Lord, Teach Us to Pray

It’s easy for me to empathize with Jesus Christ’s disciples in the Gospel according to Luke when they beg their master and teacher, “Teach us to pray! John taught his disciples how to pray, can you teach us please?”

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This article also appeared in the January 2018 edition of Faith’s Foundations, the newsletter of Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

I’ve said it before, but I grew up with a terrible prayer life. In my house, saying prayers in the morning or at night just wasn’t a thing. We said grace around the dinner table, but eventually that faded as well.

I attended a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod grade school from Kindergarten through eighth grade where we had chapel every Wednesday. Combined with my regular Sunday attendance at my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation, I was praying a few times a week. But it wasn’t personal, one-on-one time with God. I was afraid of praying to God that way because I remember being taught that if one didn’t pray to God in the correct way, God would be upset (I distinctly remember the example of praying for a new bike being a prayer that would upset God). Or maybe that was just an excuse for my already poor prayer life.

Over the years I’ve tried different ways to improve my personal prayer life. I bought devotional books and would get two or three weeks in before giving up because I didn’t like them or they were too cheesy. I tried Lectio Divina (which I really liked) and other contemplative prayer practices, structured Morning and Evening Prayer, but I was never able to find something that held my focus and attention. So for the most part, I simply gave up on personal prayer outside of the random “God I could really use your help” or “Thank you God, that was awesome” prayers at appropriate times.

It’s easy for me to empathize with Jesus Christ’s disciples in the Gospel according to Luke when they beg their master and teacher, “Teach us to pray! John taught his disciples how to pray, can you teach us please?” Prayer isn’t something that always comes easily—not for disciples or even for pastors. Learning how to pray happens in two ways: it happens out of necessity, as in the case of the beloved spirituals of the African American community; or it happens because one is taught. What I needed was someone to teach me how to pray.

How ironic that in the 21st century, it was the ancient monastics who ultimately taught me how to pray. I used them in a sermon a few weeks ago, but I recently came into possession of a set of Anglican Prayer Beads (sometimes also called Protestant Prayer Beads). They were made by one of our lay school students who learned how to make and use them in a class on Spirituality.

Prayer beads have a long history in Christianity. By the 200s CE the desert monastics were using first pebbles and then ropes with knots tied in them to help them count and keep track of their prayers—most often repetitions of the Lord’s Prayer or the Jesus Prayer (not to be confused with the Sinner’s Prayer). Prayer ropes are still popular in Eastern Christianity today. By the 600s in Western Christianity these prayer ropes evolved into strings of beads serving the same purpose. The most recognizable form of prayer beads is the Rosary of the Roman Catholic Church, a beloved item by many of the faithful. (Fun fact: in the early 2000s the ELCA experimented with a Lutheran Rosary for the season of Lent. You can still find information on it if you look!)

In the 1980s the Episcopal Diocese of Texas developed a set of 33 prayer beads to use as an aid in prayer. Unlike the complicated and specific uses of the Roman Catholic Rosary, Anglican prayer beads are meant to be used in a variety of ways, leaving it up to the individual to decide what works for them. As it turns out, that’s what works for me.

For the last few weeks I’ve been using my prayer beads and Bread for the Day, a prayer book based on the Daily Lectionary and published by our own Augsburg Fortress to guide my daily prayer. I use either the Full Circle Prayer that came with the beads or the popular Trisagion and Jesus Prayer. It is the first time I can remember, in 31 years of life, that I have an actual, solid prayer life. It’s a liberating, exciting feeling; I often cry my way through Evening Prayer, though I’m not exactly sure why yet. It’s made for one heck of an early New Year’s Resolution.

Like the disciples, I had to be taught how to pray. It took a long time. But I’m glad I’ve finally found something that works for me. If you’re looking for something to help you pray, maybe prayer beads can help. Maybe they can’t. Maybe something else will help. But never stop looking, never stop seeking ways to connect with the Holy Spirit. It may be one of the most important things you do in your life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Healing

Lenten reflection for April 2.

Andy* is an energetic, inquisitive little boy. He would come into my office and play with my stuff while I tried to work on a sermon or prayers. He would sit on my bike and see if he could touch the pedals. His mom works for the church, so the building is like a second home to him. He knew that I wouldn’t be at that church long, but that didn’t stop him from becoming my friend anyway. He has that smile and glow about him that makes you wonder what happened to your own youthful energy.

Andy also has ITP, or Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura. ITP is a condition in which the body’s white blood cells become confused and begin attacking the blood’s platelets, killing them off. Platelets are the cells that clot bleeding, so as their number drops, the body is not able to stop bleeding if it occurs. If the number of platelets drops too low, spontaneous bleeding can occur.

Most cases of ITP are either mild enough that only some treatment is required, and in most cases, it fixes itself on its own in a few months. Andy is not one of those cases. Andy’s platelet counts had, at times, dropped to the point where he was at risk for internal bleeding. While he responded to treatment, it did not last, and his count would plummet again. The use of steroids, another form of treatment, made him violently ill. It has been two years since he was diagnosed, and it looks like he may have this condition for the rest of his life.

It is hard to look at Andy and wonder why God doesn’t just heal him. God could. It is certainly not from a lack of faith or prayer—his family and the church pray for him all the time. In our story tonight, Jesus says that faith can heal. So when it doesn’t, what does that mean?

Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, tells this story about a trip she took to Rome and the aftermath:

“The last day in Rome I caught a lulu of a cold. As I lay in bed the Friday after we returned searching the TV for a football game, I came across a televangelist. I was mesmerized. He was preaching to a packed house in a converted NBA coliseum. His text was from Matthew 21, the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, the disciples’ wonderment at Jesus’ authority and Jesus’ teaching about faith being able to move mountains.

The televangelist’s exegesis (explanation) of the passage led him to conclude that Jesus said we must “speak to the mountain” — prayer was not enough. If we wanted a better job we needed to “speak to that mountain” and all the heavenly forces would be set in motion. Poor health? Fear of foreclosure? Troubled marriage? “Speak to that mountain” and get it fixed.

Wow. When my father was dying why didn’t I speak to that mountain? When Paul prayed three times that the thorn in his flesh be taken away, why didn’t he speak to that mountain? Here it was, the “Name It and Claim It Health and Wealth Gospel.” The people in that arena were cheering.”

I don’t know why God hasn’t answered our prayers and healed Andy. It can’t be because we never “spoke to that mountain”. I know his family has. I know his church has. They’ve put all of their faith into loving and supporting him and his family. Maybe there is no easy answer. Maybe prayer answers don’t  I don’t know.

But I do know this: when Andy is in the hospital, it is God holding his hands, whispering, “I’m right here—I’m not leaving your side.” When Andy has to sit out in gym class because any hard hits could cause him to bleed internally, God sits next to him and says, “That’s okay, they never let me play, either.” And no matter what happens to Andy, God will be there with him, walking with him, caring for him, as God does with all of us who love Andy dearly. That is where God is in suffering and pain–right there with it.

*Name changed to respect privacy.

What? Where?

It’s September? What happened?! Where did August go?!

Since my last post all the way back in July, I’ve been quite busy.

On August 12, I finished my internship at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Muskegon, MI. That day, the church threw a party for me which included lots of good food, a slideshow of entertaining and embarrassing pictures (thanks, Mom), a box of gifts (including Taco Bell gift cards, a Pickleball, duct-tape, and a piece of cardboard so I’d always have a place to live), a letter from my mother, and a still-unbelievable financial gift to help pay for beginning-of-the-year expenses, without which I would have seriously struggled to get everything together.

There were a lot of tears, a lot of laughs, and a lot of hugs. I almost broke down when the youngest son of the church administrator quickly hugged me and ran so I wouldn’t see him cry (I did anyway), and I did break down when a little girl gave me a hug and read me my favorite Psalm, Psalm 121, out of her Bible–she had paid attention all year and wrote down every passage I mentioned as one of my favorites. She gave me a prayer cross and candle on which she had written all of my favorite verses.

The very next day, I hit the road for Columbus, OH, to return to Trinity Lutheran Seminary for my final year as an Master of Divinity student. I left in Muskegon a lot of good memories of places I came to love–and not just the church and its people, but the city itself, the lakeshore, the trails, and the culture.

I moved into my apartment at the seminary campus and immediately set up my utilities. Gas? Check. Electric? Check. Cable?
OH.MY.GOD.

Time Warner Cable is giving the United States Congress a run for its money in the inept department. Everything should have been set up on August 15. It is now September 7, and my third (replacement) cable box is in the mail. At least I got the internet working again and fixed my billing fiasco. All that’s left is the cable box. I have no idea why this is so complicated, but it seems to be universal among cable companies. My intern supervisor switched to Comcast, and for weeks they went ’round in circles because they had written his address incorrectly and no one had the authority to correct it.

Assuming everything arrives promptly and correctly, this should all finally be fixed.

Then I started another full semester of classes. When the seminary introduced degree concentrations a year into my education, I was determined that I would put in the extra effort required to earn one, even though I didn’t have the first year anymore to work on it. This has meant that every academic year has been packed. I am taking 15 credit hours this semester (a maximum load is considered 16 credit hours):

BL3138 – The Bible and the Qur’an
BL3146 – Romans
HTS3031 – Being Lutheran in America
HTS3034 – Pastor as Theologian
MN3003 – Pastor as Leader
MN3192 – Christian Spirituality and Prayer

All in all, that’s two exegetical papers, a few projects, and a few more final papers to be ready for. I am particularly excited for The Bible and the Qur’an because I have read exactly 0% of the Qur’an. What a fascinating book.

I am also looking forward to what develops in Christian Spirituality and Prayer. We’ve already joked that the class is so foreign to most of us because Lutheranism tends to be on the intellectual side. Many Lutherans don’t believe that spirituality (or what they understand it to be) doesn’t exit in Lutheranism. We are proving them wrong!

On the finances side, I started two work-study jobs. I am again the Computer Assistants coordinator, responsible for making the schedule and making sure things go alright. Aside from these past few weeks, which involved major changes to the computers (we moved the computer lab to a new location with brand new equipment) and the responsibilities of the Computer Assistants, this is actually a pretty stress-free job.

The one I am most excited about is being the Teaching Assistant for Systematic Theology. The professor and I are good friends, and neither of us have had TA work before. It’s like an adventure! I am looking forward to how this semester plays out in that regard.

Coming back to Trinity Lutheran Seminary and Bexley Hall Seminary has been a different transition for me. Because internship is our third year, when we return, we know very few people on campus. The class ahead of us is gone, and the class behind us in on internship, meaning the other two classes on campus are the class that came while we were on internship and the class that just came this year, neither of which we know. Aside from the Bexley Hall seniors (who are on a three-year, non-internship program), everyone is brand new to me.

I’ve had some trouble reintegrating, both with the Lutherans and the Episcopalians. I think my class is still exhausted and recovering from the transition from intern back to student. I dont’ see them outside of class very much. And now that I know very few of the Episcopalians, getting back into their worship services and trying to get to know them has been taxing. I’m sure that will change, though, once I get to know everyone at the two seminaries better.

Perhaps most stressful of all, I am coming up on the Approval phase of Candidacy. Candidacy is the process that runs alongside seminary in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In the first stage, Entrance, the Candidacy committee of the candidate’s synod decides whether the candidate can start seminary education. In the second stage, Endorsement, the committee decides whether the candidate can continue their education. in the last stage, Approval, the committee decides whether the candidate can be ordained and receive a call to a church. That’s the process I’m about to begin.

As I look forward to the rest of the year, what do I hope to experience and gain? Certainly, I am very much looking forward to the way my January Israel/Palestine trip will change me. But I also look forward to the ways in which I will grow in my understanding of ministry, of leadership, of the Gospel, and of the world.

Here’s to a final year full of grace, trials, panic, peace, papers, bonfires, food, friendship and love.