Leaving Prayers

After a quick lunch today, I drove through an unfamiliar neighborhood, wasting a little time among the tree-shaded streets, to think, heart full.  I found myself in a city park, my car parked facing a field, a place I go to pray sometimes.

I remembered Edith Schaeffer writing about praying while on a crowded city bus, in almost-perfect communion with God amongst the din.  Here I am, in near quiet, distracted by great oaks and birds lighting on branches in front of me, on God’s distractions.  I am trying to pray Collisions 2:6-7 for someone, asking that God would allow this one “to walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith. . . abounding in thanksgiving,” a verse I learned by memory long ago.  Open-eyed, my mind skitters off track, so I pray the distractions, wrap them up in praise. 

Walking in Him. That’s tough. Growing in Him. That’s a process of fits and starts. Who will water the roots, I wonder? Who will build the life of faith? Who will walk with them to help them find their way?

God knows.

When I drive off, I leave the prayer, full of questions, hanging there on a branch still twittering, perched there with the birds about whom He cares.

Dreaming Big

When you dream a dream as an adult — I mean a moon-sized daydream — you often discount it.  I do. You’ve been disappointed in life, had some dreams not pan out (maybe most), and so like money to be earned in the future, you discount it to present value. Which often turns out to be nada, or near nada. Like telling me I can have 1 million Ugandan shillings, only realizing that this stupendous-sounding amount is really only 50 cents. Oh boy.  

We do the same thing with prayer sometimes.  I do.  I pray for life-changing conversion of a person’s life, a thoroughgoing reformation, and then discount it, as in “may not happen in my lifetime,” or “may not happen at all,” until some nagging devil on my shoulder says “what’s the use?”  What’s the use in praying for national revival, for the Supreme Court, for legislators, for love and mercy and peace and the end of poverty and. . . well, you name it.  What's the use in praying for change in me?  

At those times I have a litany of God’s faithfulness that I repeat, like a pocket sermon.  Or more like flash cards.  I remind myself of the big dreams realized (Wilberforce comes to mind, the end of slavery), and the little prayers that get answered, like finding the book I lost.  I remind myself how God saved Paul (big) and me (little).  My memory is short and the devil hates remembrance, so I flash the past, remember God's faithfulness.  There are even cards for remembering prayers that got answered that I didn't even ask.  Like playing Jeopardy, I have the answered prayer, but what was the prayer?  God knows.  Funny how that happens.  

And then I read what Sally Lloyd-Jones says in her childrens’ devotional, Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, because I need it simple, need a child-dream, big and believed: “God is making all the sad things come untrue. He is making the end of the world happy. And all the dreams we have ever dreamed for ourselves? They are only shadows of the magnificent dreams God has dreamed for his children.”  So, all my dreams are caught up in and find their fulfillment in a dream God already had. How about that?  Life is but a dream. . . God had.

Turning Your Mind Out to Play

We don’t usually walk in the evening, but we did tonight. The air felt different, tired and used, perhaps, as if it too needed a rest after rising and falling and swirling around all day.

I saw several people I had never seen before, including a doughy couple who merely grunted a greeting as they climbed a slight hill.  Garage doors were open that are never open in the morning, revealing the personality of their owners, some with tools carefully arranged and floors swept clean and others ramshackle and loved, full of excess.  One young couple emerged from a stodgy home that I would never have associated with youth, one I always expected a sweet but elderly couple to ambulate.

Some homes took on a different hue in the slanted light of evening, warmer and more alive than in the hours after dawn, awake. Crossing the creek, even the water sounded different, slower, less effervescent, pensive, navigating carefully.  On Winthrop, five rabbits took a late supper at a squirrel feeder inches off the ground.  Seeing us, hearing the thud of our shoes on asphalt, they retreated a few feet, watched us carefully until we moved away.  

As the light falls, she is praying, and I am trying to join the conversation, nodding, agreeing, while watching for little revelations, special in their own way.  Occasionally I join the conversation, one punctuated, easily, by parentheticals of explanation.  On one block she runs down the four lane to navigate a low hanging bush before traffic, as I say “I can’t make it,” suddenly winded.  She says she will wait for me on the other side.  But somehow I make it before the cars stream by.  On one daunting hill, I say, “I will be slow tonight,” winded again. “I just don’t have the same energy at night.” She slows and meets my pace. We reach the top and eventually I can speak again. But there is no need to. It is enough to walk with her.

In a small book I bought when last in Wichita, The Joys of Walking, Edwin Mitchell collects a number of essays on walking by the likes of Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, and Hilaire Belloc, among others.  I think of it as darkness settles in, as these writers often walked nocturnally and had a power of seeing that I doubt many of us have today, given our distracted lives.  In one essay I thumbed back to later, Leslie Stephen says that “Walking is the natural recreation for a man who desires not absolutely to suppress his intellect but to turn it out to play for a season.”  I commend it for that, for a play for the mind.  And for prayer.  And with your best friend.  And at dusk as well as dawn.

Praying Around the World

A couple years ago, when I met Pastor George Mbonye, of Kisoro, Uganda, he sat across from me at breakfast at a hotel one morning and talked with me. Our team from Amazing Grace Adoptions & Orphan Care had been forced to stay overnight at the hotel, a rare luxury for George, when we were too late returning to Kisoro from one of the national parks, a “rest” day from our normal activities. Our drivers were nervous about taking the mountain passes at night. We should have been.

Pastor George was describing an early journey he took to one of his churches in the mountains. “I did not know when I began the ministry how it would happen. I traveled many miles, by truck, by bicycle, by foot. I did not know where I would sleep, outside or inside a church with no doors or windows.” He described being without water or food at times, weakened, and he said “I did not know if I would wake up. But then I opened my eyes and I was moving.” George has such an economy of words. Every word counts. “I tell the pastors that the bachelor’s degree or PhD begins in the heart.” He tells them “their wives are the engine of their ministry.” Struggles of providing are, he says, “like a dog growling at him. If you run, it will bite you. You must stand and confront.”

Now, I look at Kisoro on Google Maps. I see the terraced fields on the mountains, Lake Mutanda in the distance, and the Inpenetrable Forest of the Congo nearby. I can’t find Kisoro Baptist Church on the map, though I look down the unnamed streets of Kisoro Town. I imagine the omniscience of God compared to my feeble looking, divorced of the power to do much to help George or the people there. But maps don’t show souls, don’t chart faithfulness, and looking is worth something if followed by action. I take my finger and touch Kisoro and pray a prayer for George. That prayer goes all the way around the world, is carried right to the Father, and it matters.

Big, Crazy Prayers & Little, Bitty Prayers

"Your prayer might be so little that it may
not seem like a prayer at all.

But it's enough. God hears it."

(Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing, by Sally Lloyd-Jones & Jago)

Sometimes I ask God for answers to big and crazy prayers.  Make Sharon sober.  Turn Jacob's heart to the Lord.  Heal John of his cancer.

Sometimes I go even bigger.  Bring revival and reformation to our nation.  Feed the children of Uganda.  Transform North Korea and open it to the Gospel.

I think of Strunk and White's wonderful maxim for writers: "Omit needless words."  And so I try and and keep it simple.  "Lord, help."  I might add, "please."  And like the widow seeking justice, I don't mind begging. Help.  Help.  Help. I stopped adding the qualification "if it be your will," as He and I have an understanding: I ask for what I want, and He, being God, and seeing the big picture, gives me what I need or maybe others what they need or whatever in His Goodness and Bigness he knows is best.  He is Father, and he is one father who always knows what is best.

Sometimes I draw a picture for God of what I want.  Not a literal one, mind you, though I think that would be great (only I can't draw).  I draw one in my imagination.  I see a healed John leaping and jumping around, playing basketball with his kids, and I present it to God.  "See, that's what I want."  He might say, "yes, that's what I want too," or He might redraw the picture and say, "Isn't this better?," or He may redraw it in some completely indescribable abstract art kind of way and give it to me and not say a word.  Well, that's like the Christmas present from your parents you had absolutely no use for until one day a  few years later you said "oh yeah, that's what that was for," or, just maybe, you never know what it is for.  That's God for you.  He's good, but you just have to trust him.  After all, he says "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matt. 7:11).  If the exclamation mark matters at all it means sweet, soft-spoken  Jesus must have yelled that.  Better pay attention.

But I do little prayers too, and God likes them.  He cares about one lost sheep.  He will help you find a lost coin.  Even help you find the missing sock or lost hairbrush.  He might, like he did for me one time, help me walk over to a bunch of people I did not know and say hello.  Thirty-eight years later, one of them is a fast friend.

Somebody said once that I should keep a "prayer notebook."  I understand.  It helps you see God's faithfulness.  And yet I never kept a record of all those requests my parents answered by "yes," or "no," or "we'll see."  And I still believed in them.  So I didn't keep the notebook anymore. I just keep asking and watching what He will do.

I laid on my bed today, as I was a bit sick, and while I was there I dreamed up a big, big prayer, imagining a beautiful answer.  I drew a really nice picture for God, and I know He will appreciate it.  And He will answer.  Someday.  Somehow.  I prayed a little one too (comparatively speaking).  I said "Get me up from here.  Please."  He did.

Sometimes, though, I have writer's block.  I don't know how to pray.  I know there is a mess of tangled words and plot lines, but I stare at a blank page.  I remember one writer told me he played indoor mini golf for a year when he was supposed to be writing a book.  It's something like that.  Only I watch Warehouse 13 reruns.  Where to start?  How to encapsulate this prayer in a nice sentence, or even a paragraph?  Nothing.  The Spirit has to take over then, writes out a prayer in invisible ink and you hold it up to the light or in a mirror and you see what it was that you needed to be asking but couldn't figure out how to ask.  I was that way with my parents when I was a little kid.  I didn't know what I needed or wanted much of the time, but I knew they had it or would know what to do.  

Big and crazy prayers.  Little bitty prayers.  Inarticulable prayers.  They all matter to Him. 

An Inner Walk

When I walk I am conscious of the ground beneath my feet, whether asphalt or dirt, the soundscape of the city or nature, the space unfolding before me.  No doubt our outer landscape has a powerful effect upon our inner landscape.  Indeed, in his journal of his own walkabouts, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert MacFarlane says that "[f]elt pressure, sensed texture and perceived space can work upon the body and so too among the mind, altering the textures and inclinations of thought."

And so it does.

Walk my suburban path, full of green lawns and mature oaks and retirees picking up newspapers on settled driveways and minivans and dog-walking masters and busy bluebirds and robins with my vision limited by the tree-scape, and I feel a deep contentedness, a sense of boundaries, roots, home, blessing, swaddled in my place, wearing my own old path in my circuit like the grooves of a oft-played LP.  Jackson Browne. Running on Empty.  Seventies. Groove-fatigue.

Walk the desert, with unobstructed views that go on for 50 miles, trodding the paths of cowboys and indians and prospectors for gold and those on the move going west, west, west, until their feet lapped the waters of the Pacific, and I feel remarkably different.  Free.  Boundless.  Unsettled.  Possibilities, some which may have seemed foolhardy at home, loom large and realizable there, dangerous, like cacti and rattlesnakes, but not so fearful.  My "why" becomes my "why not."

Some even walked on the moon.  They were never the same.  Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, described the sensation as one of "magnificent desolation," sensing the "eons of lifelessness" in that place. No doubt that overwhelming absence contributed to the deep depression, alcoholism, nervous breakdown, and divorce after his return to Earth.  The moon was too boundless, space too empty.  Perhaps he began to sense that he was a mere atom amongst atoms unquantifiable. When you walk where hardly any others have walked, maybe you are stymied by the difficulty of not being able to communicate an experience to people for whom that walk would be incomparable, fantastical.

MacFarland concludes that, in the minds of poet-walkers like Edward Abbey, Richard Jeffries, or Thomas Hardy, "[p]aths were figured as rifts within which time might exist as pure surface, prone to weird morpholgies, uncanny origami."  That all sounds so mystical, like one foot is (as Francis Schaeffer said) "firmly planted in the air."  Yet sometimes the unseen world impinges.  One's soul is moved.

Twelve years ago I was discharged from the hospital after an emergency abdominal surgery.  For about nine months thereafter, I had an irrational fear.  The slightest discomfort yielded an overwhelming anxiety, a sense that I was going back into the hospital.  There was nothing wrong with me, and yet I could not escape it.  I prayed. I read scripture. I even took a few anti-anxiety pills.  But the thing that yielded the best result was to simply walk, and walk, and walk.  I settled into a deep routine where the only thing I had to focus on was putting one foot in front of another, footfall after footfall.  Eventually my mind rested, my spirit calmed by the mundane dependability of the unfolding landscape, birdsong, wind murmur, and low rumble of the city.  And then, the worry was gone.  Somewhere along the way, I let it go.  Walking gave dimension to my prayers, gave topography to my spirit.

Trust God. Keep walking.  Follow the cloud, the star, the inner voice that bids.  In the early morning dark, when alone, pray out loud. Pray loud.  Cry out to God if you need to.  Be the widow pestering the judge until an answer comes, until God comes, until rocks cry out and trees clap their hands, until the road bends upward before you and heaven comes down.  Take dominion over the earth.  Till it and keep it. Walk on until you meet God coming.  Just keep moving.




God Be in My Head (A Prayer and Hope)

God be in my head and in my understanding.
God be in my eyes and in my looking.
God be in my mouth and in my speaking.
God be in my heart and in my thinking.
God be in my end and my departing.

I'm not sure anyone knows the author of this prayer, and yet I'm thankful for the saint that encompassed a God-full living in these five short lines.

At so many points in my day I recognize the absence of this Godward living.  Mostly the petty and trite and immediate are the things that fill my head.  Mostly God is not in my eyes, given as there are to distraction and wandering.  Mostly God is not in my mouth, but I am, speaking of myself.  Mostly I find myself thinking down broad avenues that may take me far afield of God.  God be in my heart.  So, I'm thankful for a prayer that calls me back, for a God that fills me even though ignored.  For grace and possession by Christ.

I have to end that intrusive Twitter feed that keeps popping up on my screen, falsely urgent, telling me all the latest.  I have to appreciate beauty but deny second looks.  God be in my eyes.  My friend across the lunch table is speaking to me of something important, and I am thinking of the next thing to say.  God be in my head (and hearing).  As I speak to co-workers, servers, janitorial staff, friends, family, grocery store checkers, and the homeless person walking toward me, with his need showing, God be in my speaking.  I have to give feet to the prayer, be deliberate about its askings, cooperate in God's plan and working.  So God be in my feet, in my walking.

God be all in all.  God be everywhere and in all.

God even be in my end, in my one day departing well. 

[The prayer is found in an addedum to Peter Kreeft's Prayer: The Great Conversation, a book I highly recommend.

Starving Phantoms

“I think I have been learning about faith as long as I have lived in fear. Maybe longer. Whenever I am afraid, it is because I am also believing in something unseen, and like faith, it too requires an agile imagination. Both seem to have a way of growing bigger depending on how much attention we give them although one seems fed by truth and goodness while the other is fanned by worry and dreaded ‘what ifs.’”

(Jo Kadlecek, in Fear: A Spiritual Navigation)

My 89-year old aunt has been seeing things, we think.  First, there were the boys walking around on her roof and whispering under her window at night.  Never mind that she hears poorly, too deaf to notice feet padding around on shingles, shushed voices plotting on the exterior.  Never mind that its been over 100 degrees on the roof, a literal "hell" of a playground for adolescents.  Then there were gypsies in the trees, a girl with a bandanna, weeping.  And now, "wharf" rats slinking through her side yard, "big as a cat."

When I tell her that no one else has seen such things, that maybe it is her imagination, she can only say "Well, I'm not crazy."  After a couple phone calls at 3:00 AM and 26 calls to 911 in a month and a half, I am not sure about that.  Yet, thankfully, things have died down.  There are no more emergency calls, as she has concluded that the police are incompetent.  She stopped bothering the good neighbors, as "those people" think she needs to be "evaluated."  Yet for all her bellicosity, I think she is just afraid.  Phantoms have come to roost in her mind.

I doubt that anyone lives life without at least one fear, without some episode of fear.  Whatever their focus -- death, penury, or a nameless anxiety --- every fear seeks to occupy our every waking moment, fill even our dreams.  Dwelled upon, they grow, hulking over our day, a shadow over every move.  In its worst case, as with my aunt, the fear actually takes shape, becomes a visible, audible phantom that haunts, that preoccupies and lives on the edge of consciousness, waiting for nightfall to manifest itself.

Better let Christ be the one who haunts.  Jesus says that "perfect love casts out fear."  The only antidote for fear is a steely focus on Jesus.  As the Louvin Brothers concluded on their classic song, "Weapon of Prayer," --- "Still the helpful hand above, on the weapon made of love/And against him none on earth prevail."  You cannot fight fear dead on or banish it with words.  We fight it with Word and prayer, by going to the one who has already won.

I have been ravaged by fear before.  In fact, I don't have to think long to find something worth fearing.  Oddly enough, on occasion I have felt a sharp pang of fear on behalf of civilization itself, that everything that mostly functions will suddenly collapse, that we will drown in debt, that a hate-mongering ayatollah will unleash a dirty bomb on us, that the ice caps will melt and our great cities drown.  Possible, yes, but irrational, a seed planted by the sower of fear, the destroyer of all that is good, true, and beautiful.

Word and prayer.  A focus on Jesus.  But there is one other thing: a remembrance of His faithfulness in life events, a going back to the memorials we set up in memory for when God delivered us from some peril of body or mind, for when in His good providence He allowed suffering and yet drew us to Himself and delivered us in the midst of it.  The Psalmist repeatedly remembered God's past faithfulness as an assurance of His faithfulness to come.  So too should we.  As Jo Kadlecek says, "[F]ear is simply a spiritual memory lapse, a forgetting that God loves a human's soul enough to protect her."

The boys are on the roof.  They whisper outside our window.  There are gypsies in the trees.  But Christ slays the phantoms of this world.  They die in His light.  Feed on Christ and starve the phantoms.

Wide Awake

In the last few weeks, I have apparently entered a period of wakefulness at night, something I have been plagued with from time to time.  I am a light sleeper, I guess.  If the alarm clock light is too bright, I might awake.  The cat jumping on the bed may also do the trick.  Thunder will rouse me.  Maybe even a sigh from a child.  I don't usually stay awake, thankfully, but return to sleep fairly quickly.  In these times, nighttime can be just a series of naps, strung end to end. Sometimes I am sleepy the next day; often, I am not.

I've wondered why this is, even read about it, and I can't pin it on anything.  It comes, it goes. Like the wind.  Like the Spirit.

When I'm lying there for what few minutes I may be conscious, I sometimes do wonder if God has awoken me, if there is something I need pray about or maybe something I need to get up and do. Praying can be difficult, but I try, a kind of stream of consciousness, meandering and vague.  I wonder if God thinks it's like listening to a sleepy child, one trying desperately to wring one more minute out of the day but fading quickly, sliding into nonsense babble.  When my son was young he talked to keep himself awake, often to himself, falling asleep mid-sentence.  Maybe my babbling is what "praying in the Spirit" really is --- sensible only to God who hears the heart even when the lips speak gibberish.

Perhaps because of such punctuated rest, I remember more dreams.  In the last few weeks, I have been in a plane crash, narrowly missed being struck by a train which jumped its tracks and barreled down the yard beside my house, and suffered a home invasion.  A few nights ago a few large oak trees in my backyard uprooted themselves and walked away while I watched.  Eerie.  It'd be nice to talk about that, in the moment so to speak, but everyone is asleep, even the cats, though I nudge one with my foot to see if I can get a response.  No, just dead weight.

Sometimes I think I should get up and do something productive with the time, like balance the checkbook.  Likely that wouldn't be wise.  Or write letters, unintelligible though they may be.  But I don't.  I just lie there enjoying the quiet, the accentuated noises of the night.  Cicadas.  Now and then the creak of a settling house.  The faithfulness of the heat pump, coming on and turning off all night while we sleep, because we asked it to.  The sound of my breath.  The beating of my heart.  Rain on the roof, wind in the chimney.

I get up and look out the window at the street outside bathed in streetlight, see the neighbor's cat walk sleepily across the street.  I wonder if it has insomnia too?

I used to tell my children that there was nothing to be afraid of at night, that everything is in the same place as in daylight, only dark.  I don't think they believed me.

To think --- some people who sleep all night without awakening never get this pleasure, never know what they're missing.  Lucky me.


Bending Toward Eternity

1969CamaroSS "Except ye become as little children, except you can wake on your fiftieth birthday with the same forward-looking excitement and interest in life that you enjoyed when you were five, "ye cannot enter the kingdom of God." One must not only die daily, but every day we must be born again.”  (Dorothy L. Sayers)

There's not much in a birthday, I have often said.  After all, you're just one day older than the day before.  Any yet that's not necessarily true about my fiftieth birthday.

Since turning fifty, I've become aware of how often I refer to the past.  There are, after all, likely many more years behind me than in front of me, more stories to tell than new memories to make.  Part of growing older is remembering well and learning from those memories.  If I'm wise at all (and I have no comment on that), it is because of a discernment and prudence shaped by experience, that vast reservoir of past choices, both good and bad.  In hindsight, many of the results of the bad choices seem humorous, while they may have been devastating at the time.

For example, I learned early on that you don't anticipate when your traffic light will turn green by watching the yellow and then red light of cross-traffic.  I'm 16, you see, and I have a carload of teenage guys with me, and I'm stopped at a traffic light next to a similar carload of teenage girls.  (Can you imagine the conversation?)  I'm thinking I'll put rubber on the road when my light changes to green, goaded on by a backseat of professional stock car driver wannabes, and I do. . . only my light is not green.  Realizing this in the middle of the intersection, I slam on the brakes, put my steaming Camaro muscle car in reverse, and sheepishly back up next to the carload of teenage girls, now quaking with laughter.  Everyone in the backseat disappeared into the floorboards.  Even my car seemed to shrink beneath me, its embarassment palpable. 

That was a dark day in my short teenage life.  But I did learn something about friends, about the foolishness of trying to impress women, and, of course, about traffic lights.  Like I said, it seems funny now, a story I tell my kids for the moral lesson it offers as well as to allow them to believe, if for a moment, the incredible idea that once their father existed as a teenager.

Another thing about the past is that the more distance I put between the present me and the former me, the closer it seems, as if time is a malleable piece of tin foil that can be bent back upon itself, present touching past.  If I say I graduated from high school 33 years ago, it seems difficult to believe, and yet some of the memories of my senior year are crystal clear.  I easily summon up images, sounds, and smells of my school --- remembering the snapping- tapping sound of the flagpole rope in the wind outside the open window of my geometry class, the high-pitched voice of the fearsome-little-man-who-still-lived-with-his-mother teacher who ruled trigonometry class, and the embarrassment when my girlfriend at the end of a crowded hallway called to me at the other end of the hall and all eyes turned my way.  That me and this me are not so far apart, really.

And yet, while remembering is good to the extent it offers wisdom and thankfulness as we see God's providential ordering of our lives, today is where I live and tomorrow is where I'm going.  That present focus is evident when Jesus says that "sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Matt. 6:34) or when Paul exhorts us to forget what lies behind and press on toward what lies ahead (Phil. 3:13-14).  Just as the past is not so far behind, eternity is with us even now.  As we bend forward we even touch it at times, sensing that something timeless has happened, something that is not just now but a part of a coming greater reality --- the real Real, if you will.  Everything that has happened to me is really a  part of everything that will happen, a part of who I am and will remain in eternity.  It's comforting to me to know that all that I am, all the memories that make up the person that I am, will stay with me, redeemed, somehow seen through new eyes, but that in eternity I'm still me --- the awkward high schooler and the (God willing) elderly curmudgeon.

I'm the kid who failed at impressing girls.  I get to carry that memory with me.  What was devastatingly embarrassing then is funny now.  What is funny now will be deeply meaningful in some larger context God may reveal in eternity.  I can't wait.

A Prayer for Year's End

O Love beyond Compare,
Thou art good when thou givest,
when thou takest away,
when the sun shines upon me,
when night gathers over me.
Thou hast loved me before the foundation of the world,
and in love didst redeem my soul;
Thou dost love me still,
in spite of my hard heart, ingratitude, distrust.
Thy goodness has been with me another year,
leading me through a twisting wilderness,
in retreat helping me to advance,
when beaten back making sure headway.
Thy goodness will be with me in the year ahead;
I hoist sail and draw up anchor,
With thee as the blessed pilot of my future as of my past.
I bless thee that thou hast veiled my eyes to the waters ahead.
If thou hast appointed storms of tribulation,
thou wilt be with me in them;
If I have to pass through tempests of persecution and temptation,
I shall not drown;
If I am to die,
I shall see thy face the sooner;
If a painful end is to be my lot,
grant me grace that my faith fail not;
If I am to be cast aside from the service I love,
I can make no stipulation;
Only glorify thyself in me whether in comfort or trial,
as a chosen vessel meet always for thy use.

[From a collection of Puritan prayers, entitled The Valley of Vision.  Thanks to Tim Challies for the reminder!]

The Life of Prayer: A Reminder

life of prayerThat Edith Schaeffer's 1992 book, The Life of Prayer, has long been out of print may be a sad commentary about the state of Christian publishing or, even, the state of evangelical spirituality.  I hope it’s the prior, and not the latter, but whatever direction I point to I ultimately must take the blame as well.  In a noisy culture where busyness is rewarded, prayer is easily marginalized.  I know, because I’ve done it.

The Life of Prayer, written by a woman in her mid-Seventies, after the death of her husband, and after a life of self-sacrifice and service, is rich with wisdom, creativity, and practical advice.  In other words, all that the writer says about prayer is rooted in her life experience.  This is invaluable.  At the moment I’m re-reading Chapter Two, “Affliction and Prayer – Suffering and Prayer,” where Edith says that “[i]t seems to me that there is a need to be aware of our suffering giving us a tiny measure of understanding of Christ’s suffering,” and I know that this is prose backed by the experience of her own sickness, that of her husband (who suffered and died of cancer), and her young son (who contracted polio).  In other words, it’s real.  She has lived it.  I don’t think the truth of her statement (which echoes that of the Apostle Paul, who speaks not of the removal of suffering but of what it produces in us --- a patient endurance and means of sharing in the far greater sufferings of Christ) is learned without experience.  That’s wisdom.

But there’s creativity too.  Flipping over to Chapter Six, entitled “When Pray?  Why Pray?,” she commends us to “examine the possibilities in our own days and nights.  There are waiting times --- for buses, trains, trams, planes, red lights. . . times that can be used to pray in the words of a remembered Psalm, or a hymn, or in asking for mercy and forgiveness, or in thanking God for his blessings, or in praying for someone who is on our mind.”  She speaks of being “alone” in the middle of a crowded city bus, and I remember reading that section many years ago as if it was a fresh insight.  So simple, and yet so easy to forget.  It makes me want to reclaim all of life’s margins for prayer.

Finally, there’s practical advice.  “Helps in Being Real in Prayer” is especially useful, as when talking with God we can, as silly as it seems, hold back.  One reading of the Psalms should illustrate how boldly (and even audaciously) we can approach the Father.  “If God is Sovereign, Why Pray?",” leaves us in mystery, and yet with deeply satisfying wonder at that truth which is just beyond our reach. There’s even advice and wisdom about fasting and prayer.

Reading Edith Schaeffer you have the sense that you are sitting across the table from the woman, and though she does ramble on (a fact I can personally testify to), she does so with a generous love and with great wisdom.  There’s a lot to learn from someone who has lived a life of prayer.  Find the book, if you can.  Read it.  Then live it.  It’s a lost gem.

The Gift of Wakefulness

insomnia I'm not sleeping very well.  I haven't always been this way.  I think, perhaps, that before I was 40, I did in fact sleep through the night, rarely waking, but I haven't been that way for a long time.  I wake up once, and then I go back to sleep.  Lately, however, I wake three to four times a night, and I do not always return to sleep.  I am not worried about anything.  I am not sick.  I do not have sleep apnea, or a host of other things that may keep you awake.  I'm just . . . awake.

My children and my wife do not know the sound of the house around us at 2:00, or 3:30, or 4:45.  I do.  The air conditioner fan turns on, and off, then back on.  The refrigerator hums.  Someone snores, or turns over, and the bed creaks.  And there are other strange creaking sounds that are mysterious, perhaps the house settling back into the earth, forecasting its demise one distant day.  That's the newspaper deliveryman, the paper landing with a plastic-wrapped thud on concrete, headlights playing off the walls.  Around 6:00 the birds awake, and my cat begins to move about, with an odd chirping meow, letting me know she's up.  And then there's the sound of remembrance, and you think of a childhood trip with your family to the mountains where you stopped by a mountain stream for a picnic, or a long-forgotten smell of a home you grew up in, or the beckoning of a voice you have not heard in a while calling you to dinner.  The world is at rest and you can really listen to it and remember and consider things that get pressed out of your mind during the day when our thinking is more economic.  At night we can afford to waste time, to be expansive. . . that is, if you cannot sleep.

I've been lamenting this lack of sleep, silently (mostly) complaining about it, as well as engaging in a bit of uneducated self-diagnosis.  But the bottom line is that I haven't a clue as to why I am not sleeping that much.  Today, however, I suddenly realized how rich I am, what a gift I've been given in what I considered lack.  Someone said this last week, in another context, that we should not live in our lack but in our wealth.  I think that was meant for me.

It's one thing to be wakeful because you are suffering pain, anxiety, or some other trial.  It would be difficult to call that a gift.  It would also be difficult to call wakefulness a gift if it caused you to have difficulty functioning during the day.  But none of that is generally true of me.  A few years ago my good friend Jerry told me that he was only sleeping two hours a night.  He was delighted.  The rest of the night he wrote songs, read his Bible, and walked all over the mountain on which he lived and through his neighborhood praying for people.  I felt sorry for him then.  I figured he would crash and burn at some point.  I thought he was crazy, even manic, and yet he considered it the spiritual high point of his life.  Nothing bad happened to him.  After several months, he began to sleep again.  Now I think God gave him a gift, a crazy irrepressible wakefulness, delighted that Jerry could spend time alone with Him.  I never heard him complain about it.

This kind of wakefulness is not what I would call ideal, but I have no choice.  It's given.  You can't seek it, or you will crash and burn.  I wonder some days how I function on all but four-five interrupted hours of sleep. And yet God promises rest to those who come to Him, saying "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Mt: 11:28).  In fact, rest is the optimum state of the believer, "for we who believed enter that rest" (Heb. 4:3).  Sleep is a "sweet" gift to the laborer" (Eccl. 5:12), and yet that's not my gift right now.  It just may be that His "rest" does not include a lot of sleep but means he'll sustain me as I trust Him through the night watches.  He just may have things for me to do and think at night.  Besides, have you worked at sleeping?  It's counterproductive.  Kind of like trying to work at being saved.

Just this past week two other friends told me they were having trouble sleeping.  Maybe I'll call them up tonight.  No, maybe not.  It may not be a gift to them but a trial.  But  next time you see me, ask me what I been doing with my nights.  Whatever I do, I hope its Godward.  Pray I'm resting in Him.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Life On the Edge (Day 40): Praying Through Reality

air Setting your thoughts on things above, as Paul exhorts us to do in Collosians 3:1-2, is not to ignore what is around us or to treat life as a waiting room for eternity, holding to the idea that that is where real life begins.  Rather, we look not around life or above life but through life to a greater reality, to the eternal in the temporal.

Years ago I read a book by Edith Schaeffer entitled The Life of PrayerWhile I have lost the book and most of my memory of it, I do remember her saying something so elementary but so imprinted on my memory:  She recalled riding on a bus, with all the people around her --- all the noises of people chattering, bus engine groaning, honks honking, babies crying --- and yet praying through the sounds and sights of reality.  Essentially, she carved out a space of solitude in her own mind, there in the midst of a messy reality that threatened her concentration, carrying it all to God in prayer.

When we pray as Edith Schaeffer did on that bus, we can carve out a space in the midst of the swirl of life and take up the life around us in our prayers.  The babies crying become prayers for weary mothers, for new lives where the Gospel is ingested and lived.  The chatter of strangers becomes prayers for redeemed relationships, honest work, encouraging words, and for hope to replace the despair that some labor under.  Even the grinding of the bus gears becomes prayers for an end to the groaning of creation for redemption, for the making new of places where we live, for clean air and water and air, for livable, beautiful cities, for food for the hungry, for an end to the cries of the unborn --- for all things to be made new.

In this way, in taking up the life around us, carrying it to God, we participate in what Christ is doing every moment of every day, sitting at the right hand of God, reminding Him of his covenant love, of His promise he cannot not keep, telling Him that this is the world He loves, these are the people He made, and that He who has already done justice at the Cross must now extend mercy and hear His people as they pray because He is love.

I'm setting my thoughts on what's above by looking at what's right in front of me: a man sleeping in an airport lounge chair, weary and homebound; the forest life clear across the airfield; the children playing on the floor at their mother's feet; the flight crew on the tarmac; the sun warming my back by the window; the loudspeaker announcements of delays and gate changes; the smell of Maui tacos and Starbucks coffee.  Outside lies magic, says John Stilgoe, and he's right, because in it we see God's glory and through it we pray.  It's a sometimes messy reality around me, a cacophony of sight and sound, and I'm praying right through it.  And I'm not closing my eyes.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts have been my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."  I've completed this 40 day exercise, but I'll have some concluding thoughts on the journey in a couple days --- but tomorrow I rest (no media Sunday)]

Life On the Edge (Day 32): Being Still

7504600113 Over 25 years ago I was a part of a small group using the Navigators 2-7 Bible study and scripture memorization system.  It's amazing what has stuck from that series.  Even though I've done little to no scripture memorization since then, I can still remember many of the verses I learned back then.  When I consider how much I have forgotten since then this is a minor miracle.  I cannot even remember everyone that was in that small group.

One of the things we did as a group then, whether recommended by Navigators or done on our own initiative, was to go to a wooded local state park, spread out, and armed with nothing but a Bible, spend a half day in prayer.  Alone.  I assume I did pray and read my Bible, but I remember thinking that I'd never make it, that I would have nothing to do at some point.  I'm sure at that time in my life (well, and often since) I'd never prayed more than 20 minutes at one time , and then not often that much.  I remember how quiet it was, about fighting the thought that we were wasting time, but then enjoying the simple solitude and opportunity to talk to God about literally everything I could think of and then some, and then, finally, when I couldn't do that any longer, to meditate on scripture and listen to the world around me.  It was an unusual experience.  (And keep in mind this was before cell phones and the Internet or even computers for that matter were in widespread use.)  Could I do the same now?

Solitude is a way of being powerless before God, of giving up our striving to please God or anyone else.  At the end of solitude there is no product you can point to, nothing you have actually accomplished (nothing to be proud of, really).  And when you finish talking to God, when you get all that out of the way, you can finally just shut up and listen.  We live in a state of perpetual distraction, unable to simply be still.  Like Moses, Elijah, Job, or Isaiah, when we worship our best is when we simply bow before him and rest.

Maybe a dark closet is the best place, after all.  Not much there to distract.

40 Days On the Edge (Day 21): Impudent Prayer

man Whether it's carefully observing buildings, fences, streets, power lines, and other parts of the built environment (as does John Stilgore in Outside Lies Magic); staring hard at the natural environment (as does Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek); or holding a microscope to your own life (as does Federick Buechner in Telling Secrets), persistence is rewarding.  Understanding comes with patience and doggedness in knocking on doors, seeking out truth, and asking for understanding.

So it is in prayer.  In Luke 1:5:13, Jesus recounts a story of a person who goes to a friend's house at midnight, wakes him up, and asks him to lend him three loaves of bread.  As you might imagine, the friend is not so friendly, given the late hour, and tells him to go home.  And yet his friend persists, and "because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs." Jesus uses the story to encourage prayer, as He goes on to tell us to "ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you" (Lk. 11:9).  He seems to be encouraging an impudent praying, a persistence born of the imposition that a friend can make on another good friend, knowing that his good friend will not deny him what he seeks.

As Stephen Smallman notes, this is also true of the way Moses made his requests to God.  Even when God assures him in Exodus 33:12-16 that His Presence will go with him, Moses persists, wanting to be certain, to be clear, that God will go not only with Him but also with all His people.  And he gains that assurance.  His boldness, the imposition borne of familiarity, is not rejected but rewarded.  It's an amazing condescension that the Creator of the Universe would allow Himself to be addressed in such a way, and not only that, would give of what He is asked.

All this is a reminder to me that God loves us with the love of a good Father.  More than anything, He wants us to come to Him, to talk, talk, talk, to ask about everything, to seek what we need, to knock on the door anytime anywhere anyplace.  He never sleeps.  He has all the time in the world and more.  So come boldly.  Be impudent in prayer.  God will rise up and give you whatever you need.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]

40 Days On the Edge (Day 17): "Epi-Knowledge"

epi Nothing is simply as it seems.  Or at least everything is much more than it seems.

John Stilgore's observations based on his explorations of the built environment are useful in peeling back the veneer of the particular places we walk through, drive through, and live amongst to allow us to see the myriad of human decisions that interacted with the natural environment to give us the sensory experience of the places in which we live and work.  Planners' decisions about density, minimum lot size, building setbacks, and size and placement of signs all combine to produce radically different places.  Combined with the characteristics of the natural environment, architectural style, and interior design choices, all these choices have a cumulative  impact on us: This is where we live, not there; this is where we feel at home, not there.  This is the place we know and even love.

I've heard of people who treat place like a commodity.  They shop for a suitable place.  They analyze the job opportunities, the schools, the climate, and the tax burdens, and then they move there.  That's foreign to me.  They move here, live here for a few months, and then figure they know the place.  They don't.  That takes years.  That takes a relationship with the sights, sounds, and smells of a place, as well as a history, and a web of relationships deep and wide.  That's not a superficial acquaintance but an epi-knowledge, a knowledge that gets to the center of what a place is, of its essence.

Something like this kind of knowledge is what Paul is talking about in his "prison letters" --- Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon --- when he prays that believers may "know" the Lord.  As Stephen Smallman points out, Paul uses an intensive word for knowing, the Greek word epignosis, which is "knowing at the center of knowing."  The essence.  The right stuff.  As Smallman says, that kind of knowing leads to doing, to a living out of the reality of truth.

Stilgore is closer to God than he may know.  The epi-knowledge of place is is a point on the way to the epi-knowledge of God.  Knowing a place is, whether conscious or not, a way of knowing the Place-Maker.  More than that, knowing a place is crucial to loving a place, and loving a place is pretty darn close to loving the Creator.

Rootless wanderers concern me.  People who love their place, who know it, who are wedded to it, on the other hand, are not far from the Kingdom.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]

40 Days On the Edge (Day 14): Dogged Prayers

dog Although we no longer have a dog, I well remember persistent companionship of our German Shepherd, Faith. She wanted to be with us. We fenced in the backyard and provided her with a spacious doghouse. She never used it, preferring to sit or lie at the back door where she could watch our every move, even in the rain.

She followed you from room to room, trying to gain your attention in any way she could, nuzzling you, prodding you, and, at times, simply being a pest. If you were in the yard working, she would bring you a stick to throw for her, dropping it at your feet, in the path of the lawn mower, where you were digging in the garden, even in your hand. If you did not take note, she would pick it up and move it closer. Generally polite and patient, she would occasionally bark if nothing else worked to gain our attention, even gently put her paw on your leg to insistently beg your attention.

Whenever we traveled, walked, bicycled, or ran, she wanted to go. She’d be the first in the car, find her leash and bring it to us, run ahead of us and, looking back, beckon us on. Suffice it to say she wanted to be with us every waking moment, didn’t want to lose sight of us, and paid attention to our every move, however slight. She was persistent in her companionship, relentless in her requests, and faithful in her belief that we existed for her.

What a picture of our relationship with God. Moses, the greatest intercessor other than Jesus, demonstrated the same kind of persistence. He spent regular time with God. He held God to His promises, bolding reminding Him of what He had said. He audaciously and persistently asked (and practically demanded) that things be done. He spoke to God like a friend who could speak plainly, without fear of being cast off, having faith that God would be true to His promises. When God indicated that His presence would not be with the people, Moses entreated Him not to leave them, drawing Him back in. Moses lay down at God’s door and would not let Him go.

Our good dog Faith has long since gone on to some good destiny God has not shared with us, and yet she continues to provide a lesson to us of the prayer of faith, the dogged prayer of people who will not let God go.

40 Days On the Edge (Day 12): Embodied Prayer

hands Place always matters.  The obvious fact that we are embodied --- move about, lie down, taste touch, see, smell and hear --- means that our environment, rich with stimuli, holds meaning for us.

Consider the word "home."  Just to say the word immediately stokes the senses.  If asked, I could tell you what "home" looked like, sounded like, felt like, and smelled like for me.  I know the worn smooth feel of the brass doorknob in my hand, see my mother standing in the kitchen, hands in flour, rolling out the bread dough to make biscuits, know the feeling of the bedspread I would flop down on after school, and know the sound of the cars passing by outside or the breeze through the trees by my window.

That such places are impressed in our memories is likely one reason why having a particular place to regularly pray is important.  Through such habitual use of a place, we begin to associate the memory of it with prayer, with a "face-to-face" encounter with God (though maybe not quite in the way Moses did).  In fact, when sight, sound, or smell during the day reminds us of that place, we may even long for it.  You might say it becomes "memorable."

I have a place like that.  I sit in a chair in our third floor guest room and stare out the window at the trees.  The room itself is blessedly spartan, not a magazine or book or computer screen to distract me, and ascending the stairs to go up to that private place I have a physical sense of going "up" to Him, as Moses might have in going up Mount Horeb to converse with God or in walking outside the camp, pitching the Tent of Meeting, and entering into communion with God.  These physical acts are important --- going up, going out --- much as folded hands, kneeling, or lying prostrate on the floor may help our prayer be seen and experienced.  This doesn't mean we cannot pray anywhere, because we can.  As Emily Dickinson said, "Where Thou art --- that is --- Home."  God is everywhere, so we can be at home with Him anywhere, but a regular place helps visually and sensually establish a habit of setting apart a place and time for God.

In a real sense, when we enter this place, when we converse with God, we are brushing up against our true Home  As John Ruskin said, "[Home] is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division."  So get up, go out, kneel, lie down, bow, and find a place where you can be at Home with God.  Get physical.  Root prayer in place.

40 Days On the Edge (Day 11): Dark Night of the Soul


You can pray with all your might
Till your knuckles all turn white
You can look the other way
Hope it’s gone with each new day

You can do your best to hide
You can hold it all inside
You can curse and shake your fist
You can ask why God why this

There is peace somewhere I’m told
There’s a fire out in the cold
There are wonders to behold
In the dark night of the soul

You can give in to your doubts
Try to figure it all out
You can fight the fight alone
Do your best to drink it gone

There is peace somewhere I’m told
There’s a fire out in the cold
There are wonders to behold
In the dark night of the soul

Trust your spirit to be your guide
You’ll come out on the other side

In the absence of the light
Let the shadows hold you tight
You can let your fear and pain
Wash over you like rain

There is peace somewhere I’m told
There’s a fire out in the cold
There are wonders to behold
In the dark night of the soul
In the dark night of the soul

By Kate Campbell & Walt Aldridge
© Large River Music (BMI); Cross Key Publishing Co. Inc./Waltz Time Music Inc. (ASCAP). Featured on For the Living of These Days, Kate Campbell with Spooner Oldham (Large River, 2006).

"But I will not go up among you," said God to the Israelites.  For them, that was a dark night, what they termed a "disastrous word," to be without the presence of God.  But, really, it was both mercy in the sense that it prevented their destruction and a disciplining love in that it brought them to genuine repentance.

I don't know if I know much about what St. John of the Cross termed the "dark night of the soul," but perhaps I have felt it at times, that sense of dryness, depression, or lostness.  In such times we have no appetite for anything and we simply wait for God and hold to what we know in our head but do not feel in our soul: God is there.  God is love.  God is on the move.  "There are wonders to behold/ in the dark night of the soul."

40 Days On the Edge (Day 9): The Lives of Others

listening If you haven't seen the The Lives of Others, the movie voted Best Foreign Language Film of 2007 at the Oscars, perhaps you should.  (I only say perhaps because the move is rated R and contains some nudity and sexuality, so use discretion.)  Set in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it's a movie that focuses on the transformation of Gerd Wiesler, a German Stasi (secret police) agent through his encounter with beauty --- the beauty of the relationship of actress Christa-Maria Sieland and her writer boyfriend, Georg Dreymann, the beauty of music, and the acting of Christa.  Wiesler comes to sympathize with their lives and see its contrast with his own drab existence through watching and listening.  He is assigned to surveillance.  Hence the title, the lives of others.

To be sure, it takes more than just listening and watching to transform a person.  It requires divine intervention.  But listening and watching are a conduit, a path on which God brings change.

Both Moses and Paul so identified with their people that they were willing to suffer judgment by God if it meant their people might be spared.  After the Israelites made the golden calf, on the eve of judgment, Moses boldly intercedes on their behalf, telling God that if He would not spare them, to "please blot me out of the book you have written" (Ex. 32:32), in other words, wipe him from the annals of history, to make him a non-person.  Paul said he was willing to accept damnation if it meant the salvation of his people (Rom. 9:1-4).  What's going on?  They were, like Wiesler in a way, so sympathetic to the lives of these "others" that they were willing to risk their lives for them.  And even more does Christ intercede boldly for us even now, indeed, died for us.

The lesson for me is not only to be aware of the lives of others, to watch and listen, but to pray boldly for their lives.  Then I will begin to know them, to sympathize with them, and even to love them.  Wiesler did it without praying.  Even more so we can change with praying boldly --- for the lives of others.

40 Days On the Edge (Day 8): Deja Voodoo

SOS When you get to be middle-aged like me, you begin to have that odd sensation known as deja vu more often, the sense that you've been here before, done this before.  Traveling through the dark to Columbia, South Carolina tonight, seeing familiar exits, known landmarks, uttering the same thoughts ("I always think I'm halfway when I get here, but we're not."), I realize I've been here before, maybe 15 years ago, maybe 10, maybe a total of twenty times or more over the last 15 years.  I've seen these palmettos, felt the balmy air, cruised the sleepy towns of this very southern Carolina, pulled up to the same parking place, checked in at the same desk, opened a door to an almost identical room.  I'm here.  I've been here.  In one sense, it's a tiresome thing to realize.

It's that way with sin, too.  Only you might call it deja voodoo, that not so nice sinking sensation that you've done it again, committed the same offense, said the same thoughtless word, let you mind wander and dwell on the same ignoble thought, or let slip by the opportunity to do something good and kind, like say an encouraging word, defend one unjustly maligned, said hello to the clerk with a bad day.

Maybe I think the Israelites did worse.  They, after all, had seen such miraculous acts of God, such miracles, and yet when Moses was gone more than a few days, they opted to worship a piece of gold.  And yet they were not different than me.  Each of my offenses, like their offenses, is a singular act of rebellion, a statement that my way is more important than God's way.

I'm a sinner.  I've done it.  I'll likely do it again.  But I'm not compelled nor destined to stay mired in one place.  "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1).  That "now" is effective  in a millions "nows," stretching backwards and forwards --- an eternal, infinite proclamation of what is true.

That "now" overturns the curse and undoes this terrible black magic.  One day, all our deja vus will remind us only of the good, true, and beautiful we have experienced.  That's a good magic.  I can't wait.

40 Days On the Edge (Day 7): Practicing His Presence

sandals In a sense I long for the visible kind of presence God had among his people in the time of the Exodus.  Sometimes I need a bit of smoke and fire to stoke my imagination, to help me know that His presence is real.  I guess I want a wizard, someone like the Wizard of Oz (only not a fraud), or majestic lion like Aslan, or even a place like the tabernacle where I know God lives (even if I'm not the one who sees Him).  At times I've been in deep trouble in life, and yet not "felt" His presence; at other times, I've been relatively happy, without perceived need, and yet "sensed" His presence.  So what gives?

Perhaps the answer is something like "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit"(Jn. 3:8).  We no more command the felt Presence of God with us anymore than we decide who God will save, who He will reveal Himself to.  He does as He pleases, for some unfathomable but good reason.

But He promises He is with us.  Always.  Brother Lawrence, the poor monk in charge of sandals, the self-described "great awkward fellow who broke everything," practiced God's presence by continually conversing with Him.  I know that.  I wish I could remember that.  Lawrence practiced the presence of God by, as he put it, "keeping the soul's gaze fixed on God in faith, calmly, humbly. lovingly, without allowing an entrance to anxious cares and disquietude."  He would not quit the conversation.  He habitually looked to God.  He didn't say it was easy but, rather, was a habit formed by trying and failing, trying and failing.  But one thing he doesn't seek after is the emotional sense of God's presence.  He assumes it, and He talks to God as if to not do so would be to shun a great ongoing conversation.

So maybe smoke and fire are not needed after all.  Just the practiced habit of faith.

40 Days On the Edge (Day 6): Riding With the King

bike You can see it in his face, the blues never lie.
Tonight everybody's getting their angel wings.
And don't you know we're riding with the king?

("Riding With the King," by John Hiatt)

Today I took my cue from John Stilgore and rode my bike for  couple of hours down through neighborhoods, on the greenway by the creek, by the shopping mall and behind a commercial strip, under bridges and over highways, just loitering my way through a beautiful Spring-like Winter day.  I figure biking through town, or walking, is a way of laying claim to a place, of taking possession of the land --- a shadow of the Land God will bring us too, but if I cannot go slow and love this land how can I love that Land? 

I'm making mental markers as I go --- a turn here, a bit of broken pavement there, a relatively ancient maple tree by a house that obviously preceded suburbia's advance on this place.  On a particularly busy stretch, I'm passing people, little bits of conversation floating my way: "I need to live closer to you, because. . . . What I mean is. . . . The problem is. . . ."  It's an interesting sensation to pass through unconnected conversations, like opening a door into a little world and then dropping it shut before you take it in.  It gives you a sense that there is more to life than yourself, a helpful thing to know.

So many conversations seem to have to do with a sense that someone has been wronged, and so I am reminded that it is a moral universe I ride in.  I think back to the devotion for today, a meditation on the ten "words" (commandments) and a reminder that obedience is important. I ride uphill and think of perseverance.  I coast downhill and consider grace.  I feel the wind and consider the Holy Spirit that broods over the world.  The sun reflects from the leaves left on trees, and I consider how all of life reflects God's glory.

CIMG0406 I'm coming up on an old teetering bridge, an ancient, and I wonder what farm families used this bridge all those years ago and what legacy they left.  It reminds me of the communion of the saints, about our continuity with all those who came before.

Two elderly men are talking.  A mother is walking arm and arm with her daughter.  Honor you father and mother, I think.

Someone is having trouble with their bike.   Do I stop and help?  Love your neighbor.

CIMG0404 I stop on a bridge and take a picture of the creek, and shutting out the surroundings, you'd never know that a huge shopping mall a road lie to each side of the creek.  Things change.  Old landmarks disappear.  New ones appear.  But some things don't change.

The wheels turn, saying love God love God love God.  I'm riding with the King.  Nothing is really ordinary.  I'm riding with the King.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]

40 Days On the Edge (Day 5): Redeeming Creation

dozer Some days everything seems vexed with trouble.  We try to work and spin our wheels in frustration, not accomplishing a single thing we set out to do because of interruptions.  We try to talk to co-workers, friends, or family members, and either everyone is having a bad day or maybe it's just us, but trouble is at our doorstep.  Out at lunch, we happen on a particularly beautiful part of the city and find that a previously forested area we walked in for years has been cleared for more office buildings and multi-family dwellings, the very contour of the land reshaped, previous landmarks lost, backhoes and earthmovers scraping the land clear of everything that roots it in the past, and you feel a sense of loss, as the very place itself has lost its identity.  It could be any southern city.  Back at my office, I look from my third story window over the street below, and I feel the weight of something terribly wrong.  It's days like that we can be thankful for, in a way, a day when our theological understanding of the Fall becomes an experiential understanding, when dogma concretes in the particulars of life, in space and in time.

Stephen Smallman relates the epiphany he had when he realized that the Exodus story was a picture of salvation by grace, that the story of God delivering His people from slavery and bondage was a unity with the New Testament Gospel, of God's delivering us from sin through Christ.  I don't remember a time when I did not know this.  The real epiphany for me was when I realized that it wasn't just me being redeemed and delivered but the cosmos, every square inch of a universe gone wrong being recreated into a new heavens and earth that shine with God's glory --- aesthetically, ecologically, and socially redeemed, a world made whole, a world gone right.  John 3:16 is a familiar verse infected by an anthropocentric predisposition, but God loves the "world" (aka cosmos), not just people.  Viewing all of scripture in this light, the incredible scope of what God has done and is doing is immense: He is literally undoing the curse on all creation and unmaking and remaking all that He made.

Some days I look and see trouble.  Other days I sense a deep magic at work.  In that, there is reason to celebrate.  Troubled neighborhoods, broken families, ravished land, toxic waste dumps --- just you wait.  The times are changing.

[The "40 Days On the Edge" posts are my ruminations in light of Stephen Smallman's devotional entitled "Forty Days On the Mountain," read in conjunction with Harvard Landscape History Professor John Stilgore's "Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places."  Both books may be ordered by clicking on them where they are listed in the sidebar under "Current Reading."]

40 Days on the Edge (Day 4): What's In A Name?

names There's a lot in a name.  For example, if your name is Vinnie, and you're from Brooklyn, well that tells you a lot.  Or if your name is Moon or Dweezle (I'm not making these up), then it says something about the parents (eccentric weirdo Frank Zappa being one of them).  Names often fit the person and sometimes become prophetic, even shaping the person.

But when you have a Name that cannot really be spoken, like "I AM," a name that in Hebrew cannot even be pronounced ("YHWH"), then we're dealing with a different species of thing, a self-existent being whose nature we cannot fully comprehend.  His is a name above all names, a name outside of this world, and no name given by Him or conceived by us will do justice to His nature.

But of course there are lots of names in Scripture for "I AM," like Alpha and Omega, Jehovah, Morning Star, Love, and so on.  But in the end names fail us.  Of course, no God outside of time and space can be named, really, because to name Him makes him smaller, and He is too big to be poured into a word.

His final Word to us settled it.  He came in flesh.  He became a living Word. Knowing that Word, that Name, will take eternity.  That's the point, really.

40 Days On the Edge (Day 3): God Calling

phone The biblical story is all about God's initiative.  God is the one who called Abraham out of the Land of Ur, Noah to build an ark, and Moses from a burning bush.  Talk of a spiritual journey is a bit of a misnomer: you may look, you may travel many paths seeking enlightenment, but if you find God it will be because He first found you.

And there are all kinds of findings.  If God opens your eyes, you can't look at any built or natural thing in our environment and not see hear God calling.  Listen to life.  I marveled today, for example, at the very marvel and order of the urban environment: the complex web of roads and highways, the managed traffic lights, the power lines overhead or underneath, an infrastructure below ground that brings fresh water and carries waste away for treatment.  It needn't be this way, but it is --- we have an impulse toward order, design, and systems.  In all of that complexity, God calls, telling us of His goodness, the culture-forming impulse He built into us, the Designer behind the designed, His care for particular people in a particular place in space and time.

Nor is the calling a one time event.  He calls us into relationship with him, and yet His initiative remains.  He continues to speak into our lives.  Listen.  Travel down the web of memory and I find time after time how God worked all things out for the good of me who loved Him because He first loved me and enabled me to love Him.  I see His placement of me in a particular family where I could hear the Gospel and see modeled a servant life.  I have the memory of being befriended by God's people in that first year of college, college seniors who need not waste time with a freshman, but did.  I remember being in the valley of the shadow of death, a place where no other human being can really come with you, and He was there first.

He is there, and He definitely is not silent.

40 Days On the Edge (Day 2): My Fallen Countenance

When God finished talking with Moses, he emerged to speak with the people waiting for him, and "the skin of his face shone" (Ex. 32:29).  Everyone was scared, and I would have been too, considering that the man looked like an alien.  After that look, he veiled his face, taking the covering off only when he met with God.  Moses was reflecting God's glory, and the question posed for me is whether my time with God changes me in a way that is apparent to others.  Maybe, maybe not.

I walk around and look at faces, today and everyday, in my workplace and on the street and in the shopping malls, and I'm amazed at the differences in their features.  Yet, despite their differences, there are some faces that in their "resting" state, the place they lie when not putting on for someone else, which are tense and worried or even "pinched," and you wonder what turmoil or restlessness lies beneath.  Other faces are placid.  Others unmoved.  What is the resting state of my face?  Does it show the peace of Christ that transcends understanding, or is it anxious face working out some scheme or plan of its own?

There's a song by Bruce Cockburn ("Rumours of Glory") which has these lines: Crowd

smiles mixed with curses
the crowd disperses
about whom no details are known
each one alone yet not alone
behind the pain/fear
etched in the faces
something is shining
like gold but better
rumours of glory

Out of all these faces, God is staring at me.  Even in the ones tight with angst, something is shining.  And if we believe, and if we come to Him in Word and prayer, the promise is that the Spirit will do a work in us and carry it on until He is finished.  Then we see God face to face and not only have radiant faces but have His name written on our foreheads (Rev. 22:4).

So there's hope, after all, for my fallen countenance. I can shine.

40 Days On the Edge (Day One): A Beginning

shore If you live oceanside or often visit, you'll know at least one constant: the relentless sound of the waves breaking on the beach.  Although the sound may vary in intensity, it is never absent.  There really is no silence here.  Every waking and sleeping moment pulses with the rhythmic sound of the sea.

Rise in the morning and walk along the sand by the water, and you can sense the insecurity of the edge, feel the sand giving way, sliding back into the sea, know the now diminished but sometimes threatening power behind the sound.  You look back at land and smile at the feebleness of human attempts to stop the slide, to make permanent what will not ultimately stay put: a berm of sand, planted with seagrass, sand pumped from sounds and inlets to build up beaches that, given one good hurricane, can be undercut once again, buildings with concrete and steel pilings sunk deep into bedrock, I presume, if such is a foundation here on the edge.

Seeing boats far out in the ocean, I remember the difficulties faced by those who live on the sea, who make their livelihood there, when, land bound, they lose the sound and very edginess of the sea. They go to sleep with the whisper of the breeze, or the hum of the refrigerator, and stand on floors that are frustratingly at peace, stable, and they toss and turn, miss the sound, miss the wild edge.  Know it or not, the miss the wild glory of God, the sound and sense of his presence.

I want to live on the edge for 40 days.  Two books may help me get there.  Like some in my church, I'm utilizing Stephen Smallman's Forty Days on the Mountain: Meditations on Knowing God, as a help to knowing God and his presence in a daily sense, even perhaps hearing Him as Moses heard Him, "face to face, as a man speaks to his friend," (Ex. 33:11), even seeing His goodness and glory pass by me, to know how good but wild God really is.  Smallman's book is a meditation on Exodus 32-34, the account of his very direct dealings with Moses, the reluctant prophet, and it moves us toward a richer prayer life and relationship with God.

The other help to seeing comes from John Stilgore's Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday PlacesStilgore is a Professor of Landscape History at Harvard meaning, from what I can tell, he does a lot of meandering around the countryside on bike and by foot, ruminating on what he sees.  His book is an extended exercise in developing what he calls "visual acuity," which simply means learning to really look at and wonder about ordinary things, like fences and power lines and commercial strips and highways --- all the mundane things we take for granted.  As the title suggests, there is magic or wonder in the ordinary places, places we really don't see because we're too busy getting somewhere else.  He slows down.  He asks questions.  And know it or not, in the ordinary he is seeing God's goodness and glory pass by, hearing the relentless voice of God speaking to him out of fenceposts and edges of roadways and power lines.

Life on the edge should be normative.  I should be daily aware of the shifting sand under my feet, the instability of every mental construct, the pitiable nature of every human fortification against the relentless surf of God's presence.  And yet I should also be aware of His constant goodness that shines, like the unveiled face of Moses, from the common, hear His voice echoing off the walls of buildings, humming from power lines, coursing in the buried infrastructure under my feet.  Too often I've been a sailor off the sea, settled, comfortable, and yet missing the wild edge.  So, for 40 days I'll live on the edge of the seemingly ordinary, letting it bask in the light of the vintage world of the Exodus, asking God to give Himself up to me.

I know a little about sailing, but don't expect tablets of stone.

Interstitial Prayer: What To Do While You're Waiting For Something To Happen

WaitingOne of the most difficult commands of Scripture to implement is that to "pray continually" (1 Thess. 5:17). It obviously doesn't mean every single moment of every single day, because then when would we do everything else? Or does it some sense mean just that? I can tell you that I have never met anyone who said that they prayed enough. Even Billy Graham says that the one regret he has about his life is that he did not pray enough. And so where does that leave you and me?

Elsewhere I've advocated walking prayers as a part of obeying this command, as a means of maintaining communication with God. Such prayers are not easier to maintain than devotional prayers, just different, but there is an advantage: I have not yet fallen asleep while walking and praying. But I'm after something else, a more continual awareness of God's presence with me and a longer conversation. Thus, interstitial prayer.

"Interstice," the root of "interstitial," is not one of those words most of us traffic in daily. I actually first heard it in law school, as a description of the silence of some otherwise seemingly comprehensive statutory framework addressing a certain problem. Or in constitutional law, the interstices in our Constitution were actually viewed by one Supreme Court as implicitly containing a general right of privacy (a la Roe v. Wade). An "interstice" is then a space between things or parts, especially a space between things closely set or, more to point, it is an interval of time. It is the in-between time --- the time when you flip with little real interest through the pages of a dog-eared magazine waiting for the doctor who is already behind, when you sit at a three-cycle traffic light watching what strange things people do in their cars while they wait (like brush their teeth), when your lunch date is 15 minutes late and you closely examine the floor, seating, and windows of the restaurant, realizing that it's not really very clean at all and wondering why a Grade A rating hangs on the wall --- all the times you are waiting for something to happen, soon. It is, if you will, one of life's parentheses. The question is how will you fill it?

"So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God," says Paul (1 Cor. 10:31), and that means the interstices of our day as well. This is terribly difficult if you think this means actual praying, at least in thought, at every moment. Our thoughts are fluid. We're not on task nor do we need to be 24-7. Rather, I like to think of interstitial prayer as remembering that Someone is with me, that even in silence there is present One who understands me and my day better than anyone and actually has the ability to help me, to give me what I really need. All I really want to do as a result of this realization is to continually ask God to help me remember that I am not alone. If I remember that, if I am cognizant during some of that valuable interstitial time --- time most people regard as a waste or fill with books on tape, music, or fantasies --- that God is with me, then I think the rest, the conversation, the dialogue, will take care of itself. Who knows? I may even come to wish for more time to waste with God each day, more interstices where I can remember and listen.

Good Prayers: God Be In My Head

Pray_personSome prayers are simply good and well-trod paths that we can use as the scaffold for our own prayers.  Used properly, they do not inhibit real conversation with God just as the well-known learned and taught patterns of conversation do not inhibit free and spontaneous discussion.  It's all in how you use these forms, making them your own by conscious attention on their object, or a rigid and lifeless form to simply get through. 

This is one prayer I like for its encouragement to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind:

God Be In My Head

God be in my head and in my understanding.
God be in my eyes and in my looking.
God be in my mouth and in my speaking.
God be in my heart and in my thinking.
God be at my end and my departing.

(Reprinted in Peter Kreeft's Prayer: The Great Conversation)


PhoneLast Friday Darlene left a message on my cell phone asking me to pray for her.  She said she was behind in the rent on the lot where her family had their mobile home.  She explained that she had been sick and gotten behind when she lost her job, that her credit was "shot," and that she had a court hearing Monday to determine whether she should be evicted.  She asked for prayer that God would grant her a "financial blessing," (which sounds suggestive of a "prosperity gospel" diet on her part.)

The problem with this is that I have no idea who Darlene is, but her 972 area code indicates that she's not from these parts.  When I listened to her message Friday, I wasn't sure if I should call her back and let her know she had the wrong number.  I figured she must have copied down a number incorrectly, perhaps one associated with one of the TV preachers (I have an 800 number associated with my cell phone. Yikes! can you imagine if your 800 number was one digit off from the number for Benny Hinn et al?).  I had visions of being sucked into a lengthy conversation where she relates all the personal trials of her life, ending with a final plea that I send money.  I was reluctant to take the risk.  I figured she'd get the number right next time.  But. . . I did pray for Darlene and her situation.  I figured that's as good as Benny Hinn praying, right?

Apparently Darlene did not get the number right the next time.  At 1:40 AM this morning, she left another message advising that she had gone to court and been granted an extension of time until October 23rd to pay her back rent on the trailer lot ($6000!).  She requested prayer that God would grant some financial blessing to allow her to pay the rent.  Well, I prayed.  But I wonder if I should call Darlene?

Naah.  To do so might tamper with the plot for my next short story, as I already have imagined more of Darlene's life than she will tell me, and it can't be half as interesting as what my mind has conjured up.  Let's see:  Darlene ( a nice southern name), trailer park, eviction notice, 972 area code (that's Dallas, oh my,  a place rich in imaginings), lost job, hard luck, televangelist, '"financial blessing," and so on.  To find out what her life is really like would destroy the fictional world that's already pressing in on me.  And besides -- her needs are on God's heart and mind, anyway.

So Darlene, thank you for the story.  I'm praying for you.  I hope and pray your story has a good ending, that your true needs are met.  And please, please don't send your money to Benny Hinn (if you are).  You better pay the rent.




DreamI have never attached much importance to dreams.  Some are inane; some fantastical; some downright boring, to the extent I remember them at all.  A few are disturbing.

And some are so real, so vivid, that they are difficult to shake once you awake from them.  The voices you heard in them seem almost audible, and they haunt your waking hours.

Last night I dreamed that a girl I knew 30 years ago in college was weeping, telling me her husband had left her.  I told her, "Janet, God will husband you now," words that seemed to ring in my ears.  I woke up praying for her, or maybe I began praying for her when I awoke.

Just providentially, I am having lunch tomorrow with another college friend who has kept up with Janet all these years.  I'm going to ask him to consider calling her to see how she is.  I haven't done that kind of thing often.  In fact, I feel silly doing it at all.  Surely the dream was a figment of my imagination, related to the too late dinner I had the previous evening.

But then I consider the dreams of the Scripture -- Jacob's dream of angels descending and ascending a ladder to heaven; Joseph's dream of his brothers' sheaves of grain bowing down to his sheaf of grain; or even Pharaoh's dreams of the fat cows and gaunt cows, the scorched grain and healthy grain -- God speaking in dreams.

So, I don't know what to make of that dream.  But, if nothing else, it's a prompt to pray for an old friend, and that's a good thing.

The Choreography of Prayer

"Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you" (1 Pet. 5:7)

Surely Linette Martin was right in speaking of the choreography of prayer. (See "Practical Praying: A Review," Post of August 21st ).  Some verses like this one seem to call for it.  How, after all, do you "cast" an anxiety?  It's a great help not only to visualize it but enact it.  This is one I used today.

I always thought this was a weird, mystical kind of thing, something a Quaker like Richard Foster might suggest (and I believe he did), but I've changed my mind.  When I've had difficulty sleeping because I had too many things on my mind I'd get up, commit them to paper, and then rest assured that they would be dealt with as they were all there on paper.  Maybe it's a bit like that, like handing these cares over to God, no, like sending them via a fast ball to his gut: "Here, you take these.  I can't handle them.  You can."  You see, then they're not mine anymore but His.  Cast them, Peter says.

Maybe that's why I like the walking prayer as well.  Looking up at the sky I can imagine a prayer taking off, or a care released, floating up and away.  I might even just say a word aloud, thinking of the sound waves that go on and on.  Looking down at my feet they seem to say persevere, keep on, one minute by minute, and I pray for strength for this and that and people who have little of that strength.  Looking at the people I meet coming toward me, eyes often averted, I can hold them up to God as well and say "Here, they're yours, help them," and even give a (very) little push with an open hand to emphasize the giving.

Well now.  All that sounds a bit flaky to me.  But honestly, a little imagination, a little choreography, and I pray better.  OK?

Practical Praying: A Review

Linette_1 Doubtless most Christians who are serious about their faith have spent a fair amount of time struggling with prayer, both when they are praying and when they are not praying but thinking that they should be praying.  No one who I have ever met has ever said that they pray enough.  I've also read enough books on prayer that I doubt that there is little new that can be said on the subject.  Pray.  Pray unceasingly, Scripture says.  But honestly, it's a discipline that often escapes me, that frustrates me, that leaves me wondering sometimes whether I'm simply talking to myself.

Though it is not a new book, and certainly not new in what it says, the late Linette Martin's book, Practical Praying, is a refreshing read and good prompt for a renewed or new prayer life.  Martin wrote the book because she could not find a book on prayer that really told her what she needed to know.  What is so delightful about this book is the candor with which she approaches the subject, as well as the very practical advice she offers.

First off, she reminds us of why we pray.  "God is not a puppet, neither are you his: that is what makes Christian prayer a strenuous and disturbing business."  I can't recall ever having heard anyone put it that way.  What she is getting at is the paradoxical fact "that the God who lives in unapproachable light is approachable," and, when we approach him in prayer we cannot manage him but take the good risk that he will come into our lives and do with us as he pleases.  In other words, prayer is not safe.  It keeps us from being too chummy with God Almighty; we love him as subjects adore their King.  It is, as she says, a fearful love, one of the reasons we pray, the others being habit and need.

But this is practical theology, lived experience.  For those who can't seem to pray or who've given up the practice, she suggests the most modest of beginnings, the "prayer of smiles and glances," just looking to God in love, nothing more.  And then, and only then, speaking only a few simple words.  We become children again, and while we don't stay children, sometimes we need to go back to basics before we can grow.

From there she moves on to discuss time and place, choreography (movement), informal and structured prayers, the outline of prayer (intercession, penitence, praise, and reading), special situations (like praying when sick or depressed), and praying with other people.  The prose is simple and yet not simplistic.  Sometimes Martin voices thoughts about prayer that we may have thought but thought wrong to verbalize!  For example:  "People who have never been very sick will say smilingly, 'Oh, when you are lying in bed, never mind, you can always pray.'  To them I would say, 'Do you remember what it was like the last time you had flu? You lay there feeling weak and shivery and you ached all over and everything looked far away and it hurt even to move your eyes.  How much praying did you do then?'  The honest answer is, 'Well, not a lot.'"  The candor strikes a chord:  we come to think that the author is one who learned all this by experience, the hard way, a fact she admits.

In a chapter that may be controversial for some Protestants, she urges the use of all the senses in prayer, noting the value of icons, for example.  "Because Christianity is an incarnational religion, we do not need to be afraid of the material world of taste and scent and sound and touch and movement and sight."  So pictures, music, incense, and fasts can be helpful in developing a good prayer life.  Similarly, her openness to tongues may be controversial, and yet her advice is practical: "Whether you have the gift of tongues or not, the basics of prayer are the same, and they are unexciting: a discipline of time and place, a balance of praise, humility, intercession, and tuning a life to God's will."  It's work, and work is fulfilling but also difficult at times.

This is down-to-earth praying from one who is was firmly planted in the stuff of life.  Earthy, and yet heaven bent.  Get a used copy of this unfortunately out-of-print book.  Rethink this whole thing of prayer.  And pray.  Unceasingly.

A Wider Sense of Prayer

"Appreciation can be expressed to God with spoken words in prayer, alone in one's 'closet,' or sitting on a stone in a field, or walking in the woods or on a city street.  Appreciation can be written to God in your handwriting for His eyes alone, written in a private notebook or on the back of an envelope.  Praise and thanksgiving can be in the form of a painting if that is a person's best medium of expression, or in song, or with a musical instrument.  It doesn't always have to be verbal. . . . nor heard by anyone else."  (Edith Schaeffer, in Common Sense Christian Living, as quoted in Between Heaven and Earth: Prayers and Reflections That Celebrate an Initimate God, ed. Ken Gire)

Habit, Gesture, Rhythm

"Which forms of prayer are best?  There is no rule of thumb, for the reason that every thumbprint is different and distinct.  Some habit of prayer is clearly wise, for all life is built on habit; but the habit should be under frequent scrutiny lest it harden into a confining shell.  Some gesture of prayer is wise.  Here also there can be no general prescription. . . . [A] gesture. . . cuts a physical channel through which the spirit may flow.  Audible speech has the power in unusual measure: words clarify the vague resolve and themselves carry it into the deed.  Again, some rhythm in prayer's forms is wise. . . . Speech and silence should both have place, for one is active and the other receptive.  Repetition gives deeper and deeper imprint to a prayer, but becomes mere rote unless balanced by newness.  So liturgy and 'free prayer' each claim place and bestow a common good. 

(Presbyterian Pastor George Buttrick, in Prayer)

In the recent couple of years, my favorite method of prayer has been to pray about whatever comes to mind as I take a daily walk.  While it took some concentration, some purposeful attention, I enjoyed the newness it put into my prayer life as I put aside trying to cover a list of prayer concerns, or specific topics, or, in fact, to make any intercession at all.  I even enjoined others to such an approach, citing the example of Brother Lawrence, in a talk I gave.

But I'm discovering that with all methods, all approaches to prayer, it is necessary to keep moving.  Now when I walk, I am too distracted.  I find myself going long distances daydreaming.  I repeat myself.  I have a rote beginning to my prayers.  They begin with a bang and go out with a whimper.  I recognize the signs of calcification, the need to move on.

So what I'm doing now is beginning to focus on written prayers, not to the complete exclusion of my "walking prayers," but as an ordering supplement.  Puritan prayers, Celtic prayers, the Psalms, and others, placing myself in the writer's place, inserting my praises or confessions or intercessions and petitions around the forms that the author gives, and learning, as George Buttrick commends, a rhythm of speaking and then listening, reading and reflecting, sometimes speaking aloud that the gesture might incarnate the meaning of the words I read, make them live in my world.

I recognized in what Buttrick said what I had previously said:  Satan loves law.  He will take the freeing thing and make it dry duty so that it becomes dead.  We have to keep moving, holding lightly whatever form or method we use, because he loves habit.  He uses it to his perverse ends.

Prayer and Unbelief

Clip_image002_29Under the best of circumstances, prayer can be difficult.  Far better is prayer when we are beset by the worst of circumstances, for that is when we truly cry out to God.  A those times, we need help -- badly, and now. But I suspect that how we pray in the best of times is the better indication of how much we believe in prayer and how important it is to us.

Recently, this was once again brought home to me by a summary I read of missionary Helen Roseveare's quite amazing answer to prayer some time ago.  (Roseveare's name caught my eye because I heard her speak 30 years ago at an Urbana Missions Conference, and she made an impression that lasted.)  Roseveare was an English missionary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) from 1953 to 1973, founding hospitals and clinics.  At one point, she felt God leading her to start a new ministry to lepers, but she lacked the money to do so.  She prayed, expecting God to supply.  As the time approached when she would need a specific amount of money to start the work, she began to be concerned, as no money arrived. 

As Betsy Childs summarizes:  "As the first day of the next month dawned, Roseveare went to work discouraged and confused.  At lunch time, Aunzo [a leper she employed] greeted her with a large brown envelope. It had been delivered the previous day to a different missionary by mistake! Inside the envelope was money that came to the sum of 4,800 francs. Roseveare quickly subtracted the tithe [she always tithed 10% of any gifts received] in her head, which left 4,320 francs, the exact amount needed to pay the bill for the supplies. She writes:  'The total was made up of three gifts, from an unknown couple in North America, from two prayer partners in Northern Ireland, and from a Girl Crusaders' Union class in southeast England. The North American gift had been on the way some four months, transferred from our Philadelphia office to the London office, from London to Brussels, Brussels to Leopoldville (Kinshasa), and finally upcountry from Leopoldville to Paulis (Isiro). Every transfer involved a certain percentage cost. At the end, the three gifts had arrived together to make the exact sum needed, and two of the gifts were designated: 'for your leprosy work'—and I did not have a leprosy work when the money was actually given!'"

That's an amazing story and it demonstrates that God certainly can and does answer prayers very specifically.  In fact, the story is very similar to the one Edith Scaheffer tells in her book, L'Abri.  As I recall, the Schaffers, who had a ministry in Switzerland to college students and seekers of truth, were asked to leave the canton in Switzerland where they lived.  They could move to another canton, but they needed a specific amount of money to do so.  They received it, on the last day, because I man in the United States woke in the middle of the night with the sense that he needed to take his contribution to a mailbox and mail it right away -- to the Schaeffers -- who receievd it, the exact amount needed, at the last moment.  Another amazing story.

What I am disturbed by is my reaction to these stories.  Yes, there's the good: I am encouraged.  I am reminded to pray specifically, expecting God to answer, sometimes in very concrete ways.  But another thing I experienced when reading this was skepticism -- can this really be?  Is this an account that has been exxagerated in any way?  I attribute part of that to a culture of unbelief and cynicism, and I recognize that this has effected me as well.  But I can't lay all the blame there.  Part of it, no doubt, is my own struggle with believing God at His word, believing that He answers prayer, that I'm not just talking to myself and attributing good outcomes to His hand.

This is disappointing about me.  But I suspect I am not alone in this.  I suspect others struggle with this doubt at times.  We can only say "Lord increase our faith" as we continue to watch and pray, pray and watch.  I'm thankful for these stories, and more like them, because they remind me to ask and expect, and with God's grace I'll continue to do so.

Prairie Fire

Ca_road_trip_10 "I shrink from death and all its symbols.  Signs that this life is failing me, as it failed my grandmother and grandfather, as it fails everyone in the end.  Cracks and fissures.  I catch my reflection in the store window and see wrinkles lining the corners of my eyes. My hair falls out as I comb it, strewn all over the bathroom sink.  I pick up a strand and hold it to the light; the brown is draining to pure white."

"Walking out on the prairie after the burn in the early spring, I can only think of purification, loss, death.  Everywhere is charred earth.  There’s a crunching under my hiking boots, and it’s a deer mouse skeleton, scorched.  Willoway Brook is choked with cinders.  What good can possibly come from this?"

Willow When I read Cindy Crosby’s book of mediations – By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer – I am struck by the rawness of her honesty as well as the intensity of her description of life on the tallgrass prairie (which she uses as an extended metaphor for the life of faith and struggle to know God.)  It’s like fine wine, something I need to take in sips.  Sometimes it’s like hard liquor too: it burns on the way down.

I just read her chapter on pain sitting here on a patio at my hotel here in Santa Monica.  I’m not in pain, now.  The sky is a clear and smogless blue, the palm trees bright and swaying, and if I stand and stretch I can just about see the azure blue of the Pacific Ocean. Just about.

Walking in Palisades Park, the strand above the beach at Santa Monica, I see all kinds – kids playing, young couples lolling, tourists taking it in, the elderly out for a walk, and the ubiquitous homeless sorting through the garbage, our castoffs.  I wonder why there are here, what kind of days they have.

I can see why people come here.  Southern California holds the promise of eternal youth, of painless existence, of endless summers – if you have enough money, that is.  And yet talk to someone who has been here for awhile, and they often want to leave this “paradise” for various reasons – for a place with less crime, or traffic, or hype, a place more authentic.  The promise of endless summers and youth rings hollow after a while.

When I come here I cannot help but think of Brian Wilson, that often tortured genius behind the Beach Boys sound, now 64.  His life has not been an endless summer, not been a happy one at all.  When I have met him, each time only briefly, the smile is genuine and yet with his eyes he is afraid.  Maybe he’s wandering what I want from him – just an autograph, or just to say I met him, as I am now, to steal a part of his privacy?  When I see him and hear him in interviews, I don’t know if he’s come to grips with his past or still thinks he can beat it on his own, somehow cheat death and suffering of its sting.

Prairie fire is painful.  It leaves scorched earth in its wake.  That’s how the trials that come in life are.  Scorching, and not pretty.  But prairie fire renews, and the earth comes back greener and healthier as a result.  That’s not always the case with humans.  Some curse their circumstances and their lives end up smaller and more peevish.  Some, however, accept them, and grow from them.  Their lives end up wounded and yet healthier.

I don’t know which it will be for Brian Wilson.  I hope renewal.  I feel like I’ve wasted some of my fires.  I pray I won’t in the future.

I know that the folks strolling the Palisades here in Santa Monica have likely had pain.  I wonder what they have done with it. 

Crosby says “I have been depressed.  I am depressed.”  She is honest.  And yet she is growing in it.  In her book we look in on that growth in process.  It’s not easy.  Prairie fires are painful to watch.

Prayer and Memory

"'We live in a culture that has lost its memory,' writes Gretel Ehrlich.  Through prayer, I'm absorbed in reclaiming mine.  When I pray, I feel a connection to a memory, the tug of combined prayers of generations before me who have done the same.  Waves and waves of prayer that swell behind me, lifting me up, helping me connect through the past to something in my present and my future.  'In remembrance is the secret of redemption,' a Jewish proverb declares.  In remembrance lies mine."  (Cindy Crosby, in By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer)

The Habit of Prayer

"Those who do not turn to God in petty trials will have no habit or such resort to help them when the great trials come, so those who have not learned to ask Him for childish things will have less readiness to ask Him for great ones.  We must not be too high-minded.  I fancy we may sometimes be deterred from small prayers by a sense of our own dignity rather than that of God's."  (C.S. Lewis, in Letters to Malcolm)

Prairie and Prayer

Flower_2 There's a skin of the landscape I'm beginning to peel back, and I'm finding a map of sorts in the world around me; a landscape of prayer, creation that cannot help but praise the creator.  Symbols in the landscape beckon me further up and further in. When I'm on the prairie, the barriers come down.  My need to stay busy dissolves, my frustrations calm, and I am free to be still.  (Cindy Crosby, in By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer)

Mostly, when I'm out walking, I'm moving.  I hear the pounding of my feet on asphalt and my somewhat labored breath.  I have to make a conscious effort to focus on the landscape around me, because I'm exercising.  I have a plan.  I have a goal.  I have miles to cover.

What Cindy Crosby is describing is something else altogether, something it's difficult to get out walking for exercise.  It's a meditation on the landscape -- looking, listening, smelling, and touching it.  Adam knew about this.  When God sent the animals to him for naming, Adam, in that pre-Fall state, would not have flippantly said the first name that came to mind.  He would have looked at what manner of creature was in front of him and given it a name summoned up by its appearance or sound.  To name something or someone is to know it or them.  It would have been much as he named Eve "woman," as she was "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. . . [and] taken out of man. (The Hebrew word for "woman" sounds like the word for "man," but we can assume the "wo" is added because she may be like man but oh so, so different! And then, as he later knows her better, he names her "Eve," which means "living.")

It's difficult to practice this kind of knowing of our landscape, our surroundings, given the pace of life, but it's worth it.  A few years ago my daughter and I made a project of naming every tree in our backyard.  To do that we had to look at the profile of the tree, the shape of the leaf, and the bark.  We had to get to know them a bit.  It took some time.  But now I feel like I know them, that is, in the only way you can know a tree, so when I walk in the backyard it's a familiar and oddly comforting community.  I'm not being sentimental or making them more than they are, not being anthropocentric.  They are just trees and, unlike me, they are not made in God's image.  But they are made by His hand and so we share a common origin.

What I guess I'm trying to say is that I'm more at home here when I better know the other living things that live here with me.  I'm glad to know the trees and the birds that live here.  Certainly I've been entertained by the antics of the squirrels.  My backyard is full of life.

Crosby ties this knowing of the landscape, the living community around us, to prayer.  When she is in the Schulenberg Prairie near her home in the western suburbs of Chicago, she says she is "free to be still."  The tallgrass prairie gives her all kinds of reasons to pray.  Like the monarch butterfly, encoded with the memory of a place in Mexico to which they go each Fall, a place they have no memory of and yet the longing for which they are encoded.  The butterflies homing instinct makes her wonder if we are all encoded with that longing for home, for God, and it drives her to prayer.

You know, I'll bet there are such symbols all around me.  I just need to open my eyes and look well.  I certainly can't look at what's here without thankfulness welling up in me.  There's not an animal or plant or inanimate object here that's not pointing out, to God.

There's a lot going on in my backyard.


Clip_image001_3 "Homesickness for God is a mark of the life of prayer."

-- James Houston, in The Transforming Life of Prayer

I've been alone this week with my daughter, as my wife and son are out of town.  I'm enjoying the time with my daughter, and yet, if I were to characterize my days, I'd say that in many respects I am going through the motions, doing what must be done but, except for some special moments one-on-one with my daughter (which I wouldn't minimize), I am just waiting for remainder of my family to return.  I'm homesick for them.  I'm really not complete, not able to rest, until we are all together.

I remember going to camp as a child.  It was just a week, not so long, really, but for me it was an eternity.  I suffered from homesickness not one day but all week of it.  I did all the normal camp things, and seeing me, you might even would have said that I looked like a normal, well-adjusted camper.  But I was not normal at all.  I remember harboring thoughts of home in the corner of my mind, at the edge of consciousness, at almost all times.  Then, as night fell, and we retired to our bunks, these thoughts became larger and larger.  Sleep seemed to elude me for hours as I lay there thinking of home, wondering how much longer until I was able to leave and go home, listening to the other apparently clueless campers breathing deeply in dreamland.  It was just me and, as I finally figured out, God as well.  Sometimes I'd pray "God, please get me out of here.  Please get me home."  Pitiful, I know.  My wife cannot identify with this particular feeling at all.  She went to camp for six weeks in the Summer and then begged to stay six more weeks, something I would have regarded as near insanity at the time. (I now know this was a common experience for many kids.)  She's perfectly fine.

In college I wrote letters to my future wife when she wasn't with me (she graduated before me).  I still have some.  They were full of longing.  Once my car broke down on the way back to school from her home.  I left it, hitchhiked back to her house, and stayed for three more days.  I cut class just to stay and took my sweet time getting the car fixed.  That's not rational, but love isn't rational.  Neither is homesickness.  Silly to dwell on such things some might say.

Now, am I homesick like this, or even lovesick like this, for God?  Not enough.  I often catch myself thinking about God as I go about the normal tasks of life.  Out there on the edge of consciousness, most of the time, I'm thinking there's somewhere else I need to be, somewhere like home, somewhere where I'll be completed, at rest.  But, to be honest, the intensity of that experience is felt only on rare occasions.  People of prayer, people driven to pray, I expect feel it with much more intensity.  John Wesley spent four hours in prayer most mornings; Martin Luther, three.  Why? I suspect they were homesick for God, so aware of their inadequacy, so ill at ease in the world.  They moved through their days, as I do mine, and could not help but be reminded of Christ, their Home, by every single thing they saw, heard, or touched, and then, being so aware of how far from the ideal of it they would know in glory, they were homesick for that place of glory, for Heaven.  This drove them to prayer.

I don't know what those folks in Northern California were thinking when they named their town Happy Camp.  We're not happy campers.  Joyful, maybe, but not happy.  Happy is when we go Home.  Our prayers are the love-letters we send Home.