Praying the Perimeter

I love puzzles–jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, logic puzzles, etc.

This may seem like a strange way to begin a blog on prayer, but stick with me…

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Puzzles can be fun, but they can also be very frustrating, especially if you approach them with no strategy. If you dump 1,000 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on a table, and begin by trying to find any two pieces that fit, you may be able to eventually solve the puzzle, but it makes more sense to look for the “edge” and “corner” pieces first, and build a framework. Depending on the puzzle picture, you may also be able to work on colors or patterns that stand out– sky/clouds, a patch of red or blue, a dog in the foreground, etc.

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The same is true of word and logic puzzles. There is usually a strategy when you approach each puzzle that can help make it easier and more rewarding. Words have patterns of letters– vowels and consonants; logic puzzles depend on deduction– narrowing down the possible by eliminating the impossible. Sudoku, and its cousin, Kakuro, involve simple math and numbers 1-9 in changing patterns. Start with the strategy, and you will find even the most challenging puzzles a little less challenging.

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Some puzzles seem impossible; and some are beyond my ability to solve, even with the best of strategies. That’s life. We don’t know all the answers, and we can’t always “see” the solution, or make all the pieces fit.

Sometimes, our lives seem like a challenging puzzle. Nothing seems to “fit” a pattern or make sense, and we end up lost and frustrated. Our most basic need is to trust God. But God does not leave us without a strategy. Prayer (along with reading God’s word and keeping in fellowship with other Christians) is part of an excellent strategy. Just like putting the “edge” pieces together in a jigsaw puzzle, praying “the perimeter” of our problems can put them in the proper frame.

What does that mean? Jesus gave us a perfect example in “The Lord’s Prayer.” When His disciples asked Him how they should pray, He started with the “frame.” “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.” God should be at the center of our life and trust, but He also needs to be the “edge” and framework of our life. There is no problem or worry that is outside of His control and awareness, no need that He cannot meet, and no problem that can take Him by surprise or leave Him frustrated and “stumped.”

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“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven.” God already has the right strategy, and solution for our need. We can’t see it; we may not have a clue how to pay our bills, or deal with that devastating diagnosis, or make peace with our enemy–we may never find “the solution” on our own or in our short lifetime. But God sees the entire picture, and He has the power to make all the pieces “fit”– in His time and in His perfect will.

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“Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sometimes our “puzzles” seem too big because we try to tackle everything at once, or we try to tackle things from the wrong end. God’s strategy is to rest in Him daily, letting tomorrow’s troubles wait for tomorrow, and letting go of yesterday’s struggles. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make plans or budgets, or that we don’t take responsibility for our health, or the mistakes we’ve made. But it means that we stop focusing on what we can’t control, and focus on the present. Instead of worrying, I can be thankful for what I have right now. Instead of focusing on what others think of me, or the threat they pose, I can concentrate on my own attitude and actions, making sure that I am practicing trust and obedience. Instead of getting angry when things don’t make sense, I can rest, knowing that God knows the end from the beginning.

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“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” God is our “Good Shepherd” (See Psalm 23 and John 10). He “leads us beside the still waters” and “makes us lie down in green pastures.” “He restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:3a) If we let God determine our “edges” and boundaries, we will still have to travel through troubled times and valleys “of the shadow of death.” But we need not fear evil, when we trust that God will deliver us. We need not fear the shadows and uncertainties within the boundaries of God’s will. And even when we have taken the wrong path, and “messed up” the puzzle we are in, God is in the business of redemption and restoration! He will deliver us– if we confess and seek His solution. He will wipe away the “wrong” answers and rearrange the pieces of our life, so that we can find wholeness.

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When we develop the pursuit of prayer– daily meeting with God, acknowledging who He is, and seeking His wisdom and grace– we will meet the challenges of life with the right strategy. We will still face the frustration of not knowing all the answers, or not seeing the whole picture. We will still have to deal with struggles, shadows, grief, and pain. But we will have a stronger “framework” and a God-given strategy to help.

Every Day Counts

Tomorrow, my mother will celebrate her 87th birthday. Her life spans an incredible period of history. She can remember times of poverty and hardship during the Great Depression. She remembers hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio, and worrying about her father in the Navy, and her mother working long hours in the factory. As a young wife, she sent a husband to fight in Korea, while she awaited the birth of their son. In her day, she cooked on a coal-fired stove, attended a one-room schoolhouse, wore poodle skirts and saddle shoes, and used outhouses. She has lived through the age of television and the internet– she watched a man walk on the moon (in black and white) and watched the World Trade Center towers burn and collapse (in color) on TV screens in real time. She learned to take shorthand in pencil, to type on a manual typewriter, and has done data-entry on a desktop computer.

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Mom has seen a lot of changes in her life. But years ago, she developed habits that have not changed. Every day, she reads a passage of scripture, and every day, she spends time in prayer and meditation. That doesn’t mean she is perfect–some days she misses, due to illness or unexpected interruptions–and this practice, in itself, doesn’t make her a “better” person than anyone else. But daily habits do matter. When Mom lost her parents and her only sister in a matter of nine months, and then lost my Dad just three years later, her faith was tested. But it never wavered. When she had to undergo heart surgery a few years ago, her faithful habits made an impression on the hospital staff, as well as her friends and family. Throughout the recent COVID-19 lockdown, when Mom has lived alone and had to deal with cancelled doctor’s appointments, limited access to medicines, changing her routines, not being able to socialize, not being able to attend worship services, losing a close friend, etc., she has shown resilience, patience, and faith that set a marvelous example to anyone who knows her. Whether her day turns out to be momentous, boring, disastrous, or just ordinary, Mom determines to spend part of it connecting to, and worshiping, her Savior.

This seems like simple advice, but it takes practice and determination, and help from the Holy Spirit. It is tempting to look at our lives in hourly increments, trying to fill each moment and each day with meaningful activity. It is tempting to make prayer and Bible study “part of the plan,” two of the many activities in our busy schedule. And when things don’t go according to our plan, we wring our hands and lament the “waste.” Even when things go “as planned” we still consider worship and meditation one of many routine practices, like exercise, or dusting, or taking a shower. But each day is a gift– each moment is more than an opportunity to be busy “doing” and “making plans.” Each day– even the ones we think of as failures and wasted time–matters. Every day is a new opportunity to see God or to hear His voice–whether in the beauty of a sunrise, or the tears of our children; in the aftermath of a disaster, or an unexpected promotion at work; in stillness, or the noisy commute; in success and in setbacks.

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Daily habits like prayer and Bible study won’t change the circumstances that come our way; they won’t necessarily help us make plans that make life easier or less frustrating. But they will teach us to place our focus where it truly belongs–on the One who is with us every day and every moment, through good times and bad–on the One who holds today (and tomorrow) in His hand. It doesn’t matter that we fill out a chart, or make a certain goal of pages read or half-hours spent on our knees– it DOES matter that we make it the cry of our heart to seek God every day that we can. Seek His wisdom, seek His mercy, seek His glory. Today.

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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