Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer (Part 2)

In one of my previous posts (from a long time ago), I started talking about prayer as a spiritual discipline and I ended up discussing some of the pitfalls of prayer. Well, because I am trying to follow Jesus, I very quickly find myself asking, “How did Jesus pray? Under what circumstances? How did he teach his disciples to pray?” So today, I would like to take a quick look at some of Jesus’s prayers and what we learn from both his teaching and his example. Note that this is not exhaustive.

Luke 5:16 (Persistence and Consistency)

From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was a celebrity in his day. When he traveled to a town, many crowds would come out to hear him speak and to receive healing from him as he traveled. In other words, everywhere he went there were people who wanted to knock on his office door (if he had had one) and talk to him. Yet according to Luke, Jesus “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Whatever he had going, whatever pressing concerns or tasks he had to do, Jesus understood that speaking to and hearing from God his Father was essential for the health of his own heart and mind, not to mention that he could not accomplish his mission on Earth without the power of his Father.

John 11:1-44 (Building Up the Faith of Others)

In the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, we see a particularly striking passage where Jesus, having asked that Lazarus’s body be exposed to the light of day for his impending resurrection, Jesus prays out loud to the Father: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

This seems like a strange prayer to say. Is this not similar to how the Pharisees prayed – out loud, in public, for all to hear? The key difference here is the motive. The Pharisees prayed out loud so that their particular brand of hollow piety could be admired by their listeners. Jesus wants to reassure his audience that yes, he really is a representative of the Father, and yes, the miracle he is about to perform is endorsed and empowered by the Father. In so doing, his motive is to build the faith and trust of others and give ultimate glory to the Father.

Luke 6:12-13 (Making Important Decisions)

After referring to Jesus’s consistency in prayer with God, Luke then reports to us that Jesus spent one whole night away from the disciples in prayer. When Jesus returns, he then proceeds with selecting his Twelve Disciples, those who will follow him more closely than any others for the rest of his life, both as his disciples and his closest friends. Although we are not privy to what Jesus prayed, it is natural for me to suppose he was praying about this very important decision he had ahead of him, likely asking for wisdom as he chose his closest followers. It sounds strange even to my mind that Jesus himself sought wisdom in order to make the best decisions, but I think that is in this text: we see that Jesus looked to his Father for wisdom in making difficult decisions.

Matthew 26:36-46 (Emotional Struggles)

When Jesus was going through his darkest moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, his reaction was to pray. The most extraordinary part of this prayer is that he says, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” He knew what was coming, and he wanted to avoid it. If you believe in love as a feeling or an emotion, then it doesn’t seem right for Jesus to be so emotionally conflicted about giving his life. This is how we know that love – true love – is a choice. Jesus was laying down his life, and in that moment he knew his future was going to bring a lot of pain and suffering. Not only was he confident and trusting enough in his Father that he was willing to go through with this, but he willingly put his life in the hands of God.

Luke 23: 33-35 (Forgiveness from the Cross)

Arguably, one of the most important prayers for a Christian is what is said in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our debts (or trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (or, those who trespass against us).” Jesus taught us in the Lord’s prayer that our salvation is conditional on our forgiveness of those who have wronged us. Jesus modeled this for us on the cross. He asked the Father to “forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” Who is “they?” On one hand, it’s easy to see: the Pharisees who had conspired to get Jesus crucified. But it could just as easily be Pilate, who saw that an unjust execution was going to take place and literally washed his hands of it. Or it could’ve been his disciples, who abandoned him at the most difficult moment in his ministry. Or it could’ve been me, since before Christ I lived in such a way that was as much of a betrayal of Jesus as the disciples.

I think that “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” was for all of us. That was the institution of the new law of grace – the new covenant. If nothing else, that tells us a great deal about the power of forgiveness and the power of prayer.

Thankfulness

I have just finished writing in a spiral notebook that I have entitled “Thankfulness Items/ Daily Thankfulness.” It’s nothing special. It’s just a notebook where, in the past, I have tried to write a small bullet point every day detailing something I am thankful for. There are notes in this book stretching back over a year, but for the last few months I have found it more difficult to have this very simple moment of thankfulness for the day I have just experienced. The last time I wrote in this thing was three months ago. I was just too busy.

That is to say, I didn’t make the time. Every so often, I get into this mindset that I am a victim of my schedule, of my circumstances, of my indiscipline. But I think it’s more honest to say that sometimes, my priorities get out-of-whack. There’s no guilt in that for me, at least not the weight of guilt and shame. It makes me think of the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years. Even when they had God’s ongoing provision and miraculous presence with them, they still occasionally grumbled and complained and forgot to be thankful for what was right in front of them. I know that at certain points in the past, I thought that was extraordinary. In truth, for the sake of my feelings on thankfulness, the Israelites are like us. I’m not fundamentally different than those people. I too struggle sometimes to be thankful, even in spite of God’s activity in my life and the lives of others.

I don’t really have any other specific thoughts to share today. Just remember to be thankful, in whatever way that works best for you. I do recommend having pencil and paper where you can write down what you are thankful for; there’s something much more concrete and contemplative for me about writing vs. typing something into a computer. But if a computer works better for you, go for it. Just take the time to be thankful.

Adding to the Noise (or, Why On Earth Would You Listen to Me?)

A Season for Silence

For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven… a time to be silent and a time to speak.

–Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7b

I’m not sure why I’m here. That is to say, I have started blogging before. Inevitably, I find myself feeling like I was just adding to the noise. That’s a phrase from an old song Switchfoot song: “If we’re adding to the noise/ turn off this song.” I kind of appreciate the honesty of that song, because it is essentially asking you not to listen to it if it isn’t serving a purpose. Truthfully, my past blogging efforts felt relatively meaningless. At the time, I was barely out of college, had barely started my life as an adult. I was finding my way, so why on Earth should anyone put any weight behind my thoughts or opinions about much of anything? On whose authority could I broadcast my thoughts or beliefs or opinions to the wider world, as though I knew something about anything?

This was an especially acute feeling when it came to matters of faith. To be blunt, I’ve lived a pretty cushy life as the child of well-off parents in a very wealthy country at a very privileged time in world history. What challenges have really confronted my faith? I mean, really tough matters that really forced me into the uncomfortable position where my faith might actually be in jeopardy if the challenge was not met? Anything I gave to answer that question rhetorically seemed laughable by comparison to the real-life struggles of lots of people. What possible comfort or guidance or Christ-inspired wisdom could I offer when I was working from such a position of youth and inexperience?

Of course, the New Testament does offer a possible answer to this…

Let no one look down on you because of your youth…

–1 Timothy 4:12

That is Biblical. However, when it comes to my attitude toward myself, I tend to be my worst critic. It’s easier for me to apply that teaching to others than myself, to undervalue my own contributions. Putting all of these disparate pieces together created a season of my life where I occasionally blogged, particularly about my faith because of its importance to me, but inevitably my blogging ran dry. This was usually either a feeling that I had nothing worth saying, a despair that no one was listening even when I did speak… or a fear that someone was.

A Season to Speak

In spite of all of those personal doubts, which persist and likely always will, I have felt the winds shifting lately. The season for silence seems to be coming to a close, and for reasons I cannot really describe or even pin down myself, it feels like now is the time to begin again. But there will be some differences.

For right now, I am not going to try to enforce any schedule upon myself. I will blog when I feel the desire to. My rough goal is to have something to publish every few weeks, but that’s a very soft schedule. This is literally just a trial run for now, to see if this is something I want to do, how much investment it will require from me, and whether there is an audience for my ramblings.

Secondly, as if running a single blog isn’t enough, I’m launching two others. Yes, seriously. One blog – which I just posted to yesterday – is going to be a geek-centric blog where I write about movies, television, and various other things. (For instance, my first blog post describes my frustrations with a popular first-person shooter game.) A second as-yet unfinished new blog will cover issues of culture, politics, the news, and other things that are disagreeable, especially now. My general hope is that I will always have something to say for at least one of these blogs, but it will also allow people to engage with one side of my ramblings without having to dig through things that they might be less interested in.

So I guess the only thing left to say is…

Generosity in the Life of Stuart Scott

As I sit and watch a playoff game in the National Football League, I find myself thinking about something that I heard earlier this week. It was a major event in the world of sports that Stuart Scott, an analyst for the sports network ESPN, passed away last weekend.

Thoughts and memories go out to the family, friends, and colleagues of Stuart Scott, a man with a generous reputation.

Now, I’m no sports junkie. I enjoy watching American Football and there’s one sports radio show I listen to. That’s about the extent of my interest in sports. So, when I heard that Stuart Scott has passed away, I had no idea who that was or what he had done. It was only in the course of hearing about him through his colleagues that I learned about him.

There was something that was said about him that has stuck with me. Cari Champion, a television personality, spoke in memory of Stuart Scott. After she started at ESPN, he would send her text messages of encouragement to her, timely messages that would lift her up at critical moments when she needed them. It was until she was telling this that some of the other anchors with which she was talking said, “He did the same thing for all of us.” It was then that Cari Champion used a particular word to describe Mr. Scott: she called him a generous man.

Now, generosity is a powerful word to me. It is something that I would like to write about more sometime soon, but I believe that generosity is one of the clearest marks of a person who is trying to follow Jesus. When I read the Bible, I see that the God of the Bible is a generous God. He created the entire universe, and he created it extravagantly! There is a mind-boggling number of stars in the universe that we have discovered, and as far as we can tell, there’s many more. When mankind rejected him, God spared no expense – not even his son – to create a new way in which we can come to know him. That is extraordinary generosity.

Now, when most people think of generosity, they think of financial generosity. And that is important. However, I think that generosity extends beyond what you do with your money into the areas of how you approach your relationships with others, how you treat others, how easily you forgive those who hurt you, and more.

I guess this sticks with me because I’ve become one of those task-oriented people. I have to-do lists for my to-do lists. I like setting goals, and then meeting them. I also recognize the danger in that, because it is easy to get so caught up in getting things done that I put people – friends, family, and others – in second place, and the Bible makes it clear that loving God and loving people is at the heart of following Jesus (Mark 12:30-31), not getting stuff done. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting stuff done, but there has to come a point where people come before our to-do lists.

Now, I do not care to speculate on Stuart Scott’s faith or lack thereof. Like I said, I didn’t even know who he was until I heard that he had passed away. I just find that as I consider my way of living and loving those who am I closest to, I am challenged to greater generosity by Stuart Scott: greater encouragement, greater selflessness, greater kindness.

What God Sees in You

So after a long, unintentional hiatus, I find myself writing a new post for this blog. Part of it is the New Year; I really enjoyed the short amount of time when I was regularly writing for this blog, and starting this year I would like to get back into it for various reasons.

One large reason for me in particular is that I am going to be leading a Bible study with my local church, sort of. It’s a responsibility, a leadership position. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I need to be the one who talks all the time, but it does mean that in some form or fashion, people are going to be looking to me in various ways for various things. And that scares me in some way.

Now, as I have spoken with friends and family, they’ve reassured me that I’ll do a great job. I’ve seen some of those short sayings like, “You are never too small for God to use you,” and “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.” Yet there is something about these interactions that I have not found fulfilling. They don’t really answer the thoughts of my heart and soul.

So, as I was thinking about all of this, my mind happened on the story of Gideon, found in Judges 6. When the angel appears to Gideon, he is beating wheat in the winepress because the Midianites are stealing food from Israel so that there isn’t enough food to eat. In other words, Gideon is either hiding or has been hidden away. Based on that alone, he appears either a weakling or a coward.

Then, when the angel of the Lord appears to him, he says, “The Lord is with you, o mighty man of valor!” (v. 12) Gideon protests the first part of that statement by asking how it’s possible for God to be with Israel when they are being starved by their enemy, but the part that I clue in on is the second part. The angel of the Lord called Gideon a mighty man of valor, i.e. a strong and courageous person, at a point when there has been no evidence of such traits in Gideon. If anything, he looks like a weakling at best, a coward at worst.

So why did the angel say this? Because God knew what Gideon was going to become, because God knew what Gideon had the capacity to become. And the same is true for those who are trying to follow Jesus: God knows who we are and he knows who we can become. I think that oftentimes, when I read that God knows me better than I know myself, I’m intimidated by that because, well, I know that there’s sin in my life that even I haven’t noticed…but I often forget that this also applies to the good in us.

This, I think, is a deep and profound truth. God declared Gideon to be a mighty man of valor, even though on the surface Gideon wasn’t that person. But God knew what was in Gideon, and he knew that Gideon could and would become that mighty man of valor who would lead God’s people. The same is true for you. God knows the good you can do and the person you can become. Not only has he put good things in you, but if you are trying to follow Jesus and have his Spirit within you, He is in you. We can’t just allow ourselves to say, “I can’t do this; I don’t have it in me.” If the Spirit of God is in you, then you will always have it in you.

Now, what that looks like may depend on who you are and what your challenge is. God’s power in your life may be that you have the humility to ask someone for help with a serious fear you have. It might be wisdom to ask the right questions as you try to make a life-changing decision. It might be nothing more than confidence and contentment through a dark and stormy season of life. It might be the strength to triumph over things that have chained you.

Whatever your situation, I think it is really easy to fall into the trap of feeling like life has presented you with a challenge that you cannot face alone. In a way, this is true: I believe that at some point, everyone hits a problem they can’t face alone. But if you are following Jesus, you aren’t alone. You are with Jesus. And guess what: he forgives us and, instead of seeing the sins we’ve committed, he sees who we can become if we walk by faith. The question is, will we trust him?

Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer (Part 1)

When I was younger, I learned prayer from my older sister and my parents. They encouraged me to pray the Lord’s prayer before I went to bed, after which I would pray about the things that were on my mind. I remember praying in a lot of different situations throughout my life: when I was in elementary school and the tornado alarm went off, I remember praying. I would pray on the way to and from classes in high school; I prayed for friends, for family, for good grades, for a girl to like me. Suffice it to say, prayer has been a large part of my life.

That being said, prayer is also one of the areas that I think I have the most to grow in. Somewhere between my youth and today, I figured out the language of prayer, the special words you are supposed to use if you want your prayer to sound really spiritual. I learned that there are certain things that I can ask others to pray for, and there are things I should probably just pray quietly to myself. In short, I learned a very Pharisaical form of prayer that made me look more holy. I don’t like admitting that but it’s the truth.

As someone who is trying to follow Jesus, I would hope that my hypocrisy in prayer never outweighed my authentic wish to speak to the God who created me. I may never know the answer to that, but I bring this up for a purpose. Prayer for the Jesus-follower, seemingly so simple, is actually a rather difficult thing to learn. For instance, what should we pray about, and when? Should we pray for certain things more than others? What is the purpose of prayer? When we pray, do we speak to God as though he is the Almighty Creator and Master of the Universe, or do we pray to him like a child speaking to a father? These questions often have less-than-simple answers and I hope to discuss these issues.

However, as I usually try to do, I hope that this talk of prayer isn’t exclusive to Jesus-followers. If you are not trying to follow Jesus, I hope to address some of the questions that people often have about Christian prayer. For instance, there have been a number of tragedies in the news lately, many related to the weather. I have heard of some lately who are frustrated by the fact that Christians seem only to pray for victims of a tragedy without doing anything. I also know some people who have made the implication that Christians only pray to get stuff we want. Are these things true?

To close out this introductory post on the issue of prayer, I want to go through some of those issues, specific problems with prayer that are mentioned in the Bible. These are prayer pitfalls that not only make Christians look foolish; the Bible indicates that these things can really hinder our ability to communicate with God.

  1. Praying publicly – most notably, Jesus was very critical of the Pharisees for praying in such a way that they could be praised by others. Jesus also warned against just praying long prayers for the sake of praying long prayers. Instead, Jesus instructed that prayer should be done in private and then he gave a very simple model of prayer (Matthew 6:5-13) This is not to say that Christians can’t or shouldn’t pray publicly; both Jesus and his followers prayed publicly throughout the New Testament. The point of this teaching was the attitude. We are not to pray as a way of making ourselves look better; we pray as a form of humbling ourselves before God. Whether we are alone or in public, the praying Christian should be responsive to only one audience: the God to whom he or she is praying.

    Jesus told a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector praying. One stated all the reasons he was better than the other; the other confessed his unworthiness. The latter is closer to how Jesus-followers are meant to pray.
  2. Praying for stuff – I’m sure that when some people hear those of us trying to follow Jesus pray, they only hear us asking for things that we want, as though God merely exists to give us what we want. Let me be the first to apologize if you have ever gotten that impression. We are encouraged by the Bible to pray “without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18), not because we simply want something but because God hears us and, in talking with him, we are focusing less on what we want and more on what God wants us to become.
  3. Prayer changes stuff – After my second point this might sound like a retraction, but hear me out. We believe that, when we pray in the name of Jesus (John 14:13-14) – that is, praying for things that he would pray for if he were alive today – things change. I have prayed prayers that God answered for me. That being said, I’ve also prayed for things that haven’t happened. Why? I don’t know and I might never know. I pray anyway because even when God doesn’t answer my prayers, He always has a way of answering the emotion behind those prayers. If I was afraid before praying, I’m not so afraid after. If I was angry and fuming before I prayed, I’m in a much better place after. So maybe more importantly than changing the stuff I have, prayer changes who I am.
  4. Prayer without action – In the wake of recent tragedies, I have heard non-Christians accuse Christians of simply praying for those in need and not doing anything to help them. Is that true? Frankly, I’m not the person to answer that. I don’t know everyone. What I will say is this: faith without deeds is dead (James 2:26). If someone only prays for the poor yet never goes out of his way to help them, he is not really following the Biblical command. If prayer changes you from the inside out, then prayer should lead to more people giving money, volunteering for disaster relief and everything else.

Do some Christians only pray and never do anything outside of their comfort zone to help others? Sure, I’d say there are some out there. Even so, let me warn against making such hasty generalizations. For one, it’s a logical fallacy to generalize about an entire group based on the actions of a few. Two, a lot of assumptions go into it. Maybe you know someone who never seems to help other people but they are helping in ways that you don’t see. Maybe they go days at a time without food so they have money to give to those in need. Maybe they don’t. The point is, they could do a lot of things to help others that no one except God will ever know.

This is simply a request from someone who is trying to follow Jesus to those out there watching us try: if you think that we are praying too much and not doing enough, remember that we might be doing a lot more than you can see and constructively criticize us. Offer us ways to put our prayers into action. It might sound strange to consider, but what if non-Christians can help the rest of us follow Jesus better?

What are your thoughts on prayer and the questions surrounding it?

Knowing When to Talk and When Not to Talk

So there is a particular reason why I haven’t posted anything new in the last few weeks: quite simply, I’ve been distracted. It’s the end of the semester and that typically results in me running short on time for things like blogging.

However, since I’m on the topic of…not talking, I also want to bring up a very simple and undeveloped thought: I don’t know when to talk and when to be silent. Plus, when I talk, I say weird things sometimes. Seriously, you can ask just about anyone who has met me and they’ll probably be able tell you about some odd thing I said. Maybe it’s a product of my off-the-wall sense of humor; maybe I’m just not very good at making conversation; or any number of other things. Point being, when I speak, I’m self-conscious about it, inordinately so. You probably wouldn’t know that, though. To people I meet, I probably seem like a social enough person. I’ve been told I smile lot and laugh too loud at people’s jokes, which I hardly consider bad things.

I am also painfully aware that my conversation sometimes conveys things that I don’t intend at all. Sometimes I sound arrogant. Sometimes I say things that can be totally misinterpreted, not realizing that a joke I make just to get laughs out of other people can be taken the wrong way.

If that isn’t enough, there are moments when I wonder if I am being too silent. I have something to say – sometimes it’s something that I even think needs to be said – but hold back. Why? Sometimes for good reasons, knowing that I have a propensity to talk too much if I don’t watch myself. Sometimes I just don’t want to upset the apple cart. Sometimes I worry that someone could take offense at something. Sometimes I just decide not to engage with someone thinking, “Nah, there’s no way they’ll give me the time of day for a conversation.”

I don’t really have a resolution to these thoughts. All I can think is that “there is a time for everything…a time to speak and a time to be silent” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7) and I still have so much to learn about where that line is.