Prayer

Where 2 or 3…Sleep

Matthew 18:20

“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Not long ago, our pastor preached on Matthew 18:20, a passage he argued is often taken out of its intended context of reconciliation and misplaced into the context of prayer. It’s encouraging to be reminded of the truth that our prayers are not dependent on the faithfulness of flawed fellow humans. Because how often have we brought our burdens to our community of believers, requesting their prayers, only to have those requests fall on deaf ears, or get lost in the shuffle of daily life or the litany of other requests that occupy their time and attention? But God hears and responds to our prayer, no matter who joins us in them. This is evident throughout scripture, actually. For instance:

  • Matthew 6:6: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
  • Romans 8:26-27: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”

Still, if you’re anything like me, you may be tempted to respond with an air of resentment…misplaced, though, because let’s be honest—unless you’re that lady from War Room, you’ve probably dropped the ball on a prayer request or two yourself. I know I have.

So how should we respond when we are disappointed and when our prayer warriors let us down? Fortunately, Jesus Himself offers us some guidance on that. In the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46), Jesus shared His burden with Peter, James, and John, saying, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” Then He asked them to keep watch and pray. And did they? No. Instead, they fell asleep. Even John—the beloved disciple and the one who may arguably have loved Jesus the most. And not just once or twice did this happen, but three times! But Jesus recognized that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Scripture also tells us that the disciples’ “eyes were heavy” and that Jesus left them sleeping and continued to pray. Finally, after they’d slept through the entire ordeal, Judas showed up to turn Jesus over to the authorities. And Jesus woke them up and said, “Rise! Let us go!”

I see Jesus doing four things in this passage:

  1. He asks his friends to pray—and more than once. He doesn’t give up on them, just because they’ve let him down.
  2. He understands their weakness and weariness. He recognizes that their failure is not a result of them not wanting to pray or not caring. He sees that their eyes are heavy.
  3. He continues to pray, even in isolation. He knows that the Father hears and answers prayers—whether we are joined in those prayers by our fellow believers or not.
  4. He doesn’t give up on the disciples. Even though He does eventually allow them to slumber, he wakes them up when it’s time to go, and summons them to join Him.

My hope is that you and I will take our cues from Jesus when faced with our own disappointments, and that we will remember, as God does, that we are all but dust (Psalm 103:14).

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Look Out!

Psalm 5:3

“In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.”

Have you ever gotten to the point in a situation where you thought, “Well, it’s out of my hands now—all that’s left to do is pray.” The tone always seems a little bit fatalistic, doesn’t it? And then, there may be other times when you pray, but you pray for small things, easy things…things you’re most likely to get or to be able to ensure on your own. But you pray, too, just in case. Or perhaps you pray big things, but not really believing that they will happen, or even that they could happen. It’s just too big, too much, to impossible. Except it’s not.

Luke 1:37 states very simply that “nothing will be impossible with God,” and the other Gospels echo this statement. In Jeremiah 32:27, God Himself says, “Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” And of course, the answer is NO! But I (and perhaps you) keep living and praying as though God is not all-powerful. But around the first of this year, I began occasionally and “coincidentally” coming across Psalm 5:3, in which the psalmist declares, “In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.” The more times I read it, the more I really started to hear what it was saying…expectantly. So I looked a little deeper, past my NIV, and read some different translations of this word that had caught my attention, and I learned what a great word it is, in the Hebrew and in other translations, as well.

The word is translated as “eagerly watch,” in the New American Standard Bible. The King James Version translates it, “look up.” The International Standard Version states, “I will watch for your answer.” But my favorite I think is Young’s Literal Translation, according to which the psalmist states, “At morning I set in array for Thee, and I look out.” This says to me that when you set your requests before God, you’d better get out of the way and be ready for Him to do a mighty work.

I have definitely been guilty of praying little prayers, doubt-filled prayers, last-ditch prayers, lip service prayers, double-minded prayers…you get the picture. But I for one don’t want to do that anymore. So from now on, come hell or high water, when I fold my hands in prayer, I will see this reminder on my wrist to pray big, to pray expectantly, to pray believing…and when I open my eyes, I’ll be ready for Him to answer—and I’ll look out.

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Election Day 2016!

Dear God,

Election Day! It’s finally here and I am thankful that nothing about this mess comes as a surprise to you. None of it rattles or scares you. None of it changes you. You are God, you are sovereign. You will not fall off your throne or wave a flag of defeat. You will remain the same YOU—the same GOD—you have always been.

And you, even now, are working all things together for good for those who love you and are called according to your purpose (Romans 8:28). Even now, you are using people who hate and persecute you to accomplish those very purposes—here and across the globe.

And tomorrow, you will welcome us back to you, just as you always have. “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and rich in love” (Psalm 145:8).

May your kingdom come, and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Amen!

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Who I Am–Part VI

Matthew 6:7-8

“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans,
for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them,
for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

A while back, about a decade ago now, I spent some time in northern California, making some great friends, great memories, and great self-discoveries. I will always remember those times, and look back on them fondly. Indeed, I’m long overdue for a visit back—but that’s another story. For now, I want to tell you one story in particular that relates to tattoo #6.

At a friend’s, I noticed a stone sitting on a coffee table with a symbol chiseled into it. I liked the design a lot, and wondered if it would work as a tattoo. But when I asked what it meant, my friend replied, “Om.” Om—as in, a mystic syllable, considered the most sacred mantra [appearing] at the beginning and end of most Sanskrit recitations, prayers, and texts. Hindu culture considers it to be the root of the universe and everything that exists and it continues to hold everything together.

“Oh,” I replied in obvious disappointment, “I guess I can’t get a tattoo of it then.” I mean, its meaning certainly wasn’t in keeping with my Christian faith, right? But my friends described it in a few different ways, trying to clarify or maybe qualify its essence. And finally, one described it this way: “It’s kind of like prayer without words.”

That stopped me in my tracks. “Oooh, I like that!” I thought about it for a few months; I pictured it in my mind. I thought about that last meaning, prayer without words. We know, as Christians, that the Spirit intercedes for us with groans that we can’t even comprehend when we say the wrong things, or when we have no earthly idea what or how to pray at all. There are times like that. In those moments, it seems like the idea of prayer without words would bring peace and comfort.

Besides, I reasoned, it will be a reminder to pray for people of other nations, cultures, and religious beliefs. I’m loathe to admit, though, that its placement on my lower back is not always conducive to my seeing it and remembering to make those prayers and petitions. I need to work on that.

It seems like we hear and see “Om” all over the place now…at the natural food co-op, on the window outside the yoga or massage parlor, in the movies, everywhere. Perhaps now it will serve as a reminder to you of the importance of praying continuously, and of praying even without words. Or perhaps you’re like me and you need the reminder to pray for those who are not like you—no matter the source of those differences. God most certainly sees and loves us all, and will honor our efforts to better love Him and our fellow man.

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Dear Prospective Birth Mother

Dear Prospective Birth Mother,

For years, I’ve dreamed of one day adopting a baby. I’ve spent time praying for him or her—and that God would bring us just the right child and that we would be uniquely qualified, gifted, and equipped to care for him or her. I’ve prayed that we might be instrumental in helping them become everything that God has created them to be.

But for a while now, I’ve been thinking of and praying for you. No doubt you are in the midst of making some of the most difficult decisions that you’ve ever had to make—that you ever will have to make. The decision to entrust the life and care of your baby—your own flesh and blood—to a couple of virtual strangers must be both terrifying and heart-wrenching. At the same time as you experience those fears, questions, and uncertainties, though, you are probably overwhelmed with hope, dreaming of the many wonderful opportunities that your child may have as a result of this bravest of choices.

Of course, the other burden that falls on you, a responsibility that no mother should have to bear, is CHOOSING which couple of strangers will be the best fit for your child. That is a choice that I can’t even fathom—and again, you show immeasurable courage by undertaking that responsibility. A couple of women come to mind whose stories you may find encouraging. In Exodus 2:1-10, we find the story of Moses’ mother—who placed her baby boy in a basket in a river, in hopes that he would be adopted by one of Pharaoh’s daughters. As a result of this act, Moses was used mightily by God—as an instrument of His emancipation. In another story, in 1 Samuel 2, Hannah—a woman who had long struggled with infertility, pleaded with God for a child, vowing to in turn return that child to the service of the Lord. And that is just what she did; she entrusted him to Eli the priest. Again, her son became a powerful instrument for God’s purposes.

Neither mother knew their children’s adoptive parents well. But they did know God—and they trusted in His faithfulness to care for their beloved children. And through challenges and trials that those mothers would never have wished upon their sons, God carried them safely home and into eternal rest.

Still, your decision weighs heavily upon you. It’s unsettling, to be sure. So let me leave you with a couple of verses that I believe God has given me to share with you:

  • “If anyone lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5; NIV)
  • “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you!” (Isaiah 26:3; NLT)
  • “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:11)

I hope these verses bring you hope and peace. Know that you remain in my thoughts and prayers, and that you have my deepest respect and admiration. Be strong in spirit, but humble before the Lord—and He will surely guide you, now and for all of your days.

With Love,

Brooklynn

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How Then Shall We Pray…When God Says, “No”?

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Job 1:20-21(NASB)

“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head,
and he fell to the ground and worshipped….
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

One year ago today, Amanda went home to heaven. I never met her, but from pictures and stories, it’s clear that this spunky little redhead was full of life and faith, and a maturity beyond her almost eleven years. Certainly, prayers for healing abounded during the 18 months prior to her passing. And while we know that she is happy, healthy, and cancer-free now, there remains a sense in which the answer to those prayers was, “No.” We know, of course, that God’s sovereignty is over all, and that His will and purpose are at times accomplished through loss. But that doesn’t negate the pain we feel. So, in times like these, we have to ask, How then shall we pray…when God says no? Thankfully, we can turn to the Bible for direction in this pursuit.

We’re told in Job 1: 20-21 that “Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshipped….The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Another translation quotes Job as saying, “may the name of the Lord be praised.” Now, this was just after Job had lost everything—his oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels, servants, sons, and daughters. I find it interesting that Job’s first response in the face of loss was to worship and to praise God. And he wasn’t the only one.

2 Samuel 12:13-23 recounts the death of David’s son after his affair with Bathsheba. David was warned in advance that this would happen, but for seven days, David fasted and prayed that his son would not die. But upon hearing of the child’s death, he “got up from the floor, washed himself, put lotions on, and changed his clothes. Then he went into the Lord’s house to worship.” Here, not only do we see David worshipping in the face of loss and tragedy, but we see an acceptance of God’s sovereignty and His decision. It feels almost as if his prayer changed. For a week, he prayed nonstop that God would allow his son to live. But then, when he didn’t, David got up, got dressed, worshipped, and ate. I can imagine him praying that God would use this loss for His glory, and that he would bring comfort in the midst of pain.

Finally, Luke 22:42 tells us that Jesus himself received disaffirming answers to his prayers. In the garden of Gethsemane, he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” And yet, he also acknowledged the sovereignty of God the Father, saying, “not my will, but yours be done.” As we know, God did not take the cup from him. Instead, he was tortured and killed. But before he breathed his last, his prayers changed as well. In the face of his own death, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

We, too, are faced with losses and disappointments. And we would do well to follow these godly examples. When God says, “No,” may we have the courage and humility to praise and worship and bless His name anyway. And may we be ready and willing to change our prayers in response to God’s movements.

Spirit Intercede

Romans 8:25-27

“But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.
In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;
and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is,
because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

I am not an authority on prayer. In fact, for the most part I pretty well stink as a prayer warrior. One of my biggest problems with prayer—besides the obvious one of disciplining myself to do it regularly—is knowing what to pray for. I might think I know what I want in any given moment, but I am also fully aware that the heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). I might think I know what would bring God the greatest glory in any given situation, but I also know that God’s ways are higher than my ways, and that His thoughts are higher than my thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). I also know that “a man’s heart plans his way,” while “the LORD directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). So ultimately, then, we are left to pray only for what we THINK God’s will is, or what we believe it might be.

Thank God we have the Spirit to intercede—or translate—for us, through groans we can’t understand. While that’s a comfort to me, I know that it is a source of frustration for others. Some will ask, if the Spirit is interceding anyway, and if we don’t even know how we ought to pray, then why do it at all? Well, it seems to me that there are a number of reasons for us to pray in concert with God and other believers.

  1. God invites us to participate in His processes. Not many perspectives on God recognize how relational He is, how He longs to be in constant communion with us. It’s a privilege that He extends this invitation to talk with Him whenever, however, and about whatever we desire. We shouldn’t take it for granted.
  2. The more time we spend in prayer, the more God can align OUR wills with His. I love Psalm 37:4—“Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart.” What I love most about this verse is the meaning that sometimes eludes us. Namely, this scripture promises that, as we delight ourselves in the Lord, He will mold our desires to more closely match His desires for us. What a comfort.
  3. We become better in tune with the needs of others around us, and grow in compassion. At times, I’ve set out on a renewed commitment to prayer. And do you know what I have found? The more I pray, the more there is to pray about. I begin watching, listening, caring, and feeling empathy and grace for others. In short, I grow in compassion. It’s kind of like a muscle: if I exercise it more, it gets stronger. And by the same token, if I get out of the habit of regularly exercising compassion through prayer (among other things), it gets weaker. I begin to forget, overlook, focus inward, and dismiss—none of which are good traits to display as a follower of Christ.
  4. We learn faith and trust—in waiting, in receiving “nos” from God, in hearing “later” from Him. I am not I don’t know what’s best for me, or you, or anyone else. But God does. He is the all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful Heavenly Father. And He knows what we need before we even ask Him (Matthew 6:8). So whatever His answer is to our prayers, we can be assured that it is the right answer. And we can have peace in that.

So pray boldly, and then believe boldly in a Holy Spirit who is forever advocating for you and compensating for your weaknesses in the courts of God. And praise the Lord when He answers—no matter what that answer is!

Weddings and Wine

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John 2:1-11 recounts the events at the wedding in Cana, where Jesus performed His first of many miracles—turning the water into wine. What I have always loved about this story is the near insignificance of this miracle. If you think about it, in the grand scheme of things, running out of wine at a wedding is not all that “important.” But I imagine that it was of great importance to the bride and groom. And how special and significant they must have felt to be on the receiving end of Jesus’s first miracle.

I don’t think it’s any accident that God chose John to share this account. He was, after all, the “disciple that Jesus loved.” And while the Gospel of John is most known for highlighting Jesus’s deity, I also see a distinct focus on how relational Christ was and still is. We can approach Him with our concerns, no matter how big or small they may be. Our prayer requests may seem silly or petty to us, but they aren’t to God. He keeps track of every hair on our heads, every thought on our minds, and every desire in our hearts.

Therefore, let us boldly approach the throne. He hears, He cares, and He answers. Praise God.

Through Eyes of Compassion: Leah

The story of Jacob’s family represents the epitome of dysfunction. You almost have to read it for yourself (Genesis 29:31 – 30:24), but the gist of it is that Jacob’s wives—Leah and Rachel—along with the servants of each woman, are for years engaged in a fertility contest of sorts. They try to one up each other by any means possible or necessary. Why?

Well it all goes back to the fact that Leah was Jacob’s first wife, but not his first choice. And while Leah was fertile, she was not loved by her husband. She spent years trying to earn his favor and his love by bearing him one son after another—six sons in all. We might, at first glance, be tempted to judge Leah for attempting to manipulate Jacob into loving her. We might condemn her for foolishly attempting to secure Jacob’s affections through childbearing. But recently, God gave me fresh eyes to see this woman.

Interestingly, Leah means tired, or weary. What a fitting name for someone who has tried so hard and so long to be enough for her husband—to be good enough, beautiful enough, fruitful enough. Leah would never earn Jacob’s love. But truly, one must consider whether love that is “earned” is really love at all. Isn’t that what makes God’s love so profound, after all—that we could never earn it ourselves?

So now, when I see Leah, I see her heart—a heart that, very simply, is ever longing for love. Sadly, she kept looking for it in the wrong place. And I wondered, if I had been Leah’s friend, how would I have prayed for her? Seeing her in this new light, I think I would have prayed something like this:

Lord God,

Only you know the depth of your love for Leah.
Only you know how priceless she is to you—
so priceless that you would sacrifice your beloved son to ransom and redeem her soul.
She’s been looking for love in all the wrong places,
looking for significance outside of your will,
and trying so hard to be enough apart from you.
Help her to see that you are enough for her…and that, in you, she is enough.
No matter what the world tells her, she is loved by you.
Bring her peace and contentment in the knowledge of this
profound and inexplicable love.

In Christ’s name and for His sake,

Amen.

 If you recognize Leah in someone you know, feel free to pray these words over her (or him, as the case may be). If you recognize her in yourself, please accept them as my prayer for you. And be blessed.

Redeemed unto Reconciliation

That we as Christians have been given the ministry of reconciliation isn’t exactly news. After all, Paul stated in 2 Corinthians 5:18 that God “reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” He also said that, as far as it depends on us, we are to “be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). But, if you’re anything like me, this is one of those things that falls squarely into the ‘easier said than done’ category. So I welcomed the recent sermon series that our pastor preached on this subject. While I learned a lot from the entire four-week series, I can also say that there were several “tweetable” tidbits (c/o @bradyherbert) that really spoke to me. I hope they will speak to all of you as well.

  1. When we look for God’s goodness in someone, it’s impossible to make them our enemy. And I would add that when we look for the good that God might be working both in and through that person, we are better able to move toward reconciliation. This concept reminds me of a strategy you’ve probably heard about before. When we pray for others (and more specifically, our enemies), we are drawn to them and God gives us a greater level of compassion for them. Of course, that means that we pray for God’s blessings in their lives. We pray that He would comfort, guide, and—yes—convict. But we don’t pray that they would ‘get what’s coming to them.’ We don’t pray that God would ‘smite’ them. We pray for God’s best for them. And in the process, we are changed.
  2. I can forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in me. This logic requires that we identify and acknowledge what I like to call our ‘Mother of All Sins’ (M.O.A.S). If you can’t admit that you’ve ever done anything inexcusable, if you can’t understand why Jesus had to die for your sins, this will be VERY hard—if not impossible—to do. Now, I know what some of you are saying: “No, that’s not right—all sin is the same to God.” And you’re right. But all sin is NOT the same to US. If you steal a pen from work, there is no way you’re going to feel a sense of grief over your sin. If you were to kill someone—and I’m not suggesting that you should—you would feel a much greater sense of remorse. So we, as finite humans, tend to rank sins from least to most egregious. Then we set a threshold beyond which sins are ‘worth’ Christ’s sacrifice. And each of us needs to identify and OWN whatever sin or sins we feel are worth that punishment. This can be especially hard if you’ve grown up in the church. Many ‘lifelong’ believers lament that they “don’t have a testimony” because they never joined a gang or got into drugs or what have you. But you MUST find your testimony. I believe that the best way to do this is to pray, humbly asking God to reveal to you your areas of weakness and sin, so that you can repent.
  3. If someone refuses to repent, “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18: 17). Our pastor, Brady, rightly pointed out how many of us use this verse as a license to wash our hands of another and throw them out of the church. I have to confess, that’s how I’ve always read that verse. But if you think about it, that’s not at all how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors. He pursued them, he loved them, he sought reconciliation with them, and—lest we forget—he DIED for them. I find that I often judge nonbelievers less harshly than I do other Christians. I mean, Christians should know better, right? But if a believer is caught in sin, or is unwilling to reconcile, then we must conclude that something is keeping them from embracing the salvation that they claim. Thinking of it that way, I feel led to respond with compassion and sympathy, and to pray that they would be reconciled first with God, and then with the Church. And one more thing: we can never give up. I’ve heard of believing parents with children who have gone astray. They pray constantly for many years and they NEVER give up on their kids’ souls. That is the essence of the parables of the prodigal son, the lost sheep, and the missing coin. And our love and compassion should be as relentless as God’s.
  4. We must awaken the desire for reconciliation. The final message in this series offered a lot of practical tips to help us move from a place of knowing that we should reconcile, or believing that we can reconcile, to a place where we can honestly say that we want to reconcile. Here are some of the biggies:
  • We need to develop empathy and compassion for those with whom we seek to reconcile.
  • We need to avoid the temptation to morally ‘separate ourselves’ from the other person—essentially viewing them as inferior to ourselves. Instead, we need to find a common ground from which we can reach out in love, grace, and mercy.
  • We need to remember that we are all created in the image of God and are worth of being treated with human dignity. And finally,
  • We need to remember that we ourselves are finite beings and that God may be working an angle that we can’t see—or possibly even imagine.

So, when we think about all of these pieces in the puzzle of reconciliation, I hope that we are each prompted to take a step or two in that direction. And in that way, one small step after another, we will hopefully end up a lot closer to the peace that we are called to pursue.