Gift 30 – Picture Perfect

A few days ago Amanda and I decided to take our Christmas card picture at the park (actually, Amanda decided and I went along with it, but never mind).

That meant a ten-minute drive with not one but two psychopathic canines crammed into the back of our Chevy equinox. They yelped, they romped, they stormed the front seat nearly nocking the shift stick and bringing us to an untimely doom—you know, the usual. We arrived at the park scratched, slobbered upon, and overall a little flustered, but the fun didn’t end there. The leashed doggies hadn’t yet been for a walk that day and so tried desperately to break free of their bonds with the ferocity of two salivating criminals resisting arrest. Eventually Amanda and I had to practically tackle our little friends and hold them in headlocks while trying to persuade in a singsong voice, “Look at the camera! Come on, boy, look at the camera! Be a good dog and look at the camera! JUST LOOK AT THE DANG CAMERA BEFORE I LOSE IT!” Or something like that.

At this point I was getting a little annoyed at pretty much everything in creation and said something snarky like, “Why are we even taking a stupid Christmas card?” To my wife’s credit she held back a retort, but I could tell she was getting frustrated, too.

Fast forward to a few minutes ago. I received an email notification, Amanda Russ has tagged you in a photo on Facebook, and so opened a new tab to see. This is what I saw…

family

My first thought was, Who is this family, and why was I tagged in their picture?   This lucky clan had two perfectly trained dogs and had probably just finished a pleasant picnic in the park when the photo was taken. Then a looked a little closer. Wait a minute…is that us?!

 My point is this, while I have been so very blessed with a wonderful wife and two playful pups, our real lives and the picture don’t exactly match up. Real life is way messier and more complicated. This got me thinking about all the times I have become subtly jealous of what someone else has, or does, or is while scanning social media. It’s so easy to compare oneself with others while scrolling through photos—Look how perfect their lives are. They never argue. They have the perfect family. It must be nice being them. These thoughts are always accompanied by contrasting self-assessment. I wish I had __________. Why can’t my family be more _________? My life is nowhere near as good as   ___________’s.

This is called comparison, and it’s a killer.

While I’ve always known comparison is harmful, I’m beginning to see that our comparative thoughts aren’t even true. Just like the picture above isn’t even close to being an accurate representation of our day at the park, other people’s photos don’t really capture their lives either. The truth is, everyone struggles, everyone fails, and no one is as perfect as their pictures (after all, who posts pictures of arguing, paying bills, etc.?). Comparing oneself with social media pictures is as misleading and as damaging as a young girl comparing her body with photoshopped women in magazines.  The images aren’t real.

Teddy Roosevelt said it best, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” One of the great secrets of life is in contentment, in silencing comparative lies and looking instead to all you have to be grateful for. And next time you’re skimming social media and begin feeling like you would rather be someone else, just remember that the lives you’re seeing probably don’t exist.

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Gift 29 – Super Cool

As the school year begins I can’t help thinking about cool and the deep desire of just about everyone to be popular. Underneath the desire is the innate human longing for acceptance and approval; to be a part of community—and this isn’t bad. The problem comes when we prioritize becoming cool over just about everything else.

For this reason I have compiled a list of 5 reasons why cool should not have priority in our lives…

1. Cool is fleeting. Can you believe that this look was ever cool?

cool 2

Or that these slick-haired, booty-shorts wearing boys used to rule the school?

ball 2

Or that these mmmbop-in’ brothers once captured the hearts of teenage girls around the country (pretty impressive considering they look like teenage girls themselves)?

cool 1

But before you laugh too hard, you should know that no matter how in-style you think you are at this very moment, in a few years you will look back at pictures of yourself and shake your head in embarrassment.

The truth is, cool changes. In fact, cool is so incredibly temporary that whatever is cool today might very well be laughable tomorrow. This means that investing too much in cool is as foolish as building your house on a fault line. Cool changes far too often to make a good foundation.

2. Cool is not fun. I think most people would agree that their most miserable years (often middle or early high school) were those spent running after cool. Put simply, obsessing over the desire to be liked can be stressful and even downright destructive. There is nothing enjoyable about the sick, panicky feeling in your stomach as you wonder what other people are thinking about you. Wouldn’t it be so much better if you let your guard down and were able to relax a little? Those wise and confident enough to stop caring about what others think are nearly always the ones who have the most fun, build the most genuine friendships, and have the least regrets.

3. Cool is uncool. The great irony of cool is that it isn’t. Cool is paradoxical in the sense that those who want it most will never achieve it, and those who simply don’t care are the first to earn the approval of their peers. At work, at school, and at play, human beings are drawn to those with confidence, conviction, and compassion. Not those who are trying to be cool. You might be jealous of “the cool people”, or maybe even afraid of those on the top of the social ladder, but deep down, no one really respects those who have only achieved a mere surface-level coolness. The truly respected ones are those who have prioritized more important things over their desire to fit in.  Example: One of my best friends Ron Radcliffe came to college with a fanny pack full of Pokémon cards and a collection of homemade swords…and within no time became one of the most well-known and well-liked people on campus. Why? Because Ron is man of confidence, conviction, and compassion, and people always eventually gravitate to character.

4. Cool is almost always hierarchical. In other words, in places where cool is the currency, there are varying degrees of rich and poor. There are those who are cool and those who are…not so cool. This is how it works. For someone to be “in”, others have to be “out.” Unfortunately, when you have so many people trying desperately to ascend the social ladder, people are inevitably going to be stepped on. This is one of the reasons why bullying is such a serious problem in schools across the country. However, as followers of Jesus we are called to a different pursuit. In fact, Jesus flipped the ladder upside down when he spoke to social outcasts, when he touched lepers, when he refused to turn children away, when he ate with tax collectors, and when he washed his disciples’ feet. This is the pattern we’re called to carry on.

5. Cool gets in the way. In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul writes, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Clearly, there are times in our lives when we have to choose what and whom we’re living for, and so often, cool and Christ are calling us in two very different directions. I can think of several times in high school alone in which I was clearly aware of Jesus’ leading to befriend the friendless, or to speak against gossip, or to hold my tongue when tempted to say something funny but potentially hurtful, but why did I often resist? Because cool was telling me to look out for myself. This, I think, is the most fundamental difference between the call of cool and the call of Christ: one is primarily about self, and the other is primarily about self-denial. And yet, only one of these paths leads to authentic, free, meaningful life.

It’s time we considered a new definition of cool as we think about what really has value, importance, and precedence in our lives. What needs to take priority? What really matters? These are the things that do not change from day to day, the things that satisfy and build character, the things that consider others as valuable as ourselves, and the things that allow us to love with the love we’ve been given.

These are the things worth running after.

Love,

Your Super Cool Dad324329_10150599512740546_65753411_o (1)

Gift 28 – To Join the Conversation

Turn on the T.V., open your computer, or visit your local…pretty much anywhere there’s people, and it won’t take you long to find conversations unfolding about controversial topics.

“What do you think about immigration?” Or, “What’s your view on homosexuality?”

These conversations in particular (among others) are in the spotlight almost daily—and everyone seems to have an opinion. But before you jump into the dialog, I want to suggest 9 requirements that must be true before you speak, or rather, 9 red flags: sure signs that you are not ready to join the conversation.

1. If you’re joining a discussion out of a motivation to “win,” then you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation.

2. If all your thoughts can be summarized in 140 characters or fewer, you’re probably not ready to be a part of the conversation.

3. If you’re comfortable hearing only one side of the argument, you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation.

4. If you think you have an easy or simple solution to a complex issue, you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation.

5. If you are quick to speak but slow to listen, then you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation (James 1).

6. If you haven’t yet considered whether your opinion could possibly be wrong, you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation.

7. If your heart is not burdened to the point of sacrificial action on behalf of those to whom the “issue” relates, then you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation.

8. If you haven’t yet empathized with multiple perspectives on a given issue, or put yourself in the opposing “side’s” shoes, you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation.

9. If you don’t yet have love for your enemies or you haven’t yet taken the time to pray for those of an opposing viewpoint—and not just for them to change their minds—then you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation (Matt. 5).

If after satisfying all 9 requirements you still hold the same perspective, great. Wonderful. To be clear, my intention isn’t necessarily to change your beliefs or opinions by considering these warnings; rather, to ensure that any conviction you might have is rooted in compassion (John 8:1-11). It is important to remember that you can have a “correct opinion” or a “right stance,” but without the humble posture of a servant you will be wrong every time. Christ emptied himself and came to his enemies as a servant (Phil. 2, Rom. 5); do not think you are above doing the same.

Do I have thoughts on immigration policy or on the topic of homosexuality? Yes, I do. Are my beliefs simple enough to boil down to a mere “for” or “against,” or a slogan on a bumper sticker? I’m afraid not.

The homosexuality debate suddenly becomes just a little more complex when you’re sitting across from a mother whose son took his own life after begging God for years to change the way he feels. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the words of a woman I once met: “One night it was raining and I couldn’t find him [her son] anywhere. Finally I found him laying in the soccer field behind our house, sobbing uncontrollably because he felt stuck and didn’t know what to do.”

Immigration becomes more than an “issue” when you consider what kind of conditions could make a mother so desperate that she would send her child a thousand miles on the top of a truck, or across a dangerous desert, just to find a new place to live.

And while many have pointed out that the emotional appeal of an issue doesn’t dictate whether something is right or wrong, the human element can, and must, influence our posture as we seek and teach Truth, knowing that human beings are involved. It might not always change what we believe, but it has to change how we think about and treat people. If these conversations truly are attempts to get closer to the Truth, then we would do well to remember that Truth is a person, a being. When Jesus said, “I am the Truth,” he made it relational; he made it personal.

We live in a broken place, and everyone hurts. Things have gotten messy on political levels, social levels, and personal levels, and we’re sitting in the middle of it. We are all called to repent. We are all in need of grace. No one is completely right except Christ, and his company cannot be joined without great humility and grace. Hurting human beings are involved on every side of every issue, which means there is no room for cruelty, thoughtlessness, carelessness, or pride in the conversation. On the contrary, these discussions need to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and so must be founded in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control (Gal. 5).

All opinions, judgments, or decisions from the Church relating to homosexuality must come from Christ’s own Body lying in the grass next to the young man sobbing in the rain. Every opinion, judgment, or decision from any other place will most Henry_Thomas_Bosdet_painting_of_Jesus_before_his_crucifixion_3certainly be the wrong one. And all opinions, judgments, or decisions regarding immigration must come from Christ’s own Body—the ultimate refugee—who knows what it is to be mocked, protested against, rejected, spat upon, and exiled to a cross. Every opinion, judgment, or decision from any other place will most certainly be the wrong one. Yes, we will talk, and we will debate, and we will go to the Bible, but our stance must become and remain prostrate.

And after prayerfully concluding on what is permissible and what isn’t, what is pursuable and what isn’t, what is acceptable and what isn’t, we must never forget that it is the duty of the Church to shoulder the load, whatever it may be, alongside those who are called to walk with Christ (Matt. 23). So if you’re not ready to carry another’s burden, you’re most certainly not ready to join the conversation.

Love,
Dad

Gift 27 – Now Go

When you love someone, you start to care about the things they care about. As I grow in love for my wife I learn to see from her perspective, value the things she values, and even love the things she loves.

The same is true for those who love God. As our love grows, our hearts are shaped to be like His as we see Him revealed in Scripture. In time we begin to celebrate good things like victory over addiction, unity in the Church family, and the healing of damaged relationships. We also begin to grieve injustice on a personal (addiction, bitterness, jealousy), communal (gossip, bullying, exclusion), and societal (homelessness, sex-trafficking, extreme poverty) level. And as our love grows we are called to act on these things that break God’s heart.

Do you remember the story of Moses and the burning bush? God reveals His plan to rescue Hebrew slaves, and I imagine Moses is ecstatic…at first.

God: I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out and I am concerned for their suffering…

Moses: Yes!

God: So I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land…

Moses: Alright! That’s great!

God: I will bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey…

Moses: This is terrific news!

God: So now, go. I am sending you.

Moses: Wait…what? You’re joking, right? I thought you were going to do it?!

God: I am going to do it. Now go, I am sending you.

moses 2

See, when our hearts break for the things that break God’s heart, we’re not just meant to cry, or even just to pray, but to go—because God is going to act, and He is sending us. True purpose begins when we ask the question, “What do you care about, God?” and then act.

God said of the shepherd boy David, “I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.” I wonder how long it took God to find a person, just one person, who cared so deeply about God’s heart that he was willing to do?

Daughter, my prayer for you, for us, is that we would join with Samuel in asking, “speak LORD, your servant is listening,” Isaiah in offering, “Here am I! Send me!” and most of all, with Jesus as he offered himself lovingly and submissively to the Father, “Not my will, but Your’s be done.”

There is much to be done. In our homes, our communities, our world. Our God is looking for men and women willing to join Him in caring and acting on His heart.

Jesus tells a story about a landowner looking for workers for his vineyard. He goes into the marketplace and finds people standing around twiddling their thumbs. “Why are you standing around not doing anything?” he asks. “Sir, no one has hired us,” they respond. The landowner replies, “Well then come work for me!”

In a culture starving for purpose and significance, people standing around not doing anything, hear the invitation of our dangerous Friend and Lord who calls us to follow him into the dead places of the world where he will bring life. He still has a plan to free slaves. Now go, he is sending you.

Gift 26 – There is a River

river

In one of the most underrated Biblical texts, the prophet Ezekiel sees a vision of water coming from the temple in Jerusalem, the place where God lives. The small stream flows east, and as it travels becomes wider and wider, deeper and deeper. Ezekiel walks in the current until it becomes too deep, when “the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in—a river that no one could cross.” As the river continues to flow east, fruit bearing trees spring up on either side because of the fresh, life-giving properties of the water.

Ezekiel watches in amazement as the torrent floods into the most unlikely of places: the Dead Sea. Because of its high salt content, the Dead Sea is notoriously barren (I mean it’s called the Dead Sea after all). No fish. No life. Not even seaweed.

But something extraordinary happens when the river from the temple crashes into the lifeless seawater. “When it empties into the sea, the salty water becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live” (Ezk. 47:8-9).

What does this all mean? It’s important to know that visions, like poems from high school English class, can have multiple layers of meaning and often use pictures and places as symbols. And while I do not want to be disingenuous to the original context and meaning of Ezekiel’s vision—a message of hope and life for a captive Israel—this particular revelation is a testament not just to what God would do with his captive people, but what he has been doing all along: bringing life to dead places. This is God’s specialty.

In the very beginning God burst into the chaotic emptiness with a declaration of life—“Let there be light!” he said to the void, and there was light. All throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God rushes into dead places—the barrenness of Abraham and Sarah, the brokenness of Jacob and his family, the suffering enslavement of thousands in Egypt, the hopelessness of a people carried off to Babylon, the frustration of rebuilding a city that has been destroyed—and every time He brings life into a seemingly hopeless situation. And of course, in the gospels God plunges once more into the depths of the grave, the ultimate “dead place”, only to arise victorious over death itself.

But guess what—God’s not done. He is still charging into the dead places of the world: places of despair and deprivation; injustice and pain; dead cities and nations, dead communities and relationships, dead homes and dead hearts. And he is still bringing life. This is the mission of God.

To restore,

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/ to revive,

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/ to refresh,

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/ to renew.

The only thing left to uncover from Ezekiel’s vision is what exactly does the water represent? Some have argued that the river is a picture of God’s people, called to join in mission of the Lord. Others suggest that the life-giving tide represents God’s own Spirit overflowing the temple walls and going out into the world. But which is it?

The answer—Yes.

You are invited to join the people of God, filled with the spirit of God, to carry out the mission of God in bringing life to dead places. There is no higher calling than to join this rumble and flow of the thundering river of life.

More to come on what this looks like…

Gift 25 – Saved FOR Something

A Wasted Resurrection

A Wasted Resurrection

I asked a teenage Christian what it means to follow Jesus. He said, “Well, I don’t really know, I guess you’re supposed to try to get better grades after becoming a Christian.”

…Oh. So Jesus’ life death and resurrection—the gospel—all of it was about making us new and alive in Christ so that we could get A’s and B’s instead of C’s and D’s. I get it.

The sad part is that if you were to ask around this young man’s answer probably wouldn’t be all that unique. Ask, “What are Christian’s called to do after accepting Jesus?” and you’ll probably get lots of blank stares. Umm…Go to church? Swear less? Be nice and stuff?

While we have focused loads of time, energy, and resources in the past hundred years or so on “getting people saved” we have collectively ignored anything that might come next. Looking at western Christianity one might get the impression that all Jesus wanted was a wedding. But reading God’s Word I am convinced that Jesus is not interested in a wedding unless it is the beginning of a marriage.

Put simply, we have not only been saved from something, but saved for something.

Can you imagine if Lazarus, after being raised from the dead, had gone back into his house to sit around and watch T.V.? What if he only made himself comfortable while waiting to die (again) and go to heaven? Wouldn’t this be a wasted resurrection?

This is us! Don’t we know that we have been made a new creation—that the old life is gone and a new life has come (2 Cor. 5)? Don’t we realize that we have been raised with Christ (Col. 3)? Do we really believe that out of great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Jesus (Eph. 2)? Have we forgotten that our baptism was a picture of being dead and buried, then being raised from the dead so that we may live a new life (Rom. 6)?

What do you think this new life is for? To get better grades, or as a resurrected people to follow our resurrected Lord into all the dead places of the world bringing life where despair has reigned for so long?

Jesus tells a story about a landowner who is in desperate need of workers for his vineyard. The man goes into the marketplace where he finds people standing around doing nothing. “Come work for me!” the man says to the purposeless crowd, “I’ve got lots to do!”

This is good news: we have been invited to join with God in what He is doing in the world.  Which leads us to the question, “What is God doing in the world?”

More to come soon…

Gift 24 – Second Chances

Son,

A few weeks ago your mom and I had several couples over for dinner.  We got talking about proposal stories and ended up going around the table, each couple sharing the story of their engagement.

I was hoping the conversation would change before it got to us because my proposal to Amanda wasn’t anything special.  To be honest, it was completely lame.  I’m not saying that proposals need to be grandiose complete with hot air balloon rides to Paris or anything, but I really didn’t do anything to make her special or even appreciated.

When the conversation came to me I said, “Um, well, I pretty much just asked.”

“You didn’t do anything?  Like did you even take Amanda out for dinner, or give her flowers or something?” a friend questioned.  “Nope.  Just asked,” I said a little bit embarrassed.  The awkwardness passed, though as the evening went on an idea began growing in my mind: who says you can’t propose a second time?

Last week we celebrated our second anniversary, and I’m pleased to say I had the chance to re-propose to the woman I love (I’m also pleased to say that she said yes :)).  This time I made sure to show her how thankful I am to have her in my life.

proposal

Here’s the point, son.  It is all too easy to become comfortable and complacent in the relationships that matter most in life.  I’m talking about one-word responses, thoughtless gifts given only because of a holiday, and even just monotone conversations that become the norm.  If you’re not careful, your relationship with family and friends will become crusty like food forgotten in the back of the refrigerator.

To quote the great philosopher Taylor Swift, “Life makes love work hard.”   Though I hate to say it, Taylor’s right.  Life happens, and loved ones can get pushed to the backseat pretty quickly.  A little thoughtfulness, creativity, and surprise can go a long way in keeping relationships healthy.  When I become robotic as a husband, son, or friend, I’ll often be gently shaken back to attentiveness by one of many kindhearted friends in my life who live what I’m talking about.  One friend and colleague writes an encouraging note to someone just about every single day.  He’s been doing this for over 8 years!

Right now is a good time to do something out of the ordinary to show appreciation for someone in your life.  So think, then do.  Right now.  Go out of your way to make a friend’s day, or take a second chance to repair something you should have done right the first time.  Just remember, son, you only get one opportunity to re-propose, so make it special.

Gift 23 – Prayer (III)

“Is there any chance I could direct an orchestra piece for the Fall Concert?” “Do you think I might be able to get my picture taken in the front seat of your police car, officer?”   “Would it be okay if I marched with the band for a parade?” “Can I ride on the Zamboni between periods of the hockey game?”

“Is there any chance I could direct an orchestra piece for the Fall Concert?”
“Do you think I might be able to get my picture taken in the front seat of your police car, officer?”
“Would it be okay if I marched with the band for a parade?”
“Can I ride on the Zamboni between periods of the hockey game?”

Son,

You might be wondering how I got to do the things shown in the pictures above.  Well, believe it or not, all I did was ask.  Yep…that was it.

If you look up everything that Jesus says about prayer in the Bible, you might be surprised to find (like I was) that he so often focuses on asking from God.

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  Which of you fathers, if your son asks fora fish, will give him a snake instead?  Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

 Or what about the second half of the famous prayer that Jesus taught his disciples:

Give us today our daily bread /  Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors  /  Lead us not into temptation  /  Deliver us from the evil one.

 So much asking!

At first, all this asking might make a person a little uncomfortable.  We’ve all been told that God isn’t some divine Santa Claus who exists to satisfy our desires, so what’s going on?  A few things to notice…

  • First of all, if you are someone who loves and follows Jesus, your desires will be increasingly shaped by God’s heart.  Put bluntly: a maturing Christian isn’t asking God for a pony.  James writes, “You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”   A good question to ask is, “Is my life about God’s kingdom or my own?”  That will help determine whether your prayers are about God’s kingdom or your own.  The more you are shaped by the revelation of God’s Heart in your life (through God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, the Church), the more you will care like God’s heart cares.   As this happens, God says ask away!  Asking becomes powerful when the heart of Christ is alive in the body of Christ.
  • Prayer changes the pray-er.  Praying can actually wake up our desires and can be a catalyst for action.  Those who don’t care don’t ask.  And those who care, ask, and care more with each asking.  Perhaps Jesus’ consistent invitations to ask are his pleadings with us to care and to act!  Pray for your enemy and you may start caring about reconciliation.  Pray for the hungry and you may start caring that they have food to eat.  Pray for your wife and you may be moved to be a source of joy and encouragement for her.   In this mysterious way God often answers our prayers through the praying, because prayer is not only a reflection of your heart but also a directing of it.  As Eugene Peterson says, “We become what we are called to be by praying.”
  • Maybe the most important thing to realize is that the asking kind of prayer is an act of trust, dependence, and worship.  No one who is self-sufficient or self-reliant asks for anything, but the person who knows the good character of God relies on him like the branches of a fruit tree depend upon the trunk—and so they ask.  Making requests in prayer is acknowledging God’s generosity, God’s unlimited abundance, God’s ability to provide, and God’s loving heart towards his children.  The heart that does not ask does not yet know God as He wants to be known.

Son, I am convinced that God actually wants his people to ask more than we do, not less.  Though it was uncomfortable at first, I’ve gotten in the habit of making requests to God on a regular basis.  Just as I was surprised by what came of asking a police officer to sit in his car, or asking to march with the marching band, I’ve also been astonished by all that comes from making requests in prayer.

So ask already!

Here are some suggestions:

–       For eyes to see and ears to hear.

–       For opportunities to serve (the funny thing is, asking this will makes you aware of all the opportunities to serve that have always been around you).

–       For joy and compassion.

–       For wisdom and wonder.

–       That God’s Word would become a delight, like the author of Psalm 119.

–        For encouragement and strength for struggling friends and family.

–       Good things for your enemies.

–       Hope for young people wrestling depression.

–       For a tight reign on your tongue (words are powerful!).

Gift 22 – Prayer (II)

Son,

While I don’t have any magical prayer advice (as I said in the previous post), allow me to share some useful practices that have helped shape my attentiveness towards God:

  • Praying the Psalms. Sometimes I just don’t know what to say to God. Reading the prayers of psalmists who lived thousands of years ago can be a surprisingly meaningful way of waking up my heart and offering words when I didn’t think there is anything to say. The biblical psalms have a way of taking me by the hand and leading me to paths of repentance, praise, thanksgiving, and even lament. Check out this article for more reasons to pray the Psalms: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/october/35.88.html?paging=off
  • Go for a walk. I have ADXD (the Xtreme version of ADD). This means that prayer can be a real challenge if I’m sitting still with hands folded and eyes closed. A few years ago I discovered that praying while walking allowed me to focus my heart and mind in a way I was never able to do while sitting inside. This is now one of my favorite things to do. Being outdoors, away from controllable conditions and eight-foot ceilings, reminds me that I am less significant (in a good way) than I often imagine when surrounded by hundreds of gadgets and systems in place to make me comfortable. On windy days it is as though God’s wild Spirit is walking by my side, listening and speaking like an intimate companion.
  • Pray the names of God. As the revelation of God unfolds in His Word, God is given countless names that point to various aspects of His divine character. He revealed Himself to Abraham as the God who Provides, to the people of Israel as the God who Heals, and to David as a Shepherd, a Fortress, and a Light. Using different names in prayer directs us to God’s past faithfulness and reminds us just what kind of God we’re praying to.
  • Write your prayers in a journal. I think this prayer-practice has been more transformative than any other in my life. Writing prayers down forces you to actually think about what you’re saying. While I often absentmindedly pray things like, “Thank you for this day” with my mouth, filtering words through a pen reduces and refines my chatter into genuine prayer. And just like a family photo album can be a fun and important method of recording life with loved ones, having a prayer journal allows you to look back and see your relationship with God mature through times of celebration, struggle, and change.

I’m a little hesitant to put excerpts from my prayer journals in this post since Jesus talks about praying alone in a closet (and the Internet isn’t exactly a private place). Still, these examples offer a picture of the way God has used journaling to deepen our relationship and to draw me to Him in all times and circumstances. I hope it is helpful…

photo (8)How good it is to come to you with a tangled heart and to tell you everything, not stopping till I’m completely laid bare before You. Here is where you break through the mess and finally speak to me. There is nothing more lovely than hearing Your voice and talking with you honestly and opening—even about my jumbled soul. You still the storm with Your mighty voice, “Trust, son. Trust.”

Thank you for wise people like C.S. Lewis who stretch the boundaries of our minds in what it means to love You. I am reading The Great Divorce and learning lots.

God, my humanity has been reduced to efficiency. The heart you gave me to be a temple I have turned into a factory. Make my heart softer and gentler. Let it always be found at Your feet. Keep me from becoming wise in my own eyes or anything stupid like that. I am in the middle of this process of being made new, somewhere between grape-flavored water and watered down wine. For some reason I thought this happened instantly.

Ahhhhhh! I am full to the brim with praises to You. Tonight I got to experience the answer to 8 years of praying. My dear friend came over and shared what You’ve been doing in his life lately. All I can say is PRAISE YOU! PRAISE YOU! PRAISE YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! Thank You for this story You are telling!

Lord, life is bigger than I thought. I do not know the way to go. I feel so sure about one path one instant and then 20 seconds later another path seems like the right one. I am so confused, God! Ahh, being a person is so multifaceted! It’s too much sometimes. Tell me You love me, that ever applicable truth.

Confront me, Almighty God. Confront me with your Word, your Truth, your Spirit. Confront my ways, confront my sin, confront my attitudes, confront my choices, confront my feeble beliefs, confront my idols, confront my small ideas of you. Confront me so that I cay come back under your headship and authority.

God, sometimes I love your Word so much, like a person clinging to a photograph of a separated loved one, or like the way I’ve saved my dad’s voice on my phone so I can hear it whenever I want. That’s the way I love your Words. Sometimes I long to stand before you like one of the children from the Narnia books, to stand in your great shadow waiting—excited and afraid to hear your voice! But other times I don’t really care. In these times it’s like I’m numb to your Words, or just plain tired of having a relationship with a God who isn’t here in person to look at and talk to. I guess it’s like any other relationship; there will be ups and downs, highs and lows, mountains and valleys. Give me a strong heart that can hope past times of tastelessness, like the tree Jeremiah talks about: “It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

Gift 21 – Prayer (I)

“Sometimes I wonder if God is secretly thinking, ‘Dear Child, you are welcome for this day and I already blessed the food. Can we talk about something else now?'” – Anonymous

I once saw a skit that followed a day in the life of a young Christian. Throughout the day—when he got out of bed, before meals, before bed, etc.—the man got on his knees to pray. Every time this happened Jesus would enter and stand next to the young man, eager and excited to talk. But the kneeling man never noticed Jesus standing right next to him. Why not? He was too busy praying, parroting words and phrases that had long since lost their meaning. Jesus tried getting the Christian’s attention and faithfully appeared each time the man knelt to pray, but they never really connected or even truly communicated.

Is this prayer? I think many people would guiltily agree that this pretty much sums up what prayer looks like in their actual lives. We know prayer is meant to be wonderful, powerful, and transformative, but there is a massive divide between theory and practice. Imagine being married but only ever communicating with your spouse via text. There would be little life in the relationship because all interactions would be limited, simple, one-dimensional, peripheral, and brief. This is a picture of the sad reality many Christians experience (or don’t) when it comes to communicating with God. Thinking back on my own prayer journey you would have thought I was an auctioneer the way I “talked” to God:

Dear God thank you for this day please keep grandma and grandpa safe as they fly to Florida and bless this food to my body in Jesus’ name amen.

But son, I want you to know there is so much more.

To be honest, I don’t really have any awesome advice to get you from point A to B in what might be called your “prayer life”. I don’t have 5 simple steps to achieving deeper communication with God or 10 helpful hints to get you praying like Mother Teresa. Because really, there is no such thing as “improving your prayer life” apart from cultivating and nurturing a dynamic relationship with God. Like all other relationships, the depth and tone of conversation is merely a reflection of the relationship itself. Listen in on a conversation between teenagers on a first date—the communication will probably be forced and awkward because the relationship is just beginning.

This means that prayer is more than folding your hands and closing your eyes before you eat; it is an awareness that the place where you’re standing is holy ground and you had better take off your sandals, it is an attentiveness to the fellowship of the Spirit even on a mundane Tuesday, it is a responsiveness to the company of the Living God who seeks to take up residence in your everyday life, it is what Brother Lawrence called “The practice the presence of God.” Walking this path is like walking in the very heart of God.

And yes, son, like all other Christian practices prayer often requires discipline before it becomes delight, but you must know that the heart of prayer is accepting Christ’s own blood as the invitation to enter the sacred fellowship of the Trinity, the Holy Wellspring of Joy and Life from which Creation sprang into existence. When you understand the gravity of this gift you may very well only be able to pray, “Dear God!” But when you say those two little words, and mean them both with all your heart, you will have learned what it means to pray.