Is This a Good Time To Pray?

“Be not forgetful of prayer. Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky

I keep bumping into people these days who are suffering. Or at least, for some reason, our conversations seem to turn to this subject. Probably because I’m not doing a good job of hiding my grief. I’m working on it.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” ― C.S. Lewis,

The truth is that we are all going to experience times of suffering. Even very religious people. Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton has a quote in his book Half-Truths that makes a lot of sense:

  • Suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life.
  • Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn.
  • Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgement.
  • Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened.
  • God does not depend upon human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved.
  • Suffering can either destroy us or it can add meaning to our life.

This helps me as I frame my own experiences and try to help others with their own hard road.

“It is of great importance, when we begin to practise prayer, not to let ourselves be frightened by our own thoughts.” ― Santa Teresa of Avila

When on the topic of suffering it always leads to more conversations about praying.  American Christianity has too often reduced praying into something small and practical, like a pocket knife. You only use it every now and then and after a while you even come to forget it’s even there in your pocket.

Praying gets reduced to something that’s too small when we only think of it as a means to get our problems solved. Maybe it’s not a pocket knife but a fire extinguisher? Here’s a third metaphor I often use for prayer, a drive up fast food window. When we pray, we place our order, do our duty (pay at the first window), and expect results at the second window. Sounds very transactional, very practical. I’m not sure that’s really the point of praying.

Why do think God wants us to talk with him?

We studied religion in one of my classes this past summer. Sociologist Christian Smith has formulated a definition that fits all religion:

Humans are religious because they hope for superhuman powers to help them realize human goods and avoid bads, especially to grant them blessings, prevent misfortunes and aid them in crises; and because they wish to enjoy the various forms of identity, community, meaning, expression, aesthetics, ecstasy, control and legitimacy that practicing religions offer.

What I think sets Christianity apart from religion is that its central focus is about a relationship between God and humankind. Certainly all the other elements of Smith’s definition are a part of Christianity, but the relationship seems essential. The story of Adam and Eve paints us a picture of this first relationship. Of course at this point they’ve been eating on an apple…

When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the Lord God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the Lord God among the trees. Then the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”  (Genesis 3:8-9) 

Could it be that at the heart of our prayers is an answer to that very question? Is God desiring to walk with you and asking “where are you right now?”

I think we pray mostly out of our broken experience. If we will keep on praying, just like working on any relationship, we will build something, something essential. There is much that praying can accomplish. Here are just a few examples:

  1. Praying can help you turn loose of problems. When you pray and share them with God, you are no longer the only one to carry each one. As you talk through what’s heavy on your heart, you will notice that each problem seems to loosen and even grow more distant.

    “One way to get high blood pressure is to go mountain climbing over molehills.” ― Earl Wilson

  2. Praying can remind you of God’s eternal presence. He doesn’t go to sleep or ignore you to tend to other business. The conversation that is prayer can start and stop at any time. He is present during all of  your feelings as well. Your mood is not going to chase him away.

    “Praying and sinning will never live together in the same heart. Prayer will consume sin, or sin will choke prayer.” ― J.C. Ryle

  3. Praying can help you to care and love others more. Remember, your own problems begin to fade as you pray, you then have room to attend to others. When you pray you can be strengthened and encouraged to help with the burdens of others.  You can even be used by God as an answer to prayers.
  4. Praying enables you to process what’s happening right now and in the past. Don’t keep it all bottled up inside. Talk it out with God. Let your feelings and frustrations even your fears flow out in a stream of conversation with God. Believe that you are being heard. Believe that God desires to get involved in your life, right now. That includes all the baggage you’ve been hauling around.
  5. Praying helps you to grow up in your perspective. It really isn’t all about you. But sometimes, when everything is crashing in, it can seem like it. Praying, over time, can help to remind you of the long road you’ve already marched on. This long view will enable you to keep life in perspective, to remind you that this world is not your home and that what’s eternal is what really matters.

    “Praying demands that you take to the road again and again, leaving your house and looking forward to a new land for yourself and your [fellow human]. This is why praying demands poverty, that is, the readiness to live a life in which you have nothing to lose so that you always begin afresh.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen

  6. Praying, over time, builds a long term relationship with God. Any relationship that matters takes time. You know this. How are you supposed to hear back from God in this sort of relationship? Listen to the Holy Spirit that resides in all believers. Read your Bible all the way, all the time. Open your eyes to signs and wonders that might be happening under your nose.
  7. This one is important. You don’t have to be religious to pray. You don’t have to be in a church, have all your sins confessed, be in total agreement with God or quit all your nasty habits first. Praying can happen right this second no matter who, what, where or how you are. God is already listening.

    My favorite lesson about this truth is when Jesus is having a break the rules conversation with a Samaritan woman at the water well. She is not at all on the right track in her life but the Son of God is right there in front of her offering her more than she knows she wants… Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”  (John 4:10)

“Pray the largest prayers. You cannot think a prayer so large that God, in answering it, will not wish you had made it larger. Pray not for crutches but for wings.” ― Phillips Brooks

Who Are You When No One is Looking?

And you, beloved, are the light of the world. A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden.  Similarly it would be silly to light a lamp and then hide it under a bowl. When someone lights a lamp, she puts it on a table or a desk or a chair, and the light illumines the entire house. You are like that illuminating light. Let your light shine everywhere you go, that you may illumine creation, so men and women everywhere may see your good actions, may see creation at its fullest, may see your devotion to Me, and may turn and praise your Father in heaven because of it.
                                                                                    – Matthew 5:14-16 (The Voice)

At the football stadium this year, before the game, the camera operator puts people’s images up on the giant screen. People are selected who are busy and not paying attention. It’s called the “oblivious camera” – with a timer ticking off how long it takes these unsuspecting “victims” to notice their images and actions projected on a 5000 square foot screen.

I often wonder if the camera operator is given any limits on who or what he can put on the screen during this little game.

As I sit here and watch students in class taking exams it’s always interesting to see what kinds of actions some do when they believe they’re all alone (in their head) yet sitting in a room full of others. Some will rub and scratch out of nervousness. There are all sorts of grooming rituals that take place, just mindless activity some do while thinking real hard. Cracking knuckles very loudly (mostly females), sniffing and snorting (no tissues), and so many different ways to stretch and yawn!

Did you know that yawning is contagious?

Since no one was taught handwriting in school anymore, it’s gruesome to watch all of the ways that students hold their pens and pencils while writing on an exam. It’s as if many had their hands broken and wrongly reset. Most are perfectly legible but there’s always a few examples that need to be sent over to the hieroglyphics department (we don’t have one of those, by the way).

Do you honestly believe that there’s any part of your own life that goes unnoticed by someone?

  • Parents with young children are always warned that little eyes are watching everything that goes on, be careful about what you say or do.
  • You just haven’t lived long enough if you haven’t heard a younger person telling you of some word or deed of yours they will never forget (I sure have!).
  • There are security cameras everywhere, monitoring most public locations.
  • What about that camera lense in your computer screen that’s aimed at you right now?
  • Sometimes, when it seems safe, I will walk past a screaming child in the store and say with much confidence, “Santa Claus is watching…”

When all goes haywire or you feel down in the dumps – just stop, sit still and repeat the truth to yourself, “God is watching me.” Don’t get up and run back into the fire until you’ve awakened to this truth. Let it be a light on each step you have to take.

His Eye is On The Sparrow (1905), Civilla Durfee Martin (1866-1948)

“Why should I feel discouraged?
Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely
and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion?
My constant friend is he;
His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.” 

God isn’t watching you in order to make fun, to find out what’s wrong, or to make you feel shame. He’s watching you because he loves you. When you decide to believe in Him and become His child, there’s nothing you are going to do that will drive Him away. Even as oblivious as you are at times, He is forever watching and caring for you.

“Should we not invariably act in this life as though the God whom our heart desires with its highest desire were watching our every action?” ― Maurice Maeterlinck

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?

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

How Do You Know What You Know?

Bike_Safety

Your faith in God takes all your days and then some…

I’ve just spent the week trying to explain a very abstract concept to my students. The world that we’ve made to live in, a world full of relationships, expectations, rules, feelings, organization and dreams is as real as the natural world all around us. The guilt your dad can make you feel is as real as that river rushing by. But as real as it is, it’s socially constructed, so…unlike the rainstorm that hits at just the wrong time, our man-made reality can be changed and improved.

I encounter God in dozens of ways each week. He reveals himself through social experiences with family friends and strangers.

What we come to believe about God is planted in us by all the people around us our whole lives. Our parents, teachers, friends are essential in helping communicate to us what it means to believe. These people and the social institutions they inhabit (family, church and friendship) are all used by God to strengthen our grasp of eternity.

What we know about God comes from other people. We often expand what we believe as we grow and add new experiences to our menu. As we meet new people and increase our general and specific knowledge of the world around us, our experience of God changes. God doesn’t change. That’s what get’s confusing. As we change, we mistake that experience and come to believe that God is the one that is different.

When I was a child, I spoke, thought, and reasoned in childlike ways as we all do. But when I became a man, I left my childish ways behind.  For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things, as when we stare into polished metal. I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face. In that day, I will fully know just as I have been wholly known by God.  But now faith, hope, and love remain; these three virtues must characterize our lives. The greatest of these is love.

– I Corinthians 13:11-13 (The Voice)

  1. Are you growing up (maturing) in what you know and experience about God? – Do you need to stop what you’re doing and START doing something different, right now?
  2. Do you understand and communicate to others that what you do know is only partial? – If not, change the way you are speaking. If you can’t hear the way you are speaking, ask your spouse to tell you. Stop talking so much and start listening to others. Stop feeling like you have to solve other people’s problems or have an answer all the time. You don’t really have to be God’s number one spokesperson. Just be you. Be authentic.
  3. When you experience God and pass this on to others is it characterized by faith, hope and love? You aren’t trying to fix everyone, are you? Everyone needs more of these gifts. Are you getting out of your private world and spreading your experience to others?

“Don’t be too quick to draw conclusions from what happens to you; simply let it happen. Otherwise it will be too easy for you to look with blame… at your past, which naturally has a share with everything that now meets you.”  ― Rainer Maria Rilke

Be Inspired

image

Blessed is the man that heareth Me, watching daily at My gates, waiting at the posts of My doors. – Proverbs 8:34

 

See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. – 1 John 3:1

 

Till men have faith in Christ, their best services are but glorious sins. – Thomas Brooks

 

…there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries… – Daniel 2:28

 

Since He hath looked upon me my heart is not my own. He hath run away to heaven with it. – Samuel Rutherford

 

What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how your remember it. – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. – Colossians 3:12

 

You will be dead as long as you refuse to die. – George MacDonald

 

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the [a]Praetorium and gathered the whole Roman cohort around Him. They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on Him, and took the reed and began to beat Him on the head. After they had mocked Him, they took the scarlet robe off Him and put His own garments back on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him. – Matthew 27:27-31

 

 

The Searcher

51856d5e-d396-4058-a784-e951987d63ac_l

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. – Colossians 1:15

Humans have always been searching for God. Jump on Amazon, there are hundreds of books written about the topic. The search continues.

The very young, who I encounter in college every day, seem so certain they’ve found all they need in their brief search. I always have one student who’s just brimming with confidence and answers. It’s inspiring.

I’m still searching for answers as I navigate through the shipwreck of this world. Long ago, when I was young and filled with answers, I assumed that one day the search would end.  Someday I’d get to a point where I had it all figured out. Still waiting. God remains a mystery. As He should be.

While I’m searching for the right path to take and looking for more answers to the multiplying problems I keep tripping over, the only certainty that comforts my spirit is what I discover about the words and actions of Christ. More and more, He becomes for me the answer to my restless soul as I search for God each day.

Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him. – John 13:5

Putting my vanity out the door and bending my knees to serve someone else (who doesn’t even expect it) – that’s where I know I can find God.

“But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!  In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:44-45

Treating people who seem to be out to get me as if they were the dearest of friends is the most difficult of journeys to make, and yet that’s where God is waiting.

“But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail.” – Luke 22:32

While enduring his own most agonizing trial of faith, Jesus invests his heart and mind in the life of his friend. As big as they might seem, I can’t let my own problems distract me from caring about the lives of others. This is where God is calling all of us and where He can always be found.

 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” – Luke 23:34

Putting down that grudge and taking up my cross is another certain way in which I will find God today. He is always there in the midst of forgiveness. Waiting at the gate to welcome home the wandering child. Pouring out a wealth of forgiveness to ones who owed a debt of sin. “But all the wickedness in the world which man may do or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea.” – William Langland

As I search, I can look to the words and deeds of Christ and always find what I’m longing for.