Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Jesus Prayer

Dear Friends,

“Are you doing okay?” asked my dentist with some concern in his voice. “You’re very still.” We were in the middle of a very uncomfortable and lengthy root canal, but I was completely relaxed. My breathing had slowed as I sunk deeper in contemplative prayer and I was reciting the Jesus Prayer: LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME, A SINNER. I hate having work done on my teeth and my dentist is always kind enough to offer tranquilizers and sedation. But so far, all I’ve ever needed was Jesus.

The Jesus Prayer can take you into contemplative prayer and it can also fill the secular spaces in our life. When we’re out shopping. Doing laundry. Taking out the trash. Stopped at the light. In the doctor’s waiting room. That’s when our minds wander toward the trivial and these are the empty spaces in our day that we can fill with prayer. The Jesus Prayer redeems those moments and turns the secular into the sacred. 

The Jesus Prayer starts out in our mind with intentionality, and as it becomes the repetitive prayer of our heart, it comes to our thoughts spontaneously and without effort on our part. When the Jesus Prayer becomes embedded in our soul, we will find our thoughts praying it constantly and unconsciously as it becomes the background music of our life. I wake up in the night and in that hazy mental state, when my mind is not yet fully awake and I’m floating in a free-flowing stream of unconscious thoughts, I’ll find myself praying the Jesus Prayer. While we’re sleeping, the Holy Spirit is praying in us to Jesus and through Him to the Father. Even in sleep, our spirit connects with His Spirit. Prayer is our intrinsic desire. Our souls cannot develop without prayer. As our lungs must fill with air, our souls must fill with prayer.

The Jesus Prayer is avoided by some because of Jesus’ warning to not engage in repetitious prayers but a careful reading of Matthew 6:7 shows that we are to avoid “vain repetitions” – those that are meaningless and worthless. There is nothing more worthy than the name of Jesus and  from the 4th century, monastics have used a form of the Jesus Prayer throughout their day as a way to “pray without ceasing..” 1 Thessalonians 5:17 Over 1,000 years later, the Roman Catholic Church would develop the “Hail Mary” prayer and the use of the rosary, but the Jesus Prayer has remained the practice of the Orthodox church for over 2,000 years. And now today, Protestants seeking a deeper connection with God have discovered this ancient tradition.

The Jesus Prayer is not a mantra or magic talisman. It is recited with fear (reverence) of God and with faith and love. Speaking the name of Jesus invites and instills His presence. Speaking forth the Holy Name, places the reality of God into our circumstances. Life happens. We get stressed. Thoughts can become unhealthy and can even be incapacitating. We worry. Obsess. Get angry or depressed. Praying the Jesus Prayer at those times will break the bondage of those thoughts and bring the peace of God.

Because I’m a geek for gadgets, I recently bought an inexpensive Pulse Oximeter that clips on your finger to give you a digital readout of your pulse and the amount of oxygen in your blood. One afternoon, I was stressed and very upset at something and could feel my heart beat harder and faster and my blood pressure rise. I clipped on the little device to see what my heart rate was and then, as I normally do when I get stressed, I started to pray the Jesus Prayer using it as a breath prayer. I watched my pulse rate slow down to lower than normal and I was soon relaxed and stress-free. When life happens and we become stressed, we can use alcohol or prescription drugs to self-sooth our soul. Or we can use the Jesus Prayer.

There are also times when I don’t know what to pray. When I need to pray but can’t and I don’t even know how to begin. I always start with the Jesus Prayer and soon the flow of spontaneous prayer comes pouring from my heart.

The Jesus Prayer is LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME, A SINNER. Matthew 16:16 and Luke 18:13 Some people eliminate the last two words. For awhile I did too until I realized I was avoiding this penitential phrase out of a prideful spirit. The Orthodox practice combines the Jesus Prayer with deep breathing. (while inhaling) Lord Jesus Christ, (exhaling) Son of God (inhaling) have mercy on me, (exhaling) a sinner. Even if you don’t normally use the Jesus Prayer as a breath prayer, I highly recommend it during a root canal.

In contemplative prayer, we find a place of silence, solitude and stillness. We can pray the Jesus Prayer continuously without ceasing “until God’s love has been poured into our heart.” Romans 5:5 Greek Orthodox monks use a woolen prayer cord called a “komvoschinion” that has 50 or 100 knots tied in it and they use it to pray the Jesus Prayer hundreds or thousands of times per day. You and I don’t live in a monastery or convent. We live in a very secular, stress-filled world. 

But we can use the Jesus Prayer throughout our day to stay connected with God in both the daily mundane and in the most stressful circumstances. It's difficult to describe, but the Jesus Prayer will allow you to stay focused, relaxed and energized at the same time. This prayer can bring a sense of meditative calmness even in the midst of chaos. We do not disassociate from conscious and discerning thoughts, but we invite the Presence of God into the center of those thoughts and into the ebb and flow of our life by invoking His name in all that we do.

“You have made us for Yourself,O God, 
and our heart is restless 
until it finds its rest in You.” 
Augustine of Hippo ~ 354 A.D.

[The above is a revised and expanded version from an earlier AMEN Corner]

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Is Contemplative Prayer Okay For Protestants?

Dear Friends,

Many churches today are teaching an ancient prayer practice that  fundamental and reformed churches call a new-age “DOCTRINE OF DEVILS.” Is it really? Contemplative Prayer grew out of the spiritual practices of the 2nd century Christian mystics who were seeking an experiential relationship with God. It became deeply embedded in monastic life and is still being practiced in the Orthodox and Catholic churches today much as it was in the first centuries by those seeking the presence of God in their lives. But the reformation ended the practice of Contemplative Prayer for all those who would become known as “Protestants.” Martin Luther was a disgruntled Catholic priest and monk whose (justifiable) anger at the church caused him to reject all spiritual practices he had learned during his 12 years in the monastery. Luther developed a religious life-style that excluded any experience of God beyond reading our Bibles. He taught that contemplative prayer must be “banished from your heart”. Luther’s Works: AE Vol 24:257 For Luther, the academic and lawyer, the study of scripture was far more important than prayer as a direct communication with God. “Meditation,” as Luther described it, was simply the continual study of scripture. This is not to pick apart the sincerely-held beliefs of Martin Luther but to simply explain why some of us reject what all Christians believed in and practiced for the first 1,600 years.

Even those of us non-Lutheran Protestants have been “Lutherized” and we banish spiritual disciplines practiced by the early church. And while much of church tradition (selling of indulgences) that got Luther so riled up is gone from our Protestant practices, we’ve replaced the experience of God in our lives with church attendance, Bible studies, Men’s and Women’s groups, social activism, “Christian politics” and if we pray at all, we simply recite the requests we have on God’s “to-do” list that we created for Him. I have known those who were the most diligent, Bible-quoting, church-going Christians you could ever hope to meet. But their spirit was shriveled and starving. Their mind overflowed with God’s Word but their soul was empty. They were filled with our Protestant way of doing church but they had never known the presence of God. 

For us Protestants who are still uncomfortable with contemplation because it sounds a little too “Catholic,” please remember Jesus. When the Son needed to communicate with His Father, Jesus never ran to the Temple or the nearest Synagogue to read and study the scriptures. Jesus went off by Himself. To the mountain top. To the silence. The solitude. Jesus met His Father in the stillness. “So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.” Luke 5:15 (see also: Luke 6:12; Matt 14:23; Mark 1:35) So is meditative prayer really an appropriate way for us Protestants to pray? It is if you want to pray like Jesus...

Fundamental and Reformed churches still denounce Contemplative Prayer as demonic, but the spiritual tide is changing and most Protestant churches have turned to Orthodox/Catholic spirituality and mysticism in an effort to recover the spiritual disciplines practiced in the ancient church. Even today’s nationally-known Evangelical Protest-ant pastors have endorsed it. (Rick Warren, Tim Keller Charles Stanley, Chuck Swindoll, John Piper, and Max Lucado) One of our Nation’s most respected, conservative theologians, the late Dallas Willard, wrote a book titled, HEARING GOD: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God. If you are interested Contemplative Prayer, this is one book that will take you much deeper.

Contemplative or Meditative Prayer has been described as the opening of mind and heart – our whole being – to God. It is stilling your thoughts and emotions and focusing on God Himself. It is accepting God’s invitation to come into His presence, so that you are better able to hear His voice loving, encouraging, correcting, guiding and directing you. Focused attention on God alone is a meditative practice. Scripture is designed for meditation and our Bible is filled with exhortations to meditate. See Philippians 4:8 as an example. At the heart of meditative prayer is silence, solitude and stillness. We start by finding a quiet sacred space in our home (silence) where we can be by ourselves (solitude) so that we can just sit-a-spell (stillness). 

No one can possibly accuse Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren of teaching heresy or “new age” biblically unsound practices. Warren has said that “God wants us to connect with Him on a moment-to-moment basis.” He said we should “use ‘breath prayers’ throughout our day as many Christians have done for centuries.”

Contemplative Prayer starts with deep breaths to relax. Breathing in on the count of five. Exhaling on the count of five. Breathe through your nose and relax. You should feel your stomach move as your breath fully inflates your lungs and presses down on your diaphragm. In THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE, Rick Warren says to “choose a brief scripture or simple phrase that can be repeated to Jesus in one breath.”  Repeat the word or phrase. After several minutes of focused breathing and repeating the phrase, we find that any anxiety or stress is gone. We have almost effortlessly transcended into a contemplative state beyond words, emotions, images or forms. Thoughts slow down and the sense of our separateness from God disappears. We come into a unitive experience with Him. We’ve not abandoned our discerning thoughts nor taken leave of our senses. But our mind is clear of the clutter. In the silence, the solitude, the stillness, we come into the presence of our Heavenly Father.    To Be Continued...

Revised and expanded from an earlier AMEN Corner

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Is There Really Free Will?

The Maze of Theology
Dear Friends,

After last week’s AMEN Corner on the sovereignty and providence of God, a reader told me that it left her more confused then ever. That’s understandable. Even the church is confused. There has been a dispute about the sovereignty of God versus the will of man ever since the Reformation five hundred years ago. God's sovereignty refers to the power that God has over His creation. Providence refers to God using the power of His sovereignty to control all things in the world. “We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they will fall.” Proverbs 16:33 NLT One of the things that we like to say in Evangelical Christianity is that God is in control. But is He really? How about our own will? Can we override God? And if we can exert our will to override God then who really is in control? This doctrine of free will is not an insignificant matter in the church, and Christians have gone to battle and killed each other over this doctrine.

Let’s go into this theological maze to see what we can find. Martin Luther began the Reformation with a denial of free will that was fundamental to his doctrine of justification by faith alone. In his book “On the Bondage of the Will,” Luther adamantly argued against the concept of free will. Luther said, “I condemn and reject as nothing but error all doctrine which exalts our free will.” John Calvin agreed with Luther and taught the monergistic concept of providence meaning that God is the single active cause of all activity in the world. Many churches believe that today, but the difficulty with an absolute concept of divine providence is that if everything that occurs is a direct action from God then that makes God responsible for both good and evil. Meaning that God causes cancer, earthquakes in California, tsunamis in Japan and planes to fly into New York buildings. God recently caused the mother to torture, kill and dismember her three year old daughter and He was behind the bombs that killed 258 people and injured over 500 in Sri Lanka during Easter morning services. According to Calvin’s reformed theology, the evil that God wills is the necessary dark side of a greater good and all things are worked out according to Romans 8:28. But if I was a Christian who had just lost my spouse and children to a drunk driver and I was told by someone in the Presbyterian, Reformed or United Church of Christ (Calvinistic) churches that it was the will of God, I’d become an instant atheist. 

While those first Protestants were wrestling with Luther’s and Calvin's denial of free will, here comes a reformed Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius who ascribed to the historic, classic and Apostolic doctrine of free will that had been taught by the church for the 1,500 years leading up to the reformation. Arminius said about Luther’s and Calvin’s teachings that “It is not in the character of God to plan and carry out evil.” Arminius said that evil arises out of the corrupt intentions of fallen human hearts and not from God's perfectly loving and benevolent will. Arminius believed in the providence of God and believed that He does not cause sin, evil, and tragedy but does permit them for the sake of our freedom of will. This is an action of self-control on God's part. He is sovereign and has full power but chooses to allow us to have free will and make choices. You and I can choose to do evil, and when we do, those sinful choices incur God's powerful wrath and His judgement.

When I was growing up in the Episcopal church, the trend was to speak only about moral topics from the pulpit – typically on the social justice issues of the time. So I began to study Calvinist theologians because they were the only ones writing theological books. But I couldn't accept that God creates both good and evil and tried to talk about this with the pastor at a large Calvinist Baptist church when I was in my mid-20's. He told it wasn't my place to understand God and to not think about it any longer. All righty then..Thanks Rev! But my problem was that I couldn't stop thinking about it and while it was not a barrier between me and God, it did keep me out of church for a long time. 

Many years later, the Holy Spirit seized me and I recommitted my full life to Him despite the free will issue remaining unresolved in my mind. It was not until I went to Bible College and learned about Arminianism that it all fell into place. I remember when I first heard that explanation of God's sovereignty operating synergistically with man's freewill and feeling a rush of peace and understanding. Finally I was hearing a doctrine that perfectly dovetailed with a loving God and coincided with everything that I had read in the New Testament. Today, I say it like this:“We walk through our Journey in life in partnership with God. In all things, we can’t do it without Him, and He won’t do it without us.” 

A few years ago two Muslim brothers detonated bombs during the Boston Marathon and Joel Osteen was asked on a news program what he would say to the victims. I don’t always agree with Osteen but I appreciated his thoughtful response from the Arminian perspective. He said, “I would tell them that God has us all in the palm of His hand.” He said, “There are many things we don't understand, but God has given us our own free will and people choose to do evil things. When people put their faith in God, however, He’ll give you a peace and grace for every season.”

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Note: If you would like a more detailed and scholarly treatise on Calvinism and Arminianism, I invite you to read theologian and professor Roger E. Olson who has made it his life's work to explain these doctrines, You can read him HERE

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Coincidence? Or is it God?

Creation Of Life Hands - Leonardo Da Vinci

Dear Friends,

Last Monday, I drove into the Office Depot parking lot and saw the shiny black Hummer with the personalized “JESUS” license plate. I smiled because whenever I see that car, I know that my friend Cornelius is nearby. The first time I saw the Hummer, it was parked at Smart & Final and I want to meet any person who would have a JESUS license plate. I had no idea who owned it but I figured that anyone bold enough to have that license plate, I’m going to be able to recognize as a man of God. (Yes.. I suppose that does sound sexist and it could have been a woman, but the military-style, black H2 Hummer oozed testosterone and I knew it was a guy.) 

I recognized him instantly in the bread aisle as he walked toward me pushing his overloaded shopping cart. An African-American man about my height, weight and age, I knew he was the man I was looking for when I saw the large, chromed, bishop-sized cross that he was wearing. I was wearing my cross and so these two brothers in Christ took one look at each other and instantly connected. He’s ex-military, loves the Lord  and still grieves over the loss of his wife from cancer seven years ago. We’ve met up several times now at Smart and Final – he’s frequently there and loading up his cart – he serves twenty-one meals a day at his home. Cornelius lives at and manages a home for six developmentally-disabled adults. He is their caretaker, mother/father and friend. I call him their “pastor.” He doesn’t think of himself that way but he is their spiritual shepherd. The only difference between him and a megachurch pastor is the size of their church. His commitment to those God has called him to shepherd is unconditional and unwavering. He’s doing what Jesus would do. I see his heart and see a true man of God.

I hadn’t seen Cornelius in several months and was happy to see him at Office Depot on Monday where we talked for a few minutes. As I drove away, I was thinking that the next time I saw him there was something that I needed to tell him and I had something to ask him. Knowing it could be awhile before our paths crossed again, I prayed that I would see him soon. Three days later, I drove into the Smart and Final parking lot and saw a black Hummer with a personalized license plate that said, “JESUS.” Many people would call that a “happy coincidence.”

Not too long ago it was during my morning prayers that I heard my phone ping that a text had arrived. I pray so early in the morning that the only other ones awake and praying with me are professional monks and insomniacs. But my sister lives three time zones away so she’s finished her breakfast before I hear the roosters crow in my neighborhood’s pre-dawn darkness. She was texting me with the latest good news from her doctor. It was the answer to what I had just prayed about for her. Many people would call that a “happy coincidence.” 
A theologian once said that "Those who believe in “coincidences” are blind to the possibility that there is far more going on the spiritual realm than we know about or perhaps even care to know about."
Frederick Buechner is a Bible scholar, theologian, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of over thirty books. He writes that, “ a rule people see only what they expect to see. Angels are powerful spirits whom God sends into the world to wish us well. Since we don’t expect to see them, we don’t. An angel spreads his glittering wings over us, and we say things like, ‘It was one of those days that made you feel good just to be alive,’ or ‘I had a hunch everything was going to turn out all right,’ or ‘I don’t know where I found the courage.’” Or perhaps your prayer time is interrupted by your sister texting you with good news that’s the answer to what you just prayed moments ago. Who was responsible for the timing? The Holy Spirit? An angel messenger? I don’t know. But I do know it was no coincidence. 

Coincidence is defined as a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection. Scientist and physicist Albert Einstein had a more intellectual definition. He said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous!” 

Last week, Rhianna was talking to the owner of an automotive repair shop about his faith. He told her that he became a Christian six years ago and said that he used to believe in coincidences but he no longer does. When we see, hear and study the Word of God, our worldview and perspective about life changes and what was once seen as coincidence we now understand as His providence. The sovereignty of God refers to His Kingship. His rule and reign over Nations and the Heavens – over you and me. The providence of God refers to when He uses the power of His sovereignty to bring about the miracles that astound and delight us and to leave His fingerprints all over the pages of our day-to-day life. That word providence is not mentioned in the Bible but the biblical concept of providence is interlaced throughout the entire old and new testaments. Psalm 103:19; Proverbs 16:33; Daniel 4:35; Romans 8:28

God's providence is one area in which Christians and the rest of the world part company. Providence means that God has not abandoned the world that He created but works within His creation to manage all things. The world at large, even if they acknowledge God to have been the world’s Creator, thinks that God does not now intervene in human affairs. They think that miracles do not happen, prayers are not answered and things just happen as a result of circumstance and coincidence. But when you know God’s sovereignty and providence, you know there's no such thing as good fortune or a serendipitous twist of fate. That’s why, when the “happy coincidence” happens in our lives, we look up toward the heavens and say, “Thank You God! To You be all glory and honor and praise!”

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Is This New Theology Killing Churches?

Dear Friends,

“He is Risen!” is acclaimed on Easter morning and the traditional response is “He is Risen indeed!” But if you told nearly one quarter of our Nation’s Christians, that “He is Risen!” their response would be,No Way! A Catholic Jesuit priest wrote last week that “Progressive liberal Christianity is turning Christians in mainline churches into atheists.” Before you react to that, let’s learn from a self-described progressive Christian minister and find out what this offshoot of historic Christianity really believes. This is an ordained United Methodist minister who heads a campus ministry in Colorado and who published a paper on the theology of Progressive Liberal Christianity: “Jesus isn’t God. Jesus didn’t die for our sins. There isn’t a hell other than ones that we create here on this earth. God didn’t write the Bible. We believe that Jesus was divine in the way that you and I are, and he is not literally God. The trinity is a beloved Christian poem of who God is to us, but like all art and theology, poems don’t literally define things. Progressive Christianity is the post-modern influenced evolution of historic mainline liberal Protestant Christianity and it is an heir to the Social Gospel movement. It took its name in 2000 and draws from process theology, liberation theology, feminist, womanist and eco-theologies.” 

Progressive liberal theology draws from process theology which denies the biblical view of an immutable God and believes that God is always changing to conform to our human understanding of Him. In process theology, God does not control the future, we do. In progressive liberal theology, humanistic philosophy and a post-modern worldview become the foundation for the “Christian” religion. The Bible has been reduced to a collection of fictional stories which can be rewritten or paraphrased so that scripture conforms to modern liberal beliefs.

In the 1980's, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong became the voice of Protestant liberalism after he wrote books that elevated science and rational thinking while denying the supernatural. He wrote about the doctrine of the liberal church: Jesus was not God, was not born of a virgin, did not physically rise from the dead and didn’t go to heaven. There was no afterlife – you just ceased to exist – and hell was not biblical but an invention of the church. Spong taught today’s prevailing progressive theology that “the sole purpose for Christians on earth is to fight for social justice.” These were not new ideas invented by Sprong but during that time, he was (and still is) the main influencer of the liberal protestant church movement. A poll in the 1960's found that more than half of mainline Protestant clergy disbelieved the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of Jesus and other classic and historic church doctrine, but for fear that they would be defrocked and lose their jobs, they kept this non-Orthodox theology to themselves. 

The dean of the Wesley Theological Seminary, J. Philip Wogaman urged that Methodist, Episcopalian and Lutheran ministers be candid with their congregations and teach the liberal theology they personally believed but most of them instead preached vague messages with unclear meanings that only hinted at their liberal theology. What happened was that their congregations became confused about what they were hearing or became convicted that they were hearing heresy and left the church completely or drifted away into the more Evangelical churches. 

Many of you know that I was a cradle Episcopalian. Baptized, Confirmed, an acolyte for seven years and on a vocational path to be an Episcopal priest. It was the late 1960s and under the growing influence of Father John Shelby Spong, the denomination began a strong push for the social gospel. One Sunday, I’m vested as an acolyte to assist the priest and I’m sitting beside the altar during the sermon. I suddenly realize that for many months the only sermon topic has been about migrant farm workers and the impassioned call from the pulpit was not to follow Jesus but to boycott lettuce. Jesus had in fact been kicked to the curb in our church and United Farm Worker activist César Chávez was who we worshiped – I mean that literally. The Gospel for the day was read but there was no longer any mention of the Gospel from the pulpit. I couldn’t remember when the last time was that God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit had been mentioned in a sermon. I loved my Episcopal church but I loved God even more. That was when I left.

Bishop Spong led the Episcopal church and other mainline churches into rejecting nearly all historic Christian doctrine. Today’s belief that the progressive church must conform to prevailing liberal thought resulted in the recent rejection of scripture and 2,000 years of historic Christian teachings about homosexuality, marriage, gender and the human body. Today’s progressive Christians embrace the Western leftist identity politics which has lately been attacking the Evangelical church because it believes in the Bible. What is disturbing to me personally is that I see the truth in what the Jesuit priest wrote. “Progressive liberal Christianity is turning Christians in mainline churches into atheists.” I’m saddened when I read that both the ELCA Lutheran and Episcopal churches have acknowledged that they will most likely cease to exit in the next 20-25 years but I’m happy that conservative Evangelical churches who believe and teach historic Christian doctrine are thriving and growing. 

I have progressive liberal friends – one who is a pastor – who believe and preach what I do not. I love them like the good friends they are. I can wholeheartedly disagree with them and love them like Jesus. I laugh when they question how is it that I can consider myself to be a “Christian” since I’m not a liberal. And I know they love me like Jesus...

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Has Progressive Liberal Theology helped or hurt those churches who have adopted all or part of this new theology? One denomination lost over one million members in seven years after changing their doctrine on human sexuality. Read it HERE