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beginning of our journey.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Punctuation of Prayer

A pastor I know presented a devotional talk a few years ago on “The Punctuation of Prayer”. I’ve never been able to get this phrase – or his key points – out of my head.

His talk challenged me to consider this question: “What kind of ‘punctuation marks’ do I use at the end of my prayers?” Specifically…

• Do my prayers usually end with exclamation points? (“Oh, Lord, please get me out of this jam!”)
• Do my prayers usually end with periods? (“Oh, Lord, please bless me today.”)
• Do my prayers usually end with question marks? (Oh, Lord, how do You want me to andle this situation?)

As I ponder these questions and evaluate my own prayer life, I realize that my approach to God is dominated by statements (the periods and exclamation points), not by inquiries (the question marks). Interestingly, even the requests that I present to my Heavenly Father tend to be phrased as statements…rather than questions.

For example, I often will pray: “Father, please give me wisdom as I make a decision today about _______.”

Notice the period.

Isn’t this an odd way to make a “request”? After all, if I were conversing with a close friend, or with my wife, I would phrase this as a question: “What advice would you give me as I consider the decision I have to make today?”

Obviously, I want more than “advice” from God, but doesn’t it make sense to approach Him in a conversational manner, just as I would a trusted friend? Wouldn’t it be appropriate to pray, “Father, You know that I have to make a decision today about ____. What would You like me to do in this situation?”

Since this makes so much sense…then why do I so seldom phrase my prayers as questions?

One reason: When I don’t really live as if I have a “relationship” with the Father, then it results in a prayer life that is formal and distant, not conversational.

Another reason: I may talk a good game about living in obedience to the Father, but I have to admit that my life is largely self-directed. So it’s easy to offer a ritualistic prayer where I “ask” God to direct my decisions…but then I charge ahead, running my life as I see fit.

A third reason: If I’m painfully honest, I have to admit that I don’t necessarily expect an overt answer from God; I expect to have to figure out stuff on my own. Ending my prayers with periods simply is a reflection of my attitude…because when I end my prayers with periods I do not live my day in expectation. I am less likely to be spiritually sensitive; less likely to look for the hand of God in circumstances; less likely to listen for His voice as others speak to me; less likely to watch for His emerging answers throughout the day.

But when I end my prayers with question marks, my outlook completely changes. Asking God sincere and open-ended questions awakens my heart…and my mind…and my soul…to listen and watch so that I can hear and see His answers. As King David writes, “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you, and wait in expectation.” (Psalm 5:3)

This verse (like so many others) is an invitation to punctuate my prayers differently…to focus more on the question marks than the periods…and to live expectantly as I wait for my Heavenly Father to answer.

- Bruce

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A New Way to Pray

God has been teaching me to listen to Him more closely. As noted in an earlier post (“Listening Beyond the Silence” – February 24), I’m trying to bring more times of silence and solitude into my life. Not surprisingly, this is changing the way I pray.

At least twice a week, Julie and I try to have a devotional time together that focuses on reading - and meditating upon - Scripture. Our times of meditation simply are moments of precious silence, when we listen…and listen…so we can absorb the meaning of God’s Word. By giving ourselves time to “soak” in the text, we find that we uncover ever deeper layers of meaning as God’s Spirit speaks to our minds, hearts, and souls. We also incorporate some formal, written prayers into these devotional times. [We’ve found the “daily office” materials offered by the Northumbria Community in England to be particularly helpful (http://www.northumbriacommunity.org/pray-the-daily-office); their meditations have deeply enriched our prayer times.]

In the past, I’ve never been fond of formal “liturgical” prayers because they lacked spontaneity. While this is true, it’s also true that when I pray spontaneously, my prayers are very “self”-oriented. In other words, even when they are not specifically about me, they are focused (obviously) on whatever is on my mind at the moment. The written prayers and meditations, on the other hand, lead me into spiritual territory where I normally would not journey on my own. And sometimes these liturgical prayers express – better than I ever could – the deepest longings of my soul.

In addition to our own devotional times, Julie and I now are part of two different “Reflection and Connection” groups. These groups meet weekly, and we focus on reading Scripture, sitting in silence to listen to God and absorb the meaning of the text, and then sharing what we sense Jesus saying to each of us personally. And our prayer times (both silent and aloud) are informed by the rich, personal sharing that has taken place.

What a contrast to the typical “Bible Study” groups we’ve led in the past (and which, I hasten to add, have great value). I’m so used to reading the text, then immediately diving into a discussion about all the things we see. The discipline of slowing down to reflect, before any discussion, makes a huge difference in what I actually take away from the text. This, in turn, is changing the way I pray.

My spontaneous prayers are richer and deeper, because I’m talking less and listening more. Listening to my soul. Listening to God to know Him better. And as I listen, I more easily can hear and recognize His voice as He speaks His truth into my life.

Prayer used to be a chore, but now it is an ever-growing joy…because God is teaching me a new way to pray.

- Bruce

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Deadliness of Deadlines

Over the past thirty years of my working life, I took on work that continually was increasing in scope. I was proud of this – and justifiably so – because it meant that I had earned the right to be trusted with ever greater responsibility by my employer. (After all, Jesus said that “if you are faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things” – Matthew 25:21).

Needless to say, there were many positive results of taking on additional duties, such as a greater sense of contribution to the mission of the organization, developing new skills, and even (at times) an increase in salary.

One result, however, was not so positive: I found myself increasingly working under the pressure of deadlines.

Deadlines, of course, are important and can be a valuable tool for the organization…except in those cases where they are arbitrarily imposed – but that’s another subject. Deadlines hold us accountable for accomplishing our tasks and fulfilling our responsibilities in a timely fashion. Because I wanted to be a responsible worker (see 11-03-2009 post on “The Idol of Responsibility”), I learned to excel at “working to deadline” so that tasks were finished on time. This, of course, earned the respect of my employers (which usually meant that even more work was offered to me, since people knew I would get it done.)

But now that I have stepped back from work for a season, I find that there has been a huge, unintended consequence of living as a deadline-driven person for nearly three decades: the deadline itself became the motivator. The deadline was the driving force behind finishing a task. Meeting the deadline sometimes was more important than the work itself. I had allowed myself to become so overburdened by the demands of work, that very little of my work was driven by what I wanted to do, what I felt called to do, or what I decided to do in a given day. Instead, the daily agenda was driven by my various deadlines.

How painful to realize that I have spent these years training myself to react, rather than act. To respond to external demands, rather than internal desires & motivations. To let my agenda be almost completely controlled by others, rather than by the promptings of the Spirit and my own decision-making abilities.

So I am re-learning how to manage my daily agenda. I am re-learning how to set priorities for myself. I am re-learning how to act, and react, with a primary focus on using my God-given talents, abilities, and passions.

As I do these things, it feels like I am welcoming back a long-lost friend. And it is a joyful…joyful… reunion.

- Bruce

Friday, April 2, 2010

God Speaks In My Dreams

Over the last few months, I’ve been having an increasing number of dreams. I had a growing sense that God was trying to speak to me, because different kinds of dreams often had common themes. So I made a conscious effort to try to remember them and then write them down as soon as I woke up. After writing them down, I would ponder them and pray over them to try to discern their meaning. 

Here are the recurring themes, along with an example from one of the dreams that God has given to me.

Theme No. 1 – Rescue: 
I am in a place of danger and need to be rescued by the Lord.

Example - Bruce and I are in a large boat that is stuck on some rocks and damaged. An island nearby offers shelter and safety, but we can’t move our boat and it’s too far to swim. Jesus is in a small boat nearby, and He is ready to carry us from our damaged boat to the island. But even though we are desperate, we are unable to get off the boat and receive the help that Jesus wants to provide.

Theme No. 2 – Guilt:
I feel guilt over the flaws I see in myself and I hunger for the mercy of God.

Example - I’m awaiting execution, but I’ve been given no opportunity to plead my case. I’m being marched toward the firing squad…we get closer and closer…and suddenly a judge appears and agrees to listen to me. I explain my circumstances, and the judge offers me a full pardon.

Theme No. 3 – My Future:
I worry that we will not find a new church with the right “fit”.

Example - Bruce and I have come to serve a new church. It is filled with wonderful people, but it is a very isolated, rural community and we have nothing in common with them. One of the staff members is someone we know, and he assures us that we will fit right in. But I feel disappointment and sadness…and I find myself questioning whether or not God really knows what He is doing.

Theme No. 4 – Preparation:
I am not yet ready to arrive in a new place.

Example – I am traveling on a plane with a couple of friends, and I decide to take no luggage of any kind because it’s too much of a hassle and will slow me down. So I bring no suitcase, no carry-on baggage…nothing. It makes passing through security a breeze, but when I arrive I am totally unprepared because I have no clothing and no supplies. I am filled with dismay as I realize the high price I will pay for my lack of preparation.

As I pondered these dreams, here is what I sensed God saying to me...

I will rescue you. You don’t need to try to frantically get to safety. This is My job, not yours.

I have pardoned you, and I will continue to grant you mercy. Just trust Me and follow Me.

I have your best interests at heart, and I will send you to a place where your service will be fruitful and fulfilling.

It is not yet time to go. But - at the right time - you will be ready. This is a time to continue to rest and wait, while looking with hope toward the unfolding adventure ahead.

As I heard God’s voice, the message of the dreams ultimately comforted me and reassured me. I know that I simply am to rest and take one day at a time – listening, watching…and waiting in hope.

- Julie