Being Human

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

Prayer is the most deeply human action in which we can engage.  Behavior we have in common with the animals.  Thinking we have in common with the angels.  But prayer, the attentiveness and responsiveness of the human being before God – this is human.

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A Sense of God

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

Our culture presents us with forms of prayer that are mostly self-expression – pouring ourselves out before God or lifting our gratitude to God as we feel the need and have the occasion.  Such prayer is dominated by a sense of self.  But prayer, mature prayer, is dominated by a sense of God.  Prayer rescues us from a preoccupation with ourselves and pulls us into adoration of and pilgrimage to God.

Come and Have Breakfast

John 21:9-14

[9] When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. [10] Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” [11] So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. [12] Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. [13] Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. [14] This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

In our passage, we see the incredible invitation Jesus extends to His disciples, “Come and have breakfast.”  It is a simple and incomprehensible request.

In verse 9, we read that Jesus already has fish and bread ready.  He was waiting for His disciples to return from their failed fishing trip.  Remember, Jesus is the Savior of the World and He has just risen from the dead, yet He is waiting to have breakfast with His disciples.

I remember the day my nephew was born.  I was actually supposed to have lunch with one of my church members.  When I heard the news, I did not hesitate.  I cancelled my lunch plans.  Days earlier, the Son of God conquered the devil, sin, and death.  He transformed all of human history.  And here He waits to have breakfast with His people.  It is important to Him.

In verse 10, Jesus asks them to bring some fish they had just caught.  Remember, the disciples caught nothing.  Any fish they had are the result of Jesus’s miracle.  If you invited me over for dinner and I walk in, take something out of your fridge, and hand it to you, you will not be impressed.  When we eat with Jesus, we bring nothing to the table.  But Jesus does not mind.  He wants to have breakfast with His disciples.

In verse 11, we see Peter’s nervous energy.  When he saw Jesus, he jumped out of the boat and swam to shore.  The other disciples who stayed in the boat arrive at the shore at more or less the same time.  When Jesus asks for a few fish for the meal, Peter brings 153 of them.  Peter had abandoned Jesus in His darkest moment.  He is filled with joy that Jesus has risen from the dead, yet at the same time, he is not sure how Jesus feels about him.

You may be a fairly nice person, but I know I have wronged many people over the course of my life.  I regret many things I have said and done.  At times I have wondered whether it is even possible to make up for these things, and this is with man.  What can we do when we betray God?  How can we pay Him back?  What are we going to do to make things right with Him, after all we’ve done?

Peter knows there’s nothing he can do.  And then in verse 12, Jesus says, “Come and have breakfast.”  In His invitation, Jesus is saying there is forgiveness for traitors and hypocrites.  There is grace for cowards and sinners.  There is no other god like this.

In the second half of verse 12, the disciples do not dare to ask who it is that they eat with.  They are tempted to ask, but they don’t.  They do not know this strange man cooking breakfast for them, but at the same time they do know.  Jesus must have looked different.  He is in His resurrection body.  His glory is shining.  For thirty years, Jesus had been hiding His majesty.  He appeared to be an ordinary carpenter.  Now, the disciples get a glimpse of the Word who was in beginning with God and who was God Himself.  The almighty, eternal Word invites them to breakfast.

Morning by morning, day by day, the Risen Son of God invites you to simply be with him, to share a meal with Him through reading His Word and praying.  Many times we say, “No.”  But He does not grow weary in extending the invitation.  When we hesitate, He gently asks, “Why do you wait?  For what do you delay?  My cross has made a way for you to be with Me.  Come and have breakfast with Me.”

A Ragamuffin Prayer

The Ragamuffin Gospel
Brennan Manning

Lord Jesus, we are silly sheep who have dared to stand before You and try to bribe You with our preposterous portfolios.  Suddenly we have come to our senses.  We are sorry and ask You to forgive us.  Give us the grace to admit we are ragamuffins, to embrace our brokenness, to celebrate Your mercy when we are at our weakest, to rely on Your mercy no matter what we may do.  Dear Jesus, gift us to stop grandstanding and trying to get attention, to do the truth quietly without display, to let the dishonesties in our lives fade away, to accept our limitations, to cling to the gospel of grace, and to delight in Your love.  Amen.

Teach Us to Pray

Does Prayer Change Things?
R. C. Sproul

[1] Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

– Luke 11:1

I have always been amazed that the disciples didn’t ask Jesus how to walk on water, how to still the tempest, or how to do any of His other miracles. They did, however, ask Jesus to teach them about prayer. Note that they did not ask Jesus to teach them how to pray; instead they begged, “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).

Be Slow to Pray

Working the Angles
Eugene Peterson

The Greeks were experts on understanding existence from a human point of view; the Hebrews were experts in setting human existence in response to God.  Whereas the Greeks had a story for every occasion, the Hebrews had a prayer for every occasion.  For [Christians], the Greek stories are useful, but the Hebrew prayers are essential.  Prayer means that we deal first with God and then with the world.  Or, that we experience the world first not as a problem to be solved but as a reality in which God is acting.

We want life on our conditions, not on God’s conditions.  Praying puts us at risk of getting involved in God’s conditions.  Be slow to pray.  Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests.  And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back.  Be slow to pray.

A Psalm of Praise

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

[7] When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
[8] Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
[9] But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

– Jonah 2:7-9

The commonest form of prayer in the Psalms is the lament.  It is what we would expect, since it is our commonest condition.  We are in trouble a lot, so we pray in the lament form a lot.  A graduate of the Psalms School of Prayer would know this form best of all, by sheer force of repetition.

Jonah in the belly of the fish was in the worst trouble imaginable.  We naturally expect him to pray a lament.  What we get, though, is its opposite, a psalm of praise, in the standard thanksgiving form.

Circumstances dictated “lament.”  But prayer, while influenced by circumstances, is not determined by them.  Jonah, creative in his praying, chose to pray in the form “praise.”

Genesis 20

[1] From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. [2] And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. [3] But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” [4] Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? [5] Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” [6] Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. [7] Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” …

[17] Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children.

– Genesis 20:1-7, 17

Abraham travels to the Negeb.  He has followed the Lord many years and trusted Him.  Abraham believes in the promises of God.  But he is afraid.  He says that Sarah is his sister, putting his wife as well as the people of the Negeb in danger.  Though he is the one who lies, Abraham’s prayer for Abimelech and his household is effective.  Amazingly, God uses the prayers of this fearful man.

We, too, can be used despite our fear and sin.  But it is best if we can put aside our doubts.  If we do not trust in the Lord’s provision, then most of our prayers and actions will be self-centered.  Our thoughts will be on ourselves and our worship will be distracted.  God is patient and will walk with us, but may we desire to be free to follow Him sooner than later.

Genesis 18

[20] Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, [21] I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” [22] So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. [23] 18.2.1Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? [24] Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? [25] Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” [26] And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” [27] Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. [28] Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” [29] Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” [30] Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” [31] He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” [32] Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” [33] And the LORD went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.

– Genesis 18:20-33

The Lord reveals to Abraham that He will go down to Sodom and Gomorrah to see if their wickedness is as great as He has heard.  Abraham pleads with the Lord to spare the city, first on behalf of fifty righteous persons, but ultimately for the sake of ten.  Abraham’s intercession is both compassionate and wrongheaded.

As the reader of Genesis soon finds, not even ten righteous people are to be found in these large cities, and God rains judgment on them.  This is tragic, disappointing, and unsurprising.  On the objective scale of a Holy God, “none is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10-11).

We cannot ask that God would spare the world for the sake of ten righteous people; they will not be found.  But, thankfully, we can plead that God would spare the world for the sake of His glory and for the sake of His Son.  We can call on God to be who He is: gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  We can plead the precious blood of Christ, which is powerful enough to wash away sin and redeem a lost world.

A School of Prayer

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

[1] Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, [2] saying,

“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
[3] For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
[4] Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
[5] The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
[6] at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O LORD my God.
[7] When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
[8] Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
[9] But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

– Jonah 2:1-9

That Jonah prayed is not remarkable; we commonly pray when we are in desperate circumstances.  But there is something very remarkable about the way Jonah prayed.  He prayed a “set” prayer.  Jonah’s prayer is not spontaneously original self-expression.  It is totally derivative.  Jonah had been to school to learn to pray, and he prayed as he had been taught.  His school was the Psalms.

JOnah-620x335Line by line Jonah’s prayer is furnished with the stock vocabulary of the Psalms:

  • “my distress” from 18:6 and 120:1
  • “Sheol” from 18:4-5
  • “all thy waves and thy billows passed over me” from 42:7
  • “from thy presence” from 139:7
  • “upon thy holy temple” from 5:7
  • “the waters closed in over me” from 69:2
  • “my life from the Pit” from 30:3
  • “my soul fainted within me” from 142:3
  • “into thy holy temple” from 18:6
  • “deliverance belongs to the Lord” from 3:8

And more.  Not a word in the prayer is original.  Jonah got every word – lock, stock, and barrel – out of his Psalms book.

But it is not only a matter of vocabulary, having words at hand for prayer.  The form is also derivative.  For the last hundred years scholars have given careful attention to the particular form that the psalms take (form criticism) and have arranged them in two large categories, laments and thanksgivings.  The categories correspond to the two large conditions in which we humans find ourselves, distress and well-being.  Depending on circumstance and the state of our soul, we cry out in pain or burst forth with praise.  The categories have subdivisions, each form identifiable by its stock opening, middle, and ending.  The rhythms are set.  The vocabulary is assigned.

This is amazing.  Prayer, which we often suppose is truest when most spontaneous – the raw expression of our human condition without contrivance or artifice – shows up in Jonah when he is in the rarest condition imaginable as learned.  Our surprise lessens when we consider language itself: we begin with inarticulate cries and coos, but after years of learning we become capable of crafting sonnets.  Are infant sounds more honest than Shakespeare’s sonnets?  They are both honest, but the sonnets have far more experience in them.  Honesty is essential in prayer, but we are after more.  We are after as much of life as possible – all of life if possible – brought to expression in answering God.  That means learning a form of prayer adequate to the complexity of our lives.