Saturday, July 23, 2016

Revival at the convention

The Republican Convention is over. It was nothing like previous conventions. Part revival with personal testimonies about how Jesus had helped individuals overcome personal obstacles to glitzy entertainment with loud music and bright light displays. Much has been made of the dismal diagnosis of the current state of life in America. We are beset by dangers at our borders and in our government. Where was the hope? It reminded me of the sermons I heard in my youth, Billy Graham style, where the desperate condition of the world was laid out in graphic language only to learn our only hope was in Christ. The end was coming - all the crises we faced were signs of God's judgment which was coming. Save yourselves, Turn to Christ! was the message. Put up your hand, come down the aisle, pray the sinner's prayer, start reading your Bible and praying and you will be saved. The world may go to hell but you will be saved. The Republican Convention had that flavor. Except, the mess we are in was not God's judgment but the Democrat's ineptitude or worse their deliberate attempt to end America as we know it or knew it. This was a convention hearkening back to the the greatness of former days. There were nods to the great spiritual battle between good and evil like when one speaker compared Hillary to Lucifer. That heightened the stakes in this election. It led to calls for Hillary to be bound in prison or even executed. Thus, good will prevail. There was only one hope and that was to turn to the Republican Champion who was the only one who could defeat our Goliaths. He alone could fix things. We weren't told how - these revelations from on high will come at some point we were told. For now, trust and obey. So while the Convention trafficked in revivalism the answer to our problems was only human. God was trumped by the Republican candidate.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Prayer is

"If we invoke some God who shares and sponsors our particular cultures of enmity, then our invocations - and our lives - need correction." Allen Verhey in his commentary on Ephesians

Prayer is not a nod to God before the main event. It is not a moment of silence for the sake of the Almighty before we get down to business. It is not a pretense of piety before the mudslinging begins. Who are we trying to kid? God must be profoundly insulted by our use of prayer and attempted uses of God (read Isaiah 58).

John Calvin said prayer is the "chief exercise of faith." It is the center of life for a Christian. Prayer is a practice, a habit, a routine which are good things. We learn to pray by praying and praying with a community of prayer. It is not a technique we learn to use in order to get what we want.

Prayer is a good all by itself. It is the main event. In prayer we attend to God, Verhey says, and that is it. In God's light we see better.

Learning to pray we also learn humility. We are not gods but limited, finite, sinful creatures who need God's grace moment by moment. We learn to be thankful for God's gifts each day. We learn to care for people especially those persons who our culture shuns. We learn not to trust in ourselves but God.

Karl Barth called the Christian life a life of prayer, a life of invocation. We call upon God in our lives in many ways. We confess, lament, bless, praise, petition and remember who this God is and what God has done for us.

We pray because God invites us to. We pray in response to God's word to us. We pray because God is here "around, beneath, before, and beside us all the time, but if we never actively stop to notice this, to call out a breath of thanksgiving, or petition. lament or praise, then we live falsely, pretending that we live as independent beings." (Martha L. Moore - Keish)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Bless us

Speaking of prayer (last post), there is no good reason for public prayer. I mean civil public prayer like at political conventions. Not prayer in church although this genre of prayer is prayer in search of a purpose, too.

If you followed the prayers at the Republican Convention on opening day, and who would? there was confusion about who would pray publicly and then controversy about what was said. There are no winners in public praying. The person invited to pray, and the placement of the prayer and the content of the prayer all have little to do with prayer. The prayer is not an address to God as much as a political statement in prayer form. The prayer itself is often like a mini-sermon full of the pray-ers personal convictions. One prayer I read about from yesterday's opening session referred to Trump as God's personal choice to save us from our enemies who were identified as Hillary and the Democrats. According to this prayer, God is a conservative Republican. It's us versus them and God is obviously on our side.

A better public prayer might take the form of a lament or a confession of sin from the Psalms. Or just the word, Help! Prayer is addressed to God in response to what He has done. It is appropriate to pray for our leaders and our nation especially at a time of national election but we need to be careful that we don't sound like we believe we have God's plans all figured out or that we presume God likes what we are doing to carry out his will. As Lincoln said, we might find out what God's will is and we are not in it.

I read another prayer from the convention that was posted online. It was a good statement of what the praying person wished God would do. But, it wasn't a prayer. She, the pray-er sounded articulate and theologically informed and tuned into the latest national crises and that was the point, I guess. To show how earnest we are, how compassionate and up to date and that our God must be too or if He is not, He is now.

It's best to leave God out of conventions. We do anyway. The only time he is mentioned is in the very brief prayers before and after the really important things.  By then we have laid out our plans for how we are going to save the country. Really, all we want God to do is sign off on them. Bless us, we pray.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Prayer works

I wrote a paper on prayer for a course my first year of seminary. It was a big deal. I didn't know much about prayer when I started and I didn't know much more when I finished. But I had twenty or so pages reflecting what the classic books on prayer said prayer was. Most people struggle with how to prayer and what prayer is says Hans Urs von Balthasar in his readable book on prayer and for my money the best book you can read on the subject. It is simply called Prayer and it is deceptively simple because as easy as it to read it will change the way you approach prayer. We pray to God because he first spoke to us, and is "always on the lookout for us". Prayer is dialogue even if it often feels like a monologue to us. We have our habits of prayer and feel like we have done it when we follow our routine whatever that may be. Von Balthasar wants prayer to be the way we "make as much room as possible, in ourselves, and in our world, for the kingdom of God, so that its energies can go to work." Prayer emerges from contemplation which is a big word that means making time to hear/consider God and the ways he has made himself known to us primarily through Christ and his love for us. God is always on the lookout for us is one way VB puts it or "faith's table is always laid" and we can choose to partake or not. God's love is always there for us revealing itself to us so we can understand and grasp it. It's not up to us. God has even given us the words to pray, i.e. the Lord's prayer. So, we can enlarge our understanding of prayer. Dialogue with God can happen in many different ways and at many different times. Pray without ceasing, Paul says. But, that means contemplate without ceasing. Let what you see, and hear, and read, and sing, and do open your life to the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Theological first steps

One of the first courses I took in seminary long ago was one on John Calvin. It was a deep dive into theology for someone like myself who was theologically illiterate. I was raised a dispensationalist and didn't know there was anything else. My theology was accumulated through years of drifting mentally and spiritually through sermons and Sunday School lessons. I knew I was a sinner, God hated sin but loved sinners if we repented and wouldn't send us to hell if we confessed Jesus as our Savior who died for our sins on the cross. That was my theology. Calvin's Institutes was my introduction into a real Theology. I have read Calvin off and on ever since. His commentaries on every book of the Bible except Revelation still compare favorably to the best modern ones. Most theologians of note still have to deal with Calvin. That is remarkable considering Calvin had little formal theological training. What he knew he studied on his own and study he did sometimes 23 hours a day. He loved the early church fathers and knew them by heart. He loved the Scriptures except for 2 Peter and Jude and he had questions about James. The rest he knew by heart, too.

His life is fascinating. He married late and adored his wife. He lost many of his jobs over theology and his lack of flexibility. His people skills were notably lacking. Yet, he had an opportunity to try to prove his theology in a real world setting. For a while Geneva was his city. He tried to make it a Christian city and that project did not work out so well. He had few friends but many followers who were not always true to his theology.

Calvin lived nearly 500 years ago. It was a world apart from ours. No tweets, texts, or transportation. What he did have was a theology that has stood the test of time.

A good place to start with Calvin is John Calvin by Herman Selderhuis. Then try reading his commentary on the Psalms and chew on the Institutes from time to time.

Trump's theology

Interesting op ed piece in the NY Times on Tuesday, July 5. Peter Wehner  asked, since Donald Trump assures us that the Bible is his favorite book, just what is his theology. Good question. Trump has been meeting with evangelical leaders to solidify his support among that brand of Christians. Conservative, Biblical, and afraid the government of Obama, Clinton, etc, are out to take away their freedoms, Trump says he is on their side. Evangelical leaders like James Dobson is on Trump's side. He said he believes Trump is tender to the Spirit (The Holy Spirit). While few people would find the fruits of the Spirit growing in Trump's garden, the comments of evangelicals demonstrate how desperate they are to find ways to support their candidate. Wehner noted that Trump's worldview is so different from Christ's that Christ is not anywhere in the vicinity.

In Trump's worldview, Jesus was a "loser". He did not win, he was captured, suffered and died an undignified death. He did not call down vengeance on his enemies. He told his followers to forgive and love them. He was a friend to the weak and the poor. He despised the worldly demonstrations of power and he never seemed to have a denarius to his name. One time he paid his taxes by going fishing. It's hard to believe how Trump's worldview could be any more different from Jesus'.

What Trump is doing is not unusual. Politicians have courted the evangelical vote for years and evangelicals have compromised their convictions again and again for political gain. Jimmy Carter, born again, Southern Baptist thought he had fellow southerner Billy Graham's support for his presidential bid only to find Graham had deserted him for Nixon. Graham noted later in life that Nixon had him fooled. The twice married Hollywood star Ronald Reagan had the evangelical support even though evangelical leaders were not hiring twice married pastors or allowing their congregants to watch movies at the time. Evangelicals are free to vote for whomever they want as we all are. Just be honest about why. If you like Trump's politics, say so. Just don't make him out to be holier than he is.