Revelation Meets the Great Commission, Part 1

I had the opportunity to preach yesterday (the link is here if you’re curious). Such opportunities are always exciting for me but come with a dose of nerves as well! But no such opportunity would exist except by the grace of God and the freedoms we enjoy in this country which inspires a hearty ‘thank you’ to Veteran’s that have served, are serving and will serve our country.

Revelation 21:1-7 speaks to a wonderful future for those saved in Christ.

‘And God will wipe away every tear; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, no crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away. … Behold I make all things new!”

—Verses 3-5

This section of Revelation contains strong aspects of celebration and of destiny. And even though the Book of Revelation belongs to the genres of the prophetic and the apocalyptic, I believe there’s also a sub-text, or an undercurrent, to this section of Scripture. That sub-text is the sense of invitation. This a great party, who are we going to invite to come to it? And how do we invite them?

Recall that Jesus said, “freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8b). What we have freely received is the gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (see Romans 10:9-10). We can’t earn it, or buy it, or barter for it; it is freely given to us through faith because of the accomplished works of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Your'r invitedThis invitational aspect brings two questions to mind. Today, Part 1 will look at the first question, and Part 2 in my next post will look at the second question.

Question 1: “what is the first area in our lives to advance the Kingdom in?” The answer is in the question: the first area is in our lives, in the interior of our souls, the very depths of our being. Another way to phrase this question is asking if the Holy Spirit can move freely in our lives. If not, where are the barriers blocking the Holy Spirit’s movement, how and where are we quenching the Holy Spirit? And why are we quenching His movement?

Question 1, then, is asking us to honestly examine ourselves. But to what standard are we examining ourselves against? The answer is in Galatians.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering [patience], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.

—Galatians 5:22-23

Granted, we are all works in progress, so it is highly unlikely that we will see all the fruit of the Spirit working in our lives all the time. But we can explore to discover if certain fruit is missing altogether or “ripens” only rarely in our lives. The Holy Spirit will even guide us in this exploration.

Cultivation

A helpful key in this exploration of building the Kingdom in our lives is intentionally cultivating our relationship with God. Any meaningful relationship, whether with a spouse, or a child, or a friend, takes investment, it takes cultivation. Our relationship with God is no different.

One idea to assist in this cultivation is prayer. But maybe more prayer isn’t the answer as opposed to a new approach to prayer. For instance, if we are “laundry-list” pray-ers, that is we foist a list of requests up to God then move on with our day, we can instead shift our approach to a posture of more being with God in silence. Lists are fine, but there’s more to prayer than just that. We need to learn to listen and to be still before God.

Another idea is Scripture reading. Most of us think we need to read more Scripture daily; and maybe some folks do need this. But I think that sometimes a reading regimen places undo stress into our lives or orients us more toward checking off a to-do box on our daily tasks rather than actually absorbing what we are reading. Another approach for consideration is reading less Scripture daily and thinking about It more. Take small sections but think more deeply about them; meditate over them; perhaps even journal about them.

There are several other ideas as well; these two are merely to get our thinking started.

The Point…

The bottom line, though, is the Holy Spirit is attractive and enables us to be invitational people. But without the evidence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we are working in our own power and are not in sync with what God is wanting in our lives or the lives of the people around us.

Question 2: what is the second area in our lives to advance the Kingdom in? We’ll explore this question in the next post.   

Lessons from a Fourth Grader

Just last week I was one of several parent chaperones on an over-night field trip to the Oregon 4th_grd_3Coast for third and fourth graders. I was also invited to share the devotional after dinner and before s’mores. I chose to teach Psalm 139:13-16. Verse 16 reads:

Your eyes saw my substance; being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.

According to my research, the phrase “my substance” refers to an embryo; and “in Your book” connotes the idea that the life in the embryo is established, or purposed, by God. Therefore, I shared with the children that each life is intentionally purposed by God. And since each one of them was purposed by God while still unborn, they, each one of them, is significantly important to God.

How important? Important enough that when God came in the flesh in Jesus Christ, He sacrificed for them. But not only that, He then rose from the grave and ascended on high. And it doesn’t even stop there; ten days later He sent the Holy Spirit that all who place their faith in Jesus will receive salvation, being indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thereby guaranteeing them to be with Jesus for evermore, amen!

So, the main theme I wanted them to understand is that they are purposed by God and therefore vastly important to Him. No matter what anyone ever says about them or to them, they are a daughter or son of the Most High God and loved dearly by Him.

After teaching this I asked them how they felt about being so important to God. Many hands went up with many different and wonderful answers. But one little girl’s answer arrested my attention so much that I just stood looking at her.

“How do you feel about being so important to God,” I asked.

“Speechless.”  

I was left speechless; so was everyone else. What an apt description from someone so young.

I get so busy trying to understand what I can of God and then preparing to explain it so others can share in that understanding, that I often forget just how awesome God really is. What wonder God presents to us. What wonder His creation presents to us. And what wonder our very bodies present to us.

Speechless.

Perhaps speechlessness is the essence of worship. We are in such awe of God we can’t even find words.  Speechless, or silence, may be one of the main postures to assume as we desperately desire to hear from God. Could it be that our hearts are more open to God and His work in our lives if we are in a speechless state; when we are quiet and in a posture of reverent awe? Such a posture quiets our minds, preparing our souls for God to do His deepest work in the darkest parts of our souls.

Yes, fourth graders have a lot to teach us if we just listen to what they have to say. I’m speechless!

“Anxious for nothing…,” Seriously?!

Over the years, I’ve heard many people say either from the pulpit or in conversation that worrying is a sin. The word ‘sin’ in and of itself, simply means missing the mark; as in an archer missing the bullseye with the arrow shot from his bow. Theologically, it can be rendered as intentional behavior that is outside the will of God (that’s my definition, anyway). Worrying, or anxiety, the word used in Philippians 4:6, is defined as “anxious care” (Wuest), or “disquieting perplexing care … and distracting thought in the wants and difficulties of life” (Henry), or to have “anxious or distracting care” (Bullinger).

Any of these definitions work for me, especially the distracting part. In fact, for professional worriers, distracting could also be obsessing.  Descartes is credited with saying, “I think, therefore I am.” Somewhere in the long line of my lineage, some wannabe philosopher changed this a bit to say, “I think, therefore I worry.” Worrying is one of the primary threads sewn throughout the tapestry of my heritage. I’ve successfully taken distracting care into obsessing care; so much so that I’ve nearly suffered from panic attacks involving hyperventilating with a strong sense of paralysis. Maybe you can relate.

Worrying has taken a toll on my health and on my relationships. And now I’m being told that it’s a sin to boot. Now I’m worried about that.

But how do I stop? Well, let’s read Philippians 4:6-7 and then I’ll explain what I’m discovering works for me.

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

As McGee points out, this passage starts with anxiety and ends with peace. But notice what’s in the middle—prayer. It’s interesting to note that the mood of the passage is present, active, imperative; this means that it is akin to a command and that it is an ever-present command. It’s not just a command to stop worrying, but it is also an ever-present antidote to the worrying. In other words, anxiety is always crouching and waiting to pounce on us; whether at work, or home or school or with the doctor, anxiety is an ever-present reality in this life of ours. But so is the antidote, prayer.

 

Hands

Yeah, they’re my hands, but you get the point!

When we feel anxious, Scripture encourages us to specifically pray about our anxiety and ask for God’s help with it (this is basically the essence of the word ‘supplication’). And we do so with thanksgiving; we’re thankful that God not only willingly listens to our prayer, He actually invites us to pray about it; He welcomes it into His presence. Think of it as an always open invitation from God to lift our cares, concerns, and worries up to Him.  I often think of placing the anxiety, whatever form it’s in, into His hands; then I pray that God will empower me to leave it there; to leave this anxiety in His hands and thereby lift it off of my shoulders and out of my guts and into His always open hands.

 

But just how is this operationalized; how is this put into action in everyday situations? It’s taken me years to figure this out, and I am not 100% anxiety-free by any stretch of the imagination; but here’s what I’ve been learning lately.

As we just explored, this passage of Scripture is active, present, imperative. Yeah, yeah, techy-speak, but what it means is that I can recite this section of Scripture as a prayer as often as I need to. And that’s what I’ve been doing lately. When the anxiousness begins threatening me again, I lift the anxious thinking and the specific situation with a specific request to God. Rarely does the situation change, but my internal well-being changes. Slowly, and somewhat strangely, I start sensing God’s peace. I can’t really explain it, and perhaps that’s part of why God’s peace “surpasses understanding;” but the sense of peace is very real and has staying power. My thoughts become freer, I’m able to focus on the present more clearly and my heart slows its palpitations. This calmer state then enables the guarding of my heart and mind through Christ Jesus. This means that when I’m not distracted or filled with anxious thoughts, I am more capable through the indwelling Holy Spirit to keep more anxiety out of my thinking. The stronghold of worry in my life is slowly being uprooted as I spend more time in God’s peace through the ongoing prayer of supplication with thanksgiving.

But now back to the sin part. I don’t think my propensity toward worry or anxiety is sinful; what I think is sinful is refusing to acknowledge it as contrary to God’s will for my life and the subsequent refusal to partake of God’s antidote for it, prayer. But as I become more adept at recognizing the anxiety and quicker to lift it up to God in prayer, the less likely my propensity will turn to sin, and the happier and healthier my life will become.

Part 2: Daniel and Prayer

daniel_2Last week we explored several biblical characteristics just by exploring Daniel’s prayer life. These characteristics include deep knowledge of Scripture, avoidance of compromise, faithfulness that is expressed in the “sub-characteristics” of courage (heroism), commitment through perseverance in spite of cultural threats, thankfulness and obedience to live a life honorable to God.

We also see that, “[B]urdened for his countrymen, Daniel began to pray.”[1] His prayers were not self-centric but instead he prayed for his countrymen. I imagine that at times he prayed for himself, such as when he was placed in the lions’ den, but the focus of Daniel Chapter 9 is his prayer for the people of Israel and the city of Jerusalem. Only in Chapter 9 does Daniel refer to the Lord as Yahweh, which occurs seven times.[2] Wood states that this is significant because Yahweh “depicts God as the gracious, covenant-keeping God of Israel, who is willing to reveal to man and hear man when he prays.”[3] Daniel is therefore indicating that he is expecting that God hears him and will indeed answer him. In other words, he is not praying a half-hearted prayer to a god that he sees as aloof or impotent but instead, he’s praying to the God of universe. He understands that “God bound Himself to us, and we are to obey Him. Our obedience brings a blessing, and our disobedience brings a curse.”[4] However, Daniel also clearly understands that his people have definitely sinned against God and have strayed far from the blessing of God and are in the midst of a curse by way of the exile.

Therefore, his burden for his people is so great that before he prays he fasts with sackcloth and ashes (verse 3). “In the Old Testament, fasting, sackcloth, and ashes are indications of grief and self-abasement in the context of calamity or loss experienced or threatened, or of wrongdoing committed.”[5] What we see is a very serious Daniel suffering a genuine burden for the sins of his people. He engages in the activities of verse three to not just acknowledge the greatness of the burden, but to also prepare his heart to come before Yahweh on behalf of his people.

When he finally approaches Yahweh, he doesn’t begin by just diving into his requests or supplications. Instead, he approaches Yahweh by first clearly acknowledging the Lord is a “great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and mercy with those who love Him, and with those who keep His commandments” (verse 4). Then he moves into confession that his people have “sinned and committed iniquity” and that they “have done wickedly and rebelled, even by departing from Your precepts and Your judgments. Neither have we heeded Your servants and prophets” (verses 5-6a). Daniel is not mincing words; he is intercessing for his people by honestly confessing the truth of their sin of abandoning God through abject disobedience and rejection of God’s precepts and the messages of his prophets. He eventually humbly asks God to forgive his people and spare the city of Jerusalem in verses 16-19.

While Nelson suggests he is inclined “to view that the prayer is a later interpolation”[6] I am inclined to agree with many other commentaries that it was part of the original rendering. This prayer is from the very heart of Daniel and it so moved God’s heart that Daniel is met presumably face to face with the Archangel Gabriel; in fact, “Daniel had not even finished his time of prayer (verse 20) before the angel made his appearance.”[7]

There is much more to be said about the prayer itself, but I want to summarize the additional characteristics that were not discussed above.

We have seen that Daniel had a genuine burden for others; he was others-centric and prayed with a fervent heart for their deliverance. We also see serious acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty and that he desires to bless his people. A sub-characteristic of this is the expectation that God is good and merciful and does want to bless his people. In other words, it is not just acknowledging that God can bless his people, but that he will bless his people in their obedience and faithfulness.

Additionally we see Daniel preparing himself via fasting, sackcloth and ashes. He did not enter into this prayer “just off the cuff” but genuinely prepared his heart and mind to approach the true God. And, finally, we see Daniel boldly expressing the sins of his people; he is not watering down the seriousness but is instead starkly stating the sins of his people and asking God to pour mercy and forgiveness onto the people and to spare Jerusalem.

A final word is that Daniel exhibited all of these characteristics while in exile. He was not in the comfort of his birthplace or frequenting his beloved temple, but he was in exile far away from his homeland. This speaks very clearly that godly character is not dependent on the environment but blooms from the fertile soil of faith held deep in Daniel’s soul.  May we be inspired by the depth of Daniel’s faith, the breadth of his godly character and the richness of his prayer life so that we, to, can become people that move the heart of God toward mercy and forgiveness for the lost and seeking souls.

[1] Leon Wood, A Commentary on Daniel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 234.

[2] Wood, pp. 234-5.

[3] Wood, p. 235.

[4] Donovan L. Graham, Teaching Redemptively: Bringing Grace and Truth into Your Classroom (Colorado Springs: Purposeful Design Publications, 2009), Kindle loc. 1623.

[5] John E. Goldingay, Daniel: Word Biblical Commentary, Gen. Eds. David A. Hubbard & Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books Publisher, 1989), p. 253.

[6] William B. Nelson, Daniel: Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, Gen. Eds. W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. & Robert K. Johnson (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), p. 222.

[7] Gaebelein, p. 111.

Daniel: An Example of Prayer

We discussed prayer in our small group the other night. That got me thinking about danielbiblical examples of those that prayed mightily. There are many examples, of course; Jesus being the preeminent example. But a somewhat obscure example is what I was drawn to. That example is Daniel.

One of my professors stated that “his [Daniel’s] prayer should inform how we pray.”[1] This phrase caught my attention because I spend much time in prayer myself. I do not profess to be any sort of mighty intercessor, but I am called and drawn to pray not just for myself or my family, but also for my specific church and our members and “attenders.” I also pray for the advancing of the gospel of Christ and for the forgiveness of our nation. I often feel a burden to pray, but at times I fight against a sense of futility in prayer because I am not seeing the answers I am expecting to see. Thus, the above quote inspired me to delve into this prayer in more detail, and in so doing I discovered key characteristics that built Daniel into a mighty man of prayer that moved the heart of God.

Daniel was “prompted to pray because he was reading Scripture.”[2] Archer states that Daniel was “a diligent student of Scripture who built his prayer life on the Word of God.”[3] Berrigan states that “Amid great darkness, Daniel opens the scroll. Thus once more an important principle is illustrated. This: while time lasts, scripture is never to be thought, or dealt with, as lying inert on a page. No, it is … a prodigious energy. It flares up in our face; it brings to bear upon our sorry human scene the very truth of God.”[4] Daniel held God’s Word in the highest regard, clearly displaying that he understood that, “You [God] have magnified Your word above all Your name” (Psa. 138:2b, NKJV).

Because he knew Scripture so well he was able to pray along the lines of the truth he had learned from the Word of God. In other words, Daniel’s prayers aligned with the truth he knew from Scripture which meant that his prayers were in alignment with the very heart of God from which Scripture originally flowed out of.

What is also interesting is Daniel’s praying is visible throughout the Book of Daniel. A significant precursor to the great prayer of Chapter 9 is the events of Chapter 6.

In Chapter 6 we see Daniel excelling above all the other satraps and governors (cf. vv. 2-3). This angered these men so they sought a way to tarnish his reputation in the eyes of King Darius. However, “these men said, ‘We shall not find any charge against this Daniel unless we find it against him concerning the law of his God’” (v. 5).  The charge they built to trap Daniel was his evidently well-known habit toward prayer. So King Darius was cajoled into signing a decree that his subjects should only pray to him and any violators would be thrown into the den of lions (vv. 6-9). Daniel was aware of this decree, so now not only was he in exile he was now facing a capital crime by continuing to engage in prayer. “Under such catastrophe, existence itself is shaken”[5] but still Daniel responds by continuing his practice of praying three times a day “as was his custom since early days” (v. 10b) knowing very well that if he is caught he will suffer dire, if not fatal, consequences.

This is stunning because it is likely he could have continued to pray minus the outward expression of prayer, but apparently Daniel found that compromising because instead he continues his outward expression of prayer by opening his windows, facing Jerusalem and kneeling three times a day. Scripture also informs us that Daniel, even under the threat of committing a capital offense, still gives thanks to God (v. 10).  “Such heroism does not develop overnight, nor is it created in a vacuum. It is the mature fruit of lives and characters that have been forged by experience, … and by faithfulness and obedience.”[6]

We know that by the grace of God Daniel survived the lions’ den while those that plotted against Daniel met their demise by the very means they intended for Daniel (not unlike Haman in the Book of Esther, about another heroic character and another somewhat humorous expression of God’s poetic justice). Daniel’s survival entices King Darius to honor the God of Daniel and then we see Daniel move into more visions and more prominence in the Persian culture, which, of course, leads us to the prayer of Chapter 9. But we’ll look at that next week.

 

[1] Quote from Professor Mark Jacobson, Corban University.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gleason Archer, “Daniel,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank Gaebelein, Gen. Ed., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985), p. 107.

[4] Daniel Berrigan, Daniel: Under Siege of the Divine (Farmington: The Plough Publishing House, 1998), pp. 155-6.

[5] Berrigan, p. 4.

[6] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Daniel: The Communicator’s Commentary, Gen. Ed. Lloyd Ogilvie (Wasco: Word Books Publisher, 1988), p. 27.

Focused Prayer through Cycling?

I’ve recently noticed how quickly my mind becomes focused when riding a bike down a steep hill at nearly 30 miles an hour. A more intense, laser-type focus springs forth when this descent has me inches away from a rumbling tractor-trailer on my left and a four inch concrete curb on my right. Prayer suddenly emerges when the bike path I’m navigating through is debris-strewn with rocks, twigs, tire-puncturing glass and odd bits of metal. Then, invariably, the light turns red! My mind effortlessly switches to shifting gears, applying brakes and unclipping my right cleat from the pedal (see my post on Bike Tipping and Humility for more on how not to unclip). At the red light I notice my breathing is heavy but my mind is amazingly aware and engaged. I’m awake! I’m alive! And I’m loving life!

 

I Can’t Run?

For some reason, this reminds me of when my neurosurgeon told me stop running; it was like a gut-punch knocking the wind out me. I loved to run. I could pray when I ran; meditate or ponder some complex work-related issue when I ran. Running was also the quickest way to stave off those pesky love handles!

Cycling certainly helps keep me fit and trim, but I can’t just put my shoes on and run. And I can’t ride my bike while lost in prayer or some other deep thought. So I’ve had to adapt.

Cycling requires more preparation and more equipment. But, alas, I’ve been riding consistently since the summer of ’13 when God blessed me with the ability to buy a newer bike that better fit my “newer” neck. I did a lot of riding when I was younger, but gave it up when I started a family. When I wanted to start riding again, I discovered my old bike didn’t fit me anymore, primarily due to neck surgeries; after all, triple fusions have a way of messing with mobility! So I needed a new bike. Granted, it’s not a super expensive bike, but neither am I a super-expensive rider. Do I really need carbon everything and the fanciest gadget that talks to every satellite? No, not really, I’m not going to set any Strava records and I get dropped in every group ride I participate in; so my equipment is very solid, mid-range stuff. Maybe someday I’ll share more details about my specific bits of equipment.

 

A Little Background

long_road.jpgBefore we moved to the west side of town, my rides were typically flat and long; I could get on a long stretch of country road and let my mind sort of zone out. It could wander off in all sorts of different directions.

Living out here though, letting my mind wander even briefly could have disastrous results. I need to stay focused on the long, hard climbs; otherwise, I might slow so much I fall over or simply mentally give up. A wandering mind while urban adventure riding (UAR) could cause me to miss the car pulling out in front of me, or the light turning red or the box of nails spilled in the bike path (yes that really happened).

But what it is also teaching me is to live in the moment. Each moment in UAR can bring opportunities. Opportunities to sprint through the yellow light or climb the big hill in the midst of a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam or to watch kayakers slide effortless under the Union Street foot bridge. And with Pokeman Go, there always fully distracted bi-peds crossing my path! It’s awesome! But it requires me to be in the moment each moment.

 

Living in the Moment and Prayer

This is new to me. I’m always thinking ahead, like to the next meeting, the next vacation, Stay_mind_verse.jpgor even what’s for dinner. I rarely live in the moment. And not living in the moment makes me a terrible listener and it inhibits my prayer life. Training my mind to focus, even if it is through UAR, is developing the skill of “staying my mind.” Look what Isaiah says:

You [God] will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts you. (26:3)

This means that as I focus my mind, or lean my mind upon God, God can work His peace in my soul. Such a stayed mind helps me allow the peace of Christ to fill me (see John 14:27 and Colossians 3:15). Being scattered and unfocused just causes my mind to be agitated or simply distracted. If my prayer life is scattered, then what does that say about my heart toward God? Am I really seeking His kingdom first (see Matthew 6:33), or am I jumping around with a to-do list I want God to fill?  So the skills of living in the moment that I’m learning in my UAR efforts are also helping me in my prayer life. Now when I sit and pray, I’m more intentional about being focused on just God, His character and, of course, His grace and mercy.

Now I don’t think everyone needs to adopt a UAR life, but I do think each of us has something in our lives that we can learn from. Take gardening, for instance. Working the soil and caring for plants has way of slowing and then focusing the mind. Or what about model building, jigsaw puzzles or hiking? If we look for learning opportunities, we may be surprised how many there are in our everyday lives.

Mourning, Anger and Compression Socks

 

This has been a weird week, both personally and nationally.

All of the killings that have happened in our nation are numbing and tragic. Regardless of my political leanings, or thoughts on the 2nd Amendment or attitudes on activism; American families are in mourning and in need of my prayers. This is part of how I love my neighbors (Matthew 22:37-40). Our nation is in need of my prayers. God help us!

 

The Anger Part

SocksI was on my bike ride yesterday when I was pondering all the mourning. As I entered onto a very busy street with a debris-strewn bike path, some dude swerved into the bike lane so his buddy could stick his upper body out of the window to scream at me. It of course startled me, and thankfully they didn’t hit or grab me, but as they sped away, I started fuming. I even yelled at them, and no, I didn’t say “thank you!” I am glad I kept both hands on the handlebars so I didn’t flail around any hand gestures that could’ve caused me even more trouble.

But as their car faded from view and I started climbing one of West Salem’s many hills, I marveled how quickly I went from mourning to anger. Yes, what those people did to me was dangerous and stupid, but I allowed them to disturb my soul. Then I started realizing how I allow a lot of other things to disturb my soul as well.

Sure, most of what is in the news is bad, but typically, we only see what the news wants us to see. We actually have to work to see the positives in life. But even amongst all the sadness and tragedy, there is still beauty. Just look around and marvel at the joy that surrounds us. Even as we pray for more of God’s presence and peace in our own souls and throughout our nation, we can at the same time be thankful for our families, flowers, birds, bikes, and so on.

 

Now the Socks

I was reminded of a simple example of joy when I started speeding down the hill just described, my feet were more comfortable in my new compression socks! Silly, I know, but also simple and joyful. The socks help message the calves, wick sweat away better and just add more overall comfort. And they were on sale to boot!

Like I said, it’s been a weird week, and I didn’t mention my CT scan (but that’s another story).

Observations from the Backyard

Backyard observations

I haven’t blogged for a while. I’ve been adjusting to lots of changes. Adjusting to a new home in a new part of the city, increased (but very fun) responsibilities with my new position, and slogging through the second-to-last semester of grad school; all while trying to maintain a balance with the rest of life. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to just sit still and quiet the mind. This morning was just such a time as I sat on our bench in the backyard. It had recently rained so the air was freshly moist, the raindrops were rolling off leaves with a distinctive liquid-y plop onto other leaves or the ground, and the birds were out in force as the land drank in the refreshing after a summer of being parched. Here are just a few simple observations from this time of

quietness.

Initial Sense

The peaceful breeze,

fresh with moisture and fragrance;

Bringing season’s change.

Floating Thought

Cars rumble away,

destinations and errands.

But birdsong remains.

Almost Over

Beckoning silence.

To-do lists and checkboxes.

The tensions of life.

Uncomfortable Words and Prayer

Peace

Contemplative, centering and meditation. What do you think when you read these words? Many western Christians bristle at these words. They conjure up images of bald Tibetans in orange and red robes or multi-armed Hindu gods. And yet Scripture is full of admonitions to meditate. Often the admonitions occur with the word “wait” or “still” as well as many uses of the word “meditate.” In Psalms, meditate and meditation (a derivative of meditate) simply mean to muse, or contemplate or pray. It is also interesting to note that “the fact remains that every human brain, from early childhood on, contemplates the possibility that spiritual realms exist”[1].

Our Brains and God

God built our brains to seek after him, but somehow many of us, myself included, have lost our way in how to do this. For instance, I have task lists and check marks for how I “do” faith. My devotion time is something I squeeze in between getting out of bed in the morning and showering. But am I really seeking God or going through a motion to look spiritual? It isn’t so much the timeframe of this practice as much as it the authenticity of it. Reading Scripture and prayer are good things, but where is my head, and especially my heart, when I do them? Is my prayer a laundry list for God, a list of tasks and expectations that resemble my Franklin Planner? Or am I really desiring to commune with the God of the universe?

The Dessert Fathers from so many centuries ago knew better. “Meditation for them consisted in making the words of the Bible their own by memorizing them and repeating them, with deep and simple concentration, ‘from the heart.’ Therefore the ‘heart’ comes to play a central role in this primitive form of monastic prayer”[2]. But things have changed. Foster notes that “usually people will tolerate a brief dabbling in the ‘inward journey,’ but then it is time to get on with the real business in the real world. We need courage to move beyond the prejudice of our age and affirm with our best scientists that more than the material world exists” (emphasis in the original)[3].

I agree with Merton and Foster.

Jesus and Being Self-Aware

It is so easy to lose the peace in my soul and to allow the “joy of my salvation” to be stolen away.  Why?

Partially because I grew up in a home that breathed in anxiety and breathed out worry. We could all be starters for any team in the in the NWL (National Worry League). I don’t know if those of us from Northern European descent are more predisposed to worry or not, but it seems so genetically ingrained that it is nearly impossible to overcome. Yet Jesus still says that with God nothing is impossible; He goes on to say that He gives us peace, not worldly peace, but the peace that passes understanding (cf. Lk. 18:27, Jo. 14:27 & Phil. 4:6-7).

I want this peace; frankly, I need this peace. How can I be a light in the world when I’m dark inside? How can I expect the world to be a more peaceful place when I can’t even be a more peaceful person? This isn’t being self-absorbed, it’s being self-aware. I want to draw people to Jesus, but all I do is repel them if they look at me see a tightly wound up ball of tension that is irritable and angry. I pray, Jesus, take this away! In fact, the centering prayer phrase I’m now using at this point in my life is, “Peace in Jesus; peace in me.”

So again I embark on a discipline of incorporating more centering prayer in my life. Usually such attempts last a few days and then the busyness and tiredness of life bleed this away from me. So far, my latest attempt has lasted a week; and I love it. I still pray for people and for God’s touch in their lives. But now I’m also intentionally allowing the Holy Spirit to flow more freely in my soul. Through this I am receiving fleeting tastes of that peace I have so desperately longed for.

Over time, I will let you know how this is going.

[1] How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Neuroscientist. Andrew Newberg, MD & Mark Robert Waldman, New York: Ballantine Books, 2009. Kindle location 108.

[2] Contemplative Prayer. Thomas Merton, New York: Image Books, 1969, p. xxix.

[3] Celebration of Discipline. Richard J. Foster, New York: Harper Collins, 1978, Kindle location 277.