Holy Week & The Easter Prayer

Prayer at Chamatao C.C.A.P.

I have to be honest. When Hailey and I agreed to go to Malawi last year I prayed a prayer that my mind knew was wrong but my heart rationalized as okay. You know the type—one of those childish conditional prayers. They’re what we pray when we’re in trouble, in need of something in a hurry or (as it was in our case) about to make a big life decision; Lord if I do this for you, then you’ll do something for me.  Or maybe it’s, God if you do this for me, than I promise I’ll…

I prayed, “Lord. If Hailey and I go to Malawi for a year, you’ll need to give me a job and my wife needs to be pregnant soon after we get home. That’s my price. Deal?” It was as if going to Malawi was a giant sacrifice, a price I’d pay to get what I wanted.

It’s a prayer that our consumerist society teaches as valid. But it’s terrible theology. God honoring the cravings of my heart today [I have a job and Hailey is pregnant] is not some sort of reward for an “offering” I made last year. It has more to do with surrendering my will to His.

The idea that God’s providence can and should be changed because of something we do or a demand we make shrinks faith down to a controllable bargaining tool. Scripture tells us that, while showing an abundance of grace, God punishes those who fall away from his will and changes the understanding of success for those who learn to live under it. We don’t teach it enough, but consequences for actions are rampant in the Bible—just because the punishment doesn’t completely fit the crime [grace] doesn’t mean there isn’t significant damage and pain when we fall away from God’s plan.

I had a professor in college that messed up my understanding of prayer. He believed that the only valid prayer was for the revelation of God’s will. Praying anything else would belittle God’s role as God and our role as humans.  In praying thy will be done, we seek to align with what God’s desires are for our individual and corporate lives. God’s heart for the world remains primary and our own longings secondary. It helps to give us a “big picture” prayer mentality.

Jesus’ words in the Garden of Gethsemane are the perfect example of this prayer.

My father, if there is any other way. Get me out of this. But please, not what I want. What you want.

This prayer is extremely difficult when we long for something or someone, and God doesn’t answer the prayer the way we would have hoped.

In many ways, Dr. McCant was a crazy old man—the most unorthodox Nazarene I’ve met (he also made bold statements like, “if my Rabbi isn’t going to heaven then neither am I!”). He had one of those brilliant minds that didn’t always equate to brilliant teaching. I often walked out of his class confused, with less understanding than I had when I arrived (then again, maybe that was his whole point?). At the very least, a year in his class taught me to think before I pray.

Thanking God for providing is different than boasting to Him about what we have earned, praying for victory is completely different than praying for our enemies, and saying “God is good” has little to do with our current life circumstance (it’s a statement of God’s Sovereignty, His good and perfect plan. One we often can’t see or explain). My “Malawian sacrifice” taught me these things. God didn’t need me there; I needed to be there. I needed the lesson in obedience.

It’s Holy Week. Followers of Christ should be in deep prayer. As you reflect on what happened during this week years ago, I’d hope you’d do so focused on a will that’s not your own. Sometime, before easter egg hunts and caserole consumption ask yourself these questions. What’s on your agenda that needs to be set aside in order to get inline with what God is doing in the world? How does your story need to be altered so you can play a bigger part in His? And, are you trying to pray your will into God’s plan or are you praying His will would become yours?

 

Lent Lesson from Grandma

Grandma & Niece Lindsay

Today you may see people walking around with a black smudge on their forehead. Do me a favor when you see them—even if you think they just look ridiculous and there is no significance to the day—stop and reflect on the frailty and enormity of life itself.

Traditionally, Ash Wednesday is connected to the times in Scripture where individuals expressed their sorrow for sin. In most services today, as people come forward, the pastor/minister/priest says something along the lines of “from dust you have come and from dust you will return, go and turn from sin. Hear the good news.” We’re called to reflect on our sinful nature, the gift of the cross and our life here and now.

But those two concepts-frailty and enormity-stick out. They seem to not fit together. At times, they even contradict one another; but that isn’t always the case. Not for those who have spent any amount of time with the sick and dying.

This is one of the many lessons I learned while in Malawi, but if I really think about it, it’s something I have been taught here as well. I just haven’t always been paying attention.

Children’s Hospital—Some of the children had lived in the hospital for months. Others, only for days. They just happened to be there today, on this day—three years ago. I was a chaplain in the Clinical Pastoral Education program and was asked to administer ashes to those who wanted them. There is nothing quite as humbling as placing ashes on a smiling sick child’s face and telling him or her that they will return to dust. It makes death a reality, a painful—seemingly unfair—reality.

Grandpa’s Inurnment—I was still in seminary, not even sure if I could “officiate” something like a committal to a final resting place. Through tears I got through the liturgy. I reflected on what my grandpa had told me before he died-that he was ready, had lived a good life and was tired. Placing the urn in the wall I said, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” Time crawled to a halt as I lifted the urn into the wall. As far as I know, I was the last one to touch my grandpa’s remains.

Next week, I’ll return to a re-opened wall to place Grandma next to Grandpa.

Grandma’s Death—President’s Day 2012. I got to the hospital a half hour after she had breathed her last breath. The door of her room closed. Dad alone by her side. Grandma still; her body frozen in a position that whispered I’ve finished this race. The truth is, Grandma’s dementia and Alzheimer’s had changed her in her last few years. She’d forgotten names and how to function as she once had. But that’s not the grandma I will remember, not the strong woman who helped my dad become the man he is today or the loving Grandma who spoiled my sister and me. The woman lying in bed, the one who was done fighting, was one who had triumphantly battled for 94 years. Before we left her side, my dad brushed her hair back and whispered, “you did good mom, you did real good” (forgive his poor grammar). She had, and so had he. We walked out and it was finished.

When I place her remains next to grandpa’s urn, the Scripture I quote will be the same that many of us will hear today as the Lenten season begins. In the middle of reflecting on Christ’s sufferings, the frailty of earthly life screams in agony. But once I step back and see the magnitude of the big picture—the enormity of creation and our relationship with the Creator, the ashes and dust, death itself— I’m reminded that there is a God who cares for each of us deeply, who redeems and loves us enough to take care of all our pain and suffering.

Thank you grandma, for one more lesson.