The Hardest Prayer :: Readers’ Choice

Readers’ Choice (originally published July 17, 2015)

“When friends ask me to pray for their prodigals I always ask permission before I pray as I do for my own children: ‘Whatever it takes, Lord!’ That prayer takes a little courage and a lot of trust because He may not answer the way I would choose.” — Sam

And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness. —Acts 4.29

I pray the safest prayers for the people closest to me. Praying risky things for myself seems slightly more natural: my prayer, my life, my risk. Sometimes I pray for strength and courage for a martyr I’ve read about, partially because I’m not sure how else to pray for them. Their faith is deeper than mine.

Then I get to my family and closest friends. I’m quite content praying for safety, comfort, instant healing, and a host of other luxuries. I just want things for them to be fine.

I’ve often gotten lost looking at the picture of Martin Luther King Jr. pulling a burnt cross out of his lawn. Hatred came to his home. Radical anger burned in his front yard. His young son stands next to him as he pulls the charred cross out of the lawn. Dr. King’s prayers and bold response to the gospel put his family at great risk. Every day.

Surely he meditated Acts 4. In the account, Peter and John have just been released from questioning. They have been threatened with jail — a threat with the subtext of beatings and possibly death — and yet they pray for boldness.

The easy thing for Peter and John would have been to have a prayer meeting about the government’s overreach and pray God would stop it. The comfortable thing would have been to pray for blessing and a new leader. But the Church’s growth would have stopped in that moment.

Like Dr. King, it was the disciples’ boldness, risk, and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of Christ that moved the gospel into the forefront of civic and social life.

Faith atrophies in the pseudo-comfort of modern life. Children who grow up without taking risks or engaging their beliefs against opposition, or friends who never work through hardship and forgiveness together, become intolerable. It is only in great difficulty that people discover the strength woven into them as image-bearers of God. Only when someone is overwhelmed do they look beyond their own strength to a God who loves and cares for them.

The hardest prayers are often the most loving prayers we can pray. They grow our trust in God, engage our faith in the complexity of the world, and challenge our communities to unite around the gospel. God grow our faith.

Today’s Readings
1 Samuel 16 (Listen – 3:45)
Romans 14 (Listen – 3:28)


Rest For the Weary :: The Weekend Reading List

“My mood would darken until, by Saturday afternoon, I’d be unresponsive and morose,” writes Judith Shulevitz, in her piece for the New York Times Magazine. Shulevitz, who left Judaism at a young age, explores the personal, societal, and structural difficulties of reclaiming sabbath.

My normal routine, which involved brunch with friends and swapping tales of misadventure in the relentless quest for romance and professional success, made me feel impossibly restless. I started spending Saturdays by myself. After a while I got lonely and did something that, as a teenager profoundly put off by her religious education, I could never have imagined wanting to do. I began dropping in on a nearby synagogue.

It was only much later that I developed a theory about my condition. I was suffering from the lack [of a Sabbath]. There is ample evidence that our relationship to work is out of whack. Ours is a society that pegs status to overachievement; we can’t help admiring workaholics. Let me argue, instead, on behalf of an institution that has kept workaholism in reasonable check for thousands of years.

Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was a much more complicated undertaking. You cannot downshift casually and easily. This is why the Puritan and Jewish Sabbaths were so exactingly intentional. The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will, one that has to be bolstered by habit as well as by social sanction.

The benefits from time off have not escaped secularism: creating regular moments of rest is a thriving topic of modern fascination. Even Alain de Botton, the author of Religion for Atheists, has called for a sabbatarian approach to media. But it is possible to take time off without finding the restoration of Sabbath. In a white paper for leaders at Redeemer Presbyterian Timothy Keller draws the distinction:

Sabbath is about more than external rest of the body; it is about inner rest of the soul. We need rest from the anxiety and strain of our overwork, which is really an attempt to justify ourselves — to gain the money or the status or the reputation we think we have to have. Avoiding overwork requires deep rest in Christ’s finished work for your salvation. Only then will you be able to “walk away” regularly from your vocational work and rest.

In sabbath we are restored through communion with the divine as we engage in rest, nature, friendship, and devotional practice. We become recipients of mercy and grace, finding healing from the wounds of our callous world. We discover joy and strength as we give ourselves to resting in God. For it is in Christ we find our hope, which transcends circumstance, to make strong our weary souls.

Today’s Reading
1 Samuel 13 (Listen – 3:54)
Romans 11 (Listen – 5:23)

This Weekend’s Readings
Saturday: 1 Samuel 14 (Listen – 9:01); Romans 12 (Listen – 2:58)
Sunday: 1 Samuel 15 (
Listen – 5:46); Romans 13 (Listen – 2:35)

Weekend Reading List


Bringing the Gospel to Life :: Readers’ Choice

Readers’ Choice (originally published July 16, 2015)

“I often lack compassion towards homelessness, but was grieved reading this post and learning of the pain they feel when people stop looking them in the eye. I regret the times I have unknowingly dehumanized a homeless person by simply looking away. God, please give me eyes that meet their eyes and see these precious people the way You see them” — Kara

Peter directed his gaze at [the crippled man], as did John, and said, “Look at us.” —Acts 3.4

The Sunshine Hotel opened in 1922 on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. At $4.50 a night the flop house has given tens of thousands of men a four foot by six foot room, crowned with a chickenwire ceiling, and a cot. Many of the men struggle with addiction, isolation, and a host of pain — but each has a story worth hearing.

For years a raspy-voiced man named Nathan Smith sat inside the metal caged reception room at the Sunshine. Smith cared deeply for the men, helping them find jobs, homes, and treatment programs. “He saw a lot of beauty there that a lot of us couldn’t see,” his daughter said when Smith passed away in 2002.

The hotel’s sign was removed years ago and there are fewer rooms available, but there are still full-time residents. It can be easy to miss the faces of these men today, the Sunshine now is eclipsed by a high-end grocer and a $50 million art museum.

Homeless people regularly say the most painful part of living on the street is that other people stop looking them in the eye. It was the same in Acts 3. Peter has to ask a beggar to look at him. Hundreds are streaming by, a few toss some money in his cup to assuage their guilt of not caring. Peter wants to connect.

It is a profound act of faith to discover another person’s humanity — draw it to the front of the conversation — it’s also the context for miraculous things to happen. Faith is always cultivated in the context of relationship.

This year a group of young professional New Yorkers started visiting the Sunshine Hotel to document the stories of the men they found there. Operating under the name Hear the Hungry, the group says, “We aim to create a moving portrait of the human condition.”

It is the work of the church to extend our time, energy, and effort to the marginalized and oppressed, but it starts with listening. Hear the Hungry asks, “What can we do as a society to lift up our neighbors and help seal the cracks that these people fell through?” It is the faith to ask questions, and the courage to reorient our lives in response to what we learn, that brings the gospel to life.

Today’s Readings
1 Samuel 12 (Listen – 4:19)
Romans 10 (Listen – 3:21)


Weight of the World :: Readers’ Choice

Readers’ Choice (originally published October 10, 2014)

“This is my favorite Park Forum of all time.” — Mark

Psalm 95:3-4
For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. 

It may be partially as survival mechanism, but urbanites find near-perverse delight in the idiosyncrasies of city life. Pastor Taylor Field of Graffiti Church in Manhattan recently shared one of his favorite urban contrasts, found in a 7 ton bronze statue of the god Atlas. Although immense, and depicted with defined muscle, the figure of Atlas strains under the weight of the world, which rests on his shoulders.

Because it is placed outside one of the entrances to Rockefeller Center, the 45 foot tall statue seems dwarfed by the scale of the buildings which surround it. Writing for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik observes, “The tall building is the symbol of all that we hope for — height, reach, power, and a revolving restaurant with a long wine list — and all that we cower beneath.”Gopnik explains the ornate design of Rockefeller Center and its impressive artwork: “It was not that Rockefeller, in a burst of civic generosity, decided to go all out. It was that everyone then was expected to go all out… All the things that make Rockefeller Center immediately winning–the statues of Prometheus and Atlas, the molded glass bas-reliefs–were just part of what you were expected to do.” Expectations can be immensely heavy. We often find ourselves, like Atlas, crushed by the weight of the world.

Tucked humbly behind the alter inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral — just a few hundred feet from Rockefeller’s statue of Atlas on Fifth Avenue — is a significantly smaller statue of Jesus. The Christ stands, but a child, effortlessly holding the world in the palm of his hand.

The Psalmist writes, “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. …Oh come, let us worship and bow down.” The best reason to find ourselves kneeling is not because we’re buckling under the weight of the world, but because we’re falling in worship and submission to the one who holds it effortlessly in his hands.

Father, we confess the pride that leads us try and live with burdens for which we were not designed to carry. Truly our lives, and everything in them, are yours. We are stunned, Father, by the gentle embrace of your grace. Our lives are restored by your kindness that leads us to repentance. May we grow in trust as we respond to your love for us.

Daily Reading
1 Samuel 11 (Listen – 2:43)
Romans 9 (Listen – 5:15)


The Pain of Being Forgotten :: Readers’ Choice

Readers’ Choice (originally published February 18, 2015)

“It is refreshing, in a world where people and relationships change so often, that we serve a God who never forgets us a God who always pursues us.” — Emily

Exodus 1.8-10
Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them.”

It’s intensely painful to be forgotten. When we’re forgotten professionally it costs the accolade of others, the promotion we hope for, or the compensation we’ve earned.

In friendship and dating, it launches a restless search for a reason. 

In divorce, it cuts to the deepest parts of the soul.

In disease, like Alzheimers or dementia, it destroys dreams, lives, and families. 

The book of Exodus begins in the darkness of being forgotten. In a matter of a few generations, Israel went from saving Egypt to being enslaved by them. Now they toil and suffer because pharaoh has forgotten.

Being forgotten is a fruit of the fall. It’s a condition of a broken world that people can cease to be mindful of others who are made in the image of God. It’s no wonder God’s words to Moses are the words of someone who remembers — who holds close — the cry of his people. “I have seen… I have heard… I know… I have come to deliver…”

When the authors of scripture say God remembers someone they are not contrasting it to God’s forgetfulness, but the world’s. The book of Exodus chronicles God’s remembrance of Israel alongside their pain of being forgotten by Egypt.

Evil has no regard for our well being in the world. Yet God remembers. It was the Son of God’s hands which were nailed to the cross because God refused to forget us — even in our sin. It was his body that was bruised and broken so that we could be known.

The true and greater exodus is found in God’s redemption of his people. The forgetfulness of the world may wound us deeply, but it cannot diminish, in the least, the vibrant life and work of Christ in our lives. In him we are remembered. In him we are restored. In him we are loved and known in a way that the forgetfulness of this world cannot take away.

Father, you know the numbers of hairs on our heads. Our names are etched in your hand. While we were yet sinners you gave your life for us. Thank you for not abandoning us — for sacrificing so profoundly for us. May our lives be fundamentally reoriented by the love you have shown us.

Daily Reading
1 Samuel 10 (Listen – 4:34)
Romans 8 (Listen – 6:22)

Show Buttons
Share On Facebook
Share On Twitter
Share On Google Plus
Share On Linkdin
Share On Pinterest
Hide Buttons