Taste and See: Prayer 1 & 2

12 09 2010

High school Sunday School continues to go better than expected.  We began a study on prayer three weeks ago, and we chose to open the series with a lesson adapted from Rethinking Youth Ministry.  I found that when we went around the circle several times, instead of just once, the students really got excited about coming up with new words to describe prayer.  At the end of the lesson, we had created several posters based on the theme of “Prayer Is…” (the first was based on our descriptions; the second, on the Pharisee’s prayer from Luke 9:9-12; the third, on the tax collector’s prayer from Luke 9:13; and the fourth, on the description of Jesus’ prayer life from Luke 5:15-16).

The next week, we focused on the idea of “praying without ceasing.” I set up the altar with a burning candle as the focal point of our attention, and opened our lesson by showing a video advertisement for 24/7 Prayer from New Hope Church (watch it below…it’s super cool):

Then we read from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-23…as we noted the repetition of the words “always,” “continuously,” etc, we talked about whether it was possible to be joyful always, to pray continuously, and to give thanks always.

Our spiritual practice of the day was “breath prayers.”  I remember when I was in high school, our youth ministry intern spent one night teaching us about breath prayers, and the idea obviously stuck, since I remember it to this day.  We talked about how to “do” breath prayers, then split up and actually tried out the practice.  It was a pretty low-key lesson, but some of my youth told me that they said their breath prayer all week long!

And that candle burning on the altar?  We closed Leviticus 6:13: “The fire must be kept burning continuously on the altar.  It must not go out.”  Just as the light burned to signify the presence of God, so should we never allow our prayer life to be extinguished by the busyness and distractions of life: instead, in the simplest of habits, in our very breathing, we can find ways to commune with God!

(You can find one resource on breath prayers here)

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Getting into the Praise Habit

1 11 2009

I love the book of Leviticus!

Sometimes when I tell people this, they sort of smile and nod, and back away slowly.

I get it.  Leviticus isn’t necessarily the most “fun” book to read, or the most approachable.  It’s filled with laws, instructions for sacrifices, prescriptions for punishment, cleanliness standards.  (and a few great one-liners).  It gets up close and personal (and just plain gross) with details about bodily discharges, scabby sores, and mildew.  It’s easy to write off the entire book as archaic, or worse, irrelevant.

I love it anyway.

In the beginning of the book, God devotes a whole seven chapters to the Israelite’s system of sacrifice.  In true Levitical form, He goes into great detail: what kind of animals to sacrifice, how to choose the animals for sacrifice, what parts to sacrifice, what parts to give to the priest.  Apparently, this is important stuff.  And if God thinks it’s important, then we certainly should be paying attention.

But later in the Bible, God starts telling his people, “I hate your sacrifices and burnt offerings.”

That’s not so shocking to us today.  After all, we don’t go around sacrificing goats and bulls; yet we manage to worship God just fine.  It seems self-evident that God doesn’t need burnt offerings.

In the Israelite culture, however, these sort of statements were a big deal.  It would be like God coming down and saying, “I really hate the music that you play in church on Sunday morning.”

Our first reaction might be defensive — “What’s wrong with the music?  Our musicians are really talented, and they practice for the service to make sure they get all of the notes right.”

But in Psalm 50, God makes clear that they weren’t doing anything wrong:

This is God, your God,
speaking to you.
I don’t find fault with your acts of worship,
the frequent burnt sacrifices you offer.

But why should I want your blue-ribbon bull,
or more and more goats from your herds?
Every creature in the forest is mine,
the wild animals on all the mountains.
I know every mountain bird by name;
the scampering field mice are my friends.
If I get hungry, do you think I’d tell you?
All creation and its bounty are mine.
Do you think I feast on venison?
or drink draughts of goats’ blood?
Spread for me a banquet of praise,
serve High God a feast of kept promises,
And call for help when you’re in trouble—
I’ll help you, and you’ll honor me.”

David Crowder reflects on the psalm as follows:
“I would be so bold as to say eating barbecue and wearing the sauce on your fingers and face and a grin as big as Texas with the knowledge that Caps Lock GOD is at the center of this can be truer praise than belting this ‘song ritual’ that we have elevated to dangerous heights…We, like, the Israelites, often find rescue in the burnt offering and not in the GOD who is the source of all.  We find comfort in the song and not in the Comforter.  It is a subtle but necessary shift.  It is more difficult to find the Creator in a barbecue sandwich than in your favorite Sunday-morning song, but when you do, when you begin to find Him in all the stuff of life, everything starts singing.  Every moment breaks into song.  Every breath becomes sacrifice, and the songs become sweetness.  This is living praise.”

(Praise Habit, page 82)