So… Vandelia….

This is the second Sunday now since I got any feedback from you.  I get that you want a private discussion, but I cannot image anything meaningful or helpful you would have to say that cannot face up to the light of day.  But you have gone silent.

Hmm…

Is this “agree to disagree”?

Or is it just the old stone wall?

I look forward to your response.

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Churches and Whores

Many years ago, as part of a neighborhood evangelism/outreach sponsored by the very white, upper-middle-class church I was a part of, I came in contact with a cheap hooker.  This was only a few years after Julia Roberts portrayed the “Pretty Woman” in the movies, and the contrast could not have been more profound.  The hooker caught in my fish net wore the suggestive clothing of a whore, but she did not look the part.  She was repulsive to talk to – except for the fact that she was the only person we reached out to who seemed genuinely receptive to the invitation to come to church!

I was just a young man.  I was not one of the power players at church.  I did not live in one of the fine upper crust homes; I did not earn a big pay check; I had not been trained in ministry.  I was just one of the foot soldiers answering for duty.  And I was one of the few to even get a nibble on the line.  I had someone expressing interest in the invitation to come to church.

And it started to hit me like a two-ton heavy thing while she favorably responded to me: Oh… Jesus.  This woman will not fit in at our church.  Oh… Jesus.  This woman will not be welcome at our church – not really.  Oh… Jesus.  I am in too deep now.  If this woman really accepts my invitation to come to church, she is likely to get hurt in ways and at levels we cannot ever heal.

I did a lot of growing up standing there in that apartment complex that night praying like that under my breath while this wayward soul – exactly the kind Jesus would encounter and minister to – examined her own broken life and contemplated her need for church.  Mmm… hmm…  I did a lot of growing up just then.

How do you think I viewed my church after that?

We were not fit to love Jesus.  I could see it in our eyes, in our worship, in our nice things, our patterns of behavior and social exchanges – our “Christian” culture.

Just the other night, I met a man who was working his way out of homelessness along with his wife.  But it turned out his wife had warrants with the court.  She turned herself in to answer for whatever crimes she had committed.  The man wanted to see her one time before she was shipped off to face justice, but he needed proper identification.  Sadly his had expired.  He could not afford to update it.  Could there be an exception made just this one time?

In an age of terrorism and mistrust, no such exceptions are allowed – and for good reason.  But what if the man were to be connected with a church who would help…. a church who would come pick up the guy, drive him to the DMV, pay the $15 fee, and then drive him back to see his beloved wife for a 20-minute visit before she is shipped off?  What if?

Just imagine the teachable moment presented just then for a “church” to learn how to love a sinner.  This man was reduced to tears.  Justice needed to be faced, but somehow this wasn’t really facing it.  Just imagine the impact a couple of hours time and $15 could have on this man’s life at JUST THAT MOMENT!

Could I give him your number?

Yeah.  I scrambled around and found a phone number to a church and gave it to the man.  I told him to ask these people for help.  But as I did it, I sensed down in my bones that I was giving him the wrong number.  I personally know the individuals who answer that line, and I easily imagined them telling the man that he did not fit their program, that they could not help him, or that he could get help somewhere else.

Perhaps I am wrong.  Maybe they did help him.  But if so, then something has changed.  And I would be pleasantly surprised.  For I have no desire to criticize.  I have every desire to see the man (and his wife) touched by Jesus.  I just think it is highly unlikely that the church I referred him to would actually do it, despite them being one of the premier assemblies for helping such people.

What kind of church to you attend?  Does your church throw a Luke-14 party?  Does your church reach out to the Matthew-25 Jesus?  Does your church answer the Revelation-3:20 knock at the door?

Could I give the man your number?

Black Lives Matter…

I am going off course with this post – not far off course, but off nonetheless.

My timing is off.  The shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota, the dramas of which then were enhanced (if not overshadowed) by the shootings in Dallas, are all old news now.  Also the standard course of this blog is to talk about Jesus, homelessness, church, and bearing the image of God – all stuff that normally has nothing to do with my job.  (To be more precise, I keep my job separate from the blog except in the most vague of terms.)

But…

I have recently begun work in law enforcement.  I am not a cop, but I work with and among them extensively.  Some people are confused by my uniform and think I am a cop.  And in fact, in the wake of the Dallas shootings, I have been cautioned that my appearance and work place could make me a target for vengeful people.

I have been giving a lot of thought to the hostile atmosphere.  And my thought is this: As a person working in law enforcement, one bearing the image of “cop” no less, I think it is my mission to behave as if black lives matter.  No.  I am not excluding other colors at all.  I should treat brown and white and red and yellow with the same care.  But in this day-n-age, and under the scrutiny law enforcement currently finds itself, the black lives are the topic on everyone’s mind.  And if more blue lives behaved like black lives matter, we can bring healing to the very real wounds that have been inflicted and seem to be escalating.

I commit myself to behaving in every imaginative way I can to tell the black lives I encounter that they matter to me personally – and to do this with behavior and nonverbal cues as much as possible.

In a word:  LOVE.

My Response to Vandelia Church

From Special Agent D:

Brother [Agent X]
So is Tony Campolo being rebellious, too?  Or could there really be more than one point of view?
Regarding past hurts, I’m sorry you did not feel safe.  But I think that is a matter to be dealt with privately (you and your dad and I, which is why I’m sending this to only the two of you) instead of on the blogosphere.
Thanks for your affirmation of love.  Please know it is mutual.

To Special Agent D:

Yes.  The love I wrote of is real.  I think of many times when you were my friend and shepherd.  I have seen you sacrifice your time and care far beyond your comfort zone, far beyond that of others, and I have seen it when I benefited and when others have.

I have heard wise words come from you.  In fact, I believe this has been the case more often than not.  Otherwise, why would I have admiration?  And probably my care for you would be diminished – especially since you are a leader in the church.

And so I am surprised at this reaction to me.  What does Tony Campolo have to do with us?  Is he rebellious?  No one is good except God.  All have sinned {rebelled) and fallen short of the glory of God.  Need I say more???

I love and admire Campolo.  He was taking on this issue long before it was cool.  I read a book of his that dealt with it in some general terms very imaginatively several years ago.  I do not know what he is saying these days on the matter.  And since you popped his name out like that in this response, I ASSUME he favors your “point of view” or something like it, and now you think his name recognition is going to settle it for me.  No?

You could have chosen Brian Walsh.  That is a name I respect more than Campolo.  He wrote a book that messed me up as a Christian.  I have never been the same since.  He challenged me at my core, made me see the world very differently.  It was scary really, and I shared it with you and a few others when I discovered it.  Even D___ H___ read it, and when he gave it back he told me that what he read was right, but he did not think he could live in accordance with it.

And then a few years ago, Walsh starts endorsing homosexuality.  This guy is a leading Bible scholar that I respect, who has changed my life beyond measure.  His influence with me cuts deep.  But I disagree with him, and I am SHOCKED especially since I know what he knows!

Oh… and btw, he is a leading student and colleague of N. T. Wright.

Sadly, Walsh is wrong.

This means Walsh is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.  It means that even great men like Walsh can be wrong – even on important matters.

Do you still want to discuss Campolo?

As regards “past hurts…” and “feel[ing] safe….”

It is really late in the game to address that now.  Several years late.  And apparently you did not read my email very carefully, because I said I do not personally want Vandelia to be a place of safety.  Those running around declaring peace and safety frequently have hidden agendas.  No.  I am more interested in bringing this stuff out in the light of day.

I went to a family meeting the other night where charter membership from Vandelia was represented.  The process for confronting leadership there (privately, I might add) was discussed, and I immediately recognized that it looked exactly the way I had been treated when I did that.  And that was years ago.

Leadership at Vandelia has an M.O.  And it is to control the information, circle the wagons, and stonewall the critics.  This actually is fairly typical of church leadership.  I encountered similar tactics at Carpenters Church before they officially kicked me out.

Was I cussing?  Fornicating?  Slandering?  Committing greed?  (Heavens, no.  Greed gets a pass every Sunday in this town!)  Was I beating someone up?  Was I driving too fast?  Did I eat too many calories?

No.  I stood up for the poor, and I refused to have any more private meetings behind closed doors where these “church” leaders could actually say they would not allow the homeless in their doors on cold winter nights.  They desperately wanted me to come to their private meeting so they could kick me out or silence me with their manipulations and make me look like a kook brought back into submission to their evil plans.

I refused then.  I refuse now.

Perhaps you read my series of praises for Vandelia early this year.  In February, I wrote a whole series of posts where I recounted the good old days when we used to love God and love the poor.  Did you see that?  I don’t recall your response.  You should have considered it an olive branch, but I don’t think you or anyone there took me that serious at the time.  Now you do, and you want to get me in for a private discussion.  But I think it is the light of day you suddenly respect.  For it surely isn’t me.

And anyway, my “past hurts” are not brought up here so that you can finally … all these years later… start to care and address them privately.  No.  They are brought up to tell you publically, that I am seeing your M.O.  You stonewall.  That’s what you do.  And if you can speak privately, then you can maintain your stone wall.

Meanwhile your church is disappearing.  Open you eyes, Man!  You are having your point, but at what cost?  And your point is a bad one!  Read your Bible!  Look at it again!

Out of one side of your mouth you say gay is okay with God, but out of the other side you say… It’s a difference of opinion!  Which is it?  It cant be both!  But you try and try to have it both ways, and meanwhile the flock you are shepherd of is dispersing all over the hills and dales!

I don’t really think I am talking to the real heavy weight there at Vandelia yet.  I think you are like C.S. Lewis’s tragedian.  I am talking to the façade on a chain rather than the real person holding his leash.  I would rather this message get behind you and sink into the hearts and minds of N___ B_______ and E____ R____, since I have reason to believe you and G___ N____ were always mere decoration on the panel of elders to begin with.

But finally, as for my blog.  You and I can have lots of private conversations on other topics at other times.  But I have this blog as a way of making exactly this kind of stuff public.  I have knocked on your door before and been refused.  Jesus knocked and was refused.  And now, “gay love”, which is not really gay, nor is it really love – otherwise its a good name for it – is the agenda taking over while the poor get screwed yet again!  That is newsworthy.  And I happen to be one of the inside people on this one.

Kick me out or repent.  You cant have this both ways.  You wouldn’t be the first “church” to make the former choice instead of the latter…..  But there is still time for you to be first to do the latter instead of the former.

Agent X

It’s Not LOVE, But It’ll Do (I Guess)

I happened to catch Play Misty For Me on TV the other night.  It being an old Clint Eastwood flick, I was a big fan when I was a kid.  This one was pretty much a precursor for Fatal Attraction, which came out shortly after I graduated high school.  Play Misty was riveting and suspenseful, for its time.  And I considered how Avant-garde such a portrayal of acceptable (and thus unacceptable) behavior single people would engage in back in the early 1970’s.

Eastwood plays a radio DJ living a fast-paced, playboy lifestyle – juggling women – when a psychotic woman takes an unhealthy interest in him.  She cuts her own wrists in a jealous rage one moment, and he comforts her by snuggling with her on his bed through the night afterward.  Her psychotic manipulations seem to work … for a while.  And as I watched that scene, I thought to myself: It’s not love, but it’ll do (I guess).  I mean, just what does this woman expect?  She manipulates, controls, twists, and then butchers her way into what ever she wants, but it sure ain’t love.

It was just then that a strange thought crossed my mind: This seems like church to me.

Here’s the thing: As I look around this “Christian” town at all the churches we have on nearly every corner, I still have yet to find even one that takes the poor in off the streets.  Loving the poor… yeah.  That’s right there in the ink.  It’s not between the lines; you don’t have to extrapolate it from fancy doctrine or exegetical and theological analysis.  No.  It’s right there in the ink – perhaps most famously in Matthew 25… which says, in part, “when I was [homeless], you took me in”!

Did I say the church of Lubbock ignores these people?  No.  I did not.  For certainly, we feed them, which is an important part of loving them.  But then we offer them tents on the other side of the tracks.  And I gotta say: It’s not love, but it’ll do (I guess).

You may be reading here for the first time (unlikely really) and thinking, what does that have to do with a psychotic woman stalking you?

Well, that’s where the analogy gets stretched, but I am concerned that the real agenda at church is not merely to welcome homosexuals (which I am in favor of – as I fully believe Jesus wants), but in endorsing the homosexuality – AND DOING SO WHILE LEAVING JESUS TO LIVE IN A TENT ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS!

Do I sound like a nut job?

I think maybe so.  I have worked very hard in accepting and affirming this church – even on this blog.  My rhetoric has cooled a lot.  I have not confronted any pastors recently.  I have not dragged any American Flags around any sanctuaries for a long time.  And instead, I have written about prayer, about foster kids, and even singing the praises of Vandelia Church (rather than criticizing) – all things that used to be out of range for this blog and this ministry!  And for what?  Who is listening?  Who cares?

For crying out loud, I wrote a post called “WHAT IS HOME?” seeking insight and discussion from my readers, but I only got 4 responses!

How is it that the church of Christ, the bride of God’s son, is more interested in finding “love” in anal sex than in loving the poor?  And how is it that we settle for that?

I guess I will be the one to break this to you: That ain’t LOVE!  And NO, it won’t do.  No.  Agape is not the same as two men giving each other the business up their bums!  Read your Bible!  Love covers a multitude of sins, but it does not claim that evil is good.  No matter how Avant-garde you think today’s acceptable behavior is, you won’t find Jesus engaged in it.  That is not a light in your tunnel of “love”; it’s a really ugly disappointment.

I join John the seer in calling the church to pull out of that whore! (Rev. 18:4).  That ain’t love, and it won’t do.

 

Except The Lord Builds… (part III)

I started this series recalling T. Olbricht’s reflections on Hearing God’s Voice, and I noted not only the different ways he heard from God, but also the different dimensions involved in relating the wisdom he passed on.  I want to continue these thoughts with those ideas as a backdrop.  My hope is to share what I have learned in a quasi narrative fashion, invite seekers to find wisdom therein, and – even more – I hope that my thoughts and reflections on my own experiences invite you to share yours as well.

Going Through The Motions

In my previous two posts (from this series), I recounted how empty prayer seemed to me as a youngster.  Prayer, to me, was just going through the motions.  Then I described how visceral prayer became when I found myself in the hands of a living God!  I am part of what they used to call “Generation X”.  We were known for being somewhat lethargic as a generation.  Always holding out for some authenticity.  Our motto was “Get real, man”, and so there was something natural about the way I developed in prayer that suited my time.

Though I did not reject the discipline of prayer outright, I held it in suspicion, to say the least.  I still did not know how to practice prayer without at least some of the accompanying jargon, traditions, even accoutrements, of the praxis.  So I did not jettison all things prayer in order to practice prayer more authentically, but I held ever more tightly to God’s hand as I jumped off the temple heights (we might say).  And of course that is exactly one of the temptations Jesus faced.  (I am glad God is gracious!)

As a young adult, I drove around in circles talking to God about my marriage, my finances, my church, and all the things that were important to me.  And I am sure God listened patiently to every word of it.  And I think he responded in ways I was able to hear – such as the cowboy at church I mentioned before.  It was the audible voice of God!  Everyone there heard it; it’s just that most folk thought it was the cowboy.  I, took it on faith, that I was hearing from God!  And I was right to sense that.  I followed his lead, and he has led me ever since.

Years later I was divorced.  And then my prayers became cries of sorrow, shame, disappointment, bewilderment, and pain.  I will talk about that another time.  But somewhere in those years, the dust began to settle.  I had picked a place (in New Mexico) where I could drive out and watch the sunset each evening – usually alone – and talk with God there in a much more calm and recovered state.  And as that became somewhat of a routine, I sensed a measure of discipline taking shape.  I began going through the motions again seeking calm and the authenticity of life as a planted tree (Ps 1:1-3).

Sun Sets on Bible Rock New Mexico

Sun Sets on Bible Rock New Mexico

I did not know what to say.  I had a strong feeling that sharing my brokenness, my shame, my angst, and even sometimes my own stillness was appropriate, but what words were there for that?

I decided to pray the words Jesus instructed: The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13/Luke 11:2-4).  I felt a bit disconnected.  It was not the words of my heart shared with God; and so I added my own bit as a supplement, but I wanted to follow Jesus’s instruction nonetheless.  I hoped there was meaning and power in the words he taught, and to discount that seemed to discredit the whole faith.  So, I faithfully committed to going through the motions despite my feelings of disdain.

I kept doing this.  The rhyme-n-rhythm of the prayer felt good, like eating a small piece of candy.  It was not my whole diet; it would not sustain, but it seemed nice – AND – it was obedience that I hoped could lead me to new places in life.

I continued like this for some time.  I had a prayer ritual.  It was a discipline.  I did not practice it every day, but it became more and more routine.  And I began to sense that I was tapping into some ancient words that had meaning and power long forgot.  Perhaps I was like an archaeologist discovering important artifacts among ancient ruins.   I might be discovering things that my father did not know, nor my father’s father, nor his father.  Ancient mysteries seemed to be seething beneath the surface.  But all I could do was conjecture.

And then I discovered the prayer of Moses (Song of Moses) that he taught the people to pray/sing (Exodus 15:1-18) and I tried to pray the Magnificat given to us by Mary, the Lord’s blessed mother (Luke 1:46-55).  But though Moses’s prayer thrilled me, Mary’s prayer filled me with fear.  I had discovered that there were no atheists in foxholes, that jumping into college would enrich my prayer life, but Mary’s prayer invited movement from God that gives all of us cause for pause.

And somewhere in that time frame, I found a book by N.T. Wright called The Lord and His Prayer.  In it, Wright connected every portion of “The Lord’s Prayer” to the story of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, starting with “Our Father…” which immediately takes the faithful to Exodus 4:22, the moment when God’s son (Israel) is held captive by the dark lord Pharaoh.  And YHWH, God, comes blowing in off the desert to confront Pharaoh saying, “THATS MY KID YOU ARE PICKING ON!”  And before he leaves town with his son, he has unleashed 10 devastating plagues on the land!  A mama bear protecting her cub has got nothing on this God!  Egypt lay in smoldering ruins, because OUR FATHER came and saved us!

And Wright made that story my story, and told me how St Paul made it the story of Gentiles who come to faith in Jesus, and how it is appropriate for me to embrace those words as my prayer too, even today!  And suddenly going through the motions unleashed power and meaning for me and for my world in ways I have yet to exhaust the exploration into!

Olbricht Again

And this is where I resonate with Olbricht so much.  He was Hearing God’s Voice in the Scriptures.  And I was praying the Scriptures and hearing from God now too.  AND I was doing it in and through discipline, by virtue of going through the motions which early in life had seemed soooooo empty (and I think could have remained that way).  I think many people of prayer today experience dry empty ritual and strain to break through it to more meaning and power.  If that is you, I encourage you to not give up, and I offer this post as a road sign pointing the way to greater depth, which I am sure you can have.  I offer it also as an invitation to share your experience with me – perhaps enlighten me if not grow with me.

And like Olbricht, I see that what once seemed a blind alley has proven to be a major thoroughfare.  I think it was possible for me not to find, but not likely.  And I think there is far greater mystery and depth in diving with God’s words than in wading through the feelings in my heart.  When I go with Scripture, I get both and more.

I Joined A New Club

I woke up to a stirring baby.  My eye looked at the clock, then shut in denial.  Then in a heartbeat, I knew that I could use the bathroom, get clothes on, grab a cup of coffee, and catch the news headlines if I acted fast before she began crying.  Suddenly I sprung into action!

I watched the headlines while the angel bounced on my knee.   She smiled that smile that makes my day.  My wife gave me a small polka dot dress.  I helped her put it on while she laughed at me.  I managed not to see much news because the baby won my heart and attention instead.  She was particularly sweet.

Then my wife got the call just a few hours later.  The judge had decided her birth parents had satisfied the minimal requirements for their kids to be placed back in their home.  And though I am exhausted from the 3 am feedings, juggling work/day-care schedules, and, of course, constantly falling behind on cleaning the house, I suddenly joined the club of foster parents who give these beloved children back to parents who struggle just to pass a drug test.

We only had these kids about a month and a half, but the investment, the bonding, the joy and sacrifice has been 24/7 and runs deep.  Our family hurts!

It was so hard to watch that little polka dot dress disappear in the car and drive away.

Unless God Build’s… (part II)

THERE ARE NO ATHEISTS IN FOXHOLES!

Branching out from my previous post where I described my early prayer-life (or more to the point, the near non-existence of it), I reached a point in my early adult life where I discovered the rich glory of prayer and of relating intimately with God there in, and I note that the beginning of knowledge is the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7 (among others)).

When I reached my early adult years, I moved from the rural life to the big city of Phoenix, Arizona.  Without recounting all the stresses going on in my life just then, I will point out that my parents were going through divorce, I had a new bride, and I was in a form of culture shock as I adjusted to life in the fast lane.  I found myself going back to church with new fervor.  I was making my own way in the world (so I thought) for the first time.  And suddenly, amid all the stress of trying to make a new life, I found my heart and soul COMPELLED to pray – EVERY DAY!

It actually was a thrill!  I needed God’s help to get up in the morning.  I needed God’s help to go to work.  I was a stranger in a strange land among very strange people and customs. (My first job was at a record distributor full of head-bangers and rock-star wanna-be’s!)  I remember being so filled with anxiety at one point that I could not imagine getting my car from one red light to the next!  And Phoenix was like Mars to me.  I had come from Colorado where cold drinking water came from the tap, but now I did not need to add any hot water for a shower!  It tasted almost as salty as the sea.  And the strange desert vegetation had pricklies and bite!  My little marriage needed help.  My little car needed help.  I had a nice little apartment, but it was situated on, as one first-responding, law enforcement official put it, “…the worst street in East Mesa for drugs, gangs, and prostitution”.  Even my car-pool friends feared driving up my street to pick me up and drop me off!  So… yeah… I prayed!  And yeah… I drew close to God!

A strange thing happened then.

God answered me!

Yeah.  First my motorcycle broke down, then my car broke down one day, and I was stuck.  Money was tight.  Options were…. were just not there.  I went over them again.

Nope.  No options.  Still zero.

I cried.

I could have called my grandfather to come bail me out, but that was going to invite my broken family into my problems and enslave me to them forever.  I almost preferred suicide.  So, I went over my options again.  Still zero.  I cried some more.

And then I realized, I had been praying all along.  I was talking to God about all this.  Right from the start.  But even though my heart and soul had been engaged, I had not sensed – really sensed – that God was really listening or that he really cared.  And I told him then, “There are people in this town… wealthy people… who, when they need a car, they pick up the phone.  They say something like, ‘Wilson! Fetch my car’, and then the car comes to their door; they walk out and drive off where ever they desire.  But I have no options!”  And just then he caused me to think of my church family, a group I had come to lean on already as my faith was growing, but whom I feared might be tired of helping me.  (I guess I was afraid they would view me as a free-loader who always needed more but never got any better, so I was really afraid to ask.  Sort of a “When Helping Hurts” mentality long before that damaging book was ever written.  And my own fears had closed off the very option God wanted me to consider.

So, I called my church family.

One good sister answered my call.  And she said that she and her husband had been laying in bed the night before talking to God and saying, “We want to be useful for Your Kingdom cause!”; she went on and on and on about how God was just not using them enough.  And somewhere in the midst of her banter she mentioned, in passing, that she had a truck.  But she kept droning on and on about talking to God.  And I kept thinking, “Hey…. lady… you mentioned a truck back there somewhere… can you get back around to that part again??? But of course I did not say that to her.

Finally, after a good 15 minutes of praising and worshipping God’s favor for prompting me to call her so she could serve his cause, she got back to talking about the truck again.  And then it dawned on her that I had no way to come get it.  So, she offered to bring it over to me!  As she hung up the phone so she could bring me a truck, I turned back to God in prayer and said, “Thank you, Wilson.”

The first thing I realized was that between the culture shock, lack of money, and surplus of car problems, my prayer life suddenly had a life of its own.  I was not studiously embracing a disciplined life of prayer like a monk in a monastery; I was thrust into prayer as my life overwhelmed me.  Many a soldier has found a rich and abiding prayer life in just that way, though I will admit combat presents significantly greater stress and anxiety.  But we find it in jail and prison too.  Many an inmate finds “jail-house religion” to be almost second nature.  Of course, once the war is over or the inmate is released, the prayer life frequently dies.  In the meantime, my “relationship” with Jesus was on, and at the moment, I was enjoying the blessing of that truck!

I drove that truck for a month while my car was in the shop, and meanwhile I saved the money to fund its repair.  And that truck was a fully restored classic Chevy that turned heads everywhere I went!  I mean, people thought it was mine!  I kept confessing to people that it wasn’t; I kept thanking God for the love, and I kept getting his love in high style.  And the second thing I realized was that those rich people who get on their phones and order a car had nothing on me!  The great God of all creation loved me with red-carpet treatment.  I was his Prodigal Son returning to him in prayer, and he was lavishing his wealth on me.

Caveat

As I spent that month rolling around in style and THANKING God profusely at EVERY red light! I already knew that God would not thereby unload all his wealth on me in some health-n-wealth gospel fashion.  After all, I knew full well that some widow ladies’ miracles consist of going to that jar in the cupboard and finding it never quite runs dry (II Kings 4).  That is not the same as driving fancy classic Chevy trucks around town. Besides, the truck was not mine; it was God’s!  I was driving God’s truck!  Still, in this case God had lavished his treasures on me, and it was his grace all the same for which I was appropriately thankful.

Staying Awake to Pray

Have you ever felt like you took a sleep aid at just the mere mention of “developing a prayer life”?  “Developing Your Prayer Life” just sounds like the title for a sleepy sermon series, don’t you think?  I catch myself yawning at the end of the word “developing”.  Wow!  But of course, I would never tell that to Pastor.  I wouldn’t want to discourage him, and besides, there surely would be some wisdom on offer there, even if I would have chosen a different title (or even topic).

And anyway, have you ever laid in bed and tried to pray in the dark?  What happens?  A six-thirty buzzer wakes you up…  No???

Yeah.  I been there/done that.  It’s a phenomena, alright.  No denying it.

But it was right around the time I was driving God’s truck everyday for a month that I listened to a radio pastor who had a call-in show where people could ask the wise old pastor questions.  And one night this fellow calls in to say, “Pastor, I can’t pray like I should.  I keep falling asleep!  I feel so terrible.  What can I do?”

And I wanted to reach into the radio choke the guy!  I felt so upset that this guy would call in with such a question before the whole listening world to hear.  I felt sure some atheist was listening and thinking, “Duh!  Idiots.  If you’re gonna talk to yourself with the deluded idea that some ‘God’ is listening, you should expect to be put to sleep….”  And I chafed at the notion.

But then Pastor had good, sound, practical advice.  He said, “Don’t lay down in bed, in the dark, with your head on your pillow and expect to have a good talk with anyone for long.  No.  Get up and walk as you talk.  Walk and talk with God in the cool of the day.  He will meet you there….”

And it was good advice, I thought, but it was not my experience.  I felt the pastor had left out another very important observation.  I recalled that when Jesus and the twelve went to Gethsemane, Jesus prayed and could not sleep; the twelve slept and could not pray.  And it dawned on me that if the pillars of the church, the twelve founding apostles themselves, struggled with this stuff, then there really is hope for the rest of us!  But still, that is not in and of itself a real answer.  No.  Jesus was compelled to pray, and it was because he knew he was in the lurch!  There are no atheists in foxholes!  And when your life is on the line, you pray!  And in my experience, when I put myself out in vulnerable situations, and this seemed ever more meaningful if this was done in service to God, then I was compelled to pray, with all my heart and soul, and there was neither falling asleep nor going through the motions to be worried about.

I took my own advice.  I began looking for adventures that would scare me.  I talked to God about it, and said, whatever mission You have for me, I’m in!  About a year later, I cashed in my 401k, left my job (by this time I was a test driver for General Motors), and moved to Texas to study Bible at Abilene Christian University.  And all that radical movement put me in a whole new prayer life alright.

Moving like that did not happen over night.  I had to save money, get affairs in order.  There was a lot to it that I will not cover in this blog.  Suffice it to say: it took time and energy just to leave town, not to mention reach my goals.  And all the time and energy was submerged in anxiety and second-guessing myself.  In fact, I had my first real church conflict in the middle of it all which created a dark cloud over my acceptance and entry into ACU – in fact it haunted me for the next 7 or 8 years!  My plans were in jeopardy!  But I had taken it as a sign from God that I should go, and wouldn’t you know it, one night at church, an old cowboy got up to welcome a newcomer from Abilene, Texas and made a tongue-in-cheek remark about how Abilene, Texas is the Promised Land!  And what he could not have known is that by that time I had been keeping prayer journals in which I had dared to see myself as one called by God to leave my home in Colorado, sojourn in the desert (of Arizona), and finally enter the Promised Land of Abilene Christian University.

Hmmmm….

I took it that God spoke to me that night through that old cowboy, and I ran with it.  I have never looked back.  In fact, my life is characterized largely by signing on for dangerous or risky missions or the call of God to explore humiliation, suffering, and shame.  He leads me into these missions, and I find my prayers deepened and compelled.

I mean, if you want to embrace a discipline of “developing your prayer life”, you have my blessing.  There is nothing wrong with it, and everything right about it.  BUT… if you find it hard staying awake to pray, perhaps you could look around in your community, see where God is and what he is doing, and then join him there.  I have a feeling prayer will be compelled from deep places within!

Unless The Lord Builds The House of Prayer for All Nations…

When I was a young man, I read Thomas Olbricht’s book, Hearing God’s Voice: My Life With Scriptures in The Churches of Christ.  In it, Olbricht tells of his ever-growing, ever-deepening understanding of Scriptures through the course of his life, especially as he shared them with various congregations throughout his life.  He had a deep faith and insight even as a child going to tent meetings in rural areas with country people, but it stood to be greatly enhanced as he went to school and then led churches and even taught in colleges and universities around the nation.  His memoir created a picture that honored each stage and level of his experience while revealing more depth as he went.

Olbricht could have written a book called “How To Hear God’s Voice” or something like that, and it probably would have been a good book.  In fact the wisdom he shares functions largely at that level.  But rather than tell others some formulaic way to approach God, he told us a personal story in which such wisdom is demonstrated.  We go along for the ride and find points of interest or points of contact between his story and ours.  And now that I am looking in the doorway to the backside of middle age, I find that his story illuminates a Life With Scriptures rather than the nuts and bolts of some owner’s manual or technical guide.  I have enough perspective to see not only what he learned, or even how he learned it, but how some of those blind alleys actually proved helpful over time in a much deeper drama.  There were times in life where he held on to a bit of truth as if he had it all ironed out but with maturity he found out he hadn’t really been holding on to truth at all.  And then later still, he found how that at some of those very moments truth was holding on to him and preparing him, despite his current short-sightedness – or even in the midst of it – to grasp levels and insights previously closed off to him.

I almost chose to write a “How-To” post on prayer myself.  I have come to discover things in prayer that should be shared with others – things people of faith might WANT to share and strive to grow in.  And it would be easy to encapsulate such wisdom in a technical guide.  And if I am right both about the things I have discovered and the desire to share in it, such a resource would be like a handbook – a quick reference guide – that surely would be useful.  But, I think it would kill the Spirit of prayer I would want to share.  And I am more and more reflective on Tom Olbricht’s experience and mode of sharing it at visceral levels which I think are more than useful, but something like poetic.  I mean Francis Scott Key could have thrown rhyme, meter, metaphor, and art out the window and just simply say, “Look!  The enemy could not defeat us though they fought us all night!”  Or, his poem could say, “O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming….”  The one form is reductionist and lacks the harmony of sharing in the spirit; the other ushers us robustly into the experience to share it (even though no one alive today was there to see it!).

As I get older, I find deeper perspective and reflection for Tom Olbricht’s enterprise.  I no longer have the monolithic viewpoints on great matters I once thought I should have.  I expected my life of prayer to look and feel a certain kind of way …different than it actually does.  But as I consider various stages of maturity over the course of my life, I find prayer to be like the Colorado River carving channels through my heart, my soul, my being and creating vistas and spaces far bigger and more beautiful, more breathtaking and scary, and more comforting and hopeful than I ever dreamed it would be when I started.

I recall prayer as a child, mostly in church, as something of a show.  If I were called on to lead a prayer, I did it; but it was more of a public speaking engagement complete with stage-fright than either an intimate or corporate talk with God.  I had all eyes (or more to the point – ears) on me suddenly, and I felt I should have something profound to say.  But usually I felt at a loss for such words.  And still, though the experience amounted to vanity mostly, it had buried deep within the seed of a notion that the exercise was important, life-shaping, and world-ordering.  It took a long time for that seed to grow and bear fruit, but what a tree it has produced!

I grew up Protestant.  My parents did not make this feature readily important to me, but in subtlety, through the years, I began to view Catholic worship and liturgy as a matter of going-through-the-motions, and held it in a bit of contempt.  Prayer was supposed to be words from your heart shared with God, not some posture, not some chanted phrases nor even rehearsed lines of Scripture.  There seemed to be a way in which that style of worship checked one’s heart and soul at the door and begged the question: Why bother?  And yet, I recall my football coach having the whole team kneel on the grass and recite The Lord’s Prayer.  I felt ashamed that I was a devout Christian who had not committed it to memory!  (I guess my prayers from the heart and soul just were too much for Jesus’s instructions!)  I mumbled along with the others, but I felt that I was not truly a part of team just then, and that I had let Jesus down when it counts most.

Oh, I failed in those days to notice that my prayer life was in fact anemic at best!  It was practically non-existent, and in fact, those corporate prayers where someone else’s wise and profound sounding words formed the talk with God performed on my behalf and that of the group I was among made up about 90% of my prayer life.  If I was honest about it, I was not even going through the motions, not really; all the while looking down my nose, subtly, at liturgies that seemed guilty of doing less with more while I was doing practically nothing!

BUT…

At least, I held some value for heart and soul involvement/engagement.  At least someone led those corporate prayers and modeled them.  The fact that I was disengaged, basically just meant I was keepin’-it-real!  Except, of course, in Bible class where I tried to appear to have it all together.  Nevertheless, I had learned to value prayer in some form, and that sense of value haunted me for several years until I found myself richly engaged in prayer.  I look back now and think, God was working behind the scenes even in those vane moments to build up a house of prayer in my life – to plant a prayer garden in my heart, but there was still a long time until construction would be complete, until the harvest.

A Few Words About My Words

I started this subject matter as a brief post, but it grew into a really long post – almost 3000 words before I realized, this would be a series.  The series is not complete just yet, but numerous posts are started now, and plans for still more are waiting in the wings.  And I realize I have a lot to say about prayer!

It occurs to me that I should be praying for this blog.  I pray my experience illuminates prayer for you.  I have only scratched the surface here, but I have said enough to demonstrate that prayer is full of paradox, irony, power, and wisdom.  Despite how hard it seems to “develop a prayer life” for many believers, that struggle itself contributes to the richness – to the treasures – one finds in the storehouse of God.  I have shared just a simple sampling of my own experience here, but I expect at least some of my readers will resonate and find fresh thoughts and inspiration for their prayer life.  Borrowing Tom Olbricht’s memoir-style will surely be more inviting to some readers than finding some nameless, faceless voice on the web declaring how you should pray.  And so, I pray that sharing this will bless your prayer life, and perhaps you might share with me too the blessings you find in your talks with God, and in the sharing here we might enrich one another.

The title I have chosen for this series is meant to reference God’s part in prayer by conflating Psalm 127’s insistence that God is working behind the scenes and Jesus’s declaration that the House God builds is a House of Prayer for All (Mark 11:17).  By the end of the series, I expect to depict prayer as being God’s House in which I am a servant, being prepared for taking up residence with him there when he returns (Mark 13:34-37).  If my experience in prayer has any chance of inspiring or instructing you, then consider this my invitation to join me in this series.

For those struggling to turn to God in prayer, or better yet, for those who find themselves falling asleep whenever they attempt to pray, I promise that my next post will show how I blasted from zero to 60 in mere seconds! …and the lessons I learned by doing it!

To be continued….