“Thoughts and Prayers”…Revisited

One of the reasons I began a blog about prayer over eighteen months ago was in reaction to a scathing op-ed article about prayer written in the wake of a mass shooting. Well, here we are again. Two highly publicized (and several “smaller”) mass shootings occurred over the last week in the U.S., and the outrage and anguish is overwhelming and completely understandable. The senseless violence and subsequent loss of life stops us in our tracks. Why? Why would anyone do this? How? How could this happen? In the wake of such evil, millions of people rush to distance themselves from such evil; many of them resort to angry protests and calls for action. Many point their fingers at this leader, that group of people, that philosophy, that industry–any entity (other than oneself) that can be held responsible and made to “pay.” Many offer earnest condolences for the families of the victims– often with the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”

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But what good are any of these responses? Nothing we say or do can turn back time and undo the events of the past week. No amount of protesting, legislating, avenging, or moralizing will guarantee that everyone lives in peace and safety as long as evil lurks in human hearts– whether by vigilante gun violence, war, terror attacks, economic and political unrest, rioting, looting, domestic violence, brutality, assault, murder, or suicide. “Banning” guns (or “assault weapons”, “military-style” weapons, etc.) sounds like a sensible action to take, but it is not practical in the face of evil people who will not follow the law, and corrupt governments who will not enforce the law, or worse, who use their power to oppress their own citizens.

Finding, and even punishing a scapegoat may make us feel morally superior and bring a false sense of closure, but it will not break the cycle of anger, hatred, injustice, or lack of respect that is at the root of violence.

But there is something equally repugnant about hearing the phrase “thoughts and prayers”, no matter how earnestly it may be expressed, in the wake of inhuman tragedy. The “thoughts and prayers” of strangers have no warmth, no solidity, no promise, and no strength. They are wisps and vapors of selfish and graceless bystanders, who want to ward off the evil that has befallen someone else. They are nothing more than a pseudo-spiritual appeasement offered to the nameless, faceless fates.

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And the greater tragedy is that such empty phrases, expressed as reactions to great evil, cheapen the very real power that should be found in the pursuits of thinking/meditating and praying.

Prayer is not a knee-jerk reaction to bad news. It is not a gesture meant to signal to others that you are beyond the touch of whatever forces have just hurt someone else, or that by your thirty second of piety you can alter the consequences of a catastrophe or change the course of the future.

Where were the “thoughts and prayers” of others two weeks ago? Where will they be tomorrow or next week? What quality of “thoughts and prayers” go out to the families of victims whose names we have not even bothered to learn? Such superficial public expressions, sent with seven teary-eyed and five or six high five/praying hands emojis, mean very little to anyone except the sender. They change nothing from the past, and offer nothing going forward.

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I am as guilty of this kind of meaningless virtue-signaling as anyone. I want to feel as though I can, by such empathetic expressions, encourage and strengthen those who have been touched by horror, tragedy, survivor’s guilt, trauma, grief, etc. But I can’t. Nor can my anger, frantic attempts to “fix the world”, or brilliant analyses of all the root causes of violence prevent the next bombing, drive-by shooting, hijacking, arson, political uprising, or disappointing election result. I cannot change the hearts or minds of those with whom I disagree. I cannot “make” a better world.

But that is why I write this blog. It is through a lifestyle of prayer– real prayer, difficult and sometimes agonizing prayer, joyful and grateful prayer, pleading and gut-wrenching prayer, consistent and obedient prayer–that I engage with the only One who CAN bring hope, justice, change, renewal, and salvation to this world. And it is through a lifestyle pursuit of prayer–daily seeking God’s face, asking for His wisdom, accepting His mercy when I fail, reflecting on His character, acting in obedience–that He can change me. That power, that hope, and that renewal is available to ANYONE who will ask. It sustains us when tragedy strikes, and it empowers us to offer far more than empty “thoughts and prayers”– it causes us to pray, not just after a tragedy, but unceasingly– not just for our own comfort and safety going forward, but for the well-being of our enemies, not just for those who look like us or think like us, but for those who scream at us and tell us to stop already with the “thoughts and prayers!” That power causes us to seek peace where there is hatred, justice where we find corruption, and humility when we are surrounded by narcissism.

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And if we are not doing those things– if we are not tapping into that power– we should be taking a closer look at those “thoughts and prayers” we are hiding behind.

The prophet Jeremiah lived in violent times. His city was besieged by the Babylonians, and his king was a prisoner in his own palace. God had sent messages of judgment and punishment for the entire nation. Jeremiah prayed diligently, and spoke out against the injustice, pride, and idolatry all around him. In response, he was arrested, beaten, thrown into a pit, and abandoned. God even told him to stop praying for his countrymen, because they were unwilling to accept the truth about their condition, or prepare for the punishment to come. But in the middle of the violence and bad news, God offered hope and promises of restoration, justice, renewal, and peace. He also gave this warning to Jeremiah, that he should stand firm– he should, by his example of consistent obedience and hope– influence others, NOT let himself be influenced by the anger and arrogance of those around him.

Lord, I need to stop offering cheap thoughts and empty prayers that do nothing to honor You and little to help others. Give me the strength and grace to stop reacting to tragedy by reflecting the anger and self-righteousness around me. YOU are my hope, and the best hope I can offer to anyone else. Help me to serve others in truth and love, not judge them, dismiss them, or honor them above You. Help me to seek and stand for justice that is consistent with Your character and Your word, even if I stand alone.

Where Am I?

Smack-dab in the center of Sin and Pride;
You could find me in Peril, Intrigue and Rebellion–
Guilt surrounded me, pain and despair held me fast.
But I was not in Repentance, Mercy, or Grace.

I had die to “I”– let it go and let the Son redeem the Sin
Trade Pride for Prayer, and Hype for Hope.

But I am no longer lost or dead– and no longer a slave to sin or pride.
I can now be found in Faith, and Charity;
I thrive in Fellowship, I have a Friend in Jesus,
A Spirit to guide me, and a vision for Eternity.
It is not “I” who lives, but “I AM” who lives in me.
Salvation, forgiveness, life, and victory are all mine;
Alive in Him, I am found in Christ– sanctified,
And never alone.

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Romans 8:1-5 King James Version (KJV)

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.

 

1 Corinthians 15:57 New International Version (NIV)

57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

 

  • A brief note about Scripture references and quotes:  I try to give scripture references and quotes in various translations, though I give most in the New International Version (NIV), the English Standard Version (ESV) or the King James or New King James versions (KJV or NKJV).  I don’t intend to cause confusion by doing this.  There are several excellent translations/versions available, and for a good comparison, there are several wonderful Bible study websites (two of my favorites are Bible Gateway and Bible Hub  ).  I simply find that there are some nuances that make for easier reading or use in the blog.  Often, one translation will have notes and cross references that are wonderful for further study, but confusing to include as part of the blog quote.  I encourage anyone to read the verses in whatever translation they have available, feel most comfortable using, or feel is most trustworthy.  I also welcome comments or corrections.

That Voice in Your Head

Most days, I post about Pursuing Prayer from the “praying” end…how do I pray, what attitude do I have about praying, why do I pray, etc.

Today, I want to explore the “responding” end…how do I know when God is answering my prayer, or what he’s asking me to do in response to his will?  While I don’t have a complete answer, I do want to share some wisdom– some from experience and some from Biblical principles and others’ testimony.

Isaiah 55:8-9 English Standard Version (ESV)

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. William Cowper

It often surprises people to learn that “God works in mysterious ways” is not actually in the Bible.  God’s ways are NOT our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts, but his answers to prayer are not obscure and unknowable.  God does not delight in vexing us and making us guess and second-guess his will.  It would be easy if God always answered our prayers with a flashing neon sign that gave a simple, one-sentence directive– “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”  “Click your heels together and say, ‘There’s no place like home.'” “Hakuna Matata.”  But pithy platitudes and easy answers are not God’s way, either.  God created each of us as a unique reflection of his divine image– his answers will be uniquely designed to fulfill his will and meet our deepest needs, not always in ways we expect or understand.

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So how do we discern God’s will when there is no neon sign or simple answer to our prayers?  Here are a few guiding principles:

  • God will NEVER answer your prayer by contradicting himself or compromising his holiness.
    • God will not answer your prayer for money by giving you an opportunity to cheat or steal.  He will not answer your prayer for a husband by throwing you into the arms of someone else’s.
    • Just because God doesn’t send a lightning bolt or physically stop you from doing something doesn’t mean that he has given his OK.  If he ALLOWS you to sin, that doesn’t mean that he APPROVES of your sin or that it is his answer to your prayer.
    • God will never ask you to do harm to yourself or others as an answer to your prayer.  Vengeance, sacrifice, atonement, and retribution are the province of God alone.  I believe that God asks us to be vigilant in defense, and allows us to take up arms in defense, but to initiate a feud, to seek personal vengeance, or to act out vigilante justice is to flout both God’s authority and the authority of the powers God has set in place over us.
  • God MAY use circumstances or people to answer your prayer.  But the same principle above applies– circumstances that lead to sinful actions are NOT God’s answer to your prayer; people who advise you to do what you know is contrary to God’s holiness are not sent from God– no matter how appealing the prospect, no matter how powerful the person or persons.  That being said, God may choose to use the most unlikely of persons or events to bring about a resolution to your need–LET HIM!  Don’t judge a gift by the size, the shape, or the wrapping paper!

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  • God may use time to answer your prayer.  I prayed for a husband from the time I was a young girl– I married at age 46.  Waiting doesn’t mean that God has forgotten about you; it doesn’t mean that you aren’t worthy of an answer or ready for an answer– sometimes your answer isn’t ready for you!  There are two caveats I want to share from my own experience of waiting for an answer:
    • Don’t give up!  God knows the desires of your heart– but keep praying anyway.  Well-meaning people will say awful, hurtful things– that you aren’t praying enough, or praying the “right” way; that you must be hiding un-confessed sin; that you need to try some other way to get what you want, or to hurry God along.  In my case, I had people trying to fix me up, suggest dating services, remind me that my “clock” was ticking (it was broken, but they didn’t know that), or suggest that it just wasn’t God’s will that I marry, and I should pray for him to take away the desire for a husband.  Listen to folks like this (if you must) with half an ear and less than 10% of your heart– let them cause you to re-examine your heart and your desires, but don’t let them cause you to give up or doubt God.  That was not their intention, but it can often be the result of their ill-considered words.
    • Do the next right thing.  Doing nothing while you wait for the perfect answer gets you nowhere.  Wringing your hands and pacing gets you nowhere.  God wants our trust and our obedience.  As we wait for more specific direction, we need to trust that doing the next right thing IS the RIGHT thing to do.  This was the hardest lesson for me, but the one I most needed to learn.  So while I waited, I moved ahead step-by-step.  I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of experiences, and learned about marriage by watching the examples of others (both good and bad).  I got involved working with children, first as a secondary teacher, and then as a librarian.  I got to spend nearly thirty years of my working life surrounded by young people.  I got to laugh with them, love on them, mentor them, dream with them, discipline them, and cry over them (and send them home).  I didn’t just “settle for” a single lifestyle– I learned to embrace it.  I learned to be grateful for the wonderful opportunities I had as a single woman, and to anticipate the changes that marriage would bring, should it come along.  I learned that marriage should be a means to an end, not the end itself– that marriage done right is not about my growth and fulfillment; not even about his growth and fulfillment; but about OUR growth together and toward Godliness.
  • Trust “that voice in your head”– not the one that speaks out loud and gets you strange looks–but your God-given conscience, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  “That still, small voice” is often the most personal way God speaks to us.  In my own life, it was taking the risk to leave a career I loved (teaching) to reach for a deeper dependence on God.  I left the security of my teaching position for three part-time jobs (at one point), no health insurance, and a move to a new community where I knew virtually no one.  I had other choices, other more appealing options, chances to reconsider.  I wasn’t being pushed out of teaching–in fact, I left just as my options at the school were opening up for bigger and better things.  Yet I felt compelled to leave.  I had no safety net waiting– I ended up in libraries, but that wasn’t my original plan.  There were many people counseling me to reconsider– and their reasons were compelling.  But as I stood firm, other voices came along to encourage me.  I believe they were sent by God to confirm that this risk was from him and for my good.
  • Don’t trust “that voice in your head”–No, I’m not trying to confuse you or contradict what I just said.  But this is another caveat (see above).  We are told to “test the spirits”, and sometimes, that voice in your head is NOT the Holy Spirit.  In the case I mentioned above, I had to follow all the other principles of discerning God’s will.  In my case, leaving teaching did not violate God’s holiness or come about because I wasn’t willing to follow God’s leading–I wasn’t leaving teaching to try my hand at a get-rich-quick scheme, or because I had lost my desire to work with students, or had lost faith in God’s sovereignty in my life.  God DID use circumstances and people to confirm my decision and help me grow through the experiences that followed.  God used time to help me transition from schools to libraries, and prepare me for other opportunities, including short-term missions trips and marriage.  I can’t even begin to list all the ways I tested and examined what I felt God was leading me to do before I made the leap.  That much testing may not always be necessary, but we need to be careful not to rely on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6), but to Trust in the Lord with all our hearts.  He WILL direct our paths when we do that.

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  • Finally, Pray for it– pray for discernment, for wisdom, for strength to do the right thing!  Won’t God DO IT!

 

What Did You Say?

Every once in a while, I like to check an app that counts the words I use on Facebook.  The end result is a cloud full of words that people see when they read my posts.  (You can see my most recent one above.)

Sometimes, I like the cloud– I love to see it filled with words like Love, People, God, Prayer, Joy, Peace, Thankful, etc.  I’d like to think that this is how I always look and sound.  Of course it isn’t.  I don’t always speak encouragement and love on people.  Sometimes, I complain and rehearse negative self-talk, or I explode and rant about bad drivers, rude customers, constant bills, and more.  Checking on my word count may not keep me from using negative words altogether, but it does show me patterns I may not be seeing or hearing on my own or from my friends.

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My prayer life acts in this same way–especially as I journal about my prayers.  I can look back through my prayer journal, and see patterns in prayer requests, notes, and even answers to prayer.  Sometimes, I see patterns of struggle–desperation, need, frustration.  Sometimes, the pattern is steady; other times it is a roller coaster of ups and downs.

It’s important to spend a little time periodically getting feedback like this.  Why?  Because what we actually say (and pray) may be very different from what we think we have said.  Jesus was very careful about words:

Matthew 12:35-37 English Standard Version (ESV)

35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Mark 10:17-18 English Standard Version (ESV)

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.

Paul is also careful to distinguish between words:

Romans 5:7-8 English Standard Version (ESV)

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

I include the last two examples because they both refer to “Good” people.  I want people to see God’s goodness in me.  But idle or careless words and habits can show up in my thought life, my prayer life, my on-line life, and my face-to-face conversations.  In attempting to show how “good” I am (self-righteousness), or how clever I am (even at someone else’s expense), or how__________________________________ (daring, popular, hard-working…you get the idea) I am, it compromises all that I want my life to say about God, and all that He is waiting to say through me.

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Words matter– whether in praying or blogging or commenting on someone else’s post.  I pray that I am making mine count!

Presumptuous Prayer

The Christian life is often one of paradox–We are “in” the world, but not “of” the world; we “die to the flesh”, even as we continue to breathe and walk and eat in our fleshly bodies.  Prayer is part of that paradox– we dare to present ourselves before the throne of Almighty God, yet we are told to call him “Our Father”, and to come boldly.  We call on one who is unseen, unknowable, and sovereign, and we’re told to ask for anything in Jesus’ name, and it will be done.

This can lead to problems, as we try to resolve the paradox– sometimes we dare too much; other times, we ask too little.  I want to take a peek at how this works, especially as I have a problem with the latter.

Why do I feel it is a presumption to ask God for help?  Why do I ask God to do the least that I might expect from Him, when He offers miracles for the asking?  Why do I wait to bring my requests to God, hoping that I can solve them myself and not “bother” him?  Do I not trust him?  Do I not trust him enough?  Why do I get discouraged when my prayers are not answered “my way?”  Immediately!  When hardship comes, why do I assume that it is an accident–a miscarriage of justice–and call out to God as though he is unaware of my dilemma?

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I think we come to prayer with a few faulty assumptions about God:

  • we believe that God doesn’t know– that he is unaware of our needs or our circumstances, , our sense of urgency, or the depth of our despair; that he will be embarrassed by our lack of obedience or the simplicity of our request
  • we believe that God doesn’t care– we fear that God will be distant, disapproving, or even disdainful; unwilling to help us until we “clean up our act.”  Or we believe that he delights in testing us, watching us struggle, withholding help until we are properly humbled and abject in our obedience.  Perhaps we believe that “God helps those who help themselves,” and therefore, he is waiting for us to work ourselves to the limit before we bother him with our troubles.  We believe that “if God really cared” he would give us what we want, when we want it, and how we want it
  • we believe that God is unable– that we have messed up so badly, even God can’t fix our mistakes; that what we are asking is stretching God to do what is beyond his plan or purpose; that our request is too broad in its scope for God to attend to it
  • we believe that God isn’t really GOD–we have doubts about his existence, his reality, his presence, and his power over all our circumstances

We also come with assumptions about ourselves:

  • we believe that we are unworthy of God’s love, care, time, power, concern, or attention
  • we believe that we are worthy–worthy of special treatment and privileges denied to others because of who we are or what we’ve done; worthy of a life devoid of pain, stress, hardship, or struggle
  • we believe that we know better than God how to meet our needs; we believe that we have all the answers, and God’s job is to do our bidding
  • we believe that coming to God in prayer is a sign of weakness, laziness, or neediness that brands us as “less” than others who live life on “their terms”
  • we believe that our wants and needs are not important; that our dreams and desires must be squashed in order to serve God

If we assume any (or all) of these things, our prayers will swing wildly from wimpy hand-wringing and grudging worship to impatient demands and selfish complaints.

God knows– he sees everything; he knows your very thoughts before you think them!  God cares– he loves each of us with an eternal, limitless love– a perfect love that casts out fear and bids us to draw near to him, but doesn’t spoil us, indulge our selfishness, or set us up for failure.
God is able–just because we don’t see the answer we want in our current situation doesn’t mean that answer isn’t on its way.  Look back at the ways God has been faithful in the past–Can’t He Do It!

We are unworthy–in our own power–but we are also cherished by God, who makes us worthy through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ.  Our privilege of coming to and communing with Almighty God is not a presumption in itself– it is a gift given by him in the moment that the veil was torn from top to bottom in the temple– the very moment Christ fulfilled the law, the barriers were removed, and God made it possible to come into his very presence.
We know only in part, and we see only in part– God sees the whole; the end from the beginning.  He knows what is best, not only for us, but for all of creation.
When we come to God, it is a sign of submission– not weakness.  It is a sign that we recognize God’s right to be God, and our privilege to live and work and commune with him, instead of acting and living in rebellion against him.
Because he knows our every thought, and he loves us completely, he cares about our every need.  When we trust in him– in his goodness, his faithfulness, his timing, and his sovereignty, he doesn’t promise us a life without hardship; but he does promise peace that passes all understanding as we go through those hardships.

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In the end, our faulty assumptions come from making ourselves too big– taking pride in our own worthiness, strength, and intelligence; or exaggerating our faults, mistakes, and unmet expectations– and making God too small to meet our needs or understand our hearts.

God wants us to presume on his Goodness and Might– not on our own wisdom and worthiness.

 

Sowing the Wind

“They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind…”  Hosea 8:7

Hosea was a prophet who foretold the destruction (and eventual restoration) of his people.  God was pouring out his judgment against an unfaithful nation, and he used the tragic family life of Hosea as a living example of his dealings with Israel.  Hosea married a prostitute; an unfaithful and unloving spouse who chased after men with ready money and cheap gifts.  But when her activities resulted in slavery, shame, and despair, Hosea redeemed her and restored her as his wife.  In the same way, God had made a promise to the people of Israel, but they had broken their covenant and followed their own rules, chasing after the surrounding cultures, with their foreign gods and their hedonistic rituals, including human sacrifice, temple prostitutes, and divination.  There are many metaphors used throughout this book, but one that often stands out is the short phrase found in chapter eight.  In it, God is talking about the unfaithful priests and leaders of Israel, who have not only betrayed God in their rebellion and idolatry, but have led others astray.  God says of them that they have sown the wind, and are reaping/will reap the whirlwind.

How does this relate to us today in our pursuit of prayer?

I believe that many of us are sowing the wind– we do it in our careless words, gossip, rumor-mongering, complaining, babbling, prattling, and yes, in our half-hearted obedience, and our tepid prayers.  We often come to God, not eager to commune with him, or to hear his voice, not in humble adoration and open confession, but to complain, wheedle, and boast.  We pay lip service to his Holiness, while refusing to give up that bad habit that “isn’t really all that bad.”  We thank him for his Grace, but harbor resentment against a neighbor or family member who slighted us.  We ask for him to bring us success in our plans and ventures without really making sure if they line up with his will.  We excuse our lack of attendance at church, and our failure to spend time in God’s word.  We make rash promises to do “better” if God just gets us through this week.  We ask for his blessing, and thank him for the riches he has bestowed on us, but we turn our noses at those in our backyard who are in need.  We are bold about posting “Christian” sayings on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram–almost as bold as posting about our favorite new Brew Pub or Spa trip or “almost inappropriate” joke, or latest political rant.  Except that our “Christian” posts are less entertaining and more critical of others.  (They’re usually really pretty, though– pictures of flowers or mountain streams or desert sunsets–it’s really easy to “like” and “share” a sunset!.)  We cheapen the Gospel, we cheapen the Christian walk, we cheapen prayer, when we pursue it as a hobby or a social habit.  It is not something we do only because (or only when)  it makes us feel “good” or “better”– it is something we pursue because it brings us life and peace for eternity, and it brings glory and joy to the King of Kings.

“They sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind…”  There is a price for this shallow, careless pursuit of something that looks and feels vaguely like Godliness.  It is the whirlwind…being tossed about by “every wind of doctrine” as Paul warns against in Ephesians 4.  It is being caught up in doubts and half-truths, compromises, hypocrisy, division, scandal, and shame.  It is having to face the onslaught of detractors and persecution that come as a result of so many of us abusing and misrepresenting the very Gospel of the one whose name we carry.   “Oh, what peace we often forfeit; Oh, what needless pain we bear; All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”  The words of that old hymn are no less true today– when we trifle with prayer, carrying only our selfish needs, our petty complaints, and our flimsy agendas to God in prayer, we pay a huge price.

There is another metaphor, this one in the Gospel of John, that I think helps us combat this tendency to “sow the wind”–  Jesus says of himself in John 15 that he is the vine, and we are the branches.  If we are faithful, we remain in him– we draw our life and strength from him– and we are fruitful.  Remaining in him, we are grounded– he provides the roots that keep us from blowing every which way.  And he provides the nourishment, and strength to grow and produce more fruit.

I say “we” because I too am guilty of having sown the wind.  The great news, in Hosea and in the Gospel of John, is that God is eager to restore us– to graft us in–to welcome us home after our storm-tossed wanderings.  Let’s get serious about abiding in God, instead of scattering the latest “feel-good” religious spam.  God, forgive me for the times I have cheapened your precious gift of prayer.  Help me to abide in you, and refrain from careless words to you, about you, and about others.

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Positioning for Prayer

Bow, kneel, stand; hands folded, hands raised, hands clasped–there are many positions we assume when praying.  And different types of prayer seem to have different positions.  We tend to say grace seated or standing behind our chair at the table.  Some families hold hands; others bow their heads and fold their hands.  Some corporate prayers call for kneeling; others are said standing.  Some people bow, some kneel on the floor with arms outstretched; some curl up in their favorite easy chair; some face east or toward a certain focal point; some touch or hold an object, like a rosary or a Bible, or the wall or surface of a sacred place.  Some pray with eyes closed; others with eyes raised toward Heaven.

Does any of this posturing and positioning really matter?  Does God have a preference?  A requirement?  Does He get offended if I stand, or keep my eyes open or neglect to hold my hands a certain way?

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The answer is not as easy as one might think–The Bible has many specific accounts of prayer, as well as many commands and guidelines.  Hebrew priests stood with hands raised to pronounce blessing and to seek God’s favor.  King David’s psalms are poetic prayers.  They don’t often describe a position of standing or kneeling, but many of them imply a position of lying down, pacing, clapping, shouting, climbing, etc.  Jesus often prayed alone, and spoke of praying privately– in corners and closets away from prying eyes and listening ears.  On the night of the Last Supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Bible describes Jesus as praying while “looking toward Heaven” (John 17:1), and later, “he fell with his face to the ground and prayed.” (Matthew 26: 39)

All this indicates that positions matter in relation to the function or the nature of the prayer.  And that’s where I want to focus my thoughts today.

God isn’t displeased if I stand to pray, rather than kneel–unless I am standing in pride and arrogance.  He is pleased if I kneel in humble and contrite spirit, but not if I kneel out of false humility or to impress others with my self-righteous posturing.  If I bow my head at the table out of habit, and forget who I am supposed to be talking to, or “pretend” to kneel instead of leaving the comfort of my chair– then I may need to take a new position; a new attitude of prayer.

kneelprayer

God isn’t impressed with our physical position in prayer– but I believe he wants our whole self, our undivided attention and our physical and emotional expression and attitude.  Sometimes, the physical position comes as a natural extension of our grief, our joy, our reverence, and our stillness before His throne.  Other times, our physical position brings us out of our pride, our busyness, and prepares our heart attitude.

I have had moments–even days– when I was not naturally motivated to quiet my spirit, bow my head or my heart, and kneel before my Maker.  But in kneeling, and bowing my head, and closing my eyes, I was positioning more than just my body.  I was coming in obedience to the one– the only one– who can transform my mind, renew my spirit, and soothe my restless heart.  Other times, I could not kneel for the joy and exuberance of the moment.  Standing on tiptoe, hands raised, head raised, and heart raised, I sang out to my Father in gratitude and awe.

So the answer to the question– Does our position in prayer matter?– would seem to be, “no.”  What matters is our attitude. God is not impressed or fooled by an outward show–he is concerned with our heart’s desire to be close to him. There is, however, one position that is pivotal in the pursuit of prayer.  That is the position of Faith.  In Hebrews, we are told that “without Faith, it is impossible to please God, for whoever comes to him must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him..”(Hebrews 11:6)  Jesus spoke of faith that can move mountains, even if it is the size of a mustard seed.  Whether kneeling or standing, grieving or rejoicing, our prayers must be accompanied by faith– faith that God exists; that he is loving and gracious and all-powerful to save; faith that our “position” in him is one of reconciliation and renewed life through his grace and the finished work of Jesus Christ; faith that he will hear our prayers and answer according to his will; faith that his will is altogether good and perfect– even when we don’t understand it in the here and now.

One final thought–though the Bible does not specifically require that we kneel to pray as we pursue a relationship with him, it does declare that one day, “at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Philippians 10-11a).  I can practice kneeling in this life, knowing that it won’t go to waste!

Pray For Me, Not About Me

Gossip and judgment are nasty habits– what happens when they creep into our prayer life?

I’ve sometimes struggled with the idea of praying for those who have hurt me or mistreated those I love.  We are commanded to do it, but often, I am tempted to pray about my enemies instead of praying for them.  As if God didn’t know what they had done; as if he needed me to alert him to their bad behavior, and remind him of how I was slighted, misunderstood, or powerless to bring justice to my friend or family member who was wronged.  I want to tell God how to treat them– how to punish them, or abase them, or bring them to feel remorse.  I want to hang on to the indignation and sense of victimhood–after all, God is going to make it right in the end, vindicating me and humiliating them, right?  Except that’s not how it works in God’s economy…My vindication does not come at their expense, but through the blood of the truly innocent Lamb of God.  Let that sink in.  God is not in the business of torturing others to make himself feel more righteous.  If I want to follow Christ, my actions, and my prayers, should be full of his Grace, not my bitterness.

I am not alone in this– and I’m sure I have been “prayed about” often enough.  Even saints and matriarchs of old have done it.  And King David was guilty of it as well–several of the Psalms include angry, even vicious rants against David’s enemies.  It’s understandable; it’s only natural for us to feel indignant, angry, and hurt in the face of injustice, unkindness, hatred, and abuse.  And it’s not inappropriate for us to cry out for justice, or pour out our hurt and frustration. But it is wrong to stand in judgment and unforgiveness when we come before the throne of Heaven.

gossip

I believe that these are the difficult prayers that teach us to know God better– as well as ourselves.  To pray for those who have hurt us means that we must move beyond what they have done– not to deny it, or to excuse or forget about it, but to give it over to God –and deal with who they are.  They are lost exactly as we are lost, but for the grace of God.  They are redeemable, not because they can undo or atone for what has happened, but because God says that whosoever trusts in Him can be saved.  They are precious in God’s sight.  When we stop focusing on who hurt us, and how, we can instead focus on who heals us, and how he wants to heal others.

These prayers also serve to remind us that our true “enemies” are not the people who say or do unkind or even wicked things.  Our true enemies are not the ones who can hurt our feelings, or even our minds or bodies.  Our true enemies are the ones who would steal our souls– who tempt us to hold on to rage and despair, to hopelessness and doubt, to bitterness and shame.

It is so easy to write these words, and to “know” the right thing to do.  But it is a painful, heartbreaking, humbling, stumbling uphill climb to DO the right thing.  I still catch myself so often praying about certain people, instead of praying for them.  God knows my heart–he knows if my prayer is sincere.  And, as I struggle, I am reminded that the change I would wish to see in someone else mirrors the change I should wish to see in me  The same Grace that God sends to heal and comfort me is the same Grace he offers to everyone who will take it–even when they choose not to accept it.

So I hope I am learning to pray for those who sneer at me; those who lash out in their own pain, anger, or thoughtlessness.  To pray for their health and safety, their well-being, and their wholeness. For their sake–for the sake of the One who loves them eternally.  And in the hope that healing and restoration will triumph over what lies in the past.

Prayer Brings Peace

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my soul;
When sorrows, like sea-billows roll–
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
‘It is well–it is well– with my soul.'”

As I write this, all is not well with my life.  I have bills looming, a car that keeps breaking down, a leaky roof, and I’m fighting to stay healthy.  I worry about unhappy customers at work, my husband as he travels and faces danger on the job, about our aging and widowed mothers, and our kids and grandkids.  All is not well with our nation– we have anger, division, violence, and strife; a breakdown of families, moral decay, and corruption.  All is not well with our world–nations are at war, we are destroying our environment, and all the progress that was supposed to make our lives easier seems to have made life more complicated and frantic, instead.

But all is well with my soul–not because of anything I have done or anything I do– peace and assurance are mine solely through the grace of God, which he gives in abundance.

Prayer does not bring peace automatically, nor does its haphazard and occasional practice guarantee instant or lasting peace.  Meditation, solitude, and other prayer-like exercises may bring a temporary calm, a respite, and a relief.  Closing our eyes and laying our burdens at his feet can bring the same feeling.  But prayer is more than just an exercise in making us feel better.  It isn’t meant to take us away from our circumstances, or to hand them off to God while we waltz away from our burdens.  Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Coming to God in prayer doesn’t make burdens disappear.  But it does mean that we no longer carry them alone, and that gives us rest for our souls.  God is not in the business of making our lives easy, carefree, and comfortable.  But he promises that as we share our lives with him, trusting that his ways are good and righteous, he will not only come alongside and share our burden, he will teach us and give us rest.

This is why the pursuit of prayer is so important.  The discipline of daily and personal prayer teaches us how and where to find peace that lasts– peace that “passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:6-7).  Like the cool, refreshing water of a river soothes and gives life, so God’s grace flows into our lives as we walk and talk with him every day.

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