Prayer

In the surrounding atmosphere

Photo by  Jason Briscoe  on  Unsplash

I meet and pray at our church with three guys on Saturday mornings.  Officially we meet from 8 to 9 a.m. but our time together often meanders for an additional 10 or 20 minutes.

We discuss, confess and pray with each other about our lives and faith and the life and ministry of our church.  To meet there where we as church convene to worship, do life together, plan and serve is important in a manner similar to how God himself confers sanctity to certain places in his grand story as cast in the Bible.

On any given week, one or more of us brings something from our personal life and faith to weigh into together. I especially appreciate their insights and prayers when I am wrestling with something personal or regarding my relationship with the Lord..

The particular matters are less important than the sense of tough love and wisdom the guys extended even if difficult for me to initially receive well.  Their emphatic guidance that I turn away from myself and dial instead into the Lord is how iron sharpening iron works.  (See Proverbs 27:17)

Sometimes I am frustrated with striving as much as I do.    Why am I so often anxious, so distracted, so often seeking comfort or joy where it cannot be found?  Why would I ever want to engage in escapism from life that is so vibrantly radiant with God’s very essence?  Why indeed?

Perhaps because I don't truly grasp that Jesus’ straightforward claims and teachings about the “at-handness" of the "kingdom of God” is as accessible and near as he so emphatically asserts?  The present reality of life on earth vehemently refutes all such claims.

I'm reading for the third time a book that really spoke to that idea of God's nearness on a day-to-day basis better than anything I ever read before or since - “The Divine Conspiracy - discovering our hidden life in God” by Dallas Willard.  Published in 1998, I first read it in 2003 then again in 2013, and now I am listening to an audio version.

Bringing the kingdom or realm of God near was in Jesus’ teachings and mission and not because this was something new.  Rather, Jesus ministry demonstrated and his message conveyed that the kingdom of God or the heavens was nearer due to him.

A concern of Willard's was that translators of Jesus’ messages sometimes chose words that convey the kingdom as not so near.  For example, phrasing that Jesus used to express the idea of the “kingdom of heaven” (Greek, tou ouranous) could have been literally translated as “air” or “surrounding atmosphere,” instead of the words that were used, like “sky” or “heaven.”

“Now our English sky means something quite different from air, and heaven means something quite different from either,” Willard explained.  “The translation becomes entangled in these meanings. The sky is more a limit than a space, and as a place it is farther away than the air.  Hence, we say, 'The sky’s the limit,' not 'The air’s the limit.' Heaven, of course, is strictly out of sight for us, beyond the moon for sure and quite likely “beyond” the physical cosmos.”  (The Divine Conspiracy, page 71)

I don’t know about you but the thought of heaven as near as the surrounding air or atmosphere feels a lot nearer than it residing in the distant sky or unreachable cosmos.

I bring this up not because its essential to know, only because it shows yet another way how much we regular people living out our mundane lives matter to God and Jesus. Frankly, I never thought of the kingdom of God as far away or lacking access but I'm inspired by the idea that the kingdom is as close as the thin air around us. How about you?

As inspiring as this is for me, my most applied experience of the "kingdom of the heavens" comes from regularly doing life with fellow Christians, such as Saturday mornings with the guys. Us sharing life and faith and mulling over the God’s word in Scripture together personifies another message Jesus offered that posed no issues for translators to clearly impart.

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.
— (Matthew 18:20

God draws near to us when we draw near to each other in relevant faith discussions, supporting each other, musings and prayer... 

Right here in the surrounding atmosphere.


Notes:

1. If you've not read Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard, here's a little excerpt from my book’s cover jacket:

In an era when many Christians consider Jesus a beloved but remote savior, Willard argues compellingly for the relevance of God to every aspect of our existence. Masterfully capturing the central insights of Christ's teachings in a fresh way for today's seekers, he helps us to explore a revolutionary way to experience God - by knowing Him as an essential part of the here and now, rather than only as a part of the hereafter.

2. My practice of Saturday morning fellowship with godly guys actually began in March 1983.  The “Christian Men's Fellowship” ("CMF") met many years at St. Owens Catholic Church in Franklin, MI.  I withdrew from that group in 2001 in order to devote Saturday mornings to personal devotions and later to join the prayer group meeting at our church that I reference in this post.  Meanwhile, CMF still meets including a few of the original members from a study facilitated by the late Fr. Dwayne Stenzel in late 1982 at (then) Duns Scotus Monastery attended by some 200 or so Catholic men from all across southeastern Michigan.  After the study concluded in the Spring of 1983, local fellowships were formed to continue meeting, including ours. At one of those meetings in September, 1983 I recommitted my life to Christ.

Thankful ... For EVERYTHING?

Photo by  Zac Durant  on  Unsplash

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

How will you celebrate Thanksgiving this year? We will go to a sister’s home and I imagine a special prayer will be offered, perhaps participatory.  What to say if invited to reflect what I’m thankful for?

My inclination is to think about what I feel best about in my life right now, according to me.  The Bible, on the other hand, offers a somewhat BROADER perspective on thankfulness.

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.    (1 Thessalonians 5:18, ESV)

Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, (Ephesians 5:20)

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. (Hebrews 13:5)

“All - Always - Everything-Continually” doesn’t leave much room for what seems good to me at any given moment.

At work, one of my regular jobs is making different sizes of rubber pads for installing racks in commercial vehicles. Although learning this job was somewhat involved, I’ve got it down now and let’s just say that when I get on a parts-making roll, I struggle to keep my brain engaged.  

I did production work in my younger years so when this job came along, I resolved to mentally prepare myself for the mind-numbing aspects of factory work. Turns out, plenty of positives with this company as well - friendly and supportive management and coworkers, steady and predictable hours, optional overtime, a comfortable and casual workplace. Still, the production doldrums sometimes gets to me.

 At my lowest moments, my resolve to be thankful languishes into pleading with the Lord, something like, “Lord, does all-always-continually cover repetitive, mind-numbing factory work that didn’t even exist when you created the world?”

For drama, I sometimes expand the criteria.  “Lord, what about when someone is wronged or mistreated or victimized by violence… instances of suffering or injustice...suffering losses due to natural disasters?

Something Jesus said that I quote often and think about even more - that believers are to “take heart” when we experience trouble because he has overcome all such trouble. (John 16:33).  What does he mean by “take heart?”  Other translations use “take courage.”

Seems like the Lord is conveying something along the line of, “I know life in the world is tough and troublesome but hang in there because I’ve got you. Trust me.”

I just re-read Joseph’s story in Genesis. At some point, he realized that nothing got to him that the Lord didn’t allow. What others meant to harm him, God used for good.  (See Genesis 50:20). Grasping that, he was freed to receive and forgive the brothers who wronged him.  

The Lord said something along that line to me the other day. “Glenn, I’ve got you, no matter what.  Be thankful for everything.”

Other Bible stories besides Joseph bear this out, such as Job, Moses, David, Esther, Ruth, and Rahab to name a few.

In the third chapter of  Ephesians  Paul prays that we believers would “be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, ..." (Ephesians 3: 19b-20)

Assured that the Lord has me in hand and is able to do more than I can ask or imagine, I am free to be “Thankful for everything!”

I’m going to give that a go.

First Answer

Boys D1 "stampede" at 400 meter mark. Nick is among the leaders on the right side.

Boys D1 "stampede" at 400 meter mark. Nick is among the leaders on the right side.

Last weekend, I went to the Michigan High School Athletic Association Lower Peninsula Cross Country State Championships to watch our nephew Nick run.  Runners qualify for the state meet by placing in the top 15 of their respective Regional Championship meets.

Eight races were held, four divisions of boys and girls.  The predicted inclement weather held off until the last two races of the day.  The worst weather arrived prior to the very last race that Nick ran, the boy’s Division 1 race that finally got underway 80 minutes past schedule after delays due to nearby lightning strikes.

I didn't Nick's expectations but I supposed they might include a personal best and earning top-30 all-state honors.  My prayer was for him to be content with his performance and, while you're at it Lord, all-state would also be nice.

I felt a little funny asking God to allow Nick top-30 placement among the 250 runners competing in his division. Nevertheless, Nick worked hard to become one of that state’s fastest runners this year so all-state was certainly within his reach. Even so, except for the 30 all-staters in each division, most runners that day would cherish simply having qualified and running in this prestigious event.

More than anything, I prayed for trust.  “Lord, that I accept whatever you grant for Nick, whether he is satisfied or dissatisfied with his performance, earns all-state honors or falls short.”

Selecting a first viewing position just past the 400-meter mark, I was grateful that my windbreaker/rain jacket kept me dry during on-again, off-again bouts of rain and thunder that set the start time back three times.  When the race finally got underway, I spotted Nick in the lead pack before I hustled back across the vast complex to stand near the final turn.  When the lead runners finally came into sight, Nick was still well-positioned and I shouted encouragement to him as he passed by on his way to the finish line.

As I casually strolled back toward the finishing area, excited spectators steamed past me to learn results and greet their favorite competitors.  Not sure then how Nick finished but trusting God for whatever was when I received God's first answer to my prayers for Nick - peace.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 4: 5b-7, NLT)

The praying person IS God's first answer for every person or situation prayed about and for. When we pray for another, we abide with God, drawing ourselves and the person we pray for closer to God. 

The race results?  God worked that out as well, allowing Nick to earn all-state honors with a 17th place finish at 15:43.2.

Fears imagined real

Photo by  Patrick Fore  on  Unsplash

As if life doesn’t bring enough real perils, I have this bad habit of imagining unreal fears.  If I don’t head them off, I can really get myself worked up over these imagined perils.

Imagined fears surface most when I’m asleep. If I “over-entertain” them, they fester long enough to cross over from my subconscious to consciousness.  That’s when I awaken with a prompting to pray.

“Lord, I confess this fear. Rescue me.”

Prayer isn’t a magic button or anything. It works in concert with faith, my conviction that God loves me, redeems me and is in control of my life no matter what happens.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7, ESV)

and

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”  (Mark 11:24, ESV)

Notice the parts God reserves for us - “If you abide” and “believe.” God is ever strong, true and faithful but my faith sometimes wavers and fear gains a foothold. That’s when I resign myself to get out of bed, don my robe, grab a bible and head to my favorite late night prayer chair.

A frequent companion of these middle-of-the-night intervention sessions is a little devotional book I bought 35 years ago, “The Personal Promise Pocketbock.” It’s a simply organized index of Bible verses selected from 10 different translations regarding three groupings of God’s promises and purposes...for me, my relationship with Him, and my relationship with others.

Lest anyone mistake me for one of stalwart, unshakable faith, let me confess that the most turned-to promises in the booklet regard “feeling depressed and desperate” (pg 19) and “I’m afraid” (pg 22).

Occasionally during these anxious moments, God responds in a rescuing manner with a peaceful tranquility whooshing through me like a calming breeze swooping down from heaven.  But most often, He coaxes me in thought to figuratively stand in faith to confront the fear with the authority of His word.

Usually, just a couple of verses gets me headed back to bed and sleep but sometimes, a more determined offensive is required.  During one particularly challenging night, I prayed through a number of verses before finally locking onto 2 Timothy 1:7 in the “I’m afraid” list.

“God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”  (NKJV)

In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul exposes where these spirits of fear originate.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, ESV)

Wrestling is not a passive sport.  Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t the bathrobe-attired sumo-dude standing in his living room that finally dispelled that persistent principality that had ahold of me that night.  But me standing in faith was definitely a part of the equation, bathrobe and all.

I don’t why God so explicitly prefers involving little people like me in his redemptive work but I appreciate that he does.

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Philippians 4:6, NIV)

Furthermore, he cares about our well-being all the way down to ensure that we are fortified with a good night’s sleep each night.

“If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.” (Proverbs 3:24)


Notes:

1.  "Fears Imagined Real" was originally posted as a Road Report on FarmingtonGlenn.net on 12/8/2015.

2. Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

3. The Personal Promise Pocketbock by Harold Shaw Publishers is out of print but used copies are available at various internet booksellers.

Quiet Please!

Morning stillness near Elsworth, MI

Morning stillness near Elsworth, MI

Visiting friends last weekend in their lovely cottage home in northern Michigan, the notable quiet of the region struck me our first night there.  I noticed immediately as my head hit the pillow the profound lack of city din - just the dark stillness unbroken by city lights.

Now I do like our home neighborhood, an attractive and peaceful place offering the blessings and curses of suburbia.  Conveniences that support our work, shopping, visiting and busy lifestyles also press into our beings to keep us in a constant state of agitation. To escape “up north” requires jumping onto a convenient road until we “exit” onto a less convenient but slower-paced one that winds over, around and through woods and farms and small towns.  

Driving leisurely, we enjoyed the ride until we arrived at our friends’ getaway perched atop a land swale overlooking rolling, treed lands on one side and a huge bay on the other that opens onto Lake Michigan, one of five “great lakes,” three that envelop our mitten-shaped home state.   

Just after arriving, we were treated to a stunning sunset over the bay followed closely by a robust rainstorm that rolled in to wash the land with much-needed refreshment.

Due to a series of job changes over the last year that had me always earning my place in another new pecking order, I haven’t been able to take time off for a little getaway.  When our friends graciously invited us up for quick weekend, we readily accepted.  

After getting off the highway, we drove atop yellow-striped, black-topped roads that I’ve grown to love and often use as imagery for reflecting on my journey through life under God’s tutelage.  Just a few miles from our friend’s place is the stretch of M88 that has served as the banner for Road Report Journal since its launch in 2012.

No need to talk to me about regular respite.  I am very intentional about building plenty of it into my life such as morning devotions, Saturday morning writing and a prayer meeting, reading, and scenic walks and drives with my wife….

Back when my work schedule was more set and predictable, we took annual, two-week vacations that usually involved camping in the woods, often near a lake or river or mountain far away from city din.

While on the one hand, God created our bountiful earth just for us humans to live, work, play and commune with neighbors and build community, we rebelled against his intent to draw from and trust, acknowledge and honor him every moment. Mercifully, he refrained from ridding creation of us by allowing us to pursue life according to us while also hatching a “Mission Christ” redemption strategy to win us back into his fold.

I wonder what life would be like had we not rebelled?  Not that urban congestion and noise would not be part of our lives but maintaining connection and relationship with God would be normal and common.  Perhaps escape would be unnecessary since relating to and honoring God would be a part of our regular life pattern.  

Thankfully, God’s Christ strategy included conscripting certain people down through the ages for key roles while also compiling the unfolding story into a grand read we know today as “the Bible.” There we  find plenty of context and insight for how to live for him in a creation spoiled by our rebellion.

On looking to nature for cues:

  • Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy (Psalm 96:11-12, ESV)
  • “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:12, ESV)

On God speaking into our stillness:

  • “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10, ESV)
  • He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.  (Psalm 23:2, ESV)
  • But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:2, ESV)

Of course, Jesus himself walked the talk as he invited his apostles to ‘“Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.” (Mark 6:31-32, ESV)

He urged that  “...when 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 6:6) while also modeling his own advice.

“After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone.” (Matthew 14:23)

As his story resonates in my being, I gratefully incorporate regular quiet into my life and, occasionally, with a little help from my friends, more extended doses of it. 

Healing Wasn't Why He Came

July 19 is an auspicious date for me, the day that both my mom, Nancy and brother, Roger died in 1977 and 2014, respectively, 37 years apart.  In memory of them and to offer hope to many loved ones today whose passionate prayers for healing seem to go unanswered, I again share this reflection I originally wrote after Roger's death. I pray it ministers to you.


True healing here

True healing here

Recently, cancer took my brother Roger's life. Even though the insidious disease resisted treatment every step of the way, he managed to hold it at bay for over thirteen long years. Meanwhile, he was able to see his two children into their teen years and to solidify a life legacy that those of us who knew him will carry with us for the rest of our lives.

Roger is ninth of my parents’ ten children that I am oldest of.  A simple man by choice, he was devoted to his family and successful in his work. Accomplished in golf, the game was not so much a platform for his golfing skills and intense competitiveness as just another avenue through which he touched others with his character, wit, warmth and genuineness. Family, golf, character and a great sense of humor are four common descriptors expressed about Roger.

A significant number of people cared about his Roger’s well-being and deeply desired for him to beat cancer. I have no way of knowing how many people prayed for Roger during his illness but a few expressed to me their belief that faith-doubters would be swayed toward belief by Roger overcoming cancer.  While I know my own faith would be bolstered by that happening, I think the relationship between healing and belief is weak.

Healing WAS a big drawing card for Jesus’ earthly ministry but when he began to shift away from healing to focus more on his true mission - to sacrifice himself to redeem people from the curse of sin, his popularity waned and the crowds thinned.  That the throngs were drawn more to his miracles than this message didn’t sit well with Jesus.

As the crowds increased, Jesus said, "This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. (Luke 11:29)

Healing and miracles demonstrated Jesus’ power over biology and chemistry but the cross is where Jesus’ greatest demonstration of power occurred - where he sacrificed himself to break the stranglehold of sin that is the cause for all that we suffer - sickness, pain, despair, trial and death.  The power of Jesus' cross occurred where the real action is - in the spiritual realm.

By bringing Roger to God in our prayer, we followed in the footsteps of those who did the same in Jesus time. On two such instances, Jesus acknowledged the faith of the bringer(s) in the healing of the brought - 1) the centurion who requested healing for his servant (Luke 7: 1-10) and 2) the friends who lowered the paralyzed man through a hole they dug in the roof of the house to where Jesus was teaching below (Mark 2: 1-5).

So did God answer any of our prayers for Roger?

Diagnosed in 2000, his disease was arrested briefly between 2006 and 2010.  The rest of the time,  this usually fast-progressing disease worsened steadily but slowly.  Although he endured through several crisis and sampled a few new treatment developments that emerged, surviving as long as he did could be attributed as easily to medicine as to God.  Ultimately he shared the same fate as those who Jesus unquestionably healed during his ministry.  Roger experienced the fate all of us will also face - mortal death.

While Jesus was able to heal bodies effortlessly, those healings were temporary whereas the much harder work he did on the cross made something more permanent possible - eternal life for all who believe in him. In contrast to the difficulty of Jesus’ work on the cross, our belief work is easy and just a little earnest faith is all that’s needed…. as little as a mustard seed…

(Said Jesus): "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you. (Luke 17:6, NIV)

…. as meager as mere crumbs of food that fall from someone else’s table….

(Said Jesus): “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15:26-27, NIV)

Roger in 2014

Roger in 2014

Two days before he died, Roger opted to begin hospice care. Perhaps sensing his mortality, he put the word out for family members to visit with him if they wished.  I was able to see Roger the day before he died.

As Roger’s body faded, I prayed for his faith to rise up in him, to know beyond doubt and be comforted by the sure and steady hand of his Lord and Savior gathering him in.  

I firmly believe that only when we are finally face-to-face with our Lord will we truly understand why healing wasn’t why he came.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11: 1, NAS)        

If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9).

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.  (Revelations 21:4)


Originally posted by Road Report on August 19, 2014

Image by Aaron Burden via Unsplash