But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;
1 Corinthians 1:27 KJV
We didn’t “do” Advent growing up. It was an alien concept—suspiciously Catholic. Definitely not Southern Baptist. And yet even as a child, I felt a sense of preparation when December came around. It wasn’t just the presents or the tree or the lights; it was Jesus.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t conversing with Him regularly. What can a seven-year-old girl really know or grasp about Jesus? I don’t know. I certainly didn’t grasp the theology of incarnation, and I had no understanding of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. Even the concept of the Trinity was just an accepted truth. I didn’t question it. It just was. And Jesus just was. And the Nativity just was. Truth.
I was a rather…odd child. I don’t mean “odd” in a negative sense; I like that I was a bit romantic and dreamy. I lived in my head much of the time, more likely to identify with characters in books than actual people. I’m sure that contributed to my ability to accept Jesus as real and living in my heart. No cynicism or painful realities to wrestle with ever clouded my imagination. Instead I fully embraced Jesus and the Nativity.
Typically on Christmas Eve, my family and I would head to Pryor, Oklahoma and “The Farm” where my Grandpa Homer and Grandma Helen lived. One Christmas Eve as we drove through the night, I imagined all the homes we passed and all of the people living in those homes, and I realized that their lives were just as important to them as mine was to me. I also realized that somehow God knew what was going on under each roof, in each heart. I had a childlike epiphany. God let me peer through His eyes for a moment. My elementary-school brain couldn’t grasp it, but I knew it was true. It just was.
My young heart was preparing for Messiah.
Later on Christmas Eve night after we had returned from Pryor and were all fidgety with the excitement and anticipation of opening presents the next morning, one memory pops out. I remember the window in my bedroom and the dark sky. I willed a star to shine brighter than the others—and in my imagination, it did. I imagined Mary on a donkey riding into Bethlehem with Joseph at her side. I imagined her tired and sleepy. And having no concept of labor or the realities of delivering a child in a less than sterile environment, I also imagined her laying on a soft bed of clean hay on a blue cloak, falling asleep, and then waking up with a baby: Jesus! Just like that! And the shepherds saw angels and the angels sang gloriously underneath a shimmering star.
Even though I had never heard of the word “advent,” my soft Jesus heart was preparing me for the celebration of His birth.
Fifty years later I imagine a blue earth spinning and God embracing the galaxy and in love sending His Son who’d been with Him from the beginning in order to declare salvation in the form of a baby. Human. Divine. Sacrificial.
It’s foolishness—a fiction! It doesn’t make sense! We live in a world where we set ourselves up as gods able to better interpret the universe than the Creator, able to understand fairness and justice better than a righteous Judge, able to decipher subtleties of scientific discourse better than the eternal, omniscient I Am, able to determine truth better than the Word, able to see more clearly than the Light of the World.
However, God chose the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. Advent—adventus—come. Oh come, Lord Jesus. Come into this brokenness. Come into this sickness and decay. Come into this war-torn world. Come into the poor, struggling heart longing to find peace.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.
“To everything…(turn, turn, turn)…there is a season…(turn, turn, turn)…and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Thank you King Solomon via Pete Seeger via The Byrds.
Every culture develops certain idiosyncratic “diddies” that meander their way into conversation like “being self-aware” or “being fully present.” Let’s “dialogue.” I want to just “sit in this” for awhile. In an effort to be “transparent…” One diddy that continues to be part of our metaphorical vocabulary is “season.” Christian metaphorical folks often use the term in relation to what “season” God has placed us in. For example…
A typical conversation:
Person 1: “I can’t figure it out. I keep praying and there’s no answer. Why isn’t God moving in my life right now? I feel dead inside.”
Person 2: “Looks like God is keeping you in a season of quietness. It’s just a bump in your journey. A small chapter in your life book.” (Ok, so I threw in the journey and life book metaphors).
I can appreciate a good metaphor. Really, I can. I taught poetry for 20 years—I totally dig a great, winding metaphor (or conceit, as my literary friends would call it). Metaphors take our concrete reality and move it towards an abstraction—and strangely, the abstraction is more relatable.
Welcome to the “seasonal” metaphor
According to this metaphor, I’m in my autumnal years. It’s harvest time for those of us “Baby Boomers” still left on the planet. Yes, I came in at the tail end of that classification, but those of us in our late 50’s still belong to the Baby Boomer club. I should be “harvesting” and “reaping” right now. All my accumulated life experience should lead to wisdom and maturity. I’m not sure it has, and I’m not sure God thinks I’m “harvest ready” yet, either.
Thus my tussle with my Creator, the Elohim, the “I AM”, YHWH, the name of whom I’m not worthy to say aloud, yet He invites me to call Him Abba, Father. I tussle in fear and awe of who He is. Maybe He invites the “tussle.”
In January, a friend shared her New Year’s resolution: to develop her prayer life. I felt a giant Holy Spirit prod—the prods are usually a bit more gentle—to pursue prayer. I wrote about it back in May and suggested I might want to write Prayer: Part Two; so this is it.
After journeying through this prayer adventure since January, it’s time to look at what God is teaching me. Or not teaching me. In fact, what am I learning through these months of God’s silence? I’m learning to tussle—to wrestle with God’s Word, the essence of Him. As Christy Nockels sings, God is inviting me into the glorious…
But it doesn’t feel like it; it feels like I’m disappearing and becoming invisible.
In May I wrote:Prayer is more complex than all my whining. It isn’t a “fix,” but nor is it empty and fruitless. It is an essential component—even “THE” central component for a Christian. But be forewarned! Diligent—and sometimes urgent—prayer requires concentrated time and effort, and will reveal your true self while also revealing a fearsome glimpse of the God who created all.
I smile at that a bit.Ihad no idea how much my “true self” would emerge. None. I couldn’t see what was coming. But God did. He had to. He allows “crucible time.” Frankly, I’m still tired of character shaping moments. I want out of the crucible, but it’s not up to me. So in June, I was plunged into the crucible again. No—it wasn’t life threatening, but it was life altering.
The life-altering experience began innocently enough. Like millions of people, I have a ornery back that refuses to be tamed. I had a cervical disc fusion three years ago and had to give up teaching for awhile. (It’s actually become permanent since then.) Then in June my hubster and I decided to go ahead with a laminectomy to help my disintegrating lumbar. He’d had a reverse shoulder replacement in February, and now it was my turn to get better and get the pesky discs off of my sciatic nerve. I’d gone through a series of steroid shots in my bum area and a few MRI’s and X-rays, but my sciatic pain just kept going and going. So, a laminectomy. And then an infection. And then six days in the hospital with IV antibiotics. And then re-opening the incision and cleaning it out. And then a PICC line (central line to heart) and five weeks of antibiotics at home. And then, just when I thought it was over, a gallbladder flare, which led to gallbladder surgery. The night before the surgery, I broke down and bawled like a hungry calf who’d lost it’s mother—or a sheep that felt abandoned by her shepherd. My sweet nurse just held me and let me cry.
Finally, Labor Day. No more antibiotics. No more PICC line. Life could resume as before, but disc fusion in my lumbar still looms; I refuse to think about it. I just want to get strong and postpone the surgery as long as possible. The pain is a constant friend that I try not to acknowledge—until it knocks me around a bit.
During the Summer from Hell, I didn’t have enough strength to tussle with God. I was knocked flat, isolated and weak. God was teaching me through a study of Jeremiah. I was overwhelmed by God’s Word. Enveloped by it. My prayers continued. My prayer wall in tact. But then another metaphor took hold.
The crucible experience might be over, but still I remained in a valley.
“God gives us a vision, and then He takes us down to the valley to batter us into the shape of that vision.” Oswald Chambers
I have no idea what God’s vision for me is now.I’m broken and spilled out. I talk to myself a lot. I’m a teacher without a classroom. Lord, why do you place such hunger in my soul and then deny me a place and purpose? Why?
I continue to dwell in the valley. Praying. Studying His Word. Waiting to “hear” from Him. Yes, I’ve been faithful to Him. And still silence reverberates. Is it unconfessed sin? I don’t think so; I have to believe and trust that He is true to His Word: He washes me as white as snow. He throws my sin as far away as the east is from the west.
Because of this valley, I haven’t written. I haven’t had anything to say. My creativity dried up. Was God present during this time? Certainly. His Word says He is. Was I praying and listening to scripture speak Truth into my life? Absolutely. Did I experience God in a mighty way? Not in a mighty way, but in a quiet, loving way. He brought friends around me. Friends I didn’t know I had. Friends that were a blessing. So God moved through His people.
Yet, I remain in a valley.
“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
One of my favorite books about prayer is *Pete Greig’s, God on Mute. He writes deeply and personally about God’s silence during his wife’s struggle with a brain tumor. Despite the constant prayers of God’s people surrounding her and Greig during this time, there was no healing. Despite an operation, Greig’s wife still suffers with epilepsy, an after-effect of the tumor. Despite God’s silence, Pete and Samie (his wife) persevere carrying with them truth and insight only the Holy Spirit can provide.
Working with God during this valley time has been a battle of perseverance vs. despair. Somedays I waver between both. My poor hubster watches and has no idea how to help. But he stands with me and prays for me.
The truth is I don’t know what to do with myself. My identity was so tied to teaching that now I feel lost. I’m a mother whose children are adults and live far away. I’m a Nana to two precious grandchildren, and one on the way, but I’m too far away to be a constant in their lives. I’m a wife to my hubster who loves my cooking and appreciates what I do around the house.
I have no more students. I’m invisible.
Most days I’m alone. I begin the day with Bible study and prayer. Then lunch. Then I take my pup for a walk (trying to get strong enough to have the fusion surgery in my lower back). I read a little. Work on some crafty stuff. Then fix dinner and spend the evening with Steve.
Yes, I try to schedule lunch dates with friends, and I get out and enjoy the beauty that is NOCO. On weekends (now that I’m 6 weeks out of the infection/surgery mess), the hubster and I take our Jeep out on mini-adventures in the mountains.
It should be peaceful, yet I’m in turmoil. Why? I think it’s because I’m at “harvest time” and I haven’t grown a crop in two years. I’m not rooted, and God is silent and unmoving.
In God on Mute, Greig explores the way God answers and doesn’t answer prayers. There’s nothing formulaic about it. This guy is direct and never boxes God into a particular formula. He is in awe of our Father. He respects and fears our Abba and creator. He looks at God’s Word without bias and brings a fresh pair of spiritual eyes to the complexity—and simplicity—of prayer. I brought my 50 years of walking with Christ into this book and I found nothing that bothered me—no Holy Spirit warning flags that I’ve had when reading many contemporary “Christian” writers. I’m a cynic about popular writers and test them constantly, looking for scriptural mishandling. I’m good with Pete Greig. I find him compelling and honest. Since I’m “tussling” with God right now, I had another look at this book. One reason for unanswered prayer connected to me right away.
Greig writes,: “Is there an opportunity here for going deeper in my relationship with God?”(pp.142-144). Greig directs me to 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. There Paul is tussling with God, too. He has a “thorn in the flesh” and he isn’t too happy about it. Completely understand this. I have a chronic disease—a form of arthritis similar to rheumatoid, but not nearly as debilitating. Yet it is affecting every part of my body and pain is my friend. I have a dear family member who is battling ovarian cancer. Her “thorn” is intense and scary. I believe most of us have something going on that we wish would disappear so we could have a better quality of life. Yet our thorn stays.
And God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” It sounds like God is telling Paul to persevere. The thorn ain’t going away, so just trust me. I’m enough. Whew. That is hard to do. Persevere.
Since I’m a “word nerd,” I looked up the use of “perseverance” in the New Testament (by way of my huge, handy-dandy NASB Exhaustive Concordance and a magnifying glass courtesy of Amazon). Thirty -two times. It’s used 32 times in the New Testament (in the King James translation). It’s used 25 times in the NASB translation (the most literal translation of the Bible). The Greek word is “hypomonë.” A synonym for hypomonë is “proskartérësis.” Both carry similar connotative meanings: “to endure; to continue in something; to remain under, to continue steadfastly; to tarry somewhere.”
What strikes me here is that the word implies a “continuance.” Perseverance is active. My take-away point? Persevere. Tarry in the valley. Continue in My Word, Cindy Lou. Continue praying and seeking me.
My current life verses speak to my need to persevere:
“A disciple is not above her teacher, but everyone when she is fully trained will be like her teacher.” Luke 6:40 (I changed the pronouns to make it more personal.) The “teacher” Luke is referring to is my Rabbi and Messiah, Jesus. Did Jesus ever experience God’s silence? I think He may have experienced a Divine Silence in the Garden of Gethsemane. We only know what the Gospels have provided for us, but we know that Jesus pleaded with His Father to “take this cup from me,” but ultimately He “drank from that cup” and died for us during Passover—the ultimate and final sacrificial Lamb. Conclusion: If Jesus experienced Divine Silence, then why shouldn’t I experience, too? Why should I be spared this tiny, tiny, infinitesimal cup that belongs to me—this wee cup of God’s silence?If I want to be like my Rabbi Jesus, thenI must go through the training. I don’t want to fail in this task, so I persevere.
My next verse comes from Jeremiah 15:16.Here’s some context from 2 Kings 22: Judah had many evil kings who allowed idolatry to creep into the Temple. One such king, Manasseh, was particularly evil (historical tradition has him ordering the prophet Isaiah murdered by being sawn in half) and during his horrific reign, he may have had the “Book of Law” (Deuteronomy) hidden or discarded. However, during the reign of good king Josiah, the Book of Law was rediscovered and the covenant with God renewed. Jeremiah prophesied during Josiah’s reign, and this verse in chapter 15 clung to my heart and mind. “Your words were found and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts!” I love this metaphor of eating God’s holy Word. I want to do that—to eat God’s Word, to digest it, and have it nourish me. I crave that nourishment.
So here I am. Not where I thought I’d be after resolutely committing myself to prayer this year. I don’t know exactly what I expected? A major epiphany? An aura of spirituality that people would take note of and then invite me to teach? A great calling? A recognition that I was somehow not…ordinary?
How completely self-centered. What a sham! And a shame!
Father, forgive me for my selfish desires. Forgive me for not recognizing that Your Word is enough. You are enough. Help me to walk forward and to continue forward into the ordinary…and into the glorious.
Persevere, dear brothers and sisters. Persevere.
*God on Mute, by Pete Greig was published in 2007. Greig is the founder of the 24-7 prayer movement. He leads the Emmaus Rd. church in Guildford, England. Read more about him and the 24-7 prayer movement here: https://www.24-7prayer.com/team/14/greig/
Here is my inspiration for this blog: Christy Nockels performing, “Into the Glorious.”
“Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” Jeremiah 23:29
As a teacher, I loved seeing my students make “progress” in their writing skills. I used to hammer this idea into their brains: Good writing reflects clear thinking. Writing is thinking on paper. If you ain’t thinking deeply, you ain’t going to write deeply. I knew that if I could guide my students towards complex thinking, they’d eventually progress in their writing skills.
Progress is a good thing, right? Moving forward and not backwards. Moving from the rotary telephone to a portable device able to manage our own private worlds is progress, right? The ability to stream endless entertainment to our flat screens, tablets, and portable-private world-managing devices is progress, right?
Lately my old brain has been wrestling with the idea of progress and being progressive. Now this word is political. The implication of a “progressive” party versus a “conservative” party is the idea that one party is moving forward while the other seeks the status quo, or even a backwards movement. Maybe there should be a couple of new political parties: the cautiously progressive party and the optimistically conservative party. Or some such nonsense. I shudder as I watch this political circus unfold.
How did ordinary words like “progressive” and “conservative” develop into such divisive trigger words? Oy to the vey.
I prefer to think of myself as neither. I think of when the Pharisees and Herodians tried to trap Jesus into making incendiary remarks against Rome by asking a seemingly ordinary question about paying taxes to Rome. Jesus asked to see a denarius. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Duh. Caesar’s. Jesus then replied: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:13-17 ESV and mine) In light of this passage, I say that first, I belong to God. It’s in Him that I move and breathe and have my being. Second, I’m an American who respects the law. But first I’m God’s. Always first.
Right now I’m watching a beautiful goldfinch hang on tightly to a blowing tree limb. It’s a momentary distraction from hard thoughts. That such beauty exists in a world where terrorists kill around 200 people in one weekend deserves a pause.
Maybe I’m just feeling my age. Maybe I am a dinosaur and completely irrelevant to social progress. But maybe I see more clearly. Our culture keeps marching us towards a secular definition of progress…a social change that fights to make morality relative. As a result, I see chaos and hatred fueled by intolerance on all sides. I see God pushed to the side as if He is an elderly man with an addled brain unable to grasp humanity’s superiority to its creator. We struggle and strive to make sense of the world and our purpose in it, and then praise great human minds for answering the unknowable for us. As if…as if we can fully know the mysteries of God. But we keep striving to know and to explain in order to gain truth and push an elderly, inept God aside. (See Job 38)
Progress is equated with a movement away from God’s truth. The more societies push aside God’s moral law, the more depraved, angry, greedy, and violent we become. Christ followers! Where are we?
Jesus warned us to be wary and alert. He told us not to be surprised at what was going to happen around us. And my old brain keeps thinking, “salt and light, salt and light, salt and light.” Jesus knew what was coming. He has always known that cultures would move towards darkness rather than towards light. He used metaphors like salt and light in order to permeate our self-centered hearts and remind us that we shouldn’t expect anything different from those who don’t follow Him; but we—as followers of light—must always be beacons of light. Salty folks permeating the darkness, preserving Truth, and offering Hope.
In him (Christ) was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (note the use of present tense verbs!)…The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. John 1:4-10
I’m writing this from the solitude so familiar to me now. And comfortable. I don’t mind my enforced solitude, though I long to be out in the community doing something “salty” for the kingdom of God. But my Lord keeps telling my heart to rest. I have another surgery coming—one I dread—so there is no moving from the solitude just yet. Instead I’m devouring God’s Word. It’s a hammer that pounds my conscience and breaks apart my illusions. It tears at my heart and shapes the way I view the world.
I see a Church that has become too comfortable with itself. One that allows us to stay safe within its confines. We go to Bible studies, small groups, prayer groups, and mission trips to foreign places. We give money to help missions and to feed the poor and to rescue human trafficking victims. Church: It is a haven from a volatile culture. I think Jesus might be right in the middle of the volatility. He never shied away from discomfort. If He is my example, then why am I playing it so safe?
I hesitated to even publish this particular writing because I don’t like to be confrontational. I hate hurting people. But Jesus showed us that we can show truth in love. And we must. We have to be salt and light to a world drifting further and further away from God’s Word for our life. We’ve allowed culture to shape our understanding of God’s Word. We hesitate to use the word “sin” in a culture that rejects the term and rejects the folks who use the term.
Christ followers, we have to quit dwelling in comfort. We have to step outside our Bible studies and small groups and move into the brokenness. I don’t know what that looks like, but I believe it has to happen and that God will direct each of us according to His good purpose.
As our culture progresses and moves away from God’s truth, I have to stand on His eternal Word. I have to trust in a God whose throne is righteousness and justice. I have to be uncomfortable and touch the untouchable and love the unlovable—just as my Savior did. I have to be salt and light in middle of the storm. I must be a living metaphor for Jesus. “Amen. Come Lord Jesus!” Rev. 22:20
Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you,that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. John 16:32-33
I’m learning to live with quiet and a more restful spirit. I’ve been railing against my enforced solitude and non-working status for almost two years now…striving to find something to fill me the way teaching did. Truth is: teaching consumed me. I missed so much of my family’s touchstone events because I believed that what I did was more important than anything else. Ok, I didn’t consciously believe it, but I acted as if I did. My actions were those of a woman entangled with her own sense of self-importance. My identity rested with my ability to do my job well. Exceptionally well. And I was dedicated to my craft and perfecting it. I was also dedicated to my students whose love fed my need for purpose and meaning.
As my life flew away from me three years ago, I began to fight against the loss of meaning and purpose. I clung to a vision I’d had since I had returned to college as a 32-year-old single mother of three: I wanted to teach at the college level. I still had visions of writing my master’s thesis on WWI poetry and how it reflected an ideological fracture that expressed itself in new modern art and writing styles. I had planned to work as a teaching assistant while I finished my PhD and then find a wonderful university where I would get to teach my favorite things to sponge-like undergraduates who would savor every lecture.
It sounds ridiculously naïve when I read it in print. It sounds like a romantic novel’s innocent heroine. It sounds like a woman’s need to hold fast to a dream that was anything but her reality.
It was a necessary dream at the time, but dreams have a way of dissolving themselves…and sometimes God dissolves the dream so He can make something more purposeful from a life spiraling out-of-control quickly.
Yesterday was one of those yucky days I get sometimes now. My body has a mind and mood of its own, and yesterday the pain and exhaustion overwhelmed me. I kept pushing forward doing small tasks. My life has become quite small now. And quiet. And lonely sometimes, but mostly it’s quiet. After my husband leaves for work, I have a pattern: take shower while listening to podcast (usually Ravi Zacharias or Kay Arthur); do upstairs chores while listening to podcast; do lower back exercises while listening to podcasts or music*; do Bible study (in silence); finally, I pray. Yesterday it was hard to do anything. I just wanted to lie down and close my eyes and wait for the day to pass. But I didn’t! I persevered! HAH! But I did move forward and tried to follow my routine.*NOTE: Apparently I need podcasts to fill the silence!
After lunch my energy started to return, as did the sun. (Let me just say that I love the sun in Colorado. Northern Colorado’s spring season starts later than it does in Oklahoma-my home state. It’s the first of June and mornings are still 40 degrees. Highs are in the mid 60’s or 70’s. Zilch on the humidity. In the last two weeks, the trees have filled out and my garden is opening up.)
I’ve been refinishing an antique window to use as a frame for family photos, and I needed to finish distressing the window and then add a little antiquing wax to emphasize the grain of the wood. The sun acted like a tonic on my old bones and I spent the afternoon listening to Schubert and finishing the window. In between coats of wax, I read a novel and drank an espresso (made in my fun, Italian moka pot). As suppertime got closer, I decided to start chopping tomatoes, onions, and peppers for a salsa I’d put on top of the fish tacos I’d planned. Quiet, right? Unassuming? Non-tumultuous? No lesson plans. No essays to grade. No conferences to attend.
Here’s the thing I’m noticing about my new life as an unemployed teacher living in a new town: I like it. I like the deliberateness of chopping the veggies for salsa while looking out my kitchen window and watching the irises blossom in the backyard. I like letting my thoughts wander without worrying about what I must achieve in order to feel valuable to the world. I like having my husband help me when he gets home and then hug me because he appreciates the supper.
These are all things I missed before . . . before the small kitchen and the small life and the smaller dreams. It sounds corny, but I love listening to the birds—even the squawky blackbirds that chase off the smaller birds in order to eat at my bird feeder. I like sanding a piece of old wood and turning it into something new. I like to hear the children’s chatter and laughter as they play now that school is out. My new quiet life feels like a gift today.
And that’s the revelation. I’ve been striving internally for months now trying to figure out the next stage of my life once my back gets strong again. I’ve been begging God for answers and for purpose. Then today I finally “got it.” The gift. Anyone who really knows me and knows my history, also knows the nightmare my life was in my 20’s and 30’s. They know the despair and the rejection and deep sorrow. The helplessness and hopelessness. They also know that my children, family, and job provided me with the healing I desperately needed. And thus the Gift. I heard God tell me (in that still, small voice that I can only hear when I’m quiet): Cindy, be still. Your purpose rests in Me. Your dreams are secure in Me. It’s time for you to rest, heal, and be amazed at the life I have given you. Be still my daughter. Be still my child. Be still.
Suddenly, ZAP, just like that I realized that this quiet year has been God’s gift to me. A relief from the last 26 years of college, teaching, raising children, surgery, more college, and a move away from the familiar and comfortable. Instead of worrying about my financial future, God is telling me to enjoy this time. Relax in it. Don’t see it as a pause button until my real life begins again, but as a well-earned vacation.
I still strive, of course. But today the sun is out again and my garden is calling me. Weeds continue to bloom and I must be diligent in my weeding so I can keep gazing out my small, kitchen window and watch the birds fly and the irises bloom.
It’s been a hard week (month or year) and, I’m not sure why I’m praying…it’s not like you can do anything, can you? Or will you? I’m just a lowly creature whose problems don’t mean much in the scheme of the universe. Do you even care? I mean, why should you? I’m a pretty awful example of a Christ-follower. But I’m praying anyway hoping you’ll actually listen and move. But I doubt it. You’re just going to do what you want to do anyway. Sometimes it seems like you’re a tyrant god who likes to watch us squirm so we can see how incapable we are without you. Right? But I’m going to ask anyway…just in case. But I don’t expect much. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
And so it goes.
I never thought of myself as a passive-aggressive person. I don’t try to manipulate people to do what I want them to do through subtle derogatory remarks intended to zing or pinch. Well, sometimes I do. It’s a cowardly technique. I should just say I what mean instead of trying to get someone to feel the way I want him or her to feel. Even writing it sounds tacky, but I do it and I practice it with God sometimes.
I’m trying not to do it anymore. My New Year’s resolution for 2016 was to develop a prayer discipline that was consistent and focused. I resolved to read Christian authors I respect and study the scriptures regarding prayer, from Old to New Testaments.
I also determined to keep “prayer promises.” Whenever I tell someone, “I’ll pray for you,” I do. I write it on a post-it note and stick it on my prayer wall. I have a big sheet metal board that my hubster made for me a few years ago. It hangs over my desk and I used it to keep my teaching plans organized. Since I don’t teach anymore, it has become a catch-all for “meditation notes,” pictures, quirky magnets, coffee sleeves from favorite coffee shops, and now it’s also covered with family photos and post-it note prayer requests. I may need another board…
I wish I could say that in these last four months I have discovered some great prayer insights. Maybe even a step-by-step process into manipulating God into answering prayers. I didn’t though. Some of my prayer post-its haven’t changed at all, while others have been removed and altered. But the big ones have stayed in place. No movement from Heaven that I can see.
However…do I walk by faith or by sight? Does the character of God change just because I don’t see answers? Is He a Father of love who listens and moves, or is He a judging, condemning Father who likes us to suffer so we learn to be stronger individuals?
(Quite frankly, I prefer not to have anymore “character-shaping” moments. I prefer being weak and wimpy if it means life goes more smoothly. In fact, I kind of like my “ostrich faith.” Sticking my head in the sand so I don’t have to feel fear, disappointment, anguish, or grief. My character is shaped enough, thank you very much. God disagrees.)
Prayer is more complex than all my whining. It isn’t a “fix,” but nor is it empty and fruitless. It is an essential component—even “THE” central component for a Christian. But be forewarned! Diligent—and sometimes urgent—prayer requires concentrated time and effort, and it will reveal your true self while also revealing a fearsome glimpse of the God who created all.
Here is a bit of what I have learned:
Prayer reveals the status of my own heart first, and it can be a very painful experience. I don’t say this lightly. It is very painful. During this prayer process, I’ve become acutely aware of my own failures. My “dirty-ness.” It’s like I’m looking at an overview of my entire life and seeing all the places that I’m ashamed of—all the things I thought were secret play out again and again. Emotions I thought I had dealt with long ago resurface. It’s crushing. I am not the person I thought I was. I am a frail, sinful person who hurt people I loved over and over again—not through intentionality, but through my choices and behavior patterns. Oy to the vey. This is not what I expected to have happen through disciplined prayer. I guess I thought I’d become respected and admired for my righteousness. Woe to me. A Pharisee by nature; however, I am a child of God through Christ. Prayer has tuned me into my base nature and thus my need for a Savior.
Prayer doesn’t always have to be an emotional heart cry. Sometimes it will be, but when I look at my prayer board, I see a journey I need to take everyday, and it’s hard to keep that emotional state going daily. Nor should we. Prayer is disciplined. Emotional outpourings are also necessary and will occur, but most days, prayer will be a steady procedure anchored in faith that God hears and Heaven moves according to HIS will and not mine. And some days, I merely plod through my wall in a circular pattern because I promised I would do so. Usually during my plodding, more sincere and even new revelations happen that shift my prayers slightly. But sometimes it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it stays a steady plod forward. That’s ok…I hope. I’m trusting God that He still finds pleasure in my supplication even when I don’t feel that emotional pulse that exhilarates.
Bible study is essential. Experts continually write books that explore the Lord’s Prayer, the Gethsemane prayer, Jesus’ quiet times in the wilderness (40 days and nights), fasting, the Psalms, Daniel’s prayers…seemingly every prayer written in God’s Word. These writers analyze and pull biblical prayers apart at the seams trying to decode the secret to making things happen. Prayers for prosperity and healing leave hurting people cynical when their formulaic prayers aren’t answered. So many well-intentioned folks try to figure out why these prayers aren’t being answered and often turn the blame back on the pray-er. There must be secret sin in your life. You’re not praising God enough before you make a request (as if God doesn’t understand when He’s being manipulated). There’s a tinge of condemnation and self-righteousness in those remarks. I’ve been on the receiving end of those well-intentioned folks, as have so many that I love. I have found this to be true: the only authority on prayer is God. And it follows that the only way we can know God is through His Word. The character of our creator is spread out through 66 books written by man, but inspired by God. He has given us everything we need to know about His character through His Bible. Nothing added. Nothing taken away. The more I understand who God is and what His plan is for the world and people He created, the more I can pray with assurance that God will not act outside of His character. He is an unchanging God, full of love, compassion, mercy, and holy justice. I am to stand in awe of Him, and the Bible shows me why He is deserving of my awe. Read the Word. Bill Hybels (Willow Creek Community Church of Chicago) talks about “chair time”—15 minutes a day in God’s Word. I love that.
Pray with a sense of the eternal:The soul was not created for the body, but the body for the soul. We are eternal creatures stamped with the image of God. We defiled that image, so now we are but poor shadows of what God intended for us to be. But we will be like Him. In a moment. In a twinkling of an eye (God does love poetry!). My life feels so rooted in the “right now,” but I’m also very conscious of an ache for something more. Something purer. I think that is part of our eternal longing. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:10-11: “What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” We long for something that we can’t name (but advertisers certainly can!). I notice it most when I’m in nature. Colorado is so beautiful and majestic, but people continue to defile it and make it less so! Stop it! An example: Steve and I went on a short traipse the other day—a trail we had been wanting to try for a while. We parked the car, got out and started walking. The grasses were high and the red-winged blackbirds sat on them without bending them. We could hear their songs, as well as the rustle of critters scurrying around us. But shading the sounds of nature was the steady thrum of traffic. All those cars and trucks flying down the road depleted my joy. Then as we headed back to our Jeep, the wafting smell of pot from a nearby truck sealed my mood. I became very aware of a sense of the eternal. Cars became symbolic of man’s need for more and more while depleting natural resources and finances, and pot…well, outside of medical usage, it’s just another drug used to alter a state of being rooted in dissatisfaction or unhappiness. God has placed eternity in my heart—a longing for Eden. For what was intended. When I pray, I try to remember that God has eternal purposes that I can’t see. I let that shape my prayers so that I don’t pray without hope.
Prayer “tunes me in” to God’s will. The older I get, the more I understand that religion is man’s feeble attempt to understand God. God is not religion. Jesus did not come to earth, die, and then return to Heaven in order to create a religion. He came that ALL men and women might know God and repent–to serve the one true God and only the one true God. We mess things up by trying to make God completely knowable.Sometimes I think religion tries to shape God in order to make him smaller. We set up rituals and doctrine to explain the character of God. There is nothing wrong with rituals and doctrine as long as it is rooted in biblical truth. Yes, I am one of THOSE Christ-followers who believe that the Bible is inerrant. Everything that God needed us to know is in His Word. And if you study it—really study it with a searching heart—He reveals Himself. I taught books for years. It’s my identity, I’m afraid: A teacher of books. I love great writing whether it’s classic or whimsical, but literature only reveals truth about mankind’s nature; it can’t reveal the nature of God. Only the Bible can do that. The more I pray, I find myself getting a glimpse of our world through God’s eyes. His word becomes a filter through which I see the heartbreaks and joys of life. As I watch our culture move so far away from God, I can’t help but contemplate what the world would have been like had Jesus never come. And the vision I get breaks my heart. Such darkness and hopelessness. Such hedonism and selfishness. Such desperation and searching. I hesitate to make this statement, but I must: the Church has failed to be salt and light as Jesus commanded. Culture will go the way cultures will go, but Church—we should have been salt and light. We should be praying and seeing through Jesus’ lenses. Loving the poor and broken, not lashing out at them in fear. There is no fear in God. And there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. We should be proclaiming this truth instead of condemning first and then trying to justify our condemnation. No, I don’t agree with the direction of our culture. Making everything morally acceptable is not how God wants us to live. But how will they know if we don’t tell them? How will they know if we don’t show them by our actions through love…not fear. Consistent and disciplined prayer, with Bible study, allows me to glimpse the world through God’s eyes and for just a moment, I feel His agony for a lost and striving people. God’s eternal purpose moves me to action and prayer.
Unanswered prayer. This is my last category because I could write another 10 pages on prayer and never get to a conclusion! Unanswered prayer can defeat us and cause us to turn away from prayer in cynicism and disappointment. One of my favorite teachers is Amy Orr-Ewing. She is an apologist out of England who works with Ravi Zacharias. One of the many “meditation notes” on my prayer board is a quote from a YouTube video I watched of her. It says “Disappointment can blind us from seeing Christ.” When our prayers go unanswered, we begin to doubt that they even matter. We doubt that God is in action for us. When healing doesn’t occur, when that pregnancy doesn’t happen, when a wave of depression or anxiety overwhelms once more, unanswered prayers turn to anger and rejection. It seems safer to reject God than to trust Him in circumstances that appear hopeless. Despair is dangerous, and unanswered cries to God can build a wall in our hearts that is difficult to tear down. It’s easy to travel along our path of anger and disbelief because God has not performed. The world cries, “If God exists, why did he let _________happen?” Yesterday—Mother’s Day—two young brothers drowned in the Big Thompson River in Lyons, Colorado. They were both under the age of 10. The police spokesman was shaken when interviewed.Those on the recovery and investigation teams were clearly devastated. I think of that mother and what she is facing today as she wakes up and realizes her sons are gone. Where was God? Why couldn’t He have prevented this? I don’t know. Such tragedies happen every moment across the world. Suffering is a common thread across humanity. Yet God reigns. He wins in the end.And because He wins, I can face the unanswered prayers and questions about the future. My hope must rest in Christ alone. It must. Right now, a dear family member is in isolation at a hospital in Arkansas fighting to defeat the cancer that has invaded his body. He is a good man. A good husband. A good father. A good son. People need him. We pray for healing every day. We pray the transplanted stem cells will start doing whatever those stem cells were created to do. Prayers for healing haven’t been answered yet, but we remain determined in our seeking for God’s hand in this dear life. Yes, he struggles, but as he struggles his emails show all of us how God is sustaining him through this time. I picture our prayers as God’s hands holding him close, and I feel a sense of urgency to pray and pray, as if our prayers keep God’s hands in place.
Are my prayers actually moving God? When I ask myself that question, I remember the character of God: loving, compassionate, merciful, just, fearsome, and above all, HOLY. Ultimately my prayers connect me to my Father. They empower me to move through this tumultuous life with hope that is based on the truth of God’s unchanging character. I may never know or see the results of my prayers. I doubt the angel, Michael, will show up as he did for Daniel and say, “Cindy, your prayers have moved heaven!” I’m just an itty-bitty light (as my Bible study ladies said) with an itty-bitty voice. A speck on the earth for a brief moment of time. An itty-bitty blink. But God’s Word—His sacred covenant—promises that I am a child of God. And He loves me with an infinite love that I can’t even fathom. His character is my promise, and prayer reveals that character even when He is silent.
I’ve learned so much more than this and may write a “Part Two,” but right now, my prayer board is calling. Time to pray.