Tag Archives: prayer

How I Sent an Atheist to Church

And in all fairness to my atheist friend, this could also be titled, “How an Atheist Influenced a Church to Action”, but since I’m the author… well, you know. Now for the story!

Over the last couple of years, through blogging and Facebook, I’ve been enjoying a friendship with an atheist who lives in California. It’s been one of the most unexpected kinds of friendships, one that’s had its fair share of hot debates, as you can imagine. But also we’ve been able to nurture and respect one another, too.

Let’s be honest. Believers and atheists can get along… except when it comes to religion. It stems from the fact that each looks at the belief system of the other with sheer incredulity. It’s like this. The believer asks, “How can you be so blind to not see all the evidence of God? Are you that hard-hearted?” And the atheist asks, “How can you be so blind to all the evidence that crushes your fairy tale myths? Are you that dim-witted?” And on it goes.

I don’t know what my atheist friend might have garnered from me over these last couple of years, but speaking for myself, I have learned so many valuable things from him. If you listen to atheists and agnostics, they often level heavy critiques of religion and religious organizations that quite frankly ought to be just as alarming to religious people. If there’s an inconsistency, hypocrisy, a theological disparity, insincerity, or a failure to live up to what we say, they’re going to spot it a mile off and make some noise about it.

In that way, atheists and agnostics provide a healthy mirror for me. It’s challenging. I don’t always like or agree with what they point out. But I’d be a fool, and an arrogant fool at that, not to listen without being defensive.

So, in my recent conversations with my atheist friend, we got to talking about the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shootings. He was deeply upset that Christians only appeared to be praying and encouraging people to pray instead of getting up to do something about this tragedy. That’s a fair critique. I have seen believers get way too stuck in piety while avoiding the call to step up and serve in Christ’s name. As the biblical prophet Micah reminds us:

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:7-8)

My friend and I went back and forth on this for a bit, as we always do, and that’s when things got interesting. It was the Saturday after the shootings.

My friend put a challenge to me. He told me that if I would motivate my congregation to do something for the Sandy Hook school community, more than just pray, he would do some kind of religious practice of my choice: read a religious book, say prayers, or go to church. I told him, you’re on.

I scrambled, but on that Sunday morning, we did indeed pray for the Newtown community. And then, at my friend’s strong encouragement, we distributed consolation and Christmas cards, encouraging my congregation to write a note of sympathy to someone from the Newtown community. All in all, we collected 108 cards and have since then shipped them off to Sandy Hook Elementary School. This was due in large part to the healthy challenge my atheist friend gave my church and me.

He was right. We needed to do more than just pray. We needed to embody the mercy, healing, and presence of God that we prayed for, allowing for God to work through us to become part of the answer to our own prayers. (It goes without saying that the theological import of that last phrase is mine, not his. My atheist friend would probably just say, “Get off your holy butts and do something!” Fair enough.)
Glide Memorial Church

Well, a bargain is a bargain, so I asked my friend to choose a church of his choice and visit there on a Sunday. Afterwards, I’m looking forward to a reflection from him on his experience. I have no idea what God will do with this in his life. That’s up to God and up to my friend. I’m trusting in God’s goodness and loving faithfulness to make the difference, but again, that’s between them.

I’d like to think that believers and atheists can actually help each other. I know that atheists can help believers be more “gospel”, more true to who and what we say we are and believe. Can believers help atheists to see the reality of God? I’d like to hope so. Jesus has some practical instruction on that:

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

Notice that it’s good deeds, not good words that bring praise to God. It’s an authentic life well-lived that shines, not religiosity. Perhaps that’s what will bring believers and atheists together into one peaceable kingdom.

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The Breastplate of St. Patrick: Reviving a Beautiful, Powerful Prayer

As we don our green to celebrate all things Irish today, I’d like to call our attention to the person whom this day honors: St. Patrick.
Ironically enough, St. Patrick, a 5th Century Bishop to the people of Ireland, was not Irish! He belonged to the Celtic people called the Britons, and grew up in a pretty well-to-do family on the British Isles. The story goes that when Patrick was sixteen, a group of Irish pirates invaded the British isles and took him captive. Patrick lived as a slave among the Irish for six years, and during that time, he deepened his faith in God through his days spent in the Irish fields where he worked. He also learned to love and appreciate the Irish people and their culture, whom at that time were considered “pagans” and “barbarians” by the British and the Roman Church. After six years, he escaped his captivity and boarded a ship bound for home on the British Isles.

Some years later, after being ordained a priest, he felt a strong call to return to Ireland to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ there. The Church made him a Bishop, and within several generations of his return to Ireland, the majority of the Irish tribes and clans had become Christians, but in their own unique cultural expressions of being disciples of Jesus. Patrick knew how to share Jesus Christ and his teachings in a way the Irish people could take on within their own culture, thinking, music, art, and sense of community.

To this day, many Christians (including myself) love the Celtic forms of Christian faith, especially their prayers, art, and music, for their beauty and sincerity.

I’d like to share with you a famous prayer attributed to St. Patrick called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”. How much of it that actually comes from Patrick is unknown, and there are various versions of it floating around. But no matter the version, it’s a thoroughly Celtic prayer for being Trinitarian in its focus, earthy, and image-rich. I found his version of “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” on beliefnet.com, and I hope it will be a blessing to you. I invite you to slow down for a few minutes and meditate on this prayer.

The Breastplate of St. Patrick

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through the confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the Judgment Day.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of demons,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

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More Inspiration from the Early Church Fathers: The Dying Prayer of Polycarp

PolycarpI’m still reading through some of the writings from our early Church Fathers, the ones known as the Ante-Nicene Fathers (those who wrote before the Nicene Council of 324 AD.) To make a long story short, these writers were among the second generation of the Church, mentored by Apostles like Paul, Peter, and John. They provide a rare glimpse of what church life was like in the years immediately after the biblical records. They also show the tremendous perils the early Church faced, everything from dangerously divisive heresies to life-threatening persecution.

Polycarp, mentored by the Apostle John, was the leader of the church in Smyrna, a town located in modern day Turkey. He was eighty-six years old when he was captured, arrested, and publicly executed by the Roman authorities, and after his death, Polycarp became a widely celebrated hero of the Church throughout the Roman Empire. We still have some of his writings and the detailed description of his arrest and death called “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.”

Persecution and execution of Christians during this period of time was no rarity. The Roman Empire regarded Christians as “atheists” and “heretics”, atheists because they did not worship Roman idols and heretics for not acknowledging Caesar as a god. Christians were rounded up, coerced, tortured, and threatened with death to offer incense to idols and to say, “Caesar is Lord.” In response, most of these Christians refused and replied, “Christ is Lord.”

In the famous “Martyrdom of Polycarp” we have a story told by eyewitnesses of the events surrounding Polycarp’s arrest, trial, and death. There are a lot of obvious allusions to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death, specifically Polycarp riding into Smyrna on a donkey, his silence before the questions and accusations hurled against him by the governor of the city, and the roar of the crowd demanding his death. One memorable scene occurs in Chapter 9 when the Governor of Smyrna demanded Polycarp to denounce his faith:

The Governor, however, still went on pressing him. “Take the oath, and I will let you go,” he told him. “Revile your Christ.” Polycarp’s reply was, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

But my favorite, most moving scene from the entire account is Polycarp’s final prayer before the Roman authorities attempted to burn him alive. (I say “attempted” for a reason. You’ll have to read the account for yourself to find out what happened!) Here is what he prayed, rendered into current English:

O Lord God Almighty, Father of your blessed and beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have been given knowledge of yourself; you are the God of angels and powers, of the whole creation, and of all generations of the righteous who live in your sight. I bless you for granting me this day and hour, that I may be numbered among the martyrs, to share in the cup of your Anointed and to rise again to everlasting life, both in body and in soul, in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among them this day in your presence, a sacrifice rich and acceptable, even as you appoint and foreshadow, and now bring to pass, for you are the God of truth in whom there is no falsehood. For this, and for all else, I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you; through our eternal High Priest in heaven, your beloved Son Jesus Christ, by whom and through whom be glory to you and the Holy Spirit, now and for all ages to come. Amen.

If only you and I could faithfully pray with such passion and love! So often, though, our comfortable existence reduces our prayers to formalities and formulas. Maybe if were more like Polycarp and stood a little taller and bolder for Christ, we might be forced into learning how to pray something like this. And then we’d rediscover just how much God honors the prayers of the saints to reveal the fullness of God’s glory and power.

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