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A Listening God

Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer…If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:12a,b,14

There was a movie in the 1970’s starring George Burns and John Denver called, “Oh God!” George Burns was God, in the person of a spry, elderly, outspoken gentleman. John Denver was an inquisitive, young assistant manager in a supermarket with a lot of uncertainty about life, strife, and God’s role in the world. John Denver’s character, over the course of the movie, grew fond of God and gained new perspectives on life. As God walked away at the end of the movie, John Denver’s character called out, “Wait a minute, what if I want to just talk to you sometime?” God answered, “You talk, I’ll listen.” And then God disappeared.

The “You talk, I’ll listen” theme is one I suspect many of us experience when it comes to God. We can never be certain that God is listening, however, except by faith. We hope that is the case, although our prayers seem to be answered in such haphazard ways, it is difficult to know if God actually listens. Sometimes, when God answers our prayer in a way different from what we desire, we wonder if God’s hearing is faulty. The Israelites experienced the same uncertainty. Through the many challenges during their time of bondage in Egypt, through the exile, and even after they finally arrived in the Promised Land, they complained that God was not listening to their cries for help.

In 2 Chronicles, God sets out conditions for the Israelites under which God was willing to listen: humble themselves, pray, seek God, turn from their wicked ways. Rather than making pious demands, I suspect God was giving instructions for how to become sufficiently spiritually attuned to experience God working in the world. If the people remained arrogant, trusting in their own powers, living only for themselves, they simply would not be in a personal state to know God’s presence. It was not a matter of God withholding anything from them, but a matter of their ability to recognize what God was willingly offering them. Some things do not change over the centuries…

The “You talk, I’ll listen,” motif lays a solid foundation for many friendships, counseling sessions, and marriages. I must constantly remind myself that when someone shares something that is troubling him or her, that person seldom wants me to solve a problem for them. Many of us cannot gain clarity on what is bothering us until we talk it out. Once we have contained the problem in words, we sometimes find there is either no solution needed or that there is no actual problem after all. Often, allowing him or her to frame the issue verbally is all they need from me. Anything more is not only unhelpful, but it can be harmful to the relationship. The day my father died, my best friend came and sat with me as I wept. He did not say anything, because there was nothing worthwhile to be said. I did not need to hear that everything would be all right, that God must have needed my dad in heaven, that I would see him again in the afterlife, or that I would feel better in a few days or weeks. I needed to grieve. He listened as I talked and made sure I did not suffer alone.

Sometimes, what we most need is for someone to simply listen to us without judgement, without offering advice, and without trivializing what is weighing heavy on our minds. God always has a willing and ready listening ear.

Note: this is the 20th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 25: Prayer is a Way of Life

 Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought.         Romans 8:26

For most of my life, prayer occurred at a specified time or event, or it was something I carved out a special time for from the rest of my day. It was how I was taught. We prayed before meals – head bowed, hands folded – at bedtime – kneeling at the edge of my bed – and during church. Most prayers were recited by rote, saying the same words each time. It seemed more like a redundant formality than an expression of sincere need or gratitude.

As I got older, my prayers became more conversational. Particularly in my bachelor days when I spent large swaths of time alone, I found myself in conversations with God. Most of the time it was a one-way conversation – I talked and assumed God was listening. There were times, however, I believe God answered. God’s answers did not come as spoken responses, however, nor did they arrive according to my preferred timeline. Rather, they came at unpredictable times as an inspiration or an intuition that helped me see an issue in a new way. Answers came with expansions of my awareness, making me believe the reason I could not hear God earlier was because I prejudged the answer. In other words, if God did not seem to answer, the problem was not because God did not answer, but because God answered in a way I was not ready or capable to accept. Like most stumbling blocks in my life, the problem within myself must first be identified and resolved.

Paul’s exhortation in his first letter to the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” seemed ridiculous. How could anyone devote his or her entire life to praying? As long as prayer is an interruption to one’s day, there can be no simultaneous living and praying. A clue to the resolution of this dilemma is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “…we do not know how to pray as we ought.” The challenge is not that we must take more time out of our day to pray; rather, we must find ways to live our days in a more prayerful manner.

For most of my life, I used prayer judiciously. After all, I did not want to draw too much divine attention to some of what I did. When I was in trouble, when I was sad, when I was lost or broken, I would turn to God in prayer. I think it is a safe bet that God does not want to only be our God in our times of difficulty. I believe God experiences creation through us. Assuming that is the case, why would God only want to experience the difficult times? If our good times consist of actions we feel God would not want to experience with us, we need either rethink our actions or rethink our understanding of the nature of God.

As I mentioned some weeks ago, sin is that which separates us from God and others. If God wants to experience life with and through us, our sin keeps that from happening. It is not that sin prevents God from experiencing with and through us, but our sin prevents us from experiencing God experiencing with and through us. In other words, we suffer twice – first from the separation caused by our sin, and second by not being consciously aware of our communion with the accepting, encouraging presence of God. Emmanuel, God with us, is not something that happens when we become holier. Emmanuel has been with us since our birth. Prayer is communion with God. In order to experience God in a conscious way, we must keep ourselves in the ever-flowing rhythm of the divine and, thus, aware of God’s constant presence. In the process, our entire life becomes one unceasing prayer.

Prayer is a way of life. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 2: Alone Time is Important

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:5-6

Growing up, I learned to pray in community. My father prayed before family meals, and our pastor led us in prayer at church. Of course, the Lord’s Prayer, spoken collectively, was a common fixture in worship. There was also a prayer at bedtime, spoken with a parent, that went,

        Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

        If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I remember sitting in church as a child wondering how the preacher could possibly think of so much to pray about. The prayers seemed to drone on, and it was very difficult to remain focused. I kept my eyes clamped shut as long as I could, afraid someone might catch me peeking. Prayer was not very comforting in those days.

I am not certain when I learned to pray by myself, but however it happened, time alone with God quickly became my favorite method of prayer. I am an introvert, so time alone is a necessary part of my life. Jesus modeled this for us. Many times in the Gospels, he goes off alone to pray. Like spending time with a close, intimate friend, words are not always necessary in prayer. In fact, I find more of my prayers as I age to be of the silent type. I have no idea what I would say to God that God does not already know better than I can put into words. Being in God’s presence is more than enough. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” I find this to be true. In his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul writes, “Pray without ceasing.” This seems to be an encouragement toward wordless prayer – staying in communion with God at all times, but not necessarily with words. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.” This applies to prayer, too. We can remain in constant contact with God without all the dialogue. In fact, our dialogue makes it impossible to hear what God might be trying to tell us.

My point is not that we should always pray silently. Rather, alone-time with God is important. We need worry less about what we say and more about being present. Whether in meditation, contemplation, reflection, yoga, or any number of other methods, a quiet mind ignites our awareness of God’s presence. If Jesus needed quiet, alone-time with God in order to center himself, recharge, and reconnect in the days prior to television and the internet, think how much more we need it today.

Alone time with God is important. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

Let My Words Be Few

Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.

Ecclesiastes 5:2

Since the season of Lent, I have been practicing the spiritual discipline of silence. I am an early riser, and I begin my days sitting quietly in God’s presence. I relax and quiet my mind, which is no easy task. Random thoughts pop in and out of my head constantly. I acknowledge them and let them pass, determined not to engage in an internal dialogue with any of them.

I have always considered prayer as a conversation with God, so silence is not a typical sort of prayer. Some classify the practice of silence as contemplation or meditation, although I think of those as states of focusing on something in particular. Being in silence is different, not unlike the difference between talking to a person and simply sitting in their presence. In her final days of life, I sat in the presence of my mother quite a lot. She could not communicate, nor was she conscious of her surroundings, except in brief episodes. I would talk to her, but I would quickly run out of things to say and fall into silence. In retrospect, I think I felt closer to mom during the times of silence.

Talking to God, as in prayer, is a comforting and healing practice. Particularly when no one else will listen or understand, we always know we can go to God. I think, however, there is an additional level of communing with God, and that is in silence. When we are silent, when our thoughts have stopped and there are no distractions, we begin to feel the deep, loving presence of God around and in us in ways we cannot otherwise perceive it. Words cannot describe the presence of God because it is beyond words. There is no need to talk, no need to listen, no need to analyze – only to be.

Clearly, I could drone on about silence and stray even farther from the core message of this Life Note; but I will not. Except to say, in keeping with the theme of letting my words be few, that Life Notes will not be published again until June 18. If you experience withdrawal, there are years of Life Notes in the archives on my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. Otherwise, enter the silence and be.

Come home to church this Sunday. Shhhh!

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Dust to Dust

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Genesis 3:19

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. It lasts for 46 days and is a season of preparation for Easter. During Lent, Christians are encouraged to pray and fast. These are important practices because in order to prepare ourselves to receive the new life contained in Easter, we must first shake off the shackles of that which keeps us from receiving new life.

Fasting is sacrificing something that we will miss in order to remind us of something else of importance. Commonly, fasting is giving up a certain type of food, often dessert. Fasting, however, need not be limited to food. We can deprive ourselves of other desires in our lives, so that our deprivation reminds us throughout each day of the reason for our sacrifice.

Prayer is spending time with God. Most of the time, for most of us, praying is simply talking to God. We share our hopes and concerns; we pray for others having a difficult time. We express gratitude for the blessings of the day. One thing we often fail to do in prayer, however, is to listen. Lent is an opportunity for intense listening. When we listen with an open heart and mind, we open ourselves to transformation and rebirth.

Much of the time, we are narcissistic creatures. Our perception is that the world revolves around us, and we believe that our ego – the self-image that is formed by the world – is our true self. Unfortunately, when our ego has free rein to shape us how it will, we come more to resemble beings of earth than of spirit. Sometimes, I feel the need for an ego-fast. Some fear that by allowing our earthly egos to die or diminish we will become mindless, colorless clones. Instead, we become more complete expressions of the unique God-character we were created to become.

Lent, when experienced prayerfully, is a great equalizer. When we strip ourselves of earthly possessions – those transient, egoistic things that set us apart from others – we are truly one in the Spirit. We are not the same, but we are one. We are neither more nor less unique than our neighbors are. Lent encourages us to get back to our spiritual roots, back to the image of God from which we were created. Only when we release the need to set ourselves apart from others will we begin to manifest as the truly unique and precious expressions of God that we are. And we will notice and appreciate the God-expressions of others around us. As for our bodies, they come from dust, and to dust they will return.

Come home to church this Sunday. A little “dusting” may be in order.

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Run, Forrest, Run!

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

 Isaiah 40:31

 

The namesake of the movie, Forrest Gump, was bullied as a child. His schoolmates made fun of him, hurling insults and rocks. His only friend, Jenny, encouraged him to flee from his tormentors, saying, “Run, Forrest, run!” And so he ran. Running away from trouble was clearly his best option as a youth because he was always outnumbered. He soon discovered that he could often outrun trouble. Not only was he fast, he could run fast for a very long time. During one of her visits to Forrest as a young adult, Jenny bought him a pair of running shoes. When she left again, leaving Forrest heartbroken, he decided to run. He ended up running across the country, coast to coast, several times before deciding he was finished with running.

 

Many of us run from trouble because running seems to be our best option. In his childhood, Forrest ran from his tormentors. As an adult, he ran from the hurt of losing the love of his life – Jenny – repeatedly. The problem with running away from trouble is that we cannot run forever, and trouble usually catches up to us anyway. Obviously, most of us do not physically run from our problems, as Forrest Gump did. We do, however, let dreaded phone calls roll to voicemail. We commit to beginning the diet our doctor says we need – tomorrow. We avoid confronting and repairing dysfunctional relationships. These are ways to run that are not so hard on the knees, but they are hard on the spirit.

 

At some point, we must face our life challenges head-on. One of the reasons we avoid our problems is fear that we do not have the resolve or the resources to address them. We cannot see how to solve a problem, and so we avoid it for as long as we can, often making the problem worse. In that sense, avoiding our challenges is a faith issue. The author of the book of Isaiah writes that if we “wait for the Lord” our strength will be renewed, and we will “run and not be weary.” In this passage, waiting on the Lord refers to trusting in or relying upon the Lord. To trust in the Lord does not mean that we impulsively act on a problem without first researching and praying about our options. God sometimes provides guidance in obvious ways, but God’s communications are often subtle. For me, at some point, I begin to feel at peace about one option over the others. At that point, I know it is time to act. We prayerfully wait on the Lord for guidance, and then we act. There is no need to continue running away from what we fear.

 

Come home to church this Sunday. Peace does not run, it waits.

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Beginning Again

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”  Revelation 21:1, 5a

As an employer, I make certain my employees receive at least one performance evaluation each year. The process rewards a person for things done well, provides coaching in areas that need improvement, and encourages goal setting for the coming year. It is a time of reflection, as well as an opportunity to begin again.

It is common to mark New Year’s Day with resolutions for change. Some people want to lose weight; others decide to exercise more frequently, save more money, spend more time in prayer, mend broken relationships – you name the issue and someone wants to resolve it. For numerous reasons, few New Year’s resolutions actually succeed. First, resolutions are often made with little thought or research into what is required for success. Second, our sights are often set too high too quickly. Finally, having too many resolutions is a sure recipe for failure. Here are a few suggestions:

Research the desired change. Goal setting is a worthwhile endeavor, but goals need to be broken down into pieces that can be accomplished and measured in weekly, even daily or hourly units. For example, if I desire to lose 25 pounds in 2015, I need to research the types of foods I will and will not eat, the types and frequency of exercise that will be needed, and a reasonable expectation for how much weight I can successfully lose each week. Losing 25 pounds is a lofty goal. Losing 1 pound per week over 6-months sounds much more attainable. Prayerful research and planning is required for serious goals.

Set realistic goals and timelines. Everyone wants positive change, and everyone wants it now. Unfortunately, strategic changes that last seldom occur quickly. Rather, new habits must be consciously practiced over lengthy periods to become ingrained. There is no magic that happens on New Year’s Day that allows change to occur more quickly.

Focus. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. There are only so many hours in a day and success in creating positive change requires focused attention over time. The more we dilute our attention among numerous change projects, the less likely we will be to accomplish any of them. One project at a time is a good rule of thumb.

The writer of Revelation, referring to a new heaven and a new earth, writes, “See, I am making all things new.” I believe God will remake us anew; we can be born again and grow into better versions of ourselves. That sort of change, however, requires strategic planning and thoughtful participation on our part. It is easy to forget that God is our all-powerful partner in the change we desire. If we align our desired changes with God’s will and draw on that unfailing source of power, we will succeed.

Come home to church this Sunday. Begin anew in the New Year!

 

 

 

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