout we experienced last week from Hurricane Sandy. We never lost power, I explained over and over. We lost some leaves, but no tree branches. J even worked a half day on Monday. They reopened the subway on Tuesday morning. We were lucky.

I know, as most of you do, people who were not so lucky. One friend went to work west of Boston on Tuesday, but was stuck at the office until nearly 8 p.m. because of flooded roads. Co-workers lost power, as did friends both nearby and in Maryland. And my friends in New York have had their lives totally disrupted, though some neighborhoods are already recovering.

When I was a child, my family’s relationship with the word “luck” was uneasy, ambivalent. We called my sister “lucky” when she won repeatedly at Yahtzee, when she turned up just the right card in a poker match, when she beat all of us at Monopoly (again). We used it to refer to sporting events, weather conditions, narrow escapes of various kinds. But when it came to bigger things, to health issues and job worries and college acceptances, we used the word “fortunate” instead, or named it a “blessing.” I know plenty of people who would have said God spared us this week, instead of praising our luck.

But I can’t think of it quite that way in this case. If we were spared, then God must have seen fit not to spare other people whose homes and lives were devastated. If we were blessed, did he choose not to bless others, or to visit a curse on them in the form of this storm? (Hurricanes and other disasters, oddly, are still called “acts of God,” even by secular insurance companies.)

But the God I believe in, the God whose essence is love, is not so capricious, so arbitrary. He did not pick out certain houses to lose their power while others kept it. He is not laughing at the destruction of Breezy Point or the frustrations of lower Manhattan. He is hurting with all the victims and survivors. He may seem far away, but he is there.

I have been frazzled this week, my mind taken up with the usual worries: what to make for dinner, the state of my kitchen floor, which book to read next. But I am still lucky. I get to worry about domestic details and work obligations, instead of how to recover my possessions or where I’m going to live. I get to worry about church events and how much I miss my family in Texas, instead of staring down injury or death. I get to continue my normal routine, while thousands of people just a few hours away are dealing with huge, life-altering problems.

Despite my belief that God noticed, and cared about, all the destruction we’ve seen this week (and all the pain we never see), I don’t quite know how he is involved here. I can’t explain why I escaped disaster when so many did not. I know it was not because of my strength or intelligence or wisdom; such decisions are beyond my power.

Maybe one day I will understand more about how this works, how God is tied up with the winds and waves, what factors influence the number of griefs and disasters in a person’s life. I doubt I’ll ever understand fully; this tapestry is too large for me to see the whole pattern.

For now, I will send money to those who need it, and I will breathe a prayer of thanks and relief. And almost in the same breath, I’ll continue to admit:

We were lucky.

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Easter Q&A

Yesterday at church, Charlie (our rector) called all the children up to the stage, read some passages from the crucifixion/resurrection story aloud to them, then asked them some questions about it. The prizes for correct answers were chocolate, so as you can imagine, this was very exciting.

Many of the answers were spot on and some were even quite wise, but the first one was a particular hit. It ran as follows:

Charlie: What did Jesus Christ say while he was on the cross?
Child: My God, my God, why have You employed me?

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As Much for Me

I’ve recently rediscovered Ross King, for one reason and another (I think he was probably on the “good list” mentioned in the previous post), and have been SO annoyed at myself for not uploading more of his CDs to my iTunes before I left the country. (I have five of them at home, and only one – Something by Sunrise – on my machine. Why?!?) But now that he’s on the brain again, the lyrics to his songs have been running through my head. Here are the words to one from the album Big Quiet Truth:

As Much for Me

As much for me as for the murderers and thieves who kill and steal without remorse
And for the ones who claim convenience and shrug and choose abortion and divorce
As much for me as for the hypocrites who preach the Word of God and fool the weak
And for the self-proclaimed messiahs who mislead the lost with every word they speak

Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they have done
Where they deserve to go
And me, I sit here and consider this
As if the truth did not apply to me at all

But grace is as much for me as for anyone
Just look at all I’ve done
I praise You for Calvary
Where You took away my sin, just like every one of them
So how could I condemn
How could I condemn?

As much for me as for the racist ones who justify a philosophy of hate
And for the poor unknowing worshipers of idols that will only pass away
As much for me as for the husbands who are violent and unfaithful to their wives
And for the plague-infected ones who die too soon because they choose to roll the dice

Somehow I’ve made myself believe that when You look down on me
You see something better than You see in them
My lust and greed and pride and selfish way of living
Are the hammer and the nails that took Your life

But grace is as much for me as for anyone
Just look at all I’ve done
I praise You for Calvary
Where You took away my sin, just like every one of them
So how could I condemn
How could I condemn?

Grace is not just for me
It’s for everyone – no matter what they’ve done
I praise You for Calvary
Where You took away my sin, just like every one of them
So how could I condemn
How could I condemn?

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Saviour King

Saviour King

A song (from Hillsong United) that we sang in one December carol service, which has suddenly come back into my head…

Let now the weak say I have strength
By the Spirit of power that raised Christ from the dead
Let now the poor stand and confess
That my portion is Him – and I’m more than blessed

Let now our hearts burn with a flame
A fire consuming all for Your Son’s holy Name
And with the heavens we declare
You are our King

We love You, Lord – we worship You
You are our God – You alone are good
You asked your Son to carry this
The heavy cross – our weight of sin

Let now the church shine as Your bride
That You saw in Your heart, as You offered up Your life
Let now the lost be welcomed home
By the saved and redeemed – those adopted as Your own

Let now our hearts burn with a flame
A fire consuming all for Your Son’s holy Name
And with the heavens we declare
You are our King

We love You, Lord – we worship You
Hope which was lost now stands renewed
I give my life to honour this
The love of Christ – My Saviour King

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Now my heart’s desire is to know You more
To be found in You and known as Yours
To possess by faith what I could not earn
All-surpassing gift of righteousness…

Does anyone else ever get stuck on that last line? I have a hard time conceiving of righteousness as an “all-surpassing gift.” I know that Jesus made it possible for us to become righteous when He died on the cross, and I’m grateful, because we would otherwise never have been able to live with God. I know that righteousness is a great gift. But it seems to me to be just one of the many gifts God has given us. And frankly, it doesn’t seem like the best one.

I’ve spent a lot of time this semester reading about people and situations that are severely lacking in righteousness – I’ve read about incest, abuse, rape, war, disease, unkindness, torture and all kinds of other horrors. In most of these stories, the authorities have abandoned righteousness altogether, and sometimes the characters act against their own moral standards in life-altering ways. I’ve read some terribly tragic narratives this semester. So many of these books have broken my heart with their bleakness – and yet, in many (though not all) of them, seeds of hope, love and community somehow take root and grow, hanging on fiercely, against literally all odds. I am becoming a person who values brokenness, both in literature and life, for the humble growth it can bring. I tend to shy away from people who seem too “righteous,” for fear that they aren’t authentic. People who’ve never been broken can’t understand the struggles I face. They can’t understand the brokenness that pervades this world. For this reason I wonder if some magic helping of “righteousness” won’t hurt the mission of Christianity more than it helps.

My life for the past two years has been about fighting to hang on despite a lack of righteousness, in events and attitudes and relationships. It seems to me that God’s mercy toward us is an infinitely greater gift than His righteousness, and that His love tops even that. I know that His love grants us mercy and righteousness, among so many other things; it makes possible a righteousness that we truly cannot earn. But I value His love far more than the things it grants to me – just as I value relationships with the important people in my life far more than the material things they give me. Does that make me a person who places too small a value on righteousness? Or does it mean that I’ve been living too long in a very broken world? In a context (or contexts) where righteousness is so often absent (even in the church-saturated culture I live in), does it naturally follow that righteousness comes to be devalued because of its absence? Do we come to see other things as more important because they are what make up for the lack of righteousness? Or is it just that I struggle with the concept of “righteousness” as holier-than-thou piety? Perhaps true righteousness is something so much more than legalistic purity, and I’m just tripping over my own limited perception of what it can be. Or perhaps humility is the key – purity of heart must be tempered by a healthy dose of humility, or it does no good to anyone.

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Kerri Lane

I guess I’m a little late, but I wanted to add my voice to the hundreds of voices that are missing Kerri Lane. I’ve been reading blog posts about her situation for months, and about her death since it happened (two weeks ago tomorrow). Several of my readers are Highland people who knew Kerri, and the rest of you have probably heard about her. I have no answers following her death, but I just want to say – I miss her.

Kerri was a part of the Lifeteam I joined this summer, which meets at the Donagheys’ house every week. She and Carlee and Jolee, her two precious little girls, would light up the room every time they came in, literally. Kerri was on a fruit-and-veggies diet for half the summer, but it never seemed to bother her; she would smile and hug us (even when she grew painfully thin) and sit in the rocking chair by the couch, where she always sat. Carlee and Jolee would move from lap to lap as we talked about the Bible and shared prayer requests; sometimes they’d sit together on the couch, or curl up in the bean bag chair with Stacie, or snuggle up in Calvin’s lap, or rub Brad’s head when he had just shaved it. Jolee passed out the Dixie cups for communion, and was always more than willing to eat the leftover bread. They were just so fresh and real – and I loved getting to know them.

We met at the Fuquas’ last week and the Watsons’ this week (the Donagheys have been in and out of town), and both times we’ve spent a while talking about Kerri and grieving for her. We talked about hurt, anger, sadness; how we’re going to treat Kerri’s estranged husband, Tony; how we feel for the girls; lots of the little painful things that go with grief. But I think the most poignant summation of our grief came from Beth Butcher, age 12.

Beth had misheard her mother, Marlene, telling Sarah, Beth’s sister, about Kerri’s death. Later she said, “Mom, you can tell me. I won’t be sad,” thinking a neighbor’s dog (named Keiko) had died. Marlene looked at Beth and said, “No, Kerri died.” Beth looked at her mom for a moment, confused. When she was telling this story to our Lifeteam, she paused, looked at all of us, and said, “I thought, ‘No way. That didn’t happen. Kerri wasn’t s’posed to die. She was s’posed to live.'”

I think Beth is right. Kerri was supposed to live. To raise her girls until they became young women and left to fly out on their own. To worship and love on people at Highland, where she was always so happy. To keep on shining love to everyone she met. (Who else do you know that would talk to a Verizon telemarketer about Jesus, and later send him a Bible – while fighting melanoma and trying to mother two little girls?)

Kerri was supposed to live. And we miss her, and the grief goes far deeper for some than it does for me. There will be a hole in our Lifeteam for a long time (though we are hoping to see the girls, and maybe Tony, now and then). But we have to believe that it’s okay that she’s not here now. We have to believe that she’s up in heaven, with Jesus, radiating the same genuine joy and freshness she always did. And we have to believe that God’s going to take care of the rest of us, who are still here looking up at the sky, wondering why.

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Ash Wednesday

Yesterday was the third time I’ve ever participated in an Ash Wednesday service. Coming from a non-liturgical background, I grew up with limited knowledge about the church year, gleaned mostly from books. I had a few friends who were Catholic or Episcopalian, but – let’s face it – most high school kids don’t take that stuff too seriously. Or they’re ashamed to talk about it if they do.

Two years ago, I joined three fellow students and a small crowd of older people at St. Giles’ Church in Oxford on Ash Wednesday. Last year, my roommates and I bundled up against the cold and went to an early morning service at Church of the Heavenly Rest here in Abilene. But yesterday I didn’t even have to leave campus. Our music department chair, Greg Straughn, decided to turn that day’s departmental chapel into an Ash Wednesday observance.

We had a few songs and two Scripture readings and read a prayer together. We stumbled our way through a short chantlike song, and then they dimmed the lights. Dr. Straughn told us we were free to go, or we could stay and pray for a few minutes, alone or with faculty members. He had a small jar of ashes, available for anyone who wanted to observe the Ash Wednesday tradition of being marked by a cross of ashes on the forehead or palm.

I wasn’t planning on going up there. I’ve felt so far from God lately that I sometimes feel as if I’m shouting across a canyon when I pray. What good would it do me to be marked by ashes? It wouldn’t change anything. A dark smear on my forehead wasn’t going to bring me back to Him.

But after sitting for a few minutes, watching as people bowed their foreheads slightly to receive the ashes, I got out of my seat and joined the line. And it was a quiet but powerful experience to have someone I know (Dr. Straughn is a professor and friend of mine) mark my forehead with ashes and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I wrote a poem about it later that day. It’s still a work in progress, but perhaps it reaches into that experience more than my stumbling prose can do.

Ash Wednesday

Today this cross marks me as a follower
of Jesus,
a spirit housed in a body
made of ashes like these.
The edges are blurred,
smeared a little, like my soul –
broken, insufficient,
unsure, but still His,
walking down the road He walked
toward the light.

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Taken from my journal yesterday:

There is poetry in the way this man [Samuel Twumasi-Ankrah, from Accra, Ghana] holds himself, standing tall and straight on a stage decked with white flowers and tall green plants. He is dressed in white and gold robes with a geometric pattern on the front, in a room where most people are wearing business suits. His skin is the color of dark chocolate and his accent carries a halting lilt – like raw silk to the ears instead of ordinary, department-store cotton.

To a gathering of mostly white, North American Church of Christ preachers and teachers: yet another manifestation of the truth that wisdom doesn’t always come in an expected form.

Praise God for ACU Lectureship.

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