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 keep a prayer journal. For each day of the year, I have a list of names– people who are celebrating a birthday or anniversary. I also list one location (nation, region, major city, etc.) and I have room for urgent prayer requests. As I read through the names, places, and situations on the list, I can lift them up in prayer. Today, I had the names of two young women– distant cousins I’ve only ever met once or twice at family reunions. I know who they are in relation to myself and my husband; I know that one of the young women became a mother earlier this year. But my list today also included the nation of South Africa. I know very little about South Africa, and I am not aware of knowing anyone who lives there. I also received a request to pray for an infant who is critically ill. I have never met her.
How do I pray for people I have never met? I do not know any details about their needs or anything about their background. I do not have a relationship of trust or mutual experiences with them. They don’t know that I have prayed for them or what I have said about them or their needs.
But God does! And in lifting up others to Him, I am not praying into a vacuum; I do not need to know any details, or get the words “just right.” Jesus Himself gave a blueprint, when He prayed for those who would come to faith long after He had ascended into Heaven after His resurrection:
20 “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23 I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. 24 “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. 26 And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”
John 17:20-26 New King James Version (NKJV) (taken from biblegateway.com)
Even when praying for people I know well, it is not my knowing them that makes prayer important, effective, or worthy– it is not the subject of my prayers that makes them worthy or noble–it is the act of bringing EVERYTHING to GOD in prayer. The known, the unknown; the global crises, the aches and pains and heartaches of friends and neighbors, and the unspoken request of a stranger– all of them are welcome at the throne of Grace and in the presence of the King of Kings!
Never discount the wonder that someone, somewhere– someone you have never met–has prayed for you; may be praying for you in this instant. Why? Because God loves you that much! And He loves every stranger you’ve never met just as much. Don’t hesitate to pray for those you’ve never met. You may yet meet them and enjoy their company in eternity!
I love the autumn harvest season, and I believe it has many lessons for us about prayer:
There is a time and season for harvest. We cannot harvest at our convenience; neither should we expect God’s answers and our circumstances to arrange themselves around our wishes. Instead, as we pray, we should watch and wait, ready to do what is necessary in the meantime, and ready when the time is right for harvest. Too soon or too late, and we will miss the best of the crop, or lose it altogether. If we pray for a harvest, we must be willing to wait on God’s timing.
Harvest is a season among other seasons– not a single event. If I pick apples this fall, that is not the end of apples. There will be more apples to harvest next autumn, and the following year. Sometimes, we must wait through several seasons to see the harvest; seasons of rain, sun, even snow and cold dark days. We must be faithful to keep praying for the next harvest, and the next…
The harvest bears little resemblance to what we planted. If I plant an ugly bulb in the ground this fall, I may see a beautiful tulip next spring–unless I plant an onion bulb! If I plant some tiny black seeds in the spring, I may harvest a large orange carrot later in the summer. If I plant kernels of corn, I will get new kernels, but they will be on an ear on a tall stalk. If we are praying for a harvest, it may come in ways and shapes and circumstances that will surprise, or even mystify us. Often, we pray for what we imagine we could do– instead, we need to learn to ask for what only God can do!
We cannot control the harvest– we can plant the seeds, fertilize them, tend them, weed them, water them, prune them–but we cannot predict or guarantee the results. But if we do nothing, we will not see any harvest at all. Similarly, we do not control God’s answers to our prayers, but we will see no growth, no harvest, if we do not pray at all, or if we give up.
Harvest is gathering the crop (and the seeds for a new crop). We need to gather prayer requests, thanksgiving lists, areas of conviction, songs of praise; we need to present a bountiful harvest of prayer–an offering and a fragrant sacrifice to the giver of all good things!
Who are you? If someone were to ask me such a question, how would I respond? Where would I begin? Name? Gender? Race or Ethnicity? Nationality? Marital Status? Age? Profession? Social or Economic Status? Religious Affiliation?
While I can be “identified” by such labels and descriptors, none of them get to the essence of who I “am.” More than just “identification”, there are four important ways to think of “identity.” Jesus dealt with two of them (and hinted at a third) in a discussion with His disciples:
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. Matthew 16: 13-18 (NIV)
“Who do people say (I am)?”–Those who label us are usually those who are most removed from us– “people” who don’t know our personality, our life story–people who can only identify us by faint impressions and simple observations. Unfortunately, our world has become a place where we can feel trapped in this sort of surface identity. Others see that I am young or old, short or tall, Christian, Muslim, Black or Asian, American or Brazilian, Hispanic, female, blind, etc. Or they judge me to be rich or poor, native or foreigner, educated, clean, socially adept…or someone who thinks or speaks like them..or not. Others can shape our social identity, but we must resist the trap of letting them define it.
Through the ages, people have tried to define Jesus– to identify, label, and dismiss Him, just as the people of His own time did. Some have seen in Him a “great teacher”, a “prophet”, a madman; some even question the reality of His physical existence. Jesus was aware of this when He asked for feedback from His disciples. But He wanted more.
“Who do YOU say that I am?”– Those who are close to us can give us a more accurate reflection of who we really are. They know more of the complex nature of our personalities, our backgrounds, the events and experiences that shape our thoughts and emotions. Close friends will often give us a “reality check”, as well–drowning out the voices of other people who may give us a false sense of our worth and identity, and reminding us of where we’ve come from and where we are headed. Our friends and family can remind us that we are maturing (or not), that we have value far beyond our labels. When Jesus asked His disciples to answer the first question, they gave vague answers– “some say…others say”–the second question required a more personal, deeper answer.
Why did Jesus ask the question in the first place? Was He having an identity crisis? Did He not know who He was? Of course not. But He knew what it was like to be misunderstood, mislabeled, mis-identified. And He knew that sometimes, we need to stop and ask the question; we need to reevaluate where our identity comes from and not let others decide for us.
God created us as individuals with unique identities–no two alike, and each one infinitely precious. We, by our thoughts, feelings, actions, experiences and beliefs, become who we are. We can change our identity– not necessarily those parts that people tend to label; we can’t become taller or younger, for instance–but we CAN change our outlook, attitude, beliefs, and choices. Others can give us their observations, advice, encouragement or criticism, but we choose which voices to listen to, and which roads to follow in our life’s journey.
None of the other disciples had a ready answer for Jesus on this occasion, but Peter jumped in with an announcement, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This was more than the question demanded. Peter could have said “I think you are the Messiah,” or even “You are my master, my teacher, and my friend.” But Peter cut to the chase–“You ARE the Messiah..” To which, Jesus replied that “this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in Heaven…” Ultimately, our identity will be declared and confirmed by our Creator. Our identities, unique as they are, were created for purposes– we live and move and have our being within the scope of God’s creation, and within His plan for all of humankind.
Father, who do YOU say that I am? Help me to become the person you created me to be, to fulfill the purposes you have for me, and to honor your Son, who came to reconcile us to Yourself. Amen!
Have you ever been the recipient of a small act of kindness, and “paid it forward” by doing something nice for others? It doesn’t have to be an extravagant gesture–someone holds a door open for you, so you do the same for someone else when your hands are free; you give someone a compliment, and as you walk on, you hear them complimenting the next person they see. It doesn’t even have to be the same action–you may see someone pick up trash along the sidewalk, and later you make a small donation to a local charity that collects gently used items for needy residents…
The idea is that when we see good things happening, we can be inspired to join in and “spread the good.” In a world full of things that are not so “good”– bitterness, greed, hatred, pushing and shoving, name-calling, apathy, sadness, shame, and evil–good deeds stand out. Even the smallest kind word, smile, or simple act can have an exponential impact when it gets passed on.
Have you ever considered “Praying it forward?” Not as a substitute for “paying it forward”, but as a supplement? When you see someone doing a kindness, or when you are the recipient of that kindness, you can pray:
Thank–of course, if you have the opportunity, thank the other person first, but then thank God for HIS goodness and kindness; thank Him for the person you’ve seen or interacted with; thank Him for giving you eyes to see (or ears to hear, etc.) the goodness around you; thank him for others who have blessed you in the past
Bless–if you have the opportunity, bless the other person with a smile, or a reciprocal act of kindness, but then ask God to bless the other person–and/or someone else who is on your mind.
Ask– ask God for opportunities to “pay it forward”, or just to spread more kindness! Ask how you can show kindness, mercy, and love to others throughout the day. Even more, ask God to intervene (or help you intervene) in places and lives that need more than a small act of kindness.
Confess/Repent–sometimes a small act or word of kindness will convict us, reminding us of a time when we have withheld mercy, or have been the means of causing harm or destruction. Use this time to confess and seek to make amends (if possible), or seek forgiveness.
May today offer you opportunities to “pay it forward”, and then to “Pray if forward!”
There is a common English saying, “You are what you eat.” It suggests that if you eat a lot of fatty foods or sugary foods, you will suffer the consequences– you will become fat or develop health problems associated with sugar, cholesterol, etc. There is some truth to the saying, especially if a person eats such foods to excess, and does not eat a balanced diet that also includes foods high in fiber, vitamins and minerals, and other nutrients.
But the saying also suggests that a person’s diet determines their identity, which is not true, and often involves labeling and unfair judgment. And the judgment comes, not just based on what a person eats, but sometimes how, when, and where a person eats: “couch potato” “gourmand” “junk food junkie” “vegan” “carnivore” “gluten-free” “keto” “midnight snacker” “carboholic” “power foods” “see-food diet (if I see it, I eat it!)” “fitness diet– I’m all about fitness (fittin’this) whole pizza in my mouth!” “picky eater” “fast food” “five-second rule” etc.
The truth is, our relationship to food can indicate aspects of our personality or character, but it is not “who we are,” unless our entire life is about food. (Even for those with conditions like anorexia or bulimia that turn food and/or eating into an obsession, it is one aspect of their life–a diagnosis, not an epitaph.)
Our world today is filled with opportunities to make an idol of food and eating, diets, nutritional fads, supplements, etc. We end up ashamed of every meal– counting calories, pointing fingers at those whose eating habits don’t live up to our standards (while secretly envying them), trying to excuse (or hide) any trip through the fast food drive-thru window, feeling guilty over a candy bar, or feeling depressed when we cannot afford to eat like the people we see in magazines, in movies, or on TV. In religious circles, we champion “God-given” diets, some of which are not given by God. “What would Jesus eat?” The Daniel Diet, or The Shepherd’s Diet– these may be good principles and even helpful nutritionally, but they won’t “save” you or make God love you better than He already does.
Jesus himself addressed this question. His disciples were being singled out by the religious leaders of their day because they ate without performing the ritual handwashing ceremonies. They were declared “unclean” for eating in this manner. But Jesus saw through this criticism. It wasn’t based on God’s law, but on the human traditions that had been added over the centuries. What God had said about cleanliness and hygiene was meant for general health AND to distinguish the nation of Israel from other cultures whose eating practices were sometimes part of their worship of idols. After chastising the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, Jesus turns to the crowd:
Matthew 15:10-20 English Standard Version (ESV)
10 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+15%3A10-20&version=ESV
Notice that Jesus does not say that it is healthier or better to eat with unwashed hands, nor does He say that people should eat without washing– instead, He is speaking common sense about obsessive and judgmental practices. Jesus himself followed the traditional kosher diet of His people, as did His disciples. Jesus also fasted, and recommended it as a companion to disciplined and earnest prayer.
It isn’t what we eat, or when or where that makes us who we are. Our eating habits and diets may help our bodies, but they won’t save our souls, or make us better than our neighbor. In fact, if our eating habits are more important than our neighbor–if we use them to try to manipulate, control, shame, or label our neighbor–we need to reconsider how “healthy” they really are.
Diets are not bad. Food is not bad. Pride, envy, self-righteousness– these are bad for the heart, the stomach, and the soul. Let’s be grateful for food, but even more, let’s be grateful for a God who knows us intimately and thoroughly– a God who knows that we are NOT “what we eat!”
The English word “life” has only four letters, but the central two form another word– “If.” Life is all about making choices–and facing the consequences of those choices. Often we focus on those circumstances over which we seem to have no choice–I didn’t “choose” to be born, to be born female, to be born into the family or community where I grew up. I didn’t choose to be short, I didn’t choose the color of my eyes or skin or hair (though my hair color has changed as I get older!)
But those are circumstances– they are not my LIFE. My life is made up of thoughts, feelings, actions, attitudes, decisions, and interactions with others. The color of my eyes, my lack of stature, or my family name does not determine my attitude or my inner beliefs or the way I treat others. Who I am is determined by the choices I make– to be proud, to believe that I am superior (or inferior) to others; to choose hope and courage or to wallow in worry and despondency; to make the most of my time, or to waste it; to envy others or be grateful for all that I have; to obey or defy; to take care of my body or make unhealthy life choices; to be a good steward or be wasteful and destructive; to show love or to withhold kindness; to forgive or to hold a grudge; to seek God for his love and mercy, or to blame God for every challenge I face. Every choice (and its consequences) is woven into the fabric of my earthly life– every reaction to bad circumstances, every investment in future goals, every moment spent “just vegging”, every secret habit I continue to indulge..
The word “if” can hold great promise or regret– we can get lost in speculating, “if only…” or we can try to bargain with ourselves or with God, “if…then.” God gives us life, and He gives us “if”– the freedom to choose how we will react to our circumstances; freedom to choose how we will live our lives; the freedom to seek Him; the freedom to serve Him (or not) with all the unique gifts and passions He planted in each of us.
Life is filled with “ifs”– good and bad. “If’s” are conditional and have consequences. God’s love is not an “If.” It is unconditional, eternal, and immeasurable. Accepting it, however is conditional–it is the greatest “if” in the center of our life!
Lord, help me make good choices– choices that reflect the love and mercy You have shown; choices that bring You honor and glory. Thank you for making the choice to send Your only Son, that whoever (including me) believes in Him should have everlasting life!
There are at least two great songs and one movie with the title, “P.S. I Love You.” The idea comes from a letter– one in which the writer wants to make sure that “I Love You” are the last three words on the page– the lasting impression for the letter’s recipient.
The Bible is many things– a history, a book of laws, a narrative of God’s dealings with humankind–but it is also a love letter. Scattered throughout the lists of generations, the poetry, the prophecies, the gospels, and yes, the letters to churches, are expressions of love. God begins by creating a beautiful garden, creating Adam in his own likeness, and creating a suitable helper from Adam’s side. He gives them everything they need to live and enjoy everything around them–He even comes to walk and talk with them!
God rescues the nation of Israel from slavery and cruelty in Egypt, and guides them in the wilderness for 40 years–providing food and water, even preserving their clothing and shoes, so they have no lack!
God punishes the rebellious nation, sending them into exile– but He gives them promises, and even in the worst of their punishment, He speaks words of love and healing and reconciliation.
God sends the ultimate Word of Love in His Son– who loves, heals, forgives, and serves, even to the point of dying! And in the death and resurrection of Jesus, this love is extended to everyone who will accept Him.
Finally, God promises an end to death and rebellion–eternal reconciliation and life with Him who loves us best. His love letter ends with a glorious P.S.:
22 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever… 16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” 17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life… 20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. (Revelation 22:1-5; 16-17; 20-21.)
It rained all day. It was gloomy and wet. All my plans were ruined. I got nothing done. What a wasted day.
Instead of working in my garden, I stayed inside. My daughter was restless and whiny. I was distracted and had a headache. I ended up making hot dogs for dinner, instead of a roast. I snapped at the dog. I didn’t finish my “quiet time,” and I blew off my Bible study. I made a couple of phone calls and “liked” about a dozen Facebook posts. I wasted the entire day.
Yesterday was different. I worked in the garden, bought a brand new outfit at half price, did Bible study, and two loads of laundry before noon. I baked a pie and made a new casserole for dinner, walked the dog and got in 4000 steps, took my daughter to dance class, and got all my “fall” decorations up in the family room and the porch.
Today was my favorite day! Even though it was rainy, Mommy and I got to spend the whole day together! Yesterday, she was so busy, she barely noticed I was here. She didn’t even smile back when I got out of dance class. I tried to tell her about our new dance, but she was on the phone the whole ride home. She was busy, busy, busy! Today, she was grumpy about the rain, but she made hot dogs! My favorite. She read me a story, too. I know she wasn’t feeling too well, because she made me take a nap, even though it was to early for nap time. She even yelled at Daisy about the noises she made– she made the same noises yesterday, and Mom didn’t even notice! It was so silly, but it was still my favorite day!
Pamela called me today. I haven’t spoken with her in ages. It was so nice to get caught up. It really made my day. I haven’t been at church lately, and I didn’t even realize how much I miss the people there. When my kids grew up and left, I felt the loss, but now that Bud is gone, it’s so much worse. I spend so many of my days alone. They seem like wasted days, sometimes. But today was different. After talking with Pamela, I thought maybe I should call Jason– not to ask for anything, just to tell him I love him. Turns out he was having a rough day at work, but didn’t want to “bother” his mom. We didn’t talk long, but it left us both feeling better. It rained most of the day, but the sun came out for a little bit…it was a good day.
Colossians 3:17 English Standard Version (ESV)
17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Some days bring rain, and gloom, and loneliness, headaches, and heartaches. But no day is wasted in which we can touch another’s heart, share the love of Christ, and set our minds on all the Good that God has in store for us!
1 Thessalonians 5:18 English Standard Version (ESV)
18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
I love reading the 23rd Psalm (among many others). I love the picture of the Lord as my shepherd– the green pastures, the still waters, the anointing oil, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. It is comforting. But there is also the part about walking in the valley of the shadow of death, fearing no evil, and sitting in the presence of my enemies–I tend to gloss over those parts.
The truth is, much of our life is spent somewhere in between. We journey through hills and valleys, in sunshine and shadow, and there are times of green pastures and still waters, but sometimes we are in a dry season or wading through troubled waters. We face stress, chaos, unexpected obstacles, and swirling doubts.
Jesus was no stranger to troubled waters. In His life on earth, He faced stormy seas– at least once in the bottom of a wave-tossed boat, and again when He walked on water to reach His disciples late at night. (Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 4:35-41, etc.) In each case, Jesus could have stilled the waters sooner, or forbidden the winds and waves to cause any trouble. This is often what we pray for– for God to keep us away from the shadow of death, from the stormy seas, from the trials and hardships we wish to avoid.
Often, God answers those prayers by keeping us from trouble and hardship. Sometimes, He sends friends, counselors, and sweet reminders from His word to build a bridge over rapids or whirlpools or provide light and song on our journey. Other times, He answers our prayers by staying with us through even the darkest and loneliest of valleys, through the raging storms, the unanswered questions, and the waves of doubt. Sometimes we can look back and see how and why God chose to take us by the narrow winding path or through the churning waves. But even when He is silent, He is still there– reaching out to lift us when we fall, or carry us when we can’t go on.
Lord, help me to follow you, even when the way seems dark or the storms rage. Help me to look up from the troubled waters and see you–ready to swim alongside, or lift me up and bring me to safety. Help me to help build bridges and throw life-lines when needed. And help me to remember that you have promised seasons of still waters and green pastures, as well. Whatever comes this day, may I listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd and Savior. In Jesus’ name, Amen.