I’m listening

Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

Lately my prayers have been more listening than speaking.

Does that sentence surprise you? It surprises me. Most of the time I’ve spent learning about prayer and teaching about prayer focused on figuring out what to say, when to say it and how often to say it. But I’ve also always taught that prayer is a conversation with God. Which means you’ll listen as well as speak. You might even listen a lot more than you speak.

My devotional time is typically early morning. It’s nothing profound or fancy. I just read through the bible. Chapter by chapter. From Genesis through Revelation. Right now I am mostly through Mark. I read till something grabs my interest or I have a question or I gain some insight. I usually read just a chapter or two. I’ve actually started listening to the scriptures being read on an iPhone app (biblegateway.com) as I follow along.

I always used to think of this as study, which would be followed by some prayer. Then one morning I realized that this whole process was prayer. God was doing most of the talking. My response wasn’t nearly as much as he had to say, which is no doubt a good thing. I know he’ll listen and I know I can say anything, but it usually turns out better when my words are fewer than his.

Realizing this has been freeing and refreshing.

  • I never have to wonder what to say. All I need to add is, “Amen!” (Yes, he’s that good!)
  • Other times, his words become my response. He never minds if I use his words to form my prayers.
  • Sometimes I just ask a question. “What do you mean by that?” “What does that have to do with me?” “So what am I supposed to do?”
  • His words have a way of bringing to mind people I can pray for. Or a blessing I am thankful for. Or a problem that’s nagging me. Or a sin that’s haunting
  • And then there are those times when I say nothing at all. Grace will do that to you. Grace will silence your excuses, denials, explanations, blame and guilt. Grace is always the final word. All you can really say to grace is, “Thanks.”

So it turns out that even though it’s mostly listening, I’ve been doing more praying than ever.

Prayers for life

Cindy Johanson, director of Central Florida Pregnancy Center, Deland, FL

This morning (January 22) I attended a prayer breakfast hosted by Alpha Women’s Center, a ministry the congregation and I have supported for over seventeen years in Flagler County, FL. I had been invited to say a prayer for the center as well, something I readily agreed to do.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, since I don’t believe they have had an event like this before. But under the leadership of the current director, Wilma Williams, they are working hard to encourage and expand their footprint in the county.

The event was held in a very small church cafe in Flagler Beach, just barely big enough to hold the thirty folks who attended. At least four other pastors attended, plus representative from a number of other congregations. The meal of quiche, fruit, muffins and oatmeal was just right and delicious.

The guest speaker was Cindy Johanson, the executive director of the Central Florida Pregnancy Center in Deltona, FL. The occasion of her talk was a sober reminder of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade was handed down on January 22, 1973, lifting restrictions on abortion in the United States. Since then, the lives of over 60,000,000 children have been ended by abortion.

Her words were also encouraging. Currently, there are over 3,000 pregnancy centers in the United States. There are 800 abortion clinics. The work of so many for life has increased dramatically.

She pointed out that when someone is dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, all they see is a life or death issue. The birth of a child often threatens plans for education, career, and relationships. Those who work to protect and preserve life know that there are many more options, and are glad to speak about the possibilities with any who seek out help. While those who end life make a profit, those who work to save it do not make a penny. Rather, we make great sacrifices to provide these services.

None of what Alpha does would be possible had not God placed a burden for life in each heart who lifted up prayers today. We pray to the God who gives us life and breath and everything else, that he would continue to bring life to our families and communities. We pray to the God who came to sacrifice his own life for us so that we could live. We pray to the God who accompanies us through the valley of the shadow of death to life.

As I was about to leave, I overheard a conversation between a college student and her pastor. She had used her wonderful musical talents to play a few songs for the meeting. But I heard her say, “Remind me again what Roe v. Wade is.” What an important reminder to keep talking about the issues, the history, and our part in it. We cannot assume that all have heard or understand the issues. We cannot assume they know what is at stake. Communication and information are powerful and essential. The opposing side works hard at this. So must we.

In secret

In Matthew 6, right in the middle of the sermon on the mount, Jesus commends private rather than public giving, praying and fasting. If you do these things to be seen by others, that will be your only reward — being seen by others. However, when you do these things without any fanfare or recognition, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4,6, and 18).

I suppose I’d prefer to be secretly rewarded by God rather than a few seconds of approval from the public. But what kind of rewards are we talking about here? What is the benefit of doing these three spiritual activities?

I’m going to tackle each one individually. First up: giving. Don’t do it to be seen, appreciated or praised. Instead, don’t even let your right hand know what your left is doing. Keep it strictly confidential. That’s how you’ll get the most bang for the buck when giving.

Greed is a tough attitude to break. We always want more, and that desire for more can easily control us or consume us. When we give, we demonstrate control over that desire, responding to God’s desire that we be merciful. It’s not my resources I trust, but him. It’s not money I worship, but him. The reward I most often gain after secret giving is a new heart and a right spirit, created by God.

Next, secret prayer brings a secret reward, too. Prayer always changes my focus from the world around me to him. In that moment, I am focused on heavenly things, which last forever, rather than this world which is all too quickly gone. Prayer means I’m actually talking with God, the Creator and my Savior. He’s not far away, he’s not ignoring me, he’s not too busy. We have time for each other. This can change my who perspective on a moment, a day or my life. That’s rewarding.

Secret fasting? Not as common as the first two. I guess that means you’d never want to let the public know via social media that you were fasting! I learned a few years ago that fasting isn’t always complete abstention from food. It might be not eating a meal or not eating as much. In any event, it is taking thoughtful control of a necessary part of your life. They say that if you can control one little part of your life, you get a better handle on the rest of it too. Mindfully choosing not to eat reminds you that you are walking by the Spirit, not according to the flesh. You aren’t controlled by your body, your desires, or the world around you. You’ve got a handle on those things. If your life is spinning out of control, one little intentional act can stop the momentum long enough to give you a better perspective. Your life isn’t spinning out of control. You’ve got this one thing…and then another…and then another.

Perhaps the best secret reward is intentionally relating to God. You are responding to him, not anything else inside of you or outside of you. It think it’s interesting that if you want to do something to improve your spiritual life, you don’t do something spiritual. You do something physical. Give. Kneel. Fast. And your spirit follows.

You couldn’t wait for me to get to “amen.”

caleb-woods-182648-unsplashThis hasn’t happened just once. I’d say it happens about once a month. I’ll be out visiting someone in their home or the hospital, and as I wrap up a prayer, they begin speaking less than one second after I say, “Amen.”

“Amen.” “Pastor, I have a question…”

“Amen.” “I’ve always wondered…”

“Amen.” “There was this guy…”

“Amen.” “I just don’t understand…”

So, you really weren’t praying along with me, were you? You were somewhere else, having boarded a different train of thought, impatiently waiting for me to get to “amen.” Anyone who knows me knows I do not say long prayers. It’s not that I lost you in a vast sea of petitions. You had just fast-forwarded through whatever I would say, biding your time until I finally finished.

I’m not really upset by this. It just surprises me. You’d be surprised if I didn’t pray with you, and yet your mind was wandering.

Good listening means you aren’t formulating a response when the other person is talking. You’ve set that aside, so you can pay attention to what the other person is saying. This is very hard to do. Listening is hard. I guess it’s hard to focus when someone’s praying for you, too.

Here are a few tips for the next time your pastor comes to visit and prays with you

  • Keep your eyes closed (if you pray with closed eyes) for just a moment after “amen.” Savor the blessing of a God who listens to and responds to your prayers. Just like a fine wine, prayers have a finish worth enjoying.
  • Take a couple of breaths after “amen.” Let the petitions echo in the room and in your mind for a moment. Let the dust settle before you speak.
  • Add your own prayer after “amen.” Keep the conversation going. Ask and seek and knock.
  • Embrace a few seconds of silence. It’s a noisy world and quiet moments are at a premium. Make the most of them.

I find great comfort and inspiration in knowing that a moment of prayer can turn an ordinary home, hospital room, nursing home or park bench into the holy ground of God’s presence. I know he loves those moments, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visual prayers

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Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Yesterday I made reference to a couple of things that I pictured in my mind as I was praying before preaching. I never thought much of it before, but some of my favorite prayers are visual prayers. Rather than words spoken out loud or in my mind or written on a page, some of my prayers are just images.

One from yesterday was being doused with a cooler full of ice water, like the winning coach after a football game. I used that image in a sermon about baptism, that that image reminds me that I’m a baptized child of God.

Another was having blood sprinkled on me. When announcing God’s covenant to the people, Moses slaughtered a bull, threw half the blood on the altar and the other half on the people. That was their way of shaking hands on a deal. I picture myself being spattered with blood, the blood of Christ the cleanses me from sin.

Sometimes I remember Nehemiah’s supervision of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem after God’s people returned from exile. Each person was given a part of the wall to work on. So I’ll picture a wall being repaired and ask, “What part of the wall do you want me to work on today, Lord?” In other words, what task should I focus on today? It’s also a good reminder that I don’t have to build the whole wall myself!

I also love the image of riding shotgun with Jesus. I shout, “Shotgun,” jump in the driver’s side and ask Jesus (who’s at the wheel), “So where are we going today?” It’s a question that makes perfect sense to me if I think of myself as a follower.

When I am praying with someone who is close to death, I picture Jesus just on the other side of this reality, waiting to welcome them. It makes my spine tingle just to think about that.

I’ll have to go back through my journals and dig up a few more. Who knows, maybe this will end up being one of the books I’ll write.

 

 

 

 

Taking another bag of idols to the curb

neonbrand-441844-unsplashI think I would do anything for the approval of others.

And I know I’m not alone. We Christians like to say we fear, love and trust God above all things. We think the first commandment “You shall have no other gods” is a piece of cake. The reality is that the god of approval has taken up residence and occupies a large space in our hearts.

Jacob, Joshua and Samuel had to tell God’s people to get rid of all their idols. Their tents were full of them. If they were going to be serious about God, everything has to go. I always imagine it’s bulk trash day, and piles of wood and metallic statues sit on the curb in front of everyone’s home.

I’ve never had anything like that. But the idol in my heart is much harder to extricate. It’s so much a part of who I am. I’m an oldest child, so I’m a follow the rules, color inside the lines, arrive on time, drive the speed limit, think inside the box kind of person. I thrive on being praised for being a good boy. I even like it when I’m teased for being too law-abiding.

Every “good sermon,” “great job,” and “thanks for doing that,” is another push on the bicycle tire pump that inflates my head a little bit more. It’s a shot of emotional adrenaline that I’ve come to crave. I don’t care if you’re just being polite or just telling me what you think I want to hear. I’ll consume whatever your serving. It all tastes delicious, and yes, I’ll have seconds, thank you.

There is a down side to this god that isn’t the true God. They have a way of consuming you. You don’t reveal your struggles. You pretend you can handle everything. You rarely ask for help. You withdraw, lest someone see you not at your best. You exaggerate — not a lot, just a little bit – to get more mileage out of a compliment. “Vulnerable” and “transparent” aren’t part of your vocabulary. Are you nuts?

Like any idol, this god can obscure the approval of God. His approval is so different. His approval has nothing to do with my performance. His approval comes despite my performance. His approval is solely based on his love for me, a love revealed in Christ. No pressure, no pretending, no manipulation. Just the real thing.

Thank goodness God called me to be a preacher. Each week as I prepare to proclaim Christ and him crucified, I am reminded of his love, and I take another bag of idols out to the curb. His approval eclipses anything they promise or give, so why keep them around? It’s my spiritual version of minimalism. I only need one God, the real one.

Every week before I preach, I pray. I kneel during the last verse of the sermon hymn, take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and thank God for the opportunity to preach. I ask him to open hearts to hear exactly what he wants to tell them. And I picture two things. First, I imagine a cooler of water dumped on my head, a reminder of my baptism. I’m already a child of God. I don’t have to impress anyone. Second, I imagine having blood spattered on me, just like Moses sprinkled blood on the altar and then on the people, a reminder of God’s covenant with them. His blood covers me, and I don’t have to prove anything. I make the sign of the cross, and I’m ready to go. There’s just one God in the room and I’m not him. And just wait till you hear what he has to say!

 

 

 

 

How about a few new prayers?

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Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

Every week, the prayer of the church includes petitions based on the readings for the day, for pastors and missionaries, for our nation and leaders, for the sick and sorrowing, and for those who will receive the sacrament. Then, I ask, “Are there any other prayers you would like to include?” As hands are raised, I make my way around the sanctuary to pray for other individual concerns. The vast majority of the requests are for those who are sick, having surgery soon, or at the end of life.

That’s OK. Scripture tells us that if someone is sick, pray for them. But aren’t there any other things we can pray about? What about praying for someone’s salvation? Or for a church just getting started? Or for some new ministry opportunity? Or for the community? How about thanks? Or praise?

Just mix it up a little. Otherwise people start to tune out. Let’s push the boundaries a bit, stretch our comfort zone, explore new territory. What do you think?

 

Go to your room!

ben-blennerhassett-336485One of the last minute additions to my Ash Wednesday sermon on Matthew 6:1,5-6 was Jesus’ admonition, “Go to your room!” when you are praying. (When’s the last time someone told you to “go to your room?”)

Praying in seclusion certainly has its merits. You can say whatever you want, in whatever tone of voice you want, and not worry about what anyone else might think. You can yell, cry, laugh, swear, spit, whatever. No one’s going to hear. It’s just you and God. You can wear whatever you want, anything from PJs to workout gear or nothing at all if that’s your favorite flavor. No one’s going to say a thing. No one will know. Your posture? Sit, stand, lie down, fetal position or downward dog. It’s up to you.

On top of that there are lots of rooms in which you might pray in seclusion. Like Jonah in a fish, Elijah in a desert, or Moses on a mountain. On a walk, taking a bike ride, In the backyard, shower, empty church sanctuary, office, garage, man cave, workshop, a closet, driving a car, up on the roof, in a journal, or actually in your room. My favorite: on a run. That when my thoughts really flow. A close second: at my church office desk, imagining Jesus sitting in the side chair.

Don’t overanalyze it. Just talk to him and listen.

 

 

Give him the credit.

ruben-hutabarat-321378You don’t have to be on Facebook very long before you’ll read of someone requesting prayer for themselves or someone they know. It’s often for healing, sometimes for reconciliation, and other times for comfort. Many friends will respond with the assurance of their prayers. Good stuff.

However I’ve noticed that when someone feels better or a situation improves, you’ll read the comment, “Prayer worked.” As a firm believer in prayer, I don’t want to take anything away from it’s power, but in such a situation, isn’t it God who did the work? Shouldn’t he get the credit rather than the prayers or the pray-ers?

What happens when someone doesn’t get better? Prayer didn’t work? Or there wasn’t enough prayer? Or enough pray-ers? Hmm. I don’t like to talk about that stuff.

Abram’s prayer didn’t work. God still destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. David’s prayer didn’t work. His illegitimate son still died. Job’s prayer didn’t work. He never did get an answer from God. Elijah’s prayer didn’t work. God wouldn’t end his life. Jesus’ prayer didn’t work. He still had to drink from that “cup” of suffering.

But God was still at work in and through their lives. For better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, God faithfully hangs in there with us. Even if you don’t get what you ask for, God’s at work comforting, strengthening, redirecting and teaching you. The most important part of prayer is connecting with him, not getting what you want. Effective prayer is always about his will being done, not mine.

Just give him the thanks. The honor. And the glory.