Going For the Prize

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. I Corinthians 4:24 (ESV)

I mentioned the other day that the county fair is on in our area.  Each day of the fair, young people from around the county (and some from neighboring counties) have been showing livestock.  The animals are judged on their general health and appearance, weight, height, and other factors that mark them as the best of their breed or class.  The young people are judged on their presentation, their knowledge of their animal (anatomy, breed, hygiene, health, etc.), and their ability to “show” the animal– to keep in still, to pose it, and, in some cases, to walk or trot it in a pattern.  Different shows and different judges will determine which animals are worthy of prizes and which of the youth deserve a prize for “showmanship.”  Both are coveted awards.

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The young competitors spend countless hours and work incredibly hard to get their animals (and themselves) ready for the judging.  Animals and their handlers are scrubbed, groomed, brushed, gussied, and polished.  They preen and pose for the judges, and the students answer questions, listening for instruction and correction, and show both self-confidence and respect for those in charge of the show.  They also show respect for each other, and often lend a hand (or a brush) to help someone else.

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What would happen if everyone showed up in ripped shorts or pajamas?  What if the animals were running loose, filthy and un-groomed?

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The Apostle Paul spoke of the Christian life as a race–one that we should run so as to receive the prize.  When we serve, when we worship, when we pray, when we study– we should be giving it all our passion, all our energy, all our focus.

Most of these competitors will not win the trophy or the purple ribbon– but most of them will still go home winners– because they gave it their all.  They did the work, and built the discipline, and came prepared to win or lose with grace.  The trophies and ribbons are wonderful and colorful, but the true prize is the discipline, the knowledge, and the character that are built long before the judgment day.

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May that be true for all of us as we travel through this life– may we grow in discipline and character to be more like Christ.  He is the prize for which we work and train and run and pray.  May we “show ourselves approved” (2 Timothy 2:15).

And may we pray for a spirit that does not grow weary or apathetic; a spirit willing to listen for correction and instruction; may we show up ready to give our best, even if the prize (and the praise) goes to someone else today.

Prayer in the “Off-Season”

World Cup fever is at a high this week.  England was stunned by Croatia in the semi-finals–Croatia will face France in the finals on Sunday.  Teams have played hard all season to make it to the World Cup– most of them will go home disappointed (at least a little).  Fans will have to wait until next season to see their favorite team make another attempt at winning it all.

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In the meantime, the players will be in the “off-season.”  Some will take well-earned vacations, and spend more time with their families.  Some will spend time with doctors and physical therapists to work on injuries sustained during the regular season.  Some will be working with coaches and trainers to develop in areas where they feel they need extra help.  Others will cut back on their training schedule.  Still others will spend time with agents trying to get traded to another team (or avoid being traded to another team).

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People who study sports often say that what happens in the “off-season” can be as important to players and teams as what happens during the intense training of the regular season.  Habits form, attitudes develop, team chemistry alters– any or all of these factors can change for better or for worse.

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The same is true in our prayer lives.  When we are facing struggles or heartaches, we pray with intensity and passion.  But when things are going smoothly, sometimes we let our prayer lives “take a break.”  We pray with less frequency, less intensity, and less focus.  I’m guilty of this; even though I know it can happen, bad habits creep in, and suddenly, my prayer life is haphazard and lackluster.  Using a journal helps, in that I have a focus for each day already written in, and a place to write in new requests, and even answers.

However, a major part of staying on course is to commit to the discipline of prayer.  “Discipline” sounds boring and constrained–something I do out of obligation and not out of love.  But that’s not true of all discipline.  Athletes are disciplined– because they love their sport, and they want to develop and play at the best of their ability.  Musicians are disciplined– because they love music, and they want to develop their art.  Professional athletes and musicians often have a contractual commitment to stay in practice and develop their talents.  When athletes are part of a team, or musicians are part of a band, orchestra, or chamber group, they have an additional reason to be disciplined– to play more effectively with others.

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In my personal life, there are disciplines– hygiene, sleep habits, diet, and exercise, that I practice, not because I love saying, “NO” to that piece of chocolate cake or walking that extra mile, but because I want to stay healthy, clean, and active.  Prayer is no different– except that it is for my spiritual health– and it is part of my relationship with God.

Instead of slacking off during the “off-season”, many athletes and musicians will use this time to step back and look at what they have learned, what they would like to do better, and how they can develop their skills.  I think this offers a great opportunity in prayer, as well.  After a season of grief, struggle, doubt, or testing, it is good to take some time to make some assessments.  Sometimes we don’t know all the reasons for the times of testing or trial we have just faced.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t look back and see whether we have grown, or if we need to make some adjustments, or if we have developed new habits or skills (good or bad).  It is a good time to “count our blessings”, “pray without ceasing”, “ask, seek, and knock”, and look at the ways God has been faithful (and hopefully ways that we have been faithful!) over the years.

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Some of us are in the struggle of a busy, harsh, or painful season.  Let’s not let that struggle go to waste.  Some of us will be facing trials next week, or next month–spending time training in the “off-season” will make us stronger for the fight!  And the best news– we already know the outcome!  Let’s pray harder– pray stronger–and go for the win!

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Reading the Charts

Many industries rely on charts.  Health care workers chart vital signs, fluid levels, symptoms and reactions to medication.  Publishers  of books and music chart sales by category, age of audience, geographical region, and more.  Transport and shipping companies chart routes, weather, road construction, and fuel efficiency.

Keeping charts, graphs, and records can improve performance, solve mysteries, and increase understanding.  It is good to keep charts in our Christian walk, as well.  Charting scripture can show us where we have or have not studied God’s promises, warnings, and wisdom.  Charting our prayer life can show us patterns in our communication with God, and help us see when and how God has answered our prayers.

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I keep a prayer journal.  Each day of the year has its own page, with lists of people to pray for in general, a geographical region, and more immediate special requests.  But the back of each page has blank space.  This way, as God answers prayers in these areas, I can record them.  I’ve been using this journal for three years now, so the back sides are beginning to get filled up.

But that is not the most amazing part of what I wanted to share today.  The most amazing part is that I have had to revisit some of the answers because God keeps answering them!  Here’s a case in point:  About two years ago, I wrote in a request for a friend who was looking for a job.  There was a promising interview, and many friends were praying for a “positive” outcome.  The job seemed like a perfect fit.  But it didn’t happen.  More prayers led to other opportunities and one of them seemed to be working out.  I wrote the “answer” in my journal.  But when I came across it again this year, I realized that God used both the previous opportunities to prepare my friend for something even better:  a job that no one imagined two years ago!  We prayed, expecting God to answer with something good.  When the first answer was “no,” we trusted God to bring about something else.  And He did.  But I’m glad that I had charted this request, because I almost missed seeing how God used prayer to prepare for more that we had asked!

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Another friend was going through grief and distress just a little over a year ago, and I was reminded of how God answered prayers for strength, peace, and rest.  But  I was also reminded to lift my friend up again on a painful anniversary, and to offer thanks for the ongoing healing I’ve seen– not just for my friend, but for her entire family.

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If you don’t do it already, I highly recommend making a prayer diary or journal.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate or complicated– I use wire-bound theme books and write in them daily.  But you could use an actual bound journal, or a simple memo pad or old address book.  Don’t worry if you miss a day or two– no one is keeping score or grading you–the main thing is to make it a habit to record prayers and answers.  You will gain insight, remember God’s answers and promises kept, and be encouraged in the wait for other answers to come.

Prayer Journal

Proactive Prayer Points

I Sing Because I’m Happy

There is a great old hymn– His Eye Is On the Sparrow– and the chorus says:

I sing because I’m Happy,
I sing because I’m Free.
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Full lyrics here

It is a great reminder that, as followers of Christ, we always have a reason to be happy and to sing his praises, even when circumstances are confusing or situations are trying.

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I love this old song, but sometimes, even though I have reason to be happy, I don’t feel like singing.  The same happens with prayer.  Some days, I’m just not feelin’ it.  It’s not necessarily that I’m miserable or angry.  Sometimes, I’m distracted, or even happy doing self-centered things.

I find it easier to pray when I’m sad or needy– my brokenness brings me closer to God.  When things are going along just fine, I sometimes forget the true source of my joy and strength.  I take for granted that God and I are close, not realizing that I haven’t spoken to him lately, or that I have whispered a quick, shallow prayer, but I haven’t spent much quality time with the lover of my soul.

There is an old Chinese proverb that says: “I don’t sing because I am Happy– I am happy because I sing.”

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At first, it may sound like this is a contradiction of the beloved hymn, but really it is a complement.  I sing because I’m happy, but if I sing no matter how I start out feeling, I find myself happier!  I pray because I want to be close to God, but I stay closer to God because I pray.  When I was younger, I used to base my prayer life on how I felt.  It’s yet another reason I now use a prayer journal. Read more about keeping a Prayer Journal  It keeps me disciplined and helps me maintain a stronger prayer life.  We all know that prayer is a key element in building a strong relationship with God and others, but it has to be practiced to be effective.  Other key elements are:

  • Reading the Bible/doing a Bible study
  • Fellowship with other believers
  • Obedience– Actively following God’s example
  • Confession/Forgiveness

Any of these elements can become lackluster and difficult, especially if we aren’t practicing them daily.  And all of the elements will become stronger through practice.  Not only that, but they will blend together better, and the end result is a stronger, healthier, happier you.

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And that’s worth singing about!

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