The Jesus Prayer…Abbreviated?

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.

Prosperity Will Have Its Seasons

IRAQ DROUGHT YEARI just got back from the Rotary Club, where I enjoyed a delicious breakfast and spoke to some fifty members of the West Henrico chapter.  As I prepared my speech I tried to think about what a Baptist preacher could say to a group of business people that wouldn’t sound too “preachy.”  I ended up talking about a favorite subject of mine, and that is the way the church has responded to the changes in culture over the last forty to fifty years.

I told the Rotarians how, in each church I served, there had been a “legendary” pastor, the one everybody still talked about.  In my first church it had been Bill Hull, in my second church Dewey Hobbs, in my third church Ed Pruden, and here in Richmond, of course, it had been Ted Adams.  What didn’t occur to me early on in my ministry is that each of those pastors had served those churches during the 1950’s, which was a unique time in history.  The war was over, soldiers and sailors were coming home, marrying their high school sweethearts, settling down, having children, and bringing them to church.  I believe the churchgoing “boom” precisely paralleled the Baby Boom (1946-1964). 

So, I talked to the Rotarians about that, about how the culture at one time had pushed people through the front door of the church and how now the culture seemed to be dragging them out.  I talked about how the church had responded with a sort of widespread panic as it watched its pews and offering plates emptying out, and how the church growth movement has been a desperate bid to get those people (and their dollars) back.   “It’s not only churches,” I acknowledged.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if it has been difficult to attract new members to the Rotary Club.  ‘Service Above Self’ (their motto) isn’t all that popular these days.”

After breakfast a number of people came forward to tell me that it was true: membership in their club was in decline.  Several others told me stories about their churches—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian—and the way they had been struggling to keep the lights on and the doors open.  I had tried to leave all of them with good news.  I said that in times like these its important to return to our roots, to remember who we are and why we’re here.  I told them that at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we are turning our attention toward the clear commands of Christ, who is Lord of the church, and trying to get serious about what he asked his followers to do.  Maybe the Rotarians, likewise, will look to their founding principles and get serious about those.  Maybe they already have.

On the way back from breakfast I remembered a song by David Wilcox that has always made me think about the church:

Summer lasted a generation
A generation – and then the winter wind
The bounty harvest that seemed so endless
It seemed so endless until it gave what it could give

Prosperity will have its seasons
Even when it’s here, it’s going by
And when it’s gone we pretend we know the reasons
And all the roots grow deeper when it’s dry.

This is my prayer for the church of Jesus Christ in this dry season: that its roots will grow deeper, and that instead of worrying so much about how to fill pews and offering plates, we will drive our roots down into the deep places, and discover the living water that quenches our deepest thirst, and becomes in us a spring of water gushing up to everlasting life (John 4:14).

The Church of Jesus Christ

woman-dancing-outside-green-dressAfter spending two days with my staff talking about what the church should be, what the church can be, what the church will be, it’s nice to remember what the church is in its best moments, something captured beautifully in this poem by Ann Weems:

 

The church of Jesus Christ is where a child brings a balloon…
is where old women come to dance . . .
is where young men see visions and old men dream dreams.
The church of Jesus Christ is where lepers come to be touched . . .
is where the blind see and the deaf hear . . .
is where the lame run and the dying live.
The church of Jesus Christ is where daisies bloom out of barren land . . .
is where children lead and wise men follow . . .
is where mountains are moved and walls come tumbling down.
The church of Jesus Christ is where loaves of bread are stacked in the sanctuary
to feed the hungry . . .

is where coats are taken off and put on the backs of the naked . . .
is where shackles are discarded and kings and shepherds sit down to life together.
The church of Jesus Christ is where barefoot children run giggling in procession . . .
is where the minister is ministered unto . . .
is where the anthem is the laughter of the congregation and the offering plates
are full of people.
The church of Jesus Christ is where people go when they skin their knees or their hearts . . .
is where frogs become princes and Cinderella dances beyond midnight . . .
is where judges don’t judge and each child of God is beautiful and precious.
The church of Jesus Christ is where the sea divides for the exiles . . .
is where the ark floats and the lamb lies down with the lion . . .
is where people can disagree and hold hands at the same time.
The church of Jesus Christ is where night is day . . .
is where trumpets and drums and tambourines declare God’s goodness . . .
is where lost lambs are found.
The church of Jesus Christ is where people write thank-you notes to God . . .
is where work is a holiday . . .
is where seeds are scattered and miracles grown.
The church of Jesus Christ is where home is . . .
is where heaven is . . .
is where a picnic is communion and people break bread together on their knees.
The church of Jesus Christ is where we live responsively to God’s coming . . .
even on Monday morning the world will hear . . .
an abundance of alleluias! 

                                                                               —Ann Weems