Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep..

Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

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I learned this prayer as a child. It seemed very grim, and pessimistic. As a child, I spent very little time (as little as possible) thinking of my own mortality, or the state of my soul after a day of playing with dolls or running around outside. I was blessed with a safe and easy childhood. Of course, I had days of sickness, a bout of chicken pox, the loss of a pet, news of neighbors who had died in war, fallen to cancer, or been killed in accidents–moments that caused me to reflect a bit more. But I didn’t want to think about serious things. I wanted peace and happiness.

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As a younger adult, I came to the conclusion that prayers like this were old-fashioned, and designed to scare vulnerable children into a false faith based on fear and gloom. Shouldn’t children learn about the Love of Jesus and the Mercy of the Father, instead of worrying about death and eternal doom of their soul? Prayers like this would be “bad” for young children; traumatic and disturbing. Better to teach them prayers that were sweet and light, and full of only the goodness of God.

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Lately, however, I remember things a bit differently. Yes, there is gloom and doom in this old children’s prayer, but there is also comfort, Love, and Mercy. As a child, I could “lay me down” to sleep in peace, knowing that God would, indeed, keep my soul from harm. I didn’t expect to die, but when I woke up dreaming of monsters, or suddenly became aware of mortality, I didn’t have to stay fearful. God is bigger than any monster; bigger then Death. I could not trust anyone better, mightier, or more capable than the Lord to keep my soul, or to “take” it safely to its final destination. I learned about the Goodness of God, but I also learned about stark realities– the persecuted Church, war, famine, injustice–things that God wants me to confront, and endure, and lift to Him in prayer. And for every “gloomy” reality, there are stories of victory and joy, faith and resilience, love and grace– because God is standing by, ready to rescue and reassure and redeem.

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I am old enough now that mortality plays a bigger role in my thoughts. I have lost a parent, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, classmates, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. I’ve experienced both great joy and great sorrow. But I need not be afraid of disease, dilemmas, or even death. I need not worry about the state of my soul. I may have griefs, aches and pains, and worries about tomorrow. But I can “lay me down” in peace and patience, knowing I have a Good, Good Father whose love has surrounded me for over half a century. I can “Hush” all my fears, and sleep like a baby, knowing my God is always standing right by my side.

Amen!

It’s the last word in the Bible. It’s normally the last word of our prayers. It is frequently used by the congregation during a particularly inspiring part of a sermon.

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But what does it mean to say, “Amen!”? The original Hebrew word means, “so be it,” or “let it be so.” It is spoken to express confirmation, solemn ratification, or agreement. Saying, “Amen!” is saying that we agree with the words the pastor has spoken, or the words that someone else has just prayed. But, ultimately, it is confirmation that we agree with what God will choose to do, and how He will choose to answer the prayer or speak to us.

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When we say, “Amen,” we are letting go of our will and trusting our prayers, our thoughts, our feelings, and our desires to God’s hands. God is sovereign. He can do anything He wants, regardless of our desires or plans; regardless of our feelings or our actions. He can thwart our plans, upset our circumstances, and set His face against us. But that’s not HIS desire. He wants our willing cooperation and approval. He doesn’t need it, but He desires it. He wants to hear us echo His heart, and respond to His loving care with a hearty “Amen!” Not because He needs it– but because WE need it. We need to rest in His sovereign power instead of trying to fight blindly against our circumstances. We need to wake up and act in accordance with His design, instead of wasting time in apathy and disdain.

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But “Amen!,” like any other word, shouldn’t be used lightly. “Can I get an Amen?” “In Jesus’ name, Amen” These are solemn oaths. “Amen” isn’t just a word of cheer or enthusiasm. It is an acknowledgement of God’s right to rule our lives. Even when it brings testing; even when it involves struggle and pain. All the time, God is in charge, and His ways can be trusted. “AMEN!”

I Will Give You Rest..

I love revisiting the promises of God. But I have to be careful not to make God’s promises into something they are not.

In Matthew 11, Jesus gives a promise– “I will give you rest.” But sometimes, I read more (or less) into this promise than Jesus meant.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV) via biblegateway.com

First, Jesus bids us come to Him. There are times I want rest, but I want it on my terms– I want ease, comfort, rest, and renewal in the middle of my own plans, activities, and even rebellion. When we pray, we need to come to Jesus, not demand that He come to us.

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Next, Jesus offers rest to those who are weary and burdened. Similarly, Jesus said He came to save those who were lost, NOT those who already saw themselves as justified. If I come to Jesus asking for perpetual rest– never willing to trust Him when He asks me to exert myself or carry a burden–I will never know complete rest or fulfillment in Him.

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In the very next verse, Jesus offers a yoke– certainly not a symbol of rest for most of us!–and He offers to teach us to find rest. Rest is not a gift like grace or love, even though Jesus “gives” it to us. Rest is a reward. And Jesus makes it clear that He will be with us every step of the way as we work and rest in Him. A yoke has many bad connotations– slavery or bondage, burdens, toil, and hard labor in the hot sun–but it can also have a positive meaning. Oxen who are yoked together share the load– with the lead ox taking the brunt of the burden, and the yoke-fellow carrying a lesser share. Imagine one ox trying to pull the load alone! Yet that is what many of us are doing– trying to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders and pushing away the One who wants to share our load and lead us in the best and most restful paths.

We don’t do much work with teams of horses or oxen in my community. We have powerful machines that make quick work of heavy loads– our burdens have less to do with loads of grain or logs, and more to do with mental and emotional stress. But Jesus reminds us that He is “gentle and humble in heart”–that the rest He promises is rest for our souls.

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What a wonderful promise in these turbulent times! Will we take up this offer? Will we claim this promise of our Loving Father to share our burdens and bring us to a place of rest?

Where Are the Altars?

I’ve been reading through the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.), and there are many references to altars and sacrifices–both the ones built to honor Jehovah God, and those designed for idols.

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Israel and Judah were guilty of building thousands of altars and shrines to false gods. Some of them were found even inside the Holy area of God’s own temple! As part of God’s judgment, He repeated that He would no longer accept the empty sacrifices of His people–He would no longer hear their prayers, unless they repented.

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I read these words and wondered– Where are our altars today? When I was a child, many of the older churches had what we called an Altar. It was usually a raised platform, with a podium for the minister, and possibly a “host table” for communion. My childhood church also had a small table that held a large Bible. Sometimes, the platform would have a railing around the edge, with a couple of stairs on either side. And, while many churches “passed the plate” for offerings, some had a special plate on the railing of the altar, where people would march up and place their offerings for the week. There it would sit for the rest of the service–random dollar bills of random denominations in random states of being crumpled, folded, and worn, along with checks, and, sometimes even coins. All of them brought forward and placed on the altar.

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Today, many churches have stages, like any large theater or event center. There is no railing, but there are hundreds of spotlights and fog machines. There is no podium for the pastor–just a headset and maybe a small stand for notes. Sometimes, the pastor reads from a teleprompter. Often, he or she is joined by a full band or orchestra, and dozens of singers, actors, or other assistants. No one from the congregation approaches the stage– why would they get up from their comfortable reclining padded seat? No one even “needs” to bring a Bible– the sermon text is printed out on the giant screens hanging above the stage. Our worship is comfortable, and entertaining.

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But we have no altars. There is no place for someone to lay their offering before God; no place to meet with Him in repentance or revival. There is no place to remind us of sacrifice and atonement. Oh, to be sure, many churches have a large cross on display somewhere. Some even have the “host table” for communion– somewhere in the wings, just in case–but the concept of an “altar” has all but disappeared from churches in the West. It is an anachronism–something ancient and uncomfortably part of the distant mists of tradition.

I miss the altar. I believe God misses it, too.

Guard Your Heart

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Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.

Proverbs 4:23 NIV https://www.biblestudytools.com/proverbs/4-23.html

The world has a lot to say about hearts. We can be heartsick, heartbroken, half-hearted, all heart, hard-hearted, tender-hearted; we can lead with our heart or follow our heart, wear our heart on our sleeve, or have a change of heart. We can have a heart of gold, or a heart of stone. Our heart can be in the right place, or it can wander.

The Bible has a lot to say about our hearts as well. In Proverbs, we are told to guard our hearts above all else.

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Our hearts are precious, but they are also fragile and fickle. Our hearts can be led astray, bruised, crushed, and hardened by sin– not just our own sin, but sins that are committed against us. And hardened hearts are not immune to damage– they don’t become stronger, just more rigid and brittle. We live in a world of damaged hearts. And damaged hearts are prone to damage other hearts.

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God does not want us to lock up our hearts or wrap them in barbed wire, but He does want us to be watchful and active in protecting our hearts from the enemy. God created us with emotions, but not every emotion should be indulged or shared with others. We are told to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. But we are never told to encourage jealousy, anger, depression, envy, apathy, rage, boastfulness, or hatred. Letting these emotions control our actions can only lead to further pain, destruction, sorrow, and heartache.

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We need to guard our hearts, not only from external threats, but from internal deception. We think we know our own hearts– we tend to trust them more than we trust God, or His Word, or the godly advice of friends or family. We act at the prompting of our emotions– sometimes in direct conflict with God’s Word and Wisdom, and to our shame and pain.

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When we pray, God’s spirit can heal our heartache, and give us the strength of heart to reach out and heal others. But we must be careful not to attempt healing others in our own power and wisdom. Our heart may seem to be “in the right place,” but often, that’s how we got hurt in the first place!

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Tender hearts, broken hearts, even hard hearts– God can heal them all and use them to heal others. That’s because God’s heart is perfect–and on Calvary, He poured it out to rescue you, redeem you, and restore you.

Your Labor Is Not In Vain…

Have you ever had one of those days…the kind where you wondered if anything you did was important, or acknowledged, or valued?

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My father worked for almost 30 years in a factory. His job (for many of those years) was to stand at the same spot for hours a day. He would fit a large bag over an opening, pull a lever, and guide the bag as it filled with several pounds of anhydrous citric acid– a caustic powder that, in small amounts, is used in everything from cleaning products to soft drinks. When the bag was filled, he had to take it down and move it to another station, where the bag was sealed. Finally, he had to take the sealed bag and hoist it onto a conveyor. It was hot, heavy work. It was lonely, noisy, dusty, and monotonous. He worked a swing shift– sometimes twelve or sixteen hours at a time, often overnight. He often had to work on weekends and holidays. And my father was grateful.

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When Dad had a day “off,” he could often be found visiting some of the older members of our community– helping them by mowing their lawns or helping with chores, or just visiting and listening to their worries, memories, and dreams. Dad knew the value of his work, and he knew that his work was not in vain. His work fed and clothed our family. It allowed us to give gifts to family, donate to charities, give to the church, and enjoy vacations and outings with friends. His work helped send my sister and I to college, and pay off the mortgage. But more importantly, my father’s unusual schedule allowed him to come to school programs in the middle of the day; it allowed him to go on day trips with my mother or my grandparents; it made him more aware of the value of time. Dad filled thousands of bags of citric acid– and he never knew where it ended up or how it was used, except in a very general way. But God knew. He saw every grain of acid in every bag. He knew where it would go and what good it could do. And he watched my father’s efforts every day.

1 Corinthians 15:57-58
English Standard Version (Via http://www.biblegateway.com)

57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

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Today, we are celebrating “Labor Day” in my country– a day to celebrate the contributions of working men and women throughout the year. And many people will have time today to enjoy a trip to the beach or a cookout, or an extra-long camping weekend or late-summer vacation. But some will have to work today– clerks at the local store or gas station, police officers, nurses, factory workers, and others. Their labor today will ensure that others are kept healthy, safe, and supplied. We should not forget them.

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And we should not forget to take a moment to remember that our labor– whether glamorous, mundane, urgent, physically intense, or mentally stressful–is noticed and valued by our Father in Heaven. Whatever we do, if we are doing it for God’s glory, we will see fruit from our labors. Maybe not today or even in our lifetime. But our efforts– and our words and interactions– matter! Those prayers that we lift up in a quick moment; those simple gestures and hugs; that small favor or gift; each one is noted and celebrated by none other than the Ruler of all Creation.

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All That Ever I Did…

I’ve always been intrigued by the story in John’s Gospel about the “woman at the well.” (John 4https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%204&version=KJV). Jesus and his disciples are travelling through Samaria, and they decided to rest near Jacob’s well at the town of Sychar. The disciples travel into town for food, leaving Jesus alone at the well. A lone woman comes along, and Jesus asks her for a drink of water.

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This would seem to be an ordinary encounter, but there are many clues that tell us a different story. The woman comments that Jews don’t ordinarily speak to or interact with Samaritans. But even more extraordinary, most Jewish men would not strike up a conversation with a lone Samaritan woman, unless he meant to insult her or proposition her. The very fact that she is coming to the well alone and near noon (the sixth hour) puts her at a distinct disadvantage– most of the women would come early in the day to draw water, where their numbers offered protection and support, and the heat of the day would not add to the burden of carrying the water back home.

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At first, this woman seems both suspicious and dismissive of Jesus. Why is he asking for a drink of water? Does he want more than just water? Does he mean her harm? He seems thirsty, not threatening– but is he safe? Then Jesus throws a curve ball– he claims to HAVE water that brings total satisfaction and life. Water far better than any of the water he has just asked for! The woman’s tone changes from suspicious to sarcastic. And then, Jesus drops the bombshell– “Go, call thy husband, and come hither.”

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Aha! Here it comes… The woman admits that she has no husband. She has no protector, no status. NOW this Jewish man, this stranger, will take advantage. Or he will make improper advances. Or he will despise her even more. But instead, Jesus reveals her darker secret– she has had five husbands, and she is with another man who is not her husband. Maybe he is someone else’s husband. Maybe he refuses to marry her. Maybe he treats her badly– this man who lets her come to the well at midday with no protection and no helper. Maybe the five husbands all died; maybe she has been divorced or abandoned time after time. Jesus knows all this– yet he doesn’t call her names or look at her with disgust. He even commends her for telling the truth!

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I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would want to meet a stranger who know that much about me. I don’t want to be reminded of my failures, my bad choices, or my past sorrows or shame. Yet this was the heart of the woman’s testimony as she went back into town. “Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?”

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For years, the profound nature of this encounter was lost on me. What is so exciting about someone who knows your dirty laundry and tells it back to you? There are magicians and illusionists, fortune-tellers, and charlatans galore who attempt to do such “readings.” How is it that this woman’s life could be transformed by such an unlikely and disturbing encounter? Why would she be so eager to share this encounter with all the men (or people) of her town– people who probably despised her?

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Because an encounter with Jesus is an encounter with pure and holy compassion. Jesus KNEW the very worst about this woman. He could have shunned her or avoided her. He could have railed at her about her lifestyle or her past. He could have treated her shamefully. Others almost certainly had. But Jesus didn’t just see all the things she had done, or all the things that had happened in her life. He saw HER. He spoke TO her, not at her or through her, not down to her, but face-to-face, and eye-to-eye. Knowing all about her status, he came to HER for help–knowing that she had something of value to offer–not to “put her in her place,” or use her, or demand that she serve him. Jesus welcomes us into the safety of His compassion, so that no matter what we’ve done or what’s been done to us, He looks us in the eyes and wants to be part of our story– part of “all that ever” we WILL do! And THAT is life-changing!

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How many people will I encounter today who are outcast, beaten down, shunned, and mistreated? What kind of encounter will it be? Will I see “all that ever they did” and dismiss them as unworthy of my attention? Or will I see THEM–uniquely created by God for a purpose; loved beyond all that I can imagine? Can my friends and family, neighbors and strangers feel safe and loved knowing that I know everything about them? Is it “Safe” to meet me at the well? I pray that God’s love will spill out and overflow to others as I go through the day. May He do the same through you.

Simple Prayers

I know some people who refuse to pray aloud in groups. Some of them are just modest or shy, or they get tongue-tied and feel awkward. But some of them refuse because they feel their prayers are “inadequate.” They wish their prayers were eloquent or flowery, righteous-sounding or inspiring, but they don’t believe their prayers are “enough.”

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But God listens with perfect ears. He hears beyond our words. Simple, humble prayers– spoken or silent–are His favorite kind!

We often waste our time trying to impress God (or others) with our words. But God isn’t waiting to be impressed– He’s waiting to spend real time with His child!

When children are first learning to speak, we delight in their coo-ing and lisping. As they grow, we sometimes tune out their babbling, their stories, their griping, and their whining. But as the years go by, we miss hearing their voices, and we long to have them call and talk to us– even for a few minutes.

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God never tunes out our babbling, but when we don’t pray, He misses the sound of our voices and the sharing of our thoughts, just like any parent would.

Never discount the power and the value of simple prayers. God doesn’t!

I Pledge Allegiance..

The U.S. is getting ready for a national general election. We’ll be voting for officials, from local commissioners all the way to the office of President. There are campaign ads and political conventions– banners, slogans, hats, t-shirts, and lots of American Flags. And, while many of the normal rallies and “whistle-stop” campaigns have been cancelled due to Covid-19, the conventions have been marked by people reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to our Flag and all it stands for.

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“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Much has been made recently about just two words of this pledge–“under God”– which were added more than 65 years ago. Interestingly, between 1892 and 1942, there were at least two versions of the pledge being used. One version stated: “I pledge allegiance to my flag, and the republic for which it stands. I pledge my head and my heart to God and my country. One country, one language and one flag.” Another version (which was altered and officially recognized by Congress in 1942), originally read: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pledge_of_Allegiance.

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There are Americans who are using the Pledge of Allegiance, the U.S. Flag, even the words, “under God,” to cause division, chaos, and ill-will to flourish in the weeks leading up to the election. Some are trying to redefine what it means to be an American; what the Flag stands for. People on “both sides” are trying to rewrite our history–denying that it contains both good and bad; triumph and tragedy, promises kept and promises broken.

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As an American, I seek to live and act in such a way as to honor this nation and those who live here. Part of pledging allegiance to the flag (for me at least) is a promise to uphold those principles upon which this nation was founded: the conviction that all people are created equal (not just here, but around the world); that they are endowed by God with the right to live, to think and act according to the free will God gave them, and to pursue those dreams and activities that will bring hope, goodness, prosperity, and general “happiness” to themselves and to others. That does not mean that all people will use their free will wisely, or that they will all achieve equal outcomes and equal success regardless of their skills, resources, or efforts, however. Governments are instituted to protect the opportunities and rights of all, not to ensure that everyone gets the same life, the same will, and the same definition of “happiness.”

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I also pledge to defend and protect and preserve this land–figuratively and literally. It is my duty to care for the trees and rivers, lakes and meadows, wildlife and even the air. It is my duty to encourage my neighbors, to vote on local ordinances, and cast my ballot for local, state, and federal offices. It is also my duty to speak out, to write, to act in the cause of justice. Finally, it is my duty to obey the laws that govern this country–not because I voted for them, or because they are convenient, or because I see an immediate benefit from them, but because they are justly enacted laws. If I don’t like a law, I pledge to see if it can be amended or repealed. I may use civil means to protest injustice– sit-ins, peaceful marches, legal suits, petitions, etc.. But my allegiance to this nation and its people means that I pledge not to put others in danger, or to deprive them of their lives or livelihoods in my pursuit of change. I will, however, defend myself and others from anyone who would try to take away these sacred rights.

I love my country. I love the world God created and the unique and diverse people He designed to fill it. But ultimately, my highest allegiance is not to America. It isn’t to my neighbors, or my family, or to the planet. My heart, mind, soul, and spirit belong to God. My allegiance to Him comes before any other. If my nation turns away from God; if it denounces all that is sacred, and demands that I do the same, I can no longer pledge my allegiance to its flag. If I am asked to destroy innocent lives, or deny God’s existence, or forced to speak lies in the name of patriotism, I must follow my first allegiance.

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In times like these, it can be very easy to get “wrapped up” in the Flag, and the patriotic speeches, and the political rhetoric. Candidates paint themselves in the best colors, and attempt to make their opponents look evil, uncaring, and incompetent. But I have not pledged my allegiance to any candidate. I will choose to vote for the individuals I believe are best suited to bring about changes or preserve policies that honor both God and our founding principles. And I will pray for all elected leaders, whether I voted for them or not. But my hope, and trust, and allegiance, is to God above all, And all else, even the United States of America, is “Under God.”

When I Don’t Know How to Pray

Prayer is both simple and complex. Anyone can pray. There is no single correct “formula” for prayer. God is always listening and hears the prayers of those who sincerely seek Him. I can pray to God in formal words, songs, groans, and scattered thoughts.

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But there are times when I don’t know how to pray. More precisely, I don’t know WHAT to pray. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, or a chronic illness, my first instinct is to pray for healing– immediate and total healing. When I hear of a mass shooting, or a blatant injustice, or a natural disaster, I want to pray for all the pain and loss and evil to disappear or be reversed. I want all those things that I know to be “good”– health, happiness, healing, hope, unity, righteousness, and wholeness.

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Still, God’s ways are not my ways. God’s “goodness” is not measured in comfort and quick resolutions. I may not understand the goodness of struggle and pain in the short term. I think of disaster as total and irredeemable, and my prayers often come out of my own short-sighted thinking and my own discomfort at the realization of others’ (and my own) weakness and mortality.

There are a few Biblical principles that I find very helpful when I don’t know “how” to pray:

  • God knows –REALLY KNOWS– all my inner thoughts and feelings. Even more, He KNOWS what will happen, what should happen, and what is best in every situation. I can pour out my desire to see my friend restored to health, or a community re-united in hope, knowing that God is a God of healing and restoration; but also knowing that God’s timing and purposes may involve temporary suffering–even for those I love. Moreover, God knows why I am confused. He knows why I struggle to know how to pray. He doesn’t ask me to always know the “right” answer– He does ask that I trust Him to know and act in His sovereign strength and wisdom. No matter the circumstances, God is still on His throne. And I am not!
  • Jesus gave us simple but powerful examples of “how” to pray. In “The Lord’s Prayer,” He prayed for simple, personal things– daily bread, forgiveness, guidance–as well as big and overarching things–“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done..” His trust in the Father’s ability to accomplish all things was absolute, and His relationship was firmly established– “Father…Hallowed by Thy Name.” In the garden, Jesus was clearly suffering, and asked that the “cup” of suffering– the torture of the cross and the inconceivable horror of being rejected as He bore our sins and carried them through death and the grave– be removed. Yet, He submitted His desire, His fears, His anguish, to His Father– “Not My will, but Thine..”
  • There are other wonderful examples throughout the Psalms, the Gospels, the Epistles, and hundreds of years of Church leaders and saints: their prayers can teach us, encourage us, and embolden us.
  • Jesus promised that we would have an advocate–the Holy Spirit– who would intercede for us. When we don’t know how or what to pray, the Apostle Paul says that the Spirit makes intercession for us with “groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26 KJV). The Spirit also speaks to our own spirit to help us understand more clearly God’s ways and plans.
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I may not always know how to pray, or what to pray. But I can be confident that God hears my prayers. I can come before Him with the assurance that my prayers– and all my thoughts and emotions–are precious to Him because I am His child, redeemed by His sacrifice. My heart may not know all things, but as He continues faithfully completing the work He began in me (Philippians 1:6), my prayers will come more fully into alignment with His will.

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