Praying with Reverence

Because of the multitude of oppressions people cry out; they call for help because of the arm of the mighty. But none says, ‘Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night, who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens?” – from the words of Elihu in Job 35:9-10. Elihu’s role in the discussion between Job and his friends has been debated. Does he misunderstand Job’s plight and the reasons for it like Job’s older friends, or does he represent a proper perspective on Job’s actions? Whatever the case, his comments here regarding perspective in times of need or loss merit our attention. At times, we forget the blessings that God has given us. When we pray, let remember to thank God for what he has given even when we lament what we have lost. Elihu may not have understood Job, but he realized how pride shapes prayer when we hurt: We forget the blessings God has given, and focus on what we do not have.

Lord, We hurt, and we complain to you about our pain. Sometimes we blame you for our pain, ignoring our own culpability or the role that others have played. Help us to remember your love even as we lament our losses. Help us to believe even as what we hold dear is stripped away. Help us to hope when defeat seems certain. May we revere you as you deserve even as we lament. In Jesus name, Amen.

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Prayer that Glorifies God

In an age where rage and insult infest social media posts and where people get shot after blowing their horn at a potentially speeding motorist, it is easy to be captivated by the fervent and righteous outrage and to yearn to participate in it. Then, just I am about to unleash my own potently phrased angry outburst, I read what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 2 about prayer and what Peter wrote in 1 Peter 4 about how self-control affects prayer.

Paul urged that prayers be offered for all people. He expressly included heads of state and government leaders among those people for whom we should pray. Why should we pray for these people? First, “that we may live a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-3). We pray for leaders so that society may be at peace. Second, we pray for these people, including our leaders, because God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Paul reminds that Jesus gave his life as a “ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). This is the reason men should lift holy (a reminder about proper attitude and behavior) hands in prayer “without anger or quarreling.” In other words, pray that God will turn the hearts of world leaders to himself, that he will help them find ways to break down barriers that divide while they govern effectively. Pray that he will cause perpetrators of evil, whether here or on the other side of the world, to awaken to the horror of their rebellion against their Creator and repent. Pray that he will mold them and us into the holy and loving family he wants his people, his church, to be.

Peter reminds us that we need to be self-controlled and sober-minded because “the end of all things is near.” He says that we must do this for the “sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). He then ties love of others, hospitality (without grumbling), speaking like a representative of God, and performing acts of service into this template of behavior and mindset. We must act and pray in a way that glorifies God. Living, acting, and praying in these ways demands that we curb our tempers, that we establish what is true before we castigate in speech or print, and that we conduct ourselves in the way that we expect others to act. Failure to be self-controlled will affect our prayers. I suspect we don’t want to experience the impact of that failure.

O God of peace, you call us to be ministers of reconciliation. That mission sometimes requires us to confront and to call to repentance. Give us the maturity to look hard at ourselves and our own behavior before we criticize others. Give us the wisdom to pursue truth and to admit the possibility that we may not know all the variables that drive decisions by our leaders. Help us to remember that that they, and our enemies, also are people whom you love and want to be saved. Help us to be instruments of their salvation. May we stop before we say or write words that will incite their anger against you and your people, unless those words will provoke a reaction that ultimately will cause them to glorify you when they realize that we truly spoke or acted with love and desire for their salvation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Prayer for Those Who Seek Healthy Relationships

For several weeks, I have read blogs and other articles that anticipated the release of a movie called “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The impression I gained from what I read, even in articles that had a somewhat positive approach to it, was that the movie’s idea of sexiness included violence, stalking, and other abusive behavior. The movie opened in our area on Valentine’s Day weekend; my wife and I chose instead to watch another movie entitled “Old Fashioned.” Our choice also includes conflicted characters who struggle to find working relationships with the opposite sex and who have been scarred by involvement in lifestyles that glorified the kinds of choices purportedly made in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” They seek integrity and consistency from people who claim to have answers grounded in faith; sadly, sometimes their failure to find leads them to withdraw. One of the primary characters has decided to build his life around his “theories,” which include never being alone with a member of the opposite sex. Obviously, that wrinkle in character development takes “Old Fashioned” in quite a different direction than the other movie mentioned. Its characters still face difficult moral dilemmas. It is not a “pat answer” type of movie. It did, however, receive an ovation from the audience at the packed viewing we attended.

People in our world are searching for answers to moral questions; often they seek those answers while engaging in behaviors with others that damage both parties emotionally, and sometimes physically. It’s time to remind one another that other alternatives exist to finding enduring love than drinking, drug abuse, casual or abusive sex, or on-line dating services. Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Seeking first the kingdom includes praying, calling out to our Creator, when we are angry, confused, lonely, and hurt. People who read the books of the Bible that include episodes from Jesus’ life sometimes are surprised to discover that he reached out most to help those who were hurting most, those whom the religious establishment had counted out, those whom had been written off by society because of their choices. He did not tolerate people who took advantage of others. He touched the untouchable. He called us to follow him, to walk in his steps, to suffer as he suffered, to love as he loved. After busy days of teaching and healing large crowds of people, or when he himself encountered temptation, he often would go by himself at night to pray. He made it a habit to meet with others to worship God and study his scriptures. From what I read, “Fifty Shades of Grey” does not reveal the path to healthy relationships. “Old Fashioned” suggests a path that may do so. Ultimately the answer is seeking relationship with the One who designed us and with people who seek to please him. Not every moral choice is a shade of gray. Some choices are clear-cut. Pray hard and study long, my friends.

O Lord, our God. Our culture confronts with alternative lifestyles that often damage. Toxic leaders plague organizations, even churches, in ways that cripple those already weakened. We need love. We need forgiveness. We need wisdom. Help us to hear your message and to apply it in healthy ways that encourage the disenfranchised and heal the hurting among us. Show us the path to holiness and health. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Prayer When Grief Challenges Faith

The prayer of Psalm 143 spoke for me today. As I read it, its words echoed the pain in my soul. Like the Psalmist, I have felt crushed by events in my life. The most recent, and most painful, is the death of my older son. Other heart-wrenching events have tested my resolve, and some have challenged my faith more, but his loss has struck me to the core of my being. I like to think that regular reading of the Bible and meditating on the prayers in the Bible before lifting my own words to the Lord has helped me during these dark hours, but those biblical prayers also have exposed my pain.

“Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my plea for mercy! In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness! For the enemy has pursued my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead. Therefore my spirit faints within me; my heart within me is appalled. I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands. I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land” (Psalm 143:1-6).

Seeing pictures of my son taken shortly after he was found stunned me. Looking at his lifeless body in his coffin drove me to tears. Neither struck so severely as when today I was handed his death certificate. That piece of paper drove home with fierce finality that I would not converse again with Caleb in this lifetime. He won’t flash his sly grin when laughing with me. I often kidded Caleb that if he ate right and exercised regularly, he would live to be a hundred years old. Then, I would say, on his hundredth birthday, to celebrate, I would pick him up and we’d go bowling.

“Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust. Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. Deliver me from my enemies, O Lord! I have fled to you for refuge. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God! Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground” (Psalm 143:8-10).

The reading of His word and the fellowship of fellow believers have given me strength. Still, I hurt, I cry, and I pray. Last week, I sang with an alumni Chorus at my alma mater’s annual Bible Lectureship. Among the hymn we sang was one that begins, “Yes for me, for me he careth.” As we rehearsed, tears welled in my eyes as I challenged myself to believe the words I sang. “O yes, he cares, I know he cares,” proclaims the chorus of that song. Finally when we sang in concert, I sang with confidence, assured by the love surrounding me from God’s people that yes, indeed, he cares and shares my pain, for he too has experienced the death of a Son.

Lord, Some symbols of death confront us with its reality, with its frightening finality. Seasons for repentance pass; we ignore pleas to reform because we are too busy. Then diagnosis of disease, an automobile accident, or the sudden death of a loved one jars our complacence. We no longer can ignore our mortality; we no longer can disparage the pleas of those who love us enough to question our direction. Draw us closer to you, that we may listen more closely and understand better. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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A Patient Prophet’s Prayer of Joy

Receiving a delayed gift unleashes pent-up joy. When we read a patient elderly prophet’s prayer in Luke 2, we may miss the joy that surely soaked Simeon’s words. He had received a promise that he would not die before he saw God’s Messiah, “the consolation of Israel.” Life in Roman occupied Israel starved hope. Substantial time had passed since the promise. Now, however, as two new parents carried their newborn child into the courts of the temple in Jerusalem, hope washed over Simeon as he prayed:

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).

Hope delayed had become hope realized. Simeon could die peacefully and happily because he had seen the Messiah, he had witnessed the beginning of God’s saving work in Jesus, if only by anticipation when he recognized the child as the one who had been promised.

We also wait, and hope may wane as Christ does not return on our timetable. We grow older. We suffer physically and emotionally. We struggle to pray; we doubt God will keep his promises. In our obsession with our pain, we ignore the sunshine peeking through the clouds.

Father, Thank you for the promise of joy. That hope sustains us. Help us to remember when distractions multiply, when deaths dismay, when world events horrify. Focus our attention to Jesus, and help us to discern the “great cloud of witnesses” who, having survived this test themselves, now cheer us on. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Prayer After My Son’s Funeral

Today I ran for the first time since my son Caleb died. It was a short run (three miles) and I prayed for most of the first mile. It was a prayer for understanding, a prayer of lament, a prayer of thanksgiving. The last eight days have been quite busy. As I mentioned in my last post, we hosted a wake that many of his friends and co-workers in Southeast Georgia attended. We then traveled to middle Tennessee for the funeral. The love of extended family and the family of faith made the experience easier, but did not dispel totally the hole now torn in my heart. Several preacher friends and a man who had attended my “Call for Fire Seminar” in Afghanistan encouraged me with their presence also. A friend who sang in a college choir with me preached the funeral; he delivered an encouraging eulogy from the first eight verses and last four verses of Isaiah 40, as well as Matthew 7:7-11, where Jesus says,

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock; and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?”

Those words might seem empty; I prayed nightly for my children’s health and safety. However, as I discussed with God in my prayer this afternoon, his will does not have to align with ours, and we may overlook or misunderstand the answers he gives our prayers. I know now that I hurt. There is an empty space in my family that cannot be filled in the same way that my son filled it. Nevertheless, I remember that Jesus, the Son of God, prayed the night before his crucifixion that he might be spared, but he was not. I have learned from the prayers in the Bible that prayer does function like a debit card. The verses from Matthew do not teach that God gives us what we want.

I ran today, and prayed. Those disciplines refreshed and renewed me. They did not remove all my pain; each used physical or spiritual muscles that ached afterwards. It will take time to heal from this loss, and I suspect that my posts may reflect my grief. I know, too, that I have gained empathy for others who have lost children. I spoke after my friend spoke at the funeral. I began by telling how when I was eight years old I attended my grandfather’s funeral. His mother, my great-grandmother, sat beside me. She took my hand in hers and said, “Mike, no one should have to go to their son’s funeral.” My great-grandmother spoke truth that day. Pray in your sorrow with assurance, as I do, that God hears even when it seems that he does not. Pray with faith that God will act for your good, even if what you receive is not what you desire. Pray, and continue to pray even when it seems painful to do so. Remember that you are not alone. I concluded my address by singing the song I sang to my son when he was a baby, “O, how he loves you and me.” Yes, God loves us, even in the darkest season when we may not perceive his presence. Pray hard, my friends.

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After the Death of My Son

I’m walking through the valley again this week as I mourn the unexpected sudden death of my son Caleb from natural causes. Pain wrenches my soul, and I have prayed prayers of angry lament, though realizing this time that God, my son, and I are not to blame. I thanked God for the time I had with my son, and we did share some wonderful adventures. Pray for our family as we navigate this terrible terrain.

Last night we had a wake for Caleb that many of his friends attended. We shared our hurt and our pain. We told our stories about a young man who cared for others and who loved to have fun with his friends. In addition to telling about my memories of Caleb, I shared these verses from Ecclesiastes 7:1-3:

“A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of easting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.  Sorrow is better than laughter for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.”

Live your lives with love for others and tell them that you love them. Don’t fret about the past having  been better; enjoy the day that God has given you so that he can make the world better through you.  Pray hard, and trust.

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