Precarious Prayer

In the 1640s “precarious” was a legal term that referred to something which was “held through the favor of another.”  Over time, “precarious” evolved into our modern understanding of the word as “risky, dangerous, uncertain, or perilous.”  The word “prayer” also evolved from the old Latin word “precarious,” since prayer by its very nature is something which is held through the favor of Another. 

I think we need to recognize that prayer is precarious in the modern understanding of the word as well, for prayer is risky, dangerous, and perilous.  We need to take to heart the truth of what Jacques Ellul said, “Whoever wrestles with God in prayer puts his whole life at stake.”  And we need to be warned by Karl Barth’s words, “To clasp the hands in prayer is to start an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

Prayer is about relationship with the Almighty Lord of the universe, and that is a dangerous thing because relationship with God is likely to change us in huge ways.  E. Stanley Jones suggests, “Prayer’s like the fastening of the cup to the wounded side of a pine tree to allow the resin to pour into it.  You are now nestling up into the side of God—the wounded side, if you will—and you allow His grace to fill you up.  You are taking in the very life of God.”  That sounds lovely, but think it through: What happens to us when he take in the very life of God?  We take in the very love of God that led Jesus to lay down His life for the world.  Mother Teresa sums it up well when she says, “Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of Himself.”  Look at the risks she took as a result of prayer!

Prayer is about God meeting us right where we are.  Centuries ago, when scholars sought to find the meaning of the word epiousios, which we now translate as “daily,” in the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” they could find no occurrence of the word in ancient Greek literature.  They concluded that it must be a spiritual word, meaning that we were supposed to pray for spiritual bread to feed our souls.  Then archaeologists found occurrences of the word on scraps of paper in garbage dumps.  The word was written on shopping lists to identify items that needed to be purchased on a daily basis since they could not be stored for later.  Jesus was making it clear that we are to ask God each day for the basic, down-to-earth things we need each day.  That’s what we find throughout the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus tells us to pray for daily bread, for forgiveness, for help in forgiving others, for help in battling temptation, and for rescue from the evil one.  These are the down-to-earth things we need help with every day. 

It is precarious to present these requests to God, for if we pray only about theoretical matters like praying for a cure for cancer, then prayer remains far away from us, which keeps us in the “safe” zone.  But when we pray for practical things it gets dangerous.  When we pray for daily bread, we may have to work and budget.  When we pray for “our daily bread,” we may have to provide help to someone who is hungry.  When we pray for God to help us forgive, we may have to address a particular resentment.  When we pray for God to help us battle temptation, we may have to take actual steps to flee temptation. 

And prayer is about us meeting God right where God is.  This is precarious because God is always at a deeper place of compassion and justice than is comfortable to us.  Whenever we rise up to where God is, that gets risky for us.  Philip Yancey points out, “The book of Proverbs states the principle bluntly: ‘If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.’  In his letter, the apostle Peter urges that husbands be considerate to their wives and treat them with respect ‘so that nothing will hinder your prayers.’  It may seem strange that issues political and domestic would have a direct effect on prayer life, but not if prayer is viewed as keeping company with God.  Every aspect of life, including how we treat those around us, affects an intimate relationship.  I cannot say to my neighbor, ‘I love you and enjoy spending time with you, but I hate your stupid dog and keep those bratty kids out of my yard, will you?’  How I treat what belongs to my neighbor affects how he receives my love.  The same applies to God: how I treat God’s creation, God’s children, will determine in part how God receives my prayers and my worship.  Prayer involves more than bowing my head a few times a day; it pervades all of life, and vice versa.” (Prayer: Does it Make any Difference?, p. 224-225) 


Beware the dangers of hypocrisy


I want to be liked.  You probably do too.  But there is a great danger when the longing to be liked drives us too much.

When the longing to be liked pulls on us too heavily, we end up doing whatever it will take to get people to like us.

I have been caught in this trap more often than I like to admit.  I have laughed at jokes I am ashamed to have laughed at.  I have exaggerated my achievements to impress others.  I have compromised my convictions to fit in with others.  I have put on masks that I thought would make me more likeable.  I have hidden the truth about myself when I feared it would make others dislike me.

Such a yearning to be liked easily leads to hypocrisy, which poisons both the individual hypocrite and the reputation of Christ within the world.

The individual hypocrite: In his book, All Is Grace, Brennan Manning confesses, “The imposter is a fake version of yourself, and that’s exactly how I started living.  I faked being happy when I was sad, I faked being excited when I was disappointed, I even faked being nice when inside I was really angry.  I still looked and sounded like me, but I wasn’t me.  I was a fake.  I lived as an imposter of myself.  But living as the imposter will do nothing but harm.  Here’s a quick list of how the impostor functions:

  • The imposter lives in fear.
  • The imposter is consumed with a need for acceptance and approval.
  • The imposter is codependent; in other words, out of touch with his or her own feelings.
  • The impostor’s life is a herky-jerky existence of elation and depression. The impostor is what he or she does.
  • The impostor demands to be noticed.
  • The imposter cannot experience intimacy in any relationship.
  • And last but not least, the impostor is a liar.” (p. 56-57)

Anne Morrow Lindberg adds, “The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere.”

The reputation of Christ in the world: John Stott states, “Hypocrisy is hideous.  What cancer is to the body, hypocrisy is to the church.  It is a killing agent.”

Dick Sheppard points out, “The greatest handicap the Church has is the unsatisfactory lives of professing Christians”

When Christians live with authenticity, people are drawn to Christ.  But when Christians live as hypocrites, people are repulsed.

No wonder Jesus speaks out so often against hypocrisy.  He hates what it does to us, and He hates what it does to those whom He is trying to reach.


The Alternate Remedy

Matthew 5.17

Some years ago, Virginia Stem Owens assigned the reading of the Sermon on the Mount to her composition class at Texas A&M University, and she asked the students to write a short essay on what they had read.  Some of her students wrote:

  • The stuff the churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking it is a sin.
  • I did not like the essay “Sermon on the Mount.” It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect, and no one is.
  • The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery.  That is the most extreme, stupid, unhuman statement that I have ever heard. (Reported by Philip Yancey in The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 130)

Those responses seem to be particularly focused on Matthew 5:17-48, where Jesus declares that to call a person a name is akin to murdering the person, and to look upon a person lustfully is tantamount to committing adultery, and that if a person strikes us on the right cheek we are to turn our other cheek to our assailant.  He concludes the section by telling us to be as perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

If we perceive this section of Scripture to be a formula, detailing what is necessary from us to be able to get into heaven, then we have reason for confusion, frustration, and despair.  If we have to measure up to standards of perfection in order to get into heaven, then we are doomed.

But if we understand this section of the Sermon on the Mount to be more of a diagnosis of our situation than a formula for our advancement, then we have grounds for hope.

As a diagnosis, this section of the Sermon on the Mount reveals that we have a fatal problem (we are all sinners), that the legalistic approach will never work (none of us can come close to being as perfect as our heavenly Father), so we must look for an alternate remedy.

The alternate remedy is brought up in Matthew 5:17, when Jesus announces that He came not to abolish the Law or the prophets but to fulfill them.  From a legalistic perspective, fulfillment of the Law would require personal, moral perfection.  But from a Biblical perspective, fulfillment of the Law is the sacrificial system for the forgiveness of our sins.  Jesus came into the world to be that kind of fulfillment of the Law.  He came to be the sacrifice for our sins.

On July 30, 1941, the guards at Auschwitz concentration camp assembled the prisoners because it had been discovered that one of them had escaped.  To discourage anyone else from trying to get away, Sub-Commandant Karl Fritzsch ordered that ten prisoners be selected at random to die by starvation.  One of the ten chosen was Franciszek Gajowniczek, prisoner number 5659.  On hearing his number called, Gajowniczek cried out in agony over the fate of his wife and his children.  At that, a Franciscan priest named Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and said, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”  After two weeks of agonizing starvation, Kolbe was eventually executed with an injection of carbolic acid.

Maximilian Kolbe became the fulfillment of the law for Franciszek Gajowniczek by taking his place in death.  In deep gratitude, Gajowniczek spent much of the rest of his life telling people about the heroic love by Maximilian Kolbe.

Jesus did the same for us.  He became the fulfillment of the Law by taking upon Himself the full weight of the Law’s judgment against sin.  As a result, we do not have to strive to try to attain legalistic perfection but can rejoice that we have been welcomed into the realm of God’s grace through the alternate remedy of Jesus fulfilling the weight of the Law by dying on the cross for us.


Let your light shine

Matthew 5.14

In Matthew 5:14, Jesus pays His followers an incredible compliment.  He tells us that we are the light of the world.  He tells us that we bring to this world a vital quality that people are in deep need of.

Light is essential for vision.  We need light if we want to see what is around us or before us.

According to The Physics Classroom, “The bottom line is: without light, there would be no sight.  The visual ability of humans and other animals is the result of the complex interaction of light, eyes and brain.  We are able to see because light from an object can move through space and reach our eyes…. If you were to turn off the room lights for a moment and then cover all the windows with black construction paper to prevent any entry of light into the room, then you would notice that nothing in the room would be visible.  There would be objects present that were capable of being seen.  There would be a brain present which would be capable of deciphering the information sent to it.  But there would be no light!  The room and everything in it would look black.  The appearance of black is merely a sign of the absence of light.  When a room full of objects looks black, then the objects are not generating nor reflecting light to your eyes. And without light, there would be no sight.”

In a dark room, our inability to see something may not be the absence of its presence but the absence of light to reveal its presence.  In a dark world, our inability to see God may not be the absence of God but the lack of light to reveal His presence.

If you were to be submerged deep enough into the ocean—beyond the reach of the sun’s rays—you would find a world of sea life in absolute darkness.  But you would also find a myriad of creatures who can see because of the miracles of bioluminescence (the ability in certain organisms to generate and emit light through chemical reactions with oxygen) and biofluorescence (the ability to reflect the blue light hitting a surface and re-emit it as a different color, or as a glowing color).  Deep sea creatures can see and/or be seen because a light-emitting or light-reflecting force has been designed into them.  Even in the depths of the dark sea, life is revealed by the light that lives within these creatures.

Because of the darkness of this world, people cannot see God.  They doubt His existence.  They rail against God.  But, perhaps, the issue is not the absence of God but the absence of light by which God can be seen.  That’s where you and I come in.  Jesus claims that a light-emitting or light-reflecting power has been set within His followers.  According to verse 16, as people see our good works, they see the light that shines within us, and they see God.  Madeleine L’Engle points out, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

When we love people, when we contribute to the well-being of this world, when we comfort the hurting, when we stand up for the less fortunate, and when we do what is good, we reveal the light of Christ within us, and people are drawn to God.

No wonder Jesus stresses that our light should not be hidden under a bushel basket but that we should let our light shine.  As Christ’s bioluminescent and biofluorescent ambassadors to this dark world, we should let Christ’s love and goodness be seen by all.


May we heed our conscience

Matthew 5.9

I hate to admit it, but I prefer to read Mathew 5:9 without Matthew 5:10-12.  In Matthew 5:9 Jesus announces, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  I like that beatitude—with one slight modification: I tend to be a peacekeeper rather than a peacemaker.

A peacekeeper, as Kaitlin explains in The Barefoot Blog “desires to maintain peace by avoiding conflict. They typically give in to the tension or steer clear of disagreement to keep others happy. Peacekeepers hate rocking the boat; therefore, they will sacrifice their own inner peace to maintain the “facade” of peace with others.”

Sadly, that is often me.

But Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 5:10-12 that He is not one to encourage His followers to avoid conflict for the sake of not “rocking the boat.”  Matthew 5:10-12 states, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Evidently, from Jesus’ perspective, peacemaking is not devoid of conflict.  Indeed, the New Living Translation renders Proverbs 10:10 as “People who wink at wrong cause trouble, but a bold reproof promotes peace.”

The Hebrew word for peace is shalomNelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary defines shalom as “completeness, soundness, and well-being of the total person.”  So a peacemaker would not be a person who is skilled at avoiding conflict but a person who contributes to the soundness, completeness and well-being of others.  A peacemaker would be a person who works for the establishment of what is right and good and healthy for people.

William Barclay suggests that peacemakers are those who are “engaged on the very work which the God of peace is doing,” then he adds that peacemakers are “those who make this world a better place for all men [and women] to live in.”

This is why it is essential that we not separate Matthew 5:9 from Matthew 5:10-12.

In an article in Relevant magazine Stephen Arterburn comments, “Southern white men and women who were complicit in Jim Crow segregation were peacekeepers. They wanted to maintain things as they were without discord or change; they wanted to keep the peace as it was—racism disguised as peace. Civil rights activists had to sometimes disturb the peace in an effort to make room for real peace.”

Sometimes peacemaking—making “this world a better place for all men [and women]—demands conflict and means that we might be “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. once remarked, “Cowardice asks the question: Is it safe?  Consensus asks the question: Is it popular?  Conscience asks: Is it right?”

Our country needs more people who will heed their conscience, who will ask themselves more than whether it is safe or popular, and who will strive to “make this world a better place for all men [and women] to live in.”

I pray that God will protect me from divorcing Matthew 5:9 from Matthew 5:10-12, and I pray for God to give me strength to be guided by the question: Is it right?


Go a New Direction

wrong way sign

Some years ago, on a 99 degree September day in San Antonio, Texas, a 10-month-old baby girl got locked, accidentally, in a parked car by her aunt.  Frantically the mother and the aunt ran around the car in near hysteria while a neighbor tried to pry the lock with a clothes hanger.  By the time Fred Arriola, a wrecker driver, happened upon the scene, the child was turning purple and was beginning to foam at her mouth.  It had become a life-or-death situation.  Fred grabbed a hammer and smashed the back window of the car to set her free.  Rather than being heralded as a hero, though, Fred was criticized.  He explained, “The lady was mad at me because I broke the window.  I just thought, What’s more important—the baby or the window?

Sometimes we get mixed up over what truly matters.  Sometimes a mom and an aunt worry more about the pristine appearance of a car than the life of a child.  And sometimes we worry more about our status in the world and our happiness than with the health and life of our soul.

The people of Jesus’ day faced the same confusion over priorities in life, so Jesus presented His disciples with a correcting view of life.  In a nutshell, at the opening to what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives to His disciples not a list of things that might make a person happy but a description of things that will lead to a fulfilling life.

Dr. Donald Hagner points out, “Surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t seem very interested in happiness.  English translations hardly employ the words ‘happy’ or ‘happiness.’  A perfectly good Greek word, eudaimonia, meaning ‘happiness,’ was available but is not used by a single New Testament writer.  Another Greek word, one that seems indispensable to the description of Hollywood happiness is hedone, ‘pleasure.’  This word occurs in the New Testament only a few times, always negatively.  Luke 8:14, for example, refers to seeds that are ‘choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life.’  Happiness, in the sense that it is usually understood, apparently seems from the New Testament perspective to be altogether too much of a preoccupation with the self.

“The Bible has another vocabulary, a more elevated one, for words such as ‘blessedness’ and ‘joy.’  While in the Old Testament blessedness is sometimes related to material matters, in the main it designates as blessed the person who knows and fears God, who considers the poor, and does justice and righteousness.  Blessedness is for the most part directed away from the self.  Blessedness is the product of what God has done and our participation in that.”

Jesus calls us to something higher than the pursuit of happiness because the pursuit of happiness does not actually lead to happiness.  Tim Keller comments, “On January 7, 2007, the New York Times Magazine ran an interesting article called ‘Happiness 101.’  It described positive psychology, a branch of psychology that seeks to take a scientific, empirical approach to what makes people happy.  Researchers in this field have found that if you focus on doing and getting things that give you pleasure, it does not lead to happiness but produces what one researcher has dubbed ‘the hedonic treadmill.’  You become addicted to pleasure, and your need for the pleasure fix keeps growing: You have to do more and more.  You’re never satisfied, never really happy.” (King’s Cross, p. 149)

For this reason, Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount not with a list of things that will make a person happy but with a description of things that pull us toward faith and compassion and humility and goodness:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…. Blessed are those who mourn…. Blessed are the meek…. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…. Blessed are the merciful…. Blessed are the pure in heart…. Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake….”


From Despair to Joy

Mary at resurrection

In his gospel, John likes to tell the story of Jesus through personal encounters Jesus had with people.  In telling the story of Jesus’ resurrection, John begins with an encounter the risen Lord had with a woman whom we know as Mary Magdalene.

For close to three years, Mary had been part of a group of devout women who followed Jesus and helped care for His daily needs.  Jesus had become the joy of Mary’s life and the strength of her soul.  Like many others had, Mary found in Jesus the words of life.

But then came the hideous day when she stood at the foot of an executioner’s cross along with Jesus’ mother and some other female followers, and they witnessed the horror of the crucifixion.  She watched the nails driven through His wrists and feet.  She heard Him cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  She watched Him struggle for each breath He took, and she wept when He took His final breath.  She watched as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea laid His corpse in a tomb, and a great stone was slid into place, sealing the tomb.  Then she and the other women followers went to a home to prepare spices and perfumes that would be used to anoint His body.

The next day was the Sabbath, so they could do nothing, but Mary’s grief percolated.  She went to bed Saturday night, but she could not stay asleep.  Stirred by anxiousness and desperation, she gets up early—while it is still dark.  Though there were no street lights in Jerusalem, she hurries to the tomb.  She feels driven to be near Jesus—even if He is lying dead in a tomb.  That’s what grief does to a person.  Even when your loved one is dead, you can’t bear to be apart.  You wear the shirt they used to wear; you postpone clearing out their closet; you leave their voice on the answering machine and listen to it again and again; you go to their grave to be near them.  That’s what Mary Magdalene does.

At the tomb, she finds that the stone has been rolled away and the body is gone.  Filled with bewilderment, confusion, and aggravation, she runs back into the city to tell Peter and John.  It’s not that they can do anything, but it’s too much for Mary to handle on her own.  She longs for someone to stand beside her in her sorrow and confusion.  But Peter and John are also overwhelmed with grief and confusion.  They rush ahead of her to the tomb, then turn around and leave again, leaving her alone again in her sorrow.  Unfortunately, that’s often what happens to people who are mourning; they get left alone to bear their sorrow by themselves.

In His mercy, God sends angels to console her, but Mary is inconsolable.  The other gospels report that the angels announce Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but Mary cannot take that in.  That’s what happens in grief.  Good news is inconceivable so we cannot take it in.

Jesus Himself appears before Mary and asks her, “Why are you weeping?”  But Mary cannot recognize Him.  Her senses are so fogged by despair that she cannot accurately see what is before her eyes—until He calls her by name.

There is something deeply powerful about being called by your own name.  For Mary it lifted the fog of despair from her soul.

Apparently, she turned to Jesus and clung to Him.  That only makes sense.  When you lose someone who is dear to you, then suddenly that person reappears, you cling to that person.  You hold him or her like you will never let them go again.

For Mary, despair has been turned to joy!

At this, Jesus gives her two commands.

With the first, He tells her, “Do not hold on to Me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

The most natural thing for Mary to do is to cling to Him—to cling to His physical body.  But any physical body—even a resurrected body—has its limitations.  If Mary clings to His body, how can He also be with Peter when Peter gets locked in prison?  How can He be with Thomas when Thomas brings the good news to India?  How can He be with John while John is imprisoned on the island of Patmos?  How can He be with Paul in jail in Rome?  How can He be with you wherever you may go?  Not even One who walks on water can be with all of His people around the world at the same time if He is confined to a physical body that Mary can cling to.  The reason Jesus tells her not to cling to Him is so that He can ascend to heaven and send His Spirit to fill the hearts of all of His followers.

With the second command He tells her, “Go to My brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’”

The great good news of Jesus’ resurrection is not to be kept to ourselves but shared with others so that everyone can know the wonderful news that Jesus is alive forevermore and that we need fear death no more!