Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On Lifting Our Hands

I know, August is over and all month not a single post here at Frankly Speaking. I regret that. A long trip that made stops in Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, and Connecticut kept me busy. Plus, school started at Amarillo College last week. Good classes so far. More about them another time.

Anyway, so here's something: Amarillo Bible Chair, where I'm the director, publishes a print bulletin that goes out once a month. We send it to our contributors and to other interested people and churches. Almost every month, I write up a little something that belongs in the church-bulletin editorial category. Most of these articles are pretty tame. Decent stuff, I like to think. But not even close to controversial. Every once in a while, though, I address something that I know is (or could be) a debated question.

I published the following piece in last month's bulletin. As I see it, the article is about something that neither I nor anyone else should have to write about. Yet among some people in the Churches of Christ I talk to, there seems to be some anxiety on the subject. So I put something together. Since then, I've gotten a little bit of "push back" in the mail. Here's what I wrote . . .

"I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (1 Timothy 2:8, NIV).

Paul penned those words to emphasize that the prayers of the church should be offered by people who are at peace with each other. But he also mentioned the practice of lifting hands. Why? According to the Old Testament, lifting one’s hands in prayer was common among the ancient Jews:

“I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands” (Psalm 63:4).

“When Solomon had finished all these prayers and supplications to the Lord, he rose from before the altar of the Lord, where he had been kneeling with his hands spread out toward heaven” (1 Kings 8:54).

1 Timothy 2:8 simply shows that at least some of the earliest Christians, many of them Jews, continued this way of praying. This might lead someone to ask, “Should Christians today lift their hands when they speak to God?”

The Bible clearly teaches that this is matter of personal choice. The Scriptures report occasions when people acceptably prayed while standing (1 Samuel 1:26), sitting (2 Samuel 7:18), kneeling (1 Kings 8:54) and lying face down (Matthew 26:39).

From these examples, we can gather that in 1 Timothy 2:8 Paul was not making the case for a certain prayer posture. He knew that his readers typically prayed that way. His point to them was that, when they prayed that way, the hands they lifted up were to be holy hands. If he were writing to contemporary American Christians, Paul might demand that we “bow holy heads.” In order to pray as we should, it’s vital that we bring pure hearts to the Lord. “If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear” (Psalm 66:18). It is the prayer of a righteous person that “avails much” (James 5:16).

Some people today like to pray and sing with their hands lifted up. That is not necessarily more spiritual; neither is it wrong. I've talked with some people in the Churches of Christ who regard lifting hands as a concession to Pentecostalism or the charismatic movement. Why? The fact that charismatics enter their buildings through the door doesn’t mean we have to start crawling in through the windows. The same Scripture that permits me to bow my head surely permits my neighbor to lift his hands. Rules made by man are just that. Let us be at peace and offer holy prayers.

The response that I got in the mail basically said that people who raise their hands in worship (and sometimes sway) probably do so out of motives that are ego-centered, or because some church leader unsatisfied with the status quo has encouraged them to do that.

Maybe so. I suspect that there must be someone who attends church, speaks up in Bible class, kneels, bows his head, closes his eyes, tosses a check into the collection plate, etc., all out of some truly unspiritual motives.

But my question is, How would I know that about him? The point is, my neighbor stands or falls (or lifts his hands) before the Lord, not me. If he's out to make a spectacle of himself, then shame on him. But that's not my call. Just like it's not for me to say to someone, "You shouldn't say 'Amen' during the sermon. You're just trying to call attention to yourself."

I for one don't raise my hands when I pray or when I sing. Even if I attended a congregation where that was the norm, I probably still wouldn't do it. It's just not a natural prayer and praise gesture for me. For someone else, that might be or become a gesture that is natural.