The Great Unplugged

I woke this morning to bad news, terrible news, the sort of things that makes you throw your head back and howl “Nooooo!” so the neighbors hear and wonder what wounded animal is in the area.

Picking up my phone, I looked at the charge indicator: 66%. What? It sat plugged in on my nightstand for more than eight hours. How could it be at 66%

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a new phone. I had limped along on the old one for a year, charging it at every opportunity. That thing held a charge the way the Kansas City Royals’ bullpen holds a lead: not at all. Then, when old unreliable started to turn itself off and lock up inexplicably, I decided to retire it.

The new one is great. Recently, I went through two days of steady use and still had 11% on the battery at the close of the second day. But this new phone uses the USB-C cord to connect. Not only does that mean I need all new cords but also I have to be deliberate about getting it plugged in, absolutely making it click. Otherwise, I get 66% in the morning.

These are the times that try men’s souls!

Our world is powered by electricity. Sitting between my living room and kitchen, I can see 26 things that run on electricity. Most of them plug in or are wired into the house, while a few, like that phone, have batteries. Regardless, if you cut off their power supply, they’re dead and useless.

Why do people in the church run out of juice? Why does that person who was clearly brimming with energy at 100% a year ago suddenly drag in at 66% or lower. Why do some of our people wind up completely out of energy, sitting uselessly somewhere like my old phone?

The answer, of course, is that they’ve been cut off from their power source. Like those devices we all carry around, we need to be recharged periodically. In Luke 5:16 we read of Jesus,

Yet he often withdrew to deserted places and prayed.

Not only do we find that “often” statement, but at least three other times in Luke we’re told of Jesus praying alone. If Jesus, who was fully man and fully God, needed to be recharged, how much more do we need to do so.

It’s easy in our busy lives to forget to plug ourselves in to the charger. Sometimes we might go through the motions of a plug-in, like I did with my phone last night, but not actually make the connection. That’s how we get those people sitting in our pews, bowing their heads at the right times, saying the right sort of words, and yet remaining powerless. As you look around the church for those people, make sure they aren’t you!

My phone’s nearly charged now. That’s good, but I need to ensure that my heart is just as powered up.

Spears from Pruning Hooks

This afternoon found me on my knees. Was I in my closet taking my deepest thoughts to the Lord? No, I was out in our garden, planting asparagus. Asparagus is a marvelous crop. Plant it once and, properly maintained, it ought to keep bearing for at least twenty years. If that’s accurate, then the 18 plants I placed in the trench today should be yielding spears of goodness until I’m nearly 80.

There’s an old joke about planting. “When is the best time to plant a tree?” “Twenty years ago.” By that logic, the best time to plant asparagus is probably two or three years ago. That means that to have the stuff on my plate this year, I’ll need to hit the market.

To get the new plants started, I had to dig a trench about six inches deep. The hardest part of that was keeping the trench running straight. From there, I separated the plants. They looked like some sort of alien squid creatures, the sort of thing that looks cute in the movies until it fixes itself to your face and sucks your brain out.

I placed those individual plants at 18-inch intervals and covered each with a few inches of dirt. That’s when I found myself on my knees. Once those were planted, I doused the whole row with the hose and waited for the spears of asparagus to appear above ground. So far, they haven’t. Two years from now, I’m hoping to see edible growth.

Had I waited until next year to plant, of course, I’d be looking another year down the road. While my patience is limited, I’m glad that the plants are on the clock now. Ecclesiastes 11:4 underscores the folly of delay:

One who watches the wind will not sow,
and the one who looks at the clouds will not reap.

If that were being written today, might it point to those who watch Netflix or look at the grocery ads? I don’t know.

We find all manner of reasons to delay the things we ought to do. Right now, having been behind on grading for weeks, I’m caught up but facing a writing deadline that will have me at the computer all this week. I finally broke down and bought a new lawnmower today so that I can get onto that job.

But it was that work on my knees that I’ve really been putting off. Now I’m not talking about crawling around the garden but about spending my time with God. If I don’t sow in that manner, I can’t hope to reap.

I have plenty of time for prayer as I wait for the first harvest-worthy asparagus spears to emerge from the soil.

Nice Psalms

If you’ve never gotten beyond “The Lord is my shepherd” in the Psalms, then you haven’t really lived. A number of the entries, including a fair number that Penny and I have been reading as we go to bed, are anything but nice Sunday-School fare. Last night, Psalm 55 came up. The section heading in the CSB gets us in the right mood: “Betrayal by a Friend.”

And what kind, soothing words does David have for this treacherous friend? Try these on:

My friend acts violently
against those at peace with him;
he violates his covenant.
His buttery words are smooth,
but war is in his heart.
His words are softer than oil,
but they are drawn swords.

We might think that buttery words sound delicious, but they’re not. They hurt!

The outcome that David prays for in this situation is pretty intense as well.

Let death take them by surprise;
let them go down to Sheol alive,
because evil is in their homes and within them.

Essentially, that is David asking for his enemy, who jumped from singular to plural without warning, to be sent to hell while still alive. There’s no “turn the other cheek” stuff going on here. Do you like to pray through Psalms? Good luck on this one!

So what is going on in a Psalm like this? What can we learn from it? I think we can learn that David (or whoever wrote any particular Psalm) was a human being. He had strong feelings of anger and betrayal. As much as we might like to cover up our emotions, as much as we might try to look like pious bits of perfection fit for a spot near the manger in a nativity scene, we aren’t. We have these feelings. We want revenge or justice or something along those lines.

Do we allow those feelings to show in our prayers in front of our friends? Probably not, but we can, as these Psalms demonstrate, let them show to our one perfect Friend. And in the process of allowing those feelings to show, we can allow God’s Spirit to work on us and to change our heart. We can be taken from profound fear and anger to a spirit of calm and worship, as in Psalm 55:22:

Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never allow the righteous to be shaken.

Granted, the next verse takes us back to some fairly angry-sounding material, but we do get the sense that the Psalmist is moving himself back into a balanced place. It doesn’t come all at once, but he was, after all, a human being.

Praying for Your Eyes

This morning, my preparations for a meeting tomorrow had my eyes on the first chapter of Ephesians when these verses jumped out at me:

This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength. –Ephesians 1:15-19

Paul didn’t have an endless amount of paper, and he couldn’t fire off letters as easily as we send emails today. Why then does he spend–I want to say “waste”–so much space on this topic. I’m inclined to read this and say, “Okay, okay, we get it. You pray for us. Now get on to the good stuff!”

Since I’m not quite the spiritual giant that Paul was, I’m going to assume that my impatience reflects poorly not on him but on me. To that end, I’d like to look at the substance of his apparently endless prayers. Let’s take these verses apart and examine them.

Thanks for the Ephesians–Paul doesn’t just thank God for the Ephesians. He claims to “never stop giving thanks.” I routinely thank God for my wife, but beyond that I’m bad about not thanking him for the others in my life. Either I’m falling down in this regard or the people in my world don’t rise to the level of those in Ephesus.

Spirit of wisdom–Notice that when Paul gets around to asking God for things on behalf of the Ephesians, he doesn’t pray for their pastor search or their building fund. He asks that God will give them the Spirit of wisdom. It seems to me that the following three requests are more specific effects of that Spirit.

Hope of his calling–Paul is addressing himself here to the “faithful saints at Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1). I’d expect that they wouldn’t need to experience the hope of God’s calling, but that’s what Paul asks for them to see first. But then I recognize that although I have experienced that calling and enjoyed some of its blessings, I don’t always have a clear vision of the hope that it provides. If I did, would I still struggle so constantly with sin?

Wealth of his inheritance–Here he doesn’t pray that they’ll receive an inheritance but that they’ll recognize just how rich an inheritance they’ve already gained. Again, if I were truly cognizant of those riches, would I worry about a high electrical bill?

Immeasurable greatness of his power–Again, Paul prays that the Ephesians will see God’s power. He doesn’t ask God to be with them–he’s always with them. Instead he prays that they will have their eyes open, like Elisha’s servant in 2 Kings 6:17 to recognize that power.

I rarely pray these things for myself. Almost never do I pray them for others. Instead, I pray for Aunt Edna’s gout or Cousin Buford’s marriage problems. Clearly, I’m blind when it comes to intercessory prayer. I just need to pray that people’s eyes will be open. That will solve a host of other problems.

Get Your Motor Running

tired-runnerYou’ve probably had the experience: You set out on a longish run. Let’s say you’re going five miles. You know you can do five miles. Five miles is a piece of cake. (And by the way, if you’re thinking that five miles is more like a sledgehammer than a piece of cake, you can get there eventually.) You could do five miles without breaking a sweat. (Okay, maybe not that.)

But then, 100 yards into your five miles, you feel as if you are going to die. Your lungs are heaving; your heart is pounding. Your legs are saying, “No!” Everyone who has ever run has experienced this. To a degree, we will get the same feeling when starting out on a bike, playing basketball, or doing anything else that pushes the body very hard. Happily, this feeling of impending death does not last. If you push through it, you’ll find yourself a mile and half down the road saying, “Hey, this is pretty easy. Five miles is a piece of cake!”

Jason Saltmarsh takes up this topic in a recent article, artfully titled, “Why does the first mile of my run suck so much?” Not only does Saltmarsh explain the physiology leading to those first-mile agonies but he offers advice as to how to lessen the blow.

Basically, what’s happening is you’re forcing your engine to work (aerobic state) before it’s had a chance to properly warm up (anaerobic state). I bought a Subaru a few months ago, and now I sit patiently in my car and wait for the little blue light on the dashboard to go off before leaving home. That little blue light goes off when the car is warmed up, the fluids are moving around nicely, and it’s ready to go.

Like so many things, that physical warm-up has a spiritual parallel. Have you ever had a hard time settling in to pray or to read the Bible? At first it seems hard. No, your legs aren’t complaining, but your brain might be saying, “You have other things to do.”

A few years ago, I attended a prayer retreat. During Saturday morning, the schedule called for an hour of solitary prayer. An hour. How was I supposed to prayer for an hour. I fidgeted. I shifted. I got distracted. I was in my first mile. But then I hit my stride. The “blue light” went off, and I prayed. When the hour expired, it was too soon.

The beauty of both running and spiritual disciplines is when you get past that initial warm-up period. When we get there, prayer seems like something that could go on forever. The Bible is something to linger within. And the miles don’t seem endless.

The Endless Hunger

woman-praying-silhoutte-168fe02ec159dbda85f31317c4972b91I’m writing this just before lunch at the office. A container of kung pao chicken is waiting in the fridge. I need to take a couple of steps behind me, loosen the lid, and then start the microwave. Or I could step to my right and open the file drawer that holds raisins (including yogurt-covered ones) and a few other morsels of non-perishable goodness. I am hungry.

Or am I? My guess is that when I say, “I am hungry,” I only mean that my body truly needs food about one time in twenty. Instead, I’m really saying, “I want to cram food in my mouth” for a variety of possible reasons. Right now, it’s probably to avoid actual work.

Esther Crain catalogs eleven reasons why you might be hungry. These include factors such as eating the wrong things (as opposed to not enough) as well as matters that have nothing to do with eating. One that caught my eye was eating because of stress.

Who hasn’t dealt with a high-pressure workday or relationship rough spot by giving into cravings for a pint of Rocky Road? But stress has a sneakier way of making you voracious. When you’re tense, your system ramps up production of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, says Rumsey. Elevated levels of these hormones trick your system into thinking it’s under attack and needs energy, so your appetite starts raging. Stress also reduces levels of the brain chemical serotonin, and that can make you feel hungry when you aren’t, says Moon. Consider it a case for making it to yoga class more often, or cranking up a soothing playlist on your commute home.

I mention this because as pervasive as stress is in our culture, the Christian has tools at his or her disposal that can greatly diminish the weight that stress places on us. As therapeutic as yoga might be, prayer and meditation in God’s Word can certainly bring more power than twisting yourself into a pretzel and chanting “Om.” The problem is that too often we fail to make use of the spiritual disciplines.

Whether it is to grow closer to God or to eliminate stress from your life–and I’d argue that doing the first will inevitably lead to the second–you should not ignore the power that getting close to the Creator can provide.

Yogini or Yogurtini?

YogaI am conflicted when it comes to the practice of Yoga. My decidedly secular college fills up as many Yoga classes as they offer. While I have never attended one of those classes, I feel confident that there are no mantras chanted, no chakra magic invoked, and no references to Lord Shiva or any other Hindu deity.

Yoga is, stripped of the Hindu mumbo-jumbo–that’s a Sanskrit term, I’m pretty sure, synonymous with “folderah”–can provide good exercise and stretching. I do a couple of Yoga poses in my lower body strength training but without calling them Yoga. The “locust” asana or pose came to me as a “Superman.” You lie, face-down, on the floor and then lift up your head and arms at the same time that you lift your legs, leaving only your mid-section on the mat. The plank pose, basically holding yourself in an “up” pushup position, is not one of the traditional positions from what I can discover, but it is a staple of Yoga classes today. Hold either of these positions for 15 seconds or so and you’ll probably be feeling less spiritual and more shaky than before.

My mixed feelings come from the very religious, very Hindu roots of the practice. The traditional 84 Yoga asanas were supposedly created by the Hindu god Shiva. One traditional sequence, the surya namaskara, is known in English as the Sun Salutation. Essentially it is a form of worship toward the Hindu sun god. The whole purpose of Yoga practice, at least originally, is to allow the yogi (male) or yogini (female) to be able to meditate for long periods of time. This is a very religious practice in its origins.

While I can use my two “poses” and not feel any risk of being drawn into Hinduism, I’m reluctant to fully explore this sort of exercise. On the other hand, I wonder at that original purpose.

How many Christians fail to worship to their ability, fail to pray deeply and effectively, and fail to have the focus necessary to really embrace a long sermon because their body is saying, “No.” I once heard good advice for teachers: “The brain can only absorb what the seat can endure.”

Shouldn’t Christians tune their bodies just as carefully as Hindus tune theirs? Shouldn’t we do our best to ensure that achy joints or finicky backs do not  limit our ability to worship the one true God? When we have a living object for our worship, shouldn’t we do our best to make our bodies capable of enduring and enjoying that worship?

Talking to Ourselves–Mark 1:35

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

 In the various movies of recent decades in which God has made an on-screen appearance–I’m thinking here of George Burns in Oh God and Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty–we discover among the rather commonplace morality that Hollywood can espouse the inevitable oddities of language that would naturally follow when God himself speaks. When George Burns is sworn in to court, he finishes the oath by saying, “So help me me.” You have to wonder if God, in their mind, would text “OMM.” But then how can an omniscient God be sufficiently surprised to want to text such a thing?

Obviously, those who write such scripts either never read or didn’t pay close attention to Job. Somehow the smug Morgan-Freeman God doesn’t quite seem like the one who asked, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” If those writers were creating a scene surrounding Jesus in today’s verse, they’d have something like this:

Peter: Hey Jesus, what are you doing out here?

Jesus: Just talking to myself.

Peter: Whoa! That sounds crazy. Next thing you know you’ll claim to be God!

Happily, they haven’t written that script, but the question does arise: If Jesus is, as we claim, God Incarnate, then why does he need to go out and pray to himself? Like the trivial oddities of language that the oh-so-clever Hollywood writers deploy in their comedies, the oddities that come when you suggest a character as fully man and fully God simply demand attention.

In reality, I can’t understand the behavior or plumb the thoughts of my own wife after 30 years of marriage. How could I ever hope to understand the God-Man in all his complexity. Answer? I can’t. But I do observe that Jesus, “being in very nature God,” did roll out of bed early in the morning and head out to pray. Perhaps he need the prayer time to keep him from simply obliterating the petty and self-serving people who claimed to be his biggest fans!

This morning, I rolled out of bed with the alarm, went immediately to the bathroom and performed my morning routine. What I did not do was brave the chill to spend a few minutes in prayer. You’d think, needing it so much more than Jesus did, I would follow his lead more carefully, but I didn’t. How about you?

Get the Word Around–Mark 1:32-33

That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door.

Last Sunday evening, my church performed a Christmas musical, directed by your humble correspondent. We had offered this work twice on the previous Sunday morning in lieu of our normal preaching services. Both of those morning services had been well attended. Had we been depending on our normal Sunday-morning attendees–just the ones who hadn’t made it the previous week–to fill the pews for the evening, we might have had a hundred or so people present. Instead, we saw a nearly full auditorium with many faces that I’d never seen before.

The idea, apparently, had worked. After those morning performances, we told the congregation to invite their friends and family to pack the place next week. Sure we could have squeezed a few more people into the seats, but we sang and played to a nice crowd Sunday evening.

Let’s consider the goings-on in Capernaum on that Saturday early in Jesus’ ministry. In the morning, Jesus went and taught in the synagogue. After that, perhaps at noon, he walked over to Peter’s house and healed the mother-in-law. After that, after sunset had come and the Sabbath had ended, the word got around town. Before long, everybody with a stomach ache showed up at the door ready to be healed.

Today, I’m not as interested in what Jesus did as in what these people did. They responded to the blessing that Jesus brought onto Peter’s house by coming and seeking a blessing of their own. They didn’t wait for Jesus to come to their house. Instead, they sought him out and brought their petitions with boldness.

How often do Christians see the blessings that come into other lives and sit back wishing those blessings would visit them? Perhaps we see a life enriched through service or prayer and wish that somebody would ask us to do some neat job or that we could be prayer warriors.

God’s blessings, for whatever reason, do not fall on all believers equally. Perhaps after this life, we’ll understand why that is. But I am convinced that many blessings that you and I should enjoy go unclaimed because we don’t go to the door where Jesus is staying and ask for them.