Go Into Your Closet to Pray

Prayer is a very personal pursuit. Yes, there is group prayer, and corporate prayer– and they are important and valid. But most of our prayer takes place alone; just pouring our heart out to the Father. There is no “rule” for where or how to pray, but Jesus did say that prayer should not be done for show. In fact, He advised that when we pray, we should go into our closets (or inner room, or away by ourselves) and lock the door! Why would He give such advice? I don’t have a full answer, but I can think of several advantages of “secret” prayer:

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  • If you are alone and isolated, you are less likely to be interrupted. No phones, no text messages, e-mails, or drop-in visitors. Just you and God, intimate and focused.
  • A closet or inner room is not just free of interruptions, it is free of distractions– looking out of the window, hearing traffic noises, etc. So many times, we try to multi-task during prayer. Sometimes it is unintentional; other times, we feel guilty when we are not “doing” something. It’s not “wrong” to pray while we are cleaning, or driving (except don’t close your eyes!), or listening to music. But it is more likely that we will lose our focus. Even keeping a prayer list or journal can become a distraction– we’re more focused on “checking off” items on our list than communicating with our Loving Father.
  • A small , private, designated space can sometimes alter our perspective. God is Spirit– He can fill vast spaces, and His presence can go anywhere. But we are creatures of time and space; when I am in a small room, I feel my own smallness; it is easier to “be still” and to be humbled.
  • As Jesus noted, God knows what is done in secret. We have a human tendency to need affirmation and admiration. God will affirm, encourage, and even reward us for what we do– including what we pray– but it is tempting to seek human admiration, instead. This doesn’t just refer to the actual praying, but our need to announce our actions and prayers to the world. Once again, it isn’t “wrong” to let others know you are praying for them– in fact, it can be a great encouragement! But it IS wrong to make that our focus. Are you praying for the victims of a crisis or war– Great! Keep doing it! But be very careful about posting it on FB and announcing it to everyone in an effort to look “better” in their eyes. Are you praying for someone dealing with cancer or depression– Great! But are you doing more announcing than actual praying? Are you doing anything else to encourage and help the person in question?
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“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Matthew 6:1-8 NIV (emphasis added)

This passage immediately preceded the example of “The Lord’s Prayer.” Jesus modeled for us, not just what words to pray, but how to think about prayer. For many of His followers, this was radical and new thinking. They were used to gathering for prayer. They were used to prayer being limited to rituals and practiced at festivals and worship services. The great patriarchs of the faith prayed as individuals, the priests prayed– long elaborate, and intimidating prayers. Jesus was removing the intimidation of history and tradition, and encouraging people to return to the kind of personal relationship that God intended for us from the beginning– the kind that would be possible with His own defeat of Sin and Death!

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Even though I have this intimate access to the Father, and even though I write about it, I still need to be reminded of the importance of seeking God’s face and His approval above that of anyone or anything else. I hope you will also be encouraged to set some time aside today to spend in intimate communication with the One who loves you best!

Esprit de Corps

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It is important to spend time alone with God, but it is also necessary that we spend time with others. This may not always be possible in a physical sense. This past year of pandemic and lockdowns has kept many of us apart. Even church services, Bible study groups, and “fellowship” events have been limited or suspended. But we have other ways of being “together.” Phones, internet, and letters are just a few of the ways we can stay in touch. And prayer is another. This is nothing new, but I’ve been reminded recently that prayer is more than just a personal pursuit. It is also a corporate pursuit. We do not live alone, and we do not pray in a vacuum.

It can be tempting to feel isolated and even apathetic when we are forced by circumstances to spend more time alone. We often succumb to the lure of “escapism”– binge-watching, gaming, or other forms of mindless entertainment to pass the lonely hours. It is not “wrong” to relax or be entertained for a time, but we can lose sight of our purpose and “sleep-walk” through our days, losing opportunities to connect with others and be a blessing (and be blessed in return)!

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The term, “esprit de corps” is used by tight-knit groups– military units, dance and theatre groups, etc.–to describe their unity, devotion, and camaraderie. It should be natural for us to apply this same phrase to Christ-followers. After all, we are the “corps”– the body– of Christ! To pray for and with one another should be a given, and a “core” feature of the Church. To stay in touch, to build up and encourage one another, to forgive, accept, and protect one another, to defend the honor of the Church and ALL its members– this should go without saying. But I’m saying it here, because I see so many examples of division, in-fighting, finger-pointing, shaming, and other nonsense. And I’m saying it because I see so many examples of people like me, who withdraw, stay silent, and allow ourselves to become weary and jaded, instead of reaching out and pulling together. (Hebrews 10:23-25)

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I pray everyday for people from around the world– but am I willing to pray for those down the street who hurt my feelings last week? Am I willing to risk reaching out to call or write to someone who may be discouraged, or having doubts and struggles? Do I pray with gusto; eager to lift others up and bring blessing to them, even in difficult times? Do I cheer on fellow believers, even if we disagree about politics or music? Do I champion the Church, even when some believers or even congregations bring momentary shame to the name of Christ?

“Esprit de corps” is not a phrase of apathy, or discouragement. It is not just an idealistic motto. It is not a phrase of grudging duty to a group or idea. It is bold, and forward-looking. It is united and strong. Just as the Body of Christ must be in the days ahead.
For more info on corporate/group prayer, see https://www.compellingtruth.org/corporate-prayer.html

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BTW– There are several terrific prayer groups online–Groups that pray for your requests; groups that share requests locally; groups that pray globally for healing or intercession; groups that will connect you to local churches or Bible studies.
*As with any online activity, please be careful. Not every group that calls itself “Christian” or talks about prayer is legitimate. Avoid sites that seek to get personal identifying information, or ask you to send a fee to join their group. Many local churches will be happy to add you to their “prayer chain” to pray for (and/or encourage or visit) people in your own community. Other church groups may have “Zoom” or “Skype” prayer meetings, or other corporate prayer opportunities.

20/20 Vision, Blind Faith, and Prayer

As we approach the arrival of a new year, there is a lot of talk about vision–20/20 vision, that is. For the past few years, I’ve heard of companies, community groups, even churches using the year 2020 as a target date for planning, and using the phrase “2020 Vision” in their mission statements, fund-raising drives, and talking points.

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The phrase comes from 20/20 vision, considered clear or “good” vision. Someone with 20/20 vision has no need of corrective lenses or surgery to improve their reading, or correct their sight. Figuratively, 20/20 vision suggests good planning or foresight. So it is desirable to plan with clear “vision” and forethought, rather than jumping into a project, or from one unmet goal to another.

But, while it’s clever to borrow the idea of 20/20 vision and tie it to the coming year, it doesn’t guarantee that our future plans will be wise or successful just because the calendar says 2020. In the same way, just because we have 20/20 vision, it doesn’t mean that we can see everything around us perfectly. We will see clearly those things on which we focus– those things that are right in front of us and not obstructed. Even with “good” vision, we cannot see things that are hidden from sight or things that are outside our scope of vision.

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Even the old phrase, “Hindsight is 20/20 vision,” doesn’t mean that we will always gain clarity with time. Sometimes we understand past experiences in a different light after time has passed. But sometimes, we are still left wondering and asking about events from our past; no wiser or less damaged by setbacks or failures, and no better prepared for future trials and pains.

If vision, even good vision and planning, is no guarantee of future success, perhaps it would be better to trust to “blind faith.” After all, doesn’t the Bible say, “walk by faith, not by sight?” Except the Bible doesn’t exactly say that. Instead it says:

So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:6-8 (NKJV via http://www.biblegateway.com)

This verse often gets taken out of context and twisted to suggest that “faith” is opposed to “sight,” and therefore faith must be “blind” to reason, experience, or reality. Many good articles and sermons have been written to clarify the concept (see one example here:
https://www.biblestudytools.com/blogs/theologically-driven/walk-by-faith-a-misused-verse.html). Faith is not blind–or should not be blind. Rather, it utilizes the ability and practice of seeing what is hidden or indistinct in the present. If our faith is based on empty myth, rumor, conjecture, or cloud dreams, it is not faith at all–it is nothing more than a mirage. Faith is seeing beyond the obvious, the blatantly visible, and trusting more than just what we can immediately see. We don’t walk through life ignoring reality, or dancing across a superhighway full of speeding cars. But we see our circumstances as having hidden elements; our lives have unseen depths, and are lived on both physical and metaphysical spheres. There is more to life than meets the eye– and while faith may not always show us a clear picture of what lies beyond our sight, it causes us to know that something beyond our “20/20 vision” exists and matters.

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The great old hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” speaks to this as well. No matter what our circumstances look like, we can have confidence that “It is well, it is well, with my soul!” “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight..” We look forward, even as we look around, and look back to the finished work of Jesus our Savior. We see the present, but we walk in the knowledge that there is more than what our eyes behold.

Faith doesn’t negate the need to use our senses and common sense to navigate life. And using planning and vision for the future doesn’t negate the need for faith. Rather, they work together. And they work together best in prayer.

When we pray, we are exercising our faith– speaking to the One we do not see, though we know Him and trust Him. And we bring to Him our plans and visions and hopes and dreams. We lay them in His Hands, trusting that where our vision is “good,” He will empower and bless us; where our own vision is lacking, His Spirit will help us to refocus and see enough of what lies beyond to keep walking forward.

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As we walk into a new year, may we have more than just 2020 vision– may we have faith and hope in the One who has perfect vision!

Look Up!


My faith looks up to Thee,
Thou Lamb of Calvary,
Savior divine!
Now hear me while I pray,
Take all my guilt away,
Oh, let me from this day
Be wholly Thine!
May Thy rich grace impart
Strength to my fainting heart,
My zeal inspire!
As Thou hast died for me,
Oh, may my love to Thee
Pure, warm, and changeless be,
A living fire!
While life’s dark maze I tread,
And griefs around me spread,
Be Thou my guide;
Bid darkness turn to day,
Wipe sorrow’s tears away,
Nor let me ever stray
From Thee aside.
When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold, sullen stream
Shall o’er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love,
Fear and distrust remove;
Oh, bear me safe above,
A ransomed soul!

Hymn lyrics by Ray Palmer 1830

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 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3 New International Version (NIV)

When was the last time you spent a little time sky-gazing?  Looking up at the stars?  Or even looking up at ceiling tiles or roof lines?

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It turns out that the very act of looking up is good for your body, mind, and soul.  Looking down, on the other hand, can, over time, lead to neck and back problems, and contribute to depression.  (for more info, use a search engine to look up “health benefits of looking up” or click here: https://www.spine-health.com/blog/modern-spine-ailment-text-neck )

The author of Hebrews reminds us that we should be “fixing our eyes on Jesus” as we run the “race marked out for us”. This is more than just watching the road ahead or looking up at the sky.  We look up at Jesus because:

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  • He is the Author and Finisher (the pioneer and perfecter) of our Faith.  Faith must be anchored…we will believe in something, or we’ll fall for anything, someone has said, and if we don’t make a choice to fix our eyes on Jesus, we will end up looking around or down for something else.
  • He is our guide.  Like a highway sign keeping us on the right road and keeping us from taking a wrong turn, we look to Him to stay on track.
  • He is our example.  In looking up to him, we are also learning how to live and endure and overcome.
  • He is our advocate and encouragement!  How much better will we run when we look up to see Him cheering us on!
  • He is our goal.  We run to Him, so we look up to see how close we are to running into His loving arms.
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Nought Be All Else to Me…

“Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my Heart;
Nought be all else to me, save that Thou Art.”

 

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christand be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:7-14 (NIV)

Have you spent time recently with someone who is young and “in love” for the first time?  You may spend time with them, but their time, their thoughts, their energy, their conversation– all revolves around their loved one.  All the other things in life are secondary, and life is lived on auto-pilot.  They forget to eat; forget to do even the most ordinary tasks, and daydream through whatever tasks they do manage to complete.  What time is it?  What are they wearing?  Is the snowing?  Raining?  Have they spoken to their parents today?  They don’t know!  They don’t care.  But they can tell you how long it has been since they’ve spoken to “that” person.  They remember what they wore, what they ate last night, what they said two days ago, and how their hair reflected the moonlight…

man wearing black coat facing woman wearing black coat near tree
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God is not so foolishly forgetful as we are, but he loves us with that same kind of abandon…he knows the very hairs on our head.  He knows our thoughts and every joy and hurt in our heart.  He loves the sound of our name, and the sound of our voice as we call to him.  He longs for the same ardent love from us.

When we sing a line like “nought be all else to me, save that Thou art,”  or we read the Apostle Paul talk about everything else in his life being rubbish or garbage, we are not literally saying that everything is worthless, or that we would rather sit alone in a darkened room than to live our lives in the world and interact with those around us.  God has not called us to be hermits who pray in locked rooms on our knees for 20 hours a day.  He does not call us to fast to the point of starvation, or shun all human contact.  Jesus himself did not despise food or rest or people.

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But He did say some startling things about the importance of God in relation to all the things of this world.  God gave us wonderful gifts– sunlight, water, food, blue sky, grass and trees, families and friends.  God wants us to enjoy them–AS GIFTS.  Never should we love the gift more than the giver.  Never should we take the gifts for granted or forget that they are gifts– not earned, not the work of our own hands.  If we are not careful, they can become idols and distractions.  Suddenly, we are torn in our affections.  God wants us to love our neighbor, but not to worship her/him.  God wants us to nurture our families, but he wants to be part of that process, not left on the sidelines.  God wants us to use our talents and our gifts to benefit others.  And God’s gifts, while always “good” are not always pleasant or easy.  Loving others can be risky and exhausting.  Putting God first often means sacrifice and ridicule.  And some of God’s gifts may be wrapped in hardship.  When we experience tragedy, like a house fire, that is not a “gift” from God.  But God will send us gifts even in times of grief or stress– an understanding friend, a temporary shelter, a renewed sense of purpose–in the midst of our darkest moments.

Young love, while ardent and intense, often burns itself out.  TV shows and football games become more “important” than deep conversation and longing looks.  “He makes me laugh,” turns into, “he never takes anything seriously.”  “She walks in beauty like the night,” becomes, “She snores like a pig!”  Worse, we take for granted that we know each other “well enough.”  God knows this– he warns us that the same thing can happen to us in our relationship with Him.  We can easily be pulled away or lulled into a false sense that “all is well” even as we drift off course.  We need reminders of God’s rightful place in the center of our attention– our focus and vision fixed on Him.

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“Nought be all else to me”  isn’t about the things of this life disappearing or being worthless; it’s about them being “worth” less than the one who rules over all things.

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