Why Do We Pray?

“Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.” – Abraham Joshua Heschel

Many of my prayers are inspired by moments of need, or fear, or frustration, or worry.  I come to God asking for something.  For security, protection, peace, money, a solution.

Or I’ll  be driven to prayer by the needs of others.  I hear someone is sick, or sad, or in need and I will pray.  In these moments prayer is an act of compassion.  It is a confession that the problems others face are to big for me to handle.   This maybe the closest I get to what Heschel is talking about.

While these are fine reasons to pray they aren’t awe inspired or humble.

I long to see the world as Heschel saw it.  I long to be in wonder of life, in awe of things around me.  Sadly though I typically am to consumed with what is in front of my own nose to see what God has made or is up to.  When I was a child I used to love to look at the clouds and imagine them to be different things: a dragon, a dog, a tree, a monster eating ice cream.  I don’t look at the clouds any more.

Heschel’s quote reminds me of what prayer should be – an act of worship.  He calls me to discover what it means to be in awe of life and respond by speaking to the creator about it.  When I think on Heschel’s statement I am ashamed at how much I take for granted and how much I act like I deserve.


This post is the 4th in a series I’m calling 60in60 – 60 quotes that have inspired me in 60 days.

Why Do We Pray?

An Encouraging Word from My Dad

“If you screw it up, no one is going to die on the table.”

Dad did a lot of high risk OB/GYN surgery.  The work gave him a unique perspective on life.

He used to love to tell this story: Once a friend of his who was a seminary professor was having lunch with Dad and some other high risk OB/GYN docs Dad worked with.  After listening to the group of doctors talk for a few minutes the seminary professor made the comment, “You are all very earthy people.”  Dad said the mood suddenly shifted from jovial to tense when one of Dad’s partners retorted sharply, “Earthy!  Why don’t you spend two hours putting your head and hands where we put our head and hands, get yourself all covered in blood and crap (he didn’t say crap), only to have your patient die on the table, and we will see how sparkly shinny clean you come out dam it!”  Dad said after a second of silence the whole table bust into laughter and everyone returned to their previous conversations.

My father was an amazing man.  Not only did he pioneer several life saving surgical techniques and write countless articles/books (his CV was like a novel); he also helped established the medical system for the countries of Ghana and Nigeria, fought for the rights of people with Down’s syndrome  in the U.S., and waged a war on injustice on multiple fronts (a battle which finally took his life).

Just before my freshman year of high school my family moved from Ann Arbor to New Orleans.  On the first day of football practice, which started a few weeks before school, I was freaking out.  Everything was new and different.  I didn’t know any one.  And I had never played football before.  As we pulled into the school’s parking lot Dad put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said, “Jeff, don’t sweat it.  If you screw it up, no one is going to die on the table.”

The saying stuck.  It became something he said to me anytime I was stressed.  Now it hangs on my the wall in my office to help me keep things in perspective.

It reminds me to take risks, because its okay if they don’t work – no one is going to die.

It reminds me not to take myself to seriously.  My daily decisions aren’t life an death ones.

It reminds me its okay when I fail.  Almost everything is fixable.

I hope this thought from Dad encourages you today.  Go take risks.  Go try new things.  Go screw it up.  No one is going to die on the table.

That is unless you are a high risk surgeon.  No risky behavior or failure aloud for you.


This is #3 in a series of posts I’m writing about quotes which have defined and/or inspired me.  I’m calling the series 60in60 – 60 quotes in 60 days.

An Encouraging Word from My Dad

60 in 60 – a blogging adventure

Two things converged on me to create this idea.

Recently I had to move my office.  Even though the trip was only down the hall and around the corner it was still emotional.  Which was weird because the move is actually a good thing.  A Korean church is going to begin sharing our building and their head pastor needs office space near the reception area, so I gave up my room.  I’m excited about the church coming in and gave up my office with total joy in knowing it was the right thing to do.  But still it was rough.  I think because as I moved my office I remembered all the other times I’ve had to move – some of those weren’t so great.   I did okay until I started moving the quotes.  All the emotions of those moments came rushing up on me.  In my office I have a wall of quotes and pictures.  The quotes came from things I’ve read or heard while working in churches.  Each one has shaped how I see the world.  As I pealed them off the wall and thought back on all the times I’ve had to move them before a deep urge to spend time reflecting on each one was birthed in me.

At the same time, I’ve been looking for a challenge.  Last year I did a blogging challenge with the Domino Project called “Trust 30.”  For 30 days every morning there was a blogging prompt that went out based on Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.”   I loved the challenge of writing every morning.   Recently I’ve been longing for that opportunity again but I haven’t been able to find a blogging challenge that really excited me.

Last week these two things came together in my head.  I want to reflect on the quotes on my wall and I want a blogging challenge.  So for the next 60 days I’m going to write about one quote a day.  I’ll do my best to keep it short.  Hope you enjoy this journey through my twisted logic.

60 in 60 – a blogging adventure

Arsenal of Exclusion – Thoughts on Baltimore Inspired by 99%

I’ve been listening to a brilliant podcast called 99% Invisible.  It’s about design, and architecture, and all the things around us that we don’t usually pay attention to.  Each episode is about 10 minutes long.  I highly recommend it.

The most recent episode was called “The Arsenal of Exclusion“.  It discussed design elements in urban landscapes that city planners use to increase or restrict people’s access to different spaces.  In the episode the host and a city planner take a tour through a neighborhood in Baltimore to examine the different weapons of exclusion used to keep neighborhood’s segregated.  They cover things like street design and permitted parking.  It is fascinating. I feel like after listening to it I had a whole new understanding of why my city is so segregated.

It brought to mind something I noticed in Baltimore when we were living down town.  We lived in Federal Hill.  It was a nice neighborhood.  Most of the people living in it (not us) made well over three figures.  This was before the bubble burst so housing renovation was crazy.  Everyone was buying old row homes, gutting them, and bringing them into a new glory.  It seemed there weren’t enough row homes to go around so the bubble was slowly expanding west.

Immediately west of Federal Hill, across Hanover Street, is a neighborhood called Sharp Leadenhall.  It is predominately African American and most of the people in the neighborhood lived below the poverty line (I know this because I worked with feeding ministries that there who provided free groceries, ran an after school program at the PAL center there, and I attended many of the neighborhood association meetings).  It was a sharp contrast to Federal Hill, but the developers were working hard to change that.  I walked the streets of  Sharp Leadenhall routinely and it felt like every day another row home had sold and some developer was gutting it to rehab.

The fast pace at which Sharp Leadenhall was being gentrified made people look to the next neighborhood west, a neighborhood known as Pig Town, as a place for potential investment.  Pig Town resembled Sharp Leadenhall in a lot of ways.  Many of my Federal Hill friends who were in the development game were buying houses there hoping after Sharp Leadenhall flipped, Pig Town would become like Federal Hill.  (No one thought the bubble would burst.  It seemed like a golden age of renovation that would never slow.)

I know people who had success in Sharp Leadenhall.  The neighborhood definitely changed.  If the bubble hadn’t burst I imagine Sharp Leadenhall would have been completely consumed by the Federal Hill crowd.  I never met anyone who had success in Pig Town and the neighborhood stayed the same.  In fact I don’t think it would have changed, not like Sharp Leadenhall anyway.

After listening to 99% Invisible’s Arsenal of Exclusion I think I understand why.  There are two weapons of exclusion I observed in my time there.

First there were the stadiums and the Inner Harbor.  Federal Hill (along with Locust Point, Otterbien, and the Riverside Park area) are an island.  On there west flank are the O’s and Raven’s stadiums along with the vast parking lots the facilities require.  North is the Inner Harbor area.   East and south are blocked separated from the rest of the city by a river and by I-95.  The South Baltimore peninsula is isolated.   Sharp Leadenhall fell within that perimeter.  Pig Town was outside of it.

Second (now I must be honest, this is a little over my head) were property taxes.  I remember sitting in a Sharp Leadenhall neighborhood association meeting which featured a city tax agent.  They called him “the tax man.”  He explained to the neighborhood that if they owned their own homes they should sell because their property taxes would increase slowly as the value of homes around them increased.

I’m still looking for more weapons in the arsenal.  It’s a morbid curiosity for me after hearing that podcast.  If you are in Baltimore and you see any let me know.  If I find any new ones I’ll put them up.  I’ve started reading this blog and I’m looking forward to their book in the fall of 2012.

Arsenal of Exclusion – Thoughts on Baltimore Inspired by 99%

Galatians 5 and Freedom

Yesterday I finished the rough draft of a paper I’ve been working on.  It is one in a series.  Not sure what will become of them yet.  This one came out to be 12,000+ words.  I’ll share it once I’m done editing.   Here is an excerpt from it. 

Only in the environment of loving others can we cast off the chains of sin.  Discipleship is not an act of isolation.  Rather freedom from sin grows in the soil of mission.  Only once we have joined God on His mission to reunite the world to Himself can we live as priests.  If we want to pursue holiness we must throw ourselves fully into serving others.  We must make sacrificial, die-on-the-cross-for-others love the motivation behind all our actions.  Paul affirmed this in his letter to the Galatians.  Writing to Christians struggling with whether or not they should pacify the ritual and rule following religious folk by being circumcised, Paul said:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.  Mark my words!  I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.  Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.  You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.  But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love…You, my brothers, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.  The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.  For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.  They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.  The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  (Excerpts from Galatians 5)

It is worth taking a moment to break down Paul’s argument a piece at a time:

  • The Galatians were freed from slavery to idols when they gave themselves to Christ.  To adopt rituals and rules (the manual approach to discipleship) would be to enter back into slavery.
  • Rather than entering back into the rituals and rules to pursue holiness (righteousness), the Galatians should believe that the Spirit is at work.
  • This faith is not expressed through legalistic manual building.  It’s expressed through loving others.
  • This is the purpose of our freedom.  We are not free so that we can party like wild children and not fear the consequences.  We are free from rituals and rules so that we can join in God’s mission and love others.
  • If we are living by the Spirit, loving our neighbors as ourselves, then the Spirit will develop in us things like joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, etc…  If we are instead living a life a self-focused sinfulness then idols will take root in us and our lives will be full of drunkenness, hatred, fits of rage, jealousy, lust, etc…

I’ve spent years sitting in classrooms learning the rituals and rules, listening to sermons explaining how various aspects of the manual work, and journaling about what a horrible sinner I am hoping the force of my inner strength will crush the idols around me – all in the name of discipleship.  The ironic truth is all those things served to focus me more on myself and in the end re-enslave me making the Law my master.  If I had just gotten up from the pew, walked out of the classroom, focused less on myself and taken the hungry homeless man on the corner to lunch I would have given the Spirit much more furtile soil to work in.

Galatians 5 and Freedom

What Do You Call Us?

We are going to take a break from the sermon debate today while Brady prepares his response.  He’s getting married soon so he is appropriately distracted.  We’ll get back at it soon.  Now its time for something completely different..

I’ve met a lot of Christians over the last three years that are like me.  We are disenfranchised with the institution of church.  We don’t like the social and political positions the title “Christian” is assumed to carry. We live missionally/incarnationally.  Although we might attend worship services, we struggle to find life in them.  More often than not we are seeking community outside the institution.  We are uncomfortable with ambition for church growth.  We are wary of systems of authority.  We have a passion to see things change.  And we don’t like labels (which makes what is about to follow highly ironic).

I don’t know enough about church history to know if people like us are new on the scene or if we are always hanging around.  But I feel like we are growing in number…in Baltimore anyway.

A few weeks ago I was trying to describe this group to someone and I was at lost for a label.  So I sent an email to a bunch of people I know that fit this description and asked them what a good name was for believers like us.  Here are some of the names they came up with:

  • Misfits
  • Outsiders
  • Trailblazers
  • Pioneers
  • Refugees
  • Liberators or Free
  • Orphans or Reluctant Orphans
  • Heretics

I don’t plan to ever use any of these.  I don’t know that labels are helpful.  But I think the exercise was interesting because it reveals how we think about ourselves.

What would you call us?

What Do You Call Us?