Review: Prayer in the Night

Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren. Downers Grove: IVP Formatio, 2021.

Summary: Both an introduction to Compline and a phrase by phrase reflection using one of the loveliest of Compline prayers.

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who work,
or watch,
or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ,
give rest to the weary,
bless the dying,
soothe the suffering,
pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous,
and all for your love's sake.
Amen

Over the last year of the pandemic, I’ve posted on Facebook prayers, morning and evening, (“Collects”) from The Book of Common Prayer. The prayer above, from of the office of Compline, is one of my favorites, and often I think of particular people as I pray each phrase. During the pandemic this has included the working and weary medical personnel, the people keeping vigil for those in ICUs, the sick and sometimes the dying, those afflicted with long-COVID, and others who struggle with chronic pain and illness. Amid this all I think of the joyous including new parents, graduates, and all of us who have received vaccines. I think of angels watching over and guarding us in the vulnerable moments of our nightly rest. I rest in the care of the Lord who watches for love’s sake.

Thus it was with great delight that I discovered on opening Prayer in the Night that it is organized around this loved prayer. Tish Harrison Warren takes us through her own journey of praying compline, most notably one night with her husband in an emergency room as she hemorrhaged severely during a miscarriage. She introduces us to Compline, the last of the prayers of the hours or offices, to be prayed at night before retiring. She writes of how Compline helped her at a time of loss of a baby and of her father:

“Compline speaks to God in the dark. And that’s what I had to learn to do–to pray in the darkness of anxiety and vulnerability, in doubt and disillusionment. It was Compline that gave words to my anxiety and grief and allowed me to reencounter the doctrines of the church not as tidy little antidotes for pain, but as a light in darkness, as good news.”

Tish Harrison Warren, p. 19.

In succeeding chapters, Warren offers reflections on each phrase of this prayer that come out of her lived experience with praying it. She begins by discussing the God to whom we pray in the dark, and how the prayers operate as cairns, rock structures, that help us keep on the path when we can only feel our way along in fog or the dark. She then turns to the way of the vulnerable–those who weep or watch or work, taking the phrases in reverse order. She concludes:

“Taken together, working and watching and weeping are a way to endure the mystery of theodicy. They are a faithful response to our shared human tragedy–but only when we hold all three together, giving space and energy to each, both as individuals and as the church.”

Tish Harrison Warren, p. 75.

From this she turns to what she calls “a taxonomy of vulnerability.” She describes her renewed understanding of the care of the angels in our sleep as she prayed for her first child each night. Her reflection on sickness includes insights into the wonders of our bodies that we often take for granted until illness. In weariness we are offered rest, one to learn from, and one who intercedes for us. Prayer for the dying reminds us of our own death and how we are taught to live in light of it and our resurrection hope. Suffering and affliction take us into new places of dependence upon God in our weakness, and call the church into depths we are reluctant to go. Then there is the risk of disappointment in joy and our need to be shielded here as well.

Finally, Warren concludes by exploring how God invites us into a deeper encounter with his love. In the night. When we doubt. In our illness and vulnerability. In suffering and affliction. The love of God, revealed in Christ, is the last word of this prayer.

The writing about goodness, truth, and beauty one finds in Warren’s prose is humbling. All I can say is what is found in this book is so much better and richer than my summary. Warren helps me pray a prayer I’ve loved with deeper meaning and consciousness of my vulnerability and the depths of God’s care. She offers good direction for all of us facing “night” in our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Spiritual Practices of Jesus

Spiritual Practices of Jesus, Catherine J. Wright. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of three spiritual practices of Jesus found in Luke’s gospel considering them in the first century context of his readers and the writings of the earliest fathers of the church.

Catherine J. Wright does several things in this book I have not seen before. First, she focuses attention on what the scriptures, and specifically Luke’s gospel have to say about the spiritual practices of Jesus. She does so systematically, looking at all the passages around a particular practice.

Second, she asks the question of how Luke’s earliest readers in the first century would have thought about the particular practice in question. In particular, she keeps in mind the intention of first century biographies not only to inform but also transform the readers. Consideration is given to the regard given the practice in the wider culture and how this might shape their reception of Luke’s account.

Finally, Wright looks at the earliest church fathers and their interpretations and responses to Luke’s gospel. This offers tangible evidence of how the church understood and received these accounts in their setting.

Wright focuses on three practices, each which recur in numerous passages in Luke: simplicity, humility, and prayer. For each, she offers commentary on the text, then discussion of the practice in first century culture, and thirdly, she goes back to the specific texts from the first overview and discusses what the early church fathers had to say about the text. Through all this, she both summarizes the practice of Jesus and draws compelling contemporary applications for the church.

For example, she considers the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and the rich man who approaches Jesus., noting the lack of generosity with both, the unwillingness to be dispossessed of wealth for the care of others, and in the latter’s case, to pursue the kingdom. Wright notes the expectations in both Jewish and Greek literature for the rich to be benefactors. In learning from the fathers, we learn that Chrysostom considered the failure to give alms to the poor to be theft. Basil of Caesarea teaches that “the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in poverty.” Wright then concludes with this trenchant application in her summary:

Perhaps one reason for the emphasis on radical almsgiving is the lens through which early Christians look at wealth. In their opinion, we don’t really own our wealth. It is placed in our care by God so that we may bestow it to those who have less than we do. Therefore, when we spend our wealth on ourselves alone, we are essentially stealing from the poor (and thereby from God). The reverse is also true. When we give to the poor, we show ourselves to be good stewards of the resources God has trusted us with, and we are, in essence, giving to God. This attitude could not be further from the attitude that many Christians in America have today.

Catherine J. Wright, p. 63.

She offers challenges around humility as the mark of the early Christian but forgotten in the contemporary church’s quest for power and influence. She notes the practice of continual, fervent prayer by both Jesus and his early followers and the superficial practices that characterize most of our Western churches.

As we hear of the practices of simplicity, humility, and prayer in connection with our Lord, we say, “but of course.” What Wright’s close reading of Luke’s gospel, and consideration of Luke’s earliest readers does, is challenge us to see what this meant for those who called, and call themselves disciples. As Wright traces this out, it becomes apparent that many of us have not looked very closely at Luke’s narrative, not the Lord of whom it is written, if measured by the lack of correspondence between our lives and His. Wright does not bludgeon us with this truth but beckons us to join Luke’s early readers in the embrace of these practices out of love for the one who called us and models and teaches them for us to live into.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Possibility of Prayer

the possibility of prayer

The Possibility of PrayerJohn Starke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: We both long for a rich prayer life yet think it impossible for all but the spiritual elite; this work points to the possibility and practices that invite us into that life.

Many of us approach this matter of prayer deeply torn. We long for a rich relationship with God, and yet our fast-paced, disruptive lives, makes such prayer seem the preserve of a spiritual elite. We long for transformation, yet struggle with prayer seeming to be a non-productive practice in our “show me the money” world.

John Starke names the issue for us:

   The Bible challenges our utilitarianism. The prayers in the Psalms use words of waiting, watching, listening, tasting, and seeing, meditating and resting. It’s remarkable how inefficient these actions are. They aren’t accomplishing anything. There isn’t a product on the other side of these prayerful actions. Yet over the years they bring steadfastness, joy, life, fruitfulness, depth of gratitude, satisfaction, wonder, an enlarged heart, feasting, and dancing. (p. 7).

Starke contends that the possibility of prayer rests in a God who became incarnate in his son and who cares so deeply for us that he knows our tossing at night as well as the hairs on our head. While we pray in our nooks and crannies, we also pray in the heavenly places with Christ, entering into relationship with a God who is gloriously “heavy” [the meaning of glory], holy, joyful, beautiful, relational, and available. He suggests as we read scripture considering how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might be speaking to us, inviting us into deeper communion with the triune God.

He addresses one of our greatest barriers, which is a reactionary heart and way of life, a habit of the heart where we ignore living out of an inner life and are shaped by our responses to circumstances that only the slow, quiet work of prayer may shape. Prayer can be painful because it calls upon us to expose our vulnerabilities, and our sins to God. Learning to pray means learning to wait, to dwell or abide with God amid the ordinary, the mundane, when nothing special seems to be happening between us and God.

Starke then considers the practices that take us into this “possible” life of prayer. He focuses on the practices of communion, meditation, solitude, fasting and feasting, sabbath, and corporate worship. I particularly appreciated the chapter on fasting and feasting, particularly Starke’s recognition that we more often associate spirituality with the fasting side of this rather than a rhythm of both. I also found this striking  insight from Psalm 77:10-12 on the distinctive character of Christian meditation:

The psalmist is not engaging in passive exercises. This is not the gentle emotional work of relaxing and trying to empty your mind. It’s fighting. These are intentional habits: I will appeal; I will remember; I will ponder; I will meditate. Christian meditation is fighting, grasping for joy, It’s intentionally and regularly remembering and pondering the history of God’s power for his people. If you coast, you lose. (p. 111).

Starke offers spiritual wisdom borne of his own spiritual journey and pastoral ministry among busy New Yorkers. He encourages us that engaging with God is possible for ordinary saints if we begin to pursue the slow, quiet ways of prayer, and persist in a relationship that, over time, can bring great joy and transformation.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Teach Us To Pray

teach us to pray

Teach Us To PrayGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: A concise guide to prayer based on the Lord’s prayer, with a central focus on the coming of the kingdom and a dependence upon the Spirit expressed in thanksgiving, confession, and discernment.

Perhaps one of the most common struggles for many Christians is the practice of prayer. Little wonder that the disciples, observing Jesus at prayer, ask him, “teach us to pray.” In this small but rich book, Gordon T. Smith considers the practice of prayer through the lens of the model prayer Jesus gave his disciples in response to their request.

Smith begins with the observation that the whole prayer turns on the central request, “thy kingdom come.” He writes:

When we pray “thy kingdom come,” should not our prayer be an act of recalibration? Could our praying be an act of intentional alignment and realignment? That is, in our prayer our vision of the kingdom purposes of God will be deepened and broadened; we will be drawn into the reality of Christ risen and now on the throne of the universe. And thus through our prayers we not only pray for the kingdom but come to increasingly live within the kingdom, under the reign of Christ. (p.11)

From our longing for the kingdom come flow three movements in prayer, each of which Smith takes a chapter to cover:

  • Thanksgiving: We align ourselves with God’s kingdom by recognizing how the kingdom has already come and is at work both in our lives and in the world. We celebrate the goodness of God, dwell in the love of God, and in suffering both lament (an acknowledgement and cry to the God we even yet believe is good) and trusting thanksgiving for that goodness and what is formed in us through suffering.
  • Confession: We align ourselves with God’s kingdom by acknowledging where we are out of line with God’s intentions, accept responsibility, seek God’s mercy, and both receive and grant forgiveness, as we embrace the way of truth and light.
  • Discernment: We align ourselves with God’s kingdom by asking and listening for God’s direction for how we may participate in his kingdom purposes. We learn to hear the voice of the Spirit through the noise of our lives as we pay attention to whether this direction is congruent with scripture, whether we have reached a place of holy indifference, and find affirmation within the community to whom we are accountable.

If these three movements arise from the centrality of the kingdom of God, they crucially depend upon the Spirit of God. The Spirit helps us see the good works of God, reveals our sin and humbles our hearts, and guides us in consolation.

Smith also emphasizes throughout the book how each of the three movements are realized in the Eucharist, as we give thanks for the work of Christ, come in repentance acknowledging the reconciliation won through the body and the blood, and strengthens us to say what we need to say and do what we need to do.

A concluding chapter then considers both corporate and personal prayer. Here, as elsewhere throughout the book, Smith commends the Psalms as both Israel’s and our prayer book. An afterword deals succinctly and helpfully with petition.

This is one of those books one can give a person just beginning in the practice of prayer, while enriching and deepening the practice of those who have prayed for some time. Smith shows us how prayer connects to a whole life lived around “thy kingdom come.” He weaves the importance of our dependence upon the Spirit, the richness of the scriptures and especially the Psalms, and our gatherings around the Lord’s table. And so we are taught to pray.

Review: Simple Prayer

Simple prayer

Simple PrayerCharlie Dawes (foreword by Mark Batterson). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Helps us understand how the “simple” prayers of scripture and those from our hearts may lead us into deep relationship and communion with God.

I suspect that any of us who have set ourselves on the path of following Christ have struggled with prayer. For me it has been the movement from worrying about having the “right” words, to wrestling with things like prayer lists with long recitals of requests to beginning to wonder if I needed so many words and discovering that I didn’t need to fill the silences. Somewhere it dawned on me that the prayer the Lord taught his disciples can be spoken in fifteen seconds, and yet volumes have been written about it.

Charlie Dawes, in this book, observes that prayer can be simple, and yet not simplistic, that in prayer, deep can commune with deep without lots of words. Much like time with a person we love, we may enjoy a deep intimacy captured in a few words: “Lord have mercy,” “Your kingdom come,” “Forgive us our sins,” and “Father, forgive them.” In the Introduction to this book, Dawes writes,

“Simple prayers are all around us. They are found in Scripture. They are hidden in our daily lives. They swirl around our hearts and minds and rest on the tips of our tongues. Simple prayers are for both the novice seeker and the well-worn traveler on the journey of faith. Where do you find yourself at this moment? Are you new to faith? Have you been on this faith walk for years? Do you feel like you are losing your way? Do you feel the wind at your back propelling you into unchartered waters and have a rising anxiety about the unknown? Maybe you are looking for a way to deepen your prayer life. Then it is time to simply pray. We can trust that before we even articulate our thoughts, emotions, or needs, God already knows and desires to respond. A simple prayer paves the way for us to know and be known by God” (pp. 9-10).

The author begins by saying more about what he means by simple prayer, which is often the use of a single word, or short phrase, often drawn from scripture to capture  our particular longing for God and God’s presence. Then in succeeding chapters he writes about different simple prayers–the prayer of the heart, the prayer of faith, the prayer of forgiveness, the prayer of unity, the prayer of restoration, the prayer of finding your way.

Chapter seven focuses on simple words to pray–a single word or very short phrase. Here is one example:

“You know me. To be known by God is more than saying that God is aware of us; it is to say that God desires to inhabit every detail of our lives. God is not looking for a social media relationship with us, a relationship from afar. A need for intimacy is woven into us, and we all wander until we find our home in God. I remember watching the sitcom Cheers when I was younger. I loved when Norm would cross the threshold of the bar, and everyone greeted him with a loud, “Norm.” He was beloved, he was known. Take a moment and pray this simple prayer: You know me. Allow each repetition of this prayer to provide more and more assurance to your heart that you are indeed known by God. Your actions cannot undo this and you cannot earn it. You are not known as the sum of your skills or achievements. You are not embraced by the love of God because you have accumulated wealth or possess status. You are known because you are the beloved of God” (pp. 111-112).

What I appreciated about this work was that it articulated a way of praying focused less on methods or tasks, and more on intimacy with the one with whom we engage. It suggested what it might look like to “pray without ceasing” where we carry a word or phrase that we breathe before God throughout the day, like the Jesus prayer. This is prayer which liberates us from the temptation to “be heard for our many words,” tiresome for both the person praying and the one listening–what a mercy that God is so patient with so many of us! It is prayer without pretense or performance, just a few honest words that, like the Lord’s Prayer, may express volumes.

I don’t think this is all that may be said of prayer. Not all our models of prayer in scripture reduce to a word, a phrase or a few phrases. But if you have found the world of many words wearying and long for a more unvarnished, honest, and intimate relationship with God, these “simple prayers” may take you into new depths.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Praying For Your Pastor

Praying for your Pastor

Praying For Your PastorEddie Byun (foreword by Chip Ingram). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A practical guide both advocating for the importance of prayer for our pastors and offering a practical rubric in the form of the acronym PRAYERS.

“I often tell my congregation, “Your prayer support is my life support.” Someone who has been rescued from drowning or is recovering from a serious injury like a gunshot wound may need to be put on life support for a period of time. The injured person doesn’t have the strength to keep going by himself, so he needs the help of something outside of himself in order to allow his body to rest and to be strengthened to health again. In many ways, the pastor is under a wide range of attacks from the enemy. The attacks may come in various forms, such as gossip, criticism, slander, sickness, or even threats. There are days when your pastor feels emotionally burned out, physically exhausted, and spiritually weak. She feels she just can’t go on. These experiences are far too common and come far too frequently. These are the times when pastors need the life support of our prayers to keep them going. You may not know the struggles your pastors face today, but you can know that your prayers will make a difference in their lives” (pp. 22-23).

So writes pastor Eddie Byun in what is both an impassioned plea and practical guide to pray for our pastors. Throughout this book Byun uses both statistics and personal stories to describe the challenges pastors face that leads to so many dropping out of the ministry. He believes that one of the most important things churches can do is to mobilize teams of people to pray for their pastors.

Byun goes on to provide a simple rubric around the acronym PRAYERS to guide those praying for pastors. Each chapter in the book is organized around one letter in the acronym:

  • Protection: Against temptation, evil, and the enemy and praying through the armor of God (Ephesians 6:14-17).
  • Rest: For physical, emotional, and spiritual rest, for unhurried times with the Lord, against burnout and for times of refreshing.
  • Anointing: For growing intimacy with the Lord, greater consecration, and for power to be released in your pastor’s life and ministry.
  • Yielded heart: Daily transformation by the gospel, obedience out of love and gratitude for the cross, trust and obedience, growth in treasuring Christ.
  • Effectiveness: Wisdom, increased fruitfulness in life and ministry, in people being saved and discipled, and faithfulness to the end.
  • Righteousness and integrity: A strong foundation in one’s life, that all that one does is motivated out of love and honor for Christ.
  • Strong marriages and families: protection of marriage and family, support in the church to encourage pastor in marriage and family life, and strong discipleship of children with parents who live their faith.

Each chapter fleshes out these themes, provides discussion questions, prayer points, and action plans one may take to form and guide a prayer team. Reading this book challenged me with regard to how much (or little) I pray for my pastor and reminded me of the challenging character of his work as well as how thankful I am for him, and other pastors I’ve known who faithfully shepherd God’s flock.

It also reminded me again how important it is for all of us in ministry to have prayer teams. I am blessed with ten people who have committed to pray for me daily and I truly believe they have been instrumental in God’s work through the ministry in which I engage. Byun, in his concluding chapter quotes Deuteronomy 4:7 which says, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” He observes that while God is always present, there is a special way he is present to people when we pray for them. I know I need this, and I know those who pastor our churches need this. Byun’s book makes this case and shows us how we may get started.

When We Can’t Pray for Leaders We Don’t Like

pray-for-leaders-and-nations

When I wrote the other day on “Praying for a President You [Don’t] Like” I got as much feedback as I have gotten on about anything I’ve written, except when I’m talking about food with Youngstowners!

There were quite a number, perhaps a majority who felt this gave words to what they struggled to find words for. Some even wanted to reprint the post. I’m glad that my own process of giving voice to things I have deeply felt helped others.

Here is one comment that has had me thinking:

“I want to be at a place where I can pray for this President. I’m not there yet. I started to read Bob’s prayer and had to stop.”

There were others who had similar thoughts. I know many women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ persons, immigrants, (or Democrats!), and many others who are troubled by statements, things promised, or ideas put forth and how they were said in this campaign.

I’m grateful for that honesty. I thought this comment itself a great and honest prayer. To say, “God, I want to be at a place where I can pray for this President. I’m not there yet” seems to me to be enough and more than enough. A wise person said to me, “pray as you can, and not as you can’t.”

This brings me to a concern of whether it is right to pray for someone who commenters described as “evil”, “self-serving”, “narcissistic” and so forth. I sense some think that these qualities are irreversible. I find myself more reserved in such judgments, perhaps because I don’t have to look hard to find instances of these qualities in my own life. Even if there is a quantitative difference between me and another and a seemingly irredeemable character to the person, I think of Hebrews 10:31 that says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” The verse refers to those who hold the knowledge of the truth in contempt. I would not want any human being to face this, and if I think this a possibility for a person, I pray that God would extend mercy and transformation to spare them this “fearful thing.”

I do find myself pleading for this man (and any president) because both his and the nation’s destiny are at stake. I think of Luke 12:48 which says, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” I believe every leader will give account not only to their people, and in the case of presidents to the bar of history, but also to God. The apostle Paul, who calls upon us to pray for leaders said this during the reign of Emperor Nero, who wrought terrible havoc and even turned Christians into human torches to light Rome. Perhaps what helped Paul pray for even despicable leaders was the prayer of another martyr, Stephen, for those who stoned him while Paul (Saul) looked on. Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Some seemed to wonder if praying for a leader is tantamount to blessing, condoning, and submitting to what they do, particularly if it is evil or unjust. I have sometimes prayed that God would limit and thwart the evil particularly corrupt leaders have perpetrated. More than that, Christians have always believed that if the choice is obeying human authority or God, God wins hands down. Not only have Christians refused emperor worship, but they have sheltered fugitive slaves and disobeyed fugitive slave laws (in the US), they have sheltered Jews or others who are objects of genocide, often at the risk of their own lives, they have refused to participate in unjust wars, and more. They have marched, sat down, and boycotted. I can pray for liberty and justice, and my commitment to these inalienable rights may also require me to obey a higher law when human laws command idolatry or violate the rights to life and liberty of others.

I don’t know anyone but a fool or fanatic or lawless person who welcomes the chance to engage in civil disobedience. All the more reason, it seems to me to pray. Paul urges such prayer for leaders “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life.” We may not always be granted it, but it is never wrong to seek God’s shalom.

I’ll conclude with a friend’s comment that summed up well for me why we pray even for the leaders we don’t like:

“A true show of our character as people of faith is whether or not we can truly love our enemies, and one way of doing that is praying for them, regardless of how distasteful we find them to be. God is not incapable of changing and softening any of our hearts, including those of our leaders. Praying for the leaders that you despise requires the grace and maturity to put aside anger and hurt to appeal to God on their behalf (and the behalf of your nation, state, city, etc.).”

Praying for a President You [Don’t] Like

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President Donald J. Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0

Sometimes I’ve questioned friends of mine who are people of faith who constantly criticized the current president in social media, whether his last name was Bush or Obama. I’ve asked whether they prayed for their president as much as they posted against him. For any who claim to be attempting to live a biblically informed life, the Apostle Paul writes:

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2, ESV).

I find myself a bit in the place of the friends I’ve chided. While I don’t make a habit of endless posts on political matters on Twitter or Facebook, which I just think is tiresome and disproportionate to the realities of life, I have to admit that this is not the president I wanted. That person never made it out of the primaries (yes, I’m going to leave you guessing!). But there is no wiggle room, at least for me, out of Paul’s injunction. And so here’s how I will pray for our incoming president.

O God, you rule over all things, and so even though I can’t make sense of it, this man will preside over our nation. Have mercy on him, and on us! He needs your mercy. He has been entrusted with and will answer for much as he presides over one of the great nations of the world. He can do great good or great harm, and one way or another will give account for his stewardship of this trust.

Grant him a humble heart as he comes to grips with the huge task before him, greater, really, than any single person can handle. May it drive him to his knees in the most fervent prayers of his lifetime, and take him to a new place of recognizing his need for the good will and aid of all the people he serves.

He will need wisdom beyond all the experience he has acquired. Grant him to cherish this more than gold or silver. Give him wise counselors who will not be an echo chamber of his own thoughts but will have the courage to say the hard thing. Grant him the greatness of soul that listens to the hard word for what can be learned, no matter who is speaking it.

I am fearful, Lord, when I hear we are in a “post truth” era. O God who sees into and discerns the heart, give our president the awareness that every word is spoken before one who is Truth, and who sees the things that are concealed. Grant him to grow in integrity and be led by truth in this office, that he would see the horror of deceiving those he serves.

I long for a society where “liberty and justice for all” is not just a pledge but the daily pursuit of our president and all our public servants. Grant our president as one who has come from the place of privilege and power to set an example of using these, and when necessary, laying them aside to lift up those without place or power. Grant him and all our public servants, and especially those who administer justice, to be impartial toward friend and enemy alike, in the righting of wrongs.

I do long for a peaceful and quiet life, not only for myself but for all people. Grant our president to pursue the things that make for peace, between parties, between peoples of different ethnicities, between our social classes, our religious groups, between men and women. Grant the greatness of soul that uses the gentle answer to turn away wrath and to plant a life giving tree in desert lands.

Grant our president a courage that is not rashness and a resolve that is not bravado in the service of justice and the proper defense of our land. At the same time, grant him a generous heart both for our people, and for the peoples of the world who share our humanity.

Finally, guard our president from dangers physical and spiritual. Protect his marriage from the estrangements that pressure can bring and his family from the dangers of the public spotlight and the temptations to undue influence.

O Lord, it strikes me that it would be a hypocrisy to pray these high and noble aspirations for our president, but to excuse myself from these same things. Grant the grace, power and courage to all who seek you to live up to these things, both for your glory, and the good of humankind. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I apologize if this is more “religious” than is to your taste. I like what Jim Wallis, the founder and president of Sojourners has said, that “faith is always personal but never private.” Authentic faith, it seems to me always has both public implications and public consequences. At very least, putting this prayer out to you, I hope will have the consequence of committing me to pray it, or prayers like it for our president. I hope you will hold me to that, and if you share my convictions about a biblically informed faith, join me in those prayers. Our president, our nation, and our world needs them.

[In response to comments on this post, I wrote a follow-up titled “When We Can’t Pray for Leaders We Don’t Like“]

Review: Church for the Fatherless

church for the fatherlessChurch for the Fatherless, Mark E. Strong. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: Mark Strong chronicles both the crisis of fatherlessness in our society and the vital role the church can play in equipping fathers and caring for the fatherless.

Perhaps the most stunning statistic in this book was that 24.7 million children live in a home without their biological fathers. Countless others are not included in these statistics, including those with “absentee” fathers who formally reside in their homes, and those who have reached adulthood and bear the wounds of growing up fatherless. The impacts of fatherlessness include inward pain, poverty due to the loss of the father’s financial support, teen pregnancies, which occur at a much greater rate in the absence of fathers, criminal activity, and lower educational attainments.

Mark Strong details these impacts in the first part of his book and then calls the church to engage what he considers society’s most pressing problem. Strong speaks out of his experiences as senior pastor of LifeChange Christian Church in Portland, Oregon. He provides a straightforward account of what churches can do and calls on us to do it!

He begins by discussing how churches can embed valuing the fatherless in their corporate life, even as the Old Testament scriptures did for the people of Israel. He calls for awareness, avenues of ministry, and awards for progress. He describes in the next chapter how their church has gotten the message out, including providing a template for a sermon series.

One of the most important collections of insights can be found on the chapter on equipping men to be fathers. Strong develops a list of biblical values from Old and New Testaments and describes a curriculum built around these values.

He does not stop there. He also considers the work of mentoring the fatherless, providing father substitutes for those who have grown up without fathers and his fourfold mentoring strategy of There-Share-Care-Prayer. He then goes into greater depth of the vital importance of prayer for the fatherless and provides a reproducible prayer guide. Then he reaches the pinnacle in a chapter on God the Father, who truly can address the father needs of the fatherless. In a chapter that follows, he recounts how the fatherless have experienced healing from the wounds of fatherlessness. He then concludes with a chapter on how to start.

There is nothing fancy about this book. What you have is a pastor sharing his heart for the fatherless, and the ministries he has been involved with and the resources he has found helpful. Most compelling to me was the weaving of scripture and prayer throughout. It seems that anyone working with youth ministry could profit from reading this book. It also points up how critical intergenerational ministry in a church can be as men act as mentors to boys and young men who struggle with fatherlessness. This is a book that challenges churches to not just focus on strengthening the family but to be the family of God to those without fathers, to those who have no family. And it is a book of hope, telling the stories of the difference everyday faithfulness has made in the lives of the fatherless.

 

The Month in Reviews: May 2015

May continued the trend of listening to non-Westerners discussing theology. I read a travel narrative on prayer and a business narrative rooted in a study of Joseph the son of Jacob. In the history category, I worked may way through a sprawling history of Scotland and a parallel biography of Grant and Lee and their Civil War commands. I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s musings on the English language, a work that dealt with 145 “myths” about Christianity, and a plea for “slow church”. For some reason, I didn’t finish any fiction in May, but look forward to a review of the Pulitzer Prize winning All The Light We Cannot See which is one of the best works of fiction I’ve read in some time.

That said, here is what I reviewed in May with links to the full reviews:

MythsA Year of Living Prayerfully1. Exposing Myths About Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell. Under eight headings, this book offers 145 short essays responding to lies, legends, and half-truths about Christian faith in contemporary discussions, giving concise, thoughtful and catholic responses (in the sense of representing the wide swath of Christianity) helpful both to the person exploring the faith and to apologists and others who proclaim it.

2. A Year of Living Prayerfully by Jared Brock. Jared Brock and his incredibly patient wife Michelle go on a year long pilgrimage that takes them to the Vatican to meet the Pope and to Westboro Baptist Church and many other places alternately delightful and weird in a quest to deepen their prayer life.

slow churchMother Tongue3. Mother Tongue: The English Language, by Bill Bryson. This amusing and informative book surveys the history of the English language and all its vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations and why it has become so successful as a world language.

4. Slow Church by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. This book argues that the church has been “McDonald-ized” and that just as the Slow Food movement has returned to embracing food that is good, clean, and fair, so the church needs to embrace an ethic of quality, an ecology of reconciliation, and an economy of abundance.

Accidental ExecutiveCrucible of Command5. The Accidental Executive, by Albert M. Erisman. A former Boeing executive reflects deeply on the biblical character of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, and amplifies on these reflections from his own experience in business leadership and interviews with other executives in a highly readable account suitable for discussion groups in business and church settings.

6. Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–The War They Fought, The Peace They Forgedby William C. Davis. This is a dual biography of Grant and Lee that studies their contrasting origins and yet similar qualities of command through back and forth narratives covering similar periods leading to their climactic confrontation, the peace they established, and its aftermath.

Preaching the NTScotlandEvangelical Postcolonial Conversations7. Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis edited by Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha, and L. Daniel Hawk. This book arises from a roundtable that sought to apply postcolonial concepts to re-visioning evangelical theology and praxis, coming to terms both with how colonialism shaped evangelical theology and mission and what it means to listen to the voices of the formerly colonized.

8. Scotland: A New History by Michael Lynch. This one volume work provides a comprehensive overview of the history of Scotland from the Roman invasions, through the kingdoms of the Picts, the Wars of Independence, the rise of the House of Stewart, the Treaty of Union in 1707, the commercial and intellectual zenith of Scotland in the late 18th/early 19th century and its continued efforts to define its relation with the U.K down to the time of writing in 1992.

9. Preaching the New Testament edited by Ian Paul & David Wenham. The contributors to this volume consider how the character of the genres and sub-genres of the New Testament shape how these texts are preached with faithfulness not only to the meaning of the text but also to the type of text they are preaching. Essays include not only discussions of genres but also issues in hermeneutics and homiletics as they bear on the teaching of the New Testament.

Best of the Month: I would have to go with Slow Church. The authors of this book propose a different way of thinking about the church from so much of the mega-church and church growth models that have dominated evangelical discussions of what the church ought to be.

Quote of the Month: I chose this one from Exposing Myths about Christianity: 

“Original sin is actually a democratic idea. Without believing in original sin, one person might pride himself or herself on being better than another and one group or race or nation might claim to be better than others. The idea that absolutely everyone is a sinner makes it much harder to be arrogant and judge others” (p. 263).

In addition to the review of All The Light We Cannot See, look for reviews of a book on preaching centered around Christ, even when working from Old Testament passages, Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, and a book on caring for the creation that seeks to develop the biblical ethics behind our care for creation. Time allowing, I also hope to review David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers.

Perhaps from all these choices you will find a good summer read. Happy reading!

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