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

Scars on Your Head

My wife had a gruesome scar on her head. It was her second. She had brain surgery twice. Her hair grew back and the scar was nice and hidden, but we both knew it there. Now, right after surgery, it’s very obvious. Makes me think about scars in general. All sorts of scars that we all carry around in our heads. Mostly hidden from others.

  • Sometimes our past leaves its mark
  • Other people hurt us and make a mark that never leaves
  • We keep making the same mistakes and those marks keep making scars on our lives
  • Life can deal us a terrible blow that wounds us deeply

Scars can make your life a misery. They can remind you of harm and hurt. But they can also be reminders of healing and hope. Life becomes what it is for the most part because of the way we decide to look at it, to carry it around with us, to use it (instead of letting it use us!).

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” ― Kahlil Gibran

You can keep your scars all to yourself, hidden away, feeling some sort of shame or you can do something else. You can take your scars out of your pocket and help someone else on their road to healing. Take your pain and suffering and offer it as a healing reminder. One day this will be behind you!

“Scars. A sign that you had been hurt. A sign that you had healed.” ― Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Let someone else know they are not alone. Offer a helping hand to someone behind you on the road. Sometimes, only another person who has been where I am truly understands and knows just what I need. Be available as that kind of person. Don’t let your scars get in the way.

Whatever you do, don’t let your scars turn you into a monster, inside and out. Stop looking in the mirror and start looking for someone else who needs some love. They’re probably lying right there on the side of the road you travel every day.

“You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own.”― Frederick Buechner

 

Let all that I am praise the Lord;
with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name.
Let all that I am praise the Lord;
may I never forget the good things he does for me.
He forgives all my sins
and heals all my diseases.
He redeems me from death
and crowns me with love and tender mercies.
He fills my life with good things.
My youth is renewed like the eagle’s!

Psalm 103:1-5

 

 

 

What If It All Depends on You?

“The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But…the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

― Martin Luther King Jr.

God will always bring you to a point of having to get past yourself when it comes to helping people who are in real need. The parable of the Good Samaritan addressed the question, “Who really demonstrates what it means to love your neighbor?” The religious establishment spent its energy trying to help people determine who was and wasn’t actually considered a neighbor. They ended up teaching all the different ways it was possible to NOT live out your faith.

Jesus used this story to demonstrate that God’s love was to be extended to everyone, even the least of these, even when it came at a cost. Helping people who suffer, especially when it comes at a cost, is one of the most essential ways we come to fully understand our own beliefs about God.

The suffering of others can get overwhelming. It can discourage and depress when it doesn’t seem to end. Especially when we don’t know what to do, how to fix it, the right words. One word for it is Compassion Fatigue. Typically this is used to describe people who are directly involved with others who are suffering. Sometimes, networks of family and friends can start to feel drained and at a loss as the suffering of a loved one continues and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

The Good Samaritan lived out loving his neighbor, even as a despised outcast, by putting his money and time where his faith was. He demonstrated his belief and was willing to go even farther by promising to return and continue to fund the recovery. Sometimes recovery comes at a greater cost than we imagined:

  • You have to be faithful and follow up
  • People have emotional needs that they’re not even aware of
  • Stop asking, just do something that you’d want done for yourself
  • Every little thing really does count
  • You don’t have to be friends to be a Good Samaritan
  • Don’t stop praying, pray right now, send a prayer

“They never fail who die in a great cause.”  – George Gordon Byron

The greatest cause you can commit to each day is to find a way to love your neighbor in a real way that matters. You will soon learn that if you make this commitment you and most of your own problems will begin to disappear.

 

 

Real Magic

“Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.” ― Peter S. Beagle

You never really know who you are, what you’re really made of, deep down at the root, until you are forced to make sacrifices. Not sacrifices that you get to choose out of free will. I mean when you are backed into a corner and your choices are taken away and you’ve got to set up all night, go without, give it away and keep your big fat opinion to yourself. You’ve got to clean it up again and again just because that’s the way it is right now. No one is asking you to fix it, just help us endure this for now.

Real magic comes when my own suffering fades away into the background as I draw my attention and efforts toward someone else. Not when it’s convenient, but when it really costs something. Even my own blood and guts. Wonder what tearing out your liver feels like?

Transformation always seems like magic in the end.

Is Going to Church Out of Style?

Church membership and attendance is on the decline.

It has been for several decades. Is attending church out of fashion for the online generations? Have we overbooked and overworked everyone, with no clear 9-5 boundary anymore? Weekends (including Sundays) have turned into safety zones for family and retreat?

Our world will never cease to change as technology evolves, social life fractures and capitalism dominates more of our choices. So, is the future of the church in jeopardy?

The church, the Body of Christ, is not going to become a fashion victim. The ways that we carry out its functions probably will. As people and the way we live change, so too will our methods of ministry. But church isn’t going out of business because it has an eternal purpose.

Here’s what Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright believes about the church:

“The church exists primarily for two closely correlated purposes: to worship God and to work for his kingdom in the world … The church also exists for a third purpose, which serves the other two: to encourage one another, to build one another up in faith, to pray with and for one another, to learn from one another and teach one another, and to set one another examples to follow, challenges to take up, and urgent tasks to perform. This is all part of what is known loosely as fellowship.” ― N.T. Wright

There aren’t any other social organizations fulfilling these essential tasks. Here’s my list I’d like to add to answer the question, Why Do We Need The Church?

  1. It is a place to become yourself
    We become more and more real as we experience transformation. The church is the one place where we can see who we really are and be changed. It’s a gathering of those who are living out a brand new life because of following Christ – as disciples. Our true self is emerging when we are a part of God’s church. Your local church is a place that challenges you and allows you to experience transformation in all areas of your new life.
  2. It is a place to suffer
    When we do suffer, and all of us surely will, we need others with us as we navigate those treacherous waters. Christians find eternal meaning in the suffering they experience. A large part of this meaning is experienced together as the Church when others help to share our burdens of fear, worry and pain. God cares for our every need through the actions of the church.  We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us.” – 2 Corinthians 1:7
  3. It is a place to make sacrifices
    Once you’re a part of a church you quickly learn that it’s not really about you anymore. A church is a place where people come together and make sacrifices of their resources, time, efforts and even their will. It’s not what I want or what I think is best, but what others need. The sacrifice of your will is going to be the most difficult you will make. It takes much practice.“Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
  4. It is a place to grow up
    Literally and figuratively we mature in this body of faith. The church has a schedule filled with activities for every age group. It is an essential “agent of socialization” into the Christian faith. When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12)
  5. It is a place to become more and more like Christ
    This is the direction we head as we die to ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. When John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to his own followers he said, “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30). The church is the gathering of people who will love us in our successes and failures as we journey toward Christlikeness. This is where we come to learn, to grow and to see firsthand the great mission we are called to follow.
  6. It is a place to worship, pray, serve and give, together
    When we come to church we do something different. We are challenged to act, think and to imagine a different way of living. The world outside we’ve made for ourselves is increasingly oriented toward the individual, helping to make us successful and less obligated to others. Our life within the church contradicts this alien culture with practices and beliefs that bind us together and challenges our selfish inclinations.
  7. It is a place that’s not really a place
    Usually the word “church” makes us think about a building, a location or even the distant memory of place. On my way home each day I drive past churches in traditional looking buildings with steeples, with big signs in strip shopping centers and even one located in an industrial workshop. In America, churches are located in all sorts of places.But we all know that the church isn’t really a location, it’s really a group of Christ followers. The church is bigger than a building, it’s all those people who love you no matter what. The church takes care of family, friends and strangers. It embodies love as it shares an eternal message of hope. It’s a group of people who try as hard as they can to pull away from this world and live as if there’s something bigger and better that’s eternal and means more than this life can give.

“The world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians, and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes- a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low.” ― Dallas Willard

 

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

 

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.