Thoughts on Prayer and Worship

Since leaving fundamentalism, I have struggled a lot with prayer and with worship. I do not write this to mock at any expression of Christianity whether it is fundamentalism or evangelicalism or Catholicism or whatever. I write this in order to write about my experiences and the things that I have learned that have helped a great deal.

 I have struggled to understand prayer and its purposes, as it seemed to me that many used prayer as magic, in that they expected to pray for something and God would do what they wanted. That idea of prayer always bothered me, and many times I would pray for things that were very important to me, big things that I thought would matter to God, only to have them not work out for me. It left me wondering if prayer really “worked” because my whole life I have heard clichés like “prayer changes things”.

Sometimes, I buy a book and read a paragraph that makes the entire book worth the money that I paid for it. “For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts” edited by W. David O. Taylor is one such book for me. In the first chapter, Andy Crouch says:

“What if God is more utterly, completely for us than we could ever be for ourselves? What if we no longer have to offer a sacrifice that might waft up into his nostrils and compel his distracted attention – what if he himself has taken the initiative, become the sacrifice, torn the temple veil? What is left but gloriously unuseful prayer and praise?

What we do in our churches, when we do what we should be doing, is unuseful! It is better than useful. The economy of grace overflows with the unuseful. Does prayer work? Should prayer work? No. Prayer does not work. It does something better than work. Prayer brings us into the life of the one by whom all things were made and are being remade. It aligns our life with the one who suffered most deeply on behalf of all that is broken in the world, and through whose sufferings the world has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved.” (Crouch in Taylor, 2010 p. 39).

This was my “duh” moment about prayer. Maybe prayer is not supposed to “work”, because it isn’t a magic trick or a spell. Maybe I have had the wrong idea about prayer all this time. Perhaps prayer is about God rather than me, perhaps “answers to prayer” is not what I should be looking for. It’s entirely possible that prayer really is conversation with God. When I have a conversation with friends, I don’t come to them with a list of demands that I expect them to fulfil, and I guess it is the same way with God. Prayer is about God, prayer is about talking with God and having a relationship with God. It seems that I have to learn all of this slowly…that none of this God-stuff is about me. It’s all about God.

Worship too has been a struggle, where I often wondered if worship were an individual thing, or a communal thing, until I suddenly two Sunday’s ago while sitting in church and listened to the preaching it suddenly hit me…worship, in fact, my entire faith, should be both individual and communal. I ought to worship God on my own, and I ought to worship God with others. Faith is a very individual experience; it’s about my own personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Faith is also a very communal, corporate experience; it’s also about my relationship with others, and other people’s relationship with Jesus Christ. I am meant to have my own walk with God, and I am meant to support others in their walk with God.

I have also continually struggled with doubts and questions about God and Christianity, thinking that I was a terrible person who could not worship God with all the doubts and questions that I had. I felt guilty about claiming to be a Christian while I struggled to believe it and struggled to live it. But again, two Sunday’s ago in church, my pastor said something that just resonated with me. He said to bring my honest questions and doubts to worship with me. God doesn’t want me to pretend, and he knows that I have questions, so I might as well bring them when I worship. I have been struggling, but I have been worshipping anyway, and God has been meeting with me especially when I make the effort when I’m just not feeling this whole God-thing.

In the times I have struggled, I have sometimes wondered if this whole God-thing is really true. The reason I have clung to it so much is that I know that something happened when I got saved, and that things have been happening since in my life, and that I cannot ignore those things or chalk them up to coincidence. But sometimes the exact intersection of faith and science confuses me. I am a person that likes to research and to ask questions and gather evidence and find answers. People say that seeing is believing. However, my pastor said that with faith, believing is seeing! (Hebrews 11:1-2). Basically, I have been choosing to believe in God and who he says he is and who I understand him to be even though I have had my doubts. As I have done this, I have had my eyes opened to more truth. In this case, believing has come before the seeing. I felt such great comfort when my pastor said that.

My pastor also went on to say that if we could prove God and prove his existence scientifically, we would have no choice but to believe because it would be blatantly undeniable. But God has always wanted us to have a choice, it’s what he did in that fateful moment in the garden of Eden allowing Adam and Eve the choice whether to obey him or not. We believe in gravity because we can prove it, we don’t really have a choice but to believe, because the concept of gravity is obvious. Society would think someone crazy who didn’t believe in gravity. But God is unproveable by design so that we have the opportunity to choose to believe, or not to believe.

Reference:

Crouch, A in Taylor, W 2010, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, Baker Books, Grand Rapids.
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Discussions on Faith and Doubt – Part 2

A friend critiqued my first post in this series saying that it could be interpreted as “we really can’t be sure of anything”. I really appreciate his feedback, and to be honest, sometimes I don’t think we really can be sure of anything, so maybe that’s why it came out that way in my first post. I mean, the post is about the subject of doubting and faith. However, I’m not saying there isn’t ultimate truth, I just don’t think that any of us has the monopoly on truth and that many things we believe are truth could be wrong. In fact, Jesus is the ultimate truth.

“Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”” John 14:5-6 (NIV).

Jesus is the truth, and the way to get to God, the way to be a Christian, the way to go to heaven when we die, is through Jesus, and only Jesus. Jesus said that the only way anyone can come to the father is through him. So, to be a Christian, to be saved, all one needs to do is trust in Jesus. God doesn’t ask us to take a certain position on homosexuality, abortion, politics, and so on. All we have to do is trust in Jesus, and that is the heart of the gospel, that is the truth.

We need to stop throwing around accusations that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to our particular brand of beliefs, however passionate we are about them and however right we might think we are, isn’t a Christian.
Many of us, particularly the under-30 crowd, are starting to rethink conservative Christianity and its traditional beliefs. We’ve heard Christians go on long rants or seen them write lengthy articles about what they are against (and I’m guilty, on both counts). The thing is we are aware of what traditional conservative Christianity is against. Part of the problem is that we can’t figure out what they are for. Another part of the problem is conservative Christianity’s tendency to ignore the findings of science, and their refusal in many cases to accept academia and intellectualism. Those of us having doubts in this modern day are having doubts because what we know intellectually isn’t matching up with what we are told.

It appears that many conservative Christians think that the Bible and academics oppose each other. I don’t see it that way, and neither do a lot of the younger Christians these days. I see the Bible and intellectualism going hand in hand. God made us, he gave us our brains, and he gave us the ability to learn. I still see conservative Christian parents trying to steer their children away from going to college, thinking that college will destroy their faith. The thing is, for some of us, college can save our faith and renew our faith.

College made me realize that things aren’t as black and white as they sometimes seem. There are some things that are black and white, such as Jesus being the only way to be saved. However, some things are grey and Christians can disagree on those things and yet still be Christians. 

Discussions of Faith and Doubt – Part 1

Although I’m entering the political discourse again today, I hope that those of you who blatantly oppose my political views (which is probably most of you – and I’m cool with that) can see the bigger picture, the main message that I am trying to communicate, which transcends politics. My aim with my blog is to intelligently discuss issues that pertain to evangelical Christianity, and unfortunately politics plays a really big role in the expression of evangelical Christianity, and therein lays one of the problems.

I’m writing this post in response to two different articles from Christianity Today. “WhyWe Should Reexamine the Faith of Barack Obama” by Owen Strachan and “Barack Obama: Evangelical-in-Chief” by Judd Birdsall, which was written in response to Stachan’s article. The first article argues that President Obama is not a Christian. The article admits that the president talk often of faith, but the author’s argument is that if the president were a saved man, he would be against abortion.

Saving faith creates a relentless desire in the name of Christ to heal the wounded, restore the weak, and defend tiny fetuses that kick and spin and wave their miniscule arms when they hear their parents’ voices. Saving faith causes us to weep and yell and wrestle with God in prayer for infants that are savaged in the womb. Saving faith cannot abide unlawful death. It must and will decry it.

So when someone professes faith, yet has none of these instinctive reactions—and actually opposes such instincts despite years of membership in supposedly Bible-teaching churches—we realize, chillingly, that something greater than right morality is missing. The gospel, the ground of our ethics and the animator of our conscience, is very likely missing. Perhaps the person speaks of faith and their nearness to God. In reality, though, they are far from him. They may have come near at some point to the kingdom, but like the rich young ruler who chooses reigning with sinners over reigning with Christ, they are desperately far. (Strachan, “Why We Should Reexamine the Faith of Barack Obama”).
I think it is extremely dangerous to assume that a person is not a Christian simply because they don’t believe the same things we do. The Bible never mentions believing abortion is murder to be one of the pre-requisites of salvation. I as a Christian do not agree with abortion, but I do not assume that those who don’t agree with me are not Christians. When we get saved, Jesus comes into our lives and he changes us from the inside out…he changes the things that he wants to change, not the things that everyone else thinks we should change. I don’t know the mind of God; perhaps he is more interested in working on other things in President Obama’s life than he is about Obama’s beliefs on abortion.
One of the problems with evangelical Christianity is that we have chosen a select few things, normally things that the majority of evangelicals don’t struggle with, such as abortion and homosexuality, to be defining factors of Christianity, and the things that we choose to be the most passionate about. But, what if we decided to major on things that we actually struggle with? How might we be able to change the world were we first willing to take inventory of our own lives and be morally outraged about lying, arrogance, gossip, theft, greed, gluttony, fighting and the like? If we worried about ourselves and our sins first, and if we tried to rid ourselves of those sins as passionately as we try to outlaw abortion or ban gay marriage, maybe then the world would at the very least have a little more respect for us when we say we don’t agree with abortion or homosexuality. Choosing things that majority of evangelicals don’t struggle with and turning those into big issues is really a good example of the classic Biblical story talking about us trying to remove motes from other people’s eyes when there are huge beams in ours.

Another thing we as evangelical Christians need to realize is that we don’t have the monopoly on truth. It’s possible that some of the ideas we cling to and promote as Biblical may be anything but. We need to be willing to be wrong, instead of being adamant that our view of the Biblical text is the only accurate one. In the words of the president himself:
No matter how much Christians who oppose homosexuality may claim that they hate the sin but love the sinner, such a judgment inflicts pain on good people – people who are made in the image of God, and who are often truer to Christ’s message than those that condemn them. And I was reminded that that is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided, just as I cannot claim infallibility in my support of abortion rights. I must admit that I may have been infected with society’s prejudices and predilections and attributed them to God; that Jesus’ call to love one another might demand a different conclusion; and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history. I don’t believe such doubts make me a bad Christian. I believe they make me human, limited in my understandings of God’s purpose and therefore prone to sin. When I read the Bible, I do so with the belief that it is not a static text but the Living Word and that I must be continually open to new revelations – whether they come from a lesbian friend or a doctor opposed to abortion. (Obama, “The Audacity of Hope”, pg. 223 – 224).
Obama tells us what his beliefs are with his current understanding of God, and even has the humility to admit that he may be wrong, and is obviously willing to learn. If more evangelical Christians reminded themselves that they could be wrong and that they maybe don’t have the exclusive rights on truth, maybe we could then have better discussions and have more respect in the world we are supposed to be being a light to. 

References: 

Obama, B 2006, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Three Rivers Press, New York.

Strachan, O 2012, Why We Should Reexamine the Faith of Barack Obama, Christianity Today, June 21, 2012 accessed on 22 August 2012. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/juneweb-only/why-we-should-reexamine-the-faith-of-barack-obama.html?start=1