The Unselfing of America

Why are the nations so angry?
Why do they waste their time with futile plans?–Psalm 2:1

Eugene Peterson published Earth and Altar: The Community of Prayer in a Self-Bound Society in 1985, which as far as I can tell is now out of print. Peterson’s core message in this book is that America was a “self-bound society” in need of unselfing. Its message is as relevant today as it ever has been. His prescription–prayer–also seems as relevant as ever.

In the book, he presented eleven psalms as frameworks for prayer, encouraging his readers to gather together eleven times to pray for the “unselfing of America.” Although we cannot now gather as we once did, I would like to invite as many of you as are willing to commit to praying each of the psalms at least once per day for a week. Each weekend, I will share a link to the Psalm in the New Living Translation, but feel free to choose whatever one you might like or, each day, pick a new translation. Read it slowly, meditatively, and prayerfully.

I will also include chapter highlights that might help with understanding Peterson’s thoughts on the Psalm and, for the particularly adventurous, I will include a link to the audio of the chapter read by yours truly.

The first is Psalm 2, which you can access here.

Some thoughts from Chapter 1 (here is the chapter audio):

  • America is in conspicuous need of unselfing. Concerned citizens using the diagnostic disciplines of psychology, sociology, economics, and theology lay the blame for the deterioration of our public life and the disintegration of our personal lives at the door of the self: we have a self-problem and that problem is responsible for everything else that is going wrong (p. 13).
  • The only way to escape from self-annihilating and society destroying egotism and into self-enhancing community is through prayer (p. 15).
  • The self is only itself, healthy and whole, when it is in relationship, and that relationship is always dual, with God and with other human beings (p. 16).
  • Prayer is a repair and a healing of the interconnections (p. 23).

If we are to correct our abuses of each other and of our land, and if our effort to correct these abuses is to be more than a political fad that will in the long run be only another form of abuse, then we are going to have to go far beyond public protest and political action. We are going to have to rebuild the substance and integrity of better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities.

Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony

Still our hearts, Lord

God of hope,
our world seems hopeless.
An unseen enemy assaults us,
emptying our streets,
yet filling us with anxiety.

We have no mooring, no anchor.
We ride white-capped waves
in small vessels
that were never meant
to weather these storms.

Our stockpiles dwindle,
but we cannot see the shore.
We lash ourselves to the mast
and pray we do not capsize.

Our prayers are groans
and tears
and tumbling thoughts.

Many of us hope for the light to break through,
but all we see is darkness.
We don’t even know where to look.
Our darting eyes betray our anxious hearts.

Still our hearts, O Lord,
Still our hearts.

John 15:7

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”-John 15:7

Like John 14:14, I wonder if this verse has confused a lot of Christians. We wonder what Jesus meant when he told his disciples “whatever you wish, it will be done.” As children, we would ask God for big things, like “Let me fly.” As grown-ups, we still ask for big things, but our requests reflect our maturing. “Please let my daughter stay clean and find her way back to you, God.” Sometimes, it is hard to know which of these requests seems more improbable.

As sincere believers, how are we to make sense of what appear to be unanswered prayers? We could choose to believe that our faith was not strong enough to grant our requests and that if we were “better” Christians, God would answer. We might even question if we are true believers, but what if we are missing the big idea by focusing on only one part of that verse?

Jesus was still talking about abiding and about how we are connected to him and he gives us life. When we begin to see and understand that Christ’s life in us is essential to who we are, it changes us. When we truly see that we are imbued with Christ, our prayers begin to reflect his heart and those prayers he will always grant.

Jesus, I sometimes find it hard to pray, because I am focused on my fleshly desires rather than your heart. Let my life be in harmony with yours, fully aware of my union with you. Let your purposes become my purposes. Amen.

John 14:13-14

“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”-John 14:13-14

I think a lot of us misunderstand this passage. We read it out of context and hope that if we say “in Jesus’s name” when we pray, he will grant all of our wishes. I suspect that many of us have taken these verses for a test drive. We have mustered up the deepest faith we could and then prayed earnestly—in his name—and then found out that, contrary to our prayer, there is not a new Porsche sitting in our driveway. There isn’t even a new Chevy. Perhaps praying for a new car is a naïve example. Here is a more realistic example: We fervently ask that we will not get laid off from our job due to company cutbacks, but then we do. How are we to understand what happened? Was Jesus lying? Was he toying with his followers’ emotions? Is it true that few people have mustered the right faith? Or was Jesus saying something else?

In verse 12, Jesus told his disciples that they would do greater works, even than him. We have to connect Jesus’s words about praying in his name to his kingdom purposes. In essence, Jesus was saying that as they lived, worked, and especially prayed in his name, their work for the kingdom would not be thwarted. Indeed, as we look at the early church, their prayers were answered because the Christian church grew like wildfire.

Does his promise still apply to us today? I think it does, but I know that for me anyway, I don’t always see how. Jesus’s kingdom grows by the prayers of his saints. Missionaries for the gospel reach the lost principally because of prayer. We become Jesus’s most effective ambassadors by prayer, in Jesus’s name.

Jesus, often when I pray, it is not in your name, but my own. I seek after my own comfort as the monarch of my own self-serving kingdom. Teach me to pray truly in your name, keeping your kingdom and your glory foremost in my mind. In your name, amen. 

The Melody of Shalom

Write 31 days, Day 16
Writing Prompt: Pray
(NB-I skipped a few days staffing Men at the Cross in Kentucky)

If you want to make many Christians feel guilty, ask about their prayer life. Every one of them would agree that prayer is important; the Bible talks frequently about prayer. Paul even told the Thessalonian believers to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:16). If you want to add confusion to their guilt, ask them what it means to actually pray without ceasing.

The reason we feel guilty and confused about prayer is that we define it too narrowly. Perhaps we treat it exclusively as “making our requests known to God” (Phil 4:6), or bestowing platitudes upon God: “O God, Dear Holy Lord, you alone are amazing. Just be with me God. In Jesus’ name. Ah–men.” Even some of our prayer tools (e.g., the ACTS method) restrict prayer. To be clear, these are wonderful prayers, but I want to challenge us to expand the horizons of our prayer. We learn with training wheels, but eventually, we take them off.

Prayer is so much more than we make it:
Prayer is delight, and prayer is lament.
It is requesting and receiving;
Gratitude and thanksgiving.
It is wonder and frustration.
Prayer revels in the beauty of creation, and groans under the weight of its brokenness.
It is boisterous merrymaking, and wordless agony.
It is walking hand in hand with your daughter in the chill October air;
It is holding space for your spouse’s pain;
It is harmonizing with your son in song;
It is attentive presence to your child’s story.
Prayer is seeking, and it is finding. And it is seeking again.
It is imprecation, celebration, lamentation, and contemplation.
It is confession and absolution;
Supplication and adoration.
It is intimate conversation with a friend.
It is the language of wholeness, the melody of shalom.

Prayer is union with God.

For reflection: 
Spend a few minutes reflecting on what you have come to believe about prayer. Has it changed over time?  

Awaken Me

O LORD,
Omniscient Creator, willing Redeemer, ever-present Sustainer,
the glory of goodness and the vastness of beauty
flow unendingly from your throne.
You attend to every detail
upholding the cosmos
moment by moment
breath by breath
and yet I fail to see.
I dull my senses
living in the mundane
failing to notice your manifold works
the pervasiveness of your beauty.
My interest is lukewarm.
I neglect your presence in the sensate world.
Teach me, O Spirit, to attend with wonder
to the expansiveness of your creation
remembering that you, O LORD,
are present in all things beautiful.

Awe came upon every soul–Acts 2:43a

Bold Love

O Sovereign Protector,

The world is full of dangers, which threaten at every turn.
The complex effects of the fall invade every facet of our existence.
We witness breakdown every day,
of physical health
of relationships
of the church itself.
And still, LORD, you are unwavering and whole.

Grant me courage for the day ahead
to live so fully in the security of your love for me
that I can say what must be said
and do what must be done.
I am often overrun by fears,
but you say, O LORD, that the righteous
are bold as a lion.
May I be ruled, not by anxieties,
but by love.

Let it be.

Radiate

Indwelling Spirit,

I am aware of so many sinful tendencies within myself,
self centeredness,
lusts of the flesh,
chasing distractions.
They crowd out the God-life.
I end up pursuing ten-thousand things that do not glorify you.
I live for self and fail to love.
Life becomes about satisfying my passions
and fulfilling my comforts.

So overwhelm me with your Holy Spirit
that I am left with no option
but to radiate peace, goodness and beauty.