That We May Pray Aright

Words matter.

Words form sentences, which give shape to ideas, which constitute philosophies, ideologies and world-views, which ultimately inspire and shape ways of living, priorities, understandings, values, and faith.

But we can be rather cavalier with how we use words, which can result in shoddy thinking and poorly formed lives.  That can be particularly true with theological language, thinking, and the resultant understanding of who God is and our relationship with God, and our practices of discipleship.

This is a problem I often ponder, as a theologian and member of Christ’s Body, the church (specifically that portion of the Body which exists in the USA), and as someone committed to language well used.  Here in the US we are often motivated by what works, and not necessarily by what is faithful, true or consistent with the teachings of scripture, or the rich tradition of the church through the ages.   That utilitarian spirit is also sometimes reflected in our God language and church practices.

For many years, The Interpreter was published as a resource for clergy and lay leadership of The United Methodist Church.  Each issue included a section called, “It Worked for Us,” in which subscribers would report on activities and programs that “had worked for them” in attracting people, capturing the interest of children, involving youth, etc.  Certainly some of the stories were inspiring and helpful in sharing news of imaginative or creative ways to deepen faith and form disciples.  Others were, quite honestly, inane or frivolous.  The most memorable of these for me was the story of a church that put goldfish in the baptismal font, not because there was any meaning to having fish there, but because “the children loved it.”

When German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) spent a year studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, his initial impressions of the curriculum and the student body left him rather unimpressed.  Charles Marsh writes in Strange Glory: A Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), “He was decidedly underwhelmed by a religious culture in which people fashioned their beliefs the same way a man ordered a car from the factory – according to taste and preference,” and surmised that “pragmatism explained much about Protestantism in the New World.”  Bonhoeffer studied the writings of William James extensively while a student at Union, which to his mind “was the intellectual source of the local compulsion ‘to hasten past difficult problems and to linger inordinately on things that are either self-evident or that without additional preparation cannot possibly be adequately addressed.'” He also described his classmates initially as completely “clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about.  They are not familiar with even the most basic questions…. [T]hey talk a ‘blue streak,’ but often without the ‘slightest substantive foundation,’ blithely indifferent to the two thousand years of Christian thought.”

Which, finally, brings me to the topic of prayer, how we pray, the focus of prayer, and what I humbly consider to be right and faithful prayer.  I begin by confessing that I have not always prayed aright, or in conformity with the thoughts that follow, and gratefully claim the grace that covers a multitude of sins, including talking out of my head, or praying in ignorant foolishness.

Today, as is often my practice, I went to Bruton Parish Episcopal Church to participate in the mid-week service of Eucharist.  While waiting for the time of worship to commence, I paged through the Book of Common Prayer, looking to find a prayer appropriate for preparing myself for worship, when I encountered this Call to Confession:

Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.  And so that we may prepare ourselves in heart and mind to worship him, let us kneel in silence, and with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins, that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy.

What a wonderful template for forming prayers, and disciples, reminiscent of the ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) prayer form I learned as a child.  What particularly caught my eye and heart in the prayer was this petition: to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.

To ask: when we address and petition the Sovereign of the universe, it is unseemly to make demands, to assume that the Holy One is our servant required to be at our beck and call and to provide for our every want.  It is an act of hubristic arrogance to presume that our personal needs are most important in the universe or that we know what is best for its maintenance and operation or that we are so important that nature’s laws should fall before us, simply because that is our wish and desire.  We humans are treasured and cherished by God, along with the whole creation, and is always at work for our good; so says Paul in his letter to the Romans in the New Testament.  But sometimes what is best for us is not what we want; sometimes our desires cannot be met without harming others; there are some things that must happen simply because we are creatures, and not God.  We will all die; we age and suffer injuries of all stripes; we experience failure and disappointment; we are nowhere guaranteed that we can have our way or whatever we want; sometimes the wisest and best answer to us is not yes, but no, or not yet.  Prayer rooted in trust and humility knows the wisdom of asking in prayer, and not presenting a list of demands, or threatening to walk away from God if God doesn’t deliver in the way we want.

For ourselves and on behalf of others: We thrive best in the world and most faithfully, knowing we live in community, not in isolation.  It is certainly appropriate to pray for ourselves, to make known our needs and desires, to the God and Parent of all.  Most attentive and loving human parents will know what is happening in their children’s lives; they may not know exactly or fully what is transpiring but they certainly have the sense that something delightful or dreadful is occupying their lives, hearts and minds.  To paraphrase some words of Jesus, if we who are evil know such things, certainly we can trust our Creator Parent to know us more fully and deeply.  But there is something powerful and transformative about speaking our desires, our failures, regrets, sorrows and shortcomings, our need for guidance and help.  Sometimes it is in praying and speaking that revelation and truth come to us that otherwise would not have happened.  And all of those aspects of our prayer life are richer and more full when offered in light of the needs of others and the possible repercussions of my prayer requests on the lives of others.  If what I ask God will diminish the life of another, or is not rooted in mercy and love, it seems I should not offer that prayer.  If my quest for abundance of resources and riches cause harm to others, it seems I should pray differently.  If what I want damages and puts at risk others today and in the future, and even the whole creation, that is not a prayer I should offer and I trust it will not be favorably heard by the God who loves and cherishes all.

Those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation: In my life I have prayed for many thing not necessary for life and my salvation, and have heard countless others do the same: for my team to win, for a good grade, not to be caught or to escape punishment, to be chosen for some select group.  These are things we may want, but they are not essential; they are not necessary for life and salvation.  Indeed, we may sometimes be so bold as to pray for things that are not good for us, or for an abundance beyond our need.  For people of faith there are few things necessary for life and salvation: faith, hope, love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, commitment to justice and right living, insight and discernment, true wisdom, peace, deep awareness of divine presence, food, shelter, warmth, security, water, sense of belonging and communion, meaning and purpose, goodness (or for the Christian, Christlikeness).   When we pray for what we need rather than what we want, our prayers become more lean, more focused, simpler, more humble and expressive of our dependence on God.  Life is less focused on my will or the things of this world that pass away, and on what is eternally significant and valuable.  Indeed, our words may become fewer because we pray for fewer things, and more expansive as they probe more deeply and extend to the needs of others I may previously have failed to notice because I was so preoccupied with my own wants.  And the words I offer in prayer are one way the Word made flesh transforms me to know what truly matters, for words do matter.

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

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Sermon Based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

     I love Jesus’ disciples; they’re so full of bluster and bombast, but generally are clueless boneheads. Today and the two previous Sundays, our gospel lessons have come from Matthew 13, in which Teacher Jesus tells parables about the Kingdom of heaven, what it’s like to live when God truly is in charge of our lives and creation. At the end, he asks his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And they nod their heads, “Yes!” I imagine them saying, “Sure, Jesus, got it! Of course we understand; totally, no problem!” And then, as they move out toward toward the next town, I see them in clusters of two or three whispering, “Do you really understand?” and one or another confesses, “Not a clue; I have no idea.  Maybe, but I’m not sure.”
     If they understand, I’m envious.  I’m not sure I always do. Even if they do have a clue, there’s always more to understand, another thing to see; which is like going deeper into Christ. I was in a discipleship accountability group in which we agreed to particular practices, one of which was to be kind and considerate to everyone we met. That was easy, except when driving my car. Then I saw there was more to learn and new challenges to face in that arena.  Jesus says to love your neighbor; I’m good with that but then there’s my rude neighbor, my neighbor of color, my gay neighbor, that immigrant, those Muslims, that nutcase who doesn’t share my politics, my enemy. That’s when discipleship is more than we first thought, right?
     Jesus’ parables are like that; they open up new worlds, offer new insights and always challenge what we think we understand. In Emily Dickinson’s words, parables “tell the truth, but tell it slant.” They’re like a diamond that reflects light differently from different angles; no one by itself is enough, but each one points to a different aspect of what it means to live in God; each is a creative sketch of life that really is life.
So Jesus tells us that God’s Realm is a treasure that is both found unexpectedly, and a pearl to be sought after fiercely. It’s an unexpected and surprising gift, stumbled upon: the light comes on and we realize, oh, this is what it looks like.
     At a downtown church, both homeless folks and church members with suburban homes gather at a wintry midweek evening worship service when a guy comes in off the street without shoes. Nice folks scurry around the building looking for, but not finding any shoes for the poor guy, until another homeless guy comes in, sees the situation, gives away his shoes, and simply says, “I’ve got another pair at the shelter.” All those folks with so many shoes in their walk-in closets; and suddenly the blind see.
     And it’s something to seek fiercely. If I want to run a 10K, I can’t just think about it; if I want to lose weight, I have to change my eating habits. Both quests are good; a greater one is to find life in Christ, and that also takes more than wishful thinking:  constant and regular disciplines of prayer, silence, worship, serving the poor, feasting on God’s Word regularly and faithfully, cultivating the fruits of the Spirit: these are markers on the Way to where the priceless treasure of Christ can be found. Life in God: surprising gift?  wholehearted quest? Yes.
     Truth be told, I’d like my faith more cut and dry, simple and undemanding with less mystery, offered by a laid back Jesus who doesn’t ask much or cause any trouble or indigestion. But Jesus wasn’t put on a cross because he was nice, but because he was a threat and a challenge. If we listen to his parables and don’t think, “This guy needs killing,” we probably don’t understand them. In reality they’re subversive, scandalous, outrageous, and call into question things we take for granted and cherish a lot, because that’s how we survive in the world. So we think.
     So with the parables we hear today. We tame the mustard seed parable with pithy phrases, “From tiny acorns mighty oaks grow;” “Good things come in small packages.” That’s true, for sure. But what if Jesus said God’s Realm is like Kudzu? Kudzu: that awful weed we thought would help us control erosion, but took on a life of its own and is beyond our control; a pain, not a blessing. That was mustard in Jesus’ world; a tiny seed growing to take over a field.
     But here’s a mystery: we think Kudzu’s terrible, but the Chinese treasure it as an essential herb good for food and for healing. And that’s God’s Realm: beyond our control. No matter how hard we try it won’t go away; at times it’s unsettling but also the essential source of healing we need and crave. Jesus says that Realm runs wild with mercy and love, forgiveness and compassion, justice or peace, and he promises it will overrun the landscape of all creation for good: even us.
     Now here’s the odd thing in Jesus’ parable: mustard doesn’t grow into something all that great. Birds do nest in it; it grows to six or eight feet, but that’s no tree; it’s a bush. Elsewhere in the Bible cedar trees symbolize mighty and powerful empires where birds come to make nests. Compared to a cedar, a mustard bush is a joke.
     But maybe it’s God’s last laugh about what we think matters. Maybe God’s Kingdom is marked by great humility and service; the truly powerful and mighty kneel down to wash feet and forgive, or show mercy and offer compassion. What an odd Realm Jesus invites us to inhabit as our true home, now and always.
     Then there’s that baker woman.  She seems safe, friendly, homey. But think again: bread rises and is transformed into something marvelous by being pummeled and kneaded. My life isn’t easy when God’s strong hands lay hold; new life arises as I surrender, am worked on and pounded, humbled and formed and shaped crosswise into the image and likeness of Christ. But it’s a joyful thing to be touched by God’s hands to rise anew full of life, delightful to behold. And the result is nothing short of spectacular.
     Three measures of leaven would produce an enormous amount of bread, enough to feed 100 or more people. It’s beyond expectations, extravagant, more than enough; apparently God is an open-handed, generous host, holding nothing back and ready to provide for all who are hungry for something real and eternal. God’s banquet serves up heaping helpings of that bread of life that changes everything: mercy and kindness and grace and acceptance and forgiveness.  God welcomes us to sit and be at home there even here, even now. People hunger for such things.
     William and Mary students are very competitive, the brightest and best; and that can be a heavy burden if you think you’re loved for your achievements and not yourself. I often shared with them words from Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who left a teaching position at Harvard to live as a companion for a special needs adult in the L’Arche community. He’d written, “There is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests'” (Life of the Beloved). Nouwen had heard that voice, rising up against the many voices that tell us otherwise; it transformed him as he went a new Way with Christ. William and Mary students who heard those words also heard that voice with wonder and joy on their faces as they realized God offered them such a gift, too.
     I’m comforted by Jesus’ word that that life-bringing leaven is often hidden, doing its work unnoticed, mysteriously, quietly and not in plain view. But I saw it here a few weeks when a solitary woman at this church noticed I was a stranger in the crowd, sought me out spoke and acted with true hospitality that is not seen nearly enough in congregations; and I was grateful.
     Could such Kingdom-leaven hospitality work a different miracle? Next month in Charlottesville, white surpremacists will again gather. My bishop has asked United Methodist clergy to join in non-violent protest, and I think a colleague has a crazy wise way to go one more step. She suggests that Kingdom-bold clergy offer free food and drink to the Unite the Right group, to engage in conversation with them, to listen deeply, to humbly challenge in love when possible, and offer to pray with and for them. In that heated place of controversy and conflict, who knows what might arise from such leaven hidden among Christ’s followers that day; and wouldn’t it be worth everything to glimpse God’s Kingdom there?
-David M. Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.

Mother’s Day Gratitude

I Thank My God for You

(words and music by Joseph M. Martin)

For a lovely choral presentation of this anthem, go to

I thank my God for you each time I think of you.

Each time I pray for you, I’m filled with thanksgiving.

For ev’ry word and deed, for helping those in need,

I thank the Lord for you and give Him the glory.

And even when we are apart, you are always in my heart.

We are bonded by God’s Holy Spirit for we are one in God’s embrace,

one in love’s unfailing grace.

We give voice to one great Alleluia.

I give thanks. I thank my God and give my praise. Alleluia.

I thank my God for you and each time I think of you.

Each time I pray for you, I’m filled with thanksgiving.

And when the day is done, and ev’ry race is run,

God’s perfect grace will bring us home.

We will be together. for ever and evermore.

I thank my God.

At the gathering for worship in which I participated today, this was the anthem, inspired by Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “ I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…” (1:3).  In our worship we celebrated the 5th Sunday of Easter, observed the secular Mother’s Day holiday, and The United Methodist Church’s Festival of the Christian Home.  In addition to a marvelously broad-stroked pastoral prayer, this anthem was a worship highlight for me, not only for its beauty of language and melody but because it led me to reflect on the thanks I give for my mother and the family into which I was welcomed, nurtured and formed.  

It is nearly two and a half years since my mother, Hilda Mitchell Hindman, died in her 100th year.  My father, Neville Millard Hindman, has been dead nearly 30 years.  Today marks the 35th year since I asked my wife to marry me; my parents celebrated 38 years of marriage and so I find myself being mindful of the brief, precious and beautiful  gift we receive in marriage and family.  No matter how many days we have, they are soon gone and we fly away; but today I sense my parents’ nearness in the great cloud of witnesses, and am especially thankful for them.  In the words of the anthem, Mamma and Daddy, “I thank the Lord for you and give him glory.  And even when we are apart, you are always in my heart.  We are bonded by God’s Holy Spirit for we are one in God’s embrace, one in love’s unfailing grace. We give voice (here and on that far shore and in a greater light) to one great Alleluia.”

What follows is not a perfect nor exhaustive listing, and it is not intended as a list of perfect family or parental gifts or characteristics.  It is simply my list of those things for which I give thanks to God for my mother and father;

I thank my God for you each time I think of you.  From you I learned

*the mystery, wonder and gift of faith in Christ

*to give God preeminence in all things, and to participate in the church, not because it is perfect but because it is beloved and cherished by Christ

*to give thanks to God every day for simple things like food, and to form the discipline of daily and regular prayer, lest I take life for granted or miss its wonder

*to be true to my word and a reliable person on whom others can surely count

*I am not at the center of the universe and to be content with what life brings

*one role I have in life is to help others and to be generous with time, talent and treasure

*music and song are beautiful and worth the discipline

*integrity, honesty, character are irreplaceable treasures to be enacted in small as well as great ways

*there is honor in hard work, perseverance, and determination

*to speak my mind without fear

*over the years that the above gift can be both bane and blessing

*to cherish family and remember that this is one of God’s best gifts

If this serves as a prompt for you to enter into a similar season of reflection and gratitude for those who welcomed, nurtured and formed you, all the better.  May your day be an occasion to say, “I thank my God for you each time I think of you.”

Table Manners: Sermon Based on Mark 7:24-27

 Following the murders in Charleston, SC, of nine Christians engaged in Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church, the bishops of that denomination called on people of faith across our land to focus the weekend of September 5-7 on Confession, Repentance, Prayer and Commitment to End Racism.  As is often the case, the lectionary of readings for this Sunday provided a providentially apt set of readings relevant to this prayerful call by the bishops (which was echoed by Young Jin Cho, my own United Methodist bishop here in Virginia.  Here is what the Spirit brought me to say as I sought to bear witness to God’s Word yesterday at Highland Springs UMC in Highland Springs, VA.  

I have a confession to make – in 42 years of ministry I’ve never preached on this text. I avoided it because quite frankly, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Jesus. His table manners might’ve been socially acceptable in his day but they’re still rather crude and rude. If we like gentle Jesus meek and mild, always caring and kind, he’s not here. It’s troubling and unsettling and takes us where we’d rather not go.

In Mark’s story Jesus is traveling in the area of modern day Lebanon. He needs to recharge his batteries and doesn’t want anyone to know where he is. But here comes this woman looking for help. Poor Jesus can’t get a break or a day off.

Mark describes her as Syro-Phoenician, a Gentile. The Greek says she’s a Hellenist; inMatthew’s gospel she’s even worse – a Canaanite. In other words she’s the worst kind of outsider. In the Bible Canaanites are always the bad guys; in Jewish history the Hellenists caused some of the worst persecutions Jews ever faced. And Jews weren’t really sure Gentiles were human, so Jesus’ harsh attitude toward this woman fit right in with his time and culture.
Add to that, she’s a woman. In Jesus’ day women and men who aren’t family just don’t deal with each other; women know their place and stay in it. But here she is, uninvited into the house looking for Jesus out to ask a favor.

Now she is respectful and humble; Mark says she falls atJesus’ feet to beg him to heal her little girl. Who could turn away and not feel pity for her? Apparently Jesus can.

And he does it in a rather crass and cruel way. In our reading Jesus says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s as if Jesus says, “Don’t bother me or waste my time. I’ve got better things to dothan deal with people like you.” Ouch.

One more thing really stings and hurts here. We see dogs and puppies as cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy. We love them. That’s not how they’re seen in Jesus’ day. They’re wild scavengers; curs to be kicked aside and chased away. Dogs are more trouble than they’re worth. Basically Jesus calls this woman and her daughter dogs, female dogs. At its worst Jesus may be guilty of using the B word on them. Truth be told, Jesus sounds like a sexist racist.

But there is good news here. I love that Jesus’ is so human. We Christians claim a great mystery: Jesus is both fully divine and fully human.   Sometimes we want to smooth the raw edges in our picture of Jesus, but scripture says he was like us in every way, except without sin. He’s a creature of his own day and time; a first century Jew, part of a culture that sees women and non-Jews in a particular way. There’s no sin in that. The sin would be to stay that way when given a better, wiser way that’s more like God’s ways.

That’s what this woman does for Jesus. She opens his eyes wider to see more clearly. She’s the only person in the New Testament who gets the best of Jesus in an argument. I love that. Jesus rudely dismisses her; but she’s a Momma in need and won’t take “No” for an answer with her little girl’s life on the line. Jesus tells her, “It’ not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she comes right back, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Take that, Jesus. Even Gentiles, Syro-Phoenicians, Canaanites, women and dogs have a place at God’s table of grace and mercy and healing and hope.

Just before this story, Jesus has a huge slap fight with Jewish religious leaders who are too focused on doing everything just so. Jesus rants at them, “You are so busy holding on to human traditions that you let go of God’s commandments.” And here’s this woman holding Jesus’ feet to the fire challenging him for doing the very same thing. Whoa.

Jesus is like us in every way except sin. The sin would be for Jesus to hold onto the human tradition of treating some better than others, as if there are 1st and 2nd class citizens. Thanks to this woman, Jesus’ very human eyes are opened to see that God’s ways are even greater and broader and wider than Jesus first thought. And Jesus changes his ways and his mind and his heart to match up to God.  He is converted and tells the woman, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

Typically Jesus connects healing with faith; here it’s the woman’s reasoning that produces the miracle. Her logic brings the change not only to her daughter, but to Jesus, too.

I love the way Mark tells his tale. In chapter 6 Jesus feeds 5000 Jews with bread and fish. In this chapter Jesus says the children’s bread shouldn’t be given to dogs but his mind is changed. That’s what conversion is. And in chapter 8 Jesus again provides bread to a crowd., but this time it’s Gentiles he feeds because he has compassion on them. Even Jesus can grow to see God’s ways in new ways; he’s blessed because of this woman God uses to make it happen.

That’s good news for us, too, because we’re Gentiles. We’re the outsiders Jesus might have missed without her opening his eyes and heart.

And there’s more good news. If the Son of God can grow in his understanding of God’s ways, so can we. If Jesus can be blessed through the honest wise words of another, so can we. We need each other; we need church folks to be open and honest with us to challenge and stretch us to live more fully for God.  That’s what it means to be church, the Body of Christ together.

Some of us grew up in a time and place and that was deeply racist and sexist. There’s no sin in that. The sin is to stay there. Jesus doesn’t stay with his limited attitudeafter his encounter with this woman in need, and we don’t have to stay tied to old, small ways, either.

Our world still doesn’t fully reflect God’s broad bright ways; Jesus still groans as he heals. Racism and prejudice are alive among us, maybe in our own hearts. Some say we have to say “Black Lives Matter” because in many ways our culture says they really don’t matter.

After the racially hate-filled murders of nine of our brothers and sisters in Christ in South Carolina, African Methodist Episcopal Church bishops asked Christians across US to join today in confession, repentance, prayer and commitment to end racism. Our own Bishop Cho made that call to us as well.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we can’t stay deaf and mute to this cancer still eating at our soul. Healing comes as we listen and learn from those who are different, with different life experiences. Blessing comes as we allow ourselves like the Lord Jesus to be challenged and changed by truth heard in unexpected places.  In my own life I thank God for the honest hard words and the humble life of a guy named Ben Nelson, my pastor during my teen years. God used him to convert and change this narrow-minded racist boy toward the better way of Christ. It’s true – the gospel really is that powerful and wonderful.

This winter I talked with some Randolph-Macon College students of color about their life on that largely white campus. It wasn’t easy to hear what they said, but I’m glad they told me the truth. I told them not to stay silent, and one woman said that’s hard: white folks can feel guilty and she didn’t want to hurt our feelings. But I said I hoped she’d speak up anyway because that’s how healing and conversion and better days come.

Today we come to be fed today at this table where the Lord is again present. Let us confess and repent of whatever keeps us from walking God’s wide way of grace for all; ask for healing so we won’t be deaf to the stories of our brothers and sisters and silent no more in the face of racism or prejudice. Like the woman long ago let us fall on our knees and ask for mercy for us and our land and make a new commitment to the loving way of Jesus; then our table manners will be worthy of the One who calls and heals and welcomes us all, thanks be to God.