Comparing the Gospels

Last fall, McVille Lutheran hosted a weekly Bible study with a focus on the Gospels. We’ll be picking up this month with some more lessons after taking Advent to focus on a different topic.

Here are some basics to know:
– There are four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and were all written in the last half of the first century CE (Common Era, aka AD)
– Some scholars believe that Mark is the oldest with Matthew and Luke drawing from many of the same stories and embellishing them with additional details. John is thought to be the newest.
– Matthew is thought to have an emphasis upon education and learning. Mark writes in a brief manner with everything happening “immediately” until the very detailed story of the Passion week. Luke is traditionally known as the physician and takes time to focus a lot on the poor and needy Jesus cared for. John is far more theological with an emphasis on intellectual statements.

So here is what we did on Wednesday morning (and will continue to do for a few more weeks)
Step 1. Announce what story (or stories) will be talked about, from at least two different gospels.
Step 2. Figure out what we remember about the story.
(And write it down)
Step 3. Read the stories and take notes.
What heard, what catches attention, what surprised us, etc.
Step 4. Compare the versions.
What did we remember?
What did we read as if for the first time?
What details were new or shocking?
What is the same?
What is different?
Step 5. Give space for talking about what we learn or hear.

So now that I laid out the basics, here is an example from the first week. Another post will have a complete list of the other texts we read week by week.

Step 1 – What story
We started with a very well known story. I mean, everyone can tell the story of the Nativity, right? Part of the requirements of being a Christian is to be able to tell the story of Jesus’ birth that we hear and see yearly through pageants and music.

Step 2 – What we remember
This was fun for the brainstorming as we listed various parts of the story like angel(s) showing up to Mary, Joseph, shepherds and kings. There was no room in the inn. Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem. Star in the east. Wise men brought gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh after stopping by Herod. Jesus was born in barn/stable and laid in manger. Sheep, cow, camel and donkey looked on. There was straw. Angels sang. People knelt, amazed. Swaddling clothes. Census and decree.

Step 3 – Read the stories from the Bible
Our stories were from Matthew 1:18-2:12, Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:1-20. Note that the story of Jesus’ birth is only in two of the gospels. John 1 talks about the Word being made flesh and dwelling among us (but no details about how that happened) while Mark begins his gospel with Jesus as an adult.
Through our reading, we paid attention to details. Words and phrases that caught our attention were written down as we read the stories slowly.

Step 4 – Compare
For some examples:
– Luke has the story of Jesus in the manger being visited by shepherds, but Matthew’s visitors are the wise men and they come to the house sometime after the birth.
– Angels never visit kings/wise men since they were scholars who noticed the strange star rising and went on a journey to find out what happened.
– Nowhere in the gospels do we have mention of straw or animals looking on.
– We noticed that some similarities were the mentions about Joseph and Mary being engaged, the Spirit being a major part of the conception, and people were amazed.
– The child’s name was to be Jesus, but Matthew has Joseph being told in a dream to name the child while the angel Gabriel told Mary in Luke’s version.
– Following each version of Jesus’ birth, we have different stories. Luke has the child being circumcised and going to the temple to be presented while Matthew

Step 5 – Discuss
Through the conversation, we began to realize that the two versions had been woven together into one. Many of the details that we took for granted as being part of one seamless, simultaneous story were in fact likely happening at different times.
We also began to realize that artists had taken liberty with the story to make it connect with what was known or expected to have been found in a stable.
People for generations had been doing what they could to make the story come to life whether in it’s retelling through Christmas pageants, paintings, sculptures or music. And each time the story is presented, people add what they can to make it make sense to them. We often take what we know in real life and strive to use that experience to understand what read in the Bible, especially when the Bible stories leave out details that we deem important or essential.

Comparing the two versions of Jesus’ birth may be shocking to some. After that day, I began to notice nativity scenes more than ever before. It was shocking to think that what has become so beloved might not be scripturally accurate. Scenes with shepherds and wise men in the stable alongside animals looking at the baby in a manger was not likely how the story happened. Possible, but not likely.
But I had to remind myself and others that just because what we thought was true (as told through traditions), doesn’t take away the value and importance of the story of Jesus’ birth. It just happened in a different way than is often told to us, namely in two parts.


Summer is drawing to a close and I am adding one final Bible study post before we go back to regularly scheduled programming of Bible studies and adult education.

Malachi is listed in most Christian Bibles as the final book before we start the New Testament, which begins with the gospels telling the story of Jesus.
Malachi lived in the time after the return from exile. The people of God are back from Babylon, the temple is rebuilt and life is getting back to normal.
And by normal, I mean that people are once again falling into precarious habits leading to corruption or wickedness. The excitement of the return home is fading. People are becoming lethargic and ambivalent to following God’s will and God’s law. People are straying from God and God is not happy.
And like usual, it’s into such moments that God sends a messenger.
Malachi’s very name means “my messenger” and it seems appropriate to end our series with a prophet whose name matches his task assigned by God.

So what is Malachi’s message?

Read Malachi 1:1-14
The people are not offering their best to God (in particular blind, lame or sick animals are being sacrificed when God wants people to bring their best to the altar).
Why would that be upsetting to God, especially when the people ask for God to show favor?
How does God want people to show their honor for God?

Read 2:1-9
Why is God so angry with the priests?
How have the priests stopped honoring God?

Read 2:10-17
Who is being faithless?
Why would God compare the the worship of other Gods to cheating in marriage?
God is upset and hurting because his children are straying towards other gods (again) and yet his children don’t realize that they are doing wrong. They want justice and yet don’t want judgment.

Read 3:1-3:18
People anticipate the arrival of a messenger who will prepare the way for God.
But messengers of God are now known for being gentle. They are known for bringing upset with their honest messages. Few can withstand the fire or lye soap.
Silver and gold are purified in fire. But fire burns and hurts.
Clothes require soap in order to be clean. But lye is a harsh cleaner.
If people are to be clean and pure enough to stand before God, it is not an easy road as people will be judged. And since God knows all of what has happened, God has enough evidence to convict anyone who mistreated their neighbors or didn’t worship God.
So what will God be judging?
God is upset that people are not sharing what they have with those who do not have enough, are not speaking honestly or are oppressing those under their command. The people are not loving their neighbors as themselves nor are they loving God with all they are and all they have.
God is upset that despite calling for people to return, they don’t. Or they think they return and yet they keep their gifts, offering and tithes to themselves.
How many of us do the same? Many times God will take the tithes and ensure that the children of God will have enough blessings but that doesn’t happen when the tithes are not being shared.
Instead people are watching as the arrogant and evildoers gain property, but God is calling for people to delight in how God provides for those who serve God.

Read 4:1-6
The day is coming when God will strike down the arrogant, the evildoers and the wicked.
This acts as a warning to those who do not serve God.
But this also acts a promise for those who live righteous lives and serve God.
Moses is the one who gave many commands (including but not limited to the 10 commandments).
Elijah, who is seen as one of the most powerful and influential prophets/messengers God ever had, was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Because he did not die, people await his return. And Elijah’s task will be to turn hearts between parents and children so that they will act in appropriate ways to each other and thus prevent Israel from being cursed.

Malachi is a short book but it packs a punch.
One of the most amazing aspects of the messages God sends through many and various prophets is that the messages are both specific to the time and place and yet remain timeless.
What did you read that connects with what you see happening in the world around you?
How can we read Malachi’s message and learn about how to live in our own time?
What might God be judging you and those around you for? Are you living a good and honest life or are you hoarding your possessions without sharing? Are you putting all your trust in the promise that God will provide for those who serve God? And how are you serving God? How might God be calling you to serve?
As anyone who actively tithes and serves can tell you, God truly does provide blessings beyond the stuff we need in order to live but also provides a joy that only God can give. Daily bread is provided for our survival as well as the emotional and spiritual support that we need in order to thrive.

Prophets – Haggai

Today we are going to be reading through the ENTIRE book of Haggai.
Now, don’t freak out since it’s a really short book.

A quick history recap to help us understand Haggai’s message:
The people of Israel had been united under King David, but after David’s son Solomon died, the country split into Israel (North) and Judah (South).
Israel strayed almost immediately from God, and around 720 BCE were taken over by the Assyrians and disappeared from history.
Judah, on the other hand, had the occasional kings that would bring about reform to the country and appease God’s wrath.
At least for a while.
Because around 590 BCE, Judah is taken over by the Babylonians and the temple in Jerusalem in destroyed.
Thus begins the Exile.
The people of God were living in Babylon, far away from their homes and mourning their homeland.
But all was not lost.
Prophets were sent to them in Exile with messages of hope (like Ezekiel 37:1-14 – dry bones coming back to life).
And as they turned back to God for help, God answered in the form of Cyrus (king of Persia) who let them go home to Judah and Jerusalem.

So we pick up our story with the return to Judah.
And as anyone who leaves home for an extended period of time (years or decades) will tell you, it’s nice to go back and yet struggles exist.
The people of God are home and yet face issues of what it means to be back from exile.

Haggai 1:1-11
The people are home and have taken up residence in buildings.
But God doesn’t have a building to call home.
God’s home had not only been destroyed (ransacked) but also desecrated, which means every imaginable unclean activity and object was brought in.
The message includes a comment that the heavens withhold dew (no rain) and the earth withholds produce (no crop). Only God has that power to stop the heavens and earth from providing, and he does so until he gets a new temple built.
Why would God be upset if his people have shelter but he doesn’t have a building?
Think of the history of immigrants to the USA. How many of them build crude shelter for themselves then immediately built a place to worship?

Haggai 1:12-15
The remnant (which is the portion that survived the fall of Judah and the Exile) follows their leaders and begins to build God’s temple.
Haggai brings a specific message as the building begins: I am with you.
For a people who had felt abandoned and forgotten during exile, this would be a word of comfort.
But also, this is a great promise from God as they begin again in Jerusalem: I am with you.
Can you imagine the emotions they were feeling as they begin to rebuild with the promise giving strength and hope?

Haggai 2:1-9
The current House of God is not much to look at in comparison to it’s former glory.
Solomon had built a House adorned and stocked with treasure; the exiles had nothing fancy to contribute.
Not only does God promise that the rains will come and food will once again be abundant, but also that treasure will be brought since all belongs to God anyway.
Have you ever seen a church be destroyed only to be built with more beauty and riches than the original building? Why would God help the people to make the new even more spectacular?

Haggai 2:10-19
This is a message that does two things:
1. Reminds people that God has the power to punish those who do not follow God (living in unclean ways).
2. Promises abundance now that the temple has its foundation

Haggai 2:20-23
Zerubbabel rules over Judah and the message for him is simple: I have chosen you and other nations will fall.
Being chosen and given the signet ring lets Zerubbabel know that God will be with the leadership once again.
And when God is in favor of the Kings of Israel or Judah, good things happen to the people.
Once again, God shows favor on his chosen people.

Haggai is a short book.
As a summary, what is the overall message you heard God speak to God’s people?
What do you hear in this book that applies to life today?

Prophets – Zephaniah

Welcome back to the “weekly” Bible study that is actually turning out to be every other week!

Today we are going to read from a book that is not as common as other prophets.
Zephaniah (not to be confused with Zechariah), lived during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BCE). Josiah was a King in Judah, the southern kingdom. By this time, Israel (northern kingdom) had been conquered and destroyed by the Assyrians. The people had strayed far from God and did not heed any warnings brought to them by God’s messengers (like the prophet Amos among others). And so the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom are gone, wiped from the earth because of their inability to follow God.
The people of Judah had been better at remaining faithful to God and so God protected and spared them. But like any group of people, they are going astray. So messengers are sent, and we will read one such message today.
Zephaniah is a short book (only 3 chapters), but his ability to be succinct highlights how severe the situation is. He does not talk circles but is direct when speaking to the people of Judah.

Zephaniah 1:1
We learn who Zephaniah is based on his ancestry. He could be a priest (Jeremiah talks about a priest named Zephaniah) or have a royal background (Hezekiah was the name of a king), but just like today, there is no guarantee that there is only one person with the name.

Zephaniah 1:18
And the uplifting message begins…or not.
This prophetic message starts off on a harsh note, probably to catch the attention of the listeners. Did it work for you? Was your response along the lines of “wow, that’s harsh”?
God will “sweep away everything from the earth” and nothing will be left.
By specifically naming groups of people (Judah, Jerusalem, priests of Baal), we find out who has upset God and get glimpses into what has happened to bring such anger: the people have begun to worship another God. And if we all remember learning the 10 commandments, we should remember that we shall have no other gods because God is a jealous God.
But the people have been led astray.
God is so upset that he doesn’t want to hear any excuses and tells people to remain silent; their actions have condemned them already. Some have worshiped another god, others have filled their lives with violence and fraud.
Note that Zephaniah develops a refrain: “ON THAT DAY” God will bring his judgment, and that day is not going to be a nice one for those who have not been following God’s way. People will be punished. Those who thought that God would continue to ignore and not respond (not doing good nor bad) will see that God is about to act.
That day will be full of distress and anguish, and nothing will save them. People had become dependent upon their harvest and money to provide safety, but nothing will save them from God’s wrath.

Zephaniah 2:1-4
The small bit of hope emerges as God tells people to gather for one last chance before complete destruction on that day.
Their last chance is to seek the Lord, to seek righteousness and to seek humility. The people have been sinning against God by becoming overconfident in their own wealth and abilities, but God is about to act against all those who do not seek God.
Why do you think God is only giving a chance and not a guarantee against God’s wrath (“perhaps you shall be hidden”)?

Zephaniah 2:5-15
Here God is providing hope for the remnant (small portion), for those who seek the Lord and whose lives will be spared because they are humbled. Part of Judah’s hope will come at the expense of the nations that threaten and mock Judah. Lands belonging to those who don’t follow God will be used for God’s people. Their hope is that they will have a pasture and a fortune that comes from those who anger God, which is to say that God will give them a place where they will have all they need.

Zephaniah 3:1-7
But God is still angry with his people, even if there is hope for a remnant.
Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, is full of people so concerned with their own voices that they ignore warnings and advice.
Leaders are compared to lions and wolves, which we all know as vicious predators who show no shame in destroying others for their own sake.
Jerusalem has become corrupt and was eager to do so.

Zephaniah 3:8-13
Hope remains in the midst of corruption: God promises to give pure speech. Many of us to this day are leery of politicians for their abilities to twist their words but appreciate those who speak truth and honesty. The same was true in Jerusalem during the time of Zephaniah. After much pride and corruption, pure speech would truly be a blessing from God.

Zephaniah 3:14-20
The message in the book of Zephaniah began with a harsh warning, but we end with a song of joy.
God has taken away judgment = shown mercy and forgiveness.
God spares the people and protects them from enemies (foreign threats as well as domestic oppressors). Even the lame and the outcasts (those who suffer greatly in times of oppression where the leaders are corrupt and greedy), will rejoice. All who had been pushed from their homes will return and praise God.

Zephaniah is a short book. We read the entire book in a short amount of time, but there is much packed into 3 chapters.
A few highlights to ponder as we think about how the message given to a specific people over 2600 years ago would matter still today:
What is it that is leading us astray?
Do we have any “priests” of other gods in our midst?
Who would be the lions and wolves in our society?
Who are the enemies from whom we need protection?
Who is more concerned with their wealth than with caring for the lame and outcasts?
Who might be given “pure speech” in the midst of corruption?
What should we be doing to avoid “that day” from happening in our own lives?

Prophets – Amos

Welcome back after a short break!

A quick note: this study series will be looking primarily at the “minor” prophets who lived after the Kingdom of Israel was split into Israel and Judah. There were several prophets before who were active in the times of the Judges like Deborah and in the time of united Israel like Samuel and Nathan.
The “major” prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, whose books are much longer than any messages of the “minor” prophets. The main distinction between major and minor is not one of importance but of length.

Today we are going to be looking at the prophet Amos, whose writings date back to around 750-775 BCE. His writings are among the oldest of a series of prophets who brought messages to Israel and Judah.
Amos grew up in the southern Judah but his message was given to northern Israel.
The book has a strong message for Israel to hear regarding their lack of morals in daily life. God is concerned that their rituals and their daily life have become disconnected.

Feel free to read the entire book (only 9 chapters long), but I will be asking you to read some of the passages with some reflections to help understand or to highlight some key thoughts or phrases.

Amos 1:1-5.
The first two verses are quick to summarize who is speaking and when.
Amos does not hesitate from the beginning with the harsh message. He wastes no time in bringing the message from God in Jerusalem (which is in Judah).
So begins a series of judgments against nations who are not behaving in the way God approves.
The nations around Israel are all judged: Aram (capital city Damascus) is the first listed with its crime described as threshing or pounding Gilead.
The following judgments followed the same rhetoric: “for three transgressions and for four.” One mistake can be forgiven, but multiple times implies no learning.

Amos 2:4-5
This is a judgment against Judah, who has stopped living according to God’s law. Even the home of God’s temple will not be protected if the people continue to be led astray.

Amos 2:6-3:2
Judgment against Israel is founded in how they have not cared for their poor and needy. They have instead become concerned with their greed. They do not simply ignore the poor, but have actively sought out ways to hurt. Even though God is the one who brought people out of slavery and protected them in battle, the people of Israel have enslaved others and brought about ruin.
The consequences for their actions will not be avoided.

Amos 4:6-13
God had tried in the past to get their attention so that they would repent. Repentance in Hebrew literally means to turn back. But the people of Israel did not turn to God.
When they had more than enough to survive, they did not turn to God.
When they were suffering, they did not turn to God.
The refrain “yet you did not return to me, says the Lord” is a powerful indication of how many times God tried to get their attention but failed as Israel continued to ignore God.

Amos 5:4-7, 5:14-24
Yet God is giving one more chance to Israel.
If they do not seek out the places where they have been wrongly worshiping others besides God, God will let them live.
God knows how they have been living and is calling for them to turn from the evil that pulls them away from the good.
The day of the Lord will not be a joyful day for those whose lives have been immoral. The day will be a dark day for those who worshiped at other altars, treated their neighbors poorly, or whose rituals and songs are merely noise without meaning.
God wants justice and righteousness to abound. God is more concerned with them living a good life every day than them putting on a good show at worship.

Amos 7:1-9
These are some of Amos’s visions regarding judgment against Israel. Each vision starts by Amos announcing what God has shown to Amos.
The first vision is of locust consuming grass and the second of fire destroying the land. It should not be too difficult to figure out who is destroying and who is being destroyed. (Hint: God will destroy the people). But Amos calls out and God repents.
A plumb line is used by builders to show that a wall is straight and not leaning.
But when God uses a plumb line in the midst of people, he is testing them to see if they are upright and good. Walls that are not upright either need fixing or tearing down to start over again. People that are not upright get the same treatment.

Amos 9:1-15
This final chapter in Amos’s message highlights the intention of God to seek out and destroy the sinful kingdom. No one will be able to hide when God is looking for them.
But God will not completely destroy the house of Jacob. The house of Jacob = descendants of Jacob (also known as Israel).
Sinners will be gone, but a remnant shall be restored and rebuilt.
There is still hope for God’s people because God will remain faithful to the promise made to King David that David’s house (Israelites) will live on and will be blessed.

Some questions to ponder:
What do you think about the message Amos brought to the people of Israel?
How do you think this message could apply to our world today?
What are some of the sins or transgressions that God would condemn?
What are some of the ways God might be striving to get your attention?
How are you called to live as one who follows God and have you been measuring up?

Prophets Bible Study Intro

Welcome to TCM’s online Bible study!
This is an introductory session about the biblical prophets and a brief look into the history of Israel.
Feel free to ask questions or make comments on this post. After all, the best way to learn is for us to learn together.
This is the first attempt at an online study, so please let your pastors know if you have suggestions for how to improve your experience. This is a learning experience for us all.

First, let’s think about what we have heard about prophecy.
In our society, prophecy is primarily known as predicting the future, fortune telling and other divining that attempts to figure out what will happen.
Sound about right? Watch some TV or films  (not the bible-based ones) and you can see how we as a society talk about prophets, and most tend to focus on the future and trying to know what is to come.

So now let’s think about biblical prophecy, which is a bit different.
1. Prophets are messengers from God. Prophecy is the message from God. Prophecy may predict the future, but typically in the way we set up future consequences for children: “if you continue to misbehave and to not listen, then this particular event will happen.”
2. Prophets seldom tell people what they WANT to hear. Instead, the message is always what people NEED to hear.
3. Prophecy can be harsh or uplifting  (sometimes both). Harsh when God wants people to shape up, get back on track and stop misbehaving. Uplifting when God is sending words of comfort or hope to people who are feeling lost, ignored, unjustly punished or weary of suffering.
4. Prophets tended to exist during the reigns of kings. Not all lived within the kingdoms of Israel or Judah, but most of the biblical prophets brought their messages to the people of God. Some prophets went to other kingdoms with messages.
5. Prophecy looked more at past and present actions to see how people were behaving than any attempt at predicting the future.
6. Prophets were given the words to speak, but they chose the way to get the message from God to the people of God. This could include some highly unusual methods or startling language in attempts to get people’s attention.

So a brief summary of biblical prophecy: message from God delivered by persons called by God to act as God’s spokespersons.

A few other key terms to keep in mind:
– Israel = “wrestles with God.” This can refer to a) Jacob the grandson of Abraham, son of Isaac and father of 12 sons; b) the entire people of God; c) the united kingdom under David and Solomon; or d) the Northern Kingdom
– Judah = a) one of Jacob’s sons, b) family tribe descended from Judah, or c) the Southern Kingdom
– Exile = being taken away from home country into a new, foreign land by a conquering army
– CE = common era  (academic way to refer to A.D. as the commonly accepted way of talking about time)
– BCE = before the common era  (academic way to refer to B.C.)
– House = physical building or family dynasty

And last but not least, a short timeline to help you (but remember that dates are approximate because ancient methods of timekeeping vary):
1000 BCE – David takes over Israel after King Saul. King David will unite all the tribes of Israel into one Kingdom moving capital from Hebron to Jerusalem. He rules 40 years before his son Solomon takes over
930 BCE – King Solomon dies. After his death, the succession is debated and the kingdom splits into Israel (Northern Kingdom, capital Samaria) and Judah (Southern Kingdom, capital Jerusalem). Israel abandons God before Judah, who has a few kings who lead the people back to God thus prolonging the Kingdom of Judah
722 BCE – Israel falls to Assyria and is lost forever (never identified as the people of God again)
587 BCE – Judah falls to Babylon and goes into exile, where the people of God live for three generations
540 BCE – King Cyrus of Persia defeats Babylon then lets exiles return to homelands in order to rebuild

Now that your brain is overwhelmed with details, aren’t you looking forward to actually digging into the messages that the biblical prophets brought from God to the people of God?

Prayer Study Part 3

Last week we at TCM finished up a short study about prayer. I earnestly hope and pray that the several lively conversations have helped to deepen prayer lives and open our eyes and hearts to see God at work.

Here is another portion of that study (one more section to be typed up for this blog):

Some of the best gifts we have are the many resources our ancestors pass down through the generations.
I will have you look through a Lutheran resource (although there are many other places you can find the same exact or similar prayers).

Grab your friendly ELW (that pretty cranberry hymnal in ELCA congregations, officially called Evangelical Lutheran Worship).

Next, I want you to turn to Luther’s Small Catechism. In the ELW, this is found after all the hymns at the back of the hymnal. You may have your own copy.
Turn to Martin Luther’s reflection on The Lord’s Prayer.
Read through the Introduction, Petitions, and Conclusion with their meanings.
We are reminded, each and every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, of who God is and what God provides.
We are God’s children, and God as loving Father provides for children.
We are called to live in a way that keeps God’s name holy (aka special, blessed, distinct).
We trust that we will live in God’s kingdom now and after death.
We pray that God will watch over everything that happens in our lives and that God will seek good for us.
We ask that God will provide all that we need to survive each day.
We live as ones who forgive and are forgiven, knowing that we cannot hold onto grudges and sins if we expect God to let go of our mistakes.
We seek God’s guidance in life to keep us from times, people and objects that lead us astray.
We know that God alone is the one who can protect us from evil.
And we end our prayer with an acknowledgment that God is mighty and powerful, boldly declaring our prayer as truth.

The Lord’s Prayer can be prayed at any time and as many times as you want. This is a simple prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4.
A few words can provide so much meaning and cover so many aspects of our lives as we turn to God in prayer: guidance, provision, protection, forgiveness.

Daily prayer shapes each day in our lives but also our lives as a whole: hope and praise in the morning, reflection and mercy in the evening, peace and protection in the night.

Go to the section on Daily Prayer in the ELW. This is the last of the red tabs in the front part of the hymnal before the actual hymns start. As you read through the different prayer services (Morning, Evening, Night), pay attention to your emotions. I ask you to pay attention, because our prayers shape our moods just as much as our moods shape our prayers.
If we are people constantly praying for God to bless us, we look for blessings.
If we pray with words of gratitude, we notice what we are thankful for.
If we pray for safety and protection, we begin to sense someone watching over us.
If we pray only about hopelessness, we become somber and may struggle to find hope.
If we pray for joy even when the situation is less than joyful, we are reminded of where joy can be found.

One of the prayers (found in each of the daily prayer services) contains the following language: “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.”
Such a prayer leaves us open to possibility found in future acts with a trust that God will journey with us.

Read through the Morning Prayer (aka Matins).
Notice how the prayer service is all about praising God.
We start by saying “O lord open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” We use psalms that energize us (peppy “Come let us sing to the Lord”). We use prayers that are full of hope, praying that God will bless the new day. The gospel canticle is the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), which is a song that blesses God for what has been given and for holding true to promises made to ancestors that God will provide salvation, forgiveness and hope in the future.
Just like in our lives, the start of anything is bright and exciting and full of possibility. Mornings are the start of a new day where anything can happen, so we pray that good will happen.
Morning prayer is all about looking forward to the start of something new, of moving towards the future. Such prayer matches the joy of starting a new aspect of life: the birth of babies, watching children grow, heading off to school, starting a new job, etc. There is much hope at the beginning, and we take time to praise God.

Read through Evening Prayer (Vespers).
Notice how this prayer service is about thanking God for the day as the day winds down.
This is a service that celebrates the light even as the darkness arrives. The words are all about God being with us as a light in the dark. We take time to lift prayers to God in a calming manner as the day draws to a close. The psalmody is based on Psalm 141 (“Let my prayer rise as incense”). Incense floats slowly without hurry, and so we do not rush at the end of the day, unlike the energizing movements of morning prayer. The canticle is the Magnificat or the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), a song of praise for what God has done to humble the mighty and to lift up the humble. The prayers are petitions for mercy.
Evening prayer is a reflection on the day while seeking peace in the coming night. We know that there are times when we were lifted up from the depths and there are times when we were humbled because of our pride.
If morning prayer matches the start of a new journey through life, evening prayer matches the times in our lives when we are starting to slow down and look back to see where we’ve been while knowing our journey is not yet ended.

Read through Night Prayer (Compline).
Notice how this service starts with a prayer for “a quiet night and peace at the last.”
After the day is over, we take time to reflect upon all that we did or didn’t do. We take time to confess faults and failings, mistakes made, actions undone. And we are given assurance of forgiveness. The Psalm is one of the prayers for God’s protection. While we sleep, we are unable to defend ourselves and therefore pray for God to watch over us. The suggested scriptures are short messages of peace, of encouraging us to give our cares over to God and to lay down our burdens. The gospel canticle is the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32) which begins “Now let your servant go in peace…” We commend our spirits to God, knowing that we cannot change what we have done but only that we must rely on God’s mercy and protection to see us through the night and into a new morning. The prayers are for rest for the weary, support for the troubled and mercy for the broken.
At the end of the day with night prayer, we pray that we have seen all we were meant to see and have done all that we meant to do.
Night prayer matches the somberness found at the end of one’s journey through life. We take time to reflect on what was done, good and bad. We acknowledge any regretful choices made and seek forgiveness. We turn to God for peace and mercy, knowing that God watches over us when we cannot do anything but rest. And through all of this, we seek the peace that God alone can provide for us.

I hope that such resources will be gifts to you as you continue to converse with God through prayer. Such prayers were considered helpful blessings to generations before us, which is why the prayers were recorded and passed down as aids for those who come next.

Prayer part 2

I’ve lost track of how many times people have asked me to put forth special requests to God.

Sometimes, I am humbled, honored and blessed to be entrusted with your concerns while other times I want to roll my eyes and ask “Do you really expect me to pray for that?!”
I am always willing to take time to pray for people, but I’ve learned to be careful and considerate with my prayers.

Sometimes, when asked to pray, I am taken aback and want to either giggle or groan, depending on my mood and the request.
For example: I might groan if you ask me to pray for a really hot, sunny day (mainly because I think anything over 75 degrees is unfit for humans and consider such prayers to be ridiculous). I might laugh if you ask me to not pray for snow, even though you live in North Dakota and it’s December (partly because I happen to like snow and cold weather and why would I ever agree to pray against something I enjoy?).
But I will faithfully pray that God sends the weather that we need and to watch over those who are out in the elements.

I draw the line with some prayers. We all have our limits, and even as a pastor I occasionally hesitate to ask God for some things.
I won’t pray for a sports team to win. I will pray for safety of players.
I won’t pray for you to win the lottery. I will pray that God will work through others to help you.
I won’t pray for the things that I believe are wants or desires. I will pray that God sees your need and gives you what you need.
I will not pray for what appears to be self-serving, but I will pray that God watches over all of us in all aspects of our daily lives.

So here is a word of advice: be careful what you pray for.
When we pray, we better be ready for the prayer to be answered (whether the answer is yes or no). Praying for a snow day because you want a day off might be answered with clear skies.
When we pray, we better be paying attention to exactly what it is that we pray for. Praying for health may not mean that a miracle cure happens or the physical ailment is “fixed” when health might be the emotional or spiritual acceptance of our own mortality.
When we pray, we better be ready to change. Praying for something and not receiving it could lead us to turning away from God (as we claim that since the prayer wasn’t answered how we wanted means God doesn’t listen) or else teaching us patience and trust that God provides, even if we don’t get what we want when we want it.

Whatever the prayer, I use honesty and caution.
Honesty because prayer is the time when we can share our deepest concerns and wishes with God, knowing that God sees into our hearts and knows when we are trying to hide.
Caution because God is paying attention, and sometimes we know what we ought to be praying for even if we don’t want to pay attention to what we feel deep in our hearts/guts should be our prayer.

After all, prayers are powerful and life-changing.

Prayer Study

Over the last few weeks, I (better known as Pastor Kara) have been preparing a study on prayer. But since I am a fan of technology, I am choosing to make some of the topics and discussion questions available to all who read this blog. Of course, one of the biggest gifts of gathering to study and reflect is that we sit around and talk about points of interest, ask questions as they arrive, and always learn more together. But this online posting (the first of a few) will strive to give you, the reader, at least a starting point for your personal reflection.

We start with the question “What is Prayer?”

The definition that can be found with a quick online search:
Prayer (noun) =
1. a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship.
2. an earnest hope or wish.
3. an act that seeks to activate a rapport with a deity, an object of worship, or a spiritual entity through deliberate communication

Prayer is, quite simply, talking to/with God. We talk to God. We share our cares, our concerns, our thoughts. But we ideally talk with God. This means that not only do we talk, but we also leave space for a response.

There are no right or wrong words to speak when we pray. In fact, some of the best prayers are those times when we lack words. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that the Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words to express (8:26).
Think of your reaction when you see something spectacular (like a fireworks display – whether man-made or God’s lightning). What is it that you say?
Or how about when you see someone hurting? How do you react?
What noise do you make when you are frustrated? Angry? Annoyed?
Every reaction, every sigh conveys emotions and experiences that are part of our conversation with ourselves, with our neighbors and with God. Being in communication is more than the words we speak; we also include the unspoken and nonverbal.
And since is prayer is by definition communicating with God, even our gasps of awe, groans of pain and sighs of frustration are prayers.

Next we ask, “Why do we pray? For what/whom do we pray?”

Draw a picture of your prayer(s). Stick figures are perfectly acceptable. In fact, if your work of art looks like it belongs on the fridge, you’ve done well!

Here are some common types of prayer:
– Petition = we seek out and ask for what we need
– Thanksgiving = we share our gratitude for gifts and blessings that have been provided
– Worship/praise = we glorify God by stating what good things God has done and will do in our lives

The Book of Psalms is one of the best resources for prayers in the Bible. The 150 psalms each have their own special message to be shared. These are both prayers and songs. Many hymns sung in church are based on the psalms, but you can also pray them silently or spoken aloud.

Read the Psalms 4, 88 and 145 SLOWLY. As you read the psalms, pay attention to words and phrases that stick out to you. What rings true? Also, pay attention to your emotions as you read. Do you feel mad, sad or glad? Do the words lift you up or pull you down?

Here are some reflections:
– Psalm 4 – This is a prayer asking God to provide one of the most essential needs: protection. Note how the psalm begins: “Answer me, O God.” This is not a nice “Oh, when you get the chance…” This is a bold statement and (dare I say it) demand for God to take care of his child. The psalmist cannot even go to sleep without trusting that God will provide safety through the night.
– Psalm 88 – This is the most despairing of all the psalms. Most psalms end with some form of blessing or praise to God. This one does not. This psalm remains “depressing” and very realistic about the pain the writer is feeling. One of the biggest gifts of this psalm (and others similar to it) is that we are given words to express our pain. We do not always have to be bubbling over with joy, especially when life is not joyful.
– Psalm 145 – This is one of many “praise” psalms. Notice how this psalm talks about God and what God is capable of doing. But also, this is a psalm that invites the reader (and consequently speaker) to also declare what God has done and who God is.

The next question we consider: How do we pray?

One of the parts of prayer that we often overlook is what our bodies are doing as we pray. Think about your favorite prayer position. Are you standing, sitting, kneeling, laying down, walking around? What are you doing with your hands and arms? Are your eyes open or closed?
Just remember, there is no right or wrong way to pray. But paying attention to how we pray can help us focus on our prayer.

Try sitting still with your hands folded, head bowed, and eyes closed. How do you feel?
Try standing up with your arms outstretched, hands open and eyes looking outward. How do you feel now?
Try kneeling with your palms up. Or laying face-down on the floor. How do you feel?

So many times we were taught that the “best” way to pray is to remain still and bow our heads. That is a position to focus us as we pray, and it can work for some.
But it can also close us off.
Sometimes we need to have our bodies open so that we ourselves are open for God’s message. This is why so many people feel closest to God while wandering out in nature, not closed up in a room with head bowed down.

Recently, I learned a random fact: most of our brains are capable of doing 1.5 things at once.
This means that as we talk with someone, our brain is a) listening to what is being spoken, b) helping us to think a reply, and c) doing something else (whether compiling a to-do list in your mind or showing as a physical movement).
I think of this in regards to my “fidgety” fingers. While in the midst of a conversation (listening to words and thinking my response), my fingers are often busy playing around with whatever finds its way into my hands (jewelry, cell phone, pens, etc). I have also experienced shifting weight while standing, shaking my legs, doodling on paper, or tapping out rhythms.
While many of us can find such motions distracting, for the person involved, such movement may be necessary in order to focus on the conversation.

In regards to prayer, this means that we strive to use our bodies and our movements carefully and intentionally. This is why some people pray best while swaying. Others pray best while knitting or crocheting. Others paint, walk, or bake in order to focus while praying.

Prayer is not just a formula of words to be spoken: “Dear God, I need ___. Thank you for ___. You rock!”
Prayer involves all that we are (thoughts, speech, actions).
There is no right or wrong when praying. The most important thing is that we pray.

I hope that this helps you to think about prayer a little more than you might have before. If you have any comments or questions, please don’t hesitate to start a conversation.

Bible Study and Music

Over the last couple months, I have been leading a Bible study in McVille where we have been talking about prophets.
We looked at the big names within the books of Samuel and Kings: Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha.
We talked briefly about Jeremiah (whom we shall revisit in a couple weeks).
And the last two weeks we have been talking about Isaiah.

I wanted to talk about prophets because their words mattered and continue to matter.
The prophets spoke to specific situations and people. They preached to kings, community leaders and the misguided children of God. They looked at the world around them and sought to encourage people to give up their misguided ways and turn back to God.
Their words mattered thousands of years ago, and their words matter today as we can still learn from their messages.

The prophets were not afraid to look closely and honestly at the world to see what was going wrong. They talked openly (even if no one wanted to hear their message).

Their words of judgment can sting because we live in a world just as broken and messed up and misguided.
When we stray from God and God’s path for us, we are chastised and warned.
But their words of promise also give us hope when we read about how God did not abandon the people of God then but instead continued to provide hope and a future.
When we trust and believe in God, God is gracious and merciful and kind and generous.

The words in the Bible connect to our experiences today.
Our prophets today show up in unlikely places, are unlikely people, use different ways to get their messages out.
I have learned to really appreciate musicians for their willingness to write and sing honest words about how they view the world.

Yesterday we looked at oracles against nations and cities, against people who have not been following God.
I paired the prophet Isaiah up with a song by Flogging Molly. We listened to “Don’t Shut ‘Em Down” then read chapters 17, 22, and 24 from the book of Isaiah.
We listened to a song that talked about troubles faced in the 21st century then read messages preached 2700 years ago to places that faced trouble.
Homes would be and have been destroyed.
Businesses would be and have been closed.
Panic would be and has been prevalent.
Despair would be and has been a reality.
Nothing has changed in 2700 years and yet everything looks different.

And through all the troubles we can so easily cause for ourselves, God still waits for the people to figure things out and turn back to God.