Archive for the ‘Prayer’ Category

This coming Wednesday, February 26, is Ash Wednesday.

For some of us who follow Jesus, this is a day we observe every year: a day to attend worship and receive ashes and be reminded that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

For some of us who follow Jesus, Ash Wednesday is an odd tradition that some churches observe “but we don’t, because faith isn’t about observing special days, it’s about loving Jesus every day.”

For some people Ash Wednesday is simply the beginning of Lent: the time of the year when we “give up” something in honor of what Jesus gave up for us.

But where does Ash Wednesday really come from, why did it start, and what does it mean to believers today?

Ash Wednesday dates back to early in Christianity’s history, when Lent was a time for new believers to give up their old ways and learn how to live as Christians, and for those who had walked away from the faith to return to it. The forty days of Lent was a time to grieve over wrongs done with prayer and fasting and receiving ashes.

But the practice of putting ashes on oneself as a sign of mourning dates back before Jesus. In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel wanted to ask God why the people of Israel were still captive in Babylon. Daniel writes: “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” (Daniel 9:3)

And in the New Testament, Jesus reproached people who witnessed his miracles and refused to believe: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (Matthew 11:21)

So Lent is a time to grieve over our sins and discover new ways of walking by faith. And Ash Wednesday, which begins Lent, is a solemn reminder of our mortality and our need to be reconciled with God.

So how do believers today observe Ash Wednesday? In the churches that observe it, the tradition is to fast (refrain from eating) until sundown, attend worship, and receive ashes on one’s forehead in the shape of a cross. (Some churches no longer practice fasting because of health issues.)

In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is an obligatory day of fasting and abstinence; Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Moravian, and other Protestant churches hold services but don’t necessarily require attendance or fasting. (Eastern Orthodox churches begin Lent on a Monday and so don’t observe Ash Wednesday.)

For me, I think the most poignant and meaningful word in the Bible about fasting – and one that brings me to repentance –is this passage from Isaiah, where God says:

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…” (Isaiah 58:5-8)

So how do you observe Ash Wednesday? Or how would you like to? Feel free to share a few thoughts.

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[the day’s scripture verses are reprinted at the end of the post]

A number of decades ago one of the first Christian rock bands called The Imperials (they actually started out as a backup band for Elvis, it was that long ago) recorded a song called Praise the Lord, and one of the lines in that song said “praise the Lord / for our God inhabits praise.” **

In other words, when we praise God, God’s word comes to life in us in a unique and powerful way.  It’s one of the reasons why worshipping together is important and singing hymns is important.

Those of us who have had ‘mountaintop experiences’ have some idea of what I’m talking about.  Wonderful things happen on mountaintops: the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount. We may spend the majority of our days trudging through the valleys, but every now and then we have a ‘mountaintop experience’ that reminds us how much God loves us and how wonderful God is.

We may experience this at places like Jumonville (which is a good reason to go there) or maybe when we walk into the church when it’s dark and empty and we sense God’s presence in the stillness. These ‘mountaintop experiences’ make us aware of God being with us, and the memory sticks: it stays with us for a long time.

When we praise God with our whole hearts, or when we sing praises, we become aware of God’s presence in the same way, and it can give us the same encouragement and uplifting feeling that we get at places like Jumonville.  That’s why it’s important for each one of us to find our own voice (so to speak), our own way of praising God, whether it’s in prayer or in song or some other form of expression.

In our scripture reading from James today – which is the final reading in our series on the book of James – James starts out by saying “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.”

We usually do the first part well.  If people in our church are suffering we are quick to pray for them. James does not tell people who are suffering just to be strong and ‘tough it out’ – we’re supposed to pray for each other, and we do.  But do we remember to praise God in the good times?  This is just as important. Just as we share both good and bad news with our families and friends, we also need to share both the lows and the highs with God. James highlights this, and I want to highlight his highlight.

Our sermon title for today is The Power of Prayer but we could also call it Prayer, Power, and Praise:  because the three go together and are the focus of both our readings today.

Let’s start with James.  James says prayer has the power to:

  • ease people’s sufferings;
  • heal the sick;
  • restore sinners;
  • forgive sins.

Did you know you have that power as a Christian?  Not that we can heal the sick or forgive sinners ourselves, but that God has given us, through prayer, the ability to ask God for these things on behalf of others.  Through prayer, as God’s children, we can ask our Father to take away suffering, or to heal, or to forgive.  And God will hear us and will answer.  And if that seems like a lot, James says: ‘Remember the prophet Elijah? He was a human being just like us, and when he prayed for no rain there was no rain for 3 ½ years. And then when he prayed again for rain it rained. If a mere human being can do that, you and I can pray for the sick and the hurting.’ That’s what James is saying here.

We also, like Elijah, can pray for things happening in the world, not just for the sick. (BTW I’ve found the more specific our prayers are, the more we’re aware when prayers have been answered. For example, if we pray for peace in general – which is a good thing – how do we measure God’s answer? But if we pray for an end to hostilities in a specific location and for God to turn the heart of a specific ruler – then we’ll recognize when God is working.)

For those of us who have been on prayer teams here in the church, or who have been involved in prayer ministries of some kind, we can bear witness that God answers prayer.  The power to heal is not ours; the power to set things right is not ours; all the glory goes to God.  But prayers are answered.  Just this past week a woman I know was told by her doctor to go have a biopsy done because they suspected her cancer had returned.  She was troubled, so the people of the church prayed over her, and the next day she got a phone call from her doctor saying he’d read the films wrong and had mistaken an old scar for a new lump.  I think the doctor probably would have found the mistake eventually but to get a phone call the next day?  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

I knew a wise woman many years ago who said she didn’t believe in coincidences. She believed in God-incidences.  I like that word. God-incidence.  That’s exactly right.

Some people might say, “well, but prayer doesn’t always work. Not everybody gets good news, not everybody gets healed.”  And that’s true. There is a mystery here we don’t understand: why some people are healed and some aren’t.  When Jesus walked this earth, anyone who came to him in person and asked, was healed; but not every sick person in Israel was healed.  Jesus didn’t put all the Israeli doctors out of business.  Why are some people healed and not others? We don’t know, and we may not know in this lifetime.

(By the way the answer to the question of why some people don’t experience healing is not ‘lack of faith’, as in, ‘we didn’t believe hard enough’ or ‘we didn’t pray hard enough’. I’ve heard people say that sometimes and it’s hurtful and it’s simply not true. God answers prayer the way God chooses to answer prayer, because God is God and we’re not.)

Even James doesn’t say in this passage that everyone we pray for will be healed.  What he does say is that the sick will be saved, and that the Lord will raise them up, and that their sins will be forgiven.  These things may happen in this life or they may happen in the next life.  We can be confident that one way or the other it will happen. So we pray; and God hears and answers.

Which brings us to our reading from the book of Esther.  This is kind of an unusual story to mix with our James reading, isn’t it?  And then the passage we heard read is from the end of the book of Esther, so we heard the end of the story without hearing the beginning.  So we’ll need to back up and fill in the story. But the story of Esther is a story that talks about prayer, and the power of prayer, and the praise that results from prayer. Let’s dig in.

Esther’s life was a hard life, not unlike the lives of the people James was writing to.  Esther lived with the people of Israel in captivity in Babylon, which is present-day Iran.  The people James was writing to were mostly Jewish people under persecution who were fleeing Jerusalem.  So in both cases the people were not in their homelands. They were not at home, they were strangers in a strange land. They were, basically, refugees.  The people James was writing to, some of them were experiencing illness – and can you imagine what it would be like to be sick in a foreign country, and not be able to go home?  Or imagine Esther, living in a land where at least some of the people wanted her dead simply because she was born in a foreign country.

So Esther was living among a captive people. She was an orphan, having lost her parents at a young age, and she was raised by her uncle Mordecai.  As a young woman she (along with hundreds of other women) was forced to enter a beauty contest when the king decided he wanted a new queen and was going to hold a nation-wide competition for the job.  Esther and the other young women were rounded up and kept in the palace for a year and fed special food and given beauty treatments every day. (And if you’re thinking ‘well that doesn’t sound so bad’ – personally I can’t imagine too many fates worse than being cooped up in the same house with hundreds of women all competing for the same man! This was like The Bachelor, ancient-style.) Anyway all this activity was in preparation for the night when the king would choose her name from the list of hundreds he had to choose from.  And Esther would go and spend one night with this foreign king she’d never met – and if he didn’t like her, she would have to spend the rest of her life living in the palace doing nothing; but if he did like her, she would be forced to marry him whether she liked him or not.

As it turned out, Esther won the contest and became queen.  Some time after that, the king’s top advisor, Haman, was offended by Esther’s Uncle Mordecai. And Haman thought, rather than just kill Mordecai, he would wipe out all of Mordecai’s people – all the Jews who had been brought captive to Persia.

So when this news broke, Mordecai sent a message to Esther saying “talk to the king and ask him to spare our lives.”  And Esther wrote back saying “there’s a law that says anybody who goes to see the king without being asked will be put to death – unless the king extends the gold scepter to let them live.”  Mordecai wrote back and said, “who knows but that you have come to the throne for just such a time as this?”  (Mordecai didn’t believe in coincidences either.)

So Esther wrote back and said, “tell all our people to fast and pray for me for three days. And I and my handmaids will do the same. And then I will go to the king, and if I die, I die.”

So all the Jewish people prayed and fasted for three days. Prayer – unleashing God’s power – which resulted in praise. And look at how God answered those prayers:

  • When Esther went to see the king, God moved the king to hold out the gold scepter and let her live.
  • When Esther invited the king and his adviser Haman to a banquet, he said yes.
  • At that banquet, when Esther invited them both to a second banquet, again he said yes.
  • The night in between those two banquets, the king was not able to sleep. So the king ordered a servant to find the scroll of the history of his reign – all the things that had happened since he became king – and had the servant read it out loud to him. And listening to the history the king was reminded of a man named Mordecai who saved his life a number of years before by exposing an assassination plot. That the king should be reminded of this, on this particular night – coincidence? I don’t think so.
  • So the next day, at the second banquet, when the queen told the king what Haman was doing, and how he wanted to kill Mordecai and all of Mordecai’s people, the king was outraged.
  • God’s people were spared, and Haman was hanged on the gallows that he’d built for Mordecai.
  • The kingdom was spared a civil war – which was what Haman had planned. The king ordered peace between the Persians and the Jews.
  • According to the Apocrypha (ancient religious writings that didn’t quite make it into our Bible) the king’s orders to the nation contained the following words: “we find that the Jews… are no evil-doers, but live by just laws; and that they are children of the Most High and Most Mighty God…” That’s a pagan king talking about the God of Israel. Did the king come to faith through all this? We don’t know for sure, but these words seem to indicate that he at least had a healthy respect for the God of Israel.

Prayer, power, and praise.  The day the Jewish people were saved by Esther is celebrated, even today, every year at a holiday called Purim.  As the book of Esther says, “from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday.” Today the Jewish people celebrate Purim with feasting and by giving gifts to the poor (so that the sorrow of the poor can also be turned into gladness).

Prayer, power, and praise.  Prayer is the lifeblood of our relationship with God.  It’s how we communicate with the Lord we love. It’s how we grow in faith.

And like the old hymn says: “What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit/ O what needless pain we bear /
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”*

Prayer, power, and praise. May the story of Esther and the words of James encourage us in prayer and in praise. These are the gifts of God for the people of God. AMEN.


(*What a Friend We Have In Jesus)

**Lyrics for Praise the Lord by the Imperials:

When you’re up against a struggle that shatters all your dreams
And your hopes have been cruelly crushed by Satan’s manifested schemes
And you feel the urge within you to submit to earthly fears
Don’t let the faith you’re standing in seem to disappear

Praise the Lord, He can work through those who praise Him
Praise the Lord, for our God inhabits praise
Praise the Lord, for the chains that seems to bind you
Serve only to remind you that they drop powerless behind you
When you praise Him

Now Satan is a liar and he wants to make us think
That we are paupers when he knows himself we’re children of the King
So lift up the mighty shield of faith for the battle must be won
We know that Jesus Christ has risen so the work’s already done

Praise the Lord, He can work through those who praise Him
Praise the Lord, for our God inhabits praise
Praise the Lord, for the chains that seems to bind you
Serve only to remind you that they drop powerless behind you
When you praise Him

© 1979 Warner/Chappell Music, Inc


“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.  Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.  – James 5:13-20


So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me — that is my petition — and the lives of my people — that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. – Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 20-22


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/30/18


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Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:31-38


“Jesus called the crowd together with his disciples and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Jesus makes it clear that following Him will not be easy. It will be painful at times. There will be times of struggle. Preachers do us a disservice when they make following Jesus sound like the path to perfect health, wealth, and happiness. Jesus never promised any such thing. Jesus did promise that he would always be with us, and that he was preparing a place for us in God’s house.

So today I’d like to take a look at discipleship from two angles. The first angle is found in our reading from Mark, and centers on what Jesus has to say about following Him. The second angle is found in our Lenten series A Disciple’s Path, on what it takes to grow and mature as a disciple of Jesus.

Looking first at the reading from Mark: Jesus talks about discipleship in terms of taking up a cross and following Him. When Peter objects, Jesus’ rebuke strikes us as odd. Surely Jesus would understand that Peter doesn’t want Him to die? And then there’s the words Jesus uses: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” What exactly is it Jesus is objecting to?

Mark’s Gospel doesn’t tell us what it was Peter said, but Matthew’s Gospel does. When Jesus says he is about to be turned over to the chief priests, Peter answers, “God forbid! This must never happen to you!”

As the authors of A Disciple’s Path point out, in order to read scripture with understanding we need to put it in context. We need to get into a 1st century mindset as much as possible. Peter and Jesus and all the disciples grew up hearing about the promised Messiah in synagogue: the Son of David, the heir to David’s throne; and one who would come to restore God’s kingdom. They also grew up under Roman occupation, watching false messiahs – people who tried to restore God’s kingdom by force – being nailed to crosses by the roadside. The Romans used crosses on a regular basis to keep the people in line.

Peter loved Jesus, and he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah. So when Jesus started talking about a cross in his future, Peter would have remembered all those false messiahs hanging on crosses and his heart cried out “Not you!! Never you!”

Peter wasn’t able to see beyond the cross to the resurrection, at least not yet. Peter didn’t understand yet that Jesus’ death on the cross would also mean the death of sin, and reconciliation between God and humanity. All Peter could hear was the end of hope and the end of the most amazing person he’d ever met.

In that moment Peter was acting more like a fan than a disciple. A fan is someone who idolizes someone from a distance; a disciple is someone who follows closely. A fan doesn’t really know or understand the object of their admiration; a disciple seeks not only to understand but also to imitate the Master.

Jesus says to his disciples, to all who follow Him: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

So how do we react to the reality of our own mortality? Do we spend the time we have on things that only satisfy for a moment? Or do we spend the time we have on behalf of God and others?

This is the call to Christian discipleship. It is a call to death and to resurrection: dying to self and living to God; dying to the world and living into God’s kingdom. This Lent we focus on discipleship in order to learn how to follow Jesus more closely.

This week the discipleship focus is on the discipline of prayer. Before I head down the path of prayer, I want to share a few introductory notes from the book A Disciple’s Path for those of you who have not been able to join the study groups yet.

A Disciple’s Path shares a great deal from the teachings of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism back in the 1700s. The Wesleys were Anglican priests who believed in using spiritual disciplines in order to become true disciples of Jesus. There were three disciplines they focused on: (1) study of scripture; (2) daily devotions (Bible reading, meditation, and prayer); and (3) social outreach, especially to the poor, disadvantaged, children, and the imprisoned. The Wesleys were very methodical about these disciplines, which is where the word ‘Methodist’ comes from. Their ‘method’ sparked a renewal movement in the Church of England that spread like wildfire in the United States as our nation was being born.

There’s one other question that comes to mind when we talk about a path. If we are on a “Disciple’s Path”, where does this path go? Our path leads us into fellowship with God and life in the kingdom of heaven. It is a great and awesome thing getting to know the Creator of the Universe… and the bigger our concept of the universe, the bigger our God becomes. I love the contemporary praise song “God of Wonders”:

Lord of all creation
of water earth and sky
The heavens are your Tabernacle
Glory to the Lord on high

God of wonders beyond our galaxy
You are Holy, Holy
The universe declares your Majesty
And you are holy, holy
Lord of Heaven and Earth


This is the God Jesus is leading us to on our path.

But there’s more than that. Jesus shows us a God who is not only holy, but a God who is also the very definition of love. God is kind and gentle. Scripture says:

“a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

When we feel like we’ve got nothing left to give, God is there, keeping the flame alive.

This is the God Jesus is leading us to on our path.

The question then becomes, how do we stay on the path, and stay as close to Jesus as possible?

John Wesley had a lot to say about that. He talked a lot about grace. Grace a tough word to define, but basically it means unmerited favor. Wesley talked about three kinds of grace. If you grew up in the Methodist Church you’ve heard these:

  • Prevenient grace – the love of God that is active in our lives before we know God.
  • Justifying grace – which we experience in conversion. Someone once called this “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”.
  • Sanctifying grace – the love of God that never quits, that catches us when we fall, forgives us and guides us into holiness.

Grace is all God’s work. There is nothing any of us can do to save ourselves. Our part as disciples is to cooperate with the process. To take our part in the relationship. Because to be a disciple is to be in relationship with God.

And essential to every relationship is communication. Which brings us to the Path of Prayer.

The authors of A Disciple’s Path lead off with an interesting factoid: when doctors tell patients to make lifestyle changes like quitting smoking or losing weight, “only one in seven patients actually makes the lifestyle changes… that could save their lives”. One in seven.

If this is true of our physical lives, how true is it of our spiritual lives? If the greatest commandment according to Jesus is to “love God will all our heart, soul, mind and strength” – how can we love someone we hardly ever talk to?

Prayer needs to be our #1 priority. John Wesley said:

“You may as well expect a child to grow without food as expect a soul to grow without private prayer.”

The problem is, many of us feel like we don’t really know how to pray. We may have been taught to say grace before meals, and we probably were taught the Lord’s Prayer when we were kids, and those are good places to start. But then what?

Prayer is basically conversation with God. I like to kind of chat with God throughout the day – while I’m doing the dishes or working in the yard. But there is a need for more structured prayer too.

John Wesley taught his family and friends to begin with reading Scripture. He said to do this daily. He said to read with the intention of knowing God better, to ask the Holy Spirit to teach us as we read, and show us how to apply what we learn.

Prayer itself can take many forms. One form of prayer that many people find helpful is outlined in your bulletins this morning: the ACTS form of prayer. The letters stand for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Begin with Adoration – telling God what we appreciate, how wonderful God is. Then move into Confession – which includes bringing both our shortcomings and our gifts to God. Confession should always include both the negative and the positive, putting both in God’s hands. Then we move into Thanksgiving for God’s gifts, and then into Supplication – which involves bringing needs to God – our needs and the needs of others. This is where people’s prayer requests would fit in.

Because the ACTS format is so easy to remember and use, A Disciple’s Path recommends it for your daily use this Lent, and so does your pastoral staff.

For those of you who have already used ACTS in the past and may be looking to try something a little bit different, there is another form of prayer that the Wesleys used that’s mentioned on page 28 of A Disciple’s Path. It’s an ancient form called a Collect. I like this form because it’s easy to remember and work with. A Collect is made up of four parts:

  1. The address – that is, who you’re praying to
  2. A characteristic of God that you appreciate and need to depend on
  3. A request based on the characteristic of God that you pointed out in part 2
  4. Bring it back to God

This is an example of a well-known Collect:

“Almighty God,
To you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid;
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name;
Through Christ our Lord, AMEN.”

But a Collect can be very simple too, something like this:

  1. Dear Lord,
  2. When you walked on this earth you healed the people your disciples brought to you
  3. We your disciples bring to you now our friend (name) who needs your healing.
  4. We ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.

I like this format because it begins and ends with God, and bases our requests on the character of God. It helps keep us focused on Who we’re talking to, and it helps prevent us asking for things that are not in the character of God.

So there you are: the Collect. If you like it, use it!

A Disciple’s Path also recommends keeping our prayers written down (or on the computer if you like.) Keeping a written list helps bring to memory the many things God has done for us.

So this week, as we walk the Disciples’ Path, let’s focus on getting to know God better by reading Scripture and talking with God in prayer. And as you see God moving in your life, share what you see with one other person – a pastor, or a friend, or someone who isn’t a Christian yet – share what God is doing in your life.

May God bless us this week – and may we bless God – as we walk the disciple’s path toward eternity with Jesus. AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/1/15


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Thank you for your prayers as I have been recovering from my latest mishap. The foot is doing well, improving a little bit every day… I’m still not able to drive yet but hopefully soon.

One of the things I’ve noticed about myself when I’m stuck at home recovering is, I end up watching LOTS reruns of Law & Order. Sometimes three or four episodes a day. I’m not usually a big TV watcher, but I think the appeal of the show has something to do with bringing hope into dark situations. When I see the characters working with victims of violence and oppression to bring criminals to justice, something about their struggle makes me feel stronger, makes me feel like fighting my way back to health.

I think that’s part of what attracts me to Psalm 17. Psalm 17 is a prayer written by David when he felt powerless and surrounded. He turns to God, and his faith finds renewed power, not in himself, but in God.

We don’t know for certain the context in which this prayer was written. Most likely it was when David was being pursued by King Saul. But the psalm is appropriate in many different situations. For example I can imagine Jesus praying this psalm when he learned about the plots against his life.

And it’s a prayer we can pray on behalf of others. Over the past few weeks many of us have been reflecting on, and praying over, events in the news. I don’t know about you but I find sometimes I run out of words to pray. When we look at the children at our border, or the Christians now homeless in Iraq, or the refugees in Gambella – what can we say to God about these things? We ask God for peace, for protection, for justice… and then what?

This psalm gives us a model of how we might pray.

We might pray for example for the people fleeing Mosul: Hear [their] just cause, O LORD; attend to [their cries]; give ear to [their] prayers…” (17:1)

Or for the children at our border (no matter where we stand politically) we might pray: “show [them] your steadfast love, O savior of those who seek refuge” (17:7).

Or for our brothers and sisters in South Sudan we might pray: “hide [them] in the shadow of your wings, from the… enemies who surround them.” (17:8)

This psalm is also a prayer we can pray for ourselves when we find ourselves in trouble. If we should find ourselves bullied or lied about or falsely accused we can make David’s words our own. So there are lots of possible applications.

This morning though, under the influence of many episodes of Law & Order, I’d like to focus on four things in David’s prayer:

  • The victim
  • The judge
  • The perpetrators
  • The plea /argument

…because David’s language, the way he turns his phrases, is highly suggestive of a courtroom drama. David has been found guilty by his enemies, who are attempting to carry out a sentence they have pronounced. And David is appealing to a higher court: God’s court.

So our victim is the one who is praying. He says he has been judged unfairly, he is being oppressed, and his life is in danger. David cries out to God, “my cause is just; my lips are free of deceit. (17:1)” David is not saying that he is sinless. He’s not saying he has never told a lie. What he is saying is he’s innocent of whatever it is his enemies are accusing him of. David says he has done nothing to deserve their anger.

In fact, going beyond that, he says to God, “By the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent,” (17:4). David says he has been following the court’s instructions. His innocence is rooted in God’s word and God’s righteousness.

And going even further, in verse five David describes an intimate relationship with God. He says, “My steps have held fast to your paths…”(17:5) The picture that comes to mind is one of watching a parent teaching a child how to cross a stream without getting their feet wet… stepping from rock to rock as the water rushes by. The parent says to the child: “watch where I put my feet, and when I move a foot, put your foot where mine was.” And the child follows the parent across the stream. David is saying, in essence, “I have put my feet in your footprints, and my footsteps are firm.”

David’s comment about footsteps makes me stop for a moment and ask myself: are there people I can pray for whose footsteps are shaky, who need to find God’s footprints for themselves? Are there areas of my life where I can ask this for myself? Who can I pray for along these lines?

Next in David’s prayer we meet the judge. David says he is glad to be pleading his case before this judge because he knows he will get a fair hearing. “Your eyes see the right,” he says (17:2). “Your words have kept me from the ways of the violent” (17:4); “Your paths are firm,” (17:5) “I know you will answer me,” (17:6) “You are the savior of those who seek refuge.”(17:7) David is confident in the fairness of this judge, both because the judge is fair and because the judge is knowledgable. David’s words remind me of Paul’s comments in his defense before King Agrippa in the book of Acts, where he says to the king, “I consider myself fortunate that it is before you I am to make my defense today… because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews.” Agrippa was intimately familiar with the issues; and so is David’s judge.

And when we pray, we can share David’s confidence, remembering God’s faithfulness and goodness. We are glad to make our case before a judge who understands.

David then turns his attention to the perpetrators. He describes them as ‘violent,’(17:4) ‘wicked,’ (17:9) ‘deadly enemies.’ (17:9) Twice he says he is surrounded. His enemies seek his life. Even though David does not come straight out and say ‘they’re trying to kill me,’ he says in verse eleven, “they set their eyes to cast me to the ground” – which could also be translated ‘they seek to make me horizontal in the dirt.’ In other words they want to bury him.

In verse ten David says of his enemies, “they close their hearts to pity.” This phrase at first makes the enemies sound cold-hearted and unfeeling, but that’s not exactly the meaning. His enemies do have feelings – just not for David. The literal translation of the Hebrew expression can be found in the King James version: “they are enclosed in their own fat”. They are passionate about themselves; they aggrandize themselves; and as David says, their mouths speak arrogantly.

Having said all this David then makes his plea to the righteous judge. He pleads “not guilty” because he is the victim. He says: Hear me. Vindicate me. Show me your steadfast love. Guard me. Hide me in the shadow of your wings.

It’s interesting that David does not ask God to kill his enemies. In verse 13 the ‘sword’ of God might be interpreted as God’s word – an interpretation we find in the book of Revelation as well. David asks instead that God confront his enemies and bring them down. The Hebrew here might be translated, ‘bring them to their knees’ – or to put it another way, ‘teach the arrogant to kneel before you’.

A few days ago during Ramadan a prayer request went around Facebook asking people to pray that members of ISIS and other radical groups would, in their holiday prayers, truly encounter the living God. That’s the sense I get from David’s plea – asking God to make Himself known to his accusers and so put an end to their violence.

When David is finished he makes one more request: “deliver me from mortals whose only portion in life is this world”. (17:14) David knows what God has stored up for them. He knows, as we know, that death will come someday and after that the judgement, and he prays that he will not share their fate. Instead, David prays in confidence: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.” (17:15)

The apostle John echoes David’s words 1000 years later in his first letter when he says, : “we are God’s children; […] [and] when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (I John 3:2) and Paul also in I Cor 13:12 “then we will see him face to face.

Even though David’s prayer is not answered right away, from the distance of history we know his words were heard and the righteous judge ruled in his favor. In the same way even though we may not see immediate answers to our prayers, we can have confidence that the same righteous judge hears our case; and as we follow in his footsteps, he will rule in our favor. AMEN.

Incarnation Church, Pittsburgh, Sunday August 3 2014

Psalm 17
A Prayer of David

Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry;
give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.
2 From you let my vindication come;
let your eyes see the right.
3 If you try my heart, if you visit me by night,
if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me;
my mouth does not transgress.
4 As for what others do,
by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent.
5 My steps have held fast to your paths;
my feet have not slipped.
6 I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me, hear my words.
7 Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand.
8 Guard me as the apple of the eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
9 from the wicked who despoil me,
my deadly enemies who surround me.
10 They close their hearts to pity;
with their mouths they speak arrogantly.
11 They track me down;
now they surround me;
they set their eyes to cast me to the ground.
12 They are like a lion eager to tear,
like a young lion lurking in ambush.
13 Rise up, O LORD,
confront them, overthrow them!
By your sword deliver my life from the wicked,
14 from mortals—
by your hand, O LORD—
from mortals whose portion in life is in this world.
May their bellies be filled with what you have stored up for them;
may their children have more than enough;
may they leave something over to their little ones.
15 As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.


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It is incredibly encouraging to know I’m being prayed for through this time, and I want to thank and encourage all pray-ers to keep on keeping on!

If I may suggest some specific areas for prayer…

  • For complete healing – that there will be no complications and no need for additional surgeries.
  • For a miracle healing if He will.
  • That there will be no need for any kind of foreign objects, devices, etc post-surgery
  • For blessings on the surgeons and all the medical staff: nurses, medical assistants, anesthetists, office support, etc
  • That God will give the surgeons wisdom, skill and vision (especially if anything unusual turns up) and confidence and patience
  • Continued prayers for my dad and my father-in-law, both of whom are battling cancer, and for my father-in-law’s upcoming surgery
  • Who was it that said “Courage is fear that has said its prayers”?  Pray for courage for myself, my family, and all involved in my treatment and recovery
  • For opportunities to bear witness to God’s love and power in and through this experience
  • That I will have patience with the recovery process
  • That God will restore what will be lost in terms of income, study time, etc and for His guidance with the career choices and ordination process that will need to be addressed in the months following recovery

If I think of anything else I’ll edit this post so keep checking back.



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Heavenly Father, we bow in your presence.
May your Word be our rule,
your Spirit our teacher,
and your greater glory our supreme concern,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(attributed to John Stott)

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(When camels lower themselves to allow a rider to climb aboard, their front knees hit the ground first… so over the course of a lifetime their knees get quite a workout.  What follows is another great observation from Fr. Drew in Egypt. Drew writes…)

camel knees

Camels' Knees

“Bishop Ghais Abdel Malik, the former Diocesan Bishop of Egypt…  would always remind me and the other clergy, “Do you have knees like a camel?” He was indirectly asking us if we prayed—and not only if we prayed, but how much did we pray?  James, the Lord’s brother (Galatians 1:19) was as a man of prayer.  Some say that he prayed so much his knees were as hard as those on a camel – camel knees. Do you pray? If so, how much? Are your knees like a camel? Sadly mine are not as worn as those [above].”

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Today Trinity School held a day of prayer and fasting for the persecuted church worldwide in response to the increasing number and severity of incidents of violence against Christians around the world.  Just as the day was coming to a close the following message was received on campus email.  I copy it here in its entirety as an example of the kind of reports that are increasing in number.  This particular report comes from Egypt, a nation close to the hearts of the staff and student body.

Please join us in praying for peace and an end to religious prejudice and violence both in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.


Posted message begins here:

“On the day we are praying for the persecuted church this message was sent to me from [the] Executive Director of the Friends of the Diocese of Egypt.”

Egyptian Muslim Mob Attacks Thousands of Coptic Christians in Egypt

WASHINGTON, Nov. 24 /Christian Newswire/ — As of Saturday, November 21,
2009 the Egyptian town of Farshoot, located 300 miles south of Cairo, and
the neighboring villages of Kom Ahmar, Shakiki and Ezbet Waziri, have been
the scenes of massive Muslim mob attacks against Coptic Christian
inhabitants. The mob looted, vandalized and burnt Coptic properties
estimated for six million Egyptian pounds (over one million dollars), while
Copts are still hiding indoors fearing for their lives. There are reports
that many Copts were attacked and injured. According to many eye witnesses,
the mob made wooden crosses and burnt them in the streets while shouting
“Allah Akbar.”

Victims and eye witnesses said that nearly 3000 angry Muslims have been
damaging and looting at least 50 shops all owned by Christians, including
jewelry stores and pharmacies, over a claim that a 20 year old Christian
man, now in custody, had a relationship with a 12 year old Muslim girl.
Coptic priest Rev. Benjamin Noshi was attacked and is now hospitalized as a
result of a fracture in his skull. His car was damaged by the Muslim mob. By
the evening most Coptic businesses were looted and burnt and many Coptic
Christian families were thrown out of their homes by other Muslim residents.

Farshout’s Bishop, Kirollos, said the attacks were definitely preplanned and
suggested that the principal of an Islamic Institute in Farshoot motivated
his students to attack the Christians. He also pointed out to the shameful
role of the security forces, which disappeared without giving proper
justifications or making any arrests, despite several demands by the victims
to put an end to the organized attacks against the Copts.

In the early hours of Monday, November 23, 2009 three additional
Christian-owned businesses were looted and burnt in the village of “Abu
Shousha” located 15 miles away of Farshout. New attacks were taking place
Monday night in Al-Arky village seven miles away.

It has become clear that the organized violence is spreading out to more
villages only to target the Christian lives and businesses while the Police
continue to watch. The last 90 days witnessed at least seven similar attacks
on Christian villages, where at least five Copts were killed, many Coptic
girls and women were abducted and forced to embrace Islam with the
assistance of the Egyptian authorities.

Coptic American Friendship Association (CAFA) pleads to the American and
International Rights Organizations to demand the Egyptian government to take
immediate measures to protect the Christian lives and properties of the
persecuted Copts in Farshout, Egypt (Copts are about 18 million Christians –
The largest Christian minority in the Middle East).

For more information, please contact CAFA at Coptic.American@yahoo.com or
Call: 703.337.5217

Ihab Aziz
Executive Director
Coptic American Friendship Association (CAFA)

Coptic American Friendship Association (CAFA) is a non-for-profit 501(c) (3)
organization based in the greater Washington, DC area since 1996. CAFA
advocates on behalf of the persecuted Christians in Egypt and the Middle

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A moment of silence to remember two amazing women I have been fortunate to call “friend”, both of whom passed away this week.  The first is Barb Jagielski, member of Carnegie Presbyterian Church, a fiesty, fierly lady full of laughter and faith, at much at home in a biker bar as in a church.   The second is longtime friend Helen Jean Elliott, former Admin Asst to John Guest at St. Stephen’s church, more recently retired and attending Christ Church Grove Farm, who gave me my first computer lessons.  Details are on the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” page.

Pie Jesu, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem

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I have a friend whose favorite hymn is Wesley’s “And Can It Be”.  As good as the text is, I have never quite understood his fascination with the song… until today.

Today it was the closing hymn of a three-hour Good Friday service, following a sermon on the words “It is finished”.  Done.  Paid in full.

Good Friday is a dark day, but it ends with a victory shout.  The procession of the nations might well enter the celestial throne room singing this song to our King…

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The title quotation comes from an old Star Trek episode about an alien woman who, as a ‘metamorph’, actually becomes — turns into — the ‘perfect woman’ of whatever man she’s with.  With a Klingon, she’s aggresive and warlike; with a party animal she’s loose and brash; with Picard, she’s intelligent and compassionate.  About to be given in an arranged marriage as a peace bride, she meets her future husband, who is cold, calculating, and unfeeling… and rather than becoming his perfect woman, she chooses to ‘imprint’ herself on Picard because, she says, “I like who I am when I’m with you.”  Out of a sense of duty, which she has learned from Picard, she goes ahead with the arranged marriage, knowing her husband will never know who she truly is.

It’s a very moving story, very sad, and obviously very memorable… I saw the episode only once, probably about 15 years ago, and I can still picture the scene in my mind.  How many of us, I wonder, go through life without ever having met someone about whom we can say “I like who I am when I’m with you” — someone who brings out the best in us, or encourages us to higher heights?  I count myself blessed to have a number of people in my life I could say this about, and I could say it about school as well, I like who I am when I’m at Trinity.

But here’s a new thought, at least it was new for me as of today.  How about saying it to Jesus?  The God who created us knows far better than anyone else who we’re meant to be and what our potential is, and He is fully invested in making us into new creations, restoring His image in us.  When I am in the center of His will… which is rare, I am soooooo easily distracted… but when I’m *right there* there’s nothing in the universe that compares.  I like who I am when I’m with You, Lord… I like who it is that You see when You look at me, I like who it is I’m becoming.

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(Reinstating an old series, here’s the next installment of “Q&A” – questions people ask that Google answers by bringing them here.)

“What does the Holy Spirit feel like?” Interestingly scripture never mentions this.  It talks a good deal about what the Spirit inspires people to do, such as prophesying or preaching, but the spotlight always falls on the Spirit-inspired actions and not on the Spirit Himself.  Having said that, I think the question is still answer-able — partly from scripture, and partly from the experience of believers.

Many passages in the Bible include the words “…and the Spirit of the Lord came upon him/her/them…”.  However this quotation is never followed by anything like “…and the people said, ‘whoa, what was THAT?'”  Generally speaking, when the Spirit speaks, people recognize the message as coming from God.  So the first thing I’d say is the Holy Spirit feels like truth.

The Spirit is described in various parts of scripture as fire, power, faith, peace, joy, fullness, or holiness (the seal of God’s promise in and on us).  All these things come from God and when the Spirit makes His presence known we usually feel at least some of these things in some way or another.

In most cases in scripture the arrival of the Spirit is followed immediately by someone speaking God’s word or prophesying.  The Spirit of God brings God’s word, and when the Spirit inspires, it feels impossible to keep quiet about the Word.

The Spirit is, truly and literally, God within us.  Sometimes a person can sense the presence of a Being far greater than can be imagined; I’m sure when the Spirit touches us, He holds back a great deal otherwise we’d be completely overwhelmed.

In conjunction with healing and other miracles, the presence of the Spirit is often described as “warmth”, “a tingling sensation”, “electrical” or “breathtaking”.  These sensations do exist (and they’re quite pleasant) but they should not be looked for as “proof” that a person is feeling the Spirit.  Every believer receives the Holy Spirit when becoming a Christian, and always has the Spirit in him or her whether His presence is felt or not.  What the Spirit does give daily is deeper insight — eyes to see and ears to hear — or as Jesus said “I have come that they may have life, and more abundantly”.  The Spirit gives a deeper, more meaningful life in every sense of the word.

Above all, the relationship between the believer and the Spirit is just that — a relationship, a community of two, in which the Spirit feels like the embrace of a friend, brother, or soul-mate.  One then becomes aware that the Holy Spirit has the same community-of-two relationship with every believer on the planet, which defines the family of God, the community of faith, the true Church.  And in that sense, the Spirit feels like home.

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“The angel of the Lord… said ‘I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers.  I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.’ Yet you have disobeyed me.  Why have you done this?  Now therefore I tell you… they will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.'” – Judges 2:1-3, edited

On reading the first few chapters of Judges this morning the above passage jumped out at me.   In too many ways I fear religious institutions and people of faith have made a truce with the values of the surrounding culture.  For example:

The culture holds up football players, Hollywood stars, and politicians for praise and hero-worship.
God says “you shall have no other gods before Me.”

The culture says beauty, money, and popularity are what make a person great.
Jesus says “he who is the least among you all is the greatest” and “if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all”.

The culture says you have to compromise what you believe to get the things you want.
The Psalmist says “delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

The culture says “whoever dies with the most toys wins.”
The witness of the martyrs says “one is no fool to give up what one cannot keep to gain what one cannot lose.”

The culture says go ahead and have sex with anyone with anyone you like.
The apostle says “set an example… in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity”.

The culture says whoever shouts loudest and longest wins.
Wisdom says “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

The culture says “might makes right” and “the survival of the fittest”.
The apostle says “God [is]… the King of kings and Lord of lords.”

The culture says ‘children are our future’ but it treats them as property — the property of parents (in divorce cases), the property of the state (in modern education), or the property of society (‘future consumers’ – targets of TV brain… er… advertising).
Jesus says “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

The culture says women are of equal value to men but doesn’t pay them equally, doesn’t treat them equally, and still measures their value in terms of sex appeal.
Jesus treated women with dignity and respect, and chose a woman to be his first evangelist (John 4) and the first witness to His resurrection (John 20).

The culture of business says profit is more important than the men and women who produce it.
Jesus says “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

The culture of government says ‘all your goods are belong to us’.
The Psalmist says “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it.”

God grant us means and opportunities to be salt and light in a bland, rotting, and darkened world.

(readers may feel free to add to this list)

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This is one of those things that’s awkward to write because… well, words begin to fail. So I’ll just tell the story as it happened.

During a typical worship service at church, the congregation is asked to volunteer any prayer requests they might have. Being a fairly traditional bunch, requests are usually along the lines of “pray for Aunt Sally’s knee replacement surgery” or “pray for safe travel for the youth group” or similar items.

Two Sundays ago one of the members of the church raised her hand and said “I haven’t slept in two weeks” and broke down in tears, explaining the doctors were at a loss. “Please pray for me.” Stunned silence. Meanwhile for myself and a friend from our Bible study group, her request “please pray for me” was followed immediately by a Spirit-nudge saying “NOW!!” and she and I both prayed quietly.

During the sermon, not knowing my friend had also been praying, I sat down beside her and passed a note: “has this woman been prayed for with laying-on of hands?” She wrote back: “no.” I replied, “do you think we should?” “Yes — I’ll ask the pastor after the service.” “Good — I’ll join you.”

So after the service she and I and a few friends and the new pastor (who grabbed some oil and a prayer book) laid hands on the woman and prayed for her healing. Nothing amazing happened, except that all of us sensed God wanted to act in this woman’s life.

A week later, this past Sunday, the woman was back in church looking well. During prayer time, she said “I want to give thanks to God. Last Sunday I was prayed for for healing, and I went home and that night I slept for the first time in two weeks. And I’ve slept every night since then.”

God not only can heal but does heal. Miracles happen.

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One more item for my don’t-lose-this-you-will-need-it-in-the-future file…

“Lord Jesu! Teach thou me, that I may teach them: Sanctify and enable all my powers; that in their full strength they may deliver thy message reverently , readily, faithfully, and fruitfully. Oh, make thy word a swift word, passing from the ear to the heart, from the heart to the life and conversation: that as the rain returns not empty, so neither may they word, but accomplish that for which it is given. Oh Lord, hear, Oh Lord, forgive! Oh Lord, hearken, and do so for thy blessed Son’s sake, in whose sweet name we pray. — George Herbert, 1593-1633

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