remembrance

We interrupt the occasional thoughts about prayer to bring you my sermonette from Sunday morning – Remembrance Sunday…

Poppies Worship Background

It always feels very poignant when I share communion on Remembrance Sunday, as we did last Sunday morning – Remembrance Sunday. The poppies are a moving remembrance of the death of many who have died in war. So there is something really profound about Jesus’ words ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ in the context of a service where we spend time in silence remembering the sacrifice others have made for the freedom of many. Yet, and please bear with me here, the word ‘remembrance’ causes me to ask some questions.

You see I have always thought of ‘remembering’ as something I do for something I might forget – requiring a reminder like a knot in a handkerchief – or events, people and experiences that I have encountered. How I am supposed to remember events and people that were hundreds or thousands of years ago where I was not present?

I know that Jesus is alive today, but I wasn’t at the Last Supper. I haven’t been in armed conflict. I don’t know anyone who has been killed in battle. How can I remember them?

And what did Jesus mean when he used the bread and wine of the Passover to tell his followers to remember him? They were very unlikely to forget him, although the events as the evening unfolded perhaps make us question that. It’s poignant to me that after Peter had denied Jesus three times and the cock crowed, Luke’s gospel tells us that then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the cock crows today, you will disown me three times.’ 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.”

Remembering what Jesus had said led to a moment of clarity and conviction for Peter that broke his heart. And the remembrance of Jesus in communion can also remind us of our failings – causing us to come to the foot of the cross in repentance.

There’s no doubt that Remembrance Sunday can also evoke strong emotions. When the nation stands together in silence it is a deep and solemn moment: some will be remembering friends and relatives; others will be reflecting on the many who died in conflict to ensure our freedom. We can’t possibly know all of the millions who have died to preserve our liberty, but we can contemplate their bravery, their service and their sacrifice.

The Apostle Paul (especially in 1 Corinthians 11) affirms the idea that sharing bread and wine is something all followers of Jesus are meant to do ‘in remembrance’ of Jesus. We are using bread and wine as reminders of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Maybe, but if that’s the case, why not say ‘do this to remind you of me’? Why ‘in remembrance’? There is something more here than simply not forgetting.

I think there is something here about about a related word: ‘commemoration’. A dictionary definition seems to open this possibility – a commemoration is something that is done to remember officially and give respect to a great person or event. That sounds a little like what we do on remembrance Sunday, and at Communion.

And there’s another related word: memorial. A grammatical analysis of the Greek word that we translate as ‘remembrance’ from the New Testament narratives around the Last Supper suggests that ‘memorial’ is a fairer translation – something that honours the one being celebrated. “Do this as a memorial to me.”

It’s complex isn’t it? But then perhaps that’s the point.

I have reached the conclusion that all the above and so much more are represented for me in remembrance. All of these ideas and concepts combine so that remembrance becomes an encounter – an encounter with bravery and sacrifice, an encounter with grief and loss, an encounter with love and hope, a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation.

And an encounter with Jesus: the One whose body and blood were given “for you”.

Simple things lead to profound moments: silence, bread, wine. In remembrance.

Be blessed, be a blessing

prayse

Photo by Shirley Şerban from FreeImages

Continuing my apparently occasional series on praying that began with the buffet I reach the more well-known subject of ‘praise’. I have to confess that in more naive times I wondered why we should praise God: not because he is not praiseworthy but for two other reasons. Reason the first – if he is GOD, what difference will my praise make? Reason the second – God doesn’t need his ego massaging, he knows he’s God.

Now both of those show a significant misunderstanding of what praise prayers (or prayses – yet another new word from the wonderful world of Nick’s brain) are about. I don’t think they are as much for God’s benefit as for mine. Praise prayers don’t do anything for God other than perhaps make him blush (if you don’t mind the anthropomorphism) and make him chuffed that I am talking with him. But for me they expand my understanding and experience of God, they give me an increased sense of who he is (albeit limited by the finite nature of language and human comprehension).

Prayses are enhanced by things such as imagination, experience – mine and what others have shared, encounter, emotion, insight and much more beside.

Let’s have a look at one of the psalms and you will see what I mean (I hope) as I annotate it with some observations:

A psalm of praise. Of David.

I will exalt you, my God the King; [David has experienced God’s sovereignty]
    I will praise your name for ever and ever.
Every day I will praise you
    and extol your name for ever and ever. [David has grasped the eternal nature of God and that in relationship with him he will be able to praise for ever]

Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
    his greatness no one can fathom. [we can never fully understand God – he is greater than we are]
One generation commends your works to another;
    they tell of your mighty acts. [we are blessed by the praises and experiences of previous generations and build on their praise with our own.]
They speak of the glorious splendour of your majesty –
    and I will meditate on your wonderful works.[b] [reflecting on the experiences of others leads David to think of what God does in his own experience and understanding]
They tell of the power of your awesome works –
    and I will proclaim your great deeds. [being reminded of what God has done in the past leads David to praise too]
They celebrate your abundant goodness
    and joyfully sing of your righteousness. [the experience of others is to celebrate and sing joyfully and David can join in]

The Lord is gracious and compassionate,
    slow to anger and rich in love. [David has experienced this for himself as well as having the stories of others to remind him]

The Lord is good to all;
    he has compassion on all he has made. [a reminder of how God views all of creation]
10 All your works praise you, Lord; [Creation points to God]
    your faithful people extol you. [those in a relationship with God want to shout about it]
11 They tell of the glory of your kingdom
    and speak of your might,
12 so that all people may know of your mighty acts [those in a relationship with God not only want to shout about it they also want to tell others]
    and the glorious splendour of your kingdom.
13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
    and your dominion endures through all generations. [another reminder of the eternal nature of God]

The Lord is trustworthy in all he promises
    and faithful in all he does.[c] [David’s experience and the stories he has remembered remind him that he can trust God]
14 The Lord upholds all who fall
    and lifts up all who are bowed down. [God is on the side of the weak and downtrodden]
15 The eyes of all look to you,
    and you give them their food at the proper time.
16 You open your hand
    and satisfy the desires of every living thing. [the entire ecological system of this planet is dependent on God]

17 The Lord is righteous in all his ways
    and faithful in all he does. [God is good]
18 The Lord is near to all who call on him,
    to all who call on him in truth. [God is close]
19 He fulfils the desires of those who fear him;
    he hears their cry and saves them. [God’s desire is to save]
20 The Lord watches over all who love him,
    but all the wicked he will destroy. [evil cannot survive in his pure presence]

21 My mouth will speak in praise of the Lord.
    Let every creature praise his holy name
    for ever and ever. [the choir of creation speaks of God’s greatness and I will join in]

David’s experience and understanding of God was expanded as he praised and, I dare to suggest, so might ours have been as we reflected on the psalm ourselves.

So when or if you feel like praysing, remember it does you good! And maybe linger on the praysing before starting on the asking… you may find that the answer is already there

Be blessed, be a blessing

lament

This is the next in the slightly-less-frequent-than-I-had-hoped series of bloggages about prayer, beginning with buffet. Do explore the others if you fancy expanding your experience of praying. This one is, I confess, one that is mostly ignored in my tradition of church (Baptist). But I think we need to recover our ability to lament.

Laments are a strange form of prayer. They are neither one thing, nor another, they just are… well… laments. They are expressions of emotions (often painful or angst-ridden) about situations and circumstances. They can be articulate rants and they can be distressing howls of pain, they can be shouted at the heavens and they can be whispered through tears. And, for me, the most amazing thing about them is that they don’t have to have a resolution.

In a lament you express to God how you are feeling, you may beg him to do something about it, and you leave it with him. From a therapeutic point of view you might say that it is good to express how you feel and get it ‘off your chest’, but that is not the main purpose of a lament even if it is a positive by-product. I reckon the main purpose of lamenting is to enable us to be honest with God.

If there’s a tragic event that has taken place and you are angry that it has happened – lament.

If you don’t understand why God allowed something bad to take place – lament.

Even weeping aloud or silently about a situation can be a form of lament.

And by not requiring a resolution we do not have to worry about discerning an answer or articulating an outcome that we may not be able to see. We can simply tell God how it is for us. We can even complain about him to his face. He is able to take it, and because he knows all of our emotions he already knows that is how we are feeling so there’s no point in hiding it.

The danger of laments is that they can become part of a downward emotional spiral if that is all that we do. A good lament may not have a resolution but it does ask God to do something about it. It has an expression of faith that may be full of questions, doubt and anguish, but it is still an expression of faith that God might be present and act.

Laments are not often articulated in the churches I attend. Why not? I think we are afraid of admitting how we feel, exposing our doubts and pain, and not having a good answer at the end of it. This coming Sunday I am going to be part of a church service where we will be lamenting about events in the recent past of the church and part of that will be expressing regret, sharing painful memory and yet also declaring a hopeful resilience about the future.

How about you? What do you lament? When do you lament? Do you lament? God welcomes it if you have the courage to give it a go…

Be blessed, be a blessing

wrestlemania

Image result for wrestling ring

This is another part in my ongoing series looking at different types of praying. Today I want to explore what it means to wrestle with God. Let me start by saying that I don’t mean we should be trying to get him in a headlock and force him into submission. Nor am I alluding to the event recorded in Genesis 32 where Jacob wrestled with a stranger, possibly even an incarnation of God himself. There’s so much that I would want to explore and unpack in that encounter that it would take several bloggages on their own.

What I want to consider today is that in the Bible many of the prayers that are recorded seem to involve wrestling: wrestling with conscience; wrestling with submitting to what God wants; wrestling with circumstances and so on. There aren’t many (any?) occasions when prayers are reduced only to the ‘shopping list’ style of praying that I mentioned earlier in the series.

Even in the Lord’s Prayer, where we are invited to ask God to supply our physical and spiritual needs, we are previously urged to pray that God’s will is done and that his Kingdom prevails… and that may involve us in some wrestling if it’s not what we have in mind, or involves a greater cost to us than we are willing to pay.

The prime example is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the hours just before he was arrested, put on trial and crucified he wrestled with God. He knew what lay ahead and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39 NIV)

Having gone back to his friends and found them asleep he want back again an prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42 NIV)

This looks like wrestling with God to me. The first prayer was emphatic – I really don’t want to do it, but I will submit to your will. The second has a subtle difference that suggests that Jesus knew there wasn’t another way, but hoped there might still be one, yet he was willing to do what his Father wanted. In being completely honest with God and wrestling with what he was experiencing and what he believed his Father wanted Jesus was able to be changed by his praying.

Let’s bring it to the present day. What if someone has done something that has hurt you deeply and you do not feel able to forgive them? You know that the Bible says you should, but you can’t get past the hurt. What do you do? Wallow in guilt that you can’t do what the Bible says (compounding the sense of hopelessness) or wrestle with God about it? The wrestling might look something like this (over a period of time).

“God, I know you want me to forgive, but I just can’t. You’re going to have to help me here. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, but I just can’t, help me to want to forgive. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, I want to forgive but I just can’t. Help me to let go of the hurt. ”

” God, I know you want me to forgive, I want to forgive and I will – one day. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, I want to forgive and I will – soon. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, I want to forgive. Help me to let go of the hurt. “

“God, I know you want me to forgive, I do forgive. Help me to let go of the hurt.”

Did you notice that often the wrestling results in us changing, rather than God? The wrestling is real because we are being honest with God. If we are not being honest with God the wrestling is as fake as the wrestling that used to be on Saturday afternoon TV in the UK.

But if we are honest, God is able, by his Spirit (and sometimes with the help of a wise friend, pastor or counsellor) to help us. In Colossians 4:12 a chap called Epaphras is described as ‘always wrestling in prayer’. If you want more reflections on this read the excellent bloggage by my friend and collegue Graeme.

Be blessed, be a blessing

sorry

Image result for sorry board game

When I was a child I used to play a board game called Sorry. It is a version of the classic Ludo where you had to get your counters around the board (by way of dice throws) and back to your home before anyone else. The apology part of the game was that if you landed on a square occupied by one of your opponents’ counters you could send that counter back to the start, and you were meant to say ‘sorry’. My recollection is that I was not sorry at all and was actually rather pleased when I was able to do that to someone else’s counter – my ‘sorry’ was not at all heartfelt. Of course I was less happy when it happened to me.

I wonder whether there are times when our ‘sorry’ prayers are perhaps less heartfelt than they could be. I think we can judge this by using a repeatometer. The repeatometer measures how often and how soon after we have prayed for forgiveness we repeat the thought, action, words or attitude that led us to seek forgiveness in the first place. The higher the frequency and the sooner the ‘offence’ the less heartfelt the apology is. It’s not an exact science (but then it doesn’t exist in reality anyway) but it may be a useful rule of thumb. Of course it may also be that we have got into a cycle of habitual behaviour that we are finding difficult to break and we may need to get some help with that.

I wonder too whether we sometimes use ‘sorry’ prayers as a way of ‘clearing the cobwebs’ so that the things we are sorry about don’t accumulate too much. I am reminded of the story of a woman who, in church prayer meetings, would always pray that God would clear out the cobwebs in our life. One day a young person could not resist it and blurted out, “No, Lord! Kill the spiders!”

There’s an element of truth in that story. Sometimes when we say sorry to God we also need to take action (including asking for his Spirit’s help) in dealing with the problem at root cause so that we are less likely to stumble again. That too may need us to get some help or accountability support from someone we trust.

Of course the Bible doesn’t use the word ‘sorry’ much when it comes to our relationship with God, it prefers to use the old fashioned word ‘metanoia’.

What? Well the original New Testament manuscripts were written in Ancient Greek (not King James English) and that is the Greek word that is used to refer to us having a change of heart and mind and a change of direction. We translate it as ‘repentance’ but that’s a word that is not really used today outside of churches. So change of heart and mind and direction is perhaps a more accessible concept for our culture.

You need to change direction when you realise that the way you are headed is not the way you want to go. You need to change your heart and mind when you realise that you are wrong and want to realign yourself with what is right. Put the two together and you get a good summary of what ‘repentance’ is about – realising that we are headed away from God and that our self-centred approach was wrong and deciding to head back to God and to live life the way he recommends. Jesus’ wonderful story of the ‘prodigal son’ is a beautiful example of that (Luke 15). There are elements of contrition, regret and new resolve within the process too, but let’s not overcomplicate things.

To go back to our Sorry board game. A sorry prayer happens when God’s Spirit lands on us and shows us that we need a change of mind and direction and we head back home. (Yes, I know it’s not a perfect illustration but you get the point don’t you?)

The brilliant thing is that God is longing for us to play say sorry and metanoia-ise. He gives us his Spirit to nudge us and help us to realise what’s going on. When our spirit finally resonates at the same frequency as the Spirit of God we realise what we are doing and how that is wrecking our relationship with God, others and even ourselves and we do an about turn. And when we do, he is there waiting to embrace and celebrate and welcome us back. He offers complete forgiveness (although we may have to suffer the human consequences of our actions) and a fresh start and wipes the slate completely clean. How?

That’s what Easter is all about – God does all that is necessary to make our metanoia completely effective. If you want to know more, have a read of my series on the ‘atonement’ that begins here.

Be blessed, be a blessing

shopping list prayers

This bloggage continues my short series looking at different ways of praying. It started last week with ‘buffet‘. I was going to call this ‘Christmas List’ but you’ll hopefully see why I have called this ‘shopping list’ instead.

SHOPPING LIST

When I was a child I would often look at written shopping lists and mark them as if they were spelling tests. Not only that but I would also write things like ‘Could do better’ or ‘See me!’… I bet my Mum loved it! (Her spelling was not as bad as the list above!).

But it’s difficult to resist the temptation to mark shopping list prayers. Are they self-indulgent or are they outward-focused? Are they based on wants or needs? Are they accompanied by any other sort of prayer or is it all about the list? And so on. I want to try to avoid that. I think God loves any sort of prayer, but we can always do better.

What do I mean by ‘shopping list’ (or Christmas list) prayers? I mean the long lists of things we can bring to God for him to sort out / provide / intervene / change / bless and much more. Because he is a gracious and generous God there is the temptation to treat him as if he is a spiritual vending machine where we if we put in the right amount of praying we will get what we want. Remarkably, because he is so gracious and generous, sometimes he does respond to this sort of praying, but that can have the undesired effect of encouraging us to keep going.

Now hear me loud and hear me clearly. God does want us to bring these things to him. He does get involved in our lives at a micro-level and in the world at a macro-level and he does respond to our praying because he loves to interact with us. We might call it ‘interceding’ for others or ‘relying on God’ and those things are good, important and healthy. Do not stop with the shopping lists because of this bloggage.

But there are a few things we can do to improve our praying.

  1. Be less prescriptive. If I am shopping and my shopping list says ‘Cheese’ I have a wide range of possibilities to choose from. If it says, “X brand Danish Blue cheese” the choice is much more limited. Have we decided before we pray what we want the answer to be? I can remember one of our children going through a shopping catalogue before Christmas and circling the items they wanted. That way we knew exactly what they wanted to receive. Again, hear this correctly: there is nothing wrong with saying to God what outcome we would like. But there is a difference between doing that and prescribing to God the only acceptable outcome. That’s vending machine praying. God wants a dialogue rather than a shopping list, so even if we have a desired outcome, why not ask him what he would like to do? That brings me to the second thing we can do…
  2. Whose will is it anyway? In the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ we are taught to pray ‘Your (Thy) will be done’. That’s a nuanced difference from the shopping list if it has become ‘My will be done’. If we are asking God what he would like to do, we need to be willing and ready to accept that his will may be different to ours. And recognising who God is and who we are may help us to accept that his desired outcome may be different from ours. Which is likely to be best?
  3. Be willing to be changed. This follows from the previous way of improving our shopping lists. Do we pray to try to change God’s mind or to allow him to change ours? I think he rather likes using our prayers as an opportunity for a conversation with us about the issues we are praying about. But a dialogue surely contains within it the possibility of being shaped by the other person, doesn’t it? The amazing thing about praying to God is that sometimes I find that the first outcome is that I am changed even before anything else happens. And even more amazing is that God accommodates himself to my prayers too. I am not sure he always has just one prescriptive answer to every prayer. Sometimes he gives me a range of choices and all of them are good (such as which songs to sing or who to visit). Doesn’t that sound better than a mere shopping list?
  4. Be ready to be a part of the answer. I have found that when I pray with a shopping list I find that it is more often the case that the answer lies with me than I am willing to admit. In the Bible Jesus’ friends came to him when they were confronted with a mahoosive crowd of hungry people. They had a planned solutions to the problem – send the people away and let them find some food in the surrounding villages. Jesus answered: “You give them something to eat…” If I am praying for someone who is upset part of the answer may be for me to go and comfort that person. If I am praying about injustice part of the answer may be for me to campaign against that injustice. If I am praying about someone who is hungry what should I do…
  5. Be open to receiving a new list. If this praying thing is a conversation then isn’t it possible that God will respond by saying, “Well your list is interesting, but have a look at my priorities and see what you think…” My shopping list may have been rather ‘bland’, may have lacked faith or even been selfish. So seeing God’s list of priorities is worth exploring and you can find them writ large across the pages of the Bible.

Let’s not stop shopping, but let’s be open to being more conversational!

Be blessed, be a blessing

more from the buffet

Continuing some musings about prayer, here is another of my categories of prayer:

Image result for anybody there

is there anybody there PRAYER?

This sort of prayer can be the beginning of a relationship. It is a tentative exploration of whether there is a God and hoped-for responses range from a gentle feeling of reassurance through to a full-on multisensory display of the Almighty’s power. The reality is that it is more likely to result in the former than the latter, although occasionally people have had such a life-changing experience. If it is a fuelled by a genuine hope that God is there he will respond although maybe not in the way that a person expects.

Why doesn’t God give everyone the full-on show? I suspect it is something to do with him not wanting to overwhelm us. The occasions when he does are perhaps occasions when he knows that subconsciously that person is ready and willing for such a display. The rest of the time he gently cultivates the faith expressed and offers an almost imperceptible increase in awareness of who he is over time in order that the individual’s free will and fledgling faith is not stamped on by incontrovertible evidence of his existence that makes it impossible not to believe. God values our freedom to choose him or reject him so highly that he goes out of his way not to overwhelm it.

(By way of an aside, whatever you think God’s Judgment ultimately is perhaps it is nothing more than him honouring the decision we have made about whether we want to be with him or not: he’s not making the decision, we are!)

If you don’t hear him at first, don’t give up. This sort of prayer often requires persistence – not because God is silent but because we are not always well-attuned to his voice because we have not heard it before. We may not notice that he is there in that sense of peace or wellbeing. We may not recognise him in the way that other people speak to us or treat us. We may not sense him in nature around us. We may not find him in the words we read in the Bible. It doesn’t mean he’s not there, it’s just that we have to learn to recognise him (and that process continues throughout our life). We may need the help of a more experienced follower of Jesus to help us.

If so, do find someone – a friend, pastor, Spiritual Director…

More to follow.

Be blessed, be a blessing