Prayer & Prayers

Last week I mentioned a sharp distinction between hope and hopes. This week, an important line might also be drawn between prayer and prayers.

To quote David Steindl-Rast:

Sooner or later we discover that prayers are not always prayer. That is a pity. But the other half of that insight is that prayer often happens without prayers. And that should cheer us up. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to distinguish between prayer and prayers. At least if we want to do what Scripture tells us to do and “pray continually” (Luke 18:1) we must distinguish praying from saying prayers. (Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer: 40-41)

WateringI have often defined prayer simply as “attentiveness to God.” It describes a posture of the heart, not simply words spoken by the lips. Some of us find our minds irretrievably distracted during set times for prayer (and prayers) only to find ourselves caught up in wonder and in the Presence of God while watering the garden or watching a child. This is the distinction that Steindl-Rast makes between prayer and prayers.

The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but they are not necessarily the same.

Yet, many of us measure our piety by the minutes or hours “spent in prayer.” By that, we mean the time we spend working through lists of needs or talking to God. But “prayer without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5: 17) cannot be measured with a clock. It’s descriptive of a heart.

Our quiet moments before God and with God, silent and still, listening and waiting, enjoying and delighting, thoughtful and attentive…are prayer in every truest (and biblical) sense of the word.

Prayer is first and foremost a Presence word, not a ritual. How often have we bowed our heads and closed our eyes while others addressed God, with barely an awareness of either Him or the words until Amen gets pronounced? Then there are those moments when our souls are full and well (despite trials or suffering) because we are profoundly aware that we are not alone. Not a word has been spoken.

It’s harder to teach Presence. Yet, the church throughout history, in small pockets of faithful believers, has always urged Christ-followers to “practice the Presence of Christ.” This is the practice of prayer.

May you experience the best of prayer and prayers this week, not for the purpose of personal piety but because His Presence produces the profound peace for which our hearts truly yearn.

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Hope & Hopes

It’s been three months since I posted — my usual summer hiatus — and it’s been a rich time to read, reflect, and recharge.

HopeThis past Wednesday however, a colleague of mine (Dr. Rex Gurney) shared some insights from David Steindl-Rast. It struck a chord with me and might be worth sharing with you, though I’m sure I am butchering his original intent. My apologies.

Most of us (certainly I) have tended to lump hope into a single category. If I have hopes, then I am hope-filled and hopeful and have hope.

As a young man I had hopes that I’d one day marry and have a family. I had hopes that I’d be able to pastor a church that wouldn’t run me out of town. I had hopes that my kids would grow up and be responsible, thoughtful, Christ-following adults. I had hopes that I’d grow old and not suffer too greatly along the way. Hopes. Lots of hopes.

But what happens when those hopes don’t materialize? What happens when our hopes fail? How do we respond when a marriage partner doesn’t materialize (or leaves)? When the kids struggle (or we can’t have kids)? When the work or ministry dreams evaporate?

That’s when we discover (or need) pure hope. When our usual (temporal) hopes are all stripped away, what hope really sustains us?

When we release our hopes we eventually discover pure hope in what’s left. It is the relinquishment of our dreams that gives birth to certainty and true confidence. It is the release of fantasy that gives us the greatest and most magnificent foundation for reality.

Ultimately, it’s not vision but confidence, that sustains us. Wishful thinking, however noble and well-meaning, does not give us authentic and lasting strength. But pure hope — pure hope — is grounded in faith and secures us in the unshakable love of God.

In the same way that beliefs do not lead to faith, so hopes do not lead to hope. On the contrary, real faith (trust) births and clarifies meaningful beliefs, just as hope gives shape to appropriate hopes.

As followers of Christ, we are called to live in hope, not hopes, though the world around us would have us settle for so much less. What hopes have hindered or undermined your pure hope?

This is not merely a play on words; it’s a paradigm shift that could change our lives.

“Now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)


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Outside the Dance Hall

As we head into Memorial Day weekend here in the United States, it seems appropriate to re-tell a story I heard from a local area pastor about his family.

Returned servicemenHis grandfather had served in World War II. When he returned home he had quite an adjustment to make.

Many servicemen would go to the local Dance Halls for social connection, and on one occasion he found himself heading there too. As he approached, he noticed a young woman sitting on the steps outside, crying. He walked over to her and asked, “Are you alone? What’s the matter? Why are you crying?”

“Oh, I’m not alone,” she said, as she lifted her ring-finger for him to see. “I’m engaged to be married, but my fiance is inside dancing with other women and flirting with them.”

He looked at her and said, “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to take that ring off. And you’re going to go inside and hand it back to him, and tell him, ‘There’s a guy outside who’s going to marry me.'”

And she did!

Three weeks later they were married and they remained married for 65 years until death parted them less than a decade ago.

It’s a wonderful story (and just a little shocking) of love and romance.

Christ has done the same for us.

At some point, we all sit outside the Dance Hall wondering if anyone will love us truly, faithfully, and eternally. We all feel rejected, alone, and insecure at some point. And Christ comes to us. He invites us to let go of the dreams and the hopes that once held us, and pursue an entirely new life (and an entirely abundant life) with Him.

And everyday thereafter (even today) we are invited to say “Yes” again to Him. He invites us softly and tenderly to a lifetime and a life-pursuit to know Him more.

Two millennia ago, the Apostle Paul was captured by this profound love of Christ (see Romans 8:35-39), and resolved that his real life-mission would be “to gain Christ…to be found in Him…and to know Him” (Philippians 3:8, 9, 10). Whatever we sense to be our calling from God or our mission in His Kingdom, nothing surpasses this; to know more fully and more deeply the One who meets us outside the Dance Hall and invites us to an eternal marriage.

He wipes away our tears.

Pause, even now, and say “Yes” again to Him.

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Memory and Vision

Dave Stone tells the story of a woman facing delicate brain surgery. The surgeon called her in and indicated the risk involved. On the one hand, she might lose her memory. On the other hand, she might lose her sight. All would likely be well, but if she were to lose one or the other, which would she choose? After a day of prayer and contemplation, she concluded she’d rather lose her memory. “I’d rather see where I’m going than remember where I’ve been.”

MemoryDave uses this touching story to illustrate the importance of vision – a dream and a preferred future – over memory. “Death comes when our memory of the past is greater than our vision of the future.”

But our ready abandonment of memory and our preference for vision, innovation, relevance, and growth comes at a cost.

The rise of the non-denominational church has both strengths and weaknesses. On the positive, it breaks free of bureaucratic, power-based, and often divisive structures. On the other hand, it is a church unmoored; with neither roots nor history.

Memory of the past, when it locks us into the past, can certainly create unhealthy and unhelpful wistfulness. Consider Israel in the wilderness, complaining that they missed garlic and leeks (and slavery) in Egypt! But we live most fully when memories inform the present.

Without memories, relationships remain shallow. Depth of friendship depends on increasingly shared experiences (which we remember). Faith itself depends on “remembering what the Lord has done” so that we can hold fast to Him. Loss of memory would, in fact, produce loss of faith and loss of connection. It undermines community, cohesion, and connection.

Vision without memory is nothing but the perpetual pursuit of a new experience. It loses its way. It rings hollow.

We need both.

The disdain that some have for the past is actually a pathway to loss not progress. Families without stories are families without intimacy. Trust itself is the fruit of past experiences.

Let’s learn to honor the past – learn from it, celebrate it, re-tell it – while we also lean into the future with hope and an open hand. If we deny either one (memory or vision), we’ll experience less than Christ intended; in marriages, families, friendships, and churches.

As a leader, parent, marriage partner, or friend, how’s your memory … and your vision?

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Forget the Balanced Life

We hear it all the time; “If you want the good life, get a balanced life.”

BalanceSomehow we have come to believe that the underlying problem for many of us is too much of one thing (work, school, church) and not enough of another (family, play, travel). We’d be happier if we could just do a little of this, a little of that, and not too much of any one thing.

Let’s forget the balanced life. It’s a myth. It doesn’t exist.

It assumes that everything in life is static and should be measured by hours. Is eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, and eight hours of friends, family, or relaxation the balanced life?

Life is not like that. And we know it.

People suffer unexpected injuries and develop unplanned sicknesses. Financial pressures force lifestyle changes. Employment demands can be unpredictable. Anyone who has raised kids knows that there’s nothing routine about parenting. Serving others is messy. Other people’s lives don’t line up neatly with our own…and we don’t line up neatly with anyone else.

Even the discussion of the balanced life is perhaps the luxury of the affluent. Ask the destitute and homeless of our inner cities, the refugees from Syria, the starving families in Sudan, the war-afflicted villages in West Africa, or the poor in India about the balanced life. It’ll make no sense.

So where does abundance and joy lie, if not in balance? It lies not in balance but in Presence. God’s Presence.

Nehemiah reminded the broken and grieved people of Israel that “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

It’s not the ordering of our hours but the orientation of our hearts that leads to flourishing.

We want to believe that we’ll thrive when we can work a 38-hour week and play hard on weekends. Or find more time with the kids. Or get a few more hours of sleep (which can’t hurt). But for all the talk, this balance feels elusive. It’s like holding slippery soap. Just when we think we have a grip, it slips away from us.

Let’s lay aside the balanced life, and lean into the obedient life; the life deeply committed to Christ, aligned with His will, and responsive to His leading. Perhaps the real dilemma we face is not so much better time-management as greater surrender, and deeper sensitivity to the Presence of Christ.

How might we embrace His Presence more today?

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Journey with Jonah – #7

Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work, and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know the difference between their right and left hand?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

JonahAnd so finishes the story of Jonah.

The story finishes with a provocative and confronting question. Like so many biblical stories — even many of Jesus’ stories — it leaves us hanging. Suddenly we realize that this is less about an ancient prophet named Jonah, and more about us. As we wonder how Jonah might have answered the question, we discover that the story is asking us to answer the question for ourselves.

We live in a strange time. We’ll save the whale while we exploit women and children. We’ll argue about global warming and environmental concerns while we remain silent about injustice and global slavery. We’ll spend lavishly on our pets but not sponsor a destitute child trapped in poverty.

The spirit of Jonah pervades our day.

When did we become so dispassionate about suffering, so distracted by secondary concerns, and so distorted in our values? Of course I’m not describing everyone. Generosity oozes from the pores of so many people, but we live in culture that still places higher value on political reform than protection of the unborn.

The story of Jonah includes him running from God (chapter 1), running to God (chapter 2), and running with God (chapter 3). It finishes with the consequences of running ahead of God (chapter 4). When we begin to tell God what matters most in life, self-interest and distorted perspectives always take over. We devalue life and join the Darwinian quest; survival of the fittest.

The Gospel delivers us from this myopia. It confronts our hardened hearts. If Christ died not just for the 120,000 of ancient Nineveh but for the millions of our own day too “who do not know the difference between their right and left hand”, ought we not extend the same grace and compassion? More than ignorance, the Ninevites were enemies of the nation of Israel. Yet God did a work of revival among them. What He did once, He can do again.

Do we love people, even those who identify as our adversaries, more than we love our plants and pets? Christ did … and does. Jonah had to answer the question, and so must we.

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Journey with Jonah – #6

“But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.” (Jonah 4:1-3)

JonahAngry enough to want to die?

Jonah was not the first servant of God to say “Kill me now!” Samson said it at one point (Judges 16:30); so did Elijah (1 Kings 19:4). Since then, tens of thousands of pastors have probably had similar moments on Mondays!

Jonah hits a low point, and will hit it again (Jonah 4:8) before the story ends. And the reason? God was simply too gracious and too compassionate.

Jonah wanted to watch fire and brimstone rain down from heaven and annihilate the Ninevites. Instead, God turned their hearts toward Himself, and spared them. Jonah cannot bear it. His personal sense of justice felt violated. And so he points his finger at God and says, “I told you so. I told you that if I came and preached that they would turn to You, and You would spare them. That’s why I headed for Tarshish. I’m so angry with You that I’d rather die than live to watch this!” (Jonah 4:2)

Revival breaks out, and Jonah cannot rejoice.

I remember a conversation in a church one time when we discussed how we would “manage” any outbreak of the Spirit during or after a service. “All things should be done with decency and in order.” We weren’t angry, but people felt fearful.

Another time, someone off the streets wandered into a service and said yes to Jesus when an invitation was given, and people felt awkward and uncomfortable and quietly hoped it wouldn’t happen too often.

Historically, revival has always been messy. People’s lives get turned upside down. Strange phenomena take place. Charlatans and spiritual salesmen show up. The real and the fake get mixed up.

Nineveh turned to God, and Jonah turned away from God. After a short stint of running with God, Jonah now ran ahead of God. He wanted to tell God how it should be and exactly what should be done. He had the plan, he knew what should happen, and he wouldn’t be happy unless God followed the script precisely.

This last chapter in the short story of Jonah gets me every time. This is the chapter I have seen replayed too many times. Running ahead of God.

How different it is when we walk in step with the Spirit rather than run ahead of Him. Are we able to embrace the chaos of revival and the plans of God, even when we want otherwise? Are we truly as gracious and compassionate as Christ?

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