The Three-Legged Stool

three-legged_stoolI’ve been thinking a lot about three-legged stools since Mark’s sermon this past Sunday. They are superior to the four-legged bar stools in my kitchen which are never flush to the ground.  They rock.  They squeak. Their legs work themselves loose.  Three-legged stools are unique in their stability. Mark, of course, was not talking about carpentry so much, but the three legs that provide stability to our spirituality. Jesus identifies them in Matthew 6 as: giving to the poor, prayer and fasting. The long-term commitment to and deliberate practice of generosity, self-denial and prayer are the keys to a deep, rich, and strong spiritual life.

I have to admit that this grates against me for a number of reasons. First, and foremost, I am an American and as an American, I don’t associate spirituality with a set of practices. I see spirituality as a collection of experiences. I associate words like spontaneous, mind-blowing, unplanned, emotionally-charged and free-form. I think of settings like a concert or a gathering of people where God “suddenly shows up.” It feels more like a “high.”  I don’t tend to think of spirituality as a set of practices that are consistently followed for a long period of time.

Second, the whole idea of working at our relationship with Christ seems to be at odds with the whole concept of grace.  We teach at our church that God accepts us  not based on our performance, but on what Christ did for us. He became a human being.  He lived a perfect life for us.  He died our death. He rose from the dead. He offers eternal life to those who receive this gift by faith. Jesus does the work.  We receive the gift. So why should we do anything?  Wouldn’t giving to the poor, prayer and fasting turn into an attempt to make ourselves look good to God and to others. Didn’t Jesus die to save us from all this work?

There is some truth to this objection when you consider that Jesus’ fiercest opponents, the Pharisees, practiced all three legs of the spiritual stool religiously. The Pharisees gave at least 10% of their income. They fasted as often as twice a week. They prayed publicly.  And yet they hated Jesus and he rightly called them hypocrites. So what was wrong? It wasn’t the behavior, it was the motivation.

Matthew 6:2 So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogue and on the streets, to be honored by men.  I tell you the truth they have received their reward in full.

Matthew 6:5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth they have received their reward in full.

Matthew 6:16 When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.

In other words, they were praying, fasting and giving to the poor for the same reason a wide receiver thumps his chest after scoring a touchdown or an actress wears a tight revealing dress on the red carpet — to be noticed, to be praised. Such religious practice is worthless because it is just a show. As Jesus says, why look for God to reward you, you’ve already received the reward you were seeking.

We all know religious types who are motivated by a desire to look good.  Religious showmen are plenty and Jesus rightly condemns their hypocrisy.  But he doesn’t condemn the practice, rather he calls us to do them with a new motivation.

Matthew 6:3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

CS Lewis in his sermon, The Weight of Glory, said that humans are wired with a “great and undisguised pleasure in being praised.” That, I believe, is at the heart of true spirituality. We all seek to be praised and affirmed. The question is, whose approval are we seeking?

I attended the Celtics-Knicks game back in January and I was struck by the crowds’ scramble to get noticed by the fan-cam and be broadcasted on the jumbotron. There we were, 60,000 people desperately wanting to get noticed.  Perhaps the mark of the shallowness of our spirituality is our obsession with celebrity.   We worship those who are obnoxious enough to grab headlines or catch the camera-man’s eye. It has infected the church.  Pastors like me want bigger churches that will afford more attention and gain more accolades. We want to publish books.  We want to speak at large conferences. We want to get on TV. We want to be praised, but we are seeking it from those whose rewards are worthless.

Jesus is not denying our desire to be noticed or praised even. He is calling us to seek the praise of the one whose love is far more rewarding.  Those who are satisfied by the accolades of other people will miss out on this deeper spiritual blessing. For there is one whose love and rewards will last for eternity, far longer than the 15 minutes that the camera or going viral can offer. This deeper spirituality is driven by a desire to hear the words Jesus heard from his Father, “well done good and faithful servant.”

Jesus wants us to pray, give to the poor and fast. But he wants us to do it for his sake and the praise he offers. But, as it is with all good things, this praise comes with a cost.  We must do these things secretly. Give and don’t tell anyone about it. Pray regularly but do it when no one is around. Fast often, but don’t complain about it.

This is hard, because God seems distant and invisible compared to the people in our life.  Their reward is immediate.  God’s rewards often take time. But that is how it is with true spirituality.  You give up the lesser immediate joy for the one whose blessings last for eternity. Give, pray and fast, but do it only so God can see.  Give up the lesser high of human praise for the greater joy of hearing the Father say, “well done good and faithful servant.”

The Season of Lent, as Mark likes to say, is a “spiritual laboratory” where we try out spiritual practices that may one day become lifelong disciplines. Try giving, praying and fasting under the cloak of secrecy for the Season of Lent.  Set down the three legs of your spiritual life and look for the Holy Spirit to ween you from your craving of human approval so that you might enjoy the eternal blessings of God who loves you and accepts what you have to offer through the life and death of his Son.

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Read until your Heart gets hot

I learned something the other day that might help those of us who struggle with keeping a routine of reading the Bible. Here is my rough paraphrase of a talk Tim Keller gave to a group of pastors  …

Read slowly. Chew on the passages that grab your attention. Read until your heart gets hot and then move into prayer.

There is a difference between reading for information (or worse, to check it off my list) and devouring Scripture for its own sake. CS Lewis, in his book, An Experiment in Criticism, calls this “using” a book, as opposed to truly reading it and allowing it to move you. I have certainly been guilty of this. I use the Bible like a tool, to turn out sermons, find principles for life, and win arguments. But Scripture is more than a hammer or a good smart phone, it is a Spirit-breathed document created to mold us into the image of God. We must, as Mr. Lewis encourages us, surrender to it in order to fully experience its power. We need to move beyond using Scripture to receiving it.

I know no better way to do this than to approach Scripture with no other agenda than to listen closely to the Spirit of God whispering softly from its pages.  Only the humble, the quiet, and the slow will have ears to hear.  Begin with a prayer of surrender to the will of God, pray that he will break through the noise of your ambition and your busy life, and prepare yourself to savor the words as one would enjoy a fine meal or conversation with a friend.

Read through the passage slowly and stop when your attention is drawn to a word, a line or sentence.  Stay there a while, chew on the words and turn it over in your mind.  This is what the Scriptures call meditation. Think, mull, chew, and meditate until your heart begins to warm and the Spirit carries you into prayer. The language may move you to worship, call you to repent, or challenge you with a fresh vision for your life.  Pray in the direction the Scriptures take you. Allow the Holy Spirit to carry you from reading, through meditation and into prayer.

Let’s try this together (you can use one of the today’s Scripture readings.). Practice this for a couple of days and share your experiences by posting a comment.

Turning the Shark

Great White SharkAs we saw in the previous post, Psalm 119 is a poem inspired by one man’s love for the law of God and his struggle to keep it. Scattered throughout this enormous prayer are pleas to God that he might teach him to follow his laws:

Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart. (Psalm 119:34-35)

Really? God has done all these things for me and my life is nowhere near the example that Jesus left for us. I’ve memorized the 10 Commandments, but do not keep them. I’ve read how Jesus loved his enemies, but I struggle to love my wife and kids.  I fear people more than I fear God. I get paid to study and teach them, but I am reminded daily of my failures. That’s the problem. I know what I’m supposed to do. I just don’t do it.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have more to learn about what it means to love God and my neighbor. I get what the author is praying for, but what troubles me is that I don’t obey what I already know. It’s like what the Apostle Paul once described:

… For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. (Romans 7:17-18)

Fortunately Psalm 119 keeps going, for if it ended at that point, there would no hope for me. He showed me what do, I failed, end of story. But I kept reading and then I understood what I needed.

Turn my heart towards your statutes and not towards selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word. (Psalm 119:36-37)

Stu Batstone, who was one of my gospel mentors, compared my sin to a great white shark. Imagine you’ve gone swimming down at the Cape Cod National Seashore. You take in the sights:  the sun reflecting off the waters,  a colony of seals sunning themselves on the sand. Suddenly, you see a triangle moving towards you at an alarming speed. You’ve seen the reports on the six o’clock news, so you prepare yourself for a shark attack.  Who in their right mind would stand their ground, grab the fin and attempt to turn the creature out to sea? It sounds crazy and yet this is how I try to fight sin.

The shark fin is the sin I can see. I’m selfish. I have a temper. I’m self-absorbed. I’m lustful. I know I shouldn’t do these things, but when I try to turn it, my strength fails me.  Why?  Because there is shark weighing hundreds of pounds attached to that fin lurking just under the surface.  My problem is not that I occasionally do bad things. I have a heart that is diseased. It loves and desires all the wrong things.  When the Lord’s Prayer teaches me to pray “your will be done,” I turn to heaven and pray “please do my will.”

Therefore, my problem goes deeper than a few bad habits that are visible above the surface that can be reformed with some good advice. We can stop ourselves from watching explicit movies, but can we stop lusting? We can learn to be generous with our money, but can we stop ourselves from putting our needs ahead of others? We can attend church on Sundays, but can we stop our hearts from being more excited by a touchdown than we are by the gospel? No. We need God to turn our hearts, for the shark is far bigger than we know.

The writer of Psalm119 understands this. He knows that he needs God to instruct him how to love other people, but he also realizes that he lacks the strength to turn the shark . So he prays, “turn my heart towards your statutes and not towards selfish things.”  In other words, God, I need you change the things that I love.

When we pray, let’s go deeper than worrying about what is above the surface. Let’s ask the difficult questions: What do we love more than God? What are the worthless things that have attached themselves to ours heart? Let’s confess these to God and pray that he will turn our hearts so that his love will capture our hearts and turn our actions towards Christ.

Praying for your Six

The church I grew up in is really into evangelism and they are good at it. They have done it all.  They walked the streets at night striking up conversations with complete strangers. They passed out gospel tracts, performed street theater and knocked on every door in the neighborhood.  You would think that growing up in a community like that would make me a pro when it comes to sharing my faith in Jesus Christ. I am not.

It  may have something to do with being transplanted to New England. You don’t talk to your neighbors around here let alone complete strangers. Seriously, those stone walls that line our property lines are there for a reason.

The bigger reason probably has to do with my personality. If I worked in  sales, my family would now be living in a homeless shelter.  Some people are wired for that sort of evangelism, but most of us are not. When we have felt guilty enough to try it, it probably went something like this:

You (after working up the nerve by hyperventilating into a paper, you walk next door and carefully knock on the side door because no true New Englander ever uses the front door): Hi neighbor, sorry to intrude, but how are you doing?

Neighbor (It’s been years since someone, other than  a Jehovah’s Witness, has knocked on his door without prior warning, so he is a little offput by your presence but does his best to be conversational):  I’d be all set, if it didn’t have to spend my Saturday fixing my washing machine.

You: Sorry to hear that, but speaking of clean, would you like to hear how Jesus made me clean? He is the best washing machine I’ve ever known.

Neighbor: (Neighbor stands with a dark look that says that he would rather see the New York Jets win the Super Bowl than hear the answer to your question.)

The conversations awkwardly ends and you go home wondering if this is what Jesus meant by “making disciples.”

Encounters like this, both real and imagined, have made me wonder if there is another way. I may have found an alternative the other day. One that fits me anyway. My friend, who is on staff at the Free Christian Church in Andover, calls it “praying for your six.” I think they got the idea from the Vineyard Church in Cambridge.

It’s rather simple …

Start by asking God for the names of six people in your area who need a meaningful relationship with Christ.

Write down the names of the six that God shows you and start to pray for them on a regular basis.

What do you pray for? Here are a couple of ideas. Ask God to …

  • Bless them
  • Make His presence known to them
  • Stir a hunger with them, a sense that something is missing
  • Show me how I can pray for them specifically and to bring them to mind throughout the day.

Finally, make yourself available and watch for what happens. It may happen tomorrow, it might happen six months or years from now. You never know with God. But what I do know is that something will happen if each of us were moved by God’s Holy Spirit to pray for our neighbors, friends, family members and co-workers.

Here’s one example to whet your appetite. My friend from Andover committed to praying for the people at the Y that he worked out with. He prayed and watched for something to happen. One day, completely out of the blue, one of the men invited him over to his house for coffee and proceeded to pour out his life story. That happened in New England. Really. I don’t know if he is a Christian yet, but I’d call that invite a regional miracle and my friend’s willingness to listen an act of love.

Prayer when it’s dry

My soul thirsts for you ... in a dry and weary land where there is no water. Psalm 63:1

Should I pray when I’m not feeling it? I don’t know about you, but that’s a question I’m asking right now.

In the past couple of years, I’ve committed myself to a daily prayer routine based on the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer. There are days when I feel the presence of God and my prayers crackle with emotion and power. But I have to be honest, I go through long stretches when it all feels forced and mechanical and my prayers are as dry as  dust. I journaled these lines when I was in one of those spiritual deserts.

sometimes the divine fades to routine
and the sublime slips to machine
and I find myself
communing with no one
with prayers echoing inside my head

I call
but it is my own voice that answers
The God I reach for
is a god I made
I’m trapped inside
with a god that cannot save

Sometimes you reach a point in your life when God doesn’t speak. When you sit down to pray, there is no one on the other end of the phone. So what do you do when your attempts to pray become a lifeless going through the motions? Should you stop?

There was a time when my answer was ‘yes’. I think it is because I, along with a lot of Americans, have bought into the notion that anything that is truly ‘spiritual’ is spontaneous, natural and mind-blowing. If you would have asked me about a spiritual highlight in my life, I would have told you a story where God’s presence was felt suddenly, quickly, strongly and out of nowhere.

But my understanding of spirituality was challenged the other day when my friend, Mark Gelinas, brought an article to our elders meeting called “When God seems far away“. In this article by John Ortberg we are introduced to a young girl named Agnes.

From the time she was a young girl. Agnes believed. Not just believed: she was on fire. She wanted to do great things for God. She said things such as she wanted to “love as he has never been loved before.”

Agnes had an undeniable calling. She wrote in her journal that “my soul at present is in perfect peace and joy.” She experienced a union with God that was do deep and so continual that it was to her rapture. She left her home. She became a missionary. She gave him everything.

And then he left her. At least that’s how it felt to her.

Agnes went on to a life of service, but for 50 years God’s felt presence was absent. Save for one brief moment, it never returned. But Agnes kept going and dedicated her life to the God she missed and the poor she so dearly loved. She recently died and the darkness never lifted, in this life anyway. We all know Agnes, but by a different name. Agnes when she entered her life as a nun became Mother Theresa.

John Ortberg expresses my own journey better than I can. “I’m learning to distinguish spiritual vitality from simply being in a good mood.” A good prayer life or a powerful church service is not measured by the intensity of the experience. God will make his presence known when He chooses to. We can’t manipulate Him. The danger with set times of prayer is not that we will often pray without feeling, it is our belief that by regular reading the Bible and praying God owes us a “spiritual high.”

The great saints, the spiritual giants that we admire, were not those who went from one spiritual high to the next. It was those who kept plodding when all the lights went out who are the true heroes. That is what it means to pray with heart and with love. A husband learns what true love is about when he remains faithful when the fires of romance have cooled. A mother experiences true love when a child is in a coma and she serves him even when the child is unaware of her acts of love and does not respond. Love, which is the heart of true Christian spirituality is not about how I’m feeling. It is resolve to cling to the object of love no matter how dark and cold it gets.

John 6:67-68 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Psalm 4 – A prayer to end the day

I am most susceptible to sin at night. I suspect it is that way for most Christians. We are tired and at our weakest as the day comes to a close. In the quiet, as we lay down and try to go to sleep, our fears, anger and frustration have room to surface. We’ve been too busy to think about them throughout the day, but when work stops, they come back. In the waning moments of the day we are most tempted to reach for our idols, our addictions, anything to give us relief. So as we fight to get to sleep, we often drift into sin: obsessive worrying, thoughts of rage, or something to anesthetize us: excessive amounts of alcohol, TV or mindless and sometimes dangerous internet browsing

The ancients learned to reclaim the night with prayer and their teaching has been preserved in the book of Psalms. At the beginning are two short prayers: Psalm 4, a prayer for the night and Psalm 5, a prayer for the morning. The Israelites of old understood that our prayer lives need to maintain a rhythm if we are to live in this broken world. It is a rhythm that keeps us in step with the beat of Creation.

There was evening (Psalm 4) and there was morning (Psalm 5) – the first day. (Genesis 1:5)

So how do we reclaim the night? What do we do with the thoughts of fear, anger and frustration that swirl around in our head? Psalm 4 points the way. It is a prayer that opens with a raw and loud honesty.

Answer me, when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer. How long, O men, will you glory in my shame … (Psalm 4:1-2)

As you lived life today, you witnessed things that have made you angry. You’ve seen injustice either in the media or in person. Plans have been frustrated. Urgent prayers have gone unanswered. You’ve been sinned against. You have failed. There are demands placed on you that you are unable to meet. Whatever it is, lift them to heaven. Complain about them to God.  Yell if you have to. Don’t keep them in. Don’t hide them. Don’t obsess over them. Lift them heavenward.

That’s where the night prayer begins. A desperate cry to God. God here is what is wrong with the world. Here is what is wrong with my life. Do something. The night prayer starts loudly, but moves into a time of reflection:

In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and trust in the LORD. (Psalm 4:4)

It was Alexander Solzhenitsyn who wrote, “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.” It is important to acknowledge the evils and injustices in or world.  We should hate them.  They should make us angry. But we also must acknowledge the sin in our own hearts. The time before we drift out to sleep is the time to “search our hearts” and ask ourselves the question “where in my life am I struggling to trust God?”  Anger is often a symptom of a lack of trust in God. Confess those areas of unbelief to God. Be quiet. Sit in his presence and ask for the faith to trust him.

As you tune your heart to God’s move your thoughts to the hope of the gospel that cannot be overcome by the brokenness of the world.

Many are asking, ‘Who can show us any good?’ Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord. You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound. (Psalm 4:6)

In our world, it looks like the wicked prosper and inflict misery with impunity. But our hope is not in this world.  It is fleeting and it is temporary. Our real life is with Christ and one day he will return and he will live forever with us on earth. That is in an inheritance greater than anything the world has ever witnessed. It is a treasure that nothing in this world can take away. Not even death. That is our true hope and security as we drift off into sleep and the psalm draws to a close.

I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:8)

May God grant you the space to cry out to him at night. May He give you insight into your own sin. In the end may he grant you the peace and sleep knowing that your life is in His hands.

* I am indebted to the writings of Eugene Peterson for what I have learned about prayer and the psalms.  If you would like learn more about “praying the psalms” I encourage you to get his book, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. 

7 Ways to Pray for the World’s Poor

The Missions Committee came across this prayer plan while reading the book The Hole in our Gospel. We think it is a great way to weave poverty awareness and prayer into ordinary life during this season of Lent.

1.  When you take your morning shower, pray for families in poor countries who do not have access to clean water, forcing mothers to spend hours collecting inadequate water and causing children to suffer and even die from water-related diseases.

2.  When you pack your lunch or your child’s lunch, pray for the one billion people who are chronically hungry in the world today.

3.  As you commute to your job, pray for the adults around the world who can’t find consistent work to feed their families, or pray for the millions of children forced into harmful or exploitative labor.

4.  When you drop off your child at school, pray for children around the world who cannot get an education because of poverty or discrimination.

5.  As you take a vitamin, pray for the families without adequate health care, leaving them and especially their children vulnerable to preventable diseases.

6.  When you arrive home after work, pray for the children and families who are homeless due to poverty, conflict, or natural disasters.

7.  As you tuck your children into bed, guide them to pray for the millions of children who have lost their parents around the world – especially the fifteen million AIDS orphans around the world, many of whom must survive without guardians.

(Richard Stearns, The Hole in our Gospel, 291-2.)