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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

“You had me at ‘Father.'”

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

As I was reading from the book of Daniel this morning, these words really caught my attention: “The moment you began praying, the command was given” (Daniel 9:23 NLT).

Prior to this, Daniel is praying for forgiveness, acknowledging his own sin, the sins of the nation and the sins of their ancestors. It is Gabriel who assures Daniel that an answer to his prayer was already underway. God didn’t wait until he prayed long enough or said the right things. God’s response was at the front end of his prayers.

Now I don’t want to take this too far, but I do find it fascinating that the most important part of a prayer may very well be the beginning. After all, the salutation doesn’t get as much attention as the body of a letter. The first words of a prayer, though, speak volumes.

It means you’ve been listening, for God always initiates our conversations with him.

It acknowledges who you are and who he is. He’s God. You’re not. He’s the Father. You’re the child. He’s the Almighty. You’re his creation. He loves you. You’re the beloved.

It is bold. Who are we to be speaking to God? Yet we approach his throne of grace with confidence.

It breaks the silence of my heart, my soul, my mind, and my world. I may not know exactly what to say, but now there’s a conversation. I may not even know what the next word will be, but that’s OK. If you’re at a loss for words, the Spirit will take it from there, right?

Jesus urged his disciples not to pray like those who were all about word count. That’s not what counts. What counts is the who. Who you are praying to. The one who hears even before we call out to him, according to Isaiah.

So, this is one of my newest favorite verses. In my mind it’s like God saying, “You had me at ‘Father.”

“After prayerful consideration…”

umit-bulut-143016It’s certainly not a new way to begin a thought or statement, but lately I’ve been reflecting on the phrase, “After prayerful consideration…” I’ve heard it a lot of times and have always given credit to those who pray about whatever it is they are considering. However, I want to share a few reactions to those words.  Continue reading

You want to pray? Pray like Jesus.

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Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

“Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

How many times have you heard those words lately? These are the words shared by many in response to the mass shooting at First Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, TX. We read them tweeted by the president and we repeated by countless others. Many express such sentiment in the aftermath of tragedy.

But what does that mean?

What does that mean coming from the lips of those who rarely attend and have little connection with the church? What does that mean coming from the mouth of someone who may or may not pray all that often? What does that mean when it echoes across social media, TV journalism and political rhetoric?

What does it mean to you?

When a disaster flattens a community, when a tragedy occurs, when numerous lives are taken, how do you pray? What do you say? What words do you use?

I’ll bet you’re intention to pray far exceeds your actual prayers. I know that sounds harsh. But reflect on that statement for a moment. Am I wrong?

What do you say to God when bullets fly, bombs explode, blood is shed and communities are devastated?

Do you ask God to help people feel better? Do you pray for the pastors who will be conducting funerals for all those who died? Do you pray that God would spare people from future tragedy? Do you ask what you should do to help?

What do you say?

It’s a tough question. Prayer is tough, because it deals with tough issues. Prayer is hard, because it rips open our hearts and releases our emotions in the presence of the one who created us. Prayer pleads for mercy, cries out for help, lashes out in anger, and gets in the face of the God who is infinitely more powerful than us.

If your prayers aren’t filled with pleas, tears, rage and fear, then why bother? Why bother simply saying what you think God wants to hear, rather than what’s going on in your heart? Why try to talk God out of a blessing or convince him your are right (and he’s wrong)? Are you afraid you’ll hurt his feelings? Or that he’ll shut you up — for good?

I believe he wants you to let it out. Release your wrath. Scream in terror. Demand that he listen and respond. Read the psalms. What? Yes, read the psalms. They do all this and more. They get in God’s face and challenge him to do something!

And you know what? He does. He comes and experiences it all. Then Jesus went away to pray. Do you think his prayers were calm, cool and collected? In the face of all he would go through? I doubt it. Go back to the gospels and read about Jesus’ prayers from the cross — filled with pleas, tears, rage and fear.

You tell me you’ll pray? Let me hear you pray like Jesus.

 

And one.

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If I can, I try to meet members of the congregation when they check in at the hospital for surgery. Just to pray and be with them as they wait for their name to be called. Show up times are usually early in the morning, but I’m up early anyway, so I get to about 90%. I’ve been at the local hospital often enough lately that the receptionist commented today, “Oh, he’s here all the time.”

Now that the days are getting shorter but the time hasn’t changed yet, it’s dark, really dark when I arrive. The first wave of patients arrives about 6 am, so the place is already hopping by the time I arrive. Today, the family was there before me, already staged and ready. I immediately get to the prayer; you never know how quickly their name will be called. Then we have time to chat for a bit. Usually other family is there, so I get to meet and get to know them, too. Continue reading

30 seconds

Up at 4:45 am, I showered, dressed, ate and was out the door by 5:20. A fine mist in the dark morning air necessitated a swipe of the wiper blades every few minutes. There were no other cars to wait for, follow or pass until I merged onto the interstate, headed towards Jacksonville. Even then, the cars and trucks were few and far between.

The hospital had scheduled her surgery for 7:30, and her prep was to begin at 7, so I was right on schedule to have a little time with her and her family before they took her from the room. There were virtually no radio stations working well. Finally I found an AM sports station that lasted for about half and hour, highlighting the rest of the football game I couldn’t stay awake for the night before. The miles passed quickly, and before I knew it, the exit for the hospital approached.

When I got out of the car in the parking lot, I immediately felt how much colder it was than back home. I had called ahead to find out when the front door would be open. “5 am.” “Thanks, that’s plenty early!” There were many cars in the parking lot and more people than I expected when I walked in about 6:20.

Stepping out onto the fourth floor of Mayo hospital, I had to double check the signs to find room 422. They saw me coming from down the hall, and knew exactly who I was looking for, because she was looking for me. They were taking her for prep at 6:30 and she grabbed my hand and said, “Quick, pray with me, I’m so glad someone came.” When we opened our eyes, they were waiting to transport her. She asked one man, “Are you awake?” He replied, “I just rolled out of bed.” Lots of laughter.

And then she was gone, gone to hopefully have a brain tumor removed. All that way for about 30 seconds with her and the Lord. What a privilege and an honor.