Prayer Struggle

Romans 8_26

Lately I’ve been struggling with prayer. Oh, I can go through my lists of requests as well as the next person, but the struggle is the deeper prayer; the soaking in the Spirit prayer. Maybe it’s my age or the season of life I’m in; maybe it’s the listening part or all of the distractions. Maybe it’s something else entirely; even so, I find it both interesting and disturbing. It’s interesting because I haven’t been in such a struggle for a long time; disturbing because I haven’t been in such a struggle for a long time.

Struggle and Soil

Perhaps the struggle is part of God’s plan for me. Instead of fretting over the struggle I need to be okay with it and recognize it as a normal part of growing in my walk with Jesus. The struggle is where the refining of my faith occurs. Outward struggles are obvious opportunities for faith-building, but the interior struggles are invisible to the material world but are every bit as real, maybe even more so.

It is in the unseen where the Holy Spirit does his best work; that is, if the person in the midst of the struggle leans deeper into God rather than turning away. The struggle is where the soil of my soul is being tilled for the deeper things of God.

Painful Reveal and the Crucible

The struggle also reveals weak areas of my faith. Such as being too focused on today’s list of to-dos, or tomorrow’s dreams, or my worrying over the “what ifs” of life, “what ifs” that may never come to pass. It is revealing to me that my mind is not quiet, my soul is not settled and I am not waiting patiently.

The struggle then is honing the discipline of waiting; waiting on God to speak, or not to speak. The quiet is the crucible that is forging the fragile yet precious patience required to truly hear from God.

The struggle helps me better understand what Paul was talking about in Romans 8: “And even we Christians, although we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, also groan to be released from pain and suffering. We, too, wait anxiously for that day when God will give us our full rights as his children … And the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. For we don’t even know what we should pray for, nor how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words” (verses 23 and 26, New Living Translation).

So struggle goes on, but at least I know I’m not struggling alone.

More to Do, Little to Be

leaf-path_resized

“Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountains to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.”

—Luke 6:12

“To be in His presence is gift enough.” This is a phrase I heard last week at the Hope Pregnancy Clinic banquet. It is a compelling quote, especially when feeling distant from God. Personally, my life is so full of stuff needing to be done that life itself has become a series of to-do lists. I’m slowly and sadly morphing into the recent cliché of living as a human-doing rather than a human being. Perhaps an overused phrase, but it has a lot of truth to it.

Jesus spent hours just being with His Father, I’m sure He had requests but given the amount of time spent with His Father it is likely that much of the time was just basking in the presence of the Lord. Jesus was longing to hear the voice of His Father rather than His own voice. Conversely, much my time with the Father is nothing more than a ten minute “prayer session” of requests and laments. I don’t give enough time to listen to anything other than my own voice. There is no presence of God because I monopolize the time with my own presence.

Apprenticeship with Jesus

Zack Eswine states in Sensing Jesus that life for a Christ-follower is an apprenticeship with Jesus and “apprenticeship needs meditation and time” (p. 26).  Part of this time is spent in prayerful meditation on the character of God or on a portion of Scripture, such as the one mentioned above. It takes time in any conversation to move into the deeper waters of relational richness and soul-moving transformation. It reminds me of strolling with Jesus down a leaf-strewn path, kicking and crunching through the fallen foliage just talking…talking about the deep things like longing for Heaven, or enduring through chronic pain or fearing the future. It is asking Jesus to speak into the darker areas of my heart; the areas of selfish ambition, or the desire to be in control or my covetousness. It is intentionally opening the doors and windows of my soul to the refreshing and cleansing breeze of the Holy Spirit wafting through unhindered, removing the stench of sin and clutter. This opens up spaces for healing and transformation, and for two-way conversation.

Be More Than Do

Instead, Jesus is kept at arm’s length with carefully crafted to-do lists and requests. We have accomplishments next to little check-marked boxes of things we have done; but Jesus is interested in transforming our being, not our doing.  We are called to be lights, not do lights (Matt. 5:14-16 and Phil. 2:15).

What if our mindset was to be healing rather than do healing? And being bathed in the presence of Jesus is in itself healing; yes, the aches remain and things needs to be done for employers, school, and ministry—but that time of being with Jesus can help us become a healing presence for others. But when we focus on doing, our soul shrinks to the size of our check boxes; Jesus wants to transcend us above such a small soul to become more like Him. To become more of a healing light, drawing others to Jesus’ healing presence.

We are to be more than we are to do.

Getting Back to Joy

hose

I am fascinated by the idea of joy. Actually, truth be known, I’m more chagrined by the lack of it. Joy, by definition, means “the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation” (Dictionary.com). Jesus says that “these things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

What things did He speak to them and subsequently to us about? He spoke that He was the way to the Father and about the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit. He spoke about His peace being given to us and about abiding in the Father. Then after He speaks of us having joy He then calls us friends.

First John speaks to joy as well: “And these things we write to you that your joy may be full” (1 Jo. 1:4). This encouragement comes after he has reminded us that we have eternal life because of our faith in Jesus Christ. But notice that in both verses God desires our joy to be full; not half full, not a whiff of being full, but fully full!

Stepping on the Hose

It is also interesting to note that the word ‘joy’ occurs over 150 times in the Bible. God desires us to have joy; so much so that joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). ‘Joy’ sits between ‘love’ and ‘peace.’ God wants us to have joy. And since joy is part of the indwelling Holy Spirit, it can just flow through us if we leave the Holy Spirit unquenched. However, if we are always downcast or morose, then joy is obviously not being manifested in our lives. This should lead us to ask, why? Somewhere, somehow, we are quenching the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. It is as if we are stepping on the garden hose supplying the refreshing water to the soil of our hearts; we are somehow resisting the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives (see 1 Thessalonians 5:19). Are we harboring some secret sin, hatred, or fear? Are we overworked, overbooked or overwhelmed? Where are we stepping on the hose of God’s refreshing?

If we live joylessly, then is it any wonder we’re not winning others to Christ? Who wants to become part of a dark cloud society when Jesus Himself is light and life?  And how do we get back to joy?

Unquench

Prayer, that’s how. We need to honestly approach God in prayer and plead for him to search our anxious hearts to reveal all that is contrary to his light in our lives (see Psalms 51:7-12 and 139:23-24). If in raw sincerity of our will we approach God with this request he will honor it even if it hurts a little. But the end result is the restoration of the joy we have in our salvation that will seep out of our lives to draw others into the same joy of the same salvation (Psalm 51:12-13).

Proverbs 3 and Prayer, Scripture and Counsel

Bible stackProverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” This verses are also reiterated in Proverbs 16:3 and Psalms 37:3-4. Trusting in God is seeking his guidance via prayer, Scripture, and sound counsel from mature believers. This process (prayer, Scripture, counsel) is preferable over merely making key decisions in isolation. In other words, as Scripture says, pray about everything (cf. Ph. 4:6-7) then trust God to guide in the planning and responding to whatever is at hand. If we are still unsure then seek wise counsel from those that are biblically mature.

Prayer, Scripture, Counsel

This demonstrates humility and dependence on God and the cycle of prayer, Scripture, counsel is something we can incorporate into our lives and even teach to our children and grandchildren. However, not trusting in God is relying solely on the self which produces questionable, if not disastrous, results. Over the years I’ve seen this play out in poor relationship decisions that caused years of contentions, legal entanglements and damaged children. I’ve also seen this play out in poor purchasing decisions that resulted in years of debt; such as using credit cards to buy material things that wear out long before the bills are paid. These are two significant examples that result in great emotional and financial damage over long periods of time.

A Little Exercise

How much simpler and more fulfilling would our lives be if we reigned in our impatience, got quiet before the Lord and sought his counsel and then the counsel of other wise, mature Christ-followers? Maybe it would help to think of times when you made rash decisions without seeking counsel and then answer these three questions: How did it effective your life? What could you have done differently then? How are you doing things differently now?

A Cognitive Dissonance of Faith

Caleb_bush_treatmentBless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

—Romans 12:14-15

Blood Cries Out

I feel a little strange today. Right now my youngest son is riding his bike around the cul de sac bellowing like a siren; he’s pretending to be a paramedic. I rejoice at the joyful heart of my child and his innocent imagination. I am also proud of my oldest son as he makes a life of his own in North Dakota. He’s a grown man now that makes his father proud. And yet there is a heaviness in the pit of my soul; it is like a mournful cry rising out of the earth itself as little children like my own are being murdered for their faith. The dust of the Middle East is muddying up in the blood of the innocents. God have mercy.

Dissonance

Amidst this I still have a paper to write for my Old Testament class, on God’s grace, oddly enough. I will eventually get on my bike today to enjoy the countryside, the sunshine and the feel of my body laboring in the love of cycling. We will probably grill up some tasty steaks on the back patio with an avocado salad.

And yet the pit of my soul beckons me to pray..pray for the children, pray for their parents, pray their faith remains strong, and, yes, pray that the murderers wake up to the wrong they reap with their own hands; no matter what they do, Jesus is still Jesus, and they will someday meet Him. I pray they come to faith prior to their meeting. Even so, I pray for God’s justice to reign through all the cruelty humanity heaps upon humanity.

A New To-Do List

How, then, am I to live my life? Do I hang my head in guilt that I’m not suffering as they? Do I pack, leave my family and head into the danger zone? I don’t think so. I think part of what I’m learning about this pit in my soul is the Holy Spirit encouraging me to pray as mentioned above. But He is also using this to remind me to be thankful for the life I am living, to love my sons with all I have, and to protect my marriage and my Bride by not taking her for granted, or having a wandering eye, or by thinking of her as anything less than a dear daughter of the Most High God. And to take care of myself, the temple of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:19).

I can rejoice and I can weep. I can pray and I can celebrate. I can rebuke guilt and embrace the love of God that washes clean each heart of faith. I can go on with my day with a new motivation to never take for granted the life I live and the people I love and the people that love me.  And I can pray…

Surrendering to God in a Consumerist Culture

What are the barriers holding us back from surrendering to God? As I have explored this over the years, I have found that I am the biggest barrier. It isn’t my environment, or my posture, or even scheduling, it is me; or more accurately, my past and how it has affected the building up of walls around my heart.

But first let’s look at what surrender is not. It is not running away, caving in, or giving up. At least not in the sense we’re thinking of in relationship to an enemy of some sort. We often think of surrender as waving the white flag and allowing ourselves to be taken prisoner of even enslaved. That is not what we are talking about when we talk of surrendering to God.

Surrendering to God is giving our life over to him; this is more than words, but it is a willful intent of our heart to allow God to speak into any area of our lives; even in those dark, secret places that no one even knows about. The anger you feel in rush hour traffic, invite God into that. The desire to overindulge in a meal or beverage, invite God into that. Invite him into everything, your workout, your classroom, your workplace, and even your bedroom. God is everywhere present anyway, so why the hesitancy?

The hesitancy is indicative of the barriers mentioned in the first paragraph. These barriers come in many shapes and sizes but I will touch on the four biggies I’ve identified in my own life. They are fear, pride, time orientation and lack of will.

Fear

This is the biggest of the four. While we may not recognize this at first, we fear handing our life over to God. The reasons are multifaceted. For instance, what is God going to do with us? Is he going to bring some sort deep-seated pain to my consciousness, like those repressed memories of childhood abuse? Is he going to call me into something I don’t want to do, like move far away or apologize to a co-worker? Is he going to reveal in stark HD color the sins that are dominating my life?

The answer is maybe, and maybe not, but God knows what is best for us and won’t bring us to places we can’t handle (see 1 Corinthians 10:13). Fully surrendering to God takes courage, it takes courage to allow God to use us according to his purposes; it also takes courage to allow God to bring painful things into our thinking. He knows that if we don’t eventually deal with repressed soul-pain, that pain may very well become the center of our identity; how many people do we see in the media or even in our own lives that wear their “victimhood” as the primary essence of their identity? It is a miserable existence that God wants to save us from.

Pride

Pride says I can do this on my own, I don’t need your help. I’ve struggled with this because of past experiences. And, as mentioned above, if I don’t allow God to deal with these past experiences, they will eventually define who I am.

When I was in Junior High School in the mid-seventies I was bullied. It wasn’t cyber-bullying through the Ethernet but was instead a gang of four boys that beat me up and did other things to humiliate me in front of my peers, even the female peers. It was devastating. No one came to help me so I eventually had to take matters into my own hands. I was too small and out-numbered to fight physically, so I fought back with wit and humor. I even did a stand-up comedy routine in a school-wide talent show. It was a huge hit and from that time on I was popular and no longer bullied; it was uncool to beat up the funny guy. This is a nice little success story but it built into my thinking that I had no one to rely on but myself. Therefore, why would I suddenly start relying on a God I can’t even see?

Plus my Northern European heritage ingrained a strong do-it-yourself drive. Still, I long to draw close to God and he has shattered these barriers in my soul by bringing into and through several bouts of helplessness in my life. Through these bouts, all health-related and all physically painful, I have spent much time in deep prayer and relying on others, such as my dear bride and close friends (and sometimes nurses and paramedics) in helping me with basic needs and tasks. Now I know I cannot do this alone and am grateful that there is a loving God that I can see via the love and compassion of others.

Time Orientation

I’m a future oriented person. That is I am constantly thinking about what I’d like to see in the future for me, my family and for ministry, and then I go about the work it takes to get there. In other words, I’m a dreamer. This can be a good thing as long as the dreams align with God’s call on my life. Dreamers can also be profound visionaries, they can see an immediate problem and then look beyond it into what a solution could look like.

Future orientation also allows for easy distraction. It doesn’t take a lot to launch into some mental tangent because of some stray word someone spoke or a headline on a TV ticker or just plain old daydreaming. It is also hard to sit quietly in prayer and focus on God. My mind is constantly chattering about something and it seems nearly impossible for me to truly rest in the Lord. I sense Jesus encouraging me to just rest in Him but the chatter….the incessant chatter…keeps on yacking. I have been labeled as an intense person by many people over the years. For some reason this hurts me, I don’t intend to be intense, in fact, I’d like to be seen as one of those ancient, serene monks that are quiet and wise. But I am nowhere near that. What’s more, in every massage I’ve ever had the therapist says the same thing, “You need to learn how to relax.” Duh! I actually politely respond that I know that but I am a work in progress. Truthfully, I have been working on this for nearly four decades and I feel I am no closer to success than when I was 12. I have paid a psychological and now a physical price as well.

Wah, wah! Big baby. Bottom line is I still pursue Jesus in as quiet as a state I can achieve, and you know what, He always accepts me, pats me on the back and allows my tears to fall and the tight ball of tension that is my body to collapse in the safety of a Savior that knows me and still loves me.

Lack of Will

Not a lot to say about this. It’s like a fitness program where people talk a lot about it but never really get started doing it. It’s hard work, it takes time, and it takes discipline, something our culture strives to avoid. Similarly, lots of people talk of wanting to draw close to the Lord but they really don’t want to for the very reasons described above. It takes work and courage, and in our instant, have-it-now culture, we’d rather just have a quick fix, just click on the electronics or take another pill of spend another wad of cash and I’ll feel better; for a while anyway…..

Last Bits

To begin surrendering to God requires us to overcome these four categories, except we are destined to failure if we don’t first acknowledge that God can help us through this (see Philippians 1:6, 2:13, 3:12-16 & 4:12-13). We stand against the fear by recognizing that God has his best intent for us, he does not intend to harm us but heal and strengthen us.

Let pride go before you truly become helpless. It helps to remember that it is through Jesus Christ that we are saved and not of our own works, therefore, what’s the point of pride in the first place if the only eternal destiny we achieve on our own is hell (see Ephesians 2:4-10). Satan was booted out of Heaven and many worldly kings have been brought low because of pride (see Isaiah 14:12-21 & Ezekiel 28). Pride may produce short-term results, but in the long run it will keep you from truly experiencing God and may very well keep you from experiencing any real closeness with anyone.

If you are a present oriented person you are better suited than most for surrendering to God. Past oriented people need to ask God to help them realize that the past is over and God will clearly reveal to us if there is anything that needs to be dealt with in the present or near future. Future oriented people need to recognize that the future is really undefined. While God knows what the future will bring based upon the choices we make, we don’t know the future so we need to trust him that as we follow his leading our future will glorify him and will be a blessing to us.

And finally, if you don’t have the will to seek God, then pray for the will (see Psalm 119:32). Sometimes this takes intentionally forcing yourself to set time aside to pursue God. To start a running program, you need to set a time to do it every day; same thing with pursuing God. Or, just admit you want to pursue God and then stop talking about it.

Fog Lines and Parables: Guidance for Cyclists and Souls

ImageA 47-degree Friday morning and I’m on my bike. Turning north onto River Road I had to fight to stop second-guessing why I was doing this. Sunrise was at least 50 minutes away so I was riding solidly in the dark, cold and wind. My headlight is like a billion lumens and I had the LED tail light rippling its red brightness, sending the message, “Here I am, don’t kill me!”

All was good, except possibly my sanity.

Then I turned east on Quinaby and all was not so good. It’s an older country road with no shoulder and no fog line, which never seemed to matter during daylight rides. Coming down at me from the slope of the I-5 overpass was a set of car headlights in bright mode; these lumens must’ve been like a trillion because I couldn’t see. I was already fighting against watery eyes due to the chill wind and now I was riding blind; I literally couldn’t see the road. I knew I was somewhere near the edge, but with no fog line I couldn’t tell how close. If I rode off the edge I’d crash into a soggy gully which, considering I have a neck fusion, could cause me significant physical harm.

What do I do (aside from pray)? Only thing I could do was gravitate slightly to the middle of the road while hoping not to float into the direct path of Mr. Highbeams. Thankfully there was no one behind me, otherwise I probably would have just stopped and walked my bike to the edge; and nobody likes to stop in the middle of ride!

Mr. Highbeams passed and I breathed a thankful sigh of relief. Once my sight adjusted to the dark again I picked up my pace to get to the next road, it had a fog line. With a fog line I can ride faster and with more confidence. Several more roads ahead of me were even more countrified than Quinaby, no fog lines, narrower and riddled with cracks from seasons of baking and chilling through the years.

This got me thinking about guidance; because really, what is a fog line but guidance? It helps me see and stay on the right part of the road so I don’t fling myself into some gully or farmer’s field awaiting the blades of harvesters. What other guidance do I rely on? Well, my life is filled text books, health policies and the parables of Jesus. For instance, Jesus teaches us to help those in need regardless of how different or similar they are to us (Luke 10:30-37). He teaches us about forgiveness and mercy (Matthew 18:21-35). And He teaches us about being watchful (Mark 13:35-37).

Speaking of being watchful I hit yet another road without fog lines. But now the sun is shining in streaks of pink and orange through the patchy clouds gathering in the threat of a coming storm. It’s then I realize my body has been gripped in the tension that comes from knowing I have put myself in danger. Now as the light emerges, the danger passes and the tension drains.  Even though the ride was only 16 miles, I’m exhausted—but I’m alive!

Maybe I’ll get that indoor trainer after all.