Praying in Perspective

Have you ever seen a photo collage–a large picture made up of hundreds or thousands of tiny photos? If you stand back, you can see a large picture– a face, or a landscape, perhaps–but when you get closer, you can see the many smaller photos that make up the details.

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Prayer is like that. Each of us is a tiny details in the grander scope of the world’s population. Millions of people are praying at any given time on any given day. And we don’t see all of the others– sometimes we don’t see or hear or think of anyone else as we pray. But God sees and hears them all–moreover, God weaves and blends our prayers into something amazingly more than meets our awareness. Prayers of thanksgiving add a dash of bright color; prayers of anguish sound a minor tone; prayers of confession rise like incense, and prayers of worship wrap around all the colors and sounds and scents.

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Yesterday, I was feeling very depressed and small. It was difficult to pray. My perspective was off, and I could only see my own problems and emotions. Prayer helped change my perspective. As I spoke to God; as I thought about His power and omniscience, I began to see that I WAS small–but my God is enormous! And while He sees the entire picture– all places and times and peoples–He also looks on every tiny detail. He knows my name; He knows my every thought. He knows my needs and my desires; He knows my weaknesses and my unique gifts– gifts He has given! Even if no one else noticed, God would be able to pick out the smallest detail in His amazing creation, and bring it into perfect focus.

See Isaiah 55

I-Bug

It started out small– a glItch, really.
Every tIme I began to type, the same thIng would happen.
At fIrst, I barely notIced.

After all, It wasn’t lIke I couldn’t read my own wrItIng.
It wasn’t In every lIne or word;
It was a sIngle letter.

But then It began to spread.
As tIME passed, It becaME more dIffIcult.
I notIced a theME.  I could stIll read the words,
But theIr MEaning was gettIng lost In
SoME way I couldn’t quIte deterMINE.

It was begInnIng to spIll Into MY speech;
IMpossIble to MEnd; MEldIng Into MY mInd’s
NIches, MErgIng wIth MEdIocre comMEnts
And MYsterIous MEltdowns.

I I I I I,

ME ME ME ME ME.

As I and ME took over, yo_ went mIssIng.
ThIngs were s_ddenly less peacef_l…
Even Jes_s seemed sIlent In the dIn of ME and MINE.
SIn and prIde– I co_ld always be fo_nd there.

It was a fast-spreadIng vIr_s– s_rely leadIng to MY r_In:
_ntIl I lIstened to a stIll, small whIsper…
A Holy breath of fresh, clean, wholesome change.

AAAHHH!

Exhaling the I’s and ME’s, and breathing in YOU–
Brought hope and healing; renewal,
Perspective and life.

Every Wall Has Two Sides

A mighty fortress is our God;
A bulwark never failing…

 

bulwark:

noun
    1. a wall of earth or other material built for defense; rampart.
    2. any protection against external danger, injury, or annoyance:The new dam was a bulwark against future floods.
    3. any person or thing giving strong support or encouragement in time of need, danger, or doubt:Religion was his bulwark.
  1. Usually bulwarks. Nauticala solid wall enclosing the perimeter of a weather or main deck for the protection of persons or objects on deck.

see Dicionary.com for further synonyms, etc.

Walls, fences, borders, barriers– there are many reasons to build them, and many ways to view them, but they have only two sides, and we can be only on one side or the other.  I enjoy visiting castles and forts, monasteries, and mansions.  Nearly all have impressive walls.  From the outside, they look imposing, intimidating, and often unfriendly (especially those with armed guards and cannons!).  But inside, the walls provide protection, insulation from any outside threats, and often peace.

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Most walls provide protection– from nature, from floods or winds, from predators, and from enemies.  But there are a few walls that are built, not to keep danger out, but to keep people trapped within.  Such walls are used to isolate, punish, and imprison.

God is described in the Psalms (and elsewhere) as a fortress, a rock, a safe place, a hiding place, and a sure defense.  But those attributes and qualities are for those who chose to come inside the fortress; to ask for protection and defense.

Sometimes, we approach God as an adversary, rather than a defender and protector.  We find ourselves on the outside, facing dangers unprotected and alone.  The very walls that can shield us and give us peace rise up as barriers,   We feel locked out and vulnerable.  The only difference between peace and peril is where we are in relation to the wall.  We are no stronger, our enemy is no weaker on one side or the other– only the wall makes the difference.  And the level of peace and confidence is related, not to our own ability, but to the stability and strength of the wall between us and disaster.  The higher and stronger the wall, the safer we feel.

Other times, we approach God as a jail-keeper.  We have lived inside the walls, and resent His protection.  We have forgotten, or we deny, that there is danger outside the walls.  Or we assume the walls are too close or too restrictive to offer us peace.  But God hasn’t built a wall to keep us near Him or to control us– He IS the wall, the fortress, the bulwark.  To approach Him is to be protected.  To resent His protection is to resent His very presence.

selective focis photo of blue betta fish
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Earthly walls will eventually crumble and return to dust.  Even walls that have stood the test of centuries, like the Great Wall in China, or the Tower of London, or the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem– they are not perfect, nor will they last forever.  But our Bulwark, our Sure Defense, will never fail.  Not only will He never fail to stand, nor fail to protect us, He will never fail to let us in when we seek His salvation.

man wearing gray and red armour standing on the streets
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What Might Have Been…

One of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  No matter how many times I watch it, it never gets old for me.

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Oh, I know it’s in black and white, and it’s out-of-date.  It’s politically incorrect on numerous levels, and it’s theologically incorrect, as well.  But for all that, I think it has a deep wisdom we are sorely lacking, and I think what it says about the power of prayer cannot be dismissed.

Much of the movie is spent tracing the less-than-wonderful things that happen to George Bailey.  George Bailey is the quintessential “nice-guy” who always seems to miss out–as a boy, he leaps into an icy river to save his brother’s life.  His brother is saved, but George ends up losing the hearing in one ear.  While his friends go off to college, George has to stay behind; when he finally saves enough money to enroll, he ends up having to give up his college plans to save the family business after the sudden death of his father.  He loses out on business opportunities, and keeps losing skirmishes with his nemesis, the  “scurvy spider” local magnate, Mr. Potter.  Finally, on Christmas Eve, George has had enough.  The weight of always doing “the right thing,” and watching others get ahead while he falls further behind, has taken its toll.  When his absent-minded uncle loses $8000, George faces scandal and prison after all his years of frustrating hard work in a job he hates.  After uncharacteristic angry outbursts and a short drinking binge, George is in utter meltdown.  In desperation, he prays.  It’s not an eloquent prayer, or an angry outburst.  It’s a wimpy, doubtful, squeak of a prayer, “Dear Father in Heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way…show me the way.”

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What the viewer knows, but George doesn’t, is that dozens of people he knows have all been praying for him.  We get to hear the voices of his wife, his children, his friends and neighbors, all praying simple and heartfelt prayers.  And we also know that God is at work– preparing to send an angel to help George.  But in the bar, at the end of George’s tearful and tremulous prayer, God is silent.

Not only is God silent, but George’s downward spiral continues after his prayer.  He gets punched in the jaw by a man he was arguing with earlier in the evening, and he doesn’t even have enough money to pay his bar tab.  Driving away, drunk, he runs into a tree and gets yelled at.  Reeling down the road and onto the bridge, where he intends to jump to his death, he almost gets hit by a truck.

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While I like the sappy, happy ending of the movie, the incredible darkness and despair leading up to George’s encounter with Clarence, and the even darker “alternate universe” that George experiences are what keep me coming back to this movie– not because I’m a glutton for emotional wringers, but because George’s story is only wonderful when he gets to see it from God’s point of view.  Mr. Potter tells George that he is worth more dead than alive.  But Clarence shows George the true worth of his life, not as it might have been, but as it might NOT have been.

 

And so it is with our lives–all the “might have been”s and broken dreams and failures that weigh us down– God is NOT (as we so often picture Him) shaking His head and grumbling about our wasted potential and weakness.  And often, the people we most fear to disappoint, our family and friends, are rooting for us to stay the course– to finish the race. God wants to wipe away all the seeming failures; all the “what-if”s and the “what might have been”s and replace them with the bigger picture of “what is happening around you”, “what really IS”, and “what can be.”

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There was never anything wrong with George’s dreams of traveling the world and becoming a successful builder of skyscrapers “a hundred stories tall.”  George’s desire to have nice things for himself and his family was not evil, and, in fact, his ambition to do great things was not that different than Mr. Potter’s.  But George’s choices, while “right” were not  in his own immediate best interest.  What Clarence showed George was not “what might have been” had George made other choices in his life.  What he showed George was indeed far more wonderful– the ultimate IMPACT of George’s choices!  God didn’t “take away” George’s dreams or ruin his life.  But neither did He prevent him from making selfish choices or getting what he wanted in the moment.  George’s life wasn’t wonderful because of what happened to him– though the ending is miraculous, and George gets toasted by his hero brother as “the richest man in town.”  But what really made George’s life wonderful was that he was THERE– there to save his brother; there to fall in love with Mary; there to help and influence so many people; there to tuck his daughter into bed and “paste” the petals of her flower; even there to stand up to Mr. Potter when no one else did.*

God answered George’s prayer.  And He answered the prayers of his friends and family.  But He didn’t answer in the way we would expect.  In fact, George jokes with Clarence that the answer to his prayer was getting slugged in the jaw.  But God’s answer came in the form of a childlike “angel” who struggles and questions his ability to make a difference– much like George himself.  God didn’t answer the superficial aspect of George’s prayer– He didn’t show him the way to get $8,000.  He didn’t show him the way to defeat Mr. Potter, or suddenly become more successful.  But He did show George the way to look for “what is” and “what can be”, instead of the “what might have been.”

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  • For anyone who has lost a friend or family member to suicide–my prayer is that we too, would find comfort  and hope in the lives our loved ones lived, and not in the manner of their death.  God is gracious and loving above all that we can imagine.  Part of the hope and message of this movie for me is that, even if George had jumped at the end, his life was still wonderful in God’s eyes, just as it was to all who knew and loved him..

 

An Encouraging Word

It can be a dog-eat-dog kind of world out there.  Every day, I hear of people who are facing difficult and trying circumstances– health issues, loss of a job or home, loss of a family member or close friend, depression, oppression, harassment, rebellious or estranged children, abuse, academic failures, exhaustion from being provider, caregiver, etc.– even just daily stress.  It can really take a toll.  But it becomes even more difficult when we isolate ourselves.

When I get stressed, I tend to withdraw.  I don’t want others to think of me as a failure, or to think less of me in my struggles.  But this is one of the worst things I can do.  First, it means more worry and stress because I’m bearing the burden alone!  Second, it forces me to cover up my level of anxiety or depression be pretending that things are fine then they aren’t.  That would all be bad enough, but it gets worse.  Isolating means my focus turns inward– my problems become bigger, not smaller;  I’m so close to the problem, I’m not able to “look outside the box” for solutions, because my box keeps closing in on me.  I can’t see beyond my circumstances to understand if they are temporary, or if they necessitate some life changes on the other side of whatever crisis I’m dealing with.  And, worst of all, the only voice I listen to is my own, rehearsing and reminding me of the difficulties or failures I’m facing.

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We all need an encouraging word now and then; a voice telling us that we are not alone; that all is not lost; that there is hope.  I have been blessed with wonderful family, friends, and neighbors who are great about encouraging me, even when I try to shut them out or pretend that everything is grand.  Sometimes that encouragement comes through conversation; sometimes a card or text message or a shared piece of scripture; sometimes it comes through prayer.  I may not even know who prayed, or what words they used until days or weeks later, but their faithfulness in praying has become a lifeline when I feel isolated and overwhelmed.

This does not negate my need to pray and ask God for wisdom, healing, or strength for myself, nor does it suggest that God doesn’t answer my prayers.  Instead, it shows a pattern– God often answers our prayers by incorporating and using those around us.  God’s goodness and his love are shown best in teamwork.  We run the race to win, but we race together as teammates, not competitors.  We share sorrows, struggles, and joys. We come alongside; we lift others up, and they lift us up in return.

Encouragement does so much, we sometimes underestimate its power.  In a world of sniping, criticism, name-calling, and finger-pointing, encouragement does the following:

  • It lets someone know that they are seen and heard– that they are being noticed, thought of, and valued.  This shouldn’t be uncommon, but in a world where we are connected to so many be technology, and to so few face-to-face, it is HUGE!
  • It give us perspective to realize that we are not alone in our problems and not unique in facing difficulties.
  • It reminds us that hope and help are gifts to be shared, not something we must earn.
  • It gives us a purpose and a mission to be part of God’s redemptive work– Jesus gave encouragement and hope to those who needed it most, not to those who “deserved” it.

It can be a dog-eat-dog world out there, but we are not dogs.  We are children of the King.  Let’s send out some encouraging words today!

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. (Proverbs 25:11 (ESV)

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Also see James 5:13-16 on praying for one another.

Bargain Basement Praying

I have a very bad habit (one among many).  I tend to be competitive, and a bit of a perfectionist when I work at something.  I’m never satisfied with “good enough” when I think I can do a little better.  This includes shopping for bargains.  I will go to great lengths to stretch a dollar; to save a few cents–outlet and discount stores, sale shelves, bargain basements–I’ve haunted them all.

But prayer shouldn’t be a “bargain basement” encounter.  God is not in the business of selling.  He’s in the business of redeeming.  God is lavish in his Grace, and sufficient– even abundant– in his blessings.

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Don’t misunderstand– God has not promised us wealth and ease and constant comfort.  And God is not a vending machine or a genii, that I should tell him what I want and expect that he will grant my every whim.  But I tend to come to God as if I had to earn his approval, or pay for his gifts.  I ask for the bare minimum– “just help me get through this meeting”, “you know what bills are outstanding– just help us catch up”– and then I am surprised when that’s what I get.

It’s not that I am asking for bad things or wrong things, or that I should be asking for so much more.  But what does my attitude say about God?  I say that God is Love, I say that he is Good.  I say that he can do anything, and that he is gracious and merciful.  But my prayer life says otherwise.

It’s time that I ask God for “my daily bread”, without expecting day-old leftovers.  And, when he choose to give me Manna, it’s time for me to see that provision for the miracle and the blessing that it is.

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Treetop Prayers

There is a zoo, about an hour from my house, where you can climb up on a platform at certain times of the day, and feed giraffes.  Since giraffes are not native to the American Midwest, this is probably the closest I ever have come, or ever will come, to a live giraffe, and I have enjoyed the opportunity to interact with this unique member of God’s creation.

Giraffes are grazers, but their unique bodies are not best designed for munching on grass or other low-lying plants.  Instead, their focus is on the tops of trees and tall bushes.  For me to feed a giraffe, I need to be at the level of the tree branches.  And it changes my perspective.  I’m no longer paying attention to ants and blades of grass.  I can see landscapes and clouds for miles stretching out around me.  Not a bad view at all!

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Yet giraffes are still grounded–they do not soar like eagles, above all the clouds and unattached to the earth.  Giraffes must still be on guard and prepared to flee danger from predators or grass fires.  But their unique height and perspective give them a better view to see the danger from far off, and act accordingly.

Sometimes, I think we are called to pray with a giraffe’s perspective–to look up and out and pray from the treetops–a little closer to God and leaving behind the small things of the world.  Lofty prayers of gratitude and praise; prayers that recognize that there is a big world of wonder all around us.  Prayers that look ahead and can see trouble on the horizon; to seek God’s face early and prepare for hard times ahead.

Sometimes, we need to pray from the depths. God will still here us, no matter where we may be.  But the Bible reminds us often that we should look up, ascend, raise our eyes, and change our perspective.

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I plan to take some time today for treetop prayer.  Will you?

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