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Getting Back To Prayer

As you know if you’ve been following along, I have been pulled away from posting here by an unusually busy schedule.  I am now on the last leg (I hope) of this stressful season, and hope to get back to normal very soon.

I am currently with our youth group on our way to Red Mesa, Arizona, where we will be participating in a Group Workcamp.  This time, I’m not going just as a participant with our group, but as the music leader for the entire camp.  Having this responsibility causes me to be keenly aware of my spiritual dryness, and therefore of my great need for prayer.

I will be using this time away from my usual surroundings and tasks to focus on getting back to prayer, and I’m learning again that sometimes prayer is not easy, that there are times when it does not flow freely from the heart, but is a forced discipline.  I’m tired.  I’m worn out, both mentally and physically, and somewhat emotionally, and so prayer isn’t happening naturally for me right now.  I’m usually only praying because I know that I should

I’m convinced that this kind of prayer is just as God-honoring as the spontaneous prayers that come from a heart filled and enamored with God.   To believe otherwise is to imply that there are times when our broken and fallen hearts, and the prayers which flow from them, are closer to the infinite holiness of God than others.  Perfection is perfection – there aren’t degrees of perfection.  We are imperfect at all times.  On our very best day, all of our righteousness is as filthy rags compared to the perfect holiness of God.

I was thinking about the story of the Prodigal Son today, thinking about how the father ran to the son when he was still a long way off. Right now, I feel like I am a long way off.  My prayers are not the joyful run of a happy child into his Father’s arms.  They are more like the trudging, weary steps of a son who has been on a long journey away from home.  Certainly my time away was not for the same reasons, but my focus has been elsewhere.

Would you pray for me over the next ten days?  I am seeking to put my heart’s focus back on God, and not on my work.  As I lead 300 people in worship, I need to be filled with His Spirit.  Also, I am fighting off a cold, and a sore throat, which will be a major hindrance to my singing.  As I have access to the internet, I will add posts, but we will be in a remote location, so I don’t anticipate much.

And in advance, thank you for your prayers.

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I’m Still Here

Hello everyone.  If you’ve been reading my posts, you’ll remember that I have been overwhelmed with work lately, and this has caused me to have to ignore writing posts here.  I am still not quite at the end of this project, though the end is in sight.  I simply wanted to write and let you know that the Experiment is still ongoing, that I haven’t dropped it, and that regular posts will resume again here once I’ve cleared the last hurdle.

The absolute deadline for this project is next Tuesday, the 29th, so things will pick up again here shortly after that.  I appreciate all of you who take the time to read what I write here, who offer your feedback and encouragement.  Thank you now for your patience!

Blog Jury

I am, occupationally speaking (and regarding ability), first and foremost, a musician. In college, a music major has to play for juries once in a while, and those can be nerve wracking experiences. You’re up on stage, letting it all hang out, and lots of people are watching, some of them watching with the specific goal of picking apart your performance. And of course, the point wasn’t so much to find fault, but to offer criticism that would be helpful in the future.

So here I am, on a virtual stage, and using a different medium, but inviting your critique. My blog is still fairly new, and it’s had some rough going lately, being usurped by a hectic schedule. I also think that it’s veered slightly off of its original course, and that this has probably been a good thing.

If you are here, ready to offer some criticism (constructive or otherwise), then I want to thank you very much for you valuable time and input. I have 6 areas of concern that I’d appreciate some input on:

1. Writing Style

As I look back, I can see that my writing is a little schizophrenic. Sometimes I use a very conversational tone in an attempt to be winsome and engaging. Other times, I resort to a more scholarly and sesquipedalian tone, because I read authors who write that way and sometimes enjoy it. (“Sesquipedalian” means that you use big words, so if you use the word “sesquipedalian” to describe yourself, it becomes self-fulfilling.)

Is it okay that I go back and forth between styles?

If I should stick to one style, which one?

2. Discussion Generating

This is related to writing style.  I’ve been told in other settings that I can have a tendency to cover too much so that there’s no room left for discussion.

Do you find that the posts here leave no room for discussion?

How could I generate more discussion (via comments)?

3. Personal or General

I began writing this to document a personal experience with prayer –but with the goal of motivation others to pray more.  Do I need to shorten the length of the accounts of my personal experiences / feelings / etc.?

And no, it won’t hurt my feelings if you tell me to quit talking about myself.  After all, I don’t want people to come away from this blog thinking that I’m great, but that God is great, and that praying to Him is great.

4. Thought Provoking and Motivational

Again, I want for people to be motivated to integrate more prayer into their lives as a result of having read this blog.

Do you find that my posts are thought provoking?

More than that, do they provoke thoughts that lead to action?

5. Layout and Design

At this point, I’m going with WordPress.com’s free hosting, and I’m limited to their themes and the controls they allow.  I’m seriously considering going to a paid site so that I can have complete control.

Is the current layout and design good enough?

If not, what changes would you recommend?

6. Other Feedback

Is there other feedback you would like to offer?  Anything is fair game here.

Again, I thank you very much for your time and input.  It means a great deal to me.

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I am spent.

I have referenced, in several earlier posts, the fact that I have been incredibly busy lately, being assigned a very large and mundane responsibility regarding the international convention for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. For various reasons, I find this project to be nearly a complete waste of time, and any hope that I had in it becoming something worthwhile has been quelled by church politics.

And so I have been plugging away at this project for many long hours, days, and weeks, to the neglect of other possibilities which I actually find productive and meaningful. It has become a large weight which I cannot get out from under. Meaningful work at least leaves you feeling satisfied. This kind of work only leaves you feeling empty.

Of course, I have my usual responsibilities as well: being a husband, father, band and song leader, yard-mower, decision-maker for aspects of home and family life (along with my wife), etc.

The result of this is that I have felt very tired, and very gloomy. I don’t even want to pray, even though I do want to want to pray.  Once in a while, I’ll send up a quick prayer asking for help, for inspiration, for patience, whatever.  Once in a rare while – nothing close to once every minute.

The other day, I was doing something in the kitchen, and my wife was in the living room watching a DVD of Andy Stanley, preparing for the women’s Bible study she leads.  In the background, I heard Andy say something along these lines:

You don’t pray in order to earn brownie points with God.  You pray because it is a crucial part of being a Christian and being Christ-like, and sometimes it is a discipline.

I’ve never fallen for the idea that I can impress God in any way, but as simple as it sounds to be reminded that prayer is sometimes a discipline, in my distracted state, I hadn’t thought about that. I already know this to be true, but I’ve been living more from my heart than from my mind lately.

It struck a chord with me because I recently started going through P90X.  For those of you who don’t catch infomercials, P90X is a very intensive workout program, designed to produce drastic results in 90 days.  It hurts.  It will completely drain you of all energy and leave you very sore.  Because of my workload, I’ve not been able to stick with it every single day until now, and there have been lots of times that I went through the day’s exercises even though I didn’t want to.

This is an obvious no brainer: There will be times when you do not want to pray, and yet prayer is so much more important than your physical health.  There will be times when prayer is not a joyful participation in a relationship with God, but a forced discipline.

It would be very easy to be undisciplined about my physical health, to just chow down on chocolate chip cookies and milk, to sit on the couch all day or at my desk, but giving in to what is easy will lead to an early death.  Doing the sometimes difficult work of watching what I eat, and forcing my body to work hard will lead to greater strength and health.

Sometimes prayer is the spontaneous act of a heart that is close to God.  When we feel spent, broken, and weary, it may feel easy not to pray, but to do so will lead to a slow degeneration of our soul.  At those times, the mind must take over the heart and choose to pray, knowing that eventually, Life will come rushing back.

You’ve heard the phrase “Idle hands are the Devil’s tools.” While that’s true, I think that in today’s hectic culture, many people have too much to do rather than too little.

Busyness can be just as damaging to our spirits (and hearts, minds, and bodies) as idleness. The implied danger of “idle hands” is that idle hands will seek for something to do, and when they find something, it may likely be something they shouldn’t be doing, especially since “idle hands” come from an idle and undiscerning mind and heart. On the other hand, the danger of busyness is that we can have our hands, minds, and hearts so occupied that God, or other people to whom God desires us to give, only receive our leftovers, if they receive anything at all.

I am currently in one of the most busy periods I’ve been in for a long while (I complained about this in an earlier post), having been handed a very large project, and I feel it slowly draining the life out of me.  Because I still have my regular workload, this extra project has meant much longer hours.  When I’m not working on this project or my other responsibilities, I’m drained, and therefore have little mental or emotional energy to invest in my family, or even in prayer.  I just want to shut everything off.

It is true that prayer can be restful and restorative, but it is also true that we are finite creatures with finite minds, hearts, and bodies, and too much work – even “good” work – will eventually burn you out.  This is one of the reasons that God tells us to take a sabbath.  It’s interesting that we treat the commandment regarding the sabbath as though it were no longer in effect, while we would all agree that the others still are.  If we do choose to honor the sabbath, then we decide that we don’t really need to honor it for a full day.  Just go to church in the morning and you’re good.

Jesus regularly took time alone to pray.  During those times, there were people who were getting sick and dying, people who He could have been healing.  We might say that it would have been good for Jesus to be healing those people, that He could have kept going, plugging away, visiting every sick person He could possibly have visited, staying up for many long nights, traveling as fast as He could.  Jesus, however, knew that since He was human (fully human – and yet also fully God), He needed rest for his body, mind, heart, and spirit.

So even when there are lots of good things still to be done, we need a break.  You can’t keep giving, to God or to anyone else, when you’re sucked dry.  You have to keep on getting filled in order to to pour out.  Busy hands that give all that they have to work have nothing left to give to God (who we are to love with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength) or people (who we are called to love as we love ourselves).

Have you found that you can be so busy that you don’t even want to pray?

Have you ever burned yourself out doing “good” work?

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“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it /
Prone to leave the God I love.”
– Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Does that describe your attention when you’re trying to spend time focusing on prayer? I was reading Justapen‘s post about distractions yesterday, and it triggered some additional thoughts for me.  Very many people who endeavor to fix their minds and hearts on God and nothing else find that they suddenly have ADD. Little sounds are strangely amplified by your super hearing. Threads of unfinished conversations tempt you to start tugging at them. Everything you forgot during the rest of the day surfaces to your memory. Often, by the time you’re finished praying, you’re left with a nagging disappointment, feeling like your prayers weren’t all that “powerful and effective.” (James 5:16)

Here are some things that I have learned about dealing with these distractions.

  1. Take Jesus’ statement about going into your room literally. “But when you pray, go into your room, and close the door…” (Matthew 6:6).  Many of today’s homes have master closets the size of a hotel lobby, and I have found this to be a great place to go pray.  Sounds are muffled by the hanging clothes, and other people don’t often need access to the closet.  Whatever the case, find a room in which you can isolate yourself.
  2. Use the same room every time. This may be pop-psychology, but it works.  When you go into the kitchen, it’s hard not to think about food or drink.  If you pray in the same place every time, eventually, your mind will begin to associate that place with prayer, and it will be easier to focus.
  3. Write down what you remember. Louie Giglio, founder of Passion Ministries, was speaking about this at a conference.  He said that he was convinced that Satan loves to help you remember things you’d forgotten when you stop to pray.  In order to combat this, he brought a notepad with him into his room, calling it the “pad of forgetfulness.”  As things would come to mind, he would write them down and then stop thinking about them.  He said that there were times when it seemed that all he had done was write on his pad, but most of the time, this tactic was very effective.
  4. Take time to slow down. When I sit down for extended periods of prayer, I find that it takes a good ten or fifteen minutes for my mind and heart to really settle in to it.  For you, this time may be shorter or longer, but especially in our busy culture, it’s rare to be able to quickly focus all of your attention on prayer, and trying to force it is sometimes counter productive.  “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
  5. Let God’s Word help. When your mind can’t focus on something internal, it may be easier to have something external to grab your attention.  In the case of God’s Word, these are not mere words; they are “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Read them, let them work on you, and then either pray those very words (the Psalms are great for this) or let your time of reading turn to prayer, with your heart and mind focused on God.

The Wonder of Prayer

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Late last year, I was present at a private party being attended by Bon Jovi. I grew up hearing his music on the radio, though I wouldn’t consider myself a “fan.” Still, in spite of not being a proper fan of Bon Jovi, there was a part of me that was thinking about how interesting it was to be in the presence of Bon Jovi, wondering how many people have been at a private party with a celebrity. And then as I was pondering this, That Voice spoke up, That Voice that is so much smarter and wiser than I am, that sees the world as it is (or should be). That Voice said “So what if you’re in the presence of Bon Jovi. You’re in the presence of the Creator of the Universe all the time.”

…sigh… “Yes. Yes, you’re right.”

How easy it becomes to think that because God is part of our ordinary, everyday life, then He is also ordinary.

One of the points of the experiment is to be so acquainted with prayer that it becomes a habit, and yet this kind of habit should never become thoughtless. This isn’t a habit to be performed automatically, like a worker in a manufacturing facility, cranking out copy after copy of the same fake plastic product. Our prayers need to be the work of an artisan who loves his craft, who is attentive to the joy of creating, or maybe more like a child who scribbles works of childish art for the joy of presenting.

Like that child, the thrill or satisfaction is not in what we are creating and presenting, but in the One to whom we present our prayers. It is a wonder that we get to lift prayers up to Him at all. We don’t even know how to pray, but amazingly, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf, taking our fumbling scrawls and translating them into masterpieces worthy of our God.

Do you remember that it didn’t even have to be this way? Do you realize that when we rebelled, God would not have been overstepping His bounds if He had decided to abandon us altogether, or destroy us? Do you realize that God doesn’t need you, and then in the same moment realize that God loves you like you can’t begin to dream, and delights in you?

Do you remember who God is?

“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” -Exodus 15:11

“…the Lord your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God.” -Deuteronomy 7:21

“Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him!” -Psalm 33:8

It is amazing, dumbfounding, awe-inspiring, humbling, mind-blowing, that this God allows us to be on a conversational basis with Him, that He happily listens to our prayers, that He responds to them. You are in His presence. When you pray, remember the One to whom you pray.

6 Truths About Prayer

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I’m participating in something called 31 Days To Better Blogging, and today’s assignment is to write a list post.  With graduation in the air, the end of week six seems a good place to stop and revisit what I’ve learned so far.

  1. Prayer is mood altering. I discovered very quickly, on day one, and then again just yesterday, that prayer – or rather having our attention on the One to whom we pray – puts things in perspective.  God is unspeakably amazing, and that changes everything.
  2. Through prayer, God really does grant strength and discernment to do what you need to do. James 1:5 says that “if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault.”  Guess what – it’s true! (Who knew??) More than that, when you’re doing something you need to do, and you know it’s the right thing, there’s strength to do it.  I saw this in action on Day 3.
  3. Constant prayer increases the awareness of the fact that God is with me. I’ve seen this time after time.  God is here, everywhere, available for us to speak to Him, and I have felt it nearly as tangibly as a hand on my shoulder.
  4. You will be altered by being exposed to God. One of the big motivations for beginning this in the first place was that I was aware of attitudes within me that needed to change, and that I couldn’t change them on my own.  Things are changing.  I’m finding new attitudes slowly replacing old, dead, selfish attitudes.  Week 3, Week 4
  5. God is intimately involved in all of life. God isn’t so big that He’s annoyed by our small stuff.  He’s so big that our HUGE issues are tiny compared to Him.  He transcends all of it, and yet desires to be involved in all of it.
  6. Regular, conversational prayer is no substitute for times of focused prayer. Constant prayer doesn’t give us an excuse to be so busy that we never take the time to drop everything and pay attention only to God.  In fact, not doing so can diminish our perspective of who God is.

There will be other lists to come, I’m sure.  This is a lifelong process of growth, and there will always be more to learn.

What about you?  What are some things you have learned about prayer through your experiences?

Don’t you hate it when you’re trying to have an important conversation with someone, and you can tell that their attention is at least partially elsewhere? Especially with the people you’re closest to. My wife gets rightfully irritated with me when she can tell that my thoughts have already tidied up the (assumed) point of our conversation and gone wandering elsewhere. My daughter is very active, full of thoughts and ideas, and when I’m trying to have a meaningful conversation with her, I work hard to make sure she’s looking at my face, staying focused on me:

“Grace, are you paying attention?”

The past several days at work have been really frustrating. You know those days. Days when you’re handed a huge and tedious responsibility just when you were building up some momentum on something you really cared about. I’ve been trying to no avail to push this rather pointless project along for four days now, getting increasingly irked that I can’t move it out of my way to get on to some other things I was excited about doing.

I’m continuing to try to talk to God as much as possible when I think about it, but for a goal oriented person like myself, when my mind is focused on a goal, that’s all I want to think about, and if I have to stop thinking about it before I’ve completed it – especially in this case – it’s not without some childish sulkiness, complete with a scribbled cloud over my head.

I had been pounding my head against yet another attempt at a solution for the problem I’d been asked to solve, to no avail, and had gotten up to get away somewhere and regroup, and to ask for God’s help. Ever so slowly, and reluctantly, my attention began to turn from God only as Solution To My Problem to God for who He is. God not in my context. Just God. I remembered that I am in His context.

“Chris, are you paying attention?”

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace”

As I remembered God, remembered who He is and what He is like, and found again a sense of awe that I get to talk to Him at all, it was like coming back to a wonderful place that I’d forgotten about. There was no sudden epiphany of God supernaturally granting me a solution to my problems, but it didn’t matter. I exist for God, and not the other way around.

Unceasing prayer is no substitute for times of focused attention, when we drop everything else in order to acknowledge who God is and who we are. One of the dangers that lie in never taking the time to give our fixed attention to God is that we will begin to see God in the context of our little worlds instead our worlds in light of who God is.

Like a good Father, God desires our attention and our gaze, and more than any earthly father ever was, He is worthy of it.

If you think very long at all about the idea of continuous prayer, chances are good that you’ll arrive at a seemingly innocuous question: “Won’t I run out of things to say?” It’s a question I’ve asked before.  Here in my fifth week of this experiment, I’ve realized that this question comes from a small view of God.

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.

A.W. Tozer

Our idea about who God is affects our prayers, and a small view of God will result in a diminished prayer life.  Usually, we shrink God down because we become focused on our own little worlds, and we define everything, including God, within that context.  God only matters as much as He can make improvements in that world, and so we only talk to Him when we need Him to do something for us, or we thank Him when we recognize that He has done something for us.

Or maybe we’ll think “God is big (using our definition of “big”) and so He only cares about “big” stuff.  We think that we can only talk to Him about things that seem big to us, and that He’ll be annoyed when we bother Him with small, petty concerns.

Either way, since our worlds are small, we’ll eventually run out of things that matter enough to talk about, and we’ll stop praying.

But here’s the deal:

All of my stuff is small compared to God.

My world is very small, and God is very, very big.

God is so big that He is infinite, and that means that He transcends any thoughts I can have about bigness or smallness  The biggest, most insurmountable concerns in my world are nothing compared to the infinite power and competence of God.

So in light of that, asking God to help you find your sunglasses is no smaller than asking God to cure you of cancer.  You really can take God up on His offer to listen to all of your concerns, because He cares for you.

As your view of God grows, something else, something even better, more joyful, more exciting, will happen: You’ll see that there’s nothing more worth talking to God about than God Himself.  When you talk to God about God, then you’re beginning to talk about really big things.

So while I have sent up many prayers asking God to help me with biggish (in my definition) things, I find myself constantly talking, thinking to God about my own thoughts about the small goings-on in my world too.  When I’m not talking about those things, I find myself talking to God about Himself.  I’m floored, thrilled, that this God – This God – invites me to talk to Him at all, and I can’t imagine running out of things to talk to Him about, because although I am really, really small, God is really, really big.

Do you feel that God doesn’t really want to be bothered by the “small stuff” in your life?
What do you find yourself talking to God about?

What does your prayer life show that you believe about God?