Thursday, August 30, 2007

On Prayer, John Edwards, and Reality

JOHN EDWARDS: "I have prayed most of my life; pray daily now. He's (God) enormously important to me.

But the answer to the question is: No, I don't – I prayed before my 16-year-old son died; I prayed before Elizabeth was diagnosed with cancer. I think there are some things that are beyond our control.

And I think it is enormously important to look to God — and, in my case, Christ — for guidance and for wisdom. But I don't think you can prevent bad things from happening through prayer."

In a recent Democrat Party debate, the question was asked “Do you believe in a personal God?” and “Do you believe that prayer changes things?”

I have no problem disagreeing with John Edwards on any number of levels. And at first blush, it might seem there are plenty of things to criticize in his statement that prayer can’t “prevent bad things from happening.” Isn’t God able to do anything? Isn’t God all powerful? Doesn’t Scripture say if we ask anything in Jesus’ name, that it will be done? How could Edwards have said that?

It’s true, all that is in the Bible – though it’s often misunderstood or misapplied. And I really hate this, but I generally find myself agreeing with John Edwards on this one.

We live in a society of instant gratification today. We live in a culture of materialism, pleasure, self-centeredness and a delusional belief that we can somehow avoid life’s hardships. This has certainly bled over into our religious thinking. The clearest avenue of this thinking is the “Word of Faith” movement, a strain of Charismatic (Neo-Pentecostalism) Protestantism that teaches “name it and claim it.” You know the examples – “In the name of Jesus, I claim a new Mercedes Benz!” “In the name of Jesus, I believe God for a million dollars.” The mere fact that not everyone who makes these “claims” at some point becomes disillusioned is the most benign result of this error.

What if you’ve got a parent whose child in dying of cancer, and on the deathbed they cry out to God, “In the name of Jesus, my child is healed!”

Let me hasten to add that I believe God can and DOES intervene in miraculous ways at times. I’ve seen diseases healed, the sick made whole. That God CAN do it is not the issue. That we can demand God do it – THAT is the issue. In this age of “have it now the way I want it” faith consigns God to the status of Cosmic Bellhop. God is our gopher, He is our errand-boy, our lives are about our joy, our satisfaction, our comfort….

But sometimes, God in His Sovereign knowledge and will knows more than we do, sees more than we can comprehend, and allows things that we would consider cruel, evil, painful, and at odds with His very nature of Love.

Even Jesus Himself said, “for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45b). Are we so righteous that we can somehow avoid the rain that falls on everyone else? Are we so exalted above other men that we cannot be touched by the pain of real human life? And if we do suffer tragedies, losses, grief and other trials, does that mean somehow that we haven’t the faith that would move God to “spring us?”

The Apostle Paul wrote in Hebrews about many of the faithful saints who had followed God in prior ages. Many were miraculously delivered, empowered and emboldened to achieve victory, to conquer, to stand against all the fury of Satan and his minions. But many others fell to the swords, lived miserably, and died horribly. Were those who were victorious in the world any more deserving or faithful than those who suffered so greatly? Read this passage:

And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and [of] Barak, and [of] Samson, and [of] Jephthae; [of] David also, and Samuel, and [of] the prophets:

Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,

Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.

Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:

And others had trial of [cruel] mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment:

They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;

(Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and [in] mountains, and [in] dens and caves of the earth.

And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:

God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect (Hebrews 11:32-40).

SOME “through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises stopped the mouths of lions…OTHERS had trial of [cruel] mocking and scourging…Bonds of imprisonment…were stoned…sawn asunder, tempted, slain…. And these ALL, having obtained a GOOD REPORT through FAITH…

Suffering doesn’t necessarily imply failure or lack of faith. Sometimes, it’s quite the contrary.

Several years ago I went through the toughest period of my life. During that time, I thought about changing my name to Murphy because I was living by his law every day. I prayed more than I ever had before. I pleaded with God to rectify the situation, to intercede on my behalf, to rescue me, to protect me, to deliver me from my enemies… From my perspective then, He did not.

A year or so ago, God revealed to me that during that time, what I could do in those circumstances was not important to Him – but that what He could do IN ME through those circumstances WAS important to Him. I wasn’t God’s gift to anything – those circumstances were His gift to me, to make me what He wants, to conform me to His image.

I’ve never quite been able to thank God for those problems, but I know now that they had a purpose in His plan. John Edwards has a point on this score – prayer CAN bring miracles, but most often it doesn’t. Instead, it serves to prepare us for the consequences of tragedies and failures, and becomes the base for the recovery that we can enjoy in Him. In short, prayer is more about changing ME than about changing my circumstances.

Pray. Believe. Then accept that God knows best, because He knows all – and move on from there in His strength. After all, His strength is ALL we really have.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Visit To Mepkin Abbey

On Tuesday, August 14th, while I was on vacation in Charleston, SC, I rode out to Mepkin Abbey in the coutryside along the Cooper River near Moncks Corner. And, when I say "countryside," I MEAN countryside. If the Trappist Brothers had wanted to find a more remote place on the Eastern Seaboard, they would have been hard pressed.

I went to Mepkin for a number of reasons. First, as a teacher of religion, I wanted to acquaint myself with the monastic life of Catholic monks. Second, the monastic life of solitude has always had an appeal to me. Third, I'd never been there in the more than 12 years I've lived in SC.

When I initially drove in, down a long lane under a canopy of moss covered, 250 year old Oak trees, I saw a little fawn off to my left, loping slowly into the nearby woods. Wow. Not that I think that was a sign from God, but the natural beauty and peace of the landscape certainly brought me a feeling of comfort and rest.

I had the opportunity to tour some of the 3,200 acres that has belonged to the Cistertian order since it was given to them by Henry and Clare Booth Luce in 1949. Of course, much of the property is reserved for the Monks only and is off limits. But the Docent was very open and answered a plethora of questions from the dozen or so of us in the tour party. The tour lasted about an hour, and we had the opportunity to attend the noon prayer service in the Abbey Church -- one of the seven times of prayer the monks observe daily between their 3 AM rising and their 8 PM bedtime. Of course, we were seated in a small gallery to observe, not participate. There were, however, both male and female "retreatants" there who did participate. They stay from a few days to a period of months in some cases, and they don't have to be Catholics -- though to be a monk, of course, one DOES have to be Catholic.

I picked up some great books and CD's at the small Abbey bookstore. A couple of small books by the late Thomas Merton, one of my favorite devotional writers. I also picked up an official copy of The Rule of St. Benedict. Good stuff, and the basis upon which these monks base almost every practice of their lifestyle. I also picked up a CD of Gregorian Chants and a couple of CD's of Russian Orthodox choirs doing the traditional deep, rich acapella vocals they are so well known for. I don't understand a word. I do sense the power.

Which brings me to the questions that my time at Mepkin Abbey left me with. The most personal question that occurred to me was, though I would love the solitude of a life in Mepkin, could I deal with the relative isolation from the outside world? And, with all the silence and solitude, would the absence of the busyness of my life drive me insane in about 10 minutes? And here's a big issue for me -- could I stand the daily grind -- rising at 3 AM, praying at the same time, reciting the same prayers and chants seven times a day, to bed before dark in the summer at 8 PM...? Could I be that disciplined?

I suppose those who feel called to that lifestyle are enabled to live that life. I can't imagine myself being able to do it. Still, there is that lure, that appeal that such a peaceful and prayerful unhindered communion with God offers....

I'm not a Catholic. I haven't converted. I am still as Protestant as I ever was. Sometimes though, I think Protestants "threw out the baby with the bathwater." Protestants have largely forgotten much of the history of the church -- especially prior to the Reformation. We've also thrown out much of the devotional character and practice that eventually gave birth to Protestantism -- or at least provided the groundwork. I got in touch with some of that Spirit at Mepkin Abbey -- and for that I am thankful and much better off -- at least for a time.

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Visit To Seacoast Church

This past Sunday, August 12, I had the opportunity to attend Seacoast Church in Mt. Pleasant, SC.

Seacoast is a multi-campus Evangelical Church, affiliated with the Association of Related Churches [ARC]. They are generally "non-denominational," though ARC looks more and more like a denomination if you read their literature. One can say, however, that ARC is making an impact -- a nice change compared to the vast majority of churches these days.

I didn't know it, but Greg Surratt, founder of Seacoast Church some 20 years ago, and still the presiding "Pastor" of the multiple campuses in three states (SC, NC, GA) was speaking that morning. He preached a very good message in "Noah's Ark," from the first verses of Genesis 6.

I was pleasantly surprised by his direct teaching of the Scripture as truth, and his willingness to explore different interpretations of the text while upholding its inspiration and accuracy. With the so-called "generous orthodoxy" of our days in the "emerging church," and the compromise from many quarters in what still passes for "evangelicalism," Surratt's dedication to orthodoxy was refreshing and reassuring.

I went to the 8 AM service, which was well attended -- over 200 maybe? I'm not a good judge of crowd size... There were two more services - one at 9:30 and another at 11 AM. The early service was contemporary, but stripped down, held in the chapel, acoustic music. At the end of the message, there was a time of "invitation" or dedication, followed by a somewhat "casual" observance of Communion. I didn't get to ask questions, but I wonder if they observe Communion after every service...? NOT that there's anything wrong with that!

When I got back to my vacation condo and was reading the Sunday paper, lo and behold, an article about Seacoast Church. Last week, it was named among the top 10 most effective/influential churches in America. From my visit to their service, and the message of Greg Surratt, I can see why.

My prayer is that they stay founded on the truth and focused of the mission. I wish them blessings and success.