Category: prayer

Prayer Vigil Today, 11:45 AM, the Courthouse

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At 11:45 AM today, Pittsylvania County citizens will gather on the steps of the county courthouse for a prayer vigil to remember the victims of the Emanuel AME Church shootings, and pray for unity in our own community.

The prayer vigil has been organized by local churches and the Pittsylvania County chapter of the NAACP. Please take a few moments to join us as our community comes together to reflect and pray. Please share.‪#‎PittsylvaniaCountyUnited‬ ‪#‎WeAreOnePeople‬

The Supreme Court Redefines Civic Prayer

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If you think the Supreme Court’s ruling on public prayer is an unqualified win for Christians, you might want to reconsider.

On May 5, the United States Supreme Court ruled that “ceremonial” prayers opening government meetings do not violate the Constitution’s First Amendment.

The justices split 5-4 into the familiar conservative versus liberal wings, with Justice Anthony Kennedy providing the deciding vote and writing the opinion.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy noted that prayers at public events enjoy a long and accepted history in this country. He also noted that these “ceremonial” prayers are part of the pomp-and-circumstance of government proceedings, and are meant to lend an air of solemnity and gravitas to the occasion.

My own community of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, along with many others, will find much to applaud in today’s Supreme Court ruling. Several months ago, our local Board of Supervisors faced a similar challenge when it was sued for allowing sectarian prayers to open the meetings of the Board of Supervisors. Now that the community of Greece, New York has been vindicated, many will believe a celebration is in order.

But before we join the party, shouldn’t Baptists everywhere be concerned with the ruling’s fine print?

Historically, Baptists have struggled to keep government out of religious practice. However, with the Supreme Court’s ruling today, the majority of justices not only redefined prayer as part of the ceremony of civic life, they also set limits on its place in the public square.

Justice Kennedy referred to the prayers in question as “ceremonial.” In the written opinion he states, “The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.”

Do we as Baptists define public prayer as part of the ceremony of the moment?  Is civic prayer a public protocol like the Pledge of Allegiance or “Hail to the Chief?” Or do we Baptists, along with other Christians, define prayer as the invocation of Divine presence, blessing, or guidance?

Furthermore, I have never heard a Baptist or other religious leader suggest that the purpose of public prayer is to acknowledge “religious leaders and the institutions they represent.” But Justice Kennedy writes that this is the acceptable “purpose and effect” of civic prayer.

If that were not enough to cause us concern, Justice Kennedy draws clear lines defining the acceptable content of public prayers.

Kennedy writes, “In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no con­straints remain on its content. The relevant constraint derives from its place at the opening of legislative ses­sions, where it is meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage. Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites law­makers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function. If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbeliev­ers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”

In other words, civic prayer has to fit a pattern of acceptability as defined by the Supreme Court. This test of acceptability includes prayer’s place in the opening ceremony, its “tone,” its content, and its purpose.

While polite etiquette might rule out prayer that is not “respectful in tone,” Justice Kennedy also ruled out prayer meant to call lawmakers to confession and repentance. The prophet Elijah would find himself unwelcomed to offer prayer in Greece, New York, just like he was unwelcomed to offer judgment on King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in his day.

Before we celebrate a victory for prayer today, we need to ask ourselves as pastors and religious leaders if we find it acceptable to craft our public prayers by criteria defined by the Supreme Court.

With the Supreme Court’s ruling, Christians are now in an ironic position — we have the right to offer public prayers which have no heavenly purpose.

Palm Sunday: A Service of Lessons and Prayers

PalmSundayFor this Palm Sunday, we took a different approach. We combined elements of the Liturgy of the Palms about the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, with elements of the Liturgy of the Passion. This enabled us to move from the joyous crowds which greeted Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem, to the vengeful crowd that cried, “Crucify him!”

We took this approach because many in our congregation will not attend a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. If they attended a joyful Palm Sunday service, and then a celebratory Easter service, they might miss the events of Good Friday and the drama surrounding the crucifixion. To solve this problem, here’s what we did:

1. For our first reading early in the service, we read the Gospel story of the triumphal entry into Jersusalem, from Matthew 21:1-11.

2. We sang appropriate Palm Sunday hymns of celebration including All Glory, Laud and Honor, and Hosanna.

3. During our children’s time, the children heard the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Then, they distributed palm fronds to each person in our congregation. When everyone had a palm frond, the entire congregation waved their palm branches and said in unison, “Praise God for the Son of David! Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise God to highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9 – NLT). It was a little chaotic, but then the first Palm Sunday probably was a little chaotic, too.

4. Our organist provided a musical transition from the Palm Sunday celebration to the events after Jesus’ Passover meal with the disciples.

5. During the time alloted for the sermon, I read the following scripture lessons from the Liturgy of the Passion. Because the entire narrative moves from scene to scene, I separated each scene with a corporate prayer of confession. After I read each passage, I then invited the congregation to pray with me the prayer of confession. Here’s the sequence:

Palm Sunday Liturgy of the Passion

Reading: Matthew 26:14-30 — The Last Supper

All: Lord, we confess that just like Judas we have come to your table with thoughts of betraying you in our hearts. Like Judas, we have taken the bread from you hand and the cup from your table while harboring doubts about you and your teaching. Forgive us, O Lord, for this spirit of betrayal that presumes we know more about your Kingdom than you. Amen.

Reading: Matthew 26:31-56 — The Garden of Gethsamene

All: Lord, we confess that when you struggled in agony, we slept in apathy. When they came to arrest you, we betrayed your teaching by fighting back, and then abandoned you in your hour of need. When they accused us of being your disciples we denied ever knowing you. And when the cock crowed, we wept over our own failure to be faithful. Forgive us, O Lord, for our apathy, our fear, and our faithlessness. Amen.

Reading: Matthew 27:1-26 — Jesus Before Pilate

All: Lord, we confess that like the crowd gathered before Pilate, we have chosen Barabbas instead of you. Like the crowd that day, when Pilate asked, “What shall I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” — we have answered, “Crucify him!” Forgive us for our failure to choose you and the freedom you offer. Amen.

Reading: Matthew 27:27-66 — The Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus

All: Lord, we confess that we see ourselves in the faces of the Roman soldiers who nailed you to the cross; we hear ourselves taunting you as you hang silently before us; and, we feel the bitterness of one thief and the contrition of the other. May we be counted among those who, in great sorrow, lovingly laid you to rest in the garden tomb, hopefully waiting for God’s salvation. Amen.

I wrote the prayers of confession, so feel free to edit them for your use.

6. After the readings and prayers, our choir sang the anthem, The Hour Has Come, which was a solemn and powerful account of the last days in Jesus’ life.

7. When the anthem ended, the congregation left the sanctuary in silence, with a solemn organ postlude played during their exit. We included this note in the bulletin:

“In the tradition of the Liturgy of the Passion, there will be no benediction after the choral anthem. Please leave the sanctuary in silence as we contemplate the death and burial of Christ, and wait in hope for God’s salvation.”

Many people commented on how powerful and meaningful the service was for them. While it was hard for me to resist preaching on Palm Sunday, the narrative of the events of the last week in the life of Christ needs no explanation.

However you choose to celebrate and commemorate the events of Palm Sunday through Good Friday, give careful attention to including them all, including the betrayals, the trials, the mocking, and the crucifixion. The glory of the resurrection shines brightest when celebrated against the backdrop of evil, suffering, and death.

My Biopsy Is Negative

We got good news this morning from the surgeon who performed the biopsy surgery. My biopsy was negative for lymphoma. They attribute the PET scan results to “reactive” lymph glands which can be the result of an infection.

Possibly the infection came from the virus I had in January. In any event that seems to narrow it to an auto-immune disorder. I still am struggling with the symptoms of numbness in hands and feet, and some loss of activity in legs and some body functions.

I have a follow-up with the Duke hematologist next Tuesday, then my neurologist at the end of April. I appreciate your continuing prayers for whatever the next steps are. During this Easter season an “alleluia” or two is our response to this good news!

A Great Day Sunday and Back To Work on Monday

We had a great day on Easter Sunday! Les Adams led the service, Don Reagan read scripture, Eleanor Haskins presented the children’s sermon, others prayed, Charlotte was amazing on the organ, and the choir outdid themselves on Resurrection Sunday. Thanks to our great lay leaders, all I had to do was preach — and I got to do that sitting down!

Seriously, it was great to be back, and folks graciously welcomed me home after a three week absence. No one was happier than Debbie and I were. To top it off, we had guests from our former church in Greensboro. Fran Moseley, the minister of music then, and Nancy Davis, our accompanist, and her husband, Jerry were welcomed guests at our service. Actually, some of our folks thought they were a pastor search committee, so they weren’t welcomed warmly at first until that issue was out of the way!

This week I have a follow-up appointment with the surgeon who did the biopsy, and hopefully I will start physical therapy. Debbie spent part of the morning on the phone with Medi-Share, a Christian medical bill sharing ministry that we have subscribed to since 2008. They were very helpful in clarifying everything, and advising us on physical therapy. To top it off, I was in the office a couple of hours this morning, until I got really tired. But, at least I got started. We hope to hear from the biopsy on Tuesday or Wednesday, and I’ll update you when we do. Until then, our faith is in the God who raised Jesus from the dead during this Easter season.

Busy, Tiring Day

Today was a busy day. Just as I  was about to eat my oatmeal, the nurse came and took it away because my biopsy was scheduled for sometime today. A bevy of doctors examined and talked with me throughout the day. Physical and occupational therapy put me through the paces.

In the afternoon I had another plasma pheresis treatment. While that was going on for over two hours, additional doctors came in. Then, because I mentioned some chest pain, the EKG cart showed up. All the people in my room reminded me of that old Groucho Marx movie where people keep coming into his hotel room until they all tumble out the door!

Finally at 4 PM, they came to get me for my biopsy. The team decided that a lymph node under my right arm was the most accessible. After considerable probing they finally got a large enough sample to test. Lab work will take 2 days, so by Friday we should know if I have lymphoma.

Thank you for all the cards, prayers, visits, emails and all the other expressions of help and concern. We love each of you and we’re still trusting the God of the Angel Armies (as Eugene Peterson says) for His healing power.

Bad News Today

Today the PET scan showed several suspect lymph nodes in my neck, chest, and abdomen. According to the doctor, these were “lit up more than they should be.”

Tomorrow the hematology physicians meet with me. The plan is to figure out which lymph node to biopsy for suspected lymphoma. Of course there are many types of lymphoma, and there is also the possibility that an infection caused the lymph nodes to light up.

So, as Jesus said (my paraphrase) “Don’t worry about tomorrow…” We’re trying not to get ahead of ourselves but wanted each of you to pray with knowledge of this development. We know God is with us on this journey where ever it leads.