The Most Powerful Verb

Pick up a writing manual or style guide and you will find exhortations for writers to use powerful, active verbs. These guides usually list “to be” and all its forms as one of the weakest verbs writers should avoid. Writing littered with “to be” verbs makes the author appear lazy and unimaginative. Instead of writing, “This pizza is delicious,” one could write the stronger sentence, “This pizza tastes delicious.” In the first example, the sentence only implies the pizza encountering something other than itself. It merely states the pizza is. In the second example, the pizza affects the eater’s sense of taste. The pizza evokes a response from the person eating it.

We would say, “There is a rock,” is a far less interesting sentence than, “The rock plummeted down the canyon wall.” What a shame. In the reality outside the written world, “to be” is the most powerful verb we have. The fact the rock exists at all is far more powerful than its plummeting down a canyon. The rock’s ability to plummet or crush or sit depends on there being a rock in the first place.

All our actions for good or ill, all our successes and failures, depend on our existence. Your abilities to create music, swim in a lake, or hug your family are not greater than the fact that you are. Perhaps we do not consider the wonder of our being because it is not something we accomplished. You did not bring about your existence, you received it. But you are. And that is truly an amazing thing.

We take existence for granted by subordinating it to utility. The tree in my front yard shades our house and it looks nice, but it is not wondrous primarily because of what it accomplishes for my family. Its very existence is something to behold. The tree is at once both gratuitous and necessary. That one tree does not necessarily have to be, yet it does exist all the same. And the very fact that it is, leaves an indelible mark on all reality. The tree is a part of this world and this world would not be the world we know without it.

We unfortunately see the wonder of being rarely and usually when the major turns of life overwhelm us. The birth of a child awakens us to the gratuitousness of existence. This new child comes into the world seemingly out of nowhere and we see her existence as a gift beyond our powers of accomplishment. The death of a loved one reminds us just how necessary that person’s existence was. Their absence forever changes the world and no amount of healing will ever fully replace the gap they left. Birthdays can be annual reminders of the miracle of existence, if we take the opportunity to reflect.

Some languages don’t use the verb “to be” much—it is implied by the syntax of the sentence. But your existence is not a verb implied by the syntax of our world. Your being is both a gift and necessity. Further, your neighbor’s, friend’s, mother’s, co-worker’s, classmate’s, child’s, brother’s, and enemy’s existence is both a gift and necessity. “To be” is truly the strongest verb imaginable.

How to Pray for the Nation and its Leaders

Politics of Praise-page001This week Americans will celebrate Independence Day. The number of politicians who have announced their candidacy for President of the United States continues to grow. The Fourth of July offers us the opportunity to reflect on the history, values, and meaning of the United States. The upcoming national election in 2016 demands each of us reflects and expresses our vision for the nation’s future.

For Christians, it is easy to allow the loud voices of our nation and partisan politics to drown out the quieter voice of the Holy Spirit. If we are not careful we will confuse patriotism for America with Jesus’s call to seek God’s kingdom first. We run the risk of letting the platforms of candidates shape our political priorities rather than submitting our priorities to Jesus. In order to keep the values of God’s kingdom clear, and to ensure we are following Christ before a candidate or party, we must engage in that most basic Christian political act: prayer.

Until recently, Christians learned to pray by reading the Book of Psalms. In this collection of prayer-poems we find numerous prayers for the nation and its leaders. The psalms overflow with political speech. The writers show us God’s agenda and teach us how to prioritize it first. They teach us what kind of nations and leaders God blesses.

I published a devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, that helps readers pray through these two very political psalms. Psalm 146 is a terrific prayer as we listen to candidates share their agendas. Praying this psalm allows us to see God’s agenda of creation, justice for the oppressed, and renewal for the abandoned. Psalm 72 is a prayer for governmental leaders, but it gives us an image of the kind of nation God blesses. As we celebrate this July 4th, let us think of the kind of nation God desires. This is a nation that prioritizes the weak and needy, the people on the margins.

The Politics of Praise is available in both the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.

Worshiping with the Church Behind the Walls

I went to prison recently to worship Jesus Christ with the inmates. San Quentin State Penitentiary allows church groups to volunteer in their chapel services. I attended the Protestant Sunday night service with one of those groups. This was the first time I had ever been in a prison as well as the first time I worshiped with men serving their sentences. When I worked for the Salvation Army in a rehabilitation center, I would worship weekly with men on probation and parole.

I do not want to communicate that because I went into the prison for one night I am somehow an expert on the criminal justice system or the spiritual life of the inmates. If anything, my experience showed me how little I know, but it also gave me a desire to learn more. Take this post as a reflection of a first-time volunteer. Several of the people I went with have been ministering in San Quentin for many years. They have forged trusting relationships with the men there that can only come from consistent encounter.

California builds most of its prisons far away from major metropolitan areas, making San Quentin unique as it sits in Marin County, overlooking San Francisco Bay. I wanted to visit San Quentin when I ministered in Fremont, but was never able to do so. Friends in my current congregation began attending worship services last year. They shared their overwhelmingly positive experiences, giving me a small sense of what to expect.

I want to avoid the twin errors of romanticizing the experience and refusing to see the men beyond their legal status as convicts. In the orientation for first-timers, our leader said the chapel service would look and feel like a normal worship service. He said the congregation would be like any other Christian body, comprising devout Christ-followers, nominal Christians, seekers, and some folks who attend just to get out of their cells for a couple hours. The congregation would differ from churches outside the prison in two significant ways. First, the congregation would be entirely male. Second, the all the congregants would wear prison uniforms.

Our leader described what would happen as, “The Church beyond the walls going to worship with the Church behind the walls.” We were not bringing the good news to people who had never heard of Jesus before. Rather, the Holy Spirit has been active in that community for decades. Our ministry to the men was one of fellowship, letting them know through our presence that their brothers and sisters in Christ outside the prison love them.

We approached the first gate of the prison where we underwent another identity check. The prison has to clear all volunteers prior to arriving, but some folks have been turned back anyway. Then we walked across the employee parking lot to the main entrance of the prison proper. Again we signed our names and showed our identification. Guards waved a metal detector at us and ushered us through the sally port. Having operated since 1852, the prison is a hodgepodge of architecture and technology. It still appears foreboding despite also looking like something schoolchildren would tour on an historical field trip.

Inside the main courtyard our leader pointed out the buildings. In the distance were the main cell blocks. In front of us was the new hospital ward. To the left of us was the “Adjustment Center,” or solitary confinement. Off to the right were the chapels where the men began to gather in the sanctuary. (Services for Roman Catholics, Protestant Spanish speakers, and some non-Christians [Buddhists?] gathered at the same time in different rooms.) As we approached the sanctuary, the men began to greet us. I have not been to such a welcoming and friendly congregation in a long time. The men showed genuine interest in meeting me and knowing my name. As we entered the sanctuary, I was reminded of chapel services I attended when I worked in a Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, where most of the men in recovery were on probation or parole. We volunteers could not sit among the men, but had to sit together up front for safety reasons.

People will ask whether I felt safe. Guards were not in the chapel. I still felt safe, thanks in large part to the stories I heard from my friends who previously volunteered at the prison. To attend chapel services, the men must be on good behavior. Sure, I initially wondered for what crimes these men were convicted. As the service progressed, I found myself drawn into worshiping God with my brothers in Christ, not worrying about my safety.

The worship service did progress like any normal worship service, although no offering was taken. The inmate choir first led us in songs and then our group led a couple songs. There was a time of sharing testimonies and prayer requests. We read Scripture. A pastor with our group preached a sermon. Then we mingled for a bit afterward. I had some great conversations with the men, hearing a bit about their lives. One asked me to pray for him as his parole hearing was approaching. Another described his studies to me.

One of the inmates offered a prayer in the service. As he came to the pulpit, he addressed the congregation as, “Saints.” This word surprised me, revealing my prejudices about these men. But as we prayed, I realized he was right. We have deemed these men too dangerous to be a part of the rest of society, perhaps with good reason in certain cases. We have reduced them to the status of criminals and convicts. When our society looks at them, we can only see the crimes for which they are sentenced. The Holy Spirit sees these men differently. They are made in God’s image, people for whom Jesus loved so much that he died to set them free from their sin. They may wear the clothes of convicted men, but Christ is setting them free and changing them. Saints is right.

I went on Pentecost Sunday and while no one made mention of the Christian holiday, I couldn’t help but reflect on the birth of the Church. The author of Acts tells us the followers of Jesus were shut up in a house in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit burst through the walls and began speaking through the disciples in different languages. God truly is no respecter of persons or walls. The Holy Spirit climbed over the walls and made his home in San Quentin. Aside from some first-hand accounts I’ve read and heard, I don’t know what daily life is like in prison. I imagine that it often seems like a God-forsaken place to the inmates. And yet the Spirit’s presence was evident as we worshiped together on Sunday night. What is more, it was clear the Holy Spirit has been active in the prison for a long time.

As I reflected on my time in San Quentin I also realized that these men relate to God in ways I cannot. I wondered, what must it be like to read the story of Moses, who killed a man, when one has committed murder? I imagine the prison letters of Paul, like Philippians, ring true on deeper levels for those serving long sentences. A Bible commentary written by inmates would be a wonderful gift to the Church.

I cannot speak to the ethnic composition of the other chapel services, but the congregation of the Protestant chapel was almost entirely black. I could not help but think of Michelle Alexander’s argument in her book, The New Jim Crow, that the current criminal justice system—particularly, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration—has created a system of social control based on race that has led to a caste-like system. As I worshiped with my brothers, I was aware that even those who would one day be released would forever be disenfranchised in many ways. I wonder, when one commits a felony, at what point is his debt to society paid?

I was also struck by how bureaucratically difficult it is to minister to our brothers in prison. We had to undergo background checks. As volunteers we were not to foster friendships with the men beyond the chapel. I was not to give out my name and address, nor was I to take their names and addresses. That is, I cannot write to anyone I met. I cannot return to the prison to visit any of the men on an individual basis. The prison system distinguishes between visitors and volunteers and makes sure the two never mix. If I were to start writing to one of my brothers in prison, I would no longer be a volunteer and would become a visitor. I then could not attend chapel services. I am sure there are valid reasons for these boundaries, but it saddens me that our society makes it so difficult to share God’s love with prisoners.

“The Politics of Praise,” Book Excerpt: Day 1 Readings and Prayers

Politics of Praise-page001My new book, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, contains thirty-two daily readings and prayers. Readers slowly meditate on one verse a day and ponder questions designed to deepen their relationship with God. Here is a sample of the readings from first day’s meditation on Psalm 146 .

Psalms 72 & 146 -- Day 1

The Politics of Praise is available in both eBook and paperback at Amazon.

“The Politics of Praise” Excerpt: Worshiping Yahweh in the Midst of Gods

The following is the first essay from my new devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, available both in the Kindle format and paperback at

Politics of Praise-page001

Worshiping Yahweh in the Midst of Gods

Some years back I took a tour of the National Mall in Washington, DC. The religious nature of the place struck me. I do not mean Christian, but religious. The giant buildings, the beautiful architecture of the monuments, the larger than life sculptures of national figures all evoke awe and wonder from visitors. When I stood in the Capitol Rotunda at the east end of the Mall, I looked up at the giant fresco Constantino Brumidi painted on the inside of the Capitol’s Dome. In “The Apotheosis of Washington,” George Washington, representing America as a whole, sits in the heavens, surrounded by goddesses and figures of ancient mythology as he becomes a god. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial people mourn and pray for loved ones who died in that war. The area around the black stone wall is as hushed and solemn as a church sanctuary before a funeral.

At the west end of the National Mall the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln sits on his throne gazing out over America like the Greek god Zeus. Consider the epitaph, dripping with sacred terminology, inscribed in the Lincoln Memorial: “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” The National Mall’s architecture and sculpture are as religious as the Vatican’s. The buildings and statues urge us to revere the nation and the government they represent. Being at the National Mall reminded me religion and politics inhabit the same space. Politics will adopt religious language and symbolism and religion has its own political agendas.

Many people find the idea of mixing Christian faith with politics troubling. We worry religion will force itself on the state and seek to establish a theocratic dictatorship, or the state will co-opt religion for its own purposes, confusing patriotism for our commitment to God’s kingdom. To be sure, we have historical examples of these negative outcomes happening. Thus we hear voices telling us not to mix faith and politics, to keep faith out of the seats of government, and to keep politics out of the pulpit.

Eugene Peterson addresses our hesitation to mix religion and politics:

The people who warn that “religion and politics don’t mix” certainly know what they are talking about. The mix has resulted in no end of ills—crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, exploitation. All the same, God says, “Mix them.” But be very careful how you mix them. The only safe way is in prayer.[1]

For followers of Jesus, keeping religion and politics separate is a dangerous move that relegates faith to the private sphere where we reduce prayer to mere requests for personal comfort and blessing. We also reduce Jesus to a self-help guru whose only concern is our fulfillment. Despite the serious malfunctions of Christianity’s political involvement, we also see magnificent benefits for the common good when Christians have brought their faith into the public square—the Civil Rights movement in the United States under the very religious leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. being an obvious example.

Readers of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures cannot escape the deeply political nature of these texts. God does not deal only with the private lives of the people of Israel and the Church. We see God shaping and clashing with people groups, including nations and governments. Neither does God use political terms like justice and peace as if they are empty containers void of any concrete meaning. Rather, God defines these concepts. We read about Yahweh’s expectations for neighbors to peacefully interact with each other. The Bible brims with God imploring people to act justly toward the most vulnerable people in society.

The majority of God’s people throughout history have learned to pray using the psalms. If we mediate on them they will teach us how to pray for our civic life, that is, how to safely mix religion and politics. This devotional will guide readers through praying Psalms 72 and 146, two psalms that shaped the political and religious life of the people of Israel. These psalms offer us a vision of God’s political agenda and give us the means to hold our leaders accountable. They do not exhaust all the Book of Psalms or the Bible say about politics, but the pictures of justice and wellbeing found in them are consistent with other political passages in Scripture.

Readers will pray through Psalm 146 first. This brief hymn minimizes the importance of government leaders, praises Yahweh for being eternal and powerful, and describes God’s political agenda. Praying Psalm 146 will correctly order our relationships with God and our political leaders. The psalmist reminds us of the transience of government officials and their agendas. If we were to only pray Psalm 146, however, we might think God says governments are unimportant. Therefore readers will then pray through Psalm 72, a prayer for governmental leaders. The psalmist describes the kind of good governance that God blesses. This prayer becomes our measure for how well our leaders do their job.

How do we maintain our focus on God when we stand before those majestic statues on the National Mall? How do we keep our commitment to Yahweh first even as other powers, especially our governments, demand our allegiance? How do we pursue God’s agenda in public and hold our leaders accountable to that agenda? I believe the answer to all these questions must start with prayer. In this devotional guide I will not offer a comprehensive vision for how Christians are to engage in public and civic life. I do know, however, that a comprehensive vision of mixing faith and politics will be anemic if it does not begin and remain saturated with prayer.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms that Summon You from Self to Community (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985) Kindle Edition, locations 103-105.