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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Our daily bread and the prayer of the Spirit--More thoughts on Romans 8:26

 “…the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us

in groans that cannot be put into words…”

--Romans 8:26b


I’ve been thinking a lot about the Spirit praying for us, and in my contemplation my thoughts keep turning back to that prayer that the Lord, Himself teaches us:

 Thy will be done,

They kingdom come…

Give us this day, our daily bread…

Deliver us from evil…

 I figure that if this is what Jesus, Himself tells us to pray, then that is probably what the Spirit is praying for us.  While I am busily pleading with God for health and success and the phone number of a trustworthy plumber, the Spirit is petitioning that God’s will be done, and God’s kingdom will come…

 And that one particular phrase, “our daily bread” has stood out to me. Being a bread baker, and biscuit maker, I have my own particular tendency when I hear that phrase—and it leans toward melting butter, crackly golden crust, and orange marmalade (or grilled cheese).  But, as I prayed over this scripture recently, I find myself returning again and again to a different idea about my “daily bread.”  What if our daily bread, refers not just to food for our stomach.  What if it refers to food for our souls as well?

And again, this idea comes straight from the lips of Jesus. In John’s Gospel there is that story about the Samaritan woman at the well.  Toward the end of that story the disciples return with food and urge Jesus to have something to eat, but instead of asking if the waffle fries are still warm, the Lord says to them:

 “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me…” (John 4:34)

and that phrase keeps coming into my prayer—though now (for some reason) I am also thinking about waffle fries. Extra crispy… and a chocolate shake…

But, back to the point.  What does it mean to my prayer life to know that when Jesus speaks of daily bread, He might mean something other than sourdough or pumpernickel. He might be speaking of the sustenance and nourishment that come from doing God’s will.  And so, I am wondering if my daily bread might be God’s will; my daily bread might be the gift of a chance to do God’s will; to lean into a difficult moment and say: Not my will, but Thy will be done…

 The food of doing God’s will is food for my soul, food for the journey, food to sustain me in my time in the desert.  And thinking about this I am reminded of the story we hear at the beginning of each Lent, the story of Jesus fasting in the desert.  Immediately after He is baptized, He goes out into the desert and fasts for 40 days.  During this time, Satan comes to Jesus and tempts Him with promises of good things: food, security, success… and each time, Jesus responds: Not my will, but God’s will be done. 

On the surface, this seems to be simply a story of Jesus turning away from temptation and showing great restraint or will-power or even that He is clever-er than Satan.  But, what if this is really a story demonstrating how Jesus was fed during His time of fasting. The food He was nourished with was doing the will of the one who sent Him. 

To do God’s will, to walk with God, completely, and in complete harmony with God’s will is to dwell in the Kingdom of God’s Holy Presence. His Spirit… Is there anything more that the Spirit could want for us?

 And so I keep praying: Give us this day, our daily bread… And in groans that I cannot put into words, and cannot find on any fast-food menu, what I really mean is: Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come…

 At least, that’s what I want to be praying for, even if I can’t put it into words.


Monday, March 15, 2021

Prayer and the Spirit--some thoughts on Romans 8

“…the Spirit comes to help us in our weakness,

for, when we do not know how to pray properly,

then the spirit personally makes our petitions for us

in groans that cannot be put into words; and He

who can see into all hearts knows what the Spirit

means because the prayers the prayers that the

Spirit makes for God’s holy people are always

in accordance with the mind of God.”

--Romans 8: 26-27


The prayers of the Spirit are always in accordance with the mind of God… I’ve never really pondered what that means.  What is the Spirit’s prayer?  I guess, that is something I’ve usually glossed over when reading Romans.  I think my focus has probably been on the beautiful assurance that even if I don’t know what to pray for, the Spirit does and will pray for me. And that has always seemed like enough for me.  I took comfort in the fact that if I was thinking I needed a new bright red Schwinn bicycle with gears and hand brakes and a bell on it, perhaps the Spirit would know I would do better with a blue one.  That was kind of how I thought this worked.


But after a Pandemic year and a Pipe-Freezing Snow-mageddon, I began to wonder, what’s going on here?  Is it me or is it the Spirit? Somebody sure seems to be praying wrong.  Because I sure wasn’t praying for a pipe-bursting freeze and a state-wide power outage and a week without running water.  Maybe it was my wife! She had been wanting to go camping, so maybe God was answering her prayer—because that’s what we were doing. Camping in the living room, gathering snow and rain water to flush the toilets, melting bags of ice that a friend bought for us so we’d have drinking water.  We were –at least for these city-folks—roughing it.  Living the Little House on the Prairie dream, so to speak. Heck, we even made molasses candy in the snow, like Ma and Laura used to do!  And so, yes—we might admit that there was something of a blessing in this weird break from our normal lives.  We were a little quieter and a little more intentional for a few days.  We were a little more dependent on each other and on our neighbors.  And even in the evening as the world grew dark and the battery powered lanterns came on, we would sit listening to a battery powered radio and playing games by candle-light in the growing dark. And just when it was getting to be too much and our nerves were beginning to fray and the charm of roughing it was wearing thin, the power came back and stayed on.  And we all cheered. It felt like a prayer had been answered.  But then, the phone rang; it was my mother-in-law. She was in the ER. The doctors weren’t certain what was going on, but she seemed to have some internal bleeding. In the end, this was only the beginning. After more than a week in the hospital we learned she has cancer in her stomach and possibly other places, and according to the doctors, only months to live.  It felt like a sucker punch. Like we’d been tricked into thinking everything was finally okay, getting back to normal, and suddenly—wham!


Is this what it means to be in accordance with the mind of God?  As St. Teresa of Avila famously said: If this is how God treats His friends, no wonder He has so few…




And so, suddenly the world has stopped. And all the headlines and talk about freezes and pandemics and Ercot and elections and masks and ZOOM and re-openings, it all seems like so much nothing.  Looking into the eyes of a person who knows she is dying, seeing that fear and confusion and that helplessness seem to grow in the quiet of her exhausted gaze… Suddenly everything seems to be put into perspective. And suddenly I want to cry out—but I don’t have any words.


And yet, according to Paul, that is exactly when the Spirit intercedes for us “in groans that cannot be put into words…” 


Looking into my mother-in-law’s eyes, that is the prayer I see; that prayer that cannot be put into words.


In the book of Job, there is that wonderful, strange prayer of his; standing before his friends, Job turns to God and cries out, “Please just leave me alone long enough that I may swallow my spit!” (cf. 7:19).  We all feel that way sometimes. The world, our life, our trials overwhelm us and all the prayer we have left in us is to cry out: Leave me alone! But if we offer even that to God, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will set it right in the translation.


For us, for the moment, all our prayers are for my wife’s mother. For a miracle, for healing, for comfort, for hope… that she won’t be afraid and that she will know she is loved, by her family, and by her Lord. And the rest we just have to leave to God.

 But now, as I finish this, I think I might have an idea just exactly what it is the Spirit prays:

 Our Father, who art in Heaven

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy Kingdom come.

Thy will be done,

on earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day

our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil…









Sunday, February 21, 2021

Right where we belong--some thoughts on the act of reading Acts


“He spent the whole of the two years

in his own rented lodging. He welcomed

all who came to visit him…”

--Acts 28:30


This is describing how Paul was being held for trial in Rome.  It sounds kind of like he was under house arrest. I love the phrase: in his own rented lodging.  It sounds so cozy and cheerful. Something out of a British children’s book about a badger, a mole and a well-dressed bear off for a seaside vacation. But what caught my attention was the “two years.”  It is the second time within a few chapters that Paul has been held somewhere for 2 years  (stemming from the charges brought against him by the Scribes and Sadducee and his arrest in Jerusalem [cf. 21]). The implication is that Paul spends at least the last 4 years of his life in captivity: first in Caesarea (cf. 24:27) and then in Rome. 


Because the phrase was repeated, it caught my attention. At first, I wondered whether “two years” might be a symbolic length of time.  Something like the idea of Jonah being “three days” in the belly of the whale, or the Jews wandering in the desert for “40 years” or Jesus fasting in the desert for “40 days.”  Most scholars, theologians, preachers seem to treat those numbers as symbolic; possibly just meaning “a long time.”  But, as far as I can tell these “two years” in Caesarea and two more years in Rome have always been read in a literal sense.  Paul was in captivity for 4 years (in addition to travel from Jerusalem to Rome, plus getting shipwrecked and spending a few months in Malta).


Anyway, that is how I read scripture—some odd detail catches my attention, and off my little brain goes like a cat chasing a lizard (that was brought in with the potted plants from patio because of the freeze…just saying…).  BUT… this is how scripture reads me.


As I was sitting there cogitating over Paul and those two years, I found myself suddenly remembering a strange remark that Agrippa made to Festus (no—not the guy from Gunsmoke). At the end of chapter 26, Agrippa says:

            That man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”

Which sounds strangely like they are saying: If only Paul hadn’t made that rash appeal to Caesar, he could be free and on his way.  If only he hadn’t been so foolish, if only he hadn’t been so ridiculous, he could be a free man.  But, because he did, now he has to go to Rome and –well, you know what happens there...


And now I am suddenly thinking about how it all must have seemed so ridiculous and wasteful.  Two years doing nothing in Caesarea, followed by two more years “doing nothing” in Rome, and –in the eyes of the world—it was all due to Paul’s bad choice; his mistake. If only he hadn’t appealed to Rome.


Because of Paul’s rash choice he is forced to curtail his missionary travels and waste these valuable years in a holding pattern.  At least that is what it looks like in the eyes of the world. But, in God’s eyes, it is quite a different thing all together.  Paul is right where God wants him to be. He is doing exactly what God wants him to be doing. He is spreading God’s message of love and salvation to the world—even as he is held in custody. First, sharing it with the local officials and their households in Caesarea (Agrippa, Festus, Felix, et al), and then to the whole world through Rome, where he will be held and then finally (as tradition has it) put to death. Nothing glorious, nothing especially noteworthy, nothing particularly honorable about any of this; and yet, many would say, he changed the world.


How often do so many of us find ourselves contemplating those wasted years, those bad choices we made, haunted by a series of “if only” thoughts. If only I had studied harder in school. If only I had gone to law school. If only I had passed the bar. If only I had passed any bar… Sorry, Griffs! If only I had bought Apple when it was $2 a share.


If only Paul had not appealed to Rome…


But the lesson I learned from those two years with Paul in Caesarea and again in Rome is this:  being a beloved servant of God is not about being right.  It’s not about making “right choices.” It’s about being beloved. We are not defined by our mistakes, or by our successes—in the end, we are defined by the love of our Creator.   And we are called to live in that love, and to be a sign of that love for the world.  And that is exactly what we see in Paul, wherever he was, whatever situation he found himself in, even awaiting his own execution, he was being a beloved servant of God—and, like his master, he was welcoming all who came to him.


So, you see, this is how reading scripture works on me.  Even while I am busily distracted by some minor detail or some repeated phrase, foolishly chasing after some strange “two years,” the Lord is there in His love and planting seeds –casting them carelessly onto the soil of my soul.  Some falls on rocks, some among thorns, but other on rich soil where it will bloom, thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold. The trick is remembering He’s not only in charge of the seeds, He’s also in charge of the soil.  Like Paul, wherever you find yourself—in sunny Cancun, or without water and electricity in a frozen Houston suburb-- rest in that love and make welcome all who come.



Sunday, February 14, 2021

Why don't we live forever? A Theology of Need in Genesis 3 & Acts 17

 “…and He did this so that they might seek

the Lord and, by feeling their way

towards Him, find Him…”  Acts 17:27


These words are from Paul’s sermon in Athens, at the Areopagus.  He is explaining to the Athenians the glory of the one God; a God who needs no temple, no altar, no statue to honor Him. Paul is telling the Athenians that there is a God, greater than any they have imagined; greater than Zeus, and Apollo, greater than all their honored gods. He proclaims to them the one God, the God who made all things and gives breath and life to all living creatures.  A God who decrees even the times and limits of their habitation of the earth; of their lives—of our lives. And, Paul says, He did this, He set that limit upon our lives, for a reason: that we might seek Him.


That is where I paused in my reading today.  Thinking about this note, I was reminded of a joke from a teacher I know.  He says: Life is a lot like a sexually transmitted disease, but –on the plus side—at least it‘s terminal.


At least it’s terminal!  He jokes.  It sounds clever—especially at 7:15 in the morning, when you are getting your first cup of coffee or checking your mail. We all laugh and wander off to our classrooms, but… For me, this joke has always left a strange little itch of a thought, something like a tiny splinter, catching at the back of my brain.    


And then to read Paul’s words this morning; it was as if something snagged on that splinter. A beautiful seamless garment catching on an imperceptible thorn…


And there was something else it reminded me of: in the third chapter of Genesis, there is that strange moment when God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden –not as punishment for their sin, but—so that they do not reach out their hands and eat from the tree of life and “live forever.” (cf. Genesis 3:22-23)   


That idea that God didn’t want humans to live forever has always puzzled me.  Why?  Wouldn’t living forever be a good thing? It would free us from the fear of death, and wouldn’t that solve a lot of the world’s problems?  No more Covid. No more cancer. No more starvation. No more hospitals. And no more funerals!


Why was that “tree of life” even kept apart? Why were we not supposed to eat from it? What was it God feared?  Or what was it God wanted for us that required us not to live forever? I think the answer to that question is found in what Paul is teaching the Athenians here. 


God was not afraid of us living forever, but afraid for us.  God understood that, if we were to live forever, we would be doomed to thinking we were sufficient unto ourselves; we would begin to think were our own gods.  For our own good, we needed temporal limitations as a kind of driving force –an urge within—an itch of sorts, to make us begin to scratch the surface of our existence, make us begin to seek something else, something beyond ourselves. For only in seeking to scratch this itch, to resolve the problem of our limitations, our need for shelter, for safety, for sustenance, for security, for help, for another…. only be scratching at the itch of our insufficiency, our mortality, would we discover that beneath the surface of this life, there is something more, something so much more. 


Later in Acts, as Paul looks toward what will become his final mission trip, he announces “…it is clear to me that imprisonment and persecution await me…” (20:23b)   And yet Paul is not afraid.  He is set on going forward, toward whatever will come; imprisonment, persecution, or worse.  As fearful as these seem, Paul is set on going forward with his mission.  Because he knows, it’s not about him. It’s not about his will, or comfort or pleasure.  There is something much worse than discomfort, worse than imprisonment, worse than persecution that we should fear:  and that is the curse of thinking we are enough, thinking the world revolves around us; the curse of becoming our own gods.


We need the prison of our mortality, and the persecutions of the flesh—vulnerability, weakness, sickness, pain, exhaustion, hunger, desires—to open our eyes to our own insufficiency, that we might discover the truth and the blessing of our need. And discover there, in our hunger, in our insufficiency, in our longing for something more, something beyond ourselves, a kind of theology. A theology of need.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

The honor of humiliation--some thoughts on Acts 5:41 and the Lord's prayer

 “…glad to have had the honor of suffering

humiliation for the sake of the name…”

--Acts 5:41



How often do we (do I) offer myself to God, to submit to God’s will, to serve God, to bring God’s love and presence into the world, to reveal God’s glory through my life—how often have I made that offer, and yet always with some stipulation attached? Some small print, some terms & agreements! In the hope that –like the rest of us—God won’t read them.  But will be bound by them anyway.


Yes, Lord, I say loud and clear, and all the while I am whispering: but on my terms!  Yes, Lord, I will serve You, give my life to You, but –like Frank Sinatra said, You have to do it My way! You have to reveal Your glory through me, My way!


I will be Your servant, but serving You has to look like this:

1.      I give myself to God

2.      God glorifies my work (out of gratitude for my gift)

3.      All my friends and coworkers sees how humble and holy I am (and tell me)

4.      Everybody loves me and sings my praises for being so humble and holy

5.      I win the Nobel Prize for Humility and Holiness and give a big speech that gets on the front page of every newspaper in the world

6.      CBS offers me my own morning show with Hoda


It’s all there, Lord. In the small print. When you clicked “accept” You agreed to the Terms & Agreements. It’s not my fault You didn’t read them…! You’re the one who is supposed to be so high and mighty Mr. Omniscient!


But, of course, I have to wonder: is that really giving? Do we treat anyone else this way? 


Happy Birthday! Here’s your present. It’s a brand new Maya Angelou, Barbie! You can keep it as long as you agree to follow MY Terms of appropriate playing and enjoyment. Otherwise, you have to return it to me, in the original packaging with all shoes still in pairs.


No, of course not.  That’s not really giving.  But I know, deep in my heart, that sounds a lot like the way I treat my gifts to God.  If I am honest with myself, I may be saying: Thy will be done, but what I really mean is My will be done. Instead of giving myself to God, too often I’m really asking God to give Himself to me.   


Reading the book of Acts this morning, I came across this odd idea of being glad for the honor of suffering humiliation for God.  The disciples have been arrested and chastised, and flogged even and they leave with the bruises and welts still on their flesh, glad for the honor of suffering humiliation for God’s name.


And that made me begin to contemplate my own terms & agreements. Called to mind, my ever-present ego, always making demands and putting stipulations on my gifts to God. The disciples aren’t telling God how to run things, they aren’t telling God what glory looks like, they aren’t even demanding equitable or fair or just treatment. Instead, they give themselves wholly to God and whether that means hunger or plenty, heat or cold, suffering humiliation or being praised for healing a lame beggar, they praise God; they give all glory and honor to Him.  Even to the point of being “glad to have the honor of suffering humiliation for the sake of the name” of Jesus.


This is what it means to truly live out the prayer: Not my will, but Thy will be done. (cf Luke 22:42)

No small print. No stipulations. No secret Terms & Agreements.  Just: Yes.  In good or bad, honor or humiliation, silence and suffering, laughter and celebration… Always, yes.

Whether pandemic and poverty or prizes and Post Toasties! Always, Yes.


And in that yes, we will find true peace. Because it isn’t really about us, about our plans and priorities. It’s about becoming who we were truly made to be… children of light, children of hope, children of God. And all it takes is found in that one word… No small print, just one simple: Yes.