As I was writing my most recent book, When God is Silent, I had to ask myself a question. Do we really need another book on prayer? C. S. Lewis once observed that he had never come across a book on prayer that was of any use to him. He said that he had seen many books of prayers, but when it came to books about prayer, the writers usually made the wrong assumptions about the reader.
I have often felt something similar. Books about prayer don’t seem to fit my situation. They either assume that I don’t want to pray or that I don’t know how. Neither is really the case. My problem lies elsewhere. I don’t like the way God treats me when I pray. Our conversations seem awkward. Over time I’ve discovered that most people are like me. We pray, sometimes frequently, but there is something about the experience that leaves us feeling uncomfortable. We aren’t sure why.
After giving this question thought over many years, it seems to me that many of the problems we have with prayer have nothing to do with motivation or method. They are the sort of problems that we might describe as relational. How do you carry on a conversation with someone who never seems to talk back to you? Why do we feel like God is sometimes unresponsive to our wishes? In my latest book, entitled “When God is Silent,” I address questions like these and many more.
In the end, the secret to prayer is not a matter of method or even motive. The key to prayer is God Himself. I have written this book to do more than answer questions like these. It is my hope. Indeed, it is my prayer that as you read, you will also gain a sense of God, of His goodness, and the rich welcome that is waiting for you every time you approach Him in the name of Jesus Christ.
The last word my mother ever spoke to me was “No.” She spoke it repeatedly as she lay in a hospital bed. Her cry was a spontaneous act of resistance, an expression of outrage against the impending dissolution of death. The last thing my father said to me was, “I love you.” He, too, was in a hospital bed, and his words were also a reflex of sorts. Despite his discomfort, it was an automatic response of parental affection. I don’t think either of them realized that these would be their last words to me. Frankly, I am not certain they even knew what they said. They were too busy trying not to die to think about it.
Jesus’ last words before his death were different. They were not spoken as a reflex. Rather than being spontaneous, many of the things he said fulfilled prophecy. What was not prophetic was deliberate. He knew he was dying. He also knew what he was saying.
Not everything Jesus said on the cross was addressed to the Father. Jesus also spoke to one of the two men who was crucified along with him. The Gospel of Mark uses a word that means “robber” or “rebel” to describe them (Mark 15:27). It is the same word that John employs to refer to Barrabas (John 18:40). We know only two things about these men. One is that they were guilty of the crimes for which they suffered and that initially, they had both heaped insults on Christ (Matt. 27:44).
A Change of Heart
Although both were rebels, Luke reveals that one of them experienced a sudden change of heart while on the cross. The other thief continued to bait Jesus, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the repentant thief rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40–41). After this, he turned his attention to the dying Savior and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
With this request, this anonymous criminal voices what may be our most basic fear. It is the terror of being overlooked. To say “remember me” is also to say “do not forget me.” This is what Joseph said to Pharaoh’s cupbearer while still in prison (Gen. 40:14). It was the prayer of the prisoner Samson when the Philistines stood him between the pillars of their temple (Judges 16:28). Hannah prayed this as she wept before the Lord in Shiloh and begged for a son (1 Sam. 1:11). Nehemiah, Job, and the Psalmist all prayed these words (Neh. 5:19; 13:14, 22, 31; Job 14:13; Ps. 25:7; 106:4).
But few have had as little warrant to make such a request as this thief did. He epitomizes the last-minute change of heart. Luke doesn’t say what brought about the change. It is not hard to speculate that it was motivated by Christ’s prayer of forgiveness. Jesus, however, does not ask him for an explanation. Or for anything, for that matter. Instead of telling the thief that the faith he has expressed is too little too late, the Savior assures him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42).
The thief on the cross has served as a beacon of hope ever since. He is the prototype for all deathbed conversions. Jesus’ assurance that such a person would be with him in paradise is a reminder that as long as there is breath, there is hope. As long as we are able, it is never too late to turn to Christ for mercy.
A Word to His Mother
Jesus also addressed his mother, Mary, and the apostle John from the cross. John tells us that he was standing “nearby” Mary. John’s description of the incident may suggest that Jesus was searching for them among the onlookers. To watch Jesus suffer from the foot of the cross must have been painful enough for Mary. For their eyes to meet in that moment had to pierce her mother’s heart like the sword Simeon had predicted in the temple court (Luke 2:35). To Mary, Jesus says, “Woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother.” From that time, John says, he took her into his home (John 19:26–27).
Given the circumstances, Jesus’ words to the two of them are almost too mundane to be believed. They are, in a way, purely human words–the words of a dying son who must put his house in order. That Jesus gave this responsibility to John is something of a puzzle. Jesus had brothers and sisters (Mark 6:3). Why didn’t he place her in their hands? For that matter, why did he even feel that it was necessary to say anything at all? He could have let matters take care of themselves. None of this is explained to us by John, who merely records the charge but does not tell us what made it necessary or whether it had other significance.
Yet Jesus’ words at least imply a fundamental shift in his relationship with Mary. After the cross, Jesus will no longer relate to Mary as a son. That role will be entrusted to John. I doubt that this came as a surprise to Mary. Jesus had already hinted that such a change was coming (John 2:4). On one occasion, after being told that his mother and brothers were outside asking for him, Jesus looked at those seated before him and replied: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34–35).
In the Magnificat, Mary observed: “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name” (Luke 1:49). But the title she chose for herself is less exalted. In her own eyes, she was merely a servant (v. 48). Her relationship with Jesus must change once he completes his earthly task.
Jesus was not diminishing Mary when he commended her to John’s care. His words reflect love, not only for his mother but for John as well. Into who else’s care would we expect Jesus to entrust his mother, if not to “the disciple whom he loved” (John 19:26)? At the most painful moment of Jesus’ experience, his concerns are turned to the needs of others.
Between the cry of dereliction and Jesus’ final prayer committing his spirit into the hands of the Father, Jesus makes two observations. They are both statements of fact that pertain to his suffering. Their only ambiguity is their audience. Are they addressed to the Father or those watching him suffer? Is Jesus talking to himself?
There is a certain irony in the simple statement that the apostle records in John 19:28, “I am thirsty.” It is tempting to look at thirst as the least significant of the physical sufferings Jesus experienced. Yet you could hardly choose a statement more suited to underscore the reality of his humanity. Food and water are essential for human life, yet we can survive without food longer than water. This cry is a reminder that it is the man Jesus who hangs on the cross. He is the God who became flesh (John 1:14).
Jesus’ complaint is especially poignant, appearing as it does in John’s Gospel. Stanley Hauerwas reminds us this is the Gospel in which the Samaritan woman is promised that Jesus will provide her with “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). It is John who tells us that on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus stood and in a loud voice declared, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38). Yet, on the cross, the one who is the source of the water of life suffers from thirst.
John did not put these words in Jesus’ mouth. They are things that Jesus actually said. But as the most poetic of the Gospel writers, John is the one who noticed this theme in Jesus’ teaching and highlighted it. As a witness to the suffering of Christ, he could not help but see the irony of Jesus’ thirst. Yet John also saw beyond the irony. He pointed out that Jesus said this, “knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled.” Jesus spoke these words to set in motion the actions that would fulfill the prophecy of Psalm 69:21, “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.”
A Shout of Victory
Jesus’ other statement before his final prayer of surrender is just as brief: “It is finished” (John 19:30). This is the “loud cry” that Mark mentions but does not articulate in his Gospel (Mark 15:37). This statement seems to be combined with Jesus’ final prayer. Perhaps it is part of that prayer. Although John does not include the prayer in his account, it is implied in the statement at the end of verse 30, which says that after Jesus said this, “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
Jesus’ suffering ends with a loud cry, but not a cry of despair. “‘It is finished’ is not a death gurgle,” Stanley Hauerwas observes. “‘It is finished’ is not ‘I am done for.'” “It is finished” is Christ’s shout of victory. We know this, Hauerwas explains, because just before he breathed his last, Jesus committed his spirit into the hands of the Father.
These are indeed the words of a dying man. But they are not the words of someone who is passing into darkness and the unknown. Jesus’ last word is not even a sigh of relief. It is a cry of triumph from one who knows he has successfully finished his task (John 19:28). The hardest work is done. What remains is resurrection and restoration.
Although Jesus’ last words before his death were not his final words, they cannot help their air of finality. They signify the completion of an experience shared by all who must die but one that is also singular and unrepeatable. Like the rest of us, Jesus passed through the valley of shadow. But unlike us, Jesus did not go there unwillingly. “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again,” Jesus said. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:17–18).
Jesus’ seven last words were those of a victor, not a victim. They are the words of one who knows he is death’s master. Death has not disappeared. Anyone who has watched a loved one die knows all too well why the apostle calls death the “last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). But when Jesus said, “it is finished,” he declared victory and sounded the death knell for death itself.
Some have called Jesus’ seven statements from the cross his “last words.” The label is striking but somewhat misleading. They are not individual “words” but a collection of sentences or phrases. Neither are they technically the last words of Jesus but merely the last things he said before his death and resurrection. It turns out that Jesus still had much to say. After the resurrection, he showed himself to be alive to the disciples and spoke to them over the course of forty days and beyond (Acts 1:3).
Still, there is something unique about these sayings. For one, there is a starkness to them. The dying, as a rule, are not talkative. If they are not unconscious, they are too uncomfortable to be chatty. Dying is hard work, and those engaged in the task are usually too preoccupied to be loquacious. Jesus’ words are as terse as one would expect from someone entering the final throes of death.
The First Prayer
Among these seven sayings are three prayers, of which the first is, in some ways, the most astonishing. In this prayer, Jesus asks the Father to forgive those who crucify him (Luke 23:34). This is poignant but especially so coming between Jesus’ warning to the daughters of Jerusalem of a terrible judgment yet to come and Scripture’s observations about the scorn of the watching crowd. Luke’s description paints a picture of callous disregard blended with pride. Jesus hangs naked between two criminals as the religious leaders sneer. “He saved others,” they taunt, “let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One” (Luke 23:35).
The soldiers do their work with the brutal indifference of soldiers. They pound nails in Jesus’ hands and feet and haul him up. They parcel out Jesus’ clothes. Instead of water, they offer him wine vinegar. The soldiers point to the sign Pilate has ordered to be placed above his head and say, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Yet instead of asking for justice, Jesus pleads with God for mercy on their behalf. More than mercy. Jesus asked God to absolve them “for they do not know what they are doing.”
But they do know what they are doing. At least, they think they know. The crowd, which has been swept up in these events, watches it all unfold. Some with ghoulish interest and others with sorrow. The soldiers are only following orders. The rulers, likewise, are just doing their job. They believe they are acting responsibly by ridding the nation of a dangerous person. Yet it seems that Jesus is right after all. They are all of them ignorant. None of them has any idea what is really going on.
Jesus’ request that God forgive is not a dismissal of the cruelty of their actions toward him. This is not the kind of false forgiveness we sometimes offer, saying, “Oh, it was nothing at all. Think nothing of it.” Rather, Jesus’ petition acknowledges that he knows what is happening. Jesus is not a victim. He is acting as a high priest, praying for the sins of the people. But Jesus is doing more than praying. He is also offering the sacrifice that gives him the warrant to ask for forgiveness on their behalf. It is the sacrifice of Jesus himself (Heb. 7:27).
The Second Prayer
Jesus affirms this in the second prayer he utters from the cross. If Jesus’ first prayer from the cross is astonishing, his second is disturbing. Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:45–46 reveals that Jesus spoke these words in darkness at three in the afternoon. This sharp cry is separated from the petition for forgiveness by at least three hours of suffering.
Some find these words of Jesus’ troubling, interpreting them as a moment of doubt or maybe even despair. But they are something else. They are a quote from Psalm 22, which is also a prayer. Acting as both priest and sacrifice, Jesus utters a liturgical prayer: “He reached up for a word of the eternal God and sent it back up again.” Jesus’ words do not reflect a loss of confidence in God, but they suggest that there is more going on in this moment than merely a symbolic act. Something is happening between Jesus and the Father that is deeply distressing to the Savior. If we take Jesus at his words, it is a separation. Somehow, the unity between Father and Son that existed since eternity past was broken at that moment. Philip Jamiesen explains, “The cry of dereliction reveals that the Son has lost His direct access to the Father even as He calls out to Him as God.”
It is easier to explain what happened than to precisely describe what Christ experienced. 2 Corinthians 5:21 explains, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Those who stood by the cross watching did not recognize it but were seeing themselves at that moment. Jesus was sundered from the Father because he had taken upon himself the “sin of the world” (John 1:29).
The Third Prayer
The third prayer Jesus uttered proves that this cry of anguish was not a cry of despair. It is Jesus’ last statement from the cross. Luke 23:46 says, “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” On the heels of his cry of anguish, Jesus makes this remarkable confession of trust and commits his spirit into the hands of the Father, whose presence he can no longer feel. This is the prayer of someone who knows that he is dying. Yet, it is also more. This is the prayer of someone who trusts the hands into which he has fallen. In Jesus’ experience, it is a leap into darkness but not a blind leap. Jesus knows where he is going and how this story will end.
The Methodist preacher William Sangster pointed out that, without the cross, Christians would have nothing to say to those who suffer. Jesus speaks to us, not only as one who was himself wounded. He speaks by his wounds. “To all those whose minds reel in sorrow; to all those who feel resentful because life has done to them its worst; to all those tempted to believe there is no God in heaven, or at least, no God of love, he comes and he shows them his hands,” Sangster declared. “More eloquently than any words, those pierced hands say, ‘I have suffered.'”
Yet the mere fact that Christ suffered is not enough. What does it matter that Jesus’ suffering outstripped ours, if all it means is that he suffered too? If all the gospel has to say is that Christ feels our pain and understands our experience, it is no gospel at all.
Jesus’ three prayers from the cross help us to place the suffering of Christ in a larger context. Jesus shared our humanity, “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14). Sympathy was certainly one motive for this but only in part. The ultimate reason was so that Jesus could die on our behalf. “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way,” Hebrews 2:17 goes on to explain, “in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”
This is the power of the cross and the reason for Christ’s suffering. He came not only to die but to rise again on our behalf. It is the key that unlocks the mystery of Jesus’ words from the cross. Solomon observed that love is as strong as death (Song of Solomon 8:6). But in Jesus Christ, we see a love that was even stronger.
 Helmut Thielicke, Christ and the Meaning of Life, trans. John Doberstein, (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1962), 44.
 Philip D. Jamieson, The Face of Forgiveness: A Pastoral Theology of Shame and Redemption, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2016), 99.
 William Sangster, “He Dies. He Must Die.” In Classic Sermons on the Cross of Christ, compiled by Warren W. Wiersbe, (Grand Rapids: Hendrickson, 1990), 32.
Several years ago, at the Bible college where I taught, news reached the campus that a revival had broken out among the students of another school. It was much like the recent event at Asbury University, though on a smaller scale. The stories we heard were similar. Students knelt and wept at the front of the chapel as they asked God to forgive their sins. There was singing and confessing.
Some of the students on our campus were unsettled by these reports. But not for the reasons you might think. They were bothered that God had chosen a Liberal Arts school for this singular blessing instead of ours. They were indeed a Christian college. But we were a Bible college, training students for Christian ministry instead of business or the arts. Many felt this was a distinction demanded more of us in terms of the spiritual climate on campus. Perhaps they believed we should also have expected more from God because of it.
In other words, it seemed to me, that our students’ initial reaction to the news was one of disappointment rather than rejoicing. Indeed, I might go so far as to say that it produced a kind of petulance and self-recrimination. “What is wrong with us,” they seemed to say, “that the Spirit would pass us by and choose to fall on them?” It was as though God had overlooked Jerusalem and chosen Samaria instead to be his habitation.
This was not the first time I had observed this kind of spiritual jealousy. I had seen it many times in churches. I had wrestled with it myself. Watching others obtain a blessing you have sought for many years is hard. It feels much the same as being passed over for a promotion. It is like learning that your best friend was invited to a highly anticipated party when you were not.
There is biblical precedent for such a thing. Jesus performs miracles in Capernaum and ignores Nazareth (Luke 4:23–28). He invites Peter, James, and John up the mountain to watch the transfiguration and leaves the other nine apostles in the valley (Mark 9:2). He heals the invalid at the pool of Bethesda but leaves the rest to sit in their affliction (John 5:1–15). There is also plenty of precedent for spiritual jealousy. On several occasions, Jesus’ own disciples speculated and even argued with one another about who was the greatest among them (Matt. 18:1; Luke 9:34, 46).
In his Gospel, Mark tells how blind Bartimaeus sat by the side of the road begging as Jesus, his disciples, and a large crowd were leaving the city of Jericho (Mark 10:46–52). When the blind man heard that it was Jesus, he began to shout. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd attempted to silence him, but he only got louder. Finally, Jesus stopped and called for him. “Cheer up!” the people in the crowd said. “Get on your feet! He’s calling you.”
Bartimaeus cast aside his cloak and jumped to his feet. When he stood before Jesus, the Savior asked a question whose answer seems self-evident: “What do you want me to do for you?” I don’t know which bothers me more. The fact that a blind man had to tell Jesus that he wanted to see or the thought that if Bartimaeus hadn’t made such a fuss, Jesus might have passed him by. With this act, Bartimaeus becomes the patron saint of all those who make demands of Jesus. He also becomes the prototype of all who fear that Jesus will grant a blessing to others while withholding it from them. There are, no doubt, reasons for Jesus’ question. Perhaps his blindness was not obvious. Maybe Jesus wanted him to take the initiative and ask as an indication of his faith. I suppose Jesus could have been hinting to Bartimaeus that he could do more for him than heal.
Still, there is brusqueness to the question that I sometimes see in Jesus of the Gospels and find unnerving. It is the sort one occasionally experiences from the clerk at the counter who asks how they can help us. They know why I have come. They also know why they are there. Must I really spell out in detail what to me seems self-evident? Of course, such a comparison is unfair to Jesus for many reasons. I can’t see the expression on his face or hear the timbre of his voice when he poses this question to Bartimaeus. He may have exuded an aura of welcome and appeal.
Whatever Jesus’ motive was for requiring Bartimaeus to make the first move, it is the blind man’s anxiety we feel when we hear that Jesus is working somewhere else. It does not always come to us as good news, especially if we feel that we have been overlooked. For Bartimaeus, of course, it was a moment of opportunity. This was his usual spot. Jesus just happened to be passing through. It is different for some of us. The blessing we have been looking for is one that we have been pursuing for some time. To our own minds, at least, we can make a case for why it should come to us rather than someone else.
Some of the students at the school where I taught were part of a group that had prayed for a revival on campus for months. Some of them for years. For some reason, they always scheduled these meetings to last all night and held them on Fridays when most students were going out on dates. I suppose it was their way of shouting, like Bartimaeus. The more inconvenient they made the circumstances, the louder the shout. Then to have God drop the blessing in such an arbitrary way on a group of students who they felt were not nearly so devoted seemed almost like an insult.
I couldn’t help noticing something of this petulant spirit when comments about the prolonged chapel at Asbury began to surface on social media. Not everyone, mind you. But enough to make me take note. I am not surprised to find such things greeted with a certain amount of ambivalence. We Christians are caught between two equally necessary but competing obligations when it comes to such phenomena. On the one hand, we are warned not to “quench” the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19). Apparently, if we are not welcoming, we can act as wet blankets to his fire. On the other, we are warned that we must “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).
As a result, some people see it as their primary responsibility to sit at a distance and make negative judgments based on the photos and videos they see on the Internet. These gatekeepers issue reports and warnings as a public service to the church. Others, who are grieved by this critical spirit, consider it their responsibility to counter those remarks. They act as cheerleaders posting updates and affirmations. The rest of us scroll through being triggered by one or the other, depending upon our personality and spiritual history.
It doesn’t help matters that we are theologically split when it comes to such questions. Our doctrinal differences have their roots in American church history, with the divide coming between the first and second Great Awakenings. The theologian of the First Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century pastor whose marks of a work of the Spirit of God have been showing up in posts on social media lately. The theologian of the Second Great Awakening was Charles Finney, the 19th-century revivalist whose methods and assumptions still shape most of today’s popular worship practices. The main difference between them is essentially a question of control. To what degree can our efforts guarantee revival?
Edwards’ answer was that we cannot. Revival, according to him, comes as a surprise. Finney had a different view. “Revival is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle in any sense,” Finney asserted. “It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of constituted means.” When Finney calls revival “philosophical,” he is using the language of what was then called “natural philosophy,” or what we refer to as science today. In other words, Finney believed that spiritual laws govern revival. If the right means are used and proper conditions put in place, then revival must follow.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that there is much more that separates the two views of these men and that the differences between their theological perspectives are largely incompatible. This is another reason for the harsh tone taken by some of those who differ over contemporary claims of revival.
But ultimately, these differences really come down to a basic question. Did Bartimaeus cry out because Jesus chose to come his way? Or did Jesus call for Bartimaeus only because Bartimaeus raised his voice loud enough to get noticed? I suppose, if you are Bartimaeus at that moment, you don’t really care. All that matters is that Jesus stopped and called for you. Such questions are probably best pondered at leisure rather than at need.
In the end, however, I think Finney was wrong. The Spirit of God is ours as a gift, but he is not ours to control. There is something whimsical about how God interacts with and acts upon us. He is unpredictable in his ways, especially where the Spirit of God is concerned. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit,” Jesus explained to Nicodemus (John 3:5).
I have had more than one person ask me what I thought about the revival at Asbury. My answer has been that I am not close enough to the events to have a good opinion. Besides, I am not sure that my opinion matters. What I do know is that if, it is legitimate, the same Spirit at work there is the one who dwells in me. The same presence that fills the auditorium is also present in every place I am. And the same Jesus who called for Bartimaeus also calls to me in Scriptures and says, “Come to me . . . whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (cf. John 6:37).
I am a little late with this. I should have posted it January 1. I am this month’s devotional writer for Today in the Word and the topic is People of Prayer. You can watch my interview about it below with my friend and colleague Jamie Janosz, who is Today in the Word’s managing editor. If you would like to read the devotions, you can find them here. The devotions are short, so if you want to catch up, it should be pretty easy. I also write the monthly “Practical Theology column for Today in the Word and you can find it by clicking on the tab at the top of my web page. Speaking of prayer, I am thrilled to be writing a monthly column on the subject for Mature Livingduring 2023.
All of this might give the impression that I am an expert on the subject of praying. Well, I suppose that as a preacher, former pastor and Bible college professor, I am a professional. That is to say, I know how to pray out loud in a group. But I’ve never felt like an expert. My personal prayers have always seemed like a bit of a train wreck to me. Or rather, as I often like to refer to them, “awkward conversations with God.” That’s why my January column on the subject in Mature Living was entitled “Prayer for Amateurs.” On the one hand, when it comes to prayer, we are all experts in the sense that most of us have cried out to God in one form or another. Yet most of us feel that we aren’t very good at it. Go ahead and pray anyway. The secret to praying is not in the way we frame our requests but our confidence in the fact that God hears (1 John 5:14).
I am excited about the upcoming release of my latest book, entitled When God is Silent: Let the Bible Teach You to Pray. It should be coming out in August from Lexham Press but you can preorder your copy now at Amazon. I’ll be talking more about in in the coming days in my posts.
In Charles Dickens’ AChristmas Carol, the first spirit to visit Ebenezer Scrooge is the ghost of Christmas past. Scrooge notes the spirit’s small stature and asks, “Long Past?” “No. Your past,” the ghost replies.
Dickens is on to something here because this spirit often visits us at this time of year. The season of Advent, by its nature, implies a forward trajectory. It celebrates humanity’s long wait for the arrival of the promised seed of Abraham. In reality, we seem to spend most of it looking back. Ostensibly, we are looking back to the first Advent by recalling the details of the Christmas story. But more often, as Scrooge’s ghost observes, it is our own past that is the real focus of attention.
If you doubt this, look at the ornaments on your Christmas tree. If yours is like most people’s, it is a little like an archeologist’s dig. Your family history hangs in layers before your eyes, with ornaments that commemorate special events or have particular meaning for you. There are the ones with pictures of your children in elementary school and the threadbare elves who no longer have their arms but used to hang on your mother’s tree. Our ornaments trace the fads and passing tastes that have gripped us down through the years. Places we have visited, hobbies we attempted, tastes we acquired and then abandoned. For many of us, Christmas isn’t just a celebration of the past. It is, at least as far as the tree is concerned, a celebration of our past.
But there is more to it than this. When Scrooge asked what business brought the spirit to his bedside, the ghost answered that it was his welfare. “Scrooge expressed himself much obliged, but could not help thinking that a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end,” Dickens writes. “The Spirit must have heard him thinking for it said immediately: ‘Your reclamation, then. Take heed!”
Here, too, I think that Dickens is on to something. But the trajectory of our own stories moves in the opposite direction. The aim of the spirits in Dickens’ tale is to save Scrooge from his past. Our goal is to reproduce it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this other than its futility. The world that nostalgia longs to generate is one that is self-constructed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as reconstructed.
In his essay “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis characterizes nostalgia as “the inconsolable secret” in each one of us. He describes it as a longing “for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.” If he is correct, then the nostalgia of Christmas is not the desire to reproduce the Christmases of the past so much as it is a longing to experience Christmas as it should have been.
Not only does this explain why the actual holiday so often disappoints us, despite our furious preparation and our genuine anticipation. But it also clarifies why we return to it each year with an optimism that a more objective observer would probably call naive. The conviction that drove old Marley, though “dead as a door-nail,” to haunt Scrooge was the hope that his appeal would procure his former partner a better future. But we expect the ghost of Christmases past to heal the present.
Whatever dysfunction has dogged our heels in the past, somehow, each time we reenact the passion play that is Christmas, we expect things to go differently. We think that people who have been at odds all year long and often for decades will endure one another’s presence with grace and even pleasure. That sibling who never calls and never visits will show up on our doorstep smiling, and with arms full of packages. The seat at the table that has long been empty will no longer prick our hearts. The drunk will miraculously arrive sober. The prodigal will come home and not in rags. We will be a “normal” family, if only for a brief time.
It matters very little that the Christmas Spirits’ many brothers were unable to fulfill this expectation for us. Our hope in Christmas’s power to recast the past and somehow heal our present seems to be born each year anew. There is a kind of sad beauty in this fact. But there is a danger also. It is that we will fall into a kind of idolatry. Lewis captures its essence in his critique of nostalgia–or rather his critique of the longing the word so often represents. “The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing,” he writes. “These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers.”
And yet we are not wrong to expect Christmas to reclaim our past and redeem the present. We are only mistaken about the timing. This annual cycle of longing leading to expectations that are never quite met is very much in the spirit of Advent. It is a kind of living plainsong that forcibly reminds us that we are still waiting for Emmanuel, who having come once to redeem, “will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb. 9:28).
When that day comes, salvation will reach back and reclaim our history in its entirety. All our longings, all our disappointments, all our successes, and yes, even all our failures will be drawn into the redemption that Christ accomplished at His first coming. I do not know what form they will take as they are drawn into the new creation. Perhaps they will be absorbed and replaced as all things are made new. Or maybe, like ornaments hung on the Christmas tree, they will bear joyful witness to God’s faithfulness to us in the past. On that day, as the prophet Isaiah predicts, the Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces and remove His people’s disgrace from all the earth. We will have the celebration we have longed for all our lives and say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation” (Isa. 25:9).
After his wife, Joy Davidman, died of cancer, C. S. Lewis kept a journal of observations about the grief he felt. It concludes with her final moments. Lewis writes, “She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me.”
I remember being disturbed the first time I read these words. They seemed to speak of despair rather than hope. But the description is so like a sentence Lewis wrote in “The Weight of Glory,” that I have come to believe I was entirely mistaken about this. The sentence comes in a section of the essay where Lewis discusses the nature of glory. Lewis seems to be saying that the essence of this glory is a kind of recognition. The glory we hope for as Christians is to be known and recognized by God. More than this, according to Lewis, it is to be appreciated. This, Lewis explains, is what we long for–“to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son.”
It is this recognition or sense of belonging that we hunger for when we are caught up in longing, and it is the feeling that we are trying to create by the attempted reconstitution of our past through nostalgia. It is the sense of finally coming home. It is what compels us every year to go to such measures to create circumstances that will produce the feeling and whose subsequent failure so breaks our hearts that we aim for it again and again. “For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing,” Lewis explains. “Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance.”
“She smiled,” Lewis observed at his wife’s passing, “but not at me.”
It seems right to speak of death in the same breath as Advent because Advent is the season of ghosts. It is that rolling time of year when the spirit of Christmases past rises up to remind us that the world is still broken and that the home for which we long has not yet arrived. It has not come. But it is on its way.
 Charles Dickens, The Christmas Books, Vol. 1, (New York: Penguin, 1971), 69.
 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, (New York: HarperOne, 1976), 29.
Christmas was important to me even before I called myself a Christian, though admittedly, this was mainly for non-religious reasons. I’ve long suspected that I have always loved Christmas more than any other holiday, not because of its spirituality but because it purchased my affections. It’s true that I loved the music and the pageantry. The glow of the lights and the smell of evergreen seemed to transport me to another world. But it was the presents that clinched the deal. When it came to gifts, Christmas was the motherload. Far better than birthdays or any other holiday.
When I became a follower of Jesus, I expected the change to transform Christmas the same way it transformed the rest of my life. I assumed the season, which seemed magical to me already, would become transcendent. It did not. If anything, the change somehow managed to dim the glow.
Perhaps this was because of the church culture to which I had become attached. The church tradition I joined was what is commonly described as a “low” church. Apart from Christmas and Easter, we didn’t follow the church calendar. Even the attention paid to those two days seemed grudging at times. We were proud of this bare-faced approach that disassociated us from Roman Catholicism, with its robes, smoke, and long lists of feasts that never seemed to involve actual food.
Of course, we had our own list of special days and celebrations. So I suppose you could say they were feasts of a sort. There were potlucks and suppers, the annual Valentine’s day banquet, and a church meal after every funeral. There were also a vast variety of informal meals, usually related to specific events or the passing of the seasons. But, in retrospect, it occurs to me that most of these occasions were more social than religious.
Christmas, on the other hand, was overtly religious. By it, we aimed to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We did this with a measure of reserve. There were a few decorations, but they were not elaborate. A handful of evergreen sprigs and the occasional wreath decked out with red and green ribbons were usually enough. Some churches, which would normally have eschewed putting up a Christmas tree in the sanctuary because of its pagan roots, even constructed a large tree-shaped scaffold for the choir and covered it with pine branches.
Christmas Eve was the only time we allowed candles in the sanctuary. Instead of lighting them for the dead like Catholics, we held them in our hands. We dimmed the lights and sang Silent Night as the wax dripped on the upholstery of the pew in front of us. I liked the flickering shadows but hated the song, not because of its content but for its familiarity. It bored me. As a rule, my tastes in Christmas music tended toward the medieval. I would rather sing Prudentius or some repurposed Gregorian chant.
The low church tradition in which I still worship appears to have overcome its reticence about candles and greenery. Advent candles, midnight services on Christmas eve, and strung lights are so common these days that we hardly notice the difference anymore. The church I currently attend piles so many Christmas trees into the place of worship that it feels like we are at a campground instead of in the sanctuary. I have even visited a church that broadcasts Chuck Berry singing “Run, run, Rudolph!” through loudspeakers outside its front door. On the stage in the auditorium where the congregation meets, a smoke machine generates a thin shekinah of mechanical fog.
As for me, my tastes in worship, like my tastes in Christmas music, tend toward the minor key. I have always felt a little envious of my high church friends who, when they lift their eyes in worship, see arches and stained glass instead of ductwork. I have wondered what it would be like to preach a sermon wearing vestments. It would be refreshing to attend a church that feels like a church instead of feeling like I am visiting a shopping mall, an office complex, or a repurposed grocery store. But God, I suspect, does not really care. Even the tabernacle, raised by divine command and meticulously constructed according to the pattern revealed to Moses on the holy Mountain, turned out to be only “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:5).
We hunger for a sense of the presence of God. But tend to confuse transcendence with ambiance. In its worship practices, the church seems to struggle to find the happy medium between Puritan austerity and baroque gaudiness. This struggle is further complicated by differences in culture, style, and taste. Not every church celebrates Christmas the same. Indeed, as far as Scripture is concerned, we do not need to observe Christmas as a holy day at all. There is certainly no evidence in the New Testament that the first Christians did. In his book Ancient Christian Worship, Andrew McGowan contrasts “the colorful calendars of feasts, fasts, and saints that churches of the fourth and fifth centuries celebrated” with “the relative silence” of the New Testament on such matters. The apostle Paul criticized the Galatians for “observing special days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10). In Colossians 2:16, he warned the Colossians not to let anyone judge them “with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” Christmas, it would seem, is not the queen of days. We are free to observe it or not observe it as we wish.
Meanwhile, when God’s presence does show itself, it is more likely to be on the periphery of our daily experience than in the church sanctuary. God seems to inhabit the corners and shadows, preferring the unnamed days of ordinary time to the high holy days from which we expect so much. He does not come with fanfare. But as the carol says, silently, and in the places where all our hopes and fears meet. “No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
This is the message of Christmas. It is the old, old promise whispered in the Garden, shouted by the prophets, and trumpeted to shepherds on a hillside near Bethlehem. It is the good news that God has drawn near by taking on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He came with a real body to the real world. He came to die, rise, and will one day return. Only then will we know what it is like to experience God’s presence in its fullness.
 Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 259.
It’s getting to look a lot like Easter. Which, frankly, isn’t saying that much. Between Christmas and Easter, it’s plain to see which holiday is the favored child of the church calendar. The advent of Christmas is announced months in advance with music, decorations, movies, sales, and anticipatory feasting. We light candles, open doors on the advent calendar, and generally work ourselves into a state of hysterical glee and exhaustion.
In the past couple of years, I have noticed that periods of social unrest are often accompanied by a corresponding outbreak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am referring, of course, to the accompanying blizzard of memes on Facebook and Twitter that display a quote famously (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Bonhoeffer: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
When I was a pastor, I noticed that my visits with people occasionally made them nervous. Maybe it was my personality. Perhaps I didn’t make enough small talk. But I think the cause lay elsewhere. I think they were sometimes uncomfortable because they saw me as a symbol of something else. Or, perhaps I should say, I was a symbol of someone else. One woman told me that she spent the whole day cleaning before I arrived. Then she said, “When the pastor visits, it’s almost like having God come to your house.” My wife, Jane, who had come with me, answered her with a laugh. “The difference is that God already knows what your closets look like.”