Posts Tagged ‘prayer

17
Mar
20

Before and After

Mustang restorationIt was over 20 years ago, but it was a period that still holds the title of “Absolute Worst Time of My Life.”

It was the time when my marriage of 23 years crashed and burned… one hundred percent due to my own immaturity and misanthropy.

It was the time when my struggling advertising and public relations business foundered and then finally ground to a halt.

It was the time when I seemed to be competing with myself to see if the next bad choice could somehow be worse than the last one.

It was the time when I succeeded in not only alienating my then wife, but also both of my sons.

It was a time when I was unable to see any hope or a way out and did not see how it was possible to sink any lower in terms of energy, self-esteem, or faith.

It was the time when I let go any shred of pretense of self-sufficiency, dropped to my knees in anguish, and cried out to God in utter despair.

It was also the time – I now see in retrospect – that my rebirth and redemption began in earnest.

The Bible tells us again and again that God has the desire and the power to redeem… anyone and any situation. Psalm 130:7 says, “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.”

114 other verses spread across the Old and New Testaments repeat the same theme.

And yes, I believe this truth because I grant God’s Word supreme authority in my life. As we trace through the narrative of God’s activity in the world, we come across the theme of redemption over and over and over again… from the redemption of Noah and his family from the flood, to the redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt, to the redemption of the zealot Saul following the death of Jesus, and many others.

Heck, you might even start to believe that communicating the theme of REDEMPTION was one of the main reasons the Bible was written in the first place!

But I also believe in God’s power to redeem because I have experienced it! God redeemed my miserable husk of a life and used it for (I hope) something higher and better than chasing the next sensual gratification.

From my first-hand experience, I have learned that redemption doesn’t mean, “The bad chapter never happened.” Instead, it is God’s assurance that when we lean completely on God, abandoning our own claims to wisdom and nimble adaptability, God gazes on us with loving eyes and says, “I will take this wreckage and create something beautiful and life-giving from it.”

Sort of like the guy who pulled the old, burned-out Mustang off the scrap heap and restored it to better-than-mint condition.

I do not know where the current situation with the novel Coronavirus and COVID-19 is going to lead us. Our country seems to be taking dramatic steps to keep us from gathering in large crowds and spreading the disease at exponential rates. I mean, you know things are bad when major league sports franchises close down indefinitely.

Hopefully, these measures will keep us from overtaxing our healthcare systems, leading to tough decisions about who receives care, and who doesn’t.

As hopeful as I am though, I still fear things might get a lot worse before they show signs of getting better.

But wherever we end up three months… six months… or a year from now, I know one thing with absolute certainty. I know that God will continue to be in the redemption business.

I also know that God will – when we put our full trust in him – take the wreckage that is left behind and make something beautiful out of it.

Always has.

Always will.

11
Mar
20

Option Number Three

Praying handsLong ago… let’s say it was during freshman Biology class… I learned about the “fight or flight” response.

The idea behind this response is that when an animal (including the human animal) is confronted by a life-threatening situation, the adrenal glands release hormones that cause the animal to either stand up and FIGHT against the threat or turn around and FLEE from it.

After my first fist-fight in elementary school, I think my internal switch became permanently stuck in the “FLIGHT” position.

Ensuring the survival of the species is the main reason this response mechanism was included in our wiring. As qualities go, I am sure God did not have to fret and stew over this one very much. It was the classic “no brainer.”

As rational and useful as fight or flight is, I wonder if we might be ignoring a third option… the one that has been made available to us when we face dire, dangerous, scary situations…

… What about the PRAY option?

I can hear the voices of the skeptical even now, saying, “Good luck with that, Russell. You go right ahead and kneel down in the woods while that 600-pound grizzly bear is charging at you. Let me know how that works out.”

And yes, just about every believer who has mentioned the Third Option in connection with the current coronavirus pandemic has been roundly jeered. “Oh sure… let’s just get together and PRAY the virus away!” they say, usually followed by a cynical shake of the head.

And yes I agree… if we understand prayer as a mystical tug on God’s shirtsleeve in order to get God’s attention and persuade him to take some kind of supernatural action, it is a rather ridiculous proposition.

If, on the other hand, we see prayer as a connecting and aligning action, I believe it sheds a whole new light on things. Prayer – as I see it – is the effort by the flawed, limited, sinful human being that is me to connect my tiny perspective with God’s infinite outlook. When I pray, I am aligning God’s infallible plumb line to my warped, wavy life to see exactly where I fall short and where I need some critical correction.

Speaking solely for myself, I know that when things get stressful in my life, I tend to flip the telescope around and try to take a narrower and narrower view of the world. Maybe I believe life will be more manageable if I reduce my field of vision as much as possible.

At times like this, we are called to remember that God’s view – because God is God – is always wider, always deeper, always more inclusive than yours or mine could ever hope to be. There are facets of every situation that, while invisible to our eyes, are perfectly clear to the One Who Made Us.

With this disease spreading faster and becoming more deadly every day, it is really hard to see beyond the two options of either fighting it or fleeing it.

It might just be that this is one of those times that are tailor-made for Option Number Three.

As we are reminded in Philippians 4:6 – “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Abundant blessings;

16
Sep
19

Rubber, meet road

Attending churchWorship is weird.

What I mean is, for me these days the act of attending a service of worship in a local church is a bit of a strange, unsettling experience.

I feel a little bit like Will Ferrell’s character Ricky Bobby in that scene from Talladega Nights. You remember the scene: Ricky is videotaping a public service announcement and suddenly finds his hands floating up awkwardly in front of him. He stares at them in consternation and says, “I don’t know what to do with my HANDS!”

Before my retirement from pastoral ministry on July 1 of this year, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do in a service of worship. I had a clear list of tasks and responsibilities that had to be completed to ensure the effective execution of gathered Christian worship. I was the tone-setter, the ice-breaker, the chief cheerleader, the deliverer of the carefully-crafted message, the MC.

Yes, I usually had a team of people who helped make it all happen, but the buck always stopped right HERE… with me.

But now, Joan and I just ATTEND.

We walk in through the main doors, return the warm smile and greeting of the greeter(s), accept the proffered paper bulletin, and make our way to our seats. Not too close to the front, but not all the way in the back row either.

And then we just WORSHIP.

It is so weird.

But in a way, it is also incredibly freeing.

When the responsive reading time comes, I can just engage my heart and soul in my assigned part… not worrying about whether I am projecting my voice well enough for Olive there in the third row from the back to hear me, or when the last time the batteries in my microphone were replaced.

When it comes time to sing, I can freely bounce back and forth between the melody and the bass line, really reading and absorbing the text. I don’t have to fret about the accompanist’s pacing, or whether I should have chosen to sing all five verses instead of just three.

The pastoral prayer time offers an opportunity for… PRAYING, of all things!

And since discovering firsthand what a struggle and joy and deeply soul-searching journey it is to write and deliver some kind of coherent weekly message, I try to be sure to give my entire, undivided attention – including engaged eye contact – to the pastor as she (or he) teaches from the pulpit.

And yes, while I do have those occasional moments of, “I probably would have said that a little differently than that,” I keep those quietly tucked away in my back pocket.

But I will confess… the hardest part comes for me when the service concludes and we are on our way back out to the parking lot. No, I don’t have any trouble with the chit-chat time or finding the coffee and donut table. A homing device chip for that must have been implanted in my brain long ago.

No, the part that I now find most challenging is the, “OK… what do I now DO with this?” part.

Back then – B.R. (before retirement) – the answer to that question was simple: after this week’s worship service, you get busy crafting next week’s. There is music to choose, special bulletin inserts to design, a sermon to pray over and write, graphics to choose, and special worship elements to incorporate.

But now?

I have to go figure out how I will go live out what I just heard.

 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”(John 13:34-35, NRSV)

(GULP!) OK. Here goes…

08
Aug
19

In Defense of Thoughts and Prayers

Prayer-and-ActionLet’s be clear right off the bat; science has shown that 86% of the time when people respond to a tragedy by offering their “thoughts and prayers,” it is a hollow sentiment.

It sounds good. It sounds empathetic. It sounds compassionate.

But the sound quality is generally where it stops.

That is, of course, in 86% of the cases.

[Actually, there is no science behind this. I am just making this number up to make myself sound good. Sort of like those who send their “thoughts and prayers.”]

Some tragedies – such as the recent mass shootings in the U.S. – demand concrete, practical action in response. No one should be allowed to think that 15 seconds of silence with head bowed at the dining room table adequately addresses ANY of the issues connected with gun violence in this country.

As true as that is, let’s not throw out the whole prayer “baby” with the bathwater.

Prayer – authentically engaged – is so much more than silent moments or mumbled phrases. It is the practice of the presence of God. As Matt Slick – Christian apologist and writer – reminds us: “Prayer is the place of admitting our need, of adopting humility, and claiming dependence upon an all-seeing, all-knowing power that is greater than any of us.”

When faced with the reality of unspeakable heartbreak and senseless tragedy, it is helpful to begin by admitting our dependence and by stepping into a place of humility.

Prayer is my way of saying, “I don’t know how to respond to this stuff. It is beyond my pay grade. It frustrates me, it angers me, it makes me want to run away and hide.”

But when I begin my post-tragedy journey with the words, “Help me, God,” I am actively opening myself to receiving guidance from a source beyond my own abilities.

In that sense, prayer becomes something like “the action before the action,” as a friend of mine once called it.

For me, prayer is not about abrogating my responsibility. It is about better equipping myself to take responsibility. It is about trying to engage every resource – whether natural or supernatural – in pursuit of God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Prayer settles me… it centers me… it helps me take a deep breath and say, “OK, God… let’s do this.”

When the world goes mad and all hell breaks loose, thoughts and prayers are one leg of the stool; plans and strategies are the second; action is the third.

 

I believe all three have a place.

09
Mar
19

Repentance Muscle

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”(Matthew 4:17)

Muscle builderMost of us have muscles that can use a little strengthening.

Maybe it’s a bicep to allow you to do a little heavier lifting, or a deltoid for a little faster throwing of a baseball, or maybe you need a stronger glute for whatever it is glutes help you do.

Personally, I could stand some stronger hamstrings. Mainly because I keep pulling the ones I have now.

As I was preparing for the arrival of the season of Lent the other day, I encountered another muscle of mine that appears to be in EXTREMELY flabby condition.

This muscle needs some serious building up, starting right NOW.

It’s my REPENTANCE muscle.

I decided that building up the repentance muscle is exactly the purpose of the church’s observance of the season of Lent.

So what does that mean, exactly? And how does one do that?

REPENTANCE is a churchy-sound word for a very basic human practice. It is about stopping… recognizing that you have wandered off your chosen (or necessary) path… turning around… and heading back in a better direction.

For example, I was driving along a little two-lane country road the other day which had a posted speed limit of 55 mph. I glanced down at my speedometer and saw that it read 71. So my act of repentance was to ease off the accelerator and bring the little Prius down to a more reasonable 62.

Writing is another activity that involves a lot of repentance. We tap out some keys in a sequence that seems to make sense, step back, read it, and say, “EGAD! That’s a bunch of hogwash!” We then work to make the needed corrections. Or sometimes we repent by throwing out the work completely.

So how does one BUILD UP one’s repentance muscle?

I mean, what do you do with any of your other muscles if you want to strengthen them? You put extra STRESS on them for a limited time, right? You overload them in a measured way, under supervision, let them rest, and then do it again.

Then gradually, the exercise physiologists tell us, the muscle becomes stronger.

And so there I was… sitting there thinking about what Lent was really supposed to be about (because pastors do that kind of stuff), and the light bulb suddenly clicked on! Maybe THAT’S the real point of all this fasting, praying, meditating, journaling, and reflection we do during Lent!

Maybe Lent is the “spiritual gym” where we really focus on getting that repentance muscle whipped into shape.

And like any good exercise program, it doesn’t really work if you focus on it once and then ignore it for the next 364 days. It has to become a regular part of your life! It has to shape and re-energize the way you go about everything else you do.

I mean, sure, a handful of potato chips would really hit the spot about now. But (grunt!) do I really need it? (Sweat!)

(Ugh!) Naaa. Probably not.

24
Jan
19

Tree of Light

christmas treeYes, it’s true.

Today is January 24 and our Christmas tree is still up.

Fully decorated and lighted.

Know what else?

It will probably be up for another two days.

Every other scrap of indoor and outdoor Christmas décor has been carefully returned to its off-season storage place… waiting patiently for next year’s winter pageant.

But somehow we felt the need to hang on to the tree… for just a little while longer.

It might be because it has been a rougher-than-usual winter this year.

Part of that roughness is because it is snowier and colder here this year than the past six years combined. The childlike wonder with which I once greeted a snowstorm evaporated about the time I stopped celebrating school’s cancellation for a SNOW DAY.

For the past week, we have also been trying to cope with a sudden and heartbreaking end to the professional football season here in our hometown. I mean, sure… in the grand scheme of things, it is a trifling concern. But sometimes football fans forget to focus on “the grand scheme of things.”

I suspect there might be another reason we feel the need to hang on to the lights and shiny ornaments a little longer than usual.

I suspect it might have something to do with a shadow that fell onto our house about four months ago; a shadow that first showed up on a routine CAT scan that led to nine weeks of chemotherapy, a major surgery, and nine more weeks of chemotherapy; a shadow that caused both silent and out loud tears to be shed, but which also brought forth amazing outpourings of prayer, love, support, and hope.

So yes, we still kind of feel the need to have the tree here to twinkle and blink and light up the room.

But we are just about ready to pack it up and then try and see if we can find another source of light and joy.

I think I just might have an idea…

21
Jan
19

The Power of Commitment

mlk in prayerIt is admittedly a little odd to peer inside my head today and see the two things taking up most of the space there:

  • The Kansas City Chiefs football team, and…
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Chiefs are there because they lost a heartbreaking game to the New England Patriots last night. In so doing, they missed their chance to go to their first Super Bowl in 49 years.

I attended the game in person with my sons and was on my feet in the cold, yelling myself hoarse from beginning to end.

Dr. King is in my head because today is his day. It is the third Monday of January… the day set aside as a national holiday to honor the legacy of the slain civil rights leader.

I never imagined I would be saying this, but as I sat and listened to a radio documentary on Dr. King’s last march, it struck me that there just might be similar lessons to be gleaned from these two HUGELY dissimilar sources.

In each case, for example, we witness what can happen when a powerful and compelling VISION is raised before a group of people. Yes, of course, a vision of full civil rights and human dignity for African-Americans and a vision of a Super Bowl championship are as different as artichokes and bicycles.

Both quests – however – begin with a vision… a vividly clear picture of a preferred future that calls every person to work together to get there.

Visions excite. Visions motivate. Visions unify. Visions help people sort actions into “essential” and “non-essential.”

Major undertakings simply do not happen without a vision to kick-start them.

And then, once a vision has been raised and people rally behind it, steps are taken toward an OUTCOME. And so outcomes are the next place I see possible parallels between Dr. King and the Chiefs.

My Chiefs fell short of their desired outcome. They lost 37-31 in overtime to the *%#! New England Patriots. Despite a phenomenal regular season, they will not be participating in Super Bowl LIII. That is not to say the season was a total waste. Many great things happened to the Chiefs in the months since NFL play officially began on September 9, 2018.

At the time he was assassinated, Dr. King had a deep uncertainty about the state of racial justice in this country. Historians tell us that he was regularly plagued by self-doubt about his leadership and whether his efforts were making even a small dent in the toxic cloud of racism that spread over this country.

When he died, Dr. King was tired and despondent – especially about the state of the sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. He had traveled there to advocate on their behalf, to gain higher pay and improved working conditions. In fact, in his famous speech the night before his assassination on April 4, 1968, King told his audience that even though he had “been to the mountaintop” and gotten a glimpse of a bright and just future, he had to confess that, “… I might not get there with you.”

It reminded me that sometimes in life we can have visions, we can make plans, we can work hard, taking all of the necessary steps toward the desired outcome, leaving no stone unturned, rallying scores and scores of supporters… only to see our dream elude our hopefully grasping hands.

In our disappointment, it is frequently easy to overlook the value of the journey. When we notice we are not standing at the peak of that mountain it can be tempting to call our quest a failure. We look to find an external “villain” so we can point an accusing finger of blame at them and say, “If only…”

But if we allow ourselves to stay stuck in the trough of that disappointment, it is too easy to miss the golden moments that appear along the way.

The journey to Super Bowl victory is an arduous one… requiring much hard work and sacrifice. But it IS attainable. The journey to Dr. King’s mountaintop where people are judged, “… not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…” might – sadly – be everlastingly elusive.

But my prayer today is that the difficulty of any quest might never be the reason to avoid the journey.

I have no idea what the primary “driving energy” for professional football players really is. Money? Fame? Status? Pride of achievement? It probably varies from one player to the next.

As we know, Dr. King was motivated by the Good News of Jesus Christ and he stoked the fires of his daily energy with prayer. He took the words of the psalmist very much to heart and lived by this guidance, “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” (Psalm 37:5, NRSV).

Today may we each dare to embrace a bold vision of life, and join Dr. King in committing our work to God.

Abundant blessings;




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