What Is an Evangelical? (Part Two)

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In my last article, I wrote about what defines an evangelical. The gospel itself flows into four attitudes about the Bible, salvation, evangelism, and outreach. These anchor who Evangelicals are, but they doesn’t resolve the tension and dissonance felt among evangelicals today.

Yes, evangelicals share common beliefs about God, humanity, Jesus, and our response: well and good! But even with shared beliefs, people commonly discuss how they feel a good “fit” in their church … or that they don’t feel it anymore. The list of beliefs doesn’t address whether they belong. And it’s not that beliefs have changed: rather, expected behaviors have. We feel that we belong where people act like we expect them to (like us). We feel out of place where people act and respond differently. The behavior unsettles us and raises doubt about who “my people” are and where we belong.

Before going further, take a moment to consider that every movement has unique ways in which they fall apart, decay, or atrophy. The Black Lives Matter Movement has become notorious for violence, anarchy, and rioting. Conservatism is under fire for alt-right racism and gun-toting intimidation. Even in the Bible, Israel and Judah lapsed into abusive economical and social practices, worshiping the worthless idols of the Canaanites whose land they conquered! As an American evangelical pastor looking at American evangelicalism, I don’t wonder, “Would we ever fall away from our roots?” Instead, I’m asking: “If we fell away from our roots, how would that look?”

Our sense of belonging in evangelicalism is challenged when we sense that the behavior of the people under its umbrella no longer matches its rooted beliefs in the gospel.

My last article shared Bebbington’s four hallmarks of evangelicalism that come from the Christian good news. But in 2018, Kirt E. Lewis shared four hallmarks of American evangelicalism which paint a much less flattering picture …

  • Moralism: Enforcing their moral convictions on a few select issues, those being abortion and homosexuality
  • Ethnocentrism: Defending their religious freedom and instituting as the informal civic religion of the United States of America a form of “Christianity” that strongly reflects a dominant white culture
  • Authoritarianism: Demanding an absolute commitment to those in authority as long as they preserve their moralistic and ethnocentric vision of America
  • Consumerism: Enjoying without interruption their distinct brand of cross-less, consumer Christianity (from https://kirtelewis.com/blog/the-real-quadrilateral)

Popular evangelical pastor Kevin DeYoung offers a wise warning in the same way when he says, “I worry that people will not first think of gospel convictions or theological commitments when they hear of our churches and ministries, but they will first think of whether we were for or against a certain candidate. … More than anything else, I fear we are letting the world’s priorities dictate what the church is most passionate about.” (from https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/when-you-say-nothing-at-all/)

What will define our belonging within evangelicalism? A return to our beliefs, or an insistence upon certain political priorities? In the Bible, God sent prophets to call His people back from their rebellious deeds to the Law that would ground them in His ways. The same holds for today: evangelicals need prophetic voices calling back from decay and rebellion to our first love. 

The prophets never received a hero’s welcome, but I still pray that we evangelicals in our county will use our energy for these things God has called us to:

  • to get back to personal and group Bible study, grounding us in the fullness of His Word
  • to keep repenting and clinging to the cross of Jesus for forgiveness––that we might be known for extending grace and forgiveness even as we have received it
  • to have more conversations about where someone stands with Jesus than where someone stands politically
  • and to be a light and a force for good, not only in the spotlighted and culturally-contested issues of abortion and sexuality, but also in other biblical causes for the orphan, the widow, the poor, and the oppressed.

What Is an Evangelical? (Part One)

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Evangelicals felt the spotlight for quite some time leading up to this month’s election. What’s your reaction to the word? What do you envision when you see an evangelical? Is it right-wing pastors and select social causes? Someone churchy who wants to protect capitalism and the free market? Not long ago, an evangelical was “someone who likes Billy Graham.” By contrast, many today see evangelicals as the self-appointed sex-and-sexuality police. One writer sums up the common view as “White, suburban, American, Southern, and Republican!”

How foreign all this must sound to pastors like Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, or George Whitefield, who got the word “evangelical” going in America in the first place! The word comes from the Greek euangelion, meaning “good news.” The good news of the evangelical is that anyone can be saved from sin and made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ because of His finished work of salvation on the cross. While many words change in their meanings and applications over time, it’s worth making sure we understand what this good news is, apart from all the extras we attach to it in America today.

In 1989 a historian named David Bebbington described a common standard for measuring evangelicals, flowing out of this good news. He notes that evangelicals are marked by biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. And in real language, that means …

  • that evangelicals treat the Bible as the ultimate authority for how they live and what they do. They believe that all spiritual truth is to be found in the Bible’s pages; they believe what it says, obey what it commands, and trust what it promises.
  • that evangelicals stress the importance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross that makes possible the salvation of the world. They used to hold up the John 3:16 signs in the end zones at Packer games––they want people to know that Jesus died for them and for you.
  • that evangelicals believe that the gospel changes lives. Being saved isn’t just a “get out of hell free” card. It makes them into new people; it brought them from death to life. They’re followers of Jesus, not just fans.
  • that evangelicals live out their faith in missionary efforts and work for a better society. They don’t mean just the pastors or the missionaries, either. Every evangelical feels the call to serve God and to share the Christian message with people near and far.

But now many evangelicals are feeling a crisis of belonging … because we’ve lost track of the things that ought to define and unite us. If we felt we fit into a church because we saw lots of other Trump bumper stickers in the parking lot, what will we do when our “fit” is challenged by the Bible’s concern for the poor, the refugee, or the stranger in our midst? Or if someone decided not to go forward at a Billy Graham crusade as a child because she worried about making a big decision like this in an emotional moment before her head caught up with her? Or if, to your great surprise, someone in Sunday School reveals that he’s a pro-life Democrat? These situations make us ask what it means to be an evangelical––and what necessarily flows out of being an evangelical, too.

When evangelicals are in such a crisis, we find in these four characteristics a common court of appeals. Is the Bible your ultimate authority for how you live? That’s great! Let’s tease that out some more. Is there nothing more important to you than Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead for your salvation? Praise God! Stay focused on Him! Do you share the good news with others that they too might be saved by faith in Jesus? Keep it up! We’ll pray with you! Are you cheering on missionary efforts around the world and working for the good of your own neighbor, spiritually and socially? By all means, let your light shine!!

Note, however, that this discussion has to continue. While evangelicals may believe the same things, we can still feel tense when someone behaves in a way we didn’t expect. I hope you’ll join me for part two of What Is An Evangelical next week …

Another Other Side

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There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14:12, 16:25)

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. (Proverbs 18:17)

Detective stories fascinate us. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or the recent murder mystery movie Knives Out –– they all keep us looking out for … well, we don’t know quite what! In the end, even though we’ve heard the same story four or five times over, it doesn’t really come together until Poirot, or Holmes, or Benoit Blanc lays it all out. And that’s good! You wouldn’t enjoy the story of a detective who listens to the first two witnesses, makes up his mind, and delivers his judgment without hearing any of the others. How much less in real life!

This year has felt like mystery upon mystery without a detective. Have you noticed how frustrated the witnesses in these stories get with each other? They can hardly bear being in the same room together. Each is so convinced in his own mind; each explodes with confidence in what she knows what’s right. But what sets the witnesses apart from the detectives is that detectives will always hear another side: fully, patiently, intensely.

Lately I’ve met many people throwing up their hands and refusing to hear another side. Why is that? Why do we refuse to listen to another perspective? Often our emotions rule us: it’s not that we can’t hear another side, it’s that we don’t want to. We’ve given our verdict and it’s too precious to be slowed down or questioned by another story. It’s time to act, not listen! We write others off in the interest of urgency and outrage. Yet if we have made the time to read even this article this far, we have the time to hear someone else out. In our haste, our hurry, our self-righteousness, we will miss insights that would direct our efforts more usefully, or possibly change our minds. God forbid that we should follow the way that seems right to us … to death!

I also see folks give up on hearing others out with the excuse, “I’ve heard both sides already, and I know which one I’m on.” But our issues aren’t all two-sided like a coin. What if there’s a third side to the issue? A fourth perspective, or even a fifth? How quickly we boil our beautiful, mystery-filled world, in all of its dimensions and complexity, down to “either them or us.” Before we grab our detective hat and run to the door, before we lower our gavels in our hearts’ courtrooms, we must be the wiser and listen up as other witnesses take the stand.

You and I both have pet peeves about things that others commonly misunderstand. We roll our eyes when someone tells us “they get it,” but we know they’re wet behind the ears and they’ve decided to learn the hard way. We’re frustrated when they throw up their hands at us and walk away before even scratching the surface, indignant about how complicated something is!

But may God in His grace keep us from being the ones throwing up our hands. May we stay at the table. May we hear another side of the same story, one more time. May we hear not only to be smarter, but to be more gracious, more understanding and increasingly wise.

My Hobby Is Fallacies

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Hobbies make people so interesting! They open up a new world for us to get to know someone, a side of them that makes him or her unique in our world. Even if you have no interest in that hobby yourself—online gaming, knitting caps for premature babies, coppersmithing—there’s something that makes you want to ask them questions about it, watch them open up this side of them that they delight in, and share in their joy for a while.

I have a few weird hobbies myself (ask my wife). One hobby is logical fallacies: studying the mistakes we love to make in our thinking by avoiding questions, making assumptions, misusing statistics, and following the crowd. My parents sent me a book for my birthday called The Fallacy Detective. My 8-year-old and 6-year-old love the pictures in The Amazing Dr. Ransom’s Bestiary of Adorable Fallacies, but they slip away quickly when I start reading it to them. I keep An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments in my office, and I occasionally go for a deep dive in Poythress’s Logic: A God-Centered Approach to the Foundation of Western Thought.

Maybe it’s not your cup of tea. Okay, why would anyone torture themselves with this?

For starters, I admire people who think well and explain things clearly. Some gifted people can see through persuasive arguments and show why they don’t hold water. It seems so simple when they do it! Out of my admiration for them I enjoy studying how they think, wanting to be more like them in wisdom and insight.

I come from a faith background that prizes wisdom and truth. If Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” I will please Him by knowing and holding fast to the truth. If I’m fooled by bad arguments in everyday life, that reflects badly on my commitment to the Source of all truth! I have a responsibility to God to learn well what is true about this world He made me to live in.

Knowing fallacies guides me to acquire truth better. We’re all pioneers this year in acquiring truth as we navigate uncharted territories of public health, politics, and justice. I feel like a novice rock climber on a precarious cliff, reaching for handholds and footholds that are safe and unsafe. As we enter the unknown, we reach out for truth—but we might not know what to reach out for. We can misjudge what’s safe to hold onto. If I learn which holds crumble and which holds stay strong, I’ll climb both farther and safer to the truth. When I see a fallacy I’ve studied, I can avoid it for the swamp or quicksand that it is and get to safety in a timely fashion.

I study fallacies because I don’t want to be fooled. There are people who are misled who wish to lead us astray. Some people knowingly mislead others for their own advantage. If people train their bodies for hours every week to fight off physical enemies, why not strengthen our reasoning against bullies and tricksters of the mind? Call it mental self-defense. I don’t want to be taken captive by bad arguments or false claims to the truth. The better I understand these fallacies, the better I’ll stand on the truth without being swayed by tricks and lies.

Finally, I want to be persuadable when I don’t stand in the truth. As a Christian, I readily and regularly confess to my merciful God that I have sinned against Him in thought, word, and deed. Studying fallacies convicts me of my biases, missteps, and other stinking thinking. It reveals my desire to believe what I already believe and not accept correction. When I find myself in a place of misunderstanding, or having embraced something false, will I welcome correction? Will I have the humility to recognize and accept a logical checkmate? Will I trust God enough to both tear down my understanding and to rebuild? I need to study these fallacies not for an ego boost, but to keep my ego in check.

I have much to learn, and I always will have much to learn. Sometimes I will need to stand firm in what is true, reject another claim as false, and do so with much grace and compassion. Sometimes I will need to humble myself, accept and admit that I believed something wrongly, and labor to improve my thinking. My hobby is to do these things better. Could it become a hobby of yours, too?

The Cows and the Farmers

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A seasoned U.P. pastor told me when I moved here that the default way many resolve conflict in these parts is by avoiding it. When something they don’t like comes, they’re like cows that turn their backsides to the wind. They won’t deal with the problem directly: instead, they try to outlast the storm. Lots will go away if you just ignore it for a while and wait to get back to normal.

God might have heard him. God brought a few things our way this year that we don’t like, and our world did not get back to normal in a few weeks or a few months as was first promised. It’s not uncommon to hear, “I don’t like the new normal.”

The frustration is everywhere. Masks. Race. Riots. Trump. Democrats. Statues. Church. Schools. Wal-Mart. Baseball. We’ve sworn off watching the news because there’s something new every minute to drive us crazy! Can’t we just get along? Can’t we just hear some GOOD news? Put a smile on my face: I can’t take one more divisive issue!

If by some miracle you’ve kept reading after all those pressure points I just touched, maybe you’re seeing how useless avoidance is. God has made 2020 a year of unavoidable frustration. Our avoidance strategy hasn’t allowed us to weather these storms. No, like Jonah running from Nineveh, we’ve wished to escape the storm by being thrown overboard—and found ourselves with a new problem, swallowed by a fish with nowhere to run.

But if avoiding problems and conflicts doesn’t work, then where do we turn?

God insists that you and I pursue a richer peace than before. We have been complacent with negative peace: the absence of tension. “If I can pretend things are okay, maybe they’ll actually get okay on their own. Let’s fake it till we make it.” But like a round of Fortnite, God is collapsing the boundaries on our false, negative peace. God is dragging us to the center, away from the negative peace that would ignore conflict, into the rich peace of positive engagement with others, especially with those we don’t agree with. God is insisting on the richer peace of committed love for others, the kind that “hopes the best even when the worst is on display” (Jackie Hill Perry). And it’s this positive peace that weathers conflict with the hope of a stronger future and ruins our taste for the fragile, shallow echo of peace that “just can’t even.”

Negative peace is the cows, standing in the storm, letting the wind, rain, and hail assault them and figuring it’s gotta let up sometime. Positive peace is the farmer and his family, who worked hard to build the barn before the storm came, and who do what they can to get the cows to safety in the barn as well.

There is a deeper, richer, more meaningful, and actually possible peace that only comes by accepting the storm(s) and engaging with—not assaulting or dismissing—those who disagree with us. Let’s come together. Let’s seek each other out. Let’s listen. Let’s love even those whom we never thought were lovable. We need to have faith that will move towards others in this storm. We’ll get wet, but we’ll get to a better destination together.

What I Want My Mask to Say

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What does wearing a mask say? The CDC tells us to wear masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Others say to ditch the masks, and it’s unfair to pretend everyone has the same reasons why. But those who wear masks in public can do so out of more than blind obedience. I’ll speak for myself on what my mask means when I wear it.

My mask is a symbol of lament in a broken world. Paul tells the church in Rome in Romans 8 that the whole created world has been “subjected to futility, bound to corruption, groaning together in the pains of childbirth.” It’s because of this world’s brokenness that doctors wore masks in surgery to prevent infections, or cancer patients kept a strict social distance from their grandchildren, long before March of this year. When I wear my mask, I lament that diseases exist, spread, and develop into new infectious strains––and I long for Jesus to come and make all things new. I am far from the only one who puts on a mask and says “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1).

My mask is a symbol of my weakness and inability to control the world around me. That’s a bitter pill for any American! Yet acknowledging my weakness turns my gaze to God’s power to control every situation. Remember how God commanded the Hebrew slaves in Egypt to put blood on the doorposts of their homes (Exodus 12)? That didn’t do a lick of good, medically speaking, but God insisted upon that sign for His angel to pass over a house and not kill the firstborn in it. My mask is something like blood on my doorposts. I know I can’t control the world around me, nor can my mask stop all the viruses that I can’t see. But I wear the mask as a sign of trust in God’s power to protect and to save.

My mask is a symbol of being subject to authority. Peter, not Caesar, commands Christians to be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution (1 Peter 2:13). Paul, not Pontius Pilate, tells Christians to be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1). When the centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant in Luke’s gospel, he did so as a man under authority (Luke 7:8). His trust in our Lord’s absolute power made even Him marvel! I work in a church, a rare environment where the laws of our land prevent governors, legislatures, and even presidents from demanding obedience. Instead, I obey freely: not as a slave to sin, but as a slave to righteousness (Romans 6:18); not under compulsion, but willingly (1 Peter 5:2); even as those who join our church willingly submit themselves to the church’s appointed leaders (Hebrews 13:17).

My mask is a symbol of hospitality to others. Wearing a mask presents a safe space for those who enter into a risk-ridden world, including the church! A popular Facebook picture says, “My backyard is a safe space for you to take off your mask and be real.” Praise God! You are welcome to come to my backyard mask-free as well. Most of my day, in fact, is spent without a mask on. Now put this on the other foot: in the few remaining mask-voluntary spaces we have, what if someone wants to wear a mask … and they’re the only one? Are they marginalized or rejected from the backyard if they choose to wear a mask? Is there pressure to take off the mask or leave? By wearing a mask, even when the governor doesn’t make me, the few people who actually prefer to wear masks can breathe a little easier with me.

My mask is a symbol of humility and a call to humility. Granted, proud people exist both with masks and without them. Perhaps that first sentence strikes you as proud to hear from me! But I dare say most people who put on masks day after day, for work, for chores, or for anything public, would rather not. Mask-wearing is an exercise in saying, “not my will, but Thine be done.” It lets someone else call the tune and lead the dance. While I’m looking forward to when my Packers-fabric mask becomes an artifact from the past instead of a daily necessity, right now it calls me to do what I’d rather not do, to bear up under those who look down on me for it, and to thank God simply for the blessing of living another day.

My mask is not a symbol of fear. Of lament, yes. Of my weakness and God’s power, yes and amen! Wearing the mask grows out of respect for authorities for whom I never cast my vote. It welcomes those who wish to wear the mask; it calls me to be humble and choose something I would not choose for myself.

My reasons for wearing a mask may have surprising parallels to someone else’s reasons to not wear one! But may God give us grace to reflect on why we do wear the mask or not, that we might let the will of God reign in us more perfectly.

The Weak, the Faint, the Unruly, and Patience

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And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. –– Apostle Paul, 1 Thessalonians 5:14

On a given Sunday morning, about a third of the people who used to attend are joining us now. Perhaps you’ve felt lonely or empty too, attending your church with so many open seats around you. It’s church after Infinity War, only with even fewer people. Odd, the subdued joy of being able to gather without the same communion of saints as before.

Paul’s words to the Thessalonians help me think through why our brothers and sisters in Christ are gone. It’s not all for the same reasons. There are three groups of people missing from my church I need to reach out to:

Help the Weak. Many can’t be part of Sunday morning fellowship right now because of their individual health condition, or because someone in their family has a compromised heart or lungs. Bless them! They wish they could gather again, but they know their burdens, and they trust God to sustain them even while they watch neighbors drive past their houses to church like they used to. Christians, let us reach out to our church family who stay home to stay alive. Call them, email them, send letters to them. Help them feel the love of Christ and His Body, the church, through you.

Encourage the Fainthearted. For many, coronavirus is more of a mental and emotional struggle than a physical one. Their anxiety spikes when they see their sanctuary masked. Fear beats at the door to their heart, and sometimes, Fear lets himself right in. Christians, let us offer our brothers and sisters confidence and strength in Jesus Christ. He has always sustained our every breath by His powerful hand: pre-, mid-, and post-pandemic. God will use this season to forge in us the faith of Jesus Christ, teaching us to rest in God’s faithfulness and to trust in His sustaining grace.

Admonish the Unruly. “Unruly” translates the original word better than “idle.” The premier Biblical-Greek-to-English dictionary (BDAG) describes it as “those who are out of step and going their own way.” Some, in pride and anger, rebel against authority rather than submitting to their leaders, whether in the church (Hebrews 13:17) or in the state (1 Peter 2:13-17). Yet how can those who follow Jesus insist on going their own way, when Jesus Himself submitted to the governor Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:2), even in his unrighteousness (27:24), even to death (27:27ff)? If Jesus, His disciples, and the church Jesus founded obeyed the pagan governors over them out of reverence for God, how much more ought we also abide by the verses right before our opening verse: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

Christians, are you out of step and going your own way? Will you humble yourself before God and let the leaders He has given you lead you? Let us ask the Spirit to shine His light in our hearts, that any pride or rebellion there might be exposed and expelled.

Be Patient with Everyone. I’m tempted to assume I know other people’s stories before they tell them. My inner detective has a nasty habit of making up stories and missing the truth, working off of my own made-up clues. But every time I meet with and call people to hear what’s really going on with them, I have been encouraged, relieved, and challenged.

When we won’t spend time to listen to others, our impatience shows. Christians, let us patiently give others the benefit of the doubt. Let us patiently lend an ear, even when we can’t imagine how others’ stories might be different from the ones we’ve concocted for them. Love by listening. Only after we’ve established our love for others with them, by patiently hearing them out, can we admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, and help the weak.

More Than “Essential” Relationships

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Now that restrictions are lifted, we have room for more than the “essentials” again. Nice, isn’t it? We shouldn’t forget so fast the liberty we now have: not only as Americans on the 4th of July, but like those on an airplane that are “free to move about the cabin,” able to stretch our legs, to move around, to tackle those projects, and to reach out to others again.

Odd, to put “reach out to others again” on that list. Didn’t this virus teach us that relationships are essential? As we come back into the light from under our rocks, we see those who were shook up by the distance and separation––some who were really, really hurt by loneliness. Ask them: relationships aren’t something to set on hold. They’re life-giving. They are essential.

But not all of us felt those pangs of withdrawal. We had Facebook and Instagram. We still had work. We had Zoom. We had phone calls to grandparents and we FaceTimed our cousins. Have you noticed how rich we must be when we have love to offer, space in our lives … and we hoard that space and that love for ourselves?

I’m sure there are relationships you were glad to put on hold during this season. Someone especially annoying in your life that you were glad to take a break from. Someone who feels like a black hole of emotional self-pity. Or maybe you’ve been so burned by those who insult you and despise you that you were glad for some time to lick your wounds by yourself for a while.

Relationships get inconvenient. They irritate. They seem pointless. Sometimes, they hurt.

And the relationships that you’ve held onto? They didn’t go through hard spells? They didn’t become all the more essential because someone kept up with you, made it through the dark days, and threw you a lifeline when you were inconvenient? A moment in the mirror with our closest family and friends, looking back on the love they poured into our lives, reveals what we wish we had ignored: they loved us. They took the time for me. They put up with a lot of &#$% and were still with me on the other end. And I didn’t earn it: it was in spite of my inconvenience, irritating habits, lack of inherent worth on their ladder, and even how I hurt them, that they still loved me and cared for me. They loved me when I was not “essential” to them.

Sounds powerfully like what God did for us in Jesus Christ.

What would our county look like if the people reading this paper each reached out to one inconvenient person today? If we each called one hurting person, just to ask how to share their burden and how to be sad with them for a moment? What if we each went out of our way to connect with an “extra” person: someone in our neighborhood, in our school, at work, someone we don’t have to have a friendship with––just because we could?

We’re not just capable of the bare minimum of relationships. We were made for more. Let’s not settle for “essential” any longer.

A Prayer for Our 2020 Graduates

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For the last four years, the Carney-Nadeau School has generously invited me to pray for our graduates at the beginning of their graduation ceremony. This being a year unlike many others, I am eager to seek God on their behalf, that by God’s power at work in them they would make the most of their trials for God’s glory in them. In this hope I share the words of my prayer with our community, especially with this year’s other graduates in our county. Bible references throughout show where God’s Word has directed this prayer.

Almighty God, Father of Jesus Christ,

We gather in this place tonight because a disease has brought us not only sickness and death but uncertainty and confusion (Exodus 9:15, Psalm 91:3-6, Amos 4:10, Luke 21:11). Our great celebration is disrupted, delayed, and relocated, because we cannot restrain what You have allowed in this world (Proverbs 16:9; Jeremiah 10:23).

We gather in this place tonight while our country is enraged by violence, hatred, distrust, and pride (Job 19:7, Psalm 73:6, Habakkuk 1:2-3). We are sending these young men and women into a nation that has come so far and yet still seeks for justice, for wholeness, and for all that is truly good (Jeremiah 22:3, Ezekiel 45:9, Amos 5:24, Micah 6:8).

God, have mercy on us (Psalm 57:1, 103:8; Luke 18:13; James 5:11). Have mercy on our nation. You chose to humble us tonight (Deuteronomy 8:2-3, Isaiah 2:11, Matthew 23:12, James 4:10, 1 Peter 5:6), forcing us away from what we expected in our self-confidence to be like every other year (2 Peter 3:4-5), and casting us into the unknown.

Yet what is unknown to us has always been known to You (Deuteronomy 29:29, Job 38-41, Ephesians 3:4-5). You have known about this year and these times since You founded the world (Psalm 78:2, Matthew 13:35). You created these students in their mothers’ wombs to enter such a time as this (Psalm 139:13-16, Isaiah 44:2, Jeremiah 1:5, Galatians 1:15, Ephesians 1:4), that they might seek You, and perhaps feel their way towards You and find You (Acts 17:27). You oppose the proud and give grace to the humble (Proverbs 3:34, James 4:6), to display Your mighty power to every generation (Psalm 78:1-8), even to every graduating class. You are God, and we are not.

God, thank You for these times to send out our graduates: not with self-confidence (Philippians 3:3-4), or pride in their impotent flesh (Psalm 56:4, Proverbs 16:18, Isaiah 31:1), but with confidence in You (2 Chronicles 32:8), our Rock (2 Samuel 22:2-3; Psalm 62:2, 6-7; Isaiah 44:8) and our Strength (Exodus 15:2, 1 Chronicles 16:11, Psalm 18:1); the Almighty, Everlasting God, Who guides every event in the grand story of this world to magnify Your own eternal power, goodness, and glory (Daniel 2:20-21, 4:34-35; Acts 17:26). Teach our students not to be wise in their own eyes, but to fear You and turn away from evil (Pro. 3:7). Instruct them in righteousness, justice, and equity (Pro. 1:3). Lead them to trust in You with all their heart, and to lean not on their own understanding. May they acknowledge You in all their ways, that You may make straight their paths (Pro. 3:5-6).

We cannot know what even tomorrow will bring (James 4:13-16; Matthew 27:41-43). Teach us to rely on You, for You hold the future (Jeremiah 29:11).

In the name of Jesus Christ, our present Savior and our coming King, we pray: Amen.

On-the-Job Prayer Training

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Prayers are a tricky thing, and many people have already abandoned them on that count. We feel pressured before others to get our prayers right, and they turn out mechanical. We’re scared of going too deep, so we keep them mindless. We remember the Lord’s Prayer from our youth: a terrific prayer, deserving of full respect! Yet why does it keep coming out superficial, at the same mental level that we had when we learned it at age five?

My children are learning from Tim Keller’s New City Catechism that “prayer is pouring out our hearts to God.” Amen! What an invitation: not to get everything perfect, to say everything just so, or to get the mandatory grace or bedtime routine accomplished. To examine our own hearts and lift our thoughts and attitudes up to God in Heaven a gracious gift God gives us.

Yet we might not be so keen to pray once we check on our hearts. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9) Apart from Christ, we are “darkened in [our] understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in [us], due to [our] hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:18). If we’re banking on having a good heart to be heard by God, we’re firmly planting ourselves on a flimsy trapdoor!

In the Psalms we read the prayers of God’s people. They’re songs, yes. And it happens that these songs are most often prayers. They teach us what to pray, how to pray, and why to pray. If you’re looking for some practical experience, some on-the-job prayer training, every Bible has a workbook for you with 150 examples to walk through.

So you know the Psalms? You’ve heard Psalm 23 at every funeral you’ve been to? Good! Have you jumped into the psalm right before it, an 62-line example of talking to God through agonizing suffering? What does it look like to sing Psalm 23 right after that one? Or how does it sound to continue from the Shepherd Psalm to the next one in line, shouting to announce the coming King of glory, recommitting ourselves to clean hands and a pure heart?

Would God listen if you asked Him to “break the teeth of the wicked” (Psalm 3:7)? Have you turned away from God because he wouldn’t understand a dark night of the soul that never lets up (Psalm 88)?

The Psalms teach us to pray with delight (Psalm 8) and new life (Psalm 32). The Psalms teach us to hunger after God and His Word (Psalms 1, 19, 119). The Psalms teach us that God rules forever over all things (Psalm 2, 110), even when it seems like wicked people are winning (Psalm 22, 73). They quiet us down (Psalm 84, 131) and they rile us up (Psalm 83, 141). The Psalms stretch us out: they don’t stay in our predictable framework of comfort and familiarity. They teach us to pray to the real, the only, the powerful, the living God Who sees us through every blessing and every trial so that we may desire Him, seek Him, find Him, and enjoy Him.

And the Psalms ruin our appetite for mechanical, mindless, and superficial imitations of true prayer. The Psalms explode with life and energy! They infuse repentance and forgiveness with heart and soul! They cry for justice and righteousness! We find in the Psalms the only things that can satisfy what our souls have been starving for.

Dear reader, pray through the Psalms for yourself. Let God transform how you know Him and how you come to Him by letting His Spirit speak through you in His Word. May you come to the end of the Psalms crying with every generation of God’s people, Hallelujah! “Praise the LORD! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have being. The LORD takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His steadfast love” (Psalms 146:1-2, 147:11).