This is an experiment–in my own pursuit of a deeper, richer prayer life, I want to share some of the struggles and triumphs I have had in and through prayer. I would also like to share (and gather) suggestions to enrich how we can grow closer to God, closer to others, and closer to becoming more Christlike in our daily walk.
I love to cook. I love looking at new recipes, and finding new ways to use fresh ingredient, use up that last bit of leftovers, or stretch staple foods like beans, flour, or rice. And I love to pray. I love being able to lift up praises, requests, and even questions. I love knowing that I can confess even my most shameful thoughts or deeds to a God who already knows, loves me more than I can imagine, and stands eager to forgive me and strengthen me to make wiser choices.
Cooking can be exciting, challenging, and creative. But it doesn’t have to be. I don’t have to cook at all in our culture. I can (at some expense) dine out every day, and let someone else do all the work. Or, I can buy pre-made meals, “processed” foods and “instant” mixes– “just add water,” “cooks in 6 minutes,” “ready to eat.” I can pray “processed” prayers, too. I can recite prayers of others, mumble graces by rote, and even read off a list of requests with little or no effort or emotion.
But processed prayer isn’t healthy– no more than processed food. Oh, it won’t seem much different– at first. And it isn’t “bad”–every once in a while. But a steady diet of praying someone else’s words and thoughts doesn’t build a personal relationship. We miss out on the “process” of praying, and the end result is not as fresh and healthful.
When I cook from scratch, I have to follow a process:
I need to make sure I have the proper ingredients.
Some ingredients need to be seeded, skinned, peeled, chopped, or otherwise readied before they can be used.
Ingredients need to be added in the proper order.
Measurements are important. 1 teaspoon of salt is not the same as 1/2 cup of salt!
I need to use the proper methods– simmer, boil, chill, bake, etc.
Timing is crucial, too. Cookies may take 10 minutes to bake– a roast may take 3 hours.
Praying “from scratch” also follows a process:
I have to have the right heart attitude.
Distractions need to be put aside.
I want to include all the “ingredients” of a deep prayer– Adoration and Praise; Acknowledging God’s Sovereignty and Power; Confession and Repentance; Thankfulness; Presenting my requests; Lifting up the needs of others; and Committing to Listen and Obey God.
Timing is important–I need to make time to visit with God in Prayer. It shouldn’t be an afterthought or another activity to squeeze in IF I have a chance!
That doesn’t mean that we can’t (or shouldn’t) pray “in the moment” or recite The Lord’s Prayer, or the Prayer of St. Francis, or another written prayer. It doesn’t mean that we should make all our prayers from a “recipe” or a formula. But if our prayer “diet” is becoming dependent on “processed” prayers, we may need to go back to the kitchen!
Yesterday was Mother’s Day. And it was a good day. It started out cold and wet, but I got to spend time with my mother, my mother-in-law, several other family members, and some dear friends from childhood. It was a happy day, and it ended with sunshine breaking through the late afternoon clouds, birds singing, and a full heart of memories and gratitude.
But Mother’s Day wasn’t always like that for me. For many years, it was one of the worst days of my year. No matter the weather or the company, there was always a shadow of barrenness and emptiness. Yes, I was grateful for my mother; for my grandmothers and aunts and other relatives; for my friends and their adorable children. But I felt shut out– I was not a mother. I would never be a mother. I was always on the outside looking in.
My circumstances are slightly different now, but I am still not a “natural” mother. No one calls me “mama” or even “grandma.” But Mother’s Day isn’t meant to be a day of sorrow and emptiness, and after years of prayer and letting go of expectations, God is showing me how to enjoy and embrace the circumstances in which He has placed me.
I am not alone in this struggle– far from it. For the past few weeks, I have heard from heartbroken people who dread Mother’s Day. Those who have lost their mothers face the reminder of their grief and loss. It is particularly hard on those who were unable to spend precious days with a dying mother due to COVID restrictions, or lost their mother to COVID. Some mothers are reminded of the wrenching loss of a child– still birth, drug overdoses, suicide, auto accidents, childhood cancer– gut-churning emptiness where once there was a promise of joyful life, grandchildren, shared memories, and so much more. Other mothers (and their children) face the pain of separation and severed relationships. Many, like me, face the reminder that they are NOT a mother– not a “real” mother–even if their circumstances or careers are filled with children “not their own.” And some people face multiple circumstances that cause grief, bitterness, alienation, anger, and despair.
These feelings of sadness and loss are natural, but they do not have to weigh us down or control how we face each day. God wants to share these burdens; He wants to carry the weight of our brokenness and free us to experience joy and peace– even in the midst of our pain! And on those days when our circumstances threaten to overwhelm us, God is never more than a prayer away. He doesn’t make our grief disappear; He doesn’t erase our memories. But He can redeem them with a changed perspective and new hope.
Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.– each can bring bitterness and heartbreak, as well as joy. We do well to pay attention to those around us who dread such holidays, and offer the comfort, hope, and encouragement of a listening ear, a loving heart, and, most of all, a loving God who longs for us to pray in and through our heartbreak.
When I was a teenager, I read about Solomon and how he prayed for wisdom. God granted his request, and made Solomon the wisest ruler in Israel’s history. He also blessed Solomon with riches and fame, peace, and power. (see 1 Kings, chapter 3) I thought about what I should pray for in my own life– what attribute would I need as I became an adult, a wife, a parent, etc. I prayed for patience.
When I said that I wanted to pray for patience, several wise and respected adults cautioned me NOT to pray such a prayer! “You know what will happen…God won’t “give” you patience…He’ll bring all kinds of things into you life to “teach” you patience. You never pray for such things. It’s like asking for trouble. Be careful what you pray for.”
Looking back almost 40 years later, I would have to say that God answered my prayer. And, as I was warned, He allowed things to come into my life to try my patience and develop my patience. I remained unmarried until I was 46. I never had children of my own. Perhaps some people would wag their finger and say, “See, I told you so.” But I would not change my prayer or change my life’s circumstances. God’s answers were not what I expected, but His ways were better than my expectations. I wanted patience so that I could better handle life’s little ups and downs– so I could be the kind of wife and mother who was always composed; always at peace. Instead, I worked with teenagers and toddlers– many of whom knew very little peace at home. I wasn’t perfectly composed. Sometimes, I yelled at my class, or lost my temper with colleagues. Sometimes, I had to deal with crises–students who died in tragic accidents or by suicide; toddlers at story time whose parents were going through divorce or facing cancer. And all the while, I waited for the husband and family of my hopes and expectations.
I had prayed for patience– and I found it ONLY when I depended on God. All those years I was single and working with “other people’s” children, I learned to lean on God’s timing and wisdom. Even through the pain and tears, and wondering why God seemed silent and my dreams seemed to be out of reach, God was there, listening to my cries, giving me strength to keep going. And He is still doing the same for me now. My circumstances and expectations didn’t change who God was. But they helped shape who I was becoming, and who I am today.
During this time, I also watched peers who seemed to “have it all.” They had beautiful families, beautiful houses, handsome husbands, and fast-track jobs. But underneath, they were lonely and unfulfilled. Many of them ended up divorced, disillusioned, or burned-out. Some of them have turned (or returned) to God; others still struggle, trying to do everything their own way, and trying to juggle too much alone.
God doesn’t demand that we pray “risky” prayers. But when we choose to follow Him, we will have to take some risky steps. We may have to let go of our expectations; we may have to go through rejection and hardship. But what God has in store for us is worth the risk.
I’m not wealthy or famous. I wouldn’t recommend that everyone pray for patience, or wisdom, or some other virtue, thinking that God will make life easier or richer. (I think that’s what worried some of the people who “warned me off” praying this way.) But if you want to know God in a richer, deeper way, it will require a leap of faith.
What “risky prayer” have you been putting off? Today is a perfect day to take that next step. I promise, you won’t regret it.
During the era of flintlock muskets, gunpowder was ignited by a spark from a flint striking a plate. The gunpowder was held steady in a small “pan”, and the resulting explosion was supposed to propel the lead shot “ball” or bullet to its intended target. But often, the gunpowder would not explode; it would simply burn out in a brief flash of light, failing to result in a shot, and wasting the powder. This was known as a “flash in the pan.” It came to symbolize an impressive display that accomplished little or nothing of use.
Years later, prospectors in the California Gold Rush would see a “flash in the pan” as they looked for gold. They would take a shallow pan, dip it in a river, bring up water and silt, dirt, and rocks, and swirl it around. Sometimes, they would see the “flash” of a gold nugget or gold dust. More often, they would see a glint of something else– pyrite, or “fool’s gold” was more likely than a flash of real gold. And, as the water swirled, the tiny flash of gold could disappear amid the eddy of dirt and other dull rocks– remaining just a “flash in the pan.”
Early photographers, struggling to bring enough light into their studios, experimented with explosive powders, hoping to get a “flash” of light bright enough to create a better negative exposure, so that their subjects would not have to sit so long in the same position in order to get a clear image. They would mix powders, spread some of them on a shallow “pan,” and ignite them to create a brief, but brilliant, flash of light.
Our lives may sometimes seem like “a flash in the pan.” Our days are numbered, and our abilities limited. Even our brightest ideas and most explosive actions seem to be swallowed up in the larger scheme of things; our good deeds and noble intentions disappear in the swirling waters of time and the tides of injustice, disease, and evil around us.
But our lives, while brief, can be more than a “flash in the pan.” We are called to be the follow Jesus, the “Light of the World.” Jesus’s life on earth was brief, even by human life expectancy. But unlike a spark that burned itself out and ended in death and darkness, Jesus brought light and life that continues today. And He calls us to use our lives in ways that light the way for others.
Sometimes, our prayers can also seem like brief flashes, producing little of significance. But God hears each one, and it is in His power that our prayers become part of the larger “picture” of His plan.
I was thinking the other day about the movie, “Forrest Gump.” In it, a bitter, beaten, and angry character begins arguing with God– in the midst of a hurricane!
“Lieutenant Dan” was an able soldier, fighting in Vietnam and in charge of a small unit, which included the simple-minded Forrest Gump. When their unit was ambushed, Dan was badly injured and lost the use of his legs. Meanwhile, Forrest Gump received only a small flesh wound, and managed to save several of his fellow soldiers, receiving a medal for bravery. One of the soldiers rescued by Forrest, Dan resented his situation– disabled and ignored– while Forrest went on to become successful and celebrated.
Worse, in the years after the war, Forrest found Dan, homeless and dejected, and offered him a job and a home– on his shrimping boat. Forrest knew next to nothing about shrimping, and Dan, torn between bitterness and gratitude, gives Forrest a hard time. Dan’s life has gone nowhere, and Forrest seems to dodge every bullet (literally), finding success in spite of his naivete and seemingly stupid choices. When the two men find themselves in the middle of a hurricane, Dan can take it no longer. He lashes out– not at Forrest this time, but at God. How could a loving God allow Dan to go through trial after trial– the loss of his legs and so many of the men under his command, the loss of his dignity and productivity, the loss of his independence, and now, another deadly situation beyond his control. He yells at God–“Come and get me!” He challenges God to just kill him; just finish him off, or leave him alone.
But God is silent– and soon, so is the hurricane. Forrest and Dan have survived. In fact, Forrest’s decision to be out of the harbor means their boat is the only one to survive–suddenly, they can’t catch the shrimp fast enough! Forrest becomes a millionaire and hires a fleet of fishing boats. But what about Dan?
Somewhere in the middle of the storm, Dan’s heart is pierced by a simple and life-changing thought. God has not been the one “ruining” Dan’s life– He is the one who has been preserving it! God brought him through war, disability, injustice, loneliness, frustration, and the raging sea. God was not a cosmic bully. God was not singling out Dan for punishment– after all, thousands of others had been wounded and killed in the war; millions of people knew what it was like to be hungry, homeless, and lonely; and hundreds had been devastated by the hurricane– even while they were safely evacuated or hunkered down on land. Forrest had not dodged every “bullet.” He had lost his best friend in battle; he had been rejected (time after time) by the woman he loved; he had been teased, bullied, and cheated dozens of times, and he had been tossed about by the same waves and winds Dan had survived. Dan ends up leaving Forrest, and setting off on his own, having found a peace that transcends his pain and bitterness. He swims off with a smile, leaving behind the opportunity to remain with Forrest and make millions.
Arguing with the Almighty is very tempting when we face difficult circumstances– and when we focus on our own lot, and not on the bigger picture. God is bigger than any of the troubles we face. And He is not unaware or unconcerned about whatever we are going through. Just as Lieutenant Dan challenged God, the biblical character of Job challenged God to vindicate him as he went through trials and pain. God finally answered, and Job realized that God was far bigger than anything Job had ever known or experienced. And in the end, God restored Job– giving him a new family, and even more material wealth than he had before!
Sometimes, God allows us to go through periods of pain and struggle– not because He is punishing us or because He is a tyrant, but because He is more interested in our ultimate salvation than He is in our immediate comfort. We moan and complain that God “doesn’t want us to be happy,” as if our momentary happiness is more important than our character development, than the happiness of those around us, or than God’s design for the world.
Near the end of the movie, Lieutenant Dan visits Forrest. He is transformed. No longer angry and bitter, he is quiet, self-assured, and standing! He has “new legs” made of titanium, and he has found joy, love, and success of his own.
Of course, many of us, regardless of our situations, have tried arguing with God at certain times of our lives. The loss of a loved one; the breakup of a marriage; a diagnosis of cancer; a miscarriage of justice and the loss of a reputation– it is natural to be angry, hurt, and confused. And God is more than big enough to “take it” when we ask “WHY?!!” But we will never “win” such arguments– not because God is a tyrant who won’t let us have what we want– but because God is GOD, and we are not. He alone knows how our story ends, and what trials– and blessings– await us. He alone knows what is “right” in the scope of eternity– not just for us, but for our loved ones, our neighbors, our nation, and our times. God can see that we get, not just “new legs,” but a new heart, and a new mind!
Hurricanes happen– so do hurts and hurdles. We can choose to see God’s hand–and believe that it is raised in anger, or reaching out to hold us. That choice is yours. That choice is mine. Every day.
Ahhh…Friday. End of the work week, beginning of the weekend. Payday, too, for some. For many people, their goal is just to get through Friday at work, and spend time doing whatever they want until they have to return to work on Monday. Of course, some people have to work weekends, and others don’t have a job at all. Some have other responsibilities on the weekends– caring for aging parents, or shuttling kids to ball games; volunteer projects, working on home improvement tasks, or mowing the lawn. But Friday has become such a special day in our culture that we even have a phrase, “Thank God it’s Friday” (TGIF for short). And we have special Fridays–Good Friday (the day of Christ’s crucifixion), and “Black” Friday (the huge shopping day after Thanksgiving). And several movies about Fridays– Freaky Friday, His Girl Friday, Friday Night Lights, and a string of Friday the 13th horror flicks. And most of the associations with Friday are positive, even festive. For some people, Friday is the high point of their week!
But what about the other days of the week? Do we thank God for Tuesdays, or Saturdays, or Sundays? Shouldn’t we be grateful every day? God gave us seven days each week, and He even sanctioned one of those days each week for rest and reflection. When Jesus spoke of the concept of a “sabbath,” He made clear that a weekly day of rest was God’s gift to US (Mark 2:27 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+2%3A27-28&version=ESV) But every day is a gift– filled with God’s presence and promises, even when it may seem like an endless series of chores, mishaps, and personal failures.
God gives us each day, and whether it is payday, Monday, a “bad-hair” day, or a holiday, every day is an opportunity to live, love, and learn. And every day, we have the privilege and the opportunity to spend time in prayer with our Loving Heavenly Father.
So, yes, Thank God that it’s Friday today. And use this day (and every day) to honor Him, obey Him, and walk in joy with Him. Tomorrow, Thank God it’s Saturday!
Just before Jesus took His last breath on the cross, He called out, “It is finished!” Theology teaches us that His statement reflects the completion of His mission– to defeat the power of Sin and Death, and pay the redemption price for all who will call on His name. The ultimate victory has been declared; the ultimate battle won!
The past two weeks, I have wanted to say, “It is Finished!”– as I struggle with a hundred different tasks that never seem to end. I missed my self-imposed deadline to publish a blog entry on Monday; I stared at a pile of extra dishes in my sink and a growing mountain of laundry as I added “extra” tasks to my weekly list. My work here is not finished; my mission is not complete.
But Jesus’ words remind me– It IS finished! My “mission” is not to wash every dish, make every deadline, “fix” every small problem that arises, or answer every question. My mission is to follow Jesus. He didn’t heal every leper, end poverty, sweep away the armies of Rome, or even convince the Pharisees to repent. Because THAT wasn’t His ultimate mission.
That does not give me an excuse not to do the dishes or try to make sure I post this by my next deadline. But it gives me Grace to keep going– not in my own strength or achievement, but in dependence on God’s power, timing, and mercy. His Grace is sufficient!
This is true of our prayer life as well. God doesn’t “grade” us on each prayer, or each day’s efforts; rather, He waits, patiently and lovingly, to hear us call on Him and listen for His voice in return. The “judgment” has already been given–Jesus’ work on our behalf has been accepted and declared “complete.” His Kingdom has come; His will is being done, even if our prayers seem small or inadequate for the mission.
There are some tasks that we will never see “finished” during our lifetime or through our limited efforts. But we can work and pray heartily and confidently in the knowledge that we will see it “finished” in God’s perfect timing. And we can rejoice in the privilege of working toward that end– even our smallest efforts and weakest moments are woven into the story of Eternity!
It is supposed to be springtime in my neck of the woods. We’ve had two days of snow this week, chilly winds, and frost/freeze warnings. Fruit farmers are worried about losing the fragile blossoms that we need for apples, peaches, and cherries later this year. Many of the spring flowers are also in jeopardy. People are joking that we need to “unplug” springtime and “reboot” it, because it seems not to be working! The seasons seem “out of time.”
Sometimes our lives seem the same. We expect a season of growth or warmth, only to feel the cold winds, or we experience drought when we expected rain. Our prayers will change as the seasons come and go– young parents pray for patience as their days are hectic; aging parents pray for visits from their busy children and grandchildren. We go through seasons of success, seasons of stress, seasons of forced immobility, seasons of grief, and seasons of distracted activity.
Throughout the Psalms, David and the other psalm writers sang of woes and wonders, praises and problems– sometimes within a single Psalm! We have seasons of questioning, and seasons of confidence. Sometimes, we feel close to God; other times, we wonder why He seems so far away. Our “songs” and prayers will change over the course of our lives and according to our moods and circumstances– desperate, worshipful, even indignant. Yet God hears them all– He wants us to pour out our hearts in all seasons!
Our seasons may change, but God is Eternally Loving and Sovereign. Our moods and changing circumstances cannot remove us from His watchful eye or His tender care. Our momentary anger and doubt are not beyond His willingness–even eagerness– to forgive and redeem! God is Lord of all the Seasons– seasons of snow and sunshine; seasons of joy and sorrow. Even when our seasons seem “out of time,” we can lift our voices to a God who never changes.
There is a line in a song by Billy Joel (Only the Good Die Young) which reads, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.”
There is a myth about sin– that sin is fun and obedience is drudgery. Sinners laugh and live carefree, happy lives, while “saints” lead gloomy lives filled with tears, worry, and anguish. Heaven will be filled with sour-faced do-gooders playing harps, while Hell will be an eternal party.
Nothing could be further from reality. While sin gives momentary pleasure and temporary laughter, it also leads to devastating pain and haunting regret. Broken families, lost relationships, stress, and guilt are just some of the consequences of sin. The idea that “I’m not hurting anybody– I’m just doing what makes me happy” is a false comfort.
Similarly, while obedience may require us to make sacrifices or suffer momentarily, it also leads to great reward–discipline, wisdom, integrity, and a legacy of hope and help. The idea that “I’m missing out on the fun” is also a false one. “Saints” may cry, but often their tears are for the misfortunes of others!
Unfortunately, the common stereotype of sinners laughing while saints cry or, more often, sit in judgment, is based on observation. I have known some very sour Christians. They may not be crying, but they frequently make others around them cry! They nag, scold, wag their fingers, consign their neighbors and family members to Hell, and act as though they are too good for everyone else. When challenged about their negative attitude, sometimes they suggest that they are just “waiting for Heaven.” Others plead a genuine concern for others, and they worry that the laughter they hear now will turn to mourning in the future.
But I have also known joyful Christians– laughing, singing, encouraging others, whistling while they work, even laughing in the face of suffering and persecution! They, too, are “waiting for Heaven.” But in the meantime, they are celebrating their new and abundant life in Christ. Their attitude and actions attract others, and reflect the love, joy, peace, and hope that transcends the mere “happiness” of a moment’s sinful pleasure.
The Bible says much about the value of both laughter and tears; of joyous celebration and sober reflection. In the end, ALL of us are “sinners”–no one is righteous on her/his own. Jesus, when He walked the earth and interacted with people, wept and celebrated with them. The Pharisees reprimanded Jesus and His disciples for their “feasting” and spending time with prostitutes and tax collectors. And yet, Jesus had harsh words about sin and Hell, and often spent time alone and in anguish of heart.
The crying of saints is not, in itself, of any more value than the laughter of sinners. But laughter and happiness in the moment cannot save us from the sting of death or the yawning emptiness of an eternity without God. And that is no laughing matter! Unfortunately, the song is based on an empty myth. Death comes to all of us, young or old, “good” or “bad,” gloomy or exuberant in life. What makes the difference is not our laughter or tears, or even our efforts to obey or live “good” lives– what makes a difference is GRACE and FAITH. And I’d rather live with the redeemed than die with the defiant!
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians 4:8-9 (NIV via biblegateway.com)
Sometimes I have to ask if I have a “Hollywood Musical” kind of faith: the kind that breaks into song and dance in the face of trouble, and expects all of life’s problems to be solved by sheer optimism and a catchy tune. But life is full of real problems– ones that cannot be “solved” by putting on a determined smile and skipping down a Yellow Brick Road or twirling through the Alps. In fact, most of life’s problems are bigger and darker than my ability to sing or dance or even think away. I can’t sing away cancer. I can’t end injustice just by whistling a happy tune. I can’t dance my way through mass shootings, economic downturns, famines, or war.
But I CAN choose my attitude– every day, no matter what my circumstances. I cannot ignore realities around me, but I can control HOW I view them: I can choose how much of my attention and energy I spend on negative things, and the perspective from which I view the world around me. Positive thinking won’t make problems disappear, but it will determine my response to circumstances– even unexpected ones.
The Apostle Paul wrote of this to the church in Philippi. Paul himself was facing very difficult circumstances– imprisoned, awaiting a sentence of death, in poor health–circumstances that would cause most people to be depressed. But Paul was sending encouragement and hope and words of joy and peace to his friends.
Notice the difference, though, between the “power of positive thinking” espoused by Hollywood, and the Power of Faith that Paul practiced. Hollywood tells us to think of our “favorite” things–kittens and mittens and snowflakes and schnitzel. Such thoughts can bring us a temporary measure of comfort and reassurance, but they cannot give us the power to endure a constant onslaught of negative viewpoints and bad news. Paul, in contrast, asks us to think of higher and bigger things– GOD’S favorite things! And he gives us the imperative–this isn’t just a “helpful hint,” meant to make us feel better for a moment. This is a consistent practice; whether the sun shines and the birds sing, or the “dog barks” and the “bee stings.” And, though they are divided into two separate verses, there is a second part of the imperative–we are to put into practice what we have learned. We need to be positivelyactive, as well. We need to BE true and noble and pure; we need to share and promote all that is lovely, admirable, and praise-worthy.
Just thinking about “nice” things won’t change the world. Just thinking positive thoughts about ourselves or reciting positive thoughts to ourselves won’t necessarily lead to positive results. But training ourselves to think “above and beyond” our circumstances; to think about the positive ways we can respond to them; and preparing to actively pursue positive actions, no matter what– these steps put us in a position to be used by God to create positive change.
Praying the attributes of God will automatically help us to think of all that is true and noble and pure– because God IS all that is true, and majestic, and holy. Remembering all that God has done– throughout history and in our own lives–will remind us how even small acts of faith can make a difference in a cold, dark world.
And let’s not forget the end of verse 9– “And the God of peace will be with you.” Never forget the positive promise of God’s abiding presence in all of our circumstances. Not only will he give us joy and peace, he will give us the power to endure and prevail!