Why We Don’t Have Self-Tying Shoes: Some Thoughts on Prayer and Fasting

MISC_BTTF_09_Still_1992547bSince October 21, 2015 was “Back to the Future Day,” a lot of people were reflecting on why we did not have all the inventions that were shown in Back to the Future‘s imagined 2015. Of course, some posts also noted the inventions we do now have that were correctly predicted or perhaps, inspired by the movie. (So, I stand corrected: apparently thanks to Nike, we will have self-tying shoes.) Whatever the case, I am going to offer my opinion that we do not have most of these inventions simply because we determined we had better things to do with our time.

We often determine we have better things to do with our time, so we rarely take the time to pray and fast.

In order to be effective, prayer has to be the first thing we do, not the last.”

This is a quote from Eugene Peterson. I retweeted it mid-July, but it keeps replaying in my mind.

It may seem unproductive to gather together in prayer for an hour each Friday. But I think it is also the most productive I can be with my time.

When I was appointed to serve as the interim pastor, one of my board members asked me, “How will you be able to continue all that you are currently doing?” When I was appointed, it was agreed that I would continue as the youth pastor. I was on track to graduate seminary in May 2016, so I made the decision to keep my current full-time class load. I told her, “Well, I guess I will have to get really good at time management.”

As I think about how to be the best steward of my time, I can think of no better way to spend my time than beginning with prayer. I need to remain centered on God. My focus can easily shift because my mind is always thinking about the next thing, so I need to constantly refocus my attention on God. And if I am being totally honest, I am not always great at doing that.

While I fast each year during Lent, I am not a model faster. The first year I fasted something for Lent, I failed multiple times before I gave up altogether. We don’t fast so people can look at us and think, “Wow, they sure are holy.” Despite the difficulty, fasting is worth it. Fasting requires us to intentionally go without something for a particular period of time. Fasting teaches us that we are not in control of our lives. Fasting enables us to reset our lives around sustainable, life-giving practices. That is why each Friday, we are gathering at church to fast and pray.

lightstock_160956_medium_user_3534272Prayer and fasting is one of those things we can’t afford not to do. That double negative is there simply to say, we need to do this. People were already gathering on Thursday mornings to pray; our church is already available for anyone to come during the day Thursdays to pray. Why another time to gather and pray? My question is: can we really gather and pray too much? That is rhetorical, of course. “How did we start doing this prayer and fasting on Fridays?” someone asked.

Maybe it started because I knew my church was in the midst of pastoral transition, and I knew we had to seek God’s will. Maybe it started with the picture of Aylan. Maybe it started with the Refugee crisis. Maybe it started with a missionary coming to our church asking if we would be willing to give our lunch. Maybe it started the first time I prayed for God to break my heart for what breaks God’s heart. You know, I don’t know how it started. I simply know we must pray.

Maybe prayer doesn’t feel like an action enough response to all the brokenness around us. There is more we can do. I recommend this blog post from Ann Voskamp. Here is what I know to be true: I know prayer makes a difference. I have heard stories. I have been the character in stories where the climax has been: prayer worked. Prayer works.

We turn on the news, and we hear about more tragedy. All we see and hear on the news is tragedy. It is all around us. We cannot become numb to it. One way to combat becoming numb is to pray. To recenter and refocus ourselves on God and on God’s calling for us and every one of us. We are called to love and serve God and our neighbor. I need to reset my life around sustainable, life-giving practices.

Will you join me?

Bible Review: The NIV Zondervan Study Bible

_240_360_Book.1662.coverAs a pastor, I am always looking for a solid study Bible to recommend whenever anyone asks. Boasting that it is “built on the truth of Scripture and centered on the gospel message,” the NIV Zondervan Study Bible is worth a recommendation. The New International Version is one of the most widely-used translations (and the translation I tend to use while preaching), so this makes for a helpful resource when studying the Bible.

It is well-designed–colorful and full of great illustrations. The overall format and layout is incredibly well done. It makes it easy to use and read. Another bonus is that with a purchase of the hardcover edition, you will receive electronic access to the NIV Zondervan Study Bible as well.

The NIV Zondervan Study Bible includes maps, concordances, charts, timelines, and IMG_5847illustrations to enhance one’s study. It has helpful introductions and outlines of each book of the Bible. It contains study notes which allow for readers to gain a better understanding of the context of the text. There is room to take a few notes on the margins. Just the fact that it includes more than ninety colorful maps is enough to make me recommend this Study Bible. Anything that helps you gain a better understanding of the overall context of a particular text and the overarching narrative of Scripture is worth it.

Of course, this Study Bible is not without its negatives. The Bible is just a little too heavy to carry around frequently, so it really works best if you leave it for home study. I cannot imagine lugging it around to Sunday School and church each week. It is 2,880 pages and weighs about 4.6 pounds. Unfortunately, it does contain small font simply because it contains such comprehensive information.

If you note that its general editor is Dr. D.A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and founding member of the Gospel Coalition, you will not be surprised that it has a particular theological slant. This fits in with Evangelical Protestant theology. There are articles on “sin,” “creation,” and so many more articles written by scholars like Timothy Keller, Kevin DeYoung, and Douglas Moo.

If you are looking for a comprehensive Study Bible, this is definitely one to consider. You can buy it on Amazon here.

IMG_5845

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Book Review: A Fellowship of Differents by Scot McKnight

_240_360_Book.1615.coverKnown for books like The King Jesus Gospel and The Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight explores Paul’s vision of the church and helping us understand what Christian fellowship should look like in his newest book, A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together.

Weaved together with his own personal experience in church, McKnight looks at Christian life by asking: What is the church supposed to be? and If the church is what it is supposed to be, what does the Christian life look like? He writes that God designed Christians for a fellowship of “differents.”

McKnight makes his point about the necessity of diversity in church by using a salad metaphor. Somewhat humorously, he explains that there are three ways to make a salad: the American way, the weird way, and the right way. The American way is to combine iceberg lettuce with a few vegetables, smothered in ranch or some other type of dressing. In other words, to make the individuality of the ingredients disappear under the homogeneous flavor of the whole. The weird way is to entirely separate the ingredients. Finally, there is the “right” way, which is to chop up spinach and arugula, add tomatoes, carrots, onions, red peppers, and purple cabbage. Follow that up with the addition of nuts and dried berries. Sprinkle some pecorino romano cheese on it. Drizzle olive oil over it to bring the taste of each item to the fullest. The church should be a mixed salad.

Our local church shapes us, notes McKnight. Therefore, our local church matters. Our local church influences what we believe and how we live out what we believe. Since local churches have such an impact on our lives, church is incredibly important. McKnight asserts that God designed the Church to be a mixture of people. Whereas he grew up in a “fellowship of sames and likes” without much variety, he states that was never God’s intention for the Church. The church is “God’s world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the table to share life with one another as a new kind of family.”

While it may be more comfortable to worship with people who look like you, have the same taste in worship as you, vote the same as you, and hold the same beliefs about everything as you, that is not a fellowship of differents. McKnight helps readers think carefully and critically about the Church. He writes:

God designed the church to make the previously invisible visible to God and to one another in a new kind of fellowship that the Roman Empire and the Jewish world had never seen before.”

While convicting, this is ultimately a hopeful message. He notes:

The purpose of the church is to be the kingdom in the present world, and the Christian life is all about learning to live into that kingdom reality in the here and now.”

I believe it is a worthwhile read, especially if you never interact with anyone different than you. When I worked for a Christian organization and volunteered with a youth ministry while attending a Christian university, I will admit I did not interact with a lot of people that were very different than me. Traveling from Christian Bubble to Christian Bubble is not the life God called us to live. Diversity is vital for the life of the Church. What if we, as the Church, reflected and embraced that diversity?

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

More Than Washing Feet

She wanted to have a foot washing ceremony. I told her she should give people warning before we do such a thing.

I know, there I was thinking about logistics and trying to make sure people were comfortable. Neither of which are bad things, but sometimes I just miss the point.

Sometimes I miss the moments that have the potential to offer us grace when we probably need it the most.

Anne Lamott writes:

Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.”

Fear drives me to want order and control, but fear also sometimes keeps me from tasting life.

We were in London at a church that began to feel like family. It was summer 2012. My friend began her sermon. In the middle of speaking, she pointed out how she wanted to wash people’s feet, but I told her not to. She called me out, threw me under the proverbial bus.

Never mind that she was about to tell a story about how sacrificial I was because I would wash dishes even though I hated it. The chosen illustration was instead how I told her she couldn’t do the things that Jesus himself did.

In my defense, I never said she couldn’t do it at all. Just that she needed to give some warning. That way, people would have time to prepare their feet. You know, trim toenails and wash them first. The ladies could paint their toenails. Feet can be a sensitive issue; I thought you needed to give people the option to tap out if they wanted to.

In ministry and in life, sometimes you need to admit when you were wrong. In this case, I was wrong.

Oh, how often I completely miss the point and, in turn, miss the blessing.

When God comes to you, you don’t always have time to clean yourself up first. You simply come to experience the holy moment. In an effort to be careful, I over-analyzed and missed the blessing. How often do we over-think and miss moments that could bless us and others?

I think the entire point of washing someone’s feet is to recognize that we are connected even in our brokenness and imperfections.

I have had pastors and Christian university professors who would light a candle before class or service as a reminder that the Holy Spirit is present. Yet there is something different about the Holy Spirit’s presence when one receives the Communion elements or baptism. There is something more tangible, more palpable. The Celtics call moments when heaven and earth meet “thin places.” Thin places are places where the boundary between heaven and earth are especially thin. We cannot fully explain it, but in these thin places, we sense the divine more easily.

In Prototype, Jonathan Martin writes this:

Foot washing is perhaps the most futuristic practice of the church, though not many people really believe that. Most Christians think they are being cutting edge and futuristic when they have a busy graphic presentation running on a Mac during their worship time. Removing our shoes before one another is a jarring practice even for church people–it’s like listening to a Radiohead album in the 1950s. But precisely because it is so jarring, so unnatural, so unlike the empire of illusion created by the prince of the power of the air, it is undeniably powerful.”

I have been a part of foot washing ceremonies before (some more elaborate than others), and it has always been meaningful. It has always made an impact. This past weekend I attended a wedding ceremony where the first act the couple wanted to do as a married couple was wash one another’s feet.

In London, when Pastor George blessed our feet, I will never forget how much I felt God’s presence. He wanted to anoint our feet, which I feel is similar to washing someone’s feet. It requires certain humility to allow someone else to wash your feet–to bless you by serving you. Pastor George was a retired pastor in the church; he was someone who had already spent years serving and pastoring others, but do you ever retire from serving and blessing others? He wanted to bless us as we stepped into the next phase of our journey. After spending a summer in London, we would soon be returning home.

Martin continues:

When I feel the touch of human hands on my hairy toes and calloused soles, it is terrible in all the ways it must be for Christ Himself to touch my most unlovely places with His tenderness. Every time, the tears burn my eyes. And as my self-consciousness and self-confidence begin to crumble, it’s not just my feet that are being washed; it’s the love of God like a warm balm on a bruised and battered soul.”

Foot washing requires humility: both for the person washing someone’s feet and for the person whose feet are being washed.

I wanted people to be able to prepare themselves, but even without preparation, we have it better than the feet Jesus washed. They did not have the luxury of hand sanitizer or daily showers. They had walked miles in dust and dirt. Without socks and tennis shoes, they walked miles in dust and dirt.

Peter said to Jesus just as Jesus was about to wash Peter’s feet, “You will never wash my feet.” Oh, to miss the blessing. Jesus did so much more than wash the dirt from someone’s feet. Jesus did so much more.

Washing feet is more than just the simple act of washing the dirt from someone’s feet. Our call and instruction is to follow Jesus–do for others as he has done for us. By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus modeled for us the ultimate act of humility and servanthood. With his life, Jesus modeled for us self-giving love. Like Jesus wanted the disciples to follow his example and be servants to the world, he wants us to do the same.

Book Review: Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

_240_360_Book.1565.cover“Is it a sin to doubt?” one of my teenagers asked me. In that moment, I realized our church has not always communicated or modeled that it is a safe place to doubt or ask questions. “We long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable,” writes Rachel Held Evans in Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.

This book was life for me. As a memoir of sorts, the book is structured around seven sacraments: baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage. She explains:

“It seemed fitting to arrange the book around the sacraments because it was the sacraments that drew me back to church after I’d given up on it. [The sacraments] reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.”

Her book is honest and hopeful; it was a refreshing and encouraging read. There have been several reviews already written about this book, and this review is only adding to the already-present chorus of praise. There is much I can learn from her words and her experiences. While I wish her book focused more on the sacraments (as she has recently written about “Going Episcopal” on her blog), I do appreciate that she organized her stories around the sacraments.

searching6
[Picture Source]
I remember on the first day of my Christian Beliefs class in college, my professor sat on the desk in the front of the classroom. He was frank and honest. As tears started to form in his eyes, he apologized for the ways the church has not been what it is supposed to be. He apologized on behalf of the Church for the ways those within the Church have burned you. He did not have to say those things, yet he recognized there were many people who are carrying “church baggage.” Similarly, Rachel Held Evans validates your experiences by openly sharing about her own. She comes alongside to say, “You are not alone.”

This book also broke my heart, because I have heard stories of brokenness. I have heard stories where the Church has hurt more than helped. So I deeply appreciate this book, and I deeply appreciate her outlook on life and Church. She writes:

“But there is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.”

I believe this book was even more significant for me as I was reading it during the Easter season. The Easter season calls us to live as resurrection people. While acknowledging the shift in church attendance, she writes:

“Death is something empires worry about, not something gardeners worry about. It’s certainly not something resurrection people worry about.”

If you have wondered if there is a place for you to voice your doubts, this book is for you. If you are willing to wrestle with doubt and questions, this book is for you. If you have been burned or hurt by the Church, this book is you for. If you have ever been a part of a church only to be let down or disappointed, this book is for you. If you are hungry for community, peace, or belief, this book is for you.  If you love the Church, this book is for you.

Buy it on Amazon here.

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Book Review: Savor By Shauna Niequist

_240_360_Book.1548.coverSavor: Living Abundantly Where You Are, As You Are by Shauna Niequist is a breath of fresh air. Niequist’s writing is conversational in tone. The devotions feel as if you are chatting with a friend over coffee, which makes this devotional perfectly paired with your morning coffee.

If you have read any of Shauna Niequist’s other books, Bread and Wine, Cold Tangerines, or Bittersweet, then a lot of the material will be familiar. By setting it up as a devotional, there is enough new information to make it worth the purchase. This devotional book is different than her previous books of essays, but her heartfelt words are still there. Each devotion is a short, easy read that helps start your day on an encouraging note. The devotions end with a few reflection questions.

She writes about brokenness as well as everyday life. From food to love and faith, she weaves celebration alongside heartache. She writes:

“I have been surprised to find that I am given more life, more hope, more moments of buoyancy and redemption, the more I give up. The more I let go, do without, reduce, the more I feel rich. The more I let people be who they are, instead of cramming them into what I need from them, the more surprised I am by their beauty.”

She writes about friendship and sharing meals:

“Everyone would rather have a simpler meal and a happier host. The warmth and love you show your guests is the key ingredient in any gathering.”

It includes several recipes including Pumpkin Banana Anything Muffins and Curried Cauliflower. There is even a recipe for “Jennifer’s Catbirds/Carnitas,” but do not be scared, as she explains:

“I asked [Jennifer] for her recipe after a Cinco de Mayo party where her carnitas stole the show. We’d just had a conversation about the evils of auto-correct, and then she sent me her carnitas recipes, which auto-corrected to Catbirds. The name stuck.”

I will admit I do not quite love this book like I do her other books, but this is a good devotional. While I do not utilize devotionals as much as other people, it contains plenty of lighthearted and encouraging nuggets. Do not just buy it to post a pretty picture on Instagram, but do buy it, dwell with it, and let the words nourish you.

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Some Thoughts on Good Friday

tumblr_nhekpuJHc61u732o3o1_1280There has been a kite caught in our lilac bush throughout all of winter. A bright neon green kite has just been stuck in a bunch of branches for months. This kite has been tangled—unable to fulfill its only real purpose. Kites were created to fly.

A friend of mine has been battling cancer for over a year. First it was esophageal cancer, then it was cancer discovered in her lungs. The doctors had little options when it came to the cancer in her lungs. While I do not understand or comprehend why this happened, I feel like the lilac bush branches are like cancer—preventing a beautiful person from reaching flight, her full potential.

Together we were Youth and Family Ministry majors in college; we both had a desire to be involved in ministry with youth. If anyone had the passions and gifts for ministry, it was Cassandra. She was considerate and supportive. I don’t remember when I was added to the group of people she would text every night with a scripture passage, but she would send a text message every night. She would include a scripture, and then a short message always saying something along the lines of “let me know how I can pray for you. I love you!” When I needed prayer, I could always trust her to be there for me.

It is not fair that her life was cut short. It makes me downright angry this happened. I know she was suffering, and I am praising God she is not suffering anymore. But her life was so precious. She touched and impacted so many people. More people than anyone could realize. Her influence was the kind that years from now, someone will make the connection that it was her kind words or support that kicked off a ripple effect of influence. Her passion for other people was obvious. She was always sharing prayer requests or stories of the teenagers she mentored. I remember several honest conversations we had. Our friendship was formed over several classes together. Neither one of us let our guard down right away, so our friendship was formed slowly over a couple years in college.

I do not believe the Church knows how to mourn, grieve or lament well. Today is Good Friday. Of all days, today should be the day we are able to lean into the tension that death is a reality. Christ was killed, crucified on a cross. Yet we are all eager to hurry past the cold, dark harshness of death. I understand why; death is uncomfortable. We all long for resurrection.

I remember standing in the parking lot of my college campus when I received the news one of my best friends and his wife were in a car accident. A couple pastors saw a group of us crying and shaken with shock and grief. They said, “We do not mourn like the world mourns. We grieve with hope.” I knew their words were right and true, but we do still mourn. Our hearts ache when we lose someone we love. We do grieve with hope because of resurrection. Yet, Easter comes after Good Friday and Saturday. The Saturday that looms with darkness as we ask, “Is God here or not?” It’s an overwhelming sense of grief, so we fill it with Easter egg hunts or dyeing Easter eggs.

Yes, Easter is on Sunday. Christ’s resurrection did come—death was not the end of his story, nor is it the end of the story for Cassandra. But today is still Good Friday. Today is the day we sit with our own experiences of suffering and death, the very experiences that make us shuffle uncomfortably in our seats. We rarely seek out opportunities to dwell in a place of suffering. When I was in the gas chambers at Dachau, the concentration camp, my natural reaction was to flee. I wanted to leave immediately, to pull away.

Good Friday provides us the time to ask the questions we never feel are appropriate to ask. Jesus, why didn’t you save yourself? Why didn’t you come down from the cross with power and glory? And then there are our modern-day Good Friday questions: Why couldn’t you heal Cassandra? Why couldn’t she have been a miracle? But Jesus died for us. He knew it was not the end. Writer Barbara Johnson said that we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. One only needs to turn on the news to see how true this is.

Suffering and pain are a part of human life. Good Friday allows us to acknowledge that, sit with it, dwell in it. Our culture rarely provides us with the opportunity to acknowledge our hurt and pain. Good Friday lets us join Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the others who stood at the cross because Jesus, whom they loved, was dying. They wanted to keep vigil with him. They wanted to cry and mourn. They were mourning not only the death of Jesus, but, in a way, also the death of their expectations. Those who were waving palm branches just days before did not see it going like this. Good Friday gives us the space to mourn the many losses we have experienced and will continue to experience.

Good Friday helps us recognize our longing and desperate need for God. Our salvation was never something we could do for ourselves. Another friend of mine sent me the link to this article, which says,

“We know how the story ends, but in that one infinitely dark moment all the theology in the world offers little comfort. Miracles are shrouded in grief, and faith struggles to breathe. So we are left standing beside the grave that holds the broken body of our God and the shattered pieces of our belief. […] Hoping against hope for resurrection.”

So, just hours ago, I was sitting in church during the middle of my Friday. I was trying to come to grips with Christ’s death, but also the death of my friend. Longing for resurrection, but knowing I cannot rush past Good Friday to reach Easter. Resurrection will come.