Keep Praying!

My prayers will not change the world. Read that again, because it is important to come to grips with certain realities, and with certain half-truths. My. Prayers. Will. Not. Change. The. World. BUT…

My prayers WILL be heard and answered.

My prayers WILL reach the throne of Heaven.

My prayers WILL make a difference!

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We have a great tendency to think in extremes. And the subject of prayer is no exception. Either our prayers seem powerful or they seem empty. But we live in a world of limitations, a world of boundaries. I can do small things– things that make a small difference. I can help a neighbor. I can give out of my abundance. I can exert whatever power or influence I might have. I can write or speak in an effort to persuade.

But I can’t move mountains. I can’t fix a broken soul. I can’t end wars or stop famines or control the wind and waves. And my prayers cannot FORCE God to bend to MY will; to act as I see fit, or in My timing. It is not my actions or my wishes or my words– even in prayer– that will ever change the world.

Sometimes, others will see this as failure. They will say that prayer is ineffective, or weak, or no more than wishful thinking. They see it as an abdication of power– asking God to do something instead of taking action. And that kind of faulty thinking can take root and cause me to stop praying as fervently or as faithfully as I once did. It might make me doubt God’s goodness or His willingness to hear me, or to bless others. Worse, I may see His blessing of others as a slight to my own prayers and pains. I may see my prayers as a waste of time, and I may place more value on striving and struggling and fighting over the power of Faith and Obedience.

Keep Praying!

The truth is that God is the only one who has both the power and the wisdom to save the world– and us– from all the problems we see around us. And the other truth is that HE is the one who invites us to pray as an act of communion with Him IN all his power, wisdom, mercy and love. Our “small” prayers are tied to a Great and Mighty God!

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My prayer will not CAUSE God to change circumstances, but it WILL involve me in the process of change– it will allow me to confirm and acknowledge God’s work as it unfolds.

My prayer may not result in immediate change of my circumstances or in the face of great disasters. But it will result in a change in ME. And it will result in changes I can’t even begin to imagine– changes that may unfold over generations; changes that may multiply ten-thousand-fold! Prayer will put me in a place where God can more easily mold me and shape my character to endure and thrive and even ACT in ways that make a positive and lasting difference.

Even prayers of worship and thanksgiving, that may seem to go in only one direction– we have no idea how God uses such prayers to pour out His greatness and worthiness on those of us who are unworthy. God’s ways are mysterious and unpredictable– but they lead to unexpected miracles and unmerited blessings.

Keep Praying!

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Keep praying in the face of doubt. Keep praying in the face of exhaustion and pain. Keep praying in the face of persecution and misunderstanding. God is listening. God is at work. And others are watching and listening, too. Your prayers may be the inspiration to someone else who is struggling. Your prayers may be the seed that is being planted in the very person who is persecuting you. Your praise may be the fuel that will start a fire elsewhere in the world!

Keep Praying!

When Prayer is Not Enough…

“Stop praying and DO something!”

“I’m sick of thoughts and prayers…it’s time for action.”

“Prayer doesn’t work!”

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What happens when your prayers don’t seem to make any difference? People around you complain that you are passive, even apathetic about critical needs. “People are dying!” “People are suffering, and you want to stop and pray?!”

YES! Buy why do I continue to advocate for prayer in the face of overwhelming injustice and evil? Shouldn’t I be talking about action? Shouldn’t I be posting plans to end injustice or poverty or war? Shouldn’t I be willing to say that sometimes, prayer just isn’t enough?

Well, firstly, I believe that Prayer is far more powerful than most people know. Prayer IS enough, because GOD IS ENOUGH! I can’t stop gun violence, or human trafficking, or an epidemic. I can’t– not with all the resources in the world; not with all the action I can muster; not with any effort or plan or army of willing human helpers. And neither can anyone else. I can march in protest, I can write and call and badger legislators to change laws or enforce the laws we already have. Such actions might make me feel better– they might even have some immediate effect. But they won’t “fix” the continuing and underlying problem of Sin. Only God can do that, and He WILL do it. He may choose to work through human agency to right some wrongs or change the immediate future, but our world is broken, and God’s ultimate plan is bigger than just a convenient patch for Sin’s consequences.

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However, I will concede that sometimes prayer, by itself, is not nearly “enough.” Prayer must be paired with Faith. I know many people who say that prayer “doesn’t work,” not because they didn’t pray, or weren’t sincere in their desire or their wish for God to act on their behalf, but because they believe in their desire– their wish or their plan– more than they believe in God’s goodness or His ability to bring good out of whatever struggle we are facing.

This is not a simple concept– that God is eternally good even in the midst of evil and horror– it can be painful beyond words. God may choose to allow the sin of drunk driving to take the life of an innocent person in our family, or leave us permanently paralyzed. Or He may allow war to strip us of all that we own– our home and our freedom. How can we possibly view such circumstances as “good?” Why does God allow for violence and injustice? Why does He allow it to continue– seemingly unabated and unchecked? How can God call Himself “Good” while letting evil touch our lives and the lives of millions innocent people? Praying — and continuing to pray– in such circumstances seems like a mockery of our pain and grief. It seems like God is deaf to our cries– indifferent, or even watching smugly from a distance. Why pray to such a God?

But IS this what God is really like? And why do we believe the worst about Him, rather than trust that His wisdom and Love are actually greater than what we can comprehend or experience in the present? Why do we blame God for the evil we see in others? Why do we ignore our own actions or inaction that often contribute to our situation? Why do we believe that God “owes” us a life without sorrow and pain– even as we see others suffering the consequences of sin– sometimes because of our failures? Why do we insist that God always act in accordance with OUR desires, when we often will not act in accordance with His? Why do we “test” God with prayers in our times of trouble, when we will not trouble Him with our prayers in times of peace and plenty? If anyone should have led a life without sorrow or pain, it should have been Jesus. Jesus prayed all the time– He even taught others how to pray (Matthew 6:9-15). He was completely obedient to His Father. Yet God’s own Son faced heartbreak, betrayal, and a painful, unjust death on the Cross. He wept over the death of a close friend– a death He Himself could have prevented (and later reversed)! (John 11) He was in such deep distress in the Garden of Gethsemane that He sweat blood! (Luke 22:44) God’s plan is not for us to live a life free of trouble, but a life of victory OVER despair and doubt!

Seeking “more” than prayer is often seeking “more” than God–as if we can do better on our own. As though we can out-love, out-give, out-do, and over-power the God of creation;the God of the Cross, and the God of the Resurrection and the Life. Deriding prayer is deriding the God to whom we pray– we minimize His power and His compassion while inflating our own. If God doesn’t exist, one might argue that it doesn’t matter– but then, why waste time deriding what doesn’t exist?! Prayer matters because God DOES exist, and because God matters Trusting God means being willing to wait and accept His will; even if we don’t get the answer we want. God’s ways are not our ways, but that doesn’t mean they are inferior or ineffective. God will not “undo” our circumstances, but He will help us through our circumstances. He won’t take away our grief. But He will shape it into something with purpose– if we let Him.

Finally, there are times when prayer must be paired with action. It IS enough to pray for God to act. But when God prompts US to act, and we do not, our prayers are empty words. Faith may lead us to wait, but it won’t lead us to sit idly by when we have the opportunity to help. Faith may lead me to keep taking the next step– even when I can’t see the way forward. Faith may lead me to let go of a dream I thought would be “enough.” It may lead me into the valley of the shadow of death– in my own life, or on behalf of someone else. I can’t take away someone’s grief at the loss of a child– but I can share in it. I can listen and offer friendship, rather than a quick platitude and a few empty words. I can continue to be there when others fade away. I can’t undo the horrors of war– but I can help care for refugees, and I can work to build peace in my neighborhood, even as I pray. I can take the next step in making someone else’s burden just a little lighter, and making the world a little brighter wherever God gives me the chance. And prayer is one way I can focus on the source of strength, wisdom, and compassion to allow me to do my part better.

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The next time you hear someone saying that prayer is “not enough,” remember that no human effort will ever be “enough” to do what only God can do! But prayer taps into the power and grace that is “sufficient” for all our greatest needs.

But I Didn’t…

I could have welcomed that visitor at church this morning…
The one who looked a little lost; a little overwhelmed.

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I could have smiled when I paid my utility bill the other day–
When the clerk asked if she could help me, and thanked me, and sent me on my way.

I might have offered my unused coupons to that young man who was shopping–
The one with two boisterous kids in the cart, and very few groceries.
Maybe he would have been offended. But maybe it would have given him an opportunity
And a little hope.

I thought about calling an old friend and asking if we could pray together.
Maybe we could have met for tea or gone for a walk together.

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I had planned to clean out the closet and set aside some clothes to take to a local shelter.

I considered calling my sister, sending a card to that widower from church, or e-mailing my cousin…

I really needed to spend a little time in confession and repentance, and cleansing.
I needed to be renewed, recharged, and transformed. At least, I thought I did.
But something else claimed my thoughts, and my good intentions.
Now, I just feel worn and guilty and unworthy.

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And the “thing” is– I didn’t do anything horrible. I didn’t make anyone cry, or rob a bank.
I didn’t burn dinner or break the speed limit. I didn’t break my marriage vows or embezzle a fortune.
I didn’t break the law– I didn’t even break a sweat!

I just
Didn’t.

Lord, today, I pray that you would light a fire under me. Help me to see the opportunities all around me– tiny acts of kindness, and truths that I need to hold tight. Show me people who need a listening ear, or a helping hand, or a word of encouragement. Help me to move “at the impulse of your love.” And when You direct me to be still, help me to be still and KNOW that You are a God of purpose and hope; joy and abundance. Help me to BE first–to Be obedient, to Be humble, to Be available. But then, help me to DO what you would have me do for Your Great Name. Thank you for second (and third) chances to BE and DO all that brings You honor. Amen.

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Passionate Patience

5-9 So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s right before you, oblivious that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books.

2 Peter 1:5-9 (The Message– emphasis added)
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I’ve seen lots of posts recently about the “-ber” months–September, October, November, December–and the excitement for some as this season comes ’round. September in Michigan is filled with ripening fruits and changing colors. October brings pumpkins, apple cider, and frosty mornings. November is often spent thinking of and planning for Thanksgiving– bountiful feasts and time with family. And December brings the Christmas season– snow, caroling, giving and receiving gifts, and families gathered around trees and fireplaces, sharing old memories and making new ones.

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Part of this season of summer morphing into autumn and “falling” into winter is anticipation. The first apple harvest; the first frost; the first snowfall; those eager moments of wondering what will be under the Christmas Tree…we know they will come, but when, and how?

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My birthday is at the end of November, and as a child, I always loved Thanksgiving. It meant that family would gather, and at some point, they would sing “Happy Birthday” and there would be a cake among all the wonderful Thanksgiving desserts with my name on it! Four weeks later, Christmas would come, and the same excitement filled the house. It was difficult to be patient, but I learned that everything special was worth waiting for. In fact, sometimes, the anticipation is part of what makes such times more wonderful. There is no fun in rushing through precious moments or “ruining” the surprise of what is to come; nor is there any virtue in losing passion for what is possible, just because we can’t see the outcome, yet.

The Apostle Peter gave early Christians a list of attributes and spiritual traits that they should be developing in increasing measure. One of these attributes is “passionate patience.” In other translations, it is also called “perseverance,” “endurance,” “patience,” and “strength to keep going.” I like this wording, “passionate patience,” because it reminds us that patience isn’t just passive and meek. Especially as we work on building our spiritual understanding and alert discipline, patience becomes a powerful trait– one that distinguishes Christians from those around them. Some people are marked by impatience, anger, and dissatisfaction. Others are marked with complacency and resignation. Christians are asked to be passionately patient! Our faith and hope should radiate, even as we endure trials and anticipate God’s movement in the world around us.

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Jesus modeled “passionate patience” in His ministry on earth. Peter was witness to Jesus’ endurance in the face of rejection, unbelief, misunderstanding, and injustice– both to those around Him, and personal injustices. Jesus remained faithful, passionate for the truth, and compassionate toward others. He did not give in to despair, or waste His energy in anger or revenge. He did not make excuses for inaction, but He did not “burn out” in useless activities, either. He confidently did what the Father told Him to do– no more and no less.

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How do I reflect “passionate patience?” When I look around me and see injustice, do I explode in anger? Do I shrug my shoulders in resignation? Do I lose faith and passion? Or do I remain positive and faithful in doing what I know to be right and speaking up for the truth? Do I spread compassion or consternation? Antipathy, anger, or aspiration? When my life circumstances are filled with pain or hardship, do I endure? Do I persevere? Do I thrive? Or do I complain? Do I remain passionately hopeful, or give in to anxiety or despair? Do I wait for God’s strength and wisdom, or do I try to “fix” things in my own power? Do I accept help and guidance when I need it, or resent others’ efforts? Do I spread hope and healing? Or do I spread doubt and gloom? Do I grow bitter or better? I’d love to say that I respond with the kind of endurance, patience, and fortitude that Peter spoke of. And sometimes, with God’s help, I have. But I have much to learn, and room to grow!

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I pray that God’s spirit will help me grow in “passionate patience,” as I actively seek to follow Christ and reflect His love today.

“I Would Prefer Not To..”

Years ago, our high school class read a classic short story by the American author, Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener tells the story of an unusual clerk– one who begins as a good worker, efficient and conscientious, but ends up dying in prison, hopeless, ruined, and broken. His tragic downward spiral begins one day when the lawyer for whom he works asks him to examine a short document. This is a commonplace request, much like asking a writer to proofread her final draft before submitting it to the editor. However, Bartleby responds by saying “I would prefer not to.” The startled lawyer decides not to force the issue, and gives the task to someone else.

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Bartleby’s refusal to do what is expected of him escalates until he no longer does ANY work. He refuses to work, refuses to leave the office, and refuses to eat. He isn’t angry or violent, but he remains defiant until the very end.

So it is with us when we are living in sin and rebellion against God. It may start out small– some little habit or attitude. We know it is wrong, but instead of obeying God’s word, we calmly say, “I would prefer not to…” not to tell the truth, not to turn away from porn, not to help my neighbor, not to agree with God about my behavior.

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8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

Psalm 103:6-12 (ESV)

God is patient. He is gracious and kind. He does not treat us as our offenses deserve. He gives us the chance to repent. He offers forgiveness. But every time we say to God, “I would prefer not to,” we get a little more like Bartleby– isolating ourselves, wasting our potential to be all that God created us to be, growing more defiant and more rebellious, until we waste away into a prison of our own making, and, finally, death.

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One of the things that makes Melville’s story so disturbing is that the narrator keeps trying to explain away Bartleby’s defiance–perhaps he is having trouble with his eyesight and doesn’t want to admit it; perhaps he was traumatized at a previous job; maybe there is a reason for his passive aggression. But in all of his attempts to understand, the narrator cannot save Bartleby from prison and death.

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Understanding sin cannot change us. Excusing sin does nothing to stop its consequences (see Romans 6:23). No one killed Bartleby, yet he died because he “would prefer not to” do the things he needed to do to live. His small act of defiance, which starts out singular and almost heroic (after all, who wouldn’t like to tell the boss, “I would prefer not to,” every once in awhile?), sounds innocuous. Such a little thing to refuse. Surely God would not punish us for so small a thing…until one small thing leads to another…and another; a bigger rebellion; a numbing complacency; loss of perspective; a heart of stone; isolation; starvation; imprisonment; death.

What am I refusing to do for God today? What am I refusing to give up? Refusing to admit? Refusing to listen to? Am I excusing myself? Do I tell myself I am not in rebellion because I have been polite in my refusal to obey? Do I comfort myself that my rebellion is really just a matter of “preference,” and will not be consequential? That God’s Holiness is less important than my comfort or convenience?

Many people coast through life in the belief that God is SO merciful and SO loving that He can’t also be Holy and Just– that His commands are really suggestions; that His wrath is mythical; that our own wisdom is sufficient for living a “good” life and pleasing Him. But God isn’t concerned about whether we live a “good” life– He wants us to have an abundant life– filled with joy and peace, love and relationship, both now and forevermore. In fact, He would “prefer not to” punish us. He is not “willing” (i.e. desirous) that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), but that everyone would some to repentance. That doesn’t mean that He won’t punish those who refuse to obey Him, or those who refuse to turn from their rebellion and trust Him; only that He will continue to give us the opportunity to recognize our need for forgiveness.

10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

John 15:10-15 ESV– taken from biblegateway.com

God has made it possible for us to be more than servants. We don’t have to respond to God as Bartleby responded to his boss– though God has the ultimate authority to demand our loyalty and obedience. Through Jesus, we are sons and daughters and friends! When God gives us commands, like “Love one another,” they are still commands. But His heart is that we should trust that all of His commands are righteous, life-giving, and in our eternal best interest. But some of us are still saying, “I would prefer not to.”

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