Great is thy faithfulness: Lamentations 3:22-33

Sermon delivered at Irvington Friends Meeting

Reading:  Lamentations 3:22-33

I love poetry, there is something about it that speaks to my heart. One thing I love about the prophets is that their writing is full of poetry. Lamentations is a small collection of poems.  The prophets speak of destruction, devastation and feelings of abandonment. The prophets also speak of hope when there seems to be no reason to hope. For me the prophetic writings are writings of those who truly believe. No matter how bad things are, there is a believe that God’s goodness is better. The prophets see destruction and they expect restoration.

Lamentations was written mourning the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the first Temple. The kingdom of Judah was destroyed, the people were moved out of their homes. Judah no longer existed as a nation. All of God’s promises to David’s line seemed to end. God’s promises to preserve and keep the people of Israel seemed to have failed. Evil won, and nobody would live to see Israel restored nor the temple rebuilt. When people thought of God’s promises, it looked as if God had abandoned the people and the promises were worthless.

These times have been very important. God’s people had to search their relationship with God, and carefully ask themselves what God said. God’s people had to ask why there was a change, and whether or not they lived up to their side of the covenant. When David’s kingdom was strong, nobody asked if they followed Torah, or created a just society. God’s apparent blessing seemed a tacit endorsement of behavior which was not only against justice, but against Torah. Over and over again, the prophetic writings observe that Israel neglected the social justice commands. Perhaps Israel fell because Israel was too much like the other nations.

Today, I feel drawn to the poetry of the prophets who wrote about the fall of Jerusalem. My mind is filled with doom and gloom. Hope seems far away. The Wednesday before last, a young man went into a bible study and murdered nine people at Emmanual African Methodist Episcopal church. Since that time, I’m aware of 4 churches that have burned. While I see people arguing about pieces of cloth, people are dying and churches are burning.

When I look even further back, I see over 200 school-girls from Nigeria, many of whom are members of the Church of the Brethren, kidnapped, raped, and when they returned home most were pregnant. I see all of the talk about ISIS, and the gruesome images of beheading. Since I’ve come to Indiana, I’ve learned of local violence, such as a car crashing into a church, a murdered pastor in Southport Indiana, and an Indiana resident driving to Ohio to set fire to a Mosque. The ugliness of hate is not as distant as I would like it to be — and sometimes ugly things happen that are not news.

The world has become a violent place, a place where many people are afraid. I’ve said before that much of the fear I’ve seen is misplaced — no terrorist is likely to notice our church, but still, it is something that has infected our community. I identify with the writings of the prophets because like them, because this feels more like captivity than the promised land. Like them, I look, I doubt, and I wonder what it is that we are doing wrong.

This is one reason that I like the prophets: when Jerusalem burns, the prophets express faith in God’s mercy, justice, and faithfulness. Even the scripture passage we call Lamentations includes the words that we sing is the hymn “Great is thy faithfulness”. Lamentations tells us that God’s mercies are new every morning, even mornings where Jerusalem is desolate, or in more recent cases where Sunday morning comes, and either familiar faces are gone, or the building itself is rubble and ashes. How is it that Jeremiah sees God’s mercy in the wake of destruction? How do we see goodness when everything is bad?

One thing that I notice when I read the prophets is that nobody sees the badness when everything is good for the people in charge. The Babylonian era prophets mourn the fall of the kingdom and the cities, but they also observe that the kingdoms themselves were not Godly, nor just. They suggest that the reasons that the kingdom fell includes God’s wrath, mostly at their failure to live up to their responsibilities to care for orphans, widows and aliens.

What I realize when I read the prophets is that the reason nobody sees how unfair things have become is because the people in change have made their world unfair in their favor. A paradise for the king might not be so wonderful for the king’s servants. When Judah is conquered, and the elite are carried off to Babylon, suddenly those who were the oppressors that did evil in the sight of the Lord became among the oppressed. Sometimes it takes something devastating to make us see that there is systemic evil. Sometimes the broken systems have to be torn out so that there can be restoration.

Part of what makes the prophets so amazing is the promise of restoration. There is the suggestion that not only does God have a plan to preserve and restore God’s people, but there is a suggestion that when God restores them, things will be different this time — they will somehow do things better than they did last time.

Paul tells us that it is a faithful saying that if we are faithless, God remains faithful, because he cannot disown himself. This is why we believe in restoration, because we believe that God remains faithful, even as we fall away. We believe that God is a just God, even while we fail to live a just life, and often do not even realize the areas where we fall short. Sometimes I think the reason that the restoration happens is that when the unfairness finally touches our lives, we finally realize that it exists — we finally repent.

We have a lot to repent for too. We live in a society that puts profit ahead of people. We place more value, as a society, on acquiring wealth than we do on enriching the whole nation, and this is just what is on the surface. If we want to talk about fairness, we judge the people around us not only by their skills and education, but also by their names and their place of origin. We assume that we know the person’s story and value without much more information than a name and a zip code. This prejudice means that some people are always at a disadvantage — the wrong name, wrong address, and a resume is not considered for employment.
More than that, we live in a society that scapegoats. Whatever ills we see in our communities, we seek somebody to blame and punish. It is not important whether the person is guilty or not, what is important is protecting the system. Often the people who are blamed are the very same people who are exploited by the system. Our society is unjust as it first exploits, then blames the victims in order to protect the system of exploitation.

What I see is that I live in a society that is very much like the society that is condemned by the prophets. I see that we are far from being a Christian nation, nor a Godly nation. We are unjust, and the prophets warn that the unjust are under divine judgment. We are like ancient Israel, condemned and unrepentant,  until conquered, yet I have so much hope in the prophets. Even when we fail, God’s mercies are new every morning.

I really don’t know what to do, nor how to change the world. Right now the only thing I know to do is pray — and keep praying until prayer changes me. There are so many things to pray for — today, I pray that God forgive my failure to love perfectly, that God will teach me to love, and I pray that those who have lost so much due to violence will somehow find peace. I also pray that those who were torn down will soon find a way to rebuild. I pray that God will show me God’s mercy when I am blind to all but the suffering.

Paul finds a welcome: Ephesians 2:11-3:6

Sermon for Williamsburg Friends Meeting

Reading:  Ephesians 2:11-3:6

You will find a welcome here.

I chose this passage because of the sign that is outside. I cannot think about your meeting without thinking about this sign and a little bit about what it means that you put it up. Churches everywhere have signs that say “Everybody welcome” — those signs are so common that they mean nothing except that there is no bouncer to throw the wrong people out, however, far too often when a stranger walks through the doors of the church, the stranger feels anything but welcomed.

A couple years ago, I was an intern at Muncie Friends Memorial. At the time I was also a student at Earlham School of religion, taking classes from professors such as Phil Baisley. Every time I drove between Richmond and Muncie, I saw this sign. There were some points in class where our professor and your pastor told us about your commitment to welcome those who were not always welcome in other places. I was personally impressed, as I personally have more experience with people talking about welcome than actually doing the work of offering a welcome.

Currently, I am involved with Irvington Friends meeting in Indianapolis. About two weeks ago the co-pastor Rex Jones mentioned your meeting and your sign — a sign that he knew from when he was pastor at West River Friends. He spoke about how much it meant to say: “you will find a welcome here”. It really does place the responsibility on you, as you must make sure that there is a welcome that is obvious enough for someone to find. Offering a welcome is hard work, You likely know this because you publicly committed yourself to this work. I want to remind you that it has always been hard work, and this work is why I like Paul so much. Paul devoted his ministry to finding a welcome — and welcomes were no easier to find in the primitive church. Even those who saw Jesus in the flesh had a lot to learn about welcoming humanity into Christ’s kingdom.

Paul learned how hard it was to find a welcome as soon as he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. As you might remember, Paul was one of those who persecuted the Christians. When Paul claimed to be a Christian, people remembered his past and were afraid for their lives. People did not want to include Paul in the community, so from the start he knew what it was to be excluded. Fear makes it difficult to believe in redemption. Welcoming those with a past is an act of faith, and a call to the whole community to share in this faith. I know this from personal experience, as I know a few churches that make it a point to welcome those who have a criminal past. It truly seems that sometimes when we welcome one person, another person feels it necessary to leave.

Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles. The Gentiles were another group that was excluded — they were systematically excluded because they were different — there were of a different culture and had different customs than Jesus and his disciples. The Gentiles did not share in the stories of Israel, nor did they share in the covenant that God had with the Jews. One of the first major challenges of the church was to decide what to do when outsiders started calling on the name of Jesus. There were many among the Christians called them names, and had no desire for them to find a welcome: Paul’s ministry was to find them a welcome.

This argument started before Paul’s ministry. Many thought that in order to become Christian, a person must become culturally like the first Christians. This called for such things as a change in diet, an adoption of somebody else’s story, and as we read alteration of the body itself. The thing is that even after hiding every difference and trying to force a welcome, the Gentile would remain an outsider. The stories of Israel might be inspiring, but they are always somebody else’s story. No matter how much we try to become good enough for the community, we are always tainted by a past when we were not good enough. The complete welcome never comes by our effort.

Before Paul’s effort, it took a miraculous act of God to convince the disciples that there was a need for welcome. Peter needed a prophetic vision to accept the Gentile Christians. There had to be a second event like Pentecost where the Holy Spirit came on the Christians of Antioch to show that God gave them the same spirit. Even with these miraculous events, the best of the disciples had trouble living up to what God showed them. Peter, the disciple that worked hardest to welcome the Gentiles still snubbed them at Antioch when people who looked down on them were there — and at that point Paul’s ministry of welcome included standing up to Peter, and correcting him because he failed to live up to the gospel that he preached.

Even after miracles and prophetic visions, the church had great difficulty finding a welcome for those who were different. Paul’s ministry required him to be a theologian — somebody who explained how Christ’s ministry made him more than a Rabbi who taught a deeper understanding of Torah, and more than a prophet who brought the message of God to God’s people. For Paul, Jesus was God’s revelation to all Humanity — and Jesus was the new Adam, somebody who changed God’s relationship with all humanity. Christ was God’s way of making a welcome for us all. Whatever conflict there was that lets one person in, and keeps another out — Christ corrects it.

When I look at the welcome Paul offers, I see one thing clearly — I can identify with those who were once unwelcome. No matter how much I identify with the sacred history of Israel, I still have no claims to that story. I am a Gentile, and my culture is Gentile. Paul’s ministry is what created my welcome — however, I see that it remains a challenge to share that welcome. It is too easy to confuse culture with faith. It is too easy to expect others to first conform to our culture, then allow them to be under the grace of Jesus Christ. We have the same problems welcoming as the first Christians — we are afraid of the stranger — and we are afraid of those who have a past.

Not only is it easy to not give a welcome because of fear — but pride also prevents a welcome. In this passage, the Jews (or more accurately, those who said salvation was only for the Jews) felt that they had a uniquely special connection with God. If we believe that God’s grace is limited to people who look like us, talk like us, eat like us, and vote like us — we will feel superior as we lock the doors and make sure than only a select few find a welcome. Paul addresses this here — but he really elaborates on it in the first couple chapters of Romans — where he points out the cultural sins of the Gentiles, such as worshiping false gods, and then goes so far as to name the sinfulness that goes on in the Church. He tells the Church people: “You are no better!” He addresses this issue of pride by deflating it, and pointing out that we are all in the same boat. The only reason we have to go to Church is that we all believe that we need Jesus: We all need God’s grace.

One thing I’ve learned is that pride is a terribly hard thing to overcome. It is so easy to compare ourselves to others, and think we are doing better — but, as Paul pointed out, those who judge are no better. It is so easy to judge individuals and groups, and forget that the church is a community of redemption. We who judge risk shutting the doors to those who need God’s grace the most. It was difficult for Paul to find a welcome for himself — and it was also difficult for Paul to call people to a faith in God that invited those who were different.

In the end, the only reason you can say: “You will find a welcome” is not because you are wonderful, welcoming, and understanding people. I’ve heard good things about you — but, you are still people. Like it or not, humanity finds it difficult to offer such a generous welcome. The reason you can say this is because Jesus welcomed all of Humanity into grace and redemption. In the end, the welcome we offer isn’t about being better than those who cannot offer such a welcome — it is about faith that Jesus offers grace to everyone. It is also about living in that grace ourselves, because some days the strength to offer a welcome requires a miracle.

Romans 8:22-27: What is our story?

Presence in the Midst:  John Doyle Penrose

Presence in the Midst: John Doyle Penrose

Sermon for Irvington Friends Meeting, May 24, 2015

Reading:  Romans 8:22-27

For the past several weeks, Rex has given some rather excellent messages. We don’t often think about it, more liturgical churches have a whole Easter Season where they focus on the reality of Christ’s presence. Rex has honored this season by sharing what we believe and experience about the risen and present Christ. From Easter to Pentecost is 7 weeks. About 6 of these weeks have Christ so present that the disciples sat and ate with him, could touch him, and listen to him continue to teach. We should be grateful to Rex for continuing to remind us of this very real presence.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that sometimes stories really grab onto us. We feel like we are characters in the story. The stories convey some truth that we experience in our lives. I’ve said that Friends are an Easter community before, and Rex has connected us with Jesus’ promises to be present, in a very real way. Last week Rex connected us with Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit and this week churches all over the world will be reading Acts 2, and talking about the powerful way the spirit connected with the Church.

Instead of reading Acts 2, I want to point out that Pentecost is just the end of a crazy, exhausting 2 months. Easter, Ascension day and Pentecost are not so much individual events as different points in the same story. I would like to give a summary of the story, and some thoughts about how Friends have seen themselves as part of this story.

When Jesus was crucified and buried, the disciples were scattered. A few women, mostly named Mary remained. There was also the disciple Jesus loved, Joseph of Arimathea who gave Jesus a burial place, and of course Peter who had to watch, but tried to hide any connection with Jesus. Even though Thomas said “lets go die with Jesus”, when it came time, nobody seemed willing. On the day before the Resurrection, there was no community, just isolated people who were without hope.

When Jesus rose from the dead, he met with individuals, he ate with them, he showed them that he was actually with them, for real. He managed, in less than a month to rebuild the community — Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that Jesus got together a group of over 500 disciples after he died. These 500 were all together with him. At the end of his ministry on earth, (as Paula reminded us last week,) the disciples were saying: “Is it time to overthrow the Romans?” Jesus ascended into heaven, and told this group of over 500 to wait for the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem.

The group had a business meeting where they elected an officer to replace a vacancy, then they waited. Ascension day was the Thursday before last: This means that the group waited for for the Holy Spirit for 10 long days. By the time the waiting was over, the group of 500 that Jesus gathered after he resurrected was reduced to 120. “When the day of Pentecost was fully come, the Holy Spirit descended upon them like fire”. Pentecost is exciting, powerful, and explosive. Pentecost is the day when the 120 suddenly become three thousand.

Right now, I want to ask, where do we connect with the greater story of Easter and Pentecost? Rex kept reminding us that we identify with the real presence of the risen Christ — and, we do. Many of you have seen the painting by John Doyle Penrose: “The presence in the midst“, where Jesus is standing in a Quaker meeting. This painting is a powerful visualization of what George Fox said so many times, that “Christ has come to teach the people himself.” Quakers have always identified with the resurrection community where Christ is present in a tangible way.

As Rex reminded us, we also sometimes exist in the time between the Ascension and Pentecost. Sometimes we are waiting, and it feels like we are waiting forever. Sometimes we even go about our daily business, knowing that we have to do something, but we have no idea what to do. We wait, and it seems like we are alone and God has abandoned us. We have a promise, but sometimes that promise feels empty. When people cynically describe Quakers, our story is the story of last week. Sometimes, we wait for the Spirit to come, and it seems that the silence is never broken. Sometimes it feels like we live in the empty time between Jesus being taken up to heaven and of Pentecost.

One thing that we rarely do is think of Friends as living in the spirit of Pentecost. When we read scripture, Pentecost was almost unique. The spirit descended this way once in Jerusalem, then again (to prove that God’s spirit was for gentiles too) onto Antioch. The biggest reason that few us us identify with Pentecost is that it is not at all respectable — so much so that people were speculating that the people were all drunk. The funny thing is that in 1658, at least one Friend: Edward Burrough did associate the Friends movement with Pentecost, writing:

After waiting upon the Lord in silence… we received the gift of God’s eternal spirit as in the days of old, our hearts were made glad, our tongues were loosed, and our mouths were opened, and we spoke with new tongues”

And, like the early apostles, the first generation of the Friends movement both grew rapidly, and its leaders (including Edward Burrough) spend much of their time in prisons. Edward Burrough was an important Friends minister for a very brief time, as he died while imprisoned in Newgate Prison in 1663.

I identify with these stories. My faith is affirmed by the present Christ — but, when I think more about this I have to admit that these are not exactly my stories. Unlike the early Christians, and the early Quakers, I don’t expect to be imprisoned nor die because of my faith. If I feel that Jesus is absent, nobody says: “Touch my wounds.” While I believe I’ve seen the Holy Spirit active in people’s lives, I have never experienced anything like Pentecost. These stories demonstrate the reality of my belief, but they are greater than my experience.

Even though I look to these stories at my best and my worst moments, and I see them as true to my own experience, my story is somewhat more mundane. When I am most deeply discouraged, I still know about Easter and Pentecost. I do not feel abandoned in the way the disciples must have. The greatest thing is that when I hear these stories, I laugh at Peter and Thomas, and the others. I love how close God is to them, and they still don’t get it. No matter how close these stories are to my heart, and how true they ring — I am far enough away to know what is next, and much of what the disciples were supposed to learn. Today we remember Pentecost — but, if today were Pentecost, there would be quite a bit of confusion.

I chose the Romans reading, because Paul was speaking to people who lived after Pentecost, yet this description of the Christian life is true both to those who had these sudden world changing experiences, and those who have lived with a quieter faith with a much more subtle realization of God’s presence. Paul spoke of living in a world where Pentecost was a reality, where Christ’s teachings are known, and when we have the experience of seasoned Christians, yet times come when we groan and don’t even know how to pray.

I love how this passage shows that God is generous and graceful. God gives us what we need. Christ promised, as we heard, an advocate — and Paul describes an advocate perfectly. When we don’t even know how to represent ourselves, when we don’t know how or what to pray, we have an Advocate that will pray for us. I thank God that even in the worst of times, I have an Advocate. I have never experienced the devastating absence that the disciples endured on Holy Saturday, and between the Ascension and Pentecost.

Also, it remains easy to identify with the Disciples who wait, because both life and faith are about waiting. As Paul writes, we hope for what we do not see, and wait for it in patience. We might laugh at the disciples who Paula quoted when she pointed out the disciples wanted the Risen Christ to conquer Rome, but do we not ask the same question? Those who pray the Lord’s prayer pray for God’s Kingdom to come. I know many who pray that it may come quickly, and speculate on the nature of it’s coming. Like the disciples before Pentecost, we wait for a new miracle — and if Pentecost teaches us anything, when new miracles come, they are entirely different than expected.

The prayer of Noah

When we think about Noah and his prayer life, we remember that God talked to Noah quite a bit:  God gave instructions to Noah before the Flood, and God made a covenant with Noah after the flood was over.  When we read God speaking to Noah, we imagine responses for Noah, but the odd thing is that we imagine them.  God speaks to Noah, but scripture does not record if Noah responded to God with anything except obedience.

Genesis 9:25-27 is the only prayer of Noah that is recorded, and like the first two prayers, it hardly seems a worthy example:

Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
he will be to his brothers.

Worthy of praise is the Lord, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem!
May God enlarge Japheth’s territory and numbers!
May he live in the tents of Shem
and may Canaan be his slave! (NET)

The only recorded prayer of Noah is a prayer that one of his grandchildren be cursed, and that two of his three sons be blessed.  The prayer is odd in that Canaan is cursed, and Ham is not, even though Ham was the person who shamed his father, why would Noah want to curse the son for the sin of his father?

One thing that this prayer does is it sets up the ongoing story of Israel.  Canaan meant something to the people of Israel.  The Hebrew people moved to the land of the Canaanites, and conquered most of it.  Over time, they intermarried with the Canaanites and adopted the language of the Canaanites, so that the Hebrew scriptures are written in the language of the Canaanites.  Not unsurprisingly, this assimilation included (at times) the adoption of the Canaanite gods.

Shem (Israel) and Canaan lived together for thousands of years — while there was integration, the fact Jesus mentions the final judgement of Tyre and Sidon (as light compared to the final judgement of various Jewish cities) shows that even at the time of Jesus a distinct Canaanite culture (and whole cities of Canaanites) still existed.

Noah’s only recorded prayer was a curse: and this curse did describe the way of things throughout the kingdom periods, but in many ways, Israel became Canaanite by conquering.  When we read the genealogy of Jesus, we see several women named — three of these women were Canaanites.  Noah’s prayer might have shown things the way they appeared, but over time:  Canaan might have been Shem’s slave, but over time Canaan became Shem’s family.

The prayer of Cain

Reading: Genesis 4

The story of Cain and Abel is one of the ‘Sunday school’ stories that I remember the best.  I remember speculating on why Cain’s sacrifice was rejected, and I remember the phrase: “am I my brother’s” keeper quite well.  Thinking back on the guidance I received in interpreting this passage, I realize that I was very lucky to have such thoughtful adults who read the text carefully.

I remember the suggestion that Cain did not give his best.  This could have come from two places:  It could have come from observing that the passage describes the quality of Abel’s gift while it only describes the source of Cain’s.  This suggestion could have also come because my teacher was aware of this tradition of interpretation, which comes out of reading the Septuagint, where Cain is accused of ‘wrongfully dividing’ his gift (i.e. not carefully selecting a worthy gift.)

Whatever the reason was that God rejected Cain’s gift, the narrative has God approaching Cain about his attitude, and trying to correct him.  Even though God reaches out to Cain, Cain continues in sin and jealousy and this ends with the death of his brother.

What is remarkable is that God and Cain have a conversation after the murder of Abel.  God asks Cain, “where is your brother.”  Cain responds in a way that implies that he does not know — and God tells Cain where Abel is, and that he will be cursed.  Cain’s response is that the punishment is unbearable, and points out that he just opened up the possiblity that somebody might just kill him.  God then somehow marks Cain to show that he is not to be killed.

The prayer of Cain is remarkably like the prayer of Adam in that God approached Cain in his sinfulness.  God appeared as a judge passing sentence.  What is also remarkable is that when God passed sentence, God listened to the prayer of the guilty, and God mercifully gave the guilty what he needed.  Just as God gave clothing to Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness, God marked Cain as somebody who was protected — giving him the safety that he needed.

In the first chapters of Genesis, God is shown as a merciful judge, and as a provider that gives according to a person’s needs rather than a person’s merit.  God gives the sinner what is needed, even in the face of condemnation.  While God does not allow Cain to get away with murder, he hears the prayer of Cain, and grants his request.

The Prayer of Adam and Eve, Genesis 3

Reading:  Genesis 3

When I read early modern writers talking about Salvation, they almost always point to Genesis 3, and move on to write about the idea of restoration from the effects of the fall.  There is almost always a suggestion that God’s presence in the garden was something that was accessible therefore our first parents must have had a rich prayer life.

If these post-reformation theologians are correct, there is nothing of that prayer life recorded in scripture.   Unfortunately, if the goal is restoration to the condition and relationship that existed before the fall, our scripture fails to produce a picture of what that looks like.  The only prayer that is recorded comes at the time that they are expelled from Eden.

At the time we see Adam and Eve’s prayer, they are in a pretty sad state.  Their first response to the presence of God is to hide from God.  Adam’s first words to God express that he is ashamed, and does not want God to see him naked.  God questions Adam about the fruit, and of course Adam tries to shift the blame to Eve, and Eve shifts the blame to the snake.

In this prayer, we see something that cannot very well be considered a model to emulate, however it is a pretty good picture of what it means to be human.  There are times when we feel guilty and ashamed and there is nothing we want more than to hide.  If we cannot hide our guilt, we sometimes attempt to give it to somebody else.  Of course, the guilt was still there — scapegoating did not change that all were banished from Eden.

For me, God’s actions tell me quite a bit about how God relates to humanity.  God approached Adam and Eve when they were unable and unwilling to approach God.  When Adam tried to pass his guilt to Eve, God listened, but God did not excuse Adam.  The scapegoating stopped with Adam, and Adam stood in the face of God’s judgement.

When we read the end of the chapter, we see that God was not only a judge, but that God provided for our first parents’ needs. At the first of the encounter, they told God that they hid because they were naked. When the encounter ends, God provides Adam and Eve substantial clothing so that they are no longer naked, and thus they no longer have an excuse to hide from God’s presence.

Prayer in the Bible (Introduction)

Today I was thinking about prayers in the Bible. Perhaps this is because over the past few weeks some friends from seminary were discussing the prayer life of Moses, and other Old Testament prophets. About 15 years ago, I remember one prayer burred in a genealogy turned into the model prayer, and I remember the criticism that it had a very different nature from the Lord’s prayer.

Recently I read a suggestion that Dr. Wilkerson discovered something new when he wrote “Prayer of Jabez”. While I can’t find ancient examples of Jabez-spirituality any more than that reviewer could, there is nothing new to Wilkerson in the book. Charles Spurgeon preached on using the prayer of Jabez as a model. John Newton wrote a hymn setting of the prayer. This little prayer has been remarkable for the very reason that it is an example of God answering a ‘selfish’ prayer.

I remember that I was somewhat concerned about the interpretive methods of the book, because it assumed that the model for every-day prayer was to be found buried in genealogy.  The book raised up the prayer of Jabez above the prayers of the prophets, and above the way Jesus taught the disciples to pray.  I disliked that one of the most self-serving prayer in scripture became the model for daily prayer life.

Over time, I’ve come to think that our selective reading of scripture gives us an idea of what is Biblical that is far removed from the contents of scripture.  There is nothing in scripture to justify Jabez being raised up as that we should all emulate, but the prayer is something that the writer of 1 Chronicles felt should be included.

I believe that instead of seeking the magic model prayer we should pray every day for the next thirty years, we should recognize that scripture records the prayers of all kinds of people.  When we read scripture, we read the prayers of Adam, Cain, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Saul, David, Solomon etc. We read prayers of not only people of great faith, but people who were deeply flawed.  When we read the Psalms, we read not only praises to God, but prayers of desperation, isolation, and even anger.

Few of the prayers in the Bible are set forth as models for us to follow.  They are narrative that tell us about the person who prayed and the relationship that the person had with God.  If there is an overarching message, it is that God hears, and at times answers the prayers of all kinds of people.  Biblical prayer is many things, but often it is not pious, “theologically correct”, nor ‘censored’.  The prayers we see throughout scripture is one where people speak to God as they are — and we find that God listens.