God Is Faithful

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

I wrote this series with the presumption that not many, if any, readers of this blog would actually pick up David Crump’s book and read it. I hope I’ve done justice to it in my summary. As I’ve said, I need regular and frequent encouragement to ‘just keep praying’ and this book does that for me. I hope this summary has done so for you. I hope that we remember, through our tears and fears and doubts and questions, that he cares and hears. Just keep praying.

Early this summer I corresponded with David Crump about his book and about this series. (As much as I could – I emailed him through his publisher, and he was kind enough to email me back.) Even in this, I was encouraged, and determined to share a portion of that correspondence with you, as a fitting conclusion to this series.

I am reminded of a conversation I had when I was speaking at a denominational prayer conference in LA.

Before speaking the fellow introducing me asked, “Having written a book on prayer, what is the most important lesson you have learned from your study?”

I told him, “Though I still struggle with it, I have learned to believe that God is always faithful.”

I could tell from his face that he was a bit disappointed. “God is faithful. That’s it?” (I suspect that he was hoping to hear something about the power of prayer. We Americans are obsessed with power.)

Yep. That’s it. When we stop to think about it, what could be more important? Though I struggle to appreciate, much less fully apprehend, how completely all of my life hangs on those three little words, God is faithful.

The Sleep Habits of Noble Beasts

My oldest son and I used to have arguments about whether one is a night or morning person by choice, by nurture, or by nature. He insisted it was NOT by nature, and who was I to say. My habit of getting up early was initiated by a job in seminary (I had to be at work at 5AM, sometimes at 4), and was nurtured through years of children (I had to get up early to have ANY alone time). I always assumed that I had learned to rise early and just could not break the habit. An argument for nature is made by the fact that my older brothers, both retired, are in bed by 830 and up by 500 every day, even though they don’t have to do so.

Some like to make a moral case for early rising. Jesus rose early, it is pointed out, and went to the hills to pray, so clearly, it is more spiritual to be an early riser. Some make that case, but not James Henly Thornwell.

Thornwell was a leading Southern Presbyterian scholar of the 19th century. He was at one time president of the University of South Carolina, and later of Columbia Theological Seminary. He was an avid churchman and a devoted husband and father. And like the recently retired Alex Rodriquez, his bio includes asterisks. A product of his time and culture, he could not see the blindspot that was his support of and defense of slavery.

That said, I’ve often been taken by Thornwell’s repudiation of the idea that the early riser is a morally superior being. His biographer tells of a few nights that Thornwell spent with a friend who struggled to adapt to Thornwell’s night-owlish habits. In a letter, JHT commented on this, giving a wonderful tongue-in-cheek defense of the moral superiority of HIS habits:

“He left the city in self-defense, protesting that a few more nights with me would kill him; and pitying my wife, who, from year to year, had to endure the plague of a man who neither slept nor waked, according to the laws which govern civilized human beings…. I think a brief campaign with me would completely cure him of the infirmity of feeling sleepy at night. I endeavoured to impress upon him that the noblest beasts, such as the lion, take the nights for their feats of activity and valour. To work in the day, when every one can see you, savors too much of ostentation for a generous and modest spirit; and to be eating by eight o’clock in the morning, indicates a ravenous propensity for the things of earth.”

There you have it. Case closed.

By the way, my son now often is up before me. On his days off. He has not been able to fight nature.

Jesus Loves Me

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

These sentences from the final chapter of Crump’s book capture the struggle many of us have with prayer. It’s not with form or method or discipline or time. It’s with God.

“What kind of God allows such horrific tragedies to screech their unkempt nails across the cosmic blackboard…. Is there any rhyme or reason to the discordant notes and garbled syllables spat out at us by this occasional nightmare called life?…. There is a Grand Canyon-sized difference between theological answers that satisfy intellectually and a living faith that sustains a broken heart long after all sense and sensibility have evaporated from a tear-stained life.” (278, 279)

My prayer life has been forged over the past several years in a world in which those reflections seem very real. And I know that the same is true for some of you. And sometimes the theological answers that seemed so satisfactory to us at age 19 begin to seem a bit tenuous from the standpoint of a broken and tear-stained life. Are there answers? And where, if at all, does petitionary prayer fit into such a world?

These are the questions that Crump addresses in his final chapter. He proposes answers but in the end, I think there are no completely satisfactory answers other than those that lie on the surface of scripture. God is sovereign. He invites us, in fact commands us, to pray. His prophets prayed as if such praying was the ‘sinew that moved the arm of omnipotence’ (an evocative phrase from another fairly good writer, Charles H. Spurgeon). Jesus prayed that way, and Paul prayed that way. All believed in the absolute sovereignty of God and all prayed as if their prayers moved the hand of God. And if there was no conflict in their minds, how can I let such a conflict exist in mine?

And so, I ask. I ask for things that seem impossible now. I plead for God to bring more of his not-yet kingdom into my already experience. I plead for others that their tears may be taken away and that they might taste at least a small amount of happiness. I beg him to do things that I can’t really see him doing. I ask out of faith, foolishness, confidence and unbelief, and sometimes all at the same time. I do so because he says to do so, and I do so because he is my Father. I do so to hasten the kingdom and I do so to find solace in my own heart.

The one thing that causes me to stop praying is not losing confidence in prayer and it is not my inability to get sovereignty and responsibility to lay down arms. I lose confidence in prayer when I forget that I am loved by a heavenly Father who, for all the mystery surrounding him, loves to give. So perhaps the best place to find rejuvenation, in the end, is here:

“Jesus loves me, this I know,
for the Bible tells me so.”

Stranger Things

I like The Walking Dead (insofar as I can watch it for free and on my own time on Netflix and not have to pay for cable). Like any story, in this an imaginative world is created in which certain rules apply. In The Walking Dead those rules involve creatures that are dead, but not dead. They will eat you, but are slow. They are stupid, but deadly. There are ways that someone can become one of these creatures and the rules for infection are clear and consistent. At the same time, aspects of the natural order are in place with which we can identify. Gravity pulls things down. Gasoline explodes. People bleed.

Within that world, are placed genuine human beings. The value and fascination of fantasy or science fiction is the ability to place real people in contrived situations to see what that might reveal about human strength and character, weakness and brokenness. Within those worlds, we expect and accept oddities of nature. But we expect the humans to be real. It was therefore with some dismay in The Walking Dead that I watched Rick and his crew walking so hopefully and trustingly into The Sanctuary having had such a wretched time in Woodbury. It was too much for me to imagine that real people would be so gullible a second time. I can take zombies, but I expect gravity to always pull downward and for the people to be believable.

Stranger ThingsRecently many of my most trusted friends have been raving about Stranger Things, a Netflix Original production set in a fictional small town in 1983. It has inklings of Stephen King and ET and Goonies all working around the search for a boy who has disappeared. I have seen 6 of the 8 episodes, and risking minor plot spoilers, I must confess that my disappointment in the show has to do with what feels like unreal human decision making and actions. In saying this, I mean no disrespect to my dear friends, and perhaps I’m missing something important. Perhaps we simply have different tolerances for the suspension of disbelief. This one crosses mine.

I can accept monsters from other dimensions. I can accept the idea of telekinesis and telepathy. I can even accept, if pushed, that a 12 year old boy is able to keep a homeless girl hidden in the basement of his house for a week without his family having any clue of her presence.

It is harder to accept that chief of police Jim Hopper would actually CHOOSE to break into the national laboratory, AND that he would be successful, AND that he would get out alive. Even harder is to believe that Nancy, a teenaged girl, in the dark and misty woods where a dying deer has just mysteriously disappeared into a creepy, gooey hole in a tree, would without her friend Jonathan by her side, crawl into the creepy, gooey hole in the tree in the dark and misty woods. Sorry. A real person would not do that.

I will finish the show. I love mystery and I love the people who have loved this show. I want to find out how it ends (hoping that in fact it DOES end after the eighth episode). But I’m saddened when creative people are careless with the rules which make their characters real.

Hello, World

As some might have figured out, I’ve been flying “Somber and Dull” this summer on autopilot. The posts on David Crumps Knocking on Heaven’s Door (which began here) were prepared in June and have been posting automatically through the summer months.

I, meanwhile, have been chasing family through Georgia-Tennessee-Ohio-Michigan and have been chased by yellow-jackets in North Carolina. Around those exciting events I’ve been keeping up on my day job and having way too much fun working on another very involved writing project. And, now and then, I’ve watched movies and read books finishing, among other things, Dombey and Son (begun here) and being not all that impressed. And occasionally, but not often enough, I’ve sat on the back porch and stared at the clouds.

But the summer is coming to an end and so I’m fixin’ (!) to get back to the more regular, and consequently eclectic, postings. Stay tuned.

Excursus: Evocative Turns of Phrase

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

The primary reason I have found myself coming back to this book is because it makes me want to pray more. It does so not through anecdotes of great practitioners of prayer (apart from Jesus and Paul) which often leave me overwhelmed and under-equipped, but rather through a careful unfolding of the biblical teaching about prayer.

Crump unfolds this biblical teaching with a detailed attention to what the text means and not to what we might want it to mean. In the process, he elevates the reader’s appreciation for the authority and sufficiency of the Bible. That is a gift.

As well, I appreciate the satisfying blend of scholarly rigor and pastoral sensitivity. I don’t know David Crump – though I think I wish I did – but he has clearly spent time out of his books and in the lives of Christian people stumbling like the rest of us through life ‘with wandering steps and slow’.

Further, Crump weaves into his presentation a knowledge of the fundamentalist/evangelical tradition’s misrepresentation of some aspects of prayer. But he does so with gentleness and respect. He is critical, but not with meanness or mockery. That is a gift. Where possible, he illustrates these aspects and his own wrestling with them with illustrations from his own life, but never to distraction.

But all of this he presents with a style that is accessible and often evocative. In these later chapters, for example, I am captured by some of his phrases.

“[Mark 14’s account of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane] confronts its reader with [a dense] constellation of Christological conundrums….” (255)

“Even the best of intentions frequently run aground on the shoals of execution. Commitment fades. Resolve melts away, leaving only the frail skeleton of human vacillation.” (260)

“[God] remains unmoved by selfishness, no matter how emphatically it is launched heavenward.” (276)

Never is his writing unnervingly flowery or trite. It is evocative and thoughtful, and a pleasure to read. (And he does it all without once quoting C. S. Lewis. He may the only contemporary evangelical author able to pull that off.)

Click to go to the next post in this series.

Prayer’s Limiting Factors

[This is a post in our ongoing series looking at the themes raised by David Crump in his book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer. We began this series here.]

The unquestionable benefit of Crump’s book in my life is that as he strips some of the evangelical and fundamentalist encrustations that have been attached to the idea of prayer, I have been left with a greater desire to pray. That is no small feat. But the nagging question of whether prayer ‘matters’ never quite goes away. “If God is sovereign….” is the thought that continually flits around the edges of our praying minds and hearts.

But that question is not one that ever seems to trouble the writers of scripture. They write as if in fact prayer does have an impact upon the movement of God. How and when and why are not addressed. All our questions fall off into the abyss of mystery, but we are told to pray, and we are encouraged to believe, with integrity, that prayer does in fact shape the future. Obviously sometimes, and for some of us it may feel more like ‘all the time’, God answers our requests with a ‘no’. But what father does not?

In concluding his study through the New Testament with a look at the references to prayer in the remaining books, Crump summarizes what we might properly understand to be factors that limit the effectiveness of our prayers, if ‘effective’ is defined as receiving an affirmative answer the the plea. These six factors are worth simply noting here, hoping that those interested enough to have come with me this far will either grab the book or ask me for clarification.

Those six factors are as follows:

1. The failure to ask

2. God’s unwillingness to bless selfishness

3. Foolish prayer

4. Prayer encouraging or arising from disobedience

5. Prayer in the context of broken and unreconciled relationships

and ultimately, of course,

6. The sovereign wisdom of God’s timing

Crump wisely and helpfully reminds us, as he has done often in the book, that these are not ‘rules’ or ‘laws’ of prayer. God is a person. God is not a vending machine into whom we pour the proper coinage. He is a person, and prayer is a conversation between two persons. As he says,

“As in any personal relationship, certain attitudes and behaviors are more or less conducive than others to open communication.” (page 275)

It serves us well to remember that prayer is not the manipulation of the forces of the spiritual or natural world. It is not, as we have said, magic. Prayer is the approach of children to their father who loves to give.

Click to go to the next post in this series.