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Archive for March, 2011

Years ago I learned something called “the Jesus Prayer,” that goes like this:

Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
Have mercy on me
A sinner.

I found it in a book called A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, by Garrett Keizer, in a chapter where he tells a story about a man who mumbled the Jesus prayer all the time under his breath.  That man may have come from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where the prayer is often repeated continually as part of a personal ascetic practice.  Although it has never been widely accepted among Roman Catholics, it reminds me of the “Hail Mary” you often hear in that tradition:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

The closing lines of the Hail Mary are these: 

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

It’s that line about the “hour of our death” that got me thinking. 

Suppose the Jesus prayer is one that some people mumble continually because they don’t know when the hour of their death will come and they’re trying to be ready.  Wouldn’t you love to think that those words would be on your lips in that hour, so that when you looked up and saw the 18-wheeler coming straight toward you on the interstate you would continue to say (though with a bit more urgency), “Jesus Christ!  Son of God!  Have mercy on me a sinner!”  Wouldn’t that pretty much get you a free pass into Heaven?

So, that’s what I’m thinking today: that there may be some people who have been practicing that prayer for years, trying to make it such a regular part of their life that it will be the first thing they say in the hour of their death.  And I’m thinking that sometimes (when they are startled by a loud noise for instance), they might shout out the first part of the prayer almost as a reflex, and they might be so startled they forget to say the rest of it.  Their children might grow up thinking that’s just what you say when you almost get hit by a truck—”Jesus Christ!”—without knowing that there’s more to the prayer.  So, the next time I hear someone yell the first part of the Jesus prayer I’m just going to finish it for him, quietly, under my breath: 

Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
Have mercy on that
Poor sinner.

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These were my closing comments on Sunday, February 20, at the end of our DiscipleNow event for youth.  The theme of the the weekend was “Center Stage,” and raised the question of how your life might be different if Christ–and not you–occupied center stage.  It reminded me of an illustration I’ve used for a while now in talking to people about faith.  I shaped it up and shared it in worship that morning.  I’d like to share it here with you.  Thanks for reading.  –Jim

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I once had a visit from a man who told me his wife was leaving him, but he didn’t know why.  I didn’t know why either.  He was good-looking, successful, a regular churchgoer who appeared to be devoted to his wife and children.  But now she was leaving him, and he wanted to know why.  “Tell me more,” I said.  So he did, and as he talked it became clear to me that his wife was only one of the planets whirling around him in his personal solar system.  His faith, his career, his political ambitions, his new house on the lake, his Harley-Davidson motorcycle…all of these things were also important to him but only insofar as they made his life richer and better.  He finally stopped talking and asked me what I thought.  I asked him if he had ever heard of Nicholas Copernicus.

Copernicus was a 16th century Polish mathematician.  He was the one who came up with the idea that the earth went around the sun instead of the other way around.  He’d had the idea years before, but it was only after years of working out the mathematical proofs that he became convinced it was true.  I picture him working in his study, coming to the end of a long, complicated mathematical equation, and writing down the result.  And then I picture him staggering out into the back yard, looking up at the sun and—almost literally—feeling the earth move under his feet, feeling the sky tumbling down, tumbling down as he imagined himself standing on the surface of a planet that was rotating at some 600 miles per hour while it hurtled through space around the sun.  It was such an earth-shaking idea that he didn’t publish the results of his investigation until the year of his death. 

His book was immediately banned by the church.  It was banned because the Bible made it clear that the sun went around the earth.  It was banned because, if Copernicus was right, the earth wouldn’t be the center of the universe anymore, and neither would we.  What this man who came to see me that day had to come to terms with is that he was not the center of the universe, either.  I challenged him to put God in that place instead and take up his rightful orbit around God instead of the other way around.  I promised him that if he would only do that, he would find that all the other things in his life would take up their proper orbits as well.  It was a whole new way of thinking for him, and it wasn’t easy to imagine.

One of the Greek words for “conversion” is the word epistrephein, which means to turn around, but the other word is metanoia, which means to change your mind.  I think it is this kind of thing the Greek word refers to: a change of mind so radical that it completely reorients you and your way of thinking.  The Copernican Revolution was so-named because it revolutionized the way people thought about the universe, the world, and themselves.  They were no longer at the center.  Conversion can be just that kind of displacing phenomenon.  If you put God at the center of your personal universe, then you can no longer occupy that place.  You have to take up your proper orbit around God.  But I believe that if you do everything else will fall into place, in just the way it’s supposed to.  You don’t have to take my word for it, though.  You can try it for yourself. 

Only then will you know if it’s true.

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