Prayer for a New Year

Blog--New Year Prayer

So, here we are God, a new year, a new beginning, a fresh start.

But I’m still feeling worn out,

wrung out,

tuckered out from this past year.

I don’t know if I have the inner wherewithal for a fresh start.

 

Your faithful servant, Benedict, wrote: “Always we begin again.”

It’s a statement of grace,

a reassurance that your mercies are new every morning,

and that there is a wideness in your love.

 

So, I will take you at your word that we begin again. Just as the new year comes around so does your assurance that as challenging as this past year was, we begin again. We begin fresh. We enter 2018 girded by your love, your mercy, your compassion.

 

And, as we are girded and strengthened by your love,

help us to extend love,

mercy, and

compassion to one another and to ourselves.

 

So, thanks God. Here’s to a new year.

Is it Christmas yet?

Advent wreath 3--blog

 

In my family mythology, there is a story of when I was four years old and eager for Christmas to arrive. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving, according to my parents, I woke them up every morning with the question, “Is it Christmas yet?”

“No,” they groggily responded. “We’ll let you know when it’s Christmas. Go back to bed.”

Apparently I was eagerly anticipating Christmas.

We did not grow up observing Advent or celebrating Epiphany—although each day we moved the nativity wise men figures closer to the Baby Jesus. Following the church liturgical calendar was not a part of our Baptist upbringing.

I didn’t observe Advent until I was a young adult meeting Christians who did follow the liturgical calendar. As I learned more about Advent I began to understand the need to mark the four weeks preceding Christmas. As Jan Richardson writes in Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas:

The season of Advent means there is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before. It is not possible to keep it from coming, because it will. That’s just how Advent works. What is possible is to not see it, to miss it, to turn just as it brushes past you. And you begin to grasp what it was you missed, like Moses in the cleft of the rock, watching God’s [backside] fade in the distance. So stay. Sit. Linger. Tarry. Ponder. Wait. Behold. Wonder. There will be time enough for running. For rushing. For worrying. For pushing. For now, stay. Wait. Something is on the horizon.

The Scripture passages for Advent are powerful voices calling to us to pay attention.  From the prophets, to John the Baptist, to the apostles, we hear the call to wait activelyto repent, to watch, to prepare. The ancient voices implore us to be alert as we wait in eager anticipation for God’s liberating Spirit to bring the Beloved Community.

The call from the prophets to watch and wait for the coming of a Messiah converges with the call in the New Testament to watch and wait for Christ’s second coming. Of course, we recognize that Christ is with us now, moving in our midst. But unless we “sit, linger, tarry, ponder, wait, behold, wonder,” we may miss the movement of God’s life-giving Spirit, which brings us and the entire world, healing and hope.

 

Our Advent Longing

Advent wreath 2--Blog

 

We are in early Advent and we wait for the new Light to transform the whole world.  As Advent began, we wept over our preoccupation with ourselves and self-indulgence in our lives.  We long for the time when God will judge with righteous, and all the nations of the world will beat their swords into plowshares. Injustice, oppression, and broken relationships abound in our world, in our churches, and in our families. We cry out to God to restore creation to wholeness.  We beseech God to act.  We desire for God’s mighty streams of justice, healing, and mercy to come and to flow.

When we say the day of the Lord is near, we are saying that our reality is about to change. When night becomes day, the landscape itself is altered. Things look different when seen in the light of day.  And just as a driver traveling through the night is revived by the first light of day–however dim– our souls are revived by the first signs of God’s coming.

At the beginning of Isaiah, the prophet, delivers a series of stinging condemnations on Jerusalem for the unfaithfulness of the people. Yet, interspersed with these stinging prophecies are messages of hope as we see in Isaiah 2: 2-5, a hopeful passage filled with a glorious prophecy of peace and wholeness brought about by the coming of God–the Day of the Lord.

In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised about the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword again nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah was writing in a time of conflict and uncertainty in Israel’s history as the armies of Assyria threatened the nation in the second half of the 8th century B.C. Samaria, the capital of Israel to the north of Judah had already fallen. Would Jerusalem, in the little nation of Judah, be next?

We too live in a time of uncertainty and fear.  We are challenged to keep abreast of the news out of Washington, let alone news from around the world. Daily we hear reports on the news about the deaths in war-torn countries. We hear threats with North Korea regarding their burgeoning nuclear weapons program. The current American administration persists in scaring us with talk about imminent attacks.  Perhaps we share some of the thoughts, feelings, and struggles as those to whom Isaiah was speaking?

It is God who brings the people together, by teaching the people of God’s ways, of God’s shalom for all humanity.

What is important for us is the message of hope and the expectation of a new life as all the nations gather to worship God. The prophet does not speak of a great battle victory that will result in all nations coming together in peace. Instead, it is God who brings the people together, by teaching the people God’s ways, of God’s shalom for all humanity. Weapons of war will be converted into tools for food production, swords and spears turned into rakes and shovels.

In Matthew 24: 37, Jesus says, “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Chosen One.” When we hear the name of Noah and we think of the 40-day flood, we assume the worst: Jesus is going to return breathing vengeance. I saw a bumper sticker that said: “Christ is coming and boy is he mad.”  The quippiness of the bumper sticker makes me laugh but its theology grieves me.  It belittles the Christ that lived and loved on this earth and continues to live and love through us daily.  Repeatedly Jesus shows us that the law of love is the supreme law.  Perhaps then, the reason for the Noah reference is to say that the flood came upon them while the people were eating and drinking and getting married and living their ordinary, quotidian lives. When Jesus returns it will be in the midst of our ordinary lives–where we live and work and struggle and strive and play and love.

God is with us in our Advent waiting, in our Advent preparation. We are not preparing for the way that God will be one day in the future, rather, we are preparing for the way that God is, has always been and always will be.  As Christians, we place our hope in the fact that God is a God of peace, of justice, of love, and of grace. Our hope is grounded by the transformation around us and in us that causes to grow us into a deeper experience and relationship with God.

Mustard Seeds Matter

mustard seeds--11-9-2017 blog

 

There is a legend about a traveler making his way to a large city.  One night he meets two other travelers along the road–Fear and Plague.

Plague explains to the traveler that, once they arrived, they are expected to kill 10,000 people in the city.  The traveler asks Plague if Plague would do all the killing.  “Oh no,” Plague responded.  “I shall kill only a few hundred. My friend Fear will kill the others.”

Fear, whether real or imagined, can discourage us, overwhelm us, and strangle us.  Fear is widespread ranging from fear of failure to fear of war and terrorists.

***

The disciples of Jesus experienced many of these same feelings.  In Luke 17:5-10, we read of their beseeching Jesus to increase their faith. Perhaps this is a cry or prayer you may have said at one time or another, “Lord–increase our faith!  Help us believe enough so that we can do what it is that you have commanded us to do–help us to trust enough so that we can live as you say we should be living.  Lord, take away our fear!”

How does Jesus respond to their pleas?  Does he lay his hands on them and pray and give them more faith as they asked?  Does he snap his fingers and grant them a double dose of the Holy Spirit?  No–instead, he says to them: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry, ‘be uprooted up and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” I imagine the disciples looking at one another with the unspoken question: Do you know what Jesus is talking about?

***

I think Jesus’ odd response to the disciples can be explained through the concept of “the butterfly effect.” The notion in chaos theory is that no matter how complex a system is the slightest change in initial conditions can have far-reaching effects, changing a system dynamically.  Edward Lorenz first observed and proposed this theory back in the 1960s when he was running computer models of weather measurements. When he entered even the slightest difference in the initial number in his equations, the resulting outcomes were dramatically changed.  His paper submitted for a scientific talk he gave in 1992 was titled, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?”

***

Might there be something in the butterfly effect that Jesus is trying to tell us?  Possibly that even the smallest intention and action toward following Jesus, toward doing the good, the smallest glimpses of that holiness and wholeness in the midst of our fear and brokenness can help bring the kingdom of God into being?

***

In the novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird, the character Tom, an African-American, is wrongly accused of assaulting a white teenage girl and he is held in the town jail.  A group of white men approach the jail with the intention to lynch and kill Tom.  On the front steps sits Tom’s lawyer, Atticus Finch, the moral center of the novel. Atticus’ daughter, Scout, runs to Atticus’ side and she watches the men. Her father tells her to run away and go home. But Scout doesn’t run, and she doesn’t fight. Instead she finds the right words that become a kind of mustard seed.

Scout looks at one of the men in the mob and says, “Hey Mister Cunningham, don’t you remember me? I go to school with Walter. He’s your boy, ain’t he? We brought him home for dinner one time. Tell your boy ‘hey’ for me, will you?” There was a long pause. Then Cunningham responds to Scout: “I’ll tell him you said ‘hey,’ little lady,” and he turns to leave. With Cunningham’s departure, the rest of the mob begins to break up and leave.

Scout offered a small, gentle reminder of God’s goodness.  And what she said was a mustard seed–nothing courageous and noble– because she saw Mr. Cunningham’s humanity and touched that humanity enough to bring him out of his irrational inhumanity. It was a “butterfly effect,” a tiny mustard seed that changed the events of that night.

***

I am reminded of the prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy ….”

***

In this world where doubt, hatred, and despair reign so supreme, it seems almost impossible that such small seeds of faith, love, and hope have much chance of surviving.  No wonder we cry out with the disciples, “Increase our faith!”

Remember:The slightest change in initial conditions—no matter how complex–can have far-reaching effects.”  Mustard seeds matter.

Prayer of the Week

Praying Hands--blog--11-2-2017

 

 

(We prayed the following prayer and words of assurance on Sunday and the words resonated with me. I thought I would share them with you!)

 

Prayer of Confession

Happy are those who turn away from the counsel of the wicked.

But oh, that counsel can be so seductive

it draws us in,

holds us fast,

distracts our priorities,

obstructs our capacity to love.

 

But we seek no obstructions, we reject wicked counsel.

We embrace God’s embrace.

 

For whatever ways we don’t, we confess.

In whichever ways we sin, we repent.

 

Hear our prayers, O God, as before you, we seek wholeness.

Silence

God of mercy, grace, reconciliation and goodness:

We are sorry for so much—

For words we cannot bear to say,

For memories we cannot bear to relive,

For thoughts we cannot bear to admit.

But you know our hearts.

Relieve us of our burdens,

Bind our hearts not to the unbearable but rather, to you.

So that, in all ways,

We may live in the joy of your salvation

And the delight of your loving embrace.

 

Words of Assurance:

Praise be to God, our sins are forgiven.

God’s steadfast love endures forever. Amen.

 

–Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ; Rev. Kaji S. Dousa

Into the desert

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I park my car on the roadside in the national park of Joshua Tree, California. I’ve spotted a big rock that is close enough to the road that I can see who is coming and but the rockis big enough to offer me some privacy.

I’ve come to the desert as another step toward moving from Los Angeles, California to Elkhart, Indiana to attend seminary at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. I know attending seminary is God’s invitation, God’s calling, but I am reluctant to move from the city I love, from my home church, from my family, and from childhood friends. I have come to the desert to grieve and to release my Los Angeles life to God.

My decision to go to Joshua Tree National Park is an intuitive one, or perhaps a response to God’s nudge to go a place where I can experience God deeply, to follow Jesus’ example of going to a wilderness place to pray. My drive to Joshua Tree becomes a pilgrimage via concrete highways and my car. I drive in silence, preparing my heart and mind for the day.

After I park I settle on the dirt with my back resting on the large rock with my backpack beside me. I retrieve my journal, multicolored pens and pencils, a small box of matches, and a full water bottle. I begin to write all that I will miss when I move: the San Gabriel mountains, the Pacific ocean, the Pasadena Mennonite congregation, etc. I write and write and begin to cry. I want to yield myself to God’s call but surrendering is hard.

As I continue to write I begin to pray aloud, offering each line and image to God. Occasionally I sit in silence with my upright open palms resting on my knees—it is a position of release, of offering my life—again—to God.

After a while I walk around, gazing at the desert land and the expansive sky. My heart feels clear—not blank or empty—but clear from my intense prayer time. I am grateful for the deep silence of the desert.  In the book, Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings, Christine Valters Paintner, writes: “The desert is a place of deep encounter, not a place of superficial escape. It is a place that strips you down to the essentials, forcing you to let go of all the securities you cling to in life ….”

I return to “my” rock and continue to pray: “I breathe in your love; I breathe out my fear.” Again I sit in silence in a position of yielding. As this prayer subsides, I return to what I wrote earlier and tear the pages out then dig a hole in the dirt with my hands. I continue to tear my paper until it is in small pieces then I place it into the hole and set it on fire as an additional gesture of relinquishing my Los Angeles life. As the fire subsides I pour water over the ashes and cover them with the dirt, tamping it down with my hands. I stand and offer another prayer: “I give myself to you, O God.”

Alan Jones wrote in Soul Making:

A desert of the spirit: a place of silence, waiting, and temptation. It is also the place of revelation, conversion, and transformation…It involves being “made over,” being made new, being “born again.” The desert, then, is a place of revelation and revolution. In the desert we wait, we weep, we learn to live.

My experience in the Joshua Tree desert is a time of revelation, conversion, and transformation for me. As I relinquish the life I love to God, I understand that I love God more and am born again, again. I exit the desert experiencing a transformation—from grieving the significant transition of moving to anticipating the transition and what I would experience in my new life at seminary. I drive home in silence, absorbing this transformation.

Praying the News

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The last few weeks the news has been sickeningly familiar: bombings, war, violence, accidents, murders, disasters, fear, misunderstandings, hate—the list of humanity’s failures and sufferings goes on and on.

 How do we respond as Christians?

What can we do about all these distressing things that continue to happen around us?

Here is a possibility: We pray the news. It’s an idea I picked up several years ago while at a conference on contemplative prayer. I became captivated by the idea and began experimenting with praying the news. I discovered it can make a difference not only in my world but also in how I approach the world.

At first thought, praying the news can simply a quick prayer after reading the headlines or listening to the news. But it’s more than that. It involves what Anabaptists believe about spirituality: that it involves both action and contemplation. We cannot effectively act without prayer, not can we effectively pray without acting.

To pray about the events occurring in our world, we must believe that God does listen and does respond to our prayers on behalf of others. There are three requirements to pray the news effectively: faith, stamina, involvement.

Faith: The writer of Hebrews tells us: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The mystery and confounding aspect of prayer is that we can’t measure its effectiveness. We don’t know when we have prayed for something or someone, and it happened as we had prayed, that it’s a direct result of our prayers. Frankly,  we tend to explain away results rather than believe in answered prayer.

For example, I lived in Los Angeles during the two trials of the police officers who beat Rodney King in the early 1990s. During the first trial I didn’t pray at all for the legal process, for the jury, for the witnesses, for the truth to be told and not distorted. The result of that verdict: Los Angeles was gripped by fear and anger and hostility for more than three days in riots across the city.

During the second trial, I prayed diligently. I know churches throughout the city were also praying for justice and peace. The result after that verdict: peace and—depending on who you talked with—justice.

We can explain away the difference. The second judge was wise to have the verdicts read on a Saturday at 7:00 a.m., the city officials were prepared, and on and on. Or we can believe that God—in response to our prayers—gave the judge wisdom and enable the city officials to be prepared. At some point we choose to believe that God is listening and moving on behalf of the prayers of us who are God’s children.

Stamina: We pray for the world because God has called us to pray. Paul encourages u in Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing”—to pray diligently. Paul understood how easy it is to give up praying because we don’t often see measurable results. Or something good may happen and we can stop praying about. We need to continue praying.

Diligent, unceasing prayer is work. It takes concentration. It requires stamina made by strong by faith. If all we can do is pray for five minutes, we must pray those five minutes. But we must also strive to increase the “prayer muscle” by working up to ten minutes a day.

Involvement: To pray effectively requires involvement. A basic level of involvement is the news media. If while watching the news we hear of a murder, we can pray for the victim’s family, for the surrounding community, for the investigation, for the perpetrator. We can pray about the fear the victim’s family will experience, the anguish in imagining final moments, the rage against the murderer.

But we must not stop there. We must go on to pray for a government. Pray God’s goodness into that system. I sometimes pray God into a system by using the image of someone breathing into another while trying to resuscitate that person. Breathe God into systems.

If there is a bill to be decided, pray for the committee, pray for the committee staff, pray for the lobbyists, pray for the family of government officials. Pray for wisdom and for eyes that see and ears that hear for those government employees. And, engage with government workers, including staff and elected officials. Act on your prayers on behalf of others.

Occasionally I like to use Pavlov’s psychological discovery in my prayers. I’ve prayed for dictators and warlords like this: whenever the lust of power sweeps over them, I ask that God will put either a bad taste in their mouths or that an overwhelming nausea may seize them. My hope is that they will eventually equate power with physical illness. Will it work? Beats me. But I am called to pray regardless of the results.

Praying the news can change our lives as we learn to act in tandem with our prayers. And praying the news can change the lives of others as we act with wisdom and insight as a result of our prayers.