Praying

sometimes I start out praying

on my knees

eyes closed and dry

elbows on the bed

fingers locked and still

head even-keeled

my whole body piously symmetrical

the Thank You For The Food kind of praying

the In Jesus’ Name Amen kind of praying

praying in a posture I can get behind

 

what happens next happens slowly

an arm lies down

a forehead seeking shelter

eyes open in the blanket

legs crossed or bouncing

a shoulder blade protruding

my body wondering who’s listening

the Please Have Mercy On Me kind of praying

the I Don’t Know If I Can Do This kind of praying

whispering my sins into the mattress

 

sometimes I end up praying

on my bed

eyes closed and wet

hands above my head

fists in the pillow

legs at awkward angle

my whole body in desperate display

the Oh Father Father Father kind of praying

the No More Words Just Needs kind of praying

falling into everlasting arms and sleeping

visiting a widow

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27

IMG_6752

I met her on Sunday. Mike, Ashley, and I were walking through the streets of La Fe, the village-community within La Ceiba, Honduras in which we work as missionaries. We took a picture of every family in front of their home, printed it, and gave the picture along with a Bible to each family as a Christmas gift. When we came to her house, she stood out to me because she was the oldest person I had yet seen in La Fe. She was seated in a plastic chair outside her home, slightly hunched with age, doing nothing but sitting and watching.

We took her picture and returned a few minutes later with the printed copy and the Bible. She admitted that she could not read, but assured me that she would give the Bible to one of her family members who would be able to use it. I encouraged her to do so, told her “God bless you,” and continued on to the next house.

On Tuesday, I looked for her again. At first, I found her house, but not her. Her son told me she was sick and in the house of his brother, a few streets over. When I found the house, I discovered her laying on a small couch, curled up, and clearly in pain. My heart felt heavy to see her suffering. I bid “good afternoon” to the house and gently explained to the young woman who came to greet me that I had met the “abuelita” two days earlier, had given her a Bible, had found out she could not read, and was wondering if perhaps she would like for me to read some scripture to her. They welcomed me inside and handed me a Bible.

I had not prepared a thing. I simply turned to some familiar passages and read them with reverence: Isaiah 25, John 10, Psalm 23, and Romans 5. A man and another woman soon came in from the back room and sat with us to listen in. The five of us listened to the beautiful words of God together and shared a few moments of peace in the midst of a crazy world. God blessed me with the words I needed to get the point across, in Spanish: God takes care of us when we feel helpless, like a shepherd guarding his sheep. Our hope in this life of suffering and death comes from knowing that Jesus suffered in our place on the cross. Without him, we have nothing at all. With him, we lack nothing at all.

The old woman said nothing during all of this, except to express her agreement when one of the other women stated her gratitude to me and to God for my unexpected arrival. I replied that God is a good Father, who gives good gifts at the very moment we think we cannot do any more. His word of promise is our hope in this life. After we prayed together, I offered to return in two days to read some more scripture aloud for them all, and they welcomed me back.

God’s mercy to us is profound. He came to us clothed in weakness: a child, a humble man. He spoke our language. He wore our clothes. He entered our homes. He visited us in the middle of our despair, called us back to the Father, and gave his body to us. The greatest gift he gave was his own self.

For us now, it is the same. God only approves of religion that is characterized by Christ-like mercy and Christ-like purity. When we enter one another’s homes, speak one another’s languages, and give ourselves to one another, with the Word of God, we find that making disciples is a reality within reach, as is joy. It is joy of which the principles and the gods of this world know nothing whatsoever.

There are many widows and orphans who need family, and many wandering souls who need to be called back to the Father. The best gift you can give them is yourself.

Receive from Jesus, give him away. Receive from Jesus, give him away. Receive from Jesus, give him away…

[Jesus said,] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51

[Jesus said,] “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:36

true religion

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27
The word “religion” appears only a handful of times in the New Testament, almost always in reference to Judaism, and often with the negative connotation of being composed of merely man-made rules (e.g. Colossians 2:23, Acts 26:5). In no other verse besides this one from James is the word used to describe the Christian faith.
James 1:27, in a unique way, asks and answers the question: what is true religion? James answers this question as every biblical author answers it, though in every other case without the actual word “religion”: true religion is attending to the afflicted, helping the helpless, defending the weak.

Because the heart of Christian belief is the person and work of Jesus Christ – who he is and what he has done – the heart of Christian practice is the imitation of Jesus and the living out of the Bible’s teachings. Therefore, any person convinced of the power and grace of Jesus is compelled to ask: how did Jesus live and what did he value? How does the Bible depict love for him in action? What is true religion for a follower of Jesus?

The Bible’s resounding answer from start to finish is summed up in something Jesus said when he quoted the Old Testament prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6). “Sacrifice” here refers to the ritual slaughter of animals at the Jerusalem temple for the atonement of sin and thanksgiving to God, a practice constantly being perverted by legalistic Jews who tried to use it to earn God’s grace (which is a contradiction in terms) and to impress fellow religious people, all at the cost of the kind of “sacrifice” God wanted most from his people: mercy to the needy.

Perhaps Jesus had Isaiah chapter 58 in the back of his mind when he quoted this verse from Hosea. Isaiah 58 is another passage of the Bible which highlights the difference between showy religion and true service to God. It is a lyrical and powerful chapter, and I encourage you to read the entire thing.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Isaiah 58:6-7
What good is fasting if it just a day for “a man to bow his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him” (Isaiah 58:5) – and nothing else?
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. 58:3-4
Impure, defiled religion fasts occasionally, says “why don’t you notice everything I do for you, God?” (58:3), then goes on to do what it wants and maintain the status quo. Perverted religion obsesses itself with religion’s trappings and never asks, “Is this what you really want from me, God?”
Pure, beautiful, Christ-like “religion” overflows with compassion. It cares less and less about its own possessions and rights, and more and more about easing the suffering of others. Pure religion values mercy above “sacrifice,” serving God above “looking Christian,” helping others above satisfying its own desires.
You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:24
We ought to consider our lives, and our churches, soberly. Are our lives typical, affluent, American lives and our churches typical, affluent, American churches? In our churches’ budgets, what gets more attention: the air conditioning and pastors’ salaries, or the addicts, victims, and homeless of the community? What do our own budgets show about our hearts? Where is our true treasure (Matthew 6:21)?
True religion means not only giving money, but giving time, and entering the dark corners of our world, and the dark corners of people’s lives, with hands-on love. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.
Jesus said that whatever is done for suffering people in his name is done for him. This was his mission statement:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2