Remember Me

“Hey, great news! I’m cancer-free!” A recent acquaintance of mine happily beamed. “I just wanted to thank you for being one of the ones who were there for me, praying for me, making sure my needs were heard up there.”

I was truly happy for her, beating cancer is the greatest of all victories. It’s just … I felt it wise to not mention that I had forgotten to actually pray for her. Don’t get me wrong, I wish her well, and hope that the blight that is cancer gets eradicated; I wouldn’t wish it to happen to anyone. But I haven’t really been on speaking terms with God lately.

I tend to be the sort of person that just falls through the cracks. I’m not that big of a troublemaker, so I attract very little attention. I’m really healthy, so I don’t need medical or divine intervention. I guess you could describe me as one of the random people you see in the background while somebody famous is giving a speech – I’m a nobody and if I weren’t there, you wouldn’t notice I was gone because you wouldn’t know to miss me. At least, that’s been the experience I’ve had from attending church for such a very long time.

Maybe God just likes being a miracle worker like Scottie; it’s not enough to do the job properly and without fanfare – maybe he just likes to estimate it’ll take twice as long so that he’ll be done in half the time. Perhaps he really shines in the big things – beating cancer, saving lives during natural disasters, and making sure the best team wins the game. It can be easy to feel that God doesn’t like to show up in the little things because then he would be something we could control and have him do our bidding.

It can be hard to find the faith when someone gets to celebrate their victory over cancer knowing that someone out there gets to mourn the loss of someone who lost that battle even though they prayed just as much. But its enough for me to know that I should celebrate with those who celebrate and morn with those who mourn. God’s going to do as he pleases with or without my input, no matter how much or how little I pray.

Every now and then, even King David would write: “Remember me” (Psalm 25:7, 106:4). Samson prayed: “Remember me” before his final act of strength (Judges 16:28). Hannah desperately prayed: “Remember me” because she just wanted a son (1 Samuel 1:11). Nehemiah also prayed: “Remember me” for all that he had done (Nehemiah 5:19, 13:14,22,31). Job also prayed: “Remember me” in frustration for all that he had been put through (Job 14:13). Jeremiah prayed: “Remember me” while asking God for vengeance (Jeremiah 15:15).

This prayer doesn’t show up much in the New Testament; the most notable example is the thief on the cross next to Jesus: “Remember me” (Luke 23:42). Perhaps that’s because the veil, the separation between us and God was supposed to be torn. With the Holy Spirit inside us, we aren’t supposed to feel so alone; but sometimes we just do and we can’t help it. Perhaps that old prayer still has some mileage in it: “Remember me, O God …”

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Ash Wednesday

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It’s Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent. I’ve written previously that as a Protestant, the whole season is considered optional. I’ve read up on it somewhat – but I’m not sure I entirely understand the logic of it. The culmination of Lent is Holy Week of which I’d recognize Easter as being the most important. It has nothing to do with the forty days leading up to Jesus’ last week. Rather, Lent is celebrating the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness at the start of his ministry – the time in which he fasted and then was tempted as recorded in Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:9-13, and Luke 4:1-13. For devout believers, it’s a time of fasting, of prayer, and of service.

Ash Wednesday services typically involve being marked with a cross of ashes on our foreheads – traditionally believers are reminded: “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Which is from Genesis 3:19. The ashes are from the palm fronts that were used and blessed in the previous year’s Palm Sunday.

The earliest mention of Lent is at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 a.d. that suggests that long before the one church had splits and schisms, the whole church participated in Lent. While it’s true that it’s not a tradition or ritual that is explained in the Bible – it is a unique Christian practice that came as a result of being believers. I guess the early believers wanted to find a way to celebrate and live out their faith and they had to do that by writing their own songs and creating their own holy days.

In the Old Testament, ashes were related to pennance and to sorrow. Mordecai put on sackclock and ashes in the book of Esther once he heard the news that his people were to be destroyed. Job declares that he repents in dust and ashes and despises himself. We also know that 40 is a biblical number that symbolizes times of trials and testing – Moses lead the israelites through the wilderness for 40 years and he also stayed on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights and he had the spies search out the Promsied Land for 40 days as well, rain fell for 40 day and 40 nights when the whole earth was flooded, three of the Judges led Israel for 40 years – the number shows up quite often in Scripture.

Lent continued to be practiced until Martin Luther threw the practice out in the 16th century, declaring it to be unbiblical. I talked earlier about the biblical qualifier being used to limit our options to only those things directly supported or commended by Scripture, causing all other ideas to be seen as, well, unbiblical. I just wonder – is it okay to just dismiss this celebration of faith just because it’s a part of tradition but not Scripture? Should a tradition like Winter Jam also be thrown out because it’s not biblical? Can Protestants find room for a little Lent in our Biblical faith? I think so. At least, I think we should learn more about Lent and Ash Wednesday before we dismiss them entirely. For centuries, millions of believers didn’t see Lent as a conflict of interest with their faith, rather, it enhanced their spirituality. If done right, it can be a good thing and that’s worth exploring.

Being Watched at the Altar

“The success of any venture will be helped by prayer, even in the wrong denomination.” Boyle’s Laws, #14

One thing that every single church I’ve ever been to has had in common is the location of the altar – front and center. Worse than that – the whole design of the sanctuary creates lines that leads your eyes directly to the altar. This gives us two possibilities – anyone who wishes to go before the altar will have to do so in front of everyone watching them or they will not go at all. Neither option is a good one.

For one, Jesus repeatedly taught his followers that ideally, their spirituality wouldn’t be on display; in Matthew 6:1-18, he instructed them not to let their left hand know what their right hand was doing by giving in secret; he instructed them to go into an inner room, close the door and pray in secret; and not to make it obvious they were fasting – but to fast in secret.

The altar stands opposed to private prayer and the offering is not the ideal situation for giving in secret. I remember times when people who went to the altar threw wrenches into the worship machine; once a woman was praying at the altar when a man got up, stopped the music, and made a tearful confession – leaving her at the front and center without any idea of what’s appropriate for her to do in this situation; other times when somebody was at the altar, the music would have to stretch for another song or verse until the person was done praying, eating up the time for other parts of the service; and one of the worst altar moments was when the guest pastor ordered that everyone come to the front of the church and kneel for the duration of the prayer which he didn’t begin until everyone was kneeling … then others felt compelled to pray audibly so everyone remained kneeling for their prayers one after the next after the next. Once it was over, it took awhile to help everyone back up to their feet which had fallen asleep and weren’t helped by their sore knees. The whole debacle generated more complaints than anything before it and not once was it repeated in the rest of the time I was there.

Which just leaves altars to stand there, devoid of use and purpose for the vast majority of the time. Most of the ones I’ve seen have the words ‘do this in remembrance of me’ carved on them, they’re covered with colorful cloths that hold up the Communion glasses and wafers and candles and the offering plates. Some pictures I’ve seen show ones that also have flowers and other decorations that are probably supremely important though I know not why. But in general, no regular person prays at the altar on any given Sunday. It is a sacred object that is too far out of reach for ordinary people such as us – like the cross that is usually somewhere near it – one of those ‘look but don’t touch’ or ‘come but not too close’ sort of things. I would guess that other churches might view it a little differently, but I’ve only seen and heard how the Southern Baptists view their altar – with a healthy respect for tradition but a fear of tradition becoming an idol – and the altar symbolizes both quite perfectly. It’s not easy to balance including it with keeping it from taking over. But now I attend a Methodist church and it’s not that much different no one usually prays at the altar.

But altars are important, aren’t they? Wouldn’t they have to be in order to be a common element to so many religions and expressions of belief the world over? Altars were a part of the Temple – specifically ordered by God and approved by Him for worship to Him; so it has to be a good thing in the New Testament churches. Paul was able to witness to the Areopagus in Athens by explaining to them who and what the Unknown God was that they had an altar for. Even in Revelation there are about a half dozen references to an altar. Since we know that earthly things were a copy and a shadow of heavenly ones (Hebrews 8:5) then we know that altars are not without importance or meaning and use even if we can’t bring ourselves before them because they’re badly positioned in the building. One of my churches actually got around this problem by creating a prayer closet – an inner room that the doors could be shut with a cushion for kneeling on and a small altar to center one’s prayer. In my friend’s church, there were areas that were out of sight where people could go to and pray – these stations each were decorated differently with scenes from Jesus’ final days. Off of the main sanctuary there was a place to light candles and pray out of sight from the people sitting in the pews. It’s no wonder why these people had a greater spirituality – they had an outlet for prayer in the sacred spaces of their church that allowed for God to reward them in secret when they prayed in secret.

Which probably explains something of the popularity of War Room – take away from it’s war-based terminology and you have the story of an old woman advising a younger woman to carve out a sacred space to serve as her alter in her closet – it might not look like a table with candles but it serves the same purpose – somewhere to pray to God in secret. It works because it’s one of the oldest methods of worship in all religions – an altar to serve as a spiritual outlet to focus one’s prayers. I think churches would find themselves much better served to create an altar room, to which people can retreat to by themselves for times of prayer and uncertainty – somewhere only God will be watching and waiting to reward them. I think it would go a long way toward fixing what’s been broken about our spirituality for a long time.

That Time When She Prayed

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Mum’s the Word – or is it?

I almost didn’t hear the pastor calling my name, but it finally registered. Since the hall was a little loud, he directed me to follow him into the back of the sanctuary where the noise of the crowd was less distracting. He showed me a piece of paper with the parts that were to be read to the audience during the lighting of the advent candle – he asked for me to read the last part – the prayer: “Let us pray: Thank you God for the love you give us. We ask that as we wait for all your promises to come true, and for Christ to come again, that you would remain present with us. Help us today and everyday to worship you, to hear your word, and to do your will by sharing your love with each other. We ask it in the name of the one who was born in Bethlehem. Amen.

Such a thing would be considered unbiblical at my old church; these sorts of things were usually done by families – only under the headship (a.k.a. authority) of a father or husband would a daughter or wife be allowed to read from the pulpit and he had to be physically present and visible for it to count. I remember that even in youth group the youth pastor would always tell us girls that God really wanted to hear from the boys, which was his way of saying “No, girls can’t lead prayer when there are boys in the room, too.” It sort of gave me the impression that talking to God was a solemn matter that women just weren’t made for. Which was why men were the ones who prayed and taught out of the Bible, telling us what the Bible says that women and men can and cannot do. For the most part, they were right that the Bible said what they said it said, but it seemed as if they were teaching it in ways to say things that the Bible doesn’t say. Which is why we couldn’t stay under that teaching and eventually left the denomination.

So it was a big thing to me to be asked to read a part and even bigger for it to be the prayer. I read it swimmingly and nothing terrible happened – I wasn’t turned into a pillar of salt, smote by lightening, or afflicted by a disease. It makes me wonder, just what was my old church afraid of? That I would get a taste, decide it was good, and sign up for a seminary to become a preacher? That I might be really good at it? That my ministry would draw people to hear the Word the God and through hearing, have faith in Him? Or do they fear the worst case scenario: a woman preacher who misinterprets scripture and deceives the droves of people with itching ears? (As if men hadn’t been doing that from the very start!) Is the Word of God so fragile, so ineffective that the same sentence that a man says has less power, less truth, less effect when spoken from the lips of a woman?

My old church’s denomination is big on inerrancy, it’s part of the foundation they used to pull the rug out from under moderate and liberal Christians who taught in their seminaries, they used it to vote in like-minded leaders to control and shape the teachings coming from the seminaries, and they used it to dis-fellowship churches that defied their interpretation – particularly, they would kick out all churches who called upon women to serve as pastors out of their denomination. This was the last straw that caused a few hundred churches to voluntarily leave the denomination and form their own where they could and would be allowed to hire women as pastors.

I always thought that it was in-congruent to say that the Bible was infallible and inerrant as if it were indestructible and also suggest that women who read it aloud in public are violating it’s commandments and women who preach it from a pulpit are destroying the very fabric of space-time which will result in an implosion or an extinction level event. I know that it’s a serious thing because I’ve read story after story – how some women who step up to the pulpit watch the men get up, turn their chairs around, and sit back down with their backs facing her so they don’t have to look at her talk. Some women watch the men just get up and leave the room. Sometimes women are allowed to speak (not preach) from the front (not on the stage) or on the stage from a music stand (not a pulpit). I saw one woman speak about an upcoming adoption while her husband stood beside her on the stage, giving an occasional “that’s right” to the points that his wife was giving letting her do 95% of the talking. Of course, this tends to lead to a bias. If men are better at preaching and teaching then women, then women’s ministries taught by other women must be inferior by comparison to mixed gender ministries taught by men. Which really doesn’t explain the popularity of many women’s ministries from which both men and women learn from and teach from. I wonder what impression this gives little girls? Does it show them that they might correctly understand the Bible at home but incorrectly understand it in public? Does it tell them that they can only go so far and do so much as other women do? Will they come to believe that on their own they cannot get the most out of scripture, but under the authority of a man, a teacher, they will learn more than they possibly could otherwise?

In all this, there’s remarkably little opportunity for single women to serve the church in these capacities; since a husband is required to speak from the music stand on the stage, I know that the things I have to say will probably go unsaid. At least for the people who aren’t ready for change will get to have their way awhile longer, but it won’t always be this way; and I look forward to seeing what the future holds when there are no limits on what anyone can do. At least there’s something for me in this other church and that’s what gives me hope that Christianity will one day look back at our rules and realize that we used to love them a lot more than we loved people, but that’s not so anymore.

By the way, If you’re from a church that’s not like my old one, please don’t take it for granted; also feel free to speak up and suggest that you have more women speaking if it’s been awhile since the last one did – in the whole year I’ve attended my new church, we’ve only had one woman preach the message, and she did it twice. That’s just not often enough to make it normal and when it’s not normal then it’s not normally done.

Why I Don’t Support the Invocation

Yesterday, I saw this video of a school board meeting that had a prayer meeting just before it – all was going smoothly until one guy decided to make a point by praying to each and every god known to humanity – except God. There were about a hundred and twenty people there who were standing and praying and singing hymns, shouting over each other trying to be heard. One woman held up a sign with a simple reference: Matthew 6:5-6. Not having memorized scripture, I decided to look it up –

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

As a Christian, I felt rather embarrassed by the Christians in the video and I cheered for the guy who obviously not a Christian. I got his point – if we’re going to have a prayer session for one god in a public space, then room must be made for prayer to all gods and goddesses in public spaces, if there’s not enough room for them all to be prayed to, then none of them ought to be prayed to in public spaces. It’s not like Christians don’t have hundreds of churches in which they can gather and exclusively pray to God in the privacy of church spaces – which usually double as holy ground.

Support the invocation‘ signs were held up by the Christians all over the room. For most of the service they were either praying or singing hymns, but at some point a few of them decided to call upon the power of Jesus’ name to rebuke what they perceived to be the spirit of evil out of the man who was not a Christian. From the first prayer to the first god, he was noticeably nervous – the papers with the prayers in his hands shook. He must have found it slightly intimidating to have these other guys shouting ‘In Jesus’ Name!’ over and over again at him. I know I would have.

I really wish that Christians had met in churches for prayer before the school board meeting, I really wish that they had read Jesus’ words on prayer from the Sermon on the Mount, I really wish that they were going to live as humble examples of Christ-likeness. But they chose to hold the prayer meeting on public property at a school board meeting. They chose to ignore the outcry of others and instead delighted in their perceived persecution. And they chose to give into pride. Would Jesus have praised them for boldly praying in public or scolded them for doing as the pharisees had done?

It’s been a long time since public prayer was a thing in schools. Most children don’t pray before they eat. They don’t invoke the name of God on their math tests or ask for an act of God to get out of turning in the homework they forgot to do. They don’t call upon His name to smite their bullies. They don’t pray that the home team will win and the visitors will lose or that the visitors will win and the home team will lose. I think there’s a whole generation out there who do not understand why when even adults don’t thank God at mealtimes for their food that they would need to invoke his name for every single decision in life.

If the issue is one of sovereignty, then we have to realize that no matter if we do or don’t pray, if we pray for something or if we pray against something, the sum of our prayers will not change an iota of God’s plans. God cannot be made to do anything that he didn’t want to do because of our fervent, sincere, and heart-felt prayers. If the issue is one of majesty, then we have to realize that to us, God’s name is the highest – the sum of all the prayers to all the other gods and goddesses doesn’t amount to very much and therefore is no threat to his majesty. Believers in God are not to call upon the names of other gods and goddesses, but unbelievers may call upon the names of as many gods and goddesses as they choose. Which brings us back to the issue of prayer – Christians, you aren’t following the instructions of Jesus Christ – the guy for whom your religion is named! Which is worse; to not pray to God at all or to pray to God in exactly the way Jesus told you not to?

Fighting His Battles or Serving His People

“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!”

It seems that Christianity has yet another new movie to fixate it’s attention onto: War Room. I haven’t seen it – and I don’t plan to. For one, it seems like re-telling of the main theme of Fireproof, that is, of going to certain lengths to fix/restore a marriage, just from a different perspective and cast. For another, war-related metaphors really get my goat.

Part of the movie is about an older woman advising a younger woman to try to save her marriage by establishing a war room and a battle strategy from which she can fight the spiritual battle to fix everything that has gone wrong as a prayer warrior using prayer as a powerful weapon. It’s presented as if the wife does x (empty out a closet in which to pray and tape up verses and prayers on the wall) and y (creating and carrying out a prayer strategy), then God will do z (take action to fulfill one’s prayers – even in unexpected ways). It’s a fail-proof formula for summoning God and making God do what you want. It seems that somebody forgot to mention that God doesn’t work that way. Surely, if God did work that way, then everybody would be a Christian x-ing and y-ing their way to God z-ing them wealth, health, employment, success, winning every game, etc.

I also think America Christianity is often too eager to fight and not eager about teaching the more peaceful aspects of Scripture. For one, Jesus didn’t rely on battle metaphors, but he used a variety of things to say different things to different people. We might be predisposed to prefer battle metaphors over servant metaphors, but the degree that Christians deal with the world shows that we’re more apt to battle the world than to serve the world. What would have been so wrong with cutting out the battle terminology altogether?

I don’t have a closet, but if I did, I wouldn’t tape up prayers on the wall – and certainly not in English for just anybody to be able to read. If I referred to it as my war room, then it would be my goal to keep the prayers coded and keep them secret. After all, an actual war room without coded intelligence and strategies seems like easy pickings. It’s also not unusual for misinformation to be a part of secret files so that if they were found then lies would be spread around and the truth would be spared. But that’s why battle metaphors are clunky when used in spiritual contexts. We only like the ones that ‘work’ for our application and we never really carry them out to any logical extent anyway.

Like King David, he fasted and he prayed – surely God will do whatever he wants because he didn’t eat a few meals, right? But what happened? The child for whom he was praying died, so King David went and got himself something to eat. And Daniel – he prayed in a rather public manner and got thrown in with the lions for it. He was not spared the consequence of breaking the law – just the death that usually came with it because God really liked him. We don’t need this movie to think about the prayers that have gone unanswered up to now. The ones where we don’t hear a word and ‘not yet’ sounds and looks an awful lot like ‘no’.

Perhaps some of the reason for that is that God ultimately likes to take credit for answering prayers. He likes to wait so that we can’t say ‘I prayed in my war room/prayer closet and I fasted for days so that God would give Me what I want.’ Perhaps he would rather hear: “I knew that I had no hope, that nothing I could do could get me out of the mess I made, but I cried out to God and He took mercy on me and helped me out.” I still think that for a lot of people, they still have to face the consequences of their actions – a great many do not really get to know God until they’re at rock bottom or behind bars. It’s not a failure on God’s part to prevent such things, but necessary for them to figure out prayer is not a ‘Get Out Of Trouble Scot-Free Card’. It’s also not a ‘Powerful Weapon’ – it’s so much more.

In a lot of ways I think Christianity would be better served to reclaim the pacifistic teachings of Jesus particularly in our violent and war-weary world. We’d also have to replace battle terminology and Christian soldier metaphors with those of other settings and types of jobs, for example, farming, fishing, shepherding, and serving. A subtle change in language can have a big impact in how you see the world and treat the people in it – as an enemy to conquer or fellow people to serve. Which will you choose?