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New Site / Blog: Virtual Prayers

As a product and offshoot of my series "Towards A Theology Of Prayer", which I will be continuing, I have decided to start an online prayer place of sorts. It has up-to-date RSS (you can subscribe / follow) but I'm not sure if I will add it to places like GoogleFriends, NetworkedBlogs, etc. Anyway, click the following link to access it: Virtual Prayers. Also, take note that I have added a new tab on the menu bar above that contains all of my studies on prayer in one place. Check it out!
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A Prayer On Prayer: Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 20

O Lord, in this moment of slowing down, I seek Your presence.
What is it O God, that is welling up in Your heart?
I must know!
What is it O God, that You desire?
I will wait Lord, I'll do whatever it takes, to know these things.
And I will move Lord, when You vulnerably open up to me.
You have shared before and I have failed.
You have opened up before and I have closed You off.
Forgive me O God and open Your wounded Spirit to me again.
Lord, would You take a risk on me? Would You?
Holy Spirit, could You hover over me?
I seek Your presence because to me, it is the only necesarry thing.
With the hope of pleasing and glorifying You God, I seek Your presence.
As You seek me, may we know one another's deepest desires.
Creator of breath & thought,
Does it fascinate You like it fascinates me that,
When I speak to You or think to You,
Breathing and thinking have come full circle?
Thank You for Your moments of presence God.
I love You God.
I wait.
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God's Favor & Our Prayers: Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 19

One of the most troubling things about the Christianity that resides in America today is the distorted view of God’s favor that is constantly being shoved down people’s throats! The Word Of Faith Movement with Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, etc., etc., are always trying to fly a banner that says “I have God’s favor”. When they do this, not surprisingly, they do it out of ill-informed Scripture readings and interpretations.

For people like Joel Osteen, who boils God’s favor down to awarding him open parking spots closest to the mall doors (because that’s where all preacher’s go, right?), is just absurd. It is not uncommon to hear him rip Scriptures out of their socio-literary contexts and abuse them, twist them and fashion them out to make himself a “successful businessman approved by God”. Sadly, this mindset has made it’s way into the mainstream church and has raped it of any theological dignity it may have once had.

To be sure, the ancient Hebrews or Greeks did not understand the “Favor of God” in the same way that it is often spun at people today. In fact, the 3-Volume set edited by scholars such as Mark Boda, Daniel Falk, Rodney Werline and others, which is titled “Seeking the Favor of God”, explores said topic throughout 2nd Temple Judaism and proves this! To put it in a nutshell: The “Favor of God” came into play during penitential prayer (repentance for doing wrong) and was viewed as God forgiving the sinner. God’s “favor” was not about getting a “thing” or some “things” but rather about receiving the spiritual gift of forgiveness.

So, when I talk about God’s “favor”, that is what I am referring to: God offering repentant sinners forgiveness! Now, this really brings us to another issue: What did it say about the relationship between the repentant being and God, when someone repented? Well, we need to know a little bit about ancient cultural norms to get a better understanding of this. For example, we need to acknowledge the relational dynamic at work: When someone repented, they were (even with body language) suggesting that God was greater than they were (especially in terms of “Holiness”; repentance is, from one perspective, the unholy seeking both forgiveness and healing from the Most-Holy!.

In ancient practices, this would have fallen under the rubric of “patronage”. Now, there were various forms of patronage in antiquity (e.g. client-patron, public beneficence, friendship, etc.) and in this particular case, we are dealing with the notion of patronage and reciprocity. We might imagine this as an ongoing relational contest of sorts (it’s akin to what the Scriptures say when they challenge believers to “outdo one another in works of grace to each other”). The idea is: I get a gift, in return I respond with a gift, in return the original giver responds with a gift (maybe even just gratitude or a good word, etc.) and so, I respond again…and it keeps going on and on; when one person breaks the cycle, they lose (though, this was not always a bad thing).

Really, this was how “grace”--a term derived from the ancient economy (don’t tell that to the Word of Faithers!!!)--was understood then. Just as well, it can still be found in our economic language today (e.g. “grace period”). Yet, “grace” was viewed as this back-and-forth sort of dance that could go on and on forever. In short: Grace was NEVER free but ALWAYS expected something in return (again, even if just a word of thanks or gratitude)! So, when Christ graciously dies for sinners, that grace is not free! There is an expectation: That people will respond to it by giving their lives to Him! And then, the relationship starts and this “giving dance” goes on and on. Sadly, too many theologians have no idea of how grace was understood in antiquity and so, fail to teach about grace in its purest sense today.

This kind of brings us full-circle then, as we think about God’s favor in relation to prayer. If seeking God’s favor means to repent before Him and to seek after receiving forgiveness from Him, which, when He gives it, we must consider that an act of grace, then, in response, we must give something back to God (e.g. our lives, our attention, our talents, etc.) and then, the dance continues on and on. It is not a process of seeking God for things and then He awards them but rather, seeking God’s presence, even His forgiving presence and then reacting and responding accordingly.

So, what does a healthy view or theology of God’s favor, especially as it concerns prayer, look like? It looks like going to God first and foremost, as I have been saying all along, to attend to His presence and to perhaps, experience His grace. Yet, that grace is NEVER free but rather ALWAYS expects something in return, namely, a genuine and authentic response, a relationship of reciprocity. Not only does this view coarse through the veins of Scripture but also myriad ancient extra-biblical texts (Cf. On Sacrifices 2; Ben. 3.15.4; De Offic. 2.62; etc.). This is what Sophocles is getting at when he writes: “Grace (charis) is always giving birth to grace (charis).”

Thus, I am calling here for a more informed view on behalf of Christians today regarding things like “favor”, “grace” and “repentance” especially as they relate to prayer. The longer we let a group of ill-formed and ill-informed motivational television speakers (I do not call them evangelists or preachers) inject this disease into the lifeblood of the Church, we will only continue to perish. In fact, I would say that it is high time not only for these people to repent but also, those who have bought into it. Why would we want to experience anything but real grace (not "cheap" grace) and favor? Well, we shouldn't! Now, let's respond accordingly!
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Praying Without Seizing (Speaking in Tongues): Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 18

Speaking in tongues is an interesting thing. I have never spoke in tongues myself but have been around people that seemed to be doing it. I know hardcore charismatics who believe it is THE sign of the Holy Spirit in one's life and I know cessationists, those who contend that such gifts ended with the death of the Apostles. While debates have raged on about this topic, all of the arguments seem to say the same thing over and over, mainly because they all use the same approach: Prooftexting.

Prooftexting is what occurs when people open the Scriptures, find a verse and attempt to use it (out of its socio-literary context) to prove a point. You find advocates both for and against tongue-speaking doing this very thing all of the time. In fact, the book that Wayne Grudem recently edited (Are Miraculous Gifts For Today? Four Views) consists of 4 authors who do this very thing for over 350 pages. Not only is this unhelpful in the conversation, it is actually a terrible example of scholarship and even more, a sad promise that seems to suggest that the conversation will never make it any further.

So, in this post, I want to take a different approach to the issue and thus, attempt to offer some different thoughts. As usual, I take as my starting point, my definition of prayer: Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us. Now, as I have said in previous posts, one of the great things about prayer is that if we are each attending to God's presence in a genuine manner, then that not only means that we share something in common but to some degree, at the least, we now have a shared goal. Another aspect of this is that if we share the same Holy Spirit, that is, if we have the same Spirit indwelling us both, then, there is more of a possibility of authentic community happening.

One of the problems with people citing portions of Scripture such as Paul's Corinthian letters when it comes to "tongue speaking" is that they often forget that Paul's words are delivered to a community that is quite divided about spiritual matters and practices. It is clear from 1 Cor. 1 that some people in Corinth are suggesting that at their baptisms, depending on whom they were baptized by (e.g. Cephas, Apollos, etc.), they received certain or particular spiritual gifts. So, fights ensued over why it was better to be baptized by one person and not the other and over which gifts were better. This leads Paul to address the issue of "what is true, authentic spirituality". Indeed, the whole Corinthian correspondence seeks to hammer out this issue.

In 1 Cor. 13-15, we encounter more of this division. Paul even adopts the political metaphor that was popular during his time (and before), of the body. Often times public rhetors would deliver speeches on how Athens was a body and its citizens were parts of the body. The speeches were given to encourage people to be good citizens. Well, Paul uses the same idea except when he uses it, he does so to talk about what makes people good citizens of God's kingdom and family. Evidently, Paul needs to curtail some issues and so, he uses such a metaphor! Without simply "verse citing" or "prooftexting", the point is: Paul wants the Corinthian people to get a firm grasp on what authentic spirituality is.

In the end, it seems as though to Paul, true, authentic spirituality is a spirituality that allows the Holy Spirit to bring about peace, (comm)unity and reconciliation. It also seems evident that while gifts are employed by individuals, they should be used in the main, for communal edification. To be sure, self-edification, as in the case of tongue speaking (in private), always bows to communal edification. Yet, communal edification can occur, Paul says, if there is an interpreter present. Otherwise, persons who feel the urge to speak aloud in tongues, should just shut up! He makes such remarks because for Paul, this highly divided community needs its focus to be on TRUE spirituality, that is, a spirituality rooted in seeking the presence of God both around us and in us. Seeking self-edification or public acclaim only causes division, disunity and rupture in the community--all characteristics that run contrary to what the Spirit desires to accomplish.

So, the argument put forth here is not regarding whether tongues have ceased or not. In fact, many Christians still claim to speak in tongues today, as do many Muslims, Hindus, etc. (Christianity, to the surprise of many, is not the only religion that claims ecstatic speech as a spiritual gift or enterprise!!!). Instead, what I am getting at is: If God is the Most-authentic and Most-relational and Most-genuine being in existence (which, He is, as I have argued in prior posts), then, as we seek to experience His presence genuinely and authentically in community, to do so, we must above all else, take any focus off of ourselves! In prayer, the focus is always first and foremost on God and about God; we enter into prayer to seek out God's wants and desires!

So, enough of the "unorderly" charismata and glossalia (look those words up if you don't know them!), enough of the spiritual show-stopping and seizing because all it does is shift focus from God to humans. Instead, lets enter into spiritual events such as prayer with the idea that in seeking His presence, we will lessen and He will become greater! And let us keep in mind, these words of Henri Nouwen: "...the spiritually reborn always call people together into community because the Spirit of God gathers all believers into one body. And the communities formed by the Spirit are not refuges designed to protect the interests of their members or to keep them at a safe distance from the world. They are holy places where everyone is intensely present first of all to the "very person of God, or more exactly, to the three Divine Persons: to the Holy Spirit and through the Holy Spirit to Jesus and the Father."
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What To Do When Someone Else Is Praying: Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 17

In my experiences of prayer, some of the most awkward situations that I've had have come when someone else is praying. At times, I have disagreed with what the person praying was saying and at other times I have found myself strugging to find focus. So, to explore the idea of what to do when someone else is praying, well, it has been something valuable to me. Hopefully, next time you find yourself in church listening to a preacher or someone else pray or you find yourself in a situation where someone wants to pray with / for you, recalling some of the thoughts from this article might help you.

To begin, I want to start by once again, sharing my definition of prayer: Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us. With this in mind, we should first realize that with corporate or public / group prayer, the goal is still the same; it doesn't change. Now, I want to conjecture here that in the group prayer event, if we are genuinely attempting to encounter the presence of God, then, God is also attempting to enter into our presence as well. And if God attempts to enter into our presence and into our situation, then, on a relational level, God is also attempting to know us intimately.

And the last sentence raises an extremely important point: When God attempts to engage us, He is also attempting to know us. And it is here that I really want to share a few thoughts regarding "God's knowledge". For most Christians, phrases like "all-knowing" or "God who knows all" or "omniscient" have a deep economic sense to them! Here's what I mean: When people talk about God as all-knowing, they talk about it in the sense of "how much" God knows. And really, in a fiscally-driven, economic-minded society, what else would we expect?

But it is my view that when we talk about God being the "Most-knowing" being in existence, we are not talking about the amount of knowledge that God has. God is not some sort of divine information monger, who, like a private investigator, is out to horde and acquire all sorts of private information or data as a means to control a situation or person(s). Nor is God so bent on storing knowledege of everything in some sort of divine database that He would just not be appeased with Himself if He did not do this. God is not out for that sort of self-aggrandizement! Indeed, some people who taut God's supposed omniscience so much, in all actuality, promote a view of God's "NEED" for all knowledge more than anything else. Yet, what makes God so great and above humans is not the amount of things He knows but rather, His holiness.

As I have argued repeatedly: God can know what God chooses to know and if God chooses to know something or not, well, because He is sovereign, that is up to Him! Those who posit the idea that God is incapable of not knowing something, actually hold a much lower view of God's sovereignty than they often admit or would like to believe! So, here, I am arguing (in addition to the posts in this series I've already written) that God, who is the Most-genuine and Most-relational being in existence, is also the Most-realationally-knowing.

To be sure, relational knowing is not only something we repeatedly encounter in Scripture but it also comports well with our basic human experiences. Much of the truth of the matter is that God's knowledge exists in relation to who and what He (relationally) knows. Think for example, about 2 Cor. 5.21 where Paul says that God made He who knew no sin to be sin (τον γαρ μη γνοντα αμαρτιαν υπερ ημων αμαρτιαν). Clearly, Paul is not saying that Christ had no idea of what sin was here! Instead, he is giving an example of the fact that Christ had no personal intimate relationship with sin. In Galatians, Paul makes these same sorts of statements a few times (See: Gal. 1.22-3).

Other passages, which speak of God "knowing" things are often meant to be taken this way but in general, are not. For example, in Lk. 16.15, where it is said that God knows the people's hearts, it is saying that God, creator of the heart, knows the sorts of motives that people can have and often display. 1 Sam. 2.3 speaks of the Lord knowing people in relation to their words and deeds, which flow from the heart. In other words: God knows these things about people as 1) They are done, and 2) They are done in regards to their realtionship (or non-relationship) to Him!

So, does all of this have something to do with "what to do when someone else is praying" or not? Of course it does! It has a lot to do with it, in fact. It has a lot to do with it because it reveals that God is not merely or simply interested in acquiring data or facts or whatever but that He is first and foremost, interested in knowing humans more intimately. And if God is interested in knowing all humans, then corporate or group prayer, definitely has some legitimacy (no, I shall not cite the "where 2 or 3 are gathered" passage here because that is not about prayer, as many suggest or suppose). Just as well, if God functions this way, then, certainly, He is the Most-relational and genuine being in existence. That being the case, God is wholly interested in our pursuits of His presence and what we might say to Him.

We might surmise from this, then, that in corporate prayer, there is a sense in which God longs to be drawn into what is being said. Or, to put it differently: there is a sense in which God longs to "HEAR" what we have to say. And that might seem simple but in all reality, the notion that God "hears" is incredible. Part of the goal in corporate prayer then, is to attempt to hear not just "what" God is hearing but also "how" God is hearing. To put it in the form of a question: How might we hear what is being said, as if we were hearing it with God's ears?

This question is significant because if we can attempt to hear with God's ears, then we have attempted to enter into an act of love. But how do we do this without acting arrogant or getting it totally wrong? Well, when we are in a setting where someone else is praying, here are some thoughts--flowing out of a theological perspective--on how we might go about doing this.

First of all, we should filter EVERYTHING through what we know about God's nature (that He is LOVE) and God's character (that He is holy, just and desires authentic relationships with humans). This is a practice that I've began to implement in my own life and I've found that it can not only safeguard me in lots of ways but that it also allows me to be much more genuine. For example, if someone says something while praying that I disagree with, I can ask them about it later (as opposed to getting un-focused during the event). If they get offended (which they have!), so what, that is on them. However, it also allows for affirmation to occur, when possible, which edifies the Body of Christ. In approaching the prayer, I am trying to engage them in thoughtful and respectful conversation about an important matter; I'm attempting to be authentic! And that genuineness and authenticity should not just be reserved for my private prayer life but it should flow into the life of the community as well! Like God, when people enter into the prayer event in the midst of one another, they are becoming vulnerable and taking risks!

So, if this is an issue you struggle with, I would encourage you to do some deep study on God's nature and character. Then, you can filter all public prayers through these things. Finally, I would ask those who might disagree with such views to think about this: If having information about another person is in some way, understood as having a sort of power or control over them, then what might this suggest about the maligned view of God (as a data-monger) that has been put forth for so long? God desires to know us intimately but He does not force the issue! He takes the risk that we will trust Him or not and along with that, takes the risk that He may or may not get to "know" us intimately and relationally. The other view of God is akin to a sort of knowledge rapist, a God who violates the most intimate parts of our lives without our invitation. Friends, this is an image of God that humans have created and that has become an idol that we finally need to dispense with. What a great thing that God is above all, the Most-genuine and relational being in existence!!!
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Free German Nouns Module: Feminine Nouns

Here's another easy-to-use English/German module that deals with feminine nouns in the German language. This is free to download and share but is Tellware, which just means, I ask that if you do download it, you tell at least 2 others about it. If you have any thoughts or questions regarding the module, feel free to get in touch with me. Enjoy! Download below by clicking the image and going to the download page:

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Is God Moved By Our Prayers? : Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 16

One of the longstanding and thus, traditional views of God is that God is "impassible". To put it more succinctly: God cannot be affected by humans, their situations or their prayers. Proponents of this view usually hold to a hard view of predestination which asserts that before God ever formed the earth of the first humans, He planned out every last detail of its future. Not only do I heartily reject this view, I find it theologically troubling for myriad reasons.

In fact, such a view (which I used to hold) troubles me in many different ways and on many different levels, especially when it comes to the topic of prayer. I have already given a number of reasons for why I hold a different view and I have shared a few thoughts as to why I believe words like "impassible" are not words that should be used to describe God. Indeed, God is "all-passionate" and "all-genuine" which means that more than anyone or anything else in this world, God can relate to our sufferings and prayers the most. Certainly, as persons like Colin Gunton & Clark Pinnock have shown in some of their works, the notion that God is impassible comes more from Greco-Roman philosophy than Scriptural theology. To be sure, it was Aristotle who said that the divine must be the "Unmoved Mover". The ancient Greek ideal of Divine apatheia (closed to emotion & empathy, etc.), which is also advanced in Stoic metaphysics, however, is quite flawed.

For, we see in the Scriptures that even when Jesus is on the cross, God is moved! Could we dare say that The Father felt none of Jesus' passion or just couldn't relate? Does a God who is sovereign yet CANNOT do something (e.g. relate to those whom He created in His image!!!) sound sovereign at all? No! To the contrary, the Scriptures speak, time and time again of God's raw emotions and His empathy and sympathy for humanity. If God is impassible how can He then relate to the plight of the world? And if He cannot, is He really able to love? And then I must ask: If he cannot love, would this even be a God worth placing one's trust in? No! Besides, does not God react when we make a decision to enter into the Divine Community (e.g. Trinity)? Unequivocally, we must answer in the affirmative here: Yes, He does react and in fact, He rejoices!

Ancient Greek logic, which many so-called Christians do not realize is embedded in their thought & theology today, starts with the notion that God is perfect and because He is perfect, any change in Him would render Him less perfect. So, God's emotions cannot change because if they did, their entire doctrine would crumble. Yet, not only is this a flawed definition of God (e.g. to say that God is perfect in holiness is different for example, than saying He has a perfect record in bowling) it totally forgets to acknowledge that God is the "Most-genuine" and "Most-loving" and "Most-relational" being in existence! In short, it denies both the very nature of God and the reasons that humans were created in the first place.

To be sure, God cannot just be changed on a whim or tricked or cajoled or manipulated or whatever. However, God, who is sovereign, has opened Himself up to experiencing the human situation in such a way that the emotional and mental changes He makes, for instance, are sovereignly volunteered. Surely Dietrich Bonhoeffer was correct when, in his Letters From Prison he urged that "only a suffering God can help". I would even go so far as to say the exact opposite of what those who hold to an impassible view say, that is, I would argue that "Not only is God passible but true, Divine Love, necessitates that control, knowledge, emotion and power must be vulnerable." The great exegete and theologian Richard Bauckham has even said: "God's suffering does not deflect Him from His purpose but accomplishses it."

Not only do we have a great picture of the Most-relational and Most-genuine God here, but we also take note of the fact that if we trust in a God who suffers, we can be quite confident that He isn't the one culpable of the suffering or in other words, He isn't the one responsible for it. And if God isn't responsible for the evil and suffering then we humans shouldn't feel entitled to a response from Him, though, when we pray, we can certainly voice our concerns and ask He who empathizes with us to act (or react). In fact, Paul Fiddes has done an excellent job pointing out that believing in a God chooses to suffer with us is not the same as believing in a God who "desires" suffering (e.g. masochistic) but rather, in His desire to have genuine relations with us humans who do suffer, He opens Himself up to experience life fully with us...even our suffering.

So, to return to the question in the title of this post: Is God Moved By Our Prayers? I must say "Yes"! God is a passionately and empathetically capable God, He is a God who is willing to enter into our lives and situations and He is a God who desires for us to pray. In fact, I would argue that if my definition of prayer is right (e.g. "Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us) and if my contention that prayer is the way for us to seek out God's wants and desires, then, when we do pray to this "MOVED" God, we can also say with confidence that we may be enlisted by God to please and glorify Him as well as cooperate with Him in what He wants accomplished! So, go ahead and enter the prayer event with confidence because God cares, God is moved and God longs to be in a geunine and cooperative relationship with you.
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Dealing With Distractions During Prayer: Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 15

Oddly enough, one of the most salient features of the prayer event for many people is "distraction". To be sure, there are many things that can act as distractors when it comes to praying. In this post, I want talk about two sorts of distractions: Inner & Outer Distractions.

I want to start by talking about outer distractions. These are things like someone or something interrupting during the prayer event (e.g. a person or a phone) or stuff preventing you from getting into the prayer event in the first place (e.g. not enough time, work, etc.). It may well be the case that the best way to curtail such distractions depends on both your personality and life context. After evaluating and taking these factors into consideration, you may need to force yourself to make time for the prayer event (e.g. schedule it into your planner).

While the types of outer distractions just mentioned can be tough hurdles to cross, in my opinion, it is the inner distractions that are harder to handle. In fact, it is probably the case for many that as soon as they begin to pray, their head starts to get flooded with all sorts of things (perhaps, even worries or thoughts about the "outer" distractions). At this point, even negative or sinful thoughts and emotions can surface. It is not uncommon to hear of people being distracted by vengeful, lustful, hateful and other similar thoughts during prayer time even in a congregational / church setting.

Sometimes, heading into the prayer event is just that: an encounter with the wild beasts within us that need to be tamed. Because this is the case, it is no wonder that many people avoid praying. As a spiritual metaphor, it is like the threats of throwing the Apostle Paul into the arena with the beasts or sending Jesus out into the wilderness to stand firm against evil and the evil one. So, how might we deal with such distractions? Well, the best answer may not be the easiest or most desired one but it seems correct: persistence!

Perhaps you have heard preachers or others talk about persistence in prayer: Well, despite many claims, persistence in prayer does not mean to keep praying the same thing over and over, to try to manipulate or cajole God or any of that. Persistence in prayer simply means to remain steadfast or to stay put; it means not ducking out when we feel like nothing is getting accomplished or like our wayward thoughts are taking over. If, as I have already argued, praying without ceasing means entering into the prayer event to continually seek out God's presence, wants and desires, then when we start to have distracting thoughts or begin to focus on our lives, we need to remind ourselves of our focus and persist in it.

Don't let the bothersome things push you away; face up to them and press on. It is in facing these things over and over again that we will finally be able to overcome them. Further, it is in facing these things over and over again that once you learn how to get past them, you will have learned more fully how to remain in God's presence and allow Him to remain in your presence.

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Other posts in this series:

1) Defining Prayer
2) Imaging Prayer
3) Asking in Prayer
4) Why I Don't Pray For Things
5) Pray Without Ceasing? Why?
6) Does Prayer Work?
7) Can Prayer Change God's Mind?
8) What Is Genuine Prayer?
9) Frustration & Prayer (Rethinking Psalm 137)
10) Why Pray If God Already Knows Your Thoughts?
11) Mystical Praying
12) Prayer In School & At Public Events
13) When To Thank God
14) Prayer, Loneliness & Manipulation
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Prayer, Loneliness & Manipulation: Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 14

I once read a quote from a friend of mine, which said: "I never knew I was lonely until I saw un-loneliness." In my view, that is a simple yet incredibly profound statement. Really, if we were to let it, I think it could touch a nerve deep within all of us because in this day and age, loneliness is something that many people can relate to. In this post, I want to explore for a few moments, the relationships between prayer, loneliness and manipulation. At first, these items may seem to have no connection but upon further reflection, it appears that, in fact, they can be intimately linked.

I want to re-assert here, my definition of prayer: Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us. We need to start here because really, such a definition has a bit to say about loneliness and manipulation. For starters, if prayer is first and foremost about attending to God's presence and to seek out His wants and desires, then this offers a sort of critique of loneliness: To be in the presence of God is to not be lonely. And while we all know that human relations are a necessity (indeed, I have even argued that the very nature of humanity posits a relational necessity), there is a sense in which God's presence is, to borrow a title from Henri Nouwen "The Only Necessary thing". It is not far from Jesus' statement in Lk. 11.13, where He asks why we humans would prayer for "things" when we can pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit!

When our attempts to encounter The Living God are authentic and genuine, then we begin to see loneliness not as something to be feared or dreaded but rather, enjoyed. For the longest time, I have viewed loneliness as a problem or threat in my life. I have tried to escape loneliness instead of embracing it. I thought that loneliness said something bad about me, made people think ill of me and it caused me to stress out over it. I think that many people can relate to this. And I think there are a number of ways to react to such thoughts and emotions, some of those ways are healthy while other ways are very very unhealthy.

One of the unhealthy results of such a view of loneliness is that it causes you to manipulate people. You find yourself laying guilt-trips on people in order to get them to spend time with you. You find yourself trying to get others to pity you. You find yourself complaining about your situations to get some sort of attention. You cling so hard to people that it smothers the relationship. Every time you feel threatened by loneliness, you go to greater and greater extremes to not be lonely and you will take any sort of drastic measures you think you need to. You will say and do things that are hurtful and evil. You will let jealousy run rampant in your life. You will alienate people by continually putting your relationship in a spot where it can potentially be jeopardized. You will destroy marriages, friendships, communities, households, hopes and dreams, all in the name of not wanting to be or appear lonely. This unhealthy view of loneliness is a source of many problems that people have today.

But there is another way to think about loneliness: Loneliness is not a threat but rather, sacred time. Nouwen often spoke of loneliness as a "gift from God". This is the sort of shift that has taken place in my own prayer life (and life in general). When moments alone are viewed as sacred times, that is, times of prayer, then there is no sense of threat! When loneliness can be viewed as something akin to a godly gift, a healthy spiritual life can begin to manifest itself. Loneliness is sacred time! And while it may seem contrary to the whole idea of loneliness, there are at least two ways in which loneliness can actually be communal! The first way is to understand that God, who is Triune, is Himself a community. Thus, when we enter into the prayer event, when we enter into this time that can seem so awkward and lonely, we are actually entering into the Divine Community, the Divine Relationships!

Many of the Church Fathers (and thankfully, many modern theologians have begun recognizing its importance) used a Latin word to describe something similar to this: perichoresis. Perichoresis is understood as a sort of inter-penetration between God and humans and humans and God. I have written about perichoresis HERE if you'd like to read more about it. In short, I view it as a sort of hoe-down-like, circle dance. It is a dance that is already in motion when we come to it but that we are constantly invited into. In this dance we weave in and out, interlock arms, inter-penetrate one another's space and we are all united, as a community, in the same cause! If the moment of loneliness is in all reality, a moment of perichoresis, then we are not actually alone but rather, dancing with The Divine.

Another way that this time of loneliness can, in fact, be viewed as a time of relationality or community is when we treat it as a time where our "clingy-ness" to others is let go of and is placed upon God. Thus, the prayer event becomes something whereat we begin clinging to God. Not only is this psychologically healthy but it is theologically edifying too. Letting the things we place on pedestals (even our emotions or thoughts or relationships) be replaced by God is always a good thing. But here's what makes this so great. If prayer is about attending to the presence of God both around us and in us, then, when I'm doing that genuinely and authentically and you are doing that genuinely and authentically, we begin to have a healthy foundation. If God is the thing that we both cling to, then we end up not clinging to one another, smothering each other out of fear of loneliness and / or manipulating one another to meet a want or need or desire that we think we might have.

Just as well, when we meet God in the prayer event in an authentic and genuine way, then that means we are not attempting to manipulate Him either! If we are seeking His presence and His wants and desires, we are not asking about ourselves and our wants or desires. This, friends, gives us a healthy perspective not only on the relationally-driven prayer event but also our human relationships. Finally, I should say that as we grow more and more in a healthy view of prayer like this, we begin to recognize more and more, when and where nasty manipulation rears its ugly head. Having such an awareness prevents us from running into such situations and from being taken advantage of. Even more, as our perspective gets healthier and healthier, we find that we are able to distance ourselves from both unhealthy views of loneliness and manipulation more and more.

In conclusion, loneliness does not have to be viewed as a threat but can also be viewed as sacred time. Indeed, it can even be understood to be the vehicle that leads us into genuine and authentic communion with both God and others. I would encourage everyone to evaluate their own prayer lives (and just life in general) to see if some rethinking and reordering of things needs to take place. If so, begin making those mental, emotional and physical changes and you may well be on your way toward a healthier prayer life and theology of prayer!

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Other posts in this series:

1) Defining Prayer
2) Imaging Prayer
3) Asking in Prayer
4) Why I Don't Pray For Things
5) Pray Without Ceasing? Why?
6) Does Prayer Work?
7) Can Prayer Change God's Mind?
8) What Is Genuine Prayer?
9) Frustration & Prayer (Rethinking Psalm 137)
10) Why Pray If God Already Knows Your Thoughts?
11) Mystical Praying
12) Prayer In School & At Public Events
13) When To Thank God
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1st Semester Books

Here's a list of the books I must purchase this semester:

+ Patrick H. Alexander, et al., The SBL Handbook of Style for Ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, and Early Christian Studies (Hendrickson Publishers, 1999).

+ David W. Baker and Bill T. Arnold, The Face of Old Testament Studies: A Survey of
Contemporary Approaches
(Baker Books, 1999).

+ James L. Mays, , David L. Petersen and Kent H. Richards, Old Testament Interpretation: Past, Present, and Future: Essays in Honor of Gene M. Tucker (Abingdon Press, 1995.

+ Jean L. Ska, Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch (Eisenbrauns, 2006).

+ Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Fortress Press. Van Gorcum, 1992).

+ Hebrew Grammars / Dictionaries, etc.: BHS, GKC, IBHS, Joüon

+ Donald K. McKim, Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters (IVP, 2007).

+ Rowan Greer and J. Kugel, Early Biblical Interpretation (Fortress Press, 1986).

+ Francis M. Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Hendrickson, 2002).

+ Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997).

+ Judith, Grunert, The Course Syllabus (Anker Publishing, 2008).

+ Heinich, Molenda, Russell and Smaldino, Instructional Media and Technologies for Learning (Merrill, 2004).

+ Marlene LeFever, Learning Styles: Reaching Everyone God Gave You to Teach (David C. Cook Pub., 2002).

+ Dorothy MacKeracher, Making Sense of Adult Learning (University of Toronto Press, 2004).

+ Wilbert McKeachie, McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

+ Henri Nouwen, Creative Ministry (Doubleday, 1971).
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When To Thank God: Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 13

As I've said before, I'm not a peson who uses prayer to request "things". In fact, I don't pray for things (read more about that HERE). To many, this might seem irreverent or even outright ridiculous. This is probably the case because in our Western culture, which has been dominated by patriarchalism, capitalism and democracy, many people have the following view of God: The Father (patriarchy), who is rich beyond measure (capitalism) has tons of mansions and great gifts to give out to those whom He pleases as He pleases (democracy). With these images in mind, people head into the prayer event with the idea that if they just have enough faith, whatever they ask for, they can get.

This is not a view that I hold. As I said HERE, I do not believe that "asking, seeking and knocking" is about us getting things. Instead, it is about us "asking, seeking and knocking" to find out God's wants and desires; it is about Him! So, I treat prayer as the time when I can attend to God's presence around us and in us to find out His desires and wants. Now, since I don't pray and ask for things but rather I ask for the Holy Spirit's presence, I never go into prayer expecting to "get" anything. I do enter into the prayer event, however, with the hope and anticipation of experiencing God's presence. For me, that is enough. As Jesus remarks in Lk., "Why would you pray for things when you can ask for the Holy Spirit?"

This all informs my theology of the material things that I do have. I do not just whimsically or piously suggest that the things I own, God gave me. In fact, I believe that I work very hard for these things and that God doesn't give them. And I realize that my saying this in a capitalistic society filled with Christians will rub many people the wrong way. Christians in our current Western culture want to believe that everything they have is a gift from God because, if it is a gift from God, well, then they are special in God's eyes and not only that, they are not responsible for having it. If they are not responsible for having it (because God gave it to them and not someone else), then neither are they responsible for sharing it with those in need.

For me, this is a HUGE problem. It is a HUGE problem because it has led to a narcissistic, hedonistic, capitalistic-driven form of Christianity. And lest I understate my point: This is NOT Christianity in its truest sense! In my view, one can never prove (in a historical sense) that God actually gave them something. Can they think God gave them something? Yes! Can they try to argue that He did? Yes! Can they prove it with historical data? No! So, to suggest with certainty that God gave them something is very unfounded and presumptuous. I made a vow years ago to NEVER presume on God (you can read more about that in earlier posts in this series).

So, what has happened with me is that I don't just assumingly "thank God" for things. I describe this as "Thanking God on the front versus thanking God on the back". What I mean by thanking God on the front is to act is if everything you have is a gift from God that He needs thanked for. I do not do this. Instead, I thank God on the back. What I mean by this is that instead of being presumptuous on the front, I commit to God that, whatever I do have, I will show my gratitude to Him for loving me, by using it to please and glorify Him if I can! Do you see how this changes things?

For me, presuming on God is a lot of what has led Western Christianity down many of the screwed up paths that it currently finds itself lost on. It seems evident to me that God is more pleased when I don't presume on Him but rather, when I show Him my thankfulness and gratitude by using what I do have to please and glorify Him. So, when should we thank God? Well, I would contend that we present our thanks to Him not when we get something that we "might" think He gave us but rather, always (yes, I said "always",) by using what we do have to please Him! And when this happens, God enjoys it! Indeed, He inhabits such praises!!!

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Other posts in this series:

1) Defining Prayer
2) Imaging Prayer
3) Asking in Prayer
4) Why I Don't Pray For Things
5) Pray Without Ceasing? Why?
6) Does Prayer Work?
7) Can Prayer Change God's Mind?
8) What Is Genuine Prayer?
9) Frustration & Prayer (Rethinking Psalm 137)
10) Why Pray If God Already Knows Your Thoughts?
11) Mystical Praying
12) Prayer In School & At Public Events
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Prayer in School & At Public Events: Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 12

Without a doubt, the topic(s) mentioned in the title of this post are "hot topics" for many Christians. It may well be the case that when it comes to such matters, a great deal of so-called Christians let zeal override any shred of reason or critical thinking skills they may have. Even on Facebook, many Christians are starting groups to promote prayer in schools and at public events; of course, they are referring to "Christian Prayer" here, not prayer in relation to any other religions. And really, that last statement leads into the first point I want to make about "Christian Prayer" in public schools and at public events.

For those who claim to adhere to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it must be noted that Jesus never forced His views down people's throats. In fact, during His lifetime, even His own family members struggled with His movement and teachings, yet, He didn't force them to take His side. The truth is, in Jesus' mind, adherence to the Good News is predicated on choice. Actually, anything else (e.g. forcing Christianity on someone) not only runs counter to the core of the Gospel message but wholly contradicts the notion that "choosing" a relationship with Christ is just that: a choice!

Remember, Jesus lived in a world with myriad religious movements and His own movement was one among many. Jesus was not out to shake His fist at people and scare them into a relationship with Him but rather, He was out to share God's love and to exemplify what intimacy with His Father looked like. Just as well, Jesus was not out to overthrow the government of His day (though He was a revolutionary in many ways, whose ideas and practices tended to subvert the ways of the established government). With all of this in mind, let me recap three important points here: 1) Jesus never forced the Gospel upon anyone, 2) Jesus led His movement in a world where other religions existed and He led His movement with a spirit of peace and co-existence, and 3) Jesus never attempted to use His movement to gain a political foothold or stake in the Roman civil government.

Now, if we transfer the implications of these points into the 21st century culture of the West, I believe the practical applications will actually be quite the same. Christians today are not called to force the Gospel on persons, they are not called to use it to gain control or power over others (but rather, to serve them), they are not called to use it to make people uncomfortable or to scare people and they are not called to use it as a tool to gain political clout. If we apply these ideals to the topic of prayer in schools and / or prayer at public events, then we come to the conclusion that: Unless the event is a faith-oriented event, prayer should be kept quiet and personal.

In applying my definition of prayer to these matters (Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us), I think this all really makes a lot of sense. In fact, I think that when you allow my definition to interact with these ideas, you actually start to see that many of the underlying reasons for people wanting prayer in school and at public gatherings runs directly counter to the ways of Jesus and the message of the Gospel itself!!! For example, it seems clear to me that many so-called Christians are actually throwing stupid fits about prayer in schools for very un-Christian reasons: 1) To show-off their own supposed personal piety, 2) To show that their religion is the best, 3) To gain religio-political clout and power over others and 4) To cover up their own spiritual weaknesses in private!

In fact, I would venture to say that you can see most of this stuff at work by asking one question: 1) Are the people who are so adamant about public prayer, willing to let multiple religions have a prayer or just Christians? Indeed, most of these people would advocate a "Christian Prayer Only" sort of view! And this, friends, reveals the biases and motives mentioned above. There is no need to attempt to force prayer into the public arena! This does not equal "kicking God out" of our society or lives because just as easily (and more peacefully and more theologically correct), we can say prayers quietly amongst ourselves. Christians need to start using their brains!!! Nobody in America is preventing you from praying quietly! I mean, is there really a difference between praying aloud and quietly? Does a vocal prayer carry more weight than a silent one? Do the prayers of those who can speak carry more weight than those who are mute?

I remember in my 6th grade science class, how my teacher (at a public school) always called on someone to pray at the beginning of class. Some people, me included, were terrified to do this. Indeed, many people weren't into church or even religion, me included, and he still issued it as mandatory. There is no reason that Christians who are teachers should force this on students! When one of the first major Supreme Court decisions about prayer in public schools was made in 1962 (Engel Vs. Vitale), many Christians freaked out. As cases like this one continued to develop over the years (e.g. Abington Township Vs. Schempp, 1963; Wallace Vs. Jaffree, 1985; Lee Vs. Weisman, 1992; Santa Fe Vs. Doe, 2000; Adler Vs. Duval, 2002; etc.) and still do, it only makes sense that those who embrace any sort of religion in a society that values choice, need not force their views and practices on others. Thankfully, Jesus even understood this two thousand years ago.

Sadly, even people like the renowned Billy Graham use poor logic such as: "Eighty percent of the American people want Bible readings and Prayer in the schools...Why should the majoritybe so severely penalized by the protests of a handful?" It is one thing to allow the Bible to be read and exegeted in public schools from a literary, historical and social perspective but a wholly other thing to do it from a confessional or devotional perspective. Again, how could this one who has stood before billions and offered a "choice", in this case, "force" the issue on those who have rejected the choice? It simply goes against all logic!

There's also the argument about moral deterioration in America since Court rulings like those listed above have started occurring. While this may be the case or while it may be coincidence or even exaggeration, the truth is, if parents were more vigilant at home, things like early drug use, early sexual activity, teen crimes, violence and other things would decline. The public school is not the arbiter of faith; she never has been and never should be! Personally, I don't want someone who is uneducated in exegesis and theology attempting to teach my kids about the Bible or God! First of all, the home is the place where Christian teaching should happen and also (or then) the Church! We have worship gatherings and meetings for just this reason!!!

So, my thoughts: Christians (or other religious groups) stop attempting to force your faith, theology and religious praxis on others that do not share those things in common. For Christians, the call to teach at home, to teach in the Church and to co-exist peaceably needs to finally be taken seriously! In the end, I would urge many of those purporting to be so-called Christians to lay down their artificial masks of piety, to start using their brains and to start looking at the real roots of the spiritual draughts they may be experiencing: Themselves! One last thought: All Christians may do well to remember that when Jesus prayed, He often retired to a quiet, un-public place or in a home with fellow believers. In fact, Jesus is even noted as being critical of those who pray in public (as if for a show or to make some religious point!!!). Think on these things.

1) Defining Prayer
2) Imaging Prayer
3) Asking in Prayer
4) Why I Don't Pray For Things
5) Pray Without Ceasing? Why?
6) Does Prayer Work?
7) Can Prayer Change God's Mind?
8) What Is Genuine Prayer?
9) Frustration & Prayer (Rethinking Psalm 137)
10) Why Pray If God Already Knows Your Thoughts?
11) Mystical Praying
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Mystical Praying: Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 11

Recently, during a conversation with a friend, we got to talking about this "Towards A Theology Of Prayer" series and he made a comment that had yet to dawn on me, he said: "Your definition of prayer is very mystic(al)." After thinking about it a bit, I came to the realization that, indeed, he was, in a few ways, quite correct. I guess it had not dawned on me because I do not really consider myself a "mystic" nor do I have a background steeped in "Christian Mysticism". In fact, if I were to be honest, the term "mystic" conjures up sort of esoteric and exotic images for me; I don't consider my prayer life esoteric or exotic. When I think of mysticism, I think of desert monks, hermits, etc. Of course, this sort of caricaturing is only half true! There is a sense in which a mystical prayer life isn't all that exotic or doesn't seem all that exciting.

In fact, Friedrich Heiler has said that mystical prayer is the "sublimest kind of prayer". What this means is not that it is incredibly boring or pointless but rather, that as a form of prayer, it is the most free from egoism and eudaemonism. To put it differently, mystical prayer removes self from the center (egoism) and places God there. It also does not treat prayer as a sort of action or event whose end-result is happiness (eudaemonism). In fact, my definition of prayer (Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us) wholly decenters the self and brims with an anti-eudaemonic aura. Prayer does not exist to make us mortals happy, no, it exists to encounter God and to seek out what pleases Him!

However, it is at this point that I would veer a bit from typical mysticism and go a couple of different routes. While I can agree with Heiler's comment that, "In naive prayer the essential content is the expression of need and desire, but this is not true of mystical prayer...which is merely a turing of the mind towards God", I differ in that I see prayer as more of a two-sided, back-and-forth event. In other words, as I have argued in previous posts, while one enters into the prayer event in the main to attend to God's presence and to find out His wants / desires, there is an aspect of the "genuine relationship" between us and God that allows for tension to exist between God's desires and ours. To state it more succinctly: God is open to hearing our desires too, and allowing us to genuinely (not manipulatively) share those (even when there is tension with our desires and His).

This argument is actually a rather large step away from the views of traditional mysticism in regards to prayer. Traditional views assert (seemingly unanimously) that prayer is a sort of practice whereby the one praying constantly "submits" to God and has his or her will "bent" by The Divine. In fact, the mystics are known for treating the prayer event as a complete act of silence (no talking, no asking, no thinking, just being quiet) but I, personally, do not hold this view (though, I see contemplative silence as a healthy practice, by no means do I see it as the only way to pray or as the "end goal" of those who do pray). Nor do I use the popular metaphor of "surrender" to think about prayer; it is not surrender, it is not "The Infinite" swallowing up the finite but rather, it is interacting and engaging, experiencing one another. It is an experiential event of mutality founded on genuiness!

So, while my definition of prayer definitely has mystical tints to it, by no means would I fully align myself with the spiritual guild that is historically known as "The Mystics". While I wouldn't call it "mystical prayer", I would venture to call it "Mutual Prayer" or "Relational Prayer" or "Dialogical Prayer" or something similar. As we continue to work towards this theology of prayer, what input might you have about all of this? What are the pros and cons? What questions remain to be explored? I look forward to reading / hearing your thoughts.

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Other posts in this series:

1) Defining Prayer
2) Imaging Prayer
3) Asking in Prayer
4) Why I Don't Pray For Things
5) Pray Without Ceasing? Why?
6) Does Prayer Work?
7) Can Prayer Change God's Mind?
8) What Is Genuine Prayer?
9) Frustration & Prayer (Rethinking Psalm 137)
10) Mystical Praying

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Why Pray If God Already Knows Your Thoughts? : Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 10

Of all the philosophical and theologial questions that often arise for Christians when it comes to prayer, there is a good chance that pride of place goes to the inquiry issued in the title of this post. Indeed, the question "Why pray if God already knows (y)our thoughts" is both a good and popular one! Needless to say, there are a number of different ways that people answer this question. Without writing a book here or launching into a lecture on the history of this matter, I simply want to offer some of my thoughts.

First of all, I want to make two points: 1) There is actually an idea embedded in or underlying this question that the people asking it often don't realize is there, and 2) Once we are able to differentiate between the question asked and the underlying question, we can really start to arrive at some good answers. So, let me deal with point #1 here. The underlying question that exists beneath the surface of "Why pray if God already knows (y)our thoughts?" is usually this: "Why should I MAKE REQUESTS in prayer if God already knows what I'm going to ask for?" Do you see how that is different from the previous question?

In the second question--which deals with the underlying components--there is a sense in which the questioner is asking about God's knowledge of their own requests, that is, of their wants and desires. However, the first question can be taken differently and can place the emphasis back on God. Let me explain. As I continue to say, my definiton of prayer is: Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us. And so, with that definition in place, I have been arguing that the PURPOSE of prayer is to go to God, searching and seeking out His wants and desires. In other words and in the main, prayer is not really about us and our wants; God and His desires are the focal point.

If this is the case and if I am correct, then, in a way, the question kind of becomes moot. How? Well, if we are going into the prayer event always asking God about His wants and desires and how we might please and glorify Him, and if this is our constant approach and mindset and God is aware of that, then He is aware that our thoughts are centered on Him and His desires. In a way, it's like the bedtime routine I share with my daughter. Every night, she knows that I am going to ask her what she wants to hear a story about; she is keenly aware of this, so much so that sometimes, she'll set the context by saying "Daddy...storytime." She knows what storytime is, what it is all about and what to expect from it. Now, if the prayer event is ALWAYS about seeking God and His wants / desires (and for me personally, it is) and if that is ALWAYS our posture and approach, then God is well aware of the fact that we are coming for that reason. Heck, even I know that I am entering into the prayer event for that reason!

So, if this is the case, then how might it influence the other, underlying question, the one about requests: "Why should I MAKE REQUESTS in prayer if God already knows what I'm going to ask for?" Underlying my answer to this question is a sort of philosophical / theological ideal that functions like this: Of all the beings in existence, God is the "MOST" knowing! No other being has a knowledge or amount of knowledge that is comparable to God's knowledge and knowability. I reiterate: God is the "MOST" knowing being that has ever existed (and remains in existence). As you can see, this view touches on God's sovereignty and asserts that, indeed, God is sovereign over all. In the same way, God is the "MOST" relational being, the "MOST" powerful being, the "MOST" loving being and the "MOST" genuine being in existence.

Therefore, God's sovereignty remains intact--as it should--when we deal with the question raised above. In fact, I would argue that one would be hard-pressed to deal with this topic without addressing the matter of God's sovereignty. Okay, now that I have laid that out, at this point, I want to note that while God is sovereign, He also has choice. In fact, we might even say that of all beings in existence, He alone has the "MOST" choice. This is why I am reticent to call msyelf a "free will being". If humans had "free will", we would be free to do anything we pleased. Yet, our will is not free; there are clearly things humans cannot do. Instead of referring to myself as a free will being, I refer to myself as a being who has "freedom of choice". Thus, in regards to my life, I have the freedom to make choices about what I want to do and what I do not want to do. God on the other hand, is the only "free will being" as He is able to make choices and "will to happen" whatever He desires (of course, those desires flow out of His nature and character: Love).

Now, as we approach the main question here, I want to ask four minor questions: 1) Is God sovereign and thus, able to do whatever God chooses (as it is compatible with His nature and character)? 2) Can God choose not to use His power? 3) Can God choose not to be somewhere? 4) Can God choose not to know something? Let's deal with all four questions in the order I gave them. When answering the first question, we must say "Yes". And without saying much more, this just means that God can do whatever God chooses; He has that capability and it is this that makes Him sovereign. To the second question, we must also answer "YES". It is clear, from the Scriptural narrative and our experiences of the world in-general, that there are times when God, the MOST powerful being in existence, could use His powers but for some reason doesn't or just chooses not to. For question three, we might answer similarly: If God desires not to be somewhere (e.g. in the presence of sin or wherever), He doesn't have to be; God can choose not to be somewhere. Just as well, when it comes to knowing, God can choose not to know some things. In the Scriptures, God chooses not to know someone's sins after He forgives them, for example. There are numerous times in Scripture where God is open to the future and what may happen as a result of someone's choice(s).

Carrying this all over into the realm of prayer requests, I would suggest that while God already knows what He wants and desires, so that our relationship with Him can be 100% genuine, He has chosen not to know what we will request. I have many reasons for saying this, one of which is: If God chooses to know the past in an indefinite (full) sense (e.g. He no longer knows our sins or forgets them, etc.), then it makes sense that He would know the future in the same way (e.g. He knows what He wants but allows the future to be open for humans and their wants). On the same note, I would say that the "MOST" genuine form of knowledge is also one which allows for both genuine relationships to exist and happen. Thus, part of God honoring the fact that humans are created in His image (e.g. for genuine relationships with Him and others) is letting those relationships unfold as they may.

It would seem to me, then, that the "MOST" knowing being has chosen to know in a way that allows for the future to happen as it may all the while, knowing the present as it transpires and as He so chooses. Here, we must choose: Either God is genuine in terms of both relationships and the past, present and future or He is not. I argue that He is. This also means that I accept of view of the future that is indefinite in God's eyes. This also means that I hold a view which says that to know something that is not, is to, in a sense, "know falsely". Thus, if one claims to know the future, which has not happened, then it is really not "knowing" at all. The same seems true of God.

So, to answer the question simply: In praying, God is open to what you have to say, which also means that because He is the "MOST" genuine being in existence, He has chosen not to know this before you ask it but rather, to know it "as" you ask it. Having said all that, I would like to reiterate here that prayer is not really about or for, requesting "things". In a future post, I want to deal with this in relation especially to healing requests. But for now, I do want to say that when we have the urge to make a request, the request should first and foremost be about asking fo the presence of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus Himself said: "Why would you pray for 'things' when you can pray for the Holy Spirit?" In fact, I have recently stubmled upon a quote from Thomas Merton which is directly applicable here: "Detachment from things does not mean setting up a contradiction between ‘things’ and ‘God’...as if [God’s] creatures were His rivals. We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God."

Think on these things.

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Other posts in this series:

1) Defining Prayer
2) Imaging Prayer
3) Asking in Prayer
4) Why I Don't Pray For Things
5) Pray Without Ceasing? Why?
6) Does Prayer Work?
7) Can Prayer Change God's Mind?
8) What Is Genuine Prayer?
9) Frustration & Prayer (Rethinking Psalm 137)

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How To Write A Statement Of Purpose (or Research Proposal): Tips & Outline

In the last few days, I have been taking part in helping a friend construct a "Statement of Purpose" (or "Research Proposal") for a PhD program that he is applying to. Statements of Purpose are not easy to create and they definitely should not be taken lightly. In my opinion, these Statements sort of make you or break you! After all of the networking has happened, after all the emails have been sent, after all the forms have been filled in...the admissions committee finally gets to see what you're all about.

Typically, there are common elements of a Statement of Purpose regardless of what field you're in. Still, people have a lot of trouble getting past the Statment of Purpose hrudle. Before I offer an outline of a Statement below, I want to offer what I consider to be 3 very important points: 1. Make sure your opening sentence is attention-grabbing, 2) Make sure your grammar and spelling are flawless, and 3) Make sure your Statement reveals the necessity of your research for the field, why that institution would do well to have you there, and that you know your stuff! And that last point is incredibly important and something worth building on. Let me just say this: If you're applying to a PhD program, you should realize that you're not going into a program to learn. Instead, you are going into a program because you have "already" learned and now have contributions to make to the field. In my opinion, this is a very significant aspect of the Statement of Purpose; you don't want to appear a student as much as you do a self-motivated researcher who already has offerings to give to the field!

Having said that, because a good number of people have contacted me asking if I could share my Statement of Purpose with them. Well, I cannot do that because the details need to remain private for the time being. However, I do want to give a "very" general outline of my Statement here (this means that all the details have been removed). So, here is a sort of concise overview of my Statement:

1. Attention-Grabbing first sentence. This sentence compliments the institution and reveals that I am aware of the school's rich background and legacy.
2. The second sentence offers a 3-point overview of my research interests.
3. I move into the 2nd paragraph by setting the context for my research. Here, I talk about how I became intersted in this topic, who influenced me and why.
4. At this point, I begin to talk about what research and teaching / writing experience I have on this subject, in other words, I give some of my qualifications in this particular area.
5. Now, in my 3rd paragraph, I start exegeting each of the 3 aspects of the research already mentioned. I commence by giving a contrast between what has already been done in the field and what has not (MY RESEARCH!!!). This continues through paragraph 4.
6. When I transition into paragraph 5, I start to give explicit examples of how my research is valuable (e.g. I offer some insights that hitherto have gone unnoticed in the field). I do this in paragraph 6 as well, where I also begin to incorporate the names of published scholars & works I have interacted with in my research (e.g. this may be a more "essay oriented" way of incorporating a bibliography).
7. In paragraph 7, I offer a general yet detailed sort of skeleton & description of my work and how it will be carried out (e.g. a more "essay oriented" way of incorporating an outline). Here, I also provide some key questions that haven't necesarrily been asked but need to be (and also need to be answered).
8. In the 8th paragraph, I talk about the numerous implications of my work and what sorts of opportunities it will provide for other scholars in the field, once they get to read it. I also mention a few practical implications for the Church and Christian movement in-general.
9. In the last paragraph, I talk about why I am applying to this institution and express my confidence in the fact that, if they accept me, they will make contributions to me and vice versa.
10. In the last sentence I say one more time what an honor it would be to become part of this institution and program.

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Of course, every application process is different for every school. For example, some institutions only allowed me to use 300 words for this, so, I really had to crop it down a lot. This brings me to another point: When I was filling out numerous applications, I did not just copy and paste the Purpose Statement but rather, crafted each Statement to that specific school and program. I know this is time consuming but it is a must! Generally, though, each of my Statements ended up being about 3 pages when double-spaced with 1 inch margins using Times New Roman font.

In closing, the one thing I would like to re-stress about the PhD application is: You need to be aware that you are not going to this school to learn (or, at least you need to make it appear that way)! You have already learned and are now going to advance what you've learned and to make a contribution to advance the field!!! This means that you need to have a very good idea of what you will do your dissertation research on, the method(s) you intend to use, the sources you will interact with and the implications and benefits of your study before you ever interview of send in your application!!! Now, I know there are some schools that may take PhD candidates who do not have a clear idea of what their dissertation will be on and more times than not, the very Statement you send in, well, when it actually comes time to do the dissertation, it will have changed a bit! Still, you need to have a plan mapped out! If someone appears to have a clearer plan than you and comes across as more apt to make their research happen (especially as a self-motivator), chances are, they will pass you in the PhD race.

Those are just a few thoughts I have. If you'd like to add anything, feel free to, in the comments section. Again, if you are a student and would like an extra set of eyes to look over your Statement, feel free to get in touch with me and I'll gladly offer my two cents.
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Frustration & Prayer (Rethinking Psalm 137): Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 9

In the last two posts of this series (see below for links), I explored the notion of "genuine prayer". In short, I urged that since God is the most genuine and relational being in existence (my term: Omnirelational), then He desires genuine relationships with us. The logic follows, then, that He desires genuine prayers from us. In other words, our prayers should avoid manipulation and they should also avoid self-focus, however, they should also be genuine enough that when there is tension between God's wants & desires and ours, we can express those. At the risk of being repetitive, I shall say here once more: God is not threatened by our thoughts, emotions or words.

It is my belief that much of the reason that Christians get frustrated with prayer is first and foremost that they have an incredibly ill-informed definition of what prayer is and what it is about. What flows from this, then, is bad theology of prayer altogether; if the starting point and foundation is errant, then what follows will be too. This is why we see some people treating prayer like it is magic, some people shunning it, some people attempting to manipulate it and some people treating it as a spiritual gift that they have been given that is different from that of everyone else. All of these views of prayer are half-baked and problematic.

If we may recall, I define prayer as: Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us. From this, I argue that prayer is, in the main, about finding out God's wants and desires and how we can fulfill those and please Him (and I do not say this in the sense of God being manipulative to us either; again, see my previous posts). If this is our approach to prayer, then our stance and / or attitude should be that of genuinness on the one hand and humility on the other. Having a healthy balance of these is what makes prayer fruitful.

One of the most graphic prayers recorded in the Scriptures but one of the most (if not THE most) genuine, is that of Psalm 137. This Psalm is known mostly for verse 9, issued by an Israelite against Babylon who has brought strife upon all Israel, which reads: "How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes the heads of [Babylon's] little ones against the rocks." If nothing else, there is an incredible amount of authenticity and genuineness in this prayer!

Still, it has troubled many! Still, it has caused many to level incredibly accusations against the Scriptures! Still, it is graphic! Yet, what if we stepped back from that aspect of it for a moment and understood it differently. First of all, we could understand it in its socio-literary context. This Psalm is categorized as a "Psalm of Lament". These "Psalms of Lament", of which there are several in the Hebrew Scriptures, all share certain characteristics and structures. These "prayers" of lament, were born out of deep pain and genuine heartache (Cf. Pss: 35, 69, 88, 109, 140). These laments were penned during the exile, a time when Israel had been seized and ruled over by a tyrant king (Nebuchadnezzar; Cf. Jer. 29).

They also are all structured in 3 parts: 1) Lament, 2) Confession / Trust, 3) Pleading. In the same way that someone might write a ballad today (all ballads share certain characteristics), when someone was issuing a prayer imbued with lament, there was a typical way of doing so. In addition to understanding the socio-political and socio-literary contexts of this ancient lament, Psalm 137 tends not trouble me because there is a certain theology that undergirds it: A theology of genuineness and trust. At this point, a contrast might be of help.

In today's world, many persons in religious circles are vicious radicals. They pray laments that might often read like Psalm 137 but the difference is, they tend to actually carry these horrid events out. When the writer of Psalm 137.9 uttered those words, they were merely expressions of emotions, not a call to action. I find it helpful to think of it this way: When Psalm 137.9 was penned, the author, at that point, was giving his thoughts and emotions over to God. In giving them over to God, they now belonged to God and he could no longer act on them.

And friends, in my opinion, this is an incredibly healthy view and outworking of prayer! How much more peaceful would the world be today if Christians alone held to this mindset? How much more would we be able to live side-by-side without warring against one another if, instead of carrying out the vengeful desires of our hearts, we took them, in an authentic manner and mode, to God and gave them over to Him. Now, when I say "give them over" here, I do not mean give them over so He can carry out the warring and violence. I mean give them over so that He, in all of His genuiness can find a way to bring peace to the situation!

If you have realized it yet, the point of this post is not only to piggyback on the previous article in this series about genuine prayer but also to show you a Scriptural example of it and what it can accomplish: peace! So, the next time that you are frustrated, don't hold back on going to God with it, in fact, doing anything else could result in devastating consequences!

One last note: I hope that by now you realize the difference between taking your frustations genuinely into prayer and "being frustrated with prayer". As I said above, being frustrated with prayer can often be traced back to a bad definition and theology of prayer. And I would contend that in more cases than not, those frustrated "with" prayer, are often the ones who are not being genuine during the prayer event. A word of advice: If you are someone who is frustrated with prayer, then rethink your defintion of prayer and attempt to examine your genuiness in prayer. Just as well, next time you go into prayer, leave the focus off of yourself and focus solely on God, asking Him what He wants and desires! If it takes 5, 10, 20, 30 or 50 times of doing this before you get any inklings, well, keep doing it. And if you start to get frustrated, well, feel free to say so!!!


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Other posts in this series:

1) Defining Prayer
2) Imaging Prayer
3) Asking in Prayer
4) Why I Don't Pray For Things
5) Pray Without Ceasing? Why?
6) Does Prayer Work?
7) Can Prayer Change God's Mind?
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What Is Genuine Prayer? : Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 8

In my previous post of this series (other article links below), I argued that because God is the MOST genuine being in existence and because He is, at the core "Relational" (my term: "Omnirelational"), then, it follows that He desires a genuine relationship with humans. One of the elements that helps humans connect with this genuine God in a genuine way, is prayer. My starting point or definition of prayer is: Attending to the presence of God around us and in us. In this post, I want to explore the concept of "genuine prayer". In the main, I want to ask and attempt to answer three questions (not necesarrily in the following order): What is genuine prayer and what does it look / sound like? How do we pray genuinely? Why is genuine prayer necesarry?

First of all, I want to address the question of why genuine prayer is necesarry. First and foremost, it is necesarry because any other type of prayer turns into manipulation and thus becomes something other than prayer. Disingenuous prayer is like befriending someone not to be their friend, but to get something from them for yourself. We can see how such a relationship is both dangerous and unhealthy and is therefore, not really a "friendship" at all.

In a disingenuous relationship, someone is always trying to hide something, cover something up and prevent something from coming to light. As humans, we tend to do this when we don't want people to know the truth or when we are scared of revealing something about ourselves. If God is the most genuine being and thus, never acts this way toward us, neither should we act this way toward Him. Yet, the truth is, many times so-called Christians do act this way toward Him. In fact, some people take these sorts of facades to the extreme! Think about the people who burst out in sheer anger towards God all the time! Think about the people who just disregard God! Think about the people who imagine that they can "name it and claim it". Think about the people who act as if they must always be timid in their prayers and thus, never share their real thoughts and emotions with God (it's always the same). I've said for years now: God is not scared of or threatened by our true thoughts, emotions and words; we can be honest with Him in these areas! Any theology that believes God is sovereign, will realize this!!! Anyway, disingenuous acts such as those above are not only unhealthy, they are also acts that, as I said, move out of the realm of "prayer" into something else.

So, if that is the case, then: How do we pray genuinely? Well, in my view, we pray genuinely by first understanding that prayer is, above all else, the attempt to attend to God's presence. In doing this, we are first and foremost seeking God's wants and desires, not our own. Yet, as I argued in the previous post of this series, the human element or human interaction is not totally ruled out of the prayer event. In fact, genuine prayer allows us to come to God and even voice our frustrations or worries with His desires when we find that they are in tension with ours. Moses, Abraham, Jonah and even Jesus did this! To say it again: God is not threatened by us!!!

If all of this is correct, then what is genuine prayer and what does it look / sound like? Well, genuine prayer is simply entering into the prayer event in all honesty and genuineness; there are no other motives or goals other than finding out God's wants and desires. If, upon finding out those wants or desires we realize there is tension between our desires and God's, we can feel free and are actually urged to share them because that's what genuine prayer looks and sounds like. It sounds like Abraham pleading with God to give the people another chance. It looks like Jesus, on His knees, pleading for another way to close things out...sharing His desire to be delivered from the cup He's about to drink.

So, realize that genuine prayer makes way for genuine feelings. And remember that God is not threatened by us. We can approach God and share our truest and deepest thoughts not only about ourselves but also God's wants and desires. Some great Scripture examples of this will be provided in several of the following posts. Until then, check out previous posts in this series below.

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Other posts in this series:

1) Defining Prayer
2) Imaging Prayer
3) Asking in Prayer
4) Why I Don't Pray For Things
5) Pray Without Ceasing? Why?
6) Does Prayer Work?
7) Can Prayer Change God's Mind?
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Can Prayer Change God's Mind? : Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 7

It really goes without saying but the question in the title of this post is a sort of "hot topic" in theological circles these days. Typically, you have two camps that answer this question different ways: The "Yes Camp" and the "No Camp". What I want to do in this post is attempt to navigate through some of the ramifications of this inquiry. It is not my goal here to exegete lots of Scriptural narratives or do any sort of word studies. Instead, I want to offer a few thoughts, ask a couple more questions and then, give some feedback that I think is helpful.

First of all, I want to share my definition of prayer once again: "Prayer is attending to the presence of God both around us and in us." As I have said over and over, this view of prayer places the focus squarely on God and not humans! And I believe that this is a good thing. One of the results of having this view of prayer is that since God is the centerpiece, we humans are attempting to gain a greater understanding and appreciation for His wants and desires. This could be said another way: With this view of prayer, we humans, are attempting to know and understand God in a better, more fruitful and healthy way. And actually, I might make the point here that in my opinion, this is the whole point of "theology" anyway: To understand the nature and character of God better.

Now, this flows right into what I want to say next: From a theological (and Scriptural) point-of-view, God's nature and character NEVER change! Let me dissect that a little more. According to Scripture, which informs my view of both God's nature and character, God's nature is Triune. To be "Triune" means, at the heart, to be "relational" (e.g. 3 persons). When the Triune God created humanity in His image, He was creating humans to be relational beings (as He Himself is). When we read Genesis, after the creation of humans, God tells humans to "be fruitful and multiply". What's the point of that? Well, if humans are made in His image, then reproducing means multiplying His image all over the earth. Thus, God is issuing a sort of genuine, "relational" movement.

I say all of this to say: God, as the MOST relational being (perhaps I could coin a word and say "Omnirelational"), desires to have genuine relationships with humans. Now, if I couple this fact with the definition of prayer that I offer above, then this means that our relationship towards God and His relationship towards us, can be affected through prayer. So, if prayer is focused on God and His wants and desires, then when we pray, we should be asking not for "things" but how we can please God by fulfilling His wants and desires.

Now, here's where problems usually occur for "Christians": Sometimes what God wants or desires is not the same as what we want or desire. And that's where the question in the title of this post really comes into play: Can our prayers change God's mind? Without arguing over stories of Scripture (because there are clearly stories where God changes His mind and stories where He doesn't), we should probably ask another question: Would God changing His mind as a result of our prayers, help us understand God less or more? And, does God changing His mind mean that His nature and character change too?

To the second question I would answer "No". It seems clear to me, even in human terms and situations, that because someone changes their mind on an issue (regardless of what caused the change) does not always mean that person's nature or character changed. I can crave a bag of chips and then when someone suggests that I do not eat those specific chips, I change my mind, that does not mean my nature or character changed. The same is true of God. Now, to address the former question: Does this help us understand God less or more? I would argue that it can help us understand God more.

If God is truly genuine in terms of relationships (and I believe He is), and when we are attending to His presence around us and in us as genuinely as we possibly can, the "human element" of prayer comes into play. Even though prayer is "God-centered" and "God-focused" there is a human element. It is this human element that makes room for genuine human requests. I must emphasize "genuine" here because I am not talking about the sort of thing where people use prayer as a "manipulative" tool. I am talking about honest, genuine prayer here, prayer that first of all recognizes God's wants and desires but that also recognizes "honest" tension between what God desires and what we may desire.

You see, to pray, even though it is attending to God's wants and desires, does not mean that our desires must be ruled out, even if there is tension between our desires and His! Prayer is not a bending of our will to God's or a bending of God's will to ours; that is not the right way to think about it. Instead, prayer is a genuine, interactive relational event. Prayer is realizing that sometimes we do need to change our minds, hearts, wants and desires. But prayer is also being honest with God and being able to ask Him to change His mind on behalf of humanity's good (much like in the Jonah and Abraham stories!).

One of the results of this, and one that makes many people uncomfortable, is that it really reveals the sort of "back and forth" relational aspect between humans and God. To put it differently, it moves us from a point of taking our prayers (and prayer itself) for granted and making us a little more humble. I shall use myself as an example here. In the first few years of my faith, I was quite presumptuous about prayer. I read verses out of context all of the time, which made me have the mindset of "If I just ask, I'll get". Well, when I realized how much I was abusing prayer and trying to take advantage of God, I made a vow to God that I would NEVER presume upon Him again.

This has changed not only the tone of my prayers but really, the entire attitude I have towards it. No longer do I presume that God did something or even anything. No longer do I act as if I know for sure when God is speaking or not. No longer do I use cognitive tricks and convincing language to make myself appear as though I have God's activity in the world around me or in my life mapped out. Instead, in humility, I am now able to come to God and say things like, "Lord, if this was you at work, I thank you" or "God, were it such that I just heard your voice or experienced your presence, I am grateful for that". The point is: No longer am I presumptuous about prayer but now, I have an incredibly heightened sense of humility. And isn't that how it should be? Should we approach God any other way than honest, geuine and humble?

This all might make you uncomfortable but it has allowed me to understand God more fully and healthily. Even more, it has allowed me to experience the prayer event from a new vantage point and perspective. Now, my theology of prayer seems more in-line with the nature and character of God than it has ever been. And friends, that all started when I stopped being presumptuous and started being humble!

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Other posts in this series:

1) Defining Prayer
2) Imaging Prayer
3) Asking in Prayer
4) Why I Don't Pray For Things
5) Pray Without Ceasing? Why?
6) Does Prayer Work?