Thomas Merton’s Prayer in Uncertainty

I’ve loved this prayer of Thomas Merton’s since I visited Abbey of Gethsemani as a teenager:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

After the Election

I wrote this letter to my congregation yesterday with only them in mind, but then thought I’d post here in case any others wanted to read.

Dear church,

There’s a scene in Hoosiers (maybe a future pastor will quote different movies) where the team from tiny, rural Hickory High scopes out the giant and intimidating basketball stadium where they’ll play the state championship game:

Coach Dale: Buddy, hold this [tape measure] under the backboard. [They measure from free throw line to underneath backboard.] What is it?
Buddy: 15 feet.
Coach: 15 feet!

Coach: Strap, put Ollie on your shoulders. Measure this from the rim [hands them tape measure; they measure from rim to floor]. Buddy… how far?
Buddy: 10 feet.
Coach: 10 feet!

Coach: I think you’ll find it’s the exact same measurements as our gym back at Hickory.
Team: [laughs]
Coach: Okay, let’s get dressed for practice.

I was happy this morning at home to see our coffeemaker had reliably brewed the coffee. The sun had risen. Another day was here.

Sufficiently wired from yet more coffee and a breakfast at Friendly’s with a friend and mentor, I went to the church with that Hoosiers clip in mind. The office was still there. The sanctuary is just as we left it Sunday: fresh candles at the altar, a cross, pews where God has been praised for over 100 years, a stack of chord charts for the band in the first pew. All the measurements and implements were the same.

Today I know that even while some rejoice, or reluctantly greet the election results as the best available option, many in our country are mourning, confused, and frustrated.

However you feel, this is a good day to take care of yourself, and for us to take care of our loved ones and each other. Be liberal with hugs!

I stand by what I preached Sunday, which I preach again now to myself, if you’d like to listen in:

Whatever happens on Tuesday, whatever rebuilding is ahead of us, our country right now needs more of God’s presence. We little temples need to get to work in bringing the holiness of God, the power of God, the joy of God, and the goodness of God to would-be worshipers. I truly believe we can hear the same words spoken to Esther that we cannot remain silent “at such a time as this.” Maybe also like Esther, we have come to our position—as bearers of God’s presence—for such a time as this.

“Do not fear,” God says, “for I am with you.”

Might this be a kairos moment for the church? We have much soul-searching, rebuilding and national identity negotiation ahead of us. What would it look like if the church somehow took up the mantle and led the way? What if we re-doubled our efforts to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God? (Micah 6:8) What if we re-committed ourselves to the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Scripture reading, corporate repentance, and social action?

If that kind of talk feels overly moralizing or too soon for you, I hope you feel free to take your time and feel what you need to feel right now.

If you would find it helpful, I’m available to talk and to pray these next few days—just text or call ahead to make sure I haven’t stepped out of the office for a bit. Not claiming to have any answers or great political insights—but I would love to listen and pray with anyone who wants to. (To blog readers: you can contact me here.)

If the full vision of God’s shalom “seems to tarry,” Habakkuk said, “wait for it.” And, empowered by the Lord, he would also have us work for it: “The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.”

Peace and hope,
Abram

A Letter to My Congregation on Election Day

shalom

 

Dear friends,

Perhaps none of us needs a reminder of the importance of today’s Election Day–not to mention the accompanying issues, conversations, and implications around our vote. Allow me, then, to hold before us the importance of prayer in this national moment.

In our worship services we’ve been mining our Old Testament lectionary readings for “Glimpses of Shalom.” Jeremiah 29 encourages ones in exile to “Seek the shalom” of their city, which includes praying for the shalom of the city:

Also, seek the peace (shalom) and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.

I wanted to suggest some features of shalom that could become prayer points to guide our intercessions for our cities and country, today and in the coming days and weeks. This is what the Hebrew Bible calls the people and land to when it speaks of shalom:

  • love
  • relational wholeness
  • reconciliation
  • completeness
  • selfless giving
  • “the totality of human flourishing” (Eldin Villafañe)
  • humility
  • truth-seeking and truth-telling
  • peace, especially in a community setting
  • “the state of flourishing in all dimensions of one’s existence” (Nicholas Wolterstorff)
  • well-being
  • justice: God’s will done on earth as in heaven
  • connectedness across lines of difference
  • righteousness (Isaiah 32:17 says, “The product of righteousness will be shalom“)
  • “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight” (Cornelius Plantinga)
  • the Lord’s favor
  • grace for ourselves and others

Let’s pray that where shalom exists, it would deepen. Let’s pray that where there is no shalom, God would bring it into being–even through our prayers and efforts!

“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world” (Karl Barth).

Praying with you for God’s shalom,

Abram

31. For Schools and Colleges

pencils

 

A prayer for schools and students from the Book of Common Prayer, “For Schools and Colleges”:

 

O Eternal God, bless all schools, colleges, and universities [and especially ______.], that they may be lively centers for sound learning, new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom; and grant that those who teach and those who learn may find you to be the source of all truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Charleston, S.C.: What Can We Say?

Why
Source: David Goldman (AP)

 

In the wake of yet another mass shooting in the U.S. on Wednesday night—which was also an act of racism—I suspect many of us have found ourselves at a loss for words. Scripture’s language of lament can come to our aid in the aftermath of violence and tragedy. Of course, the Psalmists who turned their pain and puzzlement into prayers did not see lament as a panacea for all the world’s evils. Even if God were to vanquish all of David’s enemies on the spot, he knew he still had the sin of his own heart to contend with.

Psalms and prayers of lament do, however, help the one praying make the important move of deliberately entering God’s presence in a state of deep pain, confusion, frustration, exhaustion, and exasperation. If you are tired of praying, “How long?” and “Why?” and “Please come to our aid quickly, O Lord!”, I wonder whether the Psalm writers might simply advise us to redouble our efforts and pray those same prayers once more.

Psalm 74 says, in part:

How long will the enemy mock you, God?
Will the foe revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
But God is my King from long ago;
he brings salvation on the earth.

Psalms of lament—with a couple noteworthy exceptions—end with an affirmation that God is still King, and his ability to bring salvation cannot be compromised. I’ve often imagined that when the authors of such Psalms came to the reaffirmation section of their laments, they wrote with trembling hand, watering eyes, and a fast-beating heart that clung desperately—hope against hope—to the truth of God’s sovereignty.

Now is the time to pray such laments—especially on behalf of others and the injustice and pain they undergo. Though all life is valuable and the taking of another life is tragic in any setting, the victims at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston were brothers and sisters in Christ, bonding together in prayer in their final moments of life on earth.

Their prayer and study of the Word of God is now transformed into something more than they could have imagined, as they meet the One who is called the Word, face to face, in all his glory.

But there’s more to respond to—the shooter appears to have been a white supremacist who targeted his victims specifically because they were African Americans. It’s stupefying how people of color in our country continue to be targeted. Our prayers and support are needed.

I know it can feel like “it’s getting old” to make lamentations, and we can get tired of praying the same prayers (over and over) for justice and healing around issues of racism and hatred in all its forms. But battle after battle, injustice after injustice, threat after threat, that’s what the Psalmists did. They kept turning their pain to prayer—kept bringing complaints about injustice into the presence of God.

Let’s not lose heart in praying that God’s kingdom would come, in all its fullness.

 


 

The above is adapted from what I wrote to our congregation this morning: a call at a time when words fall short to engage the lament language of Scripture.

A Prayer for the First Day of School

pencilsSchool is starting soon. (Groans ensue.) But new school year, new possibilities, right?

Regardless of how you feel about going back, the start of a new school year is an occasion for prayer. One of the most popular Web searches that leads to this blog is “prayer for the first day of school,” which lands here.

Below is an adapted version of that prayer. It can be used responsively with your family, in a congregational worship setting, or individually. The prayer offers both gratitude and intercession to God at the beginning of the new academic year.
 


 

Prayer for the First Day of School

 
For the start of a new semester and all the promise that it holds:

We give you thanks, our God.

For the joy we have in seeing friends and teachers again:

We give you thanks, our God.

For those with whom we live and share meals:

We give you thanks, our God.

For the chance to come to you freely in prayer and worship:

We give you thanks, our God.

For all that we will learn, in the classroom, in labs, in practice rooms, in the library, on the field, in relationships, at school and away from it:

We give you thanks, our God.

For wisdom for all students, staff, and teachers, as they seek to offer their best in all they do:

Lord, please be near us.

For family relationships that now transition in their expression:

Lord, please be near us.

For perseverance and diligence in studies:

Lord, please be near us.

For healthy sleep patterns, motivation to play and exercise, and self-control in eating good, healthy foods:

Lord, please be near us.

For those areas of life in which we struggle, where we despair, and for those things of which we are ashamed:

Lord, please be near us.

“…for the Spirit to take entire and undisturbed possession”

To ponder this week….

With Christ in the School of PrayerLet us now believe this. As we pray to be filled with the Spirit, let us not seek for the answer in our feelings. All spiritual blessings must be received, that is, accepted or taken in faith. Let me believe, the Father gives the Holy Spirit to His praying child. Even now, while I pray, I must say in faith: I have what I ask, the fullness of the Spirit is mine.

Let us continue steadfast in this faith. On the strength of God’s Word we know that we have what we ask. Let us, with thanksgiving that we have been heard, with thanksgiving for what we have received and taken and now hold as ours, continue steadfast in believing prayer that the blessing, which has already been given us, and which we hold in faith, may break through and fill our whole being. It is in such believing thanksgiving and prayer, that our soul opens up for the Spirit to take entire and undisturbed possession.

 With Christ in the School of Prayer, by Andrew Murray (1828-1917)

Even during Finals week, we must rest.

To all my teacher and student friends who are still going with school… the below is adapted from an e-devotional I wrote that went out over email to Gordon students in December 2011.

fallow field

It may seem strange to talk about Sabbath-keeping during end-of-the-semester crunch time. Who has any time to spare for rest, let alone a whole day?

Last week I was reading from Exodus during Morning Prayer, with the people with whom my family lives in intentional community. Exodus 34:21 jumped out at me, “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.”

Regardless of our familiarity with agrarian lifestyles and metaphors, this text speaks to us of a God who invites his people into rest. Sabbath-keeping, as with all of God’s commandments, brings life to those who keep it.  Even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.

You all are in the midst of final papers and exams—you likely can’t just up and take a day off, since that might mean missing an important exam. But you can seek pockets of rest, times to sit down in God’s presence and ask for him to guide you through all your comings and goings. If Israel must rest even during their plowing season and harvest, we ought to seriously consider following this timeless pattern, taking rest even during our busiest seasons.

So close your email. Go to bed (especially if you’re reading this at 3am). Go outside and walk around (even if it’s raining). Go eat a snack and talk to a friend. Some of you will need more encouragement to this than others, of course, but heed well God’s life-giving words. Even during Finals week, we must rest.

Read Your Bible: But How? (Lectio Divina)

Open Bible by Petr Kratochvil
Open Bible by Petr Kratochvil

“Read your Bible.” But how?

I’ve benefitted from reading large portions of Scripture–whole narratives, books, and multiple chapters–in one sitting. I’ve also benefitted immensely from slowing down and meditatively just reading a few verses at a time. Lectio Divina is a way of reading Scripture that encourages that. It’s reading, as many have said, for transformation and not just information.

Lectio Divina means “holy reading” or “divine reading.” The idea is to deliberately reflect in God’s presence on God’s words, inviting God to echo his words in us today. The most classic formulation of this ancient Benedictine practice is the four-part: lectio (read), meditatio (meditate), oratio (pray), and contemplatio (contemplate).

I’ve also seen a slightly adjusted form, which I’ve used in groups and individually.  It goes like this:

    1. Read: What does the passage say?
    2. Pray: What is God saying to me through this passage?  (short phrase or single word)
    3. Listen: How is God calling me to respond to what he’s saying?
    4. Respond: What will I commit to God to do in response?

Lectio works best with smaller passages–a few verses from the Psalms or Proverbs… perhaps some words of Jesus or a Pauline prayer. Colossians 3:15-17 is a good place to start, if you’re new to the practice:

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In a group setting, readers (four different ones) can read the passage out loud (slowly) before each of the four movements. Individually, one could just read and re-read the passage before each of the four movements.

I’ve also found benefit in doing the fourth “respond” movement creatively: maybe I respond not just seated through prayer, but perhaps there is a response through song or drawing or movement that I can offer.

There are other approaches to Lectio; it’s certainly not meant to be formulaic. But whether I do it in 5 minutes or 30 minutes, with a group or by myself, I find that I am always impressed with how much God’s Word/words still can speak today–if I quiet myself enough to listen.