Wednesday, February 24, 2021

A Prayer For Lent

Dear Friends,

We look at another ancient prayer today in our series on developing a "do-it-yourself" Christian faith. Lent is a time of quietly coming before God in preparation for Easter. It’s a time of asking God to help us look deep within to honestly assess where we are missing the mark. It’s a time of repentance and renewal. And for those of us who may be looking for a new, fresh way to participate in Lent, let's continue to look back to ancient times and see what we can borrow for our own journey.

They call him Saint Ephrem the Syrian and he was born around the year 300 AD. Ephrem was not a bishop but an ordained deacon and is known by Bible scholars and historians because of the monumental quantity of writings he left behind. Ephrem wrote sermons, commentaries and hymns to combat the gnostic heresies that were leading people away from God’s Word and the teachings of the apostles. But he is best known in the Eastern churches by his prayer for Lent. This is not a Catholic prayer – most Catholics have never heard of St. Ephrem or this prayer. But it’s prayed by Orthodox believers everyday during Lent. And some of us who have been worshiping in Protestant churches all our life, (three fast praise songs, two slow medleys, pastor’s prayer, offering, 40 minute sermon, announcements, dismissal and donuts) are exploring historical Christianity  to see what can be recovered for our use today. In doing so, we are discovering spiritual treasure in these ancient church prayers and practices.

In the Orthodox church, the prayer of St. Ephrem is considered to be the most appropriate summation of the season of Lent. You could call it a Lenten Checklist. The Orthodox English version that is translated from the original Greek has been prayed in the Eastern churches for nearly two thousand years and that's the one I'm using for my commentary below. But if you are not comfortable with the King James English, at the bottom of this post, you'll see a link to a PDF file of both the original version and a contemporary version of the prayer that you can print out if you'd like.

“O Lord and Master of my life, give me not..” We are saying, “Keep me from succumbing to these evil thoughts and deeds. Lord keep me from falling prey to “..the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust for power, and idle talk.” Sloth brings a spiritual poverty to the soul. Someone at church once told me that they were just too lazy to pray. At least he was honest! We come up with all kinds of excuses to not spend time in worship, prayer and God’s Word but if we also were honest about it, many times it simply comes down to sloth. Paul says we should not be lagging in diligence, but should be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord. Romans 12:11 Spiritual sloth will starve our soul! 

The next sin is “meddling” and in 1 Tim 5:13, Paul says that we must not be idle gossips and busybodies, and go around town saying things which we shouldn’t. 

The prayer of St. Ephrem continues with a petition to keep us from the “lust for power” – a self-centered attitude. When we love power and control, we fight to elevate ourselves over others. Lord, take away our tendency toward self-centeredness and show us everyday how to be more other-centered in our lives.

We next pray that God would take away our “idle talk.” Lord, clamp Your hand over my mouth and keep me from idle chatter and empty words. Keep me from talking just to hear myself talk. Keep me from negative and complaining words that are empty of anything positive and life-giving. 

It’s too easy to give up chocolate or red meat for Lent. It’s much more difficult to give up laziness, meddling, a self-centered attitude and idle chatter empty of edifying and encouraging words. The only purpose of a Lenten “fast” is to give up what comes between us and God. So it the chocolate that’s coming between you and God? The prayer of St. Ephrem asks our Holy Father to remove from us that which keeps us from living the joyful and abundant fullness of life in Him. 

“But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity..” Chastity is not just used in the narrow sexual context but in the larger sense of living a wholesome life. Then “..humility..” Much of our sinful behavior is due to pride and the antidote to pride is humility. A heart of humility will take away any sense of entitlement we have. Next is a request for “..patience..” You may be blessed with the patience of a Saint or you may be more like me. Patience means accepting things as they are and not how you want them to be at that moment. 

And finally we ask in this Lenten Prayer for “” Not the touchy-feely love that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. You don’t even need people for that. You just need a cat or a dog. But this is God’s agape self-sacrificial love. This is the love that truly cares for another person’s needs and we willingly give of ourselves for them. This is Christ-like love. When Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” Mark 12:31 He really meant that.

And that leads us to the last part of this prayer. “Grant me to see mine own faults (sins) and not to judge (others).” We tend to worry, obsess and rage over the sins of others while ignoring our own. You can’t force others to change, but through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, He will show you your sins and give you the power to change yourself. And then finally we bless, extol, exalt and glorify God as the Orthodox Christians say “unto the ages of ages.” For 2,000 years, this prayer, mostly unknown to Protestants and Catholics, has been the “perfect” Lenten prayer in the Orthodox church. Perhaps it should be our prayer too. Amen?

If you'd like to pray the Prayer of St. Ephrem during Lent, click HERE for a PDF version that you can print and cut out.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Prayer That Sustains!

On Monday I’d decided to write this week’s AMEN Corner on the Jesus Prayer but because I’ve written and preached on it many times, I realized that I had nothing to say that would be fresh and original. Then Tuesday happened. I was out walking that morning when my foot struck an metal pipe sticking up out of the ground next to the sidewalk. The old adage of “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” became instantly true for me. 

I was walking fast and the momentum threw me forward onto the concrete but fortunately, my knees, hips and back were okay because my upper body and face broke the fall. I got up and my first thought was praise to God that I wasn’t badly injured and I could walk. I walked the two blocks back to the house praying that God would bring me safely back and He did. One side of my face was numb and I hadn’t realized what had happened until I took off my mask and saw it filled with blood. Now that I was inside, my body started to go into shock from the impact trauma and the exertion of immediately standing up and walking two blocks. I know how serious systemic shock can be and lay down with my feet elevated. I automatically started to pray the Jesus Prayer continuously, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me..Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy upon me..Lord Jesus...” 

As I prayed, I also continued to thank God that I was not seriously injured. I thanked God that He had protected me from breaking a hip (my dad broke his falling on concrete when he was about my age). I thanked Him for the coldness of the morning that required an old heavy leather jacket which cushioned the fall for my upper body. I started to curse the mask I was wearing. It prevents me from seeing the ground unless I look straight down at my feet and that was why I didn’t see the pipe. No..wait..“Thank You LORD!” That heavy cotton mask prevented more serious damage to my face! Praying the Jesus Prayer kept me from becoming anxious and worsening the effects of systemic shock and after twenty minutes the symptoms were gone. Praise God that in His grace and mercy, I was able to walk back and into the house before the shock hit or it would have been paramedics transporting me to a hospital. Whenever I’d stop praying, my focus turned from Him to me and the pain, and I’d become angry, emotional and feel sorry for myself. As soon as I’d start praying the Jesus Prayer again I’d feel His peace and knew that I was in His hands and everything would be okay. 

I texted a gruesome picture of the hole in my lip to my dentist and he told me to immediately see an oral surgeon. After calling over a dozen surgeons, Rhianna found one nearby who just had a cancellation and was able to see me immediately. Thank You Jesus! The oral surgeon stitched up the inside of my lip and then stitched up a large hole on my chin under my lip. Novocaine numbed my lip but not my chin and I could feel the needle and thread with every stitch. Throughout this procedure, I’d been praying the Jesus Prayer all along and thanking God that He had brought us to this doctor. In the middle of feeling so enormously grateful to God for how the day was turning out, the needle poked through my skin again and I felt such an intense joy in my spirit that I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud. My body slightly convulsed as I kept the laugh from escaping and the doctor asked if I was okay. “Uh huh.” How do you explain a Holy moment when you are lifted up, embraced by God and flooded with His joy in the middle of a painful surgical procedure? 

I found even more things to be thankful to God for in the following days. My doctor had a cancellation so I was able to see him and get a tetanus shot. He confirmed my belief that I had a “greenstick” fracture of a rib and told me it would heal on its own in three weeks – thank You Jesus! Only five stitches and a broken rib are insignificant minor injuries. “Thank You for protecting me as I fell, Lord!”

“For He shall give His angels charge over you, 
To keep you in all your ways.
In their hands they shall bear you up, 
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.” 
(or a metal pipe)
Psalm 91:11-12

I had recently recommitted myself to a spiritual discipline that had brought me closer to God and so I have no doubt that the devil himself arranged for the fall – that’s how he typically meddles in the life of a Christian. Satan’s goal is to alienate us from God so the Enemy scores victories when he can create events that make us angry at God for becoming hurt, sick, unemployed, divorced, experiencing a loss etc. We blame God, but God does not bring evil into our lives to cause hurts and painful situations, and when life does bring misfortune, “..we know that all things work together for God to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28 

Bad things happen. That’s life. And, it’s our constant prayers and expressions of gratitude that bring good things even when you fall on your face. Paul writes, “in all things give thanks.” Not for all things, but in every situation we can find things for which we can be thankful to God. Gratitude always changes our perspective. I had only one thing to complain about – I fell. There were dozens of things about that fall that I was grateful to God about and thanked Him many times that day.

The “life-verse” that God gave me many decades ago is “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing and in all things give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 As I prayed that day without ceasing and constantly gave God thanks, His response was to bring joy to my heart. That’s how it works. 

My default response to pain, blood, systemic body shock and a painful surgical procedure was the Jesus Prayer, but that was my automatic response only because I had embedded that prayer into my soul many decades ago. I am drawn toward Orthodox holiness and their prayer practices because they predate “Roman Catholicism” by hundreds of years and “Protestantism” by thousands. I pray the Orthodox Jesus Prayer when I go to sleep at night and when I wake up in the morning. I pray the Jesus Prayer so often during the day that it’s the foundation of all my other prayers. I’ll wake up in the night and as I’m coming back into consciousness, I hear myself praying it in my sleep – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me. Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware writes, 

“When (the Jesus Prayer) is recited regularly, it comes to our mind and lips spontaneously without any deliberate effort on our part – it becomes ‘self-acting.’ So it gradually pervades every part of our daily life, enabling each activity and each personal encounter to be Spirit-filled.” 

I have personally found that when the Jesus Prayer is prayed throughout our day, it becomes intrinsic to our faith and the background music of our life.

The Jesus Prayer is one of our earliest prayers from the ancient days of Christianity. In order to “pray without ceasing,” desert monks in the fourth century frequently prayed the early versions of the Jesus Prayer throughout their day and it has been prayed by Orthodox believers since that time. Obviously, it is impossible to literally pray every wakeful moment “without ceasing” and prayer was understood by the early Christians to be not just the verbal enunciation of words but a continual sense of God’s presence. Bishop Ware writes, that the use of the Jesus Prayer establishes within us a sense of His presence which will continue to exist at a deep level of our being even after we have stopped repeating the actual words of the Prayer.

I’ve been told by Protestant friends that it sounds “too Catholic,” but today, both Protestants and Catholics have joined their Orthodox brothers to pray this ancient prayer. You can’t get more “Protestant” than Southern Baptist, megachurch pastor Rick Warren who said that “God wants us to connect with Him on a moment-to-moment basis.” Warren said we should “use ‘breath prayers’ throughout our day as many Christians have done for centuries.” Another objection to the Jesus Prayer by some Protestants is that Jesus said, “When you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do.” Matthew 6:7 But continuously praying the name of Jesus is not a vain (futile, useless, worthless) repetition. There is power and glory and healing and salvation in the name of Jesus Christ!

When we breathe the Jesus Prayer in and out, our thoughts slow down and any sense of separateness from God disappears. We come into a unitive experience with God. We have 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 are enveloped in His love and peace. 

Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy upon me. 1

Oh..and just one more thing: “Thank You Lord for giving me the absolutely perfect illustration this week for why we need to develop a lifestyle of praying without ceasing and giving thanks to You in all things! But if the next AMEN Corner illustration doesn’t include broken bones and surgical procedures, I would most sincerely appreciate it...”

✝   ✝   ✝   ✝   ✝   ✝


1. The traditional Jesus Prayer is “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy upon me.” Approximately 1,000 years later, in the 14th century, a more penitential version was preferred by monks and other religious: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Both versions are prayed today and you may choose one or the other or both.

Go Further:

If you’re interested in knowing more about the Jesus Prayer, I’d highly recommend this ten minute video presentation given by a young, engaging Orthodox Priest. You can watch it HERE

THE JESUS PRAYER by A Monk Of The Eastern Church. A most thorough book on this short prayer. Very detailed. Theological. Very Orthodox. AMAZON

THE POWER OF THE NAME: THE JESUS PRAYER IN ORTHODOX SPIRITUALITY by Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware. AMAZON or you can read it in a PDF HERE.

THE JESUS PRAYER: A WAY TO CONTEMPLATION by Simon Barrington-Ward. An easy to read book written from a Protestant perspective by an Anglican Bishop.  AMAZON

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Prayer of Examen

Dear Friends,

You were created by God to be introspective. Your brain is biologically programed to reminisce in your past and project into the future with imagined scenarios. Our Creator gave us humans this unique ability in order for us to solve problems, grow in maturity and be creative. This ability can cause remorse for what we have done and we refer to it as our “guilty conscience.” That’s helpful in self-correcting our mistakes and sins, but taken to the extreme it can cause anxiety, feelings of inferiority, anger toward ourselves and depression. We need to first be thankful that we do have those feelings of guilt and remorse. It means that we have healthy thought patterns. Those who don’t experience guilt, remorse and shame for their actions are “psychopaths” – what psychologists call an Antisocial Personality Disorder. But those of us with normal thought patterns can carry our guilt to the extreme when we get caught up in what’s called a “negative thought loop.” We think about what we did/said to our spouse, child, parent, co-worker and are over-whelmed with feelings of guilt. We feel horrible about it and put it out of our head. It pops right back in. We can’t stop thinking about it and begin to obsess about it. We emotionally beat ourselves up with the guilt all day. We have trouble sleeping that night. The guilt is still there the next day. For some of us, there are even things in our past, stupid, horrible, thoughtless, hurtful, tragic things we have done and decisions we made and decades later, we still feel the guilt that adds to our lifelong depository of anxiety, stress, feelings of shame and an overall feeling of unworthiness. But there is freedom in Christ and there’s a practical pathway out of these negative thought loops that Christians have been practicing since the ancient of days.

The PRAYER OF EXAMEN (ig-ZAY-men) is a prayerful, introspective look at our actions during the day. A version of this practice was developed by Greek philosophers 400 years before the birth of Christ and the earliest Christians, Apostolic Fathers and monastics examined their lives daily in order to confront their sins, repent and grow to become more like Jesus. Introspection of thoughts and feelings about one’s faith was an intricate part of early Christian practices and Paul specifically directed us to examine ourselves before taking communion. 1 Corinthians 11:28 In the 16th century, this practice of self-examination was developed into the five step Prayer of Examen by Ignatius Loyola, a monk who founded the Jesuits – a religious order to which the present Pope belongs. Jesuits pray the prayer twice daily and many lay Catholics and Protestants who are high-level participants in their faith have found this Prayer of Examen helpful in their spiritual walk.

❶ We settle down at the end of the day and prepare by asking for God’s grace. We invite God’s presence as we pray the first step of GRATITUDE. We thank God for the innumerable gifts He has given us and, as we review our day, we are reminded of all that we are thankful for. Gratitude always focuses our attention on God and changes our perspective on our life.

❷ We next ask God to FILL US WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT so that He leads us through this prayer. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” Psalm 139:23-24 NLT 

❸ Now we REVIEW OUR DAY. The good, the bad and the ugly. We might be reminded of other things we need to thank Him for. We think about our interactions with others. Our thoughts. Our words. The “things we have done and the things we have left undone.” When He shows us where we have missed the mark, we name that failure for what it is. This is where we need the Holy Spirit’s guidance for it is too humanly easy to deflect our responsibility and blame our transgressions on another person or even an inanimate object. We name our sin as anger, jealously, insecurity, selfishness, etc., confess it, allow ourselves to feel the remorse and sincerely repent of that shortcoming.

❹ Next is GOD’S FORGIVENESS. Perhaps we have not sinned but just made a mistake, a wrong decision or did something dumb without thinking. We ask God for healing of anyone, including ourselves, harmed by that mistake and wisdom to better handle similar situations in the future. During this step in the prayer, the Holy Spirit will let you know if you need to go back to someone and apologize and seek forgiveness. If in the previous step we named our action as a sin, we must now ask for and receive God’s forgiveness. And then we let it go. We are now free of any obsessive guilt and the negative thought loops that have held us in bondage. Is it really as easy as that? You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. Philippians 4:13

❺ The final step is to PRAY ABOUT THE NEXT DAY. Think about what you may be doing tomorrow and your interactions with others. Ask God to give you guidance in all things and particularly those things that you find difficult, challenging or may bring on fear or anxiety. Then trust in Him that He will help you with all things that concern you. God has promised that He will never leave nor forsake us Deuteronomy 31:6 and He is waiting for us in our tomorrow. Turn off the lights. Sleep well.

+   +   +

And yes there's even an App for the Prayer of Examen. Fuller Seminary is Evangelical and has developed an App for those of all Christian denominations. You can download it from the App Store for iPhone or Google Play for Android.

This is Part Two in the series on our “do-it-yourself” (DIY) Christian faith as we engage in the historic and biblically sound prayer practices from the ancient church. Next week, we’ll look at more of the prayer practices that bring us into the presence of God...

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Your DIY Faith!

YOUR DIY FAITH ~ Part 1: Biblical Pathways to Sustain Your Faith During the Pandemic.

A poll last week showed that the faith of Americans has been made stronger during the pandemic than those in all other countries. Among Evangelical Protestants, 43% have said their faith has been strengthened and 35% of Catholics and 21% of mainline Protestants reported that their faith had also been strengthened. What’s remarkable is that for many, their faith has grown while their church attendance has plummeted. When in-person services closed, 26% of churchgoers were viewing online services but fewer are still doing so today. In November, 74% of those who were once committed churchgoers had not participated in a live or an online service since the start of the pandemic and one-third of all churchgoers admitted that their Sunday habits had permanently changed and they do not intend to return when their church is reopened. Here’s the conundrum. During the past year, when fewer and fewer were engaging with their church, why is it that Evangelicals and Catholics were growing or maintaining their faith while so many mainline Protestants (Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian) were and are still struggling with a diminished or disappearing faith?

In a nutshell, with the absence of church services, our faith has become a “do-it-yourself” (DIY) religion for those who have had a high level of involvement with their faith. For those whose only, or primary, faith practice was attending a church service, once the church doors were closed by Covid, both their church and faith simultaneously faded away. To fully understand, we need to take a gentle look at the differences among Evangelical Protestants (43% stronger faith during the pandemic), Catholics (35%) and mainline Protestants (21%). In Evangelical Protestantism, the emphasis is on a personal relationship with Jesus, prayer, Bible study, evangelism and the church is seen as the equipper of the saints. Most of what happens in the spiritual life (worship, prayer, Bible study) of an Evangelical takes place outside the church. In contrast, nearly all that happens with the faith of non-Evangelicals takes place only within the church walls. For example, 63% of Evangelicals read their Bible regularly while only 16% of mainline Protestants do. And that’s why we saw that when Covid closed church doors, Evangelicals simply transitioned into a DIY mode and continued to grow in their faith.

In Catholicism, it’s not the Bible reading but the repeated prayer rituals that foster a connection between Believer and God and results in spiritual growth. There are different prayer pathways to God and whether the Catholic ritual of the rosary or this pastor’s morning ritual of freshly ground coffee in a Goofy mug and his Bible, as we said last week, in our spiritual practices we need the rhythm of a regular and repeated pattern of ritual. What has also helped both Catholics and Evangelicals is that the depth of their faith is less dependent upon church attendance because they believe there is a strong personal relationship between Creator and His created. Some mainline Protestants disagree. A mainline (Lutheran) pastor I know has strongly emphasized to me that his denomination’s doctrine is that we do not have a personal relationship with Jesus – our relationship with Him is through His church – but a doctrine that places church between us and God is not in our Bible. 

Instead we have Jesus saying, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” John 14:23 Jesus also said, “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you..I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” John 15:14-15 Jesus tells us that when we love Him and follow Him, He considers us to be His friend! I love the church and dearly miss it, but I don’t need it to spiritually thrive because Jesus invites us into a personal relationship with Him.

According to the health officials, we’re still six to nine months away from “church” as we know it and therefore, if you have not already done so, you may want to consider a renewed focus on a healthy, growing DIY Christian faith. 

While I’m an ordained “Protestant” pastor, my faith is a Christian blend of Evangelical, Charismatic, Liturgical and Orthodox – a combination that is not formally recognized by any denomination but is what the early church looked like hundreds of years before it became what we would today call “Roman Catholic” and over a thousand years before the Protestant Reformation. I’m the Bible-thumpin’ Evangelical who burns church incense in his home chapel, loves the liturgy, prays the Anglican Monastic Daily Office, prays a two thousand year old Orthodox prayer during the day, sings Charismatic praise and worship songs and uses the Catholic “Prayer of Examen.” Over the next few weeks we’ll look at some of the historic and biblically sound prayer practices from different Christian traditions that you may want to try during your prayer times. If they are helpful, you may want to continue to use these spiritual practices as you DIY, grow in your personal relationship with Jesus and spiritually flourish during this pandemic.      to be continued...