#Pray4ISIS

In church yesterday we were reading from the book of Acts, focusing on the martyrdom of Stephen. It’s a tragic story; heart-breaking and painful, and we turned our attention to the persecuted church, to those who–like Stephen–are being murdered for their faith in Jesus today. We prayed for them, calling out to God to help them endure in the midst of something that we in the West will honestly probably never have to experience. As we were closing I was reminded by my lovely wife of a blog post that first started germinating back when the tragedies in France were fresh and aching, but that I hesitated to post. Here it is:

What would it look like if we were to actually take Jesus at his word? What if we did what he invited us to do? And more than that, what if we did what Jesus, and Stephen after him, actually did? Specifically, what if we loved our enemies and prayed for those who persecuted us? Or, since we may not experience major persecution where we live, what if we prayed for those who persecuted our brothers and sisters, who butchered and murdered our Christian family? What if we started to fervently pray, not against ISIS and the atrocities they commit, but for the people who compose it? For it is people who make up ISIS. It is not just some faceless and malevolent network reaching out to kill and destroy. It is people. People who need to know the love of Jesus and his power to redeem. What if we prayed that the he would do that? What if we prayed for the risen and resurrected Christ to reveal himself in majesty to the people within ISIS? What if, somewhere in their network, we have future brothers and sisters in Christ that we have not met and will likely never meet in this life, but who we will meet and celebrate with in the life to come?

I have an idea of what that might look like, and we only need to turn to the pages of Acts to see it. What happened when the risen Christ introduced himself to the early church’s most hateful and violent persecutor? What happened when that man came face to face with the Jesus he scorned and despised? What happened? The world changed forever. I don’t think I’m overstating the case to say that when Saul met Jesus and became Paul, the world became a different place. It was Paul who brought the faith to the Gentiles and began the work to fulfill God’s intention for his people to be from every tribe and tongue and nation the world over.

This generation’s Saul might be actively and vehemently persecuting the church as a member of ISIS, or an agent within North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Iran. He may be out there right now doing what he believes is right, ignorant of the calling God has in store. What if we prayed that God would turn Sauls into Pauls in each of the countries that are most dangerous for Christians? What if we prayed that God would change the hearts of those who hate and despise us? What if we prayed that God would have mercy on our enemies and show his love to those who persecute us?

Perhaps the world would change again. Perhaps.

There’s only one way to find out…

A Prayer Project on Saruman

No surprise here, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Saruman lately (after all I am currently writing a chapter of my thesis on him). Most recently I’ve been thinking about the power of his voice to coerce and manipulate, to sway others to his point of view, and basically remove their personal agency from them to replace it with his own. What’s worst about it is that Saruman was explicitly forbidden from acting in this way before being sent to Middle-earth. The Valar forbade the Istari from unveiling their power to dominate Elves or humans, yet Saruman was swayed away from obedience by his desire to see a good end accomplished in the particular way he wanted to see it done. It’s sad to see one with such potential for goodness and redemptive influence go so wrong, but it has really only highlighted for me the ways that I live in similar (if much less dramatic) ways.

How often have I name dropped, or responded to situations so as to communicate that I already knew the information being shared–that I am well-liked and in the know, that my voice should be attended to and welcomed? How often have I disobeyed express commands from the One who sent me into this world? How am I really any different from Saruman?

Well, hopefully I’m different in the same ways the characters of the story are. They too are faced with life under the sun in the same way I am. They too are tempted toward self-aggrandizement and subtle pomposity. They are human, with the same struggles and foibles I have–with the same struggles Saruman has–but they actively resist. I can do the same. But, I have an advantage against these struggles that they do not have. I, like all Christians, have the Holy Spirit alive in me. The very presence of God breathing light and life into limbs prone to sin. I, by the grace of God, can choose obedience and faithfulness. I don’t need to end up like Saruman. Rather, I can end up like Frodo or Sam: granted passage aboard a ship bound for a port beyond the walls of the world. What a gift! What grace! Hallelujah! Amen.

Anselm’s Proslogion

Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside now your weighty cares and leave your wearisome toils. Abandon yourself for a little to God and rest for a  little in Him. Enter into the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything save God and what can be of help in your quest for Him and having locked the door seek Him out [Matt. 6:6]. Speak now, my whole heart, speak now to God: ‘I seek Your countenance, O Lord, Your countenance I seek’ [Ps. 26:8].

There’s a lot to like in reading Anselm’s Proslogion, but the bit I’ve quoted above is probably my favorite.

Anselm is preparing to wade into some difficult questions about the nature of God and how we are to know Him, but before he does, he invites us to stop along with him and attend to God. To not just ask the questions of himself, but of God Himself. He will not idly speculate (why should he?) when the One he longs to know, and know more truly, is available to question. He invites us to ask these questions of God in a place where our hearts and minds will be capable of hearing the answers.

Anselm is following in Augustine’s footsteps here, doing theology as prayer–as conversation with God, the beginning and end of all things. And this is why the two men were canonized! Their lives were marked by the fragrance of Christ obtained through close and thriving association–communion even–with him. Their lives were changed by the God they longed to see and to know. You see, their theological endeavors weren’t just out of a desire for information or to explore the world and how it worked. Their theology was done out of a desire to know God, and in him to know all else. Theology for them was both prayer to God and a seeing of all things in light of their necessary relationship with God, their source and creator.

How could that kind of theological study not leave them changed?

The House of My Soul

The house of my soul is too small for you to enter: make it more spacious by your coming. It lies in ruins: rebuild it. Confessions I.vi

I’ve been preparing to teach tomorrow on Augustine’s Confessions and there is a lot we could cover in our class session: there’s the conflict with the Manichees, there’s Augustine’s gradual realization that evil is nothing but the privation of the good and the related ideas of vice as a counterfeit good and the nature of sin as disordered desire, in short there’s all the things people always talk about in relation to Augustine–and for good reason. Those are major ideas that are worth diving into and thinking deeply about. Those are ideas worth wrestling with and probing. But the idea that my heart and mind have returned to over and over again is the passage I began with.

It is a prayer. And it is, perhaps, one of the most foundational prayers our hearts can make when we encounter God as he is: “My soul is too small for you. My life is too broken for you. My sin is too rampant for you. So Lord God, would you who are the ultimate Truth and Good enlarge my soul, heal my brokenness, and make me holy.” Augustine knows that this is a work only God can do, not that we don’t have a part to play in it, but it is not our work. To think that we can do it by our own efforts is “putrid pride!” and further sin which “maliciously damages our own souls.” But when we turn to God and invite him to work in the same way Augustine did, God graciously responds and moves toward us in kindness and mercy. The heartfelt prayer of Augustine is one God delights to answer for it is asking him to do in us what he is already in the business of doing: redeeming us and making us new.

All Things New

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

“Oh shut up Bartimaeus!” a voice shouted.

“Jesus, have mercy on me!” he cried even louder, but his voice was lost in the crowd.

“Give it up! It’s obvious he can’t hear you,” another said.

But it did no good.

“Son of David! Have mercy on me!”

I opened my mouth, rebuke ready on my lips, but the words had no chance to fall. A clear voice, deep and sonorous as a bell, rang through the babble and hum of the crowd, stopping my tongue from sin.

“Call him,” Jesus said and so I did.

“Take heart Bartimaeus,” I said. “Get up! He’s calling you!”

The blind man threw aside his beggar’s cloak and scrambled to his feet. The crowd parted as he made his stumbling way across the square. Blind he may have been, but his path was unerring and straight as a loosed arrow.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus said.

A murmur passed through the crowd.

“What kind of question is that?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

But I wasn’t so sure. I watched Jesus, watched his eyes, and it seemed to me that he saw more clearly than any of us. I might even say there was nothing his eyes did not see, and so there must have been something more to his question.

Bartimaeus said, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.”

Such simple words for so audacious a request, but my heart echoed those words, repeating them deep within.

For just a moment Jesus looked away from Bartimaeus, his piercing yet kindly eyes fixed on mine as though he had heard the words of my heart. He smiled and turned back to Bartimaeus saying, “Go your way. Your faith has made you well.”

Immediately Bartimaeus could see, you could see it in his eyes. A light had appeared in them and with it came wonder and joy. He laughed then, I can still hear it today. And though I stood far apart, I laughed with him, laughed with tears filling my eyes. As Jesus continued on, Bartimaeus followed, seeing everything for the first time. I was not far behind. And even though my eyes had always seen, they too saw anew. In Jesus’ wake I saw flashes of the world as it would be, flashes of his kingdom come, before everything returned to normal. Well, not really. For everything was different. Jesus was here and soon enough he would make all things new.

The Name of the Light

I just recently started the first of many re-reads I’ll be doing of The Lord of the Rings and I just need to go on record to say that the first 70 pages or so are NOT boring. Not in the slightest. Many have criticized Tolkien’s epic for its slow start, but I haven’t seen it. The action may be minimal, but the stage is simply being appropriately set. We need this base from which to leap off to the wider story and world. We need to have the good in life firmly established so we can see why it needs saving, so we can be reminded of hearth and home and how central they are to the health and well-being of our souls. Tolkien prepares us well in this regard for the conflict ahead.

But all that is just an observation and not the real point of this brief post, which is a simple little detail that harkens back to one of my early posts: the power of light. As Frodo is working his way out of the Shire with Sam and Pippin they have already needed to hide from a black rider twice and on the second occasion just as the rider is crouching down on all fours to sniff out the Ring like the bestial inhuman creature it is, singing drove it away. We might be tempted to think that it is simply the presence of other people approaching that drives the rider away, especially since we discover it is elves who are singing as they walk down the road, when in reality it is the song that drives it off, though of course Tolkien doesn’t explicitly tell us this. No, we must know the mythology and the deep lore contained in The Silmarillion if we are to see what is really going on here.

“O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!”

It’s almost like a breath prayer. Short enough to speak in one breath, but powerful enough to drive away even the most powerful servants of evil. Simply speaking the name of the light is enough to drive away the darkness. Which shouldn’t surprise us because our world works the same way. Spiritual darkness and evil cannot stand the Name of the Light. It is filled with too much glory and goodness. Too much truth. Too much beauty. It’s a name we should call on more frequently.

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on us.”