“Follower of Jesus.” A follower of Jesus myself, I normally like to see those words on someone’s Twitter profile. Lately, however, I’m reluctant to scroll down for fear that this same follower has cussed out a politician on the social media platform or tweeted nasty things at a person they disagree with.
How can people who claim Jesus as Lord act so mean?
First, we often think that because we are fighting for the right things — justice, truth, righteousness — that it doesn’t matter how we say what we say. The Apostle Peter, no stranger to impulsive talk, has a tip for us. He urged first-century believers to “have an answer for everyone for the hope that lies within you” but to do this with “gentleness and kindness.” In other words, civility and courage are not enemies, but friends. The loudest person in the room or online is not necessarily the most courageous.
Second, we go off the rails online because we forget the humanity of the person on the other end of that tweet. That person we are calling out or punching at rhetorically is not a mere avatar to be crushed, but a person, made in the image of God. Those with whom we disagree are not the sum total of their opinions. James, Jesus’ brother and another leader in the first-century church, urges us to consider the imago dei of the other before we unleash a verbal assault.
Third, we often abandon kindness because politics has replaced religion as the primary driver of our discourse. We may have Jesus in the bio, but it’s the Republican or Democratic Party that is really in our hearts.
The collapse of religious institutions and the decline of church attendance have created a vacuum that politics is only too ready to fill. But politics makes for a disappointing god. It only takes and will never fully satisfy the longings of the heart.
How do we know we are worshipping at the altar of the 24/7 political cycle? When we make every argument a political one. When every aspect of life becomes read through a narrow ideological lens. When every criticism of our candidate is perceived as an attack on our hero. When we turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of leaders in our ideological camp.
As we muddle through the coming election season and a global pandemic that has divided Americans, Christians will be more tempted than ever to abandon civility.
Christians should engage in politics, but we should do so out of responsibility. Politics should be a way to love our neighbors, to use our voices and votes to shape the world in which our neighbors live. We should hold our party affiliations loosely, refusing to give temporal institutions a primacy and authority reserved for the Bible.
As members of God’s kingdom, we are indeed “strangers and exiles,” as Peter wrote. We should always sense a dissonance between our temporal, earthly allegiances and the kingdom of God. Temporal kingdoms and leaders will only disappoint us. Our faith should shape our politics rather than our politics shape our faith.
Kindness and civility shouldn’t be confused with a syrupy niceness that refuses to take a stand against injustice and for the vulnerable. The Bible is full of prophets who refused to be silent.
Yet, we should engage with humility, holding our ideas and our opinions loosely and not taking ourselves too seriously. We should start seeing folks on the other side of the aisle not as enemies to be vanquished, but as people who may have good ideas. We are not always right about everything all the time. It’s our own prejudices and biases, in fact, that lead us to believe the worst about our ideological opponents.
Instead, we should do as James instructed: be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. In an internet age, we might repurpose his words as: be quick to read the whole story, slow to post and slow to outrage.
That’s what we should commit to when we put Jesus in our bio, and it should be evident in the words we post on our timelines.
(Daniel Darling is the senior vice president of National Religious Broadcasters and is the author of eight books, including most recently, “A Way With Words: Using Our Online Conversations for Good.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
When speaking out directly against injustice, our white counterparts are perceived as brave, while Black leaders see our anger weaponized.
Like most of us, my inbox has been flooded for weeks with pointed statements from organizations condemning the recent murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks. Most of these messages have shown support for the calls for justice and reform being heard across the country and taken a stand against racism and hate generally, and anti-Blackness specifically.
Many organizations have been applauded for these bold and vocal stances. But I’ve noticed another dangerous and more subversive trend that has largely been ignored. Multiple — primarily Black — leaders of nonprofit and youth-serving organizations have shared with me that they have faced negative backlash from “supporters” who found their statements off-putting.
These “supporters” have found the direct reproach of abject racism and calls for justice regarding violence against Black citizens just a step too far. It turns out that sanitized language regarding the education, housing, food, and health inequities faced by people of color is palatable, but direct language about Blackness — and the reality of our country’s history of fear and weaponization of Blackness that underpins those inequities — is a bit too unpleasant.
I founded and run the Surge Institute, an organization that supports, educates, and elevates Black, brown, and Asian/Pacific Islander education leaders. It’s why we exist, which means I’ve never felt the need to sanitize or downplay who we are and why we do this work. That has admittedly made it more difficult for us to secure some investments and scale as rapidly as we would like, but that’s been a consequence I’ve been willing to accept.
I didn’t have to hesitate to publish a statement from Surge in which I said, “We must understand and never forget that the roots of this nation are forever stained with the blood of our Black ancestors … We cannot — especially now — passively accept or ignore the anti-Blackness that infects our country like a virus.” In response, one of our most dedicated white investors responded with, “Surge’s focus on strengthening Black educational leadership seems even more urgent and vital for communities these days,” and pledged to continue to work in partnership with me and my team.
Conversely, a Black colleague and CEO who sent a much tamer statement in support of Black lives was told by a donor in writing that they would cease their financial support because of the statement’s “racially divisive” tone. They went on to remind this leader that the focus of their work was “education, not race.”
I worry, too, that when speaking out directly against injustice, our white counterparts are perceived as brave, while Black leaders see our anger weaponized. This difference in reception is not news to any of the leaders of color with whom I’ve discussed this issue. Quite the contrary. We are accustomed to being held to the impossible standard of speaking our truth, but not too directly.
This is the ugly truth far too many Black leaders are facing. I’ve spoken to leaders who are now facing six- or seven-figure losses in revenue for daring to take a public stand for the calls for justice, and all of them are leading organizations that directly serve communities that are primarily Black and brown.
This backlash is not trivial. It is well documented that leaders of color face steeper challenges in securing philanthropic support than their white counterparts. And in the midst of a global pandemic that has already led to uncertain financial futures and tenuous commitments, it is the type of thing that can lead to nonprofits that disproportionately serve those who can least afford to be without their services to sunset or downsize.
And fundraising challenges aren’t the only burden of fear these leaders are carrying. They are also carrying the weight of not speaking so bluntly about their outrage and pain that they offend non-Black team members who now have a budding consciousness of the reality in which Black people lived for so long.
This is not an irrational fear. I spoke to an executive leader this week who was called to the metaphorical principal’s office by his CEO because of an email in which he shared how he had been pained within the organization and provided resources and articles regarding white fragility and unconscious bias. Apparently, a white female colleague found his email deeply troubling, even threatening, so this gentleman was given an HR warning for sharing his truth in a moment of deep reckoning in this country. The irony of this is so deep it’s almost laughable.
But it’s not funny. It’s a natural extension of what so many of us have faced for so long. In 2012, as I shopped the idea for Surge around among my network, I consistently heard, “Surge sounds like a wonderful idea, but I would suggest you tone down the specific focus on the race of your fellows” or “This sounds amazing! But could you possibly incubate under [fill-in-the-blank white leader]? I think it would be better received by funders that way.” I wish I could say those were one-off comments, but they were not.
So my privilege in this moment makes me compelled to speak up on behalf of others who find themselves caught in this bind. If they speak with raw vulnerability, they may face the wrath of those on whom they rely for the financial lifeblood of their organizations or those internally who revert to fear tactics when they are made the least bit uncomfortable. If they don’t speak at all, not only do they suffer the personal trauma of internalized pain and racism, but they are also letting down their peers and those they serve by not utilizing their proverbial “seat at the table” to lead.
So, as you’re asking yourself what you can do in this moment, I say this:
2. If you know of leaders who are being negatively affected by their vocal stance in support of Black lives in the wake of the multiple crises being faced by Black communities, applaud their courage, double your financial support of them, and encourage others to do so as well.
3. If you are a board member of an organization being led by a Black leader, create the space for them to tell you what they need you to do to support their leadership at this moment, not just share how they feel. There’s a difference.
4. If you are working within an organization being led by a Black leader who has been relatively mute in this moment, give them some grace. Don’t assume that their silence means they are asleep at the wheel. Share how this moment is impacting you and ask how you can help them create space for others. They may surprise you!
5. If you are uncomfortable with these direct stances being taken by organizations that you have otherwise ostensibly supported, or have friends who are, encourage them to explore the sources of their discomfort.
We are all angry. We are all disillusioned. But outcry is not — and has never been — enough to quell the lie of racial superiority that leads to individual, institutional, and state-sanctioned acts to demean, disempower, and damage Black people. We must act, and act with a spirit of hope and optimism.
But that spirit requires honesty. Honesty about the impediments we face, the negative consequences often associated with speaking the truth, and the disproportionate weight carried by Black leaders and other leaders of color during these times.
The innocence of the question did nothing to prevent me from being flabbergasted. As I stared into the almost cartoon-sized blue eyes of this 4-year-old boy, compassion filled my heart. I simply smiled and replied, “Why yes, of course!”
He nodded in understanding and continued playing with the toys that had previously occupied his attention. As I sat there watching his imagination create a world only he would understand, I wondered if this moment would be as memorable for him as I was sure it would be for me.
There’s a temptation to somehow prove my humanity, to validate my existence; especially because I live in a society that labels me a minority. The definition of “minority” is “a racial, ethnic, religious, or social subdivision of a society that is subordinate to the dominant group in political, financial, or social power without regard to the size of these groups.”
My nation, my homeland, defines me as a racial subordinate to the dominant group. It’s a label that follows me every time I check “Black/African-American” on any document. It’s a label that follows me any time I walk into a room and I’m the only one there who looks like me. I have a pre-disposition to believe that I am less than because it is what I’ve been told since I was born. It’s even printed on my birth certificate.
In indignation, I wear my hair natural. I comb through hundreds of photos on Instagram that have the “#BlackGirlMagic” marker. I recite Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” at any given opportunity. I go out of my way to compliment any black woman I meet.
I vote knowing what it cost my ancestors to grant me this right. I fight to prove that no quantifiable data could box me in and keep me from living the life I want to live.
It’s funny, all of that effort did nothing to quiet the comparison or stop the Caucasian woman from accosting me and my little cousins. It did nothing to abate the voice in my head that hurls insults every time I’m in front of a mirror. The only thing that has proven strong enough to rectify my identity is the Word of God.
I am black. I am a woman. I am southern. I am a millennial. I can come up with lots of ways to identify myself. I can make a list of a thousand superlatives. However, anything I fathom about who I am does not compare to who I am in Christ.
Society has a lot to say about who we are. In fact, we have a lot to say, ourselves, about who we are, and a lot of times we are better than anyone at putting ourselves down. Is it possible that when we say “yes” to Jesus, when we surrender our lives to Him, in doing so, we subject our idea of identity to Him as well? Identity then becomes more than a list of quantifiers.
If the Word of God created the world and all we see, how much more powerful then would it be to believe His words about us? We are children of the Most High God. We are His handiwork. In the same way He created the earth, He fashioned us together in our mothers’ womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We, the children of God, are His royal priesthood. We are the head and not the tail. We have every spiritual blessing made available to us through Christ. We are chosen.
We aren’t beautiful because of, or in spite of, being black. We are beautiful because we were created by Beauty Himself. My skin color becomes more than a sign of my socio-economic status; it is part of the hand-picked design as imagined by my Creator. We aren’t worthy because our society calls us worthy, but because Jesus thought us worthy enough to die for.
Our choice is this: To live subjected to societal labels or to allow this new identity to supersede what we once believed. My faith then doesn’t just inform my identity. It becomes the lens through which I’m even able to see who I really am. It doesn’t stop there.
When we are able to see ourselves through this lens, we are empowered, nay obligated, to see others the same way. It transforms a “me against the world” ideology into an understanding that it is “us under God.” The need for validation becomes obsolete and pure confidence flourishes as the love of Christ permeates the entirety of our beings.
It is hard to explain what I lost when my father died. It is even more difficult to explain how much of him remains with me, even five years after his death.
As with many women, my father’s influence remains an enduring force in my life. For some of my friends, it’s a scar that threatens relationships and self-worth.
But I am one of the lucky ones.
For me, my father’s love continues to give me courage and confidence even without his physical presence. I have somehow learned to go on without his notes of encouragement, his bear hugs and his”just-to-say-I-love-you” phone calls. But what hasn’t changed is how often I still hear his words in my mind.
Whenever I experience disappointment, I can still hear him say the words I heard since I was a toddler:”I love you and I’m proud of you.” When things go well, I find my first instinct is to tell my father about my accomplishment. To this day, I sometimes reach for the phone before stopping myself, remembering he is no longer there.
As a child, I took my relationship with my father for granted. I assumed everyone had a dad who loved and cared for her.
As a teenager, some friends complained about being beaten by their fathers and their biting words. For the first time I realized my own father wasn’t like all the rest.
As an adult, I have learned how very special he was. Some of my friends spend countless hours in therapy just to let go of the pain caused by their fathers. And I now realize much of my mental and spiritual health was aided by my dad, a man who saw himself as nothing special but who never failed to make me feel like I was.
I marvel at the wisdom of a man who told me,”You deserve to be treated well,”thus enabling me to turn my back on boyfriends who were less than respectful and bullies in business who tried to intimidate me.
I am amazed to think of how often he told me I was beautiful, giving me a deeply rooted sense that I didn’t need to worry about how I looked or seek out men who cared mostly about physical attributes.
My intellect was encouraged, my business sense acknowledged. Never once did my father give me a signal that girls should act differently than boys. And yet by loving me as he did, he encouraged the development of my femininity.
Now I see that I have fewer fears about men than some of my women friends whose earliest encounters with the opposite sex created a sense of dread. And as a mother, I find myself raising my two boys with the goal of becoming men like my dad.
The impact of a father on a daughter is so great that I find myself preaching to my men friends about caring for their girls.
When I see a man stroking his daughter’s hair, I am tempted to say to him, “Do you know that the memory of your touch may get her through something 30 years from now?” And when I see a man ignoring or criticizing his girl child, I want to say, “Please stop and think how hard you will make life for her. Try to understand that your words today will echo through her mind over and over again.” My father never liked to have much of a celebration on Father’s Day. He always said being a dad was such a joy that he couldn’t imagine why anyone made a fuss about it.
But I now know that it is important to girls to make a fuss over their fathers. And it is especially important that fathers make a fuss over their girls.
A man’s relationship with his daughter is a complex mystery, a puzzle containing the possibility of lifelong confidence or disabling misery.
I am one of the lucky ones. This Father’s Day I celebrate the memory of a man who loved me so well he gave me a gift that continues on without him.
“The Storm,” taken six months after Kimberly’s dad passed. She’s standing in a storm. You can see more of Kimberly’s work on her website.
A personal tribute from a daughter about her selfless father, a man of unwavering faith who cared deeply for his family and ingrained a ministry of caring for others in his children.
I grew up in Triangle, VA, with my two sisters, Emily and Olivia, and my brother, Gregory. Every night we would have dinner as a family. Afterward, my father would read the Bible. To motivate us to listen he’d put pudding cups, yogurts and sometimes even money in the middle of the table. If you answer the questions right, you win. Out of all my memories, my most precious memory of my childhood is when my father would get up early in the morning and walk around the house and praying. One by one we’d wake up and trickle into the living room. I’d find him kneeling there, and I’d kneel beside him. By the time he was done praying the whole family would have made their way into the living room and be on their knees.
My parents made us volunteer at homeless shelters, food banks, and nursing homes. They had a heart for people and made sure that we did too. My father was always bringing strangers home he had met on the street to live with us. It became second nature for my siblings and me to dig into own closet and find clothes for them to wear. Sometimes we would even give up our beds. We celebrated birthdays, weddings, and mourned losses together. My father would employ the men and teach them his trade. While my mother would drive others around town and help them find stable jobs and file paperwork. Those two were truly a dynamic duo. I cannot count how many people have come to our house, but I thank God for all of them.
At one point our house became too small, so my father built an addition doubling our house size. The community kids would call the house mini-mansion. Our dining room was massive. We had one table that fit 20 people and another table that fit six. During the holidays, my father would invite everyone that he knew who didn’t have families over and mom would cook. Both tables would be filled with additional chairs added. It was a sight to behold.
The thing I loved most about my father is that through all of this he never forgot about his children. He was still at our football games, basketball games, he would come to the track and help us train for meets. The official unofficial coach. Anything and everything we wanted to do, my parents were always right there.
Kimberly Coopwood’s family.
About My Challenges and Dreams
Growing up, I was considered illiterate and took special education classes until the seventh grade. I was bullied and beat up by my classmates. My father, “God bless him” would sit at the kitchen table with me until my homework was complete. There were nights I’d be in tears crying over my papers, but my father never gave up on me. I remember the times were I felt meaningless and wanted to take my life but, “God loves me and Daddy loves.” I promise those words have saved my life many times.
Growing up I was a shy child. Being with my father and helping people gave me confidence but when I was alone, I’d lock myself in my room. In my safe place, I began to talk to God and write.
I could not read what I was writing, but I filled journals. Soon I started having dreams and ideas. I found myself dismantling my electric toys and playing with their engines and batteries. I’d dismantle cereal boxes and design playgrounds and pools with the material. The most lavished thing I ever made was a two-story house completed with a bathroom, living room, dining room, a winding staircase, and an upstairs bedroom all by hand. In the corner of my room doing math equation on a whiteboard became my thing. My teachers would get so upset. I’d never write out my equation because I did the math in my head. Seventh grade marked the end of special education for me, but it also marked the beginning of advanced mathematics.
In middle school, I decided I was going to become an engineer. I went to my guidance counselor and researched all of the schools in the nearby cities, and decided to attend Woodbridge Senior High because of their engineering program. From there, I went to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and studied Civil Engineering.
My father was also an engineer, and he and I would bounce ideas and concepts off of each other. We had developed a filtration system that I was pushing my university to sponsor. We wanted to implement it in Tanzania.
In 2014, my father passed. I remember on the day of my father’s wake there was a snowstorm and almost everybody he helped came back, and if they couldn’t come they called. My siblings and I just stared at all of the faces my father had touched; we were overwhelmed. They were coming in waves; had they all came at the same time it would have filled the church three times over. After my father’s passing, I could no longer stomach an engineering class. Neither could my mother afford it for we had lost our house and the money sharks were after us.
Film and Photography
One day while my mother was cleaning up the rest of my father’s things, she gifted me all 11 of my father’s cameras. I prayed and asked God to teach me about them. I rented books from the library, watched online seminars, YouTube videos, and at the time Harvard had put their entire digital media course on Alison.com, and I studied until my body shut down. Then two days later I would be right back at it. During this time my mother was very concerned because she could not understand how I could stay locked in a room for so long. Until one night during a snowstorm, I came to her and said, “I have an idea, and I need your help.” In her PJ’s she grabbed her coat and snow boots, and we ventured out into the cold. I set up my camera, posed on a light pole, and she took my picture. This photo describes everything we had been through, a frozen hell surrounded by waves of grief and tragedy. Whenever I look at this picture, I see the storm, but I also see my father’s Queen my mother weathering the season it with me.
A year in a half later my older sister Emily took her inheritance and paid off my old University bills so that I could attend Liberty University. The University blessed with nine scholarships and grants. When I first came to Liberty I did not like it, I tried doing engineering again and ended up with a 1.4 GPA. For the first time in my life, I was placed on academic probation. In my ear, I kept hearing in my ear “film, photography.” So I made a wager with God. “God I’ve worked my whole life to be an engineer, I will try cinematic arts for one semester and if I make straight A’s this is where I’m supposed to be.” I switched my major to cinematic arts the following semester and made straight A’s. I fell in love with the staff, the students, and the environment. They have truly enriched my life. Since attending Liberty, I have worked on seven short films, one actively running commercial and one feature film.
Even though my father’s death was tragic, it incubated something inside of me and gave birth to a gift I never knew I had. So with this gift, I would like to open a production studio that embodies both filmmaking and commercial photography. If companies can do it all in one place, why not…! But most importantly I want my work and work atmosphere to be a medium to win souls. To give hope and provoke a curiosity that would lead someone to a life-changing conversation about Jesus. Like father like daughter. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.
My Last word to my Father: It is an honor to be your daughter in every way. Even though you will not be able to walk me down the aisle, I am so grateful that God chose you to be my Daddy. I am also thankful that he gave me your eyebrows. I love the fact that I carry a piece of you everywhere I go.
Sometimes you have to know when to shut up and pray.
I was listening to the discussion at a staff meeting recently when our consultant made this remark about me: “Paul is so quiet. He doesn’t seem to be passionate about anything, except maybe the person of Jesus.” I smiled, partly because it was funny and partly because on the inside I am like Barney Fife, the nervous deputy on the old Andy Griffith Show. My mind churns with ideas, and my mouth is eager to assist.
So why did I appear so calm that day? Because I was praying, quietly to myself, over and over again: Father, Father, Father. At other times I will pray the name of Jesus or the name Christ. Sometimes I find myself praying a short phrase, such as Come, Spirit.
This is not a mindless chant I practice in order to reach some higher spiritual plane. Just the opposite. I realize I’m on a low spiritual plane, and I am crying out for help like a little child who runs to his mother saying, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” My heart is hunting for its true home. David captured the feel of the praying soul in Psalm 63:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you;
My flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water (verse 1, ESV).
Why am I quietly crying out for help? My tendency to interrupt in staff meetings is a “dry and weary land.” When I feel my inner Barney Fife crying out for attention, I pray quietly, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Like Augustine, in his Confessions, my heart is restless, and I need to find my rest in God.
I’m at my worst when I’m passionate about a new idea. I can drift into selling instead of listening and can easily become dominating. My heart is a dry and weary land. But when I begin to pray, the energy of my life is directed into the life of God and not into changing people’s minds . . . and I shut up!
When someone shares an idea that was originally mine, I want to mention that I first thought of it. I feel unsettled, as if the universe is out of balance. In short, I want to boast. The only way to quiet my soul’s desire for prominence is to begin to pray: Apart from you I can do nothing.
Interrupting, selling, and boasting are just a few of the things that draw me into continuous prayer, into continual childlike dependence on my Father. Each of us has our own list. We can let it drive us into a praying life.
Poverty of Spirit, Not Discipline
I didn’t learn continuous prayer; I discovered I was already doing it. I found myself in difficult situations I could not control. All I could do was cry out to my heavenly Father. It happened often enough that it became a habit, a rut between my soul and God.
Even now I often don’t realize that I am praying. Possibly, it isn’t even me praying, but the Spirit. Paul said, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Galatians 4:6). The Holy Spirit is not assisting us to pray; he is the one who is actually praying. He is the pray-er.
More specifically, it is the Spirit of his Son praying. The Spirit is bringing the childlike heart of Jesus into my heart and crying, Abba, Father. Jesus’ longing for his Father becomes my longing. My spirit meshes with the Spirit, and I too begin to cry, Father.
When Jesus prayed, most scholars think he regularly addressed his Father as abba. It is similar to our word papa. Their logic goes like this: We know the word abba because it burned itself on the disciples’ minds. They were so stunned–no one had ever spoken to God so intimately before–that when they told the Greek Christians about Jesus, they carried over the Aramaic abba word into the Greek translations of the Bible. This so shocked Paul that he used abba in both Romans and Galatians. Translators have continued the pattern set by the early disciples, and no matter what language Scripture is in, they still use abba.
This one-word prayer, Father, is uniquely Jesus’ prayer. His first recorded sentence at age 12 is about his father: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Abba is the first word the prodigal son uttered when he returned home. It is the first word of the Lord’s Prayer, and it is the first word Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. It was his first word on the cross–“Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34) — and one of his last — “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). Father was my first prayer as I began praying continuously, and I find that it is still my most frequent prayer.
I discovered myself praying simple two- and three-word prayers, such as Teach me or Help me, Jesus. The psalms are filled with this type of short bullet prayers. Praying simple one-word prayers or a verse of Scripture takes the pressure off because we don’t have to sort out exactly what we need. Paul told us, “We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). Often we are too weary to figure out what the problem is. We just know that life — including ours — doesn’t work. So we pray, Father, Father, Father.
This is the exact opposite of Eastern mysticism, which is a psychospiritual technique that disengages from relationship and escapes pain by dulling self. Eastern mystics are trying to empty their minds and become one with the nonpersonal “all.” But as Christians we realize we can’t cure ourselves, so we cry out to our Father, our primary relationship.
I was driving to work one day, thinking about all the options for a new three-year plan at work. The closer I got to the office, the more overwhelmed I became–I didn’t have the wisdom to sort through the options. The scripture “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2) came to mind, and I turned it into a simple prayer. I needed a rock higher than myself. That momentary poverty of spirit (I became overwhelmed . . . I didn’t have the wisdom) was the door to prayer. We don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; we just need to be poor in spirit. Poverty of spirit makes room for his Spirit. It creates a God-shaped hole in our hearts and offers us a new way to relate to others.
A praying spirit transforms how we look at people. As we walk through the mall, our hearts can tempt us to judge, despise, or lust. We see overweight people, skinny people, teenagers with piercings and tattoos, well-dressed women, security guards, and older people shuffling along. If we are tempted to judge an overweight person, we might pray that he or she loses weight. When we see a teenage girl with a nose ring, we can pray that she would find her community in Christ. When we see a security guard, we might pray for his career. When we pass an older couple shuffling along, we can pray for grace as they age.
Paul the apostle was constantly aware of his helplessness and the helplessness of the churches he loved — and so he prayed constantly.
Paul’s Example and Teaching
“Unceasing prayer” is Paul’s most frequent description of how he prayed and of how he wanted the church to pray. This was a real experience for Paul and not a formula. In the twelve times he mentioned continuous praying, he seldom said it the same way twice (emphasis added throughout):
• Without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers. (Romans 1:9-10)
• I give thanks to my God always for you. (1 Corinthians 1:4)
• I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. (Ephesians 1:16)
• Praying at all times in the Spirit. (Ephesians 6:18)
• We have not ceased to pray for you. (Colossians 1:9)
• Continue steadfastly in prayer. (Colossians 4:2)
• Always struggling on your behalf in his prayers. (Colossians 4:12)
• Constantly mentioning you in our prayers. (1 Thessalonians 1:2)
• We also thank God constantly for this. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
• As we pray most earnestly night and day. (1 Thessalonians 3:10)
• We always pray for you. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
• I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. (2 Timothy 1:3)
When Paul told the young churches to pray, he encouraged them in this same pattern of “constant in prayer”:
• Be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12)
• Pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
Given Paul’s emphasis, it is not surprising to see examples of continual prayer in the early church.
The Jesus Prayer
The Greek Orthodox Church still uses a simple fifth-century prayer sometimes called the Prayer of Jesus: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner (see the Philokalia, Vol. 4). The Orthodox tradition calls short prayers like this “breath prayers” because they can be spoken in a single breath.
The earliest version of this prayer came from a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, who cried out as Jesus was passing by, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38). If you add Paul’s Philippian hymn, “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:11), you’ve got the Jesus Prayer. From the beginning, this prayer was used continuously. When the crowd shushed Bartimaeus, “he cried out all the more” (Luke 18:39). He must have been shouting at the top of his lungs because three of the gospels mention his loud persistence!
My wife, Jill, has her own version of the Jesus Prayer. When we walk the dogs together on Sunday morning, we pass by an incredibly neat house with a well-manicured lawn. It is especially entertaining in the fall, when both the husband and the wife run around with a shoulder-pack leaf blower, chasing individual leaves. With her German heritage, Jill feels the pressure to obsess over neatness. As we walk by this immaculate house, she’ll start praying repeatedly, God, save me from myself. God, save me from myself.
When our kids were teenagers, Jill asked me, “Do you know what our family needs most?” Lots of things came to mind, including a newer car. Her one-word answer took me completely by surprise: “mercy.” We didn’t need to get more organized. We didn’t need more money. We needed mercy. That mindset creates a praying heart.
A praying life isn’t simply a morning prayer time. It’s about slipping into prayer at odd hours of the day — and not because we are disciplined. We are in touch with our own poverty of spirit, realizing that we can’t even walk through a mall or our neighborhood without the help of the Spirit of Jesus.