Tag Archives: Prayer

The Nehemiah Two-Step

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.
Nehemiah 4:8-9 (NIV)

This life journey always comes with a certain amount of opposition. It can come from any number of sources, and it can take multiple forms. Opposition can be spiritual, emotional, relational, physical, personal, internal, public, subversive, passive, violent, and etc. We all face opposition, conflict, and threats from time to time, even if it is in relatively small ways.

In today’s chapter, the exiles attempting to repair the walls of Jerusalem encounter opposition from the neighboring tribes. Conflict with these tribes and towns had been part of the political landscape of the area for centuries, so it was not a surprise. It was expected.

I found it fascinating that Nehemiah records a “two-step” response to the threats. I think the “Nehemiah Two-Step” is a great move to know when I find myself dancing with the fires of opposition in any form that the antagonistic force might present itself. The first step was to pray. The second step was to respond with the appropriate action.

Along my life journey, I’ve experienced many times when I get this very simple dance move wrong:

  • I pray without responding with action. In hindsight, I realize that sometimes I have placed all the responsibility on God with the expectations that He will supernaturally make it all okay without me being responsible for doing my part.
  • I act without praying. Other times, a threat or attack comes and it elicits from me an immediate reaction. When I react without praying, I’ve come to realize that I have refused to seek, submit, and subscribe to my higher authority. My reactions are often raging but not rational, passionate but not prudent, willful but not wise.
  • I act before I pray. When I get the order wrong, I find myself determining the response I think is warranted and then ask God to honor my plan rather than honoring God to seek His plan for how I should respond.

In the quiet this morning, as I pondered these things, I was reminded of this quote:

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

Albert Einstein

The great scientist’s words have always reminded me that no matter what I set out to accomplish, I can expect opposition. And, it’s likely that the greater endeavor I attempt, the greater opposition I’m likely to face.

From a spiritual perspective, God’s Message continually reminds me of the same thing. Specifically, that spiritual opposition is always a threat:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

I Peter 5:8 (NIV)

I long ago recognized that the time I spend, first thing in the morning, in quiet reading, writing, and contemplation has a positive effect on the rest of my day. It’s another form of the “Nehemiah two-step.” Pray, then act.

So, now I’ve prayed. It’s time to take action on today’s task list.

Have a great day, my friend.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Popcorn Prayers

The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king…..”
Nehemiah 2:4-5a (NIV)

I was honored a few weeks ago when I was asked to pray for our meal at my high school reunion. In part, I was honored because it has become increasingly common for prayers at public events to be ignored our outright forbidden. I also realize that I and my classmates grew up in a time when public prayer was hotly debated along with questions regarding whether it was appropriate for public school choirs to sing sacred music at events such as commencement.

I can remember during some of these debates about “school prayer” that it was humorously acknowledged that the school building will always be the center of a million prayers during finals week. Of course, there is a difference between a public prayer at a school event and the silent prayer students staring at the test that has just been placed before them.

For those who are not regular readers, I have been blogging through what’s known as the exilic books of God’s Message in recent months. These are the writings of the ancient Hebrews who experienced being taken into captivity by the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Medo-Persian empires. They eventually returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and restore their homeland. Being an exile, in its very essence, means living away from home, and being in exile often means a loss of power, control, and public standing. My local gathering of Jesus’ followers is currently exploring the notion that the people of God are, by nature, exilic and what that means for us in the 21st century.

Nehemiah was a cupbearer for the Persian king, Artaxerxes. In today’s chapter, Nehemiah could not hide his grief while serving in the king and queen’s presence. It was, in those days, deemed inappropriate to show any kind of negative emotion in the presence of the king. On a whim, the king could have his servant executed for such an infraction. So when Artaxerxes notices the depressed look on his cupbearer’s face, Nehemiah’s immediate fear was warranted.

What I found interesting is that the phrase “Then I prayed to the God of heaven” is sandwiched in between the king’s question and Nehemiah’s response. There is no way that Nehemiah said, “Can you hang on a few minutes while I get on my knees and pray for a while?” Nehemiah’s prayer to the God of heaven had to have been what I call a “popcorn prayer.” A popcorn prayer is the silent, sudden, internal exclamation of my spirit to God’s Spirit in an instant. It’s exactly what I did as a student before every Biology test (science was not my thing).

According to a 2017 survey by the Barna, 79 percent of Americans said they had prayed in the previous three months. Barna found prayer to be the most common faith practice among American adults, but it was also the most multi-faceted. In fact, the researcher concluded that “the most common thing about people’s prayers is that they are different.”

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve discovered that my own prayer life is much like Barna’s research. It’s multi-faceted. I do, at times, spend set periods of time in prayer. Sometimes, I audibly talk to God while I’m alone in my car driving. Wendy and I pray together before meals, and often we will pray together when it is just the two of us traveling in the car. I’ve sometimes described my life journey itself as one long, uninterrupted conversation with God. I’m constantly aware of God’s presence, and my “popcorn prayers” are popping constantly in the heat of Life’s microwave oven.

Our culture has shifted in the 35 years since I graduated from high school. I know some who see this as a source of grief, anxiety, fear, and even anger. Sociologists and scholars are calling our current culture the “post-Christain” world. Frankly, I’m not that worried about it. In fact, I think it might just be a good thing. Throughout the Great Story, it’s clear that God’s people flourish, not when they are in power, but when they live in exile. It’s a paradox that Jesus said He came to model and that He told his followers to embrace:

“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.”

Jesus (Matthew 20:25-28 [MSG])

Paul, one of Jesus’ early followers, put it this way:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul of Tarsus (2nd Letter to the Corinthians 12:10 [NIV])

In the quiet this morning I find my head swimming in thoughts of culture, and power, and exile, and prayer. Nehemiah found himself a servant to the King of a foreign empire. Artaxerxes had the power to execute Nehemiah for having a frown on his face, and yet his precarious position of impotence led him to depend on his faith in the power and purposes of God. Isn’t that the very spiritual reality that Jesus wanted us to embrace?

As I finish this post I’m saying a popcorn prayer for any and all who read it. Hope you have a great day, my friend.

Refining and Revelation

At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.
Daniel 10:2-3 (NIV)

This past Sunday I had the privilege of giving the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. One of the things our team of teachers has been grappling with of late is a continued season in which we are experiencing an unusually high number of deaths. From young to old, from expected to unexpected, and from natural to painfully tragic, we have had almost two hundred families touched by death in two years. It has been a long season marked by grief that seems to continue. We are going through the very human experience of trying to process and find understanding within it.

The last half of the book of Daniel is a record of dreams and visions that he had. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of the strange images inside. It all seems as confusing as an acid trip for even learned readers. I find that most people bail on it quickly and move on.

I have learned along the way, however, that some of the great lessons I’ve discovered in my perpetual journey through God’s Message are not in the details but in the macro perspective when I step back and get a handle on what’s happening on the landscape of the chapter. Today is a great example.

Daniel’s strange visions are not unique to him during this period of history. Ezra and Ezekiel were other Hebrews in the same exile experience having eerily similar visions and visitations of a fantastical nature. They were all experiencing a particularly painful time of being captives far from home. They were all in mourning for their people, their home, their culture, and their faith in uncertain times and circumstances. They had spent a lifetime in exile and were eager for a sign or promise that their people would return home from captivity, that their Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and that restoration God promised through the prophets would actually happen (think 90-year-old Cubs fans prior to 2016). In today’s chapter, Daniel had been fasting, praying, and mourning for three weeks before the vision in today’s chapter was given to him.

My takeaway from this is that these dreams and visions were given to a specific group of mourning Hebrew exiles after a long period of suffering and in the midst of a time of intense personal struggle against doubt, despair, and grief.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking back to particularly stressful and painful stretches of my own journey. It was in these dark valleys of the journey that very specific and important spiritual lessons and personal revelations came to light. Is there a connection? I believe that there is.

In my message on Sunday, I quoted from Peter’s letters to the suffering believers scattered around the known world. He compares the trials they are experiencing to the way fire refines gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). I have come to believe through experience that it is in the midst of suffering and trial that the non-essential trivialities with which we daily concern ourselves are burned away. When our hearts are broken and our spirits laid bare with suffering we are particularly open to what God described to the prophet Jeremiah (33:3) as “great and unsearchable things you do not know.”

[Note: Speaking of messages, I realized in writing the post this morning that it’s been a while since I updated my Messages page, which I subsequently did for anyone interested.]

When Life Throws a Wicked Curve

As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.
Daniel 2:30 (NIV)

One can’t control some circumstances. Life sometimes throws you a curve, and you stand there in the batter’s box with only a proverbial moment to decide what you’re going to do with it.

The latest curveball in our journey happened on Friday when my dad suffered a (thankfully small) stroke. In the course of a few hours, our weekend plans were scuttled and our plans for a week at the lake were placed on hold. I quickly found myself spending my nights caring for my mother who is living in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and spending my days with her and my dad at the hospital entertaining a small army of doctors who are trying make sense of my father’s puzzling mixture of medical issues. I’m glad to report that everyone is well, and it could have been much, much worse.

As doctor after doctor has come in to discuss the various tests that have been continually run over the weekend, my dad has been intent on asking them exactly when his stroke occurred. He’d had symptoms starting on Tuesday of last week and went to the hospital on Friday. I’ve watched as every doctor he asks will look at him quizzically and laugh at the question. Strokes apparently don’t leave a time and date stamp on the brain. Undaunted by this, he continues to ask.

His doctors should be happy they aren’t serving King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. In today’s chapter, King Neb asks a similar unknowable question to all of the prophets, magicians, and enchanters on his royal payroll. The mad king had a puzzling dream, and he wanted the interpretation, but he wanted to make sure the interpretation could be trusted. So, he asked them to first tell him what the dream was, and then tell him the interpretation. If no one could do it, then they’d all be killed and their homes destroyed. Talk about a major league curveball.

Daniel and his friends were, at this point, minor minions at the bottom of the King’s org chart of advisors. Nonetheless, the decree of death applied to them, as well, when Neb decided that he was cleaning house in the Advisory Department.

I find Daniel’s response fascinating. He doesn’t seem to panic. Having not been aware of any of the circumstances leading to the fateful knock on his door, he makes a bold move. He asks for an audience with King Neb. It’s possible that Daniel had not even been in the King’s presence since he and his friends were tested and made the cut to be on the King’s advisory staff. Daniel requests a night to see if he could do the impossible. Then he and his friends pray. That night, Daniel receives a vision explaining both the dream and interpretation.

When Daniel approaches the King with the answer, he is quick to let the King know that there was no magic involved and Daniel did not have some kind of ESP. He simply says that God had a message for the King and Daniel was the messenger. In the entire affair, Daniel’s thoughts, words, and actions appear humble, measured, and focused on seeking God’s purpose in the midst of it all. He stands in, keeps his eye on the ball, and knocks the curveball out of the park.

This morning as I write from my folk’s apartment and help get my mom going so we can head back to the hospital, I’m finding inspiration in Daniel’s attitude. As I wrote in my previous post, Daniel had already faced several wicked knuckleballs and curveballs in life. Perhaps he had learned from those experiences. Nonetheless, he provides a good example.

Don’t panic. Take some time. Seek God’s purpose. Be humble. Flow.

My dad was supposed to be discharged from the hospital today. He called last night to report that the doctors have found another complication. Another procedure today, and I have no idea what it will reveal or whether we’ll bring him home today or not.

Here we flow.

 

When Obedience Seems Not Such a Wonderful Life

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.
Jonah 2:1 (NIV)

In the film classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart plays the leading role of George Bailey. Stewart, with his easy-going manner and “aw, shucks” charm, was the perfect person to play the role. George Bailey is a character referred to as an “everyman” because he’s a basic human archetype to whom every viewer can relate.

Late in the film, as he feels his life unraveling, Bailey stands on a train trestle and talks to God. “I’m not much of a praying man,” he says as he begins to address the Almighty. It’s a great line because it reaches those viewers who are not religious. Religious people know all about prayer and will identify, but for the non-religious viewer, it makes both Bailey’s character and prayer accessible.

In today’s chapter, we find Jonah, the runaway prophet, trapped in the belly of a giant fish. The chapter records the prophet’s distressed prayer from his precarious predicament.

What I found ironic as I read the chapter this morning was the placement of the prayer in the story. Jonah is not a George Bailey, for whom prayer is reserved for life’s foxhole desperation. Jonah was a prophet of God. It was his life. It was his job. Prayer, study, and the proclamation of God’s word was his daily preoccupation. Jonah didn’t pray when God told him to go to Nineveh and preach to the Assyrian people. He didn’t wrestle with God on the subject or seek guidance, clarification, or the grace to help him understand the command. He simply, and defiantly ran the other direction.

Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. A generation before Jonah the Assyrians had waged a bloody war against his nation. A generation later they would do the same. The people of Nineveh were Jonah’s enemies and the enemies of his people. Jonah’s struggle was not what God was calling him to do, but those to whom God was calling him to do it.

Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the better part of a year studying the Jesus Movement of the first century in the Book of Acts. One of the major themes in the book is the racism that surfaces between different groups of believers. Those of Jesus’ followers who were Jews from Palestine discriminated against those who were from Greece. Those Jews who were from Greece discriminated against believers who were non-Jewish Gentiles. It was a hot mess, but it pointed to a heart issue that is present in Jonah as well.

In asking Jonah to preach to the Assyrians, God is proclaiming that He cares about the Assyrians. He wants the Assyrians to repent of their ways and turn to Him. God is, in fact, demonstrating the very message His Son would preach a few hundred years later:

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Matthew 5:38-48 (MSG)

Jonah now becomes the everyman archetype of his people who loved taking pride in being “the people of God” and “God’s chosen people” but had no interest in sharing the love or favor. Jonah doesn’t want to go to God’s enemies because he wants nothing to do with their repentance. He is like the Prodigal’s dutiful, hard-hearted older brother, only this time the father is asking him to go find his lost brother and see if he’ll come home.

Jonah is so adamant in refusing the call that he’s not even willing to pray and ask a few questions or to try and understand God’s heart in the request. But having barely survived a storm at sea, having been thrown overboard by non-Jewish sailors (who repent and turn to God), and having been swallowed by a giant fish, Jonah finally prays.

This morning I find myself standing in Jonah’s sandals. I have been a follower of Jesus for almost forty years. How willing have I been to show love for those who hate me? Jesus repeatedly points out, in His sermon on the Mount, that He doesn’t want His followers to do the easy thing (like loving the homers who love you) but the hard thing (reaching out to the evil Assyrians of Nineveh). Am I even willing to consider how I might have settled into the former while conveniently ignoring the latter?

Jonah is an everyman, a character with whom we can relate. In the quiet this morning I confess I find myself relating to him more than I care to admit. I am called to love, even those I would much rather ignore.

The Fateful Knocking

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
2 Timothy 4:6-7 (NIV)

He knew he was going to die. I don’t know how he knew. He had been struggling with his health for some time. Nevertheless, he knew. He heard fate knocking like the opening measure of Beethoven’s fifth. He asked his caregivers to call me, and I went to his bedside. He was restless, agitated, and there was fear in his eyes.

I had pleasant conversations with him and his wife before. They were very sweet people who lived in a little house on top of a hill with a gorgeous view. They were both humble individuals with gentle spirits. He loved to tell stories. They had no desire to talk about spiritual matters. So, we didn’t. I visited and we swapped stories. We talked about many other things and enjoyed the view together. It really was spectacular.

Now, things were different. He needed to get some things out. He needed to take care of some matters of Spirit. He’d always avoided this conversation so he had no idea how to have it. I took his hand and began to ask him questions. He wept. He talked. I listened. I gently asked more questions. At his request, I helped him pray. I believe it may well have been his first and only time.

When I left he was quiet and resting peacefully. He died a few hours later.

It was what many people call a “deathbed confession.” My experience is that when that phrase is used in conversation it has typically been uttered cynically or sarcastically as if a dying person is trying to rig the system. I liken it to taking on the mantel of the prodigal’s older brother who gets pissed that little brother squandered his life and partied like it’s 1999, and then dad just welcomes him home with feasting and homecoming gifts. Where’s the justice in that? Perhaps I should have told the man, “Too bad, old man. You had your chances and now it’s too late. Good luck. You might want to take a fan with you.”

Everyone has their own journey. Everyone has their own story. Who’s to say that his story wasn’t a great story? Who am I to judge? The fear in his eyes was genuine. The words, the tears, and the prayer were humble and sincere. I am honored to have played a bit part in his final chapter.

Speaking of chapters, today’s is the last surviving words that Paul wrote. He, too, hears fate knocking. His story is very different. He welcomes the journey’s end. He looks forward to what lies beyond. His earthly journey is a sojourn. He is the prodigal heading home and looking forward to being welcomed.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about life and death and resurrection. I’ve recently been walking with a friend whose father has heard the fateful knocking and, along with his family, is making preparations. It’s a strange time when it comes – however it comes.

Everyone has their own stories in both life and death. Paul’s journey had prepared him in mind and spirit for the journey’s end. My friend, who asked his caregivers to call me, had never allowed himself to think much about it. I certainly identify with Paul as we share a common faith and a common hope. I find myself saying a quiet prayer for those who, like my friend who made his deathbed confession, have not thought much about it – and have no one to call.

Exaggerating My Exaggeration

You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes.
2 Timothy 1:15 (NIV)

People always seem surprised when I tell them that I am, by nature, a pessimist. I think I hide it fairly well under my typically extroverted person. You can ask Wendy, and she can tell you about the annoying bookends of my temperament: pessimism and exaggeration. Not only do I regularly see the glass as half-empty, but I see it as the most half-empty glass that has ever been half-empty, and it’s destined to stay that way forever because fate itself has conspired against me since the beginning of time and always will!

You see? I’ve just exaggerated how much I exaggerate!

Hopeless.

Arrrrghh. I can’t help myself.

This morning I begin 2 Timothy which is the last surviving letter that Paul wrote. As he sits down with his stylus, ink well, and papyrus to write his faithful, young protégé, Paul had been in Roman custody for years.  Using his right as a Roman citizen, Paul appealed his case to Caesar. Not only do the wheels of Romany bureaucracy move slowly, but Paul had caused riots and pesky controversies that disturbed Roman peace and order wherever he went. Keeping him languishing in chains was likely to have been an easy decision for the Emporer to make. Having been taken to Rome to await his audience with the leader of the Roman Empire, Paul waited, and waited, and waited.

Reading the opening chapter in the quiet this morning, I can feel the melancholy and emotion. Memories, tears, constant prayers, and exhortation are present. As Paul writes about his own faith I can almost feel him reminding himself and affirming himself. He then tells Timothy that everyone in the province of Asia had deserted him, which he then immediately contradicts by describing how the runaway slave, Onesiphorus, sought Paul out and “refreshed him.”

I can totally forgive Paul a bit of gloom and exaggeration. Paul has spent years in Roman custody. He’s got legit reasons to be a little downcast and dramatic. I can go there when the Cubs lose.

Perspective.

And, that’s where I find my mind and spirit in the quiet this morning.  I’d like to believe that one of the reasons people are surprised to find out I’m a pessimist is that I’ve actually gotten better about recognizing it, catching myself, and consciously, in-the-moment, doing the inner work of choosing a different mental and emotional path. Doing so usually requires mentally reciting and embracing a few key passages of God’s Message that I’ve memorized, saying a few quick popcorn prayers, and going through a few positive mantras.

Looking back, I know I’m not as bad as I used to be. I’m pretty sure Wendy would affirm that, as well. That is, once again, why this is a journey. Slow and steady wins the race.

Pressin’ on into a new week.

All the best to you wherever you find yourself in your own journey, my friend. Cheers!