Tag Archives: calm

Deeper prayer life

My so-called prayer life

I’ll say it right up front: this is a posting for people who like prayer. I know of lot of us scoff at prayer, you’re all very welcome here, I would love to talk about that sometime soon, but not today.

I like prayer but unfortunately (like many of us), I am not particularly good at it. There have been moments— those prayers of earnest seeking when God is suddenly so present for one tiny instant, and then the wave crests and it all ebbs away. Or those vindictive moments when I remember to turn to God, then am shocked to discover I have found my way to love for my enemies. Those are the times when the power of prayer is like an electric force coursing through my body.

Then there are the other times… When my mind keeps getting distracted by shiny things. When I know I promised to pray for someone but can’t remember who. When I feel like a petulant child with my bullet-stream of requests, when I want to pray better but can’t think how, when I wander from topic to topic or (being honest) fall asleep.

How can we pray better? How can we have more of the immediate, intimate prayer life we want? Partly the answers must be found individually. The Christian walk is a relationship, and as there is no single secret to a happy marriage, there is no single secret to an intimate prayer life. However, there are some common threads, and I would like to highlight two that have proven meaningful for me, which are: space and intention.

Space

We live in a busy time. Everything is crammed in; nothing receives the attention it deserves. As 2013 New York Times editorial rather poignantly put it, “Being a Working Mother Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry.” Little wonder, then, that our prayer times are crammed in as well. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 does instruct us to “pray without ceasing,” but again, the analogy to marriage is a good one: simple small acts of love are wonderful, but they don’t replace the periodic date night. Any healthy relationship requires genuine investment.

This is not to say that neglected prayer time is one more thing to feel guilty about. Guilt may have its place, but it’s not a fruit of the Holy Spirit. A better way to think of it is that, when we crave deeper intimacy with God, a way is available to us. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” says Christ. When that thirst for God becomes greater than the other needs that press in upon us from every side, he is there to be found.

As a practical note, one way to carve out space in our lives is with a clear start and finish. Small prayer-time rituals can have enormous value: ring a bell, light a candle, roll out a prayer mat… any such practice can reduce the muddy splashing of the everyday onto our sacred space/time.

Intention

Prayer needs to have the right focus, which is surprisingly easy to forget. During my flickers of transcendent prayer, the clearest memory is what I felt. So, the attempt to recreate those feelings is one very natural, but very wrong, approach to prayer. Because it is such an easy mistake, many Christian authors have written about it.

Way back in 1875, Hannah Whitall Smith wrote, “The common thought is, life is to be lived in the emotions. As they are satisfactory or otherwise, the soul rests or is troubled.” More recently, Bill Bright described the Christian experience as a train. “The caboose we will call ‘feelings,'” he writes, “It would be ridiculous to pull the train by the caboose. In the same way you, as a Christian, should never depend on feelings or seek after an emotional experience.”

Much of the core gospel message is concerned with love, which we think of as an emotion, but in scripture, “love” tends to be more of an action verb: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” “Let us show love, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service.”

Christian love, by definition, is other-focused rather than self-focused. The richest prayer life becomes available to us when create real space and time in our lives for it, and when our focus is on God, his work in the world, and our place within that.

 

Leave a comment! What practices help you to have a deeper and more transformative prayer life? 

 

Sabbath or Smartphones?

How to be human in a world of smartphones-over-sabbath

It was 1995, and he warned us. There was no smartphone then, not for 12 more years. Netscape, the first mass-market Internet browser, was barely ten months old. Facebook, Twitter… even MySpace  were still a decade away. He frets over the now quaint-seeming fax and car phone. But he saw it coming. He knew. There is the dad, sitting and lamenting how improved technology just speeds things up, increases expectations, when the little boy bursts in crying, “Six minutes to microwave this?? Who’s got that kind of time?!” If only we’d listened more carefully to that Calvin and Hobbes cartoon back then.

The fact is, for better or for worse, we now live in a 24/7 society. What then to make of God’s old-fashioned notion of Sabbath: that our lives, instead, ought to include a weekly rhythm of work and rest? That we ought to be, at most, 24/6?

We know there’s a problem

I will never cease to be struck by the irony, first observed by Sideshow Bob that time when he seized control of a television broadcast in order to demand the cessation of television broadcasts. Then there are the viral videos spread by social media about becoming too absorbed in viral videos and social media. This week’s New York Times editorial on screen addiction, nearly all of us read on some kind of screen.

We know society is moving too fast. At some fundamental level, we know that something’s gotta give, that something has to change, that we are being depleted, that we are bled dry. When I was a kid, it was still common for businesses to be closed on Sundays. It was a collective, socially enforced day of non-productivity. It was inconvenient, because you couldn’t get things done, but it was nice, because you couldn’t get things done.

Some of us long for a return to those days. But then again, we still wanna hit Starbucks on our way home from church. Others are outright antagonistic to the idea of a slower paced society. I have a coworker who boycotts Chick-fil-A, not for the reason you mention, but because he is so offended by the audacity of their being closed one whole day a week. Every year, Black Thursday erodes ever further into Thanksgiving, and while I personally celebrate efforts by “the good guys” like Costco to hold the line, I can’t escape the feeling of a desperate rearguard action.

We know God’s solution

Cultural change is usually contentious and hard-fought. In the past few weeks, the warning that God will judge America has been a favorite topic among some commentators. As evidence of our decline, some have cited court-enforced changes to US marriage law; others, an Oklahoma court order to remove a monument bearing the Ten Commandments.

So it begs the question: why has there been no hue and cry as God’s fourth commandment, listed right there on equal footing with “have no other gods before me” and “do not murder”, has gone gently into that good night? I have written in the past about the error we make in drawing distinctions among different kinds of sin, about the still very real capacity of any sin to harm us. It seems to me that the frenetic pace of modern life is at least as corrosive and damaging as other transgressions that seem to enjoy the front row seats of our cultural awareness.

Our culture’s craving for peace and calm is as much spiritual as it is physical or emotional. It should be one uncontroversial place where we as Christians can spend our precious, limited airtime to reach out with wisdom and healing, doing genuine good in the world. In our failure to do so, Madison Avenue has long since filled the void, and as a result, people whose actual desire is for love, meaning, wholeness, belonging— whose actual need is to cry out to God— are crying out instead to the likes of Calgon.

The voices inside

Observing the Sabbath day is hard. It has always been hard. Scripture goes on and on and on and on about all the exceptions you might be tempted to make, all the loopholes you might be tempted to find. “OK, I can’t work. Can I make my kids work? Nope. Servants? Nope. Animals? Nope. OK, what about some foreigner I met on the street who doesn’t even follow our laws? I can put him to work for me, can’t I? Nope. But, at least I can still work when it’s super busy, right? Like certain SUPER busy times of year? Nope.” All of this is how we know there were workaholics back in agrarian times too.

Many excellent books have been written on the importance of Sabbath and how to practice it. My personal favorite is Wayne Muller’s Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found one that addresses the biggest obstacle that makes genuine Sabbath rest an ongoing challenge and a still-elusive commodity in my own life personally: dealing with the internal critic. It’s that little voice inside your head the moment you sit down to rest: what you should be doing. How much time you’re wasting. How your to-do list is so long you can’t possibly stop to breathe.

Lift your hands

I first discovered my internal critic during the Silicon Valley “dot com” heyday when I was working between 80-100 hours a week. It would be time for my Tuesday night bible study group, and I would think, “Well, I can’t go.” Then a part of my brain finally realized: if I stay here and keep working, my week’s work hours will go from 80 to 81: negligible increase. If I go to bible study, my hours of nurturing my soul and slaking my terrible thirst for human connection and fellowship will go from 0 to 1. How much of an increase is that? Well anything divided by zero is infinity.

It’s very common to believe that we can take a rest once “we’ve earned it”… once every single possible item is crossed off our to-do list. To see this attitude in its proper perspective, remember that the word priority just means “how soon you do it.” Your “high priority” items are the ones that precede other, lower-priority stuff you may or may not ever get around to. So now your Sabbath agenda looks like: “Let me do all this high-priority stuff like washing the car and depositing these checks and returning this spoiled cabbage, and then if there’s time left I’ll get to the ‘low priorities’, like investing time in my marriage and my children, and replenishing my depleted emotional reserves.”

Is that really how we want our priorities to be ordered? The fact is, work expands to fill the time you give it, and the universe will not suffer too much if that spoiled cabbage never does get returned. God’s intent is not that we get everything done and then rest. It is that, right there in the midst of our work, we lift our hands from the keyboard, push the chair back from the desk, and walk away.

The fields will still be there to plow in the morning.

Burning anger

What to do when your anger makes you angry

I get it when I’m angry about the big stuff. Once a friend conned me out of $3500; I was angry. Once a project at work was single-handedly held up for nearly a year by a regulator who kept changing the rules on us; I was angry. It makes sense.

What baffles me is the irrational anger. Recently I read about a 120-foot rusted metal barricade, installed as a “sculpture”, that defaced a public plaza in Manhattan from 1981-89. I was furious for days. Over a problem I never saw, already resolved for more than 25 years. “Oooh, for a short time decades ago, certain million-dollar views weren’t quite as nice as they should have been!” What?

Anger is often a symptom

One of the best sermons I ever heard was in the late 1990s by Jay Mitchell called “I’m Angry! Now What?” He made the point that anger can be like a fire alarm— it is obvious and loud, but in the final analysis, it is only distantly related to the actual problem. The noise is caused by the smoke, which is coming from the fire. The urgent problem is to find the fire; only a fool would waste time trying to deal with the noise. Yet this is the most common reaction to anger: we fire both barrels at whatever set us off, without a moment’s pause to look for an actual source.

Once I was temping at an escrow office, and an agent was trying to close a deal, expecting some important documents. To do him a favor, the moment they arrived, I got up from my desk and walked them a block down the street to his office. The next day, he called my boss and demanded that I be fired. I never found out what perceived slight had made me the object of his wrath, but I have often wondered: Where in his life was the volcano of anger that erupted onto me as an essentially innocent bystander? And did he ever find it and extinguish it? (By the way, my boss did not fire me; she dropped that agent as a customer instead… “Oft doth evil mar itself.”)

“In your anger, do not sin”

I’ll never know what was going on in that agent’s life, but I can be inspired by that example to pause and reflect before I lash out in anger. Dealing constructively with anger is a part of life, and the bible has a lot of really sound advice about it, but the overarching principle comes from Psalm 4:4: “In your anger, do not sin.” I may never have sinned by calling someone’s boss to get them fired, but I have certainly blown it plenty of other times in my life. (Read: “reply-all button”.)

To deal with your anger by simply stifling it… this is little better than dealing with the fire alarm by ignoring it

The verse goes on to say, “Ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent,” which, taken in isolation, sounds like advice to deal with your anger by simply stifling it. However, this is little better than dealing with the fire alarm by ignoring it; the real problem (the fire) will grow until it can no longer be ignored, when the problem will be more difficult (if not impossible) to resolve, and the destruction will inevitably be much greater. I once had a housemate whose significant relationships always went through the same pattern: things would mostly be good, but with some area of conflict. He would ignore the conflict (“take it like a man”, as he put it) until he reached the limits of his endurance, and then his verbal anger would explode, resulting in the destruction of the relationship.

The only solution he could imagine was to have unlimited endurance that could never be exhausted, so that he could continue to stifle his feelings in perpetuity. I urged him, instead, to consider trying to deal with the issue. His response to this was, “No, that’s what I just said: when I run out of patience and try to deal with the issue, that’s when the wheels come off and everything falls apart.” To him, “dealing with the issue” was synonymous with unconstructively blowing up at his partner. However, I do not think this is what scripture has in mind when it says to “ponder in your heart and be silent.”

“When the fire is out”

Instead, I think the biblical picture here is to take time, cool off, and reflect. I once had a friend who was so intent on taking Ephesians 4:26 literally and verbatim that, if she and her husband got into a fight close to sunset, she would insist on having it out right then. Some of their most heated arguments occurred that way. (A good example of the need to seek biblical advice in prayer, and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit— not legalistically.) They finally learned that, if they were having issues with each other in the evening, they were much better off going to bed (there’s a literal verse application for you: “pondering in their bed”), and dealing with it fresh in the morning. Turned out most of the friction in their marriage had come from forcing serious discussions at the end of the day while they were both exhausted.

We may try to fight small fires ourselves, but in a big fire, by far the best course of action is to find a place of safety for ourselves and our loved ones, and to call in outside help. In the same way, few of our problems are created by ourselves alone, and few can be resolved by ourselves alone. Yet we often turn to secrecy because we find our problems embarrassing. Can you imagine declining to call the fire department out of similar reasoning? Trusted friends, pastors, counsellors… all can be part of helping us find, and resolve, the root causes of our anger.

Once the fire is put out— once we do not feel that hot anger rising in our cheeks— real work can be accomplished for good. In a building, if the problem is faulty wiring, that problem will still be there the next morning, and can be much more constructively addressed then. Whereas, there is a very good reason electricians don’t try to work on buildings while they are burning.