Everybody Needs a Study

There’s a person in my life that keeps me honest. One of the ways that he does it is to ask, “What have you been reading lately?” It doesn’t necessarily get me on a reading frenzy, but it does make me think about how and with what I have been feeding my soul. Too often I find myself flitting frenetically from one situation to another without the quality intake that I need to face the so-called “tyranny of the urgent.” Pastors are blessed in that it is expected that we read. Our offices are often called a “Study,” as if to drive home the point.

There’s no better book to read than the Bible, of course. Reading it prayerfully through careful listening to God’s heart is sublime. I really appreciate devotional books that offer more transformation than information. I especially like anything by Chris Tiegreen. He’s my go-to devotional guy. This is soul-reading at its best. Another such book for any potters out there is one that resonates with me: The Soulwork of Clay by Marjory Bankson. Good stuff.

I also like to re-read Rev. William C. Martin’s insights from his book The Art of Pastoring. His breath-prayers from his other book, The Way of the Word, give me a day-long focus that sticks with me. Listen and hear with me one of Martin’s observations to pastors from The Art of Pastoring:

“You are a minister of the Word but not of words. The Word was in the beginning before words and beyond words. And whether they weave sophisticated patterns of intellectual magic, or they strike with passion at the heart of the people’s emotions, words are not Word for the Word is inexhaustible. One can only stand in wonder and point.” Wow. Will I stand in wonder and point to Jesus today or limit God either by my poor inadequate words or an overzealous appreciation of my own voice? I want to let Jesus the Logos speak!

So there are books that are read for diversion and those that inspire transformation. For escape, I prefer historical fiction, a mixture of mystery and history. Since I like to be surprised, I don’t checkout best-seller lists. Finding a good book is more of a serendipitous discovery that is often aided by wise and helpful mentors. Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s family systems primer, Generation to Generation was suggested by a good friend and has been seminal in my understanding of society, church, and interpersonal relationships. It has actually brought me healing! The Starfish and The Spider and business books by Malcolm Gladwell come to mind as important, but anything by N.T. Wright is even more appreciated. His How God Became King gave me more insight into Jesus than seminary.

One of my favorite things to do is to take a mixture of books to Mt. Mitchell or the New River and read for a week. My traveling library will include escapism stuff by James Patterson, Baldacci, Cussler, Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, and anything with a hint of the Knights Templar. Throw in a few “business” genre books, capped off by N.T. Wright’s latest or Migliore for theology, and I’m set. I do love Clark Pinnock and John Sanders on Process Theology, too, and Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons are exquisite reading. It also does me well to reread Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings every couple of years while listening to the “Best of the Moody Blues.” It is bliss to know that Frodo lives even after the fires of Mordor! I can hear the hoof beats with the Moody Blues playing on my buds. I will often take with me The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. They are a walk back in time, but they are timeless in their wit and insight.

The point of all this isn’t to declare myself as a nerdy bibliophile. To the contrary, I mix it up between the serious, practical, sacred, and mundane. The real deal for me is to take time, Sabbath, and let words enrich me. They transport me to another time, place, context, and give me what I need most: perspective. They provide a creative pause in the rush of life’s crises. Please read more than this blog today! If we don’t take the time to read, we will burn out quicker than a match on a windy day. Let me ask you my friend’s question, “What have you been reading lately?” Everybody needs a study!

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“I’ll Be Praying For You!”

Right off, I want to say thanks for everyone’s prayers on our family’s behalf during this eventful summer. An update: Narcie has finished radiation and is daily improving. There’s months of chemo to go, but she’s been in ministry every day at Gator Wesley and across the United Methodist connection as a leader in Campus Ministry. She has been preaching and is overcoming the initial issues with her voice and fine motor skills. She continues in speech and occupational therapies. I am amazed at her progress and I know it is largely because of your prayers and support, and mostly Mike’s help along with Enoch and Evy, too! Narcie has been a witness for perseverance, faith, and the power of prayer! She needs more, for sure, but the Lord continues to sustain her and us! Thank you!

However, not to sound critical, but I’ve been thinking about the difference between real prayer and the ubiquitous phrase I’ve heard not only this summer, but for many years: “I’ll be praying for you.” I am sure that most people have really been praying, but this phrase sometimes comes across as a Southern way of saying, “Goodbye.” “I’ll be praying for you,” is it a greeting, prayer, or an unfulfilled intention? I don’t doubt your sincerity when I’ve heard you say it. This is about me because I need to do better and pray more! I love the old Cokesbury Hymnal song, “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” but I haven’t hit that benchmark in a long time unless you add up the cumulative minutes of my breath prayers throughout the day!

So how do I do better? I think one way is to personalize it. What I mean is that prayer is a relationship expressed in words, a give and take, with much more listening than me spouting off a list of what I or others need. Hey, if I would listen more I would probably hear the ways that God wants me to be the one to answer the prayer needs of others anyway! Comedienne Lily Tomlin once tongue-in-cheek questioned, “Why is it that when we talk to God we’re said to be praying, but when God talks to us we’re schizophrenic?” What’s really crazy is for us not to listen to God. It’s the difference between a soliloquy for an audience of one and a divine-human dialogue. Therefore, prayer is an art, practiced and spontaneous, speaking and listening to God, both/and, not one without the other. It is meant to be more than a conversation-ending pleasantry, “I’ll be praying for you.” It’s supposed to be a real conversation!

Someone said that prayer should be like having a date with God. Now we’ve all seen people out on dates or at least sitting across from each other at a table in a restaurant. Unfortunately we have also noticed the difference between certain couples’ conversations and others. Some talk with each other with ease while others hardly speak or don’t even look up from their plates. Someone might assume that it’s the difference between courting couples and long-married ones, but I don’t think that’s the whole story at all.

Keeping our relationships fresh is an ever necessary opportunity to grow more deeply in love. Praying to God is similar. In prayer we too often show the dispassionate nature of a stale relationship, barely looking up, just mumbling through some rote words as if they were good enough. If we talked to our spouses or dates the way we talk to God, I think a lot of us would be in big trouble. Listening attentively and speaking passionately about things together is what makes communication the number one ingredient in successful relationships.

Likewise with God and us! We make time for everything else, don’t we? I know some people who spend more time sending and answering their email than praying. I heard of one mother who said, “I had been teaching my 3-year old daughter, Caitlin, the Lord’s Prayer. For several evenings at bedtime, she would repeat after me the lines from the prayer. Finally, she decided to go solo. I listened with pride as she carefully enunciated each word, right up to the end of the prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ she prayed, ‘but deliver us from email. Amen.’” Yes, God deliver us from email or evil – anything that might get in the way of our time in prayer.

We should resemble the monks from California that Barbara Brown-Taylor, famous preacher and writer, described in an article in “Christian Century.” She said, “Four times a day, a bell rang in the courtyard. As soon as it did, the brothers stopped to pray. The rest of us were welcome to join them, but it was not required. If we did not show up, then they would pray for us, as they prayed for everyone else in the world – for those who were present along with those who were absent, for those who were inclined toward God along with those who were not, for those who were in great need of prayer along with those who were not aware they needed anything at all. Prayer was their job, and they took it seriously. They prayed like men who were shoveling coal into the basement furnace of some great edifice. They did not seem to care whether anyone upstairs knew who they were or what they were doing. Their job was to keep the fire going so that people stayed warm, and they poured all their energy into doing just that.”

Let’s stoke the fire and pray! What do you say?