A Good Time to Pray

“Accustom yourself gradually to carry Prayer into all your daily occupation — speak, act, work in peace, as if you were in prayer, as indeed you ought to be.” François Fénelon

 

 

What if everything that happened in your life was really an opportunity to take or to leave behind? Certainly you’ve missed many chances in life just because you were unaware, asleep, afraid, busy, suspicious, worried, satisfied or even hopeless. Missing your chance isn’t a unique experience in life. All of us have this experience, all of the time!

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”  ― Soren Kierkegaard

But what if, instead of looking at what’s happening all around us with “here and now” eyesight, we started more and more to see our circumstances and situations with the eternal perspective of God?

  1. What if there was a chance each day to say something important to someone that might change their life, even a little?
  2. What if you had your eyes open to what might really be going on in the lives of people you really know, the lives of acquaintances and even the lives of strangers? Watching closely enough so that you could do the right thing.
  3. Can you imagine living each day with your head in the heavenly clouds and seeing your situation from God’s point of view?
  4. What if you walked through your day praying instead of: complaining, whining, worrying, sulking, gossiping, or cynically making fun?

“Help” is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn’t matter how you pray–with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago I wrote an essay that began, “Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.”  ― Anne Lamott

Isn’t right now a good time to pray about something/someone? What are you waiting for?

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Learning to Walk Again

“I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” – Mark 9:24

I’ve got some sort of problem with my back these days. Very difficult to get about. Sitting around is okay. Getting into a vehicle, stooping to pick something up, even jumping out of bed all really hurt. I’ve also had “frozen shoulders” for months. So many daily activities are no longer possible or only so with pain:

  • Putting on a shirt
  • Tying shoes
  • Getting a pair of socks on
  • Bending to pull something out of the cabinet
  • How about a back scratch?

I need one of those valets from Downton Abbey!

The good news here is that my shoulders are thawing and I’ve gotten some very effective medicine for my back.  I’m going to live.

This all brings up the memories of the time my wife had to spend months in rehabilitation learning how to do so many simple things all over again. She was recovering from a successful brain surgery and the necessary medication left her physically powerless to move much. It was a hard struggle that she met valiantly.

In much of our lives, it can be painful to go back and learn again how to do what is essential (and often taken-for-granted). Our spiritual self needs to be in command of the ship. When it’s crippled, the rest of our being is off balance. We’ve got to learn how to walk in the Spirit again so that all the rest of our life can line up, stand straight and move freely.

Sometimes God removes our crutches so that we can learn to depend upon him with all our strength, all of our attention, all of our devotion.

Not everything is a crutch, preventing us from walking in faith. But often, people write about these aspects of their life as being a blessing and then, because of over dependence, they become crutches and impede our transformation;

  • Our careers
  • Wealth and income
  • Possessions
  • Friendships
  • Even family

Learning to walk again in the Spirit often means that we have to turn loose of things we’ve hung on to for support – in place of God.

Sometimes it means we have to just loosen our grip – be ready to take His hand when offered or to pass on to someone else that treasure we once held so dear.

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.”
Matthew 6:31-33

Doesn’t that sound crazy? Don’t worry about the basic necessities of life? I’ve discovered (usually the hard way) that God knows what I need better than I do. He is also ahead, in my future, arranging the journey so that my basics are always covered. When I learn how to walk in the Spirit, I can stop paying attention to my own growling stomach and pay more attention to everyone else I meet along the way.

“The greatest lesson a soul has to learn is that God, and God alone, is enough for all its needs. This is the lesson that all God’s dealings with us are meant to teach, and this is the crowning discovery of our entire Christian life. GOD IS ENOUGH!”  – Hannah Whitall Smith

Automatic Faith

Do you drive to work everyday? This “every single day procedure” typically becomes so routine that our brains turn it into automatic thinking. We’ve all experienced it. You arrive at your destination and can’t really remember the trip. That’s what automatic thinking is – our brains can’t process all the information and decisions that we face all day long, so what it does is it takes routine activities out of the “deliberate” and conscious part of the brain and sinks them into the semi-conscious and “automatic” part. In this way, we can accomplish so much more in our busy lives each day.

What I worry about is when my faith drifts into automatic thinking and I’m not really as spiritually conscious as I should be.

Automatic thinking works when it comes to driving to work and other routine activities, I get there every day AND I’m able to think about all sorts of other important items. But I miss everything all along the way. Not that there’s much to see on this same route day after day. But when it comes to my walk of faith – I don’t want to miss ANYTHING.

How to start having a more deliberate walk of faith…

Bring Your Faith Into Present Consciousness

  1. Get up each day and think about all your taken-for-granted blessings FIRST. Let these thoughts fill your mind before everything else crowds in. Letting a blessed life guide your thinking can make you more conscious of everything else.
  2. Watch your speech. How are you framing, defining, declaring the world around you? We develop patterns early on and they become unconscious routes we travel in our interactions. This is usually an automatic activity. It prevents conscious faith. Instead – stop, drop and roll. Wake up and STOP talking like that, DROP all those tired talking points from your speech and then ROLL out a new and conscious perspective each time you open your mouth (maybe you should keep it shut more often?).
  3. Each time a problem, situation, or person crosses your mind – needing to be dealt with somehow – don’t revert back to past patterns (automatically). Instead really think about these situations and apply your faith; how would you want to be treated, what could you give instead of take, what needs some grace for a change?

Instead of Automatic Faith – Deliberate Faith

As we pray to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and the enduring hope you have because of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (1 Thessalonians 1:3)

How do the people around you think about your life?

When we are unconscious of the guidance of the Holy Spirit and our own transformation, we run the risk of living with automatic faith – not really using our faith to live a new life, but keeping it shelved away for a rainy day. It’s there, ready for when the fire alarm sounds or when someone close to us falls into a disaster. But isn’t faith supposed to be a WALK and not a RUN?

Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.  (Philippians 4:8)

Fixing your thoughts sounds like a deliberate practice doesn’t it. When was the last time you (and your faith) fixed your thinking rather than having your situation determine how you thought about things?

“Miracles… seem to me to rest not so much upon… healing power coming suddenly near us from afar but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that, for a moment, our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there around us always.” ― Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

Transformation takes time. Learning to put our faith into practice takes one step at a time. One certain step in the right direction is to be more deliberate about this part of our life and less automatic (and unaware). 

 

Why Do We Pray? Part 2

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed. – Psalm 34:8

This one is for you Rosemary…

I’m sharing in the mourning of a sister in the faith who has had her mother suddenly taken away from her by the flu. A friend from the past has just posted that his wife has been diagnosed with cancer. Our own family lives every day wondering what will happen next in our own battle with cancer.

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

I’m certain that one of the reasons we all pray is that we have been attacked by terrible enemies and we run to safety. We run to our Heavenly Father who promises us that He will always be near to us. Despite all of the fear, sorrow and uncertainty – what we really want, deep down is to know that God is not a stranger, He is not far away, He knows our pain, His desire is to bring comfort and hope.

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. – Hebrews 10:23-24

One of the reasons we all pray is because of our need to experience the nearness of God. Praying puts us in the very presence of God. When we pray we can pour out not just our words, but our torn up feelings, burdens of the heart and deep dark questions. All of this can be done in the best place of all, right at the feet of God.

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.  – Hebrews 4:16

There are a hundred other places you see people run when difficulties arrive. Our friends can help, but only so far. Soon we come to the end of what they know and how much they can bear. We live in a world full of experts just a tap and a click away. But who can you really trust? A stranger in a book or online?

The world that we pass through each day is more and more filled with strangers. Our families are fragmenting. We change jobs too frequently to make lasting friendships. We compete with more people than we can be friends with. Our neighbors remain strangers behind closed doors. Where do we go to share our broken hearts?

When you carry around a broken heart all that ever happens is an ever deepening infection of the soul and bad country western lyrics.

Your church can be, should be, a place where there are people who unconditionally love and are eager to help bear your burdens. You need to go to church, there are all kinds of people there who need you. There are people there who you need.

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. – 2 Corinthians 4:8-10

 

Seeing is Believing

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

“Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” ― Paul Tillich

Another wonderful sermon on Sunday. We were reminded about “Doubting Thomas” who had to see in order to believe.

Faith and doubt is difficult to write about. We all believe right up until we start to doubt. Our doubts can  help us to keep a check on our faith, never taking it for granted. You can imagine the theological discussions that Thomas must have had with his fellow disciples after he declared he’d have to see to believe.   

“If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.”― Frederick Buechner

Our doubts center on how far we should wade in. How much are we willing to risk by stepping out and living parts of our life according to our beliefs. Doubt describes this tension between risk and trust.

Poor Saint Thomas. More like all the rest of us than perhaps any other disciple. At least during this event. He had been left out of the visitation of the Risen Christ, off doing something else and had missed the glorious moment. What must he have been thinking, what could have been more important? He’d been left out of the big adventure and must have felt lonely, angry and/or even discouraged.

Maybe we spend too much time being miserable about our past mistakes. Future hopes and dreams can dull the here and now. We miss so many chances because we’re not living in the present. Thomas was literally absent. So to can we be absent from our faith and miss the very presence of Christ.

Sometimes God will come and get right in your face. Jesus certainly did that with Thomas.

 “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!” – John 20:27

Thomas paid attention to his encounter and it changed his life forever. He was ready to believe.

“My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed. – John 20:28

I’m afraid that I’ve too often been looking in the wrong direction. Too often filled up with myself. Thomas put all that aside and reached out with faith and grabbed a hold of his Savior. What about you? Are you always ready to believe?

The Christian faith is a lot like that encounter Thomas had with Jesus. It’s very “hands-on.” You can’t coast along on the faith of someone else. You can’t sit in the pew for too long and hope to make it when that 800 year flood hits. You have to get up and wade into your belief.

Thomas was challenged to stick his fingers into the very side of the Risen Christ. What must he have thought as Jesus looked him in the eye and grabbed his hand? If you are going to follow Christ, you are going to have to take some risks and even get uncomfortable. Where are those boundaries in your life?

Thomas had to see with his own eyes. He had heard the words of faith for for three years. Now it was time to put it into real practice. He just didn’t realize the time was now. Everything was moving so fast. Walking in faith is often like that, it can sneak up and suddenly challenge us to get out of the boat and step into the storm.

Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” – John 20:29

Are you becoming one of the blessed?

There’s nothing wrong with doubts. Jesus didn’t reject Doubting Thomas, he made a special visit to assure him. God isn’t mad because we don’t believe enough, he’s instead offering so much more, encouraging us to believe more and more each day.

For we live by believing and not by seeing. – 2 Corinthians 5:7

It all makes me wonder, why am I not demonstrating my faith so that others have something more to see? What might walking and talking my faith produce?

  1. It would increase my own eternal health. Each time I take a step of faith, I confront my own doubts. I reassert in my heart and mind why belief is so crucial.  Putting faith into practice confronts my own weakness and lethargy of spirit.
  2. Instead of blending in all the time I could provide an alternative. I can live my life as an example to the unbelieving elements of my culture. My life choices can serve as a beacon.
  3. My walk of faith can inspire the faith of others. There are people in my path who need to be encouraged to live a life of faith. I can be like Thomas to those around me and demonstrate doubts converted into undying faith.

 

“It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A Partridge in a Pear Tree

“The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” ― J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan)

Over the past several years it seems like our decorating style has gone to the birds. We got a new couch a year ago and picked out a fabric with giant birds all over it. I didn’t have to work hard at all to sell it to my wife. I think because it had a black background. Her favorite TV decorating show has a “everything is black” theme to it. We just re-wallpapered in the kitchen and breakfast area. A very busy and colorful bird pattern. Guaranteed to make you car-sick if you’re not careful.

Yes, a theme is definitely appearing in our house everywhere you look. All because something bigger has happened several years ago – we’re just documenting it in our living space.

About five years ago I was in the middle of a terrible dark time that I experienced almost every day. It felt as if I was on a runaway ride that I couldn’t control. Like shooting down the rapids in an inner tube. Other people were making decisions about me and my future. Things were not proceeding the way I had always thought they would or had planned. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.

Sleepless nights, worrying and being angry were getting me nowhere just deeper into a hole. I knew I couldn’t control what other people were doing. While my life headed off in directions I had never anticipated I just stood there in disbelief. I was shell-shocked for several years. When would this end?

[Little did I know that cancer was right around the corner ready to strike us and wage a terrible war we still fight every day.]

Then I remembered – was prodded to remember – that Jesus told his followers to stop worrying about their lives. He directed their attention to the birds. God takes care of them, won’t he also take care of you – He loves you so much more!

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?” – Matthew 6:25-27

Of course I had read this scripture many times before. But as is often the case, this time it became a handle to hang on to. Then a series of events – signs, if you will, started over approximately two years. These experiences served to encourage and communicate to me that God is present and very much interested in my survival and transformation.

“I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.” ― William Sloane Coffin Jr.

The tribulations only got worse! But I began to calm down. I was consistently reminded of the truth of God’s presence and care for me.

Well, what happened?

I began to see birds in all sorts of locations and (most importantly) at significant times. I didn’t look for them (as Jesus had instructed, they would just show up at just in time.)

  • Right in the middle of an important decision about two people – there are two birds on the window sill.
  • Rushing out of the house overflowing with anxiety – confronted by a mockingbird at the frontdoor who will not move out of the way.
  • There was a bird who would perch on the corner of my neighbors roof day after day and sing at me when I came and went. He wasn’t there at other times, no one else ever saw him. For about a week or so I felt like he was there to meet me (and remind me).
  • Then there’s the little brown bird who would spend the night in the wreath on the front door and sneak into the house when we came home – never happened before, never since – but he came into the house several times (spent the night once) and reminded us how near is God.

There were all sorts of small and subtle encounters that kept me aware that I was not going to go through this terrible time alone.

Maybe when I was too near stumbling and fumbling my faith, God drew near and reminded me of what was always true?

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” – Hebrews 13:5-6

I teach a course that helps students to understand some of the reasons why people have these kinds of experiences. Often our thinking and perception of the world around us is distorted. We can sometimes experience:

  • Confirmation bias – a kind of selective thinking that happens when we only notice those things that tend to be consistent with our current beliefs – we also fail to notice things that contradict these same beliefs.
  • Pareidolia – seeing significance in random and meaningless phenomenon

Even knowing that these biases in thinking often occur, I am convinced that what has happened to me was not caused by my own crooked thinking. I think I needed some help and there it was.

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” ― John Berger

God has promised to be present with us, especially during terrible times. This fact is not dependent upon how we feel or how firm we believe. He has promised it, this makes it true.

Sometimes, because of God’s grace and nothing else, he makes his presence known. He has certainly put reminders in our path every day Jesus said to look at the birds – a sight we all see and maybe never notice.

When you open your eyes of faith and practice looking for the truth, there’s no telling what you might see.

Your faith will not fail while God sustains it; you are not strong enough to fall away while God is resolved to hold you.” ― J.I. Packer

It’s Complicated

“Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved.” ― Martin Luther

These days people are asking me how I’m doing. More than usual. My wife is fighting cancer. This has become a long term struggle with many soldiers helping us in each and every skirmish.

I’m not sure what to say when asked how I’m doing. Sometimes people really want to get an update. Sometimes this question is just an expression of compassion and support as we pass along the way. Still, other times I’m asked by folks who aren’t getting a clear picture from me and are trying to imagine themselves in my shoes. What’s it really like?

Sometimes people just don’t ask. Maybe it’s just too overwhelming for others. Maybe there just aren’t any words.

Typically I’m responding without thinking too much. My response depends upon my mood, my schedule, my need at the moment to let it all out.

How AM I doing? Well, it’s complicated…

I’m feeling scared

The world I live in is mostly filled with a lot of certainty. Watching my wife manage an ever changing daily battle with stage four cancer (that’s now in her brain) and all the medication side-effects brings a daily dose of uncertainty into my (our) life. Mostly we have routines and rituals that make life so comfortable. When the journey heads into the unknown, fear begins to howl in the background.

“Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control, and perhaps even depends on it. I mean that mirage of dominion over our own life that allows us to feel like adults, for we associate maturity with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what is going to happen to us next. Disillusion comes sooner or later, but it always comes, it doesn’t miss an appointment, it never has.” ― Juan Gabriel Vásquez

I’m feeling full of hope

Not a single day passes that I don’t experience encouragement of some sort. It is all around me (us). It comes in all the expected places, the emails, notes, hugs. But is also appears out of nowhere. Strangers who lift so much of the burden and never even realize it. All sorts of little “coincidences” seem to appear right and left. I don’t go very far without sensing and knowing the presence of God. My faith has found a resting place. Despite what has happened so far, the core of my belief is not moved. These beliefs are ever more resolved as I am pulled into the deep end.

“It’s amazing how many coincidences occur when one begins to pray.”  – Bill Hybels

I’m too busy to think about it

Life has gotten very fast for a number of reasons. Fighting cancer is a whole other career to add to what’s already on our plates. It’s easy to get behind with one important part of life while trying to manage a whole new chapter.

It’s too easy to slip into the fast lane and wake up three counties later, unconscious of so much that always matters.

“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” ― T. S. Eliot

I’m uncertain about what the future holds

Our mode of thought has been to just think about today. Even though there are always future plans of some sort that are a normal part of life, we are trying to readjust and live more in the moment – hang on to this day. When I do think about the future; retirement, grandchildren, remaking the house, who am I going to give all my junk to? Sometimes it can be frightening – going from theory to practice. It’s sweet to quote the proverb about numbering your days, but actually doing it is a whole other matter. Living like there’s no tomorrow makes one take today that much more seriously.

“Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.”  – Psalm 90:12

I’m often around other people who don’t want to talk about our “situation.” I imagine that most people are uncomfortable talking about serious illness – what do you say? These days, so many have a lack of personal experience. Great health care and growing distance within families means that suffering and death are not experiences we learn to manage in the same ways our parents and grandparents did.

I’m angry

Let’s be honest. Who wouldn’t be mad every single day. If there was any sort of justice, I’d be the one hit by the dump truck of life, not her. Who knew that the uncertainties of life were going to come and trample in our yard? Living in a society that promotes and promises justice doesn’t  mean the experience is always assured. It’s a hope, not a certainty. Instead of trying to find justice in all of this, the best way to work through the weeds is to be truthful and admit these feelings, find people to talk it out with and pray without ceasing (in all honesty).

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” ― Mark Twain

I’m counting my blessings

Perspective helps with all sorts of situations. But how do you put cancer into perspective? There is always something to be thankful about. In each and every situation there is a way to find thanks. There is always another person near who needs to feel a little mercy and grace. Instead of anguish, there is thankfulness for so much more of life never taken for granted anymore.

“To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.” ― George Bernard Shaw

I’m buckled in for the roller coaster ride

When a life threatening illness strikes there is always a loss of control.  A feeling of “what’s next?” Living a life that’s not really mine, it belongs to a disease that’s taking control of more and more. Of course there is always this illusion that I was ever really in control of anything in the first place. The economy shifts, someone new comes into power or a hurricane appears on the horizon. Instead of looking for control or being heartbroken because of the loss, I’m learning how to just survive today. I used to have all sorts of big plans for the future. Maybe that was a mistake.

“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.”  –  Epictetus

Well, how AM I doing? It’s still complicated…but I made it another day, and I tried to make it count.

 

O LOVE THAT WILT NOT LET ME GO – George Matheson

O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.