Monday Morning Second Thoughts

Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday according to our liturgical calendar and I had the privilege of providing the sermon.  I love the John 10 passage in which Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. He speaks of how he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. He says his sheep listen to his voice, trusting him enough to follow where he leads. Great stuff for a sermon on listening for the voice of God through prayer, which is one of my favorite subjects!

Our prayer team has had a fruitful year thus far. We have had an often urgent, ongoing medical crisis in one of our families that we’ve been praying for since February. We have rejoiced when God has answered some of our specific requests; we have persevered when he hasn’t. Yesterday seemed like the perfect opportunity to share with the parish what God has been doing as the team has prayed, and we wanted to give him praise and honor and glory as we shared the highlights of our prayers this year. We shared the wonderful ways God has answered our prayers for wisdom, for healing, for a much-needed car, for a new home, and then we wound it up with Psalm 100, a prayer of thanksgiving. I thought we did well!

But I woke up this morning feeling burdened by what we didn’t share. As I re-lived that testimony time yesterday, I saw the faces of the people whose prayers had not been answered in the way they wanted–the people who have not been healed, the job that has not been provided, the one who struggles to know the love of God. What about those prayers? We didn’t give God glory for those answers, did we?

As I wrestle with these questions, I sense the Holy Spirit gently reminding me that I carefully prepared that sermon, that I sensed his direction to remind people that the Good Shepherd knows and cares for his sheep, that he never abandons those who are in his charge, and that we can faithfully follow him, trusting in his goodness. The team’s intention was to share the blessing we have experienced as we have prayed together, and to give glory to God for the ways we can see he has answered. Our motives and intentions were not wrong or bad.

Wait…did you catch that? “…the ways we can see he has answered…” To say that God doesn’t answer a prayer is a lie. He always answers. What’s more, he always answers in the way that brings about the greatest good for everyone involved, some of whom we may not even know. It’s not unusual for it to take years before we can see how God answered. Sometimes we can’t see his answer until we step into his presence at the end of our earthly life.

We see this quite clearly in the life of Jesus. He didn’t always get what he asked for. Jesus prayed first that the cup would pass from him. It took him three attempts before he could finally and whole-heartedly pray, “Not my will, but your will be done, Father,” and then to step out in faithful obedience. (Matthew 26:36-45)

There is a holy mystery in suffering. We don’t want it, we don’t like it, but we can’t avoid it. Here’s the good news: We can trust that God will indeed work good out of it in his time and in his perfect way. We can trust that scripture is right and true when it says that there will be no more mourning or tears when the Kingdom comes in its fullness. We have this hope, this blessed assurance in Christ.

The day will come when we won’t second-guess anything we’ve said or done, when our best intentions will be perfect. In the meantime, my prayer is that God will redeem my clumsy attempts at sharing his perfect love, his goodness and his faithfulness to all, especially to those who are suffering. I know that prayer will be answered!

If you are struggling today with the disappointment of seemingly unanswered prayers, my prayer for you is that you sense the comfort, care, and protection of the Good Shepherd who is devoted to you and will meet your every need for understanding in the fullness of his time. Until then, may you trust in his ultimate goodness. Amen and amen.

Sunday Commute

The Sunday morning commute has become one of the best prayer times of my week.

At the beginning of this year, our church moved from our suburban location–which was a two-minute drive from my home–to a soup kitchen downtown. Now it takes me 15-20 minutes to get to church, with several traffic lights between home and my destination. My husband will tell you that I will drive miles out of my way any day of the week to avoid sitting at traffic lights. But not on Sundays…not anymore. driving_praying

A few months ago I began thinking of the Sunday morning commute as a prime time for prayer.

I’m the associate pastor at my church, so you may think that it’s a given that I would be prayerful on Sunday mornings as I prepare for our worship service. Not necessarily! (If you are a pastor, perhaps you are smiling in agreement!) It’s far too easy for my mind to drift to whatever I need to do when I get to church, who I need to speak with, or anticipate where I might have to fill in for an absent volunteer minister. If I’m preaching, my tendency is to review and critique my sermon for the umpteenth time. When engaged in that line of thinking, I arrive at church wired and ready to get busy with work…not worship.

I spent ten years on staff at a church where I went to work on Sunday mornings. When I left, I was on the verge of burnout. I did not practice self-care. I allowed the demands of ministry to take precedence over my need to worship, to give God the honor and glory that is due him, and in turn to experience the satisfaction of doing what I was created to do: worship God.

Sundays are for worship, not work. Yes, I have responsibilities on Sunday mornings, but my first priority is to worship God. Praying through the drive to church makes all the difference in my ability to prioritize worship over work. Rather than focus on the to-do list, I…

  • acknowledge God’s faithfulness, thanking him for a new day, and for the privilege of living in a country where I can worship him freely
  • thank Jesus for enduring the cross so that I can live free
  • thank God for those he will bring through our church door who are searching
  • lift up all those who are preparing to come to church, asking God to remove any obstacles, and to pour out a spirit of cooperation on spouses and children
  • pray for those who are struggling with the temptation to stay home, to skip church this week, asking God to stir up a holy desire for worship and fellowship with their church family
  • ask the Holy Spirit to annoint the preaching pastor as he opens God’s word, and to stir our minds and hearts to belief and obedience
  • ask God to bless the volunteer ministers as they bless those whom they serve
  • and I pray that God will be blessed by the worship we bring.

What I’m amazed to find is that when the worship service begins, when the first note of the first song sounds, my heart and my mind sync with the Holy Spirit and worship overflows!

So, what do you do on your Sunday commute?

 

What love is this?

Church-going folks talk a lot about the love of Christ. But, really…What love is this? Is it like when we really “love” a book, movie, or a new pair of shoes? Or is it like how I (most of the time) love my family and close friends?

The love of Christ far exceeds our temporal infatuations. It certainly surpasses our capacity to love those closest to us. Left to our ourselves, we are incapable of the kind of love Jesus offers…

  • Love that sacrifices. Ephesians 5:2 says that Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice for God.
  • Love that heals. Matthew 9:35 speaks of Jesus traveling through all the cities and villages, healing every disease and every affliction.
  • Love that renews. Christ himself was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father so that we, too, might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)
  • Love that beckons. John writes in the tenth chapter of his gospel about Jesus as the Shepherd who calls his sheep and leads them out.

It is truly amazing–a miracle!–that the love of Christ dwells in us who believe, and nothing can separate us from that love. We have Christ’s capacity to sacrifice, to heal, to renew, and to beckon…just as Christ did. Left to ourselves, we are incapable of that kind of love. But, thanks be to God, he did not leave us to ourselves!

Simply put, when we allow Christ to have his way in us, we sacrifice for one another. We truly see each other’s pain and heartache. We take the time and make the effort to pray regularly for one another, watching to see the healing come because we are agents of that healing. And a holy transformation takes place as we are renewed day by day, as we grow into the beautiful body of Christ.

That beauty, that Christlikeness, that unbelievable love of Christ that shines through us as we are transformed into his likeness is a light that attracts like no other. It beckons people to come and taste and see that the Lord is good, and that his incomparable love can dwell in them, too. They, too, can be healed and transformed as they join a family whose love isn’t fickle or shallow.

I encourage you to push the pause button on your day and engage in a little reflection. Where are you allowing the love of Christ to have its way in you? Love that sacrifices brings healing and renewal, and beckons others to do the same.

my-lord-what-love-is-this-2008

(This is the third of three related posts. You can read the first post here, and the second here. I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences!)

Precious Commodities

My friend Jill recently posted a great article on her blog about praying for one another. You can read it here. This business of the church family praying for one another has been percolating in my mind and heart for a while now. Why does it take such effort? If we truly love one another as Christ loved us, it should come quite naturally.

Perhaps we are lax in our praying because we are afraid of what might come next. Prayer selfless-love-in-actionoften begets action. If I pray for someone, God just might ask me to actually do something for them. God might require that I be his hands, or feet, or voice—all of which takes my time and energy.

Time and energy have become our most precious commodities. The advent of “easy credit” along with the development of technology has reoriented our priorities. Money may be easier to come by for many of us. Time and energy, on the other hand, are essentially finite. There are only 24 hours in a day, and there is a limit to the energy my body can expend before it has to rest. If I give my time and energy to something beyond my personal concerns, how will my needs be met? Will someone look beyond their needs in order to meet mine?

Yet as I reflect on Jesus’ life in the scriptures, I don’t see Him particularly concerned about having His needs met. What I do see is a perpetual awareness of the needs of those around Him, and a willingness to give of Himself in order to meet those needs. And when He was in danger of running out of time and energy (remember that Jesus had to live within the same human restrictions that we do!) Jesus turned to the Father in prayer, trusting that God would meet His every need. And, as far as I can tell, God never failed Him.

So perhaps the reason we don’t pray for one another as we should is because we don’t want to be faced with the possibility that our trust in God’s provision is lacking, or that God might ask us to sacrifice some of our valuable time and energy to meet needs other than our own.

And yet, that’s exactly how God—Father—weaves his children into one family.

(This is the first of three related posts. I invite you to come back next week, and to share your thoughts and experiences!)

Little Christs

To pray for the world at large overwhelms me. There are so many needs! War, divisions, famine, disease…floods, earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes…decadence, deceit, depravity of the mind, body and soul… My own soul is almost overcome with despair at the enormity of the sheer desperation in so many places and people.

How did Jesus stand it? How could God-become-man stand to look at the world he had originally created to be a garden paradise, but had turned into a wasteland of sin? How could Jesus walk among the diseased and afflicted, the greedy and lustful, knowing  humanity was never intended to be like that?

But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. -Luke 5:16

Jesus knew nothing else but to pray. It is the only response to such overwhelming need. It is because we can’t possibly meet the need ourselves that we must turn to the One who can. We must bring the cares and concerns of our world to the One who created. It is his responsibility to heal, to provide, to redeem, and to restore.We bring the needs to God because only he can make all things well.

Is that all? Are we done then? No. No more than Jesus was.

To be a Christian means to be a “little Christ.” It is to be as Jesus was, to act as Jesus did. Jesus Himself said as much. After He had washed the feet of His disciples–the most humbling of acts!–He said, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13:15) Jesus went away to pray, to offer to the Father what He was experiencing in His everyday life, and to hear from the Father what He was to do about it. He did whatever the Father told Him to do, and only what the Father told Him to do.

And that brings me back to the questions asked previously… How could Jesus do anything other than succumb to despair?

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God… -John 13:3

Jesus knew where He had come from, and He knew He would return there. Pure and simple. That blessed assurance provided for Jesus what He needed to accomplish all the Father gave Him to do.

That same blessed assurance is ours, simply for the asking and the believing. With that in mind, we too can withdraw to pray, to bring all the overwhelming needs of our world and lay them before God. We can unburden ourselves so that we can sit quietly with God and listen for what he has for us to do. And just like Jesus, we are strengthened by the promise that we will indeed one day return to the God from whom we came. In the meantime, we pray, we listen, and we respond in faith-filled obedience. We become Little Christs.

little-christ

So how can anything go wrong?

Ever have one of those days when you just need a hug, or a smile from a stranger who doesn’t expect anything from you, or just a simple encouragement? Perhaps today is that day. I pray that you will be blessed by the wisdom of Julian of Norwich…

Behold, I am God.

Behold, I am in all things.

Behold, I accomplish all things,

Behold, I never withdraw my arms from my work.

Behold, I never fail to guide all things

toward the purpose for which I created them,

before time began,

with the strength, wisdom, and love

with which I created all.

So how can anything go wrong?

Indeed, how can anything go wrong with God? Be encouraged…He’s got this. He’s got it all.

hands of God

Excerpted from All Will Be Well: Julian of Norwich, (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1995, 2008, Quest Associates), pg. 22

The School for Prayer

prayer in community

 

[Church is] where you learn how to pray. Of course, prayer is continued and has alternate forms when you’re by yourself. But the American experience has the order reversed. In the long history of Christian spirituality, community prayer is most important, then individual prayer.         -Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

The foreward of Peterson’s Book, The Contemplative Pastor, consists of an interview with Rodney Clapp, associate editor of Christianity Today. In it, Peterson speaks about private prayer versus common prayer. He says that, in common prayer, we learn to be “led in prayer.” It is an exercise in humility.

In my private prayers, my tendency is to just launch into whatever is on my heart and mind. This makes my prayer all about me, about my wants and needs. Humility is not a factor! These prayers may not align with what’s on God’s heart and mind, and are apt to be met with silence.

I worship in the Anglican tradition. Our worship is liturgical in form, and our prayers are rooted in the Book of Common Prayer. During our times of worship–praying in community–most of our prayers are responsive. In other words, their content is not initiated by me. Take Sunday’s appointed Psalm, for example. Instead of someone just reading it, the congregation is invited to join in the ancient prayer uttered by countless Christians before us. We pray it responsively by half-verse.

At another point in the service, we pray the “Prayers of the People,” a litany of petitions from the Book of Common Prayer. After each short prayer in the litany, we respond with one voice, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” The emphasis is not on me, on my wants and needs, but on each of us aligning our heart with God’s heart as he speaks to us in community.

Prayer has to be a response to what God has said. The worshiping congregation–hearing the Word read and preached, and celebrating it in the sacraments–is the place where I learn how to pray and where I practice prayer. It is a center from which I pray. From it I go to my closet or to the mountains and continue to pray. (emphasis mine)

The second point that Peterson makes about praying in community has to do with feelings. He points out that individual worshipers are not asked what they feel like praying about when they enter the church. Our common prayer isn’t predicated upon, or evaluated by, my personal feelings. If the efficacy of prayer is dependent upon my capricious thoughts or fickle mood, it may well be a lost cause!

Peterson concludes this segment of the interview by pointing out that it’s virtually impossible to learn self-differentiated prayer apart from community.

But if I’m in a congregation, I learn over and over again that prayer will go on whether I feel like it or not, or even if I sleep through the whole thing.

Want to pray more effectively? Cultivate humility through praying in community–prayers that do not have their origin in your thoughts, feelings, or desires. Then take what you learn there into private prayer.