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The Prayer of Submission

Almost at the same time that I began this blog, I entered into a time of frustration, burnout, cynicism, and questioning. I won’t go into detail, but it has been very difficult, and I’m amazed at how something like burnout and stress can seep into every other area of life, including attitudes toward God. I have not wanted to pray. I have questioned God’s personality, and even His existence. “Why, if You are so loving, and if our greatest ambition should be to love You, do You not make Yourself more obvious, especially when we are in dark times?”

In Philip Yancey’s book Reaching For The Invisible God, he discusses the difficulties that can come to a person seeking to relate to a God who is not present to us in the same way that another human is present. He offers the following thoughts:

Some psychologists practice a school of behavior therapy that encourages the client to “act as if” a state is true, no matter how unreasonable it seems. We change behavior, says this school, not by delving into the past or by trying to align motives with actions but rather by “acting as if” the change should happen. It’s much easier to act your way into feelings than to feel your way into actions.

…I never “see” God [in the same way that we see another person]. I seldom run into visual clues that remind me of God unless I am looking. The act of looking, the pursuit itself, makes possible the encounter. For this reason, Christianity has always insisted that trust and obedience come first, and knowledge follows.

I have seen this at work in my own life, and my own experience has been that nothing brings about and awareness of God acting in my life more than submission.  Although submission isn’t an action in the same way that reading a book or taking a walk is an action, it is something that we can will to happen.  Submission is an inner “action” that we take, choosing to submit to God, no matter what.

It has been through prayers of submission that I have seen God at work in the most dramatic ways, and make Himself the most obvious.  The first time happened when, through some bad choices, I had worked myself into a corner.  I had three options, and they all seemed equally unappealing.  For the first time in my life, I went from being a “good Christian” who tried not to cuss too much or get drunk and be nice, to being a person wholly submitted to God.  I asked God to get me out of my mess, acknowledging that I’d gotten myself there, acknowledging that I might not like whatever needed to happen as a result, but also acknowledging that God loved me and desired the best for me.  I saw an immediate answer to that prayer, one which required no action at all on my part.  I was amazed at how God had responded.

There have been other times like that, times when I have asked for guidance, submitting to God’s will, and found situations being arranged for me, pointing me in an obvious direction, demonstrating that God is there, listening, guiding, responding.  Those times often come through darkness and pain.  Unfortunately, people like me sometimes have to be beaten into submission (the beating often coming at our own hands), we have to come face to face with our limitations before we acknowledge our powerlessness and smallness.

It is when we die to ourselves that we are open to the life of Christ.  We need not fear submission to Him.

Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
– Psalm 37:5 ESV

The Written Word and the Living Word

I’ve heard someone say, regarding Bible study, that we should always approach the written Word with the presence of the Living Word, meaning that we should study the Bible prayerfully, in constant communion with Jesus. Without God’s guidance, our interpretations of Scripture can quickly wander into error and heresy, and so as we study God’s written Word, we ask Jesus, the Living Word, by His Spirit, to guide us into truth.

Perhaps you’ve noticed, as I have, that reading God’s Word can deepen your prayers, and motivate you to pray more. God is somehow mysteriously present in His spoken and written Word, and when God speaks, things happen. His words are never just words. Scripture says of itself that “the Word of God is living and active.” When we read God’s Word, it’s as if God Himself is there, speaking those words for the very first time, to us. When God speaks, His words hit with force, with impact, and if your heart is with Him, then you can’t remain silent.

I’ve been spending more time than usual in the written Word lately, and I’m noticing that it has affected my dialogue with the Living Word. I find that I want to pray even more, and that I’m gaining a deeper understanding of how prayer is a dialogue. My life, though varied, is limited, and when I’m talking to God only about myself, I quickly run out of things to say. God is a rich and unending source of mystery, variety, activity, profundity, and creativity. The more I let Him contribute to our conversations, the more fertile they become. The more I listen to God speak, the more my prayers become a response to who He is and what He is doing, the more my prayers become worship.

Who I Am

On my own, I am

selfish

petty

annoyed

elite

unloving

distracted

doubting God

indifferent

impatient

independent

cynical

sufficient

proud

judgmental

materialistic

hedonistic

bored

unknown

tired

and I am unable to do anything about it.

Search me, O God, and know my heart

Try me, and know my thoughts

And see if there be any grievous way in me

And lead me in the way everlasting

What Keeps Us From Prayer?

If you work for a church, as I do, then you are probably also experiencing a busy period in the church schedule. Coincident with the starting of school, we’re beginning a lot of new classes and programs (I’m becoming less and less a fan of church programming – but that’s another discussion), and we’ve been very busy getting ready for them.

As you’ve seen if you’ve been reading this blog for a while now, when things get busy, my prayer life usually takes a hit, and the past two weeks have been no exception. This morning, I found myself thinking (again) about all of the things that have kept me from prayer, and I’m sure many other people can identify with these.

1. Busyness
This is a no brainer. We live in a very busy culture, and there is a great amount of social pressure to squeeze more into our schedules. (EDIT: I was interrupted exactly 10 times during the writing of this one post, each interruption requiring an average of about 10 minutes) The technology that promised to make our lives easier has only allowed us to cram more work and activities into our time, not less. Fast moving and loud commercials and media, and the ubiquitous presence of advertisements wherever we go have trained our minds to be in many places seemingly at once. All of this will affect prayer unless we actively fight against it, but our minds are so occupied that fighting against this takes very focused, very purposeful, even aggressive action. Unfortunately, the thought of taking that action usually gets “Okay, I’ll be sure to do that later” as a response.

2. Mood
There are instances when I have time to pray, but find myself not feeling like it. This usually happens if I’m feeling tired or irritated. I’ll get to the end of a long and busy day and rather than opt for time spent in prayer, which requires my mind to be engaged, I’ll choose to put on a DVD so that I can shut my mind off for a while. This is especially true if the day has been filled with irritations and frustrations. I’ll cave in to the desire to smolder and vent inwardly on whatever has annoyed me, since I know that the proper prayer during those times is something along the lines of “God, please help me to be patient / humble / forgiving / joyful in all things / any number other things I don’t feel like being at that moment.”

An appropriate, albeit geeky quote here is one from Dune:

Paul: My father sent you to test me. Music, then?
Gurney: No music, I’m packing this for the crossing. Shield practice.
Paul: Shield practice? Gurney, we had practice this morning. I’m not in the mood.
Gurney: Not in the mood? Moods are things for cattle and love play, not fighting!

The same is true for prayer. God invites us in His word to take all things to Him in prayer, at all times.

3. Not knowing what to say

There are plenty of times when I think about prayer, when I’m not particularly occupied, and when I’m in a fine mood, but I just don’t know what to say. Sure, I could come up with something, but then I think about the fact that I don’t want my daughter to start talking to me just because she feels like she should, but her heart isn’t engaged in the conversation. I don’t want her to talk to me only out of obligation. I suppose that God feels the same way, since He tells us over and over again that He wants our hearts above our actions.

4. Not feeling worthy

I’ve not personally experienced this particular barrier (possibly from a lack of humility?) to prayer, but I know that others have. There continues to be this notion that one has to rise to a higher level of righteousness (which, strangely, seems to be defined by having a higher level of theological knowledge) in order to really pray. Prayer is for the pious, the enlightened, the ordained. Mere congregation members need not aspire to continuous prayer and thriving conversation with God. Along with that notion is the accompanying, and false idea that people who commit sins – real sins, as opposed to the small sins that more pious people commit once a year – cannot really talk with God.

But all of this really boils down to…

5. A poor understanding of prayer and of God

If I really understood, really knew, not just in my mind, but in my heart, what prayer really is and the Person with whom I am communicating, I think that I would be astounded and elated that I get to talk to Him at all, and that I would take advantage of every conceivable opportunity to engage this God through prayer.

No matter how busy things got, I would absolutely make time for prayer, just as I make time for eating. I would probably even remove things from my schedule in order to make time for prayer.

No matter how tired, frustrated, angry, or irritated I got, I would enjoy talking with God, and I would see the sources of those frustrations in light of the bigger picture of Who God is and what He’s doing. I would remember that there really is real power to be accessed through prayer, power to move mountains, and, even more amazingly, to move hearts.

I wouldn’t run out of things to say because there are not enough good things to say about God. My heart would be engaged in wonder at God, and while I would use words, I would be keenly aware of the fact that words are utterly insufficient, and I would remember that the Spirit intercedes on my behalf (and be astounded at that as well). I would also remember that there is a time to shut up and listen.

I would remember that I am infinitely unworthy to talk to God, but that God is infinitely merciful and that out of His infinite love, He reached across that infinite gap, though it cost Him infinite suffering, to win me back to Him, in order to display for me His infinite glory. How can a person know this and not be in constant, awestruck prayer?

  • What keeps you from prayer?

How Jesus Prayed, Part 4

Today will be the final post in this series covering Jesus’ prayer habits.  The series began by pointing out that prayer really is something that we can learn more about, become more practiced at, and make improvements on.  For learning about prayer, we need to learn from a teacher, and there is none better than Jesus.  While Jesus sometimes spoke about prayer, He teaches us other things about prayer through His own prayer habits, which we should seek to emulate.  The three habits I’ve covered so far are:

1) He prayed regularly and often.

2) Jesus found it important to find places where He could be alone to pray.

3) There were times when prayer was more important than meeting the needs and wants of people.

Today, I’ll be talking about a fourth prayer habit, and I’ve saved the most profound, the most mind-bending and revolutionary habit for last, so brace yourself.  Are you ready?  Really?  Here it comes….

Jesus prayed.

I know. You’re right, that is good. Let me say it again.

Jesus.    Prayed.

Have you really thought about that, and Who this is that we’re talking about, and how strange it might seem at first that He prayed at all? This is Jesus. The One who said things like “I and the Father are one,” and “Before Abraham was, I AM,” and who Paul referred to by saying “All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Jesus is God, and yet He prayed.

Of course Jesus was (and is) also fully human. He imposed Himself with human limitations. He got tired, hungry, worn out, anxious, and even though He was (and is) the perfect union of God and Man, fully human and fully God all at once, He still had to pray.

So think about that again: Jesus prayed. A lot. Jesus found it necessary to go somewhere where He could be alone to pray – often – somewhere where He could shut out the noise of the crowds and the other demands of life on Earth, and it wasn’t because he had ADD or was uptight and couldn’t handle distractions. Jesus sometimes left good things undone in order to pray. Jesus found this necessary. His earthly life and ministry were saturated in prayer, even though He was (and is) God.

So you’ve probably already seen the obvious question. If Jesus Himself found it necessary to saturate His life with prayer, how much more do we, who are imperfectly – for now – united with God, need prayer?

Since you’ve undoubtedly heard how important prayer is before, do you grasp how imperative prayer really is?

Have you ever thought about the fact that Jesus prayed in light of who He is, and what that says about the necessity of prayer?

If someone else could watch your prayer habits, how important would they say prayer is to you?

When is the last time you experienced burnout?

I almost started by asking the question “Have you ever experienced burnout?” but I’ve seen enough statistics to know that most of you will answer “yes” to that question. If you’re one of the few who could honestly answer “No,” then you’re…well…one of the few.

While there is (thankfully) a growing movement to slow down, and to work smarter rather than longer, there are still plenty of people who are always doing, and that seems especially true of people who work for the church. I’ve seen lots of pastors who were truly burned out, and as far as volunteers go, churches are more than happy to keep piling work onto volunteers who are already very busy. As the saying goes, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.”

Of course, there is a lot to be done, a lot of really good things to be done. There are lots of people in need, lots of ways that we can help make life better for those around us, lots of ways that we can take action to demonstrate God’s presence, love, and grace – and it’s good for us to do those things. However, if we’re always doing, never taking time to refuel, we will eventually be confronted by our limitations.

Jesus recognized the importance of action, but He also knew that there was a time for actions to stop, a time to leave good things undone in order to do something better, to refuel and connect with His Father.

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, He departed and went out to a desolate place, and there He prayed. And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him, and they found Him and said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.” And He said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” -Mark 1:35-38

Again we see that the crowds are looking for Him. Other things to do are actively seeking to claim some more of His time, and they were things that would be good to do, but He removed Himself from those things on purpose. After looking everywhere for Him, His disciples finally find Him and seem to be a little annoyed that He’s clearly neglecting His obligation to help as many people as He can. His response may have surprised them. “I know everyone’s looking for me, but I got away from them on purpose. My work here is done. We’re going somewhere else now.” (My paraphrase)

Jesus didn’t feel a need to solve everyone’s immediate problems at the cost of time alone in prayer.

Jesus knew about the needs of the people. He hadn’t forgotten about them. He hadn’t stopped caring about them. He wasn’t being a slacker.

He knew that there were times when prayer trumped action, and so He stopped doing.

He left lonely people alone.

He left hungry people unfed.

He left sick people unhealed.

Some of them may have even died while He was away, and He could have prevented those deaths. You can bet that the families of those people were asking “Where was this Jesus when I needed Him?”

You aren’t called to solve every problem and meet every need of every person around you, even though many of those needs may be very real. The fact is that you can’t. Give yourself permission to leave good things undone in order to do the better thing of being filled by God through prayer. Without that, you can’t do anything truly Good anyway.

I am a musician, a right-brained type (though I do really enjoy logic), a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of person. I enjoy spontaneity and variety. While I see the great value of scheduling and discipline, it’s often difficult for me to force myself into routine, but especially where things like prayer are concerned, routine is a good thing, and it’s something that Jesus modeled for us.

But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. – Luke 5:16

Yesterday, the emphasis was on getting away from it all in order to pray. Today, in part two of this series, I want to hone in on one word:

Often

Especially given the particular goal that started this blog in the first place – the goal to learn to pray at least once every minute – the word often is especially pertinent.  It’s worth noting that often in this passage applies not just to Jesus’ prayers, but also to the point that it was often done in solitude.

I live in a busy world, and I have a lot of plates spinning, and I’m sure many of you do as well. Many of those plates were given to us by God, and it is our responsibility to keep them spinning. Some people have a greater load than others, but as Kevin Weatherby pointed out yesterday, we are all called to follow God within the context in which we find ourselves.

You may not be in a situation in which you can be alone for extended periods of prayer every day, and that doesn’t make you less spiritual. If you are a single mom holding down two jobs, paying rent, raising two kids on your own, and barely making ends meet, you’re not less Godly if you aren’t finding somewhere to be alone to pray for two hours every day than the monk living in a monastery who prays for five hours every day.

On the other hand, some of us may have taken on more responsibilities than we need to, and where those things are over and above what God has given us, they will suck us dry. In those instances, changes really do need to be made.

The point is that Jesus prayed regularly, and took time to pray by Himself often. It wasn’t haphazard.  It wasn’t when I get around to it. We don’t need to get legalistic about this, but we should take what we can get, and make changes where we can. When we do, we will find guidance, strength, and peace, even in the middle of a hectic life.

Even if you can’t get away for long periods of time every day, where can you regularly find smaller chunks in your schedule (even if only five minutes here and there) when you can stop everything else and pray?

If you gave God your schedule, do you think there are some things that He would remove from it?

…tune in again tomorrow for Part 3: When Prayer Trumps Action

Yesterday morning, my wife and I took our daughter to her first day of second grade. Sunday morning, we saw several students for the last time until they return for Christmas break. The air has been charged with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation, with a sense of unknown potential, knowing that the next nine or so months could be dull and boring, or filled with the excitement that comes from gaining new and interesting knowledge. Much of the flavor of this time will be decided largely by the influences of one person: the teacher.

Though we don’t often think of prayer this way, prayer is something that can be learned, practiced, and improved, and if we want to learn about prayer, there is no better teacher than Jesus Himself. There are a few recorded occasions on which Jesus taught specifically about prayer, but what I want to focus on here is what we can learn about prayer by watching how He prayed. As I was thinking about this and searching through the gospels to learn what they said about Jesus’ own prayer habits, four things stood out.

First, Jesus got away from it all.

Luke 5:15 -16 tells us that as news about Jesus spread, large crowds were constantly seeking Him, and that there were times when He had to get away from the crowds in order to be alone with His Father. There are two things to notice here.

One is that it’s important to have time alone with God, where there is nothing to distract you from having your attention fully given to Him. Couples with healthy marriages know how crucial it is to have time away from everyone and everything else, away from the responsibilities of children, home, and work, where they can focus on knowing each other. Without this time, relationships can become contextualized, and couples begin to relate to each other only as fellow parents or housekeepers instead of relating to each other as people.

The same is true of our relationship with God. Without time away to focus on Him without interruption, we can forget that God is a Person, with Whom we have a living relationship. He can become to us just a dispenser of blessings, or help in times of difficulty, or only another section in our compartmentalized lives. Focused time alone with Him gives us room to see His intrinsic worth, glory, and majesty, instead of only seeing Him within the context of what He can do for us. We remember that His love for us is not based on who we are or what we can do for Him or others, but based only on the fact that He is love, and that we have done and can do nothing to earn His infinite affections.

The other thing to notice is that He took specific action in order to be alone, rather than just waiting for a convenient time. He knew that unless He was proactive about getting time alone, it wouldn’t happen, since the crowds were constantly seeking Him. In our hectic and busy culture, we need to pay careful attention to this fact. We are under a constant barrage of people, duties, and activities competing for our time and attention, and if we don’t set boundaries for them, they will monopolize our time, and God will get only leftovers at best.

How much time do you spend focused only on talking with God, as opposed to only talking to Him while you’re doing something else?

Do you have a place where you can be away from everything else to talk to God?

What are some actions that you can take in order to guard your time away?

Perseids and Prayer

I have enjoyed astronomy since I was very young, and even after decades of looking up at night, I’m still awed by the night sky. I get Psalm 19

The heavens declare the glory of God. The skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech. Night after night, they display knowledge.

The annual Perseid meteor shower peaked late last week, and I happened to be back in my hometown, out in the country. Although my old town is close enough to the big lights of Dallas that there’s still a good (or bad, rather) amount of ambient light in the night sky, it’s still better viewing there than where I live now. The best time to view meteor showers tends to be in the wee hours before dawn, and while I wanted to get up early for this reason, I went to bed after midnight, and so I also wanted to sleep in. I decided not to set an alarm, but to ask God to wake me up around 3:00 in the morning, and leave it up to Him.

Something woke me up just before 3:00.

I was tired, but decided that God really did want me to get up, so I got my camera and went outside, and waited.

…and waited.

…and kept waiting.

The Perseids weren’t living up to my expectations. I have since read that there were places where people were seeing more than 200 meteors per hour, including several nice fireballs. I saw no fireballs, and only saw three meteors during the two hours I spent watching. I didn’t manage to photograph any meteors at all, but did manage to catch a firefly, which is what the green streaks in the above photo are.

As I sat there waiting, I also prayed, and connecting prayer with waiting for meteors, with photography, and with a sky that wasn’t giving me what I’d hoped, I saw some similarities.

First, photographing the stars requires long exposure times. In non-photographer speak, this means that the camera’s shutter has to stay open a long time. If the exposure isn’t long enough, you won’t see much – only especially bright objects. The longer the photo is exposed, the more detail you see.

I’ve found that the more I expose myself to God through prayer, the more clearly I can see Him at work around me, the more clearly I see the world in His light. When prayers are sporadic, when I’m spending little time with Him, He becomes dim.

Second, I had my own expectations for what I wanted. I wanted lots of meteors and bright fireballs, and I especially wanted to photograph some of the action. Instead, I saw few meteors, no fireballs, and only managed to photograph (in addition to the stars) a firefly.

Are the stars less amazing than meteors? Is a firefly less amazing than a fireball? Think about it.

If I have expectations of God, and I’m fixated on those expectations, then I’ll miss what He’s doing all around me all the time. I’ll forget that what I consider to be small things are actually pretty amazing. I will get jaded to the power of the everyday graces and miracles God is constantly parading before me. This will affect my prayers. Philippians 4:6 reminds me that all of my prayers should be accompanied by thanksgiving, and if I’m only seeing all of the answers of “No” or “Later” that God is giving me, I’ll won’t see and be thankful for all of the “YES‘s” that He’s pouring out on me.

And third, I was convicted by the fact that while I was willing to deprive myself of hours of sleep in order to watch for meteors, I almost never make time to deprive myself of sleep in order to converse with God.  What does that say about what I truly value?

Are there some times that God has spoken to you through His creation?

Have there been times when you learned about God through disappointments and unmet expectations?

Being Transparent

Some of you participated in 31 Days to Better Blogging earlier this summer, and one of the things we learned is that you have to keep it up. Lapses in blogging can be costly to you as a blogger. Obviously, I have not done a good job of following this blogging truth. But more damaging, and more important, is the fact that this lapse in blogging has been accompanied by a lapse in prayer, which is what this blog is all about.

As I was participating in the 31 Days program, some of you heard me complaining about how busy I became toward the end. This period of heightened busyness is what I allowed to derail my blogging here, as well as my prayer, and especially where prayer is concerned, something is wrong when busyness trumps prayer.

I said in What is The Experiment that my goal is to train myself to pray, or to direct my attention to God at least once every minute, and the reason that I decided to do this in such a public way by blogging about it is that I hoped to encourage others to take up the same challenge, and to see through my example what that might look like, as well as what difficulties might arise.

It’s a little embarrassing to mess up in such a public way, but in the spirit of transparency, I have to admit what may seem pretty obvious: I’ve messed up. I have not followed through with prayer. I have become extremely busy, which has worn me out mentally, emotionally, even physically, and because of this fatigue, I’ve allowed myself to be undisciplined about prayer.

Martin Luther is credited for saying “I have so much to do that I will have to pray for three hours instead of one.” (My paraphrase) I have a long way to go before I am to have that level of discipline about my prayers. Some of you have expressed that you found my endeavor inspiring, and perhaps this lapse will knock me off of any pedestals I was on, small though they may be – I don’t belong up there anyway.

As I have stated before: Prayer is sometimes very difficult, and sometimes it is only out of sheer discipline that one keeps praying. I know this now more than ever.

It is my hope to start all over again. I make no promises to you or to myself. It is only by the Grace of God that I am drawn to Him at all, and that I call to Him, however feebly.

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