Prayer


Martha Stewart does it all. She cleans, she paints (after meticulous preparation), she organizes according to season, and creates perfect parties. She is amazing; we admire her. And, if you’ve ever watched her on the telly, she uses this word: “perfect.” Looking at the televised and internet narratives, it seems an apropos term. Perfect. It’s all truly impressive.

A color coordinated crayon box is as close to perfection as I've ever gotten. A story for another time…

A color coordinated crayon box is as close to perfection as I’ve ever gotten. A story for another time…

My husband has made the point that Martha has things I don’t: years of experience in her craft, a persistent drive toward building a financial empire, and (perhaps most critically) a staff of people to do her bidding. True. (Note to self: Get staff.)

Back to our topic of meditation. I am far from perfect. You are not perfect (I hope). Martha herself is not perfect. And yet, we Believers are called to “enter in” to God’s perfect presence.

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. Hebrews 4:16 (NLT)

How does this all relate? I in my imperfection am called to present myself to the Lord, trusting in the grace given me by Jesus. In the act of coming before him through meditation, I’m working out some faith. That inexact effort looks like something like this: sitting on the couch with my Bible after a restless night, I doze off. Jerking awake, there is a bit of frustration that I’m not truly ‘present’ in this effort. Read some of the same Scripture again, ask for revelation, meditate with eyes open. I get up and walk, asking for focus. Sometimes it works; sometimes not.

Another day, I’m sitting in the same place, with the same tattered Bible open. Distracted. Things to do start crowding my thoughts. Right, then. I pick up a piece of scrap paper and pen. “Milk, eggs, cocoa…” “…email to…” “…review J’s history project.” Done. I’ve tried to displace those distractions and turn again to meditate.

The scene is the next morning, back in the same place. A friend’s marriage, our finances, or a child’s distress are weighing heavily. But the God of all creation,

Who made everything I see,

Who created time and space,

Who is beyond able to do more than I can ask or imagine

is waiting there for me. And if I can set all of this down and present this person/situation/weight to Him, I am able to then offer Him my worship.

And meditate, and be changed in His presence.

Do you see? Our perfection in the practice of meditation isn’t really the point. Yes, I do what I know to do to set myself up for success in this endeavor. Meditating day in and day out, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so much, provides opportunities for us to be changed, slowly, into the image of Christ.

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:18

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” Vince Lombardi

ttronslien-Have you ever seen the play You Can’t Take it with You? There’s a romantic drama wrapped up in a conundrum and all of that, and the action takes place in a large New York City home with a wacky extended family, who are all doing their own thing while taking turns not listening to one another. It’s chaotic and fun, and I’m reminded that my kids have never seen it. (Kaufman and Hart, if you want to look up the play. Or, of course, you could see the 1938 film by Frank Capra. Same name. You’re welcome.)

This is often what life feels like. And here, whether it’s helping with school reports, trying to make a business move ahead, or making sure people are eating more than popcorn and chocolate, there’s never enough time. At least not enough time to sit, rest and breathe.

Deciding to get on this Meditation Train (if we can call it that) means determining to find a place and a time to repose. If you checked that link, you’ll see “to remain still or concealed” from the Latin for “to stop” or “to pause.” Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? “To remain still or concealed.” But in order for that to happen, we have to set aside distractions.

I heard a children’s pastor once telling kids that if a computer or television was distracting them from praying or reading Scripture, they could put a blanket over the item. I remember wondering how many adults would be bold enough to do such a silly thing. And yet, as I sit myself on the couch early each morning, I find myself wondering about email responses and Facebook messages… you get the picture. If I give in, I end up giving quality time to cat videos instead of communing with my Creator. We are truly distracted.

It is a simple thing to do, but sometimes not easy, to put aside the merely distracting, not to mention the truly important. The challenge is this: Will you and I both manage to put the laptop, the phone, the tablet, the tv away from us for a time to repose, to take in, to listen? The choice is ours.

“Help me, O God, to be a still axis in the wheel of activities that revolves around my life. Deliver me from my distractions, which are many, and lead me to a quiet place of devotion at Your feet.”

Ken Gire, Windows of the Soul

Mail AttachmentOver thirteen years ago, I found a sudden desperation to dwell deep, in a spiritual sense. We were walking through a strange crisis – living in the aftermath of 9/11 in a Muslim country. No one knew what would happen, and we hunkered down for over a week. Our email inboxes exploded, full of stressed questions and wonderings from other foreign friends. Gracious neighbors brought condolences, while offering to get us groceries and reporting rumors of happenings as we waited breathlessly for something to give.

With a newborn in the house, there were lots of late nights and early, early mornings. I could, and did, watch tv – admittedly there were a few movies I never would have seen otherwise. But there was an ache of not knowing what form the ominous, warlike specter outside would take next, and this rebuffed any such entertainment as a means of real relaxation. By day we seemed to be surrounded by others with high anxiety, and I didn’t find entering into that mess to be a healthy long-term prospect. The fatigue was overwhelming.

It was time to do something different. To find a way to enter into real peace with such chaos swirling about would take real strategy. I’d tried meditating before many times, with some measure of success for short periods. This had to be radically different, even intentional for it to really work.

This is what I plan to do, both for myself and for you reader friends: to lay out the steps identified that have helped in a personal pursuit of working out meditation as a follower of Christ. It is a practice as ancient as the hills, but relevant for today’s hectic pace. I look forward to hearing your input, as well.

“…little by little, we enter into prayer without intentionality except to consent… and consent becomes surrender … and surrender becomes total receptivity… and, as the process continues, total receptivity becomes effortless, peaceful… It is free and has nothing to attain, to get, or desire … So, no thinking, no reflection, no desire, no words, no thing … just receptivity and consent.” Thomas Keating, Heartfulness: Transformation in Christ

“Guard my life and rescue me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.” Psalm 25:20

I wondered about doing this. Really, the safe thing to do is wait until it’s all over, talk about what a struggle it all was, and how we were eventually victorious. We could look back and see God’s faithful hand at work. But there is something about the testing of our faith in the middle of trials that shows us how real our God is, how well we grasp and cling to him. We began to have problems with vandalism over two years ago (see this last post), and it has been frustrating, to say the least. This anonymous person has done a good deal of damage. It’s not simply the financial cost, of course, but also the loss of security that is unsettling.

On Friday, though, the anonymity was stripped away. We’ve been pretty sure we knew which family in our neighborhood was initiating this trouble. In fact, while Keith wired my tomato cages together (after our third incident), I watched discreetly from our bedroom window. Someone from the suspect family observed from an upstairs window in their house. This past Friday morning my husband found a dead rabbit which had been thrown in the corner of our yard, near my garden. It died from a head wound and appeared to have been stretched out. It was meant to instill fear. I felt a flash of anger, instead. How dare this person work to intimidate us?!

“He is the God who avenges me. . . who sets me free from my enemies.”  2 Samuel 22:47-49

Later that same afternoon, just three days ago, I backed out of the driveway to go meet a friend. A familiar white car flew around the corner, stopping parallel to me. A youngish man, roughly 25, sneered at me and started screaming. His face was defiant, hateful. My window was up, as the weather was hot. Although I know he speaks English, his words were completely incomprehensible. I was still, and shocked. For perhaps twenty seconds, he continued the tirade, then was off like a shot. A flash of anger, then great fear took me. This was face-to-face. This was serious. The police could do nothing without evidence. I shook while dialing my husband. He would confront them; I asked that he find a neighbor to go with him. It didn’t work out to have a witness, but Keith confronted a young man at the house about half an hour later, who confirmed that I had seen him, but that he was simply “waving and saying ‘Hi’.” Right. We now think he’s covering for his older brother.

We’re talking with our other neighbors. I see concern on their faces, both for us and themselves. No one else wants to be targeted. Police should be called if anything suspicious is seen. Yes, yes, we all agree to be watching.

I’ve been praying constantly since then. Sometimes about this; sometimes for others. The personal trial always moves back to the forefront. The anxiety and the nightmares have made this an exhausting weekend. Now in the middle of a three day fast (there go those trumpets!), I’m asking God to give me perspective, and asking what we should do in the face of evil. Some friends are encouraging us to move. It’s not that easy. I’m willing, but moving takes time, energy and a bit of cash. Not to mention the right buyer and seller. And it’s not necessarily the answer. We are doing what we know to do. But our God who sees all and has a greater perspective has more creativity, knowledge, guts and power than we could ever muster. We appreciate the concern and prayers deeply, but we must hear from our Father.

This morning, I had the strong sense that I was to turn to Psalm 29, that it was mine to take in and digest. It’s all about God’s power and glory.

“God’s thunder sets the oak trees dancing; A wild dance, whirling; the pelting rain strips their branches. We fall to our knees – we call out “Glory!” Psalm 29:9 (The Message)

It really seems that he’s directing me to reform my thoughts. Fear, vengefulness and anxiety have no place. He is powerful. Dutch Sheets teaches that we appropriate and actually send out the Holy Spirit to do God’s will and God’s work as we pray. I’m choosing this morning to turn my attention to a more worshipful focus, while asking him to show his glory in this trying situation. Stand with us, if you will, and ask the Father to show himself to us, to this person or people harassing us, and to our entire neighborhood.

Oh, and by the way, Psalm 29 ends with:

“God makes his people strong. God gives his people peace.” v. 11 (MSG)

“Be angry, and yet do not sin; Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Ephesians 4:26

I’ve been dealing with anger over the last few days. Justified, mind you. There’s a person who has messed with us off and on for a few years – a vandal who creeps onto our property and does some damage when we’re not home, or lately, in the morning before the blinds at the back of our house are opened for the day. We’ve had wind chimes torn down (twice), a porch blind damaged, a bird feeder cut down (required wire snips for that!), our front lawn driven through after a heavy rain. Small branches have been torn from new trees and tossed into the grass. More insidious pranks have been pulled, as well. Our garage keypad has been repeatedly opened (and presumedly tried), and, much worse, late one night our girls’ bedroom window was rapped on sharply. On another night, our oldest daughter was unable to sleep, and as she headed to the basement to read, someone knocked loudly on the front door, likely in an attempt to scare her. It worked. My husband and I both flew out of the bedroom, but no one could be seen, and no engine started. They are close by.

Very few people in this town have fences, but ours is now in the works, budget be scrapped. Last year my vegetable garden became a target. When I went out of town for a spiritual six-day event, my husband called to tell me that my zucchini plants had been stomped flat. Frustrating doesn’t even begin to describe the feelings. Violated, definitely. The rest of the summer we harvested maybe half of what was on the tomato and pepper plants. All the other veggies were stolen.

There are times when those imprecatory Psalms make sense. King David’s words such as “Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them” (Psalm 69:24) sound more rational, more applicable than in days of calm judgment. And those are mere warm-up vittles for David, as once he got going, went on to ask for blindness, “bent backs” and “blotting out of the book of life” for his enemies (same Psalm). And I, although I’ve never been chased from my kingdom through the wilderness, recognize those feelings.

My enemy is cowardly and cunning. This is someone who’s gotten bold enough. Three out of the last four days, my tomato cages have been ripped up, with cherry tomatoes thrown in the yard and even the green tomatoes stripped away. Tonight my husband wired them all together, while I watched through a video camera lens that is hopefully hidden enough to catch them in the act next time. I certainly hope so.

I’ve prayed and fretted about this at times; We’re working out the security camera route and have tried the motion detector lights. Some things only seem to present a new challenge to overcome to this person, who is simply determined to persecute us, for some unknown  reason.

My garden is out there right now in the dark, and someone may be lurking around, testing the strength of the new tomato cage wiring. But I have a new focus as I prepare for bed: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).

We look for justice; we do what we can. At the end of the day, as the sun goes down, God is still God.

For nearly a week, there was a crisis going on around here. Not an argument, family issue or misunderstanding, but a deep personal thing. Tuesday morning was a full one, with plenty of catch-up work to do. But by afternoon, the crisis was raising its ugly head, and the impact from the time I’d devoted to spiritual things that morning had waned. The bad thing about not having a boss for accountability is the need to be constantly self-motivating; the good thing is being free to be more flexible. And the beckoning was unmistakable. Only one word: “Come.”

I sat on the couch and read Scripture, meditated a while, and waited. “I’ve asked for answers,” I thought. It was so still, so quiet. More time passed, then a compelling thought formed. “Come to the Eucharist.”

I knew where it had originated. Many years before I had briefly attended a large church that was much more liturgical than my upbringing. A famous theologian had spoken there one night, and he talked about the seminary students who approached him for counsel. His most common response to their needs was “Run to the Eucharist.” He described the healing and renewal that had resulted over the years. It was a deeply moving sermon, and one of few that I honestly remember well. Despite that, I can count on one hand the times that I’ve initiated the Lord’s Supper as a part of personal worship. Usually it has been received in the corporate context, which these days means just once a quarter in our church.

This was an invitation, issued by the Holy Spirit. I poured some wine, took my bread and returned to the couch. Recited appropriate Scripture. Prayed and waited again. Slowly, God’s manifest Presence came and settled. The details of what took place are too intimate, too close to be shared openly. But three hours passed. Three hours. The need was met, and I was changed. That indescribable, palpable peace remains right now, two days later. How long it will last, I can’t say. The essence of the encounter is this: If you receive an invitation to his table, Run.

Any competent counselor can tell you that good things can result from conflict. That is, if both sides are willing and able to engage and learn. Right at this moment, countries from Egypt to Zimbabwe are facing chaotic leadership challenges.

Having lived in a portion of the Middle East for several years, these days we’re receiving some questions about the upheavals and how to pray. An understandable conundrum, this. People on the other side of the planet live lives that have distinct differences from ours. But another, honest-to-goodness question has arisen: “Why on earth should we care?” Personally, it’s a pretty disturbing one, but needs to be answered. So here goes:

There are people involved. God loves people, no matter where they live or how they dress. Come on, now, we know that. But prayerlessness reveals apathy, and maybe also a gut feel that it isn’t going to work anyway (more on that later). 1 Timothy 2:1-4 says “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Enough said.

There are Christ-followers who live there. Whenever we encountered issues or threats when living overseas, a little voice inside our heads reminded us that we were foreigners. A passport to a safer place is a powerful tool. Millions of Middle Eastern Christians possess no such luxurious option. James 4:17 says “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” Prayer is a good thing to do on behalf of these people, right?  Pray for their safety like you mean it.

Someone will be in charge. Please understand that there is not, in reality, a “vacuum” in Egypt, nor in any of the other countries that are facing instability. Maybe this is because in my mind, a leadership vacuum would consist of people standing around, looking at each other and wondering what to do. This is far from fact. Rather, there are  forces behind the scenes which have been jockeying for position in the hearts and minds of the people for decades, if not far longer. One of the more ominous is the Muslim Brotherhood. Pray that people of peace will gain positions of great influence.

The West has some self-interest. Perhaps the least noble motive, but real nonetheless. A less stable Middle East means more Islamists in charge, more radical madrassa schools, and more people disenchanted with “us” in general. This is a simplistic answer, granted, but you really only have to look over the list of terrorist attacks for 2010 to qualify it. In the visible world, things could go a number of different ways. Pray that Western Christians would grasp the gravity of this phenomenon and intercede.

There is more info out there about how to pray specifically for Egypt, for Pakistan,  Yemen, and the Middle East region. Read, absorb, and pray on!