Welcome to the year 2020! The next 366 days stretch before us– new, unknown, and ready to be discovered, experienced, LIVED!
It is tempting to make bold plans, resolutions, or vague wishes for all the days at once– trying to fold the entire year into a single goal or set of goals. But is this consistent with Biblical principles?
Today, I want to pray, as Jesus did, that God would “give us THIS DAY our daily bread”– that I would walk and talk with my Savior each day, each moment as it comes. That doesn’t mean that I make no plans or goals for the future; rather, I keep things in a proper perspective. God knows the future much better than I do. I know where I am and where I’ve been (hopefully!), but only God knows everything that lies ahead. My job is not to dream about the finish line, but to continue running the race– step by step and moving forward, my eyes fixed on Jesus:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Life is like a long race; it’s also like a story. As we enter a new year, we can look around and see where the story has brought us. Some of us are in crisis. Some of us have just defeated a giant, or survived a trip down the raging rapids. Some of us are headed for disaster, or about to head into battle. Some of us are caught in a trap and we can’t see any hope of rescue.
I can’t change the race course I must face in the coming year. Nor can I change the story I’ve lived so far– I can’t change anyone else’s. But I know this– the next unwritten chapter is in God’s expert hands. God, the author of miracles and second chances. God, who turns shepherd boys into heroic kings; God, who transforms prostitutes into saints; God, who sends Himself naked and shivering into His rebellious creation knowing He will suffer and die at the hands of those He loved into being, and knowing that this death is not the end, but a glorious beginning! This God has a triumphant and joyous ending in store for me– for you!
God has given us the amazing story of our lives–and the next chapter is here. God also gives us the amazing opportunity to write the next chapter. He will guide us through the process– bring in new characters and plot twists, or send us to new places through unexpected channels–but we have the power to choose the next step. Today and every day.
My prayer for this new year is a prayer for this new day. Tomorrow, I get the gift of taking the next step; of writing the next sentence!
In this blog, I try to focus on three basic aspects of prayer:
The purpose of prayer
The power of prayer and
The practical pursuit of prayer.
Today, I’d like to just put in a plug for journals as a very practical way to pursue a better prayer life. For a more detailed list of ideas to get started, please see this page: Prayer Journal
Journals are as individual as the people who create them, but the very practice of writing and keeping a journal has certain universal benefits.
It develops discipline. Prayer should be a daily practice, but having a journal can provide structure, accountability, and motivation. Writing down requests, answers to prayer, questions I want to bring before God, even feelings or events of the day, can help establish a routine and a reason to come back to the same place (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) each day.
It serves as a focus for each day’s prayers. There are times when prayer is difficult–maybe the stresses of the day are distracting; maybe I just can’t think how to begin because there are so many thoughts running through my head or needs that I want to bring up. If I begin with items in my journal, and add others to a list, it can be easier to bring order, focus, and steadiness.
It serves as a witness and testimony. One of the values of writing things down is that it gives me a chance to look back and review. Sitting down every few weeks or months can reveal how many times God has answered prayers that I’ve already forgotten about. It can also show how my ongoing prayers for certain situations may reveal changes God has made in my own heart and my own thinking, which sometimes helps me see why God didn’t “answer” my prayer when or how I imagined.
It serves as a reminder of God’s general faithfulness. In times of doubt or pain, it can be encouraging to see and remember how God has helped or healed so many others around me. Even if it brings up questions, like “Why did you heal that person, and not me”, in the end, there are mountains of examples of God’s care and faithfulness that allow me to see that He works “All things” together for good. All of which can be written in and added to the journal as a further reminder!
It serves as a reminder of God’s specific faithfulness. If I look at the list of people and situations in the past and present, I am often overwhelmed at the amount of love that God has showered on me in the form of friends, family, opportunities to meet and be inspired, or share and give kindness. In big ways and small ways, God has brought in and through my life miracles, amazement, and blessings– so very many. It is tragic that I can so easily dismiss such blessings, or be distracted by the same worries and fears that God has brought me through in the past. The journal sparks powerful memories of God’s enduring love for each one of us.
It convicts. As I mentioned above, it is tragic to think that I can so easily be dissuaded and discouraged by present troubles, when there is so much clear evidence of God’s faithfulness in the past. But the journal can also show times when I have been unfaithful or lacking in faith. This is important, not to beat myself up or become despondent, but to turn me back from such behavior and help me get back on track.
It inspires. As mentioned above, each person’s journal is unique and personal. God has given each of us passions and interests that can be brought into our prayer journal. If I have a heart for missions, I can include prayer requests from missionaries of my acquaintance, or from web sites. I can research cities and nations and people groups being reached by missions organizations. If I have a passion for art, I can include drawings and sketches that flow out of my worship time. My journal (and yours) can be filled with unique expressions of our heart for God– our deepest questions, hopes, worries, aspirations, and worship.
If you don’t already keep a prayer journal, I hope you will consider starting one. It’s never too late or “the wrong time” to start one, and it can be as personalized as you wish– keep a notebook, a sketch pad, index cards, a electronic journal, a calendar– whatever works best for your resources, your personality, and your needs.
Words have weight– I’m not talking about thousand-page novels or multi-syllable legalese terms– some words simply weigh heavier on the mind and heart than others. Some everyday words spill out like dust motes carried on a light breeze. They hang suspended in midair, without any set purpose or destination, and finally settle, forgotten, until someone sweeps them away. Other words explode, sending shards and pellets at unwary targets. Some words thunder like falling rocks in an avalanche of guilt or anger or hatred. And some rare and precious words have the weight of a quilt or a hug, or an arm lifting you up when you are falling.
One of the amazing things about prayer is that as we pour out our words before the Savior, the weight of our words is lifted off our hearts and minds and given to him to carry– the weight of the guilt, the weight of worry, the weight of grief, the weight of anger, the weight of hurt. Not only does God take on the weight of our words (and our pain and guilt), but he makes sense of it all– maybe not instantly, or in the way we imagine– but he brings order and goodness out of our chaos and burden.
And those everyday words swirling around like dust fall into the light, where they shine like gold dust in His presence. When we bring everything to God, he transforms it; he transforms us.
Our words have weight in prayer. And our words to others have weight, as well. Today, I want to weigh my words carefully. Are my words burdening others, or helping them lift a load of care? If I had to carry the weight of my words– my criticisms and clever put-downs, my accusations and angry tantrums, my bragging and comparisons– would I be dragging them behind me with joy and pride? What if, instead, my words were filled with the weight of shared laughter, encouragement, hope, and compassion? What if my words held the weight of truth and kindness and peace?
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.
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!
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.
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.
Our church held a hymn-sing and ice cream social last Sunday. It was an informal evening service, but we heard testimony of the power of hymns to shape our worship, and to help us remember scripture’s promises. We also had the chance to just “call out” a favorite hymn to sing together. We probably sang 15 or 20 hymns that night, and each one had special meaning to many in the congregation. We treasure certain songs, certain verses, certain stories– they feed our soul, encourage our heart, steel our thoughts, and pour balm on our wounds.
One hymn we didn’t sing the other night, though it is a favorite of many, was “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Sweet Hour of Prayer– lyrics and much more here In getting ready to post for today, I thought about this hymn. We treasure the thought of prayer being sweet and bringing relief, but do we treasure prayer enough to spend an hour or more at it? If I add up the time spent in morning prayers of devotion, grace at mealtime, evening prayers, and “quick thoughts to heaven” throughout the day, it probably adds up to an hour…but I spend more time writing about prayer each day than I actually spend practicing it. And when was the last time I got so caught up in prayer that I lost track of time and spent over an hour at it in one sitting?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned that we should not lay up treasures for ourselves on earth, but to store up treasures in heaven, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21 KJV) This is true of our material treasures, but also our spiritual treasures, our thought treasures, and our time. When I hear “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” one of my first thoughts is always, “That would be nice, but I don’t have an hour to spend praying– I’d never get anything done!” But would I have said that about watching my favorite TV show? Spending an hour on Facebook or shopping at my favorite store?
God is beyond time– he’s not counting the hours, minutes or moments we spend with Him. But he feels our absence and our distraction just the same. He isn’t trying to pull us away from important things to waste our time– he wants to pull us away from the things that weigh us down, worry us, haunt us, and eat up the precious time He has given us.
I have found that when I feel “too busy” to spend time with Jesus, it’s a good time to pause and make time for prayer. When I do (and it’s not as often as I should), three things happen:
I want more! That time refreshes me, calms my spirit, and removes the burden of worries, failures, and frustrations.
I accomplish more–maybe it’s a case of God re-ordering my other priorities; maybe he just gives me the power to work more efficiently; maybe it’s a miracle–but I find that the “time crunch” I worried about seems to melt away.
Jesus becomes “more” to me– I grow closer to Him, and closer to the person He created me to be.
There is an old comedy/vaudeville gag, where a character enters a stately home, or an office, or arrives at an important event. They are greeted by a “straight man” character, who tells them to “walk this way”. The “straight man” then turns and begins walking in a manner that uses exaggerated mannerisms. The comedic character doesn’t just follow in the general direction of the other character– s/he imitates the exaggerated mannerisms as well.
In the last of three prayers from the song, “Day by Day” (see last Friday and Saturday), I want to explore how to “follow Thee more nearly.”
I have this quibble with the song lyrics– I know that “nearly” rhymes with “clearly” and “dearly”, but it is not grammatically correct, as it implies that I almost, not quite, but nearly want to follow Jesus, instead of saying that I want to follow Him more closely, or become a better reflection of His character. That said, I sometimes think that I fall into the comedic trap of thinking that “walk this way” merely means following Christ with exaggerated mannerisms– I follow “more nearly” when I should be following more closely.
Years ago, a good friend of mine suggested that I read a book called “God On a Harley” (Review and summary here) It is a fable, and an interesting read. I don’t recommend it for theological content (the Christ it presents is more of a New-Age life coach, not a Messiah), but I’m glad I read it for two reasons: It challenged my conventional view of Jesus, and it challenged the way I thought about discipleship. At the time I was reading the book, I was also considering making some big changes in my life– changing careers, moving away from my home town, and trusting God to be “sufficient” in my singleness and lack of guaranteed income.
When we talk or think about Jesus’ time on Earth, we generally focus on His birth, His miracles, His death, and His resurrection. We don’t usually think of His everyday life…where He ate or slept or how He lived. If He were to walk among us today, He wouldn’t appear like the paintings we see– flowing long blond hair (which has always been inaccurate), white robe and sandals. He might wear a T-shirt and jeans, ride the bus or subway train, and hang out at Starbucks or the corner convenience store. Jesus didn’t live in a “holy huddle.” And, though He famously walked on water, He mostly walked the streets. He lived and walked and ate and spent His days among ordinary people–in fact, it was His willingness to eat with and talk to the marginalized, the forgotten, the ostracized people of Him time, that got Him in trouble with the religious leaders and those in power.
I don’t think Jesus in our time would be a tattooed, beer swilling, biker– but I’m convinced that He would be found sharing a story or a pizza with one; and with the kinds of people many of His “followers” would shun. The Jesus I want to follow “more nearly” is Holy, but He is not “Holier-than-thou.” I can’t follow Jesus more nearly if I’m following an image that only exists in a picture or my self-righteous imagination. In my youth, I had a picture of what “following Christ” looked like– but it was more about following expectations and selfish desires– successful career, marriage, giving to the “right” charities, becoming a pillar of the community. There is nothing wrong with any of those things, but if God calls me to serve in humble (even humiliating) ways, doing thankless tasks, and spending time, not helping the needy at my convenience, but truly serving– pouring out my time and my heart until only His strength keeps me going–I have learned the joy and honor that transcends anything I once imagined.
I’m not a biker, but I love the image of Jesus on a motorcycle, asking me to come along for a ride. If I want to follow Him “more nearly,” I couldn’t come up with a better metaphor. If Jesus came and asked me to ride off with Him on a Harley, several things would happen that relate to discipleship:
First, I have to commit. You can’t “sort of” ride along — you either get on the bike or you stay behind. You might know all about the motor, you might know how to ride, you might know the traffic laws, you might even watch a video of someone riding, but you won’t experience the horsepower under you, the wind in your face, the road slipping away behind you. The same is true of the Christian life. You can know about God; own a Bible– even memorize it; you can sing God’s praises, all without experiencing a relationship with Him. But you’ll never know the full power of His grace and acceptance until you commit.
Part of that commitment is to be willing to go when and where He’s going…you can’t go on the ride and stay at home. You can’t go two hours after He does. And that brings me to–
Trust! You won’t get on the bike if you don’t trust His ability to drive and His wisdom in knowing how and where to go. Once you’re on the bike, hanging on from behind, you can’t see all of the road ahead. You can’t steer or hit the brakes. In my own experience, I ended up leaving teaching after seven years with no “safety net.” I had no job waiting in the wings, no money saved up, and no “plan” other than to take whatever honest work I could find and follow God’s leading. I learned by experience that I can trust God’s ways to be better than mine; better than my expectations!
Riding together takes teamwork. Just because God is doing the driving and steering doesn’t mean that I just sit back and watch the scenery (though I can do a lot of that, too). If I’m not paying attention at curves, intersections, stops, turns, etc., I can throw everything off-balance.
Riding together, with my arms wrapped around Him is the closest I can “follow” Jesus. It’s not about what I know, or what I can “do” for God– it’s choosing to be in a deepening relationship with Him. As I live with Him, listen to Him, and trust Him, the knowing and doing will come naturally.
I want to follow with abandon– not just to walk several steps behind, or wander in His general direction, or watch what He’s doing from a distance. I want to hang on and share the adventure. That’s the way I want to “walk” with Him. That’s my prayer, “Day by Day.”
How can I love Jesus more than I already do? If I can love him more, does that mean that I don’t love Him enough? That I don’t really love Him as much as I think I do? That I love Him the wrong way? How can I “love thee more dearly…day by day”
I want to explore the second prayer in the folk rock song “Day by Day” from the musical “Godspell” (see yesterday’s post). When I write about pursuing prayer, this is a major focus of the pursuit– to develop my love for Jesus. But there’s more to it than just spending more time, or even “better” time in prayer.
I love my husband, and that love grows over the years– not because we are in an eternal “honeymoon” period, where life is rosy and all I know about him is the wonderful image I’ve built up–but because in living with him, working with him, even struggling with him, I learn to value who he really is. I learn about qualities I never knew he had. I learn to trust him and respect his judgment; I learn about the deepest part of his heart that he only shares with those closest to him. And even though I learn about his faults, I see him desiring to be the best that he can be. In his turn, my husband does the same with me– learning my strengths and weaknesses. Together we learn how to work together to strengthen and support each other. We even learn how to argue better!
But we all know marriages (and no marriage is immune) where doubt, distrust, disdain, and despair creep in. The very qualities that attracted us in the beginning become sore spots that tear us apart. The joy is swallowed up in little hurts that go unresolved; little misunderstandings that grow into lengthy silences and slammed doors. Struggles that should bring us together cause us to run to separate corners. Our feelings change, our hopes are dashed, and our relationship crumbles
Relationships require trust–if I say that I love God, but I don’t trust Him, I’m not being honest with myself. If I pray to Him, but I don’t really think He’s listening; if I read His word, but make excuses for my continued disobedience–I don’t really love Him. I may idolize Him, even worship Him. But I don’t really love Him.
Unlike a marriage partner, family member, or close friend, God’s love for us never changes. We never have to pray that Jesus should love US more dearly. It’s impossible. The same love that spoke the universe into being and designed you to be the awesome and unique person you are, is the same love that stretched out his arms so they could be nailed to the cross– the same love that calls out to you no matter what you’ve done or who you are and offers you peace, joy, and rest. Loving Jesus isn’t a matter of measuring how I feel about Him from day to day, but spending each day learning to know Him better for who He is and not just what He has done or what He can do for me. The prayer should be for me to really learn better how to honor Him, how to trust Him, how to obey Him, praise Him, listen to Him, and walk close to him.