The Hardest Prayer

July17

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
Joshua 24 (Listen – 5:49)
Acts 4 (Listen – 5:15)

This Weekend’s Readings
Saturday: Judges 1 (Listen – 5:08); Acts 5 (Listen – 6:49)
Sunday: Judges 2 (Listen – 3:19); Acts 6 (Listen – 2:35)

Bringing the Gospel to Life

July16

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
Joshua 23 (Listen – 2:31)
Acts 3 (Listen – 3:33)

River Rocks and Aspen Groves

July15

All who believed were together and had all things in common. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts. —Acts 2.44, 46

It is fascinating how little things remind us of home. I grew up in Colorado and spent the better part of one summer spreading river rock around my parent’s house. I thought it was nice back then (mainly because I was being mildly compensated), but even today I find beauty in it.

Landscaping river rock are usually a mix of a few colors, but they are for the most part cool colors like the powder blue of a creek fed by snow melt. Every once in a while there is a red or an orange rock mixed in, and the diversity is delightful. But let’s be honest: we’re just talking about landscaping stones.

The other part of nature that reminds me of home is the Aspen tree. Aspens are breathtaking  Each tree can grow up 100 feet tall, and as you hike through the Rockies you’ll find groves of trees where every tree is 50-70’ tall.

Aspens grow in very close proximity to one another and they don’t reproduce through seeds. The trees are interconnected beneath the soil. When you hike through an Aspen grove it’s fascinating to realize each tree in the grove has a relationship with every other tree. If one tree gets sick the others sacrifice to send it nutrients. The trees by the stream naturally have access to more water, but they send it to the trees that get less.

If there is a forest fire, and all the trees are burned to the ground, the Aspen is usually the first to regrow. The root system is deep enough to stay below the heat of the flame and it survives and sprouts new trees.

River rock has a quaint diversity, but there is no meaningful connection — nothing held in common. The church is supposed to be like an aspen grove.

In real community those of us planted by the water should sacrifice for those who are weary from the heat of the day. Those who are enriched should sacrifice for those in hardship. And when we burn in the injustice and brokenness of this world we should draw deeply from the root of Christ — who brings the healing of regrowth and the hope of restoration.

Today’s Reading
Joshua 22 (Listen – 6:16)
Acts 2 (Listen – 6:35)

The Mysterious Work of God

July14

[Jesus said,] “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” —Acts 1.8

Every business appeals to one of three organs, asserts NYU Professor Scott Galloway. Home construction and consumer packaged goods (CPG) appeal to the brain; rational decisions guide consumer decisions and margins are slim. This is why some CPG brands, like Jif Peanut Butter have tried to migrate down the torso to the heart.

Companies with products that appeal to the heart get the emotion of a consumer involved in the purchase. Decisions are less rational and people will pay more. “Choosy Moms Choose Jif“— you’re a better mom if you choose us.

The reproductive organs, however, are where the real money is. Luxury goods, high-end cars, and the like are not logical decisions and they aren’t purely emotive decisions — they are signals to friends, coworkers, and potential mates. Galloway quips that a $9,000 watch shows someone is “better to mate with and will take better care of your offspring than someone who wears a Swatch watch.”

When Jesus ascends into heaven at the beginning of the book of Acts he makes an appeal. Unlike today’s consumer appeals it transcends the desires of our head, heart, and pride. Jesus speaks straight to the soul.

The disciples’ source of power and desire would not come from self-actualization. The Spirit of God would have to enter their souls.

The disciples would face such fierce persecution that mental fortitude alone wouldn’t get them through. They would grow weary in prayer and sacrifice for others, so emotional desire for Christ wouldn’t go the distance. They would be ridiculed, mocked, and judged for following Christ, and aspiration for faith wouldn’t last.

Jesus did not come to start a business, but to bring freedom to the world. The Scriptures work in modern life — they appeal to our mind. Prayer and community enrich our lives — they sing to our heart. We become better friends and spouses by living sacrificial lives — they enrich our lives in every relationship. But it is the wonderful, mysterious work of the Spirit of God in our soul which makes Christ revolutionary in our lives.

Today’s Readings
Joshua 20-21 (Listen – 6:58)
Acts 1 (Listen – 3:58)

A Small Cup of Light

July13

*This is the final installment of the Summer Reading Series, designed to equip our growing community with curated book recommendations that can shape faith and sharpen cultural insight.

From the author’s website: In his mid-thirties, Ben Palpant was suddenly reduced to an infant in a matter of a few short weeks–learning again to read and walk and feed himself. With no clear diagnosis, he was left alone with his questions: “Who am I?” and “Why is this happening to me?”

Excerpt from Chapter Three: Calamity Come:

No child in the history of mankind, when asked what he would like to do when he grows up, has ever responded, “I want to suffer.” I, for one, did not.

C.S. Lewis called pain God’s megaphone. John Piper has called pain God’s pedagogy. “God, I am listening. Teach me. Speak into this bewilderment.”

After my meltdown in the office, everyone important to me encouraged me to stay home. My wife, father, mother, boss, and friends seemed to conspire against my ambitions. Soon my head began bobbing involuntarily and tremors gradually took over my torso. And then my arms and even my legs shook. My hands curled in on themselves and my tongue thickened in my mouth. I would sit like that for hours at a time.

My stability dissolved under the strain of suffering. In my suffering, I forgot that pain has a context. It is framed by the Master Storyteller. I am imagined: before I kicked against my mother’s womb, before the nurse pricked my heel and I cried out, before I threw a snowball and squealed with delight, God imagined all of it. 

He imagined the death of grubs and the death of the chicks that ate them. Such pain is part of his story. Thomas Merton suggested that the mystery of God eclipses our suffering. 

Pain is no case against God. No matter the cause. No matter the degree. Suffering does not call into question the existence of a good God; rather, it calls into question our lives.

I am a part of his story. I am the epiphany of God. I am a character whose life events have a purpose for me and for the story. Every event has purpose in the author’s larger design, even the bark of a dog, the death of a baby bird, or a small black coffin for a stillborn child. 

He knows the falling of a sparrow and he knew the collapse of a mind. God does not look at our suffering from afar. It is an intimate event to him. He is the author of every detail, speaking the suffering as it occurs.

Summer Reading Series
A Small Cup of Light
Ben Palpant
benpalpant.com, 2014

Today’s Readings
Joshua 18-19 (Listen – 9:59)
Psalms 149-150 (Listen – 1:56)

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