The Ministry of Paying Attention

Pray in the Spirit on all occasions

These words lodged in my heart at the beginning of Lent this year and they haven’t let me go.

So I started what I called a “prayer experiment.”

Intentionally holding people in prayer without a specific request in mind,

Just waiting and listening.

Sometimes the words come fast and passionately.

Sometimes not at all.

Sometimes they seem a perfect fit for situations I know about.

And sometimes I’m praying hard for healing and I don’t know why.

It’s a learning process, this experiment.

I’m learning that the Holy Spirit does, indeed, help me in my weakness.

And that listening can be exhausting.

And that my motives aren’t always completely pure.

And that I better be ready to do hard things when I step into the listening space.

And I’m learning the power of paying attention.

I don’t have words to wrap around this idea in quite the way I’d like.

But here’s what I know.

Learning to pray in the Spirit means paying attention.

Maybe not listening harder, but listening differently.

Listening with a heart that sees divine fingerprints inside brokenness and hears a heart’s cry to be loved inside pain.

Maybe not seeing better, but seeing differently.

Seeing with a heart that can hold faith and fear, belief and doubt in tension.

A heart that is honest and hopeful.

I know people who have done this well for a long time.

I am not one of those people.

I like to blame this on my introversion.  Or my task-orientation.

I want to pay attention, but people are so needy.  So exhausting.

And yet, the words, the Spirit won’t leave me alone.

Calling out my selfishness and fear for what they are, they pulse and throb still.

Keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

I want to skip to the end.

To the part where I’ve exercised my listening muscles and this comes easier, more naturally (is that a thing?).

But I’m not there yet.

Here I am so clumsy and unsure of myself.

Never quite sure if this new way of seeing and hearing is just for me or if I’m supposed to spew some prayer words at you right here and now.

Here I am so clumsy and unsure of myself.

And yet so hungry to grow, because I know this is holy work, sacred work

This ministry of paying attention.

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Before the Miracle

Far be it from me to not believe

even when my eyes can’t see.

And this mountain that’s in front of me

will be thrown into the depths of the sea.

We sing about moving mountains this morning.

About keeping our eyes on Jesus.

And here he is.

A crowd clamoring about, they’ve heard he’s healed the sick

Or seen if for themselves and they seek him out, needy.

Hungry.  (John 6)

The Bread of Life turns and asks his friends where they will get enough bread for everyone.

And we chuckle because we know how the rest of the story goes.

But I can feel Philip’s panic.

And Andrew’s floundering attempt to bring what they could find to Jesus.

They were just learning about this Bread.

I doubt I would have done any better.

And Jesus takes the bread, the tiny offering of a child.

And he gives thanks.

Eucharisteo.

A pocket of sacred space, of breathing gratitude.

And everyone eats and has enough.

Friends, did you see what preceded the miracle?

Gratitude.

I don’t know about you, but there are a few miracles I’m praying for in my own little world right now.

Mountains that seem too big.

Crowds that look too hungry.

I feel like I’ve been banging down the doors of heaven for release, for deliverance.

But this week, I’m going to take a step back.

Take a moment to remember that my resources are too small.

Laughably puny.

But my resources in the hands of a gracious, almighty and all-sufficient God are a completely different story.

This week, I’m going to leave a pocket of sacred space, of breathing gratitude.

This week, I am going to give thanks before the miracle.

Don’t be afraid. Just believe.

Friends, our God is in the business of bringing the dead back to life.

All through the Old Testament and in the life of Jesus, we see this again and again.

This, in fact, is the crux of the gospel message.

Jesus died so that we could live.

His invitation is not to make us better, but to breathe life into our dead souls.

There’s a story I read this week and it’s been knocking around in my head ever since.

I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not just for me.

It’s about a guy called Jairus.

His daughter is sick and he knows that Jesus can help, so he seeks him out. (Mark 5)

Jesus responds with compassion and starts the journey toward the sick little girl, but the crowd presses in, needy to a soul, and the trip takes longer than it might have.

Along the way, messengers bring word that the little girl has died.  Why bother Jesus any more?

And it’s these words that resonate hard for me this week.

The bringer-of-life, not too late but just on time, says to the devastated dad

Don’t be afraid.  Just believe.

And proceeds to breathe life into what was dead.

Friends, some of us have sought Jesus out and invited him to come, but along the way we feel like he’s gotten caught up in other things.  Bigger things, maybe.

And, like the messengers, someone or some circumstance or maybe the cynical voice inside our own heads has told us to give up.

On that dream.

On that spark of passion.

On that God-given desire.

On that gift lying dormant.

On that healing.

Let it go, the liar whispers, it’s dead.  Why bother Jesus any more?

Friends, he is just that– a liar.

Plug your ears to those words.

And hear the bringer-of-life, not too late but just on time whisper to your heart.

Don’t be afraid.  Just believe.

Our God is in the business of breathing life into what is dead.

And he wants to do that for some of us this week.

To rekindle that dream, to ignite that passion, to explode that desire into reality for his glory, to use that gift to speak life, to move us along on our journey toward wholeness.

It’s not too late.

You’re not too old.  Or too broken. Or too messy.  Or too cynical.

Our bringer-of-life is right on time.

Good Friday

Looking around on Good Friday, I want to see myself here.

Here in this ancient story.

Here in these words I’ve heard since before I was born.

Growing up in church, it’s easy to let this story, these words slide right on by

Assuming that we’ve heard it all before.

But though the story is old,

The Spirit is here, always here.

Breathing new life.

Speaking powerful truth still.

If we will pay attention.

Tonight I lock eyes with the thief on the cross.

And I see my story here too.

It’s a familiarity my younger self would have denied.

But not tonight.

My penalty is just, fair.

I’m getting what I deserve.

And right beside me, suffering the same penalty,

God wrapped in flesh.

Not deity identifying with humanity in some theoretical sense.

But a real, living, breathing God-man looking into my eyes.

Suffering with me.

Speaking words of life even as his breathing becomes heavy, his pain unbearable.

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses

No. Our high priest suffers with us.

He feels our pain because he is here.

And he promises redemption.

Not in some far-off, theoretical sense.

But now.

Today.

This is my story too.

A church-baby, never much of a rebel in any outward sense.

A pastor’s kid, living life in a fishbowl.

Some people say (to my face) that I don’t need much saving.

They are dead wrong.

When we lock eyes, I know without a doubt my desperate need for a Savior.

My desperate need to be spared what I deserve.

My heart-cry for redemption

Not in some far-off, theoretical sense.

But now.

Today.

I look into the eyes of the One speaking life even here.

Even in the darkest moments.

And I fall again on grace.

I used to think faith was a whole lot about me

We humans are fickle creatures.

Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? the Israelites sing

In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed.

They had just watched God literally dry up the ocean for them, snatching them from the brink of certain destruction.

The Lord will reign forever and ever.

They raise their voices and celebrate.  (Exodus 15)

And then Moses takes too long on the mountain and they get nervous.

They crave a god they can understand, one they can manage.

And so they melt their jewelry and make one for themselves.

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord the crowd yells.

They have the Savior right here in their town, riding on a borrowed donkey.

Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!

They sing and celebrate. (Luke 19)

And then five days later, they’ve turned angry.

Or maybe just terrified.

Calling Crucify him! while Pilate looks for a reason to acquit.

It’s true.

We humans are fickle creatures.

We get nervous.  And terrified. And angry.

We crave a god we can understand, one we can manage.

But this is not the end of the story.

Not by a long shot.

Our God is not done with these fickle creatures that he created from dust.

Still he pursues his people, the Israelites.

Again and again showing his power and calling for their hearts.

Still he redeems the jeering crowd, suffering death and enduring hell to make them clean.

To draw them close.

I used to think that faith was a whole lot about me.

I’m learning that it’s a whole lot more about this powerful, unmanageable, pursuing God that I serve.

It’s less about me inviting him into my life and more about him inviting me into his.

It’s less about asking him to bless my plans and more about me getting on board with his.

I used to think that faith was a whole lot about me.

I’m learning that I still have a lot to discover about this powerful, unmanageable, pursuing God that I serve.

Living the Even If

We’re talking about worship this morning.

About Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

I’ve written about these guys before and it’s the same words that resonate with me today.

Even if.

Men of unwavering faith, they were confident in their God’s ability and his willingness to deliver them.

Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire, and he WILL deliver us out of your hand, O king.  (Daniel 3:17)

I’ve been there.

Maybe you have too.

I know my God is able… to heal, to deliver, to rescue, to redeem.

And I truly believe that he will.

I want to walk in faith.

But even if he does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods.

As a child, I struggled with this part of the story.

As an adult, I understand it all too well.

These men of unwavering faith knew that their God was able, they believed that he would.

But they also knew the redemption ache.

They understood that their God was working out rescue and redemption in a much bigger way than they could imagine.

And they were willing to stake their lives on it.

It’s easy to pray here, I think.

In this even if territory.

God we know you can intervene here, and we believe that you will.

But even if you don’t show up in the way we’re expecting, we will still believe.

But it’s awfully hard to live here.

In between the promise and the fulfilment.

When the silence is big and the days are dark.

And the stakes feel so very, very high.

It feels like Easter Saturday all over again.

And we are tired.

But, friends, let’s lock arms and lean in to the even if tonight.

Still we will believe.

Still we will trust.

Still we will not bow to the little gods that call for our attention and our affection.

Still we will wait for the promise.

Even if it doesn’t look the way we expected.

Tortoise formation

As I may have mentioned, I’m not much for war metaphors.

Thanks to my formative college years, I am more or less a pacifist (which, I know, makes me “less of a pacifist” by definition).

And I spent a season hearing too many sermons about demons under every rock.

To the point where I nearly threw the Holy Spirit out with the bathwater.

Alas.

Here we are again, talking about the armor of God.

And this time it’s the shield that catches my attention.

Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  (Eph. 6:16)

I hear it described, so I do a little more research.

Apparently, in Paul’s day, a shield was a gigantic monstrosity of a thing.

Wood and metal covered in water-soaked leather.  To literally extinguish flaming arrows.

It was huge.  And heavy.

And it was meant not just for personal protection, but for communal protection too.

I read about the “tortoise formation” where soldiers stand strong together, shields raised in front and above.  They are completely protected.  Enemy arrows have no way in.

I love this.

Friends, this is what God wants for his people.

For us.

I’ve been around long enough to know that church can be a messy place.

It’s full of people and we are inherently, perpetually messy.

Can I be honest for a second?

There have been seasons when I wondered whether I could ever trust church people again.  Seasons where I prayed for God to help me love his bride and wondered if he heard me.

But, friends.  He did.

Because I have also known seasons of Jesus, I believe.  Help my unbelief.

And in those long nights, in those hard days, my own little community of Jesus-people went all tortoise formation on me.

They hoisted their heavy shields of faith and covered me.

They whispered faith-filled words into my ears.  Texted them to my phone.  Wrote them down in cards and sent them in snail mail (you guys—snail mail is my love language!).  They believed miracles for me when my own faith felt too small, too tired to believe them for myself.

Looking back from the shores of this more-settled season, grateful seems too small a word for those shields of faith wielded on my behalf.  The only appropriate response is to look around with Jesus-eyes and hoist my own shield of faith ready to snap into tortoise formation myself when a dear one needs it.

This is how church is supposed to work.

And I’m here to tell you that sometimes, in spite of our messiness, we Jesus-people get it just right.